The Art of Authenticity

“It’s the real thing” – this was Coca-Cola’s slogan back in the day, when I was a kid. Looking back now, I’m struck by just how esoteric a slogan it was. I’m almost certain their point wasn’t really about metaphysics, as much as it was about authenticity – recognizing that the longing for authenticity is primal . . . that on some level we all just want to know what’s real – what’s genuine. In a world where so many things seem so tenuous, where people are so mired in the context of their own agendas – we’re all looking for something more reliable, more certain. So what about you – how authentic are you?

Let me catch you before you answer, and remind you that just beneath your carefully maintained persona on display for everyone else’s approval, is a person who intimately knows all of the fear and pride, self-doubt and self-preservation that preoccupies you 24/7 – and right now that person is likely beginning to pump the breaks on offering an answer. Because the first step to being authentic is being honest with yourself – to own the fact that there are aspects of you that you’d rather not have exposed.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that we remove all social filters, as if being authentic equaled being obnoxious and inappropriate – that’s just being a jerk. But we shouldn’t allow social etiquette to inhibit us from being redemptively vulnerable with one another – which is where you share your genuine struggles as a form of truth telling that invites others to share their struggles, creating a safe place for bearing one another’s burdens. Such a naked honesty doesn’t come natural – so it takes practice and finesse before it becomes incorporated into your personality as a natural skill set . . . this is why I say there is an art to authenticity.

mask-1And even though it wasn’t likely the intent of Coca-Cola’s slogan to raise the question of metaphysics – authenticity (being “the real thing”) inextricably finds its significance in the metaphysics of aseity . . . separating what exists contingently from what exists in and of itself. St. Thomas Aquinas addresses this with the mind-blowing concept of ipsum esse subsistens (the act of being itself) – that because God’s existence is not contingent . . . he is the very essence of existence . . . and it doesn’t get any more real than that!

In Acts 17:27, 28 Paul is making his bedrock case before the Areopagus – that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’”. Therefore, because our existence is contingent on God, our ability to be real and authentic is inseparable from our relationship with God. In this sense, our longing for authenticity is a longing for God. So as we are being conformed to the image of Christ – it could very well be said that we are becoming more real . . . more authentic.

This is from my Chiaroscuro Collection

All of This Is Mine

All of this is mine
The vaulted sky and everything beneath it
The ever-widening hole in the ground
Denying light and cataloging everything I desire

These folding chairs carefully arranged
To view the cataclysmic event of my fall
The polished surface of my achievements
Measuring me in preposterous effigy

This mirror of self-approval promising
To hide me from the honesty of light
The Sisyphus Stone of fear I hold at arms-length
Keeping it from crushing my will to continue

Every word on this page attempting to emerge
Hemmed in by my self-aware need to explain
O, would that I could, strike a match and watch it all burn in holy fire
To stand apart and laugh wildly with the freedom of having nothing at all

The Art of Forgiveness (2 of 5)

It has been my experience that what is profound, often comes wrapped in an elusive simplicity – such is the case with forgiveness. A quick census of any group of people would likely return a generally correct definition for forgiveness – albeit, one that almost exclusively emphasizes its contractual aspect. And if the same group were asked about their personal habits of forgiveness, most would no doubt view themselves as reasonably forgiving – each offering their particular caveats and conditions. But if asked about unforgiveable actions – invariably, each would provide at least one unforgiveable deed . . . only serving to indicate just how superficial their appreciation for how forgiveness really works.

You can learn a great deal about someone talking with them about forgiveness. For some, it is what I imagine it would be like to have to negotiate with a person wearing an explosive vest, threatening to blow themselves up unless their demands are met – except with the person choosing to withhold forgiveness, they seem almost completely unaware that the majority of the damage done will befall them. Others view forgiveness as a mythical incantation, when once spoken can dispel any harmful consequences by jettisoning the offending event out of existence. But for most of us, it usually takes on the cognitive dissonance of some emotional combination of these two extremes.

As it is with everything, our tendency to control and manipulate forgiveness invariably distorts our understanding of its innate beauty and grace. But in Alexander Pope’s minimalist axiom “To err is human, to forgive is divine” we discover an insightful primer about the underlying truth of forgiveness — without God, forgiveness is impossible! In Matthew 6:14, 15 Jesus provides us with a very important formula regarding forgiveness – the way we experience God’s forgiveness is inextricably tied to how willing we are to forgive others. This isn’t to say that God’s forgiveness is conditional, but rather that our experience of it, our ability to feel forgiven, is in direct correlation with how we forgive.

imageThen Jesus gives us another insight in Matthew 18:21, 22 by framing forgiveness in an idiom of speech that suggests that forgiveness is to be offered in a perpetual state – completely dispelling any notion that forgiveness is a static event. This is what makes forgiveness an art form. As with all art forms, there is a learning curve specific to each occasion of forgiveness where the artist becomes vulnerable — willing to leave behind a piece of themselves in the process . . . trusting that God will inhabit each oblation.

All of us are called to be agents of reconciliation in this world — therefore our capacity to forgive is an essential protocol . . . as it was forgiveness that allowed us to be reconciled to God. There are choices we make that close us off from all that is life giving – and then there are choices that enrich our lives, deepening our appreciation for every moment we are given . . . but the choice to forgive ushers us into the presence of God’s heart like no other choice we make.

This is from my Chiaroscuro Collection

An Uncommon Treasure

Unwrapped and left out in the open
In the full warmth of the sun
Where anyone might find it
An uncommon treasure
Taken by the grateful and greedy alike
Inscrutably it sets the captive free
Setting aside the need to explain
Causing the auditioning truth to speak
Into the dark echoing hollow of vengeance
To find absolute peace in surrender
Like a rare and ponderous jewel
Left out in the open
In the full warmth of the sun
Where anyone might find it
Forgiveness is a gift
Best offered unwrapped

The Art of Lament (1 of 5)

No one likes a complainer, which is likely because complainers are often consumed by a self-possessed measure of whining and disproportionate blaming – imposing this indulgence on us, serving no other purpose than to off load their unbridled grievances . . . otherwise known as venting. But the trouble with complaining is that it only begets more complaining, as it usually is nothing more than a vacuous rehearsal of the assorted ways we’ve lost control of our lives . . . which of course, assumes we ever had control in the first place. But the primary problem with most of our complaining is that it places us at the center of our own universe . . . and I don’t know about you, but if I’m at the center of the universe—we’re all in trouble. So then what are we to do with all this unreconciled irascible stuff rattling around in our heads—if not complain?

If we’re ever to get beyond our incessant compulsion to complain, then we must commit ourselves to the task of learning the art of lament. Now, I get it that lament isn’t the first thing that leaps to mind, as you correctly associate it with mourning, sorrow, and regret – all of which you would rather spend a day at the dentist, to avoid. But could it be that part of such apprehension is due to the fact that we are so poorly practiced at lament? Which of course only further begs the question – why in the world would anyone ever want to be well practiced at lament? What value could that possibly render?

I would only point out that there is a clarifying honesty at work in the helpless vulnerability of lament that distills you down to the things that really define you – evacuating you from the center of your own universe, so that in a realigning of your heart and mind, circumstances can begin to take on true proportion. This invariably brings down the façade of your well maintained fiefdom, causing you to give up any claim on control, forcing you to become a refugee, needing to remove your inner most self to a safer distance.

shockSo now, camped out on these outskirts, mourning the loss of the life you thought you wanted most, is where you begin to take inventory. But the life of a refugee is one of traveling light, so the pickings are pretty slim – so there is only the contemplation of an empty hand. Until at last in this most desperate hour, you look beyond yourself to discover others honest enough to enter into their own lament . . . and so you travel together.

To a refugee the idea of finding refuge isn’t just a reassuring pleasantry—it is an inescapable necessity. So when we read psalms like Psalm 91:2 about God being our refuge, scripture isn’t merely offering us a reassuring backstop plan B – but instead invites us to confess that this is actually the only possible plan. It is the wide-eyed confession that the mythology of “having it all together” can only lead to despair. It is the foundational confession that the center of the universe belongs to God and that the only way we can occupy that space is when we take refuge in him . . . and that it is by way of our lamentations where we are the likeliest to see God as our refuge.

Here’s a song I wrote this past summer,
mourning the untimely death of an old friend.

Into the Howling Darkness

You can only hold your breath for so long before you have to hit the surface again, only to discover the levees have broken open and the deluge has begun. So in the flood of circumstance, of events beyond your control, you are swept up in the adrenalized panic of frenzied response. In the flash of such moments, everything superficial gets washed away in the torrent – leaving only the things that matter most. This past year, for many people, has felt like being emotionally rolled like a cowboy cigarette and chain smoked down to ash . . . as if the slightest breeze could simply blow away what’s left.

There is a ground swell realization that an exponential cultural shift is inescapably making itself evident. Whereas, it may be indicative of someone my age to feel the pangs associated with feeling like the world I grew up in has evaporated – this isn’t that kind of normal shift, of which I reference. No doubt, I feel some nostalgia for some of the cosmetically cultural affectations of my youth– but I still can sense a far more seismic shift has been occurring. It is as if our anthropological underpinnings have been yanked up and we have been set adrift for quite some time. Some foolishly see this as cutting free of the cumbersome weights of tradition – but there is a more ancient pattern to this shift, portending a very dark foreboding night before a new dawn appears.

I was born in the waning years of a Christian nation, when Christianity enjoyed a measure of cultural deference. But for the most part, my life has been lived in the ambivalence and plurality of a Post-Christian culture — and of late, it is occurring to me that I am now living in the waning years of this era . . . as ambivalence begins to give way to hostility. It has been a slow, steady encroachment of existential relativism picking up speed that is giving momentum to this exponential shift – having reached its tipping point and is now being codified by an ever encroaching and feckless government. Is it really any wonder our recent presidential election offered us such reprehensible candidates, both conspicuously lacking in a moral compass?

moon_rise_forestMake no mistake – I’m not suggesting that the world is somehow becoming more fallen (as that would be theologically untenable), but rather that history has seen this cycle play out many times before. A culture moves toward God, until a zenith point, and then begins to move away – until it reaches its nadir . . . and we’re now approaching that nadir point, and will likely be there for a generation. So my point isn’t that we should be wringing our hands, about how we might control its descent – but that we must hold fast to our profession, relying on the faithfulness of God (Hebrews 10:23).

The weeping prophet, Jeremiah lived during the waning days of Israel before the judgment hammer of Babylon fell on them. And as they were being led away in chains we find this remarkable promise: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~ Jeremiah 29:11. So even as we enter into the howling darkness of a world we no longer recognize – God’s promises remain fixed and immutably true. So our job isn’t to change it all back – but to be the loving face of God to a world that is in the process of forgetting what he looks like.

. . . God has not forgotten you- that’s him tossing you that life line. 

Exegeting Your Life

You don’t have to spend much time on life’s cause and effect treadmill, to realize that making it up as you go along is like a Vegas weekend – the odds are going to catch up with you sooner or later. So either you can choose to learn to read the road signs of your life, or you can just pretend that the current road your on will eventually lead you to where you want it to end up. But whether it’s about reading the road signs or reading the tea leaves, it’s all a matter of interpretation – so maybe it’s about time we all begin to take more seriously our role as interpreters.

Linguists will tell you that it is seldom, when translating from one language into another, to arrive at a simple one for one translation – that in fact an accurate translation requires contextualizing the intent. Given that every language is embedded with subtle shades of cultural idiom, a faithful translation must take into account the prevailing customs and ethos, in order to even begin to convey intent. Then add to that, the multiple layers of the immediate context of the topic being discussed – the translator must have a good working knowledge of the particulars of the topic in question. For those exegeting scripture, they have the added complication of trying to divine the ancient cultural mindset . . . without imposing their own modern thought process.

So now let’s imagine for a moment that I applied the forensics of exegesis to your life, attempting to inductively contextualize your intent – using nothing more than your words and deeds set against the backdrop of our current culture . . . would you be able to recognize yourself at the conclusion of my interpretation? Is it easily apparent to others what you intend your life to be? It is rare for a person living with the disconnect of cognitive dissonance to ever realize their conflicted condition . . . without a crisis tipping point forcing their hand. This is why it’s so important that you exegete your life as you go – in order to discover whether or not your living intentionally.

3fcd8f90952a19354e6b0c4b58be99e3_lThere are many hard humbling questions we must be willing to face, questions pregnant with expectation of what God might be calling us to within the context we’ve been given. Culturally, we find ourselves at a unique point in history, where our anthropological moorings are not only being re-defined, but are being re-invented out of whole cloth. So in this flux of context, there grows an acute need to anchor what you believe, and to intentionally live out your calling . . . to strip down your confession to the essentials.

It is our spiritual discipline as sojourners to soul-search. Along with St. Augustine, we must freely confess that there are rooms in our heart we have not allowed God into, and that the key to those rooms has long been lost, so we must invite God to break down those doors, and make of our lives an outpost of his presence. In this way our discipline of faith isn’t merely a vague imagining of what might happen – but an intentional longing after God . . . a longing that we might be changed.

This is a song from a Mo Leverett project that I recently finished producing.
I love the vulnerability of it – the honesty of it’s self-evaluation.

Out of the Corner of My Eye

The resident phobia of the artist is the consuming idea that it’s all been done before, that it’s all been used up, and all that remains is a derivative rehashing. It’s all just overworked metaphors and clichés, employed ad nauseum. How many times can you paint a sunset or a bowl of fruit? How many love songs can there possibly be? Surely such redundancy has to begin to erode the significance of the very thing you’re trying to explain in your art, until you think a tedious parody is all you could ever possibly muster. And yet, the artist persistently breaks the bonds of such a gravitational pull.

So I enter this field that has been plowed thousands of times before and plant my seeds in the belief that something new could grow, something with a simple beauty, with a practical subtle elegance — something that once ingested will cause something else to grow . . . and go much farther than the limitations of my reach. But I can tell already that this ground is hard and resistant, as it is a winter field left fallow beneath an all too familiar sky. Even so, I till this earth and toss my seed, and wait . . . to see if it will render a new Advent song.

violinWhen I look directly at Christmas, I find a storehouse of memories and touchstones, an intertwining of personal experiences with my faith traditions — and over the years there is a discernable cumulative effect. From here the path forks — these accumulating memories and touchstones either serve to enrich our appreciation of the unfathomable depths of meaning this season offers, or they fade into the wallpaper and become the predictable white noise that begins to hum in the back of your head during the month of December. Sometimes when you look directly at something it comes into focus for a moment and then begins to blur – this is especially true of familiar things . . . we just allow our minds to fill in the blanks.

It is out of the corner of my eye where I begin to see something different, something that my longing for a more visceral experience of an incarnate God might find – a God who enters my world of humble means as a peasant child born amidst the scandal of a teenage pregnancy. This image does not come to me in the sterility of theology, or a loftily orated sermon, it comes to me in the crushing imperatives of everyday life, asking of me – how does this child fit into your life, even now? And just before I can reflexively respond (allowing my mind to fill in the blank) – I get a catch in my throat, and realize my words will only be empty . . . that in truth this question is far more profound than any platitude I might speak. So this Advent I come to this manger in the silence of my meditation, trying to reimagine how my whole life could, even now, be remade by the birth of this infant king.

This is an Advent song I wrote with my old friend Mo Leverett a few years back

Let the Angels Bring the Music
Words: Greg Doles & Music: Mo Leverett

There is a star that leads me home
Along a path I’ve learned to trace
It shines the way that Christmas can fill an empty space
If I open up my window
And if my mind is clear
I can hear a song of angels floating on the atmosphere

So let the angels bring the music
Of an ancient melody
All of creation knows this song by heart
And teaches it to you and me

It’s like a gift I had forgotten
Or a song I used to sing
A promise slipped into my pocket of a chance to start again
But if I only squint my eyes
Just as the evening fades
I can see those angels gather over where the child is laid

So let the angels bring the music
Of an ancient melody
All of creation knows this song by heart
And teaches it to you and me

There’s a hollow in this mystery
Where you can hear a baby’s cry
And where a mother sweetly whispers a gentle lullaby
And if my wounded heart is open
And if I’ll lay aside my pride
I can know this mystery’s beauty, dream of that silent night

So let the angels bring the music
Of an ancient melody
All of creation knows this song by heart
And teaches it to you and me

Measuring Light Against the Falling Dark

As the ever shortening days give way to the lingering darkness, I can feel my conscious focus attenuating as I slip into the sub-conscious repose of a wakeful dreamlike state, where I begin to ruminate more particularly the content of my days, which have already begun to pull on their winter coats in the dimming light. The cold and dark have long been traveling companions, and I now find myself in their company, while the waning days of this year begin to remember what has passed, and to imagine what might lie ahead. It begins to occur to me why Advent resides at this end of the calendar.

Scripture really offers us no specific indication of when Jesus may have been born, and all of the cultural clues available in the text actually make it far likelier that he was born during the spring or fall. So then should we conclude that we’re getting it wrong, celebrating it on December 25th? But is the significance of Christ’s birth defined by the literal date of his birth, or by what his birth portends? In this way the wisdom of the Church in selecting December 25th isn’t to be understood as a miscalculation, but as a seizing of an illustrative opportunity, inviting us to look beyond a single day . . . and discover the powerful metaphors embedded in the first advent of Christ.

405e6392f7adff79be32f3702a0a3437There were various pagan celebrations of winter solstice prior to Christmas, all of which were a variation on the theme of entreating the return of the sun, as December 21st is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Already my artistic intuition can’t help but notice how rich this metaphor is — the long dark silence of winter longing for the luminous embrace of spring, waiting for the sun (son) to arrive, bringing with it the fullness of life. And even though there are still many dark days before spring—the promise of new life is unstoppable. Now consider this, that the dark hour of a four-hundred-year long silence was broken by a baby’s cry, a moment that forever breaks history wide open, revealing the promise of an everlasting day.

It’s the ultimate use of chiaroscuro – the natal star splits the night to a song of angels . . . while the light of the world sneaks in, incognito as a peasant boy born in a common stable. The richness of the Advent narrative is truly well suited to these narrowing days of winter, as they force our meditation into stark relief, that as we begin to miss the warmth of the sun, our longing begins its vigil, waiting for the sun’s return. For those who share in the season of Advent this longing is mirrored in our desiring to receive anew, the Son who is the embodiment of new life . . . of new beginning.

So it is as the year unwinds to its closing days, and all that was left undone, and all that we struggled through, follows us into a long winter’s night – before the year closes, we pass through the recalibrating wonder of Advent. We are reminded once again that even though the light might have a humble origin, it is more than enough to lead us out of the dark into the unknown of a new year . . . that a new beginning awaits us.

I find this Peter Himmelman song evocative, with a resolutely hopeful melancholy,
that for me, seems to suit the long vigil of Advent.  

Entreating The Mystery

Autumn has always been like a magical wood, a mystical forest, for me – bidding me to come discover something hidden, something just around the next turn and into the shadowy passage way . . . requiring I leave behind my safe place outside of this enchantment. And even though I know there will be unfamiliar paths and unexpected events, filled with both wonder and trepidation . . . I can’t seem to resist the impulse to follow in and find out what God might have next for me. I’m not really sure why it is I have such a relationship with this time of year – I just know that it stirs something in me to step off my usual path . . . and into the mist.

For the most part we are all more than willing to enjoy mystery at a safe distance, as light entertainment, but in real life . . . not so much. We far more prefer the predictable, explainable, and reliable – in short, we want certainty . . . placing us in direct conflict with the life of faith we are all called to live. As a result we often choose to redefine what a life of faith is supposed to look like in order to accommodate our desire for certainty. I fear that such a reconfiguring flattens out not only what we might experience, but also our expectations of who God might be.

Don’t misunderstand me . . . I’m not suggesting in the least that God himself is anything less than certain and immutable. I’m not even suggesting that his love for us is in question, or that the value he has placed upon us, vacillates – all of these remain unquestionably sure. Still, in the midst of all of this certainty, God seems to be inviting us to let go of our need for certainty, so that we might recognize our need for him. This may strike you as a paradox – if God is our certainty, then wouldn’t letting go of certainty be the same as letting go of God? To which I ask – is your need for God, inextricably tied to your need for certainty . . . or can you allow your need for God to come from a different place?

Through the lens of retrospection, knowing the end from the beginning is how we experience heroic stories of faith – and we think to ourselves “I could do that if only . . .” But the very thing that makes such stories so stirring is how they unfold one uncertain step after another, walking in the dark, believing that what is immutably certain – the hand of God, knows the way.

f302734ca22e243d46a39cd72ba64668Sometimes circumstances shift and we find ourselves being pulled into a mystery we would have never willingly chosen. But what if mystery knocked on your door politely and invitingly said “come on, let’s go”— would you say, yes . . . knowing that God would be your compass? “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

What if you read this verse not as a fallback position, but as a wonderful invitation to take an unencumbered stroll? What if you buckled up your hiking boots, threw open your front door and stepped out? What if your only thought was — “I wonder where mystery is hiding today?” When we entreat the mystery, we plumb the depths of what it really means to place our trust in God . . . and then he makes it worthwhile.

The mystery of God, and of the life he has given us, isn’t a puzzle to be solved
— it is a song to be sung and a dance made for delighting in God’s presence

Being Humble (7 of 7)

Standing in the church foyer before the service, I’m chatting it up with a friend when he asks me this non-sequitur question “So will you be attending that course, the church is offering this semester, on being humble?” I don’t reply with my first reaction, which is to tell him that I’ve been involved in a lifelong field-study of my own on this topic – and it’s been kicking my ass. Instead, I reply “No thank you, because here’s what my relationship with being humbled looks like – when I spot it on the street, I begin to run the other way until it inevitably chases me down, tackling me to the ground, pushing my face into the dirt . . . and frankly, I don’t like the taste of dirt.” to which after an awkward pause, he just looks at me with a blank stare and changes the subject again . . . I get that a lot.

In the legend of King Arthur, the quest for the Holy Grail is not meant to be understood as an external quest of archeological exploration for an artifact of antiquity, it is better understood as an interior quest – for the cup of Christ will only reveal itself to one of pure intent, one who is willing to sojourn the topography of their own doubt and fear . . . to be as the vessel itself, surrendered to its master’s will. I see desiring humility in the very same way. So for me, bullet point presentations somehow seems to miss the point – it just strikes me as antithetical to the very nature of humility. Like a bluesman telling you how happy he is to be singin’ the blues – attempting to be good at being humble is simply oxymoronic.

man-reaching-for-the-lightTrying to be humble is like a dog chasing its tail – the moment it sinks its teeth in, it regrets the choice. Whatever piety you imagine you might attain in such a quest will be the very first thing crushed under the heel of humility, because there are no half measures with true humility — invariably the humble path will lead you to a life of sacrifice . . . and a life of sacrifice will demand everything of you. Even Jesus wanted to avoid drinking from that cup.

So when the road your life is on becomes a humbled path, you will hold tightly to your breast the things most precious to you, only to have them wrenched from your arms and consumed in holy fire. Then like Job, you will sit in ash and disillusionment, while your family and friends gather around you to discuss exactly how you could have avoided this calamity. So are you still interested in trying to being humble?

We do not follow Christ by trying to be humble; we are made humble in following Christ. For it is in Jesus the admonition of Micah 6:8 is fully met “. . . to do what is just, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”– A humble life in an unjust world, doing what is right while loving mercy. If we could be humble apart from Christ, we would most likely take credit for it – how messed up is that? Paul sums it 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 the way of Christ is the humble path, and it’s a lifelong course worth taking, but only because it allows you to more completely identify with Christ . . . and yes, it will kick your ass.

I am nothing
But the angels sometimes whisper in my ear
Yeah, they tell me things and then they disappear
Though I am nothing
Sometimes I like to make believe I hear

Being Desperate (6 of 7)

I have always been tempted to amend Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote – “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation . . .” I always want to add . . . and the rest are so conspicuously desperate, that they make us all feel uncomfortable. Outward displays of desperation are more often than not, met as social pariah – such weakness and humiliation sets all social convention on edge. We all become anxious in the presences of someone who is obviously desperate, as if pulled into the gravity of their plight. I am suspicious that it is more than a sympathetic vibration — that there’s an embedded element of our anxiety that makes us feel exposed . . . as if our own quiet desperation just escaped from the locked closet, where it is kept out of sight.

It doesn’t require a counseling degree to recognize the emotional compression with which most people live. All of those protective layers keeping us safe – our expectations held in check, convinced that the prudent thing is to sit steady in the boat, not making waves . . . such is the wisdom of our whispering fears – how can we resist? So our simmering desperation for a life that is more than just safe, remains kept under lock and key. So yes, when we see someone conspicuously desperate we know exactly what they feel – and on some level we’re interested to see how it plays out . . . will it be the cautionary tale we suspect . . . or is there really a chance for a more hopeful outcome?

I can’t help but notice when reading the Gospels how many of those who engage Jesus were willing to demonstrate shameless desperation – just a few examples:

The Friends of the Paralytic (Mark 2:1-12) – Undaunted by the crowd, cut a hole in the roof in order to lower their needy friend into Christ’s presence.

The Gentile Woman (Mark 7:24-30) – Initially put off by Jesus, she is willing to take the crumbs of his attention.

The Leper (Luke 5:12-16) Breaking all cultural and social protocols, this unclean man approaches Jesus and his disciples.

The Centurion (Luke 7:1-10) A Roman guard humbling himself before a Jewish peasant.

Mary Magdalene (Luke 7:36-50) A prostitute enters the home of a prestigious Pharisee in order to fall at the feet of Jesus.

Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) A man of wealth and means degrades himself by climbing a tree for a better look at Jesus.

oliver-twistIt’s plain to see this pattern in the Gospels – the singular focus of need pursues the only source of hope, but not with the measured distance of self-sufficiency, rather with the unbridled expression of desperation. And in each case, their desperate acts of faith are rewarded. In this way desperation fine tunes our faith, focusing our hearts and minds on the clarity of our great need for God’s sufficiency. But it really is no surprise that God would want us honest and vulnerable as we come to him. So as antithetical as it may seem, against every impulse, we must come to God desperate for his loving touch.

The rest of that Henry David Thoreau quote reads “. . . and go to the grave with the song still in them.” So what is the song of your heart? Will it remain unsung, or will you dare sing it with wild abandon? In God’s reconciliation our entire story is being re-envisioned, where every broken place is given a new beauty, and all of our fears are chased back into the shadows. So without hesitation let your pride fall away and shamelessly run into the arms of God’s immeasurable love.

This is from my Chiaroscuro Collection

The Illusion of Water

Surprised to find that it’s you pulling me under
Thrashing frantically to hold on
To what cannot be held
Filling my lungs for the last time
Before I disappear beneath the deep

In my terrified panic
I consume any chance of return
As the mirage of surface fades from reach

In my long numbing silence
Every thought floats free of me
Almost without motion
I wait
Content to be small in this place
Held without effort

Surprised that I’m still here

Then you
In a circling splinter of light
Cheshire grin like
Reminding me
The substance of all things
Each syllable formed on your lips
Conforms to your will
Serves at your pleasure

It is the nature of hope
To face what is impossible
Then to pull up short of despair
Choosing the path of another possible
Where all things are possible

Surprised that I had forgotten
The way love overcomes fear

Being Fearless (5 of 7)

Our life in exile from the garden has been a life dominated by fear. In fact, fear is so pervasive that even our preoccupation with real life threatening issues, doesn’t hold a candle to what we imagine is threatening our lives . . . until the composition of our whole life becomes a compensating response to everything we fear. Invariably this compensation becomes an obsession, desperately hoping that we can keep our lives from spinning out of control. And even though this is a fool’s errand, we continue to hold those reins tightly, convinced that it is our only choice.

I’m not speaking here merely of the conspicuous manifestations found in the disorder of phobias or clinical anxiety – those who suffer these maladies need no convincing of fears menacingly ubiquitous presences. No, what I’m referencing here is the more insidious way with which fear flies under the radar, hiding in the details of how we evaluate every decision we make. Fear does its best work when it goes undetected; when you’re convinced you’re just being prudent . . . unaware that you’re allowing your fear to determine what is most prudent.

As a friend of mine oft opines “There are two kinds of people in the world — those who are in counseling, and those who have yet to figure out they need it.”. . . to which I would only add “All of whom are doing their dead level best to manage their fears”. This side of the Fall, fear is inescapable. In the book of Ecclesiastes we are treated to the wisdom of Solomon — systematically, he unpacks all of what life offers as remedy for our longings and fears. His conclusion is that life is nothing but an empty chasing after the wind at every turn, therefore fear God and keep his commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

fearlessFor many years this answer struck me as disappointingly anticlimactic — fearing God just seemed like one more thing to fear. It wasn’t until I was reading in Luke 12 that I began to fully appreciate the significance of Solomon’s words. Before I got to the verses where Jesus was admonishing his disciples to not be anxious about life, because God will sustain them – knowing their every need (22-31); I read verses 4 & 5 which juxtaposes our misplaced fear of those who can merely kill us, with fearing him who has our very soul in his hands. Taken as a whole, Luke 12 appears to be saying that there is only one thing to fear – God. To allow ourselves to fear anything other than God, is to misunderstand God altogether . . . as if the thing you feared was somehow God’s equal.

Anyone in the military will tell you the most dangerous enemy on the battlefield isn’t the one who is well trained — it’s the one who does not fear death . . . because they’re liable to do anything. In this respect, fearing God and God alone, you are set free — liable to do anything. When we finally embrace this powerful truth, that God is the only thing worthy of fear, then the tumblers of the universe begin to unlock, we find the door swings open wide, only to discover that it is the power of love that breaks the spell of fear — “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . .” 1 John 4:18, which of course is best understood through the lens of “God is love” 1 John 4:16 – so the one thing left to fear is the very thing that removes all fear . . . let that soak in.

Being Creative (4 of 7)

Our lives require perpetual interpretation – this is simply an inescapable fact. But this is a truth we can only academically comprehend, because a life in a constant state of cognitive interpretation is untenable . . . that way lie madness. So invariably we create a shorthand in our understanding of our lives, a shorthand in our knowing of everything. Then we maintain a paradigm that largely affirms this shorthand knowing, so that we might be able to focus on one thing at a time. So like a magnetic field this paradigm keeps our lives from breaking apart into a thousand pieces, from being pulled in a thousand different directions.  But the creative process is a disruption in the compression of that magnetic field – allowing our lives to breathe just a little.

In the creative process, an artist doesn’t actually create something new, as in ex nihilo (out of nothing), because there is really nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9), but only offers us an alternate interpretation, another way of knowing our world. It is an invitation to let go of our normal interpretations, if only for a moment, and remember something we’d likely forgotten – that our lives have far subtler shades of meaning.

Now consider this, because God speaks us into existence, and we are created in the image of a creator – creativity is the original ancient language that we all speak. So whether I am creating something, or in the presence of something created (speaking this ancient language, or just listening) – I am stirred by a compunction, drawn into the mystery, to catch a glimpsecreativity of God’s hand teasing the air. It is as if in this sacred dialog I can sense creation extending out, making something new out of what has already been.

Now you may be thinking “I’m not artistic at all – I can’t do any of the clever things my creative friends can do.” And this is exactly where most people misunderstand the creative process, imagining that being artistic is about having technical skill sets in a given medium — but art is far more conceptual than that, so in this regard, medium is incidental to being artistic. Because if creativity is the ancient language, as I have already suggested, then the question isn’t — “how do I speak?”, because you are already speaking — whether you know it or not. No, the better question is “what do I have to say?”

It’s an expanding universe. There is so much to interpret, so much hidden in the details, so much to be set free – and it’s all around you . . . waiting for your response. The truth is we spend so much time just skimming across the surface, in the perfunctory movement of our own expectations, never contemplating the profound thought that we are afloat above a great deep — it never occurs to us that we might sound those depths . . . by diving in.

Immersion is the method most language studies recommend for becoming fluent in an unfamiliar language – that in the exercise of listening for the patterns and following the context, you can begin to piece together a comprehension of what’s being said . . . and then eventually join in the conversation — this is exactly how I think someone learns to be more creative. Sure, you’ll be making small talk at first, but before you know it you’ll find your own voice, speak in your own dialect . . . then the next thing you know, you’ll be inviting others to see what lies just beneath the surface of this vast deep.

This Bruce Cockburn song has always struck me as a wonderfully exhilarating imagining of God creating the world.

Being Free (3 of 7)

I grew up during the cultural revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, which was intended to be the long overdue liberation from our previous generation’s repressive cultural mores that were supposedly holding us all hostage – it was to be a revolution offering unconditional freedom. So it is with no small measure of irony that it has turned out that this very same revolutionary generation is now at the helm of ever increasing government regulations, regulating our speech and conduct – which surprisingly enjoys the tacit approval of the millennials who have ironically convinced themselves that more laws are needed to make them free (from offense). Makes you wonder just exactly how do all of these people define being free – because they keep using that word . . . but I can’t help but think they really don’t know what it means.

Unlike the American Revolution, the French Revolution wasn’t so much about liberty as it was about seizing power – as the blood soaked guillotines attest. So under the guise of calling for freedom, Robespierre and the Jacobins ushered in a new tyranny in exchange for the old – just trading one master for another. So apparently this is a reoccurring historical theme – people can always tell you what they want to be free from, but they seem to be a little hazy on the details about what they want to be free for . . . and this is precisely where their definition of freedom breaks down.

Knowing that we should be free is woven into the strands of our DNA. It was part of the original design, but in breaking from that design we have perverted the original intent of freedom, allowing it to devolve into nothing more than a self-indulgent desire to be free from consequences. Freedom interpreted as license becomes a demolition derby, wreaking havoc on the lives of others as if they were so much collateral damage — a freedom at the expense of everyone else’s freedom. Which is exactly what our current culture of being perpetually offended has become – holding everyone else hostage to absurd definitions of offense . . . but I digress.

birds-cagesA slave can be bought and sold, but only a free person can give themselves away – which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a self-indulgent view of freedom. Giving ourselves away, by design, is the whole point of being free. What did you expect – that it was going to be all about what you could get, take, or have? That is a broken paradigm that can only lead you back into bondage. Being free is ultimately about what you can choose to do with yourself . . . and not about the people and stuff you can control.

John 8:36 proclaims that we can return to the freedom of our original design – that the sin and anxious fear that drives our prideful desire to control everything has been rendered powerless by the finished work of Christ. God, the ultimate expression of freedom, gives himself away – in the selfless action of Jesus on the cross. By God’s free choice we are all set free – in giving himself away he has multiplied freedom. In this same way, our freedom is meant as a multiplying factor. So I say, give yourself away freely to everyone in your life – can you think of a better way of celebrating your freedom?

This is my performance of a song my brother Jeff wrote as an ode to St. Francis of Assisi

Being Human (2 of 7)

What does it mean to be human? Are you just the most recent genetic iteration of the species – your birthday, nothing more than a commemoration of the year you rolled off the line? Are you simply an accident of genetic, behavioral, socio-economic, or geographic happenstance? Is sentimentality all that there is to your significance – the way you feel about yourself, or the way others feel about you, or perhaps the sentimentality that constitutes the most recent social contract of our current anthropological mores? Were you just lucky enough to have a mother who saw you as more than just a mass of cells? If you’re like me, such a quantifying data assessment strikes you as an empty reductionism . . .  devoid of the most essential distinctive – the human spirit.

What if I told you that every work of art you ever experienced in your whole life has actually been asking you this very same question — what does it mean to be human . . . would that surprise you? If you’ll take a moment to allow this truth to settle in, it will no doubt, ring true. Everything from the most nuanced detail of perception, to the ever looming ontological questions of why we exist, are all found ruminating in the artistic disciplines. Whether the artist is keenly aware of his own philosophical underpinnings, or follows a far more unfocused muse, adrift — he can’t help but burn with a longing to reconcile who he is with the world in which he lives . . . which is the very practice of being human.

So just what is it about being human that has made it an enigma for the ages? I would say it resides in the mystery of imago dei (image of God). It only stands to reason that in attempting to ponder the inscrutable details found in the otherness of God, that being created in his image, we would discover an opaque lens filtering how we understand ourselves. It is in this indelible imprint where we find the source of our irrepressible longing – a longing to know who we are, intuitively believing there must be more. It is a longing relentlessly at work in our subconscious — incessantly asking of everything we do, whether it has meaning and purpose . . . and where is it taking us?

imageThis longing is like an abiding and persistent homing device meant to navigate us back to where we belong — in this regard, what it means to be human is inextricably bound to our sense of belonging. Now, knowing that we belong to God may not solve the whole puzzle of what it means to be human, but it’s decidedly the best primer for how this mystery is solved. Because logic dictates, that if you have a question about the design, that the likeliest answer will come from the designer.

Therefore being human, by design, is largely about finding our way back home. You can hear it in every melody, in every story being told, in every image created and shared. So let us spend our days savoring what it means to belong – to the one who calls us beloved, calling us to abide in his presence . . . for me, this is what it means to be human.

Being Rational (1 of 7)

It never fails to amuse me, while in the midst of a conversation, someone feels the need to point out how they are being rational. I find it to be a rather uniquely curious bit of self-referencing absurdity. I imagine it’s not unlike the way it would strike me if someone were to spontaneously confess how they had decided to wear clothing that day. Unsurprisingly, my reaction to both scenarios is identical. My first response is to be happy they decided to make their choice, which invariably leads me to wonder exactly how the alternative choice would have played out.

The first thing a crazy person wants you to know about themselves, is how they’re not actually crazy – that they are in fact, rational. Such a pronouncement is no doubt a compensation for what they intuitively know to be their deficiency. But what their disturbing insistence reveals is exactly how existential we can be when establishing a baseline understanding of rationality. Which begs the question: Is rationality simply something we pronounce out of personal assessment, or does rationality require a transcendent rational framework?

If we lived in an irrational universe, one without discernible pattern or design creating a rational context – then any notion of rationality would be nothing more than the circular logic of a self-referencing perspective . . . which of course would be inconsequential, as we would clearly be living in, what Albert Camus described as, an absurd universe. But as it stands, we live in a rationally constituted universe, one in which science seems to be constantly identifying new layers of pattern and design.

Which is supported by this cosmological syllogism on rationality:

1st Premise – Rationality can only exist in a universe which is rationally constituted (otherwise there is no context for determining anything as rational).

2nd Premise – In order for a rationally constituted universe to begin to exist, it must have a rational first cause (chaotic random nothingness cannot usher into existence a rationally constituted universe).

3rd Premise – A rational first cause inescapably implies both a transcendent rational agent, and a transcendent rational reason/ purpose.

Conclusion – Because rationality does exist we can assume that we live in a rationally constituted universe, and that such a universe came to exist because of a rational first cause. Therefore, it is a reasonable (some might even say rational) assumption that a transcendent rational agent and purpose exists.

piberationalnavy_fullpicSo I guess it shouldn’t really surprise me that it’s in the midst of philosophical conversations with non-theists where I experience most of those amusingly curious outburst pronouncements about being rational. But I’m suspicious that it is more of a rhetorical gambit, a sort of passive-aggressive intimidation tactic meant to imply that it’s irrational to believe in God.

So naturally, I’m inclined to introduce them to my syllogism, as a way of making the case for how theism is in fact a rational position, while simultaneously underscoring that the most plausible explanation for why rationality would even exist in the first place is predicated on theism. Then I ask them if they have a cosmological syllogism on rationality they’d like to share – no doubt they’ll be getting back to me any day now.