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!

All This Boundless Grace (3 of 4)

If social media is to be believed (a rather large if), then your life isn’t quite as cool and happening as everyone else’s – and even though you know it’s an illusion, you can’t help but feel like it’s true on some level. Because long before social media even existed, you likely had a nagging sense that your life wasn’t measuring up. Such distortive comparisons can create shame out of thin air – tempting you to believe that your value could actually be determined by such impermanent things. So yes, it’s an illusion . . . and yet we can’t seem to resist.

But there is a greater illusion that goes largely undetected. It’s an illusion that best exemplifies an atheist’s modes operandi – it is the fallacious notion that somehow it is up to us to give our own lives meaning. If we’ll just be clever enough to make all of the right choices, acquire all of the right knowledge, and own all of the right stuff – with a little luck, we’ll be able to coast across that finish line with a modicum of satisfaction. This is the type of reductive expectation fostered by an ontology incapable of assuming anything else from a pitilessly indifferent universe.

But the Christian faith subscribes to a very different ontology – believing that our existence is purposeful. A purpose that isn’t contingent upon our ability to figure it out. For the Christian believes we are all invited to join God in what he is already doing – but we don’t bring purpose or significance to what God is doing because we’ve joined in, but rather, in the joining in, our lives are given purpose and significance. Is this not the meaning of Romans 8:28? “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

2.21-scaled-1752x960My wife Doreen and I have raised seven children to adulthood on a meager income, in a humble home — to the amazement of most of our friends. And while there was a measure of good stewardship on our part in managing what we were given – it remains a mystery, even to us, how we were able to do it. But what was more than evident to us, was the abiding grace of God manifesting itself in our lives, even in the midst of our most difficult times. God was faithfully working his redemptive purposes with the unexpected grace of his abiding presences – reminding us that his grace is not merely sufficient . . . but is in fact overwhelming!

It is nearly incomprehensible for us to consider the claims of Matthew 10:29-31 – to consider that if God can care for a simple sparrow, how much more are we to him? But even as you draw your next breath reading this sentence, it will likely not occur to you that even that breath is a grace of God. That, in fact, every moment of life is held aloft by the grace of God, is indeed a breath taking thought. All this boundless grace, ever present, going largely undetected. This is the profound reality existing just beneath the surface of all the illusions we’re tempted to entertain – inviting us to lay aside our own foolish agenda . . . and come know what it means to live in God’s kingdom, daily.

. . . and it makes me want to say “Thank you, Lord!”

All This Careless Beauty (2 of 4)

There is no available parking where I work — so annually, I pay a few hundred dollars for the privilege of parking a half a mile away, where I catch a shuttle. Most mornings I arrive at dawn and take my place among my fellow commuters . . . and wait. And every morning the sun paints the eastern sky ablaze with colors dancing in the atmosphere. Colors that splash onto all of the clouds, making them appear as if they were Kabuki caricatures – some of them menacing, some of them playful.  And some mornings the moon decides to hang about a little longer, I suppose, just to see how the other half lives — or perhaps, like a parent quietly watching to see what its mischievous child might be getting up to.

There’s a field just across the street, and some mornings it’s covered in a low hanging fog, floating softly in the half-dark as if held there by some enchantment. Then of course, there is the ambient glow of street lights, whispering up into the trees along the roadside, where I imagine all of the squirrels are just waking up, sleepily waiting in their kitchens for the kettle to boil. And then there is the ever present sound of car tires against the pavement — hissing their incessant complaints about the uneven roads and ill-timed traffic lights. All of this happening all around us – meanwhile my shuttle-stop companions remain held hypnotized by their smart phone screens. All this careless beauty – and no one to notice . . . well, almost no one.

Life offers us a relentless string of moments, each one precious and rare, imbued with their own beauty and significance. So either we attune ourselves to this persistently present wavelength of reality, or we allow the myopia of our own impermanent circumstances to steal from us the most humanizing details of our existence. We lose our ability to be grateful, when we lose our sense of wonder – as these two are inextricably connected. For where there is no gratitude, an inconsolable discontent begins to move in and make itself at home – measuring every moment in terms of disappointment and regret.

mountains_solitude_house_124060_1280x720Now, this is not about juxtaposing pessimism with optimism, as if it were merely a trick of cognitive perception — for gratitude is a disposition of the heart. It’s an almost involuntary response to the deeper truth – that life is a gift. But it is a gift that often goes unrecognized, given the curated way we live our lives, preoccupied and distracted – until something dramatically interrupts us, dispelling all of the illusions we carefully maintain.

Luke 7:36-50 tells us about a sinful women, who unabashedly enters the home of a Pharisee in order to lavish upon Jesus adoration and gratitude – recognizing him for who he really is. She had been forgiven much . . . and she knew it. In contrast, the Pharisee assumed himself to be above the need of such forgiveness — so to him, Jesus was just another teacher . . . just another interesting distraction. While this women could clearly see this moment for the life altering experience it was — all the Pharisee could see was an unscripted interruption and a scandalous display.

But here’s the thing — we will never see the full beauty of who Jesus is, without a grateful heart. So every day is a choice we make to either see the wonder in the world God has created for us – or miss it entirely, seeing only the monotony of the world we’ve created for ourselves.  But what if you lived in a world where you were constantly being invited to discover all of the many ways Jesus was revealing himself to you . . . could there be anything better?

“. . . some kind of ecstasy got a hold of me.”

All This Scandalous Love (1 of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Modern Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


There Ought To Be A Law!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morality without God is just a book of wet matches

The Vagabond Poet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tempted to Compare

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

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

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

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

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

O Lord, lead us on . . .

An Indelible Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . but love will show the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how will you celebrate this Christmas?