The Seduction of the Faithful Few

It makes no difference whether it’s a radical political group like Antifa or the White Nationalists, or a religious cult like the Westboro Baptists – the origins of these groups usually follow a discernable pattern. One or two charismatic individuals create a distinctive out of their own disproportionate response to a concern that may or may not be valid – and before you know it, they have a following, willing to do and say unthinkable things. My question is — what is it that draws people into such radical fringe beliefs?

Undoubtedly, there is some element of predisposition – but that doesn’t really explain their willingness to identify with groups that are so far outside the normative spectrum of beliefs and behaviors. Perhaps they already saw themselves as being socially disenfranchised – but that still doesn’t explain their affiliation with such groups. Could it be that there’s an anthropological group dynamic in play here – fueled by the need to belong? A sense of belonging that isn’t so much predicated on the particulars of the philosophy, as it is about being part of the faithful few who are willing to stand up and fight for a cause – no matter how ill-conceived that cause.

In a culture characterized by ambiguity and ambivalence, existentially set adrift – it shouldn’t surprise us to find people looking for tribal factions with which to identify. That there would be people in search of definition, purpose, and meaning within the context of a culture promoting the unmoored notion that purpose and meaning are what we make of them — only to find themselves ostracized for unwittingly having stepped outside of the spectrum of acceptability . . . “there aren’t any rules –Oh, but be sure not to break any of our rules.” In a world filled with such mixed signals, not only does confusion and chaos ensue, but invariably, all of these balkanizing factions devolve into a Nietzschian “will to power” struggle that only serves to validate the need to double down on those tribal beliefs . . . which only perpetuates the delusion of such ill-fated causes.

downloadAll of this is readily apparent when observed in its most extreme forms – but I have often found it at work in far more subtler shades within Christian culture . . . where the seduction of imagining ourselves as one of the faithful few is very strong. We can become so convinced with our own interpretations of scripture, until we don’t simply disagree with those with a varying interpretation, we are compelled to denounce them. But could it be that we have become blind to the hubris in fallaciously believing that our interpretations of scripture have the same authority as scripture itself? So that with such hubris we become divisive, promoting our inflated distinctive in the exact same way that radical fringe groups do.

Unity can neither be found in the tribal insistence that everyone agree in lock step, nor can it be found in the lowest common denominator of emptying out all of our faith values. But rather, it can be found in not allowing our theological distinctive to define us to the point where we no longer recognize the unity that already exists in Christ. Paul beautifully expresses this unity “[I] . . . urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” ~ Ephesians 4:1-3.

May our distinctive be our bond of peace that allows us to humbly love those with whom we disagree – so that in a world full of imposing factional voices demanding to be heard, our voice might be the sweet voice of grace inviting others to find their rest in Christ.


Down here in the south we’re fully aware of just how
insidious maintaining dividing lines can be

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While It Was Still Dark

It used to be, in my youthful days, that my nights would often go long into the small hours of the dark morning – especially as a performing singer/ songwriter making my way home. Then as my wife and I began to raise our family, it always fell to me, when we’d go on vacation, to drive us all through the dark-thirty fog until morning  — everyone fast asleep in the van . . . as I stared off into the hypnotic movement of shadowy landscape. Now a days, the smell of coffee invites me into the dark kitchen most mornings, while the rest of the house sleeps . . . I begin to think about what the day might hold.

In a world that literally has thousands of ways to preoccupy the mind with distraction and amusement, there is a particular solace in the quiet of this darkness before dawn. Likely, this is why I find it well suited to prayer and contemplation. Sometimes I find myself sifting through the past. Sometimes I’m pondering what future might be awaiting me. It’s a sort of ruminating prayer trance, sipping coffee and whispering the things God has placed on my heart.

So when I read that passage in John 20, where Mary Magdalene is making her way in the dark to the tomb where Jesus was laid – I can’t help but wonder what her pre-dawn thoughts might have been. She had come to do what was customary of the women of her time – to ritually prepare the dead body of a loved one. But because the day before was the Sabbath, she was already a day behind, and that was surely going to complicate the process. So still in shock and mourning, over the death of Jesus, she must now focus herself to the task ahead – so that she might honor Jesus in the only way left to her.

downloadThe familiar narrative of the Resurrection in this passage takes off pretty quickly, but still I’m fascinated by the phrase in verse one, “while it was still dark” – not only is it descriptive, it also makes for a powerful metaphor. Determined to offer Jesus this final gesture of love, Mary does not allow the heaviness of her heart to paralyze her – the darkness of her sorrow was not enough to hold her back . . . and she has no idea what awaits her. Is this not the way of faith – being faithful in the dark . . . unsure of how light might reveal itself?

Given her faithfulness, I don’t think it’s coincidental that Mary was the first to see Jesus raised. Her willingness to make her way through the dark to him, to push through the pain of her loss, not knowing the outcome of her faithfulness . . . and then — there He is, speaking her name! And here we are, at this end of history where the risen Lord is our given starting place . . . and yet, sometimes we’re in the dark too – trying to figure out how to entrust the outcome of our faith efforts to a God we can’t see. So remember this – God knows you’re making your way to him through the dark . . . and he will be there in the morning light, speaking your name . . . because he knows you, and the darkness you have been set free from.


Here’s a beautiful song Mary Magdalene written by my brother Garrison Doles
and all of the wonderful art is the work of his wife Jan Richardson

Asleep In The Boat

Sometimes you can watch a storm forming out on the horizon, dark clouds gathering, ominously approaching as the atmosphere shifts and you can begin to feel the inevitability of the storm’s presence – but more than likely, you still have time to make your way to shelter. Down here in Florida, you can be traveling on the highway and see off in the distance an isolated cell of down pour surrounded by clear skies – it’s a curious thing to see such a torrential event so hemmed in. But if you ever happen to be on the water, a few miles off shore, when a storm swiftly moves in and begins to toss your boat around like a rag doll — then you know what it truly means to be caught in a storm.

Whether it is the looming darkness of a storm that stalks you, or the cacophony of trying to hold on for dear life in the midst of deluge – the idea of storm makes for an evocative metaphor. So your experience might feel like an isolated cell you see menacing a loved one’s life, feeling as if all you can do is helplessly watch. Or it’s the dread you feel about something unavoidably coming your way that will most certainly flip your world on its head, and all you can do is hang on tight until it passes. The idea of storm always stirs something deep within us.

But like the Longfellow poem observes “Into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary”. It is common to man, to know the travail of storms . . . which is why Mark 4:37-40 has always been such a troublesome passage for me. The disciples find themselves on open water in the middle of a storm, tossing their boat about and filling it to the point of sinking – they undoubtedly had good reason to fear for their lives . . . and there’s Jesus, asleep in the boat.

christ-asleep-in-his-boat-jules-joseph-meynierThey must have been astounded that he could sleep so deeply with so much chaos about – yet he does not awaken until his disciples awaken him. And here’s where I imagine the disciples, incredulously asking Jesus “Are you just going to let us die here”. Here’s why I find this question so perplexing – they are simultaneously convinced that Jesus can do something about it (or why ask him this question), but they are also afraid he either can’t (he isn’t the Christ), or he won’t (because a God who creates storms in the first place is an unpredictable God).

Jesus speaks “Peace, be still” to the storm before addressing the disciples lack of faith. So at this point the disciples are feeling relieved and likely a little confused about being admonished about their lack of faith – after all, they did wake him up expectantly . . . and was likely still confused as to how he could sleep with so much chaos afoot. And that’s what makes this passage so troublesome for me – why is Jesus asleep in the first place? But even more troublesome, when awakened, why does he view his having been awakened as a lack of faith on their part? Are we not to turn to him in troubled times?

But what if Jesus being asleep in the boat is the whole point of this story? How would that change our understanding of it? What if the true measure of faith is found in our willingness to rest in Him while in the midst of the storm – instead of trying to avoid the storm? Faith can only overcome fear when we finally realize that faith transcends circumstance – instead of insisting that circumstances must change. Jesus may have been asleep in the boat – but he never left the boat . . . he was always with them. We must learn to remember that his presence is always more than enough to see us through anything we face . . . and we should also remember, that God never really sleeps.


The Lord is our shelter . . . 

 

Pulling On Your Last Thread

Sometimes there are dry patches in your life, seasons of going through the motions while traversing an uninspiring wasteland. There is a numbing compression of emotion, where the span between hope and despair has become a deep chasm, slowly draining you of any expectation, whatsoever. This is the most insidious form of despair. Unlike the sudden shock of despair that overtakes us in grievous events — no, this is a slowly settling despair that creeps in and puts down deep roots. And it leaves you feeling like the very fabric of your life is gradually being unraveled, until it seems it’s pulling on your last thread.

Jesus wanders in the wilderness forty days, mirroring the forty years of the lost generation of Israel. Each step of his wandering, is an emptying out, in refinement of the specific purposeful path his life is about to embark. He willingly suffers this asceticism as an essential part of what is to come. In contrast, Israel’s wandering is more of a dissipation, the pointless result of deciding to reject the life God had called them to, passing on to the next generation the task that they were unwilling to do.

Only you can answer whether or not the wilderness you’re sojourning is about avoidance or preparation . . . or even maybe a little of both. But either way there’s a purposeful distilling taking place – so you’ll be unencumbered for whatever comes next. At the very heart of your wilderness is the calling God has placed on your life . . . so your time in that wilderness is meant to be your struggle between avoidance and preparation.

imagesAs Jesus walks into his wilderness, he is preoccupied with doing his Father’s will, which is to redeem and reconcile, to seek and to save all that is lost. But even his wilderness was a struggle between avoidance and preparation. The real temptation Jesus faced there, had nothing to do with any of the particulars Satan had to offer, as Jesus had the power to do as he wished, quite apart from Satan’s participation. Rather, this is something we get a glimpse of that he will ultimately face at Gethsemane – asking for the bitter cup of his crucifixion to pass.

Therefore, the season of Lent is meant to be a time of intentional asceticism, a purposeful wandering in the wilderness. We walk with Jesus, that we might have a share in his hunger and thirst, so that we might enter into his passion and anticipate the cross . . . so that by contrast, we might celebrate the resurrection anew. Paul sums this up best in Philippians 3:10 – “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death”.

So maybe you find yourself already in a wilderness, maybe you’re hungering and thirsting for things you can’t quite identify. Perhaps the Lord is refining your calling – will you allow him to prepare you for what comes next in your life? He knows all too well the temptation to avoid the suffering that is essential to living redemptively sacrificial . . . which is why we are given The Comforter (John 14:16). The lost generation of Israel never found their way out of the wilderness – but Jesus knows the way out of your wilderness . . . so follow him.


. . . where there is a peace that passes all understanding.

Being Content (8 of 8)

Because we live at such an extraordinary point in history, where the very definition of reality requires revisiting. I offer these two definitions for clarification: (1) The definition of the word itself – “Something that constitutes a real or actual thing, as distinguished from something that is merely apparent.” And (2) The philosophical definition – “Something that exists independently of ideas concerning it.” Now, we all might all disagree on how best to interpret reality – but reality itself, is intrinsically an ontological matter . . . as opposed to an existential preference.

There is a tension between the what is and the what ought to be of life. We live in the what is experience of reality, while simultaneously being ever drawn into the what ought to be. The net result is that we tend to interpret reality through the filter of our what ought to be perception. Which is to say, we look at what is, and can’t help but prefer that it be different . . . placing us at odds with reality. So what are we to make of this – that contentment can only be achieved if we pessimistically give up our hope of what ought to be?

It would seem there are only two choices – 1) to ignore the reality of what is, and existentially recreate your own reality. Or 2) accept the reality of what is, and prepare for the worst, and be wary of anything good that occurs as being an unrealistic anomaly. But if reality, by definition, is to be “distinguished from something that is merely apparent” and “exists independently of ideas concerning it” – then maybe the issue isn’t really with reality, but rather with our fallen perception of it. Therefore, to accept or ignore a broken view of reality will always lead to the wrong conclusion.

contentmentSo contentment has nothing to do with whether you see the glass as half full or half empty – because your opinion about the glass only confuses the matter. The better question is – what do I plan to do with the glass that I’ve been given? In this way contentment doesn’t concern itself with the content of reality, choosing rather to focus on the context of reality. Because the circumstance, people, and stuff in your life will ever be the transient content of your life – while the ultimate context of your life is ever held in the transcendence of God’s sovereign care.

Before Paul makes the well known profession that he “can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) – he first let’s us in on the secret he learned about being content (verse 12) “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” How else could he have been so bold as to declare “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)? Therefore, we should see contentment, not as a reluctant surrendering to the hardships of reality, but rather as a faith driven bold pronouncement, that you are ready to take on all that reality can throw at you – because the Lord of all things holds you in His hand.


“. . . and to die is gain”

Being Loved (7 of 8)

The question of whether life has purpose, meaning, and significance is the very heartbeat of our presuppositions – but like much of our philosophical formation, it remains in abstraction, allowing the more pressing issues of our day to day to take center stage. And even though these presuppositions often abide largely undetected, or are ruminated on as the grand themes of life, far removed from our practical daily experience – they still seem to have a way of making themselves ever-present, taking the shape of longings and desires stirring within us, seeking resolution.

The transcendent forces of love and beauty defy definition – the best we can do is to offer our experiential descriptions of them. I would argue that they are elusively defined precisely because they are transcendently sourced — affixed to the underlying purpose, meaning, and significance of life. So that all that is evocative and beautiful might give us a glimpse of what makes life meaningful. And we all have an abiding desire to be known and loved, because intuitively we are all being drawn back to that transcendent source where love originates.

The adage “love is blind” is misleading, as if love were somehow left in the dark about who we really are . . . and if ever discovered would soon depart. No, love is eyes wide open – choosing to look beyond our faults and failings, choosing to embrace us as we are . . . so that we might be truly known AND truly loved. Because behind the larger philosophical question of whether or not life, in general, has significance, is the question: does my life have significance? . . . and love answers with an emphatic – Yes! This is the starting place for knowing what it means to be loved.

imagesGod is love (1 John 4:8) isn’t merely a scriptural Hallmark greeting card sentiment – it is an ontological cornerstone on which the whole of creation is to be understood. Because the otherness of God is shrouded in mystery, the transcendent nature of love gives us a peek beyond the theological definitions of God to find a knowing of him (and ourselves), that defies definition. So when we read “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” ~ Romans 5:8 . . . God isn’t only showing us how much love he has for us, but he is also revealing something essential about himself – that love is who he is AND what he does.

It is a curious thing that such a cruel device of tortuous execution would come to symbolize the most profound expression of love – in fact, the epicenter of all love. That the very love that spoke creation into existence is the same love that took Jesus to the cross . . . and now love itself is measured in this way. Being loved and feeling loved are not always the same. But being loved, for each of us together and separately, has been sown into creation from the very beginning. And in a redounding crescendo that split history wide open, love was on full display for everyone to see, in the cross of Christ. So you may not always feel it – but being loved is an inescapable fact of who you are.


This Pierce Pettis song always explains it better than I could ever hope to . . .

Being Consistent (6 of 8)

Instinctively, we are drawn to what is considered socially normative. It is part of our anthropological intuition, creating in us a sense of belonging — a sense of security. So it doesn’t matter whether our cultural context is religious or irreligious, politically left or right, urban or rural – we are drawn into conformity with the subset culture we have chosen to identify . . . and we mistakenly assume that our personal consistency is somehow measured against our compliance with the prevailing ethos of that subset culture.

But well-behaved conformity to cognitively dissonant darkness can only create the illusion of being consistently in the light. As such conformity is, more often than not, nothing more than borrowed light filtered and opaque, a cultural distortion of light. In this way, cultural conformity masquerades as being virtuously consistent . . . but being consistently wrong is the likeliest outcome within such a paradigm.

Internally, when the head and the heart aren’t actively going a few rounds in the ring, they have taken to their corners under an uneasy cease fire, awaiting the next skirmish. This is where the actual battle for consistence takes place – where facts and feelings meet incongruently, vying for supremacy. And under the prevailing influence of modernity, we tend to assume that the cognitive will be far more reliably consistent than the loose cannon of the emotive – but once again this is an illusion . . . as if it were possible for the content of our thinking to be devoid of emotion.

imagesPhilosophically, the Christian faith embraces the concept that there are transcendent principles, by design, at work in the universe — therefore, having consistency in our life requires that we align ourselves with those principles. But here’s the thing, those principles were never meant to be understood in an intellectual vacuum apart from a relationship with God – that in fact it is our relationship with God that unlocks the continuity that exists between the principles, and brings proportion to their meaning.

So in regards to our desire to find consistency in both thought and deed, we must be careful to hold in abeyance the external and internal forms of predisposed conformity, which we’re inclined to blindly follow. Instead, choosing to hold every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5), so that we might walk in the light as he is in the light (1 John 1:7), seeking first his kingdom (Matthew 6:33). Ever aware that it is the Holy Spirit at work in what we think, what we do, and what we desire, conforming us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).

For it is in the worship of God where our intellect and emotion are brought into full harmony – as our minds begin to ponder the greatness of God present in the narrative of his word, our hearts can’t help but respond, as we are wooed by his ponderous love . . . so in the abandon that such love inspires we are overcome. This is a recalibration, ever pulling us back into balance, into the arms of the true lover of our souls – so that in His immutable presence we might find some measure of true consistency.


God is ever transforming us — ever making water into wine . . .

Being Relevant (5 of 8)

One of the most challenging things we face in life, is maintaining a healthy separation between what we need and what we want. For example, our innate need for affirmation and affection can often devolve into the reckless wanting found in a string of meaningless sexual encounters and addictions to pornography. Or our basic need for food, clothing, and shelter can metastasize into the wanting typical of greed and the self-involved avarice of consumerism. And our primal need to belong can get swept up in our wanting to fit in with cultural expectations until we negotiate away our principles and values – where individual conviction gives way to groupthink . . . the type of groupthink that ironically gets labeled “being relevant”.

Begging the question – “Being relevant to what?” At this point “being relevant” can be understood as either being relative to something in flux, or as being germane to something constant. And how we define “being relevant” can help give us insight on how best to distinguish need from want – because what we want at any given moment is a moving target, but what we actually need remains unchanged . . . even if we haven’t completely identified what we actually need.

Back when I was a youth minister, I would try to enlist adult volunteers, many of which assumed that they were unqualified because they didn’t imagine themselves as being relevant enough to high school culture. They erroneously thought that being up to date on the current jargon, fashion, and music would be required to bridge the gap of relevance – but that would have only made them relative to youth culture. But what was actually needed, was a willingness to love and listen to these teenagers as individuals, giving each of them the dignity of their significance – so that the group identity could be built on what was truly germane to the needs of these transitional years.

What-Counts-as-Relevant-Career-Experience-353x179Today, so many folks talk about the need for the Church to be relevant – and I couldn’t agree more . . . but again, there’s a need to define terms. Any juxtaposing of traditional with contemporary can only seek to measure relevance by indexing how relative to current cultural ethos our practices it can be. Which is inextricably predicated on the assumption, that the ever-shifting mores and values of a culture perpetually trying to figure out what it wants most, will be the best path for discovering what the culture actually needs . . . and the mission of the Church isn’t to offer the world what it wants, but to lovingly help it discover what it needs.

This isn’t to suggest in the least that traditionalism is somehow sacrosanct — because what has become traditional can quite often fail in its ability to address the real experienced needs of its practitioners. When church practices become disconnected from the meaning they once represented, they either need to be recognized as germane to our faith and reconnected to their original purpose, or they need to be abandoned altogether as only having been relative to a bygone day. But what is immutably central to Christianity is Christ and his ever-pursuing love and grace, ever-seeking to find us in our deepest need — in this regard His Church is always relevant . . . because he is always relevant.


. . . and our need for God’s guidance is always relevant.

Being Vulnerable (4 of 8)

The most striking thing to me about the nativity narrative is found in the extent to which God makes himself vulnerable. Not only does he assume the general vagaries of human frailty, but he pursues vulnerability in its most dramatic forms – being born a helpless babe, sharing a nursery with livestock; born to an impoverished couple, amidst the scandal of a teenage pregnancy, within a morally legalistic culture. All of which historically occurs during a time when the social station into which you were born defined your significance from that point forward.

Our Christmas card portrayals of the nativity tend to employ a more romantic lens, filtering out the harsher aspects of the destitute predicament of Jesus’ birth. But rightly so, we look at this moment with glad tidings of great joy, knowing this to be the moment that ushers in the ponderous gift of redemption and reconciliation offered to all men. And given our role, as being on the receiving end of such an extravagant gift – it does not fully occur to us that even in this moment, to appreciate that a cost is being paid by Jesus . . . long before he goes to the cross.

It is the love of God on display, witnessed in his humble choices of vulnerability throughout his life. It is evident in the forty days of wilderness setting the tone for his three year ministry, giving himself over to want and deprivation – only to culminate in being taunted and tempted by an accusing deceiver. The temptation here isn’t really found in whether or not he accepted Satan’s offer, but in whether he would choose, to avoid or accept, the ultimate vulnerability of the cross. But even before the cross, we find him in the garden, his disciples completely unaware of his burden — fast asleep. So it was alone, he would face the cup that would not pass . . . knowing that he must drink it dry.

imagesThere is a good reason why so many of our Christmas carols choose to celebrate the infant king with the melancholy of minor chords – for embedded in this beautiful, scandalous night of angels, there is a long dark night’s journey for the Son of Man, a journey of self-emptying sacrifice, before we could all awaken on that resurrection morning. It is the humble path of choosing at every turn to make himself vulnerable, that marks the life of Christ from manger to cross. So it is not merely an interesting detail of his incarnation that we find Jesus born of low estate – it is an essential element in how we are to understand his extraordinary love for us.

So it is of no small significance for me to observe, that in contrast, it is in our being vulnerable to such an extent, where the human psyche resists the most. The shame and hurt, the disappointment and disparagement, are all such powerful forces – we dare not open that door too wide . . . or we will be utterly undone. But in the incarnate self-emptying way of Christ we discover an invitation to throw open that door of vulnerability, to allow ourselves to be known, scandalous details and all . . . so that the love and mercy of God might flow beyond our protected borders of self – to find its way into every life we touch with the true invitation of freedom. Because it is the way of Christ — to give of yourself in such a way that gives beyond the limitations of self.


Sometimes we forget this was a mother’s tender moment first . . .

Being Expectant (3 of 8)

“Hope is a dangerous thing.” is arguably the seminal line spoken by Morgan Freeman’s character in the movie, Shawshank Redemption. The crucial nature of this line’s context is what gives it gravity – men serving life sentences in a state penitentiary. In such a setting, the idea of hope is but a mocking voice, only serving to accentuate the despair of imprisonment. Because those who are free, are free to hope – but for those whose lives are bound, hope comes at a great cost.

There is a symbiosis – hope requires freedom, and freedom thrives on hope. But in order to understand this symbiosis, it is critical that we understand the substance of hope. Hope is not found in the idle wishing for things to be so, predicated on nothing more than the whimsy of our passing desire – hope is forged in the fire of our faith beliefs, which constitutes the infrastructure of our entire perception of life’s meaning. It is an expectation firmly anchored in the faithfulness of God (Hebrews 10:23).

It is our expectation of what is true – that it will eventually make itself evident. So our hope is placed, both in what can be known, and what has yet to be revealed . . . and our faith is the bridge between the two. We are therefore, free to expect that God will accomplish his will, precisely because it is not bound by our limitations to make it so. In this regard, hope is a leveraging against a certain future – in order that we might live confidently now in God’s providence. And it is this very future/now paradigm that animates our understanding of the Advent season.

It was the expectation of God’s people, because of God’s past faithfulness, that he would redeem and deliver them – even though they had no conception of their redeemer as coming in the shape of a helpless babe, who would one day face a scandalous execution as a political/ religious subversive. And whereas, they might not have expected the means of their redemption to be fulfilled in such a manner – their expectations were met all the same . . . regardless of their ability to realize it or not.

christmas-season-advent-nativity-background-baby-jesus-in-a-manger-with-bright-star-shining-above_h-xffjgfg_thumbnail-small01So what are your expectations of this Advent season? Are you building upon God’s faithfulness, so that you might be expectant of what he’ll do next? Will you allow your heart and mind the wonderment of embracing a God who takes on flesh, so that he might enter into your pain of disappointment and know your discouragement? Will you expectantly follow his humble path, believing his life to be a template of reconciliation that you might also reconcile others to God (2 Corinthians 5:18,19)?

So what do you expect as you look once more upon that manger? Do you see death defeated on a cross, and a king inviting you into his banquet hall? And how will that change what you expect from the rest of your life? Does your faith know how to make the journey between what you say you believe and what you hope to be true? Because after all – hope is a dangerous thing. It should only be invoked, if you’re truly willing to be set free from all that binds you.


This is my brother Jeff’s wonderful arrangement of “Joy To The World”

 

Being Contemplative (2 of 8)

I’ve been asked a number of times “how is it that you find the time to write your blog?” I’m never quite sure how I’m supposed to reply, as the question strikes me in much the same way I imagine someone asking me “how is it that you find the time to be human?” Now, I’ve only been writing my blog for a relatively short while, but as an artist my mind is ever turning something on the lathe. So being contemplative is sewn into the fabric of my daily experience – I’m ever noodling the subtext of life.

Unavoidably, we live within the compression of time. We either see life as an object coming at us, demanding we be fully focused, or we’re in a self-induced vegetative mode, allowing distractions and amusements to transport us — but either way the clock is ticking. In our work-a-day world, we’re consumed with reading the stitches on a fastball, feeling the urgency to decide whether to swing or lay off – so in this context we experience time as impatient and intransigent. Then on the other end of the continuum, we’re chill, acquiescing to the undemanding seduction of light entertainment – in this context we experience time as fleeting and indifferent. Either way, time measures us, attempting to dictate how we experience being human.

But surely, measuring our lives by the stuff we do, is a reductionist view – and yet we allot time, as if the doing of life is all that matters . . . and that our internal life is merely incidental. But before you miss my point entirely – I have no desire to put one more thing on your plate, because I’m not asking you to do an internal life, as if time could measure it’s significance. What if I told you that being contemplative is actually not bound by time – that it can’t really be pursued that way? Would that be something you could wrap your head around?

downloadWhereas, there are activities that are more conducive to contemplation, being contemplative isn’t an activity, as such – it is more of a state of being. It is neither a form of didactic focused thinking, nor is it purely a freely associative state of relaxed focus – and even though it may borrow from both of these, it defies our usual cognitive processes . . . as it is part rumination, part meditation, and part prayer. It is what allows our internal life to go unscathed by the constraints of time. It isn’t measured like a task, having a beginning and an end – as it exists as the fluid subtext of our lives, so that our lives might become a place where we meet God . . . in an ongoing way.

What if the invitation of Isaiah 1:18 “come let us reason together . . .” and the admonition of 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “pray without ceasing”, were to be understood as complimentary in nature – what do you think that would look like? Life itself, is a meditation. There are most certainly, activities that make up our everyday life, no doubt, important in their own way – but it is in the subtext of contemplation, where we more often than not, find communion with God. Funny how no one ever really asks me how I find time for that – but then again, if they think communion with God is nothing more than a switch we turn on and off . . . then they likely view it as being time constrained.

Being Thankful (1 of 8)

Heard a comedian tell a story about being on a plane where the stewardess announces that the airline will now be providing a new service — inflight Wi-Fi, only to return to the intercom ten minutes later to apologize that because of complications this service will not be available on this flight. At which point the young man sitting next to the comedian begins to fume and fuss about how this “sucks!” To which the comedian, correctly observes, “only ten minutes prior this guy didn’t even know it was a possibility – it’s just not enough that he’s sitting on a flying chair 30,000 feet above the ground eating Cheetos and flipping through a magazine” . . . then he asks “how did our expectations become so disproportionate?

I have no particular ambition for making money or having stuff, not that I think that there’s anything wrong with making money and having stuff, it’s simply that such things don’t animate my life. Nevertheless, I live well within the context of first world comforts, along with the resident temptations that come with walking through the minefield of comparative affluence. Much of the world struggles with the sociological realities of daily survival and subsistence, meanwhile I am ever being beguiled by a consumerist playground – where “what else do I want?” has become the new way survival is measured.

But within such a paradigm, I am suspicious that we are also redefining how we understand ourselves. Given our steady diet of amusement and distraction, we are becoming as much banal voyeurs of our lives, as we are participants. And there is a diminishing return at work, a crater forming in the middle of our expectations, where everything we consume disappears into the ambiguity of momentary gratification. Nothing can hollow us out quite like our longing after what can only offer us discontent . . .  is this not the “chasing after wind” that Ecclesiastes references?

downloadIn this way, gratitude is more than a virtue — it is a necessity. Only the truly grateful are able to ponder the real value and significance of what they have. Willing to allow the transient value of things to be interpreted by their transcendent source. Apart from this source, everything you have and everything you are has no meaning whatsoever, just the smoke and mirrors of your own baseless evaluations. For gratitude is the scale on which everything is given weight, held proportionately up to the giver of all gifts so that each thing may be known as blessing.

It’s my earnest desire to maintain a humble and a thankful heart, so that I might know everything as a gracious gift from my Father’s hand. My family and friends, my talents and intelligence, home and belongings, provisions and pleasures – they are all found in my Father’s care . . . each one reminding me of his love. In this regard, gratitude isn’t simply a response to something already given, but rather it is an act of faith, like an empty bowl held up to God, believing that he will continue to fill it, not with the impermanent things we assume we need . . . but with more of Himself.


This powerful Peter Himmelman song has haunted me for years . . .

The Shadow of Doubt

Maybe it’s just me, but when someone says, unsolicited “You just need to have a little more faith” – whether intoned as a dashboard plastic Jesus PTL platitude, or as a karmic positive vibes incantation against bad juju . . . I’m never quite sure how to respond to their backhanded observation that I’m somehow faith deficient. I’m always tempted to respond in kind by quipping “. . . and you just need to have a little more practical discernment” – but, no doubt, they are only attempting to demonstrate some measure of thoughtful assistance . . . so instead, I choose to smile, as if in agreement.

Faith by the truckload, is a truckload too much — if errantly placed. Because it isn’t really about turning up the volume on your faith. . . it’s about where your faith is placed. So if your faith is in something or someone, transient and fallible, it doesn’t matter how much faith – it will invariably end in disappointment and despair. But the least amount of faith (Matthew 17:20) placed in our transcendent and unfailing God is capable of displacing mountains – so quantity is clearly not the issue. But here’s the thing – your faith must be placed in the God who actually exists, and not in the one of your own contrivance . . . and in the disparity between these two is usually where doubt sticks its nose under the tent.

Doubt is more often than not, the catalyst for fear, because it calls into question either some part of what you’ve chosen to believe in – or the whole thing entirely . . . which is why fear always thrives most in our most unsettled moments of doubt. But doubt itself, is neither good nor bad – because our faith was never meant to be kept in a vacuum of unquestioned acceptance . . . as if faith were far too fragile for the rigors of real life.

4e427361ae9d68911c07bd7852a9314aDoubt is commonly juxtaposed with faith because it is assumed to be the opposite of faith – but I would contend that doubt is the truest traveling companion of faith . . . because even though doubt may struggle to believe, it still wants to believe. Apathy is actually the opposite faith – because it gave up a longtime ago on believing. But doubt is willing to sojourn the distance between our misconceptions of God and the God who actually exists (the book of Job comes to mind). So here’s the thing – without doubt we would simply continue to place our faith in a God of our own making . . . instead of risking what it takes to discover the one true God. In this regard, doubt is an essential aspect of faith.

It is doubt that prevents us from stowing away our faith in the back of the closet, next to all the other stuff we rarely need to pull out and use. It reminds us that our faith grows stronger, like our muscles, when met with resistance. And most importantly, it begins to shape our confession of faith into a humble longing to really know God – no matter what that entails . . . willing to chase His light into the darkness of our unbelief. Until we freely cry out aloud “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).


I found this song very evocative of the tension between doubt and faith

Ravens of Elijah

If you’re anything like me, then you’re inclined to believe that life can only make sense if on some scale, on some level, there is some measure of balance and symmetry. That with each wave of life that hits from every direction, eventual our boat rights itself on even keel. I don’t know if this is just a philosophical borrowing from Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, or am I just making up my own version of Dualism, without all of its eastern mystic trappings.

In common parlance this notion is better recognized as our instinct to believe that life should be fair . . . even though we know it isn’t. We seem to want to test at every turn the axiom “no good deed goes unpunished” because we know it to be broken. We want to believe that with whatever hardship we endure in well doing there will be an approximate counter weight of experienced blessing . . . and yet our lives seem to be constantly caught in the tensions found in every asymmetric circumstance that envelops us.

Back when I was a child in Sunday school, there was an image of Elijah being fed by ravens – and I remember being unsettled by the thought. As a child I couldn’t put my finger specifically on what it was that bothered me, but the older I got it became more clear. Here was Elijah willing to live as an outcast for speaking God’s truth, already willing to suffer hardship – and then God miraculously shows up to feed him during his time of need . . . so far, so good.

But of all the possible ways God had available to him as a means of meeting Elijah’s hunger – having birds, not known for their cleanliness, delivering carrion (rancid decaying meat) . . . strikes me as being at the bottom of the list. The tension here is palpable – God is unquestionably blessing Elijah . . . but in a manner that seems tone deaf to the sacrifice Elijah is already making at the time. I mean the Children of Israel in the wilderness ate manna and quail . . . and they complained the whole time! And without complaint, Elijah eats a far less desirable meal. It is this very disproportion that remains a mystery to me.

RavensOften my struggle with doubt isn’t over whether or not I believe God will show up, but rather in what he might choose to do, when he does – I’m desperate for him to bring balance to my life, and more often than not keeping me off balance seems to be his agenda. All I know is that when I begin to ponder what it means to submit myself to the inscrutable purposes of God – I find myself in Gethsemane.

I begin to imagine the long and lonely agonizing night – knowing full well what lies ahead. To have the disciples fallen asleep, unaware of how this night will end . . . and having just a few hours before hand, having washed the feet of Judas who was, even now, returning in betrayal to this garden. It is only then that I am reminded that even Jesus had to contend with the asymmetric vagaries of a fallen world . . . and I begin to confess my hopeless need for his love to carry me beyond the foolishness of my need to understand.


I love how this David Wilcox song exposes how our sense of balance
is nothing more than illusion.

Walking With A Limp

When my wife, of more than 30 years, and I were first married, I labored under the ridiculous misconception that if she would just provide me with a list of things she wanted and didn’t want – I would be happy to oblige . . . and our marriage would be smooth sailing. But that’s not how marriage works — in fact, such a perfunctory reduction misses the point of marriage, altogether. Not only is it completely devoid of intimacy, it smacks of contractual obligation . . . which invariably distills down to the least amount of effort while still maintaining compliance.

We experience relationships far more organically, knowing that they require a far more intuitive subtlety. That human desire doesn’t really function with binary precision, rather it follows a relational curve, where our desire is constantly being shaped by the dynamic of our relationships. This is why a static list, no matter how well conceived, can only at best, offer nothing more than a relational starting point . . . and sadly many relationships never grow beyond this superficial point.

This is the subtext found in the Gospel exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees – the Pharisees were insisting on talking about the list, while Jesus was inviting them to think beyond the list. Ironically, the Pharisees chose to have a relationship with the list itself, rather than pursuing something more – because checking items off a list allowed them to meet the obligations of the relationship while maintaining a life apart from the relationship . . . given such a passive aggressive posturing, is it really any wonder that Jesus referred to them as whited sepulchers (Matthew 23:27)?

wrestling-with-GodAccording to Genesis 32, Jacob becoming Israel is an unusual story about a restless night, where we find Jacob fearing retribution from his twin brother, Esau – so he sends his family away to a safe distance . . . leaving him alone to face his brother. But that night as he slept, a mysterious angel/man appears to wrestle with him all night long — and it is out of this long night’s wrestling a relationship is forged. They wrestle until daybreak, but Jacob is unwilling to let the angel/man go, even though he has been wounded in the process — because he wanted something more from this encounter.

As it turned out his sparring partner was God himself, and because Jacob was willing to stay engaged with God all night long, God renames him Israel (He who struggles with God). The next day he limps out to face Esau (as well as his fear) – but it turns out his brother was so happy to see him, and the joy and generosity in Esau’s expression was like the very face of God to Jacob (Genesis 33:10).

What a wonderfully curious intimacy this story has – Jacob spends the night fighting for his relationship with God . . . and wakes to find out that his brother wants to reconcile their relationship. Are you willing to go into that long night and fight for that relationship . . . even if it means you might walk away with a limp? Or will you maintain a safe distance . . . with a dispassionate list of obligations in your hand? That’s God waiting for you in that ring – so why don’t you climb in and go a few rounds . . . there’s a blessing waiting for you in there.


My brother Garrison has written this beautifully intimate song
about Jacob wrestling with God.