Sunday, August 24, 2008

darkness

I saw The Dark Knight again. Loved it. Enjoyed it more the second time.

Chaos is another one of those things that we all know is integral to reality and most of us hate. We want control. We like to plan. A good plan when it comes together gives us this wonderful sense of security. It is an illusion.

Heath Ledger will probably win an Oscar for his performance. And he should. Posthumously. God rest his soul. He made the Joker come alive in a way that no one else ever has. It was disturbing. The Joker in this one was chaos personified, a feral spirit, a word that took on flesh. I experienced something that I'm sure a lot of people did, if they could stop editing themselves. I call it the Archie Bunker phenomenon. The things the Joker said were so dark, so diabolical, so inhumane, so offensive to all propriety, and so...true. This was the most disturbing thing I think for people. We want to put on our good Western civilized hats and defy this lunatic criminal, but we find the words he says hitting close to home, scratching an itch deep in our throats that cannot be reached when we are awake to our better nature.

So we talked a bit about chaos in our Sunday gathering this afternoon.

I've often been told that God is not the "author of confusion" or something like that. I think there's a bible verse to go with it. I've also been preached at that God is a god of order. I think there's one for that one, too. The problem that monotheism has that polytheism doesn't is fitting all of reality into the personality of one god. When you have lots of gods, each one introduces a virtue or a vice, or a peculiar combination of both. When you have but one god, that god has to encompass them all. Or if you have no gods at all, just abstract spiritual things like yin and yang you get a by on this one, too. But, when you're a monotheist, you have to answer difficult questions like the problem of pain and the source of evil and how it is that bad things happen to good people. Stuff like that. Sometimes it's kind of like repacking your sleeping bag in that entirely too small stuff-bag.

Jesus, I think, copes with this problem quite well, but not if you listen to popular doctrine. In fact, I think Jesus is the only way to cope.

But Jesus, instead of encompassing the fullness of reality, sometimes just collects a bunch of asterisks. Like when he turns water to wine. (We talked about the account that has made the rounds several times among us of the elder's wife who, when studying the story in John 2 where Jesus' first miracle was turning water to wine, said, "I wish He hadn't done that.") Or like when Jesus trashed the temple, turning over tables, breaking open cages, and cracking the whip at the businessmen there. He introduced a little chaos.

But Jesus wasn't the first.

I ran a search to see what the Bible had to say about planning (all the while hearing in my head, "plan your work and work your plan"). I was surprised to see that the first mention of this is Genesis 11. I'm told by Hebrew scholars that the first mention of a word or the first occurrence of a concept is always the most important, and is critical to understanding subsequent words on the same concept. So that would make this one really important to understanding the nature of God and reality and everything. Anyway, the story goes like this.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

I don't know if you read this story as a myth or as science. Either way the point is the same. These guys, our ancestors, wanted control. They wanted to have a sense of security without appealing to a god, who might or might not give it to them. They didn't want to be scattered like some airheads. It would have been an illusion if they had achieved it. But the God of Confusion introduced a little chaos. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I love Death Cab for Cutie and their album, Plans. It's named for the leader's favorite joke, "How do you make God laugh? Make a plan." And really, that's just like any joke. Funny not in spite of being true, but because of it.

Jesus all but tells us not to make plans. His famous Sermon on the Mount (or as Dallas Willard calls it, Discourse on the Hill) has Jesus teaching us all to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread" and ending his midrash on this subject with, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." Later, when he almost seems to be ok'ing making big plans, upon re-reading I think Jesus is just pointing out the folly of doing so. He says that if someone is going to build a tower or wage a war, doesn't he first need to sit down and figure out if he has the wherewithal to execute the plan? And if he doesn't he'd better save face before he commits to it. I rather think Jesus doesn't want us building towers or waging wars. The point is not winning wars or building towers, but what they will cost us. That's in Luke 14.

It sounds like heresy to talk about God introducing chaos. We who have been baked at 451 degrees for 451 years are so fully brainwashed with the virtues of order and safety that we can't even make room in the inn for chaos and confusion.

But God is bigger than order. God is in all and through all and over all. If life is in God then so is death. If good then evil. If love then hate. If heaven then hell.

Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
If I make my bed in hell, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
And the light become night around me,”
Even the darkness will not be dark to you;
The night will shine like the day,
For darkness is as light to you.

There really is no place to run to, no place to hide, nothing that can keep you from the light of God's love. When God considers darkness and light, they don't really affect him the same way they do you and me.

I am learning to not only accept chaos, but to embrace it. It is part of God, part of this over all and in all and through all deity that is wrapped around all that we can ask or imagine, and even more than we can ask or imagine. When I embrace the chaos of my days I find a joy and peace and harmony with the rhythms of reality. Flight delays, hurricanes, blizzards, cancellations. It's too bad that I need someone as twisted as the Joker to remind me of this. But in a world infatuated with everything going according to plan, sometimes we need a good laugh to set us free.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

a perfect world

Have you ever noticed that when someone starts a sentence with “In a perfect world” they always end it with something simpler than we experience here and now. And everyone accepts this. We all believe that as something approaches perfection it gets simpler, purer, less complicated, less mixed.

Why is that?

The other side the mouth gives voice to a belief that the nature of progress is moving from the simple to the complex, that something or someone mature is more complex. Adults are more complex than children. Mature economies are more complex than emerging ones. Late model cars are more complex than early ones. Version 2.0 is more complex than version 1.0. Even looking back in time theoretically, early forms of life were simpler than their evolutionary successors.

Can a mouth speak two voices at once?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

forgiveness

Forgiving is central to the teachings of Jesus, and to the life Jesus lived, which is way of saying the same thing.

Years ago I learned the dirty little secret about nursing grudges. And it is truthful to talk about them like this. Nursing them. Because the natural thing to do is forgive someone and get back to living. The difficult thing to do is exert the psychological effort to remain in a state of offence. This is not easy to do without being supernaturally endowed with evil intent—something that comes easily enough to fallen creatures. It’s easy to see how this is true. Just look at the lines on someone’s face and the weariness in someone’s body who has been holding a grudge against someone for years. How tiring. Anyway, like I said, the dirty little secret about nursing grudges is that I think I’m holding something against someone, but really it’s the something that is holding me.

But there is an underlying assumption that forgiving is this small thing that yields big results, that it’s some kind of secret weapon that you get issued to you once you become a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew or some other religious person. But the idea is not that forgiving is easy for anyone to do, though. In fact what a lot of people believe is that forgiving, simple and powerful as it may be, requires that you exert a lot of work to get over all your junk first, so that you can finally do the simple act of truly forgiving.

But I’ve been thinking that forgiveness itself is work. It’s not at all that you say, "I forgive you" over and over, even if you don’t feel it, to convince your soul of the already reality, to convince your heart to accept it and live like it’s true. Fake it till you make it will NEVER work.

The thing I’ve been thinking is that you have to do the work of forgiveness. Where you begin is with the determination to do the work of forgiveness. As surely as you would wake up one summer day and determine that today is the day to dig that trench, you would wake up one summer day and determine that today is the day to forgive that sin. But the determination is not the work. Once you determine to do it, you roll up your sleeves and start digging. This is quite backwards from the other way. Instead of starting with the act of forgiveness and then repeating the words over and over to convince yourself that you’ve already forgiven someone, you set out with forgiveness as the final goal and accept that there will be a process, and that process will require effort. You don’t assume that the work is already done just because you say it’s done. You don’t have slaves to do your work. You can’t contract this out. You have to do it.

If you dig a trench you know when it is done. You can see it. But how do you know when you’re finished forgiving someone? I think you can’t really know by counting to 490 or by setting some arbitrary goal. I think you don't know until the trench finally breaches the bank, channeling the river of life into your fields, returning the scorched earth to a verdant garden teeming with new life, and making a place to walk with God in the cool of the day.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

maybe

Something I read on Sam's blog yesterday morning reminded me of something I started writing a year ago and never finished. Sam wrote about this verse in the Bible (which has found its way into several worship songs) that talks about some day every knee bowing to Jesus. This verse, quoted with the requisite brashness, comes off as a taunt. And that has been bugging me for some time. Sam said that as he follows Christ, those words lose grip on the oppressor's sword. I seriously doubt that the people who came up with those words meant for them to be crusade language. So I hope that what happened to Sam can happen to everyone everywhere.

Anyway, I called what I wrote Biblical Uncertainty for lack of something better. I don't think I ever went public with any of it anywhere, but maybe I did. Here it is:

It's always bugged me about the name it and claim it crowd, and other fundamentalists as well, how certain they are, or rather how certain they need things to be. Mostly it bugs me because Jesus didn't come off that way. He just spoke calmly, expecting people to get it. Or not. I don't get the feeling from reading the gospels that he was a thumper, pounding the podium and stomping his feet and all that. And I don't get the idea that he would sayuh thingsuh with poweruh so thatuh the peopleuh would putuh their faiuthuh in Himuh.

So it bugged me enough that I started digging into some of these things.

There's a lot less certainty in the Bible than some Christians are representing. And I think this could be a big relief to a lot of people who feel intimidated in front of the firing line of Christian boldness. I know it has been a relief to me to know that I can simply shrug off most of the absolute-truthisms and authority-of-scripturisms that fly irresponsibly to and fro around the Bible Belt where I live. And in all that shrugging I have actually rediscovered a verb tense used in the original language of the Bible that seems to have been totally translated out. I call it the maybe tense. Its technical name is subjunctive.

For example, there's this popular worship song that goes...

One day every tongue will confess you are God
One day every knee will bow
Still the greatest treasure remains for those
Who gladly choose you now

Doesn't that inspire all the Christian Soldiers want to take up arms, and fight to the death, knowing that the day they get braggin' rights is just around the corner? (at least on God's timetable)

But there's a fly in the ointment. The problem is that it's just not true. Those words come from a stanza of poetry in Paul's letter to the Philippians where it says this (more or less)...

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him
to the highest place
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth,
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

So here, briefly, is the problem. In the Philippians 2 poem, there are no future tense verbs. At all. There are present, aorist (timeless tense, peculiar to Greek), and subjunctive (maybe tense). That says something to me. It does not say that this attitude WAS in Christ Jesus. It says this attitude IS in Christ Jesus. The verbs that aren’t present tense are aorist, which says to me that they should probably be written in present tense as well. The verb used for bowing and confessing is subjunctive. (Strongs Concordance says subjunctive: The subjunctive mood is the mood of possibility and potentiality. The action described may or may not occur, depending upon circumstances.) So it's basically: “Since Christ is Lord now, every knee should bow and every tongue should confess, but they may not.”

This is all very interesting to me. But I know I'm not really normal when I dig into ancient greek verb tenses. And I am quite sure that a thorough understanding of ancient greek is not required to follow Jesus. And I've the same sureness that an education in ancient greek is something that religious figures use to intimidate parishioners and protect their powerful seats. But like I said, this has been bugging me for a good while, and so I got under the covers a bit. As far as good contemporary translations go, at LEAST I would say that this is a better translation:

Let this mind be in you, which is also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thinks it not robbery to be equal with God: But makes himself of no reputation, and takes upon him the form of a servant, and is made in the likeness of men: And being found appearing as a man, he humbles himself, and becomes obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also highly exalts him, and gives him a name which is above every name: So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, those dwelling in heaven, and in earth, and under the earth; And every tongue should confess since Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The first thing that intrigues me is this. It doesn’t express any certainty that one fine day Jesus will finally really be Lord and then coerce everyone to accept his Lordship. It says He is Lord now, and therefore everyone and everything should accept that reality and submit to it. There’s no “well, you wait and see—you’re gonna get yours!” Christ IS Lord now so that every knee should bow and every tongue should confess, but they might not, depending on the circumstances. There’s no absolute promise of future knee bowing or tongue confessing or Lord exalting. It’s all now. It’s all yesterday, and it’s all today, and it’s all forever. Whatever is will be. The possibilities are endless.

This goes for all the people we meet when we're walking down the street, as well as for gods, demigods, spirits, demons, principalities, powers, even Satan himself. They may never kneel to the Lordship of Jesus, may never be able to see the beauty of the God who became man and humbled himself to die on a cross, and may never accept special favor God has given this Son because of it. But you can. You can do it anytime you want. Because of his humility, Jesus has now been given a name above all names. The choice is yours whether you will accept that same posture. If you decide to kneel, what you are saying is

This is the kind of Life I accept,
This is the kind of Man who lived it,
This is the Man who will rule my heart.

The second thing that intrigues me is that this is present tense. Christ is found in the form of God and man. He is now. Not he once was. Someone could say, “Well, yes, He is now bodily in heaven,” and that’s true. But it’s also true that he is now bodily in earth, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces."

Christ is found NOW as mankind. You should bow.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

hickory nut falls

I woke up this morning to cool, sweet summer air. A sensation not familiar to me in Texas. From the porch of my cabin I looked up on Chimney Rock where Last of the Mohicans was filmed. I couldn’t wait to wake the boys up and run the trails where Nathaniel pursued Cora, where Chingachgook defeated Magua, and where Alice tumbled over the sheer falls to find her death.

And now I sit on the same porch looking on the same green blanketed rock face under clouds raining lazily all around my umbrella, wistful.

The skyline trail that the Mohicans ran was closed for repair, and the other trail leading to the top of the falls where the final showdown was had been closed as well because of some forest fires on the other side of the mountain. Even though I always feel like the world conspires against me when these things happen I did grant plausible denial and dropped the charges for today because yesterday evening we enjoyed the sights and sounds of choppers flying over with buckets of water scooped from the river to quell the hottest outbursts. Even so, it felt like so much of my time here on earth. Nothing seems to fully deliver. Moments of pure joy are endlessly elusive.

So we hiked to the BOTTOM of Hickory Nut Falls on a gentle trail. The boys and girls both enjoyed it. Even Caleb, our beefy two year old, made it the whole way. While taking some pictures I noticed the boys had gone over the edge where the rocks piled up below the falls. Benjamin called up to me, asking if he could keep going. I yelled back, “You can go as far as you can!” I’m learning when the boys start doing what boys do not to stop them. I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s rather rebellious for an earthly parent to counter a heavenly parent. So after watching Benjamin’s head disappear, followed by Christopher and Joshua, I packed away my camera and headed down. That and Jill expressed to me some concern over the six year old tagging along.

We descended a long way. Longer than we should have. I was surprised that the boys made it as far as they did, actually. But they did, and it was a sight to behold. The crevice the river carved out of the mountain through the trees was quite steep, resulting in giant steps down where the water fell then rested then fell some more. The lush green forest and long trees shooting up to stretch for the morning sun were stunning. The flat rock plates jutting out invited the waters to make beautiful ribbons, which happily obliged, and the massive boulders squatting resolutely proved a great vantage to scout our trail to the next level down. With each level up or down we seemed to become more and more skilled. It was not difficult to imagine that if we had come in another time long ago and made a homestead here we should become as nimble as mountain goats bounding over rock and stream.

But the most beautiful sight was my six foot tall fifteen year old boosting his six year old brother, half his height, over a tricky spot, or pointing out hand and foot holds so he could follow along. There’s nothing quite like watching brothers on a taxing adventure, sticking together, waiting on each other, helping the weak.

We also went above the base of the falls, peering the steep face where Alice fell. It was gorgeous to look down from above at the pools below and imagine how an eagle feels as he soars his circles over all this. I could write forever about the beauties I have seen in this day, but I must be brief for the sake of anyone reading this and for the sake of the falling wine in my glass and the falling temperature on this damp porch. So I wanted to end with some observations on illegal rock climbing before the park ranger scolds you and tells you to return to the trail.

  1. Going down is different from coming up. It’s not that the earth has changed, or that you have changed. But even if you face the mountain both ways and try to reverse your movements, some things are more difficult coming down, some more going up. It’s just the way it is.
  2. Going down and coming up are both eventually tricky when you’re off the beaten path.
  3. If you’re walking down a steep incline and start to slip, just go ahead and sit down. Having both hands and feet available to reach for salvation is a big bonus, and your butt makes a decent skidder.
  4. The earth is your friend—keep as many points of contact with her as possible.
  5. When climbing, test before you trust, or in other words, try before you buy.
  6. Wet rocks are slippery.
  7. Doing the “spider” helps on slightly declining flat wet rocks (the spider move is face up, hands and feet both on the rocks)
  8. If you would like to learn to surf but don’t live near an ocean, you can practice on slightly declining flat wet rocks. Skip the spider.
  9. No matter how steep something looks from the top or from the bottom, there is usually a way to navigate it.
  10. No matter what, mothers will never be persuaded that their boys are safe when climbing.

It was after all a glorious day. We had looked into a full day top rope rock climbing session with an AMGA Accredited Guide Service. But after our off trail vertical adventure the boys said, who wants to go do that. This is just the kind of holiday a boy needs. I’m so grateful to God that the man’s body I’m trapped in still serves well the boy inside.