The Tale of Two Kingdoms

For the most part, literature has been a faithful curator of the grand themes of life, allowing us to experience the scope, contour, and native tensions of such things as hope and fear, life and death, and good and evil – so that we might vicariously find ourselves in the midst of struggle . . . and yet remain unscathed. In this way we get to rehearse the various scenarios of what it means to be on either side of the equation. But real life experiences don’t actually unfold as predictably as we would imagine, as they tend to take a far more circuitous path.

So invariably the self-narrated role we play in our own story, creates for us the illusion we’ve chosen correctly, leading us to assume we’re on the right side of history, because we imagine we’ve chosen to serve a greater good and a nobler purpose . . . and this, unfortunately, is how most cautionary tales begin. So at this point the storyline may split off in one of two ways – either on to the road to hell marked with good intentions; or it will take a darker path, of the ends, no matter the cost, will justify the means. Which is why it might be best if we defined what constitutes the greater good.

This is where we enter into the tale of two kingdoms, because any defining of the greater good will invariably require a whole-cloth philosophical evaluation – which invariably becomes a collision of two distinctly different ideals. Either it will be an assessment that embraces the manifest destiny of secularly driven imperatives, or one that submits to the beneficent transcendence of divine providence. So not only do these two presuppositions have competing ideas of what the greater good might be, but more importantly, they have competing visions for how their version of the greater good is achieved . . . which is exactly what brings these two kingdoms into direct conflict.

The Kingdom of Man believes that the greater good is a matter of seizing power, so that control and lockstep conformity, to whatever the latest iteration of the greater good the ruling authorities say it is, can be achieved. Therefore it is a kingdom best served by intimidation, coercion, and violence. But for the Kingdom of God, the greater good is best understood relationally – that only the humble servant of all will have prominence in God’s Kingdom (Mark 10:42-45). Therefore it is a kingdom best served by, forgiveness, redemption, and love. In short God doesn’t bully people into conformity – He lovingly entreats them to reconciliation – to be reconciled to God . . . and to one another.

When we read classical literature — in the midst of the story, the struggle seems almost overwhelming, the choices seem complicated and conflicted, but by the end of the story, by the mercy of retrospection, the right thing seems as if it should have been obvious to us all along. Within our fallen frame of reference, under the rubric of expedience, we are often tempted to employ the tactics of Man’s kingdom — but in the end it is the relentless love of the Kingdom of God that wins our hearts. But even still, we should ask ourselves daily – what kingdom am I serving today?

. . . because your gonna have to serve somebody.

For God’s Sake

I consider myself an above average sports fan, having a well-developed appreciation for the athleticism, strategy, and emotional arch of the game. But what I’m not a fan of are all the pre and post-game interviews with players and coaches. It’s not just the predictable banality of their remarks that bothers me, rather it’s the excessive hyperbole with which such remarks engage – that tends to get up under my skin.

We’re gonna leave it all on the field and give it one hundred and ten percent” It’s not merely the fact that such a statement is a mathematical absurdity that catches my attention – rather, like most overstatements it ends up being ironically reductive. So instead of being an exhortation to give more than all you are, it makes simply giving all that you are just another form of rhetorical hype and bravado – said more for effect . . . than actual meaning.

So when we come to the ShemaHear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might . . .” ~ (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5) The modern mind struggles to place this admonition into a correct perspective, tempted to respond out of sentimentality or spiritualized unction – as if the Shema were merely a challenge to up your percentage of love effort.

An observant Jewish friend of mine recently explained to me that the first line of the Shema isn’t actually intended to underscore God’s monotheism, as much as it is an ontological declaration about God – that in God, all things exist . . . for God is the very state of being, itself. Therefore, there’s an intended symmetry to be understood between the all that we are admonished to love God with . . . and the way that all things exist in God. In this way, loving God is understood as a confession about the true nature of existence . . . that there is no us apart from God.

shutterstock_328480373_682St Bernard of Clairvaux believed that what the Shema places in stark relief is the tension between our default inclination to love God within a quid pro quo expectation of personal advantage — with our need to love God, for God’s sake. Therefore we are to desire God, and God alone – and not simply above all other things . . . but within all things. That every desire we have might be emptied out of its own ambition, and offered in oblation to the God who is One!

So when Jesus reiterates the Shema, in answering the question “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” He adds “ . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40) – he wasn’t really adding something new to the Shema, as much as he was better explaining how all the Law and the Prophets is hinged on our understanding of God as One. Therefore, because loving God is all encompassing, it should be understood as all-consuming — allowing us to love one another as an essential expression of how we love God . . . (1 John 2: 9-11).

O my Jesus, I love thee . . .

When Love Calls Your Name (2 of 3)

It was a cold December night when I first met my wife. It was a Christmas party – I showed up with some other girl . . . and Doreen (my wife) who doesn’t drink coffee, brought coffee for everyone else (and that was my first clue). And even though she and I only spoke for a few minutes, she ended up inviting me, through a mutual friend, to a dinner she was hosting at her house, between Christmas and New Year. So as they say, the rest was history – we were married the following May. And we’ve been married now for 35 years. We have 7 kids and 4 grand kids . . . with another one on the way.

That was the night my life was forever changed. I went from being a vagabond poet, living in the wild impermanence of a single life – into a shared path of abiding love with my sweetheart, a woman who has been so completely woven into my life, that I can no longer clearly identify exactly where I end and she begins. I guess you could say, that December night, was a night that love called my name, pulling me into another dimension, making my life much larger than the life I was living. But that is the way of love, it is unconstrained, and will not be domesticated . . . as if it could somehow fit into the small life it originally finds us living.

Love is a powerful thing—it will take you to extremes. With love, you’ll experience the greatest of joys, and invariably, you will experience the deepest of sorrows. But here’s the thing — more often than not, we are hardly ever prepared for what love is actually calling us to do. Because we falsely assume that we can have our own agenda with love . . . as if love had no agenda of it’s own. When we define love as getting everything we want — then it really isn’t love at all . . . because real love is incapable of being selfish.

AdobeStock_144177491_webEven the person with a healthy appreciation for self-love doesn’t subscribe to a selfish love, as much as they practice a form of self-identifying love – correctly identifying themselves as the beloved of God, as one who bears his image. For they know that love has been calling their name long before the foundations of the world, and it is that very love resonating within them that they have identified. Because love set apart from the ineffably transcendent truth, that God is love, is nothing more than a meaningless self-indulgence pretending to be something more.

St Benedict is said to have pondered – what could be better than to have the Lord call your name? Because it is a profound intimacy, to be known, and to be loved in just this way. This is the very love that took Christ to the cross, so that he could reconcile us to himself – becoming the love story, by which all other love stories are measured. So yea, that’s love calling your name – are you ready to allow it to forever change your life? But before you answer that, remember — there really isn’t an option where it doesn’t.

“I threw the dice when they pierced his side
— but I’ve seen love conquer the great divide”

Changing Clothes

Ingrid Bergman starred in the 1944 movie, Gaslight — a story about a woman being psychologically manipulated into believing that she’s going insane. This is how gaslighting has come to describe scenarios where one person deliberately attempts to re-tell events through a skewed self-serving filter, in order to manipulate someone else into doubting their own natural perception of those same events.

We find a variation of this in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The emperor is conned into believing that only an astute and refined person can perceive his new clothing — so not only is the emperor being deceived, but everyone in his court was thrown into crisis, doubting their own perception, torn between what their eyes clearly see . . . and what social conformity demands of them.

Let’s face it, social conformity has been attempting to gaslight us since the day we were born – telling us what we need to have, and how we need to act . . . and how odd we must be if we disagree. And in a world where the ethics and mores are as changeable and capricious as the latest fashions, we become culturally conditioned to doubt our natural instinct to question the change . . . for fear of being ridiculed as out of step with the times.

So whatever the new rules are, we best not run afoul of them – but if we wait long enough, the current rules will have been over-written . . . the way the old ones were. Every generation tries to re-imagine the world, pushing it through a skewed self-serving filter, until it approximates a world that conforms to their manipulative desires. Could it be that like the emperor, we’ve been wearing the clothing of our own vanity? What if I told you that you’ve been wearing old clothes, long destined for the dustbin – would you think I was gaslighting you?

downloadIn Colossians 3:9 Paul invites us to quit lying to ourselves and one another, and to remember that we’ve already taken off those old clothes, and the madness associated with them. But this invitation isn’t just another iteration of rules (Colossians 2:20-23), for in Christ we are dead to those rules. No, this is an invitation to remember that as image bearers of God, all of the superficial things that divide us evaporate in Christ (Colossians 3:10,11).

For these are the new clothes we wear (Colossians 3:12-15) as God’s beloved – woven into the fabric of humility, meekness, and patience are the threads of compassion, kindness, and forgiveness . . . pulled together in a harmony of love. And all those who wear this garment are filled with grateful hearts and the peace of Christ. Now, if you ask me – those are some pretty spiffy duds! Makes you wonder why you keep trying to put on those old rags of the old self – when clearly the vestments of the new self have been purchased for you at such an extravagant cost.

So maybe it’s time you started working on that rewrite . . .

Gone Fishin’

We don’t just want to live – we want a life that matters. We don’t just want a job, we want a purpose, a job given significance because it’s truly meaningful. This, of course, is no surprise – we were created to live meaningful and significant lives, co-laboring in what God has given us. This made me wonder — were we all meant to do the same job, or were we all meant to do different jobs? And the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that the answer is – yes!

In my youth, I attended a bible college that was founded by an award winning salesman. So needless to say, training in evangelism was considered the preeminent task at hand. We were taught to pitch a clear gospel, in such a way as to confirm conversion – to close the deal. Therefore, the college’s exegetical take on Matthew 4:19 “And he said to them — follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” was considered the unstated real meaning of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). So let’s get out there and catch those fish (people) and haul them into the boat, before they get away (go to hell). But would this have actually been how Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew would have understood Jesus’ invitation to come follow him?

I guess what I’m asking is — how would they have taken this metaphor? Would they have taken it as specific – having once spent their lives catching fish . . . now they would catch people? Or is it more likely they would have taken it more generally – having once been preoccupied with fish, now the lives of people would preoccupy them? Now you may see this as a distinction without a difference – to which I would remind you that our modern notion of evangelism would not have been the first thing to have occured to them.

GettyImages-55847319-630x418For those Jesus called to be his disciples, Jesus was a local carpenter, who disappeared into the wilderness for forty days like a prophet of God. So when he returned, they would have thought of him as a man called of God – who was now calling them to join him. John the Baptist was already known to them to be a prophet of God, calling people to repentance – they may therefore, have assumed that Jesus would be like John, calling for repentance . . . unaware that Jesus was the very one that John had been prophesying about.

Like the disciples, we are called to join Jesus – to love all those whom Jesus loves . . . in the way that Jesus loves them. So you could say — we all have the same job. But because we’re all so uniquely deployed, so particularly gifted, and each of us having lived through such specific experiences – the way the love of Jesus within us makes its way through us to others, takes on a life of its own . . . so it’s never really the same job. This is because God doesn’t view us with the same impersonal detachment we might have for fish – his call on our lives is a call to relationship . . . so relationship is the preeminent task at hand.

It’s an invitation to dance the esplanade all the way into his presence . . .


Learning To Find Your Edge (6 of 8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning To Refract Light (3 of 8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning To Watch the Night (2 of 8)

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

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

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

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

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

I have always loved the melancholy of this Christmas Carol 

Learning To Read The Room (1 of 8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Observable God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all trying to make our way home

What Is It That Haunts You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So remember . . . it’s alright

Naked and Screaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is shame that steals everything from us . . .

A Different Drummer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Disembodied Sense of Self

Believing that morality is nothing more than a human construct, Jean Paul Sartre in his book Existentialism and Human Emotions, places emphasis on the importance of being self-actualized – which is predicated on the idea that the act of choosing is of paramount value. Such a view finds no moral significance between the young man who assists an old lady across the street, and the one who pushes her into traffic – the only important thing is that they make their choice.

But within his existential framework Sartre offers this caveat – the choice of an individual must always be made with the full awareness of its impact on the collective. So even Sartre, given his atheistic relativism, understood that the identity of self is inextricably linked to its sense of community. This, of course, has long been an axiom of anthropology . . . and theology – that as the individuals shape the culture, the culture in turn, shapes the individuals. It is an unavoidable symbiosis.

Technological advancements have had a profound effect on how our sense of community has changed — making the world smaller, by making travel faster, and multiplying for us various avenues of communication. My father was born at a time when radio was the principle window on the world, until television came along and largely displaced the impact of radio. In the same way, television was my baseline context – so for me the impact of personal computers wouldn’t become a factor until after I was married. Like my father, I had enough time to anthropologically adjust to the curve of technology’s influence on culture, and in turn its influence on me – shifting at a pace that could be assimilated and adjusted to reasonably.

But my children inherit quite a different context. For my oldest son, Ryan the world begins with a PC as a prominent fixture of the home, but barely into his adulthood, his brother Benjamin, my youngest, inherits a world where computers are in everyone’s pocket. So the time for assimilation and adjustment to the rapidly shifting cultural influences of technology has collapsed. Where there was once a generational time span to respond, it now occurs within a single generation. At this pace technology is beginning to outstrip our ability to anthropologically absorb its impact.

shutterstock_163173239-270x180Therefore, it is my suspicion that this has led to a fragmented understanding of community, which in turn, has led to an ambiguous sense of self. In many ways our sense of self has been virtualized – as we are glued to back-lit screens. Rooms full of people texting one another, present together yet isolated, allowing a reductive superficiality to replace real human contact. On social media, we’ve become increasingly uninhibited, but not as a means of genuine vulnerability, but as a self-possessed spectacle, hiding behind our calculated anonymity, spoiling for a fight.

My point here isn’t to denounce technology – my point is that we have, in many ways, become culturally adrift in very dark waters. The technological influence on how we understand our place in the world is pervasive . . . and we don’t even know to what extent — our mores and ethics are beginning to reflect our disembodied sense of self. We seem so eager to carelessly pitch out many of our long established anthropological moorings without a moments pause — as we begin to inhabit Sartre’s existential relativism . . . where what’s real is diminished daily.

As a follower of Christ, all of this is so antithetical to the sense of self and community that is native to my faith confession. Because for the Christian, imago dei is the primer code for calibrating our comprehension of reality, and not merely as a religious abstraction. But in such a disembodiment of the self, I fear there is a wholesale form of forgetting taking place, where the irreducible value of human life is being eroded by all of these vain attempts to deconstruct reality and remake it in our own image. Invariably this leads to disillusionment and despair — because either we embrace existence, as created by God, or we disappear back into the non-existence from which he spoke us out of to begin with . . .

It’s a disembodied emptiness — like a hole in the heart

Walking In Light

I’ve never met a legalist who thought that they were one. Just goes to show you how powerful the influence of self-referencing can be. As the theory goes, there will always be someone else requiring a stricter adherence to a longer list of expected behaviors and enumerated misdeeds — so clearly such a person is far more likely to be a legalist than we are. But isn’t that just how a legalist would think – comparatively measuring themselves with those who aren’t doing it quite right? Ouch!

The Pharisees were expert in the art of comparative judgement. They were so devout in their observation of the law, that they went well above and beyond what was required . . . and they made darn sure everyone knew it. For them the value of righteousness and transgression were in how they were external expressions of conformity or defiance, and as such, the only indicator needed for determining a person’s worth and significance. And because the Pharisees kept the law so impeccably, their religious authority went unquestioned.

So when this carpenter, turned itinerate rabbi, comes to town, hanging out with the riff raff of the city, with a message that exposed their hollow conformity for the empty self-serving arrogance that it was (Matthew 6:1-7) – the Pharisees knew that their authority was being questioned, and their manipulative control over people was losing its grip. So they laid rhetorical traps for Jesus, only to be ensnared by their own deceitful intent. Until Jesus finally calls them out into the full light of day, speaking woe upon their self-serving hypocrisy (Matthew 23) – a scathing repudiation of the religious fiefdom they had been building for themselves in the name of God.

stepping-into-the-lightThey say light is a great disinfectant, exposing every hidden agenda, leaving no place to hide. For those who have spent their life in the dark this is a humbling undoing, stripping away the layers of bondage. But for those who have been pretending to live in the light, the true light is experienced as a far more searing rebuke – as it lays bare all of the hidden dark pretense of pride. So there’s no wonder, the common sinner felt invited to be healed and set free, while the self-righteous felt exposed, by Jesus’ words of life.

So when we come to 1 John 1:5-10, the invitation to “walk in the light” (vs 7) is best understood, not as a burden we were never intended to carry, but as a freedom that only the honest and humble can know. This is because this invitation to walk in the light has a conditional clause, we are to do so “as he is in the light”. The way of Christ is a humble path, so only the humble can walk freely in his light. But here’s the tricky bit – if you make being humble a task to be accomplished . . . you will have completely missed the point. Humility will never work from the outside in, it must come from the inside out. Now, here’s the great thing – it is the light of God within us working its way out that allows us to walk in light . . . so let’s join him in the light.

. . . and let him take your hand