What Do We Mean By Equality? (3 of 4)

There are certain common words, when used by some folks, make me scratch my head, wondering exactly what meaning do they actual intend . . . especially when I’m pretty sure they don’t actually know what they mean. This is because some words, by their very nature, are contextualized by an unnamed authority that, for the most part, goes unreferenced. For instance the word right, as in, having “the” right to . . . do, or have, or be – assumes the existence of an unspoken source of that right. So for many folks, the actual authority of the right they’ve chosen to reference, remains in abstraction — making such a pronouncement of rights nothing more than an emotional outburst.

And the complexity of this issue becomes compounded when an entitled expectation of right is associated with something as ill-defined as equality – which inescapably invites the question: equal in what way? Because when you use a comparative word without specifically defining what’s actually being compared, and then pronounce that some general notion of equality needs to be held sacred, you are merely perpetuating emotionally charged empty rhetoric as if your meaning were somehow self-evident. And given that this is the short–hand we all tend to speak in, is it any wonder why we end up speaking past one another?

Clearly we are all uniquely different, with different gifts and talents, pursuing different dreams and ambitions, overcoming different obstacles and struggles. So even though it’s the default setting of authoritarian regimes to homogenize us into a docile lock-step conformity — it’s important that we recognize that equality isn’t really about having everyone declared the same . . . but rather, whether or not we recognize everyone as having an immutable baseline of dignity and worth. But such a baseline requires an immutable moral understanding of the value of human life, a value held high above the volatility of our self-serving opinions. So yes, equality is decidedly a moral issue, but the question is — what moral premise best defines equality?

But this is a question that goes largely unasked, because an ambiguous moral authority allows equal rights to be defined in whatever way that best suits the social agenda – like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm – “. . . some animals are more equal than others.” Even so, we’re drawn to believe that we’re all in this together, that we share a common bond, and within that commonality we share an innate dignity unique to each one of us — which is likely why the idea of true equality rings so true . . . and also why we’re so susceptible to distortions about what equality might mean.

It is the confession of my Christian faith that we are all made in God’s image, and the most eloquent expression of this gospel truth is found in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus enters the world because he deems us all valuable, desiring to draw us all into his loving embrace. For it was the love of God that spoke the world into existence and took Jesus to the cross . . . and we are all equally in need of such a life altering love – a love that pulls down every divide (Galatians 3:28).

. . . O Lord, make us an instrument of your peace.

What Do We Mean By Tolerance? (2 of 4)

It is innate to the vernacular of language that the definition of a word has less to do with its specific etymology, and more to do with how a culture’s dominate narrative insinuates meaning. For instance, when the word progress is generically used it is assumed to be a good thing, unless placed in a specifically bad context like a progressing cancer. And that’s the thing – if we haven’t actually defined the destination, how can we tell whether we’re getting closer to it . . . and not farther away from it. In this way, a persuasive narrative can be misleading, insinuating an ambiguously desirable outcome without ever specifying why that outcome should be desired.

This is exactly how our culture’s prevailing narrative uses the word tolerance – it’s treated as if it should be an unquestioned virtue, by those who invariably have a long list of things they absolutely can’t tolerate . . . no doubt, a self-affirming list. So given the conspicuous duplicity and sheer cognitive dissonance with which the word tolerance is commonly used, you have to ask yourself – what standard are we to assume is being used by those who’ve deemed themselves to be in charge of holding the rest of us accountable? Asked another way — how do they know you’re being intolerant?

The word tolerance is best understood as a threshold, a breaking point – like a weight limit on an elevator defines the point of safe occupancy. But as it relates to human interaction, tolerance would be the threshold within our moral judgement, where we decide what is morally intolerable to us. So when our cultural narrative is promoting tolerance, it isn’t actually promoting tolerance, as much as it is an attempt to impose an existential moral perspective . . . without ever defining the underlying premise of their morality.

So instead of an honest conversation about what moral framework should we subscribe to when determining how moral tolerance is to be assessed – the concept of tolerance is purposefully left to be ambiguously applied . . . so as to impugn anyone as intolerant that fails to subscribe to whatever ill-defined morality the prevailing cultural narrative is currently promoting. In this regard, any intellectually honest notion of tolerance has long been abandoned in favor of being able to manipulate public discourse with fear and guilt.

Pluralism is predicated on the concept that we are able to tolerate disagreement with others without diminishing our own views, or having to accept opposing views as being true – because tolerance doesn’t actually require we accept everyone’s idea of truth as true. But again, we find within our current cultural narrative, a desire to define tolerance as unconditional acceptance. This ends up creating not only a moral ambiguity, but also creates an unmoored irrational framing of truth – all of which allows those driving the narrative to change it to best suit their own agenda.

The admonitions of my Christian faith don’t allow me to merely tolerate my neighbor, but neither do they constrain me to co-dependently be held hostage to the foolish self-destructive behavior of them – I am simply to love my neighbor as myself. This does not require me to pass judgement over them, or pretend that I can convict them of sin — for I am to be the hands and feet of the gospel, ever inviting the wayward to return home to the loving arms of their Father. This is a central truth and the moral impetus of what it means to follow Christ — to speak truth in love . . . to a world that may, or may not, tolerate it.

. . . and remember the humble confession of — for the likes of me.

What Do We Mean By Progress? (1 of 4)

Language, by its very nature, is built upon incalculable layers of assumption – because not only is it inescapably mired in the ethos of cultural idiom, it exists in a constant state of revision, driven by the ever-shifting value assessments of our unarticulated philosophical presuppositions. In other words, a simple statement like “I only want to change the world for the better” may seem like an innoxiously vague sentiment, until it occurs to you that every totalitarian regime in history assumed itself to be the arbiter of how better should be defined . . . which invariably determines what changes will need to be made.

This is why the powerful, and those who seek power, place so much value on controlling the narrative – because if they can convince you that they only want what’s best for you . . . then anyone opposed to them will be seen as a threat to you. And if they can keep you from examining too closely what they’re actually changing – then you won’t realize that they’re idea of what’s best isn’t actually the way you would have defined it . . . which is why they need you to assume that they’re good intentions are all that matter.

There’s an innate tension between what is, and what ought to be, and it’s a tension we largely experience intuitively – it’s that nagging feeling we get that things aren’t right the way they are . . . which is why someone advocating change tends to get our attention. We want to believe that things are somehow progressing towards something better, something good – even if we haven’t established a criterion for what better and good should even look like. We just assume that progress is good, whatever shape it takes . . . as if there were no philosophical implications to consider.

Philosophically speaking, any notion that we might be progressing towards something is inescapably entertained as a teleological question – do we exist for a reason, or is our existence meaningless? Because to assume progress, is to assume a preexisting purpose – otherwise, how would progress even be measured? But even the word purpose, much like the words progress and better, will always be susceptible to an ambiguous and malleable definition, if not tethered to a more transcendently sourced ontology. Because an existence that denies a pre-existing telos (purpose) inevitably devolves into the disunity and deconstruction of competing presuppositions.

So either we seek to be in harmony with the very purposes that spoke us into existence, or we imagine existence is nothing more than a meaningless blank slate, where we struggle for significance by constantly reinventing purpose out of thin air – as if reality could simply be pronounced into being. Either we find ourselves in the dim light of Babel pouring over our latest architectural plans for a new tower, we intend to build for our own glory and sovereignty – or we seek first the Kingdom of God, declaring that we serve none but the true king of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ . . . the Word, spoken from the beginning – the only Word that transcends all language.

“. . . unless the Lord builds the house.”

A Political Apocalypse

Having crossed over the tipping point of our post-modern dystopia, where rational thought is currently being held hostage to the existential pronouncements of the culturally enlightened – the reinvention of the world has begun in earnest. Having already expelled every notion of the transcendent, the new religious zealots of the politically motivated, are now regularly found worshipping at the altar of self-existence, where the manipulation of language is the liturgy, and the insinuation of violence is a sacrament.

This is because political dogma has been reimagined as faith confession, where the faithful have been called to denounce everything that fails to measure up to the ever moving target of partisan conformity. This is clearly a political apocalypse, as we watch the mask of pretense fall, revealing the sinister intent of those seeking to control our cultural narrative. And whereas this has always been the ugly truth about politics, our current post-modern malaise has exposed just how dark the vain imaginings of men can be—making these political power struggles even more palpable, until the noxious fumes of unscrupulous fear-mongering has overtaken every public discourse.

The two most conspicuous political philosophies competing for our allegiance are individualism and collectivism – each assuming it should have unquestioned moral authority . . . and each one imagines the image of man to be self-defining. Individualism declares that all that I am, all that I have, and all that I do — belongs to me. Collectivism declares that all that I am, all that I have, and all that I do — belongs to the collective. And while both of these are clearly at odds with each other – they are also in direct opposition to the native ethos of the Christian faith, which declares that all that I am, all that I have, and all that I do — belongs to God.

No doubt this is why I have always felt uneasy with political rhetoric – as such rhetoric invariably assumes an ownership that I simply can’t agree with . . . because ownership is essentially at the very core of every political debate. In this way, ownership and authority go hand in hand – because you don’t actually own what you can’t control. So when we entertain political ideas that obfuscate God’s ownership of us, then we are actually practicing a form of idolatry – worshipping a god of our own making . . . one we have made in our own image.

When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) I am struck by four things – (1) My love for God finds its best expression in my love of my neighbor (see also 1 John 4:19-21). (2) He does not use a collectivist’s example for how the needy among us are to be addressed, (3) but neither does he give the Samaritan the individualist’s option of ignoring his obligation to care for (love) his neighbor. And (4) Jesus deliberately uses a Samaritan while speaking to a Jewish audience knowing that the Jews looked down on Samaritans, seeing them as both religious and political rivals. This last point for me illustrates just how easily we can become contentious with one another, keeping us from loving God and each other as we should . . . which, of course, is why Jesus tells this story in the first place.

. . . so let us pray God’s Kingdom come.

The Ultimate Power

If books and movies are any indication, it would seem that we are drawn to stories about the underdog, who against all odds, is able to overcome the impediments placed in their way by the powers that be. No doubt, this is because history has taught us that the powerful are rarely ever beneficent and humble . . . and that the best you can hope for is that they’ll ignore you – history is pretty clear on this point. But the irony is, even though we identify with the powerless long shot underdog – what we really want to be is the powerful . . . so that we get to call the shots and have the final say.

Darwin identifies this instinct as being indicative of survival of the fittest. Nietzsche identifies this instinct as the unavoidable volitional collision of will to power. But neither one, within their non-theist calculations, would extol as virtuous or valuable the unassuming status of the underdog, as underdog. So why is it given the undeniable cultural influence of these two 19th Century thinkers, do we find ourselves drawn to the unassuming reluctant hero who takes on the far more powerful villain? How is it that we always end up believing that the wrong people have the power? Or is it simply as John Acton observed – power corrupts?

Neither Darwin, nor Nietzsche, had any moral expectation of power, both believing that the prevailing cultural morality would inevitable be shaped by whatever the powerful declared it to be. But the modern iteration of the non-theist, tends to see it the other way around – believing they have moral cause to impose their will and seize power . . . even though the morality they subscribe to isn’t really transcendent. You hear this cognitive dissonance in their gotcha challenge of the existence of God – If a good and all powerful God existed, why does suffering of the innocent exist?

This question is intended to appear as if it were concerned with the plight of the suffering, with the assumption that if an ultimate power actually existed it wouldn’t allow this to happen. But in fact, this question serves as an excellent insight into how the non-theist is inclined to expect the powerful to impose its will – because for them the whole point of having power is to impose will . . . even if that imposed will is the cause of much of the suffering in the world . . . which is likely why we think of the powerful as the villains in all of those narratives we’re drawn to.

This is what makes the cross such a scandal – because the idea of the ultimate power in the universe being humbled and vulnerable is contrary to everything we normally associate with power. But the self-emptying love of Christ freely offered as gift and not imposed, does seem to resonate with the narrative we already intuitively know to be true. So that in this way, Christ profoundly demonstrates that suffering isn’t overcome by an overwhelming display of imposed will, but rather is redeemed in the power of love’s willingness to be sacrificed – making the ultimate sacrifice, the penultimate power . . . only to be fully realized by the power of the Resurrection.

Is that you, my Lord?

I Fell Asleep

We are all creatures of habit, so invariably we get locked into patterns and routines that make up the sub-structure of the story we choose to believe about ourselves and the world we live in. A narrative we’ve presupposed to be true, and therefore assume on some fundamentally meaningful level that our existence will find purpose and significance. But every once in a while you will experience an epiphany that so alters your understanding of one thing that it inextricably alters the way you understand everything else.

And within such a paradigm shift you begin to reimagine your own narrative about the world and your place in it – as if awakening from a long slumber, you start to adjust to your new interpretation of reality. But for me, this inescapably leads to an obvious question – How do you know you’ve actually awakened . . . and haven’t merely imagined you’ve awakened from a dream, within a dream? Because without a thoughtful examination of our presuppositions and their philosophical underpinnings, we inevitably end up circling back to the same baseline . . . returning to the same assumptions.

This all occurs to me as I ponder the social phenomenon of “woke culture” – those claiming to have awakened from their complacency with a moral clarity about what the rest of us need to be doing. So their mission, as they see it, is to awaken the rest of us to their moral concerns – whether we like it or not. It isn’t so much an invitation to share their vision, as it is the bullying coercion of imposed will . . . as their rhetoric decidedly carries with it an implied “or else”. Again, this leads me to ask: By whose authority, and by what standard of morality, are they making their case? Because if I’m truly to awaken from my complacent sleep, I’ll want to know that this isn’t merely a different dream (or nightmare) – moving me from the frying pan into the fire.

It’s not that I’m reluctant to confess my propensity for slumber – in fact, it is an essential component of my faith confession that I’m prone to falling into a forgetful complacency in regards to the life God calls me to live . . . a life of self-emptying love and redemptive sacrifice. For this is the moral imperative of the Christian faith – “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35. But from what I can tell, the Woke movement seeks to serve a very different agenda – one with a particular political ambition.

So here I am, making my way through the season of Lent to the Passion of Christ – where I find myself in the Garden of Gethsemane, only to realize that my eyes have grown heavy with sleep . . . again. So I cry out “Awaken me, O Lord, so that I might be with you awhile longer” Yes, I fell asleep at Gethsemane, along with the disciples of Christ – but I have been awakened by the power of the Resurrection . . . awakened to live a life devoted to the way of Christ . . . an awakening born of forgiveness, and not condemnation. So yea — I’m woke, won’t you join me?

From my Chiaroscuro collection . . .

I Fell Asleep

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 a while

Everybody Knows Everything

It wouldn’t likely take much for me to convince you that social media has become a cultural mine field of bare-knuckle tribal street fighting and pseudo-intellectual posturing. A place so hostile that a humble, honestly logical opinion isn’t welcome – because invariably some partisan will come along posthaste to set you straight, armed with something freshly googled up to denounce your heresies. This is because in the age of information everybody knows everything – just ask them, they’ll tell you! Everyone’s a constitutional lawyer now! Everyone’s an epidemiologist, a climatologist, and a psychotherapist . . . because the next best thing to being an expert yourself, is knowing how to google up the experts who already agree with you.

Not only does this conspicuously lack intellectual honesty – it’s perversely reductive. Such a mindless parroting of information, as if we were merely disembodied avatars of tribal ideals – will only ever be able to foster a shallow and disingenuous discourse. How could it not? This is the tipping point of banality and superficiality, an entire culture feigning erudition and intellectual refinement as if they were nothing more than fashion accessories – while we’re all being herded into our contrived intersectional identities, until fear, anger and resentment consumes all.

And given the ubiquity of information, spreading out like buffet of data – it isn’t so much about the validity of each individual factoid, but it’s in how the narrative is assembled. A narrative that invariably seeks to semantically redefine language, so that the prevailing cultural agenda can be insinuated as self-evident. This is precisely how summary judgements of differing opinions, without even the least bit of honest examination, can be blithely made – because it’s about the group-think talking points . . . and not actually about the content of the ideas.  This is because the underpinnings of ideas are seldom internalized as a coherent whole . . . instead we choose to rely on the shallow sentimentality of sound bites and memes to speak our truth.

Undoubtedly, critical thinking is conspicuously absent in the circular logic at work in this type of confirmation bias that now inhabits much of popular discourse – but this, for me, would only be a rhetorical critique. What is far more evident to me is the hollow expectation of the individual to disappear into the drift and sway of faddish cultural shifts – having absolutely nothing to ground them, whatsoever. For where there is no transcendent anchor to hold us fast, no overarching meditation to captivate our hearts and minds – all that remains is the transient vacuity of our own self-involved opinions.

Therefore, the fully formed person isn’t preoccupied with masquerading as a pseudo-expert in the world of Google make-believe – the fully formed person makes their meditation in the humble desire to “know him and the power of his resurrection, and share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” ~ Philippians 3:10. So that they may say “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”~ Psalm 19:14. In this way, the confessions of our faith are in contrast to the vain posturing of those pretending they know everything . . . as our meditations lead us to one humble confession “Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

. . . so let us walk a more humble path.

Rushing Into the Vacuum

The human mind is incapable of comprehending the infinite, but it isn’t the sheer magnitude of it that makes it so imponderable – it is the absolute otherness of it. Even an astrophysicist will tell you that the infinite can only be conceptualized theoretically within the contextualizing constraints of the finite – because the absolute nature of the literally infinite is far too problematic, fraught with the inescapable conundrum of cascading paradoxes. And in a similar way, the concept of absolute nothing can only be imagined theoretically, because pondering the absence of existence, presupposes an absolute comprehension of what exists, so as to distinguish between existence and non-existence. Therefore the finite mind can only theorize . . . nothing.

This is but one of a thousand examples of why we should have a more humble appreciation for how we exist – but humble isn’t really what we do well, is it? It seems to be more our speed to assume our understanding of things is sufficient enough. So, as a culture, we tend to jettison whatever we feel doesn’t need to exist – without the least bit of concern for what will be rushing into the vacuum created. Which is how an ostensibly secular post-Christian culture comes, by default, to find itself extricated from an immutably transcendent understanding of its own existence — but like the unavoidable sensation of feeling a phantom limb . . . it is still haunted by the absence.

But this social imaginary isn’t so much a modern phenomenon as it is a modern iteration of an 18th century Enlightenment philosophy. Both David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that the perfecting of human nature could be accomplished quite apart from the existence of a transcendent source (God). And because each believed social constraints were merely artificial impositions on what they understood to be the authentic self – they concluded that morality, truth, and telos (purpose) were existential in nature. Which is to say, each of us sorts out our own morality, truth, and telos . . . making it up as we go along. Sound familiar?

But long before these European philosophers with the self-serving sophistry of their solipsistic explanations, we find this perverse pattern of doing what is right in our own eyes at work in scripture – because the choice of displacing God, thereby presuming ourselves as the arbiters of morality, truth, and telos, finds its ultimate origin in the Garden of Eden. We may assume we’ve become more sophisticated and enlightened in how we make that argument – but the argument is ultimately the same . . . we want to set aside the sovereignty of the transcendent, and replace it with our own fiefdom of self-involved concerns and self-aggrandizing pursuits.

Ontologically, I believe this to be the inevitable tension between the infinite nature of existence, with the absolute nothingness of non-existence. For all things exist in an infinite God (Colossians 1:17) and there is no existence outside of Him. St Augustine tells us, in describing man’s fallen state, that we’re all haunted by the non-existence from which God spoke us all out of – haunted by a desire to deconstruct the image of God we were created to bear . . . preferring instead the vanity of our own nothingness, to the transcendence of God. O may God save us all from our own vain imaginings (Romans 1:21) that will only lead us to futility and self-destruction.

“I think we’ve been here once before”

The Way Sleep Finds Me

A “can do attitude” is the natural byproduct of what is commonly known as the protestant work ethic – an ethic that assumes that where there are idol hands, the devil must be at work. And whereas, a well-intended virtue is behind the inspiration of such an ethos, it invariably fosters the knee-jerk reaction of “don’t just stand there –do something!” A reaction, more often than not, fraught with unintended consequences. I liken this unto the commonly employed vacuous bromide “Make a difference!” An ambiguous admonition so completely devoid of moral discernment that it could be reasonably argued that Adolf Hitler “made a difference” . . . so maybe “doing something” isn’t always the best policy.

My point isn’t to promote a laissez faire sensibility, but rather to suggest that a slowing of our reflexive impulse to take action might allow us a moment’s discernment to determine what the actual problem might be, so that an actual solution might be determined. And trust me when I tell you – I’ve lived long enough to know that, more often than not, it is the clamoring voices calling for immediate action, who inevitably are the ones, almost without exception, who jump to the wrong conclusion . . . and then impose their solution on the rest of us. So it’s best to remember – wisdom is never in a hurry.

The wise are always capable of distinguishing between what can be changed and what cannot . . . and never confuses the two. Wisdom knows that we can’t change (fix) one another – we can only become an inviting expression of being changed. It also knows what can be held, and what must be let go. And it knows that the most meaningful lessons learned, are the ones we’re not even trying to learn. In this way, wisdom is far more identifiable by what it doesn’t do or say. Like the wisdom of sleep – you can’t find it by looking for it.

The problem with trying to fall asleep – is that “trying to fall” is oxymoronic . . . and if you’re trying to sleep – you’re doing it wrong. It’s taken me a long time to learn the art of sleep – learning to power down my conscious mind so that my subconscious mind can begin the process of curating my dreams. The trick is in letting go of each thing as if placing each one into God’s hands – offering my grateful prayers as the whispering dark lowers my body into the stillness, for a few small repairs. This is the way sleep finds me – in a state of contented surrender . . . I give myself to it, unconditionally.

This is also the way love finds me – one by one I hand over to God everything I seek to control, knowing each to be an impediment. Because in the same way that the mind can come up with many foolish reasons for withholding sleep – the mind comes up with reasons for holding God, and those he places in our lives, at arm’s length. But the love of God bids me come without hesitation into his presence, so that the necessary repairs of my heart can be made. So that I might know myself as his beloved and be filled with the overwhelming desire to see his Kingdom come . . . where love is all!

. . . and love never fails

Claiming To Be Wise

Very often knowledge tempts us to believe we understand more than we actually do . . . and we’re able to recognize this because wisdom allows us to be humble and intellectually honest enough to realize this limitation. This is what distinguishes wisdom from knowledge. Because knowledge, regardless of type or volume, is only capable of shaping our preexisting understanding within our given context of perception. Whereas, wisdom is able to foster discernment and insight – providing the context for our perception to take shape. I guess this is why those who are wise in their own eyes seem so clueless.

So it doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, your presuppositions will invariably be self-affirming – because what you know and how you know it doesn’t occur in a vacuum, it occurs within the construct of what you’ve already deemed to be a true perspective. And this is precisely how we allow our own understanding to convince us that we are being wise. But being truly wise is like being humble – in the moment you make the assumption that you are, is the exact moment when you’re the farthest from it. For wisdom is not proud, it makes no claims of special knowledge.

History has long been familiar with the Gnosticism of special knowledge, especially in times of cultural decline, when a vacuum of moral ambiguity has been created, only to be filled with various explanations of who is to blame and how we got here. We see this at work today, it’s what’s driving every conspiracy theory and has been metastasized in the insufferable sanctimony of the Woke crowd. And like every other gnostic before them,  each one imagines itself the sole arbiter of the true perspective on what’s really going on, and what needs to be done . . . and each one has absolutely no desire to have an intellectually honest discussion about it – because time for talk is over.

Therefore, the meditative and contemplative approach of the wise is pushed aside as being inconsequential to the solution . . . if not seen as complicit with the problem. For the new Gnostics serve a moral imperative, a self-serving narrative born of their own understanding that justifies everything they say and do . . . and it must never be questioned or scrutinized. Is this not the very definition of “leaning on your own understanding” that Proverbs 3:5 juxtaposes with trusting in the Lord? Which is to say – that our own understanding will be all we are left with, when we abandon all trust in the Lord.

Yes, there’s a particular type of arrogance associated with claiming to be wise – “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” ~ Romans 1:21, 22. Place your trust in the Lord, this is the wisdom of scripture and the humble confession of faith. It is the refuge for those who have the courage to seek first God’s Kingdom (Matthew 6:33), and is the foolishness of God that confounds the wisdom of this world. (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). For there can be no wisdom apart from God.

But everything you see’s not the way it seems
Tears can sing and joy shed tears
You can take the wisdom of this world
And give it to the ones who think it all ends here.

Beautiful Feet

I have some good news and some bad news – which do you want to hear first? If truth be told, you have no interest in hearing the bad news at all . . . because no news is better than bad news. But when offered the pairing of the good with the bad, as if it were a riddle to solve. We either brace for the impact of the bad news, hoping that the good news will be able to pull us back onto our feet, afterwards – or we want to front load the good news, hoping it will be enough to shield us against the wallop the bad, invariably delivers. And this, on many levels, is how we usually experience life – hoping to fend off the relentlessness of the bad with the impermanence of the good.

It is the innate pessimism of the fall – to hope for the best, but to always expect the worst . . . as if this were our default setting. The non-theist describes this as our survival instinct, convinced that we are basically at odds with our own existence, a meaningless and indifferent existence, intent on undoing us at every turn. But this is antithetical to the confession of the Christian faith, which believes that darkness is overcome by light – like a seed buried in the ground makes its way through the soil into the light. And it’s a perilous journey that can’t be avoided.

Moses stands barefoot before a burning bush and hears some good news and some bad news. The good news – after four hundred years of enslavement, God is finally going to set his people free. The bad news – Moses has to go before Pharaoh and tell him to let his people go. Having lived in the palace, Moses knows full-well how impossible this task will be – but here is the unmistakable presence of God, telling him to go and deliver a message he knows will be rejected. In this way, the good news of Israel’s redemption will need to be carried passed the hard-heartedness of Pharaoh, and through the ten plagues, before this exodus can finally occur.

Isaiah 52:7 declares “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” And Paul is riffing on this passage in Romans 10:14-17 when describing those who are sent with the gospel – the good news of God’s Kingdom come, the coming kingdom Jesus was declaring everywhere he went . . . a good news message that took him to the cross, through the tomb, until on resurrection morning we might know the full meaning of how this good news changes everything.

So when I read of the women in Luke 7:38 who cried at the feet of Jesus, wiping away her tears with her hair – I begin to realize just how beautiful are those feet. When I considered the distance that Jesus came and the perilous path he endured culminating in the cross – to bring us the good news of the gospel . . . that he would actually be the very embodiment of that good news – I am completely undone. So that now, whatever bad news comes my way – I have more than enough good news to overcome it . . . and so do you.

So let us go to Jesus . . .

The Sisyphus Stone

When I was a kid there was a Peggy Lee song that played on the radio called “Is That All There Is?” It was a rather nihilistic lament about how life was nothing more than a relentless string of disappointments making life utterly meaningless – which makes you wonder how such a depressing song could have possibly enjoyed popularity. I suppose what gave it relatability was the way it concluded that hedonistic self-indulgence was the only remedy for dulling the pain of such disillusionment . . . even though that didn’t really seem to lift the dark cynicism of its primary question: Is that all there is?

To be sure, even life at its best can be a bit of a grind — add to this the ever opening trap doors of personal difficulties and tragedies, and the general milieu of disenfranchisement inevitably at work within every social structure . . . you can begin to feel the weight of the world shifting onto your shoulders. And if then, God forbid, you should begin to ponder your own mortality, or the prospect of how our sun may unexpectedly go nova – it’s no longer just the weight of the burden you feel, but the pointlessness of it all, draining from you any sense of hope. Makes me wonder how an atheist makes it through their day without succumbing to the temptation of Peggy Lee’s epicurean song.

This is the avalanche of despair the non-theist attempts to hold off with the self-involved sophistry of their existential ontology – believing that if we’ll only pretend there’s somehow a purpose to be found in arduously rolling our Sisyphus stone up an impossibly steep incline, we can manufacture our own meaning ex nihilo. Never mind, that every morning the stone is back at the bottom again. And it never occurs to them, if survival of the species is ultimately pointless — “if that’s all there is” . . . then why bother?

But the godless aren’t the only ones willing to pointlessly roll that stone. I’m reminded of how Cardinal Bernadine described the state of modern Christendom as living lives of “functional atheism” – Christians professing belief in God, but living as if he doesn’t actually exist. In this way, they create their own stone of self-importance to roll — a meaning and purpose made in their own image. This is what comes from the contrived notion that the sacred and secular can somehow be parsed into two separate lives, believing that the meaning and significance of life can have more than one source.

The fact that we are contingent upon God is an immovable ontological truth – but not in some general way we can simply push off into vague abstraction, rather, it permeates every atom of the universe, at every moment of existence. So the idea that we can simply invent our own meaning and purpose out of thin air is the very lie Adam and Eve fell for in the garden. The truth is, life only has one purpose, one for which all other purposes are meant to be subservient. And according to Colossians 1:16, 17 – it is Christ “. . . all things were created through him and for him” It is this preeminence of Christ that breathes purpose into all that we are – a meaning and significance, that no amount of pointless stone rolling could ever hope to equal . . . so just let that stone roll away.

Purpose and meaning are either transcendently sourced
. . . or they don’t exist at all!

Let It Be

There has long been an academic debate, in regards to human behavior, between “nature” and “nurture”. The question is – are we really inextricably predisposed to follow the genetic script of our DNA, or are we just environmentally conditioned to act out of psychological muscle memory reflex response? Or perhaps, some amalgam of the two? But doesn’t such a question presuppose a determinist answer – that somehow, either your immutable genetics, or your immutable past, has already predetermined your path? Seems to me like the debate has conspicuously over looked the step that explains where volition fits in.

When I read the Bible cover to cover I can see the providential hand of God indisputably working his sovereign will – but on every single page of it, I find the absolute significance of human choice on full display, as being crucial to how history unfolds. And when I attempt to simultaneously hold these two truths in my mind I experience the innate tension between the two. I can’t bring myself to believe in a fatalistic world that imagines life as nothing more than a cosmic simulation, as if all of our choices were merely cosmetic. But neither can I imagine a world where all of my choices have preeminent value – as that also strikes me as an untenable form of fatalism.

Is this not what it means to live contingently within the mystery of believing in a God who speaks us into existence? Desperate to reconcile the tension we feel between the two, we are tempted to resolve this dilemma with what are arguably reductive theological solutions – solutions intent on giving us the illusion of control over things beyond our comprehension. This invariably leads us to assume human volition to be irredeemably corrupted, while unavoidably being our inescapable responsibility – so we know we need to make the choices . . . even if we don’t really trust the choices we make.

Having grown wiser as I’ve grown older, I’ve developed an appreciation for the sublime elegance of the simple routines of a disciplined life. It has been a refinement of my choice making, a narrowing of my focus to the things that most matter . . . and this is where I’ve learned to make the will of God my deepest desire. So when I read about this teenage girl who intuitively reaches the same conclusion in Luke 1: 26-38, I take notice of her gracious resolve to “let it be”, and marvel at how beautifully divine providence is able to gently entreat our involvement in what God is doing . . . and then I’m humbled in realizing that the natural home for my will is found in God.

Mary’s willingness to play her part in our redemption serves as a bookend to the confession of Jesus “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42) – so that it would be obvious to us, that throughout the life of Christ, doing his Father’s will was ever before him . . . and that he chose every step of that path to the cross. So now, let it be that our hearts may also treasure up all these things that Mary pondered (Luke 2:19) in her willingness to bring Jesus into this world — this gift beyond all measure.

Christmas begins as a conversation between an angel and a teenage girl . . .

How Much More?

Order out of chaos is the primal impulse of the human psyche – like an undeniable subtext, constantly at work in our daily interpretation, measuring in real-time our experience of meaning and purpose. This is why when we experience unexpected circumstances recklessly pulling us downstream from our normal life, our eyes instinctively look for a safe shore — a place we might step out of the troubled waters and walk on solid ground again. And if those circumstances are grave enough, cratering like a dark hole of despair in the middle of your life — that unspoken subtext becomes the primary text of your thoughts . . . as you now begin to wonder out loud — how much more of this will you have to endure?

So when we hear David cry out “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”(Psalm 13:1) – we can hear our own weary voice, and know well that feeling of the gathering dark beginning to fill our hearts . . . and that winter’s fog of isolation and loneliness that refuses to lift. In moments like these, meaning and purpose seem to be hanging by a thread – so we wait in silence, waiting in desperate faith, believing that the presence of God will break through the fog of our doubt and pain . . . and lead us back into the light of his steadfast love.

In this way, our longing to have our lives renewed and restored is actually a longing for the presence of God. Because when the inevitable chaos of the world crashes into our life, we intuitively know that it is God who brings order to our world, so we call out to him to be reassured that he has not left us. This is such a primal reflex that even the atheist finds himself calling out for God when he’s desperate enough, when the hope of rescue is fleeting. So for the Christian, how much more does our hope reside in God’s presence?

How much more, indeed! If we as imperfect parents can give our children loving provision, then how much more will our heavenly Father provide? (Luke 11:11-13) And if even the birds are feed by the hand of God, and the lilies of the field are dressed in grand splendor, how much more does our Father know our every need? (Luke 12:24-28) How much more valuable are we to Him? (Matthew 12:12) Are these not the practical expressions of love, indicative of a God who holds chaos at bay? So we place our hope in God for all things are held together . . . in His presence.

This is why it is the very heartbeat expectation of Advent to cry out “O, come Emmanuel” – compelled to beseech God to come and be with us. Because it’s the Incarnation that is the very culmination of our primal desire to have God’s presence make all things right again. For we worship a God who hears our cry, and knows our every need. A God who chooses to enter into this life so that he might abolish the power of death. How much more could we ask of God, than he give us his only begotten son?

O Come, O Come . . .

Let Them Tell Their Story

It used to be that the maxim of enlightened tolerance was “live and let live” – but not only has this simply stated adage fallen into disuse, the current purveyors of tolerance in our culture are now offended by its lack of conviction to woke conformity. And before you hurt your brain trying to noodle the pretzel logic of this cognitive dissonance, you would do well to remember that this new defining of tolerance isn’t intended to promote actual tolerance – it’s meant to silence and intimidate into compliance the newly identified intolerant . . . all those who refuse to get in line. So how exactly did we get here?

Humans have actually never been good at disagreement, we just keep inventing new ways for controlling the narrative, so that our side of the argument comes off looking virtuous . . . especially, if we’re the ones making the weaker argument. In this way, how the debate is framed can place your opponent on their heels right out of the gate – having to explain why they lack the moral integrity to do the right thing . . . and agree with you. Of course, this is neither intellectually honest, nor is it a good faith approach – but this is what comes of placing more value on winning . . . over a sincere desire to know what is true.

I tend to love a good debate the way a cat loves a bird. When I was a kid I played a lot of chess, and got pretty good at thinking, at least three moves ahead. I used to read the books and learned most of the gambits. So not only was I well prepared, I was nimble enough of mind to execute a pretty good game. So when I enter a debate on social media, I usually know how to press the advantage by identifying the rhetorical gambits and articulating my position with erudition and flamboyance, keeping my interlocutor off balance. But what’s the point? Usually the poor soul I’m engaging ends up feeling run over . . . and I failed to hear the story of the person behind the argument . . . and I am a lesser man for it.

Disagreement doesn’t need a decisive victory, it needs a sympathetic ear. Ontologically speaking, what is true will always win out, regardless of our self-involved desire to prove we know the truth. Certainly, we should bear witness to the truth, speaking it unflinchingly in the midst of a culture determined to manufacture its own version of the truth – but our distinctive is that we temper it with love (Ephesians 4:15). In this regard, the deeper truths of our faith are expressed – for what we really bear witness to is the reconciliation of God, our being reconciled to him . . . so that we might be reconciled to one another.

Modernity has misled us, causing us to believe that it is our disembodied ideas that matter most, until we are tempted to foist the certainty of our convictions on one another, as if in an academic vacuum. And it is profoundly dehumanizing to place the preeminence of our opinions over the dignity of the person we’re engaging – may God forgive us. Remember they are an image bearer of God, so entreat them on this point of commonality and let them tell their story, there will be time enough for disagreement. Let the love of God that pursued you, be the love that they find in you. Be the peacemaker (Matthew 5:9) in a world bent on violently imposing its will – because in one way or another, we are all refugees, seeking peace . . . so may the peace that is God’s presence be on your face . . . and on your lips.

. . . and may we all learn to seek the peace of God.