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

Planning His Escape

Over the last few years, it became pretty clear to me that my dad had already made plans for his escape. It had become apparent that as this world grew dimmer for him, the call for him to come home had grown louder. So just after his 88th birthday, I experience him now . . . as absent from the body and present with the Lord. He is now realizing his heart’s desire – to know face to face what his faith had long confessed . . . that a life set free from the confines of this world is more wonderful than our minds could ever hope to imagine.

My father was not a great man, at least not in the common way greatness is thought of, but he was a good man, who loved the Lord and desired to do his will, as best as he knew how. I would do well to have my life measured favorably in just this way. He was a man of many flaws. So I will not pretend that he was some larger than life, heroic figure – because he most certainly would not have wanted to be remembered in that way. He knew all too well his own flaws and failings, but he also knew them to be an integral part of his redemptive story. He knew that ultimately the power of God is given far more glory when shinning through our weakness and brokenness.

He had a keen intellect, an affable personality, and a very expressive passion. But for me it is his wisdom that will linger longer and continue to speak into my life when all else has faded from memory. Because the wisdom he imparted to me shaped me into the man I am today. Here are just a few examples:

He taught me that it wasn’t enough to simply think – but I must be willing to think about my thinking . . . to be willing to examine carefully why it is I choose to think the way I do. He knew that our superficial beliefs require the scrutiny of intellectual honesty – but that can only happen if we are humble enough to hold intellectual honesty in high regard.

29314639_10155360297538202_5939009862703775744_nHe taught me that our whole life is spent trying to figure out how to get out of our own way – and that most of us don’t even know that’s what we’re trying to figure out. So not only was this excellent advice in regards to a golf swing (something my father was constantly tinkering with) – but it offers a unique insight about the human psyche. A primer for how I might begin to work through my own psychological and emotional baggage and in turn help others identify the many ways they sabotage their own lives.

He taught me that people choose to believe what they want to believe. And even though most folks like to imagine that they’ve chosen their beliefs after having carefully weighed all the evidence and having logically come to a conclusion – in truth, it has been their passions that have been leading them to their beliefs, all along. Because self-deception is inescapable.

And if you pull a thread through these three examples you’ll likely discover the unifying principle he was trying to convey to me – that I must always be honest with myself . . . so as to have an uncluttered appreciation for God’s presence in my life. So I learned to seek a naked honesty, because after all, God always sees us naked, stripped of all the subterfuge and pretense we clothe ourselves in. He sees our failures and flaws, and all of the many broken places inside of us — and yet, he loves us with a love beyond measure . . . and my father was a great expression of what that kind of love actually looked like . . . I guess that was something else my dad taught me.

. . . and now he gets to see the wide open vista that awaits us

The Seduction of Merit (9 of 9)

When a star athlete signs a record breaking contract, you can bet dollars to donuts, that for the next couple of seasons, if not longer, this athlete will turn in a sub-par performance – history has demonstrated this time and again. There’s an additional psychological burden in play here – a cheering fan base can quickly become a jeering mob if a player receiving an above average compensation, turns in an average performance.

In this way the shifting weight of expectations can tip the scales out of balance – where the reward for doing something well enjoys a short lived accolade . . . disappearing into a disenchanted “What have you done lately?” Success, when caught in this type of performance loop, begins to resemble the Sisyphus Stone – you arrive at the top after having given everything you have to get there . . . only to realize that you’re not allowed to stay.

But this is only the most conspicuous permutation of the performance paradigm, a paradigm that, in truth, is subtly infused into every relationship we’re in. We come into this world seeking affirmation, only to discover that affirmation is the coin of the relational realm. Extending and withholding affirmation is often the subtext of how we conduct our relationships – more than we’d like to admit. Earning favor is what we assume is expected of us . . . because it’s exactly what we expect of others.

So it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how this can become a perverse distortion of our own sense of worth and significance – to allow our own value to be measured in terms of what we deserve and what we can merit. And then because that’s not insidious enough – we measure everyone else’s value by creating our own criterion for how they are to merit our approval, respect, and love . . . and in so doing we end up sabotaging every relationship we’re in.

165493383It’s a very seductive notion to believe we have the right to determine someone else’s value, as if a person’s innate value was something that could be negotiated on our own terms. Now, this isn’t something we consciously do, but it is a dynamic at work subverting relationships, all the same . . . as it is one of the most egregious vestiges of the fall. When our relationship with God was lost, we lost the ability to know ourselves as valuable — because that value is completely predicated on being made in His image . . . so everything since has been our vain attempt to make what is broken work as it was intended.

This is what makes the gospel such good news – that in being reconciled to God we can begin to remember what our real significance is, and how that significance can’t be merited, but is immutably established by God . . . which means that any attempt to determine someone else’s value apart from this is in direct conflict with God’s assessment. In this way, the admonition of Jesus for us to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34), and the syllogism of 1 John 4:12 “No one has ever seen God: if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” – gives us no room for imposing our own system of merit . . . and in the presence of such love — why would we?

What he offers, we could never earn . . .

The Seduction of Consumerism (8 of 9)

Back in the 80’s there was a notable bumper sticker that read “He who dies with the most toys—wins!” But here’s the thing, there were just as many folks who took this as a reasonable take on how life works, as there were folks who took it as an ironic commentary about the conspicuous consumption of those days . . . and I still couldn’t tell you what was the original intent of this slogan. But there does seem to still exist this peculiar ambivalence regarding consumerism — like a bad habit we freely confess, while fully accommodating . . . as if we’re not completely convinced it’s a bad habit.

It’s that spark, that lift you experience when you buy a new smart phone or a car, or some other significant purchase. There’s an associative dynamic at work here – when we acquire something of perceived value, it has the psychological effect of causing us to feel as if our own personal value has been elevated. In many ways this has become the drug of choice, falsely assumed benign – which is what makes it so seductive. I mean after all, our entire economy is predicated on buying stuff, right?

On the short list of questions we have for those we first meet is this one “So, what do you do for a living?” On the conscious level this might be nothing more than an inquiry about how someone spends there time, vocationally — but on a sub-conscious level it is, among other things, a polite way of asking how much relative purchasing power they might have. Because that same associative dynamic of assessing value is at work subtly insinuating value about us and those around us.

barcodeBut our estimation of innate value, this side of Eden, is an elusive and mercurial thing. Because inanimate objects only have the value that human desire places on them – and nothing more. The innate value of hay bales of hundred dollar bills on a deserted island is nothing more than kindling . . . which begs the question: how is it that we allow money and stuff to have so much power over us? What if the idea of walking on streets of gold in heaven, was meant as a clue as to the comparative value of gold – that in truth, gold is nothing more than dirt beneath our feet . . . would that change your opinion of gold here on earth?

So we find ourselves at the familiar crossroads of the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30), who lived a devout life, giving unto God what he thought God wanted . . . so he could keep the rest for himself. But what he failed to understand was that it all belongs to God, and that to divide out something apart from God is to make it a rival master to God’s authority on our life (Matthew 6:24) . . . invariably you can only choose to serve one or the other. Our hearts cannot be divided, our treasure can only have one home (Matthew 6:21). May our confession be that of Peter’s “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life”. In light of such a treasure . . . everything else is merely fuel for a bonfire.

This is from my Chiaroscuro Collection

All of This Is Mine

All of this is mine
The vaulted sky and all that is beneath it
The ever-widening hole in the ground
That denies light and catalogs everything I think I want

All of these folding chairs carefully arranged to view
The cataclysmic event of my fall
The polished surface of my achievements
Measuring me in preposterous effigy

This mirror of self-approval promising to hide me
From the honesty of light
The Sisyphus Stone of fear I hold at arms length
Keeping it from crushing my will to continue

Every word I have written on this page attempting to emerge
Hemmed in by my self-aware need to explain
O, would that I could, strike a match and watch it all burn in holy fire
To stand apart and laugh wildly with the freedom of having nothing at all

The Seduction of Experts (7 of 9)

At some point experience and knowledge become interchangeable. Regardless of the discipline, becoming proficient requires, to varying degrees, a measure of both applied experiences and the didactic experiences of pedagogy. In this way, it is axiomatic that knowledge is a distilled translation of experience. So this is why those who have given decades of their lives to the acquiring of specifically applied and educational experiences are deserving of the deferential designation of expert.

Before the modern era of experts, one would enter a barber shop for a haircut and a shave . . . or a bloodletting, amputation, and a tooth extraction – talk about your one stop shopping! So needless to say — things have changed. Almost mindlessly, we enjoy many benefits of modern expertise. Beyond the obvious expertise of brain surgeons, airline pilots, and rocket scientists – we regularly take advantage of the expertise of farmers, auto mechanics, and clothiers. In truth, our reliance upon experts in our culture is more than just an economic dynamic, it’s an anthropological phenomenon . . . an ever refining of translated personal experience by proxy.

Prior to the Great War (World War I), there was an optimism within western intelligentsia regarding the future of humanity. It was predicated largely on the existential framework of Hegel and Nietzsche, informed by the theories of Darwin and Marx – until eventually a collection of experts was formed known as the Fabians. This became a coalition of those considered most equipped to decide the future of mankind’s evolution. They envisioned an oligarchy of experts making all of the big picture decisions for us, and of course, they naturally imagined themselves to be the best qualified purveyors of such wisdom. The most notable of their social engineering ideals gave us the bloodless expedience of eugenics. . . the horrors of which were perfected by Nazi Germany.

imagesAllowing the experts to do our thinking for us is very seductive, as we can simply parrot their thoughts on various topics, as if they were our own. Not only does this afford us the appearance of intelligence, but it also allows us to pursue our own interests without the distraction of having to form a thoughtful opinion of our own. No doubt, you’ve experienced people on social media like this, people who answer almost every question by hyperlinking you to some expert opinion. Makes you wonder if they’ve actually ever taken the time to internalize the meaning and value of that opinion they just took off the shelf.

A brand new shiny bullet train sure is impressive –until you realize that where it’s headed is . . . off a cliff. So I suggest that before our brains experience complete atrophy, we begin to understand ourselves as tasked with assessing the veracity of expert opinion, learning to discern between an experts actual sphere of expertise and when they’re merely inserting personal values. And we should do so within our faith disciplines where such discernment is refined. So when a secularized promise of a better world attempts to offer us a better means to a better end – the question you need to remember to ask yourself is: Where do they place their hope? . . . and then remember where you place yours.

My hope is in Jesus Christ, and so I follow his call – not to create a better world. Creating a better world is the mantra of modernity — so I say, let them chase that mirage off into oblivion. My confession is Hebrews 12:1, 2 “. . . and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross . . .” Because his is the way of redemptive sacrifice — where the human soul is held as sacred . . . something for which the scientific machinations of the experts has no category.

Donald Fagen is the master of satirical lyrics
. . . and this song became hard to resist when writing this weeks blog

The Seduction of Victimhood (6 of 9)

Since our exile from the garden, we seemingly have a limitless capacity for visiting abuse, oppression, and destruction, upon one another. In this respect, we are as much the walking wounded refugees of the fall, as we are its perpetrators. It is also psychologically demonstrable that the harm we exact on each other is often fostered in the harm done to us working its way through us – it is a perpetuated cycle of dysfunction and sin.

Some might assume themselves unscathed by this dynamic – but chances are they’ve not looked close enough inside of their own default settings, to discover the layers of hurt and brokenness they’ve experienced . . . and are now passing along, unbeknownst. Which is why a humble and honest inventory is required to unlock those doors where we keep the most broken places of our heart . . . and even then, sometimes those rooms are so dark, we need to trust someone to go there with us.

There is great power found in allowing yourself to name aloud the things that have held you captive for so long. But with this newly discovered freedom comes the responsibility of stewardship – to be an agent of grace and hope to others without trying to fix them . . . which is an art form that takes a while to master. I say this because it is possible to break the chains of the cycle of hurt, while creating a new avenue of dysfunction and sin — this often occurs when we’ve allowed the damage done to us . . . to define us.

downloadThere’s a peculiar seduction that often accompanies having been wounded deeply that attempts to justify the harmful experience by allowing it to become a predominate feature of your identity, as if everything about you were stuck in that experience from then on. This isn’t to say that life changing experiences shouldn’t be life changing – but when they become a dead end cul-de-sac that your life can’t move beyond . . . it is because, on some level, you’ve chosen to keep it that way.

Now, this might strike you as an unsympathetic assessment, but I assure you, allowing someone to drown in their own victimhood isn’t loving – it’s codependent. For it is precisely because someone has suffered such great pain and sorrow that they need to find hope beyond the darkness attempting to deceive them into believing – this is where they belong.

I have no spiritual platitude to offer, no plastic Jesus bromide – all I know is that there are deeper and more wonderful truths about who you really are, that go far beyond the tragic realities of your past. And maybe you’re afraid to ask God why he allowed such evil to occur – don’t be. God can take it! I don’t know that he’ll answer all of your questions – likely he won’t. But he knows where you hurt and the deep longings of your heart – he is the lover of your soul and the redeemer of all things. And though it may not feel like it –you are his beloved. He has given you a unique story to tell . . . and it can still have a happy ending.

. . . and sometimes you gotta set it all aside and come on up to the house.

The Seduction of Self-Esteem (5 of 9)

For those who suffer with anxiety attacks, there are likely two things in play – the physiology of their brain chemistry and the psychology of their predisposition. So somewhere on the spectrum between these two is where those living with this malady find themselves. More often than not, brain chemistry can be brought back into balance with medication, if not with changes in diet and routine; but as for those reoccurring patterns of negative self-talk, driven by a predisposed psychology — this will require a renovation of perspective.

Since before we were old enough to even realize it, we have been accumulating experiences – experiences that become the very substances of the telling of our story about the world we live in, as well as, who we imagine ourselves to be in it. It’s principally a story that we tell ourselves, about ourselves — but quite often, we’re unsure as to what part we’re supposed to play, even though it’s a story we’re telling . . . you can see already how that could be a problem.

We are constantly narrating what we assume to be the subtext of our daily events, mostly in first person — but there are times when we drift into a third person telling, detached as if helplessly watching. This is when disappointment, depression, and anxiety begin to control our narrative – placing in crisis our identity, our sense of self . . . as if we were disappearing. Undoubtedly, such a narrative is broken, as it erodes all self-worth, dignity, and significance.

imagesClearly a new narrative needs to be adopted, but are we to simply replace what’s negative with what’s positive? Wouldn’t that only be trading one subjective fiction for another? Are we to merely embrace the Johnny Mercer lyrics “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative . . .”? Is that even sustainable? Is this not the seduction of self-esteem – believing that we have the power to existentially pronounce away things we don’t want to believe are true . . . about ourselves?

Any honest estimation of ourselves will always seek to know the whole story, recognizing that self-evaluation is not only limited, but is also highly susceptible to self-deception. So fundamentally, the question here is – what truth do you profess? Because the narrative of your self-talk will always follow the path of your profession. So if what you profess rises and falls in reaction to every circumstance, or is a Pollyannaish denial of circumstance – then your self-talk will always be subject to circumstantial events.

But self-talk that is a profession of immutable truth, a profession that is affixed to the true nature of how the world actually exists, is not only able to correctly identify the context of the world we live in, but can also correctly identify our significance in it. This is why it is a measure of our faith to profess what is true, even when circumstances seem contrary. So here’s the truth about you – you were made in the image of God, thereby given an immeasurable value; you are the beloved of God, inextricably made to share in an intimacy of relationship with him and everyone else in your life; your life has been given purpose and meaning, so arise every day and live in the wonderful power of this gift.

Now, that’s some self-talk worthy listening to . . .

God chooses to love us knowing full well who we are –
his love pursues us no matter how alone we feel in self-doubt.

The Seduction of Moral Ambiguity (4 of 9)

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” – I can’t think of a more quintessentially existential statement. It assumes that no real moral distinction can be made, because it assumes that they’re simply competing morally equivalent opinions in conflict. This, of course, is just another variation on the theme of “Who are we to judge?”.

Interestingly enough, I have never met anyone asking this question who didn’t philosophically presume themselves to have this authority . For that matter, I never met anyone who objected to moral absolutes who didn’t seek to absolutely impose their moral presuppositions on all the rest of us. And whereas the question “Who are we to judge?” is more often employed as a rhetorical gambit intended to disarm, in an ironic attempt to claim the moral high ground – it remains a sound philosophical question . . . if we’re intellectually honest enough to pursue the answer.

The question of where moral authority resides has long been an open question — most especially in a culture that has charted its course into the vague and mercurial waters of relativism. Are we to view ourselves as authoritative moral agents? Are we to simply follow the anthropological tipping points of shifting ethics and mores as our authority? Or is morality affixed to a more transcendent source, pursuant to the purpose for which it was designed?

Nietzsche would say that morality is a struggle of “Will to Power”. Kant would say that morality is a simple matter of cultural pragmatism. Sartre would say that morality has an esoteric value found in self-actualization. Each one of them making the argument that morality is nothing more than something we make up as we go along – something to be ushered into existence by the existential pronouncements of the prevailing culture.

It is a very seductive notion to believe that morality could be that ambiguous – an ever morphing social contract vacuously insisting we comply and conform . . . a standard so tentatively constituted, that no one could ever take it seriously. With a wink and a nod, we can simulate conformity while still pursuing our own selfish agendas – because after all who’s to judge?

imagesBut still, intuitively, we believe that there innately exists a tension between what is and what ought to be . . . as if a pattern were being interrupted. This is likely because we instinctively know that every moral question is predicated on how we measure the value of human life. Which is to say, if human life is to be measured in the flux of the sentimentality generated by circumstance – then morality will be nothing more than a validating aspect of that sentiment. But if human life is to be understood as having an immutable value – then morality must have immutably transcendent moorings.

Being made in the image of God is the game changer – either all human life has an immeasurable value established by God . . . or human life is at market value, allowing us to haggle over its value, by way of our moral opinions. Without getting into the weeds over the specifics of what a transcendent morality might look like – let’s suffice to say, that it is God who must lead us into all understanding; that he is the final authority; and that we must defer to his judgements – humbly confessing that he is God . . . and we are not.

Here’s a great philosophical framing of morality

The Seduction of Being Right (3 of 9)

If we are to take social media as a normative indicator of cultural ethos, then it is clear that coherent debate and civil discourse have long become a lost art. When twitter feeds aren’t filled with innocuous banality, they are spiked with gotcha zingers intent on dispatching all opposing views. Meanwhile Facebook, when it isn’t being an echo chamber of tribalistic affirmation, it is a highly charged exchange of ad hominem accusations, straw man inferences, and hyper link elephant hurling.

I can only suppose that we are left to accept all of these convoluted examples of tortured logic as if they were reasonable facsimiles of a well-developed argument . . . but I don’t think so. When I engage in a discussion on social media, my approach is to make my case systematically, using syllogistic reasoning predicated on my presuppositional framing of the issue – then employing the Socratic Method, I defend my position while challenging the veracity of opposing views.

And because I do this, often I am curiously accused of “just wanting to be right” – to which I’m always tempted to retort “of course I do – aren’t you interested in getting it right?” Of course, there’s no mystery here – we choose to believe something precisely because we believe it to be true . . . to be correct. For now, let us leave for another blog, the dubious and careless process most people employ when making such choices. Instead, let us focus on what it means to be right.

right and wrong checkboxReading Luke 18:10-14 we find the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. It’s a perfect example of how a tightly wound orthodoxy will invariably produce a tightly wound orthopraxy – only to make being right an empty exercise of reductive legalism. Therefore, of the two men, it was the Publican, who had actually internalized what being identified as right was about . . . enough to know that it required a more humble and contrite heart.

In this way, the seduction of being right is found in the arrogant presumption of imagining ourselves as better than those who are supposedly getting it wrong. This occurs in the subtlest of ways, often under the pretense of defending the faith – likely, this was the Pharisee’s intention. But if we are to allow honesty to guide us, confessing the limitations of our epistemology – at best, all we can really offer one another in regards to being right is our own presupposed conclusions.

And it is this very honesty I find in this insightful exchange between Peter and Jesus (John 6:66–68) Jesus asks “Do you want to go away as well?” and Peter answers “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life . . .” The particular beauty I find revealed here, is in how Peter isn’t relying on being right, as if it were an intellectual exercise performed in a vacuum – but instead, is honest enough to confess that he has nowhere else to turn but the Lord . . . and that staying with Jesus is the only right thing he knows to do. May this be our humble confession as well – leaving being right to someone else.

And just in case your still tempted to think being right is so important . . .

The Seduction of Brigadoon (2 of 9)

I grew up watching all of those great old Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Lowe musicals – I found them irresistibly entrancing. The stories would take on Kabuki proportions as they would spontaneously break into song and dance and then ease back into normal dialog as if nothing had happened. No doubt, this was highly influential on my artistic formation at a young age, as it allowed me to imagine how one might make the journey from the mundane to the extraordinary with nothing more than a melody.

But it was the innate idealism of these musicals that gave them such a transportive seduction. The embedded tension within the musical was always between an ideal and a hard reality, where the protagonist must make a choice between the two. I often think this is where we find ourselves – trying to reconcile what we believe ought to be true . . . with what persistently insists on being our reality. So as it is in all good story telling, we identify with the protagonist, and are seduced into embracing the romantic notion of ideal . . . even when the ideal is a little skewed.

One of my favorite musicals was Brigadoon — Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse singing and dancing across the heather of the Scottish highlands . . . a Hollywood sound stage, no doubt. Here’s a synopsis: A country parish priest prays that his little village wouldn’t become spoiled by the corrupt world outside the village. So as the evening comes, the village disappears into the night mist for hundred years, only to reemerge for a single day every hundred years, thereafter. Gene Kelly and Van Johnson, a couple of New York businessmen happen upon this quant village of Brigadoon, and the story unfolds.

brigadoon-jane-heronBecause the village only appears for a day once every hundred years, the theory is that it can never be in any given era longing enough to become corrupted. So Kelly, being our protagonist, begins to feel the tension between his life in New York City and this dream like, simple antiquated life. The utopic notion that life could remain as an unspoiled happily ever after, always seems like an echo from Eden calling us home. So if this is our native longing . . . what’s not to love?

Dreaming of a better world may seem innocent enough, until you realize that’s what every despotic regime leverages when making its case for being in power. But as history is faithful to remind us — every effort to recreate Eden has always ended up being just another iteration of the Tower of Babel . . . and some of them even invoking the name of God when imposing their distorted world view.

So when I hear Christians talking about wanting to make this a Christian nation again, I am given pause – because what I often hear next has more to do with their moral concerns and preferences, than desiring that an intimacy with Christ would be discovered by those who have lost their way. In truth, Christ was more often found in the company of disenfranchised sinners than those who thought Rome should be over thrown because of its moral deficiencies. So my question is – What do you want more, a Christianized culture . . . or more Jesus? The seduction is to believe that they are one in the same.

Here’s an enchanting dance scene from the movie . . .

The Seduction of the Faithful Few (1 of 9)

It makes no difference whether it’s a radical political group like Antifa or the White Nationalists, or a religious cult like the Westboro Baptists – the origins of these groups usually follow a discernable pattern. One or two charismatic individuals create a distinctive out of their own disproportionate response to a concern that may or may not be valid – and before you know it, they have a following, willing to do and say unthinkable things. My question is — what is it that draws people into such radical fringe beliefs?

Undoubtedly, there is some element of predisposition – but that doesn’t really explain their willingness to identify with groups that are so far outside the normative spectrum of beliefs and behaviors. Perhaps they already saw themselves as being socially disenfranchised – but that still doesn’t explain their affiliation with such groups. Could it be that there’s an anthropological group dynamic in play here – fueled by the need to belong? A sense of belonging that isn’t so much predicated on the particulars of the philosophy, as it is about being part of the faithful few who are willing to stand up and fight for a cause – no matter how ill-conceived that cause.

In a culture characterized by ambiguity and ambivalence, existentially set adrift – it shouldn’t surprise us to find people looking for tribal factions with which to identify. That there would be people in search of definition, purpose, and meaning within the context of a culture promoting the unmoored notion that purpose and meaning are what we make of them — only to find themselves ostracized for unwittingly having stepped outside of the spectrum of acceptability . . . “there aren’t any rules –Oh, but be sure not to break any of our rules.” In a world filled with such mixed signals, not only does confusion and chaos ensue, but invariably, all of these balkanizing factions devolve into a Nietzschian “will to power” struggle that only serves to validate the need to double down on those tribal beliefs . . . which only perpetuates the delusion of such ill-fated causes.

downloadAll of this is readily apparent when observed in its most extreme forms – but I have often found it at work in far more subtler shades within Christian culture . . . where the seduction of imagining ourselves as one of the faithful few is very strong. We can become so convinced with our own interpretations of scripture, until we don’t simply disagree with those with a varying interpretation, we are compelled to denounce them. But could it be that we have become blind to the hubris in fallaciously believing that our interpretations of scripture have the same authority as scripture itself? So that with such hubris we become divisive, promoting our inflated distinctive in the exact same way that radical fringe groups do.

Unity can neither be found in the tribal insistence that everyone agree in lock step, nor can it be found in the lowest common denominator of emptying out all of our faith values. But rather, it can be found in not allowing our theological distinctive to define us to the point where we no longer recognize the unity that already exists in Christ. Paul beautifully expresses this unity “[I] . . . urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” ~ Ephesians 4:1-3.

May our distinctive be our bond of peace that allows us to humbly love those with whom we disagree – so that in a world full of imposing factional voices demanding to be heard, our voice might be the sweet voice of grace inviting others to find their rest in Christ.

Down here in the south we’re fully aware of just how
insidious maintaining dividing lines can be

While It Was Still Dark

It used to be, in my youthful days, that my nights would often go long into the small hours of the dark morning – especially as a performing singer/ songwriter making my way home. Then as my wife and I began to raise our family, it always fell to me, when we’d go on vacation, to drive us all through the dark-thirty fog until morning  — everyone fast asleep in the van . . . as I stared off into the hypnotic movement of shadowy landscape. Now a days, the smell of coffee invites me into the dark kitchen most mornings, while the rest of the house sleeps . . . I begin to think about what the day might hold.

In a world that literally has thousands of ways to preoccupy the mind with distraction and amusement, there is a particular solace in the quiet of this darkness before dawn. Likely, this is why I find it well suited to prayer and contemplation. Sometimes I find myself sifting through the past. Sometimes I’m pondering what future might be awaiting me. It’s a sort of a ruminating prayer trance, sipping coffee and whispering the things God has placed on my heart.

So when I read that passage in John 20, where Mary Magdalene is making her way in the dark to the tomb where Jesus was laid – I can’t help but wonder what her pre-dawn thoughts might have been. She had come to do what was customary of the women of her time – to ritually prepare the dead body of a loved one. But because the day before was the Sabbath, she was already a day behind, and that was surely going to complicate the process. So still in shock and mourning, over the death of Jesus, she must now focus herself to the task ahead – so that she might honor Jesus in the only way left to her.

downloadThe familiar narrative of the Resurrection in this passage takes off pretty quickly, but still I’m fascinated by the phrase in verse one, “while it was still dark” – not only is it descriptive, it also makes for a powerful metaphor. Determined to offer Jesus this final gesture of love, Mary does not allow the heaviness of her heart to paralyze her – the darkness of her sorrow was not enough to hold her back . . . and she has no idea what awaits her. Is this not the way of faith – being faithful in the dark . . . unsure of how light might reveal itself?

Given her faithfulness, I don’t think it’s coincidental that Mary was the first to see Jesus raised. Her willingness to make her way through the dark to him, to push through the pain of her loss, not knowing the outcome of her faithfulness . . . and then — there He is, speaking her name! And here we are, at this end of history where the risen Lord is our given starting place . . . and yet, sometimes we’re in the dark too – trying to figure out how to entrust the outcome of our faith efforts to a God we can’t see. So remember this – God knows you’re making your way to him through the dark . . . and he will be there in the morning light, speaking your name . . . because he knows you, and the darkness you have been set free from.

Here’s a beautiful song Mary Magdalene written by my brother Garrison Doles
and all of the wonderful art is the work of his wife Jan Richardson

Asleep In The Boat

Sometimes you can watch a storm forming out on the horizon, dark clouds gathering, ominously approaching as the atmosphere shifts and you can begin to feel the inevitability of the storm’s presence – but more than likely, you still have time to make your way to shelter. Down here in Florida, you can be traveling on the highway and see off in the distance an isolated cell of down pour surrounded by clear skies – it’s a curious thing to see such a torrential event so hemmed in. But if you ever happen to be on the water, a few miles off shore, when a storm swiftly moves in and begins to toss your boat around like a rag doll — then you know what it truly means to be caught in a storm.

Whether it is the looming darkness of a storm that stalks you, or the cacophony of trying to hold on for dear life in the midst of deluge – the idea of storm makes for an evocative metaphor. So your experience might feel like an isolated cell you see menacing a loved one’s life, feeling as if all you can do is helplessly watch. Or it’s the dread you feel about something unavoidably coming your way that will most certainly flip your world on its head, and all you can do is hang on tight until it passes. The idea of storm always stirs something deep within us.

But like the Longfellow poem observes “Into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary”. It is common to man, to know the travail of storms . . . which is why Mark 4:37-40 has always been such a troublesome passage for me. The disciples find themselves on open water in the middle of a storm, tossing their boat about and filling it to the point of sinking – they undoubtedly had good reason to fear for their lives . . . and there’s Jesus, asleep in the boat.

christ-asleep-in-his-boat-jules-joseph-meynierThey must have been astounded that he could sleep so deeply with so much chaos about – yet he does not awaken until his disciples awaken him. And here’s where I imagine the disciples, incredulously asking Jesus “Are you just going to let us die here”. Here’s why I find this question so perplexing – they are simultaneously convinced that Jesus can do something about it (or why ask him this question), but they are also afraid he either can’t (he isn’t the Christ), or he won’t (because a God who creates storms in the first place is an unpredictable God).

Jesus speaks “Peace, be still” to the storm before addressing the disciples lack of faith. So at this point the disciples are feeling relieved and likely a little confused about being admonished about their lack of faith – after all, they did wake him up expectantly . . . and was likely still confused as to how he could sleep with so much chaos afoot. And that’s what makes this passage so troublesome for me – why is Jesus asleep in the first place? But even more troublesome, when awakened, why does he view his having been awakened as a lack of faith on their part? Are we not to turn to him in troubled times?

But what if Jesus being asleep in the boat is the whole point of this story? How would that change our understanding of it? What if the true measure of faith is found in our willingness to rest in Him while in the midst of the storm – instead of trying to avoid the storm? Faith can only overcome fear when we finally realize that faith transcends circumstance – instead of insisting that circumstances must change. Jesus may have been asleep in the boat – but he never left the boat . . . he was always with them. We must learn to remember that his presence is always more than enough to see us through anything we face . . . and we should also remember, that God never really sleeps.

The Lord is our shelter . . .