I tell you not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. Matthew 6:29
It’s wildflower season in the mountains, and they’re everywhere. Mountain daisies made their first appearance down in the coastal foothills in late May. They’re long gone down below, and up here, after a few weeks of full glory, it’s clear that their glory days are already past.
Full flowering glory.
The Bible says that we’re just like flowers; here today, gone tomorrow. Far from depressing, I find that pondering the brevity of life is encouraging. It grants perspective, and fosters a cherishing of each moment as precious, each breath a gift.
I run the trail early in the morning and as I pass the wildflowers, ponder the power and poignancy of this millennia-old rhythm. Far from depressing, the truths apparent in the brief but spectacular wildflower cycle mirror critical truths of our lives precisely.
1. Life happens when we draw on resources. The wild daisies are in full force on the ski trail up to Thunderbird lodge, a trail that appears to be nothing but dry stone this summer in which we’ve had not a single day of significant rain in over two months. You’d think dry stones wouldn’t produce flowers, yet there they are. They find the water somehow, enough to thrive.
“What’s needed for thriving?” I ponder. I remember Jesus’ invitation, that time when he stood in the middle of a crowded courtyard and shouted, “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink.” It was a rhetorical question of course because, God knows, all of them, and us too, are thirsty. Not just for h2o, though that matters, but for meaning, hope, intimacy, peace, justice, enough. The outlandish promise is that those who come to Christ, wherever they are in the world, will be granted a capacity to blossom and bless. Some have blossomed as martyrs, others through radical generosity, still others through waking in valleys of poverty and injustice. The promise isn’t ease. It’s that God can use every single circumstance of every single life to pour blessing, somehow, into our world – if we’ll drink from the well that is Christ.
2. Life is a rhythm of flourishing and disappearing. The Indian Paintbrush, so abundant just a week ago are gone; so gone that to look at the hillside you’d never even realized they existed. This is the way of all living things. In fact the Bible explicitly says our lives are like flowers of the field; here and flourishing one day, gone the next, and “it’s place knows it no more”, which is a way of saying that eventually, even if you have a plaque or statue somewhere, the world is no longer yours. Like the flowers, we’ll be gone and forgotten.
Don’t forget the first part of that same passage though. We’re invited to “flourish like the flower of the field”. Over the course of the summer I realize that the flourishing of various plants come in waves. Daisy. Paintbrush. Foxglove. Bear Grass. They come, flourish, and disappear. “Pay attention Richard!” I say as I stop and soak in the landscape, which will never again be exactly this. I think of those who flourished and are no more. My dad as WWII soldier, teacher, principal, superintendent. My mentor as WWII soldier, evangelist, preacher, leader. My mom as wife, parent, teacher, volunteer, caregiver. My grandmother as baker, hostess, lover of her grandchildren. My sister as musician, mom, wife, sister, friend to so many that, at her funeral, dozens claimed her as their “best friend”.
They all flourished! They invested the preciousness of the single life each were given in ways that made a difference in the lives of others so that, in the same way that particular daisy might be gone, a daisy well-lived will carry on through generations of fruitfulness. That’s what flourishing means. As a result, my dad’s flourishing means a son who’s serving and leading. My mentor’s flourishing means there are over twenty Bible Schools around the world proclaiming Christ as life. My sister’s flourishing means the grandchildren she never met are learning to live as a blessing in the world because of her.
Yes, our time is short. Yes, we’ll disappear. Yes, we can continue to make a difference after we’re gone, and we’ll do that by flourishing while we’re here.
3. Life is short. Savor, don’t squander. A lifelong climber in Yosemite, Royal Robbins wrote this to his daughter during his end of life battle with cancer: “I mean to live this year as if it were my last (may God grant that it won’t be so), and will hate every time I fall below that standard and fritter seconds, minutes, or hours away, (much less days!) in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones…”
He echoes the Psalmist who reminds us that we have 70 years, maybe 80 or more if we’re fortunate, and then our days are gone, like the early season daisies. This stark observation, undeniable in spite of omega-3’s, cross-fit, stress management, and jogging, is followed immediately by a prayer. “Teach us, Lord, to number our days”. In other words, “don’t let me fritter away even a single second. Let me live with eyes wide open to all you’re saying to me – in the beauty and ugliness, the darkness and light, the joys and sorrows, the companionship and solitude. Let me absorb it all and live well, “flourishing” during those brief days I’m granted.
I look around, amazed that in all the vastness of time and space, this time, this space, are ours. We’re alive! Breathing, loving, learning, failing, weeping, serving and being served. Grant that when we sink into a mindset of squandering, allowing our lives to be reduced to bitterness, we will cease! Let us hear your voice calling us back to the fullness of life, that not another moment may be wasted.
Note: I’m presently offering a short series of the many ways in which our enemy seeks to steal, kill, and destroy the life for which we’re created. At this moment in history, many are at grave risk of losing hope. Here’s help:
If hope is a longing for a better world, then hope is a flag firmly planted in almost every human soul. Sharin Sabestari is an example of a woman whose heart stirred with a deep and hopeful longing. She shares her story of growing up in war torn Iran and going into the mountains on hikes and climbs with her father….
“I remember the sirens blaring and the bombs rumbling in the distance. When we ran under our basement stairs in a blackout, I was too young to understand… (But) I knew that soon Dad and I would be off again to the mountains, where there we no sirens and no bombs, only a world of wonders: porcupine spines and snakeskins to collect, trees to climb, rocks to scramble. The realm of butterflies and streams and wind…” (Alpinist. Vol. 58)
The beauty of creation instills hope, at any age, in any time and place. It’s a hope that we’re not made to live amongst bombs and air raid sirens, terror and war. We’re made for beauty, made for peace, made for fellowship. Sharin learned this in the mountains. For others hope is awakened at the sea, or at sunset while walking through a field, or in a circle of friends around a campfire, or in a concert hall filled with the sounds of Schubert, or Mozart, or U2.
“Deep calls to deep” is how the Bible says it, and there are some of us who believe that beauty and peace are like signed and sealed invitations from God: “Dear Sharin… May you enjoy this gift of the mountains I’ve made, with all their flowing streams, fresh breezes ripe with the scent of pine, and gorgeous views. You’re invited to enjoy more of my gifts and find the rich life I’ve created for you to enjoy. Love, God.”
I’m on solid ground for believing that the first thing we should learn about God is that God’s given good gifts to humans. Romans 2 tells us that “God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance” which is just another way of saying that God’s kindness is an invitation for us to move away from a life without God, to a life with God – as guide, companion, friend, provider, healer, and lover.
If all this intimacy is the fruit of taking a step towards God because of the presence of hope and beauty, it stands to reason that our enemy, who comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, would seek to steal hope and beauty. Knowing how this happens will help us fan both hope and beauty into flame in our lives once again, to the end that others will see them and perhaps make a move toward the Source of it all.
Hope is stolen through misdirection. “We’d hoped it would be the war to end all wars.” “We’d hoped Obama would bring hope and change.” “We’d hoped Trump would “drain the swamp”. “We’d hoped our offer, 100k above asking price, would have gotten us a house.” “We’d hoped the medical test would have been negative”.
They all make sense, of course, these hopes we have. We hope for the future to turn out a certain way in countless areas over which we have no control. The problem with all these forms of hope, though, is that they are highly contingent on events outside our control. It’s fine to “hope” and be disappointed. The problem comes when our meaning and identity became so yoked to our vision of the future, that any shortfall undoes us utterly. These are the people “driven to drink, or abuse, or worse” when there’s an affair. These are the people killing themselves when the stock market crashes. These are millions who simply haven’t found a way to cope with the dissonance between how they’d “hoped” life would be, and how its actually turned out. The landscape of humanity is littered with countless tragedies precisely because of unrealized hope, and our response to dashed dreams.
Some chime in at this point, and say, “The answer is simple. Hope for nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed.” Perhaps. But neither will you know hope or joy, and the fruit that blossoms in such an arid environment is always depressing. Just ask Ernest Hemingway, or Kurt Cobain. Despair is around us, even among people who “hoped for nothing”.
The better way is to recognize that “hope” isn’t actually a sort of “wishful thinking” that is rooted in a desire for things to be a certain way in our lives. Real hope is solid. The word might even be translated “confident expectation” in the Bible, because it’s rooted in the promises of God.
God is promising a world without war, without cancer, a world of reconciled nations, and justice, a world of matchless beauty, intimacy, deliverance from enslaving addictions and, infusing every breath of our future: joy! I believe history is headed in that direction. This is my confident expectation, my hope. “What makes you so sure?” you might ask?
Two things, at least. First, I believe in the resurrection of Christ, which is a sort of down payment on that hope. It might sound fantastical, but make no mistake, the world is filled with thoughtful people who believe the evidence is on the side of Jesus rising.
Second, Sharin’s experience in the mountains couldn’t help but lead her to long for more of it. It was the place her “hair could be uncovered and roam free.” It was the place of wild horses. It was beauty. It was “as it should be”, and because of this, “hope” was born.
But the longings of her heart won’t be answered by Tehran embracing democracy, or Isis, capitalism or socialism. In the end, every “ism” of this world over-promises and under-delivers. It misplaces hope, seducing us into believing that it is the headwaters of a better world. Every time, the tribe of the disillusioned increases, including when people put their faith in the institution of Christianity.
Our hope isn’t in any ‘ism’. Our hope is in Christ, and because he is likened to a “solid rock”, we then have a hope that can never be shaken . Having this hope enables us to live as people of courage and integrity, grace and mercy, generosity and peace. We view every foretaste of glory seen in perfect powder, mountain sunrises, and the bracing cold waters of a mountain lake as foretastes of eternity; and we give thanks; and worship. This is as it should be.
If the object of your hope is Christ, the answer is a resounding yes.
All other “hopes” are forgeries, and I’m sorry to say, your real hope’s been stolen. Why not take it back right now?
O Lord Christ –
We thank you for the pains in our hearts that stab with every new discovery of corruption, every new lie from people in power, every new report of another friend dying of cancer. We cry out, and weep, and lament – because at some profound level we know that we’re made for more than this, other than this.
Forgive us for hoping in superficial solutions to the brokenness of our world, and the brokenness of our hearts. May you be our sole source of satisfaction, our only rock and foundation. And, filled with the confidence of your power and plan to heal the world, would you make us people of hope.
I mean to live this year as if it were my last, and will hate every time I fall below that standard and fritter seconds, minutes, or hours away in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones. I have been full of good intentions. Watch and see what happens when action takes the place of intention. – Royal Robbins 1935-2017
The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly. – Jesus the Christ
The unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates
A week ago I finished watching a Frasier rerun one evening on Amazon Prime. It was free. My evening was free. It was funny. I was a little down for reasons that aren’t relevant to my point. I watched. I laughed. I finished. I waited for the next one.
Though I knew it was the last show, the finale, it didn’t really strike me with full force until I saw that the next episode up was Season One, Episode One. I’d watched all eleven seasons over the course of the winter and spring. In horror, I turned the TV off and calculated, roughly, how many hours I’d squandered. I’d allowed what could have been, in moderation and under control, a fun little diversion to steal a week’s worth of precious hours from my life. That’s a week of conversation, or writing, or learning German, or stargazing, or reading great books, or nurturing relationships with friends and family.
Poof! They’re gone, those precious hours, and with them, all that might have been. The moment was my own version of that time when an alcoholic wakes up and sees empty bottles strewn everywhere, or the food addict surveys the empty Ben & Jerry’s cartons scattered about the room. These are what I call “mirror moments”, those times when we’re able to see ourselves clearly, and the seeing reveals something we don’t like.
Mirror moments needn’t be bad. Indeed, they’re actually precious gifts, because they offer us a chance at recalibrating. For that to happen, I simply need to pause, ponder, learn, and respond. Here’s what happened when I did that:
Pause and Ponder. After shutting the TV off, I sit and consider what I’ve unwittingly done, how I’ve chosen to consume rather than create, how it became a habit over the dark winter months, and then continued on as the snows melted and spring turned to summer. I remember that poignant word from Jesus: “the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy”, and begin to ponder the many ways this is true in our culture, in families, and in each of our individual lives. Suddenly I see it; see the insidious strategy of my soul’s enemy, and how his thefts occur in the dark, so subtly that I don’t even know they’ve happened until a bucket of cold water wakes me up.
Learn. “This is not who I want to be. This is not how I want to spend the precious gift of time that is my life. This ends. Now.” Jesus goes on, in the subsequent word after talking about theft and murder, to declare that he came to this earth for exactly the opposite reasons, that we might live our lives in the fullest way possible. I know that making such a promise a reality in my life will require continual adjustments to priorities, continual willingness to change and be stretched.
The next morning I’m reading a eulogy of a famous climber who just died after a long battle with illness. His letter to his daughter, wherein he says that he doesn’t want to fritter “seconds, minutes, or hours away in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones” is simultaneously convicting and inspiring, likely the best sermon I’ve heard in a while, all wrapped in that single half-sentence.
In my journal I write a list of the many pieces of our lives that are destroyed, stolen, or killed. The list is long and I decide that it would be good to write about the many ways robust life is being stolen from us. I purpose, then and there, to return to my calling, my part of God’s story. “I will use the gifts God has give me, will continue to perfect them, all with the goal of blessing and serving others.”
Respond. None of the seeing, pausing, pondering, or learning matter if I don’t respond. So I resurrect an old “500 words a day” habit I had once, some years ago when life was less complex, and determine that, yes, this is part of my calling, part of who I am. The days of letting precious time be stolen are over. It’s time to get back to living.
NOTE: I’m planning on writing a bit more about other elements of our lives that are stolen or destroyed, such as joy, confidence, grace. What would you add to the list?
Since moving to the mountains it seems my wife and I are always thinking about wood and fire. From the start of fall until at least halfway through spring, we’re hauling wood up from storage and burning it for heat.
Before burning season is over, though, we’re already on the prowl for new wood for the next season. It must be found, cut into pieces small enough for hauling, hauled, unloaded, cut, split, stacked to dry,. All this is as good as, maybe better than, a cross fit workout. Then, once the holzhausens are in the shadows, the wood will be moved under the house to await its contribution as family warmth while the snow falls.
Meanwhile in the middle of the summer, we light a fire in a marvelous home made bbq, using sticks from the forest, in preparation for a grand 4th of July party at our house. Primal fire, with friends gathering from the neighborhood to bid goodbye to a dear couple who are moving east after twenty years living at the pass.
Fire in the mountains has a beautiful rhythm, all by itself, but the more I gather, cut, split, stack, haul, and burn wood, the more I find profound meaning in it as well. My reasons have to do with the ribbon of fire that flows through the Bible.
Worship and fire have always been linked. From the days of Noah, who offered burnt offerings, to the tabernacle, which provided an altar for burnt offerings, and perpetual light from lit lamps, fire and light were necessary to worship. The light represented God’s capacity to overcome darkness, a theme that would culminate in Jesus presenting himself as “the light of the world”.
But fire? It, too, is about hope. The fire on the altar of burnt offering was a divine gift, having been lit originally by God Himself (Leviticus 9:24). God charged the priests with keeping His fire lit (Leviticus 6:13) and made it clear that fire from any other source was unacceptable (Leviticus 10:1-2).
There’s enough here, in this little section of Leviticus, to see that in a cold world, God invites us to be people exuding the warmth of God’s fire. Here’s what I mean.
God IS our fire. God is the source of a holy fire as seen above, but more. We’re told that during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, God WAS a fire by night, and that the fire was there precisely to offer guidance. We’re also told that God IS a consuming fire, in two places in the Bible. Fire brings light, warmth, protection, and yes, fire consumes too. But be careful. It’s those of us who are certain God’s going to consume our enemies that are most likely in a for a big surprise; the realization that we who love God have boatloads of stuff in our own lives that need consuming. When the fire begins to expose and then burn away the lust, greed, self-pity, complacency, rush to violence, and so much more that is in us, then the best answer is: burn baby burn. Our God is fire.
God’s fire is now ours to keep lit. The priests of old were charged with keeping the fire lit. Today its all of us who claim to follow Christ, because he’s called all of us priests! So fire keeping is a thing for us, a responsibility. But what does this mean?
We get a hint when we come to see that the Holy Spirit shows up for these people as fire, and falls on them. This Spirit becomes a vital source of Christ followers, granting them direction, conviction when they’re wandering off the path, a power beyond their human capacity, in words, in the power to heal, in and wisdom.
The hope, it seems, is that such empowered people, lit on fire by God himself, will bring warmth to the world, and point everyone they meet to its source.
So there you have it. If you claim to follow Christ, you’re invited to tend the inner fire, so that the power, beauty, love, wisdom of Christ will be seen like light in darkness, and felt like warmth in the cold.
But be careful. Any old fire won’t do.
There are fires of religion, which are nothing more than legalistic performance, whereby the liberty found in Christ is strangled by long lists of forbidden activities and required activities.
There are fires of nationalism, uniting gun laws, low taxes, and a deregulated environment with Jesus, making him out to be American, the tea-party’s finest advocate. Liberals mustn’t throw stones because, in spite of what the leftist Christians believe, Jesus isn’t the poster child for liberalism either. Jesus’ kingdom is neither unfettered capitalism, nor social/economic liberalism. It’s wholly other, embodying peace, generosity, hospitality, courage, love for enemies, pre-emptive forgiveness, and much more.
There are fires of upward mobility and health, but I’m glad Peter, Paul, and Timothy (all suffering at various times with poverty, persecution, and illness) weren’t depending on those fires. They’d have flamed out.
No, the only real fire, the one with the power to heal and liberate anywhere in the world, won’t be confined by health, economics, politics, or denomination.
This fire wants you as fuel, hence God’s invitation that you be “filled with the Holy Spirit” – and this means allowing your whole self to be offered as fuel, a “living sacrifice” is what God calls it. The reason it’s living is because of God’s mysterious ways with fire. God’s fire was, for example, in the burning bush, a fire Moses saw as mystery because though the bush was burning, it was never consumed!
Imagine never being consumed?
I’m convinced we undersell the adventure that awaits us when we follow Christ wholeheartedly. Then, holding back our money, our time, our politics, our geographical or vocational preferences, we’re making our own fires. Religious? Perhaps. But they literally can’t hold a candle to God’s beautiful fire, the fire that could be, that should be, when a life is lived wholly – with a pre-emptive answer of “yes!” whenever God calls.
One author says “the Christian life hasn’t been tried and found wanting; it’s been untried at all, and it’s judged because it’s religious imposter turned out so ugly”.
So Lord… light my fire! All of me. Consume my garbage, that the diamonds of hope, generosity, joy, and peace might thrive, be lit as everlasting offerings, and bless our cold dark world.
I was about to enter 4th grade when our family moved about two miles in Fresno, out of what would today be called a ‘tiny house’ and into a ‘real house’ complete with a bedroom for both my sister and me. The move put me in a new elementary school and I was terrified that I’d make no friends. It was my cinnamon roll baking grandmother who, just a few weeks before the school year began in September, told me about a favorite Bible verse of hers. “This” she said as she slipped a piece of paper into my hand, “should help you” and she hugged me as I stuffed the little note card into my pocket. After she left the room I read it. She’d written a Bible reference: James 1:19. It read: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”
I wrote it out on an index card and put it in my pocket. It served me well during those tumultuous days, when I was feeling socially awkward and at times, tempted to respond to unkind words with angry verbal retribution. Instead, I’d walk away, usually saying nothing at all, amazed at the power of silence as a means of killing the momentum of escalation that so often happens in so many places:
peer groups in school
Work place gossip
Social media rants
Political parties with all their posturing
Christian leaders who shoot each other over doctrinal differences of opinion
The White House and Oval Office are the newest members of “club mud”, though none should be surprised by it. Accuse one of your political competitor’s family members of conspiring to kill President Kennedy; attach childishly insulting adjectives in front of their names, (“Lyin’ Ted. Crooked Hillary. Little Marco.”) Insult debate moderators by talking about their “blood coming out of wherever”; When exposed for shallow and deceptive egotism, respond by ranting that the political commentator was “bleeding badly from a facelift”; Respond to charges from multiple women that you were guilty of sexual misconduct by declaring that they aren’t “pretty enough” to be worthy of your advances.”
Of course you’ll be elected president.
Of course boatloads of Evangelical Christians will be at the front of the demographic pack cheering you to victory, getting out the vote, and praising God for your win, turning a blind eye, not to character flaws, which we all have, but to your utter blindness to your character flaws, and your comfort level with that blindness.
Of course you’ll continue your childish rants, rooted in ego, deception, and insecurity, three qualities wholly unbecoming of any leader of anything, let alone the leader of the free world.
What’s wrong with this picture?
My answer has nothing to do with the politics of health care, global warming, or the fact that I’m both pro-life and pro-environment (and thus a person without a political homeland). My answer also has nothing to do with the purely speculative conjecture of whether Hillary would have been less scandalous, or more, or less effective. We need at least two parties, and robust differences and dialogue if this democracy is going to work.
I’m writing to say that I’m grieved over the cavalier nature with which we Americans have grown to accept this man’s childish rants as normative for leaders. Yes, perhaps lips service has been given (finally) to the inappropriate nature of our president’s stream of consciousness calloused and degrading rhetoric. Tragically though, our collective failure to hold this man, and others, responsible for the countless lies and (with apologies to sophomores everywhere) sophomoric ‘trash talking’ has led to a loss of civility in dialogue, and a dramatic increase in polarization and division in both our churches and our culture at large.
In an attempt to raise our awareness on why we should work hard to not become hardened to this crass and demeaning repartee, I offer the following three observations:
1. Words Matter. One author writes: “Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6). The writer of Proverb tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Are we using words to build up people or destroy them? Are they filled with hate or love, bitterness or blessing, complaining or compliments, lust or love, victory or defeat? Like tools they can be used to help us reach our goals or to send us spiraling into a deep depression. Furthermore, our words not only have the power to bring us death or life in this world, but in the next as well. Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37). Words are so important, that we are going to give an account of what we say when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That same book of James, which contained the verse given my by grandma when I was nine years old also says: “…if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well…Look at ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is fire…” (James 3:2-6)
I could go on and on, sharing about Jesus’ teaching that angry words are tantamount to murder, and how the qualities of leader are ultimately confirmed or denied by the way they use their words. There’s not time for the many teachings from the Bible on the importance of words.
2. A leader’s character matters. Though many see the Old Testament as boring and, at times, eliciting more questions than answers, one principle is certain when reading through the books of Kings and Chronicles: As goes the king, so go the people. I teach this to my staff as well, telling them over and over again that the main principle of leadership is that the people we lead will, at least in some measure, “become who we are”. Two concerns are cogent at this point.
I’m concerned that people like this stuff. If you disagreed with the previous administration, fine. Our country is built on vast philosophical differences and our capacity to work together to find some common ground. The current level of discourse, however, doesn’t lead us toward that kind of bilateral end. People seem to relish the name calling, to cheer the demeaning sarcasm, to celebrate sound bytes and ignore lies. The result is an escalation in hateful rhetoric and violence.
I’m concerned when people say that policy trumps character. No. No. No. Ask the Bible. Ask anyone building a business from the ground up. Ask coaches. They’ll both tell you the same thing. Yes. Policies matter. Yes, other candidates might have been, who knows, just as bad. But make no mistake: Character matters just as much as policy or skill, maybe more.
By our passive silence, we’re telling each other that words don’t matter, that character doesn’t matter. As a result, Christians send hate mail or make hate calls to a Christian ministry because of disagreements over a policy decision. A man opens fire on a group of republicans playing baseball. And people no longer trust each other’s words. No surprise really – all of it is the fruit of our passively accepting insults and lies as normative. We can’t control our president or other politicians. We can be disgusted by his words and purpose to swim in a different ocean. Please join me in living by James 1:19,20 and by calling our churches, our children, and our Facebook feeds to do the same.
There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem. “Come back! Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!” It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story. She strong, lovely, confident. And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd. Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back. Why? “So that we may admire you!”
They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives. This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate. Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option. Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal. The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta. There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity. The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction. Much of this is cataloged here.
Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science. The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago. You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world. What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same. He/she wants “different”. If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.
What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention. Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required? You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills. But why not play a video game instead? Alone. With no risk of rejection or failure.
In a word: safety. Is this alternate world real? No. Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No. Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel? No. But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.
What’s the way forward?
1. A strong core. If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality. When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping. You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world. Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!
2. A sense of call. When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ. When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.
3. A high view of marriage and sexuality. The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better. It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation. They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O. All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.
4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes. Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world). Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.
The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen! Here are a few resources for your consideration.
There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story. Contact us for details. Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.
The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God. You have a calling, a journey yet ahead. Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you. Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.
Preaching the Song of Solomon this spring has reminded me of a few critical truths that are mostly lost among Christ followers. In our fear of abusing the gifts of sexuality God has given humankind, we’ve unwittingly taught that our sexuality is a liability to be scorned and controlled, rather than a gift to be celebrated. The Bible tells us otherwise:
This past Sunday’s teaching, “Eros Affirmed” might provide some insight into what I’m talking about. Steep a pot of tea, a carafe of French Press, or a glass of “something”, and have a look and listen – and maybe consider sharing with someone who’d benefit from it. One woman told me on Sunday she’s planning on sharing it with a few folks who’d benefit from it.
(audio or video)
I welcome your thoughts!
My present study of The Song of Solomon for the preaching series at the church I lead has collided with my reading of “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”. The result has led me to believe that we need to rethink our notions of “sin”, because our wrong understanding has often led to lives of fear rather than confidence, legalism rather liberty, and anxiety rather than joy. Here’s what I mean:
I. Our typical notion of sin has do with obvious dark behaviors. Murdering another human is sin. Drinking yourself silly is sin. Hating, or even ignoring, people who are different than you is sin. Profligate sexual indulgence, outlandish greed – all these things are seen as sin, and rightly so. It’s the realm of darkness, and we rightly point out that: “this is the judgement – light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…”
The trouble comes when we begin to vilify the activity that is at the source of the sin and call it dark, simply because of the risk of indulging the sin.
We’re afraid of anger because we’re afraid of murder. We’re afraid of alcohol because we’re afraid of drunkenness. We’re afraid of challenging someone of a different race because we’re afraid of racism. We’re afraid of sex because we’re afraid of all that happens when sex is misused. You get the picture; and the picture isn’t pretty. It’s a picture tantamount to that of the climber whose only goal is to not fall. This fear-based approach will no only suck the joy out of living, but fill the soul with an aversion to failure and worse, avoidance of much that God calls good.
This is a far cry from what Jesus appeared to have in mind when he said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly“. Wrong notions of sin can strangle the new life Christ has in mind.
II. a Truer Notion of Sin: Sin is light twisted. In “Out of the Silent Planet“, the first book in my favorite science fiction space trilogy, CS Lewis describes sinful humanity as “bent ones”, a perfect description because it describes a species still capable of creativity, majesty, beauty, and generosity – but who have been “bent” by sin, so that all the glorious qualities inherent in human nature have been corrupted.
The gift of sex becomes pornography, disease, dehumanizing abuse of power, and sexual slavery.
The gifts of food and drink become obesity, eating disorders, body image issues, and drunkenness.
The gift of human diversity becomes racism, oppression, and slavery.
The gift of work becomes industrialization, child labor, environmental degradation, and economic oppression.
You get the picture. God gives humanity gifts and we find ways to bend and twist them so that they destroy both ourselves and others.
This is an important distinction though, because the way forward is not to smash the original thing, but to recover the meaning of the original thing. This is what Song of Solomon is trying to say through its poetry, which exalts covenant love, and contrasts that with the usury and oppression so typical, not only in pornography and prostitution, but also in many marriages that have lost any sense of intimacy. The book doesn’t trash sex. It declares that in a setting of vulnerability and commitment, of affirmation and playfulness – full arousal, full pursuit, and ultimately full indulgence, is a thing to be celebrated. Recover the thing (sex in this case), rather than blaming the thing as the source of the sin. Sin is a good thing bent!
III. Bending our desires back to their Original Design is what Christ does!
This is what I love about the new book I’m reading. It declares:
“…discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all…Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves.”
To the extent that we allow Christ to realign our lives, there’s a sort of spiritual chiropractic thing that happens.
Whereas before, sex was an appetite, now its an artful expression of intimacy.
Whereas before anger was a thing to be avoided, now there’s a realization that, before there’s a move towards advocacy, or repentance, or justice, there must often be anger.
Whereas before the ever expanding GDP was a sign of progress, a discipleship paradigm considers not just national financial wealth, but a nation’s capacity to care for its children, its poor, its vulnerable, its sick, its children living in the womb.
Before it was either “live to eat” (food addiction) or “eat to live” (utilitarian ‘food as fuel’), now its “food as sacrament”, invoking gratitude and pleasure for the gifts of sustenance.
God is aligning our loves and longings, as “You Are What You Love” declares. And alignment leads to greater joy, strength, capacity for service, and ultimately a greater life.
Don’t begin with a massive NO!, either in your own discipleship or in your articulation of your faith to others.
Begin with the glorious YES!, that the life for which we were created is still available, and the seeds of that good life are found in uniting with Christ, who will align us so that we might “run and not be weary…walk and not faint”
What does the pornography problem in the Bible belt, and the appalling lack of generosity among democrats have to do with a burnt/raw pancake? Plenty….
“Ephraim is a cake not turned…”. Hosea 7:8. That’s Hosea’s description of a nation gone wrong, and it’s terribly applicable today.
a cake not turned: Burnt to a coal at the bottom, raw dough at the top: an apt emblem of a character full of inconsistencies (Bishop Horsley).
The prophets were good at painting word pictures, and word pictures are good because, rather than listing specific problems unique to a time and place, they portray a principle. The principle then becomes widely applicable to other cultures, eras, and situations. This is part of what makes the Bible so incredibly relevant, if only we’d take the time to read and ponder.
Today I’m pondering the “cake not turned”. You’ve no doubt eaten a pancake that was burnt on the bottom but raw on the top. It’s wrong; imbalanced; filled with overemphasis and a commensurate underemphasis. God’s complaint with Israel was that they’d lost their devotion to God as their source and their lover, choosing loyalty to surrounding pagan ideals instead.
Israel was, in other words, selective in her loyalty to God, alternately embracing and denying the values of Jehovah based on what they wanted, what they considered to be best for them moment to moment. The result of this was a mixture of bribery, white-collar robbery, neglect of the Sabbath, woven together with lip service given to God, and outward forms of worship often continuing in spite of glaring disobedience to God’s revelation. Light and dark. Burnt and raw. Idolatry wrapped in religion.
Sound familiar? It should! The mixture of political loyalties with faith has long been an example of this burnt pancake phenomenon. Consider mainline churches, which are often largely aligned with left leaning politics and more socialist policies. Their views are, rightly, intent on seeing to it that the poor aren’t left hungry, cold, or naked. It’s hard to argue with those priorities if you take the Bible seriously.
But two complaints arise immediately regarding this seemingly holy affiliation. First, if the left is so intent on caring for the poor, why are they themselves so greedy? The problem of meager charitable giving among liberals is well-known, as seen in this article, which posits that conservatives give 30% more to charity than democrats.
My second complaint is that liberals are selective in their adherence to the Bible, being quick to appeal to verses on caring for the poor, but silent on Jesus’ sexual ethics, including his stringent view of divorce. And by the way, nobody on this planet is more vulnerable than the unborn, who the left seem to regard as nothing more than tissue until they’re born.
Conservative (and many evangelical) churches, provide an opposite, though equally alarming snapshot. They’re all about the sexual ethics, with vocal views on premarital sex, same-sex behavior, masturbation, abortion, and in some places, divorce and remarriage too. Most of these values are derived from the same Bible the left uses to address systemic economic sin.
My complaint is that in the same manner the left is stingy while preaching generosity, the right is sexually dysfunctional while preaching family values. They crucify Bill Clinton for his sexual sins, and then elect a president who is in his third marriage and whose language and behavior would get him fired in most work environments, including FOX NEWS. They even go to some lengths to call him a Christian in spite of the appalling lack of any compelling life evidence.
Further, the right suffers from the same hypocrisy problem as the left. Regarding our nation’s porn addiction, the 4 out of the top 5 states are in the Bible belt (Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia), the very places where God’s sexual ethic thunders from the pulpit weekly. Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas, are three of top four states in per capita abortion rates. Pro Life indeed. Similarly, these same states, so pro-life, seem intent on protecting life in the womb, but once you’re born, you’re on your own. Policies regarding family leave and access to health care and social services for those in poverty are weak.
Let’s summarize. You have a party that preaches generosity, but is stingy, and they elect a man with an exemplary marriage. You have a party that preaches sexual ethics, but elects a womanizer, and whose states are most stridently red also happen to be national leaders in porn use and abortion.
This is the cake not turned problem, and until we see the problem and acknowledge it, we’ll continue talking past each other, advocating that “my partial view of reality is better than your partial view of reality” We can do better.
Why am writing this?
1. So that we can stop wedding political parties with our faith, and begin to recognize that no party has the faith
2. So that we can recognize, all of us, that preaching values does not equal living them.
3. So that we can recognize that it’s in the human heart to view God’s values and directives as a buffet line, where we pick what we want, and leave the rest.
4. So that we can repent of the buffet line mentality, our divisions into self referential and self-righteous little communities, and our arrogance – instead asking God to give us ears to hear what the spirit is saying, especially through those with whom we disagree, and so move toward the unity of the faith that will better represent God’s heart.
In a world filled with burnt/raw pancakes, it would be refreshing to find a few that are properly cooked. Perhaps you can help cook one!
They did it “according to the book”. With too many passengers and not enough seats, they asked for volunteers to give up their seats on this flight for a reward, and fly later. You know, by now, what happened on UAL flight 3411. Before it was over, a passenger was forcibly, violently dragged from the plane, getting bloodied in the process. This gave birth to a viral video of the scene, leading to a public relations nightmare and an over 6% decline in UAL stock as outrage over the event filled social media. In my own facebook feed I saw pics of cancelled UAL flight tickets, and declarations of breakup with “the friendly skies” (a breakup I made years ago because of my own encounter with “less than friendly” customer service – but I digress)
The point for the moment is simple. By contract and policy, the airline had every right to remove the man. The man’s refusal to leave led to a need to call security, and security did what security does: they resorted to force. That’s how the man ended up blooodied, being dragged down the aisle while a full flight of paying customers looked on, as seen here. The flight would, of course, end with a steward or stewardess thanking everyone for “flying the friendly skies”. Ugh.
I don’t write to do a post event analysis. Most of us have pondered why too many passengers were allowed to board; why they didn’t up the ante even more in hopes that eventually someone would volunteer; why the security people treated the guy with a level of force that would be the same as if he was a threat to other passengers? We can ask these questions, but have no way of knowing the answers.
Here’s what we do know: This doesn’t look like “friendly skies.” People who belong to a company whose mission statement and slogan elevate customer service as a central value need to be empowered to maintain that core value. Further, if they are empowered, they need to always, always, ask the simple question: “does this action make us look friendly?”
REI gets this. Nordstrom gets this. Starbucks gets this. Amazon gets this.
If your actions are contradictory to what you say you’re about, then you need to rethink your actions.
This is important for every Christ follower to ponder because the Apostle Paul says that it was God’s intent to “reveal his Son in me.” We come to discover God’s intent for humankind in this verse. In other words, our mission statement as Christ followers is to look like Jesus. You know: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, cross social divides, be people of peace, give dignity to those suffering on the margins, don’t cling to your own personal rights, bless and forgive generously – preemptively even. These are the means by which we fulfill our calling, the corollary statement is equally important: any action derived from our policy manual (the Bible) that misrepresents Jesus’ heart, needs to be reconsidered!
And this means a few elements of church history would have played out differently:
The church wouldn’t have fractured again and again and again over words and secondary doctrines, because Jesus’ heart was, above all other things, for Christians to live in peaceable unity. The east/west church schism, the multiple popes debacle, the protestant reformation, and the over twenty thousand denominations? Poof! They’re gone.
The sanctioning of Slavery in Jesus name? The anti-semitic edict declared by the church, forcing all Jews to leave Spain (and leave their wealth behind, by the way) in the late 15th century? The horrific genocide in Rwanda, even as this country was being touted as a Christian missionary success story? All these things change dramatically if Christians stay committed to the vision and mission of their calling, which is to look like Jesus.
I’ve lived long enough to remember specific times when I had the doctrinal moral high ground, but my posture of pride, anger, and a cynical tongue, discredited my doctrine.
So the next time you win a political argument by calling the other person stupid, remember that you’ve lost.
The next time you’re debating same sex marriage, whatever your position on the matter, if your anger toward the other person means you stop listening, stop loving, stop treating them as image bearers even though you disagree, you’ve lost, even if you won.
The next time your reading of the Bible leads to behaviors of racism, or xenophobia, or leads you to withdraw from a group of people in either fear or disgust, I don’t care what the letter of the text you’re reading leads you to believe, you’re reading it wrong.
I say this with confidence, not only because of the clarity of our calling to look like Jesus, but because we’re also told, in numerous places in the Bible, that Christ is the full and final revelation of God’s character. So instead of microscopically proof texting your way to arrogant, violent, fear based, or isolationist behavior, how about becoming obsessed with the character of Jesus instead?
You’ll likely find a gentler voice, throw a party for your neighbors, celebrate beauty more often, and choose peace, patience, and joy more consistently. Yes, there’s a manual. But more important, there’s a mission statement, a vision: making the real Christ visible on a day to day basis. As we walk towards Good Friday and pondering the sacrifice of Christ, I’d suggest that is a mission worth pursuing.
O Lord Christ;
You’ve shown us the way, but we confess that too often we’ve coopted your name and used it to create a thin religious veneer over hate, violence, greed, and fear – all the while quoting the Bible to justify it. Have mercy on us Lord. Grant that we might see your heart with greater clarity, and have the courage to to allow your life to find fuller expression in each of us during this Holy week, and beyond.