The Wrong Question

I have had these golden moments.

They are connected to others, sometimes.  Or something in me.  Or something about the world.  Often times, it is a combination.  A perfect moment with people who I love in a beautiful place.  Or a moment when I was doing what I know I must have been made to do, a moment when I forget my worries and my own petty limitations…

I know that you have had these moments, too.

For better or worse, we have had the opposite of these moments.  Conspiracies of our factors beyond our control our baggage, betrayal and hurt that runs so deep.

There is an obvious question about these extremes: Is it worth it?  Are those moments of good worth putting up with the bad?  Perhaps this implies a related question: Which happen more often?  It feels like this one is a no-brainer.  Certainly, the bad times some times feel a lot more prevalent, sometimes.

But these are the wrong questions, I think.  There is a more important question.

What is the universe?

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Is one of these extremes the fundamental nature of the world?  Is one an abberation?  Is the world just a mish-mash, of the good and bad all mixed up together?

Faith, for me, is trust that the good is the most basic part of the universe: no matter how deeply things have been broken and perverted, there is something beneath that is better.  Beneath the surface of our personalities, beneath the pettiness and anger and hate.  And beneath the surface of the world.  The created world is like a lottery ticket, there is this thin, grey covering, and it is hiding riches beneath.

The source of love, the author of mercy invented power itself.  The world sprang up out of his kindness.  He made us and placed his reflection within us.  This is not a denial of evil, not a minimization of your hurt or my hurt.  It is a proclamation that these things are not the last word.  There is so much more.

Hitler. Theresa. You. And me.

God loves Adolph Hitler.  He loves him as much as he loves Mother Theresa.  And as much as he loves you and me.

That this is mind-boggling and bordering on the offensive does not make it less true.  And it should be observed that love does not preclude other emotions.  I suspect that God rejoices in the selfless service of Mother Theresa.  I suspect he weeps for the hatred of Hitler.  I suspect he does a little rejoicing, a little weeping when he looks on my life and considers what I have done with it.

None of these, or any of the other reactions that God might have change His love, though.  His love for us is something glorious.  In the very best moments of my very best days, I come somewhere in the solar system of wrapping my brain around this with my own kids and my wife.

One of the reasons it is hard to get there is that this utterly unconditional love flies in the face of everything we experience from the first moment we leave the womb.  Before we even have words, we begin to engage in these transactions with the people around us.  When we eat the vegetables on our high chair tray, when we say “mommy” when we clean our room, complete our homework, save the company money… when we do these things we are rewarded with smiles, treats, deserts, good grades, pay check bonuses.

Because we are broken, and because we lack imagination, we come to see these things as love itself.  We come to tie up our value in the things we provide for others.  And the truth is, that there are positive sides to this.  Because life is hard.  If we contribute half as much to the world, somebody else will need to contribute twice as much, or someone else won’t get their needs met.

There is value in helping keep track of who provides value.

One of the greatest tragedies of this world, though, is that we lose sight of the fact that we have a worth that is so much more fundamental than the things we do.

God made mankind and he declared it good.  He made you, and he made me, and he declared us good.  He breathed his perfect breathe into us, placed the very reflection of himself in our very most basic essence.  And this goodness is more basic to what we are than all the brokeness that came after.

If we– if I– could fill up with this most basic conviction:  God loves us.  Not for what we do.  Not for what we have.  Not for the choices we make, or the rules we follow, or the things we say…   What sort of force would we unleash on the world?

Shiny and Beautiful

Sometimes, the things that are so close to us are so difficult to see.

At the most obvious concrete level, we can not, for example, see our own nose with out the aide of a mirror.  We can go cross eyed and perhaps see the very tip.  But no matter what kind of optical manipulations we engage in, we are not going to see the top part of our nose, the part between our eyes.  Consider this a metaphor.

It is so hard to see things that are too close to who we are.  So, today, I will begin with something maybe far away from where you are.

Imagine a ‘tween in the month of December.  She is desperate for the latest video game system.  She longs for it, pines after it, makes arrangements and combines the financial might of her family so that she might receive the game for Christmas.

Pop quiz: How does she feel about the game by January?

We already know how this story ends!  By January?  She is bored.  It did not deliver.

And perhaps it is a little closer to home if I think about technological gizmos that simplify our lives: the newest i-phone.  The fastest computer.  A microwave with a bunch of new settings…

We might want some or all of these things.  And truly, we know how it is going to end: we will get it.  We will have some fun with it for a little while.  But sooner than later… we are back to who we are.  We back to how we are.   Soon something else looks sparkly and fun.  And we set our sights on that.

The mind-blowing thing about this drama is how we know the way it is going to end, and yet we do it anyway.  It is hard to imagine that a person could reach adulthood with out realizing that as we seek out these sorts of things, inevitably they will disapoint.

Those things that we do not have take on a power and a beauty.  They shine!  We know that the power will go away.  We know that the beauty will fade.  We know that the shine will go out.  Because the power, the beauty, and the shine, they do not actually belong to the object at all.  They belong to us: they are things that we project onto the things we want.

I have just begun The Divine Magician by Peter Rollins.  He opens the book by connecting us to Adam and Eve.  He suggests that very act of making the fruit forbidden is what gives it at least some of it’s power.

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To me, this is an interesting thing.   One of the implications of this idea is that materialism, greed, and disatisfaction are rooted in our failed attempt to find something that truly satisfies.  We all have a whole to fill.  It is so big that no physical thing in the world can plug it up.  And yet, we are knuckleheads.  So we try.  Over, and over, and over again.

Adam and Eve had the oppurtunity for relationship.  That would have filled them.  And also, it would have averted the whole mess.  If, when the snake had come to Adam and Eve, and it had begun to ask its questions and spread his lies, if they had engaged in relationship with their creator, if they had gone to God and asked him, perhaps it would have ended things differently.

But this is part of the point I am coming to realize.  If the power, the beauty, and the shine isn’t in the objects, if it comes from us, then the question becomes: where in us does it come from?  Why do we make the things we want so powerful?

I suspect that the answer is rooted in our hubris, our arrogance, our entitlement.  When we want something and then  we get it, we are acting out this drama of entitlement.  We are pushing foreward a narrative which is a pretty fun story to live.  That story could be titled, “I can have everything I want.”  The subtitle: “because I am God.”

There is a popular understanding (not incompatible with the scripture, but really fleshed out in the fictional works of Milton) that Satan fell because he wanted to be God; he did not want to submit.

And so we are not only re-enacting the garden of Eden in our every day life.  Perhaps Eden itself was a re-enactment of a story that goes back even farther in time.

On my own, there is no way to escape this.  I am selfish and petty and I keep going after things even though I know they won’t give me what I truly need.  Getting this things feeds some inner beast, some inner delusion that I can have whatever I want, that I even deserve it.   If I was left to my own devices, I would be doomed.

Finding that Sweet Spot

Sometimes, I don’t even try to lightly toast a marshmallow.  Sometimes, I put it right in the flames.  I wait for the thing to combust.  Once the fire has taken over the whole thing, I blow it out.  I ended up with a blackened and crunchy skin on the thing.  Within?  Within, it is basically the same as it was before.

A burned marshmallow is not a bad thing.  This is part of why I do it.

Also, I am a guy.  I like to set things on fire.

Also, I can be pretty much assured that I will get this right.  There is no disappointment involved: I set out to burn a marshmallow, I achieved the burning of a marshmallow.

But other times?  Other times I decide I will invest the time and the effort in getting it just right.

I maintain a rotisserie-style rotation.  I angle it just in the right place, the uppermost tips of the flames just barely caressing the sweet.  I watch it in the flickering fire light so very careful.

And this, in some ways, is the biggest challenge.  It is an exercise in controlling my greed.  Because sometimes it starts to look pretty good, beginning to show some light tan.  The tan darkens up, takes over the thing.  If all is well, even the top of the marshmallow darkens.  Inside, it is becoming something transformed.  The sugar softens and warms.  Alton Brown could probably provide a nerdy and fascinating explanation of the chemistry that is happening.  All I know is that it gets good, and then a little better… and sometimes

WHAM!

Suddenly, it is not good any more.  There really is no browning of a marshmallow.  It pretty much goes from tan… to black.  It goes from divine to just o.k.  It does it in the blink of the eye.

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The trick is that there are stages of divine.  And pushing too hard, trying to get it just perfect… That ruins it.

There could be a mind-map that describes the perfect marshmallow.  Here, there are 2 kingdoms: “Roasted” and “Burned.”  A great marshmallow is found by leaving the capital of roasted, with it’s comfort and civilization.  It is found by heading down the dirt road toward burned.  And the closer you get to that border?  The better it is.  But the moment you step over the dividing line, the very second you pass by the “Welcome to” sign…  it is too late.

Meditative/contemplative prayer is that way for me.  The mind map I am thinking about now, it features three kingdoms.  They all border each other in a “Y” shape.  The kingdoms are “Ordinary Prayer” and “Sleep” and “Thinking.”

The closer I get, in prayer, to the borders of those other 2 place: sleep and thinking, the better it is.  But the moment I slide over the border, it is suddenly nothing like it was.  It was not nearly the thing it had been.

This process is very much like roasting a marshmallow.  It is as much art as science, as much under my control as out of my hands.  To whatever extent I can control it, there is an element of greed there, of knowing I can push too far, and ruin it by trying to make it better.

As I write these words, I am wrestling with them.  Because there is a way in which this isn’t quite right.  I mean, I know it isn’t quite right in that there is a sense that it isn’t accurate.  But I also think it isn’t quite morally right.

Because it shouldn’t be about the feelings I get.  The only problem is that pretty much everything we do is about the feelings we get.  There are all these warnings, across spiritual traditions.  They warn us about not going after the feelings or other benefits of our spiritual practices: we should be doing them for their own sake.

But I am left wondering: Is that a thing?  Do people do things just for their own sake?  I am not sure.  I know that I like connecting with the creator of the universe.

And also, I like marshmallows.

 

 

 

Mindfulness in a “Good” World.

Like any good college student in Southern California, I spent a couple years as a Buddhist.

This was really the first time I was exposed to meditation.  It was a powerful thing.  Sometimes, too powerful.  Incredibly profound spiritual experiences while meditating kind-of scared me away from meditation.  That is a story for another time.

Despite those negatives, I found meditation powerful and helpful.  When I began following Jesus, I spent some time assessing these practices and my motivations for engaging in them.  I have had this on-again, off-again relationship with spiritual practices.  Sometimes, I have engaged in things very much like the old meditations I used to engage in.  Other times, I have pursued other more intentionally Christian disciplines…

If I were to be honest, I would say that most of the time, I haven’t done either.  Most of the time, I have just steered clear of all this stuff.  Some of my reasons relate to myself as a person: I am not sure that the reasons I would do these things are the right reasons.  Some of them are more collective: Christianity as a whole is quite split over what to do with these sort-of practices, particularly when they are borrowed from other religious traditions.  Perhaps an even more important reason is sheer laziness.  To do these things requires a sort-of effort.  Perhaps you are like me.  Even the things that have a pretty quick pay-off, sometimes it is hard to get myself to do them.

Meanwhile, the secular world is starting to grab on to the value of spiritual disciplines.  Mindfulness, for example, is a buzz word these days.   Ted Talks and  newspaper articles continue to list the benefits of creating times in our busy lives where we are not thinking, where we are just be-ing, just breathing.

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I hate it when the Church is on the wrong side of things.

As a Christ-follower, I have always been open about how spiritual practices help me to get closer to God.  Mother Theresa had this mind-blowing description, of what prayer was like for her.  She said that sometimes, she listens to God.  The interviewer asked her what she was listening to.  She answered that she was listening to God listen to her.  I love that: sitting in silence, with God, listening to God listen to me.   Like those wonderful times when you are sitting on a blanket with a good friend, and maybe the sun is setting, or there is a breeze, or the scent of something lovely wafts to your nose, and you are not talking, and you are just filled with the conviction that everything is pretty o.k. in the world.

Budhist, and secular, and other forms of meditation speak a lot about another benefit of meditation.   This is one I continue to feel.  It is not one that my brothers and sisters in Christ are always on board with.  After I am engaged in prayerful meditation, I see the world differently.   It is not so much that they help me to see the world anew, it is something different.  The original, (way better) film version of Willy Wonka features one of his research prototypes.  It is a little piece of gum, or candy, or something, that replicates an entire meal.  The actress does this incredible job, as each course comes in, of helping us to see her joy and excitement as the flavor of each course strikes her taste buds.

Prayerful meditation is like that: I see things, and hear things, and smell things, and taste things in a way that is delightful and surprising.  I feel the surprised joy of the character from Willy Wonka.

I am beginning to suspect that the reason that we don’t want to talk about this benefit of prayerful meditation is that we have perverted the gospel.

I could ramble on for a dozen pages about ‘why’ it seems like this came to be.  I think maybe I will continue next post with this idea.  For now, I will try and be (uncharacteristically) brief.

Their was a conspiracy that broke the meaning of the gospel.  One member of the conspiracy was Greek understanding of the world.  The Greeks, through folks like Plato, idolized ideas and disdained the “dirty” world we live in.  The second conspiracy was a short-sightedness in theology.  We turned Jesus promise of the redemption of all things in to a ticket to some ethereal plane beyond the world.   The third was the political landscape.  It benefitted some people with a lot of influence to mantain their power, position, and prestige.  These folks wanted so spin Christianity in a way that lead to people focusing on the next world at the expense of this one.

The result of this conspiracy is a Christianity that is out-of-balance.  It tries to ignore that when Jesus came back, he did so in a body.  That body ate.  It could be felt by Thomas, who explored its wounds.  It has taken communion, which might have been a hearty carnival for the senses; a feast, and it has turned this into a chomping a flavor-less cracker and drinking a sip of water; it complicates the meaning of pretty straight foreward pronouncements, like the created world is good, and the kingdom of heaven is among us.

I have come to believe that we are born to be in the world.  (God had hoped it would not be broken, though.)  I have come to believe we will spend eternity on a restored and urgraded Earth.  I have come to believe that the biblical injunctions to enjoy the bounties of this world are to be taken at face value.

And when I connect with God he gives me new eyes to see the world around me.  He gives me new ears to hear it.  The world is good, the kingdom is among us, and eternity can began right here, right now.

Reluctant Fundamentalists

Sometimes, I do things that end in me being frustrated.  And yet, there is a part of me that knew it would go exactly this way.  What is worse?  That part of me loves it, or perhaps, more accutately, that part of me loves to hate it.

I have had relationships, for example, where 95% of me is working hard at making the relationship better.  But 5% of me has this idea that I am the better person, the righteous person.  And so I begin to say and do things that are most likely going to end in conflict.  It is a conflict where I am on my way to the moral high ground.  Where I can be the person I want to believe I am, by reciting my lines in just the right way, by saying the things with the right emphasis, by being that guy who I want to be: victim, liberal, savior…

I am starting to recognize this in my every day life.  But Social media puts a new wrinkle on this whole thing.  Facebook is outstanding for this purpose.  In social media, I don’t even have to pretend to listen to the other side in real time.  This morning, I was about to brag about how I am watching “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” on Netflix.

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In doing that, ninety-five percent of me has  a reasonable set of motivationss for this.  I am wanting to reccomend it to friends.  I am aware that some of these folks might be positively impacted by what it says and what it is about.  Some of the stuff that I am counting in this ninety-five percent is probably a little less noble, but not really part of the problem: things like I would like to be seen as smart and hip.

There is five percent of me that knows exactly what will happen.  It does a pretty remarkable job of covering it’s tracks, though.  It is easy enough, most of the time, for me to deny that I saw it all coming.

Here is what would happen:

* I would receive about 8 likes.  (Roughly 2 of them would come from people who like everything, so they wouldn’t count.  The other 6 would give me half a second of warm and fuzzy feelings inside.)

* I would receive about 4 positive comments from politically liberal/film buff friends.  This would give me a slightly longer-lasting rush of warm fuzzies.

* Somewhere in there one of the great people in my life not likely to be sympathetic to the message of the film would chime in.  And then, that devil that stands, cartoon-like on my shoulder, that 5% of me…  He will be in his glory.  This is what he/I was waiting for.

I am contemplating, this morning, that it would soon be clear that we wouldn’t be arguing about the movie itself.  Really, what these discussions are about is “what stories are worth telling?” and  “What stories haven’t yet been told?”

The conservative would eventually admit that yes, the Pakistani protagonist in the movie could have been a really guy.  He would recognize that perhaps this might be happening somewhere.  He would go on to insist that the “liberal media” is too busy telling this story, over and over.  He would claim that the stories of European-bred Americans is being forgotten.

In the same tone he talks about the liberal media, I would bring up Fox News.  I would say that we have been telling white men’s stories for 200 years, now.  We would both bring up vaguely-backed statistics, anecdotes, and philosophical postures to justify the position that our respective stories need to be told.

I wonder if that is the the beginning of the path out of the mess that we are in: recognizing that we are both right.  More stories need to be told.  They need to be told well.  They need to sometimes be distilled into numbers and statistics.  The case-studies and the numbers need to be wielded with a tremendous weight, a deep sense of responsibility and humility, if we are to get anywhere approximating the truth.

And so here I am: finishing up this blog post and recognizing the irony of the situation.  In essence, I have created a long-winded version of the facebook status I disparaged a few hundred words back.  Further, I will probably go post a link to this post on my facebook feed.

I would like to think that it’s less than 5% of me, that is seeking out that same pattern to justify my silly ideas about myself.

But probably?  It’s not too much less than 5%.

Thirteen Ways More

after Stevens

1.

The three naked men hung up there.

And though some wailed and wept and rended their garments,

mostly the people below trudged on with their lives.

2.

I am of three minds.

Like a God.

That is three and one and three and one and also, by the way, three.

3.

This is the betrayal in the garden of Eden.

As viewed from behind the curtains.

4.

A child was born.

A young man died.

This is a thing that happened exactly once.

Forever.

5.

I can not moan

that some other-force

does not know my finite desparations

and my petty miseries.

6.

It is not in the overcoming,

But in the rising up.

Death once did have a sting.

But he took it.

If he had not died.

If that Friday had in fact been good.

Then Easter would have been only eggs and chocolate.

7

The words were the easy part.

Why couldn’t it have only been the easy part?

Your yoke is light and easy.

Except that it is not.

The words were the easy part.

8

There was a man on an episode of The Twilight Zone.

He lived through nuclear eschaton, stood before his long- loved library.

And then tripped and smashed his glasses forever.

Let me read and pray and think over all the things that the cross means.

And then, let me kneel in silence beneath.

9.

You were not a tall or handsome man.

And yet you glowed like the stars and stretched into the heavens.

You, Jacob’s Ladder.

10.

At the sight of that cross.

Empty and yet filled.

Joy is a cross beam,

Sorrow stands a vertical.

11.

He stumbled out of space-time.

And became greater by lesser.

I held the nail that pierced him.

These are the things I took

the sweaty rags that covered his body

rolling dice beneath the cross.

12.

The kingdom of heaven among us.

Already here, always been here.  Not yet.

13.

It was none of these things and all of these things.

It was his love for us.

And our love for him.

The cross sat beautifully

on a hill shaped like a skull.