Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Let me start by saying, I am not trying to be provocative or edgy in this post.  As some of you know, I am on a quest to listen to the top 200 songs of every year, from 1950-2018.  I am currently up to the year 2000.  

One of the songs I listened to from the 1997 list was Meredith Brooks’ song B****, from her album, Blurring the Edges.   Though controversial at the time, the song is really good and has a great message.  In the song she sings:

“I’m a b****, I’m a lover.  I’m a child, I’m a mother.  I’m a sinner, I’m a saint.”

The point, I think, is that Meredith, like all of us, is more than what one word can capture.  She is a complex human being.  A mix of good and bad. Our society has problems thinking about people in this nuanced kind of way. For example, we have often made women choose between being a powerful leader (some would say a b****) and being a nurturer, like a mother.  Odd that we create this false dichotomy for women but not men. So, we would never say that being a powerful man excludes the possibility of him also being a nurturer.  Or, would we?  Isn’t possible for a person, woman or man,  to be both a decisive leader and a kind person? 

We make the false dichotomies in lots of other ways.  You’re either liberal or conservative.  You are either religious or non-religious.  You are either for us or against us...right?

Reading in the Talmud, I came across these words: “Even the greatest of sinners abounds in good deeds as a pomegranate abounds in seeds.  On the other hand, the greatest of saints have their share of moral imperfecations. In short, all humans are cut from the same cloth.”

Which brings me to the topic of saints.  This Sunday is All Saint’s Sunday, in which we remember those who have passed on before us.  Our church will light a candle for each member of our community who has died in the last year.  This is a part of the liturgical work of All Saints Day.  When we use the word saints to refer to those who have gone on before us, we mean by it, ordinary men and women who partake of God’s glory by grace. 

Another part of the work is remembering and celebrating those who set a powerful example of what the faith can look like.  We, the Church, do not think that these people were so perfect that they didn’t need a savior.  No.  They were human.  But there was something about the way that they lived that is instructive to us.  In other words, they got some aspect of the faith so right that we need to pay attention to what their life can teach us.  When we use the word saint in this way, we are talking about some extraordinary display of grace in the life of an otherwise ordinary person. 

G.K. Chesterton said that “Saints were those who exaggerated a virtue their age had forgotten.”  So, for example, Francis of Assisi chose to live in simplicity and voluntary poverty at a time when Renaissance Italy was living in lavish amounts of luxury and the country was going through a gilded age.  Saint Agnes practiced chasity in a time of sexual libertinism.  Theresa of Calcutta displayed mercy in a century of violence. And, Saint Thomas displayed creative intellectual capacities at a low tide in Christian theological exploration.  The fact of that these people were so out of sync with their age is usually what made them stand out, and in many cases, made them seem a nuisance.  They got a virtue right that was being neglected at the time.  

This means, that they are honored, not for being perfect human beings. They had flaws like any one of us. They were a tapestry of strengths and weaknesses.  We honor them for being more human than the age in which they lived.  And so we sing, “For all the saints...”

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

One of Us

So, I am on a musical quest to listen to the top 200 songs of every year, starting from 1950 and ending with December of 2018.  I am up to 1999.  Recently, I listened to Joan Osborne’s song, One of Us.  I had forgotten what a good song it is.  The song was written by Eric Bazilian, to impress a girl.  It worked.  She is now his wife.  Eric presented the song to Joan Osborne, who chose to include it on her 1995 album, Relish.  

The song deals with issues related to belief in God and how we might relate to God.  The song encourages us to imagine that God were like one of us.  This got me thinking in two directions.  The first had to do with a 4th century man, named Athansius.  And for he record, the icon doesn’t capture what he looked like.  Athanasius was a little, black, African man whom others called the black dwarf.  Any how.  

Athanasius spent his life thinking and teaching about the Trinity and the Incarnation (God’s divine Son becoming human).  In one of his written works, he entertains the question, “Why did God become human?”  Here is part of his answer:  “If he had so willed, Jesus could have revealed himself and his Father by means of sun, or moon, or sky, or earth, or fire, or water.  Had he done so, no one could have accused him acting unbecomingly...Some may then ask, ‘Why did he not manifest himself through nobler or greater parts of creation; some nobler instrument, such as stars, or sun, or air?’  The answer is this: He did not come to make a display.  He came to heal and to teach suffering people.  For one who only wanted to make a display, the thing would have been to have appeared and to have dazzled the beholders.  But for him who came to heal and teach, the object was not simply to dwell here, but to put himself at the disposal of those who needed him...not exceeding the human ability to receive him.”  

In other words, God became one of us.  Thus, the Bible can say “There was no extraordinary beauty or majesty to attract us to him (Isaiah 53:2), while also saying, “We beheld his glory, a glory of an only begotten Son of the Father.”   Jesus was an ordinary carpentar of whom it can be said, “The fullness of the Godhead dwelled in him, bodily (Colossians 2:9).”  In the Incarnation, God translated himself into something we could understand and relate to.   

One more thought, the video for Joan Osborne’s song shows ordinary people.  Seeing them really touched me.  But it was not just the faces.  It was the lighting and the mood of the video.  It has a sad, melencholly hue about it.  And this made me think of Matthew 25, where Jesus teaches us that the way we treat people in need is how we treat him.  In other words, if you want to see God, find someone in need and show compassion.  That is how you find and relate to God. He is found among the least and the last.

People want God to show up and to dazzle them, overwhelming their capacity to see and act.  And, sometimes God does this; but not usually.  God is much more want to show up incognito, making himself available to those who seek him. He resist those who want only to see something remarkable (Matthew 16). 

So, we need to stop looking for the burning bushes and the signs in the sky.  Maybe they will be there and maybe they wont. But God can be found.  He can be found, first in the person of Jesus.  And secondly, Jesus hangs out with the marginalized, the sick, the impoverished, the depressed, the imprisoned, and the lonely. Find them.  Love them.  And, you will see that you have found God.  After all, he became one of us.  

Monday, October 8, 2018

Demons and Pears

When the days are cold
And the cards all fold
And the saints we see
Are all made of gold
When your dreams all fail
And the ones we hail
Are the worst of all
And the blood’s run stale
I want to hide the truth
I want to shelter you
But with the beast inside
There’s nowhere we can hide
No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come
When you feel my hea
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
These are part of the lyrics from the Imagine Dragons song, Demons.  The song was co-written by the members of the band and their producer, Alex da Kid, for the 2013 album Night Visions.  The song is about facing the reality of the dark-side of our personality; which we usually come to recognize only when we have been backed into a corner and are out of good options.  When we can no longer maintain the civility and goodness of our outward behavior, the mask comes off, revealing that we are not a perfectly good person.  That person disappears, because no such person existed in the first place.  
Thus, the song is about struggling to be real about who we really are inside; includingthe painful and difficult struggle to be real with the people who love us most.  Will we push them away or let them see who we really are?  
In Romans 3, the Apostle Paul says, 
“No one is righteous—
    not even one.
11 No one is truly wise;
    no one is seeking God.
12 All have turned away;
    all have become useless.
No one does good,
    not a single one.”

More than 1,500 years ago, a man named Augustine wrote the first introspective autobiography, in which he set out to explore the depths of his own heart, mind, and soul.  In one portion of the book he wrestled with his own demons and the dark side of his own soul.  And, he used a story from his childhood to talk about how it was that he first came to recognize his own inner-darkness.  

He and a group of boys snuck into a man’s farm, where they found a pear tree.  They decided to pick the pears and then thrown them into the pig pen.  Some modern readers have ridiculed the story, saying that Augustine must have beeen neurotically guilt-ridden to be feeling bad about a childhood prank, all those years later. “It’s just pears, man.  Get over it” one recent critic wrote. But, Augustine was far too spiritually and emotionally mature to fall into such scrupleosity, for its own sake.  Instead, listen to these reflective words from Augustine. 

“I became evil for no reason.  The only moative I had for this wickedness was wickedness itself.  It was disgusting, but I loved it.  I loved the fact that I was ruining myself.  I loved falling - not the thing I had fallen for, bu simply falling itself.” Confessions 2.4.9. Augustine found that a part of himself loved doing wrong.  In short, he encountered a dark element of his soul.  

These words remind me of something Mike Tyson said in an interview, after being released from prison.  He talked about his life of drugs and violence, and what he called the allure of evil.  He said, humans are bad and are drawn to things that are bad. These words were the beginning of Mike Tyson’s new life and his pursuit of being mentally and spiritually healthy.  

What all three of these sources, Imagine Dragons, Augustine, and Mike Tyson seem to be saying that we cannot become healthy and good until we have first faced the darkness inside.  We must stop pretending that everything is all right on the inside, when we know that some pretty dark things live within us.   

In Luke 5, we read: 

27 Later, as Jesus left the town, he saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. 28 So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him.
29 later, Levi held a banquet in his home with Jesus as the guest of honor. Many of Levi’s fellow tax collectors and other guests also ate with them. 30 But the Pharisees and their teachers of religious law complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?”
31 Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.32 I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.”

Jesus is the Physician of Souls, who can make us whole.  But he can do nothing for us, until we have first admitted our need to be healed.  Here are a few questions to consider. 

1.  When or how did you first encounter the dark-side of your own soul?

2.  Were you willing to be honest with yourself about what you discovered inside? 

3.  Were you willing to be honest with those who love you most?

4.  Did this discovering draw you closer to God; or was it a cause to pull away from God?  

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Journey of 1,000 Years

My friend and colleague, Sky McCracken suggested some “light” reading for me.  He likes to understate his own talents and intellect, and will often say that I am the resident scholar on staff.  Well, he’s no intellectual light-weight.  Anyway...Of all he saints and scholars produced by the Church, his favorites are the Cappadocian Fathers; that is, Basil, his sister, Macrina, their brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend, Gregory of Nazianzus.  (Hum...why are they not Cappadocian Parents, since one is female?)

These four devout and scholarly Christians, who lived at the end of the fourth century, made an lasting impact on the Church.  Of the four, Gregory of Nyssa has had the biggest impact (though, to be fair, he had a lot of help from the other three).  

At this point, I want bring up a topic: Spiritual restlessness.  This is what Bono sings about in U2’s great anthem, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.  It seems that there are two varieties of spiritual restlessness; one bad and the other good.  

The bad variety is what keeps us perpetually bored and unhappy with life, despite all the good and wonderful blessings we may have.  It keeps us from being thankful and robs of the simple gift of now.  This spiritual restlessness is characterized by dissatisfaction and an ungrateful heart. 

The good variety is what keeps the human race moving forward.  It is the impulse that led people to search for new lands, sail the seas, climb mountains, explore caves, chart a course across Antarctica, and send a man to the moon.  It is also what gives us a hunger for new knowledge, the creativity to write poetry, the ingenuity to build machines, paint masterpieces, and fuse foods from two or more cultures.  This spiritual restlessness is characterized by insatiable curiosity and the thrill of being alive. 

The first variety is a sickness that kills the soul.  The second is the flame of fire that brings the soul to life.  Lose the first and you will discover life.  Lose the second and you will lose the essence of being human. 

And surprisingly, this brings me back to Gregory of Nyssa and the rock band, Kiss.  In the song, Journey of A Thousand Years, we hear these lyrics: “All your yesterdays are gone.  But you’ve only just begun.  It’s time you opened up the door. And now it’s very clear; this journey of a thousand years.”  

That’s pretty good theology from some old rockers.  The song tells the story of passing from this life into eternity and discovering that, like this life, heaven is more about a journey than it is about a static, fixed destination.  This is precisely what Gregory of Nyssa believed.  Reflecting on Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, Gegory has this to say:

“Leaving behind everything that can be perceived -not just what the senses see - but also what the intelligence thinks it sees- the mind keeps on penetrating deeper, until by the yearning for understanding, it reaches what is invisible and incomprehensible, and there it sees God.  This is true knowledge of what is looked for.  This is the seeing that consists of not seeing, incomprehensibility like that of darkness.

What is Gregory saying? He is saying that spiritual perfection and heaven are not static experiences for God’s children.  As Jonathan Hill says, “The infinity of God means that we never reach the end.  The more we journey into God, the more we see that there is still more to go.  They mystical journey is therefore a never-ending one.  If this sounds like eternal unfulfillment, Gregory thinks it quite the opposite: it is eternal fulfillment; moving from horizon to horizon.  We do not progress to perfection. Progress in God is itself perfection; at least for finite beings like ourselves.” - The History of Christian Thought, page 76 

So, spiritual restlessness is something built into us by God.  It is a sign of eternity and evidence that we were made with a capacity for knowing God.  Obviously, I am speaking of the second and good variety of spiritual restlessness.  Perhaps, the bad variety is what happens when the good one becomes sick and distorted by sin. 

Isaiah 55:1 says, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat?  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”  

Jesus says, in Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”  

So, where do you see signs spiritual restlessness in your life?  Which variety?  How do you keep the good variety healthy and from becoming the spiritually sick variety?  

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Work, Work, Work, Work, Work

"Study to show thyself approved unto God, a worker that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." - 2 Timothy 2:15

"If we are going to be a wise, spiritual people prepared to meet the crises of our age, we must be a studying, learning community that values the life of the mind." - J.P. Moreland, philosopher, and theologian

I was listening to Rihanna's song, Work, when I began thinking about St. Thomas Aquinas.  The connection is hard work.  Now, I know that the song has double entendres, but I also know that Rihanna is one of the hardest working women in the music industry.
She was born and raised in Saint Michaels, Barbados.  Her mother worked as an accountant and her father was a warehouse supervisor.  Rihanna was one of 5 children growing up in a 3-bedroom bungalow.  In order to help make ends meet, she helped her dad sell clothes from a street stall. But nothing could keep the family from tipping over.

Her father developed an addiction to crack cocaine, which strained and eventually destroyed the family's unity and stability.  Still, Rihanna worked to better herself, participating in an Army Cadet program in her high school, until she was discovered by a music agent.  Since then, she has worked hard to become one of the best-known celebrities in the world.

Aquinas, coming from the aristocratic background, had less to overcome, yet he worked hard to become one of the greatest intellectuals the western world has ever produced.  And his hard work helped the Medieval world overcome a roadblock of the mind.

Leading thinkers of the middle-ages had developed Platonism about as far as it could be taken, but they were not ready for some of the changes that were coming. Through Muslim scholars, Aristotle was being reintroduced to Europe and Christian intellectuals had no idea how to engage these ideas, which called into question many of their most fundamental assumptions.

But Thomas Aquinas was ready.  He had not only mastered all the subjects available at the University where he studied, he had also spent two years grounding himself spiritually, by memorizing the Bible.  He was able to help the Medieval church engage in the paradigm shift that was taking place, without leaving behind the Faith or its intellectual integrity.  And by doing so, Thomas helped prepare the church for leading the people of their time and place.

But Thomas was not just a thinking man.  He was mystical and open to the various ways God reveals himself to us.  Thomas was also a warm and amiable person, whom others loved to be around.  We need some people like St. Thomas Aquinas.

We need some good thinkers, who can provide the people of our culture with some reasonable answers to their questions.  We also need these people to be warm and human, able to relate to ordinary people, who need to see Christianity with a friendly face.  Sadly, we have a Christian culture that is either hostile toward the culture or intellectually too flabby to provide a credible witness. 

More than 20 years ago, the O.C. Supertone wrote these lyrics:

 Bring back the revolution.
 The revolution comes and we all stand as one
 Rises from the darkness and shines like the sun.
 As the sun gets higher, our church catches fire
 Down from our pride and up from the mire.

 It's a dream I had and hope it comes true.
 I forgot to say, the revolution starts with you.
 See wisdom and knowledge is one thing that we lack
 You've been a Christian so long, and you're still on Similac.
 So I call on Martin Luther and all the reformation back.

 Then the common people couldn't read God's revelation
 You had to be a monk or a priest, or read Latin.
 That was all before the revolution happened.

 But the fire cooled down ever since that generation.
 We put down the Bible and picked up the PlayStation.
 And we can't defend our faith 'cause we don't know it.
 We say we love God's word but pick a funny way to show it.
 The world walks by and we don't have a thing to say.
 I call 'em as I see 'em and that's what I see today.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Can You Hear Me?

"God knows what we are made of.  He knows that we are but fragile creatures of dust." - Psalm 103:14

The recent string of celebrity suicides has brought the issue of mental health back to the forefront of public conversation.  High profile chef, Anthony Bourdain and Linkin Park rocker, Chester Bennington, have people asking, "How could successful people like these two be carrying such emotional pain without anyone taking notice?" 

It has been my experience that no one gets through this life without pain.  And, even the strongest people are fragile. We fail to notice this weakness in others, in part, because of our own insecurities.  We think that we are the only ones masking our pain and hiding our shame.  We think that we are the only ones who are faking it, hoping not to be found out to be the fraud that on the inside we fear we are.  

Yet, all around us are people that are just as scared and wounded as we.  We do not see the pain our neighbor carries inside, but the evidence is there if we are willing to see it.

  "I tried so hard
   and got so far
   but in the end
   it doesn't even matter
   I had to fail
   to lose it all.
   but in the end
   it doesn't even matter" - Linkin Park

Can we hear the pain in another's voice?  Are we willing to shut-up and let others talk?  Are we able to take the focus off of ourselves long enough to pay attention to the person beside us?

  "Can nobody hear me?
   I've got a lot that's on my mind
   I cannot breathe
   Can you hear it, too?" - Imagine Dragons

Recently, two friends shared with me some of the pain they have been carrying around.  It surprised me because both are confident and successful people.  But why was I surprised?  Do I believe that being confident and successful would give my friends an exemption on suffering?  If I do believe this, I shouldn't.  

In Christianity, we find this perfectly balanced idea of human beings as possessing great dignity and capability, yet all the while, being fragile and in need of great care.  Humans, it seems, are like fine and precious art, that are constantly at risk of being snuffed out, by the smallest impact from life's dangers.  

This perfect balance can be found in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury, who was born in 1033.  Historian Jonathan Hill calls Anselm one of the most likable people of the middle ages. 

"Remove grace, and you have nothing that can be saved.  Remove the free will and you have nothing to save." - Anselm of Canterbury

In order to help those around us who may need a lifeline, we must attempt this balance in our approach to people - respecting and admiring the strength and dignity, while appreciating the fragile nature of even the most robust among us.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Waiting to Take You Away

It is hard not to like the Beatles.  In seven years (Ringo joined the band in 1962 and Lennon quite in 1969), they wrote and recorded some of the best-loved and most familiar songs in pop/rock music. In fact, when people talk about the early music versus the late music, it makes me laugh since the band was not even together a decade.  It makes sense to talk about the early and late music of the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith, but not Beatles.   In an incredibly short span of time, the band produced a lot of good music.

In addition to being amazing musicians, they also made rock n roll interesting.  They were artists who pushed the boundaries of creativity with concept-albums, videos, cartoons, movies, and imaginative detail in every aspect of their work, from stage presence to album covers.

When I think of the Albums Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and Abbey Road, I get the feeling that I am only scratching the surface of what these four men were capable.  Many a Beatles fan has wondered what the band might have continued to produce, had they stayed together.  Each of the four continued producing amazing music on their own, and a music lover could spend their whole life devoted to their catalog of songs.  The full tapestry of their creative work makes the listener feel as she/he has entered into a world of its own.

The collective work of the Beatles invites us into something bigger and richer than just a collection of songs. This is what mysteries of our Faith (the Virgin birth, the Crucifixion, the Ascension, and the return of Christ, to name just a few) provide us. They invite us into something bigger and richer than a collection of religious beliefs. These mysteries are entry points into the inexhaustible richness of God.  No matter how deeply we delve into them, we continue to discover spiritual and intellectual treasures beyond our expectations.  When we neglect the mysteries of the Faith, we discover our souls becoming arid and famished.  A dryness of faith makes us thirsty for something, which we cannot find in any other way than in diving deeply into the creative fonts of mysteries like the Trinity.

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, and I wanted to provide a thought from Kallistos Ware on what it means to call the Trinity a mystery.

"In the Christian context, we do not mean by a 'mystery' merely that which is baffling and mysterious, an enigma or insoluble problem.  A mystery is, on the contrary, something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God.  The eyes are closed-but they are also opened."  - Kallistos Ware

In the mysteries of the faith, there is so much waiting to take us away.