Life Boats and Fire Escapes

The world is a dangerous place, even though most days it doesn’t even occur to us – the terror and the beauty of this world coexists, all the same. There are dragons at the edges of our map, reminding us that certainty has its limits, and that what is unknown to us cannot be tamed by a carefully calculated life – for we all get caught in the jagged teeth of circumstance regardless of the plans we make. So we hedge our bets, we gird our loins, and we keep one eye over our shoulder . . . just in case. We want to believe that the glass is half full – but it is the empty half of the glass that most haunts us.

Modern man might mock the ancient world for hiding behind its mythology and ritual, but in truth, he has come no closer to subduing his own fears and anxieties, despite his talisman of technology and the soothsaying of his scientific conjecture. Because in the end, modern man has only created the illusion of certainty within the self-affirming vacuum of his own rationality. So trust me when I tell you, reality remains unimpressed with our vain explanations of how the world is supposed to work.

I suppose this is why survival pragmatism is the holy grail of the non-theist paradigm – because it’s the only force in the universe they can pretend has purpose . . . worshipping survival for survival’s sake. And because survival is paramount, we’ve been taught to entrust our vaunted experts to regularly inform us of when impending doom is on the horizon. Because no matter how contrived or speculative the news, we’re inclined to believe it – we’d much rather see the boogieman of calamity coming at us, than to have him blindside us, unaware . . . we’d much rather trust in the predictable certainty of our fears, than place faith in a hope that we can’t control.

If we imagine a world without God, the pragmatism of survival is the most logical conclusion, given the fragile predicament of our vulnerable existence – because the predicament is real. So for those of us who believe in God the impulse to identify the safest exits out, very often becomes the predominate feature of our theology. For some it becomes an obsession, because if the whole thing is going down in flames – you better know where the life boats and fire escapes are. For such people, the predicament of a dangerous world has become so preoccupying, they can hardly recognize the beauty also present in each moment . . . because all they can see is a world moving, like a car crash running in slow motion towards its inevitable destruction and demise.

But when I think of Jesus, I don’t see him as a meal ticket, free ride out of town before the whole thing blows – because I don’t view my own survival as the centerpiece of my theology. Survival has no meaning, in and of itself – so making it to the next level holds no enticement for me . . . without Jesus. Rather, I am seduced by the beauty of the narrative of a God who sees me in my predicament and chooses to love me, entreating me to come and be with him. Therefore the terror and the beauty of this world are essential to how I’ve come to understand the narrative of the life God has given me. So as for that glass half full – I think I’ll just drink it dry and trust that God will refill it.

. . . and when I go — it’ll be love carrying me home.


An Explainable World (2 of 3)

It has long been the underlying mission of modernity to seek to unpack an explainable world that the rest of us can understand – attempting to incrementally demystify the unknown into manageable bits of information that we can leverage against the future with an unwavering hope that somehow science would be able to offer us a sufficient enough purpose to pursue that future . . . before we all lose heart. But post-modernism has already chosen to opt out, having already packed its bags, choosing to end this epistemological charade – having gone off in search of some self-affirming pronounced reality it is willing to embrace . . . one made in its own image.

This is the bipolar malaise our culture finds itself in – torn between the hard facts of empiricism and the cognitive dissonance of existential desire . . . ever tugging at the fabric of reality, ever hoping to smooth out the impossible wrinkles of its own discontent and fear. For there are few things that are quite as unsettling as an existence that can’t be explained. But because our questions about the meaning of our own existence seldom escapes the vague abstraction of our conscious minds – we are left to ask them within the subtext of all the things we do that give our lives any sense of purpose.

It is a secular confession to believe that life has meaning – even if they can’t quite put their finger on exactly why . . . making it a faith confession, of sorts. And it is the confession of my Christian faith to believe that life finds all of its meaning in God . . . even though we can’t explain exactly how it works. For only by faith am I willing to be humble enough to realize that explanations are almost always self-serving – tempting me to trust my own understanding of the world to guide my path.

And here’s the crux of the problem – we want an explainable world so we can place our faith in our own understanding. No doubt, this is why Proverbs 3:5 reminds us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” – knowing full well that placing faith in our own understanding, is in fact, in direct competition with our faith in God. Which is likely why verse 6 completes the thought “In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” – because humble submission is the way of Christ.

Here’s the thing — we crave the certainty that we imagine an explainable world would offer us . . . a world we can predict, if not control. But the certainty that God offers us is found in his immutable character, requiring us to pursue him above all else, that we might know him in his fullness (Ephesians 3:19) – a fullness that “surpasses knowledge”, a fullness that can only be experienced in the love of Christ. In the light of such love all other knowledge seems foolish, because all other explanations of the world become empty and lifeless, when compared to the love of God found in Christ.

. . . and remember — it’s a great big world.

A Thousand Stars Laughing

For those who have read C.S. Lewis’ classic: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — the temptation to touch the back wall of an old unfamiliar closet, like a flickering frame of subconscious hesitation, creates a moment’s pause of suspended disbelief. Meanwhile, quantum mechanics ardently entertains various theories of alternate and concomitant dimensions of existence, believing the fabric of reality vibrates like harmonic strings symphonically resonating the universe into being. So it would seem, whether fiction or physics, the notion that layers of reality somehow linger in unseen realms just beyond sight – seems to us, both unreal and hyper-real at the same time.

We have an intuition, likely buried somewhere in the back of that old closet, that knows that life is supposed to have a far greater bandwidth than how we’re currently experiencing it – as if we were merely floating above the deepest part of the ocean on a cloudy day . . . held motionless by the otherness of water, above and below. So in an over simplified frame of reference we tend to imagine that a dichotomy must exist between our normal experiences of life, and the fully formed, God spoken reality of creation . . . so invariably we end up pushing what goes unseen by us, into a vague abstraction.

Between the distortions of the gnostic and the nominalist, we’re given to a mercurial view of how flesh and bone is to be reconciled with ethereal spirit – feeling a resident dissonance, like the polarity of magnets repelling, keeping the two realms held apart. Undoubtedly, this is why we end up treating them as two separate worlds – an embodied world, practical and predictable; and a disembodied world where the mystery of all the grand themes are being played out undetected. But what would it be like to have a more integrated perspective?

In this way, faith becomes the garment we must don when stepping from the mundane into mystery, because it allows us to see the fully dimensional world of God’s creation . . . where all things are working together. For all things exist in God, so all things were intended to declare his glory — which is why all things are ultimately reconciled in him . . . removing the veil hiding his glory (2 Corinthians 3:16-18). So for those who have turned to God in faith, they have been set free to see his glory in all things. Therefore it is the splendor of God’s glory that animates our holy imagination, enabling us to see his hand at work in everything . . . even in the smallest of details.

So with his praise on our lips, we join in on the song that the entire universe is already vibrating with — on every dimension. It’s in the pirouette of leaves falling on an autumn wind. It traces along the lines of his signature woven into the detail of a blade of grass. It’s found in the squinting sunlight, dancing in the tops of trees swaying gracefully on a spring morning. And on a clear cold night, you can feel the star-flung sky pulling you up into heaven where a thousand stars are laughing with the joy of the Lord, delighting in his presences . . . inviting you to join them.

. . . and it’s all there — just past sight

Between Fear and Faith (2 of 6)

Precaution is our natural instinct to danger. It’s a rational assessment of risk, realistically calculating our likely exposure to harm contrasted with being able to live our lives unencumbered by fear. Reasonable people may disagree with what percentage of exposure to harm they’re willing to live with before engaging in various measures of precaution. But what constitutes reasonable and rational, very often is interpreted on a sliding scale – allowing the phobic, possessed of irrational fear to assume that they too are simply being reasonably precautious . . . and there is no arguing with their calculations, because by definition, there is no argument irrational fear will ever be willing to hear.

Fear is arguably the most conspicuous impediment to faith — for it can quickly imagine every obstacle and scenario of calamity associated with every choice we make . . . preemptively compromising any confession of faith we may be inclined to speak. This likely occurs because we’ve allowed fear to masquerade as the rational voice of reason for too long, convincing us that being in control is how we keep calamity at bay. But believing we can control our exposure to every possible circumstance is the grand illusion of an irrational mind . . . which is why fear is best understood as a liar.

A lie can only thrive where the truth has been obscured – which is to say, a reasonable rationale has to be concocted in order for a lie to obfuscate the true nature of our circumstance. In other words, a lie requires an entire contextualized fictional narrative before it can appear reasonable – until our perspective has become so skewed that all of our fears begin to call the shots . . . pretending it will always protect us from the ugly truth about the world around us. Conversely, faith is not afraid of the truth.

The common misconception about faith is that it’s somehow at odds with rational thinking, suggesting that a person of faith is being irrational. It’s a misconception usually held by someone incapable of explaining the rationality of their own views without a self-affirming definition of rationality. But I would say faith is better explained as being beyond rational. Because rationality can only ever be an existential assessment of value, it will always be limited to the scope of the person making the assessment. In this regard, faith is more than willing to go as far as rationality . . . and then go beyond it – a distance that fear dare not go.

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” ~ John 8:31, 32. It is our relationship with the truth that eventually distinguishes our path between fear and faith. Faith is willing to humbly confess that truth is immutably transcendent, and then fearlessly accepts its conclusion – while fear can only linger in the shifting shadows of half-truths and out-right lies. To have faith is to look beyond your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5) . . . whereas, to have fear inevitably leads to being trapped in the rationale of your own understanding.

I’m not sure why, but this old Jackson Browne song
seems to always make me ponder the space between fear and faith

The Art of Playing the Fool (2 of 3)

It is our natural instinct to place ourselves in the most favorable light possible, believing that first impressions, like fingerprints, need to be left with discretion . . . as each can come back at some point to haunt us. So to varying degrees, we take care to present ourselves as the persona we imagine best approximates the way we want to be seen. We know it’s not the whole truth – but it’s often the only truth we’re willing to tell . . . because who could possibly accept us if the whole truth about us were ever known?

We hide in plain sight. It makes no difference whether you’re the buttoned up type blending in with the work-a-day world of normal behavior, or the tatted up bohemian non-conformist conspicuously wearing your contempt for normalcy – chances are, you’re still incognito . . . while the real you stays tucked in behind your carefully maintained veneer, lest anyone look too closely. In this way, shame is a lingering vestige of the fall, constantly reminding us that vulnerability comes at a cost.

Now, here’s a little glimpse into how my mind works – when I read 1st Corinthians 1:27 “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise . . .” – I often associate it with Zacchaeus up a tree for a better look at Jesus (Luke 19:1-5). I do this, not because I think Zacchaeus was particularly foolish, rather it’s because, for that brief moment, Zacchaeus forgot his shame and allowed himself to appear foolish . . . so that in his foolishness, conventional wisdom might be shamed. We would do well to remember, it was the name of Zacchaeus that Jesus speaks, for his willingness to risk a little foolishness, in the midst of this nameless crowd.

out-on-a-limb-feb-2019More often than not it is desperation that causes us to shamelessly play the fool. And if you look careful enough, you’ll discover that the Gospels are full of desperate characters, looking for their moment with Jesus. I wrote about this type of desperation, a few years back — Being Desperate. But do we really have to wait until we feel desperate before playing the fool? What is desperation after all, but an awareness of a need that has reached crisis proportions, allowing us to remove all of the social filters that hide our natural response to need?

But isn’t being in crisis just the realization that our need has become so great and unmanageable that it requires a different response? So what if we began with a different response – conceding our great need upfront? Is it not the confession of our Christian faith that apart from the ever pursuing love and mercies of God that we would be totally lost without hope . . . or are we so foolish as to believe that we’re beyond that now?

Following Jesus can’t be done while still posturing and pretending you’ve got it all worked out – because the way of Jesus is a humble path . . . which is why the humble of heart are never afraid of seeming foolish. So if you ever find yourself up a tree, acting conspicuously vulnerable and foolish, chances are you’ve got the best vantage point for seeing what God has next for you.

“I surrender to the mountains
I surrender to the sea
I surrender to the one who calls my name
I surrender to my lover and to my enemy
I surrender to the face that holds no shame”


The Art of Speaking Your Mind (1 of 3)

They tell us that there is a significant disparity in the amount of words spoken by the average man and average woman, on a daily bases. But in the same way that all statistical curiosities are basically a Rorschach test, we are left to our own imaginations to interpret what the meaning of this disparity might be. For me, words indiscriminately measured by volume, seems a rather hollow index for reaching any kind of meaningful conclusion. It would seem, the content of what’s actually being said would be a far more relevant concern — regardless of how pithy or voluminous the conveyance.

I’m a person known for speaking my mind – a description often used both in disparagement and celebration of my personality. But over the years I’d like to think I’ve acquired a modicum of discretion and discernment – learning to choose the right moment and words, to best fit the situation . . . even though I still require a considerable amount of remedial discipline in this regard. But in truth, all of us are learning how to fine tune the social filter of our communications — because learning when to speak, and what to speak (or not speak), is an art form that takes a lifetime to master.

Having long been a songwriter, I’ve been asked about my songwriting process, by those interested in composing their own songs. I tell them that long before composition there needs to be cultivation – a cultivation of the heart and mind. Because the only thing we will ever reap from the uncultivated field of our vain imaginations, are the weeds and thistles of an undisciplined perspective. Therefore it’s a false assumption, to believe that inspiration could somehow occur in a vacuum, apart from a preexisting context of perspective.

imagesSo I ask — “What are you meditating on? What preoccupies your heart and mind?” Because whatever preoccupies us most, invariably becomes our meditation, cultivating our perspective . . . and whatever grows in that field becomes the content of our words and deeds. But you don’t have to be a songwriter to realize that our words don’t just pop into our heads – rather they grow out of the ground we’ve been cultivating all along. This is likely why Jesus in Luke 6:45 tells us – “. . . for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” – reminding us that our words have been taking shape in us . . . long before they ever cross our lips.

Perhaps this is why we find so many on social media rehearsing out loud, their own fears, while exacting judgement and condemnation on others – they’re only reciting what they have written on their hearts. And maybe that’s why some folks remain silent, held speechless by a shame that binds them. But I say — let your voice be sure, not in the self-assured confidence of hubris, but rather in the humble acknowledgement that God is remaking you daily, conforming you to the image of Christ. To meditate on His word, to seek His Kingdom – making these, the very content of your words . . . and by all means – use as many words as you’d like.

. . . and sometimes our meditation requires no words at all.

When Hope Leads You Home (3 of 3)

To view life as a journey that must be taken, is one of the grand themes of storytelling. Like all of the grand themes, it rings true for us because on some fundamental level, we experientially know it to be true. But isn’t this just a trick of retrospection, attempting to make sense of all of the events and circumstances that unavoidably collide with our life? Aren’t we simply affirming our own narrative — pretending our life has meaning by pretending our life is going somewhere? This is the tension found between hope and despair.

The concept of hope is best understood as a form of faith, which isn’t really too surprising, given that what we often place our hope in, is where we have likely already placed some measure of our faith. Conversely, despair comes on us like a capsizing of our will to live, swamping us under the weight of relentless doubt. So it would seem we are ever pulled between hope and hopelessness — the beauty and the wonder, the heartache and the pain, that mark the path all along our way . . . each one of us alone –yet, all of us together, alone.

But still, it is an act of faith to embrace as true something that you can’t actually prove to be true. And even though this is a point of consternation, confounding the atheist who imagines themselves above the intellectual fray of faith beliefs – it remains axiomatic, nonetheless. In this way, faith and hope have an intellectually tenable dimension. But even so, hope isn’t really found in a cognitive vacuum, but rather, in our real world engagement of life – where the sharp edges of reality aren’t really impressed with what you think you know, because it’s going to drop the hammer on everything you’ve chosen to believe . . . just to see if it will last. Which is why the beliefs we hold will either go the distance, or be exposed as delusion.

downloadTherefore, it’s no wonder we draw meaning and significance from believing that life has purpose. Now, this is either a feature of ontological design, because life actually does have a purpose – or purpose is a fiction contrived out of a self-referencing delusion, where there ultimately is no purpose to life . . . and the best we can do is pretend that one exists. Hope disenfranchised from a purposeful framing of existence is unsustainable. But when hope is hardwired to a purposeful beginning — it will always find it’s way to a hopeful conclusion.

Every journey has a destination in mind, a place it’s taking you. Now, your personal story might have taken a few wrong turns along the way, in fact, so many wrong turns that you no longer even recognize your journey once begun. Leaving you to feel lost and disillusioned until despair begins to occupy your every stray moment — until like the prodigal son all you can think about is going home . . . in hope that there will still be a place for you there. But that porch light has been left on for you a long time, and your Father is more than eager to run out and welcome you home.  This is why when hope leads you home, the things that matter most — just fall into place.

Even if it’s a long way home . . .

When Faith Answers Your Question (1 of 3)

There are many ways one might reasonably summarize life – but here’s one you likely haven’t yet considered: Life is a relentless string of questions requiring you to define your existence, ever challenging your presupposed understandings, ever unpacking the small boxes you’ve carefully packed, vainly attempting to divide things into discernable categories. No doubt, this is why those who do their dead level best to order their lives inevitably discover that life is like a bed that won’t stay made — because invariably somebody’s going to sleep in it.

It doesn’t matter whether you address these questions head on or ignore them altogether — once asked, the effect of them lingers, all the same. This is no doubt, because much of life goes unexplained. But not because life is unintelligible, or out of a lack plausible theories — but rather, because the questions about life that haunt us most aren’t merely points of conjecture that can be answered as if they were nothing more than an intellectual exercise. This is because the answers that allude us most were never meant to be discovered out of the noisy machinery of the mind . . . but rather, in the quite meditations of the heart.

The modern mind believes that every problem has a solution, every question has an answer, and that eventually, given enough time, the secrets of the universe will unlock. So just as soon as our scientific locksmith finishes whittling us up a key, we’ll become the masters of all we survey . . . as if the universe didn’t already belong to someone else. But what if the point of some questions weren’t really about having an answer? What if the point of some of those questions were about finding out how many unanswered questions we could be at peace with?

faith-and-reasonWhen faith answers the question, the answer is no longer tethered to our need to understand. Now, this isn’t just an abstract philosophical fine point, to be appreciated academically – no, this is where your faith beliefs collide with your real life. Every iteration of the question: “what will become of me, and my loved ones?” is addressed. Every detail of your life, beyond your control, is addressed. Every fear and shadow of doubt, is disarmed by faith . . . faith placed in the creator and sustainer of all things, the Lord God of heaven and earth.

The juxtaposition of Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” is the very fulcrum of faith. Because one must step away from trusting in their own understanding, in order to step towards trusting in the Lord. In this way, faith answers all of the questions in our life – not by explaining every answer to us so that we might control the outcome, but rather, in how it sets us free from the limitations of such explanations . . . as such explanations can only lead to more unanswerable questions. We are finite beings in a vast universe – the temptation is to believe that knowledge is the only way we could ever possibly hope to survive . . . but faith knows better.

So give me some faith . . .

Defining Our Obligations

Numerous books have been written on how best to prioritize the people and activities in our lives – so as to keep us on track with the goals we’ve set for ourselves . . . because apparently this is something that we’re regularly distracted from, or confused about. Which is a pretty odd thing, when you think about it – after all, it is your life, and what you’re intending to do with it, that we’re talking about here. But one of the common themes in all of these books is the observation that our lives are in a constant state of being inundated with unfiltered demands on our time, talents, and resources . . . leaving us with an abiding sense of inadequacy.

And it’s because of the way that all of these demands claim to have unquestioned importance, we must sift through them carefully to determine their actual impact. Some even come cloaked in a desperate hand-wringing urgency, hoping that we’ll react before looking too closely at their veracity. But all of these claims are made under the guise of an assumed authority and we have to determine by what authority they are making their case. And whereas, it behooves us to acknowledge the genuine authorities in our life – all too often we reflexively give deference to presumed authorities, which in truth, are nothing more than conspicuous power struggles.

A very common form of this presumed authority is found in the psychological complexity, often associated with codependency – where the specific relational dynamics are so dysfunctional, that they can only ever begin to be disentangled after many hours of counseling. Then there is the presumption of political/ cultural agendas, all dressed up in a self-satisfied moral sanctimony, attempting to shame you into compliance and conformity – hoping that you’ll simply acquiesce to the force of imposed will.

imagesBut sometimes there are genuine authorities in conflict, requiring us to examine which of them may have preeminent authority. As we read Matthew 22: 15-22 we find the Pharisees plotting to catch Jesus, in what amounts to be a political dilemma. They ask “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” So Jesus asks them for a coin and asked “So who’s tiny little face is this?” They said “Oh, that’s Caesar (a.k.a. the self-proclaimed god of Rome)” Then Jesus says “Well then, this belongs to him, and the tiny little kingdom he reigns over” (my paraphrase).

But that wasn’t the whole answer, Jesus also said “And give to God the things that bear his image – because those things belong to his kingdom” (again, my paraphrase). Caesar’s authority was indisputable, he had the sway and power of violence on his side — right up until the moment he didn’t . . . this is always the limitation of human authority. I don’t think it was simply incidental to the story that Jesus asked about Caesar’s image on the coin – because for his followers, this proportional contrast leaps off the page . . . as we know ourselves to be the ones who bear God’s image.

Therefore it is imago dei that defines our obligation to God’s authority – either we see ourselves as belonging to him, or we choose to live our lives as if we don’t. So when you find yourself triaging the people and activities in your life – you might want to give a thought to what is the preeminent truth about who you really are, and who’s image you bear . . . and just maybe, you should order your life as if you actually believed it was true.

This is my brother Jeff’s arrangement and performance of this great old hymn,
inviting us to render unto God what is already his . . .


Learning To Recognize Mammon (8 of 8)

Godzilla decided to vacation this year in Tokyo, hoping to do a little shopping and to take in a few of the exotic sights and points of interest. He had even worked up the courage to be adventurous enough to taste some of the local cuisine. So you can only imagine his chagrin at the media’s portrayal of his arrival as being catastrophic – I mean how was he to know that all of that running around and screaming wasn’t just an elaborate welcoming ceremony . . . after all that’s how he’s greeted everywhere else he goes. I guess the Japanese are just not much for tourism.

Like Godzilla, everyone assumes that their actions comport with socially acceptable norms, completely unaware that they are only referencing their own interpretation of what those socially acceptable norms are. In this way, we all take our turn being Godzilla, until someone is kind and thoughtful enough to point out to us the actual net-effect that our actions are having. But being blind to what our own actions say about us has many permutations – for instance, you’re likely unaware of just how tempted to worship the Chaldean god, Mammon, you’ve been.

Ancient cultures worshipped many variations of Mammon — seeking prosperity, a bountiful harvest, and fertility. Given that mere survival in the ancient world wasn’t really a given, concerns about harvest and fertility were matters of life and death. So the idea of appeasing these gods was not taken lightly – as they were seen as the very realities of life, itself. But for us today, prosperity represents getting more of what we want, than it does about having what we need. Of course, this all begs the question: what actually constitutes worship of Mammon?

imagesJesus clearly states “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Some translations interpret mammon as “money” – but this strikes me as transparently reductive, given the context of the passage (Matthew 6:19-34). And I think we can also assume from that same context that Jesus’ point isn’t to literally juxtapose the God of Israel with a pagan god. So what does the context tell us? Is Jesus only warning us of how greed and avarice are innately in competition for God’s sovereignty? . . . or is he challenging a much larger paradigm?

If I were to ask you: where is your heart? Would that be at variance from where your treasure is (19-21)? If so – then could it be that your perception about what’s really important has been darkened (22, 23)? So to whom does your heart belong (24)? What does your anxiety tell you? Has it made you a servant of your personal security? If so – is that because you doubt God’s assessment of your value to him (25-32)? Why do you think that is true? Are you afraid he has forgotten you . . . left you to your own devices?

I think mammon sneaks into our lifestyle well before we even recognize its presence. It comes in under the guise of taking care of our day-to-day needs – but this is precisely what Jesus says are the concerns we are to entrust to him . . . and that our concern should be for his kingdom (33). What does your eye see (22, 23)? Does it see a future that belongs to God, under the sovereignty of his loving care, where his kingdom comes? Or are you filled with doubt, where you have to hedge your bets against an unknown future . . . just like the pagans of old? So I guess it’s really a question of who owns your future, God or mammon? A little advice – don’t be so quick to answer that . . . because the last thing you want to be is Godzilla, trying to rationalize why your recent visit to Japan was such a bust.

No matter how much — it’s never enough

Learning To Live In Exile (7 of 8)

Sometimes it’s like a restlessness, like an unidentified longing, or like a nagging bewilderment unsettling any attempt we make at contentment. It’s not the kind of feeling that makes itself known center stage – no, this is more like that feeling that lingers in the shadows just off stage, as if it were nothing more than an imperfection in the scenery. But when it catches our eye we can’t help but feel a foreboding that something isn’t right, like something we can’t quite remember . . . like the whole of reality has shifted, and this isn’t the reality we belong in.

Theologically we know this to be the persistent residual effect of The Fall – where we are constantly aware of the disparity between what is . . . and what ought to be. Exiled from Eden we head east. Cain kills Able and is exiled into the east. The flood waters come and go, and then we head east. Then in the east we build a great tower in Babylon, a dysfunctional monument to our banishment, until finally in the confusion of our shame and fear we wander away homeless and disillusioned. And so closes the first eleven chapters of Genesis . . .

This is where the story picks up with Abram, a man called of God to leave behind the suburbs of Babylon and head west to the land of promise. But even as he arrives at this place of promise, Abram continues to live in a tent – because even though this is the place . . . it still feels impermanent. And this becomes the reoccurring metaphor of Israel – concluding with them literally returning from exile in Babylon to inhabit a place haunted by the reality that even this home doesn’t feel like home . . . that it’s just a shadow of what it should have been.

michal-giedrojc-dreamsThe common Christian response of “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through” is temptingly deceptive — because it rings true that this doesn’t feel like our home, and that there is a place where our longing to belong will finally be satisfied. But the deception is in thinking this world is nothing more than a sinking ship, and the best that any of us can hope to do is fill the life boats and watch it sink. The trouble with this notion is that it isn’t actually how we are admonished to live while in exile . . .

We are fond of celebrating the hope found in God’s plans when reading Jeremiah 29:11 – without fully appreciating that Jeremiah is addressing God’s people as they are being dragged off into exile, to Babylon. Which is likely why we don’t fully comprehend Jeremiah 29: 4-7 and its emphasis on being a blessing to this place we find ourselves, even within the context of exile. In this way, our faith in the midst of exile is how we live in Christ — no longer as exiles, though we remain in the land of exile. We are to become beacons of hope to those who haven’t yet realized that they’re living in exile. So let us proclaim the rescuing grace of God that is our hope – as a hope yet to be fully revealed, and a hope to abide where we are . . . living our lives to the fullest in this place where God has called us.

In the Arthurian legend, Avalon is the mythic place of peace and rest
that resides in the west . . . when will we ever learn to live in God?

An Observable God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all trying to make our way home

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 . . . 

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.