The Sisyphus Stone

When I was a kid there was a Peggy Lee song that played on the radio called “Is That All There Is?” It was a rather nihilistic lament about how life was nothing more than a relentless string of disappointments making life utterly meaningless – which makes you wonder how such a depressing song could have possibly enjoyed popularity. I suppose what gave it relatability was the way it concluded that hedonistic self-indulgence was the only remedy for dulling the pain of such disillusionment . . . even though that didn’t really seem to lift the dark cynicism of its primary question: Is that all there is?

To be sure, even life at its best can be a bit of a grind — add to this the ever opening trap doors of personal difficulties and tragedies, and the general milieu of disenfranchisement inevitably at work within every social structure . . . you can begin to feel the weight of the world shifting onto your shoulders. And if then, God forbid, you should begin to ponder your own mortality, or the prospect of how our sun may unexpectedly go nova – it’s no longer just the weight of the burden you feel, but the pointlessness of it all, draining from you any sense of hope. Makes me wonder how an atheist makes it through their day without succumbing to the temptation of Peggy Lee’s epicurean song.

This is the avalanche of despair the non-theist attempts to hold off with the self-involved sophistry of their existential ontology – believing that if we’ll only pretend there’s somehow a purpose to be found in arduously rolling our Sisyphus stone up an impossibly steep incline, we can manufacture our own meaning ex nihilo. Never mind, that every morning the stone is back at the bottom again. And it never occurs to them, if survival of the species is ultimately pointless — “if that’s all there is” . . . then why bother?

But the godless aren’t the only ones willing to pointlessly roll that stone. I’m reminded of how Cardinal Bernadine described the state of modern Christendom as living lives of “functional atheism” – Christians professing belief in God, but living as if he doesn’t actually exist. In this way, they create their own stone of self-importance to roll — a meaning and purpose made in their own image. This is what comes from the contrived notion that the sacred and secular can somehow be parsed into two separate lives, believing that the meaning and significance of life can have more than one source.

The fact that we are contingent upon God is an immovable ontological truth – but not in some general way we can simply push off into vague abstraction, rather, it permeates every atom of the universe, at every moment of existence. So the idea that we can simply invent our own meaning and purpose out of thin air is the very lie Adam and Eve fell for in the garden. The truth is, life only has one purpose, one for which all other purposes are meant to be subservient. And according to Colossians 1:16, 17 – it is Christ “. . . all things were created through him and for him” It is this preeminence of Christ that breathes purpose into all that we are – a meaning and significance, that no amount of pointless stone rolling could ever hope to equal . . . so just let that stone roll away.

Purpose and meaning are either transcendently sourced
. . . or they don’t exist at all!

Modus Operandi

One of the great myths of our day is the belief that education is the key to a better future. It’s not just that the words education and better are existentially assumed concepts, or that this is an epistemologically flattened out and reductive explanation of how the human mind works, that makes the mythology of this belief so predictably ill-conceived – but it is in how the implied subtext, openly suggests that if everyone would simply get there mind’s right – we’d all be better off . . . never mind that what defines having one’s mind right is a question left wide open to interpretation.

Such an approach views us as nothing more than programmable hardware, awaiting an operating system upgrade – because undoubtedly, bad data has somehow corrupted our current OS . . . making the more culturally acceptable good data uninstall-able. It is an idea solely predicated on the formula — when you control data input, you control functional output . . . as if human volition were a simple matter of overwriting a bit of errant code. But is this really the modus operandi of the human heart and mind?

I have a friend who is fond of pointing out that it only takes two documents to find out what somebody really believes – a check book and a calendar. People will tell you with impassioned detail what means the most to them – but just as often, where they put their time and money, will tell you a completely different story. But how can this be, if what we say and what we do, emerges from the same mind? Or is this just the cognitive dissonance of self-deception convincing us that the erratic nature of our actions will somehow catch up to the good intentions of our right thinking . . . eventually?

cover_image.jpg.640x360_q85_cropIt is the fatal flaw of modernity to believe that placing mind over emotion will ever result in anything, other than a self-affirming conclusion – as if the wrangling of the human will into submission were an academic puzzle to be solved. But our hearts and minds, by design, are meant to work in concert. Passion in tandem with imagination are what drives the desire of the will. We were meant to have an inspired and creative mind that would act upon the impulse of what is beautiful and true. So it is no surprise that God would make his appeal to us, not in an impressive assemblage of incontrovertible facts . . . but rather, in the irresistible narrative of redemptive sacrifice.

So when I read Psalm 19, David’s beautiful opus declaring how overwhelming, is the knowledge of God, its beauty bursting at the seams of human description – I am filled with the desire to join in with David’s beseeching of God to “let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord” (Psalm 19:14). Because I want to have my will so profoundly altered, to have my heart and mind so preoccupied with God’s will, that my actions will become almost involuntarily in step with his will. Is this not the preeminent function (modus operandi) of our Christian faith?


Maybe we should have all been poets . . .

Dream Of A World Like That

P.T. Barnum said “There’s a sucker born every minute”. Of recent years I’ve come to appreciate his meaning as being far more axiomatic than cynically disparaging. I don’t take his point as offering a critique of the baseline intellect of the general population, as much as him offering a rather astute observation about the human condition – namely, that we all live with some measure of discontent, making us all susceptible to accepting various impermanent remedies, without question.

This is the very psychological vulnerability that the conman, grifter, flimflam artist seeks to exploit – either by playing on our fears, or by enticing our desires . . . all the while, feigning a sincere interest in our well-being. So what are we to do? Are we to distrust anyone taking an interest in our well-being? Are we to assume we’re just too smart to be taken in by someone who has been perfecting their skills at preying on our specific emotional vulnerabilities? Or are we to address our discontent at its source, and reduce our vulnerability?

So when I hear, what are normally reasonable people, debating politics – all I can hear is “My flimflam politician is far more credible than your conman politician”. No doubt, on some level such people have already accepted the dubious premise that it’s possible for a politician to offer us the best political solution, which only has our best interest and well-being in mind. But you don’t have to listen for very long to any political speech to have your fears played upon, and your desires enticed, all under the rubric of your best interest as being their driving concern. This is why I look elsewhere for a remedy for my discontent.

Ever since our exile from Eden, we’ve experienced a persistent longing to live in a world made right – to finally reconcile what is, with what ought to be. So whatever your definition for contentment, it likely includes some expectation of how things ought to be. But intuitively, there will always be the nagging realization that true contentment will require more than a cosmetically favorable altering of our present circumstance . . . because true contentment isn’t really wired to our circumstances – it’s wired to our heart’s desire.

aurora houseColossians 3:2 says – “Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth”. Most misinterpret this verse in at least two ways. They either take it as saying we should focus on some future destination, instead of where we are now – or they entertain a form of Gnosticism, creating a hard dichotomy between spirit and flesh. But I take this verse as working more like a compass, correctly orienting me on the path of my life. Because the verse before (vs 1) invites me to seek Christ where he is . . . and what he is already doing.

It is the confession of my faith that Christ is the redeemer of all things. So this is how the world is made new – it is also how my personal world is made new. So if you are to dream dreams, let your dreams be consumed with imagining his kingdom come, his will being done – not just in the world around you . . . but in your heart, as well. And this will give a fresh meaning to the adage “be the change you seek in the world


This is a song I wrote a few decades ago during an election year . . .
and recently recorded at my daughter Jessica’s house.

The Gift of Dirty Dishes (1 of 5)

For the average working stiff, Monday is often experienced as a depressive disorder known as a “case of the Mondays” — a lethargic mind-funk that can actually last for days. While Fridays are often celebrated as a minor holiday, where each passing hour is counted down like a NASA launch sequence. In common parlance this attitude is known as “living for the weekend”, a 48 hour dispensation setting us free from the daily grind so that we can focus on what’s really important . . . sleeping in. But I’m beginning to think I could find rats, trapped in a maze chasing cheese, living a more purposeful life.

What we do, why we do it, and how we do it – directly contributes to how we understand ourselves within the world we live. This doesn’t just apply to our chosen occupations, but makes itself relevant to every action we take. In this way, being and doing are inextricably symbiotic. For it is out of who we are, that we act . . . and it is our actions that demonstrate, in the most practical, if not primal way – who we are. So here’s my question – is there a disconnect between how you see yourself and how you do the things you do?

Like most, my life is full of various reoccurring menial tasks that must be done – a list of chores, of which the primary benefit is found in how they momentarily unclutter the functionality of my life. Each one requiring a minimal amount of brain cells to accomplish – yet each one relentlessly making claims on my time. The lawn needs mowing. The trash needs taking out. The dishes need washing. Every task following its own predictable cycle – the very definition of monotony. So how am I to do these things in a way that best reflects who I am?

secret-cleaning-scuff-marks-off-dishes-silverware-faster-why-works.w1456I like the water hot – so that what goes unseen to the naked eye still comes clean . . . similar to the way humble tasks are able to purify the heart and mind. The most conspicuous thing about doing dishes is that I’m reminded that a meal or two has been prepared – that I eat regularly, and often with loved ones. And when I start to finish up – while wiping down the counter tops, I experience a subtle sense of accomplishment. Other things in my life may feel incomplete, or frayed, or even broken – but these dishes are done . . . a small victory – but a victory all the same. This is the gift of dirty dishes . . . a sacredness found in the smallest of details.

Is this not how we best understand the admonition of Colossians 3:23 – “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord . . .”? All that we are and all that we do belong to God, already – so it’s just a matter of aligning our lives with this most profound ontological confession. The common assumption is that we make our faith confessions, using words to which we’ve given mental assent – but perhaps it is the faith confessions of our deeds that have more to teach us . . . because that’s where we experience the presence of God at work — moment by moment . . . even in the smallest of details.


It’s always best to have a working prayer

Learning To Wade In the Water (5 of 8)

It is really no surprise to me why Allstate’s advertising campaign personifying mayhem has been so successful. As it is with all humor, there must be a universally relatable truth being satired, before everyone gets the joke. And let’s face it, on some level, on some back burner in our heads, we entertain some measure of dread, that chaos (mayhem) will leap out and begin dissembling the order we are so carefully attempting to maintain in our life. After all, creating order out of chaos is one of life’s grand themes residing in the subtext of everything we are and everything we do . . . even if all we can do is laugh at commercials reminding us all of just how implausible the task.

Within the first two verses of the Bible, the creation narrative sets the stage with a powerful metaphor about water. The void and the darkness over the face of the deep, is immediately juxtaposed with the presence of God hovering over those same waters. So that by the sixth verse we find him dividing those waters, bringing order out of chaos. And for the ancient world, this was no small matter, because the face of the deep was a menacing and foreboding image, a vast unknown portending a terrible undoing.

So by the time Noah’s story is told a few chapters later, the idea of those very same waters, once divided by God, now coming back together, carries with it far more than just the calamity associated with a flood – it was God allowing the chaos to overtake the order of the world. That in fact, it has been the hand of God, all along, that has held those waters apart, so that we might have a place to live. So when this particular  image reoccurs, at the Red Sea, and and again as Israel crosses the Jordan – we begin to fully appreciate the pattern of just how it is that God makes a way for us, where there is no way.

__Shell___by_masscreationNow, consider the sacrament of baptism — where we find ourselves invited to enter the waters, so that we might understand ourselves as having died with Christ and raised to new life. We break the surface twice, entering into death (chaos) and then the waters part, as we rise again to new life. This is the way of Christ, a pattern of willingness to enter into death, so that a life of reconciliation and redemption can occur.

Paul explains this pattern in 2 Corinthians 5: 17-20 — having become a new creation, we as Christ’s ambassadors, must be willing to wade into the water, that is the chaos and brokenness of our world, so that we might reconcile others to life in Christ. For it was Jesus, the incarnate God, who came where death prevailed, so that he might once and forever part the waters of chaos (death) – so now we wade into the waters, to go where death once held sway . . . so that Jesus might make his appeal through us — bringing new life in his wake.


One of my all time favorite gospel spirituals — this is a great rendition . . .

Learning To Trim Your Sail (4 of 8)

Force = Mass x Acceleration . . . is a formula illustrating Newton’s 2nd law of motion – describing how inertia is overcome. It turns out, the greater the mass, the more force is required to achieve acceleration – who knew? Makes me wonder if the same law that applies to getting physically unstuck (F=ma) would apply to being metaphorically stuck – because I think we can all relate to feeling stuck . . . in ways we can’t even put our finger on.

Feeling stuck may seem to you like a lack of motivation, or a matter of procrastination, or even as a result of exhaustion – but all of these strike me as far more symptomatic of being stuck, than causal. Spinning your wheels going nowhere can leave you exhausted. And a lack of motivation and procrastination are derivative of being incapable of imagining how not being stuck might look — because sometimes you’ve been an object at rest for so long, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in motion . . . or could it be because the last time you were in motion – it didn’t go so well.

More often than not, most people end up stuck because it was the last place they took refuge from life’s howling winds and troubled waters. They didn’t plan to stay — but here they are all the same . . . stuck. And here’s the thing about being stuck – it drains you of all expectation. This may strike you as antithetical, because if a hyper state of routine is what it means to be stuck – then what’s not to expect? . . . it’s all been done before. But having hopeful expectation isn’t about predictability – rather, it’s about believing that something new could happen.

boat-oil-painting-60542It is this very lack of hopeful expectation that holds you land-locked. So maybe it’s time you tested the wind again and checked the horizon for unexpected opportunities — so that you might know yourself as free to live your own life again. Maybe it’s time you learned how to trim your sails. Because it isn’t really about throwing up a sail and letting the wind blow you all over the water. In the hands of a skilled sailor, the sails are deployed in such a way as to channel the force of the wind with precision . . . and usually that occurs at a pretty fair clip.

Sometimes we fall into thinking that God wants us to play it safe, until we end up like the servant who was given one talent and ended up burying it (Matthew 25: 18), convincing ourselves that God wouldn’t want us being too risky with what he had given us. Or we assume he is asking us to generate our own momentum to break inertia, when we already feel so stretched out and pulled thin . . . how could we possibly take on more? But in fact, he is inviting us to unfurl our sails . . . and he will fill them. It is an invitation to live your whole life, that you might see what he can do through you. There’s no telling where he’ll take you next . . . and it’s the not knowing, that keeps you from getting stuck.


This has always been one of my favorite Bruce Cockburn songs

   

Life is a Catechism (2 of 5)

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that life is a test, a test of character and integrity, of mental and emotional toughness, of grace under pressure. But to what end — to measure us comparatively with one another—comparative to a given standard? Who’s actually conducting this test – us; God . . . if we pass or fail, what then? The whole idea strikes me as insufferably meritorious, or like some academic experiment, as if we were nothing more than laboratory mice. Is this really what you think life is about?

Yet life does seem to have an endless supply of questions it incessantly proffers – questions spanning every scale and scope, leaving no area of our lives untouched. On one level these questions are just as random as the circumstances that seem to be serving them up, but on another level, as each question is boiled down to why that question even matters – we discover the unifying question of: Why does any of it matter? Which in turn, drills down to the ultimate question of: What is the whole point to life?

So if every question life throws at us is ultimately the same question about what we believe, then it only stands to reason that every answer should find its mooring in how we’ve chosen to answer that ultimate question. This is why I say life is a catechism, a pedagogy of Q & A, an open book test, as it were – because for the person of faith, discovering the answer is inextricably tied to remembering the answer. As a Christian, I have chosen to believe in the supremacy of all of who God is and what he is doing in the midst of his creation.

controlBut remember this very question is hardly ever asked in a statically academic form. It takes on the dynamic of circumstance, in its various permutations. It may sneak into your life by taking on the shape of betrayal. It might hit you like a freight train with the unexpected death of a loved one. Or it may just be the slow and steady drip of a life that seems to be going nowhere. You’ll find it in the anthropological/ sociological shifts in cultural mores. And it’s decidedly woven into every relationship with which we engage. When you think about it, there literally are thousands of ways with which we are being asked the one question . . . a question we often aren’t even aware is being asked.

We best prepare ourselves for life, not by trying to anticipate every disparate question, but rather by immersing ourselves in the one answer we believe to be true. This isn’t so much about resisting intellectual honesty, as it is about becoming epistemologically self-aware . . . which is actually a higher form of intellectual honesty. It is to allow the meditation of our faith to frame our context, that we would recite the question until the answer sinks in deeper, to recite the question until the answer is given the preeminence it deserves . . . until we are completely remade by the answer.


I think this Buddy Miller song poses the question
most relevant to this season of Lent . . .