Grasping Gifts

What do I do when I’m afraid of losing something? I grab onto it of course. When I grasp after my life I lose it. So I am told. This speaks to more than my own mortality and physical existence. My life is everything that encompasses my interests. My activities, my pursuits, my words, my sense of happiness; my people, my sensibilities. These are all my life. Now when I critically think about it, (I know you will too) I believe my life is actually mine. On any given day I plan and make decisions, execute them and most of them work out. I move and operate according to what makes me feel like I’m living how I want to live. Even when those plans don’t work out as I intend I am still under enough of my own power to move in a different direction and to counter events through my own agency. Over time, this brings into existence the illusion that my life is in my grasp, that “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.”

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Blessedly, events and other’s decisions often undermine this illusion. Sometimes subtly and over the course of time and sometimes drastic and abruptly. But always effective. When I’m in that process I’m usually not at a contemplative crossroads wondering at the question of control. Either I am fully aware of my “loss” of control, or I am in denial and continue to operate as though the helm were still firmly in my grasp. I’m standing on the bridge of a stricken vessel still calling the shots. It’s really quite funny. It’s like watching a mentally confused man march around like Napoleon–at the forefront his Grande Armée in conquest of the living room.

While funny, it’s also distressing and tragic. It’s so because always these are real events and real people caught up in them. And these events cause so much suffering. And while good has potential to spring from it, suffering is never itself good. As people of hope we must be cautious that we don’t begin to look on the cause itself as carrying goodness. It’s indefensible to champion suffering as something we wish upon ourselves, or others, especially. It brings about conditions ripe for potential, but the conditions are part and parcel of the ruptured and torn nature of our world. But I think I digress.

You’re probably wondering what, if at all, this has to do with gifts. Clearly I am trying to hold onto something that is not mine in the first place. If this life isn’t mine, then whose is it, and why have I been given responsibility of it even though I am not in charge? The answer I think is that it’s all a gift–the gift of the grace of life, as one put it so well years ago. The erosion of that mindset of control can bring about the attitude of gratefulness. Conversely the joy of receiving a gift is lost when gratefulness is absent. This is why those who live under the tyranny of being owed life are most unhappy with life.

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I think the grasp itself is something to focus on. I even wonder if there is something satanic to it. I may control and possess someone, whether a best friend, sibling, a spouse, or a son or daughter. To possess another is not the same as receiving them as a gift. I believe the difference is far and wide because grasping drives us from each other. We lose our lives and we even lose each other. When I consider the truthful agony of living and dying alone, all in a grasp after life itself, it opens the door of a gift I too often take for granted–that of shared life; shared burdens, shared struggles and mutual victories.

I think we must choose to live life this way and welcome and offer our lives to each other, recognizing them as gifts that cannot be taken by force or possessed. The self is the best gift we can offer. Not our expertise or usefulness but our selves. If I can begin to operate under the presumption that all things are gifts–whatever situation, with whichever people, in any event–I may begin to appreciate and move to a love I had not experienced or lived before. If you are unwilling to let go of something, you should probably give it up before you lose it. Maybe you already have.

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Recognition

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Oswald Chambers wrote some time ago, “The recognition of sin does not destroy the basis of friendship; it establishes a mutual regard for the fact that the basis of life is tragic. Always beware an estimate of life which does not recognize the fact that there is sin”.

We shouldn’t be surprised by sin. I am not saying that we avoid revealing its consequences, or of admitting that sin hurts. But the fact of its existence surprises most Christians, and that’s silly.  There is something repulsive about a narrative that is blind to the fact of what is. Exaggerated or naive positivism is a lie. Choosing to ignore what is does not immunize us from its consequential nature.

If we’re aware of our own sinfulness, we can extend grace toward others who sin against us. Once we accept reality, our eyes are opened fully to sheer wonder and terrifying beauty. Then we can turn back and, with bright eyes, extend a hand to the other.

Soaked Heads

The Church does not lack for information. We are not hungry souls emerging from the Dark Ages–yearning with the appetite for knowledge and education to feed our eager minds and hearts. Nah, we’re drowning in it. We’ve gorged ourselves on so much information, know-how, DIY’s, hacks, lectures, TED talks, and memes that we’re in serious need of a good vomit so we can evacuate the mind for real instruction.

In our enthusiasm with our ability to create and distribute huge amounts of information, we have assembled an array of isolated data so separated from each other that they have lost all meaning within the whole. Now we are merely an army of specialists who have no sense of where our fields of interest intersects with anything else. From here I will refer you to Clausewitz:

Thus it has come about that our theoretical and critical literature, instead of giving plain, straightforward arguments in which the author at least always knows what he is saying and the reader what he is reading, is crammed with jargon, ending at obscure crossroads where the author loses its readers. Sometimes these books are even worse: they are just hollow shells. The author himself no longer knows just what he is thinking and soothes himself with obscure ideas which would not satisfy him if expressed in plain speech.

I think perhaps we have moved to the opposite extreme: In Clausewitz’s day the literature tended to be gaseous and bombastic. No modern today would have the concentration to endure them. But we live in a reduction of ideas. Given the copious volume of information facing us, we must restrict it into bite-size chunks that we can easily digest. Now, either we repeat religious maxims–pithy statements–or preponderous theological constructs, which leave the listener more confused, as essential ideas become broken more and more into smaller, isolated incidents. We subsist off trite memes which only scratch at the surface of meaning and do not plunge into its depths. They act as a feather brushing across the mind and heart, inspiring a sense of knowledge, but without any actual effect. There is no intimate interaction in the mind; no wrestling, no struggle or compromise, no resolution. There is nothing to bring about a lasting change. It creates the impression of change because the listener has glimpsed something true. But he has not known it. The difference is far and wide.

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Here’s a pretty picture to break up the text!

 

Education  is not information. Education and learning can only be accomplished in the context of relationship. It is probably the most inefficient way of developing a person’s understanding. Knowledge is only as useful as far as one is able and willing to communicate and relate it to others. The Church hasn’t lost influence through being wrong, but because it has lost its effectual voice. We must understand our times on every level, and be prepared to understand men and women when we meet them. We cannot steep our heads in scripture and spiritual influences and expect that we will be effective in a world we do not know.

No king but Caesar

“…we must first repent of our worship of the state, of country, of national ideals, of capitalism, of social justice–of our own ideas.”

The nature of the Church’s relationship with political process reveals an ugly side of her condition. The last election cycle proved that the Church–at least in these United States–is just as hopeless, desperate and blind as everyone else. Rather than being at the vanguard of presenting truth and the gospel, the Church went about the business of politics with fervor. Sadly, my compatriots, we are fixated on a small branch of a much larger problem. Our problems to contend with are not flesh and blood.

On one hand we all affirm that we must not put our trust in men; politicians, princes, kings, etc. The Church as a whole is very adept at paying this lip service. On the other hand we take such a keen interest in all workings in politics and throw so much weight–moral and emotional–behind the acquisition of power that it reeks of hypocrisy. We lie when we say we don’t trust in politics because our actions tell another story altogether.

But, we say, we have an obligation to do our part and take a stand and oppose evil and preach truth! That is true and probably truer than we can imagine. The problem among Christians is we are no different from how the world approaches their own political responsibility: the imposition of a moral imperative. To move people, the world must inspire a moral responsibility. Just the act of creating moral choices, or throwing a light of moral question among christians, causes all sorts of raucous as everyone scrambles to find themselves on the right side of the ‘dilemma’. In politics no such dilemma or imperative exists.

When God does not reside in the heart of men, politics become essential. The political arena is a sideshow of men’s balance of power. Power is unbecoming of Christians. Force and domination are methods of the world. Christ did not come as someone powerful to overthrow and establish through domination. The Mission is accomplished subtly, through every God’s children displaying the gospel as light and salt to the lost world. Any use of force or power or domination do ‘disseminate’ God’s word is a false use of our gifts and a misappropriation of that Mission and mandate. Nowhere are we given a different example.

Our Mission goes so far beyond the flashy display of the political process that it should be cause almost for a complete disillusionment from the exchange and groping for power. The world would have us believe that elections and political action and involvement is very important. Why? First, to the world politics present the surest route to what he needs. It is the best option of all earthly endeavors. It can be dangerous to the Christian because it eliminates any distinction in their approach. When we are just as vehement, vitriolic, or dogmatic, fearful and angry as everyone else we lose any ability to offer a different story than the loud narrative of the social propaganda machine. Second, it provides false, enticing ideas of creating change and improving our world. It’s an illusion of progress, to use the phrase of Ellul. The kingdom of God will not arrive on the wings of capitalism, or social reform, or on ideas of equality.

We are explicitly told that change and restoration of the kingdom will not come through physical manifestation, through man’s material effort. The mistake of Israel and the Jews in their response to the Son of God is notorious. Action, violence, policies, reforms, those are the things which get things done. Counterintuitively, the kingdom is none of those things.

When we succumb to the notion that politics and elections–because they are useful–are therefore vital, we forget the subtle and small voice who reassures us who our author and finisher is. We run apt to give in to fear when these processes seem to go against us. We become lazy when the processes turn in our favor. We lose our voice to proclaim our mandate. We fail our Mission. We marginalize God’s promise.

How would we as Christians act if we lived in Spain in 1936? faced between fascists on the right and communists on the left–the only two choices given by the world–how would we act? Would we throw ourselves to one side or the other, electing for a less evil choice? Would we remove all choices out of moral indignation? Or would we see beyond the violent tumult to live a more substantial truth?

The truth is most of us, from those on the left and right, have succumbed to a flagrant worship of idols. To approach elections and political action with any degree of perspective we must first repent of our worship of the state, of country, of national ideals, of capitalism, of social justice–of our own ideas. We must be violent with the idols in our own lives–iconoclasts in the highest degree. We must stop playing games with each other. When our hearts fall away from Christ, politics and elections become vital. If you cannot approach an election with freedom, peace, and detachment, you probably should abstain from voting. Do nothing unless it is in faith.

I do not propose some emotional or logical scheme to arrive at a very convenient answer that makes everyone feel good about their decision. What so many influential christians do is regurgitate a whole lot of scripture, pontificate on a moral plane, evoke God’s mercy and throw all hope behind a candidate, party, or platform. It’s a very elaborate way of beginning with a conviction, running it through a bath of piety, and presenting a political choice all whitewashed in sanctimonious drivel. It might as well be a witch’s brew. Not only does it miss the point entirely, but it demeans the word of God by attaching it to a means of worldly power. It poisons whatever political action we may choose to do. It also leads us astray, giving way to the potential to be very disappointed in God for allowing our moral choice to fail. If our cause was righteous why did it ultimately fail? God failed his people. No such thing!

Every election is an opportunity as Christians to preach the gospel. Rarely are we given such stark moments to present truth in such revolutionary and contrary terms to our fellow men and women who are full of fear. Everybody is running around anxiously, in anger and turmoil, because their ideals, to which their hope is bound, are at stake. Everything is caught up in the actions of men. Christians on the other hand, should be calmly and faithfully going about our own business, giving our opinions in humility. Our opinions and political ideals are detached from our hope and vitality because we are not bound to the world!

Have we forgotten how he led the captives out of Egypt, through the wilderness? Have we forgotten how his Son defeated the enemy? Have we so lost hope in our God and ignored the Spirit so effectively, that our political discussions only mention him as a last resort and as an afterthought; attaching him as a footnote to support our own convictions?

We think the world is in need of saving grace and repentance. We think our enemy is the world’s position on who gets to go into which bathroom. But we must first begin with ourselves: a radical repentance and change in our approach to politics and involvement in elections. It isn’t our involvement itself that is at issue. It’s the degree to which our hearts are invested in the enterprise. It reflects foremost a spiritual poverty, which is revealed in a fervent, impassioned yearning in the process of men.

Cultivation

In Genesis 1:28 we’re asked to go and cultivate a garden, “…Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…”. It implies a wealth of further meaning. It suggests service, patience, attention, and a perspective for the future. Love is all of that and we can clearly see the love of that One who is full of patience and grace, and whose vision far outstrips our own. That One could demand satisfaction right now, in full. We would be in such poor state to do that. We cannot love God with perfection. And he does not demand that of us. Instead, he inters into time and place, approaching,  calling out, and into an attending relationship with us, teaching, filling us up, showing us who we really are and who he really is.

Contrast the process of love–long suffering, cultivation, care, sacrifice, dedication and faithfulness–with the perspective and dogma of sin: sin doesn’t have a long-term plan. It wants something, right now. Sin doesn’t have a goal beyond the self. It doesn’t want to cultivate, to care for, it doesn’t want to hope for the fruit of that relationship. It demands the fruit without faithfulness. But there is no fruit without love.

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Mindful Living

We are people of purpose and being mindful and aware are traits we really should display. We have design–our bodies, lives and faith are full of meaning. We are swimmers emerging from a pool; covered from head to toe in purpose.

But this intentional, mindful, careful way of living is apt to become a mere way to control and influence situations and people toward desired or expected outcomes. It is like someone trying very hard to enjoy themselves at a party and have a good time. I can remember growing up around people who were concerned every moment with living correctly. It appeared at first to be a very sound and serious approach to doing good things. Doing good things is not a fearful concern for avoiding anything at all resembling a mistake. We are called from sin to life.

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Where we run off course is thinking that every situation, every action and motive can be separated from the whole and can be run through some sort of spiritual filter to give it meaning for us to feel safe and confident. If Christians are living secure in their knowledge that their actions are blessed by moral laws, free from making mistakes, they have no need to be mindful or intentional! They have no need of grace.

We are not careful or intentional in crossing a field of tall grass by carefully planning each step and keeping our eyes on our feet–in essence ensuring against any misstep or mistake. In this way we walk off course and in circles. Rather, we keep our eyes on the truth and the One who through grace grants us the spirit to be mindful.

Stop planning and manipulating and begin to live.

Subversion by Grace

fullsizeoutput_12When we begin at once we leave slim margins for anything which does not lend itself to the task or purpose immediately at hand. It dispenses with the superfluous, the inadequate through sheer necessity of action.

At every step analysis takes place to determine the effectiveness of the last. How well it worked, whether or not it was worth the expenditure, and how well the next step will be able to build upon the last. These are all the mechanics of analysis. However, there comes a point during each step where analysis becomes itself a hindrance to the next step through its inhibition of action.

The truth for which I have difficulty taking responsibility is there will never be a complete picture. Complete pictures don’t exist. There has never, is not, and will never be a fully adequate analysis that takes everything into account or realizes the whole situation. In my effort to solve problems and pursue sound steps and make really good decisions I become confused with gathering all the data. Without good data one cannot come to a good decision, no? Sometimes, yes, but that kind of data cannot be found. Even if it were, my human error must color every piece I touch. I will necessarily disfigure everything I consider. The true error is thinking that data is to be worshipped.

And this is where fact meets an existential truth that explodes what it encounters. Despite even our best efforts, our most carefully laid plans and even our costliest precautions, we can still make blundering mistakes. For all our competency we may still be ghastly failures. And it may be due to nothing at all but our inability to see the picture how it truly is.

And that’s usually what I fail to appreciate until it becomes true. It’s one I find difficult to incorporate into my frame of mind, my action, my life’s ever edited blueprint. I don’t like it.

Yet I must eventually arrive or be arrested by something different: The picture was never meant for us to see. If we knew every aspect of any given situation we would then become God. Only he carries the capability, the will, the life to see the full picture, to hold the facts and know their worth and understand them wholly. This is true not only of those austere and distant questions of war and peace, cultures and civilizations. It is true for every human shortcoming, conflict, confusion and unknown, from the smallest misunderstanding to the most awful grief.

But if this is an indisputable fact of life, why then is it so difficult to understand? Why is it impossible to accept? The human response is one of control. I must control those unseen shadows of the picture that my human analysis cannot take into grasp. It is necessary if I am to have peace and be sure of what I attempt. Human error manifests itself continually as the attempted control of situations and the unseen. Intrigue, plots, manipulation, gossip; can all be seen as the out playing of this striving. The occult, the establishment of religion, the hyper-state, the unscrupulous pursuit of scientific data and the elevation of fact over truth; are the larger, sociological pursuits of the same. In earlier millennia we turned to magic and religion to wrest control. We’ve since moved on and dressed the same magic with modest attire of rationality and science. It is the occult of the verifiable, quantifiable, and we worship it as our God and Maker. But every attempt at control is just as inadequate as the former and the next.

It’s here in my fear and doubt I conduct the same idolatry. how could I possibly trust God with my future? That would be foolish and irresponsible. No, it is far better, quicker for sure, to step in where God doesn’t understand, where God doesn’t care, where his ideas fullsizeoutput_e
for my future don’t mesh with mine. He has bigger problems to contend with and only I am as invested and dedicated to my future happiness and goals as is necessary to achieve them. It goes beyond just not needing God. It goes to where God is cumbersome and a burden, and not a friend. That is a terrible place to find myself.

Then enter truth in its unwelcome, inconvenient, and opposing nature–contradicting, confounding, even absurd in its answer to my protests toward God. It nonetheless brings the surgeons’ scalpel to every idea, proposition, and thought that enters and leaves the mind. God’s truth, as it penetrates the inner chambers of the mind, the very womb of thought, is not like a contrary argument or a divergent position which wins. It is wholly other. It doesn’t oppose ideas; it disarms them. It does not attack; it defuses. It triumphs in distinction and prominence not through power or domination but through humble, quiet subversion by grace and presence. It confounds fact with truth; the confounding of the verifiable with the unverifiable of the otherworldly.

Abandonment

“It is never because a person is convinced intellectually that he crosses over into the existential”

“We may well resign ourselves to it. The Church does not exist, either at the level of freedom, or at that of the proclamation of the Gospel message, or at the level of intellectual responsibility…True, the Church is in Christ. That I deeply believe. But nothing of her truth, properly so called, is making its appearance in the world today. We have to make a choice. Either there is no God, and Jesus is a human model, in which case I see no reason to bother with the Church; or else we have come up against the stone wall of the silence of God, and our prayer is lost in the void of his decision not to be there any longer…All the assembling of biblical passages to prove to me that this is not possible does not alter one whit the easily observed mediocrity of the Church.”

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It doesn’t take special insight to sense Jacque Ellul’s pain and frustration eking into the page of his work Hope in the Time of Abandonment. Without making a properly lengthy introduction to the book, his favorite by his admission, I will say it is a true gem and one any Christian should consider. At least any Christian who has taken a few askant looks around the room to see if anyone else is uncomfortable with this pained dissonance that we call Christendom. Few Church leaders are as pessimistic of the state of things. Again it does not require a study of any depth by experts to see the Church is desperately mediocre. But Ellul does so expertly and with passion. He does not ignore strong scientific and philosophical evidence, but his emotions are not atrophied. He is a believer and he also feels too. Where the Spirit does not move we are left to contrive and construct, heap upon heap. The Church has heaped a massive assemblage of religious artifacts and techniques. We are in so much danger of blindness. If we look the situation squarely on, we either give up in despair or we do something radically different. Every heart knows and senses the Absence.

However, I have not heard anyone give a greater explanation for the Hope within. Neither have I found a stronger encouragement and challenge to the Church. We are called to so much more, and we cannot allow ourselves to be fooled by “the master of ceremonies, the real conductor of the orchestra, the archangel of mediocrity and confusion.”

 

Reality and Epiphany

IMG_1824So often we experience a lived reality and perceive what is true from a distance. We do not know intimately what we know (or think) to be true. Yet sometimes reality (what we live) and truth (what is really real) coincide like two spheres and there we have epiphany–where we can actually experience truth in pure form.

These don’t last but we can recall and remember, as we’re told to do time and time again.  And we can bank on His grace to help us through the times when reality closes in sharply and all we can see is what is happening.

The Spirit moves. And it’s scary and comforting and peaceful. We may well wake up in the night in sheer anguish, And that’s ok, because we can remember.

Absolute Power

There must be something in opposition to fear. Certainly not an avid belief in our own efforts or the goodness of others (or ourselves), for we know where that will leave us. To pretend all is not lost will inevitably leave one disappointed in the long run. Pretense just hides from fear and does not oppose it with any strength. Most of us live in sheer pretense.

What is needed, however, is to accept that everything is already lost and to peer beyond that inevitable reality and see the residing truth that lives in opposition–radical and stubborn opposition.

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I know every one of us fears desperately at times. Even those of us who mask it behind a representation of confidence and indifference are haunted by their certain horror. And horrors truly abound in this world. To outlive Death does not mean to deny its reality but to deny the power. When we live into that knowledge we can begin unimaginable work with each other–cultivating, encouraging–not in ignorance of Death but in a revolutionary opposition. And free from fear itself.

Here is a weathered pine hanging onto a particularly unforgiving slope on Whiteley Peak. Somehow we all held on.