Changing Clothes

Ingrid Bergman starred in the 1944 movie, Gaslight — a story about woman being psychologically manipulated into believing that she’s going insane. This is how gaslighting has come to describe scenarios where one person deliberately attempts to re-tell events through a skewed self-serving filter, in order to manipulate someone else into doubting their own natural perception of those same events.

We find a variation of this in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The emperor is conned into believing that only an astute and refined person can perceive his new clothing — so not only is the emperor being deceived, but everyone in his court was thrown into crisis, doubting their own perception, torn between what their eyes clearly see . . . and what social conformity demands of them.

Let’s face it, social conformity has been attempting to gaslight us since the day we were born – telling us what we need to have, and how we need to act . . . and how odd we must be if we disagree. And in a world where the ethics and mores are as changeable and capricious as the latest fashions, we become culturally conditioned to doubt our natural instinct to question the change . . . for fear of being ridiculed as out of step with the times.

So whatever the new rules are, we best not run afoul of them – but if we wait long enough, the current rules will have been over-written . . . the way the old ones were. Every generation tries to re-imagine the world, pushing it through a skewed self-serving filter, until it approximates a world that conforms to their manipulative desires. Could it be that like the emperor, we’ve been wearing the clothing of our own vanity? What if I told you that you’ve been wearing old clothes, long destined for the dustbin – would you think I was gaslighting you?

downloadIn Colossians 3:9 Paul invites us to quit lying to ourselves and one another, and to remember that we’ve already taken off those old clothes, and the madness associated with them. But this invitation isn’t just another iteration of rules (Colossians 2:20-23), for in Christ we are dead to those rules. No, this is an invitation to remember that as image bearers of God, all of the superficial things that divide us evaporate in Christ (Colossians 3:10,11).

For these are the new clothes we wear (Colossians 3:12-15) as God’s beloved – woven into the fabric of humility, meekness, and patience are the threads of compassion, kindness, and forgiveness . . . pulled together in a harmony of love. And all those who wear this garment are filled with grateful hearts and the peace of Christ. Now, if you ask me – those are some pretty spiffy duds! Makes you wonder why you keep trying to put on those old rags of the old self – when clearly the vestments of the new self have been purchased for you at such an extravagant cost.


So maybe it’s time you started working on that rewrite . . .

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The Gift of the Open Hand (5 of 5)

Undoubtedly, you have heard it said that time is money. It is an economic maxim of sorts, meant to define time as a resource under the rubric of supply and demand and measured in terms of productivity. We are only given so many minutes in a lifetime, before time’s up, for each of us. This is likely what gave rise to the old adage “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” – because we are either spending our time pursuing worthy endeavors or it will be wasted by default in a dissipation, of one form or another. That’s where that impulse to look busy when the boss comes around comes from – instinctively, we know we’re supposed to be busy doing something.

Productivity is one of those empty container words, of which the definition is completely contingent upon the contents found within – contents which, regardless of intentionality, produces an outcome all the same. And even when volitional intention is specifically involved, there can still be a variance between intention and outcome. So here’s the sobering reality – your life is always producing an outcome . . . whether or not it’s an outcome you intend. Maybe we should pay more attention to the content we’re putting into that container.

The daily grind of our day to day will at times take on a frenetic pace, multi-tasking the mundane and exceptional, alike – as we attempt to keep our lives on track. Preoccupied with paying the bills and triaging our calendars to reflect what needs to get done . . . while making room for what we want to do. So we daily fill our hands with all of the stuff and activities we’ve convinced ourselves are required to produce the life we want — all the while assuming that the outcome of our efforts will be such a life . . . and this is where the disconnect occurs.

imagesThis is the most common disconnect between being and doing. We always assume that the doing will lead to the being – so we occupy our hands with what we think we should have, and with what we think we should do to have it. We are willing to trade time for money, in hopes that we’ll finally have enough money to buy the kind of quality time it will take to be who it is we want to be. All the while failing to see, we already have that time right now to be that person. This is the gift of the open hand – it holds nothing, and it is content to do so . . .

Everyone’s familiar with Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”, but few connect this very bold statement about doing with the importance of the preceding verses (11,12) about first learning how to be content no matter the circumstance. The fulcrum of living in the power of Christ is found in learning how to be in Christ – being transformed into his likeness. In Luke 10:38-42 we find Martha angry that her sister, Mary is doing nothing. But by being with Christ, Mary is actually beginning to discover the whole point to everything she’ll ever do. So I say, have a seat Martha – quiet your busy mind and let your heart be lifted . . . and let your hands fall open.


Gotta hold it with an open hand . . .

The Gift Of Not Knowing (4 of 5)

I’ve always been a slow reader, tentative and methodical, and likely a little dyslexic – but I’ve always had a healthy appetite for learning. I remember sitting in my high school library reading an unassigned history book, wondering why educational systems make education such an uninspiring slog. It has since occurred to me that education is largely viewed as a means to something else . . . and not a desired end, in and of itself. This, of course, makes for a rather curious epistemological feedback loop – assuming that the knowing driving the acquiring of knowledge will somehow go unaltered by what has been learned . . . that one might take you a minute to puzzle out.

The Enlightenment flipped on all of the lights of modernity, hoping it could provide enough impetus to make our knowledge of everything enough to make our lives meaningful. “Knowledge is power” is a phrase attributed to Francis Bacon, thought to be the father of the Scientific Method, being the earliest to articulate its tenants. And ever since, knowledge has been treated as if it were a power source unto itself, capable of leading us all into a bright future. Until Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the Atom Bomb, gives us pause with this thought “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.

It was the knowledge of good and evil that opened this Pandora’s Box – believing that our knowing of good and evil would be all it would take to be like God. Again, we find the same feedback loop as before, assuming our intentions to know are good before we can even know what makes something good . . . and something evil. But what we do know is that knowledge is power, and that power is control . . . and that we want control. So that feedback loop circles back around and we assume that we already know what we would do with such knowledge – we would control things for the better . . . but how could we possibly know that?

imagesNow we live at a time when the details of your past can be weaponized against you, should those details run afoul of our current cultural mores. It’s a bloodless unforgetting and unforgiving knowing of you, capable of unraveling your entire life. So yes, knowledge is power . . . a power that can be wielded by anyone for any purpose. Is this the world you want to live in, where we know every detail about one another? Which given our current technological trajectory, could very well involve calculating one another’s thoughts at any given moment.

I worship God in a room full of people, with whom I am happy in not being burdened with knowing every sinful detail of their broken lives – as I’m glad they don’t know those details about mine. Such details are meant to be shared as an intimate unfolding, as a gift of vulnerability we freely give to one another – and not as a ceaseless torrent of reckless gossip ripping through the middle of a congregation. This is what the gift of not knowing looks like — it looks like God’s grace and forgiveness found in not having to know. I’m always willing to carry whatever burden my brother or sister needs me to carry. But I won’t lie — the gift of not knowing is pretty sweet.


. . . and may God show us mercy on our way.

The Gift of a Broken Heart (3 of 5)

We tend to think of shame as the hard cruel light of guilt exposing every imperfection, every unguarded thought, and every misstep leading to every misdeed – placed out in the pitiless open air, so that every mocking voice of ridicule will have the opportunity look down in heartless sanctimony upon us in judgment. But in truth it is the fear of shame that is far more paralyzing. Like walking in a mine field, we measure every step, anticipating every scenario, calculating every choice, and hedging against every possibility that shame might find us.

Now, this might strike you as a bit hyperbolic, because you’re not consciously aware of this happening. But that’s just the thing about fear, it lingers in the shadows of our thought process, whispering cautionary advice whenever we’re tempted to take a chance . . . or step out in faith. The hissing voice of fear reminds us of those times we felt the deadly daggers of rejection and shame . . . and just how unbearable that pain can be.

In Genesis 2:18 we read “. . . It is not good that the man should be alone . . .” Whereas, this was most certainly true of Adam, it is no less true of every human that has ever lived. We were designed to be in relationship, first and foremost with God . . . but even God knew that this was not enough – that we would need one another. But since being exiled from the garden, not only was our relationship with God broken, our relationship with one another has had to struggle through our brokenness, doubts, and fears – allowing us only intermittent moments of meaningful connection.

imagesSo it could be said, that we are drawn into relationships that are fundamentally unworkable – presenting us with a choice: either we approach all relationships, protecting ourselves from the inevitable fallout, or we choose the way of love, knowing full well the price we’ll have to pay. It is the way of Christ to choose love and bear the pain, so that love might eventually win out – this is the way we are called to walk. And yes, it will break your heart, more than once, and in ways you’ll never expect.

Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” – I find this to be a rather profoundly insightful bit of theology. For it is the gift of the broken heart that allows us to know the riches and depth of love, which goes far beyond the passing pleasantries of love experienced as mere sentimentality. It allows us a glimpse of the Father’s heart, like no other experience. It is the gift that reveals the true value of sacrifice, which is itself the very gift of giving one’s self away. So yes, this is the way of Christ, who did not allow the shame of the cross to dissuade his love for us . . . so that he might teach us that a broken heart is a sacred wound.


. . . it’s the bittersweet life

The Gift of Things Forgotten (2 of 5)

They say that our brains are like a computer – this not only strikes me as reductive, but it makes me wonder if they ever had a brain. Such a notion assumes that the stuff we know and the memories we have are nothing more than readily accessible data . . . when clearly that’s not how it works. The slightest smell, a momentary glimpse, a long forgotten tune, are all capable of involuntarily triggering a data dump of memories – and if you’re lucky, you’ll experience a nostalgic interlude . . . otherwise, you can end up feeling emotionally ambushed.

Have you ever tried to remember someone’s name, or struggled to think of a particular word? Did you ever take a test and knew the answer . . . and yet still couldn’t quite pull up the answer? So if my brain is basically just a computer, then it isn’t a very good one – interrupting me with unqueried information, while blue screening on the very data I’m actually trying to access. Given that our lives were meant to be more than just a complex AI algorithm, the fact that we are more than just a repository of knowledge and experience should give us a clue about how we should relate to our past and all of the things we’ve learned.

We live at a time when everyone can be googled, unearthing searchable data so that our lives can be forensically unpacked and re-contextualized into a malleable narrative. It used to be that only news worthy personalities had to contend with such an intruding scrutiny. But now anyone applying for a job, volunteering at soup kitchen, or just going out on a date, has likely been googled – and if you can’t be googled, well then, that’s just a whole other red flag. So apparently, we’ve all bought into the idea that a person is nothing more than a repository of misfit experiences, just data to be mined for some future inquisition.

37846a5d8ed847904f1a55f62a7575f7How is that we’ve arrived at such a mercilessly paranoid appraisal of one another? Ironically, this is the direct byproduct of existential relativism’s mischievous question: Who are we to judge? The original intent of which was meant to create a sophistry of moral ambiguity, believing that right and wrong was merely a human construct. But instead of making people less judgmental, it ironically has ended up allowing them to feel entitled to a more bloodless, exacting form of judgment that never forgives and never forgets – as a means of socially dispatching anyone we oppose.

The Pharisees bring an adulterous women to Jesus (John 8:1-11) to see how he will pass judgment on her. But instead of confronting her with her guilt, which he could have done, he chose to forgive her. And invited everyone in the encircling crowd to throw there rocks at her, if they thought they weren’t in desperate need of forgiveness themselves – as it turned out, they were all in need of forgiveness . . . just like every one of us do.

We want to pick up those stones because we feel entitled to confront the guilty with their guilt – but we also desperately want the type of forgiveness that’s willing to forget, that allows our future to be free of the fear of all the unexploded land mines in our past. The love of God keeps no ledger – our guilty deeds are removed, as far as the east is from the west (Psalms 103:12). This is the gift of things forgotten that we have received . . . and it is the gift we must learn to give to one another, as well.


In the end we all have to let it go

The Gift of Dirty Dishes (1 of 5)

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

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