You can't always transplant truth. Some of it will take, some of it won't.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
The first week I was here it was the military. I’ve never seen so much brass in one place in my life. Most of them were colonel or better, and I shared an elevator more than once with generals. It must have been a group from the Pentagon, being so close to DC. It was kind of impressive, actually. But at one point I remember wondering, who’s running the show right now?
The second week it was the Jews. And I don’t know if I’ve seen so many Jews in one place in my life. They were almost as conspicuous as the military, with their kippah caps, bold features, and buoyant conversation. I found out it was a group that promotes Jewish life on college campuses. I don’t know what they did in the conference rooms, but they sure knew how to party in the lobby.
The third week was pretty quiet. I don’t think anyone convened between the week of Christmas and New Year’s. Everybody was probably at home, where I probably should have been. But it was great to be here with my son for his 14th birthday. And our night excursion to DC will not be soon forgotten—by either of us.
This week it’s medical doctors. They’re having some powwow about the human genome. I guess these people are all geniuses. It’s so easy to respect doctors, if for no other reason how much education they've suffered. It’s almost scary, really. It almost seems unnatural for someone to be able to sustain focus and absorption of information for that long, and then after that to submit to the extreme workload they typically put interns through. And I think that’s one of the reasons there is so much fear surrounding the whole medical sector. We are in awe of these people. I mean, we even use different words to describe them than we use for regular people. For example, doctors don’t have personalities. They have bedside manners.
So I sat tableside a pair of doctors during breakfast, a man and a woman. Right next to them. The hotel restaurant was extremely crowded, which is strange because I have often been one of two or three tables served. So I knew immediately: get the buffet and forget ordering an omelet. But these two doctors had egg-white omelets on order. And they were getting impatient. When I said I was getting the buffet, the woman told me she should have done the same. After I sat back down and started eating, she told me that if they didn’t get their food in two minutes, she was going to hit the buffet and give the food she ordered to the homeless people outside. Like I said, I was really close, and I could hear their whole conversation. You know what they talked about? Regular stuff. “I’m an extrovert, you’re an introvert… I was afraid Jones would reject the new program I suggested… We need someone with your perspective to help us understand how this field of medicine is different for adults since we all work with children… Do you really think they would hire me for this job...?”
Basically, whether you’re military, Jew, or doctor, you have two things rolling around in your heart at all times.
What do you want?
What are you afraid of?
These are just so basic to the human heart. I would even say they are the heart of the human heart, if there is such a thing, the left hand and the right hand, the yin and yang, the alpha and omega, the arteries and veins, the exhale and inhale, the pulse. This is it.
All of us complain about stuff, lust after stuff, fight for stuff, rant, ramble, and obsess over stuff. But when we get ready to get off those not-so-merry-go-rounds, what we need is someone who really cares about us to kindly confront us with these two questions. In my way of thinking, these are the only two questions worth asking. These two questions, honestly answered by the quiet heart in the presence of Christ are the only things really able to penetrate the layers of self-deception, the world, wounds, personality, temperament, and all the other psychosomatic elements that mix to make up the person we think (and others think) we are.
It’s not so much that the answer to these questions is the meaning of life (I’m picturing Curly holding up that one leathery finger in City Slickers). It’s the journey these two questions lead you on. And it is a journey. Which is why they have to be asked over and over. Basically any time you realize you’re on one of the not-so-merry-go-rounds again, it’s time to go back to the questions.
I’ve seen these questions transform lives again and again, whether they are asked point blank or in other forms. They make a difference not only personally but also interpersonally—it’s a good way to communicate. And I have asked them to myself.
So, there’s nothing new to report here, except Baltimore's first snow, and a reminder that all of us—if we melt away the brass, the uniform, the religion, the culture, the degree, the salary, and everything else that seems to make our world go round—are the same. We have the same two questions in our hearts. It’s how we deal with those two questions that makes the difference.
Monday, January 22, 2007
I wrote the bit about the tree at a praise and worship deal. Brent wanted to go because his favorite worship leaders were going to be leading it off, and I wanted to go with Brent.
So, the inspiration for this was a conversation I had with God during some of their rather free-flowing music. The conversation was specific to that event so it doesn't bear repeating.
I've thought a lot about what I wrote here since then. It's not very moving. It's interesting, it's kind of mysterious, but it's not very moving, and there's a good reason why not. The reason is because there's no crisis, no fall, nothing lost, no hero to rise up against the antagonist and against his gathering antikingdom, no risk, no quest, no trials, no rescue, no battle, and most of all—no romance.
The bad thing is, this is more or less the picture of the afterlife I was given. Actually, this picture is a little more exciting than the picture of the afterlife I was given—the endless choir practice in the sky interspersed with “drop and give me twenty-four” style worship on cue.
I was talking about this with Bobby lately, about how the picture of the afterlife we’ve been sold is this endless flowering happiness at the end of the story, and he said he wasn’t really excited about the afterlife because of that. If that’s really what it is, then I’m not either.
But I wonder if “happily ever after” is really just sitting around singing worship tunes in our robes, strumming our harps (or even our electric guitars), while we float from cloud to cloud smiling softly at everyone we meet, holding hands and singing kumbaya.
According to Jesus there’s no sex in heaven. According to C.S. Lewis that’s because there’s something way better. I don’t know. I just hope there’s battles to fight (against real enemies), adventures to live (with real risk), and beauties to rescue (at real cost with real effect). Basically, I hope there’s story. I not only cannot imagine a reality without story, I rather think I am made for story. And because of that, I think that a place without story would not be enjoyable at all. And I wonder if it could even be real.
Jesus told several parables that seem to address the afterlife. Most have to do with dinner parties. But in the ones about the talents and the separating of sheep and goats, the reward for the faithful ones is a kingdom to reign in. Maybe that’s all part of it. Maybe the afterlife is not just one scene, but thousands, millions. Maybe, like a good story, they all happen at the same time and intersect dramatically, or else they unfold over time like the one we’re in now.
Finally, Mr. Incredible once said, “For once can’t the world just stay saved?!” I don’t think it can. And I think if it did we would all be very bored.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Once upon a time there was a tree. And in the middle of the tree there grew a garden. And the tree was great. And the tree was good. And the tree was life. From this garden came forth much fruit. And the garden was great. And the garden was good. And the garden was love. Among the fruit there lived a people who freely lived, freely loved. And the fruit was great. And the fruit was good. And the fruit was joy. The offspring of the people were their many deeds—deeds of their life, deeds of their love, deeds of their joy. And their deeds went forth into the earth. And the people were great. And the people were good. And the people were peace. The deeds became manifest and acquired voice. And the deeds were great. And the deeds were good. And the deeds were patient. The voice went out over the waters, and when the voice came to rest on water, the water divided and became earth. And the voice was great. And the voice was good. And the voice was kind. The land rose to meet the feet of the children of the tree wherever they were pleased to go, and they did wander far and wide, and of themselves they did fill the earth. And the land was great. And the land was good. And the land was pleasant. As far as the people did roam, they continued to eat of the tree, for it was always with them in every tree, every garden. They raised their hands to take and eat from the living tree. They bowed their heads to freely drink from the living water. They closed their eyes to deeply breathe from the living wind. As far as the people did roam, they continued to feast on each other, for they were always together in every heart, every eye, every hand. They had their fill of holy touch, supped on the meat of hearty deeds, and drank deep the voice that took on form. And the world was great. And the world was good. And the world was faithful and true. The world became more great and mighty, and it overcame all. Every place encountered came to life, and willingly and freely offered its dignity, its beauty, and its strength. And the world was great. And the world was good. And the world was meek. The way of the world became known far and wide. And the people of the way gave this name to the tree of the way: the one who was, the one who is, the one who will be. And the way was great. And the way was good. And the way was enough.
Monday, January 08, 2007
God never wrote anything.
Well, I take that back. Three times God did write something.
The first time God wrote was when he etched the Ten Commandments into two stone tables. “And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.” At that time these were the only scriptures known, the only Holy Writ in existence. And what happened next was Moses came down off the very mountain where God gave his written word to men, saw his kin behaving like pagans, making sacrifices to other gods, sitting down to eat and drink, and rising up to play. So Moses threw the Word of God down, smashing it to bits. I used to take this as a fit of rage by Moses, but it really couldn’t have been. Moses already knew what the people were doing before he got there because God had told him. In fact, God was the one who has enraged by this and started to give them the “hot wax” treatment, but Moses interceded on their behalf and stayed God’s wrath. No, this was calculated. Moses destroyed God’s Written Word on purpose.
Fast forward a bit. God rather liked the Ten Commandments and wanted to write them again. So he said to Moses, "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets—which you broke.” So Moses chiseled out the tablets like he was told, and God talked to him a while about this covenant that was to be rewritten, and what they were to do with it when they entered the Promised Land, and at the end, God did a curious thing. He said, “You write down the words.” So Moses, not God, wrote the second Ten Commandments.
It kind of reminds me of the first talk God had with Moses. “I have heard the cry of my people and I am come down to deliver them. So now you go and bring my people out of
The second time God wrote was when Belshazzar the Babylonian feasted and drank with the vessels of silver and gold from Solomon’s
And this just fascinates me. We know exactly where the hand of God wrote. It was “on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace, opposite the lampstand”. But where is that section of wall today? It certainly is not preserved. Maybe it was destroyed that very night when Darius the Mede took over. Maybe it was revered in a museum of antiquity but destroyed by a barbarian raid centuries later. What I know is that it’s gone now. But at least we have a copy of it, like the Ten Commandments, in the Bible. And what I also know is that without Daniel lifting it off the wall and putting it into flesh, it would have been meaningless.
The third time God wrote—if you give me that Jesus was God in the flesh, and that even though the first part of John 8 didn’t appear in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, it is indeed true—the third time God wrote is when Jesus wrote on the ground when he saved the adulteress from being stoned. The religious elite wanted to stone this girl, and they brought her to Jesus as a test, like some object that was more valuable as an experiment than as an image bearer. Jesus plays the man, defends her, and ultimately saves her. It started with him simply stooping down and writing on the ground. When they continued to hound him, he stood up and spoke: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then he bent back down and wrote some more on the ground. Apparently he wasn’t done. When all her accusers finally left, he stood again and spoke to her. Interesting. When he wanted to speak he stood. When he wanted to write, he stooped.
I looked, and Jesus is the only one who ever stooped down in the whole New Testament. John the Baptist was close, but said he wasn’t even worthy to stoop to undo Jesus’ sandals. Maybe the reason this story is in there is to remind us that for God to write something into the earth, he has to stoop. And maybe that’s why God’s not into writing.
Three times God stooped.
Three times God wrote, and each with a human hand.
So here’s what I’ve been thinking lately. I look at modern Christianity and it seems very scripture-oriented. It seems like the Bible is actually the center of the religion. And what’s more, it seems to claim that God Himself wrote the Bible. This Christmas I got a new Bible. It’s a new translation. The people who made the translation actually took the name “God’s Word” for their translation. More commentary on someone actually claiming to be “the” translation of the Bible later, but for now the important thing is that the Bible is “God’s Word”. Meaning…that it is direct from God. It is written. It is engraved in stone. It is finished. It is closed. It is frozen. It is perfect.
But God didn’t write any of it. Except for the three things.
And I could probably come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation for that if it weren’t for Jesus. I mean, God is Spirit. He has no body. If he wants something written for mankind, sure, have a human write it. Makes sense. But now we have Jesus, God in the flesh. And if Jesus really wanted to start a new religion, and if that religion was going to be scripture-centric, then why didn’t he sequester himself to a cave somewhere, and with the help of an angel put God’s words to paper? (like a certain founder of another middle eastern religion did) Instead, Jesus lived this small life, teaching and healing on the go, trusted his words to his closest friends, and depended on them to keep the message alive after he was gone. The way he said he would do it was by inspiration, through people being in-spirit-ed.
For a long time I also looked at the Bible like it was a fax from heaven, and that the writers were inconsequential. They were chosen to write God’s word for him because they happened to be there. God had something to say, and knew how He wanted it said, so He basically picked the right person, “possessed” them for a spell, had them write something, and then let them return to their regular programming. The assertion wasn't so much that the writers were not involved in the writing, but more that regardless of their involvement, they were incapable of screwing it up.
But what about the God who said to Moses, “I am ready to save my people, now you go…”
What about the God who said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of
And what about this?
By this time it was late in the day, so Jesus’ disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it's already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”…looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people.
Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. And when God stoops, the hands that serve are very human indeed.
Mark’s gospel is very fishy and unrefined. Matthew’s has a precision, a sophistication and cross-cultural ease of a tax collector. Luke’s is very Greek, making it a favorite of Americans.
Mark’s is very Markish, Matthew’s is Matthish, Luke’s is Lukish.
And then there are the heavyweights. Paul is revered beyond most of the writers of the New Testament. His writings have their own texture and signature. I don’t have to make up a word to personalize these. Biblical scholars already have. They are referred to as Pauline. And I wonder if this is where some outsiders have issues with the Bible. When Bible defenders say, “God says in 1 Timothy…” they mean the exact same thing as “Paul says in 1 Timothy…” These phrases are even used interchangeably. But that’s a bit mystical…to equate Paul talking with God talking. But I might be accused of overstepping a bit. “After all, it’s not just that Paul saying something is the same as God saying something. It’s because it’s in the Bible that Paul’s words are dubbed God’s words.” Well, that’s a bit circular for my reasoning, because the way they decided what to include in the Bible and what to exclude, was if they could be sure Paul wrote it, then it went in. Meaning, if Paul wrote it, God wrote it. And actually I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t even have a problem with all the personality in Paul’s writings, the greetings, the laments, the sarcasm, the rants, or the personal opinions interspersed with his grand, highly sophisticated treatise on the Mystic Christ. It’s Pauline. Because God does stoop to write with human hands.
John’s are Johannine. And they are treated much like Paul’s. If John wrote it, God wrote it.
Then of course there is Moses who is definitely given the authority of God, and in some ways was seen as God. When Stephen was stoned he was falsely accused by some who said, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God” (!) Paul of course would refer to
But it’s not just sacred writings that’s at stake here. It’s sacred acts as well. It’s more than Jesus leaving the documentation to the plebes after He’s done. Even when Jesus was working it was the disciples who baptized, not Jesus. And after he ascended to heaven, he gave “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” The goal was never for God to speak and act, but for men. Hence, the Man, Jesus. Hence, his followers. “And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me.”
So what does all this mean? Simply this:
You give them something to eat.
Write something, say something, sing something, give something, break something, mend something, for God’s sake, do something!
God did not quit with Mark or Matthew or Luke or Paul or John or Moses or Jesus. He began.
For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)
It has fallen to us to be God’s voice. As Peter wrote to the exiles in the dispersion, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, as good stewards of God's varied grace. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. Whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”
God doesn’t care to en-grave his words. He cares to veil them with living flesh. He doesn’t care to formaldehyde the pretty butterfly and frame it on his wall. He cares to breathe into that psyche and let it fly. He doesn’t care to put a freeze on the body of divine words. He cares to speak words to animate cold, dead bodies. He doesn’t care for the word that was spoken. He cares for the word that still speaks. Jesus didn’t say to the devil, “It was written…” but rather “It IS written…” He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Thus, to Ezekiel, he says,
Son of man…prophesy to these bones and say to them, “Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will ‘inspire’ you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
Because God could just write things himself, say things himself, do things himself, but He doesn’t.
One last thought about what Jesus wrote on the ground.
Unlike the first two times God wrote—the writing on the tablets, and the writing on the wall—we have no record of what Jesus wrote on the ground.
I could guess at what it is we lost as it was eventually trampled under foot or washed away by rain. Of course I’ve heard all the sermons, the most popular conjecture being that Jesus was writing down the sins of the people aiming to stone the girl, including the secondary conjecture that they were probably guilty of adultery themselves, including the tertiary conjecture that it may have been with this very girl. Oy.
Maybe what he wrote was a message to the earth herself that for the adulteries of all humanity, he would soon die, and be buried in her, but only for a little while. But take heart, for He would one day return.
Or maybe his powerful, graceful finger etched a message into the very ground beneath our feet, for us who would come later, a message rather like a poem or a melody that we could more feel than read, a message that we could get in step with, get in tune with, that would call to us and last us until his return, as long as that might take, a message that would teach us that God’s not done, we’re not born too late, He still speaks, still plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of our faces.
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