Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I continue to be surprised and awestruck by life, by what I experience and am conscious of experiencing.  My five senses take in the information of a world around me from the extremely tiny ant carrying a piece of cookie several times its weight to the magnificently large constellation I see in the night sky that appears as a single star to my eye.  I hear the noises that are artificially created and those that are naturally a part of the world.  I smell things both pleasant and obnoxious.  My tongue tastes sweetness and the bitterness, salty and sour.  My skin, the largest organ my body possesses feels subtle textures as well as the stone I step upon or the impact of a baseball hitting the palm of my hand protected by a baseball glove or the breeze or the chill of winter or the heat from fire. 
All of this is simply data.  My brain takes it all and makes sense of it.  But on occasion something beyond the sense of the data occurs.  I experience awe.  I am overwhelmed by being.  Being alive. Being aware. Being conscious.  Being present. Being in context.  Being in the moment. Being me surrounded by family and friends and challenges and joys. 
Being moved by being aware of BEING is like having life fold over on top of itself.  I wonder what makes me laugh or cry or feel compassion or frustration.  How do these things occur?  Perhaps science can explain these things—from the cellular activity and the anatomical event to the psychological explanation—but something seems to be happening beyond what science can explain or point to.  Perhaps this is where some might say religion picks up the ball and runs to the end zone for a score, but I don’t think that gives it the attention it deserves.  Perhaps science will be able to explain awe in a way that reaches beyond the chemistry and the cellular activity, but that will not reduce the mystery of it all. 
Oddly, even as I am swept away at times by awe and the experience of seeing what is ordinary as extraordinary, as seeing the evident as mystery, I feel that beneath the awe and the wonder there is a voice that says “this is” as in there’s nothing unexpected to behold when one takes into account a Creator who is an Artist and Lover and full of Creativity and Joy. 
The “Wow!” that I’m trying to describe is a glimpse of something that lies just beneath the grunge we focus on—like the layer of gunk on the table top of a greasy diner after years of elbows and food and all the other stuff that is never fully wiped off that builds up over the years.  Most of us spend most of our time there, seeing the grunge.  So when we’re suddenly given a glimpse beyond it we are caught off guard and we experience a spiritual moment.  That which is glimpsed is there all the time, it exists beneath the grunge and gunk and as we let our senses take us deeper into the experience of life, deeper beyond what the eyes see and the ears hear and the nose smells and the tongue tastes and the skin feels. 
How do you deal with the “Wow!”?  This is a strange question since it seems that most of us don’t realize the doorway the “Wow” provides.  Many of us--me included—will often take a picture or smile or maybe even cry when we experience the “Wow!”, but that’s as far as it goes.  Yet, there is much more to the “Wow” than the moment.  The challenge is that the “Wow” is powerful and requires so much of us.  When we face it in it’s fullness, then we cannot walk away from it without an awareness of the sacred nature of life, at least we can’t without some act of terrible censorship on our heart and mind—an act of brainwashing that leaves us desensitized.  What a sad loss of beauty such censorship causes, for in each heart and mind and eye and fingertip there is a potential poet, a anticipating artist, an engaged explorer, a seeking scientist who lives on the edge of wonder and delights in the swirling cosmos of which it is a part.    

© Stephen Carl

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Back in the mid-eighties, when I was in seminary, I remember hearing a song by Huey Lewis and The News called "I want a new drug."  It was really insightful and I considered the lyrics to have a theological application.  The lyrics went like this:  

I want a new drug - one that won't make me sick,
One that won't make me crash my car, or make me feel three feet thick.
I want a new drug - one that won't hurt my head,
One that won't make my mouth too dry, or make my eyes too red.

I want a new drug - one that won't spill.
One that don't cost too much, or come in a pill.
I want a new drug - one that won't go away,
One that won't keep me up all night, one that won't make me sleep all day.

I want a new drug - one that does what it should,
One that won't make me feel too bad,
One that won't make me feel too good.
I want a new drug - one with no doubt,
One that won't make me nervous, wonderin' what to do.

The words to the song point to the desire for something that will cure what ails him (or us) yet not have any of the side effects; provide the feeling that nothing had been taken at all, leaving the person feeling normal, content. 

I have encountered a version of Christianity that views Jesus as a drug that makes everything perfect in the heart of the believer, albeit no one who holds such a view would ever call Jesus a drug.  Still, there is the idea that everything--relationships, work, health, (sometimes even parking spaces) everything--in one's life should be perfect and the believer should be happy. The theology has Jesus as the new drug that makes this come true. And if there is any unhappiness or disease or incongruity with one's life and the idea of being perfectly happy because of Jesus, then something is wrong, the person isn't faithful and pure of heart; the person is not doing it right, hasn't fully allowed Jesus to be Lord in his or her life.  I know of people who were a part of such communities that advocate such a belief and yet someone in the group was stricken with cancer and when he or she was not healed, then they were ostracized.

This is a fallacy. Jesus never promised happiness or even healing for those who believe earnestly enough; he promised refuge, he promised deliverance, he promised hope, he promised many things, but not that everything would be perfect and that nothing would go wrong. The beatitudes have sometimes been translated as "happy are those," instead of "blessed are those." Blessed and happy are not the same. They certainly have similarities, but one can be blessed without being happy and the world sells us the drug of happiness that has no blessedness whatsoever.  The beatitudes, upon closer look, are about recognizing one's spiritual poverty--that one's pride has been one's downfall--and the humility of being transformed through hardship, trial, and even suffering.  That is not the new drug Huey was singing about.

Jesus doesn't take the challenges away or keep us from trials.  In truth, the trials are often greater as we grow spiritually.  The first trial is dealing with the truth that trials don't disappear with Jesus.  For those who experience spiritual highs, this challenge is a real downer. When we have such clarity and purity of heart and purpose, to begin the descent into the questions and doubts and fuzzy areas of faith and practice is disappointing and for some spiritually fatal.  

Jesus isn't a new drug.  He strips us of all the false armor we have cobbled together to handle life.  He wakes us up to the life we've been given, to the full experience.  He does not leave us exposed to the hardships without help, but the help offered is not a buffer of some kind, is not a distraction or some manner of nerve block so we aren't fully engaged and involved, but by the Spirit we are given the resources to be conquerors.  
Huey Lewis was on to something when he recognized that all the recreational drugs had side-effects that weren't worth the ride.  He was on to something by singing of the new drug and it's impossible effect, thus pointing out the ludicrous desire borne in the hurting human heart that hungers for deliverance, but will settle for distraction.  
Jesus isn't a drug.  He isn't a happy pill.  He isn't a wand-waver who favors those who do his bidding.  That isn't grace.  Grace isn't a new drug either.  It may deliver us but as we are delivered all the falsehood is peeled away, pruned, uprooted and burned.  It isn't painless--especially for those wanting a new drug--but it's all good.  
Huey Lewis ends the song with the words: I want a new drug, one that makes me feel like I feel when I'm with you, when I'm alone with you.

That feeling of being with Jesus is far better than anything else.

© Stephen Carl

Friday, February 20, 2015

Imagine Jesus sitting down with you to talk about your faith and what he can do for you to help you grow closer to God.  Does thinking of spiritual growth in this way help?  It helps me.  To visualize Jesus sitting with me and the two of us not talking about life in general, the broad and sweeping strokes, the philosophical or the theoretical, but the specific and personal.  Jesus has a microscopic view of my life and zeros in on the places that need attention.  He does this in a way that disarms me, causes my excuses and defenses to seem pointless. He makes me vulnerable and comfortable.  Sometimes I cry because of the absolute freedom of letting go of all the weight I carry around that I forget about except that it wears me out.  How does he do this? I inherently know I can trust him, that he has no ulterior motive, no hidden agenda.  It is all about being loved in a way that is far beyond anything we've experienced.  The helplessness we enter this world with is the helplessness we bear throughout, though we are fooled by the illusion of being in control.  Walls go up and we feel the need to be approved so we do our best to prove our worthiness.  
Is it any wonder Jesus said "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) and "'Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flowing from within.' By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive" (John 7:37-39).
The religious laws placed upon people were overwhelming and Jesus removes them and offers grace.  In our current cultural context the religious laws are less of a burden, but there are still expectations to be perfect, beautiful, handsome, strong, smart, innovative, valued for some reason and these are like weights attached to our limbs as we try to run marathons to receive pale substitutes for the deep love we are created by and for.  
If I am unable to sit with Jesus and have him assure me of this remarkable love then it is no surprise that I find myself hunched over and feeling twisted up.  And when he frees me from this ludicrous state of being, relieves me of the weight, satisfies my thirst with the living water, my eyes open wide to the desperation of others.  He sneaks something into my heart wrapped in his love like a Trojan horse of generosity rather than attack.  He sneaks compassion for others into my heart and I cannot help but see others through his eyes.  I cannot help but desire that others know the liberation I have been given.  This transformation from the focus on me being approved and valued (which inherently is opposed to others) to a focus on those with whom I have been in competition is nothing short of miraculous, that is, I cannot produce this on my own.
All of this from simply taking some time to be with Jesus and let him do for me what I most want, but can't do for myself.  

© Stephen Carl

Thursday, February 19, 2015

My sons and I took a trip recently that required an airplane ride that had a connecting flight.  Due to weather issues, the first flight was delayed and therefore we missed our connecting flight.  We were rebooked on the first flight the next morning.  We arrived at the connecting airport at 11:30 p.m. and our morning flight was at 8:00 a.m.  The process of leaving the airport and taking a shuttle to the nearest motel was going to take at least an hour and then the process of returning to the airport, checking in, going through security and making it to the departing gate would take at least two hours, leaving us about five hours in the motel room.  Collectively, we decided to spend the night in the airport, so we found a quiet level and corner and settled in for the duration.  It wasn’t the most restful night, but it wasn’t bad. 
Just how often do things in life actually go as we expect them to go?  The ability to adapt to the circumstances is an important skill.  If we are inflexible then we are likely to be very frustrated most of the time. 
As a student of the Bible it comes as no surprise that most of the lessons of faith are learned when things do not go as expected.  Stepping out in faith is what Abram and Sarai did and did and did some more.  And they’re not the only ones.  Isaac and his sons, Esau and Jacob and so on and so on—story after story is about things not going as planned or expected.  Jacob thought he was going to marry Rachel and ended up with Leah first.  Of course, he got the better of his father-in-law.  But things didn’t go so well for his favored son Joseph.  He came out pretty well in the end, but it was a circuitous route he had to take. 
Think about the Exodus.  How often did things go as expected?  I doubt very much that anyone thought it would take as long as it did to make it to the Promised Land.  I doubt that any of them gave much thought to the issue of food and water that would be needed for so many people for such a long journey.  Evidently they missed their connecting flight to wherever they expected they’d be going as they got out of the oppressive situation they were in.  It didn’t take too long before they were moaning and groaning that they’d be better off as slaves back in Egypt where they at least knew they were going to get something to eat.  Things were not going as they expected and they ended up relying on God entirely. 
The ability to adjust and accept that things are not working out as expected is an important lesson to learn.  Remarkably faith is an incredible asset in such situations.  Trusting that things are going to be okay, that though things may not go as planned or that we need to change expectations is a blessing that comes with trusting that God is sovereign and providential.  Sometimes in such challenging situations faith requires us to find a quiet place and take a rest until we can get on our way again. 
Getting anxious about such events, or non-events as the case may be when nothing happens though we planned for something to happen, is a natural reaction, but anxiety doesn’t tend to solve anything. 
After my boys and I fitfully slept for a couple of hours we finally sat up and finally started walking around as more people began to show up for flights.  We found a place to have breakfast and then found our departing gate.  Our flight left on time and the rest of our itinerary went as planned. 
We are promised a destination in scripture that I’m certain will come to fruition.  How we get there and whether we make all our connecting flights on the way is up for grabs. 

© Stephen Carl

Friday, February 13, 2015

The movie (based on the book by the same title) Fifty Shades of Grey comes out this weekend, just in time for Valentines’ Day.  Ironic since it has nothing to do with romantic love.  Truthfully, neither does the reason for Valentines’ day, but that’s beside the point. 
There have already been several articles and posts about why Fifty Shades of Grey is not worth seeing and why it does not show a healthy relationship between a man and a woman.  It is sad that there are so many relationships between lovers that are demonstrations of abusiveness—physical and emotional.  A book about it such a relationship is one thing, but a movie is entirely too much.  Children can watch movies at a much younger age than they can read.
I won’t add anything to the social or psychological arguments against the movie since it is already well stated.  Instead, I will add my theological perspective. 
We live in a fallen world, a very messed up world. More specifically, within the human heart there is a very messed up mess.  And there are variations of this mess.  It clearly is a continuum from very dark to less dark, but the shades remain even for those we might consider saintly.  There are shadows that exist within us, places where secrets reside, places where we wrestle with the brokenness that is a result of our separation from our Creator and the One Who loves us—loves us in a redemptive, liberating, life-affirming, validating way (the love that is the basis of Valentines’ day), not in a way that causes us to grovel or be abused in order to receive affection.  Some people have darker places than others, but we all have some shade of shadows. 
The Apostle Paul wrote that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
But the Gospel of John declares that “the light came into the world and the darkness did not overcome it”.  There is no darkness in the One who brings the light, who is the light. 

We live in a fallen, broken world where we are often faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils, rather than the greater of two goods.  There are grays that we must choose between and sometimes that’s the best we can do. Ethics is a challenging practice that sometimes leaves us with difficult choices.  That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no purity or absolute light.  Remember, the light came into the world and the darkness does not overcome it.  We rely on this truth and the absolute light that we receive, even as we continue to exist in the shadows.
C. S. Lewis was known to use the idea of shadows as a description of life before eternity.  He spoke of “this is the land of shadows, real life has not yet begun.”  Shadowlands is a description of life in the here and now. 
As such we should remember that the shade might be a place we enjoy on a hot summer day, but the shade of spiritual depravity is not where any of us should reside.  We need the light that abolishes all shadows, all grays, all darkness. 
Jesus said to his followers “You are the light of the world.” In other words, we are to bring the light we have received into the darkness others are lost within.  Stepping into other’s darkness can be scary and very powerful, but we have been given the light that darkness does not overcome.  May we be confident in this light, for people are in desperate need of it.  May we bask in the power of the love we know and show it, for people are desperate for it. 

© Stephen Carl