All This Scandalous Love

When I was a child, I heard the story of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) as a cautionary tale of self-destruction and self-delusion. A story about a person who had wandered away from the presence of God simply by allowing all of the impermanent things of this life to displace God. Like Esau trading away his birthright to his brother for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25:29-34). It was a life of reckless dissipation, burning hot and fast like a grease fire – until it burned itself out . . . and thankfully, the father was there, willing enough to pick up the pieces at the end.

As a younger man, having acquired a nuanced appreciation for theological detail, I discovered the cautionary tale of the older brother embedded within the telling of The Prodigal Son. I observed that it was possible to wander away from the presence of God without actually leaving home — to do all that the father required without ever giving the father another thought. That you could simply follow the arch of your own ambition, seeking the same impermanent rewards your prodigal brother had been chasing after . . . just in a more socially acceptable way. But even then, the father would be patiently waiting for your return.

Now that I’m much older, I tend to grow impatient when I hear a preacher teaching on The Prodigal Son – I just want them to hurry up and get to the part where the father can see his son from afar off and goes running out to throw his arms around him, welcoming him home . . . because this is the whole point of the story. No matter the sin, of which each brother represents, the father’s love is always at the ready, patient and eager. It is a shamelessly pursuant love, finding its beloved wherever they are lost.

prodigalson“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” ~ 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. This is the Father’s love – self-emptying and sacrificially redemptive. This is why Jesus tells this parable – to remind us that the Father’s love is relentless . . . and will pay whatever cost.

All this scandalous love, poured out so unconstrained, knowing no shame, openly declaring itself for all the world to hear. Jesus enters the world as the ultimate expression of love — God with us, joining us in our struggle, saving us from the ravages of death. The life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ are events that can, no doubt, be appreciated as profoundly theological, in the same way that I ruminated over the role of each brother in the parable. But the real crescendo here is best experienced in realizing that this is the Father gathering you into his arms — so that you would know that you are loved . . . regardless of what the rest of your story might be.

. . . and with a love like that, all that’s left to do is get onboard.

The Modern Project

To listen to some folks talk about post-modernism, you’d think it was a cultural conspiracy somehow conceived in a vacuum outside of historical context. As if it were a political or religious heresy that just spontaneously sprung up out of the ground one day, baptizing everyone in the existential waters of relativism. Until involuntarily, we all began to deconstruct the modern paradigm, in a defiant denunciation of modernity. When in fact, the inextricable truth of the matter is, that post-modernism was always going to be the inevitable consummation of the modern project.

It is a prevailing modern myth to believe that everything can be explained, given enough time — and that such explanations will propel humanity forward into some, yet to be realized, self-evolved future. Therefore it only follows, that within such a mythology that the explanation of a thing would be elevated in significance above the it’s actual existence – convinced that the explanation is the real essence of it. So is it any wonder how this would produce the type of reckless nominalism we find embedded in the post-modern ethos? An ethos that pits competing explanations against one another, as if all we had to do now was pick the one that best suits our preferred presupposed expectations.

This is precisely what one would expect from a non-theistic framing of a material universe – a universe subdued by the rational consensus of human reason. But when I found this same paradigm at work within Christian theology attempting to explain the ineffable mysteries of God, by subtly promoting the idea that the explanation of God is concomitant with the reality of God, I was taken aback . . . and began to rethink how I approached my faith beliefs. This first occurred, for me, about 15 years ago . . .

This should not be taken, on my part, as an anti-intellectual dismissal of theology — as I have long had an appreciation for an honest and humble study of theology. My objection is to the modern academic mentality that often fosters an infatuation with God by proxy — that is to say, God as a scrutinized idea. As I take it to be an intellectualized breaking of the 2nd Commandment — the worship of the one true God . . . but only as he can be explained . . . as an idol of our own imagining.

modern-blue-background-with-neon-fingerprint_23-2148363163In the pre-modern framing of the Christian faith, the mystery of God is held as sacred — not as a puzzle to be solved. It is this sacred mystery that invites us to engage God in the vulnerability of our faith – and not in the vanity of our intellect. The communion of the saints, the body of Christ; the Kingdom of God, already in our midst, and yet to come; the indwelling Holy Spirit, conforming us to Christ’s image. These things are too wonderful – they are beyond me (Job 42:3), because “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” ~ Psalm 139:6.

So I find no comfort from what I think I know about God, as such cognition can only serve to affirm what I have already chosen to know about God. But there is a knowing of the ineffable and inscrutable God, who speaks universes into existence, that does interest me – it is the relational knowing of him, he is persistently inviting me to . . . that I might know his heart. It is found in the communion of the saints, and is present as I meditate on his word. It meets me as the sun rises, and as I whisper my prayers at night, falling asleep. And modernity has no instrument for measuring the beauty found in such intimacy.

. . . and it is this knowing intimacy that still animates my faith.


There Ought To Be A Law!

I was recently chatting it up with a self-described nihilist. But he didn’t really strike me as the type who had actually done any of the thoughtfully honest heavy lifting, usually associated with working through the philosophical implications of such a belief system. My take on him was that he was far more of the type, to maintain a meticulously coiffured beard for the woke crowd down at the local coffee shop, where he liked to pass himself off as the brooding intellectual who had bravely concluded that the meaninglessness of life was rationale enough for his hedonistic choices.

So in a dizzying display of cognitive dissonance, in the midst of our conversation, he was claiming to embrace a philosophy that thoroughly eviscerates moral significance, while simultaneously pounding the table with the certainty of moral sanctimony. No doubt, he imaged himself to be holding a uniquely nuanced opinion, when in fact, if you stripped his opinion of all of its self-possessed rhetoric, it was a rather pedestrian view, bent on self-justification.

When some people claim to believe in a “live and let live” world, it is very likely they are merely framing the argument for why they can’t be held morally accountable. But ironically, this doesn’t keep them from proclaiming “there ought to be a law!” in regards to the moral accountability they wish to impose on everyone else. The bottom line of such duplicity, is to denounce personally practiced religious morality as being too oppressive — while simultaneously promoting politically coerced limitations on behaviors they find unacceptable.

In Joshua 24:14-15, Joshua makes the case that it was ultimately up to the people to choose for themselves whom they would serve. They could live by the laws given to Moses and thereby serve God, or they could serve some other god and thereby live by whatever laws suited them. Joshua wasn’t saying that it doesn’t matter which path you take, rather, he was simply pointing out that we always choose the path of our heart’s desire, and what he and his household desired most — was God.  This is very different from the civil or statutory way we tend to think about law. Because to the modern mind, law is created out of a social/ cultural agreement we create in regards to behavior and obligation. So you don’t so much live by such a law, as you agree to comply with the prevailing culture’s expectations of how you should behave.

Law Concept Metal Letterpress Word in DrawerPsalm 1:1, 2 says “Blessed is the man . . . his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” – can you even imagine someone saying this about a civil or statutory law? A civil law is, more often than not, grudgingly complied with – this is because we don’t so much live by them, as we obey them. In contrast — what we meditate on, and take delight in, are the things that mean the most to us. So we willingly choose to live our lives in accordance with what we value most – those things that animate love and desire within us. And I think this is what the psalmist is talking about.

The gospels juxtapose for us the Pharisees, as the self-proclaimed keepers of the laws of Moses, with Jesus, as the self-described fulfillment of those laws (Matthew 5:17). Given such a context, it would be conspicuously reductive to interpret fulfillment here as meaning that Jesus was merely a perfect keeper of the law (better than the Pharisees). Rather, it would be better understood that Jesus fulfilled the law of God, as it was originally intended, as the psalmist describes it — restoring our ability to delight our heart’s in the presence of God . . . reconciling us to a relationship that had long been broken.

So let the nihilist, who can only imagine laws as having value, as a means of enforcing the contrived purposes of his imposed will — be the one obsessed with law keeping. Because for those of us who walk in the way of Christ — we know better. For it is the law of love that bids us come live our lives in God’s presence, that we might truly know His grace and mercy — so that we might do what pleases Him most. But not out of some empty obligation — No! Instead, we willingly choose to walk in a way that only love can inspire . . . so that we might freely choose to do, what only love can do.

Morality without God is just a book of wet matches

The Vagabond Poet

The couple of years before I met and married my wife of 35 years, are the years I fondly refer to as my vagabond days. Given that I was never one for defining myself in terms of possessions — I never really acquired many of them to speak of . . . of which the ancillary benefit was, I didn’t really require a fixed location for keeping all of that extraneous stuff I didn’t really need. So I ended up living between four or five different cities, working odd jobs, while refining my skills as a singer/ songwriter. And if anyone asked me back in those days, what it was that I did for a living – I would say without hesitation “Why yes, I’m a vagabond poet . . . and what is it that you do?”

This behavior was considered just as eccentric and esoteric to my friends back then as it is to my friends now. But to their credit, they smile and accept me for the unusual friend that I am. Perhaps, because they themselves, on some level, are drawn to that side door of reality, that I seem to be able to step through from time to time – beyond the semantics of what often defines normative behavior. As I have long contended – normal is the word we use to describe what happens when we’ve long forgotten why we keep doing the same thing.

I suppose that’s why there’s a restlessness simmering beneath the veneer of our conformity, reminding us that something essential to our understanding of ourselves has been obscured – while we allow things of lesser value to preoccupy us. Even our faith practices tend to lose their luster in the presence of the impermanent things that captivate our daily desires – until even those faith practices have been brought into submission, having conformed to some new iteration of normalcy we’ve contrived.

When the Old Testament prophets spoke, it was with a wildly unconstrained and nakedly provocative voice, well outside of the conventional thinking of the cultural and religious expectations of their day. Their words were both terrifying and beautiful, filled with an urgency for remembering how something valuable was lost back in the garden. So like an echo from the past barreling its way through the present, on its way to an explanation of what’s to come — their words, imbued with God’s authority, transcend time. But today we reductively homogenize their voices in order to suit our own religious narrative de jour.

imagesThen Jesus appears, entering a world of established cultural norms and religious conformity, where he begins to disassemble the conventional paradigm of his day. The outsiders were invited in, while those who thought they were already in, were invited to rethink what that means . . . what it means to be in a right relationship with God. For this is the very Kingdom of God that he offers – a relationship inaugurated by his life and defined by his death, burial, and resurrection.

I guess this is why I like to think of Jesus as also being a vagabond poet — as a prophet declaring a kingdom come, while simultaneously having no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58); as one who speaks directly to the heart of the matter regardless of cultural and religious conventions — while simultaneously spending time with those conspicuously on the fringes of acceptable society . . . including, provocatively elevating the social status of women, and making a child’s lack of pretense, our primary example.

He says both the hard thing and the loving thing, speaking in parables, winnowing away the passively curious, from those desperate enough to be forever changed by his life giving words. Many have attempted to co-opt Jesus, with an expectation of somehow conforming him to their political or religious agendas — but such hubris can only portend destruction . . . for only the humble can fully appreciate what it means to be conformed to his image, to walk in his way, and proclaim his kingdom.

I believe this song written and performed by my brother
Jeff exemplifies the vagabond poet perspective.

Tempted to Compare

“That’s not fair!” is what every child learns to repeat after acquiring the least bit of comprehension about how justice works. It’s not fair that their sister gets more ice cream. It’s not fair that they have to do more work than their brother. Within the juvenile mind, fairness is just an over-simplified understanding of equality. But they will learn soon enough that equality is a far more elusive ideal, than first imagined. Because in a world full of people with disparities of intellect, talent, and physical appearance – it becomes quickly apparent that we have all been designed to be uniquely different individuals . . . in direct defiance of any homogenizing attempt we might impose on our distinguishing differences.

In a perverse sense of equality — we’re regularly tempted to compare ourselves with everyone else — invariably leading us into various permutations of covetousness . . . we either want what they have, or we just want what they have taken from them. But this temptation to compare isn’t always an obvious form of envy or schadenfreude, as it often takes on the more self-righteous sanctimony of moral superiority. For instance, in the Gospels we find the Pharisees, who are a perfect example of this haughtily self-important comparative dynamic — always careful to point out how others don’t quite measure up . . . so that by comparison, they come off looking better.

And for those who already feel they don’t measure up, who feel inadequate — they invariably succumb to the tyranny of this type of comparison, willing to place themselves on the anvil of those seeking to hammer them into conformity. Cowed into believing that conformity and compliance will somehow pave the way to a more equitable society. Funny, but that’s not really how Jesus treated those on the margins of acceptable cultural behavior. They experienced no morally comparative judgement, in the presence of Jesus – only compassion. For they knew full well where they were broken, so they didn’t require a critical eye to point out what was obvious – they needed a loving hand willing enough to touch them where they were broken.

downloadIn Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tips the paradigm of comparative equality on its head. He likens the kingdom of heaven to an owner of a vineyard who pays all of his laborers the same daily wage regardless of the time of day each laborer began their work. And everyone who reads this passage, invariably hears their inner child screaming “that’s not fair!” Because the self-preservation of our fallen nature has us convinced that if we don’t demand what we’re entitled to, then we’re going to be cheated. That’s right, we’re going to get our fair share, and we’re only going to work as hard as everyone else, to get it.

So we keep an eye on one another, in a perpetual state of comparative evaluation . . . having accepted as reasonable our self-imposed prison of merit. While all along, it is the self-emptying love of Christ that bids us to gaze upon the cross, instead. For it is the injustice of Jesus, an innocent man crucified, trampling down death by death, where any ledger we have imagined is being kept, and held over us, is completely obliterated. So let your eyes be fixed on this mystery, that you may be so transfixed by it . . . so that nothing else, by comparison, would even matter.

O Lord, lead us on . . .

An Indelible Name

My wife and I took great care in naming our children. Because not only would our children need to survive the uniquely adolescent cruelty that can be made of someone’s name, but their names will be something they will be saddled with for the rest of their lives. It will be the name their grandchildren will be looking up when locating their obituary, and will be the name discovered ten generations later by someone researching their genealogy. In this regard, our names are far more permanent than tattoos.

“What is in a name?” is the famous question mused by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. The gist of the point being – would an object somehow be altered, if it were named differently? If not, then what real significance does a name actually have? But as the play unfolds, we discover that everything that is named is inextricably contingent upon its context – no object exists within the vacuum of its own self-determination. For Romeo and Juliet, it is the tragic context of their family surnames – but if they weren’t born into these two rival families, they would in fact not be the same people.

In the creation narrative God invites Adam to name the animals (Genesis 2:19, 20). Now, this may strike you as a rather innocuous detail, but I take it to be an invitation for man to join in on the work of creation. Because to name a thing, is to identify it for what it is – it is to recognize its significance within the context of creation. So not only is this man’s first act, it is this specific act that defines the very nature of what it means for mankind to co-labor with God in his vineyard. But in our exile from the garden – we’ve lost our ability to accurately name things according to their true significance.

imagesAt the point when God makes his covenant with Abram, is the point when God reveals to Abram that his true name is Abraham (Genesis 17: 1-5). Likewise, at the point when Simon correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, is the moment when Jesus chooses to reveal to Simon, that his true name is Peter. (Matthew 16:13-20). Taken within the specific context of these events, the significance of the renaming of these men leaps out. It is as if the underlying ontological truth about these two men were breaking through our previously opaque understanding of them – that their true names were inextricably tied back to the true nature of creation.

After an all night’s wrestling with God, Jacob finds out that his true name is Israel . . . and the story of God’s chosen people begins. Just imagine what it will be like when you finally hear your true name! (Revelation 2:17) An indelible name, identifying you as the beloved of God, an immutably ontological truth about you. Now read 1 John 3:2 ~ “. . . and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is”. So – what’s in a name? . . . turns out, quite a lot.

. . . but there is a name above all others.

So, What About Evil In The World? (3 of 3)

An atheist will tell you that morality is nothing more than a human construct — that good and evil don’t really exist, but are only malleable concepts intended to serve the evolutionary pragmatism of our specie’s survival . . . and then with a straight face, they’ll ask you how you can believe in a god who allows evil to exist. The cognitive dissonance of atheistic intellectual sophistry, notwithstanding – the presence of evil in the world is problematic for every philosophical position . . . including theism. Because frankly, evil is so devoid of purpose that it strains our ability to comprehend why it would even exist.

The Magi enter Jerusalem, the seat of power in Judea, bearing gifts for the new born king (Matthew 2: 1-12). Naturally, they had assumed that a king would be born in a place of power to a royal family – and so they inquired of Herod, where this child king might be found, so that they might worship him. Little did they know that this inquiry would set into motion inconceivably horrific events – that Herod, out of his paranoia, would choose to kill all of the male children under two, in the region of Bethlehem (16-18).

The juxtaposition of this is so profound – juxtaposing those traveling from afar, having come to worship the Christ, the incarnate hope of new life; with those who in blind obedience were willing to carry out the evil deeds of Herod’s dark political ambition, leaving death and despair in their wake. The temptation is to think of this juxtaposition as being about two groups of people – but as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us “. . . the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”. So we do well to remember, that good and evil is not a choice between us and them, but rather a choice within each of us — we either choose the way of life . . . or the way of death.

quote-most-of-the-evil-in-this-world-is-done-by-people-with-good-intentions-t-s-eliot-35-31-08In this way, evil is best defined by everything that chooses to be contrary to life. A pocket watch might fail to keep time, thereby failing to function within the purposes for which it was designed, but we would not describe this failure as evil, but rather as broken. But if the pocket watch insisted that the broken way it keeps time, is the way that time should be kept, placing it at odds with its design – then we are no longer dealing with a simple failure to measure up, rather we are dealing with an open insurrection, one that seeks to act contrary to the very purpose for which it was designed.

Evil isn’t defined as evil simply because it runs afoul of our current cultural mores, but rather because it is an arrogant denunciation of all that has been spoken into existence. It is an attempt to disassemble through violence, oppression, and death all that is good and gives life, in the world. It is everything that the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ is not. One desires to restore what is broken, the other only seeks to smash everything into submission. So in the godless universe of the atheist, the pocket watch must be coerced into denying that it was purposefully designed, in essence, denying the very meaning of its existence . . . and it is this very undoing of all things that is evil.

. . . but love will show the way.

So, What About The Impoverished? (2 of 3)

When the atheist assumes that he must empirically witness an unquestionable display of God’s power, leaving no room for doubt – he is tipping his hand, as to what kind of God he would be. Imagining he’d be a benevolent potentate, ever flexing his muscles, on full display, beyond a shadow of a doubt – he’d damn well make sure you knew he was God. Because, after all, what’s the point of having all that power, if you don’t show it? For the atheist, this is the kind of God that logic and reason demands – one that can’t be denied.

And this is precisely what makes the nativity narrative so perplexing for the atheist – there’s no great fanfare, no awesome displays of power . . . just another poor child, born into a cruel and pitiless world. So when Jesus enters this world under the scandal of a teenage pregnancy, born to impoverished parents — this could hardly have been the advent of the King of Kings. Because surely if God exists, he doesn’t need to enter the world in this specific way – so why did he? Why not simply pronounce his intentions accomplished, and impose his will on his creation?

Powerful leaders aren’t known for willingly subjecting themselves to this type of degradation. Sure, they might on occasion, strategically feign a lowly and common demeanor, as a sort of photo-op, to create the illusion that they’re just like one of us regular folks. But the entire life of Christ is scandalous, from his prosaic birth to his public execution. So the life of Christ isn’t simply humble – it is conspicuously antithetical to what we might expect. So instead of an aloof condescension, Jesus chose to identify intimately with our struggles and hardships.

bangladesh_-_0111_-_caritas_invernoSo when we come to Matthew 26: 6-16, we find a woman bringing Jesus a gift, much like the gifts of the Magi, gifts of great value . . . gifts of foreshadowing what was to come of Jesus. The woman anoints Jesus with this costly oil, to the objection of Judas who had calculated that the oil would’ve been better spent on the poor. And when Jesus not only defends the actions of the woman, but extols her spiritual perception – Judas, there and then, makes up his mind, to betray Jesus. Because Judas, like many today, think that poverty can be solved by nothing more than a redistribution of wealth . . . and clearly Jesus was working a different agenda.

Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:9 tells us “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” This is the agenda of Christ – to enter into poverty to be with us, to know us, allowing us to know him, that we may be made richer in such a knowing. This is the very template of how the world is to be engaged – that we would genuinely enter into the lives of those in need, allowing the grace and mercy of God to animate our hearts to be redemptively sacrificial. On Christmas, Jesus comes incarnate, as a gift to a world in great need . . . inviting us to go and do likewise.

So, how will you celebrate this Christmas?

So, What About Peace On Earth? (1 of 3)

It would be a reasonable conclusion to say that the whole of human history could be described as a cycle of three reoccurring phases – 1) Events leading up to war; 2) war being waged; 3) and the aftermath effects of war. So even though every generation has cried out for peace, peace has never really been on the agenda — except as peace defined on our own terms . . . of being in control. Wanting a better world is a noble dream . . . but wanting a better world on our own terms is the very stuff of which nightmares are made.

For even when we reduce this to the microcosm of individual relationships, we discover the very same war/peace paradox at work. When we seek to be at peace with everyone in our lives, invariably we end up fighting to create and maintain the type of peace we imagine should exist. But isn’t this the same way we approach love? We desire unconditional love — but we end up practicing conditional love. This is because even though we hate to admit it — what we want most, is a world created in our own image. But could it be that fundamentally, we aren’t even at peace with ourselves?

The whole reason for seeking professional counseling is so we might learn how to be at peace with ourselves — someone to walk with us through the mine field of our fears and anxieties, to help us locate those self-sabotaging behaviors besetting us, and to develop within us a better self-talk language. But the truth is — it really doesn’t matter whether or not we’re even in counseling – we all share the same fallen diagnoses. Paul puts it this way “but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” ~ Romans 7:23, 24.

downloadSo, what are we to make of “peace on earth, good will toward men”? The atheist will, undoubtedly, surmise this to be the seasonal pipe dream rhetoric of a delusional, misguided mythology. But all the same, he keeps his longing eye on the idea that all of humanity might someday be perfected by evolution . . . and in that evolved perfection, find peace. But it is the confession of the Christian faith that peace must first be found in Christ – because apart from him, we invariably default back to our own definitions of peace. For only in the peace of Christ are we capable of transcending every circumstance.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace, born into a violent world, only to suffer a violent death at the hands of a violent people. But even so, we can know peace — for it is in his resurrection, we are given a hope capable of animating a real and lasting peace. Therefore, during this Advent season I whisper “peace be still”, to quiet the war that rages within my own heart. I say “shalom (peace)” to all I meet, regardless of whether they consider me their friend or foe. And I say “peace on earth, good will toward men” to a world longing for peace — so that it might finally realize that peace never begins in the vain imaginations of men . . . it begins in a manger.

May the war within you find peace on earth . . .

Crossing The Divide

The first thing an anthropologist observes about a culture is how the people collect themselves into groups, how those groups interact, and how each person draws their sense of belonging and significance from the group(s) of which they are a member. For it is in this very cultural dynamic that customs and ethics are created and maintained. So it could be said that group think is inextricably woven, not only into the fabric of cultural ethos, but also into the psyche of each person, within the culture.

For some folks this offends their social narrative that celebrates individuality as the ultimate expression of human existence. While on the other end of the spectrum, we find those who insist that a collectivist polity is inevitable, because they misconstrue the anthropological significance of why humans seek relationships. In their own way, each of these opposing views are a distortion of what it means to live in community – one coercively seeking an homogenized conformity, while the other promotes a rationale for self-indulgence. So for the moment, let us set both of these aside.

Group identity, whether involuntary, like family and ethnicity; or chosen, like political and religious beliefs – inextricably contributes to each person’s sense of self. We can’t help but explain who we are, why we do and think the things we do, without including a group identity of some sort. This is likely because thinking of ourselves in terms of relationships contextualizes us – which is no real surprise given that we are physiologically, psychologically, and spiritually designed for relationship.

It is the image of God at work within in us that compels us to seek relationship – but because of the fall, we either end up dismissing the value of community, or community becomes a place of manipulation and power struggle (the aforementioned distortions). So even as we gather with extended family to celebrate what we’re most thankful for, some of those relationships, might seem like a tinder box awaiting a single combustible word to ignite them.

200px-Arch_Balance_(cropped)Since our exile from Eden, fear and shame hides in the shadows of every relationship. And because real relationships require the honesty of transparency and vulnerability, fear and shame either drives us to a self-possessed autonomy, or to a manipulative insistence upon lockstep conformity. But each of these drives a wedge between us, keeping us at an insulated distance from one another . . . where our fear and shame won’t be exposed. So how do we cross that divide?

Lest we forget, Jesus has already crossed this relational divide, and has opened a way for us to do the same. Christ suffered the brutality and shame of public execution – a form of torture intended to be so horrific that everyone would look away, and in fear fall into compliance with the Roman authorities. But the very God who spoke into existence the universe, humbled himself, willing to suffer for the sake of our reconciliation – in order to redeem each of us to himself . . . as well as, each of us to one another. This is how we cross the divide, allowing our hearts to be filled with the love of Christ, a love that’s willing to risk the shame and pain of vulnerability — so that the reconciliation of God might be on full display . . . so let this be what you are known for this Thanksgiving.

If for only a moment . . .

When Hope Leads You Home (3 of 3)

To view life as a journey that must be taken, is one of the grand themes of storytelling. Like all of the grand themes, it rings true for us because on some fundamental level, we experientially know it to be true. But isn’t this just a trick of retrospection, attempting to make sense of all of the events and circumstances that unavoidably collide with our life? Aren’t we simply affirming our own narrative — pretending our life has meaning by pretending our life is going somewhere? This is the tension found between hope and despair.

The concept of hope is best understood as a form of faith, which isn’t really too surprising, given that what we often place our hope in, is where we have likely already placed some measure of our faith. Conversely, despair comes on us like a capsizing of our will to live, swamping us under the weight of relentless doubt. So it would seem we are ever pulled between hope and hopelessness — the beauty and the wonder, the heartache and the pain, that mark the path all along our way . . . each one of us alone –yet, all of us together, alone.

But still, it is an act of faith to embrace as true something that you can’t actually prove to be true. And even though this is a point of consternation, confounding the atheist who imagines themselves above the intellectual fray of faith beliefs – it remains axiomatic, nonetheless. In this way, faith and hope have an intellectually tenable dimension. But even so, hope isn’t really found in a cognitive vacuum, but rather, in our real world engagement of life – where the sharp edges of reality aren’t really impressed with what you think you know, because it’s going to drop the hammer on everything you’ve chosen to believe . . . just to see if it will last. Which is why the beliefs we hold will either go the distance, or be exposed as delusion.

downloadTherefore, it’s no wonder we draw meaning and significance from believing that life has purpose. Now, this is either a feature of ontological design, because life actually does have a purpose – or purpose is a fiction contrived out of a self-referencing delusion, where there ultimately is no purpose to life . . . and the best we can do is pretend that one exists. Hope disenfranchised from a purposeful framing of existence is unsustainable. But when hope is hardwired to a purposeful beginning — it will always find it’s way to a hopeful conclusion.

Every journey has a destination in mind, a place it’s taking you. Now, your personal story might have taken a few wrong turns along the way, in fact, so many wrong turns that you no longer even recognize your journey once begun. Leaving you to feel lost and disillusioned until despair begins to occupy your every stray moment — until like the prodigal son all you can think about is going home . . . in hope that there will still be a place for you there. But that porch light has been left on for you a long time, and your Father is more than eager to run out and welcome you home.  This is why when hope leads you home, the things that matter most — just fall into place.

Even if it’s a long way home . . .

When Love Calls Your Name (2 of 3)

It was a cold December night when I first met my wife. It was a Christmas party – I showed up with some other girl . . . and Doreen (my wife) who doesn’t drink coffee, brought coffee for everyone else (and that was my first clue). And even though she and I only spoke for a few minutes, she ended up inviting me, through a mutual friend, to a dinner she was hosting at her house, between Christmas and New Year. So as they say, the rest was history – we were married the following May. And we’ve been married now for 35 years. We have 7 kids and 4 grand kids . . . with another one on the way.

That was the night my life was forever changed. I went from being a vagabond poet, living in the wild impermanence of a single life – into a shared path of abiding love with my sweetheart, a woman who has been so completely woven into my life, that I can no longer clearly identify exactly where I end and she begins. I guess you could say, that December night, was a night that love called my name, pulling me into another dimension, making my life much larger than the life I was living. But that is the way of love, it is unconstrained, and will not be domesticated . . . as if it could somehow fit into the small life it originally finds us living.

Love is a powerful thing—it will take you to extremes. With love, you’ll experience the greatest of joys, and invariably, you will experience the deepest of sorrows. But here’s the thing — more often than not, we are hardly ever prepared for what love is actually calling us to do. Because we falsely assume that we can have our own agenda with love . . . as if love had no agenda of it’s own. When we define love as getting everything we want — then it really isn’t love at all . . . because real love is incapable of being selfish.

AdobeStock_144177491_webEven the person with a healthy appreciation for self-love doesn’t subscribe to a selfish love, as much as they practice a form of self-identifying love – correctly identifying themselves as the beloved of God, as one who bears his image. For they know that love has been calling their name long before the foundations of the world, and it is that very love resonating within them that they have identified. Because love set apart from the ineffably transcendent truth, that God is love, is nothing more than a meaningless self-indulgence pretending to be something more.

St Benedict is said to have pondered – what could be better than to have the Lord call your name? Because it is a profound intimacy, to be known, and to be loved in just this way. This is the very love that took Christ to the cross, so that he could reconcile us to himself – becoming the love story, by which all other love stories are measured. So yea, that’s love calling your name – are you ready to allow it to forever change your life? But before you answer that, remember — there really isn’t an option where it doesn’t.

“I threw the dice when they pierced his side
— but I’ve seen love conquer the great divide”

When Faith Answers Your Question (1 of 3)

There are many ways one might reasonably summarize life – but here’s one you likely haven’t yet considered: Life is a relentless string of questions requiring you to define your existence, ever challenging your presupposed understandings, ever unpacking the small boxes you’ve carefully packed, vainly attempting to divide things into discernable categories. No doubt, this is why those who do their dead level best to order their lives inevitably discover that life is like a bed that won’t stay made — because invariably somebody’s going to sleep in it.

It doesn’t matter whether you address these questions head on or ignore them altogether — once asked, the effect of them lingers, all the same. This is no doubt, because much of life goes unexplained. But not because life is unintelligible, or out of a lack plausible theories — but rather, because the questions about life that haunt us most aren’t merely points of conjecture that can be answered as if they were nothing more than an intellectual exercise. This is because the answers that allude us most were never meant to be discovered out of the noisy machinery of the mind . . . but rather, in the quite meditations of the heart.

The modern mind believes that every problem has a solution, every question has an answer, and that eventually, given enough time, the secrets of the universe will unlock. So just as soon as our scientific locksmith finishes whittling us up a key, we’ll become the masters of all we survey . . . as if the universe didn’t already belong to someone else. But what if the point of some questions weren’t really about having an answer? What if the point of some of those questions were about finding out how many unanswered questions we could be at peace with?

faith-and-reasonWhen faith answers the question, the answer is no longer tethered to our need to understand. Now, this isn’t just an abstract philosophical fine point, to be appreciated academically – no, this is where your faith beliefs collide with your real life. Every iteration of the question: “what will become of me, and my loved ones?” is addressed. Every detail of your life, beyond your control, is addressed. Every fear and shadow of doubt, is disarmed by faith . . . faith placed in the creator and sustainer of all things, the Lord God of heaven and earth.

The juxtaposition of Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” is the very fulcrum of faith. Because one must step away from trusting in their own understanding, in order to step towards trusting in the Lord. In this way, faith answers all of the questions in our life – not by explaining every answer to us so that we might control the outcome, but rather, in how it sets us free from the limitations of such explanations . . . as such explanations can only lead to more unanswerable questions. We are finite beings in a vast universe – the temptation is to believe that knowledge is the only way we could ever possibly hope to survive . . . but faith knows better.

So give me some faith . . .

The Shaming of the True

There are two very well-known sayings when it comes to lying – ironically, each one tells a particular truth about lying, each revealing something insightful about the human condition. Mark Twain, an American humorist said “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” And Joseph Goebbels, the infamous NAZI propagandist said “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” So judging from these two quotes, it would seem clear that we are all pretty susceptible to believing socially accepted lies – especially, the type of lies that affirm what we already want to believe.

But the lies that we are the likeliest to accept, are the ones we tell ourselves — and if you think this doesn’t apply to you . . . we may have just identified one of those lies. Truth requires an unimpeachable point of reference, and too often we assume that we are that reference point . . . and that if we were lying to ourselves, we would certainly experience some measure of shame commensurate with such dishonesty. But this assumes that the lies we tell ourselves aren’t shameless in the way they skew our self-perception.

You may have been raised by a parent who was overly critical, scrutinizing every detail and flaw of your life, without a single word of approval or affirmation for what you did right This was a lie told about you – that you likely grew up telling yourself. And this is just one of many examples, of how lies use shame to silence the truth. But there is also a shaming of the true that occurs on a cultural scale, where a group-think ethos attempts to control the cultural narrative – demanding compliance and marginalizing dissent . . . and as it is with all lies — the method of shame employed doesn’t have to be true.

imagesHere’s a truth – all human life is sacred . . . but there are many lies perpetrated intent on marginalizing, oppressing, and exterminating various sub-groups of humans. Racism is the lie that says certain groups of people are less human. Misogyny is the lie that says women are less significant than men. Abortion is the lie that says humans in utero don’t have an innate right to exist. Those defending each one of these lies will offer you compellingly emotional explanations for why each sub-group is the exception to the rule, that all human life is sacred . . . in an attempt to shame you into conformity with their lie. But, in fact, each one of these lies is its own deconstruction of the whole truth that all human life is sacred.

But for the father of lies (Satan), false accusation is the shaming weapon of choice. Because where a false accusation is made, doubt is created – even if there isn’t an ounce of actual evidence supporting the claim. In this way, the damage is done, regardless of the truth. In John 3:19-21 we are told that the light comes into the world by way of sacrificial love. But all that lingers in the dark, hates the light – for the light of truth exposes every lie (20). But whatever is true, lives in the light, and thereby belongs to God (21). So the real test for what is true and what is lie, can only be conducted in the light of God’s love – so come stand shamelessly in the light of that love . . . and allow the lies you tell yourself to fall away.

When in doubt — hold it up to the light.

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 . . .