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 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


Being Free (3 of 7)

I grew up during the cultural revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, which was intended to be the long overdue liberation from our previous generation’s repressive cultural mores that were supposedly holding us all hostage – it was to be a revolution offering unconditional freedom. So it is with no small measure of irony that it has turned out that this very same revolutionary generation is now at the helm of ever increasing government regulations, regulating our speech and conduct – which surprisingly enjoys the tacit approval of the millennials who have ironically convinced themselves that more laws are needed to make them free (from offense). Makes you wonder just exactly how do all of these people define being free – because they keep using that word . . . but I can’t help but think they really don’t know what it means.

Unlike the American Revolution, the French Revolution wasn’t so much about liberty as it was about seizing power – as the blood soaked guillotines attest. So under the guise of calling for freedom, Robespierre and the Jacobins ushered in a new tyranny in exchange for the old – just trading one master for another. So apparently this is a reoccurring historical theme – people can always tell you what they want to be free from, but they seem to be a little hazy on the details about what they want to be free for . . . and this is precisely where their definition of freedom breaks down.

Knowing that we should be free is woven into the strands of our DNA. It was part of the original design, but in breaking from that design we have perverted the original intent of freedom, allowing it to devolve into nothing more than a self-indulgent desire to be free from consequences. Freedom interpreted as license becomes a demolition derby, wreaking havoc on the lives of others as if they were so much collateral damage — a freedom at the expense of everyone else’s freedom. Which is exactly what our current culture of being perpetually offended has become – holding everyone else hostage to absurd definitions of offense . . . but I digress.

birds-cagesA slave can be bought and sold, but only a free person can give themselves away – which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a self-indulgent view of freedom. Giving ourselves away, by design, is the whole point of being free. What did you expect – that it was going to be all about what you could get, take, or have? That is a broken paradigm that can only lead you back into bondage. Being free is ultimately about what you can choose to do with yourself . . . and not about the people and stuff you can control.

John 8:36 proclaims that we can return to the freedom of our original design – that the sin and anxious fear that drives our prideful desire to control everything has been rendered powerless by the finished work of Christ. God, the ultimate expression of freedom, gives himself away – in the selfless action of Jesus on the cross. By God’s free choice we are all set free – in giving himself away he has multiplied freedom. In this same way, our freedom is meant as a multiplying factor. So I say, give yourself away freely to everyone in your life – can you think of a better way of celebrating your freedom?

This is my performance of a song my brother Jeff wrote
as an ode to St. Francis of Assisi

On a Rock in a River

Under the sterile hum of florescent lighting, my brothers and I encircled her bed – to pray with mom one last time . . . prepared to release her into loving arms. We had each one, taken our turn the nights leading up to this moment, sitting vigil watch into that dark hospital disquiet, trying to listen beyond the pulsing clicking pings of the life monitoring machinery – for any sign of real life. Each of us were drawn into that inarticulate night, struggling to balance the weight of impending finality with the mystery of our faith – holding our breath, believing she would be stepping off this precipice into an immeasurable joy . . . but even so there was the heaviness of dread.

There is a popular platitude which, no doubt, is meant to comfort, but in actuality ends up opening a devouring philosophical abyss – “Death is just a natural part of living”. I imagine a bloodless bureaucrat stamping my papers while saying this – only to be followed by an abrupt “NEXT!” The reason these words ring so hollow is because with every cell in our body we intuitively know them to be wrong. Death is a tear in the fabric, an unraveling of the seam. It is an empty void mocking the very existence of meaning and purpose – it is the most virulent vestige of the fall. Simply put, death feels wrong — because it is wrong.

Moments like these are the crucible of faith, where the vacuous rhetoric of sentiment is the first thing to burnup; then the half measures of pretense begin to catch fire — until the smoke of doubt becomes so thick that the illusion of seeing is abandoned altogether . . . leaving only the bare naked substance of faith. This is the proving ground of what we truly believe . . . or have failed to believe.

Mom at 15My brothers and I were blessed to have had two devoutly Christian grandmothers who were instrumental in cultivating our spiritual formation. Our mother was a woman of quietly sure faith, instilling in us a durable and consistent awareness of God’s presence in our life. So as those days became hours, and those hours became minutes, the assurance of our hope became evident. The heaviness of those long night vigils grew increasingly lighter – until we finally left her in that shimmering doorway, waving goodbye . . . until we meet again.

There is a photo of my mother, where she is sitting with her mother on a rock in a river, she is about fifteen, and the sun is shining on what appears to be an exceptionally beautiful day – and she is smiling an honest smile of contentment . . . this is how I imagine her now. This may strike you as odd given that it predates my birth, but I believe it best exemplifies where she is now. On that rock she is a young woman with her whole life still ahead of her, she is filled with the wonderment and expectation of youth, and it is a never ending day . . . except this time she leaves that river for a different shore.

I wrote this a few days after she passed

Until The Door Breaks Open

The passing light narrows beneath the door
Spilling out illuminated particles suspended adrift

In this thin pool of light measured against the circling black
Hangs the wavering sway of time like jerking universe present and translucent

A beckoning light flung across the far reach into the hazy edge of dust eddies
To search the lost darkness for willing survivors

A rumor of hope echoes faintly in this slip of light
Like payment in earnest of iridescent love cascading until the door breaks open