Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Insistency of Eternity, a Journey Toward Heaven

Eternity confronts us daily, a journey toward heaven

Yesterday I had the thought that living in light of eternity is more matter-of-fact than we often realize. It consists not so much of daily tearful goodbyes as keeping short accounts with the guy in the next cubicle; or not swearing when someone cuts me off in rush hour traffic. Heaven interlaces the workweek like cream in coffee.

Also, the idea has occurred to me that if “all this” is not preparing me for something better, it’s hardly worth it. Sanctification is very practical: it keeps us sane. Progressive life change is essential to the meaning of life—why else bittersweetness? Without spirits that can learn and grow, life would be bitter only. Why endure loss and confusion and pain if they are not invested with greater significance? If my heart is not getting stronger, why is it aching?

Pain, regret, sorrow. All can be borne because in the end, they will be translated into something else—something that gives the lie to the surface appearance of things now. Suffering and confusion, when they occur in the matrix of Christ, will be shown up as constituents exploited to a surprising end. Living in light of eternity means keeping this in mind. It means remembering that things are usually not what they seem. In the words of W.H. Auden:

Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.

Heaven’s proximity to earth means that mystery and paradox lurk at every corner, and we had better not be caught napping. This is why we work and pray hard to keep faith alive; we live insistently, as those possessing hope. Thus, the problem that can be dealt with today should be. We must acquire eyesight that pierces through mere appearance; in the words of William Blake, we must learn to “see through and not with the eye.”

At every turn, eternity accosts us with its vital expedience. Living in its light is as reasonable and everydayish as acknowledging the luminescence that waits above a haze of rain. We cannot forget it. We need heaven more than oxygen or vitamins.

So when we follow Christ down the trail he blazed, the journey is hardly spectral. Only the flimsiness of our temporary earth-experience can make it seem that way. Flesh and blood need nothing more than the glow of eternity, diffused as it is, like a flashlight turned on the cloudy earth. We need eternity now, to slowly make us who we are.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Nonrefundable Choices, Spiritual Currency

…A Journey Toward Certainty

Spiritual Journey: Navigating life can be so tricky

Some decisions can haunt you for years. Generally, they are the type you make only once. Buying a digital camera, for example. No matter how well you do your homework, evolving technology will eventually make you look like a fool. Carelessly upping the ante, a friend of mine (who will remain unnamed for obvious reasons) once compared buying a digital camera to getting married.

His logic was something along these lines: The longer you wait, the better the options get, and the more of them there are. But if you wait indefinitely, you will eventually get too old to enjoy your purchase. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This struck me as a considerably bleak, jaded way of looking at the whole realm of marriage, and very insightful.

But no, wait! Not in the way you think! (Lindsay, don’t stop reading now.) The marriage-phobia that many profess provides a clue to a reality that virtually all of us experience. I think we suffer from a low-grade fear of disabling choices which is, at the very least, persistent if not paralyzing. Digital cameras aside, there are few decisions that cannot be creatively second-guessed at—and many of them are painful.

Most of us can fill in the blank. Choices can and do go wrong in so many ways, they hardly need to be listed. But in a world where blueprints of God’s down-to-the-minute plans are carefully veiled, hesitancy, concern, and regret seem nearly unavoidable. God tells us all he wants us to know, but he doesn’t tell us everything. We know enough, but not all. And so we must pick our paths with courage and with faith.

That, and we should avail ourselves of the few options that will never take on shady hues in hindsight. Many decisions are non-refundable; only a few are fully guaranteed. We should be sure to grab those rarities.

The thought that launched this post (aside from the thought that I should really be writing my Theology 1 paper, and that I needed some coffee) was the realization that whatever I come to lament in life, no matter how large a sum of regret accumulates, there are some things that will never appear rash, will never be a cause for sorrow, will never be second-guessed. And because that was a very long sentence, I’ll say it another way:

There are some choices that will never, ever, ever go bad. Ultimately, only one. Everything else might fall apart—I could end up selling book club subscriptions door to door for a living, and question my interest in literature; I might dramatically throw out my back some day on the blacktop, and wonder what possessed me to spend so much time throwing down dunks—I might, in fact, experience very real regret and sorrow. And just the same, the one decision, incontestably bright and shining, would remain undimmed.

For this reason, I’m trying to capitalize on my position as Christ’s disciple. Few routes through life are fire-proof, flood-proof, poverty-proof, death-proof—but this one is. And the person looking for certainty will enjoy this pathway, this decision, for all its worth.

A step onto the road that leads to Christ, once taken, can never be proved worthless. In the end, that choice not only can bear the weight of the worldit can buy it. My step into Jesus’ life is worth the entire earth, and heaven thrown in. Finally I am faced with a choicea Godwho remains unquestionable. I’ll ruthlessly bank my success on this God. This is a life worth every ounce of my spiritual currency.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Flash Fiction: The Insolvency of Life in the Now

Spiritual Journey: Life in the now has its downsides

Earnest had a notable susceptibility to popular slogans but he was very conscientious. Unfortunately, these two qualities did very little to redeem each other. Upon encountering the carpe diem saying at a fairly young age, he had adopted it as his own, and fine tuned his approach with derivative maxims like Live in the present and Wherever you are, be all there. However, after several years of vigorous, off-the-cuff living, Earnest found himself becoming involved in too many fistfights and falling in and out of love at an alarming rate. Even his overly-cute cousin, who starred as everyone’s love interest in a daytime sitcom, confirmed this second fact. And Earnest’s bank account parroted her snide advice. Multiple trips to the doctor’s office to have stitches in and out, coupled with the ridiculous sums he spent on one-week-anniversary jewelry, rammed the point home. Life in the now was hardly paying dividends.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

The Death of a Research Paper

My latest paper, The Validity of Petitionary Prayer in Four Models of Providence (The Search for a God We Can Take Seriously) is not written yet. I admit this fact freely, with the idea that it will partially absolve me of my guilt. If I had to trace the disintegration of my good intentions, the sketch would look (and sound) something like this:

Obviously, Thanksgiving break is too close to my birthday to be really productive. But now that I've made my token confession, I can get down to work. And hey, at least I have a title.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Fantastic, Stereo-Symphonic Gratitude

Spiritual Journey: Thank God for sensation integration

Last night I was kicked back at my in-laws’ place, watching UConn pull out a win over Gonzaga while I read an article on “the psychology of prayer.” Admittedly, the picture could have been improved by the presence of the KU Jayhawks on the court, but why split hairs? Anytime you can combine hoops with theology, the picture is undeniably attractive. And on a larger scale, the potential for beautiful things to be enjoyed in tandem is something I’m grateful for this year. A few examples are ready to hand:

Rugby and life purpose
Coffee and books
Turkeys and family

By way of a caveat, I should note that sometimes the last duo merges—so that a family member becomes the former article—and the usual enjoyment is somehow compromised. But this is incidental.

At any given moment, there are innumerable contingencies in life that could supply themes for paeans of convicted thanks. For example, all the grass might be burnt orange, the sky could be a permanent cinder-grey; that this is not the case is a nonoccurrence worthy of considerable delight. But today I am childishly happy that our sensations are symphonic, that is, that we can experience them simultaneously. Life did not have to be this way.

This afternoon, I savored a delicious stream of sunlight without remaining indifferent to the stark black branches through which it poured. I’m relieved that I can process the luminescence of light without being blindsided by the poignant properties of matter. Likewise, I can chop wood while drinking cider (I’m not saying it’s easy) or “channel” Autumn while reading poetry. Neither pleasure eclipses the other, and I am left to mix and match them liberally, my resources and imagination the only parameters.

I find myself thanking God that tactile sensation does not prohibit olfactory, that optical power does not preclude imaginative. In the immersive experience tied to this creation, this life, joys come all tied up in each other. It’s entirely conceivable that we could have been designed as single-input creatures. Our display systems could have been monochromatic, if you will: Register black, and only black, then turn to gold-white, and gold-white alone… Night skies would not have been the same. Instead, our joys are multicolored, stereo-symphonic.

A single-input world would have been considerably simpler, but very flat. In such a place, Bittersweetness would only be a concept, not a taste; not a painful joy; nothing more than black marks on a page. And so one of the truest signposts to the next place would be lost.

I thank God this isn’t the case, that our sensations run into each other like fluids, pool like a careening watercourse, lend each other sound and color. Melded sensations add acuity. We see life’s goodness and it’s lack through multiple lens, and intuit that bittersweetness is a clue to unseen truth.

All this makes me happy, and very relieved. What would I do if joy and pain occurred in separate vacuums? What would I do without the insistent knowledge that arises when the two of them combine? Existence would have a manic quality. Bittersweetness would not appear to provide clues and hope.

Thank God this is not the case. Thank God for the relatively unappreciated phenomenon of sensation-integration.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

P.D. James - A Mind to Murder, B

A Flash Review (Mystery Books Strike Again)

P.D. James - A Mind to Murder, B

That’s right, this is yet another mysterious addition to The
Master Book List. At some point I may get around to apologizing for the P.D. James mysteries that seem to be colonizing the intrepid List. It’s almost unseemly, I know, and somewhat embarrassing. Doesn’t a seminary student and self-ascribed “all round arbiter of the arts” have better things to do than read murder mysteries? Well, yes—that goes without saying. But the fact is, devouring the occasional Adam Dalgliesh case has become a crutch to support my academic sanity, which has taken to staggering around the apartment drinking excessive doses of coffee these days. But enough about me.

This quickie review is actually retrospective. After my spring 2005 semester, A Mind to Murder was the first true post-finals book to be consumed, and it went down fast. It makes a great deal of sense to read the books chronologically, as this, the second in the Adam Dalgliesh series, develops the melancholy, self-interrogative (some would say “human”) side of Dalgliesh which the first book merely hinted at. The story is complex, as usual, and even though I applied myself I wasn’t even near the quarry at the close. James completely threw me; the only consolation was that Dalgliesh, coincidentally, was thrown too.

James has an eye for the dark commonalities of human nature, the ugly motives that could rise in almost anyone. Human darkness seemed especially evident in this book, and I put it down with mixed feelings. Depressed? Saddened? But Dalgliesh’s stern dealings with evil and his critical self-awareness imply that we can do likewise.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Warmth Worth Living In, Spiritual Fire

Spiritual journey: a warmth that is not short-lived?
Warmth sinks deep hooks into a person.

On certain fall days, getting out of the shower seems like leaving home, and I can hardly bring myself to do it. I find myself wondering at how warmth is one of the most addictive sensations in life. In both its physical and spiritual manifestations, one could argue that warmth sinks deeper hooks into a person than, say, adrenalin rushes or pure, edgy pleasure.

The deceptive thing about warmth is that it seems wrong for it to end. No one really expects to remain indefinitely in a state of utopian bliss—the kind that occurs when you sandwich a vicious jam between NBA-deep three-pointers. But when warmth shows up—say, the feeling of serene confidence in one’s hoops skills—we have the feeling that it should last forever. We feel sad, cold, shaky, when it doesn’t.

Switching back to the physical plane, it seems that fall and winter especially highlight this permanent aspect of warmth that should be present but is not. Cold blows in and people scurry desperately for their scarves and have even greater difficulties getting out of bed. On the soul level, there is an equivalent effect; the holidays approach, and we eye our relationships and take stock of their relative closeness or alienation. We examine our lives for traces of warmth, and are either grateful or chilled by what we find.

C.S. Lewis sums up the state of affairs:

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why…Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

We experience the “joy, pleasure and merriment,” and pronounce them good—and at the same time, we continue to quietly look around for what we sense is missing, “the settled happiness and security we all desire.” Because of this reality, a chill in the air may be a clue to my soul’s unrest. At such moments I remind myself that this arrangement is temporary.

Hot water
Wool clothes
Bright sun on a cold day
A smile
An embrace
The ephemeral glow at the end of a race
All are fundamental
But at last there will be a warmth to end them all

And that’s the warmth I’m holding out for: the type generated by proximity to Christ, the kind we’ll live in. We’re all waiting, know it or not, to be warmed by an eternal fire.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Undiscovered Mind - John Horgan, B-

Another Reason Why We Hardly Understand Ourselves

Ka-crack! Thud! Books are falling like bricks, and The Master List is slowly taking shape. Keep your head up or you might get caught off-guard.

Back in the summer, I had voiced an interest in exploring the whole human consciousness conundrum - what makes us cogitate, how our minds form, etc. But it was only a couple weeks ago that I actually began to carry out my admittedly "mental" plan. Step one in my exploration was to crack John Horgan’s The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation. Finishing the book was an enlightening first step in my journey toward understanding the grey matter, although the "enlightening" part is open to debate.

Horgan cites so many genius genetic engineers and award-winning biologists that one loses track of them—and that’s ok. The gist of this book didn’t reside in the specificity of the quotations, theories, and anecdotes, however (which rapidly become marginal, as it would take multiple readings and copious notes to retain them all). The central premise is strikingly obvious. You could say the title gives it away. With pleasing irony, the penetrating quotes and innovative philosophies that Horgan culls from scores of researchers coalesce into a solid verdict: Where the mind is concerned, we don’t know all that much—and may never. Horgan buttresses this conclusion so forcefully that I, at least, found his conclusion undeniable.

While I can’t say I was disappointed with this judgment, I found myself wishing that Horgan had gone still further in his defiance of overly-smug “sciencedom.” On the one hand, I found concepts like the “explanatory gap” (saying that “thoughts originate at the intersection of lobes A and B” hardly explains thoughts; thus the “explanatory gap”) and a pseudo-scientific approach to the mind (ala Dickens or Poe, more literary—and more revealing—than pure biological models) quite helpful. But I found Horgan apparently self-blinded in other areas. For example, in his concluding chapter, Horgan quotes Max Planck.

“Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.”

And Horgan goes on to validate such a mindset, suggesting, “Scientists will never accept that the mind cannot be tamed. Nor should they…” In a half-playful, half-serious way, Horgan suggests that a “mysterian” approach, a kind of unbridled scientific mysticism, may be the only route left in perceiving the mind. However, in light of the nonchalant way that Horgan writes off the possibility of God’s existence, I find his “mysterian” position highly inconsistent.

Unsolvable mysteries are fine, Horgan seems to suggest, as long as they aren’t God. The problem is, when faced with unsolvable mysteries, we don’t get to pick and choose. Admitting that the mind is an awe-inspiring machine that defies our attempts at self-analysis could be a tip of the hat to a genius Creator. Horgan prefers to just embrace to nebulous "mystery" of it. Thus, while The Undiscovered Mind is fascinating and informative, Horgan’s assault on the limits of scientific certainty should have begun a little closer to home.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Hidden Lines of Life

Spiritual journey: What does God see?

I turned around at the goal line and saw a slender white thread criss-crossing the field in my wake. It traced my route for about 50 feet, skewing right and left, connecting the dots of my escape, each point of evasion. In the dim, late-afternoon light, the filament glowed faintly, and the picture struck me as so funny that I couldn’t stop laughing as I walked off the field.

You could say my first experience with rugby was a success. A friend from school gave me the invite, and since my local gym has been unavailable for hooping, I decided to give rugby a shot. It was “flag rugby,” which seemed like a contradiction in terms, but I was desperate. I needed an outlet. Now, after one match, I think I’ll be back.

My playing time was limited, because Lindsay and I had a prior engagement, and with just a few minutes left, I was wondering if I would get a chance to show my mettle. Then, as luck would have it, my friend Ryan shoveled me a quick lateral pass, and I was off and running. All I saw as I hurtled downfield were large shapes rushing at me from the right and left. I wove back and forth, transecting the ground with instinctive 45% cuts; I felt hands grabbing at my flag, but kept evading them, kept running. Suddenly I had reached the end line. I held the ball up, then slammed it diplomatically. Score. Hoops-quick had been translated into rugby-cred.

That’s when I turned around and saw the thread-trail. Apparently a desperate grab had missed my flag but nicked my flag belt, unraveling some nylon, and the elastic cord hadn’t snapped. In fact, it was still attached to me, running all the way back to the scene of the attempted stop. In the frosty air, the human maze I had dashed and lunged through was hilarious and startlingly crooked. The trail of thread looked like a slalom course. The fact that the web was really mine, that I had run that pattern, made me grin all the wider. Not to mention that it made for a perfect exit.

As I walked off the field, the endorphins kicked in, adding a little extra luster. I collected some high fives. Now I knew I could “rugby.” And beyond that, there was something else. Something about that weird snapshot—the moment when I’d turned around and seen my whole offensive attack, my whole escape route, traced in luminous thread. Slightly surreal, very memorable. I don’t think I’ll forget it.

But why not?

All evening, the picture kept coming back. That stretchy, extended “Z”, woven over the field, still attached to me until I pulled off the belt. The thin bright strand in the autumn dusk. Not all pictures have to mean something, but this one did. At least it seemed to.

I hate it when people try to force an analogy that doesn’t fit, and maybe that’s what I’m doing, but the idea materialized. It was there, waiting. Will there be a day, an age-ending moment, when I turn around and see the cartography of my life furled out behind me? See the collisions just missed, the moments where death and disaster were barely escaped—see all the close calls, the times where victory stood on a knife’s edge? The idea does not seem unbelievable: To see, finally, what we can’t see now—the hidden windings of our present lives.

I suspect that, in the end, we will perceive for once what God sees all the time. We'll grasp the meaning, the mystery of those hidden lines, and smile at how fitting they were, all the time. Hair-breadth evasions, surprising interventions, all pieced together into a story that reads, in the end, as a W.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Invisible Provision System, Hidden Prayer

How We Trick Ourselves Out of Reality

Postmoderns may clash with 'hidden' prayer
The theologian Calvin suggested that prayer corresponds to livelihood in the way that it secures the necessary stuff of life. If we want to eat, we work. If we wish to receive specific blessings, we pray. Our failure to grasp the simplicity of this relationship hinges on our innate bias against things we can’t see.

But since we can’t trace the invisible threads of prayer causation, the practicality of the system remains a mystery to us. We work a 60-hour week and a check comes in the mail. In between, someone logs our hours. But in this case, we see the “inner” workings of the system and do not wonder if our labor is really effective. We don’t ask if the check was just a strange coincidence, or if, in short, we are just flailing underwater, trying to build an earthen palace, all our efforts doomed to failure. We don’t torture ourselves with the thought that the connection between our hours and our salary might be overlooked by the Man In The Office With A View.

But we can’t see the prayer system. So when we wear holes in our jeans and find our needs surprisingly met, we wonder if the prayer really caused it. Or when we pray one way, and something else happens, we second-guess the idea that an apparent “no” could really be an answer. In the end, we sideline this whole invisible provision system.

It’s silly. It may work, but you can’t see it. And we prefer to be able to connect the dots.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Long Obedience - Eugene Peterson, A

Why Souls Should Not Engage In Wind Sprints

A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, Eugene Peterson

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction - Eugene Peterson, A

As luck would have it, The Master Book List is crying to be fed, and for some time now I’ve wanted to mention Eugene Peterson’s
A Long Obedience In The Same Direction. This is what you call a fortuitous happening.

The full title of Peterson’s volume is a small book review in itself, and sheds some light on his thesis—namely that to doggedly follow Jesus is to defy the conventions of our society. Check out the complete tagline:

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society

You just scan the book’s spine, and Peterson is already up in your face, softly but sternly suggesting, You’re probably going about this “spirituality” thing in the wrong way. You smile pleasantly and nod. Then you get past the introduction, and feel his fingers on your jugular. If you’re serious about this, some things will need to change; otherwise, just shut the book, ok?

Admittedly, I’m overstating the polemical tone of Peterson’s writing, but I’m doing so to mirror the book’s fundamental message: Slow down, forget religion-in-a-box (1.5 hours, once a week), and start plodding. Excellence is never quick and dirty.

Sometimes you read a book so needed, so deliciously counter-cultural, it makes you want to cry; and for anyone consumed by doing everything yesterday—including learning how to act like Jesus, which I should have mastered last year—this may well be one of those books.

Peterson paints a picture of what Jesus-discipleship could really look like, and the travelogue is enough to make an explorer out of you. He fleshes out the panorama with contemplative writings on the “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120-134 in the Bible), which form a handbook for life on the road. The road toward Christ, that is.

The spirituality Peterson espouses is dynamic, straightforward and refreshingly “un-produced.” Combine this direct approach with a highly perceptive mind and you have a classic. Initially rejected by 17 publishers, this was Peterson’s first published work: a bracing discipleship text I would recommend to anyone.

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Why Earnest Teachers Weep on the Job

Yesterday I found myself proctoring a high school chemistry test. A couple of the students begged off, explaining that they had missed so much class their teacher had told them to take the test at a later date. All right, I said, you write your teacher a note, and I'll sign it and leave it for her. The two were happy enough to do this. Here is the note that, between the two of them, they produced:

Jenny Kalley and Ben Fleet* are not taking the chemistry test because we was not here to understand.

Upon receiving this note of absolution, I added my own endorsement in a state of amused disbelief. Was it genuine, or a clever forgery? A witty double entendre? Ebonics meets Chem Lab?

Some questions are better left unasked.

* Yes, of course, the names have been changed to protect the ignora-, uh, innocent.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Donald Miller's "Christian Spirituality" - A New Banner to Wave on the Spiritual Journey?

Is 'Christian spirituality' Christianity's heir apparent?

After 2000 years, the term "Christianity," is not exactly winning confetti and public acclaim for its customers. More likely are demeaning stares or puzzled expressions. Why would anyone freely claim to be part of that? I've sometimes found myself, ironically, defending the word itself, rather than the bright realities that lie behind it.

. If historically there had been such a word as "Vikingism," we would have an interesting similarity in terms of public perception. Given a choice of live verbal specimens today, I think "imperialism" or "vandalism" or (in some circles) "nazism" would not be far off the mark. Adherents of "Christianity" are losing the PR battle.

That's why it's tempting to find a new name to identify our "movement." Something fresh, something friendly, something that defies pigeon-holing. Donald Miller thinks he has done precisely this; and who's to say he's wrong? Christianity, suggests Miller, is a word of the past. The new cognomen is "Christian spirituality." Fascinating, but what does it mean?

Ever since I finished Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, I've been wondering what Christian spirituality implies. Miller introduces the phrase with his own
experiential rationale:

In a recent radio interview I was sternly asked by the host, who did not consider himself a Christian, to defend Christianity. I told him that I couldn't do it, and moreover, that I didn't want to defend the term... I told him I no longer knew what the term meant. Of the hundreds of thousands of people listening to his show that day, some of them had terrible experiences with Christianity... To them, the term Christianity meant something that no Christian would defend. By fortifying the term, I am only making them more and more angry. I won't do it... Christianity, unlike Christian spirituality, was not a term that excited me. - Blue Like Jazz

However, Miller doesn't really flesh out his new least not overtly. This leaves plenty of room for speculation. Unquestionably, Miller has a point. He's articulating a feeling, a weight of preconception, that many Christians feel bearing down on them. I find myself for the most part in the same boatsomewhat disenchanted with the associations that cling to "Christianity" like bloody, tattered rags, indicative of historical wounds beneath. I know what I mean when I say "Christianity"but chances are the person I'm speaking to has a sharply different concept in mind.

This fact is a given, at least in the U.S. So what I find myself mulling over is whether "Christian spirituality" is an adequate replacement label to describe a lifetime spent pursuing Jesus. I put the question to Lindsay the other night.
"Honey, what associations do you get from the phrase, 'Christian spirituality?'"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Well, when you hear the phrase, 'Christian spirituality,' what comes to mind?"
"I'm not sure. I haven't really heard that phrase before."
" you like it? Does it have good connotations? Bad ones?"

Lindsay's response pointed up one aspect of the expression, which is that it remains pretty much under the radar. If you haven't read Donald Miller or dabbled in "emergent church" circles, you may have no initial opinion at all. The phrase enjoys a notable lack of recognition.

Just the same, if I'm going to employ it, or even think about employing it, I feel compelled to try and get at its innate connotations, undeveloped though they may be. After a little thought, Lindsay suggested that the phrase implied a "mystical" or "very personal" approach to Jesus. I thought that was fair enough.

When I hear the phrase, I picture a faith that is, like virtually all "faiths" these days, highly personal. Very intimate, connected, relational. Very centered on oneself, to be frank. Me and Christ. Jesus and me. Something we cultivate together. For better or worse, that's the picture I get.

As well, the "mystical" label seems to fit. We postmoderns are sick of having everything plotted out, and we're eager to admit that mysteries exist. We're happy enough to live with apparent contradictions and inexplicable phenomena, so long as they contribute to a nicely textured picture of reality.

Related to this is an experiential aura that surrounds the term. This is attractive, since most of like the idea of an adventure we can jump into
something to catch our imagination, something that defies easy comprehension, something with a slightly cryptic allure. We also like that experimenting with such things makes us seem like a more interesting person.

As you might have guessed, what concerns me with "Christian spirituality" is that it seems to lend itself too easily to the faith-as-accessory culture we live in. Then again, it would be hard to create a title that could escape the magnetic tendency toward narcissism. I appreciate the newness of the phrase; I like its explanation-inviting, bias-barring, Huh what? quality.

And to be fair, in Blue Like Jazz, Miller offsets some of the negative leanings that I mention above. For example, he focuses an entire chapter on the need for community, over against an inward, just-Jesus-and-me bent. But I suspect that not many will read the book before they assess the buzzwords.

Taken sum tota, I think that Miller's take deals with a legit need for Christians. And, while we could brainstorm for alternative phrases, his offering seems as good as any. I suspect, however, that we'll discover that just one label-swap will not do. Adequately representing the beauty of Christ, once it's discovered, is a task that calls for ongoing creativity.

I tend to think that Christians rely too much on labels. Our "advertising," if you will, should be more experiential, and less brand-name reliant. It's the experience of knowing Christ that we're selling, not the advantages of a demographic.

Maybe we should be less eager to stuff ourselves into a readily identifiable slot, and more ready to dish out fresh explanations for what this thing is that we're doing. Might I use the Christian spirituality catchphrase? I might, if it helps communicate. But the name-placard approach to faith is over-rated.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Photoblogging

In celebration of the freedom to photoblog!

This is a completely frivolous post which I'm justifying with my new-found freedom to post photos to the blog. After a week-long, agonizing search for a Hello! substitute, I discovered the answer had been right beside me all along: Fix Hello!

Well, Hello! is fixed and photos are back. And if all goes well, I'll get around to generating an authentic Post of Substance in the near future. In the meantime, just look at this photo. Admire the lovely hue of the evening sky and the spidery cracks in the crumbling granite wall. You could even write a brief photo-essay on how this picture makes you feel...

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Monday, November 14, 2005

A Cry for Help


Hey, all you techies and photogs:- Are you aware of an alternative to Hello! for posting pictures? My system is having some kind of weird conflict with Hello!, and my photo content is suffering as a result. If you have tips, please supply 'em. Otherwise my cry for help will be pitiful indeed.

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How to be a Great Reader

If the Great Reader designation could be acquired in a workmanlike way, say through a regimen of weekly lessons, like tennis, everything would be easier. Or, equally clear-cut, if it was simply a question of reading the Right Books (as many suppose), then all interested parties could work their way down the list and become pleasurably snobbish, conceivably by their 21st birthdays if they applied themselves.

Unfortunately, both practiced reading-smarts and hard-won snobbery are barred from the competition.


It is all too easy to let the environment color what I read, like a color photo curling and yellowing in a corrosive atmosphere.

I had this thought as I sat in our dingy church kitchen yesterday morning with the gospel of Luke open in front of me.

If my surroundings seep into this book and the paint starts peeling in Galilee, the party’s over before it started. Churchianity must never enter Jerusalem.


Of course, any discoloration, any book-corruption that took place, would be going on in my mind. The object of my reading would not actually change. In fact, great literature has been proven, over the centuries, to be able to transcend virtually any environment in which it finds itself. The classics are like that. Read them on a grassy hill, read them in a cavernous dungeon, read them with a flashlight under the covers—they still get you.

The question is, How can I subdue myself to the reality of the story I read, and fall under its spell—rather than stuffing my own passing concerns inside the binding? How might the life inside the book seep out, a kind of miraculously-preserved elixir? Clearly, the power for life-conveyance must already be inherent to what I read. Otherwise, my biased mind and mundane environment will get the better of the written page.

There can be no great readers without great books.

This still leaves the question of how to be a Great Reader. But the problem is now simplified, because a Great Book has the innate power to make a hero out of anyone who enters it. What is required of the explorer?

Modesty. Sympathy. The heart of a learner and the mind of an interested friend. Otherwise, I find myself standing over the book, lecturing it, ridiculing its conventions and language when they seem strange, taunting its values when they contradict mine.

Great Readers cannot merely dissect—certainly not at first. They come to the masterpiece with the knowledge that they may be challenged or changed—and they allow the book to have its say. Call it intellectual modesty; the book, by virtue of having been written, of having lived for decades (perhaps centuries) and proven itself able to maintain its integrity in the faces of friend and critic alike—deserves a hearing.

Only after such a hearing can I consider myself a Great Reader. Only after a sympathetic journey through the thoughts of the author am I qualified to critique him.

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Place Where I Can Hoop

Could basketball save me from burnout?

It is getting harder to play basketball. And it’s not just because my knees are kind of lax in their response time.

This morning I laced up my Adidas, braided my hair into cornrows, smoothed on my peel-off tattoo, and headed over to the U of Missouri-KC, our local metro college. I hadn’t been in awhile, and my hoops skills were crying out for us to spend some quality time together. As I cruised toward the campus, I got my head game in order, and when I walked into the field house I was ready to bring a few tear drops. That was before I got bounced by the stiff at the front desk.

Ever since UMKC beefed up their security measures, it’s been tougher to get onto the hardwood. I had to start shelling out $5 every time I played, which decreased the frequency of my visits. But the kicker was that I had to be signed in as someone’s guest—and I hated to coerce any of my UMKC friends into showing up at the gym just to get me in. I’d circumnavigated the issue by hanging out by the front desk and asking friendly-looking students if they would mind signing for me—a ploy with a 100% success rate: Paperwork filled in, me in the gym, everybody happy. But this morning’s bouncer wasn’t buying it.

No, the tune today was death to the casual hoopster. My host had to “meet me at the door” or there would be no hoops joy. I couldn’t exploit an agreeable stranger. And no, I couldn’t walk inside and scan the gym for a familiar face. When you meet someone that stolid, it’s time to call it a day.

As I left the field house, I walked into a grey-sky drizzle. Perfect. With the eagerness of dead leaves spiraling onto the muddy street, I drove home to keep working on my research paper.


In lieu of my hoops career having just ended at UMKC, I may have to join a rec league. The paper on “burnout,” which I just finished, makes at least that much clear. If I am going to avoid burnout (“overload,” “breakdown,” etc.), I will need a “safe place” to help me do it. I visualize this as a place where I can play hoops without fear of reparation, without fear of exclusion, and without extraneous fees. With the weather getting colder, the need for me to discover this “safe place” becomes all the more urgent.

This secure location will be a place where I can meet with a “small group” especially tailored to meet my needs. As I see it, this group should consist of about ten people, perhaps one or two more if subs are required. In the words of psychologists Olsen and Grosch, this group will be a place where I can explore “my vulnerable self as well as my grandiosity,” and I think they’re really onto something here. This type of specialized treatment (let’s call it “court-therapy”) needs to allow for a balanced offensive and defensive game, as well as unselfish passing. I should feel free to dish the ball to an open teammate, and not always score it myself. Killer crossovers and shiny dimes should be acceptable currency in this group.

Looking back, I realize that my experiences at UMKC often lacked this holistic goodness. The stress caused by loitering by the front desk, merged with the uncertainty caused by never knowing whether I’d find a good game, hardly made for psychosomatic health. I see this now.

This morning was painful, but perhaps it was for the best.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Birthday Stack 2005

The buzz: bright new books

Well, (assuming my new picture method works) here's the latest. Questions cling to the spines of the new arrivals: Will they compete with their predecessors? Might they defeat them? What will they do to my Christmas break? What will they do to my mind? And am I really worthy enough to read them?

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Book Smarts - How High Can You Read?

One of the annual joys of life is surveying the new Birthday Stack* and speculating as to which book will have the greatest impact. This is assuming, of course, that the books are actually read in the next year. Since I haven't completed all the volumes from last year's book stack, this assumption might be naive - but I remain ridiculously sanguine where my reading abilities are concerned.

As I thumbed through one of the new acquisitions,
Answering God, by Eugene Peterson, I came across this quote from Michael Fishbane:

Everything depends on how we read, on how we enter the magic circle of a text's meanings; on how we smuggle ourselves into its words, and allow the texture of a text to weave its web around us.

I thought this was very good. I mean, it seemed true. I've talked to people who read Dostoevsky and thought he was boring. And - well, obviously - I rub shoulders with students every other day who complain loudly about being forced to read garbage like The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. The poor youngsters. I feel very sorry for them as I smack 'em upside the head and tell them to read the books and like it. Ok, brief digression there.

The question I was getting at was What makes a great reader? How does one "smuggle" oneself inside the world of a book, infiltrate the "magic circle," become entangled in the bookish "web?"

I've been asking myself this, especially since it pertains to more than my Birthday Stack. With a friend of mine, I'm reading through the gospel of Luke this week, and so the question gains an added urgency. How can I get as deep as possible inside the story of Jesus? To insinuate myself inside that "book" would be to gain a brilliant edge in living...

So you see, the question, What makes a great reader? could affect more than your reading habits. It might change your life.

For this reason, I think the topic lends itself to a Blogger Limelight discussion. Let's take on the question of "how we read." What makes reading more than a temporary escape from reality? What can we do to storm the gates a book, plunder its pages, and emerge with something livable?

It would be great to hear from some of you on this. If you need a refresher on the Blogger Limelight idea, go ahead. Then write your post, link back here using the provided code, and leave a link to your own post in the comments below.

Are you a great reader?


To link back, just cut and paste this code. You'll need to replace the three pairs of [ ] brackets with < > to make it operational. In the future, maybe I'll find a more elegant way of doing this...

[a href=][img src="" border="0" alt="Are you in the Blogger Limelight?" /][/a]

* I'd post a picture of the new stack, as is the tradition, but Hello
! has gone buggy on me and I'm still working on an alternative method of posting photos. Feel free to advise.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Espresso and Burnout

I got hold of this book looking to gain some additional insight into "pastoral burnout," the topic of a paper I'm supposed to be researching and writing as we speak. However, a glance at the cover raised some troubling questions. Questions like, Is there something wrong with having coffee cups piled like this in your kitchen? Why do I feel guilty? And Is this what it feels like to be a statistic?

I was briefly concerned, but a cup of Seattle-style espresso set things to rights. Now, back to my paper.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Happy Birthday, You're Dying!

Will it never end? Today I endured the indignity of another birthday. Lindsay and my family did the best they could to ease the passing, but I still felt acutely the loss of another year. Funny how we celebrate the installation of these little pieces in a jigsaw puzzle...when complete, it will culminate in the picture of a corpse.


A little harsh, huh? I tend to agree. But perfectly logical. I was thinking today, as I calculated how many years I have left to realize my dream of playing in the NBA, that birthdays should hardly be a cause of celebration -
without a very significant caveat. After all, what is a birthday? Originally, it's just that - but only once. After you leave ground zero, the celebrations become decidedly morbid. Something like trees cheering the strokes of a woodcutter. Age is the enemy. Why applaud it?


, you say. We're celebrating the wisdom, the increased acumen, the achievements - not the wrinkles. The scoring titles and NCAA rings and book deals, if you will. Why cry about the sweat?

Because it's not just sweat we're losing. It's life that's trickling away. And death, I'm convinced, is not a necessary corollary to wisdom and victory. Who says you have to get old to get brilliant? Why should it be that way? I, for one, am not buying it. I'm not willing to give death a free pass "just because" it makes me smarter.


So what's your point?
you ask. Thank you very much for making me depressed; I hope I can do the same for you on my birthday...


Here's what I think. There's a certain level of insincerity in celebrating birthdays - if we have no expectation of life being restored. Maybe I'm overly given to melancholy, but I sometimes find myself noticing a kind of pathos surrounding these celebrations of fleeting years. Sometimes the clapping seems wistful, slightly anxious, if you follow me. Birthday parties can take on the dimensions of a security blanket, and, especially later in life, the fabric starts wearing thin.

I'm sorry for being so awful!


You may be surprised to learn that I actually did celebrate my birthday.
Really! I had a good time, there was joy, laughter, and no quoting of Nietzsche or Hamlet. What strikes me, though, is that such a party would be ridiculous without Christ. Add Jesus to the life equation, and uproarious parties make perfect sense. Subtract him, and birthdays seem a flimsy facade.

This post isn't really a diatribe. It's a thank you note.

Thank you Jesus, for giving us something to celebrate in these moments of paradox. On my birthday, life ticks away and life looms nearer. I'm getting older and younger. Creaky knees are divining rods; the vibrations I'm feeling reveal that the fountain of youth is approaching.

The mysterious joy and transitory death make for a bracing atmosphere. Because of Christ, I can drink it in like a magic elixir. Birthdays become a vintage brew, seasoned by a God-man. Jesus took on the spectre of aging, and he proved death-proof. Christ trumped our mortality. But without him?

Without Jesus?

Well. Why ask such a morbid question on my birthday!?

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Monday, November 07, 2005

The Dalgliesh Point - A Mystery?

Dalgliesh: a cure for mental overload?Each semester, I delay the inevitable for as long as possible. With the help of coffee, harsh discipline, and my conscience, I force myself to devote the lion's share of my attention to required texts. I plow through 300+ page manuals without pictures. I scan databases for articles on ancient Philippi, pastoral burnout, and other fairly obscure intersections on the spiritual journey. And then, like Hoover dam imploding, my self-control collapses. The old addictions flood in, carrying all before them.

There is a clinical term for this point in the semester - the moment when a spiritual-literary weakness quietly appears, then explodes into the spotlight and dominates my life. This instant is known as the Dalgliesh Point.

I reached this semester's Dalgliesh Point on Saturday night. After a day spent searching academic databases, reading articles, and assimilating data into a paper, I felt the wild, primal urge arising in me. For as long as I could, I beat it down. But I knew it would only be a matter of time... Once one senses the proximity of the Dalgliesh Point, a total breakdown is imminent.

And sure enough. Around 11 p.m., I pulled my latest P.D. James mystery off the shelf and began to feverishly cram it down. Before I went to bed, I had reached page 150. But that was 48 hours ago. As I write, the harrowing conclusion to The Black Tower is more than in view - it is just pages away, and soon to be unveiled. Another Adam Dalgliesh book review will quickly follow.

At times, I've wondered out loud what causes me to compulsively read Adam Dalgliesh mysteries when my mental life is about to boil over. One obvious answer is the lovely symmetry of the cases. In the face of "mysterious" dysfunction and darkness, order is inexorably restored. Entering such a story is cathartic. And tackling an array of fresh, exotic details, vigorously forming syllogisms about vivid hypothetical characters, pitting my wits against P.D. James (and losing every time) - it's so frivolously renewing.

I cross the Dalgliesh point and feel once again that there is life beyond academics.

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Spiritual Wonder: Getting Beyond "Wow"

Spiritual Wonder: Getting Beyond Wow

Recently I’ve been wondering if one should ever “get over” a feeling of amazement at the simplest aspects of truth. After thinking about it for awhile, I’m convinced the answer is No—but that we do need to discover progressively better ways of voicing our appreciation for reality.

Consider: It would be tempting to feel condescension toward a man who is continually amazed that air travel “works,” or that it’s really “possible” to access the internet from home. Get over it, I’d be tempted to tell him, and start enjoying the benefits of technology.

It’s not that airplanes and connectivity aren’t wonderful. Rather, it’s that a childish level of appreciation does not remain appropriate. The first time I drank coffee, I was startled and pleased by the sensation of unusual getup. Now, years later, the extra dynamism supplied by caffeine + a delicious roast is hardly less wonderful—but my modes of enjoyment are more refined. Likewise, and here’s what I’m really getting at, the depth of our appreciation for God should not remain the same.

I am a child of God, and he loves me like a son—but if, after five years, all I can muster in response to this truth is “Wow,” I am doing a disservice to both myself and my Father.

The feeling I’m trying to articulate is that we need to get beyond a mere Wow mentality in our enjoyment of Christ. This is not a disavowal of wonder, it’s an endeavor to seize on better words, to discover more nuanced feelings to offer God in response to his goodness. And these verbal expressions should point back to a life that has become spiritually aware, well-seasoned, mature. A greater depth of praise, I think, is the natural result of a fully savored spiritual journey.

When I first met my wife, she was flattered if I smiled intently in her direction. Now, four years later, I’m finding I need to phrase my compliments more carefully. And it makes sense. After four years of enlightening Lindsay-experience, my accolades have progressed accordingly. God-experience, I’m convinced, should be similar.

Why does any of this matter?

My tendency, sometimes, is to gloss over the inexpressible beauty of God’s person and actions with a childish How cool. Is God astonishing? Yes—beyond words, in fact. But paradoxically, our thanks to God often takes verbal form. And there, I think, is where we often reveal our silliness.

When I first encounter the goodness of Christ, Wow! is a perfectly fitting response. But decades later, if Wow still conveys the sum total of my spiritual experience, my theology is revealing its cracks. I should have seen more by now! I should have tasted more by now! Fundamentally, I should know God better by now! And if I have done these things, I should learn to voice them—or my original sense of wonder may atrophy. As Paul, the theologian wrote:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways (I Corinthians 13:11, The Bible).

Perhaps I’m off the mark here. But I suspect that our shallow rhetoric about God often reveals our superficial understanding of his greatness. And if our understanding is in fact deeper, we are jeopardizing it by short-selling it with our language. Our own words affect us.

God’s excellence is something that calls to be explored aggressively, wrestled with mentally, embraced trustingly, and intuitively lived out. After a few years, an uninterrupted succession of mere Wows may reveal that the depth of our relationship with Christ is suspect.

I can almost see God showing up and questioning me some day…

“Well…yes, God.”

There would be no question of my wanting to. The question would be: Would I have the words? And would I have the thoughts to underpin them? Maybe so…if my knowledge of God today transcends the level of juvenile Wow.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Driven By Happy Chance

Generally, the phone starts ringing around 5:30 a.m. I grab the receiver, rasp “Hello,” and the automated Sub Finder system starts giving me the sordid details of my latest assignment. Yesterday was different.

The phone rang once, a shrill, staccato burst, and then it made a kind of choking sound and screamed out an unusually long, plaintive ring before falling silent. I cradled the phone in my hand, and the pale LED display stared up at me mutely. We had never been separated like this before.

Desperately, I pushed the “line 1” button again and again, attempting to resuscitate, but it was no good. No life stirred within the phone’s small, central cavity. Surprised and saddened, I looked at the clock to discern the time of our phone’s passing—but the clock was dark. I got up and hit the light switch, and things were still dark. The power was out—and it had died precisely as the school system had called me with my subbing assignment.

Some coincidences are too good to argue with. Lindsay and I got ready in the dark, and then I drove her to her job, which had been previously assigned. As we got on the highway, I was eating an apple for breakfast—apples being a relatively preparation-free food—and I happened to glance left. In a truck passing us was another guy eating an apple. I started laughing as we lifted our apples by way of acknowledgement, and nodded at each other.

It takes a really good joke to make me laugh that early in the morning.

God needs to be credited for amusing accidents.

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife