Reclaiming The Culture

One of the advantages of growing old is that it affords a perspective with a larger frame of reference, enabling you to detect the trends and patterns that occur with every cultural shift. But it also allows you to pick up on what remains constant regardless of such shifts – one of these is that no matter what gets deemed as “culturally normative” – the majority of people remain culturally discontent. Every generation wants to make its claim on what the prevailing cultural ethos should be. And with multiple generations coexisting in the same society – no one actually gets what they want . . . because inevitably a power struggle for control ensues.

Control is the operative word here – because if you seek to change culture (or keep it from changing), invariably you will seek to control the levers of how culture is maintained in your society. No doubt, this is why our first impulse is to think in terms of political control – because let’s face it, the power to coerce people into cultural compliance with the threat of violence is nearly irresistible. But in reality, the political machinery of government is motivated by its own agenda – ever following the caprice of its own survival . . . so instead of leading – it follows. Which is likely why Andrew Breitbart famously observed “politics is downstream from culture.”

It was Nietzsche who discovered that the real power struggles aren’t so much in the political debate as they are in imposed morality – believing that those who control the moral high ground, control the political authority to govern. Which is why politicians always seem to presume themselves the arbiters of what the “right” side of history will be. Again, this approach relies on a form of coercion – making the threat of shame the manipulating agent of control . . . by shaming a society into cultural conformity. But the burden of moral dictates can only invite moral conflict – especially, if there isn’t a coherent narrative explaining the meaning of morality as a lived out experience.

Which is probably why controlling the culture always seems to boil down to controlling the cultural narrative. Because when we allow language to be treated as malleable, then words can be reshaped and redefined, so as to spin up a narrative so full of conviction and flamboyance that it would appear profound — without actually ever making any sense. Which is likely why so many absurdly vacuous cultural trends come and go without ever being checked at the door of credibility. In this way our desperation to believe that there could be an overarching narrative for animating a meaningful life, best illustrates our longing for a culture that allows us to be at peace with ourselves . . . and one another.

As Christians we very often assume that we should somehow be reclaiming the culture, because we embrace the only true overarching narrative – but this is a broken ideal. The narrative of the Christian faith cannot be coerced or imposed upon a society, history has made this clear. But rather, a Christian culture is adopted as Christians begin to live out the redemptive realities of what it means to be reconciled to God. So instead of becoming one more clamoring voice among many trying to manipulate the cultural ethos – we should live out the wisdom attributed to St Francis of Assisi “Preach the gospel at all times . . . and use words if necessary.”

For the glory of God is made known as each of us becomes his hands and feet


Reclaiming Reality

Pondering the imponderable, as if a fish could explain the meaning of water – we all tend to assume our many layers of presupposed perception of reality is somehow a sufficient explanation of reality. Which is not to suggest that the nature of reality is inscrutable, but rather that it requires a more humble expectation of how what is real might be revealed. Everything that occurs has a cause and effect catalyst underpinning each event – making it a matter of discernment when trying to identify possible causes . . . by placing it in context.  

For instance, if a four year old boy tells us he’s wrestling an alligator, we likely smile at his imaginative sense of play. But if an eighty year old man tells us he’s wrestling an alligator, we rightly become concerned that he might be suffering from dementia. In this way, the unreality of the alligator scenario when placed in context, reveals a clearer understanding of what is actually occurring. But this is a simple example of how context can give us clues – but sometimes the clues are far more complex in the way they are embedded in the context . . . because like icebergs – we all have far more beneath the surface than can be seen.

Consider the psychological dysfunction of codependency — when a child of a drug addict or alcoholic parent is raised in the alternate reality created when shame, anger, and hurt, invariably shapes that child’s default perception of reality. Then extrapolate that out over every relationship that child will ever have as a grownup – what framing of reality do you imagine gets promulgated from such a person? Now consider how we are all broken in similar ways, each of us shaped by our own stories, interacting with the brokenness of others – is it any wonder we might be tempted to imagine a reality that better affirms the life we’d rather live?

Then there is the modern notion that our consciousness is nothing more than brain chemistry reacting to electric current – an idea meant to underscore that a materialist universe is the sum total of reality. But ironically, this idea ends up creating the opposite psychologically effect – where people begin to imagine themselves as disembodied beings who can be equally at home in a virtualized environment as being in their bodies. And this is how we become the avatars our devices have begun to portray us as – in a reality we can simply put on and take off like a set of clothes. Until more and more we become hollowed out by the vanity of our own self-declarations . . . pretending that our actual bodies can be redefined as being whatever we say they are.

This is how a culture ends up ontologically adrift, with everyone speaking their own truth, living in their own reality . . . expecting the rest of us to conform to that reality. How does such an ethos not create social dissonance? Which is why we need to reclaim reality from this deconstructed milieu and we need to celebrate the immutable transcendence of our Christian faith in ways that becomes an invitation to return to the sacredness of their own existence as being made in God’s image. For this is the deepest truth of our existence, that allows us to accept each other as both broken and valuable beyond all measure . . . a perception of reality that invariably fosters forgiveness and redemption.

Remember – “love is what designed you for something more”

Reclaiming Your Heart

The modern concept of the decision making process is that it is the rational exercise of weighing out our options and choosing the best one, and then engage our volition to act accordingly. And even though this might strike you as basically true – it is profoundly flawed in its understanding of how decisions are actually made. But because we’ve been so conditioned by modernity to believe that rational thought occurs in a dispassionate vacuum of cognitive assessment – we assume that our thinking is somehow capable of functioning apart from emotion . . . when in fact, our emotions are at the helm of every decision we make.

David Hume, a mid-18th century philosopher was one of the first intellectuals to push back on the Enlightenment’s perception of how rationality should be valued. For Hume had correctly recognized that, not only do our passions control what things we choose to think about, but also how we choose to think about them. So no matter how rational we assume we’re being, the criterion on which our rationality relies is a presupposed framework our emotional predilections have already put in place. Which is what led Hume to believe that our authentic-self could only be discovered by examining our desires.

So it’s no surprise that Hume would be a precursor of the post-modern existentialism that seems to pervade our current cultural ethos – a culture no longer interested in a rational explanation of how reality actually exists, but rather insists upon perpetually pronouncing its own desired reality into existence, thereby redefining reality. So clearly our desires are being placed front and center – but what do we desire most? Which is to ask – what desire is ultimately at work beneath all other desires? I would say, our primal desire is to be known and loved – which goes directly to our sense of identity and value. In this way, every desire can be traced back to who we imagine ourselves to be.

But given that our desires often manifest themselves in recklessly self-destructive ways – like being trapped in a room full of distorted mirrors, our desires begin to reflect the inner sense of self we’d rather leave in abstraction. Because in our compulsive desire for possessions, pleasure, and power — we invariably end up worshiping these false gods of significance. So that in a diminishing return, we are left hollow and empty – no closer to being known and loved then when we started. This is what happens when we allow our passions to drag our hearts around – until we find ourselves broke down emotionally on the side of the road, longing for our true home.

And our heart’s desires do have a true home, a place where we are truly known and loved – in the infinite moment that is God’s presences. By design we were made to desire God above all else, for he is the satisfaction of every longing of our hearts . . . and therefore the function of every other desire is to bring us to him. But when our hearts hold another desire above him, moving us away from God, that desire becomes pointless and empty, leading us to disillusionment. Which is why we must reclaim our hearts from these false notions of satisfaction, and seek first God’s Kingdom . . . and allow every other desire to be satisfied in him (Matthew 6:33).

This is our heart’s true home . . .

Being Still

Little children will very often protest when it’s time to take a nap, because they don’t want to stop what they’re doing, or miss out on anything. I remember my daughter Jessica when she was about 4 or 5, wanting to stay up late, convinced she had been missing out on something after she went to bed. So one time we decided to let her stay up another hour or so, after which we told her that we were going to bed . . . leaving her all alone in the living room. Needless to say, at that point, she had no interest in staying up. In this way, we are all driven by an impulse to be stimulated and preoccupied . . . and often we don’t even know why.

In this age of information there are thousands of consumer points of interest hoping to captivate your unbridled impulse to be stimulated. And each consumer narrative seeks to define you by your self-doubt . . . so you’ll buy their product to compensate for your present lack of self-value. Similarly, news sources know very well where your thresholds for anxiety and fear can be exploited – so that their narrative of events is accepted, unquestioned. And then there’s social media, ever attempting to make you feel inadequate, with narratives about what you’re supposed to think and feel – forcing you to choose between the tribe you should belong to . . . and the tribe you’re supposed to hate.

And if that weren’t enough to wind you tighter than top, there are the myriad of complicating issues that arise within your work, friends, and family life – to make your head spin. So is it any wonder we daydream about the simplicity of being a child . . . and about taking those daily naps we didn’t fully appreciate? No doubt, this is because we long to dial down the volume (both the noise and the quantity) of static information in our heads . . . but then again — we don’t want to miss out. But what is it we’re afraid we’re going to miss out on?

Think about it this way: if on a regular bases you’re being flooded with the chaos of conflicting ideas about who you’re supposed to be, and what you’re supposed to do, relentlessly pulling at you to make a choice, or choose a side — then the likeliest thing that you’ve been waiting for might just be . . . a clarity of vision. Nothing is able to quiet the heart and mind quite like clarity of vision. It’s like a child at play, content to live in one moment at a time, unencumbered by any expectation that they should be doing anything else. There is an innate peace of mind that comes with clarity of vision, allowing us to reset to the default settings of “ . . . whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”~ Philippians 4:8.

Psalm 46:10 admonishes us to “Be still, and know that I am God.  I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”— let this be your vision, let your heart and mind settle on this anchoring truth. It won’t make the clamor and chaos of your life go away, but it will give you the clarity of vision to live your life with purpose and meaning. It is in this stillness where you’ll experience a peace that passes all understanding . . . so maybe you’ll be able to take that nap now.

The Nietzsche Crucible

There are two impulses unique to the human psyche. The first is the resident notion that there must be a point to our existence – it is this impulse that holds at bay the dark abyss of meaninglessness that would swallow us up, otherwise. The second is the baseline assumption of a summum bonum (a highest good, an ultimate goal) – it is this impulse that places value on concepts like justice, truth, beauty and love. And it is the synthesis of these two impulses that give impetus to our conviction that life is worth living . . . even though we may be uncertain about the actual underpinning origin of these impulses.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the well-known atheist philosopher, famously declared that “God is dead and we have killed him” – the intent of this statement being commonly misunderstood. For Nietzsche, the non-existence of God was a given starting point, therefore his intent isn’t about a god who dies, but rather, a need for the death of a moral system predicated on the existence of God. Nietzsche observed that in nature the strong and powerful dominate the weak – making this the natural ordering principle of morality. So that at its core morality is best understood as a display of power – which was largely the morality of the Greco-Roman world that Jesus entered into . . . and forever changed.

This is likely why Nietzsche self-described as the antichrist – not as an eschatological claim, but rather, as a measure of his commitment to undoing the legacy of the Jesus mythology with its moral premise of a self-emptying indiscriminate love that deems every person, regardless of cultural status, equally capable of sharing in this gift of God. Because to Nietzsche’s mind, such a moral premise invariably compromises the authority of the powerful – allowing the under evolved plebs to control the moral order of society . . . which would be tantamount to a devolution of man as a species. Because if the culturally elite aren’t given the carte blanche moral authority they deserve – humanity is doomed . . . sound familiar?

And this is where I completely surprise you by saying – Nietzsche has it completely right! In a godless world morality is nothing but a weapon of manipulation in the hands of the powerful, and pretending otherwise is just intellectual sophistry. Without God there is no real point to your life, and the ultimate goal is to seek power – everything else is an illusion. It could be said that Nietzsche understood the philosophical significance of God’s transcendence – in some ways better than many Christians, and most certainly better than all of the post-modernist philosophers who presuppose transcendent moral value, without bothering to sort out how transcendence could exist in a strictly materialist universe.

This is the Nietzsche crucible – if God doesn’t exist, then the tyranny of the powerful becomes the moral standard. But because we are drawn to the idea that each of us is given an immeasurable value, which is the premise for imagining that we are all equal, each of us deserving of the dignity of our personhood, regardless of social status. Therefore when existential atheism pretends it can coopt this moral ethic regarding the value of all human life, while ignoring its transcendent premise . . . they only beg the question: From what premise should we base this moral ethic? Nietzsche would say — stop pretending to care about equality, if God is dead, the only premise is the materialist natural order of the strong passing moral judgement on the weak. So keep this in mind, when the godless attempt to sway you with their moral platitudes — it’s all just a power play for them . . . they have no real moral authority, they’re just pretending to have it.

. . . but we have something else waiting for us.

Vestibule of the Apocalypse

To the same degree that conspiracy theories, gaslighting propaganda, and political spin dominates our cultural discourse – a proportional disenchantment and distrust begins to settle over every cultural institution. This is because people have become convinced that the whole thing has gone off the rails, imagining it to be in a state of free fall, plummeting towards some unavoidable calamitous appointment with destiny. So even though T.S. Elliot already told us that the world does not end with a bang, but a whimper – we all seem eager to try our hand at apocalyptic prognostication . . . truly a first world obsession.

It would seem, if cultural anxiety and hysteria is to be believed, that I have spent my entire life waiting in the vestibule of the Apocalypse – where we’re all waiting to make our final descent into our last moments before judgement day, where the shame of our folly and arrogance await us. Well, except for those who tried to warn us all of the impending doom – they get the smug satisfaction of being prophetically astute as they too are lowered into the abyss with the rest of us. But given that we’re awash in thousands of doomsday scenarios – it’s hard to say which one of them will actually win the soothsayers lottery of cataclysmic events.

One of the benefits of growing as old as I have, is you live long enough to pick-up on all of the reoccurring patterns in the cultural narrative – like how every generation seems eager to tell its own story of how the world will end. All that’s needed is a half plausible threat as a prompt, and anxious fear will take it from there – finding every reason to extrapolate the least bit of evidence into a full blown crisis. In my day it was over-population, nuclear annihilation, and an imminent ice age – since then, it’s been global warming, emerging viral pathogens, and economic collapse. So it’s no surprise that we incessantly rehearse our fear of the future in the dystopic fiction of the books and movies we consume.

It’s important to note that there’s always a religious fervor associated with such phobic predictions – because suspended disbelief is required if their dark foretelling of the future is to be accepted as inevitable. In this way religious cults and progressive social movements share the same ethos, language, and expectation that our unbridled fears should be allowed to write the story of our future demise. Because the agreed upon assumption here is that we are all at odds with our own existence, and that we can somehow create the illusion of controlling the outcome of this alienation if we’re willing to anticipate the worst. This is beyond pessimism – this is like buying stock in hell, because the fire insurance premium was discounted to half price.

Interestingly enough, the meaning of the word apocalypse has nothing to do with some world ending cataclysm – but rather, an apocalypse is a revealing of what’s been hidden, of what is true about what already exists. And the truth is that Christ is already “ . . . the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13). It is this very timelessness of Jesus that defines the Christian understanding of the future. Our hope isn’t found in the tedious details of how we think it all ends – our hope is in the God who transcends time, and holds our future in his hand.

It’s always best to remember — it will only be this way a little longer

Entering Into Suffering

One doesn’t have to puzzle over a paradox for very long to discover that rational thought has its limitations. This is because rationality presupposes an intelligible framework predicated on a preexisting criterion with predictable outcomes, and paradox exposes the inherent flaw of such a presupposition. In response, one can choose to humbly confess that some of what is unknown to us, may in fact, be unknowable – or one can agree with the materialist’s faith assumption that everything is knowable to the human mind . . . given enough time. This for the non-theist creates a paradox of sorts – they either have to concede that their belief in an absolute human intelligibility is simply an unprovable leap of faith, or they have to concede with the theist that somethings may be unknowable.

Interestingly enough, the non-theist offers us a paradox as their flagship challenge to the existence of God. The question goes like this: How can a good and all powerful God exist in a world that experiences suffering? Right off the bat this question is predicated on an assumption of an absolute moral expectation that isn’t actually native to the non-theist position – but given that it’s meant to be understood as a paradox within the theistic paradigm, the question remains valid. So the actual paradox at the heart of the question, isn’t so much about whether or not God exists, rather it’s a question of whether suffering is meaningless or not.

Which is why it should be noted that the pointlessness of suffering isn’t much of a dilemma for a non-theist philosophy that believes that the whole of our existence is pointless — so looking for a sympathetic framing of suffering from that perspective would ironically be pointless. Conversely, the dilemma is very real for the Christian who holds human life as sacred – believing that our being made in God’s image gives us an immeasurable value — to which human suffering seems absolutely antithetical. So in this way, the paradox of suffering becomes an ever-present subtext of the Christian ethos . . . because suffering is an inescapable part of life.

Within the Christian apologetic, suffering is treated as the necessary potentiality of human free will, and as the unavoidable consequence of living in a fallen world. But this answer, though correct, strikes me as antiseptically academic — especially given the uniquely personal way God entreats us to relate to him . . . in the midst of a suffering world. But if we insist upon an answer and an explanation for what is arguably unknowable, what do we imagine will be the outcome of that? What if this is the very mystery that our faith is calling us into – reconciling a life we don’t understand with a God shrouded in mystery?

But here’s where we find solace – in this season of Advent. Here’s where the paradox of the existence of God and suffering find convergence – in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. Jesus chooses to enter into our suffering with a self-emptying love for us. Having experienced the struggles and hardships of living every day in a fallen world, Jesus knows full well the senseless cruelty of hatred and violence, having felt its merciless touch first-hand. So you could say that Christmas is the celebration of a paradox – for we celebrate the birth of a God-incarnate, willing to suffer and die for us. And we celebrate it not because it makes sense to us – but because intuitively we know that this is how love responds to suffering.

The promise of Christmas — Emmanuel (God with us) . . . always with us

In Search of Authenticity

We’re living in the age of reinvented truth, where each of us is somehow entitled to our own indisputable version of it – you have yours and I have mine. No doubt, this is why we now experience the rise of soothsaying media pundits and the cultural Gestapo keeping the gaslights turned up – ever spinning the narrative of current events with the sleight of hand of an illusionist, bending our perception into a useful compliance and conformity. Because in a world where truth is no longer transcendent — it invariably becomes nothing more than a transient commodity to be sold to us like a shady huckster’s miracle cure tonic.

So is it any wonder that we reflexively crave the anchoring certainty of something (or someone) really true to believe in . . . with a transparently simple authenticity. And there’s the rub – once we find something to believe as true, we make it our truth. I don’t mean this in the way that popular culture does – in its sophomoric assumption that truth is a malleably transient concept, subjectively shaped by our personal opinions. Rather, I’m talking about something far more epistemological – that in our process of believing something to be true, we inescapably bring that truth into our already developed understanding of what we think truth should be . . . and by doing so we inevitably force it into conformity with our preexisting beliefs.

Therefore there is what is true and there is our interpretation of what is true – like an altered copy of the original . . . making it something less than what is authentically true. In this way, intellectual honesty requires us to be humble enough to confess the limitations of our own understanding of what is true . . . and in doing so we become malleable enough to be altered by the truth. So instead of us arrogantly assuming we get to judge what is true – truth makes its assessment of us, measuring us against its immutable standard of what is genuine and authentic . . . because this is the unyielding nature of reality.

But the purveyors of nominalist and gnostic ideas would have us believe that our perception of reality is more important than reality itself – as if the very nature of reality could be altered by our opinions of it. Ironically, it’s precisely this type of arrogance that keeps us at odds with our own existence – unsettling us at the very core of our being. This is the predicament our culture finds itself in – ever desiring to pronounce its own opinions as truth . . . moving us further and further away from all that’s authentically true. But this has always been the case – our search for authenticity will never be satisfied . . . on our own terms.

So as I anticipate the advent of the one who self-describes as “. . . the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6), I’m reminded of where authenticity resides – because it doesn’t get any more authentic than Jesus. For Jesus is the perfect expression of an authentic human – defining what it means to bear the image of God. He enters the brokenness of our world, as no stranger to the full human experience – he chooses the self-emptying path of the cross, entering into our suffering to free us from our suffering. This is the deeper reality, the most authentic moment in time with which the whole of history is defined. So let us celebrate this season in the most authentic way – by celebrating authenticity incarnate.

. . . and sometimes it’s the simplest life that turns out to be the most authentic.

In Search of Social Justice

With marketing it’s all about the art of spin – in its most common form it employs carefully chosen images and language, in order to place the product in the best light possible . . . as if it were without defect. This is mostly a benign form of manipulation, given that most of us are already hip to their tricks, but when marketing spin becomes propaganda it takes on a more insidiously malignant form of manipulation. This is because propaganda attempts to reframe the whole of reality, creating the illusion of associative value – i.e. accepting the propaganda will make you a better person, rejecting it makes you a person of questionable character.

In Europe, during the 20s and 30s of the 20th century, the propaganda pamphlets of both the fascist, and the communist zealots coined the phrase “social justice” in describing each groups desire to catalyze the grievances of the common man against the ruling class. In this way, the phrase “social justice” is a rhetorical parasite, latching itself onto an unimpeachable virtue, while remaining deliberately ambiguous enough in exactly how the word “social’ isn’t a redundant modifier to the word “justice”. . . given that justice is already a social concept.

I have lived long enough to have met many a social justice warrior – and I always ask them the same question: What’s so deficient about the concept of justice that social justice addresses. As is often the case with this type of thing — most have no idea why they make a distinction . . . it’s simply what everyone else is calling it. But some will be a little more self-aware, pointing out how charity and benevolence are often the forgotten expressions of a just society . . . and there point is well taken. But then there will be those with specific political agendas attempting to extol the envy and schadenfreude of coercive wealth redistribution as a retributive necessity of what constitutes a just world.

So here’s what I’ve learned over the years about social justice: most people just want a world where people do the right thing, including taking care of one another — and you can count me among this group. This is because we all intuitively feel the world is broken — theologically, this is described as our fallen condition. For some, this condition elicits a humble confession that God alone is just, but for others justice is viewed as a malleable human construct, and therefore needs to be constantly repackaged to follow the curve of cultural ethos. In this way, social justice has become nothing more than an empty container awaiting the next iteration of social grievance to define its purpose – which is why propaganda is required to distinguish it from what is commonly understood as justice.

Every consideration of justice begins and ends with some presupposed notion of morality, and every moral framework is predicated on some expectation that human life has value. So the ultimate question is: what gives human life value? Therefore if we’re going to advocate for justice, as we all should, then how we define what is just requires a clear definition of human value . . . and this is the very conversation that too often doesn’t occur. This is undoubtedly why our longing for a just world is so primal – because it goes to the very reason why we exist. Actually, all of our longings point to the same thing – our need for God . . . because there is no other understanding of ourselves apart from him.

. . . and meeting Jesus changes everything.

Shadow Boxing

On occasion, while skimming through social media, I’ll come across a religiously political, or politically religious debate (the two have become almost indistinguishable) — that I have no particular interest in entering into . . . but in a strange way find entertaining. The discussion is usually so predictable it feels scripted, and the personalities of those involved seem like they’re straight out of central casting. So as I read I have the Loony Tunes incidental music running in my head, and I imagine the voice of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd as the primary interlocutors, occasionally hearing from Daffy Duck or Porky Pig offering up their genius insights. Because let’s face it — most of these type of exchanges are basically low brow food fights.

And this is the state of public discourse in this age of tribal group-think – where everyone is quick to dismiss anyone who dare disagree with them, as if they were a one dimensional cartoon character, lacking both in moral integrity and intellectual acuity, to take seriously . . . because we already know what they have to say. Yea, but do we? Sure, there are those so conspicuously shallow and ill-prepared, it takes no more than a minute to exhaust their whole repertoire on any given topic. And because of the ubiquity of such people, we just assume everyone who disagrees with us fall into that category . . . which ironically, such an assumption, is itself, intellectually lazy.

Even when I choose to initiate a discussion on social media, with an examination of a particular aspect of a common issue. Invariably, the reaction I get to such a conversation primer is to ignore its nuanced framing of the issue being proffered, in favor of defaulting to their scripted out opinion. So needless to say, most responses miss the point of many of my posts entirely. And to make matters worse, I am then treated to a barrage of straw man arguments denouncing a position I don’t even hold. This is the type of shadow boxing that the modern dialectic has become, fighting a phantom opponent . . . because it’s easier than having to honestly work through a lack of understanding.

Very often when I’m having a conversation with a non-theist, they will rehearse for me all of the attributes of the God they find impossible to believe in – at which point, I normally surprise them by telling them, I too can’t believe in that God. And this is usually because they’ve allowed their misconceptions of God to write their script, creating for them false assumptions about the implications of his existence. In this way, when our presupposed narrative goes unexamined – we are no longer capable of being intellectually honest . . . because we’ve allowed our narrative to be written in stone.

The temptation is always to trust our own understanding — to assume we know more than we are actually capable of knowing. So with a false sense of certainty, we begin to shadow box with the phantoms we’ve created, and with self-righteous indignation, we’re willing to pummel anyone we disagree with . . . assuming we understand better than they do. But is this the way of Christ? Or does my Christian faith call me to a humbler engagement of those who disagree with me? Is my life an invitation to discover the mystery of a God who has ways that are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8)? My prayer is to be set free from the shadows of my arrogant assumptions, so that I might see God in the full light of his glory.

And just like that . . . we can learn to live as one.

How Life Is Measured

Back in the 80s there was a bumper sticker that read “The one who dies with the most toys wins”. I never was clear whether this was meant to be taken as sort of mantra celebrating the zeitgeist of consumerism . . . or just a sarcastic denouncement of such a vacuous value system. But either way, this provocative statement does raise an important question – How is the good life best measured? . . . Especially, in light of the brevity of time we are given on this earth to live that life. But how is such a thing to be arbitrated? By what scales are such things judged?

When measuring most anything there are usually two basic categories: Quantity and Quality — one concerns itself with how much (volume), while the other with what kind (type) . . . each invariably requiring its own standard of measurement. But then again, that’s exactly how a consumerist would approach the question . . . assuming that value could be existentially assessed. So it would seem, the first question we need to ask would be: If we don’t exist to consume, then what is the point of our existence? Because the logic is simple – any measurement of how we exist, must first contend with the question of why we exist.

In scripture, the book of Ecclesiastes systematically works its way through every measurement of what life offers (both quality and quantity) known to man. All that can be accumulated, consumed, and experienced is examined in order to determine innate value, but each is found wanting. Until finally, all of it is pronounced a wasteland of vain banality . . . ultimately meaningless, in and of itself. Which is to say, of all the stuff that we can own and experience, none of it is capable of providing us with meaning or significance, but can only point us toward the source of significance.

In the beginning, as image bearers of God, we were given dominion of the earth – meant to participate in the purposes of God. So all of our material possessions can only find significance and value as we are good stewards of them – the inanimate being animated by the purposes of God through us. The taste of food, the pleasure of sex, the beauty of a sunset, the laughter of children – have absolutely no value at all . . . apart from our experience of them as expressions of God’s love for us. Therefore, the number of our days we are given are meant as a testimony, each one an oblation and celebration of God’s creation.

So how is life measured? It is measured by the glory we return to God, and in the praise and thanksgiving we offer up to him for all that we are, and all that we have. For it is in him that we find our being, and from that, our significance. So everything we put our hand to, everything we experience, and all that our eyes can behold – points us to God’s glory. Therefore, to whatever extent we put the confession of this truth into practice, we are experiencing the full measure of life . . . as it was always intended.

. . . so teach me to know my number of days

A Disposable World

Consumerism has long been understood as having the notorious reputation for obscuring the line between what we want with what we need — ever seducing us with a shiny object or a siren song to imagine ourselves made whole . . . by various superficial means. But there is something even more insidious in the way that consumerism frames our reality, as if we somehow had a self-existent significance. Because while we’re busy sorting out our wants from our needs, we have already unwittingly accepted the premise, that our wants and needs are of paramount concern to how we exist – placing on the back burner the very pressing concern of why we exist in the first place.

I have long pondered the words of St Augustine, who observed that ever since the fall of man, man has been haunted by the non-existence from which God spoke him out of — which is another way of saying that our own existence feels alien to us apart from God. And where there is an unease with existence, an ambiguity of purpose inevitably begins to create a vacuum that the consumerist ethos will be more than happy to fill. But in the same way that salt water is not only incapable of satisfying thirst, and can only increase it – the consumerist illusion of self-existence can only serve to widen the crater of our disaffection.

So not only are we haunted by the nihilism of our own fallen nature, but we also live with the consumerist impulse to fill that void with impermanent solutions incapable of ever satisfying our deepest needs. This invariably causes us to experience our world as disposable – because when the value of everything is measured against the transience of what it might mean to me . . . then everything gets tossed eventually. This is the type of pragmatism that animates the atheist mindset — for if the universe doesn’t have an innately transcendent value, then everything in it gets assessed in terms of survival pragmatism . . . and the self-serving illusions such a pragmatism invariably portends.

So I’m not surprised when an atheist believes that we all live in a universe that is at odds with us, making survival priority number one. But I’m a little surprised when I hear Christians speaking of this world as if it were a sinking ship, thereby making of Jesus nothing more than a lifeboat means to an afterlife solution to their survival . . . as it sounds disturbingly similar to the atheist’s rationale. To believe that creation was plan A, but now God has somehow moved on to plan B — is to believe in a disposable world . . . a world that God is simply tossing into the trash bin like a burnt waffle. But is this really the right way to understand our salvation?

If we have made ourselves the point of salvation – then we’ve missed the point almost entirely! And we’ve likely missed it because we’ve accepted a self-involved consumerist notion of meaning and significance – placing ourselves at the center of existence. Christ death, burial and resurrection is, first and foremost, a glorification of God – for it places God righty at the center of all things. Because if we are to ever be reconciled to our own existence – it will not be on our own terms . . . it will be found in the loving mercies of God who reconciles us unto himself. For this is the very heartbeat of the gospel.

“All these impermanent things . . .”

Throw Rocks Or Wash Feet

It has been my experience that most people are not interested in entertaining a conversation about the philosophical moral underpinnings of their own view of why human life should be considered valuable – because they’d much rather shoot from the hip when expressing their moral opinions. Such an approach invariably fosters an existential mix of emotional pragmatism with an extemporaneously applied conviction. Which is to say, scrutinizing their own moral views for consistency, is secondary to being able to pass judgement on those who disagree with them. Because in a conflict of moral opinions, securing the moral high ground in order to exact judgement with accusatory fervor, is preferable to being the target of such moral outrage . . . even if you can’t explain the presuppositions of your own morality.

This is our default relationship to morality – an inescapable paradigm of judge, or be judged. Which is why commonly accepted morality is constantly morphing to follow an ever changing cultural ethos – where morality is determined in a power struggle between the loudest influential voices of the day.  But this is not a modern phenomenon. Nietzsche had long dismissed morality as being nothing more than a contest between various groups, hoping to leverage the authority of morality to manipulate culture into submission. And it was this kind of power play that the Pharisees had in mind when they brought a woman, they had caught in adultery, before Jesus (John 8:3-11) to see if he’d pass judgement as was culturally expected.

There must have been quite a stir within the crowd, everyone eager to hear Jesus’ verdict – those with empty hands, secretly hoping not to participate in a public stoning . . . and those who had gathered up quite a few rocks, just waiting for Jesus to give them the go ahead. And surprisingly Jesus does not disappoint either group – he gives the go ahead to throw rocks with the stipulation that only those without sin could do so . . . and with that everyone knew that there wasn’t going to be a stoning that day. But more importantly, he had exposed the insidious nature of the “judge, or be judged” moral paradigm that was essential in creating the Pharisees’ mystique of authority, they relied upon to control the people.

In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus warns us that the morality of judging one another can only ever become a devolving cycle of perpetually finding fault with one another. But when asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus instead sums up the entire law (morality) “And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”~ Matthew 22: 37-39. Notice that the operative word here is love, making of love the core principle of morality.

And if you’re wondering who is your neighbor, and what does loving them look like: Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan – a story about serving the needs of a stranger, a stranger who might even hate you (Jews didn’t care for Samaritans). Therefore the morality of loving must take on the shape of serving the other, regardless of who they might be. To underscore this very point Jesus chooses to wash the feet of his disciples . . . even Judas Iscariot’s (John 13:1-7). He is washing their feet fully anticipating going to the cross, where he will give himself over to the ultimate act of self-emptying service – so we’re tempted to wonder why spend time on such a lesser service as washing feet. But Jesus explains: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done to you.” ~ John 13: 12-15. So every day we must choose whether we will throw rocks or wash feet . . . choose wisely which morality you want to live by.

“Let your mercy flow through us . . . may they know your mercy”

Falling To Earth

You don’t have to be an expert talking head, or a seasoned political pundit, to recognize that the world is a troubled place. It is more than evident that our culture has been exponentially unraveling for a while now . . . with no discernable end in sight. Caught between the self-involved narcissism of the perpetually offended, and the militant tribalism of the pseudo-virtuous – one would think that all could be made right in the world if we would simply dispatch this notorious THEM, that everyone else seems so concerned about. Because there are few things more primal than blaming others for what we are unwilling to face up to, about ourselves . . . about the way we contribute to the divide.

No doubt you’ve experienced contentious people who insist on being adversarial at every turn – as if they had covered themselves in gasoline, daring you to strike the match. Because for people like this it’s in the combustion of conflict where they find their validation and significance – in this way their anger makes them feel as if they’re connected to something larger than themselves . . . some higher purpose. So how do we cross the divide with people who seem so intent on sustaining the divide? Or maybe the better question is – have I been the one who’s been sustaining that the divide?

Every day I have to make a choice, whether I’m going to be life giving or life depleting to those I encounter . . . and many days I fail that test. What makes this choice so critical – is that each choice has a multiplying effect. Either I am creating moments of grace that spreads generously from person to person, as their day unfolds. Or I am forging a chain that each person I encounter will invariably add their own link to, until the weight of it is a burden far too heavy for any of us to carry. For it is the very nature of human interaction that we will either lighten one another’s load, or we will laden each other with the heavy baggage of our own discontent.

I have been pondering these things as I’ve been meditate on these words of Jesus “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23, 24) This is a curious pairing of ideas that seems to be saying: In the same way that the glory of a seed resides in how it falls to earth and dies, thereby multiplying the life that it was given – the hour that the Son of Man is glorified, is when he dies on the cross, is buried, and rises again, thereby multiplying his resurrection for us all.

And if the pinnacle glorifying moment of Christ’s incarnation is to be likened unto a seed that multiplies life by dying – what do you imagine our moment of glory in this life should look like? The way of Jesus is a humble path, and the glory of that path is found in redemptive sacrifice. Therefore let us die daily, so that we might be life giving to those God has placed in our lives – so that his glory may be known. Is that not the glory of what it means to live in Christ?

Yes, it will be the humble who will know the glory of self-emptying love

The Chains We Revere

You can take it as axiomatic, that wherever you find hope in short supply, you will find fear has already begun to forge the chains of bondage. Stockholm syndrome comes to mind – because since this 1973 taking of hostages, we’ve come to recognize a discernable psychological pathology, of how those put in such extreme, life and death circumstances, will almost involuntarily develop an unusual attachment to their captors. It is an example of how fear’s natural inclination is to cower in response to the threats of an imposed will — assuming that compliance is the safest alternative. Because in such circumstances, if hope is nothing more than an idle wishing for a different outcome – then hope is lost.

But even in the 18th Century, Voltaire observed – “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere” His thesis seems to be, in classic Enlightenment terms, that it’s merely a matter of intellectual deficiency that makes people amicable to their chains – as if making a different choice, was a simple matter of getting your mind right. But given that Voltaire, a rather flamboyant atheist of his time, fundamentally believed that human existence to be in a perpetual state of survival hostility, set against the backdrop of an indifferent universe — one would think he could appreciate how people without a transcendent hope would choose to make peace with any overwhelming threat of imposed will . . . that in fact, he too had chosen to accept the chains of his own making.

In the book of Judges we find a reoccurring pattern: Israel straying from God, being oppressed, and then calling out to God for rescue. This is the pattern of the book until we get to chapter 13, with the birth of Samson, where Israel is being oppressed by the Philistines . . . but has chosen not to cry out to God. So by the time we get to chapter 15 where Samson takes refuge from the Philistines with the men of Judah . . . and then the Philistines show up. And here’s what the men of Judah said to Samson: “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us? . . . We have come down to bind you that we may give you into the hands of the Philistines.” (verses 11 & 12)

It is obvious from this text that the men of Judah had already made peace with their chains, and they had no real interest in the freedom of God’s redemption that Samson represented. Like their forefathers before them, who frequently entertained the idea of returning to their slavery in Egypt, while wandering in the desert – the certainty of their oppression somehow seemed preferable to them, than any reckless notion of waiting for God to provide. This is why I say – when hope is absent, fear always rushes into the vacuum . . . so that with hopeless resolve we end up negotiating the terms of our surrender to whatever power seeks to enslave us.

A culture that no longer finds its hope in God will always be susceptible to the fearmongering manipulation of forces seeking to subjugate it into compliance. And it doesn’t matter whether those forces are political or religious — or even in a more personal way, take on the shape of addiction and anxiety. Without the transcendent hope that can only be found in God . . . such a culture will remain in the chains of its own making. So I say, stand fast in your faith, knowing that your hope is sure and can withstand the shifting sands of circumstance. Therefore give no foothold to fear in your heart . . . and just let those chains fall knowing that when Jesus sets you free — you are free indeed! (John 8:36)

. . . and be free — up in the bright sky