Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Wild Life

My good friend sent me to a review of Madagascar, the animated movie that opened this weekend. We all went and saw it together tonight (took up a whole row at the moviater—fun). I was surprised to see as many teens in the show as we did, but maybe that’s the thing to do once school’s out. There were several things I liked in the review and wanted to comment on, so here goes. (Full review at pluggedinonline)

Marty the Zebra is a dreamer. He lives in New York’s Central Park Zoo, where his every need is catered to, but he longs to run free in the wilds of Africa, where—well, Marty has no real idea of what living in the wild entails. It just sounds fun. His good friends Alex the Lion, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo try to convince him how good they have it at the zoo—all the food they want, the attention of their adoring fans, nothing to do but lie around all day.

Yeah, what a life. On cue, the lights come on, then the music, and everyone performs. But none of it is real. It's all a show for people who come to see the manicured, blow-dried, polished attractions perform: "Look at me! I'm not a real lion—I just play one." But then again, who wants a real lion—there's no telling what he might do. But what a pull for the posers! The only people you have to perform for are the ones who happen to show up that day with money in hand, wanting to be wowed. And the rest of the time you get to lie around and eat steaks, take drugs, lounge in the pool, and do the treadmill, and no one's the wiser.

Marty remains unconvinced, so he decides to blow the joint and escape to the wide-open spaces of ... Connecticut. (It’s easier to get to than Africa since there’s a direct train from Grand Central Station.)

It's interesting that Marty just decided for a little excursion, but somehow he ended up in the wild anyway. I think God is the Lord of our dreams, and that dreams do have power. Whenever we really embrace them, they have a way of materializing even when we don't 'make it happen.'

He gets some help from a passel of psychotic penguins, who are determined to return to their ancestral home in the wilds of Antarctica.

The penguins are crazy, no doubt. And they provide just the right jolt to get Marty moving. I've often felt that way about pioneers in every movement I've been involved with. A nut is usually exactly what it takes to crack the protective shell you've created that made you feel feel nice and safe and comfortable—and was killing you a day at a time.

The power of friendship despite differences gets strong play in this film. All the friends go to great lengths to help each other, even to the point of endangering themselves.

I thought that was beautiful.

Marty, who would be natural prey to Alex in the wild, refuses to ditch his lion friend, even when Alex increasingly has trouble suppressing his inner predator. For his part, Alex sends himself into bleak exile rather than endanger his pal.

Isn't it great when people stick up for each other through trials, even when the one friend is truly struggling in his weakness? ("In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.") And look at this weakness—Marty's friend wanted to eat him! I also liked the classic Jekyll/Hyde or werewolf complex—he knew he was slipping in and out of Beast, that it was just a matter of time when his spell would return, and he even constructed a cage to protect others from himself. I'm sure there's a name for this psychological phenomenon—that odd love that wants to protect others from despised self, but here's where that PhD would've come in handy.

Marty longs to have a better understanding of himself (“I don’t know if I’m white with black stripes or black with white stripes”), and he’s the resident optimist when trials arise.

I think this is kind of cool. Marty wasn't one dimensional. He dreamed of breaking out, but he also looked inward. Also, he didn't have to have everything figured out before he allowed himself to dream, or even before starting his quest—he just launched out not having all the answers. He didn't even have the biggie answered: Tenet Nosce, "know thyself" (I'm thinking of another movie here) before making his decision to embrace his dream for the wild life. We get the Names of God throughout the Old Testament not from people studying Him in universities or in prophet's schools. We get them from people who launched out not knowing all the answers before they left, and that was the blessing: new knowledge of God revealed in an experience of Him. "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going." "And now, compelled by the Spirit, I [Paul] am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there."

Still, you leave the theater wondering what result you were supposed to root for—that the animals make it back to their safe zoo existence or learn to live "authentically” as wild animals. On this point it feels as if the screenplay was written by a committee. To their credit, though, the filmmakers did come down strongly on the side of the power of friendship and self-sacrifice to overcome our selfish primal urges.

I was a little disappointed in their spinelessness here. If I were to tilt the scales it would of course be for living "authentically." But at least they could have made a pitch. I suppose that the filmmakers decided that their goal was to make a movie with high entertainment value and broad appeal ($), but I think other recent animated films were very entertaining, yet had powerful messages (Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, for example), and did very well at the box office.

Even though Alex is the star attraction at the zoo, he is not stuck up, and his friends are not jealous of him.

I really love the way they portrayed the friend's attitudes towards each other. Alex was truly a trophy animal. Everyone was genuinely in awe him and celebrated his glory. At the same time, Alex had neither arrogance nor that sappy false humility (which is actually camouflaged pride). Nor did any of the friends take their celebration of his glory beyond its proper place, either. They glorified him for doing his thing, and even promoted him to others, but all the while, they knew him just as Alex, their friend. Each of us is a trophy animal. And that reminds me of what C.S. Lewis wrote in Weight of Glory:

Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour's glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

Thursday, May 26, 2005

We May Never Pass This Way Again

I woke up this morning with the words to this song in my head, though I haven't heard the song in a LONG time.

Life, so they say,
Is but a game and we let it slip away.
Love, like the Autumn sun,
Should be dyin' but it's only just begun.
Like the twilight in the road up ahead,
They don't see just where we're goin'.
And all the secrets in the Universe,
Whisper in our ears.
And all the years will come and go,
Take us up, always up.

We may never pass this way again.

Dreams, so they say,
Are for the fools and they let 'em drift away.
Peace, like the silent dove,
Should be flyin' but it's only just begun.
Like Columbus in the olden days,
We must gather all our courage,
Sail our ships out on the open sea,
Cast away our fears.
And all the years will come and go,
And take us up, always up.

We may never pass this way again.

So, I wanna laugh while the laughin' is easy.
I wanna cry if it makes it worthwhile.
We may never pass this way again,
That's why I want it with you.
'Cause, you make me feel like I'm more than a friend.
Like I'm the journey and you're the journey's end.
We may never pass this way again,
That's why I want it with you…

- Lyrics by James Seals


Baptism. I have seen infants sprinkled in both Catholic and Protestant churches. I have seen believer's baptism from Baptists, Methodists, Church of Christ, Christian Church, Non-Denominational, Spirit-filled, Assembly of God, and Neo-Charismatic. I myself was sprinkled at 12, and then convinced to be baptized by immersion at 22. But I have never been a part of a baptism as cool as the one last night.

My friends' son wanted to be baptized into the Lord Jesus Christ. In my church we believe in baptizing by immersion. Actually, immersion is not the best word: whelm is, and so that obviously affects how we do it. People started showing up around 6:00 pm on that hot (95°) Texas May 24 at the neighborhood clubhouse. There were two families of church members, two families from another church that we used to be a part of (one is on staff there), and two neighbor families not active in any church, except their kids always hang out and play with our kids (if I get to count that as being actively involved with a church - and I do). We moved the chairs around the swimming pool so that the adults could sit comfortably while the kids sat on the edge of the pool and got their feet wet. My friends took Samuel down into the water, and after a prayer, shared some things about his natural birth, 7 years ago.

Samuel was born premature by 3 months. He had all kinds of health problems and was expected to either die or have severe health problems his whole life. They shared some of that story and some of the interactions with faithful and faithless people in all that. This guy is today a little dynamo. Completely healthy and strong and active, and an amazing tough and tender follower of Jesus Christ. And he was chomping at the bit to be baptized. After reading several of their journal entries from their months in intensive care at the hospital, they also shared part of their own story - how Samuel's life as a baby had birthed a renaissance of faith in Christ for them. They also shared with us a little of the story of Samuel the prophet in the Bible, who Sam was named after. Then Samuel confessed Jesus Christ and was baptized by his dad.

We all reflected on what we were witnessing as his big sister kicked off a couple of songs on the CD player, and then...party time! Shirts flew off, floats came out, and splash happened. We broke into some fudge bars, ice cream sandwiches, a couple of tubs of ice cream (the peppermint was particularly good - hey, I wonder if there's any left over in the freezer?), soft drinks, grapes, and cookies. And what fellowship we had. All 13 kids had a great time playing games and having a belly flop contest while the adults got to know each other and chatted about everything from the trivial to the sublime. Some of the other neighbors showed up just to swim, and we made room for them, too. Around 8:30, everybody had left, and I locked up. I didn't come down from that cloud all night. I woke up the next morning still smiling.

Now that's what I call a baptism! Did I mention this was the first baptism in our new church?

The very first followers of Jesus were called The Way, and it is said of them, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

May it be.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Romance is the deepest thing in life; romance is deeper even than reality.

People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are. Life may sometimes legitimately appear as a book of science. Life may sometimes appear, and with a much greater legitimacy, as a book of metaphysics. But life is always a novel.

- Gilbert K. Chesterton

The Long Clew

An Essay

A young woman I know wrote a beautiful poem about Someday, describing a longing she has (in fact it is a universal longing) for something good missing from her life. Someday is a word she loves and hates, embodying both anticipation and frustration, glimpses and blindnesses, sweet and bitter. C. S. Lewis wrote about this longing in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy[1]. He called it joy, though he was quick to deny any connection with what most people would describe as joyful. It is not a happiness or pleasure at all. Joy was for him a technical term that would most likely be classified as a grief or a loss. John Eldredge called it desire[2]. Self-help writers have called it dream. For my own purposes, I will refer to it as longing. Any adult worth his salt would read my friend’s poem and respond with a wise old smile and a nod that says, “Ah yes, the someday of youth. You will see that when your someday comes it will not be nearly as wonderful or as terrible as you imagine but rather as plain and ordinary as today. The days come and go, and waiting for someday is really like looking for the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.” So says wisdom. But does this wisdom answer the question, or does it in its own weakness quickly and subtly modify the question in order to answer one it is more comfortable with? What about the other side of this same coin, the side adults worth their salt cannot explain with disillusionment? My teenage friend assumes—as did I when I was a teenager—that all joys are lost to the future, that all desires point forward. I remember the anticipation of a driver’s license, of heading off to college, of being elected to a popular office, of starting my real career, of meeting “the one”, or of buying my own home. All things missing were in that wonderful and terrible future someday. But now there are many joys that are lost to the past—recurring dreams of playing in that big game, good relationships blown over stupid things said or done, missed opportunities for life or love, friends that drifted away for who knows why? They can no more be let go than my friend’s dreams of someday, and are perhaps even more confounding. The future after all is mysterious, but the past is the past; why does it haunt so? And why would I long to answer a question not being asked? Further, what about things lost neither to the future nor the past, like the one who feels like they’re stuck in the wrong career or caste or with the wrong spouse, or born in the wrong era? These also describe a feeling of something missing or lost or hoped for. They are unreasonable and universal. In fact, we know many of the sad stories that go with people becoming so anxious about their somedays that they recklessly pursue them, short circuiting their lives and the lives of those dear to them in the process. I suggest that all of these longings, whether future, past, present, or anachronous, are really made of the same stuff, and in that stuff are clues to our true nature and destiny. Better to say there are clews: balls of yarn unraveled to help us find our way out of our labyrinth[3].

I would like to consider my friend’s longing in particular and the longings of the rest of us in general to understand the nature of this kind of longing. Is longing some base instinct, something akin to the fight-or-flight response, which somehow helps the organism or race? Based on the usual assessments already noted (longings are at best na├»ve fantasies and at worst life-wreckers), I suspect many would be surprised to find it so. On the other hand, is longing a curse picked up in the fall of man or perpetrated by an enemy of the human soul, some darkening of a natural appetite, something not to be trusted but avoided at great cost? I would be surprised to find it so. What could possibly be wrong with a teenage girl longing bitterly to meet for the first time her pen pal, another teenage girl with whom on-line she has shared experiences, thoughts, dreams, humor, the silliness that all friends share, and common work? Knowing the one who longs in this case, and knowing what the longing is tied to, I can’t imagine that this comes from “sinful flesh” or from some unworthy or unrighteous motive, nor that its result would be to harm anyone involved. What about longings in general? Men and women long to spend more time with their friends and families and less at their work. Everyone longs to be understood in a meaningful relationship with at least one true friend. Christian parents long to know that their children are following Christ. People long to be reunited with a friend, a mate, or a parent who has died. Amputees don’t fully let go of that missing leg or arm. People long for the day when they are ahead of their debts. And there are the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”[4] Jesus himself confessed a powerful longing to share a covenant meal with his closest friends.[5] These longings to take hold of something lost or out of reach are almost universal, and I can’t think of a reason to distrust them either. On the other hand, there are certainly countless examples of longings that seem to trip people up. There is the longing for thrilling conquest that gets under a man’s skin, propelling him into an affair while away on a business trip. There is the corresponding longing for adventure tripping up the same woman. Too many Napoleon’s, Hitler’s, Stalin’s and Caesars have longed to rule the world and have murdered millions on their way. The longing to be rich has led to all kinds of temptations, traps, and foolishness, leading to destruction.[6] The sons of Israel longed to have a king to lead them like the other nations had, which produced many miseries.[7] The Tower of Babel came from a longing to reach the heavens, but ended in confusion.[8] Peter’s longing to save the life of Jesus would have prevented the life of Jesus from saving the rest of mankind.[9] James and John’s longing to straddle Jesus in his kingdom seems nobler but caused great indignation.[10] In modern life, in history, in the Bible, throughout all of the human experience it is easy to come up with examples of longings ending in disaster. But did they have to go that way? Or is there a way to bear up even these longings without giving way to them? Even more intriguing, are these “sinful” longings qualitatively different than the “righteous” longings, or are they at some level made of the same stuff? Different types of matter, when reduced to their smallest units, are basically the same. It turns out that the differences in character of a granite rock and a glass of water have to do not with their fundamental components, but with the way they are arranged. I suspect that longings are the same insomuch as it is not the fundamental longings themselves that ensnare people, but the way they are arranged: the way they are handled or mishandled.

The mishandling of longings is certainly a cause of most of the destruction associated with them. Consider justice. Doesn’t every culture have a similar view of justice (even though they have vastly different ways of meting it)? Don’t the families of murdered victims always want to attend the execution of the perpetrator? Even in lesser crimes like theft or betrayal, isn’t there a longing for closure, to at least know the truth of the matter? Is it bad to want justice? The martyrs in heaven say, “How long until our blood is avenged?” and God’s reply is something like, “A little longer, and here are clean clothes to wear while you wait.”[11] From Job to David to Zechariah, the prophets also cried, “How long?” But what happens when someone circumvents the flow of justice, routing it according to their own fashion to deliver themselves, is tragic. Next, consider even a conqueror’s desire to subdue the whole world. That man is walking in obedience to God’s original charter...sort of...but not.[12] But the reason he’s not has less to do with the longing and more to do with the mishandling of it. Every one of us longs to have dominion because we are created in the image of God who is Dominion. We all share to a degree this longing. It is not wrong. But what are we to do with that desire, especially if it offends propriety or if the path to it runs through the forbidden lands? We’d better do (or not do) something with it, but I’m afraid, we haven’t been doing (or not doing) it. We are never told by God to deny our desires, to repress our longings, or to cut out our hungers. Not once. We are, on the other hand, told to “mortify the deeds of the body”[13] and to “mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth”[14] and to yield those same members as “instruments of righteousness unto God.”[15] But to most, it seems, the idea of embracing the longing is too scary a proposition. How on earth could someone not mishandle it?

Perhaps in our fear of dying we never really live and thus die. Perhaps in our fear of disillusionment or catastrophe or temptation, we never really long and thus fail. “We are half-hearted creatures”, says C. S. Lewis, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us. Like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea, we are far too easily pleased.” Perhaps if someone could show us how to handle our longings, our longings would lift us up and out where we belong, rather than drag us down to the baser regions of human solution. Where should we look? Many who want to live reasonable lives find themselves drawn to writers like James who remind us that our longings can drag us away, entice us, tempt us, and finally kill us.[16] They take a hint from this warning that longing seems inexorably linked to death and must therefore be vehemently resisted; longings must be eliminated or at least avoided. But we have other guides like the warrior-poet David who remind us that our longings cry out within us for God to save us.[17] And then we have the wise maxims of sages and kings like, “A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul, but fools detest turning from evil.”[18] At the core, Lewis suggests, the problem is not that we are too hard to satisfy, but too easy. We are too quick to turn to an evil shortcut.

“What do you want?” was the first important thing Jesus ever said, according to his best friend (John 1:38). Now, by his own admission, John’s account of the life of Christ is not so much a narrative as a distillation: John’s concern was with the essence of the God-Man to the point of excluding much, even things other gospel writers were diligent to include in their accounts[19], and his purpose for writing was to clear a path between Jesus and the ones who need Him.[20] So John begins his story by showing us the Jesus who cuts through all the hype, all our problems, all our baggage, all our facades, and all our complications with, “What do you want?” If we try to classify the people who were followers of Jesus, we might rush to create categories: there were the sinners, the saints, the chosen, the faithful, the desperate, and so on. But what could we say of all of them? They were the hungry. Think of all the people you read about in the gospels. The woman at the well: thirsty; the man at the pool of Bethesda: starving; the disciples: hungry; all those who wanted to be healed, filled, fed, delivered, saved, relieved, validated: hungry and thirsty. And Jesus never scolds them for being this way. In fact, he calls them blessed, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”[21] The ones he scolds are the ones who are full: the satisfied[22] and the Pharisees.[23] Most people, including Christians, do one of two things with their longings: deny them or sate them—either suppress and forget how hungry you are or feed the hunger quickly so that it goes away...for a while. Sometimes it’s unconscious; the church in Laodicea talked about being full but did not realize that they were desperately hungry: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” [24] If our Lord himself said it is blessed to be hungry, why would we do just about anything to avoid it? This leads me back to my suspicion that it is not longing itself that we need a solution to, but the handling of it.

Lazarus was dead. And it troubles some to see Jesus so cavalier with the situation. But for our sakes it is fortunate, because we get a glimpse into the different ways two sisters handled their longings. [25] Martha isn’t hungry at all, only sad for the loss of her brother and disappointed that Jesus hadn’t come through for her. With dry eyes she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus goes straight for her heart; He lifts the lid on some longing and wafts the aroma her way, “Your brother will rise again.” But Martha has already eaten, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” True. Very true. Absolutely true. And absolutely keeping Martha from being hungry. Jesus presses on to help us understand Martha by not leaving her answer at that, but making her refine it so that we know that her knowledge is complete, even though it has left her full.[26] But Mary, on the other hand, runs to Jesus, falls at His feet, and weeps out the words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Notice that unlike Martha, Mary added no commentary; she gave herself no advice. Mary smelled the aroma, and it crushed her to think the food was so close yet so far away. This moved Jesus; it moved Jesus deeply; Jesus wept. Notice that her hunger was not for Jesus, who was in her midst, but for her brother. And Jesus not only welcomes her hunger, He is pulled into it and shares in it with her. Martha was unaffected by all this[27], but let us not be too hard on her; after all, she had already eaten. Or, was she in fact starving and had been so long without food that her hunger became numb? Jesus of course raised Lazarus from the dead, and afterwards enquiring minds went to visit whom? Mary.[28] And they put their faith in Jesus. Perhaps they too were hungry and had found someone to long with.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to see how we, like Martha, got here, why we would want to avoid our tricky longings. It’s pretty easy to see why we would want to explain them away or cover them up, grin and nod when youth first discover them as if we had a pretty good handle on the situation. It’s pretty easy to see by now that Jesus does not intend for us to be full and “have need of nothing.”[29] It’s pretty easy to see that we’ve been presented a false dichotomy when it comes to our having longings (to be or not to be a longer). What’s difficult is finding something still afloat now that our nice, long-free ship has been sunk. Specifically, what is a Christian to do with longing? Why would a Christian, who claims to have found Jesus, still be looking for something more? If Jesus is the desire of nations[30], if He is our sufficiency[31], and we have found Him, then why do we still long for any thing more? If we are created by Him and for Him and all fullness dwells in Him[32] then what else could our hearts desire? Why would honest Christians (and they would) join with U2 to sing, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for?” This is far more troubling than the question many Christians ask, that of discovering the difference between “godly” desires and “sinful” desires. Why desire at all? Unless you would condemn and cast all desires into fallen nature (and I think it would be hard to do that with some of the noble longings listed above, including those of our Lord himself when He walked the earth), then you must entertain the idea that Christ himself is not all that there is to long for, that there is at least one thing beside Christ that exhilarates even the Christian. I said you must entertain the idea, but not embrace it. Still, we will pass awfully close to many idols on our way through this maze. In this very thought lies a vital thread leading the way out.

Knowing you, Jesus, knowing You
There is no greater thing
You’re my all, you’re the best
You’re my joy, my righteousness
And I love you Lord.[33]

Knowing God is the goal of the Christian life. To know God is eternal life.[34] It is the heart of Jesus’ “final” prayer for His disciples. It is the heart of the reason He came to earth to begin with. Knowledge is everything. But knowledge has been maligned, shifted, and how have we missed this? Knowledge of what? Knowledge about what? In the Garden of Eden, says John Eldredge, were two trees: Knowledge and Life. Our Mom and Dad picked the wrong tree, and we do the same thing to this day.[35] It is intimate knowledge of a person that counts, and it is all that counts. The Bible even uses the word know to describe the physical union of a husband and wife. The kind of knowledge we’re after is actually a spiritual intercourse.[36] Adam and Eve had the opportunity for this kind of knowledge with God, but they let it go. They chose against a person and for another kind of knowledge. Knowing Jesus is the life, and that is why He came. Period.[37] But what room does this leave for longing? I’ll attempt to answer that question with another. How do you get to know someone? Really, do you get to know someone by sitting at their feet and ogling them in endless, flattering infatuation? Isn’t that what many Christians think eternal life is like—the great eternal choir practice? Few could long for that (and perhaps that plays into the hand of living satiated lives of duty: “getting along without longing, thank you”). I think that is not the way, but let me suggest several that are. You get to know someone by learning of the things they have experienced, the things that shaped them, and made them who they are. You get to know someone by asking them what things are important to them, what they stand for, what they’d die for. You get to know someone by comparing scars. You get to know someone by going with him to the places he’s been. You get to know someone by meeting all his friends, hearing what they have to say about him, and figuring out what it is that he likes about them. You get to know someone by hearing the longings of his heart, hearing him talk about all the “places to go, people to meet, and things to do” that he yet intends. Wouldn’t it be true of knowing Jesus? It wasn’t a man who made up the metaphor of a Father and a Son and friends. It was God. He chose to call us friends. Follow the beautiful progression of friendship in the words of Jesus through these verses in John’s gospel:

Where I am going, you cannot come (John 13:33)

Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later. (John 13:36)

I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going. (John 14:3-4)

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:13-17)

Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. (John 17:24-26, emphasis mine)

That we would know Him and be getting to know Him is apparently not a paradox or is one that God is comfortable sharing with us. To restate, to have eternal life and be getting eternal life is apparently not a paradox or is one that God is comfortable sharing with us.[38] The fact is that we are not killing time while in this body. We are getting to know him by learning of His walk, receiving His thoughts and counsel, adopting His heart, feeling His passions, discovering the ones He loves, fighting beside Him, venturing with Him, and joining Him in the mission He’s yet to accomplish. We are getting to know him by longing. We are hungry, we are thirsty, we are longing for more of Jesus. And this is not more in the sense that we didn’t get enough yet. It’s more in the sense of wanting variety, fullness, and balance. Just as there are different tastes for our palette, we long for different flavors of God. Just as our eyes can see a vast array of colors in unlimited arrangements, we long to see the array of divinity. And so I have found at least something still afloat in the sea of longings: God doesn’t take away from us the longings of our hearts when we choose Him—he quickens them, making them come fully alive. In fact, it is only when we are longing in Him that the objects of our longing find their true value. It is only when the True God is known that the would-be idols can assume their proper roles. Remember when Paul found that the Athenians had been worshipping at an altar that read, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD”.[39] Paul didn’t tear down the altar; instead he proclaimed to them that what they worshipped as unknown, he was going to make known. To Paul at least, the longing for something that couldn’t be explained was a platform, a pointer, a clue, a clew to what people were still looking for.

Now I want to make finer points about clews. First note that in the example of Athens, Paul did not leave the people there to worship at the altar. In other words, he keyed in on an itch they had but did not encourage them to scratch it. In fact, he said in effect that God has been patient with scratching your itches in the past, but now that you know better, you are being called up to something higher (to repent).[40] But he also did not encourage them to ignore or remove it. As far as we know, that altar was an effective evangelism post for years to come that disciples could “show and tell” just like Paul did. If this argument from silence is not palatable, then at least grant that God Himself saw fit to leave the altar there for Paul to use as an example. And God has seen fit to leave us with many discomforts, hungers, and thirsts, whether in ourselves or readily observable in others. The writer of Hebrews confirmed to us that we are still longing for a day[41] and for a country[42]—that we are longing for our home.

Second, I would like to dismantle the idea that longing is the business of the future or of the past but not both—that getting to know God and receiving His life is the business of fixed past or of variable future, but not both. If I walk with someone down what is for them a familiar road, I’m likely to discover many old and unchanging things with a story my friend can tell. In that sense, I am not discovering anything new at all, only ancient knowledge that I am being brought into, such as a giant boulder, a deep stream, or even the path itself. But I’m also likely to discover brand new things that have never existed until this moment, such as a songbird who has just decided to build her nest in a nearby tree. That experience is new both to me and my old friend. Moreover, the experience itself may expose a repressed longing or awaken a new one. I long for all of these things: the ancient road, the timeless boulder, the bird’s new nest and her new song. But they are all sub-longings to and made full by the presence of my friend. Until I walk the path with my friend Jesus, all of these things awaken “an unknown god” in me. It is not until I am with Him that I feel His pleasure in making and making known to me all these things. Let us not argue whether the revelation of God is fixed or progressive. All paths are old and all experiences new, but Jesus is the Lord of the walk.

Third, why itch? I have often thought how silly an itch is. We go 999 thousandths of our lives without itching, but one moment it hits and we are compelled to scratch—it just comes along unsolicited (interestingly, it seems to happen more the more we think about it). But why stop there? Why hunger? Why thirst? Why be troubled by anything? Hunger ensures that we will continue to work.[43] Thirst ensures that we will continue to visit the well. Longing for what we don’t yet have ensures that we will continue the treasure hunt. A sudden longing, like an itch, is a clew for us, a thread wanting to lead us to some part of Christ we have not yet found. When we discover a new longing, it is an invitation for a new adventure in Christ. Our first notion should be that there is some aspect of Him we have not yet known, and that His Spirit is producing in us a new itch. For if we itch, if we thirst, it means that there is some way in which we do not yet know Him.[44] It simply must be. We know this from the encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well.[45] Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The thirst Jesus goes after and quenches is afterwards a fountain of living water, welling up into eternal life. [46] And here is our clew again only not in the form of yarn but of a river speaking the same invitation: follow me up and I’ll not only satisfy your thirst, but I’ll give you the source, the headwater, a wellspring. Once you’ve found that source, you can never thirst again in that way. And it is only in that one way, for Jesus surely didn’t intend to tell us, “Even though it’s blessed to thirst, if you believe in me you’ll never thirst; that blessed thirsty life I was talking about is for unbelievers.” No, it is surely good to be thirsty, and to follow the streams to their source in Christ one by one as we discover them. But now I must be careful not to take away one of the floats we’ve already laid hold of. Perhaps you’re beginning to worry about the opposite problem: running out of thirsts, running out of itches. Let us put the fear of somehow exhausting all of our longings to rest. After years of chasing God, Paul reminded us,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.[47]

Finally, to my materialist friends who have made it this far, I pose a question: It’s easy to explain why we long for things that are to be had: we get hungry, and there is such a thing as food; we thirst, and there is such a thing as drink; we tire, and there is such a thing as sleep; we lust and there is such a thing as sex; we desire power, and though abstract it is real enough to be had by some. But what basis can we find for expecting this universal longing for a god? Why an itch without a corresponding scratch? How strange a universe in which the inhabitants spend their lives longing for something there is absolutely no way of ever having.[48] Phillip Yancey calls these discomforts “rumors of another world” and makes the compelling case that the reason we long for more than this life offers is that we are made for more. We are not completely compatible with this world. [49] There is more here than meets the eye or any of our senses.

In the final analysis, my young poet friend was right after all. How wonderful and terrible it is to live in our current state, with good things lost to the future, the past, the present, and even the timeless. The offer of Jesus Christ is to know God, which is eternal life. The good life is a quest for knowledge, not of information, but of a Person, which comes to us through longings—longings easily mishandled. How we handle our longings makes all the difference—it is life and death, being asleep or being awake to the life God has for us. We must be awake to our longings, neither denying them nor sating them, but embracing them and bringing them to the Light, asking Him to make known their true source and destiny. If we handle them any other way, they will take us out.

But all things having their true character exposed by the light are made manifest; for that which makes everything manifest is light. Wherefore he says,

Wake up, thou that sleepest,
and arise up from among the dead,
and the Christ shall shine upon thee.

See therefore how ye walk carefully, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.[50]

Our longings lead us up many paths towards the fullness of God. Perhaps all paths do lead eventually to God, but to be sure, no paths are meant to be walked without Jesus Christ, who has walked our roads before and longs to show us the way. After all, He said “I am the way.”[51] So are we out of the labyrinth now? No. At best, we have only found a clew or two. It is now for each of us to follow them, step by step, back to where we started but have never really been.


[1] Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis © 1986, 1984 by Arthur Owen Barfield
[2] Journey of Desire © 2000, John Eldredge
[3] Because balls of thread were used to escape from labyrinths in various mythological stories (such as the story of Theseus in Crete), clew and clue came to be used of anything that could guide a person through a difficult place. This use led in turn to the meaning “a piece of evidence that leads one toward the solution of a problem.” Today, clue is the more common spelling variant for the “evidence” sense, but you'll find clew in some famous works of literature (Source: Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day © 2003 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated)
[4] The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty
[5] Luke 22:15
[6] 1 Timothy 6:9-10
[7] 1 Samuel 8:1-22
[8] Genesis 11:4
[9] Mark 8:31-33
[10] Mark 10:35-41
[11] Revelation 6:9-11
[12] Genesis 1:28
[13] Romans 8:13
[14] Colossians 3:5
[15] Romans 6:13
[16] James 1:14-15
[17] Psalm 119:81-88
[18] Proverbs 13:19
[19] See John 20:30 and John 21:24-25
[20] See John 20:31
[21] Luke 6:21
[22] Luke 6:25
[23] Luke 11:42-52
[24] Revelation 3:17
[25] This whole story is in John 11
[26] John 11:27
[27] John 11:39
[28] John 11:45
[29] Revelation 3:17 again
[30] Haggai 2:7
[31] 2 Corinthians 3:5
[32] Colossians 1:16-19
[33] Knowing You (All I Once Held Dear), ©1993 Make Way Music, Words and Music by Graham Kendrick
[34] John 17:3
[35] John 5:39-40; Genesis 2:17; 3:22. John Eldredge, National House Church Conference, September 2004.
[36] Genesis 4:1
[37] John 1:4; 10:10
[38] John 17:3
[39] Acts 17:22
[40] Acts 17:30-31
[41] Hebrews 4:8-11
[42] Hebrews 11:14-16; 39-40
[43] 2 Thessalonians 3:10
[44] See John 6:35-37
[45] The full story is in John 4
[46] John 4:10, 14; 7:37
[47] Romans 11:33-36
[48] This line of thinking I also owe to C. S. Lewis, John Eldredge, and Phillip Yancy. I’m sure it did not originate with Lewis, but it was he who first opened my eyes to it.
[49] Rumors Of Another World: What On Earth Are We Missing?, Phillip Yancey
[50] Ephesians 5:13-16, Darby, J. N. 1890 Darby Bible
[51] John 14:6

All Scripture quotations unless otherwise noted are The New International Version © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.


Copyright © 2004 by Steve Coan

All rights reserved. Written permissions must be secured from the publisher to reproduce any part of this work, except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles.

Published by Steve Coan, 1909 Ashton Court, Colleyville, Texas 76034

Monday, May 23, 2005

Eternal Beauty

The promise of the flower is the promise of sustained beauty. The promise of the sunset is the promise that there is more to existence than I can put in a jar and call my own. The promise of all that captivates my senses is that I was made for more and that there is more to come. Yet, all these pass and don’t fully satisfy. The promise of friendship is that there is true acceptance. The promise of heroism is that there is true virtue. Yet, all friends fail, all heroism is mixed with cowardice, and virtue is mingled with vice. The flower’s beauty came from somewhere. So the sunset’s dazzling array. The virtue of the hero was dipped from a deep well of character. That these things are passing, measured, crippled, and limited to my experience in this world does not negate the certainty of their reality or their transcendence. There is a God. He makes the flowers come back. He spins new sunsets and clouds. He raises the dead. I remain. As Job said,

“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” Job 19:25-27, The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984.

I Saw a Flower in the Path
by Steve Coan

I saw a flower in the path,
And gazed upon it ere I passed,
And for a moment felt its bath—
Its loveliness was unsurpassed.

I plucked a flower from the path
For gazing left me wanting more,
And pleased was I apart from wrath
To mete what did my soul adore.

I held a flower from the path
And blissful—ah, my senses pleased
To have it close and taste its breath.
This simple charm my spirit eased.

I kept a flower from the path,
With several more that I arranged—
Displayed for me in simple swathe
A captive beauty not estranged.

I gave a flower from the path
To many friends both young and old,
Accumulating bloom and grass,
The blossoms fair we all extolled.

I cursed a flower from the path
For kept or shared in any case
It breathed a last and suffered death;
Betrayed I was by passing grace.

I met a flower in the path,
And almost turned my heart away
That it might not have chance to scath
And cheat me when it would not stay.

I found a flower in the path,
And wrest my lust for vernal spree,
But savored that that flower hath
But loveliness to offer me

I saw a flower in the path,
But lo, the flower gathered me
And for an aeon give her bath—
A promise of eternity.

Inspired by George MacDonald.

“If the flowers were not perishable, we should cease to contemplate their beauty, either blinded by the passion for hoarding the bodies of them, or dulled by the hebetude of commonplaceness that the constant presence of them would occasion. To compare great things with small, the flowers wither, the bubbles break, the clouds and sunsets pass, for the very same holy reason (in the degree of its application to them) for which the Lord withdrew from His disciples and ascended again to His Father—that the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, the Soul of things, might come to them and abide with them, and so, the Son return, and the Father be revealed. The flower is not its loveliness, and its loveliness we must love, else we shall only treat them as flower-greedy children, who gather and gather, and fill hands and baskets from a mere desire of acquisition.” George MacDonald, 365 Readings by C. S. Lewis, p. 118

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Last Call

Ere fall of the world shall come to an end,
Ere last of a fading beauty does rend
Like tears from oaks of righteousness welling
Shall healing petals call a compelling
And wooing call, Come one, come all
To healing waters—Forget thy fall
But taste and see that the Lord is good,
His lovingkindness misunderstood
For offer has come and gone undetected
Like foreign princes under-respected;
But now alas at end of days
Give up thy quest, give up thy ways,
But only buy what sick ones need
At cost to none, forget thy greed
And come to suck the living water
That quenches every son and daughter
Of that High King who falls and rises
Revealing all, transcending guises,
That thy slack heart can be refreshed
And to His Story be enmeshed
By that same loving water flowing
Unto thy helpless soul for knowing
His freely offer’d gift of grace
That even now would forfeit place
Of His own Son so willingly
That He might live on end with thee.

This song is resonating with me. It's in my heart and has found my voice. I admit to being a Christina Perry fan. I've been known to...