Monday, March 30, 2009

"Holy weblog, Batman!"

The new banner for this blog is also currently my profile image on facebook. A friend made the following comment on the photo.

“powerful picture. your bare feet on the carpet where my tears have fallen: in the place where I've prayed, laughed, learned, grieved... My favorite time was when the only lights were Christmas twinkle lights, and I'd sit in the back on a pew: silent: alone.”
Last night, another friend had a bunch of guys over to watch the 2005 Ridley Scott film, “The Kingdom of Heaven.” The story takes place around 1180 AD (during the crusades) and chronicles the life of Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) and his heroic defense of Jerusalem against a powerful Muslim army.

Balian of Ibelin: [To the people of Jerusalem] It has fallen to us to defend Jerusalem, and we have made our preparations as well as they can be made. None of us took this city from Muslims. No Muslim of the great army now coming against us was born when this city was lost. We fight over an offence we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended. What is Jerusalem? Your holy palaces lie over the Jewish temple that the Romans pulled down. The Muslim places of worship lie over yours. Which is more holy?


Balian of Ibelin: The wall? The Mosque? The Sepulcher? Who has claim? No-one has claim.

[raises his voice]

Balian of Ibelin: All have claim!

Bishop, Patriarch of Jerusalem: Blasphemy!

Almaric: [to the Patriarch] Be quiet.

Balian of Ibelin: We defend this city, not to protect these stones, but the people living within these walls.
So, what makes a place holy? Is it what happened there? Who was born there, lived there, died there? In the Old Testament, altars were built, wells were established, temples were erected; because God did a miracle here, or met us there, or spoke in this place. And we call these places “holy.” We esteem them, hallow them— we visit them hoping for some mystical solace, or revelation, or encounter. Why?

There are places that inspire or return me to a once familiar, or significant, or otherwise precious emotion. There are fragrances, and sounds, and sights that conjure up past glories or, by classical conditioning, adjust my mental frame. But, does that make these places, or smells, or sounds, or textures “holy?”

Please don’t misunderstand. I can be a very nostalgic guy. There is nothing inherently wrong with remembering where God has been; revisiting tender places of the soul; examining the marks on the wall that help us measure our growth. In fact, in the right context, these can be very important exercises. Even so, that doesn’t necessarily make these places “holy.”

I have deep respect and affection for those who worship with ceremony and true piety. I believe, by what is often a lack of true reverence, much of western Evangelical Christendom has lost any genuine recognition of God’s sovereignty and power. But I would not necessarily call orthodox liturgies more “holy.”

When God gave instructions for constructing the Arc of the Covenant or building the Tabernacle/Temple, He didn’t ask people to build a “holy” object. He asked them to, “build a place for Me to meet with you.[1]” These things are “holy” because, and, consequently only when God is present.[2] The sanctity of our encounter with God in those places is held, not by the place itself, but in the presence of the person of God and the hearts of the people who encountered Him there.

Unlike a temple, God cannot be destroyed. Unlike a golden box full of artifacts, God cannot be stolen or hidden. Unlike a prayer, or text, or liturgical sacrament, Truth in the person of God cannot be altered. In fact, it seems to me that sometimes these forms must be broken down; torn away; stripped of all sanctity in their own right in order for the treasure— the holy presence of God to be exposed and experienced.[3]

I have discovered that I need more “holy” places in my life. But, that is not to say I need more buildings, or sacraments, or boxes. I simply need more places in my life where God and I meet. I need more true sanctuaries.


1. “’I will meet with you there and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel.’” – Exodus 25:22 (NLT)

2. “’These burnt offerings are to be made each day from generation to generation. Offer them in the Lord’s presence at the Tabernacle entrance; there I will meet with you and speak with you. I will meet the people of Israel there, in the place made holy by my glorious presence.’” – Exodus 29:42-43 (NLT)

3. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. – 2 Cor. 4:7 (NLT)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I'm no Superman

Recently, like many others, my wife and I have suffered some significant blows to the security we've too often taken for granted. You know, the “we went to college, pay our taxes, vote in general elections, give to charitable organizations, refrain from kicking small animals, reduce, reuse, recycle, buy American, etc. and are, therefore, entitled, on our own terms, to every good health and unencumbered opportunity imaginable” kind of security. After all, this IS America, right? Maybe such arrogance deserves a good take down now and then. At any rate, for endless reasons, it’s been a rough few months.

For the first thirty years or so of my life, my initial reaction to challenging news was usually one of heightened adrenaline and an overwhelming desire to leap into crisis “go” mode. What can I say? I’m a fixer. Lately, however, my first response has been far less intense. Lest you think this a mark of maturity (growth in trust) or the proverbial “softening with age,” I should also note that, since a rather serious bout with depression in the middle part of this decade, I have come to recognize the difference between peace and protective detachment. Peace is active— perennially animated and adaptive. Emotional lock down, if you will, is a more passive, defensive state— conditioned and mechanical. I fear I may yet fall into the latter category.

On one hand, my heart is pricked by a deep desire to be proactive. I imagine gracefully advancing like an intrepid superhero using flying debris from my enemy’s onslaught as the very weapon that will win me the victory. On the other hand, I am all too aware of how much of a “superhero” I am not and find myself torn between the ever extant, critical analysis of my mind and the noble, sanguine churnings tucked away in my soul. And, truth be told, I’m not convinced that one is altogether better than the other. I’m afraid I need both. Or neither. Or, maybe, I just need to be taken out of myself completely.

But, the humbling, shame of it all rests in the sobering realization that I am still so blessed. When I consider the worst case scenario for everything I currently face, I would still be better off than the overwhelming majority of people on this planet. The thought blinds me, albeit temporarily, to the things I must do to successfully navigate the rough road ahead. What defines success here is so superficial by comparison to what many others face. (e.g. For me, successfully navigating our current economic crisis might mean finding a way to keep my youngest son in private school. For billions of other fathers in the world, financial success means their sons will eat today.) So, how hard do I fight for these things? What makes them superficial? I live in an environment of great excess and abundance when measured against that which is fundamental to human life. And yet, certain aspects of this “abundance” are necessary for survival in an environment where excess is the rule of the day.

In the end, I hope I will do what needs to be done. I am open to divine guidance on this point. But, whatever the path ahead, I feel challenged to approach it with a deeper solemnity, requisite humility, and thankfulness. I am not “entitled” to certain securities. I am simply blessed to enjoy them from time to time. Maybe this attitude is a key to unlocking peace. I think I’ll grip it more tightly than I have in the past.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"The average pencil is seven inches long...

...with just a half-inch eraser - in case you thought optimism was
dead." ~Robert Brault
Yesterday in a staff meeting I made a “speaking those things that are not as if they were” kind of comment and referred to myself as choosing optimism. Someone in the meeting said, “yeah, well, it just comes off as sarcasm.” I assured him this was only because he knew me so well. If he didn’t know me, my optimism would have been believable. Okay, maybe not… but humor me. See, there’s the optimism again.

Truly, I’m not as jaded as I sometimes appear. Still, I’m more of a pragmatist than most of the people with which I surround myself. A happy accident? I think not. Because I’m neither a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” sort of guy (I’m more of a “the glass is in a state of unhealthy compromise, much like the church at Laodicea[1]” guy), people often think I’m devoid of the ability to celebrate the little things in life. Not true. I just like to celebrate and then move on. I’m usually on to the next step before everyone else is done celebrating— sometimes before they even truly get started. I’m working on that one. But seriously, what's wrong with a little celebration "to go."

This past weekend was one such cause for celebration. Not a “little things in life” celebration. Actually, quite a big thing. One of my closest friends (consequently the last, long time, close, single, male friend I had) got married. It was, as they say, “the end of an era.” I had mixed emotions. But, the feeling that dominated was one of acceptance. (Is acceptance a feeling? Hmmm. That may be another blog post.)

I am the oldest of four children; three boys and a girl. My youngest brother died when I was eight years old. My other brother and my sister are three and a half and twelve years younger than me, respectively. I was a full time college student by the time my sister was starting first grade. I was married before she started jr. high. But my brother and I grew up together.

Even in a loving, stable home, same gender siblings close in age often seem to compete more than ally. As much as I love my brother and do have MANY things in common with him, and as much as we enjoyed playing with one another when we were young; as we grew older, we worked to separate ourselves from one another by capitalizing on and accentuating strengths not possessed by the other. While this did not pull us apart emotionally, it did lead to distinctly different approaches to life. Our bond is still and will always be fraternal, but, unfortunately, physical distance and very different lives keep us from being as close as either of us might like.

It seems all of the children in my family have chosen independence, each in distinctive ways. Independence is one of the values that attracted me to my wife. I believe the ability to carefully regard the feelings and values of others and yet make autonomous decisions is a mark of health and maturity. But, in its purist form, independence can be lonely. (By the way, I’m not a psychologist. I just play one on the internet.)

Among other things, I think a growing dissatisfaction (maybe disillusionment is a better word) with independence over the past few years, has helped me to recognize a deep need for covenant relationships bonded by something more than time, or blood, or proximity, or common goals/values.

My friend (the one who got married) is one of the people in my life with whom I feel that bond. And, while hanging out before and after the wedding with the other groomsmen (his older brother, his two lifelong childhood friends, and a mutual comrade), I realized something interesting. I watched these guys interact with him. I listened to their wedding toasts. I observed the way they spoke about him in our conversations, even when he wasn’t around. And, it occurred to me that we each felt that same special bond with him in one way or another.

So, my relationship with him was less unique than I had believed. But, at the same time, I was reminded (and encouraged) that I wasn’t the only one with this deep need for brotherhood—and that the connection I feel with him has as much to do with the exceptional way God has gifted him as it does my need. The net result: true belonging.

He reads this blog and, it occurs to me, this may all be news to him. He has often (even recently) commented that he believes he takes away much more from our friendship (specifically our conversations) than I possibly could. While the odds may favor me for obscenely tedious insight (we’ll be “optimistic” and call it wisdom… yeah, that’s it… [ahem] wisdom), on this point, when it counts, he’s no slouch. Regardless, he brings to my life something I consider much more valuable—genuine love, respect without reservation, unadulterated camaraderie, care that goes below the surface, passionate and authentic spirituality… brotherhood.

And he is not the only one. I am truly blessed—between my wife, my children, my family and friends, I am rich in the love and support necessary for abundant living. And that gives cause to stop and celebrate—the "dine-in" not the "carry-out" kind of celebration. Dear reader, I wish you may have and take the same occasion in your life.


1. "To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ...I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth." - Revelation 3:14a, 15-16 [HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society.]