What’s the Going Exchange Rate for a Dying God?

There is this idea that Jesus’ death bought something: that he was a unique currency, only ever redeemable once.

There is a part of me that recently wanted to throw this idea away far away from me.  And in some ways, I had good reasons.  There are some questionable ethical things happening, if this is how it worked.  It seemed rather suspicious than American, Evangelical Christianity would become rather obsessed with a financial-economic view of what Jesus was doing.

Today, I am holding this idea outward, with an open hand.   Perhaps it will stay.  Perhaps not.  I see some language in the bible that suggests it.  I see some value at it.  I can be a bit fickle.  Perhaps I will be ready to throw it away, again, tomorrow.

But the thing that got me thinking about all this was a podcast I was listening to this morning.  Michael Gungor, one of my heroes, started talking about transactional relationships with God.  I assumed what he said next was going to relate to Jesus’ death.

But he went a whole different direction.  He was talking about the deals we make with God.   ‘God please do this for me.’  ‘God, if you do x, I will do y’, ‘God I need…’  Gungor goes on to suggest that the alternative foundation for connecting with God is embodied in Mother Theresa’s often-quoted description of her prayer life: she states that she listens to God listening to her.  (Forgive the vast oversimplification of Mother Theresa’s words; it is worth looking up.)

I am thinking that maybe there is a connection between seeing Jesus’ death as transactional and seeing our relationship with him as transactional.  On a broader level, I know that some of my own relationships with other people have been ones where we abided in a love for each other, like Mother Theresa.  Others have been built around mutual exchanges and need.

Most, of course, are somewhere between these two extremes.  But the older I get, the more sure I am: I would rather engage in loving than exchanging stuff.





Finding God In the Waves

There are these people who give me little snap shots of who they are, and I think, “Wow.  I want to know more.”

That is how I have always felt about “Science Mike” McHargue.  He is a thinker, writer, and blogger.  He is also  one of the two Mike’s behind the liturgist podcast, and does some solo work, here which is more focused on science.

I got what I had been wishing for.  I just finished his book, “Finding God in the Waves.

If you could spin the book really fast to force all the things that went into it to separate, or maybe boil the book, and reach the melting point of some of the constituents in order to isolate the things that make it up, I think you would come up with 3 different ingredients.

First, the book is a spiritual autobiography.  Science Mike spent the first half of his life in a fairly conservative/evangelical Christian Church.  When life circumstances lead him to question his faith, he began a transition to closeted atheist.  He eventual left the closet, and began a journey back to a reconstructed faith.

Secondly, the book is an attempt to balance the newest findings of science with the ongoing wisdom of following Christ.  Astronomy and brain chemistry get the most attention, but there’s lots of compelling psychology and sociology, too.  I can be a bit of a snob about these sort-of attempts.  In my experience, authors who try to bring together faith and science usually end up doing a mediocre job on one of these.  Or both.  McHargue is kind of intimidating, because he is way smarter than me in both these areas.  So near as my little brain can figure, he gets them both right.

Thirdly, “Finding God in the Waves” is a blue print of what a reconstructed, science-informed faith might look like.  There are times that this book reminded me of Descrarte’s Meditations.  The French Philosopher began with the question, “What if everything my senses bring me is wrong?”  The American thinker begins with the question “What if everything I used to believe is wrong?”  Both authors respond to this by creating a series of axioms that will prove to be the building blocks of a new set of beliefs, which hopefully end up being more defensible than the previously unquestioned assumptions.

My favorite thing about the writing here is how frequently it flips the script.  I will be cruising along, reading almost on autopilot.  A few key sentences will start me heading in a certain direction, and then, from nowhere: Blam!  Suddenly, things do exactly the opposite of where I expected to.  The effect is sometimes funny, or touching, or both.

My favorite thing about the author is that he is so courageously even-handed.  That’s a thing about hanging out in the middle: Sometimes it feels like you are pissing off everybody.  I wonder if the author sometimes feels tempted to play to one side, or the other, just to get somebody to sign-on, whole-heartedly with his ideas.

This even-handedness plays out in a couple ways.  Sometimes, it is around intellectual debates.  He takes an amazingly consistent approach with calling out the good and the bad in targets as diverse as New Atheism and Old-School Baptist Churches.

But this even-handedness plays out in another way that is a little more difficult to articulate.  One way to say it is to say that he has all these different intelligences.  He is compellingly analytical when the situation calls for it.  And then, a page later, he will say something that demonstrates an emotional intelligence, that isn’t about chopping things up so much as looking at the big picture.  His proficiency with using the right mental tool for the right mental job lead me to be so fascinated that I  read this book in like 3 days.

You should go buy it and read it.  It was really good.  It will be released on September 13


In the Moment

The worst moment is when you think everything is going right, and then suddenly it all falls apart.  One of my favorite shows, The Walking Dead is brilliant at this.  (A bit of a year old spoiler ahead…)  For example, there was this sweet kid, Beth.  She disapeared for about a year.  Suddenly she is back.  We get reminded how wonderful she is.  Then?  Then she dies.

Though I am not a sports guy, I can emphasize with football fans.  The team is about to come back, the quarter back throws a beautiful pass, across dozens of yards.  They bar erupts in cheers!  And then, the other team comes in, intercepts, and then it all falls apart.  Touchdown, field goal, or maybe a home run or something.  (You have no idea how proud of myself I am, for that sports metaphor.  Based on the above accuracy, you will probably be amazed to find out that I am not a sports guy.)

121811 Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis (21) intercepts a pass intended for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson (13) in the third quarter at Ralph Wilson Stadium. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)
121811 Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis (21) intercepts a pass intended for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson (13) in the third quarter at Ralph Wilson Stadium. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

I think God must get this feeling a lot.  Perhaps by you.  Most definitely by me.  There are times when I suspect “he” is like, “That’s right Jeff, you are thinking the right way.  Just keep going in that direction, keep thinking that way…. What?!?  No, you just messed it all up!”

Last blog post, a pondered about the ways that God shows up in the flesh, the ways he is here, in the details, in the mess, in the dirt.  God is amazingly specific and detailed.  He is an example, not an abstraction.

And yet?  As I shared this… I was all abstract.  Theoretic.  I heard once about a presentation given on “The Interactive Classroom.”  It was a power point presentation.  This adventure in missing the point is a bit like mine, I think.

I am writing, mostly, to myself, and for myself here.  This is my reminder to myself, my attempt at calling myself out to something bigger and better.    The bigger and better?  It is living where and when I am.

When I am among the hurting, I want to hurt with them.  I want to carry that burden.  I want to feel the pain.  I want to embrace the specifics of the pain, rather than deflecting with abstraction and theoretics.   This will mean, often, closing my mouth and sitting in silence with others…  Because these canned responses that we save for hard times…  They are as much about protecting our own selves as they are about helping out others.

And when I am among the rejoicing, I want to rejoice.  I am terrible at rejoicing.  I think it is an age, culture, and gender thing…  Straight white middle aged men?  We are typically terrible at rejoicing.  To explore why would probably require a bunch of paragraphs.  Or maybe a whole blog post.  Or maybe a whole book.

Whatever the reason, my failure to embrace the actual reality of a moments of joy means that every last one of them will never come back.  They are lost forever.  And I think it’s time I stopped that.

I am new to this…  and maybe not very good at it.  How do I step out of the theoretical and ideal and into the reality of the moment?

Glory. Fall. Restoration. Repeat.

You. You are terrible. No good. Worthless. But hey, I can make everything perfect for you.
Does that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Yeah. I kind-of thought it wouldn’t. Sadly, if you had to boil down the “good” news of my faith, it would seem like it would end up being something incredibly close to those words.
I don’t think this is the product of malice. Rather, it’s about skipping some steps.
We are operate as though the story begins in suckiness and ends in victory. Part of the reason that this is a tempting picture to buy into is that they are both steps in a process that repeats itself in all kinds of ways. But the thing is this: they are not the only steps.
Turning the process into a 2 step thing robs the picture of context. As a result, it is distorted.
I think what happens can be accurately boiled down to 4 steps. The 4 steps are Glory, Fall, Restoration, and Repetition. If you thought that only fall and restoration happened, you might want to rename them. You could fairly call them suckiness and victory, if you thought that they were the only steps in the process.
Perhaps you are asking “What process?” or simply, “Jeff, what in the crap are you talking about?” I am going to answer those questions by blessing you with an ear worm.
Let it Go.
You know, the song from Frozen? It was endlessly on tween lips not all that long ago. I am going to bet that it is bouncing around the inside of your skull now, as you read this. You are welcome.
Anyway, there is a great line in that song. No, I am not thinking about the endlessly repeated refrain/title. I risk my credibility as a poet when I tell you that I actually kind of love this turn of phrase, but anyway, there is a line: “My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around.”
In honesty, a part of the reason I love this line is probably a bit of snobiness. I am pretty sure that 95% of the people who sing this song have absolutely no idea what this word phrase means.
(Bare with me here, I promise I will be back to the main idea.)
A somewhat simplified explanation of what the term ‘fractal’ means is that it is an image that repeats at all sorts of different levels. Whatever the recurring picture is, you see it in tiny and huge ways… the larger images is might up of the smaller ones, but even the smaller ones are just tiny versions of the larger image.pfractal_star_04
I suspect the line in the song refers to the idea that a huge mound of snow looks like a tiny piece of snow, and further, that if you look at a single image of a snow flake you see little icecicle-like structures. If it turns out that I have this wrong, the basic thing I want to grab on to is the idea of a fractal.
The idea of a fractal is important. Because (thanks for your patience. Back to the main idea, now.) the 4-part pattern: Glory, fall, restoration, repeat… this is a fractal.
Once I would have called a motif. But a motif implies that there are a series of stories, all on the same level, that incorporate this idea. It’s more accurate to call this a fractal because it occurs on all kinds of scales.
Over and over, it occurs as an anecdote, a short(ish) story. Consider the beginning of humanity: Adam and Eve are born in glory. They are built from God’s image, they walk on God’s garden. They fall from this place of communion with God. But God does not leave. There is a part of that image and relationship that is rebuilt within their own lives. God takes care of them, even outside the garden. Their is a restoration. Unfortunately, the whole thing is repeated, though. Cain had the possibility of walking this close with God. In a fit of jealousy he murders Able, falling…
Another anecdote: David, in glory, is called by God to lead Isreal. He falls various times, perhaps most notably as he commits adultery. But he repents, restoring this relationship.
Sometimes, this occurs on the level of entire book(s) of the bible, not just a handful of chapters. Joseph experiences a kind-of glory. He rises to the second most powerful position in Egypt, the most powerful country in the world. He creates a family reunion and helps his brothers to see the errors of his ways. But Joseph, and his brothers, their descendents fall into slavery. And Moses leads the hundreds of thousands of them out of Egypt. They are headed for a restoration in the land promised to them.
This occurs on an inter-book level, too. Consider the whole of what we Christians refer to as the New Testament. The glory of the chosen land has fallen away. The land promised to Moses’ people has become occupied. The people chosen as God’s special people have waited for saviors promised to them, and it had to feel as though this waiting was all in vain.
Those people promised turn out to be one person. He comes and sets them free in a manner much more important and fundamental than politics, geography, and ritual.
This level is similar to the largest way that the bible can be seen. But there is a subtle difference. The whole bible, not just several books or a whole testament also fits this pattern. Because Adam and Eve did not find a restoration that was equal to what God had lost.
That restoration only came about through Jesus. And this is where scripture breaks from the fractal. Because all the ways that restorations lead to glory, and all the ways that glories lead to falls… They break, here, at the end. The restoration is forever, the record finally stops skipping. We move into the destiny we had been intended for, way back in the garden.
When I began writing this, I alluded to the idea that this view has some important impacts on how we view humanity and how we express the good news of Jesus birth, death, and resseruction. I find that I have rambled longer than I intended, though, so I am going to leave that for next time.

Dwelling in the Ashes

Ashes (Photo credit: ByteMunchers)

Dwelling among the ashes.  It’s such a powerful image.  Being coated in them, letting them smear themselves onto every part of you, turning you into something almost non-human, mono-color and almost naked in that way.

The amazing book on mahood Iron John speaks of dwelling among the ashes as a rite of passage in some societies, a time of giving up, of not caring, of nihlism…  a sort-of state approved slacker life style.

The even more amazing Bible speaks of Job dwelling among the ashes.  When he has lost everything, this is the place he lives.  His friends come and find him there.  It is worth noting, before they begin their mostly fruitless dialogues with their old friend, they spend a bunch of days with him in those ashes.

I was struck, the other day by the poignance this would have held for someone living thousands of years ago.

Begin with the amazing things fire does:

Fire is the light- bringer.  The only light bringer, really.  With out it, all is darkness.  And this is a time when the darkness is not populated only by the contents of our imaginations.  Fear of darkness is a pretty legitimate, rational fear.  Their are creatures, and there are people who are likely to take advantage of that darkness and do great harm.

Fire is the heat-bringer.   There is no central heating, their are no space heaters, electric blankets, little bags of chemicals to squish and activate to keep our hands warm.  Here to, fire is quite literally the difference between life and death.

Fire is the thing that does some wonderful alchemy, turning dead animals (often considered  unclean, certainly a source of discomfort) into life-sustaining food.

Fire is the bringer-together.  It summons families around it in a way a television or board game can only dream about.  It is unique, not just in what it does but also in how it behaves.  The ways those flames dance.  The fact that it has a never-ending appetite for fuel.  How can it not be alive?

This strange thing makes strong things (like metal) stronger.  It purifies that which we could never purify by hand.  It demands our vigilance and care, less we get burned or the fire dies out, or worse tet, grows out of control.

The fact that a fire gone out of control can bring such destruction in it’s wake could only add to the anceint’s sense of the power of fire.  No wonder they worshipped it.

But for all it’s potency, for all it’s magic, for all it’s strangeness, in the end, it was all ashes.  In fact, that’s all you can count on, from even the greatest of fires: it will be ashes in the end.

To dwell in those ashes is an agnowledgement: if this amazing God-like thing is eventually reduced to messy useless, what hope is their for anything.

I have to believe that Job was there, and he was thinking about all the amazing things he had once had, and he realized that they now were nothing, and he found the remnants of a fire, and he thought, “This is my place, among the useless remnants of that which was once wonderful.”

There is a positive spin to this darkness and despair.  When God appears as a fire that doesn’t consume to Noah, it’s easy to zip right through it.  “Yup, yup, fire that doesn’t consume.  Got it.”

To the readers at the time, this must have struck them in a whole different way.

Whirl-fire (Photo credit: Loving Earth)

All we see in this world is impermance.  All the great things of this world will be ashes, someday.  Perhaps we are even wallowing in them right now.  Maybe we know that the fire had gone out.  Maybe we are holding on to something with out even realizing it’s usefulness is ended, huddling around a pile of ashes for warmth, thinking it is still a fire.  Maybe it is the ashes of relationships, a way of thinking, a dependence on substrances; maybe these were a fire once.   Maybe we haven’t admitted their ashes now.

But we have the promise of a fire which will not consume.  It will not consume us.  It will burn forever, and never leave us with nothing but a mess.  We can never dwell in the ashes of that great fire because it will always offer us life and warmth. 

 That’s pretty awesome.

Be Still

Be Still.

We were discussing the psalms, recently.  The leader of my small group challenged us to spend some time with them, and find one that speaks to us.

I was thumbing through them, filled with my normal mixture of good and not-so-good motivations.  I end up in psalm 46, and found “Be still, and know that I am God.”  I love those 8 little words… not a single one of them is over 4 letters.

The good motivations that were satisfied by settling on this verse:  it satisfies the intent of the “assignment”; they do, in fact, speak to me.

And the not-so-good: A) It’s kind of a cop-out to run with words you already know.  B) I was secretly pleased that it was small enough for me to spout it off the top of my head because it came up next week, I knew that I could recite it, with out having to look it up.

Guilt or conviction or whatever got the better of me.  I decided the least  I could do was spend some time with the whole psalm, rather than focus on just those little words out of context.  I had read them before, but never really reflected on the often-quoted verse in the larger context of the whole psalm.

The psalm is a profound study in contrasts.  It goes back and forth between a really powerful description of  how rough life can be and promises about how awesome God is.  Some of this roughness is not directly connected to God’s actions.  For example, we’re told the earth will give way, mountains will quake fall and into the sea.

Other rough things are actually directly connected to God.  Interestingly, they are usually things that we think we hope for.  Verse 8 says “Come and see what the Lord has done,(AD)     the desolations(AE) he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars(AF) cease     to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow(AG) and shatters the spear;     he burns the shields[d] with fire.”

Usually, I think I want wars to cease; it’s awesome that God breaks the bow and shatter the spear.  Yet it appears that these very actions, somehow, will feel like “desolations.”  It’s at this point that the often quoted verse, “Be still and know that I am God.” pop up.

The idea that this is where God gives us this reassurance here reinforces the idea that there will be something unpleasant in these ending to war.  But more than this, it’s not the psalmist speaking directly to his readers.  He doesn’t say, “I (the psalmist) want you to be still and remember that God is in control.”

The psalm reports that God says “Be still and know that I am God.”  But this isn’t the only part of the quotation.  It goes on: “I will be exalted(AJ) among the nations,     I will be exalted in the earth.”

I’m not saying that we should not find comfort in the idea of being still and reminding ourselves that God is in control.  I am saying that the full context is a little wider than just comfort.   In the full context it’s an expectation, a statement of fact.  It’s partially a sort-of security blanket for us to grab on to… and yet it’s also something like a description of reality and a perscription for getting on board with this reality.