Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Good Spiritual Fight

Can't We Just All Be 'Spiritual?'

Yesterday, when I was perusing the Kansas City Star during halftime of the latest KU road win, I exhausted the Sports pages and found myself skimming through the Faith section. To my surprise, I came across one of those editorial-style ‘debates’ that commonly occur, but this one was on a spiritual topic: What does it mean to be spiritual without following a particular faith?

When I read the topic, I was immediately interested because

  1. Spiritual questions are so rarely debated in the public square, and
  2. My invitation to join the conversation had obviously been lost in the mail.

However, when I started in and read the two ‘opposing’ viewpoints, I discovered they did not so much disagree as talk in completely different directions; I wondered if the two writers had put their heads together beforehand and sketched out a plan for editorial pacifism. The absence of significant discussion was disappointing.

People fight about everything of any worth, down to whether the Snickers bar was split fairly across the middle. So when everyone shrinks timidly away from spiritual debate, it looks more like a white elephant Christmas party than serious people fortifying vital positions.

So much for point a)—but point b) was thrown into even greater relief as a result. My omission from the discussion had left a clear polemical void. I felt the moral weight of this dilemma, and knew I would not be able to sleep until I’d done something about it. So, last night I considered what should be said - for about 30 seconds, anyway. Then I fell asleep.

:: The Short Answer ::

What does it mean to be spiritual without following a particular faith?

Being ‘spiritual’ in this sense may mean any number of things.
It may mean that you love trees.
Or that you walked outside one day, in the rain, and you felt the mud squish between your toes, and decided it was good to be alive.
Or that you simply know that part of you is invisible, and think this should be acknowledged.

Each of these outcomes is to be applauded—in the same way we cheer when a baby takes her first step. It is good to be able to walk.

Likewise, language is helpful, and we endorse the idea that everyone should be able to talk.

But ‘walking’ and ‘talking’ are meaningless without additional parameters, such as, Where are you going? What are you saying? Staggering across a six-lane highway after midnight doesn’t earn you the same level of approval as, say, walking briskly to work at 7 a.m. Cursing up a storm tends towards a different conclusion than a cordial, “Good night.”

Thus, a faithless spirituality is either babyish, or wishful thinking, or naïve. It blurs indelible lines, or is not sufficiently aware of them. Embracing a faith-neutered ‘spirituality’ is similar to saying we are in favor of edible objects—never mind that some of them can kill you.

:: Counter-Questions ::

In the KC Star article, the Reverend Duke Tufty, pastor of our local Unity Temple, noted that:
“Religion came into being to establish a moral conscience among the people…spirituality has evolved out of religion, bringing with it the ancient wisdom that can be considered absolute. It is an inner process of self-discovery and direction. It restores autonomy in regards to one’s relationship with God and encourages the individual to experience his/her higher power directly and freely without the confines of dogma.”

I was very sad at having being left out of the argument, because I wanted to put several questions to Mr. Tufty. Such as:
  1. How did religion “come into being?” Did it have a mind of its own? Or perhaps several?
  2. If spirituality “evolved,” in what way can it be “considered absolute?”
  3. If spirituality can be “considered absolute,” how can it be a purely “inner process of self-discovery?”
  4. If spirituality is the freedom to experience the higher power “without the confines of dogma,” how do you justify this paragraph? (Let alone your editorial.)
  5. In other words, how did you come by this special authoritative information?
  6. Did you expect to have your cake and eat it too?

This will be my last post for a few days, as I'm driving north to Minneapolis to attend a conference hosted by one of my favorite writers and thinkers, John Piper. Since I still haven't saved enough pennies for a notebook pc, there will be an inevitable media blackout, but I hope to come back inspired.

Peace, I'm out.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Sick as a Dog

Sick as a dog?

I’m home today, blowing my nose every five minutes, throat like a rain gutter, with a dull ache in my jaw that is either my wisdom teeth reallocating their living space or the result of my going head-to-head with an opposing player when I played rugby last Sunday.

I’m sitting back now, appreciating the diversity of that last sentence. It’s confusing, it’s awful, I hope you were able to get through it. But I’m too attached to it now to change it.

I’ve been wondering about the traditional phrase, “sick as a dog.” I’m not sure I get it. Other phrases seem like they would be more appropriate to describe my condition. In fact, most of the dogs I have known were remarkably healthy.

Why not “sick as an aquarium fish?” Or “sick as a water turtle?” It seems like aquarium fish are not especially predisposed to life. They’re just as likely to be floating upside down as right side up when you turn on the light in the morning. Water turtles are similar. They’re ridiculously picky about what they eat, and seem very willing to become dormant and taciturn if you don’t feed them just what they want.

If we expand the parameters outside the traditional ‘pet’ sector, why not “sick as a seal?” They always seem to have wet, runny noses. Or (gross!) “sick as a slug?” If facsimile is what we’re after, it seems like honesty would bring us here.

Anyway. Now that I’ve complained for a little while, I’m going to continue beating up Bertrand Russell’s essay, “A Free Man’s Worship.” In the universe Russell describes, the title itself is a non sequitur. I know you’re not supposed to pick on dead people, but I have to do it for class. And I’m sick—sick as a dog. Therefore, ‘sicking’ myself on Russell should be completely permissible.

When a sick guy meets a dead guy, the sick guy wins.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Mystery of Personality

Personality is mysterious

At points in my life, I've been a sucker for 'personality tests' like the
Keirsey Temperament Sorter. It was always entertaining to type in my data, click the analyze button, and, depending on the day, discover that I was a world-beating ENFJ or some less flattering melancholy artist type. But as interesting as it was to learn about my genius-potential (or my need for antidepressants, as the case might be), it seems like the experience inadvertently begged a deeper question. Why is self-knowledge so highly valued?

Forget the temperamental outcomes.
Why did I even want to know? Why do any of us?

The fact that we are easily captured by the 'personality' issue is hard to deny. Go on and admit it, you're definitely tempted to check out the
Keirsey link if you haven't already. But why are we so easily fixated with the question of personality? And why does the question exist? You would almost have to conclude that we are a people who do not know ourselves. When we sincerely try to “self-monitor,” we usually flounder. Occasional self-revelations are never the final word. And much of the time we prefer to disguise what exploration could reveal.

It’s strange that self-knowledge is so elusive. I know people in their fifties who are still discovering new things about themselves, and I suspect this is not unusual. The secret of personality seems to be one we can never quite unravel, a veil we can never fully pull aside.

Of course, forward strides are made. We meet someone who understands us, shows us a deeper side of ourselves. We go through a defining experience, and emerge enlightened. We take a helpful test, and gain some fractional insight. But there are always other facets undiscovered, reactions we didn’t expect, inclinations we don’t understand.

Deepening the confusion is the issue of life purpose in relation to personality—How does
who I am pertain to what I ought to be doing? And what if I’m not doing it? Does personality shape my calling, or does my profession take precedent? American culture tends to favor doing over being, but such knee-jerk pragmatism is hardly the end of the story.

Thickening the plot still further is the gulf between "ideal" and "real." How do I explain the contrarieties of my own nature, and the constant war between my cherished self-image and the workaday version I’m forced to live with? Which is really me? We might (mis)apply Hegel’s dialectic here, with dizzying effect: My ideal (thesis) clashes with my experience (antithesis), forcing a confused meeting (synthesis), and what emerges is fully neither. Who am I?

Frost’s poem seems to fit:

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

The fiber of our souls is so thick it seems to defy penetration. Nonetheless, honest self-appraisal is something we humans long for. And we can’t help it. Why?

I suggest it's because personality is a gift, not a random molecular formula. And a mysterious gift at that, “woven” into us by the Creator, who "sees all our days when as yet there are none of them" (Psalm 139). We enter the world as crafted persons, our natures linked inextricably to our purpose in life. Such a gifts entail a depth of knowledge we simply don't possess. But we wish we did.

Revelation states that in The End, Christ will present his followers with “a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but the one who receives it.” The image is symbolic, and explicitly-assigned meanings are elusive, but it does bring up a picture in my mind.

I "see," or rather "hear" Jesus saying these words: “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” he says, and that affirmation is enough to justify a life. But then he goes on: “Now I will show you who you are, in relation to myself…” Like a stream of clear sunlight, the mystery of a lifetime is illuminated in an instant. To a strikingly defined man, eternity brims with promise.

I suspect there is something else here as well, something even more inscrutable—a glimpse of
divine reality. The complexity of our souls, and the tuggings we feel to explore, are a snapshot into a higher mystery. Our personalities, intricate as they are, offer the merest glimpse of a more enthralling character: God's.

As James Stewart, the Scottish theologian, wrote:
There is nothing in history like the union of contrasts which confronts us in the gospels. The mystery of Jesus is the mystery of divine personality.

But that's food for another post. Nevertheless, those who begin the "divine" exploration down here will have all eternity to continue it. (I'm not saying “complete” it.) And that’s a good thing; we’ll need the time.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Life Is A Mystery (Blogger Limelight)

Blogger Limelight

I’ve been thinking I’d like to work some more with the intriguing Blogger Limelight concept, and this, the latest incarnation, has a new twist.

In the past, Limelight topics have taken aim at very specific questions, which have the benefit of provoking fairly deliberate responses. The downside of this approach, however, is that not everyone has the time or mind to draw a bead on a question with such precision. So the traditional Limelight post tends to attract fascinating commentary (in my opinion), but appeals to a limited audience.

Therefore, I’m trying to script something a little different this time. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this: Write a post dealing in some way with the element of mystery we find in life.

I’m leaving this subject wide open. You might choose to detail why mystery is necessary for mental and spiritual health (ala G.K. Chesterton). Or you could write a quick narrative, touching on a mysterious experience. You might describe the latest, greatest mystery novel you read; or you might try to solve the mystery of how the MU Tigers will make it to the NCAA Tournament this year.

Really, be as creative as you like. The choice is yours.


How does this work?

  1. Write a post on “mystery in life.”

  2. Link your post to this post, using the Blogger Limelight button. (Send me a note if you need help here.)

  3. Leave a comment below, linking to your post, so others will find it.

You may also want to read Blogger Limelight Explained.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Beauty Stronger than the Sun

Beauty stronger than the sun

"You never see the sun in warm-ups, with no make-up on, with her hair tied back in a pony tail."

Lindsay made this observation re: our patron star a few days ago, and I liked the take it provides on beauty. Surrounded by Vogue, Maxim, and their siblings, we're encouraged to think of beauty as an element with a great deal of plasticity. On the rare days when I feel bored enough to open the FYI section of the newspaper, I'm struck by the fact that beauty seems to be a dubious combination of youthful appearance + pricey apparel + who you're sharing a bed with. People fall all over themselves trying to hold onto it.

Well...not to be overly Platonic, but what if beauty is more enduring and less transient than we tend to think? What if ephemeral people carry a beauty that will eventually outclass the sun?

As C.S. Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
I like to remember that humans are far more enduring than they appear, and that each day we must roll out of bed and decide what kind of immortals we want to be.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

C.S. Lewis and Basketball?

In order to offset today’s earlier Tale of Horror, and mostly because it’s a fascinating post, I’m recommending that you go read R. Sherman’s Of C.S. Lewis and Eighth Grade Girls Basketball. Anytime hoops collide with theology, I’m a fan; and this is doubly true when C.S. Lewis is in the mix (at point guard?). This post has all the signs of becoming one of the Great Ones.

Disclaimer: Obviously, you should discount Sherman’s mutterings about Jayhawk hoops. MU fans have a tendency toward sour grapes, especially after they get blown out by a traditional Big 12 weakling. (Heh he he.)

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A Tale of Horror

Last night, our next door neighbors began to renovate their kitchen, take about eight showers in a row, mix a gigantic batch of cool-aid, rummage through the cupboards for baking ingredients, and carry on a loud discussion about interpersonal relationships. They did these things simultaneously, and with remarkable stamina, kicking off the culinary/hygienic/relational celebration a little after midnight, and keeping the party alive until after 3 a.m. And they brought in hired help to make the bonanza possible.

OK, we're not sure exactly what they were doing, but that's what it sounded like. About halfway through the festivities, I started pounding on the wall and Lindsay shed a few tears in the hopes that our indignation would penetrate the intervening drywall and lumber. Apparently not.

That's why today finds us both kind of glassy-eyed. I'm 'teaching' my students (German 3!) with the help of resuscitative coffee doses, the strength of which would kill a lesser man. I trust that Lindsay is getting by with the help of a good breakfast (I dropped mine 'facedown' on the kitchen floor; "It's that kind of day") and frequent prayer. I, of course, am praying as well.

Later we will return home and kill our neighbors, concealing the corpses under the floor, ala Edgar Allen Poe - but without the disabling remorse. When the police show up asking questions, there will be no cardiac arrests, only a series of increasingly relaxed yawns. And then we will go back to sleep.

Related: read an earlier Tale of Horror

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Earthy Spirituality: Debunking Knee-Jerk Naturalism

Flow Charts and Dreams in the Life of Daniel

Spirituality is practical

If the Bible's Daniel had lived today, he would be a city administrator or, conceivably, a software designer. Economics and JavaScript would come as easy as breathing. Possibly he would have been one of those people whose brilliance is annoying because it is so undeniable. Daniel would silence entire business meetings with a single sentence, make everyone nod their heads in vigorous agreement, while inwardly they were saying, “Why didn’t
I think of that?”

And then he would have these dreams…

My friend Scott and I are reading the book of Daniel for the second week in a row, and one thing in particular has struck me about the narrative. It’s a down-to-earth story of the supernatural—if you will, an event coordinator’s guide to the otherworld.

Daniel would have been a living, breathing rebuttal to arguments (like David Hume’s) that only the neurotic and uneducated ‘see’ the supernatural at work in this world. In terms of education, Daniel was at the top of the known world—the brightest man in the Babylonian empire. In terms of practicality, he was a guy without illusions, a modest skeptic, and not given to flights of fancy.

In other words, when angels appeared and delivered their monologues, Daniel asked (after his knees started working), “And what does that mean?” The angelic answers didn’t always satisfy his questions, and he didn’t act as if they did. But bewilderment aside, Daniel didn’t recoil from documenting his experiences. He was so straight-up, so deliberate and practical, that he didn’t gravitate toward the materialistic bias that claims so many of us.

He didn’t say, “Wait, I’m a totally sane person; this vision can’t be happening.” No knee-jerk naturalism for Daniel. When God spoke, Daniel picked up his pristine integrity and took it to the bank—he became a star witness, and apparently didn’t think about backing down.

Earthy spirituality. Forensic faith.

In an era when we write off the supernatural as fast as deductibles in April, I find Daniel’s life incredibly refreshing.

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Does God Deliver Happiness?

Joy like sunlight?

Riffing on yesterday’s post, I had a couple clarifying (hopefully) thoughts on ‘happiness.’ Specifically, where does it come from, and what is it?

We’ve all read that quote by Henry Louis Mencken: “If you want peace, work for justice.” And, if you read A Song Searching for Happiness, it’s possible you derived a similar equation. Something like, If you want happiness, look for God. But this would not be precisely accurate.

It could be seen as implying that via God we get what we really want; that is, a working relationship with the Creator sanctifies all the other good stuff that we’re actually obsessed with: Sex, money, prestige, etc., etc. In this scheme, God becomes an avenue toward my own desires. God is the means to my self-esteem, my self-promotion, (to use sinisterbaby’s phrase) my ‘self-actualization.’ So I go on committing this crime of self-focus, and God becomes the accessory.

But happiness is God. This is the shocking part about the happiness formula—its simplicity. As the warrior-king David wrote in Psalm 16, “In your presence is fullness of joy; in your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

God himself is the source of joy, like the sun is the source of daylight. He isn’t interested in aiding and abetting our inferior "bests," no matter how truly we believe in them. Can we enjoy other good things? Of course. But unless the Creator has been encountered, those secondary pleasures leave just a passing taste in the mouth.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Song Searching for Happiness

Happiness is elusive, until Christ appears

I was thinking the other night that the sincerity of the success story's song is exceeded only by its rarity. The person who has, against all odds, pursued her dream and dragged it, kicking and screaming, into the studio, is completely justified in her enthusiasm: Keep your hopes alive, she says. Don't give up, she preaches. Have a dream, and make it a big one! she yells, pumping her fist. And the rationale for this argument, from her position, can't be faulted.

But what about the majority of the people in history who lived as they had to? What about (if I may) the rest of us, who lack the rare talent or opportunity, but entertain dreams just as bright and unrelenting? How long will it be until we taste the champagne of desire fulfilled: write the book, get the part, make the team, win the girl--and sing that victory song?

I think, in various forms, this is a question that has haunted most of the world for most of its history. When will I sing that song?--the one that soars, the one that winners sing? Or will I ever? For the time being, we hum a different tune, and the chorus runs, How long, how long, how long?

Will I ever author a book, and earn the leisure to write chilling and imaginative things? When will I have enough money not to worry? Will I ever travel to the Alps? When will I get my share of beauty? When will my own, particular, ridiculously-nuanced dream be realized?

Questions like this hold an element of drama--an adventure that just might turn out right--but the spice of suspense dries up as years accrue. Something else happens as well, something unexpected. Occasionally, dreams materialize (but this is not the unexpected thing): Authorship, or travel, or wealth does arrive. But the original question does not go away. We are still singing, How long? even though 'good times' have come. We look at the trappings of happiness and realize we did not really understand this melody at all.

This is when Christ steps in.

Other gods give their own answers re: the Victory Song, but the Christian God says, "It doesn't matter if you sing it now or later--I give no special preference to this life. In fact, those who have their dreams denied down here may be better off in the end. They won't mistake their amenities for real happiness. And at last, the ones who love me will be singing out: affirming the beauty of hope and faith against all odds; and some who think they have it now will find themselves sadly lacking."

"About that victory song," God says, "you may begin to hum it now. And if you do, I hope you understand the melody. But in the end, all my children will sing out. And that old chorus line that you hum now, that 'How long?' It will no longer have a meaning."

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

'Spiritual' Sparring Partner?

Over the last several days I've been corresponding a little with Alexys, the blogger behind Unraveling the Spiritual Mystique. After you get past the fact that we both place a priority on "spiritual" things, our perspectives diverge pretty rapidly.

Alexys maintains that 'spirituality' has a good effect on humans, much like sunlight or the scent of a rose - but that the details of various faiths are illusory. I, on the other hand, argue that "faith" divorced from a specific God is useless: an exercise in politically correct semantics.

I told Alexys that I'd be happy to link her site, so long as she was down with some friendly debate. She's down with it. Therefore, Unraveling has been linked; here's hoping the connection will spark some interesting dialogue in the future.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bigger, Better Book List

Spiritual Book List

When I started the Master Book List, I optimistically thought I’d get around to reviewing every good book I read promptly after I finished it. Unfortunately, my wildly irregular reading habits have done this plan in.

During the semester, I may go weeks without finding the time to consume anything that’s not a textbook. Then, as is often the case, I’ll go on a bibliophilic spree, and rip off three or four non-required books in a week. This kind of thing can wreak havoc on a booklist.

Because of my imbalanced reading life, I’m altering my approach to the Master List. I’ll try and add top-tier books as I read them, but with or without reviews. In other words, I’ll add new books to the list even if I haven’t had time to write a post on them.

Wow, it feels good to have that off my chest.

And yes, there are already a few new additions.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Five Weird Habits of a Highly Eccentric Person

A few days ago, while I was in the middle of my struggle with Accelerated Learning, Overlyconscious tagged me with a set of questions concerning weird habits. At the time, I was too involved with my marathon classroom sessions to muse on the forms of my own eccentricity. But now that I've completed my time in the classroom, played some rugby, and taken a couple days off strenuous thinking, I feel up to the challenge (though OC's weird habits, at least from my standpoint, seem untouchable).

Five of my Weird Habits

  1. I've started talking/chirping to our canary, Cricket. But it's not a one-sided conversation, ok? He does talk back.
  2. When I'm reading a book that has earned the highly-desirable right of annotation, my check marks have to be in pencil, and they need to look precise. If the check mark ends up blurry, or too fat, I erase and get it right.
  3. Did you know there are mathematics involved in drinking coffee? I've coined a name for one particular theorem, the "Half-and-half to Pure Coffee Ratio" (or HHPCR for short). As would be expected, this particular law regulates how much half-and-half can be added to coffee before it ceases to be coffee. It would take too much time for me to draw and explain the various diagrams and equations involved; but I adhere to the HHPCR relentlessly.
  4. After I write something, almost anything, I shake my head wistfully. This gesture expresses my disappointment over the shortcomings of the written work, that it has turned out like this, in contrast to what it should have been like. It also reminds me that everything I've said in the preceding paragraphs has almost certainly been said, previously and better, by someone else. In theory, this is a helpful way to keep ridiculous authorial pride in check.
  5. Think basketball. After I cut to the hoop for a crafty lay-up or hit the outside shot that serves as that game-ending dagger in the heart, I yell something that sounds sort of like "Ha-HAA!" (Sorry, I can't really reproduce the nuanced enunciation here.) As I think about it, I'm not convinced this is especially weird. Unless it's weird to think that basketball is one of the food groups? Surely not.

It's customary to tag a few more people to participate in these things. As usual, you're under no obligation. But, in honor of their supreme eccentricity, I nominate:

Brood Mode at Thought Safari
Camille at 327 Market
John B. at BlogMeridian
Paula at Ultrablog
Tim at Infinite Regression


Because Paula has already completed this assignment, I'm adding two more call-outs (don't ask for the precise logic):
Andy at A Mile from the Beach
Belinda at Ninja Poodles

More substantial posts are one the way.
Peace, I'm out.

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Psychosomatic Student

Towards the end of my week-long Apologetics class, I started feeling like a cave salamander. I wondered if my professor caught a glimpse of hollow, glassy eyes when he scanned the room. The coffee had propped me in my chair, and upstairs, the gears turned with whispery efficiency. But my too-relaxed frame revealed a listlessness that would have been noted by the careful observer—the torpor of a body that has spent too much time indoors.

As I listened to the excellent lectures, and enjoyed them thoroughly, I felt another sensation rising inside of me. Small at first. Then bigger. A frighteningly strong urge to run across a sunlit field, screaming. Or at the very least, to escape the confines of the classroom—to jump out a window, or slip away through a heating vent.

I mentioned this impulse to some of my classmates, and they responded with puzzled chuckles. Was it conceivable that they didn’t feel it too?

Maybe my skin was overly sensitive to fluorescent light. Or maybe my body had an abnormally low indolence threshold. Then again, maybe some of my classmates were overfed sofa spuds.

Whatever the case, this weekend will be the scene of some vigorous outdoor living.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Socks in the Eye

Today in my Apologetics class, someone was wearing my socks. This shock was compounded by the fact that I’ve owned these specific socks for about three years, and they weren’t an especially commonplace edition. If you get shiny new socks for Christmas, and in January you see someone else wearing them, it’s one thing—you can see the causal probability as fairly high. But this…let’s just say the sensation was disquieting. I wasn’t sure whether to feel pleased or revolted. Throughout the day, my eyes kept drifting to the proximity of the guy’s ankles, verifying that this thing had really taken place.

There is surely such a thing as unpleasant coincidence. In the past, I’ve retired a favorite T-shirt because I saw a random person wearing it on the street. Nothing destroys individuality like someone else wearing your clothes. Still, it seemed unfair to hold socks to the same high standard that I reserve for more prominent attire. I found myself toying with the ethics of the situation. Could I continue to wear these particular socks in good conscience? If only the guy had been more, well…cool…

The verdict is still out. As unsettling as the instance was, it did gave me something different (though hardly inconsequential, I think we’d all agree) to think about during the day. When you’re trying to keep your eyes from glazing over, a mental change of pace can make all the difference.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Wonder of the Other World

Wonder of Heaven

Once or twice in my life, I’ve stumbled over an appealing trail or a surprising vista that screamed to be shared. You find something like this—say, a winding path that disappears behind a shimmering waterfall—stare in amazement, and then rush off to find someone else to explore it with you.

In a similar way, I think, God rushes to drag us to heaven so that we can see what he sees, the greatest joy and beauty of the universe, which God, explorer-like, has tapped: Himself.

The boast of the egoist rings hollow when we take a good, hard look—because he is not all that. But God’s forays into a dark world to rescue people for divine glory are not the acts of an egoist. This is because God knows, and has unveiled, the great happiness of the cosmos, and it is not his vanity but his honesty that compels him to share it.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Spiritual Journey: Heaven Hang-up, Wrong-headed Worship

Spiritual questions: Heaven

It seems fair to say that anyone who has given a moment’s thought to heaven has come face to face with a frightening picture. The scene involves reams and reams of white tulle, and depicts something like a never-ending hymn-sing. Under this kind of delusion, the mere mention of “heaven” can be enough to chill the blood.

Fortunately, the whole idea is wrong-headed. For many of us, I think it stems from a fundamental misconception about the nature of worship. The Bible assures us that the main business of heaven will, in fact, be worship. But we think that worship is something that we can accomplish only while doing nothing else. This is partly due to the fact of our church experience: we meet in large buildings, seat ourselves in rows, and concentrate on this business of “worship” for roughly an hour and a half. Worship can become wrongly entangled with a narrow concept of time and place.

I also suspect that an overly Sunday-morning-like idea of heaven is often due to our somewhat shallow worship lives. We have seldom praised God while jogging, climbing mountains or drinking coffee, so we do not know we can. Our picture of worship can be far too inactive, spatially-bound, and sanitized.

In reality, the pleasures of earth are a mere echo of the joys of heaven, where the ‘five senses’ will be maximized (if not expanded to an even dozen). Heaven will be an adventure soaked in praise, an exploration of God-infused reality, “Further up and further in!”—not an eternal seat in the pew.

The extent to which we see this now may well hinge on whether or not we live a really worship-full life.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Inferior Gods

spiritual theology - inferior gods

Substitute teaching
has not left me unscathed. I realized this after Lindsay and I returned to the ranks of the subs last week. Shortly thereafter, I found myself reading the Bible through a subbing lens.

Psalm 86 says, "There's no one quite like you among the gods, O Lord, and nothing to compare with your works." This implies that there are lesser gods, if you will; and before I could stop myself, my mind was racing to find a metaphor.

The conclusion came quickly, and it ran as follows: Inferior gods are like teachers who play to the kids. These are the ones who cut corners and are more concerned with “being friends” than forming character, more focused on keeping things pleasant than teaching. Relationships are superficial, based on merely getting along. Inferior gods have no backbone; they make few real demands.

These kinds of teachers (gods) form students (worshippers) who are ultimately petty, impatient, and sniveling. Transfer this picture to a lifestyle or culture, and it dwarfs the classroom. Imagine a people who expect instant gratification, who are obsessed with entertainment, who frown on prolonged self-denial. Sound familiar? These are the worshippers of lesser gods. And the gods are molded by their audiences.

I can see the principle in microcosm when I come in to substitute teach for ‘Mr. Smith,’ and am greeted by a crowd of narcissistic students. Under the benign dictatorship of Mr. Smith, the students have become a crowd of little punks. But the concept holds true, I think, when people venerate Materialism, Naturalism, Atheism, etc. These are pushover gods made to order—they let you do and be whatever you want. The realization comes: No wonder these gods are "not like" the God of the psalm-writer - they aren't really gods at all.

The revelation of Jesus Christ to me has been inescapably shining—his love has been transforming and sweet—but he has always remained God. Life is lived on his timetable, things are done his way. Usually, this is the hard way: the way that spirits are actually changed, and character formed. Jesus doesn’t cut corners.

Therefore, with an unyielding mercy, God acts like a wise and dedicated trainer—or a kind and persistent teacher. For this reason, a lot of people will stumble over Christ and go look for a less demanding god. But in the end, some of them will wonder why they are not satisfied by pleasures that fall far short of heaven.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Shadow of Life

Tomorrow I kick off my semester with a week-long accelerated course featuring five entire days in the class room. The subject matter is good, but this will not be life at its best. It seems only appropriate to post a somewhat wistful shot that kind of expresses my feelings on the eve of Accelerated Learning. (Don't ask me exactly how; I just wanted to post a photo. ;)

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Jesus the Man: Beyond DNA

I’m tired of hearing the clichés about how Jesus had zits and probably was even attracted to the opposite sex. The point, of course, it that Christ was fully man—but do we have to put it so clumsily? And so superficially? Could we establish Jesus’ humanity on a deeper level—one that would really matter?

How about, rather, that Christ’s victory over sin came about through his use of the self-same resources that we have at our disposal: the spirit of God, actuated by intense, desperate prayer, leading to greater and greater deeds of obedience.

Obeying God is our route to freedom. Have we considered that it was also Christ’s? Nights spent in prayer; desperate journeys into solitude; reliance on the Father’s initiative—Jesus’ perfection materialized through a life that ought to, can, pattern ours. In other words, Jesus didn’t hit the supernatural switch when temptation appeared. He submitted to God and received grace to resist. Just like us. I find far greater comfort in Christ’s spiritually-infused humanity than in his biological features.

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

People in the Limelight

Over at Blog Meridian, John B. has launched a new Blogger Limelight discussion hinging on a very significant question:
What is a person?

The context for this query is Roe vs. Wade, and a blog entry by Andrew Sullivan dealing with the death rate of fertilized zygotes. Heavy stuff? Absolutely. But as John notes, "I do think that engaging in the work of defining terms, while it might not solve anything in the short term, at least has the advantage of clarifying our thinking about this complicated but quite literally essential issue."

I think complicated but essential is a good read. And I'm hopeful that some of us will formulate a take, and not be deterred by the weight of this topic.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Can Jayhawks Run?

For the college hoops fans in the audience, the big ticket tomorrow is KU versus Kentucky. I acknowledged this clash of the titans with a quick post over at PhogBlog: Speed Speculation.

The Jayhawks will probably try and run tomorrow; so will Kentucky. The result should be a fascinating game and a stern test for Kansas' young team. Which team can run fast, defend, and score - at the same time?

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Is Cyberchurch Legit? (Blogger Limelight)


(You may want to read: Blogger Limelight Explained.)

Over at A Mile From the Beach, Andy kicked off a Limelight discussion on what is popularly known as the "Cyberchurch." Andy asks for takes based on these four premises from a Relevant Magazine article:

  1. Cyberchurch is People, not Institutions
  2. Cyberchurch is not a Department Store for Consumers
  3. Cyberchurch is neither democratic nor non-hierarchical
  4. Cyberchurch does not replace the physical and it does a poor job reproducing it
I found the topic interesting because of 1) its ambiguity, and 2) its somewhat contradictory nature. For example: How does one claim membership in the Cyberchurch? Would an occasional IM or email do the trick? The relationships in such a movement would be entirely voluntary, and quite possibly ephemeral. As well, the very concept of Cyberchurch is necessarily a paradox (if not a contradiction) because "church," as modeled by Christ, is founded squarely on the kind of serving and speaking that can only take place within flesh-and-blood relationships (see point number 4 above).

So, what kind of beast is the Cyberchurch? What functions can it perform? As the Relevant piece states, "Cyberchurch is people..." I found it interesting that the other three points are negative, that is, they state what Cyberchurch, according to the author, is not. Maybe this is because some people tend to inflate the potential for online spirituality (i.e., "Why go to church?!") But in my opinion, additional positive statements are needed if this concept is going to be fleshed out.

By saying "Cyberchurch," are we merely saying "Christians who happen to be online at the moment?" Well, OK. But that's not exactly showstopping.

Personally, I'm not overly excited about the tag, "Cyberchurch." After I've said it about five times, it's already feeling slightly ridiculous. I'm not sure I want to dress up online friendships with a new, spiffy title. Why not simply consider the Web as a helpful staging area for conversation and encouragement, a new means for discussion - though with some necessary limitations.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not down on online conversations - in reality, I benefit from them a lot. I just feel cautious, in our culture of isolation and materialism, about giving people extra incentive to drop out of "real" life and sign in online. I love the connectivity and friendships that have been formed via this blog (Christian and otherwise). But I'm reluctant to adopt a label that may be misleading, and perhaps, unnecessary.

All told, I think the conversations that occur in the "Cyberchurch" context are legit, and often very motivating. It's the label that I'm unsure about.

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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Bittersweet Short Story

As of January 1, I am a published author! Of course, it’s only a short story, and the publisher is only the slightly ghoulish e-zine, Midnight Times. But I’m finally official. Yeah!

Cheering online seems slightly childish (even to me), but getting a short story published was one of last year’s goals, and there’s a definite satisfaction in checking it off. From what I’ve discovered about the fiction market, every little step counts. The Midnight Times, as an initial stepping stone, is OK (vampires and all) in my book.

What is my story about? Clearly, you will need to read it yourself. But by way of a teaser:

The story is called Leviathan’s Fishhook. It has a Dragon. And of course, it’s bittersweet. With amateurish pride, I’ll welcome any comments you have on the story, even if it’s just to say, That was the best short story I’ve read this entire year… ;)

So, go read Leviathan’s Fishhook (it’s free).

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Blogger Limelight Grows

When I made the call for more Blogger Limelight discussions yesterday, Andy didn't waste any time. He's initiated a Limelight thread on the topic of "cyber-church" - what exactly is it, and how "real" can it be?

These are pretty good questions, given that billions of people spend much of their lives online. I also think the question is particularly relevant to the Christian faith, with its very, very strong emphasis on community. Does "cyber-church" play a legit role here?

Good questions, Andy. I may have to take a stab at this.

Anyone else want to add to the Limelight momentum? There's no rule that says we can have just one discussion going at a time...

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

We Need More Limelight

For a couple months now, I’ve been wondering how to use the Blogger Limelight concept to better advantage. We’ve had some good discussions and thought-provoking takes, and I’d like to see even more. How to get this done? After talking a little with Andy recently, some ideas have materialized.

:: More Instigators ::

Thus far in the history of Blogger Limelight, I’ve always been the one to kick off a Limelight topic. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Really, anyone who’s participated in BL before, or picked up the general idea, could “instigate” a new subject.

Have something on your mind? I invite you to launch a Limelight discussion, with just three guidelines.

  1. Use the button—it makes BL posts eye-catching. (I can email it to you if you don’t know how to download it from this blog.)

  2. Link back to the Blogger Limelight Explained post. That way everyone knows what’s going on, and how to jump in. You may also want to explain the BL concept very briefly in the body of your post, like I have in this Limelight piece.

  3. If you wouldn’t mind, let me know when you slam up your BL post. I’d hate to miss one. And there’s another reason too—see below.

:: More Visibility ::

I was trying to think of a way to keep Limelight posts in the public eye a little longer, since they can tend to get buried if you post frequently. More BL visibility means more interest, and thus more participation—which would make the whole thing even better. So, how could I increase BL exposure?

If you look in the upper right sidebar, you’ll notice the Blogger Limelight button, prominently displayed. Better yet, if you click the button, you’ll arrive at a page dedicated to Limelight topics, the most recent at the top. (For simplicity’s sake, this page will only include start-up posts, since subsequent takes are linked to the original piece.**) Obviously, you’ll want your own BL topics to appear here too—so be sure to let me know when you launch a new discussion.

If you find yourself asking, “How can I help?” here’s a suggestion. Put a BL button in your blog’s sidebar, and link to the Blogger Limelight page, just like I do. The more interest we can create in Limelight topics, the better discussions will get—and the more traffic will be generated for people who participate. The BL culture of discussion and community will be enhanced. What’s not to like?


Any questions? Slap ‘em up. Have a Limelight topic percolating? Go for it.

** A note for your bright people who use Feel free to post any and all Limelight pieces to using the tag, Bloggerlimelight (intentionally one word). A number of secondary discussion posts are already listed under this tag, and if you care to add your own, an array of BL posts could be pulled up by “searching all tags.” That would be cool.

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Monday, January 02, 2006

Inspiration is Hard Work

spiritual epiphany can't be forced

Sunday morning has come and gone, and I’m relieved. Preparing for my message on Epiphany was invigorating and rewarding. It was also tiring and hard. My final exams extended all the way to December 22, and I had a lingering case of study-jadedness. Several passages from the Bible had been assigned to me, but it took prayer—serious, repeated prayer—before I could get my thoughts down on paper. It took more prayer, prayer from my family and friends, for me to get those ideas refined. And then there was New Year’s Eve...

All told, my “epiphany” message was not one. In other words, it was not a thing of oratorical beauty that materialized, fully formed, in my mind. It did not arise in a swirl of creative inspiration or an ‘Aha!’ moment. I found myself thinking of Annie Dillard’s memorable words in The Writing Life:

I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of a skilled anesthesiologist. There was a tiny range within which coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.

Wow, did she get it right. Sunday morning, I was convinced that the success of my message (delivery, energy) depended largely on the precision of my coffee dosage. Fortunately, I think I assessed the durability of my stomach’s lining accurately enough (thank God).

It’s ironic that “epiphany” can be such hard work, that “inspiration” can be so labored. And the irony gets even better. Despite my mental fatigue and expert coffee treatment, the question ought to be posed: Who did the work?

Despite the content of the last several paragraphs, I would hurriedly reply God. God did. The irony, then, is not that I was forced to do God’s work for him. Rather, it’s that divine direction, even in the case of a 30-minute message, usually arrives through my exertion. It’s no accident: the inspiration is God’s—and he wants me to sweat and think and bang out words on my keyboard late at night so I can have it.

Having thought about this a little, I’m all the more amazed at what we call “epiphany”—those moments when God speaks to me in a direct, irrefutable way. And the clincher? We don’t work for them!

Yet another reason why epiphany, when it arrives, is divinely special.

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