I am the River

We were set loose to stand in silence, but my head kept filling up with words.  

There I stood, yesterday.  In the middle of this difficult time, grappling with some very hard things.  It ended up working out that I could attend a sort-of spiritual retreat, in the middle of nowhere, at the cabin owned by the pastor of the church I have been attending.

As it began, he set us loose for a little while in the wet and chilly forest.  Oaks and maples stretched their limbs out in the hill next to the tiny cabin.  A meadow filled the space behind it.  The long dirt driveway was in front, next to a tool shed, a fire pit, and some chairs.  And on the other side of that, a bit of a crevice, and a river perhaps twenty feet below.

A little awkward, wordlessly, we all filed out of the cabin.  Set loose to stand in the silence.  My head kept filling up with words.  I traipsed across the corner of the meadow.  The land swept downward gradually, leading me to the river I could have put my toes in, if it wasn’t November in New England.

  I wondered about rivers and why I am always so very drawn to them.  It is partially about that amazing white noise they create, the wonderful ordered dynamic way they roll left and right and back and forth.  Not staight and not crooked, I have this sense there is a pattern that rules over them, but a pattern to intricate for me to wrap my brain around.


I know there is all this stuff about the spirituality of water.  I thought about this and I dismissed it as a suitable explanation for why I love gurgling, burbling streams so.  And after this dismissal, I told myself again about how this was supposed to be a silent time.

I know a half dozen ways to escape what the Buddhist’s call monkey mind.  When I am at my best, I can get past the babbling and eternal monologue of my thoughts.  For at least a few minutes.  I was not at my best, though.  And also, I wondered if maybe there was some important things I was meant to see.  

Perhaps I was just hiding from the silence we had bidden to stand in.  Silence is pretty terrifying.

Or maybe there was something bigger than the pastor at work.  He is a gentle guy, Lucas.  I thought if I asked him, he would have laughed, and shrugged, and said, “Whatever, man.  If you don’t feel like you should be silent, don’t be silent.”  Or maybe he would have found a deeper way to express it, something more Yoda and less surfer dude.

Whatever the reason or rationalization, I quickly gave up on the quest to fill myself with silence.

I let my always churning mind do the thing that it loves to.  Analyze and ponder and synthesize.  

I began to think that the river is not a thing at all. 

The river is not the specific droplets of water that runs through it.  Because that water used to be clouds and rain.  And soon it will sink into the ground or it will join a lake or merge with the ocean itself.  

Nor is the river the rocks and dirt that make up the river bed.  These are all constantly being worn down and moved down stream.  If you could swoop in and take every last grit of dirt away, every last pebble and boulder, you would not have taken the stream.

The stream, at best, is a negative space.  It is a process.  It is a becoming.

This was scary, or sad.  Kind of both.  Because it felt like a statement about me.

We all know how we are not just the collection of the physical elements that comprise us.  The molecules are replaced within the cells.  The cells are replaced within the body.  There is not a single piece of us that was with us more than a few years ago.  This idea about our physicality is not new or unique.

But what if it runs deeper than that?

Minds and souls are not made out of stuff.  But if they were?  This stuff is always growing, dying, being reborn.  I had this sense that there is not a piece of my soul which was with me from the beginning.

It is not as bleak as it seems.  There is something eternal.  God’s breathed into us and made us human.  But breath, moving air, it is not a static thing.  It is not a thing at all.

We are a negative space.  We are a process.  We are becoming.  That is the eternity within us.  That is the little emenation from the creator of the universe that resides within us.  Not a physical thing, not even a piece of soul…  But a pattern, a verb, an unfolding, an interconnection.

The very deepest place of us is a relationship.  A multi-tiered, multi-faceted relationship.  Paradoxically, it is with ourselves.  It is also with our maker, who we have been given this distant, faded echo of.  And it is with each other.

I hope that you will connect today.    Perhaps with someone you love.  Perhaps with someone you will grow to love.  Or maybe you will just smile at the person who rings up your coffee.  Or maybe you will leave a comment below, and build or build on a connection between you and I.


She blinded me with… blindness (?)

I can only imagine what it was like for him:
A reformed murderer. In his mind, he had to remember when he had used his power, prestige and influence to keep people away from Jesus. Did he see that his motivations then, as always, were these mixed bags of selfishness and altruism, purity and corruption?
Paul had been snapped out of his symbolic blindness by literal blindness. When Jesus’ spirit confronted him, he lost, for a while, the ability to see. Some time later, he finds himself utterly changed, and facing someone who had a lot in common with the man he had once been.
In Acts, Chapter 13, Paul confronts Elymas. And in this man who sought to keep the truth from Roman official Sergius Paulus, the apostle must have seen himself. After all, Paul too was politically positioned, he had opposed the gospel, even murderer those who proclaimed it.
The biblical account even hints at this past. Verse 9 identifies him as “Saul, who is also called Paul.” I searched several translations. Interestingly, none of them emphasize the idea that he used to be called Saul. In the present tense: he is both Saul and Paul. To me, this suggests that Paul, despite his transformation was not better in any sense than Elymas. By extension, none of us are better than Saul/Paul or Elymas, either. But perhaps this is a digression.
The important thing is the writing of the gospel is constructed to remind us that the man who was then-called Paul had once been called Saul. And when he had? He was a man much like Elymas.
And though we pay so much attention to all the blindnesses that Jesus had cured, it is important to remember that God sometimes causes us to be blind. He did it with Saul. And for Saul this blindness changed everything.

The bible tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon Paul. And after this, Paul pronounces that Elymas will be blind. Probably our feeble and small little human ant brains can’t fully grasp all the things that it means, for the Holy Spirit to come upon us.
Many of us believe that the Holy Spirit came upon the people that wrote the books that would eventually be collected together and called the bible. One of the things we assert, for lots of good reasons, is that the Holy Spirit brings with it a sort-of perfection. And at the same time, leaves the writers who they are. This is why we can say, for example, that the book of Mark is simultaneously perfect and yet also thoroughly the product of the person who wrote it: the book named after Mark is at the same time divine and also wholly unique to Mark’s perspective.
Similarly, the idea that Elymas was blinded, can be seen as God’s idea and Paul’s idea: the outcome of The Holy Spirit’s interactions with Paul. There is more to be said, here. More to be said about blindness, more to be said about Paul, and more to be said about Elymus. But this is also, I think, a good place to pause, and reflect. More later.

Open to Change

Computer Keyboard
Image by freefotouk via Flickr

There was a time that we, as a people, had no trouble with things that aren’t interactive.  We were willing to listen to a teacher or a pastor simply speak at us.  We were willing to engage in entertainment that we were merely passive participants in.  We didn’t feel the necessity to clog every news broadcast with poorly-done surveys that imply our opinions on things are the most important part of current events.

My final sentence above notwithstanding, I’m not here to cast judgement on this state of events.  It’s just an observation I want to begin with: we, as a people, are coming to expect more and more interactivity.

I was reflecting on the process of witnessing to people.  (evangelizing, sharing the good news, call it what you want.)  The way that it seems like we often do it, it doesn’t seem very effective.

Maybe this is because times have changed.  We have come to expect to be talked to, not talked at.  We have come to expect to be part of the processes which impact us.

Then again, maybe this isn’t such a modern thing.  Maybe in this instance, we’ve been doing it all wrong all along.

In the end, this point doesn’t really matter, though.  Because obviously we can’t get in a time machine and change how we used to do things.  Whether it worked before is somewhat moot.  The relevant thing is that it’s not working now.

I guess I’m not being clear about what, precisely, is not working.  A way to express the point I want to make is by thinking about negotiations.  Labor negotations.  Settling on the price of a car.  Working out a solution with a hostage-taker…

A thing that these all have in common is that they require good faith of both parties.  If people are going to get anywhere, both people have to be open, willing to be changed.

There is only a certain type of person who is going to be moved by us if we approach them in a closed off manner, utterly convinced of the superiority of our view.  People lonely and desperate for the truth might be more impressed by us if we approach them with an air of utter conviction that we have everything 100% correct.  But most people?  Most people are going to walk away from the negotiations table. 

I think that Christianity has come a little ways.  There are plenty of people who recognize the importance of asking questions, and tailoring how we say things to the needs of our audience.  We’ve gotten past the days, I think, of expecting a cookie-cutter testimoney will equally impact everybody.

But we’re only half way there.

The facility where I teach does these online trainings, some times.  (Bare with me, this will make sense in a moment.)  Every now and again, they ask questions.  Most of the questions are multiple choice questions with black and white, correct answers.

But occasionally, I guess that they just want he learners to reflect on what they’ve read.  So they put in these open-ended question, with a box to type sentence-long answers.  That is a sentence that will never get read.  It is a sentence that it truly doesn’t matter what I put there.  Ultimately, it’s a sentence that is meant to fool me into thinking there is interactivity, when there really isn’t.  My response doesn’t matter at all.

And this is where I think Christianity, as a whole, is at: we are asking questions, but really, in those blanks… the learners response does not matter at all.  The questions are simply there to give the delusion of interactivity, or maybe to build up a sense of empathy with our audience, or at best, a way to help us to continue the things we say and why we say them.

But none of these are good enough.  People know our hearts.  They sense our motivations.  Most people don’t want to engage somebody who isn’t changeable.   I think we’re called to something more, something paradoxical.

Those of us who have made a faith comittment had certain reasons for doing so.   There’s a really important question that I think we have to askourselves: What if that same sort of evidence came to us now, with information that lead us in a different direction?  Would we be willing to be changed?  Or, now that we’ve siezed onto something, now that we’ve built a status quo, will we, for a variety of reasons, just grab onto it blindly, holding out for no reason at all?

It’s understandable, why we might enter into the process of telling people about our faith with an attitude that is unshakeable.  Words like unshakeable are usually, in fact, compliments when we discuss some one’s faith.

Because there are many sorts of things that should not shake our faith.  But there are things, I think, that we should allow to shake our faith up.  I’m not saying that we should put reason and logic on a pedestal, above other considerations.  There is a powerful role for faith and for tradition in all of this.  The movement of the Holy Spirit is tremendously powerful.

But if we really believe that Jesus is the way and the truth then we have nothing to fear.   Being changeable does not necessarily mean that we will change.  It just means that the possibility is there. 

This open-ness, this willingness, it’s part of a wider context.   Following the example of Jesus, over and over again, is about taking the scary route, giving up life in order to have it, submitting, taking the path of apparently the least power in order to have true power.

The Jesus story, over and over again, is about the contrasts between the people who came to Jesus and were open to change, and the people who rigidly stuck to the old ways.  We are confronted with this same choice… who will be: the one who was willing to change, or th closed off ones who assumed they already know the answer?

19 centuries of Christians who didn’t get it?

Image by UK Pictures via Flickr

A personal relationship with Jesus

Coming to know Christ

There’s a few different ways we evangelicals express an important idea.  It might turn out to be our most important idea.

There’s something often pointed out about this.  In truth, it’s a criticism that has some validity.  The thing is, it’s an idea that just doesn’t have any history.

Though our faith is two thousand years old, this “most” important part is less than a hundred years old.  This implies the question, “What about the staggering majority of Christians, who lived for the first 1,900 years?”  Either they were o.k. with out thinking in terms of a personal relationship, in which case, we are left wondering why a personal relationship is so important to us… Or they were terribly lost with out this way of looking at things.  And if they were lost with out this idea, then the gospel was incomplete in Jesus until we came around to unpack it.  The inherent arrogance of such a position is hardly worth spelling out.

Furthermore, in the name of intellectual honesty, we have to be careful.  We have this tendency to want to have our cake and eat it to.  We tend to try and pick and choose what aspects of our faith-history we want to claim ownership for.  On the one hand, we talk about the cloud of saints that came before us.  We think that they were divinely inspired when they reads the bible and inferred doctrine like the trinity (which, strictly speaking, doesn’t appear in the bible itself) and on the other hand, we think that the holy spirit took much longer to lead us to ideas about a personal relationship with Jesus.

If, in fact, the ideas of the trinity and the idea of a personal relationship with Christ were equally important, we had have some explaining to do.  We would owe an account of why one idea figures so prominently in the entire history of Christianity while the other one is a late addition.

And yet, if the idea of a personal relationship with Christ isn’t particularly important, then we could fairly be accused of fixation on a fairly unimportant doctrine.

There is a solution to this dilemna, though.  But this post has gone on long enough.  I think I’ll get to what I see as the answer in the next one.


Making a Joyful Noise

Drum Circle Dancer
Image by milesizz via Flickr

There are these two sides to me.  Most people who know me casually, I think, would describe me as fairly serious, restrained, even inhibited.  But beneath there is this part of me that is wild, spontaneous and goofy.  There have been numerous times that acquiantances have caught me in a certain mood, and they have said, “Wow, Jeff.  I’ve never seen this side of you.”

There was a time in my life when this came more natural to me.  It was easier.  I was left filled with self-doubt and insecurity about being random and silly.  I’m not sure what happened.  But often I long for that ease back.

I have very fond memories of this time in my life.  It was during high school and college.   One of the things we would do some times, was gather together with drums and other percussion.  And we would beat out rythms, or we would dance to the rythms, and we would drink wine, and be so free.

Most of this crowd were neopagans.  I had no religious home at this point.  But I felt so close to that crowd, and I also felt so close to my creator, even though I didn’t know anything about him.  This experience is part of what convinces me that the Holy Spirit is alive and working outside of Christianity… even if it is only so that the Holy Spirit can more fully point us to the truth.

Sometimes, taking the Lord’s Supper puts me in a similiar frame of mind.  Sometimes, I long for this closeness with God.  These were the things I thought of, tonight, when I read this:

Could it be that the conceptualized and formalized worship of the “devoloped world” is actually designed to inhibit and control rather than foment joy?  … Empires and dictatorships mantain social control … by converting (or subverting) the energy of jubilant dancing into regimented marching.  Pews in churches… are a rather late architectural innovation added in the Middle Ages to inhibit the dancing that apparently spontaneously broke out from time to time… Straight lines, orderly rows, military conformity- these suit the civilized state better than spontaneous outbreaks of collective joy.” (Brian McLaren, referring to the works of Barbara Ehrenreich, in his book Naked Spirituality)

The implications of this are quite profound.  We Christians are known for being uptight, anal retentive, rigid, and incapeable of spontaneous joy.  These adjectives are accurate, more often than not.  And yet they are strangely at odds with our beliefs.  Which leads to a question: where did these tendencies come from?

I find it quite compelling, the thought that our socio-political systems have attempted to co-opt Jesus message for their own purposes.  It’s crystal clear that this has happened in the past in other areas.  (I’m thinking of the Religious gloss put on imperialism in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries)  It seems quite plausible that this is occuring here.

The idea that a Jesus-centered faith might embody those practices which I (frankly) miss from youth is really a fascinating possibility.  I’m not blind to the idea that I’m treading dangerous ground here.  It’d be easy to take all sorts of things that I used to enjoy and try and force them into a Christian context to rationalize still doing them.

Clearly this is an area where much prayer, reflection and study is needed.  I’d love to hear the counsel of those around me.  What do you think: Did our dominant systems try to stifle Christianity and use it to pacify and force conformity in it’s systems?

Twisting the Meaning Through Controlling the Structure

A Woman's Place is in The House and The Senate
Image by gumption via Flickr

The decision about where the paragraphs and sentences would go, as well as punctuation, was all determined long after the writers of the bible were dead.  Imagine I wanted to push foreward an agenda against drinking.  I might take these exact same words, put my own section in in this place, end up with a bible that looks like this:

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise.  Making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.  Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.


Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery!

Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, 20always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, suppose I wanted to emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit.  I would structure the same passage this way:

5Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

17Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.

The Holy Spirit

Instead, be filled with the Spirit. 19Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, 20always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The submission of men and women to each other does not at first look very mysterious.  It looks like an open and shut case.  We may not like it, but what it says  seems pretty straight foreward.

When we consider what was written and what was later added, when we consider just how much power the translators had, I think it becomes much more mysterious.  In fact, the very act of trying to illuminate, rather than explain, is an act of submission and respect.

Paul wrote those words.  Things which seem mysterious to me might be very straight foreward to him.  After all,  he was confronted with the presence of Jesus himself.  He rubbed elbows with the people who directly, literally, and physically followed Jesus.  He changed the world.

And yet Paul called it a profound mystery.  The ways in which we become one with each other through marriage.  The ways in which we become one with Christ in the church, the way we retain our individuality yet fufill a vital roll within the larger body.  It is mystery, all of  it.

Does God spend more time in jazz improvisations than He does in symphonies?

In a number of recent discussions, I’ve come across this mind set.  The mind set is that the Holy Spirit shows up when things are spontaneous, impovised, and off-the-cuff.   It’s sometimes left unsaid, though always implied, that when we prepare carefully for things, the Holy Spirit is some how less present in this activity.

I suppose the support they’d use for this belief revolves around examples like those in Acts, where some of the apostles are given God’s words to speak quite spontanously.    I’m not disputing those biblical accounts.  And I certainly agree that God is able to put quite spontanously, the right word in a brain at the right time.

But I do fear that sometimes “being open to the spirit” is really just a cover for being unprepared.  I think it places God in a box, to suggest that he’s not present in the research and preperation stages.

God is in control of our brain chemistries.  He’s in control of our research methods and resources.  He’s in control of the seemingly random events that might trigger a train of thought that ends at the destination he’d like us to go.  And some of these things, they are true whether God is exercising his will as a speaker prepares or when a speaker is actually speaking.However, while  there may well be people who can instantly and consistently discern the whisperings of the holy spirit from their own knuckle-headed ideas, I am not one of them.  Perhaps that gets easier with practice.  But me?  Where I’m at right now, I often need some time in prayerful meditation before I can decide what’s God and what’s me.  Being carefully open to the spirit as I prepare gives me this time to carefully ensure I’m saying the things that God would have me say.