A Thousand Stars Laughing

For those who have read C.S. Lewis’ classic: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — the temptation to touch the back wall of an old unfamiliar closet, like a flickering frame of subconscious hesitation, creates a moment’s pause of suspended disbelief. Meanwhile, quantum mechanics ardently entertains various theories of alternate and concomitant dimensions of existence, believing the fabric of reality vibrates like harmonic strings symphonically resonating the universe into being. So it would seem, whether fiction or physics, the notion that layers of reality somehow linger in unseen realms just beyond sight – seems to us, both unreal and hyper-real at the same time.

We have an intuition, likely buried somewhere in the back of that old closet, that knows that life is supposed to have a far greater bandwidth than how we’re currently experiencing it – as if we were merely floating above the deepest part of the ocean on a cloudy day . . . held motionless by the otherness of water, above and below. So in an over simplified frame of reference we tend to imagine that a dichotomy must exist between our normal experiences of life, and the fully formed, God spoken reality of creation . . . so invariably we end up pushing what goes unseen by us, into a vague abstraction.

Between the distortions of the gnostic and the nominalist, we’re given to a mercurial view of how flesh and bone is to be reconciled with ethereal spirit – feeling a resident dissonance, like the polarity of magnets repelling, keeping the two realms held apart. Undoubtedly, this is why we end up treating them as two separate worlds – an embodied world, practical and predictable; and a disembodied world where the mystery of all the grand themes are being played out undetected. But what would it be like to have a more integrated perspective?

In this way, faith becomes the garment we must don when stepping from the mundane into mystery, because it allows us to see the fully dimensional world of God’s creation . . . where all things are working together. For all things exist in God, so all things were intended to declare his glory — which is why all things are ultimately reconciled in him . . . removing the veil hiding his glory (2 Corinthians 3:16-18). So for those who have turned to God in faith, they have been set free to see his glory in all things. Therefore it is the splendor of God’s glory that animates our holy imagination, enabling us to see his hand at work in everything . . . even in the smallest of details.

So with his praise on our lips, we join in on the song that the entire universe is already vibrating with — on every dimension. It’s in the pirouette of leaves falling on an autumn wind. It traces along the lines of his signature woven into the detail of a blade of grass. It’s found in the squinting sunlight, dancing in the tops of trees swaying gracefully on a spring morning. And on a clear cold night, you can feel the star-flung sky pulling you up into heaven where a thousand stars are laughing with the joy of the Lord, delighting in his presences . . . inviting you to join them.

. . . and it’s all there — just past sight

Between “It Is” and “I Am” (6 of 6)

“Yes, very nice – but what does it mean?” This is the question the artist hears most often, in regards to their work — asked in a matter-of-fact way, as if getting to the bottom line were the whole point of creating art. Needless to say, it’s an awkward question for the artist to answer. Because if it were a question that could easily be answered – then what would be the point of creating the art? Is art supposed to be nothing more than a clever way of making obvious statements? If that’s it – then why bother? This is the problem with trying to explain the transcendent – every explanation of it reduces it . . . robbing it of the very quality that makes it transcendent.

It has long been the ambition of the modern era to search out an explainable answer for everything that exists, predicated on the assumption that whatever “it is” – it can be explained. It’s the belief that comprehension is merely a matter of a thorough examination of all of the working parts; all of the cause and effect dynamics; and all of the variant outcomes – because within the materialist framing of the universe nothing happens without a discernable explanation. All of this creates the illusion that our own understanding of things will lead us to a better outcome – as if all our choices were a simple matter of sifting through all the data for the best possible answer.

So now, imagine yourself as Moses standing barefoot talking to a flaming bush that never burns up, and out of that bush came the voice of God telling you to go back to Egypt, where you’re a fugitive, wanted for murder — so that you can tell the Pharaoh he’s got to set all of his Hebrew slaves free. Now, what part of this sounds to you even remotely explainable – other than as hallucination? Is it any wonder Moses had to take off his shoes? Clearly, he was no longer where he thought he was – he was in the presence of the transcendent . . . and now, his entire frame of reference has been shifted . . . never to be explained in the same way again.

I’m inclined to take this story of Moses (Exodus 3) as a template for how we encounter the transcendence of God. Because in a universe where we imagine ourselves the ultimate arbiters of “what is”, assuming that we have a sufficient understanding of existence – God declares himself “I AM”. . . and exposes just how inadequate our perception can be. For God is the only reality, because all things exist in him – therefore there isn’t an alternate reality of which we get to be the self-appointed curators . . . so there can be no claims of “it is” until we’ve reckoned with “I AM”.

In John 8:58 “Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” In response the crowd begins to pick up stones, reacting to such blatant blasphemy – because by claiming such a thing, Jesus was clearly revealing himself as God . . . a transcendent epiphany, setting the captive free. For the true nature of who I am, as the beloved of Christ, is no longer confined by the shallow dimension of “it is”, rather I am released into the vast expanse of God’s endless love that constitutes the “I AM” of Jesus.

So perhaps, we need to learn to walk barefoot through this life we’re given . . .

Between Guilt and Shame (5 of 6)

Whether it’s that queasy unsettled sense of fear that resides in your subconscious mind that you might somehow be discovered as incapable of being the person, that everyone you know expects you to be, or it’s just in the general way that our culture is able to insinuate judgement of us whenever we lack acceptable levels of compliance to social norms – guilt and shame are busily at work, like emotional gremlins whispering the half-truths of our conflicted minds. This of course makes true vulnerability nearly impossible – because apparently we never know when guilt might show up like a crowbar and start prying open that box of shame we keep hidden away.

To the mind’s eye, there’s not even a flicker of daylight between guilt and shame – conceptually, we can’t help but imagine them as inseparably intertwined. But we do well, to consider them separately if we want to understand them better. Guilt is largely a moral/legal framing of behavior – all the things we do, consider doing, or leave undone, each action screened for malady and defect, each one scrutinized and held to account. But shame is far more complex – more than reductive forensics could ever hope to identify or sort out.

Our default impulse is to believe that it is our guilt that makes us feel shame, when in truth it is invariably our shame causing guilty behavior. Shame is native to the human psyche – it is the lingering taste in our mouth from eating of the bitter fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And now we can’t simply un-know our own shame – it resides in us, ever reminding us of the nakedness of our vulnerability . . . a knowing of ourselves set apart from God. In this way, every guilty thought points us back to our shame — the shame that’s innate to the distance we feel between us and God.

You know full well the naked truth of who you actually are, beneath the camouflage of your pretense and postured self-presentation . . . and you know God does too. And it is from this locked away truth deep within you where your shame allows guilt to constantly hold court with every expectation of finding a guilty verdict. And this is precisely how your shame becomes weaponized against you. We find it at the epicenter of every co-dependent relationship, and it is also infused into the manipulative language of religious, political, and consumerist communication . . . for this is how they prey on our ultimate weakness.

But guilt no longer has power over us when our shame has been freely and humbly confessed – because this is the nakedness of innocence (Genesis 2:25). We stand before God, not with the feeble garments of our own vain explanations, stitched together with the lies we tell ourselves – rather, we stand naked an unashamed in the mercies of God . . . where a robe and a ring await our arrival (Luke 15:22), and we celebrate being clothed in salvation within the robes of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10).

A long journey of faith is a testimony to the faithfulness of God.
This is a song I wrote many years ago, and recently recorded at my daughter’s house.

Between Fact and Fiction (4 of 6)

When two people disagree it is unlikely ever over what the facts might be, but rather, over what the facts might mean . . . as facts are not actually self-explaining. The whole of existence is a smorgasbord of factual data awaiting our assessment. If I were to tell you that 99.9% of the people in car accidents had eaten carrots at some point in their life, you likely wouldn’t debate whether my statement was factual, as much as you’d question the relevance of such a curious statistic – correctly observing that correlation doesn’t demonstrate causation . . . making this statistic an irrelevant fact. 

Because facts are inescapably given weight and context by human evaluation, David Hume, a mid-eighteenth century philosopher, concluded – “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” He reasoned that if facts can only have the significance assigned by the way we contextualize them, then they are inextricably subject to our emotional bias. With the spark of this premise, Hume ignites a philosophical blaze, influencing generations of philosophical thought.

Among those influenced by Hume, is Hegel, who declared that “The rational alone is real.” – his nominalist dictum. Within this paradigm, reality is logically sorted out in a notional dialectic – thesis in conflict with antithesis renders synthesis. So for Hegel the relevant facts are discovered in synthesis. At first the logical sophistry of this premise seems like an effective rebuttal of Hume’s argument — until you remember that Hegel’s entire thesis relies on the human mind to evaluate the significance of facts . . . which is Hume’s point.

My point isn’t to mire you in philosophical academic trivia, but rather to lay the ground work for recognizing how what we identify as facts don’t actually exist in a vacuum, but are contextualized by the narrative we give to them. In this regard, the difference between fact and fiction becomes almost indistinguishable . . . our experience of each shaped by the narrative we’re already inclined to validate. Which likely explains why debates on social media often devolve into ridiculously overstated displays of pseudo-intellectual posturing, each insisting that their facts are indisputable.

Facts are inconsequential, if ultimately there is no point to existence — which is to say, without a transcendent ontology, facts are pointless. On the other hand, if we exist for a reason, then every fact resonates, on some level, with this purposefulness. So if I am left to choose a narrative I trust to interpret the facts, it will always be one in harmony with a transcendent ontology – otherwise, what’s the point? This is what it means to allow your Christian faith to contextualize your understanding of the world. It is the humble confession of my faith that the most important things in life aren’t best explained in terms of incontrovertible facts — but instead, is a narrative that best reconciles us to our own existence. Which is why I tend to think Paul may have said it best – “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2: 2).

. . . but the beauty of the Christian narrative isn’t without
some factual considerations

Between Sorrow and Joy (3 of 6)

Life is what you make it.” Seems like a simple enough formula – loosely defined enough so as to allow an abstract interpretation. It’s assumption is that life is but an empty container, awaiting whatever it is you want to pour into it – so that it’s contents are up to you to decide. But the trouble is, that’s not actually how life happens. Because even though intentionality plays an important role in how we approach our lives – we are still incapable of escaping the contingent disposition of our existence. So in many ways, like it or not, it is the erratic nature of every event and relationship in our lives that invariably shape and reshape us . . . regardless of our intentions.

Even when we experience life unfolding in the carefully predictable ways we’ve proportioned it — there still remains the hovering uncertainty of circumstances beyond our control, lingering in the shadows of alternative outcomes. Inevitably these circumstances overtake us, challenging the flexibility of what we consider normative, until we’ve become stretched — pulled out of our complacency. And in that moment of being stretched we catch a glimpse of a fully dimensional life, where the lows plummet subterranean, and the highs scrap the atmospheric canopy . . . because this is the space between sorrow and joy.

All too often we live our lives in a state of emotional compression. We think that by limiting our exposure to the sorrow, we’ll somehow experience more joy. But little do we realize, the more energy we put into building an emotional floor beneath our feet, an emotional ceiling is simultaneously being installed above our heads. This is how our relationship with sorrow and joy works – either we end up emotionally guarding our experience of each, or we release ourselves fully to the experience both . . . that we might know the emotional depth of each.

A fully dimensional life requires a far wider emotional bandwidth than most of us are willing to maintain. Having experienced enough hardship in our lives our default setting is to brace for impact, dreading the eminent expiration of ephemeral happiness. Therefore the simple joys of life go unrecognized, no longer capable of moving our emotional needle – leading us to seek out vacuous amusements and distractions . . . just so we might feel something. But for those who’ve had a near death experience, peering into the abyss of their own mortality – they become recalibrated, if only briefly, to the preciousness of every moment given to them as a gift.

It is the confession of my faith that I will fear nothing but God. But it is not done as a risk assessment intent on limiting my exposure to all the things that I might fear – rather it is the confession that I am held in God’s hand amidst lament, as well as laughter. So I will live present in every moment, walking through darkness into light. And it will be a sojourn together – “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15). For this is the way of Christ – to live fearlessly between the sorrow and the joy.

“Well, it’s one for sorrow, two for joy — so they say”

Between Fear and Faith (2 of 6)

Precaution is our natural instinct to danger. It’s a rational assessment of risk, realistically calculating our likely exposure to harm contrasted with being able to live our lives unencumbered by fear. Reasonable people may disagree with what percentage of exposure to harm they’re willing to live with before engaging in various measures of precaution. But what constitutes reasonable and rational, very often is interpreted on a sliding scale – allowing the phobic, possessed of irrational fear to assume that they too are simply being reasonably precautious . . . and there is no arguing with their calculations, because by definition, there is no argument irrational fear will ever be willing to hear.

Fear is arguably the most conspicuous impediment to faith — for it can quickly imagine every obstacle and scenario of calamity associated with every choice we make . . . preemptively compromising any confession of faith we may be inclined to speak. This likely occurs because we’ve allowed fear to masquerade as the rational voice of reason for too long, convincing us that being in control is how we keep calamity at bay. But believing we can control our exposure to every possible circumstance is the grand illusion of an irrational mind . . . which is why fear is best understood as a liar.

A lie can only thrive where the truth has been obscured – which is to say, a reasonable rationale has to be concocted in order for a lie to obfuscate the true nature of our circumstance. In other words, a lie requires an entire contextualized fictional narrative before it can appear reasonable – until our perspective has become so skewed that all of our fears begin to call the shots . . . pretending it will always protect us from the ugly truth about the world around us. Conversely, faith is not afraid of the truth.

The common misconception about faith is that it’s somehow at odds with rational thinking, suggesting that a person of faith is being irrational. It’s a misconception usually held by someone incapable of explaining the rationality of their own views without a self-affirming definition of rationality. But I would say faith is better explained as being beyond rational. Because rationality can only ever be an existential assessment of value, it will always be limited to the scope of the person making the assessment. In this regard, faith is more than willing to go as far as rationality . . . and then go beyond it – a distance that fear dare not go.

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” ~ John 8:31, 32. It is our relationship with the truth that eventually distinguishes our path between fear and faith. Faith is willing to humbly confess that truth is immutably transcendent, and then fearlessly accepts its conclusion – while fear can only linger in the shifting shadows of half-truths and out-right lies. To have faith is to look beyond your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5) . . . whereas, to have fear inevitably leads to being trapped in the rationale of your own understanding.

I’m not sure why, but this old Jackson Browne song
seems to always make me ponder the space between fear and faith

Between Knowing and Doing (1 of 6)

Have you ever found yourself asking “How could they choose to do such a thing, don’t they know better?” The innate assumption here, is that knowledge informs our volition and that volition ignites our actions – thereby suggesting that modifying our behavior begins with choosing to know the right things. Which seems like a simple enough linear explanation, until you realize – how could you ever hope to recognize what was right, in order to make that choice? In other words – what knowing would inform that choice? Which is why I think this is precisely where we misunderstand how volition works – it isn’t catalyzed by what we know . . . but rather, by what we desire.

It likely doesn’t surprise you to find out that what you desire most would turn out to be the engine of your will – because it makes absolute sense. But it does beg the question – are our desires merely capricious, promiscuously susceptible to the passions of any given moment? Or do our desires reflect who we imagine ourselves to be, in a world we imagine we understand? I would argue that the way we define ourselves is the cultivated soil best suited for germinating our desires. So conversely, it could be said, that what you desire most, becomes a window in on how you’ve come to define yourself.

We see this most clearly played out in the life of someone who struggles with a conspicuous addiction – as they have obviously allowed what they desire most to define everything else about their lives. We can see who they’ve chosen to be because their actions have exposed their desire. But does that mean we should understand our actions as a binary indicator of our desires? Or is it more likely that we all live lives of conflicted desires – exposing the fact that we are unclear as to exactly who we think we are? Does not the Apostle Paul seem to be rehearsing out loud this very conflict in Romans 7:18-25? . . . a palpable conflict struggled with daily.

I am both omnivores in my diet, and heterosexual in my sexuality, but I hardly ever think of myself as such, as a way of self-identifying – because those desires are largely inconsequential to how I define myself. As a matter of proportion — if I allow these desires to become disproportionate, then they begin to skew my understanding of myself, distorting my will, and contaminating every choice I make. We do best to remember that we were created to desire God above all else — but as St Augustine correctly observes, our fallen state has disordered our relationship to desire to the point where every other desire we have actively seeks to displace what only God can satisfy. Which is why we can so often experience our will as promiscuously set a drift.

Some might suggest that this is a simple matter of mortifying the flesh, as if having conflicted desires were nothing more than a lack of willpower – but this seems to ignore that our volition can only act upon desire. But thankfully, Paul reminds us of who we are in Christ — “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” ~ Philippians 2:13. So we are not only empowered by God to do what pleases him most, but our will is being empowered, as well. For he is ever at work in us, drawing us to himself – ontologically, he is recalibrating us to the default settings of Eden . . . to be at peace with him. To be sure, this doesn’t make our experience of conflicted desire go away – but like the North Star, it clearly points us to the desire that best defines us as the beloved of God. . . where all other desires are being brought into submission to authentically want most what God is changing within us.

. . . then let your confession be — take my life.

Embracing the Burden

It’s in our adolescence when we’re supposed to learn to appreciate the innate symbiosis that exists between privilege and responsibility – learning that the more latitude we’re given to explore our own adulthood, the more we’re supposed to take on the burden of our own actions. At least, this is how it’s meant to work – clearly, some folks never got that memo. While still others, strain and chafe under the coupling of privilege and responsibility, as if adulthood were an ill-fitting suit, binding them in all the wrong places, while being far too loose in others. No doubt, adulting is a process that takes a life time to master . . . and some never do.

Some people take on burdens of their own creation, burdens born of incubated fear and perpetuated self-loathing — burdens they’ve convinced themselves they must carry because the indiscriminate cruelty of living life somehow demands they live in a prison of their own making. While still others, choose to play hide and seek with anything that even remotely resembles the burden of obligation — happy to allow others to care-take them as if they were children. But God forbid you should actually treat them like children . . . for childishly wanting to escape what the rest of us have the maturity to endure.

These are but two manifestations of shame – feeling inept and overwhelmed, each one turns inward focusing on its own needs, convinced that life is a mine field of bad choices they’d rather avoid walking through . . . in this way, they have allowed shame to measure every step they take. This is what it looks like to imagine that you should be at the center of your own universe. It’s like being in a circus sideshow room full of distorted mirrors bending everything, until the way you perceive the world, and your place in it, has completely lost any sense of proportion.

In contrast, it is the life that is turned outward, to the needs of others, that often becomes the life with a more fully-formed perspective — willing to live a life shared with others . . . a life, by design, we were always meant to live. Learning daily to embrace obligation and responsibility as an essential part of living — because our journey from the narrowing preoccupied self, to the wider world that others occupy, is what best exemplifies imago dei in our world. For this is how the love of God is made known . . . each of us becoming willing servants of love’s summum bonum.

At first, these two quotes of Jesus, appear to be at odds with one another – “And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23), And — “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). One describing the way of Christ as being a cross we must bear, and the other one seems to suggest that such a burden is easy and light. But how can this be? It can’t be — unless we’re willing to recognize that redemptive sacrifice is not only the calling of Christ . . . it is the way of Christ.

Jesus, God incarnate, lives a missional life of self-sacrifice culminating in the self-emptying choice to endure the cross, reconciling the world unto himself — showing us all what it means to be truly human. And how being truly human will always involve a willingness to enter into one another’s lives, embracing one another’s burdens. And I think this is precisely what Paul has in mind in Galatians 6:2 “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Because to choose Christ is to choose the way of Christ – to live fully-embodied lives where God has placed us, so that we might be a unique expression of his love. And even though it is a burden we must be willing to take up – it is actually Christ within us who carries it . . . as he carries us.

. . . and remember — you need to hold on to that heart.

Stuck Up A Tree

I must have been about six years old, when my younger brother Jon and I were playing in the backyard on a Saturday morning — when Jon had climbed too far up into a tree and became too afraid to come down. I didn’t know what to do – so I went in and got mom. So mom came out and climbed up to where Jon was, but quickly discovered that she couldn’t hold my brother and climb down safely – so I had to go get my dad . . . to get my mom . . . to get my brother. So I know a little something about what it means to be stuck up a tree.

But I suppose we all know, to varying degrees, what it means to be out on a limb, as the metaphor goes – to discover we’ve placed ourselves in a vulnerable and intractable position . . .  wondering how we’re going to back ourselves out of the mess we’ve made. And very often it has been the short-sightedness of our choices that have placed us in our predicament. Because sometimes we see what we want to see, and everything else fades into the background . . . until what we’ve blinded ourselves to, makes itself so conspicuous, that we can’t ignore it any longer.

This is how imagine Zacchaeus ended up becoming a tax-collector for the Romans. There’s a lot of money to be made working for the most powerful empire to have ever existed – besides, it’s better to walk in step with the powers that be, than to be crushed under their heel . . . and a man of small physical stature, living in such cruel times, needs to look after his own. So if he doesn’t seize this opportunity, the Romans will just find someone else to do the job . . . someone else to enjoy those benefits. Surely, everyone could see he had little choice . . .

But then the reality of his choice began to settle in – he had become a pariah to his own people, a traitor profiting from their oppression, bloodlessly shaking them down, regularly stealing from them their dignity . . . and no amount of money could ever hope to rid him of the shame, and loneliness that now haunted his every waking hour. So what had once seemed like a simple matter of common sense to him had become a life of dread and regret. In this way, Zacchaeus found himself out on a limb long before he ever climbed that tree.

I like to think Zacchaeus had heard about Matthew (Matthew 9:9), and wondered what it would be like to just walk away from the comfortable prison he had created for himself. I also like to think Jesus was thinking of Zacchaeus when he told the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector (Luke 18:9-14) – that somehow he could hear Zacchaeus’ quiet cry for God’s mercy to save him from himself. So that by the time Jesus was standing underneath that sycamore tree inviting Zacchaeus to climb down, the mercy of Jesus was on full display . . . to the grumblings of the crowd gathered there (Luke 19:1-10). And I also like to think — that this is the same mercy, inviting you and I to let go of that limb . . . and let Jesus make his home within us.

I can’t help but imagine Zacchaeus’ reaction was similar to Matthew’s in this clip from The Chosen

Speaking With Your Own Voice

If you would have told me, when I was a kid that one day, not only would I have a computer in my home, but I would have one in my pocket — I would have likely asked “why?” I would have been wondering what kind of future would require so much computation. Because how could I have ever possibly imagined the role that the internet would end up playing in everyday life? And it is both, a blessing and a curse, to be sure – it affords us many privileges, and demands of us much responsibility . . . at least that’s the way I think we should appreciate it.

Social media has reconnected me with various groups of people from many different eras of my life, in some cases rekindling old friendships. It also allows me to enjoy pictures of my children and grandchildren, in real-time – a wonderful treasure regularly popping up unexpectedly, making my day brighter. But social media most certainly has a far darker side. There are those who clearly lack discretion in what they post, expressing wince-worthy political or religious opinions – opinions so gracelessly conveyed, with such vitriolic fervor . . . that you can’t even imagine someone being so recklessly unfiltered – knowing their words will now exist in internet perpetuity.

I suppose for some people these days, this is what passes for speaking your mind. But if you’re able to hang in there long enough to observe these mud-slinging food fight extravaganzas, you pick up on the fact that most people aren’t so much speaking their own mind, as they’re just parroting the talking points of their tribe. And while listening to the cognitive dissonance of their remarks, it will likely occur to you that they haven’t actually been internalizing, in a thoughtful way, the opinions they’re spouting, as much as it is an outburst of emotional reaction.

But their remarks end up being haunted with the hollow disembodied echo of someone else’s anger, because they have lost their own voice in the torrent of their emotional meltdown. When our convictions aren’t any more substantive than bumper sticker platitudes and memes – they’re just a poor substitute for real convictions. Because true convictions arise out of a far more deliberative meditative process, where our beliefs emerge from the crucible of our struggle to reconcile the tension between what is, with what ought to be. And it is this very internalizing that produces true conviction.

So is it any wonder that scripture invites us, so many times, to meditate on the Lord, on his word, on his law? For it is his voice that we are learning to hear, until his voice enters into us like the bread and the cup, altering us from the inside out – until our own voice speaks with the simple clarity of God’s love and grace. And even though it is God unmistakably at work within us, we have learned to speak with our own voice – because every word has taken root within our soul, becoming a garden of God’s redemptive love making all things new.

. . . and as we hear ourselves speak —
even we’re surprised at finding God’s words in our mouth.

Giving Yourself Away

Charles Darwin gave us the evolutionary axiom — “survival of the fittest”, and ever since it has been the cornerstone motto of non-theism, contributing to their appraisal that survival pragmatism is indisputably the highest value that humanity can embrace. This is, no doubt, because to the rational mind, self-preservation is the most obvious universal instinct. Besides, what could be more practical than wanting to stay alive? Then again, the impulses of instinct can make for a tricky moral compass – ever convincing ourselves that being selfish . . . is just being a good survivor.

But here’s the thing about framing everything in terms of survival – it assumes that our natural state is to be at odds with our own existence, that the innate forces of the world around us are ever seeking to undo us at every turn. So if you don’t want to be exterminated – you must evolve . . . just to survive. This is because within the evolutionary paradigm you never really arrive — you will forever remain at odds with a hostile existence, no matter how evolved you become. And the reason this seems plausible to us, is because on a very primal level, we’re constantly experiencing some measure of alienation from our own existence.

But is this pervasive sense of alienation really how we exist, or is it just a distortion of our perception? What if survival pragmatism wasn’t our preeminent criterion – what would that look like? It is the confession of my Christian faith that we all exist in God, because there is no other existence. And because we were made in his image, by design our existence can only find its true orientation when we are in harmony with him . . . and apart from him, alienation. So for me reconciliation with God is the preeminent value . . . and survival isn’t even a close second.

To be set free from the pernicious delusion of self-existence that survival pragmatism so subtly insinuates, is to be unburdened of the fear and anxiety that always accompanies self-preservation. I no longer have to serve the self, allowing me to begin to see the true value of others as being the beloved of God – those for whom Christ gave himself as a willing sacrifice. So that I might find at the very center of all existence — a God who gives himself away as an infinite measure of his love. How can I not, but do as he does? To give myself away to others, so that they might know him all the more . . . and be set free from their alienation. Were we not made for this?

Is it not the very centerpiece of Advent, that we might find the babe in a manger as a gift – a gift of hope, forever declaring we can live our lives beyond the mere subsistence of survival? It is a declaration that peace on earth begins with each of us being at peace with our own existence. And you might do well to remember that this season of gift-giving was originally inaugurated by a God who gave of himself, without hesitation . . . and may we all choose to do likewise in the coming year.

I always thought this old Christmas Carol was haunted
with an intuitive sense of how costly was the gift of the babe in the manager

As If The Only One

Retrospection can very often be misleading, if not deceptive – but just as often it can afford a uniquely helpful perspective, allowing you to see the larger patterns of your life’s journey that you wouldn’t have detected, otherwise. How these patterns begin and play out, contributing to your story, can be subtly woven into your choices, almost innocuously. But when surveyed over the long haul, can explain why you are the way you are, and what fears and longings have been quietly pushing the buttons and throwing the levers, shaping your life all along.

I grew up with three brothers, two older and one younger. So as the middle child my natural inclination was to be a peacemaker. But when my parents divorced when I was in middle school, my middle child inclination took on a whole other dimension – one that I can only fully appreciate now in retrospect. I systematically became the closest brother to each one of my brothers, desperately attempting to hold the family together . . . and protect myself from ending up alone. At the time, I was completely unaware of the purpose of my actions – but looking back, the self-preservation of my choices is now very evident to me.

Embedded within our primal desire to be known and loved, is our desire to belong and to matter. Which is to say, we are drawn into community so that as individuals we might have our significance validated — but the psychology of this desire takes on a precarious balancing act in the process. We don’t want to belong, as just another face in the crowd, disappearing into some homogeneous aggregate . . . losing our identity. Each of us wants our belonging to the whole to be a celebration of our unique identities – each one a part, each one special.

Sometimes I think we miss how the rhetorical question that Jesus is asking in his parable (Luke 15:3-7) of the lost sheep, takes the listener off guard — but ends up addressing their mostly unspoken desire to be found uniquely important. Because for the shepherd to place at risk the ninety nine to go find the one, would have sounded recklessly indulgent to this agrarian savvy crowd. What an extravagant choice to make for a single sheep. But quickly each listener would have happily tossed aside their pragmatism, so that they too might celebrate the idea of the one lost, being found . . . secretly wanting to know what it means to matter that much to someone else.

This is the extravagance of Christmas — the love of God on full display, announcing itself to the whole world, while simultaneously finding each one of us in our own specific need of his love. This is the great gift of God, which so thoroughly permeates the whole that it seeps into every crack and corner, celebrating each life it touches as beloved. So I say ponder anew the treasure of your faith confessions – God found you in that impossible place your life had become, and brought you home . . . and now there’s a sky full of angels rejoicing.  

. . . and while your pondering your gifts — don’t forget this one

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