Monday, July 28, 2008

Made-up Things

Hither if I have come through earth and air,
Through fire and water--I am not of them;

Born in the darkness, what fair-flashing gem
Would to the earth go back and nestle there?
Not of this world, this world my life doth hem;
What if I weary, then, and look to the door,
Because my unknown life is swelling at the core?
(George MacDonald, "The Diary of an Old Soul")
I must confess something rather embarrassing: not too many weeks ago I had fallen under the spell of the village atheists. I was reading their writings, and listening to their debates, all with the intention of proving to myself how silly they really were, and how superior my Christian worldview was from the standpoint of logic and reason.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the ivory tower, I discovered to my horror that they were making sense. Taken purely from the standpoint of logic and reason they make some powerful and convincing points. Sure, the Christian apologists who debate them make very powerful and convincing points as well, but the atheists have a trick up their sleeve which, to me anyway, trumps the apologists and wins the debates. You see the atheists get to play both sides of the table while the apologists only get to play one.

The atheists use arguments from reason and logic, but their trump cards are the arguments from emotion. The atheists seem to share a level of anger and hatred towards God that borders on the psychotic. They level charges against God with all the fury of a lover scorned and all the hurt of an abandoned child. And it is here that I ate the apple. For I too have long struggled with anger towards God for all of his seeming injustice in allowing the pain and heartache of this world to continue unabated.

The natural result of this anger seems, almost universally, to be a planting of the seeds of doubt. We try so hard to force the universe into something manageable or predictable. We take refuge behind the study of science. We try to find shelter beneath the comforting gaze of the goddess of reason. We deny the basic truth that man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, or we abandon all pretense and wallow in the muck and the mire.

And here, after years of struggling with faith, after wasting so much time trying to make God fit into the mold I had created and the box I had formed, I came to the end. And at the end I discovered the beginning. A light was shining in the darkness but I had not understood it. Not understood it that is until I was stabbed through the heart by the truth of the story and the reality of the myth. As I lay there in a stupor, under the spell of the village atheist, drunk with the maddening wine, I remembered...Before the silver cord was severed, or the golden bowl was broken; before the pitcher was shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well. (Ecclesiastes 12:6)... I remembered.

I remembered the Creator because I remembered His creation. I remembered the numberless stars scattered like a symphony of light across the heavens. I remembered the sundering sea with its eternal invitation to pass beyond the edge of the world. I remembered the ancient forest and the lord of ageless wisdom that resides within some hidden realm. I remembered that I was fearfully and wonderfully made... in the secret place. That I was woven together in the depths of the earth. (Psalm 139:14,15)

I remembered my true home; a home I had never seen, but a home whose story was written on my heart. A story, a myth if you will, about a King and his Son. A story about a princess looking and longing for her white knight. A story of loss and betrayal, and of rescue beyond the gates of hope. And the story rings true. The myth that is written deep into every fiber of creation, that awakens a longing so exquisite as to be almost painful, resonates with a verity that goes beyond the realm of thought and word and finds its anchor in the very bedrock of the universe.

Yes, the pain is real. Yes, the sadness is real. Yes, the tears are real. Yes, the horror and disease and loss is real. But in what story are they not? And in what tale that stirs the heart do the heroes not live happily ever after?

The Lord of the story, the great Prince of the myth, came and knelt at my side as I lay bespelled and touched my face. He healed my heart and spoke my name. And at the sound of that voice I awoke and I remembered, and remembering I turned my back on the shadow and turned my face towards the glorious light. In the words of a great traveler who went before me on this road: "Here I stand, I can do no other".
All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things -- trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. (C.S. Lewis, "The Silver Chair")

Friday, July 18, 2008

Exit Stage Left

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (William Shakespeare, "Macbeth")
I have recently decided to stop being a player (actor) and walk with God. Well, you say, I thought you'd been a Christian all your life. Yes, I suppose that is true, but I have recently begun to discover that although I may have given lip service (and even some guilt induced public service) to being a Christian, actually walking with God is something else entirely. I can't take a whole lot of credit for this new insight, God has been amazing in the way He's shaken up my life and shown me a spiritual dimension that I had heard of but never experienced.

One of the ways God has reached out to me is through a couple of sermons I've listened to over the last few weeks. One sermon was in a church that we attended out of the blue (a cool story in and of itself) and the other was on the radio. Now I've been listening to sermons on the radio and in churches practically my entire life, but I've heard more from God in the last month than I've probably heard in the 40 some odd years leading up to this point. This reflects poorly on me not God. He's been chasing me down the entire time, I've just been actively (and inactively) resisting Him the entire time.

Both sermons just got right up in my face and exploded, exposing me for the fraud and poser that I was. They were tailor made for me. God showed me that I have been acting, playing a role, strutting and fretting my hour upon the stage. I was given the script as soon as I could begin to comprehend language. I was given the costume as soon as I got out of baby clothes. I learned how the person I was to portray should walk and talk, what he should and shouldn't eat, what he should and shouldn't drink. I learned how to apply the makeup, and where my mark was on the stage. I even learned how to work with the props.

Just imagine me, for instance, walking into church. Someone approaches me and our eyes meet. We both know our parts so well. Hands are extended and clasped. Those special smiles form the faces into works of saintly art. And the lines are spoken.

"Good morning brother, it's good to see you, how are you doing?"

"Well hello my friend, I'm doing great. God is good isn't he? He's really blessed me this week."

"That's great to hear. Yes, God certainly is good."

Now that's a steaming load of poo and we both know it, but we've learned our lines well and we speak them with highly practiced sincerity. Never mind that our lives might actually be spiraling ever downwards into hopelessness, that we might be about ready to lose control and crash in a fiery spectacle. No, we're good little players, surely it would be wrong to admit that God is about as real to us as the painting on the wall, and seems about as strong as the felt Bible characters in the kid's classrooms.

I suppose two of the main things I learned was that when portraying a Christian you had to "share your faith" and do "good deeds". Oh the guilt that was induced in me by those seemingly simple concepts. I was already painfully shy and was never gifted with the healthy self image that so many others around me seemed to possess. The thought of approaching people I didn't even know and "sharing my faith", or of putting myself out there to do "good deeds", was simply terrifying to me. But, I had to do it. If I didn't it must mean I wasn't really a Christian. It must mean I didn't have enough faith.

And fear would win so often. And every time fear won, my self-image got worse. Every time fear won my guilt would increase. As the guilt increased it became immobilizing and suffocating. A vicious cycle of promises to do good deeds and share my faith, followed by predictable failures to really be the "strong" Christian that I knew I wanted to be. Still I played the role, I put on my mask and kept trying to go to church and pretend that I was something, when I knew that what I really was was a miserable failure, and certainly an incredible disappointment to God. If those saintly characters who seemed to have it all together knew what I really was like they'd certainly be appalled. Why was it so easy for them?

And so we come to the present day. We come to a time in my life where I had grown so tired of pretending, so weary of the cycle of falling away and coming back. So ready to just sit down and quit. Here, at the ending of all things, I am finally so exhausted that I am able to hear the voice of God. And what is it that He tells me? What is the amazing revelation from the Almighty? Well, amazingly enough, they are thoughts, words and ideas that have been right in front of me my whole life. They are even written down in the Bible.
When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: 'Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son ever again.'

But the father wasn't listening. He was calling to the servants, 'Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We're going to feast! We're going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!' And they began to have a wonderful time. (Luke 15:17-24)

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-20)
OK, so what's the big revelation here you might ask. Anyone who's been in church for any length of time has heard or read these verses. Yes, that is true, I have certainly read these verses many times in my life. But now something is different. God is showing me something I have never understood before. God is the actor, and by actor here I don't mean someone who is pretending, I am referring to another meaning for the word. God is the the one who takes action. Whether I am tired and desperate and making my miserable way in an effort to find God, or whether I'm just going through life doing my job, God comes to me. He does it, not me.

And notice what Jesus says when he calls my name: "Come, follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men". Do you see it yet? He doesn't say: "Go, do good deeds and share your faith, in order to prove that I've made the right choice in calling your name". He doesn't say "Go take a bath. Sober up and get right before I'll give you a hug and a kiss and some new clothes".

So there it is, so simple, but yet the sense of freedom is so exhilarating. It's not about doing stuff, playing a role, pretending to be something you're not. It's just about following Jesus. Listening to him. Talking to him. Spending time with him. The other stuff, the good deeds and sharing your faith stuff? That will take care of itself. That's the promise of Jesus. "Follow me and I will make you a fisher of men".

Do you feel like a fisher of men? No? Well, I don't either yet, but that's OK. It's not up to me to become a fisherman, or even to "act" like one, Jesus will make me one. Do you feel worthy to wear those nice clothes over your smelly skin and that ring on your dirty finger? No? I don't either, but it sure feels nice. And I've got a sneaking suspicion that the longer we wear these things the cleaner we're going to become underneath them.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Have you?

Do you know about the highlands of the north, how their mystery and beauty enchant? How they weave a spell on the heart of a man, how they hold him and won’t let him go?

Have you seen how the trees crouch low, huddling close to the refuge of earth? Maybe they’re trying to stay hidden from the embittered wrath of winter, or maybe they’re already so close to the skies that they don’t feel the need to strain and grasp for the airy heights like their cousins down away in the lowlands.

Have you smelled the sweet pungency of pitch and of earth mixed with the gentle incense of flowers and grass? Has it washed over and through you on the wafting and waves of an ocean of pure azure sky? Have you savored the rumors of distant high meadows or a wildwood in a valley long hid? Has the scent lured and beckoned you further and higher to its fount at the birthplace of dawn?

Have you heard the silence that beckons you to enter in and listen, to discover that it’s not so silent after all? There’s a bird over there, and a creek in the meadow, there’s a rustling that recedes in the grass. There’s a gust as it whispers to the crag in its passing, and sighs to the tree tops before it moves on.

Have you felt the chill breeze off the glacier on your face while the heat of the sun warms your back? Have your feet ached with a mixture of pleasure and pain as you plunged them deeply into a frigid stream of startling clarity, newborn that very day from its icy womb on the side of the mountain? Have your hands felt the nuances of time immemorial on the cheeks of the ancient rocks, or the gnarled strength of a branch that spent much of its life grappling with the backbreaking weight of snow and the ferocious gales of winter?

Have you tasted the nectar of beauty distilled, and aged over eons of time? Have you savored the essence of illimitable joy from the wilds of this unbridled land? Have you stopped in your tracks and remembered an echo of time-splintered light, a hope, a longing, and a yearning desire. This taste, this taste so painful in its sublimity, is but a dilution of the true draught, this sound but a faint echo of the true laugh and this ineffable beauty is but a pale shadow of the true home.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A New Direction

Heretofore, my usage of the term "common ground" has been primarily political in nature. That is now changing. Politics has begun to seem like "Groundhog Day" to me. The same characters, the same arguments, the same name-calling, the same empty promises, on and on ad nauseam. Therefore, I am choosing to leave politics to those with the stomach for it and change the focus, not only of my musings, but of my entire life, to things of transcendent and eternal importance.

I will still vote, and I will still try to stay somewhat informed, but I have realized that focusing so much time and attention on politics has been harmful to me in many ways. It has served to take a lot of my time, attention, and energy away from the things that matter (God, family, relationships) and waste it on an arena that is inherently contentious, negative and (it usually seems) beyond hope.

Hope, now there's something that matters. I hope for and desire so much more than my life has consisted of until now. I'm beginning to realize that the enemy of my soul has conspired to make me content with substitutes. For so many years, and in so many different ways, I have wasted countless hours pursuing things that don't really matter. Things, to coin a phrase, that "rust and decay". My life has been one of desperate searching and grasping for meaning and belonging, but time after time I have stopped short of the true objects of my quest and settled for cheap imitations.

By the grace and power of God, the Father of all that is Holy, the maker of Heaven and Earth, I choose life. Life as it was meant to be lived. Life in pursuit of beauty and joy. Life in the arms of God, not in the embrace of some enervating simulacrum, fleeing from the hound of heaven.

My brother, may his crest never fall, recently reminded me that the glory of God is man fully alive. What chance do I have of being alive? What chance is there that the desires of my heart will be met? Is there a chance in Hell of tasting Heaven? What can make me whole again? That's right, you know the next line: "Nothing but the blood of Jesus".