Knowing Your Limitations

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate the finely tuned wisdom of knowing my limitations. This is not merely because the bravado and naiveté of my bullet proof days of youth are now far behind me – but I think there is a focusing clarity that accompanies the realization that there are fewer days ahead than behind. Now, I know this might seem like it flies in the face of the popular zeitgeist of the self-help positive confession mantras of positive thinking – but I’m not really juxtaposing optimism with pessimism here . . . it might be more helpful for you to understand my point as offering a little bit of ballast, for keeping your feet when the tempest blows.

Just as sure as being paralyzed by our limitations is undoubtedly a ditch on one side of the road — when we speciously evaluate our life as having no limitation, we run the risk of swerving into the ditch on the other. Even so, a proportional assessment of our limitations, for some reason seems elusive. Some limitations will appear to us as insurmountable, only to discover they can easily be dispatched – while others will go completely undetected as we barrel head long into the same wall, repeatedly. But by their very nature, it would seem, we conduct a sort of fight or flight relationship with our limitations, likely because we rather not look at them too closely . . . probably because on some level, our limitations are such an unflinching truth telling about who we are — we’d rather leave them in abstraction.

public-domain-images-free-stock-photos-brick-wall-rustic-old-metal-doors-private-parkingHowever, truly knowing our limitations allows us to see a clear path, to focus our energies on where our gifts and passions lie – while allowing the things we can’t control to drop from our hand. Because all too often we live under the misconception that we can control things far beyond our control. I can’t ultimately keep myself, or my loved ones, safe from all harm– life is just too dangerous a place. I can’t have everything I want, in the way I want it . . . and this is likely a good thing. I can’t make myself significant to someone else – no matter how hard I try. So the sooner I confess such limitations, disarming my fear of them, the sooner I can get about the business of doing what I was meant to do. Because ultimately, I must surrender all that I can do, as well as all that’s beyond me, into God’s hands.

But no doubt there are some reading this thinking “What about Philippians 4:13 ~ ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’ – doesn’t that say I can do all things?” But with a careful reading of this passage we discover that it is actually declaring that our natural state is very limited, and that it is God, who is limitless. Therefore, the strength to do all things can only be experienced through God – so we must confess our limitations, before we can embrace the strength found in Christ . . . these two are inextricably bound. It is in beginning to know our limitations where we begin to learn the limitless value of our faith. So yes, in faith we are to take it to the very limit . . . and then be amazed by all that God is accomplishing through us.

This Peter Himmelman song off of his latest recording project, is a haunting interior stroll through the garden of our self-imposed limitations . . . as time indifferently bears witness.


Knowing Yourself (1 of 5)

Back in high school, if memory serves, I had a teacher who devoted a couple of days to a discussion about the self-assessing question of “Who am I?” As I recall, it was a meandering stroll through an existential waste land. And as you’ve likely already deduced, given that we were a room full of hormonally charged, largely bemused, malcontent teenagers, we were grudgingly participating – because after all, we knew exactly who we were . . . we were bored. Well mostly, except for that one guy who kept challenging the premise of how the teacher was addressing the question . . . and he will remain unnamed.

Know thyself” — this was already a known maxim of Plato’s day, as the need for being self-aware is timeless. So at the risk of chasing this rabbit too far down the psychobabble rabbit hole, I want to ruminate this concept. But given that it is a direct subset concept to the mother of all philosophical questions “Why do we exist?” – It invites a measure of philosophical consideration. But I’ll be foregoing the panoramic view of the forest, in favor of pondering what it might feel like to be a tree . . . how you and I might seek humble honesty when approaching the question of who, and why, we are.

So where do we begin? We are such a mixed bag of emotionally disparate ideas about who we might be. We are ever being pulled between pride and shame, ever comparatively referencing ourselves against the moving target of our perception of who we think others might be and how they might view us. So whatever we might glean from this wild menagerie of random thoughts will likely not yield much in the way of discernment — like a mirage, it can only tempt us into thinking we can simply take a peek inside and know with some degree of certainty what any of it might mean.

unexamined-life-6-9It’s really no surprise that we’re incapable of objectivity when it comes to ourselves – but perhaps, through the eyes of another, we can uncover some clue, some insight into the truth. But then again, everyone else is mired in their own mixed bag of self-informed misconceptions as well – so the idea that they might offer an authoritative opinion about who we might be, would be like looking through an opaque glass filled with misshaped shadows — hardly definitive or discernible. So whether it’s our own self-referencing musings, or the existential opinions of others, the best we can do is to tease around the edges of the question.

I know for those of you who regularly read my blog, this is a common theme – but I just can’t help it. There’s simply something therapeutically confessional about owning my inadequacy, to end the pretense that my perspective could ever be anything other than self-serving. As such a confession forces me to realize that it is only because of the mercies of God that I could ever hope to even begin to know who I am . . . to be set free of myself enough to accept his appraisal of me.

Because here’s the thing – there is no longing more primal than wanting to be truly known for who you are . . . and to be loved anyway. And we are so woefully inadequate at giving that to one another, let alone ourselves, with any level of consistency or significance. But in the love of God, we can not only have the courage to unflinchingly know ourselves, but we can learn to love ourselves and others as God loves us – to love extravagantly and without hesitation. Because this is exactly how God’s self-sacrificing love works — empowering us to let go of the self long enough to authentically love and be loved.

Here’s a David Wilcox song for those times when you look inside
. . . and discover those empty lonely rooms

Along The Way To Somewhere Else

Every once and awhile, lost in the motion of any given week, while tending my conveyer belt filled with all of the squeaky wheels I have to keep greased – I wonder how it is I got here. It’s not that here is such a bad place, it’s just that I thought I’d be somewhere else by now . . . perhaps, someone else by now. No doubt, I am not alone in feeling as if most of my life has been spent on a treadmill – so much going on, while not really going anywhere. Sure, I could choose to step off the treadmill – but what then?

The idea of choice always has a certain allure – as if anything and everything were possible. But if you’ve lived long enough, you likely know what it means to see plan A work its way down through the alphabet . . . until you find yourself, with the noise of squeaky wheels ringing in your ears, trying to remember which plan letter you’re currently on. Until invariably that reoccurring “what if” daydream about plan A begins to whisper its familiar siren song, only to quickly become the mocking voice of disappointment over what might have been.

46aef803925ee34cf9c3123e86f1e2f4All of this particularly comes to mind as I think about two weary and emotionally depleted travelers, who were on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-32). They were on their way back from Jerusalem, where they had just experienced a very dramatic pendulum swing — having met a man who had given them a life changing glimpse of hope, one they would have never imagined possible . . . only to have the religious class haul him in before the roman authorities, eventually ending in a scandalous execution. So with heavy hearts, this familiar road seemed especially long and unforgiving . . . and that’s when, unbeknownst to them, Jesus joined them along their way.

They began to explain to him how everything was on the verge of forever changing . . . and then it all fell apart. Sure there were those still holding out hope – but let’s face it, plan A had just crashed and burned beyond all recognition. At this point Jesus interrupts, telling them that God’s plan involves far more than their narrow expectations were allowing for – suffering isn’t derailment, but an important part of the path that must be traveled. These were likely puzzling and unsettling words for the ears of these weary travelers, as they entered into Emmaus. I mean, what could this stranger possibly know about God’s plan? It was at that point when Jesus broke bread and all was made clear.

On this side of the Resurrection, after having internalized its theological significance, and celebrating it as the centerpiece of our faith — sometimes we think about the road we’re on, and wonder if it’s really going anywhere. We begin to wonder if God is off somewhere else on an extended business trip, leaving us here on our own to figure all this stuff out . . . and that’s when Jesus joins us on that road, reminding us that the plan hasn’t changed. So that we might also say “. . . were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road . . ?” ~ Luke 24: 32

Here’s a song my brother Garrison wrote about the Emmaus Road . . .

The Enchantment of Spring

Already there’s a stirring in the stillness, as things dormant for months begin to make themselves known again. The planet shifts its weight, reaching for the light, for the all too familiar warmth, long absent from this hemisphere. Each passing day seems to sweep what’s left of the thinning shadows off into the shimmering expanse of morning sun spilling over the horizon. These are the days that make one believe promises made about an everlasting day – the promise that all things can be made new. This is the enchantment of spring.

The whole point of a good enchantment is that it allows you to suspend, if only briefly, your normal expectations, your usual way of knowing things – so that a deeper magic of knowing might emerge. So that you might imagine yourself standing in a field of Easter lilies spreading out like a sea of supple white flags waving as if floating on a gentle sun lit breeze.

Then out of the soft rise and fall of this swaying meadow, comes the rousing applause of angelic celebration, like an ancient melody sung by nascent voices. And as you are being swept up in the elation that has overtaken this pastoral setting – you begin to wonder what wonderful thing has occurred that could cause such a music? And then you turn and stare in disbelief — it is the great eucatastrophe of the crucifixion and the empty tomb . . . and you are undone by the sheer weight and wonder of it.

The Passion of Christ is like a winter’s menacingly dark sky looming over God himself, hanging on a cross . . . a darkness cracked wide open by the Resurrection, which moves with the force of a spring morning exponentially multiplying the life of everything it touches. Where death is broken by the power of love, tears give way to joy, and fear is chased back into the shadows of disbelief.

hqdefaultThe relentless beauty of all of this goes far beyond a theological knowing of salvation. Rather, we find it in far more visceral ways of encountering these profound truths, ways that lift right off the pages and penetrate the soul, ways that alter the way we see everything else . . . like spring. So as I step out on a clear spring day, I feel as if the promise of new life is more than a theological contractual clause – rather, it is as certain as spring following winter.

We don’t live our lives in our heads, we live them in the dimension of lived out experience. So the rich significance of the gospel narrative isn’t merely a cognitive switch we throw about an intellectual proposition – rather, it is a narrative that captivates us at the core of our being. There exists a hint of God’s redemptive work vibrating with new life hidden in the details of everything we experience – waiting for us to tune into that frequency . . . as we take a walk on a spring day.

Not sure, what it is about this old hymn – but I have always associated it with the emergence of Spring in the way it seems to call for all of creation to celebrate God.

The Art of the Story (5 of 5)

Compositional Nihilism is the belief that the only things that actually exist, exist sub-atomically – everything else is just a cause and effect permutation of that reality. Therefore, the events of your life, which you commonly interpret as having purpose and meaning, are just an illusion – your life is nothing more than the incidental happenstance of a meta-script being written on a subatomic level. I can’t think of anything more antithetical to the way we actually live our lives than this philosophy.

We are far more inclined to view each event in our life as contributing to our personal history, making us who we are as individuals. In this way, it could be said, that we tend to see our lives as an unfolding story – a story filled with discernable characters and themes. And whereas, there is much we’d like to edit and revise, we can’t help but feel our story has a point – a purpose. With this in mind – just how intentional are you about the way your story is being told?

Whether you know it or not, you tell your story with every choice you make, in the way you conduct every relationship, and in how your time and treasure is spent. It is in the memories you create with those who know you best, it is found in the way you rise to each challenge, and it is measured by the grace and love, for which you are known. These are not merely the happenstance of impersonal forces – they are how you tell your story. So what kind of story-teller are you?

captura-de-pantalla-2015-07-09-a-las-7-56-58-1Simultaneously, there is also a larger narrative at work, a narrative that your story is intended to play a role in – it is a story only God can tell.  All of the grand themes are present – good and evil; love and hate; light and darkness . . . and the role of your story in this larger narrative is to navigate these grand themes by faith . . . in doing what is good, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6: 8). In this way our life’s story is meant to bear witness to this larger story being told, contributing our fleshed out details of this grand narrative.

God speaks the universe into existence, which is only the first few stanzas of this grand narrative – so we can only imagine the depth and beauty of the story that follows must be on a scale beyond all comprehension . . . and yet we are invited to tell our portion of it. It is a love story of grace and reconciliation, where we are both the ones being reconciled to God, and agents of his reconciliation — so that by design, all of our story lines are converging, seeking to be in God’s presence . . . together.

Here’s a song from one of my favorite story tellers . . .
reminding us that it’s a slow turning from the inside out

The Art of Sojourning (4 of 5)

“Home is where the heart is” – what a wonderfully ambiguous old adage! Does it mean that home isn’t about a fixed location at all, but rather is the ability to feel at home no matter where we are? Or does it mean that home is a fixed location that we have a resident longing for, no matter where we are? Or is it actually possible to be both at the same time — and what if this phenomenon is exactly what it means to live a life of faith . . . what do you think that would look like?

In many ways I see this as the native confession of my faith. On one hand, there is a larger framing of my life where I know myself to be an ambassador (2 Cor. 5: 20), advocating on behalf of a different realm, a realm that by faith, I claim to be my home. And on the other hand, I make my home in the life I’ve been given, living by faith in the presence of God, fully believing that my home is wherever he is (Psalm 90: 1). So I see myself as a pilgrim, my whole life is about making my way home to a specific destination – and as a resident, fully embracing the place God has me now.

This is what makes sojourning such an art form – learning to live fully in the moment, while not allowing that moment to define you; learning to be content and at peace with every circumstance, while unwaveringly embracing your longing for what should be. It is amidst these very tensions where our faith attempts to navigate us to an understanding of how to prioritize our lives. And the priority that keeps rising to the top, is our need to pursue our relationships more deeply — with God and others.

20160312185445095Without the stabilizing effects of relationship, our sojourning either devolves into a stagnate waiting around for our real life to begin, or a superficial pre-occupational drifting through life.  But this really isn’t that surprising – because when we think of home, we think of the place where we are known and loved . . . by those we know and love the most. So it only makes sense that if sojourning is about discovering what it means to be home, and being home is about the relationships we find there – then sojourning is best understood as a celebration of those relationships.

So then, it is in my faith in God where I hear the call to come home, and learn to abide in his presence everywhere I go. And everywhere I go I find myself in relationship with others who are trying to figure out what it means to sojourn through this life. So I share with them, all of the beauty and the wonder of the home I have found – inviting them to make their way home, so that they might be known and loved in the way, only their hearts can understand. “Home is where the heart is” might not strike you as being a theological axiom – but I assure you that it is . . .

I have always been transfixed by the simplicity and meloncholy beauty
of this Bruce Cockburn song of sojourning

The Art of Authenticity (3 of 5)

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

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

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

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

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

This is from my Chiaroscuro Collection

All of This Is Mine

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

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

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

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

The Art of Forgiveness (2 of 5)

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

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

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

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

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

This is from my Chiaroscuro Collection

An Uncommon Treasure

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

The Art of Lament (1 of 5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Howling Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exegeting Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the Corner of My Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measuring Light Against the Falling Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entreating The Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Humble (7 of 7)

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

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

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

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

We do not follow Christ by trying to be humble; we are made humble in following Christ. For it is in Jesus the admonition of Micah 6:8 is fully met “. . . to do what is just, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”– A humble life in an unjust world, doing what is right while loving mercy. If we could be humble apart from Christ, we would most likely take credit for it – how messed up is that? Paul sums it up best in Philippians 3:10 “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” So the way of Christ is the humble path, and it’s a lifelong course worth taking, but only because it allows you to more completely identify with Christ . . . and yes, it will kick your ass.

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