Tuesday, December 13, 2016

I am intrigued by and compelled to write about, try to illustrate or describe, something untouchable and undisclosed, something between or beneath that which is evident. This space or place or truth is just out of reach, but is still possible to grasp, not by our own power or effort, but as a whimsical gift. We brush against it at times and feel it nudge us, whisper to us in a breeze or the drama of colors and movement in a moment never to be repeated. Though it is very close to us, rarely do we see it or know it is there.
A challenge is that language is the way in which we experience life and consciousness. Without language, or the manner in which we explain and express our experience, we are unmoored and unable to know what we are experiencing, even who we are.
Language also, however, limits what we experience by its structure and word-boxes. Language is like a road that is at times well defined and solid, with curbs and guardrail and lines, wide with many lanes; at times it narrows and meanders through neighborhoods of homes that are filled with laughter and light and other neighborhoods with empty houses and broken windows, dark with danger and despair; then at times it is like a gravel or dirt road winding through a forest or off into the countryside or nearly disappearing in a dry and open landscape, perhaps becoming only a single trail threading its way into a wilderness until it fades away altogether and leaves the sojourner standing among a grove of tall trees, light shining through the branches, gentle breeze stirring the leaves, and a whisper of a voice that is strangely familiar as it echoes in the heart; or it leads us over sandy dunes where we hear breaking waves until we step upon the shore and look out over an ocean that stretches beyond the horizon. There we can go no further unless we strap together a few timbered words with poetic twine and let the currents carry us where we cannot know, into mists of imagination past islands of brief substance and then further, further, further to where no words, no boat, no vessel will carry us and we sink into the depths of the wordless from which words arise and into which words disappear and we breathe beneath the water where words cannot be spoken for they mean nothing and yet we now are known as we sought to know.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Advent, we are reminded, is about waiting. Faithful waiting. Keeping hearts and lives chaste in a world of instant gratification and hyper-impatience.  Oddly, it isn't surprising that we aren't good at waiting, but we are very good at being distracted.  Distraction helps us ignore waiting.  There are a lot of theme parks that have discovered that the wait in line is experienced as less long when people are distracted, so various means of entertaining people in line have been developed.  It helps, but no one in line forgets what they're really waiting for: the ride.  We know this since no one chooses to stay in line when they reach the ride.  This same thing isn't true about our lives and world.  The distractions we've adopted work so well that we forget that for which we are waiting.  In essence, we become addicted to the distractions and choose them over or instead of that for which we are created.
A minor, but real Advent experience would be if on December 25 we woke up and discovered that Christmas had been postponed indefinitely.  If by April or June we are still waiting for Christmas then we would qualify as having a hint of understanding about the Biblical experience of Advent of a promise made by God with no set deadline, but also no expiration date.
Of course, Advent for those who call themselves Christian isn't about waiting for the promised Messiah, instead advent for the past two thousand years is really about waiting for the consummation of the kingdom. In the first century there was an expectation that the kingdom was immanent, and as things got worse, especially for the small community of those who were disciples of Jesus.  With two thousand years of waiting we are less certain of the immanence.  Indeed, we may even may think that if current events and attitudes in our world are any indication, then it would appear we have a long wait ahead of us. The posture toward history and the events which may point toward the timing of the eschaton has shifted.
It used to be that, for Christians, war had to be theologically justified and even then it was a moral stretch to do so.  Militant faith was applied to the spiritual world, not one's neighbors or enemies.
It just struck me, however, to consider Advent from a heavenly perspective.  I wonder what God thinks of waiting for us to settle down, to show that we really receive love by demonstrating it, not with the lovable, but the unlovable. That's what Jesus challenged anyone who would be his disciple: love those who do not love you in return, since it's no big deal to love those who love you. Heck, who doesn't do that?
Obviously God doesn't have the same experience of Advent as we do.  We are bound in time, stuck in the present, with a litter of tragedy in our wake and a questionable future around the corner or over the next rise.  God isn't bound in time, therefore waiting isn't an issue.  Still, there are passages that indicate God's patience with the chosen people ran out.  Just read nearly any of the prophets.  And in the Gospels Jesus is recorded as expressing exasperation with the disciples and others who were slow about grasping his kingdom message.
If you're a praying person and furthermore familiar with the Lord's Prayer, then you may recognize the Advent contained therein:  "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done" and that's not just an eschatological petition since its followed by "on earth as it is in heaven."  In truth, though it is considered a petition, perhaps we might consider it also a promissory statement as well, that perhaps we should move beyond the sound of the words and be a demonstration of the Kingdom ON EARTH as it is demonstrated in heaven.  On this side of the pearly gates, the standard practice of repentance is a good place to start.  Acknowledging one's own failures in faithfulness is a good Advent activity.  Humanity has always been easily duped by its own "better-than-you" aptitude, but it seems lately we are even more eagerly  trigger happy with our index finger as we point out blame and accusation.  Lord knows we have the same damned issues plaguing humanity for centuries, just a new set of people: racism, sexism, beliefism, ageism, nationalism, greed, fear, etc.
And following repentance, we should have a healthy dose of righteous impatience, but impatience for the correct things, like the garbage we have no problem ignoring while we're pointing out everyone else's faults.  When it comes to certain things, patience isn't a virtue we have time for, just as MLK, Jr. advocated in his "Why we can't wait" book.  Some things are way past their spoil date and the fear we harbor in others who are different than us is one of them.   Yet, MLK demonstrated an INCLUSIVE impatience.  He was impatient for everyone to know justice, not only those experiencing the sharp, jagged edge of injustice.
Advent is a season we don't have time for, it seems.  Yet it is a timeless season.  We reluctantly grant it four weeks, but we fill it with a super-size-me Twelve Days of Christmas. It's all quite ironic since those days are meant to follow Christmas Day, not precede it.  We now follow Christmas with a deflating of the season, a collective sigh of relief that all the sugar-coated, hijacked meaning of Christmas is through.
I won't suggest we crater to the strong current of the cultural river, but for me it makes sense to start Advent in August when there's a wasteland of Liturgically ho-hum Sundays.  Then quit the wrangling with folk about not singing Christmas carols during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  It may be good theology, but there are more important battles to fight.
No matter what, though, let's get inclusively impatient with the real challenges. Let's get active with the kingdom work.  Let's quit bickering over the marginal matters and focus on the issues that are genuine.  Otherwise, like the Israel of old, the words of the prophets will no longer be simply an inconvenience.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Saturday, November 12, 2016

When we step back from the fray of all responsibilities, obligations, distractions, activities, and busy-ness we discover beneath all these engagements there is something that binds our lives together and provides our lives with meaning. This binding agent is stories: family stories, fictional stories, stories of heroes and heroines, stories of saints and sinners, stories of history, stories of love or hope or hardship or comfort or strength.
Can you imagine life without "once upon a time" or "in a kingdom far, far away" or "there once was a" or "he spoke to them in parables" or “did I ever tell you about the time” or “your grandfather and I once were fishing when…” or “my first kiss was with…”?
My boys are always asking me to tell them about some event in my life and they'll even sometimes just ask me to tell them some unknown story from my life that they haven't heard before.  I recall my daughter, when she was a youngling often asking me to tell her a made-up story.  She was demanding too.  She wouldn't settle for any stories that didn't have excellent detail and infused with deep meaning.  We are a storied species, as much story as we are cells and sinew, perhaps more.
Stories are powerfully archetypal, they're emotive and sometimes disturbing; they're able to open our minds and hearts to lessons we may prefer to ignore or have difficulty accessing ourselves.  They teach us things that cannot be explained any other way than in a story, things that cannot be put into an equation or formula or list or even a statement or rule.
Some stories are make-believe, which is different than untrue.  They may not be factual as we might consider fact, but that does not mean they aren't true.  Truth has to do with something far more powerful and significant than facts.  Facts are important, but truth teaches us about the life for which we yearn, the substance that we seek, the purpose for which we live, the love for which we are willing to die.
We are shaped by the stories of our lives like clay is shaped in the hands of a potter; shaped by the stories we have heard and the ones onto which our souls cling.  Sadly, we live in a culture bereft of substantive stories.  We live by tweets and posts and blogs and five reasons this or that and fifteen second commercials and thirty minute comedies with problems, crisis and resolution neatly packaged in irreverence and disrespect we've been sold as humor.  We live by the news stories of scandals and black and white/good and bad dichotomies without the grays that challenge us.  Few of us wrestle with angels like Jacob; few of us are visited by strangers we take in and protect; few of us would know what to do if we saw a valley of dried bones rattle and begin to come to life.
The dreams we have in our sleep are our deep need for stories speaking to us in mystery and metaphor.  And they affect us the way stories affect us—following us throughout the day like a shadow.
And so I am thankful, grateful for stories; for the stories I heard from my parents about when they were kids, the stories I heard of my great-grandparents and grandparents, the stories of family secrets whispered, the stories of my mother selling acorns to her neighbors when she was five, the stories of my father working on building homes with his father, the stories of my siblings, the stories of me when I was too young to remember, the stories of my father during the war, the stories of distant peoples and distant lands and distant hopes and dreams, especially the story that I'm living.
What stories define you?  What family stories do you remember?  What stories will you tell?  What stories do you long to hear?  Ask someone you barely know to tell you their story and then listen to them.  And see what happens to you and to the other and to your stories.
Furthermore, realize you are a storyteller and as such you are empowered to do amazing things by shaping your story as it weaves in and out of the stories of others and the little wiggle of space and once-upon-a-time you are granted.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

We live in a terribly harsh world. Yes, there is beauty. Yes, there is good and there are people--perhaps most--who are kind and generous and helpful. Still, there is a lot of heartache and terror. There are times when I feel like my faith and beliefs have equipped me with a squirt gun in order to fight a raging, out-of-control fire. What good can I do? What benefit is there in the gospel when the world burns out of control?

I walk through Central Park and it seems to be an unreal oasis in the middle of a city of disparity and hurt and anguish. Even in this oasis I see a homeless man sitting on a bench asleep, who has clearly soiled his pants recently, all his worldly possessions gathered on either side of him in plastic bags. I can hear the traffic nearby as cars and trucks and buses and pedestrians hustle and rush toward their own destinations, acknowledging one another only as someone to navigate around, as someone in the way between them and where they're going. The streets are littered with the dirty smudges of discarded gum, now a semi-permanent part of the sidewalks. A baby cries, a man shouts, a woman weeps, a horn honks, brakes squeal. Beneath the streets and buildings there are dark tunnels through which subways clack over the tracks carrying commuters, as they blankly stare through one another or scroll through their smart phone messages or read a book and ignore those around them.
In the buildings there are people, like ants or bees, busy with their work. Producing little of consequence, but distracted from the empty ache in their heart.
Around the world there are human traffickers ruining the lives of men, women, and children. As they do so they are killing their own souls with each dehumanizing act. Elsewhere there are deals being made as laws are being ignored; money being exchanged for political favors; corruption that poisons hope and the future as well as the ecosystem that sustains all life.
There is so much terror that never makes the news, so much suffering, so much bribery and exploitation and violence. My little squirt gun is inept and useless against such relentless fires.  I feel impotent and it seems that God is only a flimsy Dixie cup of water I can toss on the inferno.

And yet, that betrays the size of my heart more than it represents the power of God; that discloses my lack of faith and trust in the omnipotent Creator rather than acknowledging the reality of the world.

My little squirt gun is not all there is. There are billions of others who have their squirt guns. And we have an unlimited supply of water. And we have hope and persistence and vision and encouragement and examples of the faithful before us. And we have an example to provide for others to be inspired. And behind our puny efforts to make a difference is God, who will not permit one person to pass from this life without knowing the terrifyingly wondrous love God has for us, each of us. That extinguishes all fires in an instant.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Friday, October 14, 2016

The longer I stick with the idea that there is a God and that the God that is, is testified to in a good portion of what is called the Old Testament and New Testament, the more I become aware of how most of what I've believed about this God is so lacking and limited.  God, as I have experienced, is beyond our language to describe, our hearts to contain, our beliefs to bear full witness to, our minds to conceive.  These limitations do more to mislead people than to aid them in discovery. Indeed, any explanation that isn't steeped in mystery is likely to push people away from God, rather than toward God. Scripture bears witness to this God-beyond-explanation--God answers Moses' question about who he should say sent him with "I Am", and Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit cannot be predicted, and there are far more examples that point to the undefinable nature of God.
Most of the theological stages I've passed through have been little more than a wide spot on the spiritual highway, though my own experience and what I've witnessed of others is that we set up house at these barely wide-spots; i.e., we settle in thinking and expecting we are not moving from there or changing our idea of God and who we are to be.  Unfortunately, since these are not permanent theological locations, many people who discover the impermanence of these wide-spots simply give up on anything beyond them, give up on seeking anything more, give up on God because their idea of God has been so cemented to a limited idea that they feel betrayed, angry, disillusioned, and disappointed--since the limited view cannot speak to the challenges and griefs we experience.
My experience of settling in is much like I remember when I was a boy and my father would be doing yard work. My father would give me a ride in the wheelbarrow around the yard, twisting this way and that, until he would stop near where he was working and park the wheelbarrow. There I would sit in the wheelbarrow and not get out, hoping for another ride. Eventually, however, needing the wheelbarrow, my father would dump me out.
God allows the circumstances of life to dump me out of the theological and spiritual wheelbarrows I become accustomed to, and no matter how many times I try to crawl back in, it just won't hold me.
It isn't that God isn't seen through these views of God, its just that each view is so limited.  As I move further along, I become both frustrated that language is too limited to express God, and grateful in the vast landscape that continues to broaden in truth and love that is inexpressible. I have discovered that so far there's always another wheelbarrow ride as long as I remain curious.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Assumptions are necessary in life. Without them we would be testing and confirming everything and have little time to genuinely live and enjoy each moment. We assume and take for granted the air we breath, the ground upon which we walk, the physical laws that govern our movement and existence. Beyond these we make assumptions about relationships, everything from family support to other drivers on the road. Clearly some assumptions come back to bite us.
There are other assumptions, however, that are erroneous, yet they are so knit into the fabric of our beliefs and consciousness that to question them is for some akin to heresy or overwhelmingly absurd.
One assumption humanity practices is that of our place and position as a creature upon the earth. Take for example Earth Day, recognized on April 22. It began in 1970, not even a blink of the eye in the age of the earth. Something about humanity declaring one day as earth day strikes me as arrogant and audacious.  It assumes that we have some inherent right to do with the earth as we choose, to use it and its resources as we choose, regardless of the other creatures that call the earth home or of the earth's wellbeing itself, let alone our own future on the earth that sustains us. I realize that the establishment of Earth Day is about the exact opposite of all of that, but its establishment identifies just how askew our assumptions are regarding our place and role in relationship to the earth.
For those familiar with the Abrahamic faith traditions,  the Genesis account, after the wonders of creation, indicates that The Creator spoke to humankind and said: be fruitful and multiply and have dominion over the earth.
Humankind was also given the responsibility of naming everything.  This naming and the command to have dominion is a huge responsibility. It has, for many, created the assumption that we can do anything we please, that the earth and all of its teeming life is ours to exploit to our advantage. While the earth may be granted to us for our wellbeing, to have dominion is not the same thing as dominating. Imagine, if you will, the relationship of a King or Queen who have dominion over a country of people. Though they have incredible power and privilege, the purpose of which is to govern and manage the land and people to the benefit of all--not to dominate the land and people, but to be good stewards in order to bring about prosperity and wellbeing for all. Any kingdom or nation that has a despot for a ruler will eventually fall because there is a terrifying mismanagement of the resources of land and people.

As we make decisions on various energy policies, economic policies, business policies, and politics, may we test our assumptions that we, as one species on this planet, have a right that supersedes all other life, whether plant or animal, let alone the wellbeing of the planet itself. We are stewards, not owners of the earth. We are to have dominion, not domination over the planet.
The assumption of our right to do as we please, because it serves our current purposes, is erroneous and dangerous. To have one Earth Day is quite frankly based on an erroneous assumption about the relationship between humanity and the planet we call home. Now if the earth had one day a year called humanity day, then that would make more sense.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

There are far more theologians in the world than we might think there are. The requirements to be a theologian are simply an effort of the head and heart to make sense of life. Some do so by saying there is a divine essence behind the curtain of what we can see and know and experience; some say there is no Creator and what we call spiritual is nothing more than our consciousness reaching beyond its limitations, imagining the unimaginable in order to bring order and explain what is beyond the mind to comprehend.  No matter which approach or which perspective, or anywhere along the continuum between the two, there are a lot of theologians. 
Even children are theologians, perhaps the best because of their natural wonder and acceptance of things that are beyond their capacity to explain rationally. Children innately are theologians because their hearts are usually still wide open to trust—unless they have experienced some reason to be distrustful already, something tragic and terrible, and unfortunately too common. For those children who are still trusting, they are remarkably profound in their insights and acceptance of the holy and sacred that sparkles in everything and everywhere. According to words identified as Jesus’, this child-like faith is even identified as necessary for entering the kingdom of heaven. Child-like is different than childish. Childishness has nothing to do with entering the kingdom. Child-like points to the willingness to accept something rich and necessary for living life fully, without earning it or even being able to comprehend or explain it; child-like is the inherent necessity of trusting—like the infant that is fed at the mother’s breast or the toddler that reaches to the parent knowing they will be lifted and embraced.
For those who are identified as theologians—those who have earned degrees or some form of credential that the world accepts as necessary for being a theologian, then words and descriptions and explanations are well-honed and crafted. Being a theologian, however, is not the same thing as being faithful. A theologian can be fluent in theology and capable of expressing in words truths that are teased out of ancient and contemporary texts and experience, but faith is the practice, sometimes unknowingly, of what theology only points toward.
Essentially, theology is the practice of explaining the inexplicable; creating containers for that which cannot be contained; describing that which is beyond description. In essence, it points us toward that which cannot be reached, but also lets us know that the mystery of that which cannot be reached is that it does what we cannot do: it reaches out to us and holds us. In this, we understand in a way that explanations can never explain, just as any definition of love falls short of the experience of being loved and out of that, loving.

© 2016 Stephen R. Carl

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

There are mysterious moments when by some power beyond ourselves the ordinary becomes extraordinary, the profane becomes sacred, the common becomes a sacrament through which we glimpse the glimmer and radiance of everything as it and we shine in glory. It may be when holding an infant or watching an act of kindness or walking through a forest or standing at a street corner in the rain  with strangers or anywhere we may be, since this glory is not tame or limited by our mood, beliefs, or attitude. This shining glory is always there, we simply do not see it because we have lost our eyes of wonder. What restores our sight is miraculous and generous, but not remote or infrequent. We simply do not seek it with any earnestness or attention. Despite our lacking the eyes to see or the heart to pursue, we are brought to the threshold of the doorway and given a glimpse into the Grand Canyon of splendor. This glimpse is a seed planted in a crevice, a crack in the hard pavement of our consciousness. It begins to grow and scatter more seeds that wedge themselves into the crack and widen the fertile space where joy and love take root and the moments begin to eclipse our awareness and attention until heaven resides in us as much as we reside in it. And then the greatest honor we may receive is thrust upon us: we become doorkeepers of this glory for others who are still blind to it.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Most of us know what its like to stand between two mirrors.  When I was a child I had a suspicion that a mirror facing a mirror might be a portal to a magical world.  I never found that it is, but it is a sort of echo of images as our reflection curves out of sight, sight, sight…
When I was a kid I used to have moments when I’d ponder the notion of being conscious and why I knew I was conscious, why I knew anything and was aware of knowing, why I knew I was, just was.  Being conscious of consciousness is kind of like standing between two mirrors, eventually the idea echoes out of sight.
In college I recall the Philosophy class in which I read about Rene’ Descartes and his “I think, therefore I am” claim—that thinking (or consciousness about thinking) is the basis of knowing that one exists.
There are undoubtedly many facets of consciousness like having a conscience—the ability to know right from wrong and that one has a choice between the two—or feeling guilty when one chooses the wrong or having an understanding of ethics, which arises from the question “how would I feel if I were in this person’s shoes and I was treated that way?”  Remember that this is the premise of the story of Pinocchio, that if he was to be a real boy then he needed a conscience.
Ultimately, I think consciousness is the gift that helps me know that I can and do make a difference and the difference I make can be good or not so good and that I can choose; that I am aware that I can, with what little I may have, influence my little sphere in a positive way; that I can take whatever comes my way and not simply react with instinct, but respond with insight.
I like all of the seasons of the Church year, but something about the season of Epiphany, that follows Christmastide, really captures my attention.  It is the Eureka! season.  Eureka is from a Greek word that means, of course, “I found it!”  My consciousness, however, whispers to me that when it comes to the big Epiphanies of life, it’s really not me finding anything, but me being found.  That’s a humbling epiphany.  And if there's a magic portal, then that's it.
And if the universe has taught me anything, then it can be summed up as: Pay attention!

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Monday, September 5, 2016

To be yourself, genuine and without airs, no need to perform or pretend to be what one isn't--especially the pretending that even you don't realize is pretend, until the ache in your heart becomes too great to bear--to be the real you stripped of all pretense and masks, is far beyond comfortable, far beyond a relief, far beyond serene. It is salvation, deliverance, an atmosphere of pure air to breathe rather than the stuffy air that suffocates one who anxiously desires approval but never really receives it because it isn't you who is approved, it's the role you're playing, the character in the unreal skit of your pseudo-life.
Heck, we learn at a very early age that we must mask ourselves, hide our identity. And we learn to do it so well that we often don't realize that we are unreal. There are signs of it, like the hollow echo in the relationships we establish, or the despair that is like a faint stain we can't remove from our thoughts, or the appetite for something richer and deeper that makes us feel alive. It makes perfect sense to perform for acceptance since if you experience rejection, then it isn't the real you that has been turned away. Whereas if you are to be vulnerable and expose who you are and others turn away, then where do you go from there? Of course, all the while the fake you is out there, the real you is hiding in the dark.
That's why truly being loved for yourself--blessings and blemishes--is a foretaste of heaven. And such vulnerable authenticity in you is a doorway through which others glimpse their freedom too.

For me, that's the Gospel. Yes, the Gospel is more than that too, but think about all the encounters Jesus had with the folk who were not approved. These stories described in the four Gospel accounts tell how prostitutes, tax collectors, the diseased and disabled, adulterers, Samaritans, and sinners (that's all inclusive) all were offered and some experienced a liberation from the burden of their disapproval. They were freed through the generosity of being loved as they were, not as they were expected to be. Their social context didn't necessarily change, but their hearts experienced a transformation. In many cases there understandably was an overwhelming gratitude. Think about Zacheus, or the leper, or the man born blind, or the prostitute, or Mary Magdalene, or the Samaritan woman at the well, and all the others whose hearts he freed from the tiny cages. The irony of this is how often the church requires people to be untrue to who God created them to be, in order to fit some ideal fabricated out of self-righteousness.
We can tie our hearts and bodies into Gordian knots trying to be who we think will be approved. It's a lousy way to live, trying to receive the awards of approval. It's a violent way to live--for ourselves and anyone we require to participate in the game, if they want our approval. On occasion we get glimpses of who we are when we feel joy and contentment, but these too quickly disappear. They are hints, nudges, whispers, whiffs of the aroma of peace and love.
At some point, by some mysterious power, some people loosen their grip and let go of the charade, drop the act, and in the process are released by an incredible love that goes far beyond the field of competitive approval. This deep love is a gift that gives us ourselves again.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Thursday, September 1, 2016

At the back edge of the yard where I grew up there was a creek.  It was a magical thing for me. Now, as I think of it, I cannot imagine not having such a ribbon of glory as a child.  It was there that I discovered snails and crawdads and minnows and turtles and snakes.  The greatest gift from that creek, however, was wonder.  It has been a treasure I have carried with me for the past several decades.
One of the activities I recall in this creek was the industrious effort of constructing dams.  These were always made with natural and readily available resources: rocks, mud, silt, moss.  The design of these dams improved through the years as experience, combined with increased cognitive powers were gained.  The motive behind dam building was whimsical. Sometimes it arose out of the excess energy of childhood that needed something to do along with the brain's innate need for the reward of completing a task, of having accomplished some goal--no matter how pointless.  At other times the dam building was for the purpose of creating a deeper reservoir in which to wade, splash, and play; perhaps also to trap larger fish or other assorted creek abiding critters.
The dams never lasted long.  With the first rainfall the creek would swell and the power and force of tiny raindrops collected into hundreds of thousands of gallons of water would wash away the work.  The loss of each dam was part of the wonder as I came to recognize the strength of accumulation.
Sometimes there is a dam in my heart and mind as I consider the terrible things happening in our world.  It is a tiny dam that arises from fear and reaction to threat.  It holds back the waters of hope, forgiveness, and generosity in a punitive effort.  As I pray for peace to rain down, for the weather system to shift and flood the world with reconciliation, my tiny dam is overwhelmed and washed away.  It is a foolish little dam that is as capricious as the rock and mud and moss dams I built as a child.
You and I are rain-makers and each act of kindness, each insult returned with forgiveness, each threat overcome with compassion is a drop of rain falling from heaven, the accumulation of which is far more powerful than the tiny dams behind which fear becomes a reservoir of violence and hatred.  It is no less a wonder to behold the accumulated force of generosity and compassion than to be a child on the banks of a creek after a storm watching the water wash away that which cannot last.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I call myself Christian, but what is the difference between me and an atheist, or an agnostic, or someone of another belief system? Am I saying that what defines me is my Christianity, my beliefs, or is my identity shaped by grace--the inexplicable, unfathomable, incomprehensible, overwhelming, life-changing and unearnable gift that isn't contained in any belief system? This grace is articulated by the Christian belief system, but other belief systems, acknowledge it as well, often as a shadowy mystery that cannot be contained in an explanation. It is pointed to by the billions of lives who say they aren't religious, but who hunger for God's love.
My point is that when those who are Christian describe themselves as "believers" and others as "unbelievers" they are pointing to a belief system as the defining difference.  It is often said as if there is some insider privilege.
Frankly, to separate people on the basis of believers and unbelievers strikes me as ridiculous, as if the belief system is what matters. And if the belief system is what matters then we are operating by religious works rather than grace. That is the opposite of the humility that grace endows. If we are to divide people between believers and unbelievers I prefer to speak of "those who know God loves them despite all that is unlovable" and "those who do not yet know God loves them unconditionally." This difference is entirely about something that has been revealed to us. It isn't about something that puts us in a better position with God since God loves "the world." My religious knowledge (belief system) is valuable to me, but it only points to the gift, it isn't the gift.
And in seeing the difference as between "knowing" and "not knowing" God's love, my living is focused on being loved in such a way that my life points to the unconditional love God has for others, not in converting them to a belief system.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I have come to view spiritual growth as catching up consciously with what God does for us in an instant. Those who have days and months and years to embrace and appropriate and acclimate themselves to the gift we are given by God are simply catching up to a reality that we are unable to see or recognize as we are still steeped in the swill of the world.
Spiritual growth is the process of shedding all the baggage we think we need, but in truth we don't. God equips us fully in an instant and the journey of the spiritual life is about discovering all that our hearts need and seek is already given to us.
Long ago I remember the revelation that as followers of Christ we have both arrived and are on our way into God's kingdom, that it is simultaneously true that we are there spiritually and we are on our way there spiritually. The notion of spiritual growth being a process of discovering what we have already received is simply a different view of this truth.
The erroneous notion about spiritual growth is that wherever we may be at any given time is all that we are, much like the temporal and spatial realities we experience as we are on a trip from one location to another. The difference, however, is that what cannot be experienced in time and space is the reality spiritually, because the physics of time and space are not limitations.
Another erroneous notion regarding our experience of spiritual growth is that wherever we may be at any particular moment is the furthest there is, that each stage of spiritual growth becomes the destination, when it should only be a way point.
The trouble this creates is stagnation and legalism--even for those who have grown beyond legalism, for they see the grays in black and white as they judge those who see in black and white.
The truth of spiritual growth is embraced most fully by the understanding that we have all we need, but we haven't a clue how rich it is. Each step we take reveals in greater glory the gift we already have received.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

There is something peculiar and ironic about becoming and being a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, one who acknowledges God's love for all of us. On the one hand, one's experience is often of warm fellowship, communion, and deep comfort that you are claimed and belong and are secure in God's mercy and deliverance. On the other hand, however, what happens if one persists in being a disciple, is that eventually one is metaphorically set out in the middle of a desert with a tiny canteen and a granola bar and a scrap of paper with the words "trust me" written on it in God's hand writing. After a time of wandering in different directions, the canteen is dry, the granola bar long gone, and the words on the scrap of paper fade or you lose the scrap altogether. The next part of the story isn't particularly pretty. There are a lot of puddles of scummy water you use to fill your canteen and all you find to eat is discarded chicken bones with most of the meat already gnawed off, first by people, then by whatever rodents might be fortunate to find them. Of course, the desert isn't really a desert, but a nice home in the suburbs, and the scummy puddles and gnawed chicken bones may actually be icy alcoholic beverages served poolside or ultra-purified artesian spring water, and six course meals by candlelight. That's because the challenge of trusting God absolutely can be a terribly difficult one to discern and recognize.  We are much more likely to come to trust when we have no alternatives or options. Though this option is effective and often necessary, it is not easy to be stripped of all alternative safety nets--especially because we have so many that we can't even inventory. The truth is, when we have whatever we may feel we need to feel secure (job, income, friends, family, money, insurance, health, the fellowship of the faith community, and a host of other good things), then articulating trust is as easy as ignoring the fact that we aren't really trusting.
Of course, one of the subtle lessons is that God's love and grace are not dependent on my ability to trust. What I have discovered, however, is that the more I trust (code for releasing my false securities), the richer my experience of God's grace becomes and the less insecure I feel.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Friday, July 22, 2016

It's odd that after serving in churches for 37 years, 31 as an ordained pastor with a bachelor's degree in religion and a Master of Divinity degree from a well-known seminary, doctoral work in Community Pastoral Counseling, training and certification in several specialized ministries, having preached thousands of sermons, led hundreds of Bible studies, read so many theological books that I probably should participate in a 12 step program for theoholics...after all of that and more, I've found myself asking over and over again the simple questions: "God, what do you want me to learn in what I'm facing right now? What can I take from these moments/this experience that will bring me deeper into your will? That's what I ask myself.  Sometimes I'll feel the Spirit nudge me to ask someone else:  How's your spiritual life?  What's God doing in your life?  Where do you feel God's blessing and where is God pushing you to grow?  What are you hearing from Jesus?  How do you experience/encounter God?

These questions may be hard for some to conceive.  They are not intended to be intrusive or offensive, but intended to stir up the thought of one's relationship with God.  It's a question asked FOR God--almost as if God is saying to the person "hey, I'd like you to know me better and open your heart to me more.  I love you and want you to know it. I broke the mold after you, you're one of a kind, created in order for your heart's wings to spread fully and catch the wind of the Spirit and soar.  Let's work on that together.  I'm on your side.  Always have been, always will be.  And while I have your attention, I'd like your help in connecting with some of my other favorites.  You are perfectly situated and prepared to help me with that.  As you build trust and rapport with friends, family, colleagues, associates, neighbors--frankly anyone--I'd like you to tell about our relationship--yours and mine--and raise the idea that whoever you are talking with can have an amazing relationship with me too.  Don't worry, I've already been at work in anyone's heart that you may speak to.  I don't expect you to introduce the idea, just tend the garden a little, maybe water it, spread some fertilizer on it.
Before you do any of that though, your first priority is to lean more and more into me. Let me support you when you feel weak or strong, let me feed and nourish you when you feel hungry and malnourished, let me encourage you when you feel discouraged and whooped, let me be your shield when you feel overwhelmed and defeated.  Whatever the problem, don't worry, I'm already aware of it and I'm just waiting for you to ask for help.
Asking another about the state of their relationship with God may seem intrusive, but that's a defensive response, it's fear dictating the future, it's the ego scared of letting go control.  Some may think "that's private!" but it may be so private that they don't even know it.  Some may think "well, aren't you the spiritual giant" but that's being offensive in order to take the attention off of what they're afraid to admit.
There are a lot of ways to avoid growing spiritually (code for having a relationship with God--since we can't grow spiritually apart from that), but that shouldn't put off those who know the richness and necessity of growing spiritually from seeking ways to assist others in their growth.  Why would anyone refuse another starving person from knowing where a never-ending, free banquet is served?
So first, you need to enjoy the rich, spiritually nutritious spread God has provided, build up your strength and confidence. The deeper into God you grow the more gracious you'll be with others because the further you go the more you recognize that it's not you, it's God.  And that's the blossom of humility, which produces the fruit of gratitude.  If you keep it up (and you should, even when it seems nothing is happening) eventually you won't be able to contain the joy.  Remember David, the shepherd boy/king who wrote "my cup overflows"? That's what he was talking about.  For hearts that are willing, I just keep pouring the love and joy and grace in.  It sloshes and spills and overflows and puddles, but it's never a mess.
So go ahead.  Give it a try.  Invite me in.  Let's sit and talk.  No pressure.  No guilt.  Nothing to sign in blood.  My Son signed that contract already.  That's why I'm hoping to hear from you.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Friday, July 8, 2016

Many people have those epic family stories that they love to recite and retell.  Events, moments, experiences and encounters that are humorous or insightful or character-shaping or turning points or "ah-ha!" moments.
One of my family favorites occurred when I was too young to remember, perhaps even before I was born.  My older brother and sister had been outside playing and had inadvertently gotten into a patch of poison ivy.  My parents, O Wise Ones that they are, acted with lightening speed and brought my brother and sister in, had them strip out of their clothes and bathe.  Crisis averted!
An hour or so later, however, my sister was fine, but my brother was itchy and scratching himself--it was a mystery why one wasn't affected, but the other was--until my parents discovered my brother had simply redressed in the clothes he'd had on earlier.
Perhaps that's amusing, but we all do it--not with poison ivy, but with our preferred sins--we are guilty of some kind of brokenness, some kind of ego-laced attitude, some kind of sinkhole selfishness and in our spiritually lucid moments we, by the grace of God, strip ourselves of the sin-soaked outfit we've been parading around in and we are baptized in the cleansing mercy we are offered.  We cannot remain emotionally and spiritually naked, by virtue of our vulnerabilities and the nature of our human relationships and so we are reclothed.  Some of us are reclothed in a wardrobe of righteousness, some take on some armor to keep ourselves (pseudo) safe.  Most, if not all of us, however, eventually slip back into those exposed clothes we'd stripped out of and we find ourselves itchy and scratchy again.
The apostle Paul admits that he does what he does not want to do and what he wants to do, he doesn't.
For me, this is where I discover the rich nature of grace.  If I am able to manage my own righteousness then grace is simply cutting me some slack, but if sin is so pervasive that I cannot strip and re-dress on my own, then grace is that gift I most desperately need and for which I am most joyfully grateful.
Unquestionably, the latter is the case.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Thursday, July 7, 2016

I learned to swim at my hometown YMCA pool.  I don't have many detailed memories of those lessons, but I can still imagine the big room and pool, I can still hear the echoing sounds of the water and voices, I can still remember the smell of chlorine, I can still feel the sensation of water on my body and it running off my face as I would surface.
I advanced quickly through the various stages of swim classes, reaching the last level a couple of years before most my age.  Consequently, I was a small guy compared to my peers in the class. I think the level was called The Sharks, but I may be wrong.  I remember one of the requirements in the last level was to swim as far as I could underwater, holding my breath.  One pool length was expected, but if you could do more, then it was encouraged.  I recall the anxious anticipation of diving in, thrusting my body as far forward as possible while making myself as hydrodynamic as I could in order to increase the distance of my initial jump.  And then as I felt myself slow to a point I intuitively knew I could swim faster than, I began swimming.  Remarkably I came to the end quicker than I expected, so I turned and pushed against the pool wall with all the strength my legs could muster, then began swimming back to the deep end.  Again, remarkably, I made it to the end where I had started.  Now I was beginning to feel my lungs demanding a new breath of fresh air, but I turned around and pushed against the wall again and began swimming toward the shallow end.  As I swam this length I began releasing the spent breath I'd been holding.  I made it about two thirds of the way before rising to the surface and gasping for air.
I didn't expect to go nearly as far as I did and I was excited for my accomplishment.
My experience in learning to swim has opened me to many discoveries about the world, about challenges, about overcoming obstacles and fears, but mostly discoveries about myself.  I've learned that it's easiest to stay in the shallow waters where it's safe and familiar and non-threatening.  I've also learned that the best lessons and most fulfilling experiences are in the deeper waters.
It is in the deep waters I have been filled with awe by the glory of creation, the wonders of the cosmos, the simplicity and complexity of life, the love and joy of The Creator, and the spectacular symphony of nature.  It is also in the deep waters that I have been tested and I've found my own boundaries--some of which I have, by necessity, enlarged; others I have had to humbly accept.  The deep waters present us with more gifts than we will ever be able to unwrap. It is in the deep waters that we are most at risk, but it is also there that we are baptized.
I've learned that there's always a new depth.  Whenever I become familiar and comfortable with a particular depth, it's then that I begin to be drawn to something even deeper, more mysterious and more of a blessing--despite what I may be put through to reach it.
I have discovered that my faith opens me to the presence of God in these depths.  Rather than forbidding me from the deep waters, God has knit into my heart an adventure, one for which God is the treasure I find in the depths.
Just like all the early swim classes, The Minnows, The Guppies, The Pollywogs, or whatever, all the experiences I've had through life have been necessary in preparing me for the deeper waters.  Consequently, I have patience for those not yet swimming in the depths.  I am not better than they.  Each stage of life is necessary.  The only misfortune is when someone reaches a certain point and prefers treading water to swimming further out and diving further down. Sadder still are those who deem the ones swimming further out and diving deeper as wrong in doing so--perhaps they're trying to justify their own fear of the deeper waters by stigmatizing those who swim further than they.
I have come far enough to know that I have not yet come far enough, to know that there is more yet to discover, more yet to explore, more yet to be tested and strengthened by, more of God's deep love in which to swim.  And the remarkable thing is that as I am able to look back to shallower waters and remember how spectacular it was to swim there at the time, yet now it looks so small and confining, I know that I will yet look upon where I am today with the same notion from deeper waters still.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Monday, July 4, 2016

As a young pastor in Austin, back in 1985, a dude wandered into the church I was serving and eventually was directed to my office.  He and I sat for a while and talked when he began explaining to me his theory of the end of the world.  For him it was immanent.  He had made his way to Texas from Seattle, WA where he claimed that street people were required to have a barcode tattooed somewhere on them in order to receive government help—of course, at the time, the use of barcodes was in its infancy and therefore suspect and perceived as one step closer to Big Brother, at least to this guy.  He claimed the barcode tattoo was the sign of the beast, mentioned in the book of Revelation and that this was just the beginning, that soon everyone would need to be tattooed to buy stuff.  I didn’t have any class in seminary that mentioned that ministry would be like this, but I honored the man by agreeing that if that was the case it would be alarming.  In the end he asked for bus fare, which I gladly provided.

Since the life of Jesus Christ there have been well over 155 documented “end-of-the-world” predictions. The majority of these have taken place in the last few hundred years as cultures began to bump up against each other and explorations and new discoveries increased.  Furthermore as technological advances increased there have been more predictions that we would soon see our demise.  There have been 60 predictions during my lifetime of 55 years—more than one a year.

Why are there so many end-of-the-world predictions and such a fascinations with them?  Novels and movies are based on apocalyptic themes that are well received.
Why?  Answering that question is worthy of extensive research, but I think it essentially is because  
1. change is frightening and the effects of change are feared
2. It’s easier to prepare for a known end than to navigate the unknown landscape created by change
3. Change often requires people to release false beliefs about themselves, others, and the cosmos—in other words, admit they were wrong about something they earnestly believed; as well as accept that persons of authority in their lives are wrong.
4. End-time believers tend to cluster with other end-time believers, further reinforcing their belief of the end, while excusing them from the difficult work of being with people different from themselves

There’s a lot more to it than that, but as we ride the roller coaster of human history and we are whipped and jerked and jostled by the dramatic shifts occurring around us—whether technological, social, or political—it is helpful to realize that “the-sky-is-falling” scenarios are a dime a dozen.

Does this mean we disregard the effects of change or cast away any concern?  Certainly not, but we should also be sober in our interpretation of them.  There is a lot of money and power tied up in causing people to panic, but who profits from these predictions?  Certainly not those who believe the predictions and freak out.

It’s been 31 years since the fellow showed up in my office and in that time I’ve never seen a barcode tattooed on someone’s body that was required by the government.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Saturday, July 2, 2016

“I need a God who is bigger and more nimble and mysterious than what I could understand and contrive. Otherwise it can feel like I am worshipping nothing more than my own ability to understand the divine.”
― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

Amen.  Furthermore, I cannot imagine God encouraging, supporting, being pleased with, or even mildly appreciative of anything done in God’s name that is destructive to another—even if that other is being destructive to God’s reputation.  God has to be bigger than that.  God has to be beyond being annoyed that people, whom God created, are not being good as God intends.  Instead, I would imagine God being more compassionate toward such people since they are not experiencing the fullness and depth of God’s love and purpose for us.

I might be annoyed, even angry and bitter toward someone whom I have helped who, in turn, speaks or acts in a way that dishonors me—but the God I believe in is stronger than I am, more capable of transcending such nonsense.

I am thinking of this because of the basis of so much violence and rhetoric that claim to speak and act on behalf of God.  Why would God create us and then use us to punish each other for our own foolishness?  I believe that acts of terrorism in the name of God as well as judgments made in the name of God against people for their beliefs or lifestyles are equally an abomination.

God is love.  If you believe this, then it must be demonstrated in acts of mercy and compassion, with all humility in recognizing how utterly guilty each of us is in offending God and yet receiving generous patience and love.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Then I Remember

There are times when I figure something complicated out or write something darn good or make something I think is creative and I feel this swell of pride and think that I’m somebody pretty special…
Then I remember that I didn’t make my brain from scratch, let along do much to develop my mental capacities, and I remember that without my brain that I didn’t make, I can’t do anything.

There are times when I watch my kids and swell with pride at each of them for the uniqueness of each and that they are MY children…
Then I remember I didn’t knit my children together and stitch their organs in or pour their bones into a mold or tie the sinew and muscle together or mix their blood and start their hearts pumping.  All I’m able to offer is a tiny bit of love and assistance, and even those come through me more than from me.

There are times when I put something together with wood or clay or metal, or I fix something that was broken or needed to be improved and I walk away feeling like I’m ingenious and that I’m somebody pretty special…
Then I remember that I did nothing to fashion my fingers or toes or face or torso or any of my organs and without my body and nervous system then I could do nothing.

There are times when I whip up something in the kitchen that is downright good and I think I'm somebody pretty special for combining spices and other ingredients so masterfully...
Then I remember that I did nothing to make these things grow or design the chemistry of their flavor, let alone create the wonder of my taste buds or my digestive system, or even spend a moment concentrating on the absorption of nutrients so that my cells would be fed.

There are times at the end of the day that I consider the many things I’ve marked off my “to do” list and I feel like somebody pretty special
Then I remember that I didn’t stay up the night before constructing everything necessary for the sun to rise and for time to continue so that I would have a stage upon which to do the things I do.

There are times when I look back at my resiliency in the face of hardships and my strength of character when faced with easier choices and I pat myself on the back and give myself an “atta boy!” and I think that I’m somebody special…
Then I realize how much help I’ve had, how many teachers and friends and others who have been there for me through thick and thin without whom I wouldn’t have done anything.

There are times when I’ve led a group of people to some decision or conclusion or insight and afterwards I think I must be somebody pretty special to have done such an amazing feat with such a diverse group of people…
Then I remember that in the midst of the time together it felt more like I was being led, than taking the lead and I realize that without something that cannot be touched, but is known as real nonetheless, then I couldn’t lead a duck to water.

There are times when I see things that I think are rather perceptive of me, things that others overlook, and I think I’m somebody pretty special…
Then I remember that I didn’t create the recipe for eyes, nor did I even cook mine up and install them.

There are times when I feel a deep humility as I stare at the stars or watch the sun set or breathe in deeply the smell of wild grasses or sea spray or laugh with my children…
Then I realize that I AM somebody special, but not for who I am or what I can do, but for Who made me and why.  Then I am filled with gratitude for this and all the many things I am able to see and do and think and the people who have walked a segment of life’s trail with me, because everything is a gift.

I can only speak from my own very limited perspective, but it seems to me that each of us, from the most vulnerable of newborns to the most brilliant and wise of minds, are only able to leave our fingerprints upon whatever we touch whether with our hands or with our thoughts, and even those metaphorical fingerprints, actual or figurative, are given to us.

No wonder Jesus said if we have the faith of a mustard seed then we could move mountains, cause it isn’t really us at all.  It’s the One who made us and the faith of which Jesus speaks is mostly about getting our pride out of the way.

Never forget that you are somebody special, but not for the reasons you may think you are.  Now get back to your mountain-moving.  

© Stephen Carl, 2016

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Several years ago I went with the youth director of the church I was serving and several of the youth, including my daughter, to a Jewish student center on the campus of a large state university. We attended a worship service for the Reformed Jewish students, but under the same roof, in the same building there were other students gathered who represented different Jewish traditions and persuasions. It was an effort to expose the youth, and ourselves, to the unique worship of others with whom we have some common beliefs, though different histories and emphases. It was an effort to overcome some of the "us/them" thinking that is too easy to practice that reinforces divisiveness and ultimately prejudice and hatred.
I remember thinking what a wonderful illustration it provided of the different beliefs we have in the world cooperating under one roof. While it does provide an illustration of focus on our similarities and building cooperation on that rather than highlighting our differences and letting those divide us, I cannot ignore that the solution was to acquiesce and let the differences divide the people into separate rooms. I remember wandering around the building and discovering several different rooms with signs identifying the particular group that met in each room for their particular style of worship. Perhaps that is the best alternative, but I can still imagine and dream of something better. And if I can imagine something better, then I can't help but believe that it is possible and worth pursuing.
In many churches there is the practice of blended worship, in which, most commonly, the music and liturgy of traditional and contemporary service styles are used, in an attempt to blend them into one liturgy and worship order and experience, thus bringing together people whose preferences (and sometimes theology) have caused division within the church. It is, essentially, an attempt to bring into one room people who used to meet in separate worship spaces.
I think that God prefers blended worship, although not the kind that we think of when someone speaks of blended worship. God prefers the blended worship that is blended because there are all the ethnicities and cultures present, the different beliefs and political attitudes represented, the different genders and sexual identities welcomed, even different religions represented; not gathered or blended into a single theology, but all gathered with the many voices blended into one chorus saying "Wow! Thank you!" What better way to worship the God who created all of us, than to come together and overcome our divisions in order to acknowledge the ONE from whom we all come and in whom we all have life?  Not unlike the joy a parent might experience when his or her estranged children come together, setting aside their disputes, in order to say "we love you and who you are and what you do for us is far more important than our arguments."
I CAN imagine a god that requires us to treat others who differ from ourselves with malice and contempt and prejudice since that god is far too commonly invoked in our world and lives. I cannot imagine, however, a loving, sovereign, omnipotent God expecting this of us. I am grateful that beyond what my imagination is able to conceive that I trust and fully embrace God who loves me and has stirred in my heart a love for others that is beyond my capacity to generate. I am baffled that this love God instills in me does not require that I abandon my beliefs or traditions or theology in order to love another without reservation, hesitation, or expectation. In truth, the God I know and worship, the One who claims me and loves me, makes it so I can do nothing other than abandon my prejudice and love others without requiring them to believe as I do. And as such, I am able to gather under the one roof of humanity and let my voice join the chorus, saying "Wow! Thank you!"

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Undisclosed

There is a voice
Beneath all sound
It can be heard
By those who've found

The silent way
And inner ear
To quiet noise
Of loss and fear

Listen closely
With your soul
To the word
That makes all whole

The voice will speak
The truth unheard
To those who heed
With minds unstirred

And like a stream
That smooths a stone
The hearts will be
By love atoned

Then the strength
Of all that flows
Will lift all souls
From far below


There is a face
Unseen by eyes
With piecing gaze
It sees through lies

No castle walls
Or strong defense
Withstands its power
To dispense

The shining joy
That all hearts seek
In ways that steal
And leave us weak

It quenches thirst
Like ancient font
And satisfies
The homeward want

It calms the mind
And heaving chest
And gives the peace
Of holy rest


There is a power
That holds all hearts
And heals all wounds
And blessing starts

From this source
All freedom comes
A cadence heard
Of advent drums

To this strength
All will be drawn
Through the night
Into the dawn

Ten thousand times
Ten thousand more
All roads will lead
To this one door

That opens for
All hearts made pure
Who through the fight
And pain endure


There is a name
Unknown to all
Till whispered as
The blessed call

Then each one hearing
The name beneath
Will seize the day
And truth bequeath

It sheds bright light
So all may see
The landscape walked
And no more be

Tripped by the stones
Found in one's path
Nor be consumed
By writhing wrath

To speak the name
From one's own lips
Brings heart, hope, and home
Into eclipse

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Saturday, May 14, 2016

That's what it's called
A five dollar theological word
That means losing control
Of what you never had control of in the first place
Only the illusion of control
And that's what is lost
Since illusion is a waste of time
It sours the heart to truth
And siphons the hope for deliverance
Until great stone edifices sit as empty
As the hearts betrayed by fakery and foolishness

The veil is lifted
Eyes and heart are now open to the gift of every moment
The gift of every opportunity
The conviction to suck in and gulp down all of it
To take hold of it just as we are released from the clutches of fear
And welcomed to a whole different kind of awe
One we can't yet imagine or conceive
Newborns with appetites and instincts
Given a landscape undreamed
Wide open space with no fences
Only the arbitrary boundaries of ownership and by-laws
As if something that has been floating through space
For billions of years can be tethered, managed, owned
By something that rises and falls in half a Neptunian year
No chains
No claims
No names
The box of trinkets has been dumped out and scattered
Say your prayers and get ready to have the wind knocked out of you
By the Wind of all winds
Pentecost is not for sissies
It is the tsunami that wrecks our sandcastle sanctuaries
Leaving us stunned and drenched
Overwhelmed by the power of the love we thought we franchised
Pentecost is The Holy Other's dare to trust
Really let go and give up the reigns we held
      to the dead horse paradigms we've been beating
No more slogans
No more gimmicks
No more sale's pitches about heaven
No more pretend bargains
Stripped of the hocus pocus and the fault finding

Pay attention
There are Pentecost tracks in the rubble
Large paw prints of the prowling predator
Ravenously devouring falsehoods
And feeding the meek
Turning over the marketplace tables that mock the Prodigal Parent
And binding the wounds
Indifferent to the Caesars and Senators who wield woeful wands
Compassionate toward the wearied and burdened
Spewing forth the tepid temple plate-spinners
Gathering the languishing lambs and feeding them
And patiently starving those obese with lies

It isn't a day or an hour or a season or an event
It is a dawning that eclipses the shadowed life
Of everyone, even the baptized
Do not feign to tame that which cannot be chained
The Wind will conquer and claim
As the harvest is gathered
Through relentless love

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Friday, May 6, 2016

The story of Joseph in the Bible is intriguing and powerfully metaphoric for the rich and abundant life that is experienced as blessed but goes through loss, being loathed and despised, betrayed, abandoned, enslaved, being deceived, hardships, and ultimately redemption and the opportunity to bless the very ones who caused him so much suffering.

Joseph, like so many who rise in humble glory with wings of wisdom, went downward--first into a hole as his brothers pushed him and then downward from freedom to slavery as his brothers sold him, then downward to Egypt from the land of his father who believed he was dead.

The downward journey is not easy, nor fun, nor experienced as a blessing, yet it is by dying to self in the downward journey that we are born anew.

The culture in which we live, however, abhors downward.  It is all about upward.  Downward is losing with no gain perceived.  We are sold the idea that the only direction we should settle for is up; up the ladder of success, of power, of wealth, of popularity, of confidence, of credentials, of anything that is about achievement of substance.  Downward is about the opposite of what we should pursue.  And so we negate its benefits, we consider ourselves cursed, having lost our way, a loser.

Yet downward is what so many great people have gone through.  Trials and even suffering has a way of refining us.  We are assured again and again in scripture that God is with us, on our side, hasn't forgotten us, will deliver us, to trust in God's might and sovereignty and that God loves us more than we could imagine--and yet so much of the message of scripture is also about the trials and challenges that define faith.

Hardships, trials, challenges, loss, disappointments, all of these have a way of baptizing us in humility, fortitude, resolve, faith and inner strength.  And yet we define the good life without ever considering the fire in which we are refined or the valley through which we walk.  No one says "my goal for this year is to go through a serious trial or disappointment so that I can be enriched."  But we all want the depth and the wealth of wisdom that comes from facing the descent into the hole, or the slavery, or Egypt, or being betrayed, or forgiving those who have cut us off.

No matter what you face, remember the gifts that come from the unexpected place of hardship.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Saturday, April 16, 2016

There is dispute, or better yet, a plethora of possibilities about the root and origin of the word "religion." For many, such a confusion really doesn't matter, but the significance of one's use and understanding makes a profound difference.
One possibility is that religion, purely and fundamentally, is about being bound to the holy, or literally to bind oneself to God. The meaning of religion, or understanding of it, has shifted from this wonderful concept to a practice of rules and regulations that are established and administered by an organization for the purpose of keeping order and clarity about an accepted and approved set of beliefs concerning life in general and how it relates to the spiritual. 
Hence, many people today, in a rejection of the pitfalls and failures of religious institutions and their many representatives or adherents, prefer to be identified as "spiritual, but not religious."  Using the above mentioned definition of religion, this means "spiritual, but unbound to the holy." The binding directly means a form of exercise or practice, a "doing" that supports and enhances or demonstrates the belief, whatever it may be. If one's belief is that there is a fundamental force of love in the universe, then one's "religion" would be the practice of exposing and expressing this love. 
Herein the idea of ritual becomes an important aspect of religion. A ritual is an act that represents a believed reality. Rituals can be very powerful, except when they entirely replace what they point to and represent. Many rituals become a thing unto themselves for those practicing them. Thus superstition becomes a powerful component of religion. 
This is also, however, the stage at which the original function of religion becomes lost among the subsequent beliefs arising from superstition.  And hence, people preferring the spiritual sans religion. 
The fallacy of "spiritual, but not religious" is, however, that to be spiritual without any manifestation of ethics or morality is to be a kite without a string or a sailboat without a rudder. The spiritual is without any substance or impact. 
Ethics becomes a significant expression of spirituality and requires some set of boundaries (i.e. rules) which guide one's life in a way that is complimentary and not contradictory to the spiritual to which one adheres. Essentially, this is what one would call one's religion and it may be very simple as in "do unto others as you would want others to do unto you" or very complex by establishing the undergirding basis of why it matters that we treat others as we want to be treated ourselves (as in God commands it or by God's very nature draws us into living as an expression of this identity). 
C. S. Lewis, who became a Christian as an adult and oddly through a process of logic rather than entirely an emotional experience, described in his radio talks that became the book "Mere Christianity" that religion is like a set of maps of a coastline that give sailors an idea of where they are and how to get from one place to another while avoiding dangers. 
That's as good a definition of religion as I have found.  
Frankly, I rather appreciate maps. I don't particular care to be lost. There are some places I enjoy exploring, but if others have been there before, I am likely to utilize what they've learned from their being there. Obviously there's an expectation of authenticity, that the information is accurate, which implies a level of trust. 
This can certainly be applied to the notion of religion as a map. Children rely heavily on the trustworthiness of adults who provide instructions about the map and understanding the map. There is a day, however, when a child either accepts the map as reliable or not--or somewhere in between absolute acceptance and absolute rejection. Each person very likely takes the map and makes personal modifications to it based on his/her experience. 
Let's bring this back to the aforementioned definition of religion: to bind oneself to the holy. The purpose of religion is not to stifle a person's spirit or to limit their spiritual journey to a very small part of the coast, but to equip and provide the necessary resources to explore the vast seas of life. This can be frightening for some. Some clearly prefer limitations and clear boundaries that keep one secure. Some may prefer a small rowboat and limit themselves to a tiny part of what the map describes, so much so that they feel threatened by those who sail far beyond and tell of their adventures and what they've learned. Others are put off by such limitations and often will abandon the entire set of maps simply because some of the maps that are used by some of the people are too restrictive. 
In my own adventures, I have found that some of the maps are erroneous primarily because they do not take into account the vastness of the sea. Likewise, I have found that casting aside all the maps is as foolish and narrow minded as those who vehemently defend "their" map as the only reliable way to navigate the coastline. Perhaps it's possible to be spiritual but not ritualistic, or spiritual but not superstitious, but I find it negates the spiritual to say one isn't religious in any way whatsoever. 
So I would describe myself as spiritual and religious, or spiritually religious, or religiously spiritual, since spiritual but not religious is like saying one is alive but not breathing, or on a journey but going nowhere. 

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Friday, April 15, 2016

How I've spent part of my morning…
The thought, idea, concept, belief in God can only be derived through who and what we are—though revelation may be "true", it still must be processed through the filter of our brains and consequent consciousness that is biologically based—as remarkable as our brains (or minds) may be, they are still biological. Our thoughts and our “souls” or “spirits” may be something we would set apart from our biology, but they are still known or conceived only through the biology of our brains. At least as far as we know, when someone dies and their biology ceases functioning as a living system, then we have no “proof” of anything beyond. Near death or after death experiences have been communicated, but they are all put through the filter of the living, biological system of those who have “experienced” them. Here we admit that our concept of “proof” is limited because it is bound to the scientific definition of what is observable through our senses and therefore measurable in scientific ways. It’s like saying that chocolate doesn't exist because it doesn't fit the category of cinnamon. Or better yet, blue isn't real because we can't hear it. These are rather amusing and simple examples, but even they miss the mark since they use aspects of what we know to illustrate something we do not know. We can take it a little further and say that ultra-violet or infrared light does not exist since we cannot see them, or radio waves since we cannot hear them. There are countless examples in nature and the cosmos of incredible things that are beyond the human capacity to do or experience or know without some embellishment of our own senses. Still there are other mysteries that do not fit conventional logic, yet we accept them because they show up through tests—e.g. light that is both wave and particle, all depending on how we’re observing it.
The point of these examples is that “proof” is only and always biologically perceived and verified. As this is the case, how can we ever prove anything that does not fit the categories we understand as concrete—made of atoms doing something? We cannot. It is beyond the limitations of proving. Does this mean that there is nothing that does not fit the limits of our ability to experience it, even through methodologies that explain that something is taking place without us experiencing it either directly or through some instrument. For example, through mathematics we have theories of how atoms interact and much more—without the math, we couldn’t begin to surmise some of the things we say we now know. But even math or the super collider or the most powerful microscope cannot look beyond the cosmic system in which they exist. Does this mean there is nothing across that threshold? Amusingly, even our language does not allow expression of anything outside of our system. I used the word “outside” of our system, but that relies on the system of which we are a part that has insides and outsides and upsides and downsides. We speak of whether God “exists” and yet existence is something that is defined only within the system of which we are a part—there I go again using “within” the system as if for something else to be (ha! exist) it must be “outside.” I cannot speak or even conceive of something that doesn’t have dimension and doesn’t swim within time.
The particularly fascinating aspect to this is having the capacity to think of and even believe in something that isn’t contained within the jar of what we know and from which we arise. I suppose we are only able to do so in very limited ways that are metaphorically expressed through the system of which we are a part. In other words, we can’t imagine the unimaginable even though we can imagine it and know that we can’t.
With the ability to imagine the unimaginable, is it possible to imagine that the unimaginable is capable of things we cannot begin to fathom, including understanding things that are beyond our ability to conceive? To say no or to put limitations on the unimaginable has to be either absolute arrogance or phenomenal idiocy. If we can speak of God as creator of the cosmos, of the observable, of ourselves and we are able to recognize that the instrument of perception and conception (human beings) that has been created is used to be conscious of itself and the rest of what has been created, but by something beyond the created, is it conceivable that we are not able to see or reach beyond some edge, some boundary of this cosmos? And if we come to an edge, a boundary are we wise to say that nothing lies beyond—speaking metaphorically using the created dimension of space.
Now that I have that out of my system, I'm going to clean the bathrooms.
© Stephen Carl, 2016