French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said: ““If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks…rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Anna is on her death bed. She has battled Alzheimer’s disease for almost 10 years. She hasn’t recognized her family for quite some time and this reality has left her terrified, confused. She is often angry. She believes a host of people are trying to trick her. Every unknown day arises again the next with all the same complexity and uncertainty. As her caregiver assists her in preparing for sleep, she hears Anna sing just outside her door: “then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art…”
She has forgotten every sermon she ever heard.
Every bible verse she ever memorized.
Every note she ever took in every bible study.
Every family member’s name.
But she remembers all the verses, word for word, of this great hymn. Why?
A young man in his late twenties battles with a choice. In his circle of friends, he has made the acquaintance of several lovely young women. He dates regularly. These women are delightful, intelligent, captivating. He looks forward to a time when home and family give him better reason to traipse to and from a busy downtown office day after day. A better life picture.
Erin is a Princeton post-doc student. Her dirty blond hair, cheerful demeanour, razor-sharp mind, and engaging repartée have been his regular experience of her. He’s reminded regularly by family and friends just how perfect she is for him. All the “pieces” fit together in a game too big to lose.
Brynne is girl-next-door pretty. Slightly chunky, but still shapely, and full of energy with a quick wit and uproarious sense of humour. Although not as book smart, she is equally intelligent. She is loud, often abrasive but never mean-spirited. She is funny, usually in embarrassingly public ways; opinionated, inadvertently pitting people against one another. She is clumsy and goofy and forgetful and messy and dangerous to his professional reputation.
And he can’t stop thinking about her.
What is happening here? All the facts line up in such a way as to present Erin as the obvious choice for a long-term relationship. Everything “fits.” She fills well the checklist on any relationship course he’s ever taken. Against his better judgment and flying in the face of the facts, Brynne rises to his mind continually. Something about her haunts him, chases him, wants him.
In our current church culture, we usually pose as the primary question of Christian discipleship “what do you believe?” And, pursuant to that question is the presupposition that you need all the facts before you can make an informed decision. I’d like to suggest however that an even more fundamental question is “what do you want?”
James K. A. Smith in his book “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” suggests that we are what we want. “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person…”
What we often generate in our churches is a fill-in-the-blanks doctrinal checklist that amounts to a legal transaction. It is more Descartian: “I think, therefore I am,” than biblical.
Our young man in question will of course do well to know his own heart to navigate whatever his future relationships hold. But in his inexplicable desire for Brynne over Erin, despite appearances to the contrary, we find a key to how God seeks to relate to us.
“Discipleship [then] is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” Even the demons believe and shudder. Knowing facts is easy. Retooling the human heart and its longings is not. But, it is our truest path. That is my call: to work in the Spirit’s process of forming a kingdom people by means of the gathered community in worship.
St. Augustine is quoted as saying, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Our discipleship is less about information than it is transformation.
We don’t instruct people deeper into kingdom life. We inspire them. The heart knows what it loves and that is what forms the foundation of our actions and our habits. Our journey is one of inspiring and shaping our heart’s deepest desires, bending them ever more toward Christ and his kingdom.
Our journey is to discover the beauty and holy peril, oddly comforting, of being adrift with God on the vastness of life’s open sea.
Lord, Saint Augustine once said we’re created by God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Sometimes the way to you can seem cloudy, or grown over with thistles and weeds. We thank you for our longings. We love because you first loved us. You’ve built it into our DNA. Help us not to be afraid of what most deeply moves us, even if that isn’t lofty or what we typically think of as holy. Instead, grab hold of our hearts and shape them, Lord. Form in us a new and undeniable passion for life with God and others. And that, Lord, will be our truest joy. Amen.
A hotel bathroom mirror struggles to squeeze in both of us – primping, priming, prepping. The struggle ensues to strike the balance between post-modern cool and age appropriateness (whatever the hell that means). Final touches, a stupid-slow elevator, and an underground tram ride find us deep in the heart of Washington State’s coolest city. Her oceanside tongue beckons us deeper down her salty throat.
In a quirky irony, a street preacher screeches through a megaphone, “REPENT AND BE SAVED FROM THE COMING WRATH.” Frankly, he seems mad enough for all of us. He shouts himself hoarse, pointing us to some tiny, angry “god” – while we wait to hear from a different God – In the name of love.
We are perched high above a stage that renders everything on it no bigger than our thumbs. From this height, everything seems atomic. Only the stadium is large. There is a palpable expectancy in the aether. Other grey hairs like me mix with kids much younger than our own – a testament to artistic legacy.
The stage is dark except for a few peripheral lights. What seems like hours for an event we’ve waited a lifetime to experience dispels in smoke as a tiny figure makes an appearance. He walks slowly, deliberately and sits at his drum kit. The crowd numbering in the gazillions boils over the brim in collective excitement. A kick drum and snare shots with military precision thunder in the dark. It is one of the most recognizable riffs of a generation. Sunday, Bloody Sunday. I weep in gratitude…
This day is ours, it is our Sunday, blessed Sunday.
May 14, 2017.
The wife of my youth.
Twenty-nine years married.
It is a small handful of events or experiences that earn the well-used primer: “I remember where I was when…” I remember where I was when the Berlin Wall became a gate, the Soviet Union became just a bad dream, when the U.S. dumped “shock and awe” on Iraq. When twin towers of glass and steel crumpled like paper on 9/11.
And I remember the first time I heard the mythic cries of Bono. Raw and pleading. He preached heaven and justice to the world’s hell and woe.
I would never be the same.
Every person can point to at least one thing, one person, book, place, experience that has so deeply touched them they’d not be the same person were it not for that thing. To describe, we use words like impactful, influential, unforgettable, foundational, formative. We say, “I am the person I am today, because of….” Our hearts brim at every remembrance. Conversations always veer in that direction. We return to it again and again rebooting it in our emotional hard-drives.
As a musician and writer, my influences bleed, albeit imperceptibly, onto every page or song I write. Words get strained through my inspirations: Gerard Manley Hopkins, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris – even as I sing in the shadows of Bruce Cockburn, The Chieftains, Dan Fogelberg, Stan Rogers, Paul Simon, and – you guessed it – U2.
Their musical impact is undeniable. Masters of melody, nuance, and the prophetic power of poetic art done well, I am pried open, exposed. Their un-theology is more impassioned activism than easy-to-swallow hallmark messages wrapped in bumper-sticker Christianity. I am the hungry canvas, they my nourishing paint.
Precious few cultural icons are so readily accessible as U2. But they represent much more than memorable music. Their message is not for the faint of heart. It yearns for the alternate reality of what is possible in a red letter arena; the dangerous stage of self-sacrificial love. They are wick to a candle burning brightly in praise of peace and justice, one that cannot blow out. They are cornerstone of a movement that pictures a world better than the one into which we were born.
This is not just the message of a generation played on guitars. This is a message for all time; ever new, always fresh, never-ending – Good News as it was always intended. My throat, tightened from tears, hoarse from singing anthems to peace, will only find rest when I find what I’m looking for. With my life partner beside me, the girl whose heart-strings are also touched by these same forces, I am closer than ever before.
Until then, I want to run in the name of love, in God’s country, where the streets have no name.
The more I read the Gospels, the more I am convinced that we would be the first to condemn Jesus and pin him to a cross all over again. That, in spite of two thousand years of knowledge, and canon, and religious conversations, and catacombs, and persecutions, and the dawn of “Christ-ianity.”
To read the Gospels honestly is to place oneself in dangerous places indeed. It is the readiness to identify as a sheep or a goat; as a disciple or a Pharisee or a religious teacher or a widow or wheat or weeds. We have so objectified the good news into our neat, neo-Platonic categories that we’ve rendered ourselves incapable of being seekers; the very posture required by Jesus to see – God, others, even oneself.
If the Gospels tell us anything they tell us how easy it is to build an impenetrable club of pretense and walls of preconception around our faith. The Pharisees did it and Jesus was forever pissed off with them. The biggest challenge to conversion is the belief that one is already converted and without any further need. It becomes poisonous to the very humility that would otherwise find us deeper in grace and living more abundantly.
It is the great proclamation of the convinced.
Richard Rohr calls this what it is: idolatry. It is the worship and protection of the means to an end rather than the journey toward the beginning. He tells us, “religions should be understood as only the fingers that point to the moon, not the moon itself” (Everything Belongs, p. 51). He believes, and has built a career upon, the notion that all true spirituality is about seeing and letting go in order to see still more.
I have found that it is often to my benefit that I am both A.D.D. and a mystic. That way, when I begin to ramble (a common occurrence!) and someone tells me to “just get to the bottom line,” I can retort with the same refusal Jesus used in such instances. He cared little for such things and besides, it is the misguided idol of a success-driven culture built on information and accumulation rather than instruction and awareness.
I’m aware how much this frustrates my type A friends. For naysayers however, more often than not, they don’t ask again!
Says Rohr, “preoccupation with exchange value and market value tends to blind us almost totally to inherent value…Everything becomes priceless if it is sacred. And everything is sacred if the world is a temple” (Ibid, p. 56). To expect life to produce some kind of “bottom line” is the demand for Jesus to offer a sign. Like the Pharisees, we insist, “just get to the point” and do so in a way that impresses me, asks nothing of me, gives me answers rather than better questions, perpetuates my misguided presuppositions, assures me I’m in and you’re not, and never invites me to step out and journey. Moreover, it promises more darkness and blindness and no actual change. I will still see what and how I want complete with all my preexisting opinions and skepticism.
To see is the one great gift of all true spirituality. Jesus spent a lot of time healing blind people and a lot of time blinding self-proclaimed seers. When all we crave are answers, solutions, and the pragmatics of control, then it is we who stand in need of a raised voice from Jesus. We become the gatekeepers. We become those who, alone, claim to know the Way, the Truth, the Life. We are those possessing the Words of life but in restrictive, mechanical ways upheld in our own Sanhedrins.
And that is what makes us the most ready to feel we need nothing more. We, the converted, stand most in need of conversion. Jesus spent a lot of time in an already protracted ministry window healing blindness. This I believe was no accident. He was particularly drawn to this because of it’s wonderfully metaphorical teaching platform. And I’m sure that someone healed of their blindness would be most deeply grateful; most readily loving.
To see therefore, is to love. And to love is the heart of the Gospel message. Until we love as Jesus loved, we may yet stand in need of conversion. To say otherwise reveals a spiritual smugness, a theological self-satisfaction bent more on winning arguments than whispering prayers.
These days, I rest secure in the knowledge that the same grace offered to the pimps, whores, and swindlers is offered to the converted and the righteous. Jesus spent more time arguing with one and partying with the other.
As I’ve shared elsewhere, I have a “star-crossed lovers” relationship with the written word. A young Capulet and Montague stare with longing at one another from across the room, and wonder what the next step is. We’ve always managed to work things out, but not without long and moody periods of dust and dearth. It’s always advisable, and spiritually healthy, to change up our routines from time to time if only to shake off the cobwebs of inactivity or apathy. But, my relationship with holy writ often stands in contradistinction to their typical handling.
Throughout all ages, the most common topic which has occupied singers, philosophers, poets, and people in general has been…love, of course. The sheer ubiquity of love songs, poetry, painting, sculpture, and pining readily attests to its centrality in our human experience. If you can easily describe your first kiss, the appearance of your first child, the terror of a dead spouse, or pride at the accomplishments of your spawn, you have yet to truly experience love.
Similarly, if you can easily and with absolute confidence ascribe hermeneutical perfection and interpretational clarity to a collection of writings such as the Bible, you are either deluded, or you’ve been reading something else. It is a library with which to contend because, in it, are found treasures worth the battle. The Covenant Community Bible Experience has, for me at least, drawn me to the scriptures in some new and alluring ways; ways that have helped reinvigorate my intention to let them find me and turn me up once more like clotted soil.
We lost as much at the Reformation as we gained. The bible as story is one of those. Against Luther’s best intentions, we ended up with a bible widely available (eventually) but indistinguishable from any other field of inquiry. Bible in the brain, rather than Christ in the soul. The forces set in motion even before the Reformation poured ideological gasoline over centuries of Christian reflection and practice.
To many in contemporary evangelicalism today the church started not at Pentecost, but at the Reformation. Hence, we are given the unfortunate impression that God was somehow completely lost and confused for fifteen hundred years. Suffice it to say, the corrections that needed to be made in the existing church occurred, but in ways impossible to foresee or worse, control. The scriptures came to be seen in ways even they would shudder to contemplate. As the freight train of reforms reached fever pace, it outstripped the ability of people to embed the scriptures into their own lives. Right belief trumped right behaviour. Theology and spirituality parted company.
The Reformed Tradition and, more recently, Evangelicalism, claim that sola scriptura saved the church from the ecclesiastical clutches of a vast hierarchical juggernaut which had all but replaced the bible with magisterium. This has some merit, but they further claim that, with the bible safely in the hands of all, knowledge derived from those same scriptures is readily available and plentiful.
I beg to differ.
The saints of the Medieval Ages and Renaissance knew more, not less, scripture than those who followed. Why? Because their entire lives, their holy-days, their ecclesiastical feasts, their communities, their families, and their places of gathering swam in the stories, prophecies, and songs of the Bible. It was not the absence of the Scriptures in the hands of the common folk that saw them suffer in the almost guaranteed poverty of subjugated peoples. It was that much of the poverty they experienced was because of a church in league with the halls of power.
Merely having the Scriptures in our possession does not guarantee their power in our day to day lives. At times, it may well be the opposite. There is a sense in which familiarity has bred contempt. Or at least apathy. We chose control over wonder, intellectual mastery over mystical formation, trading a holistic library of inspired writing for a flat, rational document for our ownership and dissection. As the church has become increasingly fractured, the possibility of common worship experiences built upon shared and regular experiences of listening and participation in those same Scriptures it so ardently defends has become challenging indeed.
Our buddy Jesus, complete with graphic t-shirt, sleeve tats, skinny jeans, and sideways ball cap points to a similarly cavalier handling of the book in which is enshrined his coming, character, teaching, and sacrifice. We need to recomplexify the Scriptures, not in order to obfuscate, but for the purpose of elevating them to the mystical, existential, literary heights in which it was conceived.
All that to say, I have warmed to the written word once again, largely because of this most recent biblical encounter undertaken by our congregation and denomination. And now that a reintroduction has taken place, we can stop peeking at one another across the Junior High school dance floor, shuffling and coughing. We can take steps across the room toward each other.
Last month we began a conversation; a tête à tête if you will about our relationship to the Bible – something we may not know as well as we think we do. And, because so much is riding on our relationship to this library of writings, it behooves us to dig as deeply as we can.
With the help of Glenn Paauw’s masterful book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well, I have sought to make the case that, in seeking to make the Bible “approachable” we have instead neutered it, making it less transformational. The Scriptures call us to faith, not certainty. Modernity has sought to erase the unpredictability of faith with scientific verifiability. “The bare text is difficult to control. The modernist turn in culture led the keepers of the Bible to transform it into something precise, punctual, calculable, standard, bureaucratic, rigid, invariant, finely coordinated, and routine…This is a Bible that needs to be saved” (p. 37). We have all heard the adage that “less is more.” It holds true in many areas of life. For example, my wife tells me that much of her editing process involves carving away the literary dross from her manuscript in order to leave the best kernels of story that will keep the reader engaged. She wrote her book in under a year, but has spent over three more in the arduous task of proofing, hacking, chopping, and honing. Michelangelo stated that his masterpiece sculpture of David was “discovered” by simply chipping away all that was not David. It has been scientifically proven that the clutter of too many road signs and instructions cause drivers to disengage, the very thing such signs are designed to avoid. Less is more. With the many additions and “improvements” to the Bible, aimed at helping us pay attention, we have ostensibly removed its beautiful “surface simplicity that [could] open up for us the inherent and immensely interesting good complexity that lies deep within…The Elegant Bible will reflect the wisdom that form and content always belong together in God’s good creation. Form is part of the content of things” (p. 39). We must always begin with the questions, what is the Bible and how can we honor what that is? Paauw suggests that we are badly in need of an “extreme Bible makeover” wherein we can undo its fractured format that only leads to fractured reading and commensurately fractured lives. Part of that process will be to learn how to adopt the practice of referencing passages by context and content rather than by isolated chapters and verses. As is apparent in the rather unique Covenant Community Bible Experience in which our fellowship is presently engaging, Paauw advocates for a Bible less encumbered by the artificiality that has been foist upon it by means of chapter and verse numbers that pull us out of a narrative and broad reading of its contents; section headings that are ultimately interpretive by nature; page layouts which hide from us the diversity of literary forms employed in our original manuscripts; and, particularly, study Bibles that can actually mitigate against the deep, transformative, non-agenda-driven reading that can best draw us into the dangerous place of spiritual formation rather than mere information. We need to view the Bible more as poetry, which demands exactitude of form as much as content. What a poem “looks like” is intended to speak as loudly as the words themselves. Form and content alike form our understanding of a thing. We have inherited more of a cultural creation than the Bible that was originally intended. Says Paauw, “to save the Bible from ourselves, we must begin to trust once again its ancient ways of saying things…The path to restoring our Bible begins with chipping away at everything that doesn’t belong there” (p. 50). Our love for God demands no less than an equal love of the Scriptures as they were first delivered. Those with ears to hear, let them hear…
With this new series of posts, I am entering a conversation. I do this for several reasons. It is partly in celebration of a journey recently embarked upon by our fellowship (Yakima Covenant Church) into the Covenant Community Bible Experience. It is an initiative of our denomination (Evangelical Covenant Church) to help rattle our scripture cages a bit by placing in front of us a New Testament compiled chronologically and without any of the customary headings, chapter and verses. I trust some of the reasons for this shall become clear over time.
Secondly, it touches on a topic of fascination to me personally: my love for the written word. That, combined with a growing love for the God who could never be contained by it, compel me to share these things.
Finally, it is in answer to various queries following a sermon I preached on this topic a few weeks ago. In these conversations, I’ll be utilizing ideas, and materials spanning decades. Specifically, I’ll be referring often to one particular book from which I’ve gleaned much of late, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well by Glenn R. Paauw. The topic? The Bible of course. More specifically, the terminology, ideas, misunderstandings, projections, additions, expectations – both false and otherwise – that have arisen around it and from which it presently suffers.
The week of my “conversion” I quickly became fascinated by the strange and enigmatic words on the wispy pages of a Bible given to me by my grandmother. For years, it sat, neglected and increasingly dusty, on a shelf in my bedroom. My senior year it began to grow in my mind as something much more significant than that which I had hitherto attributed to it.
The first verse I ever memorized? “The grass withers, the flowers fade; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 NRSV)
If we are to give to the Bible the love and respect it deserves we should experience no small discomfort with the words “back to the Bible.” It belies a naïve, even whimsical view of it that has the potential to diminish its depth and complexity and, as such, its impact.
As we shall see from looking at Paauw’s book, we commonly approach this ancient library of texts with a truck load of preconceived notions, pet ideas, personal preferences, cultural parameters, and less than informed expectations. Paauw believes that we have “over-complicated its form while over-simplifying its content” (p. 16).
He makes the case that, over the course of many centuries, Bible scholars and publishers have increasingly added to it what is thought to be helpful – chapter divisions, verses, subheadings, notes, etc. – all in an effort the “make it easier to understand.” The result has been the opposite however and, in the process, we’ve been led to sample rather than feast deeply on the Scriptures. It has led to a narrow, individualistic and escapist view of salvation. And, rather “than being a culture-shaping force, the Bible has become a database of quick and easy answers to life’s troubling questions.”
So then, let us enter a conversation together. Let’s talk about the Bible. What it is. What it is not. The purpose? To develop a truly broad, deep, informed, and appreciative view of this enigmatic collection of ancient writings. Because much of what we understand about God and one another comes from it, I think it wise to do so. Don’t you?