The Gift of Dirty Dishes

For the average working stiff, Monday is often experienced as a depressive disorder known as a “case of the Mondays” — a lethargic mind-funk that can actually last for days. While Fridays are often celebrated as a minor holiday, where each passing hour is counted down like a NASA launch sequence. In common parlance this attitude is known as “living for the weekend”, a 48 hour dispensation setting us free from the daily grind so that we can focus on what’s really important . . . sleeping in. But I’m beginning to think I could find rats, trapped in a maze chasing cheese, living a more purposeful life.

What we do, why we do it, and how we do it – directly contributes to how we understand ourselves within the world we live. This doesn’t just apply to our chosen occupations, but makes itself relevant to every action we take. In this way, being and doing are inextricably symbiotic. For it is out of who we are, that we act . . . and it is our actions that demonstrate, in the most practical, if not primal way – who we are. So here’s my question – is there a disconnect between how you see yourself and how you do the things you do?

Like most, my life is full of various reoccurring menial tasks that must be done – a list of chores, of which the primary benefit is found in how they momentarily unclutter the functionality of my life. Each one requiring a minimal amount of brain cells to accomplish – yet each one relentlessly making claims on my time. The lawn needs mowing. The trash needs taking out. The dishes need washing. Every task following its own predictable cycle – the very definition of monotony. So how am I to do these things in a way that best reflects who I am?

secret-cleaning-scuff-marks-off-dishes-silverware-faster-why-works.w1456I like the water hot – so that what goes unseen to the naked eye still comes clean . . . similar to the way humble tasks are able to purify the heart and mind. The most conspicuous thing about doing dishes is that I’m reminded that a meal or two has been prepared – that I eat regularly, and often with loved ones. And when I start to finish up – while wiping down the counter tops, I experience a subtle sense of accomplishment. Other things in my life may feel incomplete, or frayed, or even broken – but these dishes are done . . . a small victory – but a victory all the same. This is the gift of dirty dishes . . . a sacredness found in the smallest of details.

Is this not how we best understand the admonition of Colossians 3:23 – “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord . . .”? All that we are and all that we do belong to God, already – so it’s just a matter of aligning our lives with this most profound ontological confession. The common assumption is that we make our faith confessions, using words to which we’ve given mental assent – but perhaps it is the faith confessions of our deeds that have more to teach us . . . because that’s where we experience the presence of God at work — moment by moment . . . even in the smallest of details.


It’s always best to have a working prayer

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Relabeling My Boxes

Hands down, the most adorably captivating conversation you will ever have is with a four year old explaining anything. Whether it’s the events of the day or something they’ve recently learned – because they are fully invested emotionally in the telling of it. Their eyes get big and expressive. Their hands float and swim like fish, punctuating every detail with theatric conviction. They seem genuinely surprised by every word leaving their lips, as if pronunciation were an involuntary act. Then as they become aware of the grin spreading across your face, they either become instantaneously shy, or they become even more enthusiastic, depending upon their temperament.

O, to have such an unencumbered innocence of wonderment animating us again – but that’s not the way that growing older works, is it? Seems like as soon as we get the least bit of a handle on communication, we become subconsciously aware that if our understanding of the world doesn’t conform to a conventional knowing of the world, we can quickly find ourselves on the margins of our culture. So we learn very early on, as a social skill, that our knowing of anything must be willing to choose sides on any given topic — because not knowing is ignorance . . . and nobody wants to be known as ignorant.

So as if reading from a script, we all act out the part of the knowing, thoughtful person – either within the trappings of our educational certitude, or in our postured arrogance of believing there’s no real distinction between our personal opinions and what is actually true. This is a persistent thread of modernity running from the Enlightenment until today – predicated on the self-possessed notion that everything can eventual be explained . . . so we assume we can know whatever pops into our heads to know.

Therefore, the thought that much of life is a mystery, making the knowledge of it too far beyond our comprehension, is strictly anathema to the purveyors of the modern project . . . for those who place their faith in what they think they know. This is how the way of God confounds the wise (1 Corinthians 1:26-31) – He does not ask us to explain what we know, he only asks us to trust in him . . . with a faith foolish enough to abandon what we think we know.

Tresaure chestIn my younger days I spent a considerable amount of time filling up boxes full of the things I thought I knew, each one, an endless repository of well-informed, perfectly explainable knowledge. No doubt, on some psychological level, I was compensating for a defective self-perception — hoping no one would notice. So this wealth of boxes were carefully labeled and inventoried – at the ready, on a moment’s notice, to give proof that I wasn’t ignorant.

So what I’ve discovered of late, out of the wisdom of humbled experience, is that ignorance is truly bliss. That ignorance isn’t stupidity – stupidity is over stating what you can’t possibly know. So when I’m invited to climb into the ring and wrestle theological or political matters with someone – I just smile and think “must be nice to have the certainty of knowing so much”. This is not to say that I don’t know what I believe – I know full well what I believe and why I believe it. But lately I’ve taken to relabeling all of my boxes with the label “The Mysteries of God” — as they have belonged to him all along . . . many of which are far too wonderfully inscrutable, for the likes of me.


When in doubt — keep it simple

Gone Fishin’

We don’t just want to live – we want a life that matters. We don’t just want a job, we want a purpose, a job given significance because it’s truly meaningful. This, of course, is no surprise – we were created to live meaningful and significant lives, co-laboring in what God has given us. This made me wonder — were we all meant to do the same job, or were we all meant to do different jobs? And the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that the answer is – yes!

In my youth, I attended a bible college that was founded by an award winning salesman. So needless to say, training in evangelism was considered the preeminent task at hand. We were taught to pitch a clear gospel, in such a way as to confirm conversion – to close the deal. Therefore, the college’s exegetical take on Matthew 4:19 “And he said to them — follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” was considered the unstated real meaning of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). So let’s get out there and catch those fish (people) and haul them into the boat, before they get away (go to hell). But would this have actually been how Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew would have understood Jesus’ invitation to come follow him?

I guess what I’m asking is — how would they have taken this metaphor? Would they have taken it as specific – having once spent their lives catching fish . . . now they would catch people? Or is it more likely they would have taken it more generally – having once been preoccupied with fish, now the lives of people would preoccupy them? Now you may see this as a distinction without a difference – to which I would remind you that our modern notion of evangelism would not have been the first thing to have occured to them.

GettyImages-55847319-630x418For those Jesus called to be his disciples, Jesus was a local carpenter, who disappeared into the wilderness for forty days like a prophet of God. So when he returned, they would have thought of him as a man called of God – who was now calling them to join him. John the Baptist was already known to them to be a prophet of God, calling people to repentance – they may therefore, have assumed that Jesus would be like John, calling for repentance . . . unaware that Jesus was the very one that John had been prophesying about.

Like the disciples, we are called to join Jesus – to love all those whom Jesus loves . . . in the way that Jesus loves them. So you could say — we all have the same job. But because we’re all so uniquely deployed, so particularly gifted, and each of us having lived through such specific experiences – the way the love of Jesus within us makes its way through us to others, takes on a life of its own . . . so it’s never really the same job. This is because God doesn’t view us with the same impersonal detachment we might have for fish – his call on our lives is a call to relationship . . . so relationship is the preeminent task at hand.


It’s an invitation to dance the esplanade all the way into his presence . . .

 

The Monk of Northwood

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to rely on the carefully maintained rhythms and routines of my life. They work like a gyroscope constantly spinning, holding my every day in balance. No doubt, as a kid, the last thing I wanted was to be stuck in a loop of predictability – but such is the foolishness of inexperience, assuming that an extemporaneous lifestyle is somehow more virtuous. What older age has taught me, among other things, is that cultivating a disciplined life is more than just virtuous – it’s downright practical.

But to speak of a disciplined life only begs the question: disciplined to do what? An athlete or a musician will follow a particular regimen to refine their skills and sharpen their focus. In this way, they are defined by what sets the agenda of their discipline. With this this in mind — how would you define yourself? Given that we are so often defined by our familial relationships, our vocational ambitions, or our religious and political affiliations – this question, rightly leads us to a far more complex answer, than we might first assume. So let’s strip this question down to its most rudimentary underpinnings . . . and see what we find.

Ontologically, it is the Christian confession that we were created to exist in a material universe, while maintaining an intimate relationship with the God who created us, requiring us to understand every moment of our existence as being more than what can be explained by a material universe. So on a very profound level, our relationship with God, a relationship that fosters an integration of the physical and spiritual realms — not only defines us, but requires of us a uniquely disciplined life.

monk-3543630_960_720It’s a discipline that involves far more than a cosmetic compliance to religious expectations, which very often does more to foster an even wider dichotomy in our understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings existing in a material universe, than it does to refine it. As such a dichotomy can only tempt us to drive a Gnostic wedge between, what we imagine to be the real world, and the vague ethereal spirituality we often make of our faith beliefs. But the discipline of our faith isn’t meant for curating the divide created by The Fall, rather it is to re-envision heaven and earth made one.

As a young man I used to think that the monastic life of monks was nothing more than a spiritualized excuse for escaping the real world . . . as if I even had a clue what the real world was, back then. Of late, I’ve come to think of myself as the Monk of Northwood (Northwood being the part of town I live in). My desire is to refine the spiritual disciplines of my life, so that I might remember the way I was always meant to exist. To live my life in this place and time, not as someone who has long forgotten why they exist, or as someone who can only vaguely remember – but as one who humbly seeks to be made new every day in the love of Christ . . . and allow that to be what defines me.


This is a piece I wrote last Spring

The Monk of Northwood

Whispering his prayers in the dimming crepuscule
Like cupped hands hold the last few moments of day
Then silently remains in the blue black halo of night
To be found bereft the reluctant monk of Northwood

Shuffling feet in murmured shadows to keep watch
In rise and fall he lingers like random thoughts distract
Until pulled into translated light moving on breath
An oblation song of Northwood his unfinished opus

Small things in broken places to reconcile by day’s end
Motionless and quiet like sharp knives kept in a drawer
His meditation holds the world aloft with praying lips
The Northwood is a cul-de-sac where his hours collect

Violent and reckless the kettle boils in false alarm
Disquiet ambiguous like the shame of uncertain fear
Smoldering details of his vain past occupy the alter
It’s the reprise of Northwood in smoke he rises resolute

Life at Market Value

Economically speaking, a good or service only has the value someone is willing to pay for it — this is the driving principle behind the economic law of supply and demand. This is likely because identifying the value of anything, economic or otherwise, is an evaluative process, one that on some level, requires a philosophical assessment of what constitutes value. So even if you’re the type of person to trust all of those serious people, wearing lab coats, to tell you if something has value or not – in truth, you’re only allowing them, by proxy, to do your philosophic assessments for you . . . because science is incapable of assessing value.

But this isn’t to suggest that science doesn’t play an important role in informing our philosophical assessments. For example: If they were to exhume your body a thousand years from now, not only would they be able to correctly identify your species and gender – but they would also be able to identify it as your body, because DNA is that specific an identifier. So scientifically speaking, DNA is inextricably tied to personhood. Begging the question – exactly when does this DNA distinctive first occur for each of us?

Turns out, our distinctive DNA occurs at conception. So whatever philosophical assessment process you employ for determining the value of human life, you will likely have to accommodate the specific personhood of the unborn – that is, if you’re actually interested in acknowledging the personhood of every human. And you’d think that would be the default philosophy of most people – but you’d be wrong . . . if history is any indicator. Because pronouncing certain people groups as sub-human is precisely how genocide and slavery have always been justified.

When asked if human life is valuable, most folks without hesitation will answer – yes. If asked – what makes it valuable? Most will offer an answer that is either based in pragmatism, or in sentimentality – which makes for a very interesting threshold. Because to this way of thinking, as long as a sub-group is viewed as pragmatically or sentimentally valuable, they have nothing to fear – but if the tide of cultural ethos and opinion should shift . . . then all bets are off. And given that the whole of morality is predicated on how we esteem the value of human life – it’s no wonder that a culture mired in the moral ambiguity of existential relativism, would end up balkanizing into identity group factions, arguing why their faction should be validated and valued as being specifically significant, compared with others.

imagesThis is what human life at market value looks like – each sub-group making its case for why it matters . . . which invariably leads to the de-valuing of some other sub-group, by comparison. But here’s the thing – if we’re to believe that all human life has an innate value, then it’s value must be a transcendently sourced assessment. Apart from such an assessment, human value is left to the vagaries of imposed will, each sub-group seeking to assume the role of arbiter . . . believing that you’re either the one calling the shots – or you’re the one being shot at.

It is the profession of the Christian gospel that “God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16). And it is the bloodless conclusion of Nietzsche that humanity is locked in a struggle of “will to power”. One pronouncing us all as the beloved of God – an immeasurable value. The other believing we’re all hopelessly caught in a perpetual struggle, intent on determining who among us is worthy enough to evolve. I know this makes for a rather stark comparison – but apparently, until we’re willing to really embrace this contrast, then we’ll be tempted to believe we’re the ones who get to determine the value of human life.


. . . and just in case you’ve forgotten — God believes in you.

Contrary To Existence

Bob Dylan said “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying”. Which I’ve always taken as – life begins and life ends, and in between life is never really static . . . it’s always heading in one direction or the other. Begging the question – so how are you choosing to live your life? In many ways, life is on a continuum, between choices that lead to life, or those that lead to death. Between what is real and what is illusion. Between significance and meaninglessness. So even though you may arise every morning, going through the normal paces of your day — like it was no big deal . . . you’re also oscillating between existence and non-existence.

For an ongoing bases now, I have been preoccupied with an ontological meditation – especially when pondering the implications of my faith beliefs. Because when I choose to believe that God exists, I am actually making a very profound claim about the very nature of existence, itself. Thomas Aquinas describes God as ipsum esse subsistens (the act of being, itself) – his point being, that God doesn’t simply exist, among other things that exist, but rather, in his existence . . . all things exist (Acts 17:28). Now, let your mind consider for a moment, that in creation, God spoke us all out of non-existence.

St. Augustine said – “Since every creature is made ex nihilo (out of nothing), it carries with it a heritage of non-being . . . a shadow of nothingness that haunts every finite thing.” Therefore, to move towards God, is to move towards existence, and to move away from God, is to move away from existence. At first blush this might strike you as an academic abstraction – but I can assure you, that it has a very profound presuppositional influence on how you understand everything. All that you believe to be good and meaningful, as well as, all that you believe to be bad and destructive.

Theologically, sin is largely framed as a legal matter of transgression – laws have been broken, so consequences must be meted out. But this strikes me as a reductive understanding of sin. Yes, sin can be seen as a legal matter, but when understood ontologically, it takes on a far more comprehensive dimension. Let me put it this way – if you run a stop sign you’ve broken a largely arbitrary law. Reasonable people might argue whether or not that stop sign should even be there — offering a logical and practical critique. So when sin is viewed as merely a legal concern, it quite often takes on this very same arbitrary legislative quality — as if God were simply being as arbitrary as a stop sign. Just giving us all hoops to jump through — for reasons that he alone understands?

todd-mclellan-disassebled-decontruction-art-photography-8But what if we related to the law of God in the same way we relate to the law of gravity? Gravity is just a given reality within the universe — it’s just the way things exist . . . so it’s necessity isn’t really a topic of debate. Therefore, sin is better understood as all the things we do that are contrary to existence – the things that we do that dissembles and denounces existence . . . all of the things we foolishly assume have nothing to do with God.

Isaiah mocks the folly of those who create idols, and then turn around and worship the very things they’ve just created (Isaiah 2:8). The premise of these idol worshipers is that existence is just a given — therefore, worshiping what they, themselves, have created is just a roundabout way of convincing themselves that they’re the whole point of their own existence. This is the very path that leads us into the darkness of nihilo, away from the God who purposefully spoke us all into existence. To be in relationship with him is why we exist. This is why worshiping God is so essential – he is our ontological point of reference . . . as we are inescapably contingent upon his inscrutable existence.


Let me be a little of your breath
Moving over the face of the deep

I want to be a particle of your light

Flowing over the hills of morning

Thirty Pieces In My Pocket

Some people find virtue in ambition, while others believe that a simple life, is a virtuous life – but each one likely agrees that life should be lived on our own terms. This is the common ground where pluralism allows those driven by a greater cause, to live at peace, alongside those willing to wait for a greater cause to come find them in due time. But such pluralism is fragile at best, and largely mythic in its presumed comity – as we always tend to insinuate our own sense of propriety on everyone else . . . every chance we get.

Life on our own terms is just another way of saying “. . . Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Which may seem innocuously agreeable enough to you – until it occurs to you that it will be the imposed will of fallen man defining exactly how this will be commonly practiced. But this is no surprise, it’s no big secret that we’re all working on our own agenda – whether it be a conspicuously ambitious agenda, or one that is merely about the self-preservation of what we imagine to be a normal life.

At the Last Supper, we find Jesus on his knees washing the feet of his disciples, so that they might learn the way of Christ. And the bread and the cup, of an old tradition, was given a new significance, to be the defining expression of how the Servant King loves his people. But this all occurs as his disciples were preoccupied with, who among them might become the greatest. So Jesus foretells the actions of two of his disciples, the one who would betray (Judas), and the one who would deny (Peter). Only Jesus knew how this night would actually end . . . as both Peter and Judas could only assume how their actions would play out.

thirty-pieces-of-silver-bob-orsilloIn many ways, Judas represents political ambition – because when it became clear to him that Jesus wasn’t going to lead the political movement Judas was looking for . . . he cut his losses, and turned Jesus into the Sanhedrin for thirty pieces of silver in order to fund his next political endeavor. With Peter, his agenda became one of self-preservation, when only three years earlier, his agenda had been to see just how far he could follow this Nazarene . . . and now, it seemed he knew the answer to that question, all too well.

At Gethsemane the disciples fall asleep – leaving Jesus alone to face the disquiet of that long dark night. As I think of this, I want to imagine myself as someone who would have stayed awake with Jesus, as someone who wouldn’t deny him . . . or betray him. But I know all too well how my own agenda leads me away from him, whether in its blind ambition, or in its passive self-preservation – I know my own capacity for ending up with thirty pieces in my pocket . . . may God have mercy on me.

So it is my confession that the way of Christ isn’t my default setting, and that it is the grace and mercy of God that finds me asleep, and awakens in me a desire to “ . . . know him and the power of his resurrection, sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). O, to be made new, to be set free from my own ambitions, so that I might follow in his way, that my life might experience his love and make it known everywhere I go.


This is a meditation I wrote for Lent years ago . . .

I Fell Asleep At Gethsemane

I fell asleep at Gethsemane and I dreamed about my life
Poured out in empty portions again and again
Into an idol sea of amusement.

In this garden I am dreaming of my heroic better self
Overcoming the fatal flaw of self-deception
That I might rise above every calculation of fear.

In a curl beneath an olive tree at a safe distance from the night watch
I lay imagining the details of my life arranging themselves
Into proportionally meaningful shapes.

With my head on this stone I begin to remember out of my slumber
The deep sorrow that brought me here
The passion of God and all the tears He has cried since creation.

I fell asleep at Gethsemane
Awaken me Lord
That I might be with you awhile

Thinking That We Know

Like a fish in a fish bowl sees the world through the distorted filter of water and glass, our perception of the world is similarly limited in scope, and ladened with all of our presupposed notions about how reality occurs. But the difference is, the fish doesn’t labor under the ridiculous presumption that he has any understanding of it. This can be a hard concept to wrap our heads around, given that we aren’t even fully aware of just how many layers of context goes into our own perception – but even so, we are relentlessly tempted to trust our own knowing of things . . . without question.

Our default setting is to think of knowing as an accumulation of information that is either known or unknown to us – so when asked about something, we either have the information or we don’t. A more sophisticated appreciation of knowing realizes that information is like the water in a fish bowl – information is everywhere, but its ubiquity doesn’t explain its meaning. Which means there is yet another layer of knowing required for assessing value and significance of all the data (information).

Then there’s a philosophical framing of knowing that recognizes that being a fish in water, complicates a true understanding of water . . . because as a fish we couldn’t imagine any other context for which to make a comparison. So inescapably, our knowing is trapped in the fish bowl of our own contextualized understanding. Therefore the water and all of its contents, including the fish, becomes a circular reference point – reaffirming a knowing we have already been conditioned to accept. So how confident do you feel about what you think you know, now?

In the creation narrative of Genesis, God establishes himself as the one true arbiter of what is good and what is not. God pronounces all that he has created as being tov (the Hebrew word for good), then he sees man alone, without woman, and pronounces that not tov. But between these two pronouncements we find a warning “. . . but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). So what are we to make of this warning? It most certainly seems to be a pronouncement of not tov . . . though it doesn’t follow the same template as the other pronouncements.

imagesIt’s always struck me as counter-intuitive that the fall of man would turn on a desire to know the difference between good and evil – in the same way that God knows it. Isn’t the whole point of morality to know how to make this distinction? Consider Cain killing Abel, the first recorded murder, a murder fueled by jealousy — now there’s a sin worthy of getting things started off on the wrong foot! But there were no laws regarding murder, Cain was only “doing what seemed right in his own eyes” . . . a phrase that would come to exemplify all of human knowing, assuming that our own knowing is all that is required.

When Satan came along to tempt Eve – what does he actually tempt her with? Does he not appeal to her own sense of knowing, based on her own limited self-referencing understanding of the world? So before she even picks the fruit, she had already pronounced it tov – when up to this point in the narrative, no one but God had made such a pronouncement. Therefore, even before the act of sin is committed, sin was found crouching at the door of her presumption to know.

Ever since, thinking that we know, has basically been the incubator of every sin known to man — all of the evil and harm we visit upon one another. O, that we might instead choose a more humble path, willing to confess just how little we really know — to freely accept our limitations. So I say, let us pray that God would simplify our hearts and minds . . . that we might finally discover the beauty and bliss found in not needing to know.


This song written and performed by my brother Garrison
reminds us that in a complicated world — the simplest truths are always the best. 

 

Defining Our Obligations

Numerous books have been written on how best to prioritize the people and activities in our lives – so as to keep us on track with the goals we’ve set for ourselves . . . because apparently this is something that we’re regularly distracted from, or confused about. Which is a pretty odd thing, when you think about it – after all, it is your life, and what you’re intending to do with it, that we’re talking about here. But one of the common themes in all of these books is the observation that our lives are in a constant state of being inundated with unfiltered demands on our time, talents, and resources . . . leaving us with an abiding sense of inadequacy.

It’s because of the way that all of these demands claim to have unquestioned importance, that you must sift through them carefully to determine their actual impact. Some even come cloaked in a desperate hand-wringing urgency, hoping that you’ll react before looking too closely at their veracity. But all of these claims are made under the guise of an assumed authority and you have to determine by what authority they are making their case. And whereas, it behooves us to acknowledge the genuine authorities in our life – all too often we reflexively give deference to presumed authorities, which in truth, are nothing more than conspicuous power struggles.

A very common form of this type of presumed authority is found in the psychological complexity, often associated with codependency – where the specific relational dynamics are so dysfunctional, that they can only begin to be disentangled after many hours of counseling. Then there is the presumption of political/ cultural agendas, all dressed up in a self-satisfied moral sanctimony, attempting to shame you into compliance and conformity – hoping that you’ll simply acquiesce to the force of imposed will.

imagesBut sometimes there are genuine authorities in conflict, requiring us to examine which of them may have the preeminent authority. As we read Matthew 22: 15-22 we find the Pharisees plotting to catch Jesus, in what amounts to be a political dilemma. They ask “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” So Jesus asks them for a coin and says “So who’s tiny little face is this?” They said “Oh, that’s Caesar (a.k.a. the self-proclaimed god of Roman)” Then Jesus says “Well then, this belongs to him, and the tiny little kingdom he reigns over” (my paraphrase)

But that wasn’t the whole answer, Jesus also said “And give to God the things that bear his image – because those things belong to his kingdom” (again, my paraphrase). Caesar’s authority was indisputable, he had the sway and power of violence on his side — right up until the moment he didn’t . . . this is always the limitation of human authority. I don’t think it was simply incidental to the story that Jesus asked about Caesar’s image on the coin – because for his followers, this proportional contrast leaps off the page . . . as we know ourselves to be the ones who bear God’s image.

Therefore it is imago dei that defines our obligation to God’s authority – either we see ourselves as belonging to him, or we choose to live our lives as if we don’t. So when you find yourself triaging the people and activities in your life – you might want to give a thought to what is the preeminent truth about who you . . . that you were made in God’s image. So just maybe, you should order your life like you believed it was true.


This is my brother Jeff’s arrangement and performance of this great old hymn,
inviting us to render unto God what is already his . . .

 

Learning To Recognize Mammon (8 of 8)

Godzilla decided to vacation this year in Tokyo, hoping to do a little shopping and to take in a few of the exotic sights and points of interest. He had even worked up the courage to be adventurous enough to taste some of the local cuisine. So you can only imagine his chagrin at the media’s portrayal of his arrival as being catastrophic – I mean how was he to know that all of that running around and screaming wasn’t just an elaborate welcoming ceremony . . . after all that’s how he’s greeted everywhere else he goes. I guess the Japanese are just not much for tourism.

Like Godzilla, everyone assumes that their actions comport with socially acceptable norms, completely unaware that they are only referencing their own interpretation of what those socially acceptable norms are. In this way, we all take our turn being Godzilla, until someone is kind and thoughtful enough to point out to us the actual net-effect that our actions are having. But being blind to what our own actions say about us has many permutations – for instance, you’re likely unaware of just how tempted to worship the Chaldean god, Mammon, you’ve been.

Ancient cultures worshipped many variations of Mammon — seeking prosperity, a bountiful harvest, and fertility. Given that mere survival in the ancient world wasn’t really a given, concerns about harvest and fertility were matters of life and death. So the idea of appeasing these gods was not taken lightly – as they were seen as the very realities of life, itself. But for us today, prosperity represents getting more of what we want, than it does about having what we need. Of course, this all begs the question: what actually constitutes worship of Mammon?

imagesJesus clearly states “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Some translations interpret mammon as “money” – but this strikes me as transparently reductive, given the context of the passage (Matthew 6:19-34). And I think we can also assume from that same context that Jesus’ point isn’t to literally juxtapose the God of Israel with a pagan god. So what does the context tell us? Is Jesus only warning us of how greed and avarice are innately in competition for God’s sovereignty? . . . or is he challenging a much larger paradigm?

If I were to ask you: where is your heart? Would that be at variance from where your treasure is (19-21)? If so – then could it be that your perception about what’s really important has been darkened (22, 23)? So to whom does your heart belong (24)? What does your anxiety tell you? Has it made you a servant of your personal security? If so – is that because you doubt God’s assessment of your value to him (25-32)? Why do you think that is true? Are you afraid he has forgotten you . . . left you to your own devices?

I think mammon sneaks into our lifestyle well before we even recognize its presence. It comes in under the guise of taking care of our day-to-day needs – but this is precisely what Jesus says are the concerns we are to entrust to him . . . and that our concern should be for his kingdom (33). What does your eye see (22, 23)? Does it see a future that belongs to God, under the sovereignty of his loving care, where his kingdom comes? Or are you filled with doubt, where you have to hedge your bets against an unknown future . . . just like the pagans of old? So I guess it’s really a question of who owns your future, God or mammon? A little advice – don’t be so quick to answer that . . . because the last thing you want to be is Godzilla, trying to rationalize why your recent visit to Japan was such a bust.


No matter how much — it’s never enough

Learning To Live In Exile (7 of 8)

Sometimes it’s like a restlessness, like an unidentified longing, or like a nagging bewilderment unsettling any attempt we make at contentment. It’s not the kind of feeling that makes itself known center stage – no, this is more like that feeling that lingers in the shadows just off stage, as if it were nothing more than an imperfection in the scenery. But when it catches our eye we can’t help but feel a foreboding that something isn’t right, like something we can’t quite remember . . . like the whole of reality has shifted, and this isn’t the reality we belong in.

Theologically we know this to be the persistent residual effect of The Fall – where we are constantly aware of the disparity between what is . . . and what ought to be. Exiled from Eden we head east. Cain kills Able and is exiled into the east. The flood waters come and go, and then we head east. Then in the east we build a great tower in Babylon, a dysfunctional monument to our banishment, until finally in the confusion of our shame and fear we wander away homeless and disillusioned. And so closes the first eleven chapters of Genesis . . .

This is where the story picks up with Abram, a man called of God to leave behind the suburbs of Babylon and head west to the land of promise. But even as he arrives at this place of promise, Abram continues to live in a tent – because even though this is the place . . . it still feels impermanent. And this becomes the reoccurring metaphor of Israel – concluding with them literally returning from exile in Babylon to inhabit a place haunted by the reality that even this home doesn’t feel like home . . . that it’s just a shadow of what it should have been.

michal-giedrojc-dreamsThe common Christian response of “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through” is temptingly deceptive — because it rings true that this doesn’t feel like our home, and that there is a place where our longing to belong will finally be satisfied. But the deception is in thinking this world is nothing more than a sinking ship, and the best that any of us can hope to do is fill the life boats and watch it sink. The trouble with this notion is that it isn’t actually how we are admonished to live while in exile . . .

We are fond of celebrating the hope found in God’s plans when reading Jeremiah 29:11 – without fully appreciating that Jeremiah is addressing God’s people as they are being dragged off into exile, to Babylon. Which is likely why we don’t fully comprehend Jeremiah 29: 4-7 and its emphasis on being a blessing to this place we find ourselves, even within the context of exile. In this way, our faith in the midst of exile is how we live in Christ — no longer as exiles, though we remain in the land of exile. We are to become beacons of hope to those who haven’t yet realized that they’re living in exile. So let us proclaim the rescuing grace of God that is our hope – as a hope yet to be fully revealed, and a hope to abide where we are . . . living our lives to the fullest in this place where God has called us.


In the Arthurian legend, Avalon is the mythic place of peace and rest
that resides in the west . . . when will we ever learn to live in God?

Learning To Find Your Edge (6 of 8)

Something I’ve noticed about growing older – I’m finding it harder to remember the answer. Now, before you roll your eyes and sarcastically whisper under your breath “O really, tell me more?” – I’m not talking about the natural absent-minded, general forgetfulness that accompanies old age. No, I’m talking about that cog we keep in the back of our head that seems to keep all of the other wheels in our life turning with prescient purpose. It’s a cog that comes in the shape of a question, the question we spend our whole life offering up various answers to – all along the way, retooling and upgrading our response. It’s the question – what is it I’m trying to do?

As a younger man, it seemed so much easier for me to answer this question. Back then, I came up with some pretty great answers – but now, I can only remember them as fragments, like so many irreconcilable puzzle pieces . . . vaguely familiar, but disconnected. It’s not that I’ve lost my sense of purpose, it’s more like I’ve lost my edge . . . more content to let the next generation do all of the dreaming associated with answering that question. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to work – maybe forgetting how to answer that question releases me from the burden of needing to have an answer for it.

I’m not really suggesting that wanting to answer this question is unimportant – it’s just that it requires a much larger context before it can truly be answered. It’s the type of question that tempts us to reflexively answer extemporaneously out of the sophistry of our own default philosophical abstractions, driven by the impulse of our current state of mind. But now that I’m older I tend to slow my roll, and answer another question first, a question that requires a far more deliberate meditative response . . . what is God already doing?

sz9BdToo often in my youth the urgency of my convictions fueled the self-importance of my bravado, creating for me the illusion that my efforts had heat and edge. And it wasn’t that my convictions were somehow misplaced, as much as they lacked the wisdom of understanding how best to make them known — in a more fully formed way. But now, so many layers of shed skin later, so many iterations of me later — I’m still convinced, and even more confident of my calling, yet I’m humbled by the path that calling has taken. I guess you could say I’ve grown tired of trying to do something important with my life . . . but haven’t yet lost my interest in knowing what it is that God is already doing.

It’s been about four years since my daughter Katy, and my daughter-in-law Faith, suggested that I write a blog – an idea, at first, I protested. I had no interest in becoming one more purveyor of extemporaneous opinions, joining a chorus of internet voices, all speaking at one another. But as I began to turn the idea over in my head, having long been a song writer, it occurred to me that if I approached it with the same discipline I use when writing songs, then I might just be able to create a few thoughtful vignettes that could offer a moment’s pause – a meditation that God might inhabit . . . so that what he is already doing might be rediscovered. So in the most modest of ways, and by the most understated of means, my calling has found a new edge.


Here’s a song I wrote many years ago out of the angst I felt back then
about my desire to know God’s will

Learning To Wade In the Water (5 of 8)

It is really no surprise to me why Allstate’s advertising campaign personifying mayhem has been so successful. As it is with all humor, there must be a universally relatable truth being satired, before everyone gets the joke. And let’s face it, on some level, on some back burner in our heads, we entertain some measure of dread, that chaos (mayhem) will leap out and begin dissembling the order we are so carefully attempting to maintain in our life. After all, creating order out of chaos is one of life’s grand themes residing in the subtext of everything we are and everything we do . . . even if all we can do is laugh at commercials reminding us all of just how implausible the task.

Within the first two verses of the Bible, the creation narrative sets the stage with a powerful metaphor about water. The void and the darkness over the face of the deep, is immediately juxtaposed with the presence of God hovering over those same waters. So that by the sixth verse we find him dividing those waters, bringing order out of chaos. And for the ancient world, this was no small matter, because the face of the deep was a menacing and foreboding image, a vast unknown portending a terrible undoing.

So by the time Noah’s story is told a few chapters later, the idea of those very same waters, once divided by God, now coming back together, carries with it far more than just the calamity associated with a flood – it was God allowing the chaos to overtake the order of the world. That in fact, it has been the hand of God, all along, that has held those waters apart, so that we might have a place to live. So when this particular  image reoccurs, at the Red Sea, and and again as Israel crosses the Jordan – we begin to fully appreciate the pattern of just how it is that God makes a way for us, where there is no way.

__Shell___by_masscreationNow, consider the sacrament of baptism — where we find ourselves invited to enter the waters, so that we might understand ourselves as having died with Christ and raised to new life. We break the surface twice, entering into death (chaos) and then the waters part, as we rise again to new life. This is the way of Christ, a pattern of willingness to enter into death, so that a life of reconciliation and redemption can occur.

Paul explains this pattern in 2 Corinthians 5: 17-20 — having become a new creation, we as Christ’s ambassadors, must be willing to wade into the water, that is the chaos and brokenness of our world, so that we might reconcile others to life in Christ. For it was Jesus, the incarnate God, who came where death prevailed, so that he might once and forever part the waters of chaos (death) – so now we wade into the waters, to go where death once held sway . . . so that Jesus might make his appeal through us — bringing new life in his wake.


One of my all time favorite gospel spirituals — this is a great rendition . . .

Learning To Trim Your Sail (4 of 8)

Force = Mass x Acceleration . . . is a formula illustrating Newton’s 2nd law of motion – describing how inertia is overcome. It turns out, the greater the mass, the more force is required to achieve acceleration – who knew? Makes me wonder if the same law that applies to getting physically unstuck (F=ma) would apply to being metaphorically stuck – because I think we can all relate to feeling stuck . . . in ways we can’t even put our finger on.

Feeling stuck may seem to you like a lack of motivation, or a matter of procrastination, or even as a result of exhaustion – but all of these strike me as far more symptomatic of being stuck, than causal. Spinning your wheels going nowhere can leave you exhausted. And a lack of motivation and procrastination are derivative of being incapable of imagining how not being stuck might look — because sometimes you’ve been an object at rest for so long, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in motion . . . or could it be because the last time you were in motion – it didn’t go so well.

More often than not, most people end up stuck because it was the last place they took refuge from life’s howling winds and troubled waters. They didn’t plan to stay — but here they are all the same . . . stuck. And here’s the thing about being stuck – it drains you of all expectation. This may strike you as antithetical, because if a hyper state of routine is what it means to be stuck – then what’s not to expect? . . . it’s all been done before. But having hopeful expectation isn’t about predictability – rather, it’s about believing that something new could happen.

boat-oil-painting-60542It is this very lack of hopeful expectation that holds you land-locked. So maybe it’s time you tested the wind again and checked the horizon for unexpected opportunities — so that you might know yourself as free to live your own life again. Maybe it’s time you learned how to trim your sails. Because it isn’t really about throwing up a sail and letting the wind blow you all over the water. In the hands of a skilled sailor, the sails are deployed in such a way as to channel the force of the wind with precision . . . and usually that occurs at a pretty fair clip.

Sometimes we fall into thinking that God wants us to play it safe, until we end up like the servant who was given one talent and ended up burying it (Matthew 25: 18), convincing ourselves that God wouldn’t want us being too risky with what he had given us. Or we assume he is asking us to generate our own momentum to break inertia, when we already feel so stretched out and pulled thin . . . how could we possibly take on more? But in fact, he is inviting us to unfurl our sails . . . and he will fill them. It is an invitation to live your whole life, that you might see what he can do through you. There’s no telling where he’ll take you next . . . and it’s the not knowing, that keeps you from getting stuck.


This has always been one of my favorite Bruce Cockburn songs

   

Learning To Refract Light (3 of 8)

Moonlight is the borrowed light of the sun meant to remind us that the sun hasn’t actually gone away – that it shines ever on, albeit from the other side of night. Even the waning and waxing moon can’t help but smile about how faithfully the sun continues to shine, even when it doesn’t fill the sky with light. But on a moonless night, the moon hides from the sun and the path becomes unclear, more shadow than light. More than likely that’s an artificial light, the escaping ambient halo of light above the city. But on that same moonless night, walking a country road, reveals a sky full of distant suns shimmering like diamonds on black velvet — no doubt, our own sun shines with a similar brilliance for some other distant planet.

The moon is a desolate waste, a barren satellite rock caught in earth’s celestial orbit. Having nothing of its own, yet it reflects the glory of the sun, making it the preoccupation of poets and romantics, alike. A serendipitous proximity of cosmic happenstance — even so, it’s evocative beauty remains. How much more are we held as precious to the Father, than this rock hurling through space . . . that in the most unexpected ways we might reflect his glory?

All of creation cries out, proclaiming in wonderment the intricacies of design hidden in plain sight – the hand of God on display. Even the atheist, convinced of the rationality of his disbelief, finds it hard to hide the mark of imago dei he bears – ever pulling on him to understand his life as meaningful, ever drawn to love and beauty and justice . . . as if the universe, for no reason at all, held them as significant. But even these are simple reflections, pointing back to their source, light bouncing off of the surface . . . but what of the light that enters in?

AM_Fig5-ChurchAndCruxGunnIt is the Christian confession, that as believers, we not only bear the image of God, we are also indwelt by the Holy Spirit. So not only do we reflect his glory — we are meant to refract his glory . . . in the same way that light pours through a prism. As God changes us we become the face of God to those who have forgotten what he looks like – it is how we become a tangible instrument of God’s grace to the world. We are not the source of this light, but the light passing through us does take on the color and shape of our personal story . . . of redemption and reconciliation.

So this is what occupies me during this season of expectation, I find myself searching the heavens for a sign, not unlike those wise men of old, who knew the distant light would guide them to something wonderful. It is the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us, entreating us to remember that God enters flesh and blood and changes all of human history. It is Jesus who is the light of the world – a light shown on our countenance, as it moves through us to those in the lost dark of night, those who may be wondering if the Son still shines . . .


It is from the substance of what is given us — that we give unto others