Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
ABC’s Once Upon a Time hooked Shannon and me. I don’t yet think I would put it in the class of 24, but the producers of Lost have succeeded in creating a plot that moves and strikes like Jack Bauer. The show follows the town of Storybrook, Maine, a collection of individuals whose real identity lies in a fairy tale world of happy endings. Only the evil queen has cursed them to this new world where their memories of love have been erased. The show flashes back and forth between the two worlds, Storybrook and the fairy tale world, and both stories hinge upon the other. That’s the short description. The premise of the show illustrates a frightening metaphor for our spiritual lives. The people of Storybrook live blind to their own purposes because they’ve been stripped of their identity.
I share that story as introduction of a book I want to pass along. Or maybe it’s an experience. My uncle recently published 210Project: Discover Your Place in God’s Story. The book begins with two questions that haunt us in the moments when we unsubscribe from the noise of our lives:
Why am I here?
What does God really want me to do with my life?
The authors write that the answers to those questions flow out of Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” One of the things I appreciate most is that the book is broken up into three parts: 1. Identity 2. Good Works 3. Life Mission. When we let any of those three bleed into the other, we develop a warped view of God, justification, and sanctification. And the effects surely lead us away from the freedom Paul proclaims in Galatians and the life that Jesus promises.
The book becomes an interactive experience with online exercises and activities that draw out, confirm, and solidify your passions and giftings. Check out the interactive website: http://www.the210project.com/
Jesus is the reason for the season. Good news, huh? Okay, I’m aware that we know this. I’ve heard six straight devotionals drawing me back to the real meaning of Christmas. But I wonder if our focus needs to shift from the scrutiny of our priorities to our actual desires. There’s a difference, subtle as it may be. The admonishing of someone toward a hierarchy of priorities is usually littered with “should’s”, and should statements rarely lead one to worship.
Why is it that walking into Starbucks in December and ordering a Crème Brulle Latte makes me feel like I’m experiencing Christmas? Why does an eager energy warm my soul at the end of November when Christmas commercials begin? Why do red and green M&M’s taste better? I love the culture. Our created holiday culture borrows power from the name of Christ, and that makes us smile, but it is a culture that treats God’s invasion into our story more like an interruption than a rescue. And sadly, we’re okay with that. We often love the culture more than the Christ. Imagine if the Starbucks of Herod’s time created new lattes and mochas every year to celebrate the census. The wise men would not have stopped, but would we have?
Ultimately, in any given moment, we act on our desires. And our culture desires too little. To rewrite C.S. Lewis’ quote, We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with Santa and reindeer and candy canes and shopping when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant Christian who wants to go on drinking a hot cup of Christmas culture with cream because he cannot fully imagine what is meant by the offer of a Savior in a manger. We are far too easily pleased.
Another reason we cling to culture is that the intellectual truth of the gospel feels disconnected, too far out of reach, from the cold reality of our lives. So the Christmas culture becomes a tangible experience, something on our terms, not God’s. Part of the struggle with this disconnection is the sense that all of this celebration and focus around the birth of our Messiah must create some more intimate experience of Jesus than the other wintry eleven months. Shouldn’t Jesus be more accessible with all of this mistletoe and caroling? When December arrives and our hearts feel just as lonely, we turn to the Christmas culture to befriend them.
My toddlers love to look at Christmas lights. Last week I drove my family through our neighborhood on the way to the grocery store. The girls picked out several houses that required stops to view the illuminated snowmen, Santas, and reindeer. Several houses warranted return trips on the way home. Their favorite house is not immaculately lit, but rather has several intriguing characters sitting on the lawn: two gingerbread men, Mickey, Frosty the Snowman, and their favorite, a huge red M&M. As we left Publix, the girls talked about this house. I zipped through the neighborhood in anticipation. I quickly hit the brakes as we approached a nativity scene that we’d previously missed. Our car rolled past at 20 mph and we attempted to spiritualize the season by pointing out the little baby in the manger. But their excitement for the red M&M pushed my foot back to the pedal. Sadly, baby Jesus doesn’t taste like chocolate.
We have created a culture called Christmas that excites us more than the reality. Pornographic movie producers make millions off the same philosophy. The fantasy is better than the real thing. I do not advocate that we throw out Jingle Bells and boycott Starbucks in December. But we do need to watch over our hearts amidst an intoxicating season. It’s about desire, not priorities. Do you desire enough this Christmas? Would you be overjoyed if Christmas morning arrived and Santa had replaced your tree with a nativity scene that invited you to simply stare and ponder the greatest story ever told, a story that needs no sweetening? It starts with desire, a painful awareness that the fulfillment of your longings, hopes, and dreams can only be fully met by that baby in the manger. Stop and stare. Ponder. Gaze on the God who tastes much better than a chocolate M&M.
The silence of the stage reverberated across the grand performance hall. The stage waited, naked without Shakespeare there to dress it: black flooring, black walls, and black curtains. Ghosts of laughter, tears, smiles, and gasps hovered like Hamlet’s father across the void. Red seats sat in anticipation, soldiers standing at attention. Only fifty of the two thousand chairs would hold people tonight.
I walked across the red carpet of the first tier’s entryway en route to sign in for the volunteer training. I weaved through chatting retired folks recounting the events of the now setting summer. They talked of the coming productions and the theater’s lineup for the fall season. I signed in and immediately went to work. I searched diligently for the seat that most hid me from the eyes of the trainer. Yes, even teachers act like students sometimes. I found a spot along the back row just under the windows enclosing the booth for stage lighting and special effects. Off to my left, trainees filled in the first twenty seats in six consecutive rows. Before long, the instructor arrived and immediately ordered my whole row to move closer. I grumbled and obeyed.
You see, I sat through these training sessions each of the last two years. I had already heard how to greet the patron, a word by the way that holds too much uppity power. I already knew how to hang a coat, how to direct someone, sorry patron, to the restroom. I knew how to brace myself for the cold, biting wind as I opened the door for folks. Despite my expertise, the performing arts center mandated the training, and so for my wife and me to attend any of the shows free of charge, I attended. But not as the golden student; I packed some personal reading in the form of a stapled packet that would blend in with the handouts they gave us.
My reading consisted mainly of a chapter excerpt a friend had given me. Reading about psychotherapy while attempting to hide and appear attentive all at the same time makes for difficult comprehension. The woman began her introductions and familiarized the trainees with the theater’s layout. I dove into psychiatric therapy. The premise of the chapter dealt with motivations by which humans operate and make decisions, both minuscule and epic. The author reduced God to a myth we’ve created out of our fear of inevitable death, one of the four assurances of human experience. His arguments crashed into my faith and it spun like a race car careening for the embankment. What if God isn’t real? What if I really have created him out of terror? I fought to hold onto the ledge of conviction as the rebuttal stood above me, threatening to mash my fingers that grasped the edge of the cliff. Suddenly I didn’t care about volunteer training, about hiding my reading, or about eating or breathing. I wanted to go home, lock myself in a dark closet, and pretend none of my eternal questions needed answering. Or better, I wanted to climb Everest to stare up into the starry sky, waving my fist demanding that God prove His existence to me.
At some point amidst the deconstruction of my life’s foundation, the director finalized the first half of the training and directed us into groups to receive instruction on various responsibilities. I sleepwalked to station one. Then I saw her. She was Eve in all her grandeur. I’d noticed her earlier in the evening, but now that she was in my group she became impossible to ignore. Brown curled hair fell just below her shoulders. She wore jeans that fit like jeans should and carried a bag strapped over her opposite shoulder that spoke of being a little more professional than a sorority sister.
The leader of our station taught us how to hang a coat. This time I really tried to pay attention, but Eve danced on the periphery. As we moved from station to station, I contemplated staring, following close behind, attempting a whiff of perfume, striking up a conversation. The night wore on and I partook in none of those. Thankfully I don’t think she battled with any of the same for me.
When the evening finally ended, I signed some papers indicating the performances we (my wife and I) wanted to see, and stepped out into the Nashville night. I glanced into my hand to see the chapter excerpt that only two hours prior had challenged my very essence. The woman’s splendor had seduced my energy away from contemplating God so quickly and wholly that I disregarded the struggle entirely.
I walked past the War Memorial and city fountains and pondered this reality: Beauty is enough to make me forget God. My mind had been so consumed with the challenge of God’s existence and the fear of death without that assurance, and it was all swept away by this woman’s sheer beauty. The experience of beauty really is enough to dispel the need for certainty and conviction.
Beauty is enough to make me forgot God. If God is the source of all beauty, and He created me with an insatiable longing for Himself, that means He created me to experience and need all the beauty that He is. In His goodness and grace He created a world that reflects His beauty, including myself, and in my depravity, I’ve skewed true beauty and settled for far less, which leaves me either gasping or anesthetizing. Still, my longing for beauty supersedes my need for assurance that God exists and that I am in good standing with Him. At first this sounds incredibly heretical. But perhaps beauty does not make me forget God, but actually points me to a deeper experiential need for Him that reaches a depth deeper than my heart/brain’s demand for certainty, faith, and belief of God.
Paul talks about faith, hope, and love in 1 Corinthians 13. In the context of discussing the significance of love, Paul concludes with a vision for heaven and a statement, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
When heaven comes, folks will discard faith and hope like worn shoes. Love will be the only activity, which of course makes it the only one of Paul’s three that has lasting value. I love the C.S. Lewis story in The Great Divorce where a man comes into heaven boasting in his ability or passion to share the gospel. It gets turned on him, however, when he realizes that his “gift” no longer has any value in heaven; the man valued sharing the gospel over intimacy with the Father, and once on the Golden Streets, enjoying God and ruling a redeemed world is all there is left to do. In heaven, dodo birds will far outnumber measures of faith.
When I am in heaven as I know it, I will have no need for faith. I will, however, gaze upon the completion of a word, beauty, that the world has spent my lifetime offering hints of, whether in distortions of illicit material or divine reflections like my wife, Hawaii’s Napali Coast, a river descending through the Rocky Mountains, and the Ponte Vecchio at sunset. But the experience of it will invite much more than gazing.
His Being will consume me with beauty words have not yet been created to explain. I can only dream about no longer aching for the attention of a pretty face. No more need to rewind a musical piece to hear a three second interval that triggers tears in my soul. It will be more than sitting aside the Painter with sunsets that never set. The Painter himself will hold my gaze. It isn’t that the need for peonies and Maui’s Black Rock Beach will go away. No, the desire will be fulfilled to a completion such that no more room for craving exists. And the consummation of beauty, in a place where faith has met extinction, will finally be a true offer of the love I searched for in the eyes of a stranger at the performance hall.
Continued from this post: Spiritual Frontier
Back in high school, our Fellowship of Christian Athletes met in the health classroom, three long tables deep, all facing the white board. Health posters that said “Don’t smoke” and “Exercise Helps Your Self-Esteem!”, decorated the otherwise bare cinder block walls. A handful of teen-zombies stumbled into the room cleaning sleep from their eyes. These were the days before double-shots, macchiatos, ventis, and mochas on every corner. Looking back now, I wonder how much fellowshipping could be expected at 7 AM. Disoriented good mornings and mumbled hellos.
I’ll never forget one gentleman that came to share one Thursday morning. I believe he had wonderful intentions, bless his heart, to direct high school students in life with Christ. He spoke with the warmth of a grandfather and possessed a smile that rivaled Santa’s. With the dry-erase marker and blank canvas he diagramed an old fashioned wheel, a cross between a boat’s steering device and a bicycle tire. He explained that Christ belongs at the hub, and our Christian life flows out of that through four spokes of fellowship, prayer, the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit. To complete the metaphor, he described the engineering of a wheel and how uneven spokes would hinder a wheels capacity to function. You can imagine the wheel’s inability to roll when its spokes differ in length. His message asserted that in order to live the functional Christian life, our prayer life and time in the Word and experience of community and life in the Spirit must be at equal and sufficient levels. Then life works.
Even at seventeen, I knew something wasn’t right. True, elements of the message have value, but overall his explanation of life with Jesus was as exciting as the lesson on proteins and carbohydrates I’d hear later that day. It was as if he fed us vegetables minus the nutritional value. I fear he lead us to a formula for success rather than a river of life. Plugging prayer, Scripture, friends, and what Celtic Christians call the wild goose all equally into my Blackberry calendar simply will not translate into spiritual growth. Philip Yancey comments, “I used to think that everything important in my life- marriage, work, close friends, relationship with God- needed to be in order. One defective area, like one malfunctioning program on my computer, would cause the entire system to crash. I have since learned to pursue God and lean heavily on his grace even when, especially when, one of the other areas is plummeting toward disaster.”
I wrestle with what it means to go after “more”. My inner administrator wants a plan and schedule rather than a cry from the heart, one that may go unanswered.
He spoke about the gospel. About religion beginning with God’s movement toward us and not the other way around. About brokenness and pain and crying out. About dying and selfishness and scandalous grace. His resume supported his message: he became “an aguador (water carrier), transporting water to rural villages via donkey and buckboard; a mason’s assistant, shoveling mud and straw in the blazing Spanish heat; a dishwasher in France; a voluntary prisoner in a Swiss jail, his identity as a priest known only to the warden; a solitary contemplative secluded in a remote cave for six months in the Zaragoza desert.” He later returned to the United States and served and ministered to shrimpers in Alabama and lepers in Louisiana. His message focused not on his journey, but on words burned into his life, “Once you come to know the love of Jesus Christ, nothing else in the world will seem as beautiful or desirable.” So he spoke about the love of a Father, about our inability to hear his tender voice, and our refusal to believe him when we do listen. He said God likes us, not just loves us because theologically he has to, but that he actually delights in who we are and not who we could or should be. He spoke about a heart big enough and a grace wide enough to cover an alcoholic that depends on his home group christened the “Camel Club”, since a camel can go forever without a drink.
When he was done, I asked him to sign my book, unaware that his eyes could hardly see the page before him. He pressed his pen to the title page of The Ragamuffin Gospel and inscribed “Brennan” directly over the word “Gospel”. Fitting, not because he has marked the gospel, but because the gospel has marked him.
Fellow traveler let me take you to a place where I’ve found rest
Fellow seeker let me show you where I’ve found true happiness
Fellow beggar I have good news, I know where there is bread
Continued from this post: My Sister, Daniel Boone
Further up and further in! The cry comes from Lewis’s finale in Narnia as Aslan’s faithful race deeper into a redeemed landscape. They race along a sort of spiritual frontier propelled by one belief: There is more. The same conviction inspires my sister as she travels the world. There is more. It’s human nature to sweep that truth under a rug inscribed “Home Sweet Home”. We settle for less, relax in the comfortable. The professional field of education is a great example. I attend professional growth conferences and watch veteran teachers duck out consistently throughout the day. Sometimes by lunchtime, numbers have fallen by fifty percent. Teachers, entrenched in their own system, exchange the opportunity for growth with the chance for a free afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, many times I’ve counted the droplets of condensation on the Hyatt water glass. But the mindset to settle scares me. On the grand scale, any business system that allows employees to attain tenure risks the return of complacency.
Go for more. These words rose up in my heart a few weeks back. I took inventory of my life. For the first time in years, I had not moved locations or jobs. I had accumulated more and more Polos, furniture, and gadgets. As I judged the exterior of my life, I began to worry that I’d settled into the white picket fence and 2.5 kids. Might evil lull us to sleep in the crib of contentment? That was my fear. Go for more. The message applied to the interior, and it combated the subtle whisper that I’d experienced all God had to give. Theologically that sounds crazy. Realistically and practically, though, count the spiritually dormant lives.
There is more.
Imagine walking into New York City’s Grand Central Station to catch a subway. You search for a color or number on a sign to direct you toward the train you need. You pay little attention to the loud speaker, which sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher, wah-wa-wah-wa-wah. Then all of the sudden, the Isley Brothers overtake the loudspeaker with “Shout”. And then…
My wife still has not recovered from the power of the video below. She has shown it to me at least twenty times, and she continues to pass the link around. T-Mobile recently produced a commercial driven by the theme: “Life’s for Sharing.” 10,000 people auditioned to make the cut. The plan? 400 dancers dressed as commuters would descend on Liverpool Street Station from various directions. At the appointed time, music would overtake the subway station’s system, and the choreographed dance would commence. I watched the “making of” video, also below, and marveled as the director Michael Gracey shared his thoughts. The commercial’s success, he explains, revolves around the energy of the dancers heartening other subway travelers to take part. He shouts during an audition, “You’re so caught up in the dance that you’re not saying to someone, ‘Come on! Join in!’” That’s it, Jesus’ heart-cry behind his coming, Come on! Join in!
I loved two more aspects of the “making of” video. First from the span of 3:45 to 4:06, you see the directors watching the event unfold on small screens, the fruit of their sweat equity before them. They cheer, slap hands, and laugh as they watch bystanders join the likes of the Mashed Potato. Their delight is a snapshot of heaven now, in celebration over onlookers becoming partakers. And then there’s the response of the folks that tasted a crumb of the Kingdom. Here are two responses:
“I was in a bad mood when I came here. I’m in a good one now.”
“I felt a moment of love. It was connective, like, for five minutes there everyone was relaxed. It was nice.”
Jesus says in Matthew 10:7 (The Message), “Tell them that the Kingdom is here.” An invitation to participate.
Be sure to click HQ for higher quality video
I watch the day awaken. Winged shadows dart from right to left and back again across the yard. The owners chirp away from the trees above. The wind blows ever so gently; a leaf drifts turning over itself on its way toward a resting place. A chipmunk scampers across my woodpile that sits more depleted than this time yesterday. The ashes lay cold in my fire pit encircled by chairs that whisper stories from the previous night.
And I sit at my desk overlooking it all, pen in hand, journal open before me. Wanting. Always wanting. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. U2’s melody echoes deeper than the cerebral. I hear the white noise from the next room where my daughters sleep. I remember my own mother sitting at her desk, pen and journal and Scripture, her gaze turned toward the rising sun. Morning after morning. She may sit there now. Prayerfully my daughters will do the same one day. And I hate it. I search in this morning for something that will satisfy me enough that I won’t have any need to open my journal again. If God gives me tomorrow, I will be back in this chair. Wanting.
A white-tailed deer drinks from the creek; I want to drink God, deep draughts of God. I’m thirsty for God-alive. I wonder, “Will I ever make it – arrive and drink in God’s presence?” -Psalm 42: 1-2 The Message