Being Good

My mother kept a note from my 3rd grade teacher that read: “Greg, was a good boy today. He didn’t bother anyone today and only hit one boy on the playground.” My teacher was apparently offering a rather generous definition of being a “good boy” – or perhaps just a definition, referencing the relative baseline of my previous behavior, comparatively speaking. And I suppose, relatively speaking, I was a good boy – at least that was my mother’s take on me, having shown me that note when I had become an adult . . . but then again, mothers aren’t really known for their unbiased opinions about their own kids.

So is that the way it works – being good is just a subjectively assessed value, subject to how we choose to interpret our culture’s mores or religiously held moral professions? Is being good merely an absence of being bad? Is it a legal formulation, where good and bad keep canceling each other out – except for the really bad stuff . . . whatever that it is? Is this not the very dilemma we created for ourselves in the garden – believing we could figure out for ourselves, what to deem good and bad? So isn’t our whole legal framing of morality, on some level, just a relitigation of that original sin?

If you have a toaster that no longer toasts, you might call it a bad toaster, because a good toaster is able to do the very thing it was designed to do. Good and bad, in this regard, is clearly not a legal matter – but would be better understood as an ontological matter. The whole reason for a toaster to exist, is to toast – if it can no longer do that, its existence is in crisis. This is because what a thing is and what it is meant to do, is inextricable.

Now, you might say “that this may be true of inanimate objects, but don’t humans have moral agency?” To which I say – all things have a reason to exist. So isn’t the whole point of having moral agency, to identify whether or not we are existing as we were intended to exist? If not, then what’s the point? Put philosophically, there is an innate symbiosis between our ontology (existence) and our telos (purpose) – they can’t be separated. Psychologically speaking, when we can no longer identify why we exist, this is precisely when we’re the most susceptible to making bad choices – choices clearly at odds with our own wellbeing.

In Mark 10:18 Jesus says “No one is good except God alone.” If we take Jesus’ words to be legally axiomatic – then not only will you never be good enough, you can’t be good at all! But if his words are taken ontologically – then being good is not only what God does, it is also who he is! Which is why, apart from God, being good is impossible. Therefore any legal measurement of being good, will only ever be misleading – just another attempt to pick forbidden fruit. We were meant to live in God’s presence – to be with Him. And every moment of our existence is inviting us to remember that this is who we are . . . and this what we do . . . and it’s pretty good.

It’s a simple life in a difficult time . . .

Using Your Inside Voice

There are many unspoken cultural protocols governing communication and conduct. For instance, when attending a sporting event the expectation is that you loudly verbalize your solidarity with your team – but if you were to enthusiastically cheer on the soaring crescendo of an aria at the opera, you would likely be unceremoniously escorted out of the building. This protocol likely finds its origin in your mother’s admonition to use your inside voice when you were a kid – reminding you that you were no longer on the play ground . . . so you might want to dial it down a skosh, we can hear you loud and clear.

Undoubtedly, this was one of our earliest lessons in self-awareness – learning to deferentially place ourselves in context with others. But like any lesson, this one can easily devolve – allowing us to become so preoccupied with what others might think of us, until we end up disappearing into the capricious expectations of others . . . losing all sense of our own identity. This happens when our inside voice has shamed us into believing we are unacceptable the way we are and need to become a more homogenized version of ourselves.

And you can always spot the person on social media who never quite learned to speak with their inside voice, as they appear to have no social filters, whatsoever. They have become so impressed with their own opinions they feel obliged to set us all straight, and marginalize any objectors as either stupid or evil. But what they’re apparently unaware of – we hear them loud and clear, but not because of the point they think they’re making . . . rather, we hear the contempt and arrogance of their conspicuously self-involved identity.

When asked — what is the greatest commandment? Jesus said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40) For those listening to his answer, they would have recognized him as hyperlinking them to the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), something they had been taught as children. Because within every Jewish home, self-awareness and cultural identity, was a lesson learned, by first learning to love God.

So when Jesus adds “And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” to the Shema, he is merely pointing out the obvious implications of what it means to love God – we best demonstrate our love for God when we love one another, as we would love ourselves. This is the inside voice Jesus is wanting to cultivate within you – before speaking or acting, to ask yourself “how might I offer the love of God to this person today, in the same way God’s love has been so graciously given to me?” In this way, we become the face of God to all we meet . . . and this is always an appropriate protocol to follow.

. . . and let that voice sing like the sparrow

Lazarus At Your Gate

We don’t mean to be so selfish – it just seems to happen. It’s just the default undertow of our daily experience pulling us ever toward the life we desire most. Which is why it takes a concerted effort to not find ourselves at the center of our own universe . . . and allow ourselves to feel the gravity of others in our orbit – so that we might be pulled into a better appreciation of their daily experience. I suppose this is why Jesus describes, loving our neighbors as ourselves, as a commandment (Matthew 22:34-40) – because if it were left up to us . . . we probably wouldn’t do it.

1 John 4:20, 21 seems to be underscoring the symbiotic nature of the two commandments Jesus declares in Matthew 22:40 as being the foundation of which the Law and the Prophets is built upon – that our love of God is inextricably tied to our love of our neighbor. Such a framing leaves no room for any high-minded spiritualized love of God that doesn’t involve some measure of our loving engagement of our neighbor. So that in the same way that loving God isn’t merely a Christian ideal we aspire to — loving our neighbor must be pursued as an essential discipline of our Christian faith.

Loving our family members may, or may not, be filled with obstacles and land mines – but it still remains the most conspicuous place to begin . . . as this is supposed to be the place where the patterns and practices of love are meant to mature. Loving friends is likely the easiest, as these are people we’ve chosen to be around, while loving work acquaintances may present many unique challenges to be worked through. But the real testing ground for our faith inspired love, is found when we are willing to love someone who offers us absolutely no relational advantage . . . those in great impoverishment of body and soul.

rich_man_and_lazarus-1In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a story with a particular sense of symmetry. It is a story describing, how in life, a chasm was created by a rich man — between the selfish indifference of his affluence, and the conspicuous suffering of a beggar at his gate, named Lazarus . . . and, how in death, this chasm created by the rich man, remained as a monument to the love he had in abundance for himself . . . but had none for his neighbor. And just in case, you misunderstood Jesus’s point here, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is there to remind us of who is our neighbor.

I do not pretend there’s a simple answer to how we best deal with Lazarus at our gate, but I know this — it can’t involve an answer that allows a chasm to grow between the love we say we have for God and the love God expects us to demonstrate to others. Because the love God shows us isn’t meant to pool up and grow stagnate, it’s meant to flow through us. So we do well to remember — our faith calls us to be the hands and feet of the gospel, so that the love of God might always be on full display in both our words and deeds . . . especially, to the least of these (Matthew 25:45).

It is the little things done with great love

The Lie of Self-Existence

In describing the relationship between the cognitive process and the emotional state, Jonathan Haidt, in his book “The Righteous Mind”, uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider. The rider (our intellect) might be able to get the elephant (our passions) to lean in one direction or another, at times – but just as often the elephant is likely to take its rider on a completely unplanned excursion. And even though the rider might like to think of himself as being in charge — the sheer girth, force, and volatility of the elephant, would suggest otherwise.

This is a truth, of which, advertisers and politicians have long subscribed – they don’t really need to convince your intellect, in order to win you over . . . they just need to feed your elephant what it already wants to eat. It is a diet involving two basic food groups – what we fear and what we desire . . . as these are primal passions that we respond to pre-cognitively — on a gut level. This is how the politician can take you from “everyone panic — it’s a crisis!” to “. . . and I have the solution”. And how the advertiser can take you from “I didn’t even know I needed it . . .” to “. . . I can’t live without it”. And this was how Satan took Adam and Eve from being comfortably contingent upon God, to wanting to become their own god. (Genesis 3:1-5)

This is not to suggest that the serpent is somehow responsible for the choice that Adam and Eve made – it was always their choice. And if we examine this choice at its most basic premise, it is ontological – as it fundamentally challenges the very nature of existence. If you believe that God exists, and that everything exists in him, then you know your own existence to be inextricably contingent upon God’s existence. But once you begin to entertain the idea that the nature of existence is a concept up for grabs – then it’s not that hard to imagine yourself as being your own god.

2bfa9e242cc5a4824a2de96dff43696acb530cec1431cfbb38614e089dc8008a_1This is how we accept the lie of self-existence – not as an intellectual conclusion, but rather, as a pronouncement of will, having no basis in reality, whatsoever. It is a contrived choice, created entirely out of fear and desire. We fear an existence that we can’t control – so we desire to control it. In this way, every sin of man is an ontological disavowing of his own existence. Even the rational mind of the non-theist ends up placing its faith in the theories of science to assuage the fear of being contingent upon a meaningless universe – inventing both the predicament and its imagined solution.

So inescapably, the confessions we make about existence will always dictate how we experience our existence – therefore, if your confession is at odds with reality, your experience of reality will be at odds. And even though your elephant rider may fully appreciate the logic of this fact — depending on the diet of your elephant, it won’t make a bit of difference. This is why it is the confession of our Christian faith that we fear God, and nothing else, and we seek to make him our preeminent desire – so that every other desire can be rightly placed into proportion with what it means to exist in him.

. . . and eventually you realize you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Splitting the Adam

The invention of the atomic bomb marked an infamous moment in human history – as it was the moment we realized we had finally invented the means of our own obliteration. Nuclear weapons are of such a destructive force that they are not only capable of a large scale annihilation of life, but the lingering contaminating devastation left in their wake renders a place uninhabitable for years to come. Making this diabolical invention, not merely a careless peek into Pandora’s Box, but the looming specter of the Sword of Damocles awaiting the insanity of a madman’s sociopathic agenda to be set into motion.

We say we want peace, yet every generation seems to find its own way of demonstrating that peace isn’t really on their agenda. There are war-torn places in this world that have been mired for decades in the ceaseless brutality of political and religious conflicts . . . and there are communities in this country, long forgotten by the headlines of breaking news because violence has become so common place, it’s no longer considered news worthy. So even though you may live in a place where your experience of this type of chaotic cruelty is largely a notional abstraction – the reality of it lingers all the same . . . especially, given the combustible nature of our current political environment.

We long for unity . . . and yet, disunity is often our first instinct. Like magnets ever drawn to connection, yet never quite able to line up correctly – we get caught up in forces ever holding us apart. It is this distance we feel most conspicuously, while simultaneously feeling an unreconciled connectedness – as if we were in a perpetual state of being torn apart. But in our broken condition we can only attempt to mend the tear, on our own terms, and our own terms seems to always involve a subjugation born of imposed will . . . leading us to an ever escalating violence.

Unity-300x175In Genesis 2:18-24 God brought every living thing before Adam, so that he might give them names. But in the process it became painfully clear to Adam that every creature had a mated pair, only to stir within him a longing to behold his own mate. But God does not choose to create Eve, in the same manner he created Adam – instead, he chose to split Adam, by taking Eve from out of his side. So that where there once was one, now there are two. But they are not meant to be identical, but instead, corresponding parts of a whole. And in the innocence of the garden, the oneness of these two was effortlessly maintained in the presence of God.

It is this very oneness we intuitively long to recreate, but in our brokenness, division is all we can seem to manage to create. In Romans 5:12-21 the failure of Adam’s oneness is being juxtaposed with our oneness found in Jesus Christ. And just as the choices of Adam and Eve lead us away from the presence of God – it is Jesus who opens for us a way back into the originally intended unity found in his presence. Which is why Paul admonishes us to walk in this already existing unity of oneness found in Jesus (Ephesians 4:1-7). Therefore, we can only ever fully understand being made one with each other — when we begin to understand how we are made one in Christ.

I love the way Dr. Voddie Baucham breaks it down . . .

All Other Ground . . .

In Juvenal’s 1st century critique of culture, the Roman poet suggests that one need only offer the people bread and circuses to keep them appeased – observing that a people so superficial and banal need only be feed and entertained . . . and they will easily be controlled. Nineteen centuries later, you might be tempted to think this may have been true of a largely uninformed uneducated ancient culture, but not us – until it occurs to you that we live in the age of information, awash in opportunities to be informed and educated . . . yet, our culture appears to be no less superficial or banal.

Does this not dispel the modern presupposition that a more educated culture inevitably becomes a better culture? Such a premise presupposes that any culture can be reeducated to have a more evolved understanding and engagement of the world – regardless of the native foundational ethos of that culture. Which is to say, the preexisting sub-structure of the culture would somehow be inconsequential to what gets built on top of it. No doubt, you can already see where the flaw is in this premise.

When you start out believing that the human race is not much more than highly processing thinking things, requiring only a bit of reprograming and a reboot – is it any wonder that you would end up placing so much faith in the power of our cognitive formation? But what if cognition played a much smaller role in what it meant for us to be human? What do you imagine such a foundational shift in self-perception, would look like? Remember, one must always know what constitutes the foundation, before they can ever hope to build anything of lasting value upon it.

QuicksandIn Luke 6:46-49 Jesus starts off by basically asking “You’re calling me Lord, but then you act as if I’m not Lord?” then Jesus, the carpenter, uses a building metaphor to make his ontological point. Here’s the point: We can’t ever hope to understand the words of Jesus — unless we are willing to make knowing Jesus our foundational desire . . . these two things are inseparable. For the words of Jesus parsed as if they were theoretical propositions intended for our intellectual evaluation – is a house that will not stand! Jesus is Lord! If this is not your ontological cornerstone – then not only will you fail to understand his words, but will also fail to understand the true significance of your own existence.

Ultimately, we are creatures of desire, who by design, are meant to desire God above all else. This is the very sub-structure of reality . . . and everything else is a fiction of our own vain imaginations. All other desires are meant to be calibrated by this preeminent desire – that in knowing God we might know the fullness of life, a deeper immersion into what it means to be alive.  But in the absence of this preeminent desire – every other desire rushes into that void, becoming reckless desire, endlessly seeking to be sated . . . which is what makes all other ground the sinking sand of banality.

Thought this was a nice rendition of this old hymn . . .

The Art of Living with Yourself (3 of 3)

My dad once said to me “most people don’t know how to be comfortable in their own company” – at the time, I didn’t fully appreciate just how insightful this observation was. But now, given the ubiquity of smart phone zombies, lost within the back lit glow of their latest distraction, making them presently absent – his words seem to ring true. His point was that most people aren’t really practiced at living with their own thoughts for any length of time, relying instead, on external stimuli to keep them pre-occupied . . . to keep the resident disquiet of their minds at bay.

Perhaps you’re more familiar with this the other way around – someone being described as “comfortable in their own skin”. A sort of psychological assessment of well-being, identifying an apparent absence of inner conflict. Or maybe you’ve heard someone described as “knowing their own mind” – which is an apt description for someone who’s measured confidence is derived from their thoughtful discernment. So where do you see yourself on this continuum? How would others readily describe your default demeanor?

When we cultivate a humble and grateful heart, peace of mind invariably follows. To know such contentment is a virtue – but an elusive and ephemeral virtue, it would seem. But in the same way the virtue of patience requires that we slow things down so we can form a more measured and thoughtful perspective – contentment requires we widen our perspective, so as to place ourselves within a more discerning context. Which only begs the question — What exactly is it about us that tends to speed up and narrow our perspective?

As it happens, these are two prominent characteristics of addictive behavior. But in order to fully appreciate this, one must understand that addiction occurs on a continuum — both by degree and type. So the definition of addiction isn’t simply confined to the socially unacceptable behaviors, which often leap to our minds – but must also be applied to every misplaced desire that we allow to preoccupy our hearts. For whatever we’ve allowed to preoccupy the desires of our heart, invariably becomes the very thing that defines us. This is why any desire we place in competition with our desire for God, inevitably devolves into an obsession that can never be satisfied . . . in other words, an addiction.

girl-looking-out-a-window-by-Krista-Campbell-Photography-300x200So it really isn’t surprising that on some level, to varying degrees, we are all unsettled – given there exists a subtext of simmering addiction, attempting to define us . . . but in all actuality, it is attempting to redefine us. Because the core seduction of such addictions, is the notion that you are capable of defining yourself, on your own terms – by pursuing your addiction. And this notion will always and forever be at odds with the way that God has already defined you.

It’s a question of identity – are you what you say you are, or are you what God says you are? You’d think this was a no brainer – but that doesn’t make the conflict any less real. So when I read John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” — I get the distinct impression that Jesus knew we would be tempted to seek a peace of mind that wasn’t the peace he was offering. Which is why he leaves with us the Holy Spirit (verse 26), to remind us of our true identity. Because when we embrace our true identity, we are at peace with God . . . and ourselves.

Remember . . . you are who he says you are

The Art of Playing the Fool (2 of 3)

It is our natural instinct to place ourselves in the most favorable light possible, believing that first impressions, like fingerprints, need to be left with discretion . . . as each can come back at some point to haunt us. So to varying degrees, we take care to present ourselves as the persona we imagine best approximates the way we want to be seen. We know it’s not the whole truth – but it’s often the only truth we’re willing to tell . . . because who could possibly accept us if the whole truth about us were ever known?

We hide in plain sight. It makes no difference whether you’re the buttoned up type blending in with the work-a-day world of normal behavior, or the tatted up bohemian non-conformist conspicuously wearing your contempt for normalcy – chances are, you’re still incognito . . . while the real you stays tucked in behind your carefully maintained veneer, lest anyone look too closely. In this way, shame is a lingering vestige of the fall, constantly reminding us that vulnerability comes at a cost.

Now, here’s a little glimpse into how my mind works – when I read 1st Corinthians 1:27 “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise . . .” – I often associate it with Zacchaeus up a tree for a better look at Jesus (Luke 19:1-5). I do this, not because I think Zacchaeus was particularly foolish, rather it’s because, for that brief moment, Zacchaeus forgot his shame and allowed himself to appear foolish . . . so that in his foolishness, conventional wisdom might be shamed. We would do well to remember, it was the name of Zacchaeus that Jesus speaks, for his willingness to risk a little foolishness, in the midst of this nameless crowd.

out-on-a-limb-feb-2019More often than not it is desperation that causes us to shamelessly play the fool. And if you look careful enough, you’ll discover that the Gospels are full of desperate characters, looking for their moment with Jesus. I wrote about this type of desperation, a few years back — Being Desperate. But do we really have to wait until we feel desperate before playing the fool? What is desperation after all, but an awareness of a need that has reached crisis proportions, allowing us to remove all of the social filters that hide our natural response to need?

But isn’t being in crisis just the realization that our need has become so great and unmanageable that it requires a different response? So what if we began with a different response – conceding our great need upfront? Is it not the confession of our Christian faith that apart from the ever pursuing love and mercies of God that we would be totally lost without hope . . . or are we so foolish as to believe that we’re beyond that now?

Following Jesus can’t be done while still posturing and pretending you’ve got it all worked out – because the way of Jesus is a humble path . . . which is why the humble of heart are never afraid of seeming foolish. So if you ever find yourself up a tree, acting conspicuously vulnerable and foolish, chances are you’ve got the best vantage point for seeing what God has next for you.

“I surrender to the mountains
I surrender to the sea
I surrender to the one who calls my name
I surrender to my lover and to my enemy
I surrender to the face that holds no shame”


The Art of Speaking Your Mind (1 of 3)

They tell us that there is a significant disparity in the amount of words spoken by the average man and average woman, on a daily bases. But in the same way that all statistical curiosities are basically a Rorschach test, we are left to our own imaginations to interpret what the meaning of this disparity might be. For me, words indiscriminately measured by volume, seems a rather hollow index for reaching any kind of meaningful conclusion. It would seem, the content of what’s actually being said would be a far more relevant concern — regardless of how pithy or voluminous the conveyance.

I’m a person known for speaking my mind – a description often used both in disparagement and celebration of my personality. But over the years I’d like to think I’ve acquired a modicum of discretion and discernment – learning to choose the right moment and words, to best fit the situation . . . even though I still require a considerable amount of remedial discipline in this regard. But in truth, all of us are learning how to fine tune the social filter of our communications — because learning when to speak, and what to speak (or not speak), is an art form that takes a lifetime to master.

Having long been a songwriter, I’ve been asked about my songwriting process, by those interested in composing their own songs. I tell them that long before composition there needs to be cultivation – a cultivation of the heart and mind. Because the only thing we will ever reap from the uncultivated field of our vain imaginations, are the weeds and thistles of an undisciplined perspective. Therefore it’s a false assumption, to believe that inspiration could somehow occur in a vacuum, apart from a preexisting context of perspective.

imagesSo I ask — “What are you meditating on? What preoccupies your heart and mind?” Because whatever preoccupies us most, invariably becomes our meditation, cultivating our perspective . . . and whatever grows in that field becomes the content of our words and deeds. But you don’t have to be a songwriter to realize that our words don’t just pop into our heads – rather they grow out of the ground we’ve been cultivating all along. This is likely why Jesus in Luke 6:45 tells us – “. . . for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” – reminding us that our words have been taking shape in us . . . long before they ever cross our lips.

Perhaps this is why we find so many on social media rehearsing out loud, their own fears, while exacting judgement and condemnation on others – they’re only reciting what they have written on their hearts. And maybe that’s why some folks remain silent, held speechless by a shame that binds them. But I say — let your voice be sure, not in the self-assured confidence of hubris, but rather in the humble acknowledgement that God is remaking you daily, conforming you to the image of Christ. To meditate on His word, to seek His Kingdom – making these, the very content of your words . . . and by all means – use as many words as you’d like.

. . . and sometimes our meditation requires no words at all.

Modus Operandi

One of the great myths of our day is the belief that education is the key to a better future. It’s not just that the words education and better are existentially assumed concepts, or that this is an epistemologically flattened out and reductive explanation of how the human mind works, that makes the mythology of this belief so predictably ill-conceived – but it is in how the implied subtext, openly suggests that if everyone would simply get there mind’s right – we’d all be better off . . . never mind that what defines having one’s mind right is a question left wide open to interpretation.

Such an approach views us as nothing more than programmable hardware, awaiting an operating system upgrade – because undoubtedly, bad data has somehow corrupted our current OS . . . making the more culturally acceptable good data uninstall-able. It is an idea solely predicated on the formula — when you control data input, you control functional output . . . as if human volition were a simple matter of overwriting a bit of errant code. But is this really the modus operandi of the human heart and mind?

I have a friend who is fond of pointing out that it only takes two documents to find out what somebody really believes – a check book and a calendar. People will tell you with impassioned detail what means the most to them – but just as often, where they put their time and money, will tell you a completely different story. But how can this be, if what we say and what we do, emerges from the same mind? Or is this just the cognitive dissonance of self-deception convincing us that the erratic nature of our actions will somehow catch up to the good intentions of our right thinking . . . eventually?

cover_image.jpg.640x360_q85_cropIt is the fatal flaw of modernity to believe that placing mind over emotion will ever result in anything, other than a self-affirming conclusion – as if the wrangling of the human will into submission were an academic puzzle to be solved. But our hearts and minds, by design, are meant to work in concert. Passion in tandem with imagination are what drives the desire of the will. We were meant to have an inspired and creative mind that would act upon the impulse of what is beautiful and true. So it is no surprise that God would make his appeal to us, not in an impressive assemblage of incontrovertible facts . . . but rather, in the irresistible narrative of redemptive sacrifice.

So when I read Psalm 19, David’s beautiful opus declaring how overwhelming, is the knowledge of God, its beauty bursting at the seams of human description – I am filled with the desire to join in with David’s beseeching of God to “let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord” (Psalm 19:14). Because I want to have my will so profoundly altered, to have my heart and mind so preoccupied with God’s will, that my actions will become almost involuntarily in step with his will. Is this not the preeminent function (modus operandi) of our Christian faith?

Maybe we should have all been poets . . .

Literally True

I attended a Christian college that had as one of its cornerstone values – a clear presentation of the gospel. It always made me wonder if there was a Christian college somewhere out there that held the expressed value of an obfuscated presentation of the gospel . . . as if clarity weren’t already a baseline value when communicating. Theological particularities, notwithstanding – everyone always assumes they’re speaking clearly. But consider for a moment that one of the leading causes for divorce is the lack of communication – two people with every intention of sharing a life together, who still can’t seem to find a way to communicate with one another. No doubt, each one would have thought they were making themselves clear.

If you’ve ever heard someone say that “it’s literally raining cats and dogs out there!” – you likely didn’t jump up out of your chair and run to a window to witness this wild  spectacle of household pets dropping from the sky. You probably took their use of the word literal as just a measure of emphasis, given that it was paired with such a conspicuous metaphor . . . and not as a measure of factual events. So ironically, even the word literal is subject to an idiomatic interpretation – that in fact, an interpretation is all any of us can offer one another, based on our own frame of reference . . . because our understanding of everything can only ever be an interpretation.

The atheist believes that a materialist understanding of the universe is the only literal interpretation that can explain reality, as we all experience it. Therefore, any explanation that involves a metaphysical (spiritual beliefs) framing of the universe, is denounced as less than literal, and is thereby less than credible. But such a forensic empiricism is simply an interpretation that relies on the belief that everything that exists can be measured – which only begs the question: Exactly how did they come to that conclusion . . . when such a conclusion can’t be deduced empirically? In truth, their conclusion is nothing more than a self-affirming circular argument – intent on arriving at a predetermined result.

grammar-literallyIn this way, we are all tempted to assume that the context within which we make our own interpretations of reality, is the clearest understanding of reality – and becomes the very substance of all of the things we choose to believe are true . . . as if all that is literally true could be so subjectively determined. So all too often, I fear Christians end up sharing the very same lack of humility that atheists do in entertaining things too wonderful for them to comprehend, by reducing them into explainable self-affirming conclusions that end up having no real interest in what might be actually true.

In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, Jesus concludes with this statement “ . . . For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14) The Pharisee was convince that his interpretation of what God was looking for was indisputable, while all the tax-collector knew for sure was that he was in great need of God’s mercy. So we would all do well to recognize that the only literal interpretation we require — is the one where we confess our own need for God’s grace and loving mercy . . . may that be your true confession today.

. . . as if it could simply be read in plain letters.


For God’s Sake

I consider myself an above average sports fan, having a well-developed appreciation for the athleticism, strategy, and emotional arch of the game. But what I’m not a fan of are all the pre and post-game interviews with players and coaches. It’s not just the predictable banality of their remarks that bothers me, rather it’s the excessive hyperbole with which such remarks engage – that tends to get up under my skin.

We’re gonna leave it all on the field and give it one hundred and ten percent” It’s not merely the fact that such a statement is a mathematical absurdity that catches my attention – rather, like most overstatements it ends up being ironically reductive. So instead of being an exhortation to give more than all you are, it makes simply giving all that you are just another form of rhetorical hype and bravado – said more for effect . . . than actual meaning.

So when we come to the ShemaHear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might . . .” ~ (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5) The modern mind struggles to place this admonition into a correct perspective, tempted to respond out of sentimentality or spiritualized unction – as if the Shema were merely a challenge to up your percentage of love effort.

An observant Jewish friend of mine recently explained to me that the first line of the Shema isn’t actually intended to underscore God’s monotheism, as much as it is an ontological declaration about God – that in God, all things exist . . . for God is the very state of being, itself. Therefore, there’s an intended symmetry to be understood between the all that we are admonished to love God with . . . and the way that all things exist in God. In this way, loving God is understood as a confession about the true nature of existence . . . that there is no us apart from God.

shutterstock_328480373_682St Bernard of Clairvaux believed that what the Shema places in stark relief is the tension between our default inclination to love God within a quid pro quo expectation of personal advantage — with our need to love God, for God’s sake. Therefore we are to desire God, and God alone – and not simply above all other things . . . but within all things. That every desire we have might be emptied out of its own ambition, and offered in oblation to the God who is One!

So when Jesus reiterates the Shema, in answering the question “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” He adds “ . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40) – he wasn’t really adding something new to the Shema, as much as he was better explaining how all the Law and the Prophets is hinged on our understanding of God as One. Therefore, because loving God is all encompassing, it should be understood as all-consuming — allowing us to love one another as an essential expression of how we love God . . . (1 John 2: 9-11).

O my Jesus, I love thee . . .

Low & Slow

We don’t mean to be impatient, but we are nonetheless. We know we’re not at our best when impatient, yet it still seems to sneak up on us like a slow boil until we find ourselves disproportionately simmering over — usually over some minor inconvenience. And when this occurs with enough frequency, we ironically become impatient with our own impatience . . . because impatience has become our default reaction to everything. So exactly, what does such a reoccurring impatience reveal about us?

From the best I can tell, impatience is a symptom of both heart and mind. It is what occurs when your external circumstances have been allowed to burglarize your internal sense of well-being. So in this way, impatience is like leaving the door of your sub-conscious wide open — inviting all of the unfiltered events of your daily life to lay siege to your peace of mind . . . until setting off a chain reaction of involuntary responses, of which you can only feel like a helpless bystander.

The truth be told, having peace of mind is a simple matter of time management – if you haven’t made room in your life for it . . . it likely won’t be there. Perhaps you think of peace of mind as an indulgence, of which you couldn’t possibly be expected to allocate time, given the demands on your life . . . as if somehow your life choices were beyond your control. Now, maybe it’s just my artistic sensibility, but I’m drawn by nature to a more contemplative disposition – one that creates for me a sanctuary in the midst of the noise and frenetic pace of my life. But the trick for me isn’t about carving out specific blocks of time, as it is more about a choice I make to view every moment as sacred.

Screen-shot-2011-09-04-at-10.49.09-PMIntuitively, you already know that if you spend a moment to take in the beauty of a sunrise or a sunset — you’ll end up with an abiding sense of peace and well-being . . . feeling your load lighten, if only briefly. Actually, there are moments just like that one, all through out your day, all along the way to be savored — moments that remind you of far deeper and truer things about yourself, than the clutter and clatter of your busyness, could ever hope to explain. This is because every moment is sacred, every moment contributing to the whole — like all of the ingredients in a tasty stew simmering together on a back burner slow cooking. You can’t hurry it along, because low and slow is what makes it exactly what it is . . . and being at peace works in the very same way.

Psalm 46:10 admonishes us to “Be still, and know that I am God . . .” Notice that the first thing is, we are to be still – because the knowing of God, is not discovered as one more competing voice in your life. God is found in the whisper – not in the ruckus (1 Kings 19:11,12) . . . so we must quiet our hearts and minds to hear him. So come sit awhile, and watch that sun go down — until you’re sitting in the dark . . . God just might have something he wants to whisper in your ear.

Then out of the stillness — let this be your prayer . . .

Dream Of A World Like That

P.T. Barnum said “There’s a sucker born every minute”. Of recent years I’ve come to appreciate his meaning as being far more axiomatic than cynically disparaging. I don’t take his point as offering a critique of the baseline intellect of the general population, as much as him offering a rather astute observation about the human condition – namely, that we all live with some measure of discontent, making us all susceptible to accepting various impermanent remedies, without question.

This is the very psychological vulnerability that the conman, grifter, flimflam artist seeks to exploit – either by playing on our fears, or by enticing our desires . . . all the while, feigning a sincere interest in our well-being. So what are we to do? Are we to distrust anyone taking an interest in our well-being? Are we to assume we’re just too smart to be taken in by someone who has been perfecting their skills at preying on our specific emotional vulnerabilities? Or are we to address our discontent at its source, and reduce our vulnerability?

So when I hear, what are normally reasonable people, debating politics – all I can hear is “My flimflam politician is far more credible than your conman politician”. No doubt, on some level such people have already accepted the dubious premise that it’s possible for a politician to offer us the best political solution, which only has our best interest and well-being in mind. But you don’t have to listen for very long to any political speech to have your fears played upon, and your desires enticed, all under the rubric of your best interest as being their driving concern. This is why I look elsewhere for a remedy for my discontent.

Ever since our exile from Eden, we’ve experienced a persistent longing to live in a world made right – to finally reconcile what is, with what ought to be. So whatever your definition for contentment, it likely includes some expectation of how things ought to be. But intuitively, there will always be the nagging realization that true contentment will require more than a cosmetically favorable altering of our present circumstance . . . because true contentment isn’t really wired to our circumstances – it’s wired to our heart’s desire.

aurora houseColossians 3:2 says – “Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth”. Most misinterpret this verse in at least two ways. They either take it as saying we should focus on some future destination, instead of where we are now – or they entertain a form of Gnosticism, creating a hard dichotomy between spirit and flesh. But I take this verse as working more like a compass, correctly orienting me on the path of my life. Because the verse before (vs 1) invites me to seek Christ where he is . . . and what he is already doing.

It is the confession of my faith that Christ is the redeemer of all things. So this is how the world is made new – it is also how my personal world is made new. So if you are to dream dreams, let your dreams be consumed with imagining his kingdom come, his will being done – not just in the world around you . . . but in your heart, as well. And this will give a fresh meaning to the adage “be the change you seek in the world

This is a song I wrote a few decades ago during an election year . . .
and recently recorded at my daughter Jessica’s house.

All This Reckless Hope (4 of 4)

There are few things as uniquely insufferable as an election year. There is no escaping the media, social media, or workplace chatter – as politics becomes ubiquitous. Those who are marginally political, begin to feel obligated to participate. Those who are generally predisposed to politics, begin to feel the need to up their game a bit. And for those who view their entire life through the prism of politics, this is the high holy season. Because it’s that special day we observe every couple of years between Halloween and Thanksgiving – you know the one, where we all allow political rhetoric to play on our fears . . . and then we’re all so very thankful when it’s over.

Now, maybe it’s because I’m old enough to have been to this circus a few times – but the whole thing always feels like an old rerun of an ill-conceived TV drama that should’ve never aired in the first place. Tediously predictable as it invariably leaves you with the distinct impression that you’ve likely lost a few brain cells in the experience. It would all just be a sad little sock-puppet theater filled with cartoon-like characters, babbling nonsense and stomping around making demagogic gestures — if everyone didn’t have such a deadly serious expectation that somehow the whole future of the world were hanging in the balance of what we choose . . . so this time — we better get this right!

At the center of this great kerfuffle are the partisan voices entreating us with the impossible promises of how their agenda will unquestionably lead us into a brighter future, while decrying their opponent’s agenda as leading us into a shadowy dystopia. Leaving us to assume that the only question we have left to ask ourselves is whether or not we want hope or despair. This is how the calculated hope of modern man makes its appeal . . . amidst the vitriolic bravado of political rhetoric, igniting our passions right up to the threshold of violence.

shutterstock_418624180-1000x480-e1565801623898I’m suspicious that we’re allowing ourselves to be too easily swept up by the half-truth machinations of political drama because we’d much rather have a calculated hope, than a hope that hides itself in mystery — as such a hope would most certainly be far too reckless and imprudent. In truth, what we really want, is to know what’s going to happen from beginning to end, so that we can plan our lives accordingly. Because we’re not really interested in having to read about the long arduous struggle of not knowing, found in the book of Job – we just want to read chapter one and then skip down to chapter forty two, and know that everything worked out.

But the hope we find in God defies every calculation of man – because it isn’t our story being told. . . it’s His. We are the breath of God, made in his image – this is our part in his story from beginning to end. Love entered time and space and took on flesh, and even though we chose to crucify it, Jesus trampled down death by death, so that we might have life everlasting. Yes, this is his story, that he invites you to embrace as your story, a story of which you can never control the outcome. It is a reckless hope, to be sure – but it sure beats pretending that the calculated promises of duplicitous politicians could ever lead us to anything but another iteration of Babylon.

. . . so ring them bells!