November 3, 2014

Vertigo

I was laid flat with vertigo most of the day on Friday. It started around 4am, when I woke up suddenly feeling like I was spinning around on a centrifuge, burning up and freezing at the same time. If I lay really still, I almost felt normal, but that illusion would disappear as soon as I’d either open my eyes or move my head slightly. Then, I’d see the room start sliding one direction or the other, usually towards the left, and as I closed them again, I’d feel like I was back in the centrifuge.

Oddly enough, I never actually threw up.

The little semicircular canals in the middle ear are the bits that aid with balance (or, as wikipedia calls it, “equilibrioception”); they’re our own personal gyroscopes. Mine are known, in my family, for their hypersensitivity - they’re just the worst. Because of this, I’ve thrown up in multiple states and countries on multiple vacations, making my family miserable because I got car sick at inopportune times (although, really, IS there an opportune time?). But this time I didn’t. And the reason might actually be the fact that I AM so sensitive - because I’ve been through this before. Sometimes, my ears just don’t tell me what’s really going on, a fact of which I’ve become acutely aware. I know and accept that my ears are not infallible, and have often failed me, causing my body to do things it really shouldn’t (like vomiting, which is just about the worst feeling ever). Even as I lay in bed, it occurred to me that, though my eyes told me otherwise, my wife couldn’t possibly be walking around the apartment unless it really wasn’t rotating in three simultaneous directions.

What we think we’re experiencing isn’t always what’s real. When the world feels like it’s spinning out of control, it might be that whatever we’re using to measure that or experience that is actually broken and needs fixing. “We do not lose heart,” Paul writes; “though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Peel back the layers, he says, and there’s always way more going on that you can’t see. Sometimes what’s going on right in front of you isn’t what you think; sometimes, what you think you see or hear isn’t really there (or sometimes something is there you don’t think you see); sometimes, your body or your mind betray you; sometimes, your senses are wrong.

It takes courage to see this.

How many of us, when the world feels like it's warped and twisted into unrecognizably dizzying shapes, have tried to lay still just to make the hurting stop? Change can render the best of us inert, frozen, unable to move in the direction we've been called because it can be so disorienting. Our collective senses are designed for what’s right in front of us, which means we’ve been built to trust God for the rest of the story, for the things that haven’t yet happened. 

When I'm a passenger in a car, and I find that we're starting to pull a bunch of hair-pin turns through canyons or mountains, I've discovered that the best place to focus is not on the road in front of me, but on the road far ahead. When I keep my eyes focused on the bigger perspective of my orientation to the end, rather than the spinning and bouncing of the now, I survive the lurching feeling of a car that feels out of control. Dizziness still happens, because the windy road I'm driving must still stay in my peripheral vision, but it's manageable; I can still make it to where I'm going. In our spiritual vertigo, the things of the now can be deceptive if we try to forecast them forward; only God sees the bigger picture, and so we must trust that God is working for the redemption of this world. This is why we’re so often told to focus on the end-game of the Kingdom, and not to focus on the short-term wins and losses. Things of the past can point us towards this reality - the incarnation, the cross and resurrection, and the many times in our personal histories and in our world’s history when God came through for His creation.

But once again, this is why it is called “faith” - we can walk, even run, despite that our eyes sometimes say the ground is missing and our ears tell us that we're falling, spinning out of control. If we're running where God is leading, our feet will always find purchase, though 'purchase' may look very different than we might expect. When the world begins falling apart, we'll survive the hairpin turns when our eyes strain to see what God sees: 

redemption, restoration, and a Kingdom that will never end.

October 6, 2014

Whatever

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” — Leonardo DaVinci


There’s some part of every artist that will never be happy with the status quo. Every artist I’ve ever met has issues with dissatisfaction and perfectionism - nothing will ever be quite … done for us. There’s always one extra edit to make, one more smear of paint to add, one more rehearsal to perfect that one phrase, one more paragraph to add. It’s a temperament that has served artists well for a long time - we improve our craft and produce our best art when we obsess, not only over the big picture, but also over the details. Like many things, however, such a strength can also be an achilles heel; spend too much time on something, and other projects, family, housework, even health will all suffer. At some point, we need to put the brush down, call it “done” (or at least, “as done as it can get”) and move on. If we abandon ourselves to obsession over one piece, we’ll never make anything new.

I’m finding, though, that this same thing is true - for myself, at least - when starting art. I know what good writing or photography looks like, what good music sounds like, and so if I don’t feel like I have it within me that day to craft a fantastic blog post or an excellent essay or a beautiful song, I somehow get it in my head that it’s best not to even start;

Why waste the time producing sub-par material?

Cue writer’s block.

There are a few things colliding here. The aforementioned obsession with perfection is obviously a major contributor; I want to make the best thing, but I want to make it right from the start. Which is the second element: we Americans are, for some reason or other, also obsessed with efficiency. We’re very bad at lingering, at taking the long way around, because our cultural narrative of production demands that if we think we have time to take the long way, we could probably take the short way twice and thereby produce more. I’ve written before about our culture’s desire to produce as much as possible, and while we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far the other way (we do need to make something or else we won’t be able to survive), creativity often comes from the times of disruption, silence, quiet, lingering, and seeming inefficiency.

Which means that sometimes, when I find myself in a rut and unable to start, I’m finding that it’s good to do something totally inefficient. Last night, for example, after dinner I pulled out my pastels (for the first time in a long time) and simply blended color together on blank pages in my notebook. My seven year old kept asking what I was drawing. When I told her that I was just making color, she looked confused, insisting that this must be a tree or something (Rorschach was a genius, by the way). In truth, I was just burning up pastels to see what might come out of it. I wasn’t making “something;” I was making anything, or more accurately, I was making “whatever” - flexing my mind to see which direction it might bend. You might call it artistic calisthenics; other art forms often inspire our primary form simply because they pull us away from our patterns and help us try new things.

Sometimes, change for the sake of change is actually a good, healthy thing. I don’t actually like doing it, personally - I like my patterns, my habits, my routines. But if I stick to them as if they’re the point, I end up leading a stale life, and my writing, my leadership, my music, and even my parenting ends up sort of … blah. Lifeless. Inert. Lacking flavor.

Lives lived well - lives in which God is working, lives that are works of art - will always need to experience new things, learn new ideas, try new activities, go new places, and at least occasionally, break their routines in order for God to work. It is true that God works in many routines - of gathering and sending, of daily prayer, of sunrise and sunset - but it’s just as true that God works by breaking those same routines - retreats, camps, fasting, celebrations, vacations, even weekly sabbath to break the rhythms of work.

I had a professor once who told me that he felt like his teaching was stale for a while, but couldn’t figure out why. And then he realized that he’d been telling the same stories over and over again; he start teaching, and then one day it had suddenly been five years since he’d told a new story to his classes. He’d gotten so used to telling the stories he’d collected that he’d forgotten to make new stories to tell. He was no longer modeling the life he was trying to teach because he’d gotten sucked into teaching the life in a classroom. 

If you think about it, a routine is like telling the same story over and over and over again, and one day we wake up and realize that it’s been years since we told a new story, that everyone around us has tuned out because they’ve heard that one about a thousand times. You might say that our salt loses its saltiness. So if you’re like me and have a tendency to get sucked into your routine, be brave and try something new. Go to a different restaurant for lunch this week, or take a different route home from work, try holding your pen a different way. It doesn’t matter what, but do something NEW! Don’t let your story get so routine that you forget to tell it!

After all, your life could be a work of art, and art is never finished, 

only abandoned.

September 30, 2014

Mountains

Did you know that not all the scriptures started out written? Some were only written down after they had been oral tradition. And did you know that the new testament was written in a form of common Greek, but in the documents we still have, there are no spaces, no lowercase letters, and no punctuation?

I mean, can you imagine?

Let's eat Grandma.
vs.
Let's eat, Grandma.

Like the t-shirt says, punctuation saves lives.

So too with context. Context is a big deal. Without context, we are left to interpret things however we feel. So when I notice the mountains that Matthew uses in his account of Jesus' life and ministry, I should start paying attention. The details are important.

Mountains, for the Hebrews, were focal points. Throughout Israel's history, all the important stuff happened on mountains. Abraham's son Isaac was spared on Mount Moriah. Moses received the ten commandments and the Law from God on Mount Sinai. David encountered an angel on a threshing floor on the peak of a mountain. Mountains are woven into the fabric of Hebrew culture. So when we read that Jesus went up onto the side of a mountain in Matthew 5, we should pay close attention to what he's about to say.

Because, for the Hebrews, mountains ("the high places") were where God revealed Himself to His people.

In Genesis 22, God reveals himself to be nothing like the gods of the surrounding culture by providing a substitute sacrifice for Isaac; He is a god who will not forsake His people. In Exodus 20, God reveals that He cares about the welfare of His people, that they rest, that they not take advantage of others, that they respect the lives and property of their neighbors.

There are at least five mountains mentioned in Matthew's gospel; where he feeds four thousand, the mount of transfiguration, Golgotha, the mountain of the great commission ... and of course, this other time, Jesus walks up on a mountain; the one who John calls the Word Incarnate; the one who Matthew calls "God with us." And He begins to teach.

Matthew's saying, Jesus is about to say something important,

So pay attention.

September 23, 2014

Traditionol

I saw a cartoon once with this simple caption: “Every year American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of baby boomers’ childhoods.” I found it a profound insight.

Tradition is a big deal pretty much everywhere you go, but nowhere else is it more revered than in religious settings. We like our traditions; the lights and greenery of the Christmas season, the parades on July 4 and Memorial day, that one special place every summer. For years before we moved out of Rochester, my wife and I would go to a sushi place called “California Rollin’” on our anniversary and our birthdays. It was our family tradition. We still go when we visit family there, as much for the nostalgia as for the food. Traditions can be true and deep and meaningful and - dare I say it - even holy.

There are two challenges, however, with tradition. The first is environmental: the world is not a static place, but rather, our environment is dynamic, always changing; jobs change, weather changes, economies rise and fall, friends come and go, people are born and people pass away … nothing stays as it is for long. Our traditions are subject to the movement of the world around us, now more than ever. The second is cultural: what one person considers a wonderful tradition is often unappealing for another. Some prefer the brightness of lights and lasers at Christmas, others prefer the darkness of a candle-lit sanctuary. Some prefer to rock around their Christmas tree, others prefer a silent night. We start to argue about making sure we “keep the tradition” and blacklist anyone who would dare suggest we try something new - they’re troublemakers up to no good, and no good will come of their antics. And we forget that our tradition was, at one time, not the way it was always done.

At some point, the tradition was new.

Traditions were not always "the way it is," but rather came from somewhere for a purpose. We create a rhythm with traditions; the rhythm is a reminder, a symbol of something deep and meaningful. Sometimes we can keep those traditions fresh and new, ever-imbued with deep meaning. I’d put “Silent Night” by candlelight into this category. It began a long time ago, when a German pastor needed music for guitar when his organ wasn't working. But it has evolved; every year it takes on a new meaning for me and many, many others; sometimes because of the peaceful tranquility of the soft music, sometimes because of the communal act of creating light and song together, sometimes just simply because it’s so darn pretty to see an entire room lit only with candles. It’s done every year on purpose, for good reasons, though we’d be remiss not to recognize that not everybody actually enjoys this.

All traditions, though, are created for a season, for a culture, and when they have run their course, when the world changes and more people come from other cultures with other traditions, everybody’s traditions change. Just like Silent Night, at some point, got charted out for organ or piano or cello or Orchestra, despite that it began as a song for guitar. And it’s ok - we can help each other create new traditions for a new season in a new time and place.

But “Traditionol” (now with fresh citrus flavor!) is a drug that promises, for many, to make it all better, as if going back to old faithful really will change the outcome. Despite a change in the environment or culture, despite the differences in traditions across a group of people, we often fight to keep the way it’s been done for the status quo, because the status quo always feels safer. Coincidentally, that’s also the definition of insanity: you are currently doing, as they say, exactly what it takes to get the results you are currently getting, and to expect new results by continuing this same course is simply lunacy.

Sometimes traditions continue only because that’s the way we do it; we can’t remember a good reason to do it beyond “that’s the way we always do it” or “we like it that way.” Sometimes we go so far as to make our traditions into dogma to be enforced on others as the right way, the only way; despite that those traditions were created for a positive purpose, to foster greater understanding and connection with others, along the way we lost the vision. That is when a tradition becomes the addictive and yet repressive traditionol: when we no longer understand why we should do it, but rather only know that we can’t and won’t stop; when we can't find a good reason to continue other than "because that's how we've always done it."

And so sometimes, sometimes the best thing to do is to let a tradition die.

That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a good thing, a helpful thing, a beautiful and true thing in ages past. Traditions often endure precisely because they have been filled with great meaning and beauty. It simply means that it has served its higher purpose and now, something new is needed. Sometimes, to keep a tradition from becoming traditionol, we need to let it die, and in its death we allow it to birth new traditions for a new time and a new culture. To let it die can actually honor that tradition far more than forcing it to try to keep on living; there is no life in a zombie.

So remember it fondly, as a good thing, as something that blessed many. And then start over with all the creativity we can find, and from the charcoal of the old, the whisper of the new is born.

This post was originally run on December 30, 2011 on this blog and has been edited for content.

September 16, 2014

Bricks

"You're a very useful engine, Thomas.”

Did you ever watch that show? I mean, really watch it, not just occasionally catch few lines while your kids soaked it up in the background. It's about an island full of living trains who are slaves suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and are self-defined by whether or not they're useful to a dictatorial (human) conductor. Ok, I know, it’s not technically the intent of the show’s creators, but when I’ve been forced to endure the cliches of so much children’s programming, what's a guy to do? But that’s the line that stuck out to me, one that’s repeated over and over again: “you’re a very useful engine” is what we hear when Thomas does something good.

I’ve had a hard time finding words again lately, and I have a feeling it's directly related to the fact that I've been busy with all the preparations that come with launching ministries in the fall season. When my hands get busy with tasks, my mind doesn't wander to words the way it needs to in order to write, but rather, my mind gets caught up worrying that I won’t get everything done. And I will confess, this has bothered me a lot more than I may care to admit. I get anxious when I don’t have time to write because I love the process of writing and reflection that it requires, a process that is enjoyable and intense all at the same time. But sometimes I start thinking about blogging experts I’ve read, who say that I'll lose readers if I don't keep posts coming with some regularity (because this would be a travesty).

And in my most honest moments, I worry that I'm not producing enough.

In the book of Exodus, the Hebrew people travel through the wilderness quite a distance. They’ve seen the miracles of the plagues, Pharaoh suddenly deciding to let them go, then changing his mind and in the resulting pursuit, the parting of the red sea, manna available every day … and eventually find themselves camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai. God gives them the ten commandments, but then the author records these few verses:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”  [Exodus 20:18-20]
Don’t be afraid, God is testing you?

We’ve all been trained to worry about testing; it always means we’re being evaluated and judged, and the resulting possibility of failure often produces such anxiety that our odds of failure actually increase. But here, Moses says it like it’s supposed to be reassuring, even hopeful. The tragedy of their slavery in Egypt was not just that many Hebrews died making bricks for an oppressive power. The tragedy was that, upon finding their miraculous freedom, the former slaves sought to cling to the life of slavery out of their anxiety of making choices on their own.

In slavery, every choice is made for you on pain of death, and so the ‘right’ choice often feels obvious. As a slave, then, your whole life is not really your own; it is being directed by someone else who generally does not have your best interests in mind. The self-determination that comes with living a freed life feels distant, unfamiliar. And upon attaining this freedom, the unknown territory of the new can be so scary that we long for the familiar routines of slavery - they’re not actually good for us, but they often sound better than being responsible for our own choices and our own existence.

To the point, look at how many times in the wilderness the Hebrews complained about their circumstances and ask to return to Egypt - the occasions are numerous. But this is the very reason the Hebrews spent so much time in the wilderness - they were not yet ready for the responsibility required to live in the promised land. They were proverbial children who had to re-learn how to make good choices as a community. And so God started them all over again in the wilderness with basic survival; ‘depend on me,’ he said, and over the course of many years - a whole generation, really - worked the slave mentality out of their culture. That is why we ought not be afraid of testing;

it’s what keeps us from thinking that making bricks for somebody else is our only purpose.

To put it another way, what if this testing is God’s way of helping us grow? Paul says that if God is for us - and that he is - who could possibly stand against us? What if testing isn’t like taking an exam, but is more like refining impurities because God loves us so much that he wants us to be better than we are now? The first thing God did with these ten commandments was to create a rhythm of life for the Hebrew people to limit the bad habits they’d accumulated in slavery - loving other gods, fighting over each others’ property, lying or murdering to cover it up, etc. In short, these rules were created to help them learn to get along with God and with one another, to trust one another, to live a sustainable life, not just make brick after brick as if they were merely the sum of what they produced.

They were no longer slaves to their labor, no longer merely ‘useful engines’; they began to live as children of a God who loved them.

They’re not the only ones who need to learn this lesson. We too often behave as slaves. For some, like me, it’s finding identity in making writing-bricks or checking off task-bricks. For others, bricks look more like finding an identity in a business or possessions or in influence or in sexuality or intellect or even in family. Bad things happen, and while many (most?) of them have nothing to do with God, I believe he allows some to happen because we often get confused about who we are and need our brains reoriented. Some hard things aren’t persecution, they’re lessons to be learned. We must stop living into our identities as victims of circumstances we cannot control and start taking responsibility for the choices we can make ourselves.

Stop trying to be a useful engine; you’re not just someone’s brick-maker.

You’re a child of God.

May you live as one.