The world I live in seems obsessed with the urgency of every moment, trying to sell each second as the pivotal opportunity.
I used to play that game, putting on my street brimstone evangelist outfit for any number of causes. And when I wanted to change something in myself I looked for the same sort of urgent fixes to my impending doom.
Been there, done that.
Until I started paying attention to the power of slow things. As it turned out, rarely did change worth keeping around ever happen overnight, rather it was a process of years.
So now when I realize all too present traits like arrogance, anxiety, disbelief, cynicism, and a general grouchiness, I don't panic; I start planting seeds and mind the slow growth.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,Which yields its fruit in its seasonAnd its leaf does not wither;And in whatever he does, he prospers.
I believe all change is slow. Though it often has an immediate and unexpected feel to it, the further you pan out the clearer it becomes that these things are a thousand brush strokes unveiled rather than a burst of fireworks. This is preferable as paintings last much longer than a burst of ignited magnesium.
Today is one of those realizations.
Allow me to unpack.
As a sub-creator, that is, a created being that takes up the act of creation, I've found myself floundering–maybe call it flailing. Either way, while I've managed to create things I consider both excellent and edifying to the soul, it has been like squeezing a glass of orange juice from a hundred already pressed oranges. For every word presented, every note recorded, there have been 15-20 hidden away, never to see the light of day.
This is not an exaggeration; 20:1 is an honest ratio.
Partially this is just the process of art; as one of my favorite storytellers likes to say, it's about producing a mass volume while maintaining excellent taste and only presenting the best. This part of the process I can handle, but there is something more than that. There has been internal conflict I couldn't get past, a resentment I didn't know how to deal with.
I'm bitter about religion.
I think it's poison, I really do. The manipulation, the dishonesty, the fear, the drama–it's astounding. What's worse is that it's about as easy to lay a finger on as one of Flannery O'Connor's subtly racist characters. Both are slimy frogs fresh out of a stagnant pond.
So much of my life has been religiosity alongside and within people who genuinely want to follow Jesus, not to mention the disease that has and still runs in my own veins. For every honest word of affection for my creator, there are at least twenty that came from fear or a desire to impress or coerce.
This is not an exaggeration; 20:1 is an honest ratio.
If art is an expression of the eternal internal, fruit from the vine as it were, from the abundance of the heart, much of my own art has been puss draining from infected wound, which is necessary, but not great for public consumption. Thankfully I've filtered most. Mournfully I haven't caught it all.
If you've been slapped around by my bitterness. This is my apology, and please let me know if there is some way I can help you work through it.
As far as I can tell, the way forward is not to forget about the past, but rather bid it farewell with the aloofness and dis-affection of Bob Dylan.
So long honey babe.
Where I'm bound
I can't tell.
Goodbye is too good a word babe,
So I'll just say
Fare thee well.
It ain't that you treated me unkind.
You coulda done better but I don't mind.
You just kinda wasted my precious time.
Don't think twice it's alright.
I don't need to reconcile the past or let it control the present (or let others sit in it). Rather I can let God grow something better out of it. If there is shit in this garden then I've got some good fertilizer. Religion is and will continue to be at play in my life, like an obsessive ex girlfriend who won't let it go, driven mad by my disinterest, but I've devoted enough energy to the bitterness and it's time to say goodbye.
Though that too is a process that might take a while.
Followers of Jesus were meant to be storytellers. Not that they have to write books or give TED talks, but their purpose in life is to learn from the Rabbi and displaying it in what they say and do.
Go and make disciples.
Today, everyone who lives and breathes will tell a story. Some stories will begin, some will come to an end, or rather turn to writing the next chapter. Some stories will encounter conflict, while others might catch some resolution.
But lets be honest, not all stories are created equal, which is why you never see a film adapted story of a 35 year old protagonist playing video games in his parent's basement who ends the movie in the same spot. Unless the film is a tragedy or reality TV.
But the best stories leave us both afraid and in awe, they are the sort of thing we'd never want to go through but still wish we could tell, they give us a glimpse of beauty that just can't be seen in the day to day. The best stories are simultaneously down to earth and existential. And in my opinion, the absolute best stories are about redemption.
The other night over dinner, a friend was telling a story of forgiveness, suggesting that forgiving isn't a forgetting, but a transforming of the past, redeeming it if you will. I can testify; the reason that Courtney and I share a bed is because of forgiveness. While so many couples have glanced across the room and found 'love at first sight,' Courtney and I had to first learn how to be in the same space without killing each other. We were first enemies, then friends, then as it turns out, loving your enemies is an alternative method for finding a lover.
Frankly, I like our story better than the star crossed lovers scenario. What we have wasn't handed to us on a platter, we had to fight for it, we had to fight for each other as we fought to get to God and the sort of love He asks us to give freely. Redemption of broken things. Down to earth and existential.
What was once a gaping wound in our lives has turned into our story of redemption.
Gungor just released their latest album I Am Mountain, a beautiful stripping down of faith to it's most basic elements, a question with a living answer. All italics on this post are from their song, Long Way Off.
If the sin of post-modernism is incessant questioning, the sin of modernism was over confidence in an ever updated list of facts.
The smartest men
They saw a world with
Corners and endings
Far far far away
When they drew it out and searched it They were a long way Were a long We're a long way off.
While Columbus and most of his contemporaries absolutely knew the world was round, it works as great metaphor for a host of other biblical/scientific items in church history. Galileo for example was declared a heretic for believing that the entire universe revolves around the earth rather than the earth orbiting the sun. An idea based on interpretations of psalm 104:5:
He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.
Eventually it became painfully obvious that we were not only orbiting, but tilted and spinning.
The reality is that while my faith may be based on actual and defensible reasons, the human element (me) taints the legitimacy of my own belief. The same voice that questions the arrogance of modern science echoes in my own head. "But what if you're wrong?"
It may seem maddening, to entertain such unknowing, continually wondering out loud whether or not I believe. Sometimes yes, but in the same way that it's often maddening to question my marriage. "Do I love Courtney? Do I believe?" While I may be able to display it, I can't prove it, even to myself. And on some days I don't believe. But the reality is I don't have to prove it or even believe it at all times to walk in it, to be joined to it in the deepest human bond.
A comedian once said of his close call with failed marriage that fighting isn't the bottom of the barrel, but rather indifference. When I recently heard some young married friends finally having a spat in front of the rest of us, I thought to myself, "Yes–they are going to have a long and illustrious message." They were no longer concerned about an image, putting on a face for friends, they were fighting with and for something that meant the world to them.
The same is true of faith. Whether it's fair or not, I don't have much trust in those who have never spoken with unwavering and unquestioning confidence in their construction of belief. My suspicion is that they either don't have a relationship with God honest enough to handle questions, or they just won't admit it in public.
Those who claim unerring confidence are claiming ultimate knowledge. In other words, omnipotence.
To borrow sloppily from an older folk tune, "my hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus...." If what I believe about the legitimacy of my faith is true, then I also believe that Jesus is called the author and finisher of my faith. My faith is not a list of dogma, it is the honor of joining with Jacob renamed Israel, one who wrestles with God.
The questions, the doubt, the fight, it is a sign that there is something worth fighting with and for. And much like my physical marriage, there are some days that fights end with unbridled passion, and others that end in silence when all we can do is keep holding on as I wonder what this is all about.
But each day is a new chance to speak and wrestle with the answer to my never ending question.
I'll give Gungor the last word.
With my castles goneTo the constant seaWould you stay with meStay with me
I am not necessarily ashamed of any of those items. But I am aware that each brings its own blessings and subversive temptations.
I don't try to flee what I am, but I do try to get outside of myself, my perceptions, my assumptions about the world.
Which is why I hunt for people like Propaganda, the spoken word poet and rapper; they help me understand which aspects of what I believe are universal and which ones only work in the white-middle-class-evangelical-world in which I largely work, play, and worship.
Shoulding, as I wrote last week, is a deadly exercise for both shoulder (Shooder) and shouldee. The attitude of should is rarely satisfied. And in terms of my own progress in writing, music, faith, anything really, it has done me no good.
When it comes to faith, should gains strength. When someone shoulds on us, or we should on ourselves, or we should on others in matters of faith, we are tying God (or rather a variation of God) to the end of a chain we've fettered on the shouldee's ankle before throwing them in the river mobster style.
Don't mistake this for a lets play nice sentimentalism. Jesus said challenging things like I actually want you to love your actual enemies. But the more I mature the more I see these items less as shoulds and more as wills. What I mean is this: Jesus, being the archetype for humanity, was/is what we were meant to be like, and the image God is re-making us into. Just like the Bible lists fruits of the Spirit saying what we will see coming out of us if we are jiving with God rather than what we should be like in order to jive with Him.
But we hum haw at our silly attempts that never seem to line up with, or even come close to, the ideal, let alone the chump in the pew next to us. And when the chump gives us the stink eye, instead of "I am dissapointed in you. You should really do better",what we actually hear is that God is sitting on a cloud stuffed La-z-Boy watching Big Brother: Planet Earth, crossing his arms and shaking His head, as if He didn't know about our mediocre passion when He started wooing us.
But this is the real problem with should. For those who really do want to give something back to God out of gratitude, God is much more patient with progress than we are. Omnipotence aside, if the several thousand years of recorded history we have are any indication, God probably lowered his expectations for humanity a long time ago.
And so I'm learning (in summary of a Brennan Manning quote that I know exists but have been unable to find again) to stop trying to figure out where I should be and rather just accept wherever I or those around me are, which is something to be thankful for when you stop and think about it.
But here we are moping around about our myriad of shortcomings rather than simply being grateful for all the little miracles God has performed in making us even an ounce more like Jesus.
Urgency seems to be the the tool of choice these days. If only I had a dollar for every time I heard something akin to, "This is the critical moment."
If I'm going to make up a number, I'd say 85% of urgent situations are a marketing tool. Manipulation. Whether it's about making money or hustling an idea.
It's not that there aren't actually urgent needs, but we've blurred the line between crisis and simply less than ideal. Never mind that how I try to sell an idea today dilutes the notion of urgency for a later and more important cause; I want results. Over and over again, the ends justify the means.
It isn't that urgency is necessarily peddled with malicious or greedy motives, though I am skeptical of anyone under a $60 million contract regularly and vehemently telling wolf stories. Most people simply care, and relative to the carefree life they've experienced, everything appears as crisis.
I used to help at a soup kitchen in Columbus, Ohio called Manna Cafe. The woman who ran the place, lets call her Fran (I don't remember what her name was) was lively to say the least, "Praise the Lord and pass the Mennonites" she would exclaim whenever we rolled in with our 15 passenger Ford. A group would pile out, quickly dissipating into pecking order based on how often they had visited. Newbies hung back, held tight to their wallets, practically covering ears with their shoulders. Those who had already been there a few times headed straight for the entrance, offering a "hi" or two to whoever was slouched against the stone wall in the alley. The church was after all in a 'rough' section of the city, especially from the perspective of mainly rural dwellers. It took some getting used to.
The thing that struck me about Fran, was that no matter what was happening, she never seemed too worried about it. Even when fights broke out, she stepped in, asked someone to leave, then called the police if needed. For all her refusal to panic (at least the times I was present) she had the respect and attention of the community. Her years helping people on the streets had left her resilient and difficult to suprise
And there are others like Fran, people like pastor Gary, who continue to explore, learn, then thoughtfully express what they've found, convincing me with their wisdom rather than their sense of panic. Their composure didn't communicate apathy, and it certainly didn't keep them from acting in moments of actual crisis. Rather, it showed that they understood something deeper about the way things work.
It was as though they understood that somehow and eventually, things would end up as they should be.
Failure. Not my favorite thing. But we had an altercation this past week. 250 miles of walking to Columbus, Ohio turned into 38 or so miles and an emotional breakdown.
Funny, I thought it would be my knee that did me in.
I won't go into details as to exactly what happened, but long story short, I failed –miserably.
The uptick is, in the past year I've been learning to accept failure with a lot more grace than I used to. Because in most things, failure is not a light switch, it's a dimmer.
A breakdown of the breakdown.
I'm in better shape than I've been in a while. Preparation for the trip got me off my duff and walking 100+ miles in the couple months prior to leaving, not to mention the 38 or so miles I covered in three days with a 35lb pack.
Driving home, Courtney suggested that we do the trip together this fall. Someone else suggested we take on a good section of the Appalachian trail. We'll see what develops, but it seems like failure is planting some new dreams in the both of us.
Pray this drunk makes it home alright.Pray this drunk makes it home alright.Though I sway from side to side,Home is in my sightsPray this drunk makes it home alright.
I hear there's wine and it won't run dry.I hear there's wine and it satisfies.I hear it's a better year than this bum's had in his life.I hear there's wine and it won't run dry.
I know my path ain't all that straight,But I'm leanin on some arms that bear this clumsy weight.My heart is light.My tongue is loose.My eyes are not so dry.Pray this drunk makes it home alright.
Those are lyrics I penned only a month ago, both as a prayer over my own wandering soul as well as a tribute to you Brennan, the raging alcoholic, once married then not, ex-priest, who set me on this wayward ragamuffin journey into the endless love of God.
Had you not died on Friday, I might have sent you a copy of the album.
Truth be told, you only taught me one lesson, but oh boy was it a doozy.
"Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity–that he loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain–that he loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves without condition or reservation and loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be?" –Brennan Manning, All is Grace
"...as you are and not as you should be?"
No Brennan, I didn't. I liked to sulk in my inability to be anything more than a swindler and a self-righteous facade of spirituality. I believed that God was furious with me, every moment of every day. That though He was obligated to love me, beneath the feigned passion, I was His single greatest disappointment, broke down on the side of the freeway, while he prize children flew by at 100mph.
But now Brennan, I think I'm starting to get it. It was painful at first, when you saw past my charades, when you parroted the thoughts deep in my heart, knowing just how to draw me out of my shell. You knew it was all an act of insecurity and shame. But you didn't condemn. Unlike so many I could only hear speaking disappointment, ignoring and unable to receive their love, you mirrored the heart of the father, screaming I LOVE YOU in poetry and narrative until I finally thought it might be true.
God was not furious –He was furiously in love.
My undoing ended and my ability to receive love began with a single paragraph of yours that I read on a bus driving across Siesta Key.
Laugh with me! Death is dead! Fear is no more! There is only life! There is only laughter! If the darkest night is upon you as you read these words, know that the risen Jesus is wild about you even if you can't feel it. Listen beneath your pain for the voice of Abba God. Make ready for my Christ whose smile like lightning, sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps in your paper flesh like dynamite. -Signature of Jesus
After reading those words, I stared at passing by mansions with matching boats worth more than the apartment building I live in. I fought back tears as I hated the idea of crying in front of my classmates, but your words grew in me and left no more room for those tears to stay inside. That was the first moment I began to believe that just maybe, I was beyond lovability and yet loved, actually loved, not out of obligation but with passion. Or as another friend puts it, that was the moment I realized that Jesus thinks I'm the best thing since sliced bread.
So Brennan, thank you. Oh, and enjoy some of that wine as it was meant to be. I hear the Nazareth 33 A.D. is a fantastic year.
In the words of St. Francis, after conversing long with Brother Dominic on the road to Umbria, "Bye. I'll miss you."
-A Fellow Ragamuffin.
You can get your own copy of the album Knowing here.
I wrote Friday that in its first 280 years the early church, as I understand it, felt no compulsion to change the behavior of the world around it apart from discipling individuals to follow Jesus and living out that relationship themselves. Then in 313, Constantine thought it would be a good idea use the sword as incentive to convert to and serve the risen savior. 1700 years later, I believe the shift that Constantine created is coming to an end. I also believe that is a good thing. This is why.
See, I have this crazy notion that Jesus brought a kingdom that is upside down. That all the things that Caesar calls weakness, compassion, service, self-sacrifice, death, Jesus spins on its head and makes the epitome of doing what God desires. The political revolutionary the Jews were looking for turned out to be a martyr, not by failure but by choice. His own words to the disciples were, "whoever wants to be my disciple must pick up his cross and follow me." If Jesus came today, we might nominate Him for president, only to see Him turn it down in order to walk on the green mile and sit in the electric chair.
And yet, according to specific research by Christian pollster George Barna, the perceived image of the church is that we want to make the surrounding culture like us via legislation,
"It started to become more clear to us that what they're experiencing related to Christianity is some of the very things that Jesus warned religious people about, which is, avoiding removing the log from your own eye before trying to take the speck out of someone else's."
If my own upbringing in the church evangelical can be offered as evidence, I used to see my own mission as standing for truth, honoring God by defeating the liberal agenda, which was a process of spouting emphatic if-then statements backed by Bible verses. My job was to shut down the opposition, no holds barred.
But the prophet Isaiah, relayed God's description of the one who would come and save:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.
Jesus brought His kingdom, establishing justice, not by force, but by taking on the role of and relating to the lowest members of society, touching lepers and talking to women in public, acting as the lowest economic position of His time, wrapping a towel around his waist and washing the feet of people who would see him eviscerated and hung for 30 pieces of silver. Paul described Jesus actions to believers in ancient Phillipi as taking on the role of a slave voluntarily, motivated by love.
He did not use infinite power to force our hands to be holy; He gave up power and declared sacrificial love to be the most potent force in the universe, inspiring, calling, and empowering, millions to pick up their own cross. If the world in it's best moments speaks softly but carries a big stick, Jesus puts down the stick altogether.
Which is why I see the institutional church's potential fall from power to be a wonderful thing. When we pick up the stick in order enforce the kingdom, using anything other than the sort of service that Christ used, not only, as Lactainus noted in the 4th century, corrupting it, we are ignoring true power as defined by God Himself.
For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, tortures, and guilt, it will no longer be defended. Rather, it will be polluted and profaned.
If we won't learn voluntarily that kingdom-of-God strength comes through kingdom-of-the-world weakness, then the lesson will at least be forced upon us.
It might surprise you to hear that until 312 AD, at least according to writings of multiple church fathers, the church never had an ounce of political or military power over anyone. In case you haven't done that math, that's around 280 years after Jesus' died and undied. You get the idea that the early church didn't want any sort of political/military power, even at 10% of the population of the Roman Empire. Quotes from early church Fathers verify:
Religion is to be defended - not by putting to death - but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. Not by guilt, but by good faith. For the former belongs to evil, but the latter to the good. ... For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, tortures, and guilt, it will no longer be defended. Rather, it will be polluted and profaned. ... And, therefore, when we suffer such impious things, we do not resist even in word. Rather, we leave vengeance to God. We do not act as those persons who would have it appear that they are defenders of their gods, who rage without restraint against those who do not worship them. -Lactantius*
This was the way things were until October 28th, 312 A.D. when Constantine had a dream in which he saw the Greek letters Chi-Rho suspended in the sky as a voice told him, "In this sign you shall conquer." The letters were the first two in the Greek word for Christ –"Christos."
This is the first justification of force we have on record by a Christian. 280 years after Jesus uttered the words that Paul would later reiterate in what we now call Romans 13 (which Lactanius references), "Love your enemies....do good to those who persecute you...bless and do not curse."
So lets say someone has a dream in which God tells them to act in direct opposition to the way the church has operated since the time of Jesus Himself, walking in what they called "The Way" of Jesus. We might call this against Christ, in other words, anti-Christ.
From 312, with the exception of some wonderful pockets of church history, the bulk of the church has bound itself to the sword and governmental enforcement of morality by the edge of that blade. Unbelievers and believers alike have been legislated, forced, and manipulated into following "The Way" whether they wanted to follow Jesus or not.
Again, "For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, tortures, and guilt, it will no longer be defended. Rather, it will be polluted and profaned."
Only in the last 100 years has the church hold on government been wrenched away. My estimation is that the culture wars of the last 40 years in North America is the last stand, maybe even the death rattle, not for the bride of Christ (by no means), but for Constantine's heritage. Something I hope and pray that I get to see undone in my lifetime.