Thirty Pieces In My Pocket

Some people find virtue in ambition, while others believe that a simple life, is a virtuous life – but each one likely agrees that life should be lived on our own terms. This is the common ground where pluralism allows those driven by a greater cause, to live at peace, alongside those willing to wait for a greater cause to come find them in due time. But such pluralism is fragile at best, and largely mythic in its presumed comity – as we always tend to insinuate our own sense of propriety on everyone else . . . every chance we get.

Life on our own terms is just another way of saying “. . . Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Which may seem innocuously agreeable enough to you – until it occurs to you that it will be the imposed will of fallen man defining exactly how this will be commonly practiced. But this is no surprise, it’s no big secret that we’re all working on our own agenda – whether it be a conspicuously ambitious agenda, or one that is merely about the self-preservation of what we imagine to be a normal life.

At the Last Supper, we find Jesus on his knees washing the feet of his disciples, so that they might learn the way of Christ. And the bread and the cup, of an old tradition, was given a new significance, to be the defining expression of how the Servant King loves his people. But this all occurs as his disciples were preoccupied with, who among them might become the greatest. So Jesus foretells the actions of two of his disciples, the one who would betray (Judas), and the one who would deny (Peter). Only Jesus knew how this night would actually end . . . as both Peter and Judas could only assume how their actions would play out.

thirty-pieces-of-silver-bob-orsilloIn many ways, Judas represents political ambition – because when it became clear to him that Jesus wasn’t going to lead the political movement Judas was looking for . . . he cut his losses, and turned Jesus into the Sanhedrin for thirty pieces of silver in order to fund his next political endeavor. With Peter, his agenda became one of self-preservation, when only three years earlier, his agenda had been to see just how far he could follow this Nazarene . . . and now, it seemed he knew the answer to that question, all too well.

At Gethsemane the disciples fall asleep – leaving Jesus alone to face the disquiet of that long dark night. As I think of this, I want to imagine myself as someone who would have stayed awake with Jesus, as someone who wouldn’t deny him . . . or betray him. But I know all too well how my own agenda leads me away from him, whether in its blind ambition, or in its passive self-preservation – I know my own capacity for ending up with thirty pieces in my pocket . . . may God have mercy on me.

So it is my confession that the way of Christ isn’t my default setting, and that it is the grace and mercy of God that finds me asleep, and awakens in me a desire to “ . . . know him and the power of his resurrection, sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). O, to be made new, to be set free from my own ambitions, so that I might follow in his way, that my life might experience his love and make it known everywhere I go.

This is a meditation I wrote for Lent years ago . . .

I Fell Asleep At Gethsemane

I fell asleep at Gethsemane and I dreamed about my life
Poured out in empty portions again and again
Into an idol sea of amusement.

In this garden I am dreaming of my heroic better self
Overcoming the fatal flaw of self-deception
That I might rise above every calculation of fear.

In a curl beneath an olive tree at a safe distance from the night watch
I lay imagining the details of my life arranging themselves
Into proportionally meaningful shapes.

With my head on this stone I begin to remember out of my slumber
The deep sorrow that brought me here
The passion of God and all the tears He has cried since creation.

I fell asleep at Gethsemane
Awaken me Lord
That I might be with you awhile


Thinking That We Know

Like a fish in a fish bowl sees the world through the distorted filter of water and glass, our perception of the world is similarly limited in scope, and ladened with all of our presupposed notions about how reality occurs. But the difference is, the fish doesn’t labor under the ridiculous presumption that he has any understanding of it. This can be a hard concept to wrap our heads around, given that we aren’t even fully aware of just how many layers of context goes into our own perception – but even so, we are relentlessly tempted to trust our own knowing of things . . . without question.

Our default setting is to think of knowing as an accumulation of information that is either known or unknown to us – so when asked about something, we either have the information or we don’t. A more sophisticated appreciation of knowing realizes that information is like the water in a fish bowl – information is everywhere, but its ubiquity doesn’t explain its meaning. Which means there is yet another layer of knowing required for assessing value and significance of all the data (information).

Then there’s a philosophical framing of knowing that recognizes that being a fish in water, complicates a true understanding of water . . . because as a fish we couldn’t imagine any other context for which to make a comparison. So inescapably, our knowing is trapped in the fish bowl of our own contextualized understanding. Therefore the water and all of its contents, including the fish, becomes a circular reference point – reaffirming a knowing we have already been conditioned to accept. So how confident do you feel about what you think you know, now?

In the creation narrative of Genesis, God establishes himself as the one true arbiter of what is good and what is not. God pronounces all that he has created as being tov (the Hebrew word for good), then he sees man alone, without woman, and pronounces that not tov. But between these two pronouncements we find a warning “. . . but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). So what are we to make of this warning? It most certainly seems to be a pronouncement of not tov . . . though it doesn’t follow the same template as the other pronouncements.

imagesIt’s always struck me as counter-intuitive that the fall of man would turn on a desire to know the difference between good and evil – in the same way that God knows it. Isn’t the whole point of morality to know how to make this distinction? Consider Cain killing Abel, the first recorded murder, a murder fueled by jealousy — now there’s a sin worthy of getting things started off on the wrong foot! But there were no laws regarding murder, Cain was only “doing what seemed right in his own eyes” . . . a phrase that would come to exemplify all of human knowing, assuming that our own knowing is all that is required.

When Satan came along to tempt Eve – what does he actually tempt her with? Does he not appeal to her own sense of knowing, based on her own limited self-referencing understanding of the world? So before she even picks the fruit, she had already pronounced it tov – when up to this point in the narrative, no one but God had made such a pronouncement. Therefore, even before the act of sin is committed, sin was found crouching at the door of her presumption to know.

Ever since, thinking that we know, has basically been the incubator of every sin known to man — all of the evil and harm we visit upon one another. O, that we might instead choose a more humble path, willing to confess just how little we really know — to freely accept our limitations. So I say, let us pray that God would simplify our hearts and minds . . . that we might finally discover the beauty and bliss found in not needing to know.

This song written and performed by my brother Garrison
reminds us that in a complicated world — the simplest truths are always the best. 


Defining Our Obligations

Numerous books have been written on how best to prioritize the people and activities in our lives – so as to keep us on track with the goals we’ve set for ourselves . . . because apparently this is something that we’re regularly distracted from, or confused about. Which is a pretty odd thing, when you think about it – after all, it is your life, and what you’re intending to do with it, that we’re talking about here. But one of the common themes in all of these books is the observation that our lives are in a constant state of being inundated with unfiltered demands on our time, talents, and resources . . . leaving us with an abiding sense of inadequacy.

It’s because of the way that all of these demands claim to have unquestioned importance, that you must sift through them carefully to determine their actual impact. Some even come cloaked in a desperate hand-wringing urgency, hoping that you’ll react before looking too closely at their veracity. But all of these claims are made under the guise of an assumed authority and you have to determine by what authority they are making their case. And whereas, it behooves us to acknowledge the genuine authorities in our life – all too often we reflexively give deference to presumed authorities, which in truth, are nothing more than conspicuous power struggles.

A very common form of this type of presumed authority is found in the psychological complexity, often associated with codependency – where the specific relational dynamics are so dysfunctional, that they can only begin to be disentangled after many hours of counseling. Then there is the presumption of political/ cultural agendas, all dressed up in a self-satisfied moral sanctimony, attempting to shame you into compliance and conformity – hoping that you’ll simply acquiesce to the force of imposed will.

imagesBut sometimes there are genuine authorities in conflict, requiring us to examine which of them may have the preeminent authority. As we read Matthew 22: 15-22 we find the Pharisees plotting to catch Jesus, in what amounts to be a political dilemma. They ask “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” So Jesus asks them for a coin and says “So who’s tiny little face is this?” They said “Oh, that’s Caesar (a.k.a. the self-proclaimed god of Roman)” Then Jesus says “Well then, this belongs to him, and the tiny little kingdom he reigns over” (my paraphrase)

But that wasn’t the whole answer, Jesus also said “And give to God the things that bear his image – because those things belong to his kingdom” (again, my paraphrase). Caesar’s authority was indisputable, he had the sway and power of violence on his side — right up until the moment he didn’t . . . this is always the limitation of human authority. I don’t think it was simply incidental to the story that Jesus asked about Caesar’s image on the coin – because for his followers, this proportional contrast leaps off the page . . . as we know ourselves to be the ones who bear God’s image.

Therefore it is imago dei that defines our obligation to God’s authority – either we see ourselves as belonging to him, or we choose to live our lives as if we don’t. So when you find yourself triaging the people and activities in your life – you might want to give a thought to what is the preeminent truth about who you . . . that you were made in God’s image. So just maybe, you should order your life like you believed it was true.

This is my brother Jeff’s arrangement and performance of this great old hymn,
inviting us to render unto God what is already his . . .


Learning To Recognize Mammon (8 of 8)

Godzilla decided to vacation this year in Tokyo, hoping to do a little shopping and to take in a few of the exotic sights and points of interest. He had even worked up the courage to be adventurous enough to taste some of the local cuisine. So you can only imagine his chagrin at the media’s portrayal of his arrival as being catastrophic – I mean how was he to know that all of that running around and screaming wasn’t just an elaborate welcoming ceremony . . . after all that’s how he’s greeted everywhere else he goes. I guess the Japanese are just not much for tourism.

Like Godzilla, everyone assumes that their actions comport with socially acceptable norms, completely unaware that they are only referencing their own interpretation of what those socially acceptable norms are. In this way, we all take our turn being Godzilla, until someone is kind and thoughtful enough to point out to us the actual net-effect that our actions are having. But being blind to what our own actions say about us has many permutations – for instance, you’re likely unaware of just how tempted to worship the Chaldean god, Mammon, you’ve been.

Ancient cultures worshipped many variations of Mammon — seeking prosperity, a bountiful harvest, and fertility. Given that mere survival in the ancient world wasn’t really a given, concerns about harvest and fertility were matters of life and death. So the idea of appeasing these gods was not taken lightly – as they were seen as the very realities of life, itself. But for us today, prosperity represents getting more of what we want, than it does about having what we need. Of course, this all begs the question: what actually constitutes worship of Mammon?

imagesJesus clearly states “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Some translations interpret mammon as “money” – but this strikes me as transparently reductive, given the context of the passage (Matthew 6:19-34). And I think we can also assume from that same context that Jesus’ point isn’t to literally juxtapose the God of Israel with a pagan god. So what does the context tell us? Is Jesus only warning us of how greed and avarice are innately in competition for God’s sovereignty? . . . or is he challenging a much larger paradigm?

If I were to ask you: where is your heart? Would that be at variance from where your treasure is (19-21)? If so – then could it be that your perception about what’s really important has been darkened (22, 23)? So to whom does your heart belong (24)? What does your anxiety tell you? Has it made you a servant of your personal security? If so – is that because you doubt God’s assessment of your value to him (25-32)? Why do you think that is true? Are you afraid he has forgotten you . . . left you to your own devices?

I think mammon sneaks into our lifestyle well before we even recognize its presence. It comes in under the guise of taking care of our day-to-day needs – but this is precisely what Jesus says are the concerns we are to entrust to him . . . and that our concern should be for his kingdom (33). What does your eye see (22, 23)? Does it see a future that belongs to God, under the sovereignty of his loving care, where his kingdom comes? Or are you filled with doubt, where you have to hedge your bets against an unknown future . . . just like the pagans of old? So I guess it’s really a question of who owns your future, God or mammon? A little advice – don’t be so quick to answer that . . . because the last thing you want to be is Godzilla, trying to rationalize why your recent visit to Japan was such a bust.

No matter how much — it’s never enough

Learning To Live In Exile (7 of 8)

Sometimes it’s like a restlessness, like an unidentified longing, or like a nagging bewilderment unsettling any attempt we make at contentment. It’s not the kind of feeling that makes itself known center stage – no, this is more like that feeling that lingers in the shadows just off stage, as if it were nothing more than an imperfection in the scenery. But when it catches our eye we can’t help but feel a foreboding that something isn’t right, like something we can’t quite remember . . . like the whole of reality has shifted, and this isn’t the reality we belong in.

Theologically we know this to be the persistent residual effect of The Fall – where we are constantly aware of the disparity between what is . . . and what ought to be. Exiled from Eden we head east. Cain kills Able and is exiled into the east. The flood waters come and go, and then we head east. Then in the east we build a great tower in Babylon, a dysfunctional monument to our banishment, until finally in the confusion of our shame and fear we wander away homeless and disillusioned. And so closes the first eleven chapters of Genesis . . .

This is where the story picks up with Abram, a man called of God to leave behind the suburbs of Babylon and head west to the land of promise. But even as he arrives at this place of promise, Abram continues to live in a tent – because even though this is the place . . . it still feels impermanent. And this becomes the reoccurring metaphor of Israel – concluding with them literally returning from exile in Babylon to inhabit a place haunted by the reality that even this home doesn’t feel like home . . . that it’s just a shadow of what it should have been.

michal-giedrojc-dreamsThe common Christian response of “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through” is temptingly deceptive — because it rings true that this doesn’t feel like our home, and that there is a place where our longing to belong will finally be satisfied. But the deception is in thinking this world is nothing more than a sinking ship, and the best that any of us can hope to do is fill the life boats and watch it sink. The trouble with this notion is that it isn’t actually how we are admonished to live while in exile . . .

We are fond of celebrating the hope found in God’s plans when reading Jeremiah 29:11 – without fully appreciating that Jeremiah is addressing God’s people as they are being dragged off into exile, to Babylon. Which is likely why we don’t fully comprehend Jeremiah 29: 4-7 and its emphasis on being a blessing to this place we find ourselves, even within the context of exile. In this way, our faith in the midst of exile is how we live in Christ — no longer as exiles, though we remain in the land of exile. We are to become beacons of hope to those who haven’t yet realized that they’re living in exile. So let us proclaim the rescuing grace of God that is our hope – as a hope yet to be fully revealed, and a hope to abide where we are . . . living our lives to the fullest in this place where God has called us.

In the Arthurian legend, Avalon is the mythic place of peace and rest
that resides in the west . . . when will we ever learn to live in God?

Learning To Find Your Edge (6 of 8)

Something I’ve noticed about growing older – I’m finding it harder to remember the answer. Now, before you roll your eyes and sarcastically whisper under your breath “O really, tell me more?” – I’m not talking about the natural absent-minded, general forgetfulness that accompanies old age. No, I’m talking about that cog we keep in the back of our head that seems to keep all of the other wheels in our life turning with prescient purpose. It’s a cog that comes in the shape of a question, the question we spend our whole life offering up various answers to – all along the way, retooling and upgrading our response. It’s the question – what is it I’m trying to do?

As a younger man, it seemed so much easier for me to answer this question. Back then, I came up with some pretty great answers – but now, I can only remember them as fragments, like so many irreconcilable puzzle pieces . . . vaguely familiar, but disconnected. It’s not that I’ve lost my sense of purpose, it’s more like I’ve lost my edge . . . more content to let the next generation do all of the dreaming associated with answering that question. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to work – maybe forgetting how to answer that question releases me from the burden of needing to have an answer for it.

I’m not really suggesting that wanting to answer this question is unimportant – it’s just that it requires a much larger context before it can truly be answered. It’s the type of question that tempts us to reflexively answer extemporaneously out of the sophistry of our own default philosophical abstractions, driven by the impulse of our current state of mind. But now that I’m older I tend to slow my roll, and answer another question first, a question that requires a far more deliberate meditative response . . . what is God already doing?

sz9BdToo often in my youth the urgency of my convictions fueled the self-importance of my bravado, creating for me the illusion that my efforts had heat and edge. And it wasn’t that my convictions were somehow misplaced, as much as they lacked the wisdom of understanding how best to make them known — in a more fully formed way. But now, so many layers of shed skin later, so many iterations of me later — I’m still convinced, and even more confident of my calling, yet I’m humbled by the path that calling has taken. I guess you could say I’ve grown tired of trying to do something important with my life . . . but haven’t yet lost my interest in knowing what it is that God is already doing.

It’s been about four years since my daughter Katy, and my daughter-in-law Faith, suggested that I write a blog – an idea, at first, I protested. I had no interest in becoming one more purveyor of extemporaneous opinions, joining a chorus of internet voices, all speaking at one another. But as I began to turn the idea over in my head, having long been a song writer, it occurred to me that if I approached it with the same discipline I use when writing songs, then I might just be able to create a few thoughtful vignettes that could offer a moment’s pause – a meditation that God might inhabit . . . so that what he is already doing might be rediscovered. So in the most modest of ways, and by the most understated of means, my calling has found a new edge.

Here’s a song I wrote many years ago out of the angst I felt back then
about my desire to know God’s will

Learning To Wade In the Water (5 of 8)

It is really no surprise to me why Allstate’s advertising campaign personifying mayhem has been so successful. As it is with all humor, there must be a universally relatable truth being satired, before everyone gets the joke. And let’s face it, on some level, on some back burner in our heads, we entertain some measure of dread, that chaos (mayhem) will leap out and begin dissembling the order we are so carefully attempting to maintain in our life. After all, creating order out of chaos is one of life’s grand themes residing in the subtext of everything we are and everything we do . . . even if all we can do is laugh at commercials reminding us all of just how implausible the task.

Within the first two verses of the Bible, the creation narrative sets the stage with a powerful metaphor about water. The void and the darkness over the face of the deep, is immediately juxtaposed with the presence of God hovering over those same waters. So that by the sixth verse we find him dividing those waters, bringing order out of chaos. And for the ancient world, this was no small matter, because the face of the deep was a menacing and foreboding image, a vast unknown portending a terrible undoing.

So by the time Noah’s story is told a few chapters later, the idea of those very same waters, once divided by God, now coming back together, carries with it far more than just the calamity associated with a flood – it was God allowing the chaos to overtake the order of the world. That in fact, it has been the hand of God, all along, that has held those waters apart, so that we might have a place to live. So when this particular  image reoccurs, at the Red Sea, and and again as Israel crosses the Jordan – we begin to fully appreciate the pattern of just how it is that God makes a way for us, where there is no way.

__Shell___by_masscreationNow, consider the sacrament of baptism — where we find ourselves invited to enter the waters, so that we might understand ourselves as having died with Christ and raised to new life. We break the surface twice, entering into death (chaos) and then the waters part, as we rise again to new life. This is the way of Christ, a pattern of willingness to enter into death, so that a life of reconciliation and redemption can occur.

Paul explains this pattern in 2 Corinthians 5: 17-20 — having become a new creation, we as Christ’s ambassadors, must be willing to wade into the water, that is the chaos and brokenness of our world, so that we might reconcile others to life in Christ. For it was Jesus, the incarnate God, who came where death prevailed, so that he might once and forever part the waters of chaos (death) – so now we wade into the waters, to go where death once held sway . . . so that Jesus might make his appeal through us — bringing new life in his wake.

One of my all time favorite gospel spirituals — this is a great rendition . . .

Learning To Trim Your Sail (4 of 8)

Force = Mass x Acceleration . . . is a formula illustrating Newton’s 2nd law of motion – describing how inertia is overcome. It turns out, the greater the mass, the more force is required to achieve acceleration – who knew? Makes me wonder if the same law that applies to getting physically unstuck (F=ma) would apply to being metaphorically stuck – because I think we can all relate to feeling stuck . . . in ways we can’t even put our finger on.

Feeling stuck may seem to you like a lack of motivation, or a matter of procrastination, or even as a result of exhaustion – but all of these strike me as far more symptomatic of being stuck, than causal. Spinning your wheels going nowhere can leave you exhausted. And a lack of motivation and procrastination are derivative of being incapable of imagining how not being stuck might look — because sometimes you’ve been an object at rest for so long, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in motion . . . or could it be because the last time you were in motion – it didn’t go so well.

More often than not, most people end up stuck because it was the last place they took refuge from life’s howling winds and troubled waters. They didn’t plan to stay — but here they are all the same . . . stuck. And here’s the thing about being stuck – it drains you of all expectation. This may strike you as antithetical, because if a hyper state of routine is what it means to be stuck – then what’s not to expect? . . . it’s all been done before. But having hopeful expectation isn’t about predictability – rather, it’s about believing that something new could happen.

boat-oil-painting-60542It is this very lack of hopeful expectation that holds you land-locked. So maybe it’s time you tested the wind again and checked the horizon for unexpected opportunities — so that you might know yourself as free to live your own life again. Maybe it’s time you learned how to trim your sails. Because it isn’t really about throwing up a sail and letting the wind blow you all over the water. In the hands of a skilled sailor, the sails are deployed in such a way as to channel the force of the wind with precision . . . and usually that occurs at a pretty fair clip.

Sometimes we fall into thinking that God wants us to play it safe, until we end up like the servant who was given one talent and ended up burying it (Matthew 25: 18), convincing ourselves that God wouldn’t want us being too risky with what he had given us. Or we assume he is asking us to generate our own momentum to break inertia, when we already feel so stretched out and pulled thin . . . how could we possibly take on more? But in fact, he is inviting us to unfurl our sails . . . and he will fill them. It is an invitation to live your whole life, that you might see what he can do through you. There’s no telling where he’ll take you next . . . and it’s the not knowing, that keeps you from getting stuck.

This has always been one of my favorite Bruce Cockburn songs


Learning To Refract Light (3 of 8)

Moonlight is the borrowed light of the sun meant to remind us that the sun hasn’t actually gone away – that it shines ever on, albeit from the other side of night. Even the waning and waxing moon can’t help but smile about how faithfully the sun continues to shine, even when it doesn’t fill the sky with light. But on a moonless night, the moon hides from the sun and the path becomes unclear, more shadow than light. More than likely that’s an artificial light, the escaping ambient halo of light above the city. But on that same moonless night, walking a country road, reveals a sky full of distant suns shimmering like diamonds on black velvet — no doubt, our own sun shines with a similar brilliance for some other distant planet.

The moon is a desolate waste, a barren satellite rock caught in earth’s celestial orbit. Having nothing of its own, yet it reflects the glory of the sun, making it the preoccupation of poets and romantics, alike. A serendipitous proximity of cosmic happenstance — even so, it’s evocative beauty remains. How much more are we held as precious to the Father, than this rock hurling through space . . . that in the most unexpected ways we might reflect his glory?

All of creation cries out, proclaiming in wonderment the intricacies of design hidden in plain sight – the hand of God on display. Even the atheist, convinced of the rationality of his disbelief, finds it hard to hide the mark of imago dei he bears – ever pulling on him to understand his life as meaningful, ever drawn to love and beauty and justice . . . as if the universe, for no reason at all, held them as significant. But even these are simple reflections, pointing back to their source, light bouncing off of the surface . . . but what of the light that enters in?

AM_Fig5-ChurchAndCruxGunnIt is the Christian confession, that as believers, we not only bear the image of God, we are also indwelt by the Holy Spirit. So not only do we reflect his glory — we are meant to refract his glory . . . in the same way that light pours through a prism. As God changes us we become the face of God to those who have forgotten what he looks like – it is how we become a tangible instrument of God’s grace to the world. We are not the source of this light, but the light passing through us does take on the color and shape of our personal story . . . of redemption and reconciliation.

So this is what occupies me during this season of expectation, I find myself searching the heavens for a sign, not unlike those wise men of old, who knew the distant light would guide them to something wonderful. It is the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us, entreating us to remember that God enters flesh and blood and changes all of human history. It is Jesus who is the light of the world – a light shown on our countenance, as it moves through us to those in the lost dark of night, those who may be wondering if the Son still shines . . .

It is from the substance of what is given us — that we give unto others

Learning To Watch the Night (2 of 8)

Our expectations are built upon our presupposed understanding of how the world is supposed to work. Which is to say, we have layers of expectation, we’re likely not even completely aware of — constantly shaping our perspective. And chances are, we only become aware of these embedded expectations when we find ourselves becoming increasingly impatient about something. In this way, our impatience is measuring the space between what is and what we imagine ought to be – either because it hasn’t happened yet . . . or worse, we begin to believe it won’t happen at all.

It’s funny how willing we are to allow our emotional state to be dragged around behind such poorly defined expectations – that the baseline peace and contentment of our hearts and minds could be so fragile. Could it be that our understanding of being at peace and finding contentment are all too often chained to the roller coaster ride of our ever-changing circumstances? So how do we break those chains? How do we refine our expectations and longings, so that we might learn the humble path of patience?

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” (Psalm 130: 5, 6). I have long been drawn to the emotive beauty of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120 – 135), in the way they resonate with our visceral experience of sojourn. But this particular psalm’s invitation to wait the night like a watchmen waits for morning, always strikes me as especially evocative – maybe it has something to do with the way waiting is the unexpected verb.

C10q0NWW8AAPr84In the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25) we find an important distinction between those who have prepared themselves to wait the night . . . with those who have not. When the discipline of patience is given focus, like those in the parable prepared themselves to wait the night for the bridegroom, it becomes a meditation of the heart. Our longing for daybreak, filled with anticipation, filled with a sacred expectation – allows us to know the night as a friend, delivering us eventually to our hearts desire. This is what it means to watch the night – to keep vigil through the night . . . knowing the morning will come.

Of course, all of this has a particular application this time of the year, given that Advent is all about being expectant — where all of our longings are met in the birth of Jesus. Our faith embraces an already accomplished reality, as it reaches through the long night of our daily circumstance, toward the moment we’ll know face to face, what it means to enjoy the unobstructed presence of the lover of our souls. So this year you might want to allow this Advent season to instruct you in what it really means to watch the night, and in so doing, sanctify your expectations of what comes next . . . and enjoy peace on earth all year long.

I have always loved the melancholy of this Christmas Carol 

Learning To Read The Room (1 of 8)

Having been a music engineer and producer for many years, take it from me, the process is much more than simply recording the music. There’s agreeing upon the arrangements and performances, settling on and managing a budget, and hiring and directing the musicians – every part contributing to the desired vision of the project. So I end up wearing three hats – I’m an administrator, a music conductor, and a psychotherapist.

The need for musical expertise seems obvious enough. The management of time, people, and money isn’t really that surprising, given the type of undertaking such a project requires. But what is often over looked is the need to cultivate and maintain the creative process of all of the artists involved who will be leaving their fingerprints on the end result. Artistic talent doesn’t simply get flipped on like a switch of a machine, it needs to be entreated to find its voice within the dynamic arch of the music.

vDzdZBgSo I learned early on, the importance of tuning into the emotional state of everyone involved. I had to learn to read the room. The more I focused on the objectives of the project, the more I ran the risk of leaving behind those who I had asked to join me in the process. So sometimes, I needed to be willing to put on hold those objectives in order to assure that everyone was making the trip together. Because making music, making art, is first and foremost, a very human enterprise. After all, music that is evocative, that moves us, in a very real way, is an expression of our deep longing for transcendent beauty and significance.

It has likely already occurred to you that my point here has little to do with music production, and more to do with our need to be mindful of how we might tune into those around us. Because it’s not enough to find our own path within God’s purposes, our path must include others, challenging and encouraging them on their path. The temptation is to view these opportunities as teaching moments—as if imparting some great wisdom were the point. Yes, the temptation is to think giving someone good advice is what they need – when what they actually need most is our presences in their life.

We experience Christ as incarnate, not as a conceptual ideal, or a proposition about heaven. He isn’t an academically insulated spiritual teacher, as if removed from our real world experiences — rather, he makes his dwelling among us, so that he might be with us . . . and us with him. When you read the Gospels it’s plain that Jesus knew how to the read the room. Because his desire to enter our room, in the first place, was evident — he left no doubt that he valued being with us . . . not as an opportunity to change our thinking, but because he knew that just being in his presence would change us.

In music there is a melody line and various harmonies moving together along the meter of the song. So think of Jesus as the melody, inviting us to sing our part – where the beauty of the music rises far above the smallness of our individual lives. It is a song of gratitude and rejoicing. It is an endless symphony, ageless and unencumbered, floating free of the cages of our isolation. It is an ancient song our hearts have always known . . . we just need to be in the room together, inviting one another to remember how it goes.

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

An Observable God

Because we’ve come to know so much about the universe, the modern non-theist considers himself brave enough to face the uncertainties of that universe without the irrational encumbering mythology of belief in God. Meanwhile, he simultaneously ignores the blatantly self-referencing circular logic, which is the central theme of his own philosophical thesis – that survival is the most important value to life. And how does he know this . . . because his own survival instinct told him so, of course.

But somehow, the atheist can’t seem to wrap his head around the idea that if God created the entire universe, we likely wouldn’t be able to investigate or measure him, as if he were nothing more than one more object among many, in a universe . . . he created. But this does not keep them from demanding an observable God – one that is subject to their terms of inquiry, and conforms to their expectations.

Which has led me, over the years, to ask a few questions. “What percentage of all that can be known, do you think we already know?” This is a great question for thinning out the intellectual herd – if they offer a percentage . . . I know right away that they don’t have the intellectual bandwidth to continue the conversation. But for those who realize that we have no idea how little we already know – I ask “Then, on what basis of knowledge can we say that God doesn’t exist?”

Then I go on to ask “What specifically are you looking for, what evidence would convince you?” You’d think they’d have a ready answer for this question. . . and you’d be wrong. In my experience, after a few uncomfortable minutes of ill-considered thought, their answers fall into one of two categories – (1) God revealing himself directly to them – to which I remind them that they regularly dismiss anyone offering such evidence. Or (2) God revealing himself to everyone all at once – to which I remind them that they would simply explain away as a scientifically explainable event we just haven’t discovered the reason for yet. So it isn’t that their evidentiary bar is too high – it’s that it’s too self-referencing . . . they assume an objectivity for which they are simply incapable of ever hoping to attain.

IMG_0800So it turns out that the non-theist knows precisely the God who doesn’t exist — but is absolutely clueless about the one that might actually exist . . . because they refuse to accommodate the idea that if he is God, then logically he would be the one to dictate the terms under which he makes himself known. So, I ask “when you look out the window of your home and there are no cars in the driveway – you are aware of their absence, because you’ve established a baseline expectation of what you’re looking for . . . but if you really don’t know what you’re looking for, how do you know it’s not already there?”

When I ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in, quite often they describe a god that I also don’t believe in – and this surprises them, because they expected a different response. So, I ask “Could it be that you’ve spent all of your energy rejecting a non-existent god, instead of humbly seeking a God who might exist?”

It’s a false assumption to believe that God can be found with the intellect alone – we are far more complex than that . . . not to mention the inscrutability that is innate to the nature of God’s existence. Could it be that intuitively our longings and desires speak with more clarity about what truly satisfies the heart and mind. Could it be that we expect to find meaning and purpose in everything, because we were meant to find it? So would it not logically follow, if we are truly made in his image, then he can be found . . . if that’s what we really desire. Is that what you really desire?

We’re all trying to make our way home

What Is It That Haunts You?

What a person fears says a lot about them. It tells us what they value most. It gives us insight into how they conduct relationships. It allows us to see how they view themselves. The old adage “Fear is a great motivator” rings true to us, but what does it motivate? Then again, fear can just as easily incapacitate us, paralyzing us with indecision. Sometimes what we fear is apparent to us . . . but sometimes what we fear hides in our sub-conscience undetected, nudging us away from things, unbeknownst. So what do you fear?

There are three general categories that our fears fall into – the fear of the unknown, the fear of shame, and the fear of suffering. Then each of these three categories break into three subsequent categories:

Fear of the unknown – The unknown is a mystery, which includes everything about the future. We may be able to predict with a measure of certainty, but the unforeseen always lurks in the shadows – death being one of the most obscure shadows. The unknown that plagues our decision making. How do we know the choice we’re making will be the right one? We may end up with regret. The unknown of how we’ll respond. Will we hold up under pressure? Will we hold fast to what is right? All of these unknowns foster their own unique forms of fear.

Fear of shame – The shame of having all of our darkest thoughts and deeds exposed. The shame of what we did not do because some other fear held us hostage to inaction. The shame of feeling like our lives don’t matter—that we have no worth. Shame can be a very powerfully crippling form of fear, and can be the hardest to detect.

haunted-homesFear of suffering – We fear that we might have to suffer, whether emotionally or physically. We fear that a loved one might suffer, and all we can do is helplessly watch. We fear that we might be the cause of someone else’s suffering, regardless of our intent. The fear of suffering, in many ways, is the most obvious to us – but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

But there’s a fear that’s underneath them all – the fear of not being in control, and it is the fear we struggle with the most . . . because we can’t resist trying to be in control. It is this fear that is in direct competition with our fear of God – tempting us to believe that God has lost control, so we must step in. Which is rather foolish when you think about it – but fear isn’t always rational.

In this way, our fear of God restores for us the true understanding of the universe – everything is contingent upon him . . . and when we forget that, we create a vacuum that all of our fears rush into. When I say “fear not”, you might think “but you don’t know what I’m going through”. But when Jesus says “fear not” he also says “I am with you always” – so trust that there’s nothing beyond his control.

So remember . . . it’s alright

Naked and Screaming

We all come into this life fragile and innocent, naked and screaming. Instantaneously, we become aware of our overwhelming need – our need to be feed, to be held, to be protected . . . to be loved. And these are the needs that remain with us for the rest of our days – because our existence is inescapably contingent . . . and no measure of self-sufficiency can change this. To be innately filled with such a consuming need, is to be exposed and vulnerable, which invariably leads us onto one of two paths – humble acceptance or fearful shame.

It could be reasonably argued that naked and screaming is a defining aspect of our fallen nature – regardless of our age. Because our impulse response to being vulnerable is to act out of shame, to seek control, demanding the capitulation and deference of others . . . hoping to distract them and ourselves from the shame that is ever at work in us. But very often we foolishly assume that if our actions were driven by shame that we would certainly know it. But what if our instinct to cover the nakedness of being exposed was more reflexive than cognitive . . . do you still think you would know then?

But before I continue, let’s make an important distinction here between a cultural framing of shame, and the psychological outworking of shame. We might view those who choose to live a life of openly self-destructive behavior as having no shame – otherwise they would take care to hide their conspicuously consuming behavior . . . because that’s what we would do. We are tempted to assume that because they no longer maintain the social pretense of covering their shame, that they aren’t experiencing shame . . . but nothing could be further from the truth.

imagesInstead of screaming “Look away! . . . or you’ll never be able to accept me”—they’re screaming “Look at me! . . . and see what my fear of not being acceptable has done to me”. The innate vulnerability and need that is common to us all becomes harder to detect in these cases – because of the broken and distorted extremes they’ve gone to in addressing the disquiet and fear they experience . . . it is a need that has become for them a devouring abyss.

But like I said, fearful shame is only one of two paths. The humble acceptance path of our vulnerability becomes a solemn confession – it is not simply to confess our need, but to confess that every human attempt to address need will always be flawed. We can neither be fixed by someone else (human), or fix ourselves. It’s a humble confession that God’s grace is required – that underneath every need we have, is our need for him. Not only does this allow us to unflinchingly know ourselves as he knows us – but it also allows us to be grateful conduits of God’s grace in the world.

So when you experience people screaming (metaphorically) at you to accept them on their own broken terms of hiding shame, we can choose instead to accept them on the terms that sets us all free from shame, an acceptance that brings shame into the light so it can no longer have power. So that finally their deepest longings and needs can find a corresponding satisfaction that can only be found in God.

It is shame that steals everything from us . . .

A Different Drummer

Humans have the oddest relationship to conformity – it’s part sleepwalking ambivalence and part cognitive dissonant reaction. There’s a baseline anthropology driving our default psychology in regards to conformity, like an elastic band keeping us from straying too far, before it snaps us back into line . . . until like a toddler we begin to wobbly wander off in another direction. But by and large, most people follow socially normative expectations with agreeable compliance.

Ironically, many assume that the popular counter cultural persona they carefully maintain, based on what is currently counter culturally acceptable, somehow places them outside of conformity . . . and I just don’t have the heart to break it to them that it really doesn’t matter how much ink, metal bits, or smarmy aloof posturing – they’re still conforming . . . as I’m pretty sure the irony of this is completely lost on them.

Then there are those odd birds, who are simply contrarian – imagining that this qualifies as defying conformity . . . not realizing that all of their contrary choices are entirely predicated on their reaction to social norms – which of course means they’re still tethered to the cultural script, dancing to the same tune . . . albeit, with a measure of contempt for having to play along.

But with the artistically inclined, there usually isn’t so much a deliberate reaction or response to conformity, as such. For the creative mind, the social norms, which for most people, end up being either followed or challenged – are mostly ignored. Not really as a conscious defiance, but mostly out of a lack of sensitivity to the social queues. It’s because they’re preoccupied, listening for a different call, following a different path –which ends up taking up all of their attention. As an artist, I’m well acquainted with this blithe state of altered focus . . . and it is not easily explained.

B4rbqxvIUAIOdKxThe operative dynamic here is one of perception. The common perception detects the most conspicuous patterns of mannerism and behavior, language and value, apparent in the culture. But for the artist, with a different drummer in his head, he perceives many layers of pattern at work – the places where harmony and dissonance are vibrating beneath the surface of the culture . . . to see the beauty and the brokenness that often hides in the details of how life is lived.

In Romans 12:1-2 we are admonished to worship God by sacrificing the life we have, and this can only occur as God transforms us, renewing the way we perceive the world, letting go of the common patterns of conformity, so that we might recognize the deeper patterns of God’s will at work in the world. Then in Romans 8: 28-29 we discover that we are being conformed to the image of Christ, which is the very transformation in chapter 12 at work, allowing us to perceive all of the circumstances of our life as working for the good . . . regardless of the world’s perception of our circumstance.

I guess you could say that Jesus is the different drummer in our head, creating a different cadence that we might walk in by faith, allowing a different melody to be sung – a song of hope, a song we can sing everywhere we go . . . to everyone we meet. Can you hear that? That’s Jesus calling you to live in the power of his life – by seeing the world in a whole new way!

. . . and here’s the song I wrote to prove it.