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 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 . . . 


Pulling On Your Last Thread

Sometimes there are dry patches in your life, seasons of going through the motions while traversing an uninspiring wasteland. There is a numbing compression of emotion, where the span between hope and despair has become a deep chasm, slowly draining you of any expectation, whatsoever. This is the most insidious form of despair. Unlike the sudden shock of despair that overtakes us in grievous events — no, this is a slowly settling despair that creeps in and puts down deep roots. And it leaves you feeling like the very fabric of your life is gradually being unraveled, until it seems it’s pulling on your last thread.

Jesus wanders in the wilderness forty days, mirroring the forty years of the lost generation of Israel. Each step of his wandering, is an emptying out, in refinement of the specific purposeful path his life is about to embark. He willingly suffers this asceticism as an essential part of what is to come. In contrast, Israel’s wandering is more of a dissipation, the pointless result of deciding to reject the life God had called them to, passing on to the next generation the task that they were unwilling to do.

Only you can answer whether or not the wilderness you’re sojourning is about avoidance or preparation . . . or even maybe a little of both. But either way there’s a purposeful distilling taking place – so you’ll be unencumbered for whatever comes next. At the very heart of your wilderness is the calling God has placed on your life . . . so your time in that wilderness is meant to be your struggle between avoidance and preparation.

imagesAs Jesus walks into his wilderness, he is preoccupied with doing his Father’s will, which is to redeem and reconcile, to seek and to save all that is lost. But even his wilderness was a struggle between avoidance and preparation. The real temptation Jesus faced there, had nothing to do with any of the particulars Satan had to offer, as Jesus had the power to do as he wished, quite apart from Satan’s participation. Rather, this is something we get a glimpse of that he will ultimately face at Gethsemane – asking for the bitter cup of his crucifixion to pass.

Therefore, the season of Lent is meant to be a time of intentional asceticism, a purposeful wandering in the wilderness. We walk with Jesus, that we might have a share in his hunger and thirst, so that we might enter into his passion and anticipate the cross . . . so that by contrast, we might celebrate the resurrection anew. Paul sums this up best in Philippians 3:10 – “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death”.

So maybe you find yourself already in a wilderness, maybe you’re hungering and thirsting for things you can’t quite identify. Perhaps the Lord is refining your calling – will you allow him to prepare you for what comes next in your life? He knows all too well the temptation to avoid the suffering that is essential to living redemptively sacrificial . . . which is why we are given The Comforter (John 14:16). The lost generation of Israel never found their way out of the wilderness – but Jesus knows the way out of your wilderness . . . so follow him.

. . . where there is a peace that passes all understanding.

Being Content (8 of 8)

Because we live at such an extraordinary point in history, where the very definition of reality requires revisiting. I offer these two definitions for clarification: (1) The definition of the word itself – “Something that constitutes a real or actual thing, as distinguished from something that is merely apparent.” And (2) The philosophical definition – “Something that exists independently of ideas concerning it.” Now, we all might all disagree on how best to interpret reality – but reality itself, is intrinsically an ontological matter . . . as opposed to an existential preference.

There is a tension between the what is and the what ought to be of life. We live in the what is experience of reality, while simultaneously being ever drawn into the what ought to be. The net result is that we tend to interpret reality through the filter of our what ought to be perception. Which is to say, we look at what is, and can’t help but prefer that it be different . . . placing us at odds with reality. So what are we to make of this – that contentment can only be achieved if we pessimistically give up our hope of what ought to be?

It would seem there are only two choices – 1) to ignore the reality of what is, and existentially recreate your own reality. Or 2) accept the reality of what is, and prepare for the worst, and be wary of anything good that occurs as being an unrealistic anomaly. But if reality, by definition, is to be “distinguished from something that is merely apparent” and “exists independently of ideas concerning it” – then maybe the issue isn’t really with reality, but rather with our fallen perception of it. Therefore, to accept or ignore a broken view of reality will always lead to the wrong conclusion.

contentmentSo contentment has nothing to do with whether you see the glass as half full or half empty – because your opinion about the glass only confuses the matter. The better question is – what do I plan to do with the glass that I’ve been given? In this way contentment doesn’t concern itself with the content of reality, choosing rather to focus on the context of reality. Because the circumstance, people, and stuff in your life will ever be the transient content of your life – while the ultimate context of your life is ever held in the transcendence of God’s sovereign care.

Before Paul makes the well known profession that he “can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) – he first let’s us in on the secret he learned about being content (verse 12) “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” How else could he have been so bold as to declare “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)? Therefore, we should see contentment, not as a reluctant surrendering to the hardships of reality, but rather as a faith driven bold pronouncement, that you are ready to take on all that reality can throw at you – because the Lord of all things holds you in His hand.

“. . . and to die is gain”

Being Loved (7 of 8)

The question of whether life has purpose, meaning, and significance is the very heartbeat of our presuppositions – but like much of our philosophical formation, it remains in abstraction, allowing the more pressing issues of our day to day to take center stage. And even though these presuppositions often abide largely undetected, or are ruminated on as the grand themes of life, far removed from our practical daily experience – they still seem to have a way of making themselves ever-present, taking the shape of longings and desires stirring within us, seeking resolution.

The transcendent forces of love and beauty defy definition – the best we can do is to offer our experiential descriptions of them. I would argue that they are elusively defined precisely because they are transcendently sourced — affixed to the underlying purpose, meaning, and significance of life. So that all that is evocative and beautiful might give us a glimpse of what makes life meaningful. And we all have an abiding desire to be known and loved, because intuitively we are all being drawn back to that transcendent source where love originates.

The adage “love is blind” is misleading, as if love were somehow left in the dark about who we really are . . . and if ever discovered would soon depart. No, love is eyes wide open – choosing to look beyond our faults and failings, choosing to embrace us as we are . . . so that we might be truly known AND truly loved. Because behind the larger philosophical question of whether or not life, in general, has significance, is the question: does my life have significance? . . . and love answers with an emphatic – Yes! This is the starting place for knowing what it means to be loved.

imagesGod is love (1 John 4:8) isn’t merely a scriptural Hallmark greeting card sentiment – it is an ontological cornerstone on which the whole of creation is to be understood. Because the otherness of God is shrouded in mystery, the transcendent nature of love gives us a peek beyond the theological definitions of God to find a knowing of him (and ourselves), that defies definition. So when we read “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” ~ Romans 5:8 . . . God isn’t only showing us how much love he has for us, but he is also revealing something essential about himself – that love is who he is AND what he does.

It is a curious thing that such a cruel device of tortuous execution would come to symbolize the most profound expression of love – in fact, the epicenter of all love. That the very love that spoke creation into existence is the same love that took Jesus to the cross . . . and now love itself is measured in this way. Being loved and feeling loved are not always the same. But being loved, for each of us together and separately, has been sown into creation from the very beginning. And in a redounding crescendo that split history wide open, love was on full display for everyone to see, in the cross of Christ. So you may not always feel it – but being loved is an inescapable fact of who you are.

This Pierce Pettis song always explains it better than I could ever hope to . . .

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 the 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.