Being Consistent (6 of 8)

Instinctively, we are drawn to what is considered socially normative. It is part of our anthropological intuition, creating in us a sense of belonging — a sense of security. So it doesn’t matter whether our cultural context is religious or irreligious, politically left or right, urban or rural – we are drawn into conformity with the subset culture we have chosen to identify . . . and we mistakenly assume that our personal consistency is somehow measured against our compliance with the prevailing ethos of that subset culture.

But well-behaved conformity to cognitively dissonant darkness can only create the illusion of being consistently in the light. As such conformity is, more often than not, nothing more than borrowed light filtered and opaque, a cultural distortion of light. In this way, cultural conformity masquerades as being virtuously consistent . . . but being consistently wrong is the likeliest outcome within such a paradigm.

Internally, when the head and the heart aren’t actively going a few rounds in the ring, they have taken to their corners under an uneasy cease fire, awaiting the next skirmish. This is where the actual battle for consistence takes place – where facts and feelings meet incongruently, vying for supremacy. And under the prevailing influence of modernity, we tend to assume that the cognitive will be far more reliably consistent than the loose cannon of the emotive – but once again this is an illusion . . . as if it were possible for the content of our thinking to be devoid of emotion.

imagesPhilosophically, the Christian faith embraces the concept that there are transcendent principles, by design, at work in the universe — therefore, having consistency in our life requires that we align ourselves with those principles. But here’s the thing, those principles were never meant to be understood in an intellectual vacuum apart from a relationship with God – that in fact it is our relationship with God that unlocks the continuity that exists between the principles, and brings proportion to their meaning.

So in regards to our desire to find consistency in both thought and deed, we must be careful to hold in abeyance the external and internal forms of predisposed conformity, which we’re inclined to blindly follow. Instead, choosing to hold every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5), so that we might walk in the light as he is in the light (1 John 1:7), seeking first his kingdom (Matthew 6:33). Ever aware that it is the Holy Spirit at work in what we think, what we do, and what we desire, conforming us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).

For it is in the worship of God where our intellect and emotion are brought into full harmony – as our minds begin to ponder the greatness of God present in the narrative of his word, our hearts can’t help but respond, as we are wooed by his ponderous love . . . so in the abandon that such love inspires we are overcome. This is a recalibration, ever pulling us back into balance, into the arms of the true lover of our souls – so that in His immutable presence we might find some measure of true consistency.

God is ever transforming us — ever making water into wine . . .

Being Relevant (5 of 8)

One of the most challenging things we face in life, is maintaining a healthy separation between what we need and what we want. For example, our innate need for affirmation and affection can often devolve into the reckless wanting found in a string of meaningless sexual encounters and addictions to pornography. Or our basic need for food, clothing, and shelter can metastasize into a wanting, typical of greed and the self-involved avarice of consumerism. And our primal need to belong can get swept up in our wanting to fit in with cultural expectations until we negotiate away our principles and values – where individual conviction gives way to groupthink . . . the type of groupthink that ironically gets labeled “being relevant”.

Begging the question – “Being relevant to what?” At this point “being relevant” can be understood as either being relative to something in flux, or as being germane to something constant. And how we define “being relevant” can help give us insight on how best to distinguish need from want – because what we want at any given moment is a moving target, but what we actually need remains unchanged . . . even if we haven’t completely identified what we actually need.

Back when I was a youth minister, I would try to enlist adult volunteers, many of which assumed that they were unqualified because they didn’t imagine themselves as being relevant enough to high school culture. They erroneously thought that being up to date on the current jargon, fashion, and music would be required to bridge the gap of relevance – but that would have only made them relative to youth culture. But what was actually needed, was a willingness to love and listen to these teenagers as individuals, giving each of them the dignity of their significance – so that the group identity could be built on what was truly germane to the needs of these transitional years.

What-Counts-as-Relevant-Career-Experience-353x179Today, so many folks talk about the need for the Church to be relevant – and I couldn’t agree more . . . but again, there’s a need to define terms. Any juxtaposing of traditional with contemporary can only seek to measure relevance by indexing how relative to current cultural ethos our practices it can be. Which is inextricably predicated on the assumption, that the ever-shifting mores and values of a culture perpetually trying to figure out what it wants most, will be the best path for discovering what the culture actually needs . . . and the mission of the Church isn’t to offer the world what it wants, but to lovingly help it discover what it needs.

This isn’t to suggest in the least that traditionalism is somehow sacrosanct — because what has become traditional can quite often fail in its ability to address the real experienced needs of its practitioners. When church practices become disconnected from the meaning they once represented, they either need to be recognized as germane to our faith and reconnected to their original purpose, or they need to be abandoned altogether as only having been relative to a bygone day. But what is immutably central to Christianity is Christ and his ever-pursuing love and grace, ever-seeking to find us in our deepest need — in this regard His Church is always relevant . . . because he is always relevant.

. . . and our need for God’s guidance is always relevant.

Being Vulnerable (4 of 8)

The most striking thing to me about the nativity narrative is found in the extent to which God makes himself vulnerable. Not only does he assume the general vagaries of human frailty, but he pursues vulnerability in its most dramatic forms – being born a helpless babe, sharing a nursery with livestock; born to an impoverished couple, amidst the scandal of a teenage pregnancy, within a morally legalistic culture. All of which historically occurs during a time when the social station into which you were born defined your significance from that point forward.

Our Christmas card portrayals of the nativity tend to employ a more romantic lens, filtering out the harsher aspects of the destitute predicament of Jesus’ birth. But rightly so, we look at this moment with glad tidings of great joy, knowing this to be the moment that ushers in the ponderous gift of redemption and reconciliation offered to all men. And given our role, as being on the receiving end of such an extravagant gift – it does not fully occur to us that even in this moment, to appreciate that a cost is being paid by Jesus . . . long before he goes to the cross.

It is the love of God on display, witnessed in his humble choices of vulnerability throughout his life. It is evident in the forty days of wilderness setting the tone for his three year ministry, giving himself over to want and deprivation – only to culminate in being taunted and tempted by an accusing deceiver. The temptation here isn’t really found in whether or not he accepted Satan’s offer, but in whether he would choose, to avoid or accept, the ultimate vulnerability of the cross. But even before the cross, we find him in the garden, his disciples completely unaware of his burden — fast asleep. So it was alone, he would face the cup that would not pass . . . knowing that he must drink it dry.

imagesThere is a good reason why so many of our Christmas carols choose to celebrate the infant king with the melancholy of minor chords – for embedded in this beautiful, scandalous night of angels, there is a long dark night’s journey for the Son of Man, a journey of self-emptying sacrifice, before we could all awaken on that resurrection morning. It is the humble path of choosing at every turn to make himself vulnerable, that marks the life of Christ from manger to cross. So it is not merely an interesting detail of his incarnation that we find Jesus born of low estate – it is an essential element in how we are to understand his extraordinary love for us.

So it is of no small significance for me to observe, that in contrast, it is in our being vulnerable to such an extent, where the human psyche resists the most. The shame and hurt, the disappointment and disparagement, are all such powerful forces – we dare not open that door too wide . . . or we will be utterly undone. But in the incarnate self-emptying way of Christ we discover an invitation to throw open that door of vulnerability, to allow ourselves to be known, scandalous details and all . . . so that the love and mercy of God might flow beyond our protected borders of self – to find its way into every life we touch with the true invitation of freedom. Because it is the way of Christ — to give of yourself in such a way that gives beyond the limitations of self.

Sometimes we forget this was a mother’s tender moment first . . .

Being Expectant (3 of 8)

“Hope is a dangerous thing.” is arguably the seminal line spoken by Morgan Freeman’s character in the movie, Shawshank Redemption. The crucial nature of this line’s context is what gives it gravity – men serving life sentences in a state penitentiary. In such a setting, the idea of hope is but a mocking voice, only serving to accentuate the despair of imprisonment. Because those who are free, are free to hope – but for those whose lives are bound, hope comes at a great cost.

There is a symbiosis – hope requires freedom, and freedom thrives on hope. But in order to understand this symbiosis, it is critical that we understand the substance of hope. Hope is not found in the idle wishing for things to be so, predicated on nothing more than the whimsy of our passing desire – hope is forged in the fire of our faith beliefs, which constitutes the infrastructure of our entire perception of life’s meaning. It is an expectation firmly anchored in the faithfulness of God (Hebrews 10:23).

It is our expectation of what is true – that it will eventually make itself evident. So our hope is placed, both in what can be known, and what has yet to be revealed . . . and our faith is the bridge between the two. We are therefore, free to expect that God will accomplish his will, precisely because it is not bound by our limitations to make it so. In this regard, hope is a leveraging against a certain future – in order that we might live confidently now in God’s providence. And it is this very future/now paradigm that animates our understanding of the Advent season.

It was the expectation of God’s people, because of God’s past faithfulness, that he would redeem and deliver them – even though they had no conception of their redeemer as coming in the shape of a helpless babe, who would one day face a scandalous execution as a political/ religious subversive. And whereas, they might not have expected the means of their redemption to be fulfilled in such a manner – their expectations were met all the same . . . regardless of their ability to realize it or not.

christmas-season-advent-nativity-background-baby-jesus-in-a-manger-with-bright-star-shining-above_h-xffjgfg_thumbnail-small01So what are your expectations of this Advent season? Are you building upon God’s faithfulness, so that you might be expectant of what he’ll do next? Will you allow your heart and mind the wonderment of embracing a God who takes on flesh, so that he might enter into your pain of disappointment and know your discouragement? Will you expectantly follow his humble path, believing his life to be a template of reconciliation that you might also reconcile others to God (2 Corinthians 5:18,19)?

So what do you expect as you look once more upon that manger? Do you see death defeated on a cross, and a king inviting you into his banquet hall? And how will that change what you expect from the rest of your life? Does your faith know how to make the journey between what you say you believe and what you hope to be true? Because after all – hope is a dangerous thing. It should only be invoked, if you’re truly willing to be set free from all that binds you.

This is my brother Jeff’s wonderful arrangement of “Joy To The World”


Being Contemplative (2 of 8)

I’ve been asked a number of times “how is it that you find the time to write your blog?” I’m never quite sure how I’m supposed to reply, as the question strikes me in much the same way I imagine someone asking me “how is it that you find the time to be human?” Now, I’ve only been writing my blog for a relatively short while, but as an artist my mind is ever turning something on the lathe. So being contemplative is sewn into the fabric of my daily experience – I’m ever noodling the subtext of life.

Unavoidably, we live within the compression of time. We either see life as an object coming at us, demanding we be fully focused, or we’re in a self-induced vegetative mode, allowing distractions and amusements to transport us — but either way the clock is ticking. In our work-a-day world, we’re consumed with reading the stitches on a fastball, feeling the urgency to decide whether to swing or lay off – so in this context we experience time as impatient and intransigent. Then on the other end of the continuum, we’re chill, acquiescing to the undemanding seduction of light entertainment – in this context we experience time as fleeting and indifferent. Either way, time measures us, attempting to dictate how we experience being human.

But surely, measuring our lives by the stuff we do, is a reductionist view – and yet we allot time, as if the doing of life is all that matters . . . and that our internal life is merely incidental. But before you miss my point entirely – I have no desire to put one more thing on your plate, because I’m not asking you to do an internal life, as if time could measure it’s significance. What if I told you that being contemplative is actually not bound by time – that it can’t really be pursued that way? Would that be something you could wrap your head around?

downloadWhereas, there are activities that are more conducive to contemplation, being contemplative isn’t an activity, as such – it is more of a state of being. It is neither a form of didactic focused thinking, nor is it purely a freely associative state of relaxed focus – and even though it may borrow from both of these, it defies our usual cognitive processes . . . as it is part rumination, part meditation, and part prayer. It is what allows our internal life to go unscathed by the constraints of time. It isn’t measured like a task, having a beginning and an end – as it exists as the fluid subtext of our lives, so that our lives might become a place where we meet God . . . in an ongoing way.

What if the invitation of Isaiah 1:18 “come let us reason together . . .” and the admonition of 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “pray without ceasing”, were to be understood as complimentary in nature – what do you think that would look like? Life itself, is a meditation. There are most certainly, activities that make up our everyday life, no doubt, important in their own way – but it is in the subtext of contemplation, where we more often than not, find communion with God. Funny how no one ever really asks me how I find time for that – but then again, if they think communion with God is nothing more than a switch we turn on and off . . . then they likely view it as being time constrained.

Being Thankful (1 of 8)

Heard a comedian tell a story about being on a plane where the stewardess announces that the airline will now be providing a new service — inflight Wi-Fi, only to return to the intercom ten minutes later to apologize that because of complications this service will not be available on this flight. At which point the young man sitting next to the comedian begins to fume and fuss about how this “sucks!” To which the comedian, correctly observes, “only ten minutes prior this guy didn’t even know it was a possibility – it’s just not enough that he’s sitting on a flying chair 30,000 feet above the ground eating Cheetos and flipping through a magazine” . . . then the comedian asked “how did our expectations become so disproportionate?

I have no particular ambition for making money or having stuff, not that I think that there’s anything wrong with making money and having stuff, it’s simply that such things don’t animate my life. Nevertheless, I live well within the context of first world comforts, along with the resident temptations that come with walking through the minefield of comparative affluence. Much of the world struggles with the sociological realities of daily survival and subsistence, meanwhile I am ever being beguiled by a consumerist playground – where “what else do I want?” has become the new way survival is measured.

But within such a paradigm, I am suspicious that we are also redefining how we understand ourselves. Given our steady diet of amusement and distraction, we are becoming as much banal voyeurs of our lives, as we are participants. And there is a diminishing return at work, a crater forming in the middle of our expectations, where everything we consume disappears into the ambiguity of momentary gratification. Nothing can hollow us out quite like our longing after what can only offer us discontent . . .  is this not the “chasing after wind” that Ecclesiastes references?

downloadIn this way, gratitude is more than a virtue — it is a necessity. Only the truly grateful are able to ponder the real value and significance of what they have. Willing to allow the transient value of things to be interpreted by their transcendent source. Apart from this source, everything you have and everything you are has no meaning whatsoever, just the smoke and mirrors of your own baseless evaluations. For gratitude is the scale on which everything is given weight, held proportionately up to the giver of all gifts so that each thing may be known as blessing.

It’s my earnest desire to maintain a humble and a thankful heart, so that I might know everything as a gracious gift from my Father’s hand. My family and friends, my talents and intelligence, home and belongings, provisions and pleasures – they are all found in my Father’s care . . . each one reminding me of his love. In this regard, gratitude isn’t simply a response to something already given, but rather it is an act of faith, like an empty bowl held up to God, believing that he will continue to fill it, not with the impermanent things we assume we need . . . but with more of Himself.

This powerful Peter Himmelman song has haunted me for years . . .

The Shadow of Doubt

Maybe it’s just me, but when someone says, unsolicited “You just need to have a little more faith” – whether intoned as a dashboard plastic Jesus PTL platitude, or as a karmic positive vibes incantation against bad juju . . . I’m never quite sure how to respond to their backhanded observation that I’m somehow faith deficient. I’m always tempted to respond in kind by quipping “. . . and you just need to have a little more practical discernment” – but, no doubt, they are only attempting to demonstrate some measure of thoughtful assistance . . . so instead, I choose to smile, as if in agreement.

Faith by the truckload, is a truckload too much — if errantly placed. Because it isn’t really about turning up the volume on your faith. . . it’s about where your faith is placed. So if your faith is in something or someone, transient and fallible, it doesn’t matter how much faith – it will invariably end in disappointment and despair. But the least amount of faith (Matthew 17:20) placed in our transcendent and unfailing God is capable of displacing mountains – so quantity is clearly not the issue. But here’s the thing – your faith must be placed in the God who actually exists, and not in the one of your own contrivance . . . and in the disparity between these two is usually where doubt sticks its nose under the tent.

Doubt is more often than not, the catalyst for fear, because it calls into question either some part of what you’ve chosen to believe in – or the whole thing entirely . . . which is why fear always thrives most in our most unsettled moments of doubt. But doubt itself, is neither good nor bad – because our faith was never meant to be kept in a vacuum of unquestioned acceptance . . . as if faith were far too fragile for the rigors of real life.

4e427361ae9d68911c07bd7852a9314aDoubt is commonly juxtaposed with faith because it is assumed to be the opposite of faith – but I would contend that doubt is the truest traveling companion of faith . . . because even though doubt may struggle to believe, it still wants to believe. Apathy is actually the opposite faith – because it gave up a longtime ago on believing. But doubt is willing to sojourn the distance between our misconceptions of God and the God who actually exists (the book of Job comes to mind). So here’s the thing – without doubt we would simply continue to place our faith in a God of our own making . . . instead of risking what it takes to discover the one true God. In this regard, doubt is an essential aspect of faith.

It is doubt that prevents us from stowing away our faith in the back of the closet, next to all the other stuff we rarely need to pull out and use. It reminds us that our faith grows stronger, like our muscles, when met with resistance. And most importantly, it begins to shape our confession of faith into a humble longing to really know God – no matter what that entails . . . willing to chase His light into the darkness of our unbelief. Until we freely cry out aloud “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

I found this song very evocative of the tension between doubt and faith

Ravens of Elijah

If you’re anything like me, then you’re inclined to believe that life can only make sense if on some scale, on some level, there is some measure of balance and symmetry. That with each wave of life, hitting from every direction, eventually our boat will right itself on even keel. I don’t know if this is just a philosophical borrowing from Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction . . . or am I just making up my own version of Dualism, without all of its eastern mystic trappings.

In common parlance this notion is better recognized as our instinct to believe that life should be fair . . . even though we know it isn’t. We seem to want to test at every turn the axiom “no good deed goes unpunished” because we know it to be broken. We want to believe that with whatever hardship we endure in well doing there will be an approximate counter weight of experienced blessing . . . and yet our lives seem to be constantly caught in the tensions found in every asymmetric circumstance that envelops us.

Back when I was a child in Sunday school, there was an image of the prophet Elijah being fed by ravens – and I remember being unsettled by the thought. As a child I couldn’t put my finger specifically on what it was that bothered me, but the older I got it became clearer. Here was Elijah willing to live as an outcast for speaking God’s truth, already willing to suffer hardship – and then God miraculously shows up to feed him during his time of need . . . so far, so good.

But of all the possible ways God had available to him as a means of meeting Elijah’s hunger – having birds, not known for their cleanliness, delivering to him carrion (rancid decaying meat) . . . strikes me as being at the bottom of the list. The tension here is palpable – God is unquestionably blessing Elijah . . . but in a manner that seems tone deaf to the sacrifice Elijah is already making at the time. I mean the Children of Israel in the wilderness ate manna and quail . . . and they complained the whole time! And without complaint, Elijah eats a far less desirable meal. It is this very disproportion that remains a mystery to me.

RavensOften my struggle with doubt isn’t over whether or not I believe God will show up, but rather in what he might choose to do, when he does – I’m desperate for him to bring balance to my life, and more often than not keeping me off balance seems to be his agenda. All I know is that when I begin to ponder what it means to submit myself to the inscrutable purposes of God – I find myself in Gethsemane.

I begin to imagine the long and lonely agonizing night – knowing full well what lies ahead. His disciples, unaware of how this night would end, have fallen asleep. Jesus, having just a few hours before hand, washed the feet of Judas who was, even now, returning to this garden, in betrayal. It is only then that I am reminded that even Jesus had to contend with the asymmetric vagaries of a fallen world . . . and I begin to confess my need for his love to carry me beyond the foolishness of my need to understand.

I love how this David Wilcox song exposes how our sense of balance
is nothing more than illusion.

Walking With A Limp

When my wife, of more than 30 years, and I were first married, I labored under the ridiculous misconception that if she would just provide me with a list of things she wanted and didn’t want – I would be happy to oblige . . . and our marriage would be smooth sailing. But that’s not how marriage works — in fact, such a perfunctory reduction misses the point of marriage, altogether. Not only is it completely devoid of intimacy, it smacks of contractual obligation . . . which invariably distills down to the least amount of effort while still maintaining compliance.

We experience relationships far more organically, knowing that they require a far more intuitive subtlety. That human desire doesn’t really function with binary precision, rather it follows a relational curve, where our desire is constantly being shaped by the dynamic of our relationships. This is why a static list, no matter how well conceived, can only at best, offer nothing more than a relational starting point . . . and sadly many relationships never grow beyond this superficial point.

This is the subtext found in the Gospel exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees – the Pharisees were insisting on talking about the list, while Jesus was inviting them to think beyond the list. Ironically, the Pharisees chose to have a relationship with the list itself, rather than pursuing something more – because checking items off a list allowed them to meet the obligations of the relationship while maintaining a life apart from the relationship . . . given such a passive aggressive posturing, is it really any wonder that Jesus referred to them as whited sepulchers (Matthew 23:27)?

wrestling-with-GodAccording to Genesis 32, Jacob becoming Israel is an unusual story about a restless night, where we find Jacob fearing retribution from his twin brother, Esau – so he sends his family away to a safe distance . . . leaving him alone to face his brother. But that night as he slept, a mysterious angel/man appears to wrestle with him all night long — and it is out of this long night’s wrestling a relationship is forged. They wrestle until daybreak, but Jacob is unwilling to let the angel/man go, even though he has been wounded in the process — because he wanted something more from this encounter.

As it turned out his sparring partner was God himself, and because Jacob was willing to stay engaged with God all night long, God renames him Israel (He who struggles with God). The next day he limps out to face Esau (as well as his fear) – but it turns out his brother was so happy to see him, and the joy and generosity in Esau’s expression was like the very face of God to Jacob (Genesis 33:10).

What a wonderfully curious intimacy this story has – Jacob spends the night fighting for his relationship with God . . . and wakes to find out that his brother wants to reconcile their relationship. Are you willing to go into that long night and fight for that relationship . . . even if it means you might walk away with a limp? Or will you maintain a safe distance . . . with a dispassionate list of obligations in your hand? That’s God waiting for you in that ring – so why don’t you climb in and go a few rounds . . . there’s a blessing waiting for you in there.

My brother Garrison has written this beautifully intimate song
about Jacob wrestling with God.

Taking A Wrong Turn

My wife is somewhat of a directional savant – you can drop her in the middle of any large city and in a half an hour she will know all of the major thoroughfares and the best way to get you anywhere you want to go . . . even though she’s never been there before. I, on the other hand, am directionally challenged. When I come to a fork in the road, where logically there can only be a 50/50 chance of getting it wrong – I will lay you odds 10 to 1 that I will take the wrong turn. I don’t know if it’s that my internal compass is somehow askew, or if my mind is just elsewhere solving a more creative puzzle . . . leaving my body behind to sort out the details.

Quite often, you aren’t even aware that you’ve even taken a wrong turn until it becomes obviously, and sometimes painfully, apparent. So with just the slightest twinge of shame, igniting frustration and anger, you begin to think about how you might get yourself turned around again. However, it is in this very turning around and the journey back, where I want this metaphor to find its focus. Because it’s in the unanticipated course corrections of our life, and how we choose to recalibrate, that interests me most. For it’s in these epiphanic paradigm shifts of discovery where our real choices are made.

Because it is with these unearthed truths about ourselves, those things that come to light about the path we’re on, where we find the true crossroads of our life. No doubt our fear and shame, anger and hurt, want us to return to the bliss of ignorance — so the temptation to ignore our need for a course correction is very strong. But one cannot simply choose to un-know an unavoidable truth — it will invariably make itself even more evident over time. I believe this is the very proving ground of our faith – do we really believe that God can change us . . . and are we really interested in him doing so?

yz4Pc1FTiZNs8z1EhNZqocVJho7We just need to address these undesirable behaviors and habits, head on . . . is the way we usual think about willing ourselves back on to the right path again. But that’s just another wrong turn – as that can only lead to a perpetuating cycle of failure, shame, and even more layers of undesirable behaviors and habits. What lies beneath the surface will only leach through again. So if ignoring our need to change direction is going the wrong way, and attempting to cosmetically address our addictive behaviors and habits is just another wrong turn – then what is the right direction?

Arguably, the right direction to take, is to do the will of God — to which we profess “. . . he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion . . .” (Philippians 1:6). Which is better explained in Philippians 2:13 “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his pleasure.” We’re not merely a fixer-up project that God is observing with a critical eye – wondering when we’re going to get our act together. He is actively working to make us completely new. Our reconciliation to God is an ongoing occurrence, one that God is superintending out of his great love for us. Therefore, the right direction is to fully embrace the relationship that God is perpetually inviting you to . . .

. . . and one day, love’s going to carry you home.

That’s Not How It Works

When Otto von Bismarck in 1881, introduced the concept of retirement to Prussia’s Reichstag, it was thought to be a radical idea – because up until then people simply didn’t retire . . . and couldn’t imagine why they would. Working was so integral to how they viewed their lives; the idea of not working struck them as a form of amputation – separating them from some vital and useful part of how they understood themselves. This was decidedly an interruption to the familiar rhythm of labor and leisure, which made up their everyday life.

It is a theological misconception to view labor as part of our fall from Eden, as if it were a curse and a judgement upon us. We were designed for work; it was always a part of our intended purpose. What got broken in the fall was our relationship to work. In the same way every relationship was broken – with God, with one another, and to the world, itself. Therefore, the reconciliation of God is the only thing that can restore us back to a right relationship with our labors.

We were created in the image of a creator – let that soak in for minute. So the idea of holding idle leisure over and above our daily labors, is to place us out of balance with our intended purpose. Therefore, the notion that all of our efforts, apart from our designated spiritualized activities, in this life are nothing more than an inconsequential moving of game pieces around on a board that’s destined for destruction – is in fact a form Gnosticism . . . creating a false dichotomy between our sacred and secular efforts. And that’s not the way it works . . .

tumblr_oa4c0mIyNO1qfvq9bo1_1280All that we are, all that we have, and all that we do is to be done to God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31) – which has far more to do with an integrated life than a sub-divided one. Therefore, there is no divide between the sacred life and secular – there is only the life of faith that views all things as sacred. We find an expression of this in ora et labora (pray and work), a tenet of St. Benedict – where all of the tasks of the day are placed in context by a life of scripture and prayer. My point isn’t that we all must follow a monastic life, but rather that we begin to see how our life of faith is meant to be an integrated life.

So much of our culture has been shaped by the ethos of modernity, a two-story perspective – the things that we think on one floor, and the things that we do on the other. It tells us that we ostensibly live in our own heads – so that’s where the important stuff happens, like faith . . . and everything else is just idle motion in a corruptible world. In this way, modernism has poisoned our perspective. Our faith isn’t just an elevated way of thinking — but can be found in both the profound and mundane activities of our life. . . when that life is offered as an oblation to God, living fully in his presence. So we work as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23) . . . because ultimately, there really is no one else to work for.

Tim Keller unpacks the importance of having a contextual narrative understanding of our vocation.

The Alchemy That Love Brings

When I sit in my living room, in my favorite chair, and look out of the window, I can see the stand of tall pine trees behind my house — I can watch them sway almost imperceptibly in a gentle breeze, as the late afternoon sun begins to paint their upper branches . . . until I become entranced. I can’t explain why this moves me the way it does, bringing me such a sense of well-being – I just know that it does. I do know however, that the older I get, the more acutely attuned to the simpler pleasures I become – the very details of which, I undoubtedly raced passed in my youth.

As the eyes of a kid in a candy store grow wider with the seemingly infinite possibilities, he becomes filled with the reckless desire to have far more than he can hold – when even a starving man is more possessed of need than desire . . . the child is natively drawn into desiring more than his need requires. But an unconstrained desire for anything other than God can only lead us into various permutations of addiction. This is likely why our youth is often ill spent in chasing after our passions — first one thing and then another.

Even our desire to love and be loved can become distorted and pulled into the undertow of diminishing returns, creating in us an insatiable need to control the outcome . . . of how love will serve our desire.  So we become more preoccupied with conforming love to our agenda than with allowing love to change us. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul makes the case for love’s preeminence – not as something held hostage to our every whim, but as something with the transformative power to change the way we see everything else . . . bringing proportion to what we value.

imagesBy design, love isn’t meant to pool up and become stagnant, but rather, it is meant to cascade over the edges of your life spilling on to everything in your life, until you begin to understand it all as a sacred blessing. In this way, everything and everyone appear as changed, no longer to be known as ordinary, but appreciated within the full economy of creation, because God has spoken all things into existence. This is the alchemy that love brings – God changing us to the point where everything we see appears to us as being changed, as well.

This dynamic is most obvious to me while playing with my grandchildren, or enjoying comfort food my wife is expert at preparing. But I am learning to detect it in the less obvious details of my life, learning to find God’s fingerprints hiding in plain sight. As I learn to look for all of these rare and ponderous moments awaiting discovery in my every day, God is reshaping me, reshaping my heart and mind to more readily find his presence . . . so don’t mind me – I’m just watching God’s hand swaying in the pines.

The line “the alchemy that love brings” was taken from this song
I wrote for my daughter Jessica’s wedding 

Walking Through Walls

I never met a kid who wasn’t interested in having super powers. And judging by the popularity of all of these comic book movies and TV shows that continue to come out, there’s still a bit of a kid in each of us still entertaining, if only as a passing interest, this particular fantasy. I fully appreciate the allure – super powers would address so many things all at once. Our sense of significance; our struggle with feeling powerless; our desire to do something important with our lives; and our ability to serve the downtrodden. So not only would it be very cool to have super powers – there would also be tangible benefits . . . maybe God ought to look into this.

In truth, we can game out a thousand “if only . . .” scenarios that would work far better than the one we feel stuck in – but what if that’s just a trick of perception? What if I told you I walk through walls, and walk on water every day . . . and so do you? Would you believe me? Your first reaction, no doubt, would be to consider it impossible. But then as you’d begin to think of it in terms of a riddle to be solved . . . then O yeah! “he’s talking about walking through doors and taking a shower!”

Reflexively, we think of what is common, as being common, and what is impossible as being impossible – until we are forced to find where the overlap may exist. Could it be that much of what we find impossible is really more about our failure to identify where this overlap might be? My riddle can be solved when we reframe what is impossible by reimagining what is possible. This isn’t found in the fairy dust of positive thinking, which more often than not is built on nothing more than existential expectations — no, this is a radical redefining of the way we define what is possible.

jesuswalksonwaterIn Matthew 17:20 Jesus tells us that the smallest amount of faith can move a mountain – now, you are more than welcome to hold this in the abstraction of metaphor . . . but even as a metaphor, it is still fundamentally insisting that we must rethink the very fabric of what is possible. That when we are willing to see others and ourselves through the lens, of even the least amount of faith, the possibilities begin to multiply on our horizon.

The admonition of Jesus to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5: 44) may strike you as an impossibility, that the distance is too great and the walls are too high . . . and that even Jesus would have written those people off by now. But trust me when I tell you – that’s Jesus calling you to walk through walls . . . all of the walls you’ve built, all of the walls they’ve built. These walls cannot withstand the love of God, they will fall like the walls of Jericho . . . like the gates of Hell. And God’s name will be glorified for what only he is capable of doing. So the only real question is – are you willing to believe you can walk through those walls?

Here’s a song I wrote years ago about the way we view walls 

Ears To Hear

The shout-them-down rhetoric of tribal factions has so thoroughly taken over our cultural discourse until the simplest conversations have become minefields. Either you’re expected to contribute to the vitriolic diminishment of those with whom you disagree, or you will be ostracized for not conforming to tribal expectations. This isn’t to suggest that the ethos of tribal groupthink is somehow a new thing, rather, I’m only recognizing the high pitch of the sharp divide that has seized so much of our cultural engagement of one another, these days.

The only thing that the flamethrowers on each side can agree upon is that scorched earth is the only way to win – you gotta burn it down to reboot it! The good news is that those willing to actually strike the match are in a very small minority – but the bad news is that it has been this very small minority’s dark, dehumanizing mentality, which seems to be subtly at work fueling the debate. So instead of the civility of an intellectually honest exchange of ideas, where amicable disagreement is allowed to occur – we are now embroiled in bumper sticker bromides, snarky memes, and denouncements of anyone we disagree with as being stupid and/or evil . . . even when our own duplicity conspicuously exposes the shallowness of our own partisan agendas. In short, all we can do is talk at each other.

arrowsMy point here isn’t to drill down into the political minutia that has become our disproportionate justification for why we must prove how right we are and how wrong they are – as I no longer have the desire to contribute to the incessant inflation of political agendas. No, my point is that we are losing our ability to hear the humanity in the voice of those with whom we disagree. Now, before you assume that I’ve been secretly speaking about “them” and that “we” are different – let me disabuse you of that notion . . . as I am convinced we all share culpability in this coarsening of the discourse.

In the gospels, the words of Jesus were often met with resistance by those lost in their own echo chambers of context and influence. So he would invite them to set aside their expectations of what they want to hear, what their ears might be itching for – words to agree with . . . or words to pounce upon — like red meat. Jesus invited them to come and know something new – in a new way of knowing. Something they may have been previously leaving out of the equation. So the choice was theirs to make – to stay and try to figure it out . . . or to walk away convinced there was nothing new worth knowing.

When my wife and children accuse me of not hearing them, my first instinct is to dismiss the accusation as absurdly inaccurate — I can obviously hear them . . . which may be true if words were all they were trying to convey. But in the invitation of Jesus to have ears to hear, I have been learning to humble myself, so I might be able to listen beyond the logic of the words being spoken, to listen for what the heart may be speaking. There is an innate dignity we extend to one another when we truly seek to listen beyond the words. You may still end up disagreeing, and that’s all right, but you will have remembered something far more valuable – that the unconditional love of God might be trying to interrupt your conversation . . . and you might just want to let that happen.

I thought this was an excellent philosophical analysis
regarding the nature of the divide.

Knowing the Back Story

Our culture is driven by a self-affirming narrative, lost in the circular logic of “What I say has importance because I have said it”. But ironically, this narrowing narcissistic perspective appears to be on the rise during a time when avenues of personal communication are now at an all-time high. So we have all of this opportunity, like no other point in history, to connect with one another . . . and still, we end up speaking past each other.

The importance of first impressions is like a two-edged sword. We cannot help but formulate opinions about someone we first meet, measuring them by their initial appearance and conduct, placing them on a continuum ranging between exceptional to objectionable. Then we reflexively allow these superficial assessments of others entirely too much weight – knowing full well we have no desire to have ourselves known in such a shallow way. However, inescapably we know that this is exactly how we’ll be judged — so we present ourselves in the best light possible. This is a dysfunction of our fallen natures – hiding behind our selfie smiles.

This appears to be the corner we’ve painted ourselves in to – maybe we should have paid closer attention to those proverbial stickie notes we left ourselves about “Don’t judge a book by its cover” or “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” . . . we might have remembered that everyone has a back story. Truth be told — we’re all alike, we all just want to be truly known and deeply loved. So you’d think we would reject the reductionism of pigeon holing those we barely know – instead, choosing to hold sacred their dignity and personhood. However, if social media is to be taken as an anthropological indictor – then you’d be wrong.

It is an odd form of isolation – to be so connected without actually having any real connection. That in an ever-growing vacuum created by the lack of meaningful affirmation that only real connection can provide . . . we speak past one another in self-affirming terms. So that in this hyper attempt to live in the moment we end up living our lives on the surface of our own pretense. It’s as if we’re living at a distance from our own back-story . . . from our own truer selves.

20120609_ASD000_0In T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men, we find ourselves disturbingly mirrored – lost in the superficiality of our context, denying any meaningful sense of self, because we circumvent any true sense of community when we choose to devalue one another’s back-stories – in this way, not only does it invariably diminish others . . . but also, in the process our own story becomes diminished. When we worship at the altar of individuality, it should not surprise us that being alone has become our reward.

My faith discipline does not grow deeper because it’s just about God and I working things out – rather, it is in the way my faith community enriches my back-story. As each of us shares the details of our lives, we discover God in our midst (Matthew 18: 20). Because all of our individual back-stories find their true significance in the story that God is telling, a story given far more dimension in the cross-pollination found only in community. You are more than the virtual persona you maintain. You are the beloved of God, and you are my brother and sister — so allow this profound truth to animate how you treat others . . . both in person and online.

Here’s a well done recitation of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men