Category Archives: Thoughts


So, I’ve been gone for awhile, as I tend to do.  But don’t worry: I never left earth.  I just had other stuff to do, a good deal of writing, and one of the things I did should be coming out in an anthologized book (yes, with covers and everything) sometime this winter.  Which is fun.

I’ve been slowly working through The Brothers K, the one written in the 1990’s, not the 1870’s.  Not ten minutes ago, I finished a chapter entitled “Renunciation.”  In it, the narrator relates how his brother Peter renounces his “past” in order to attain “Gnosis.”  Leaving the attainment of gnosis aside, here’s how the narrator responds to this:

When Peter renounced the world he grew up in and the people he grew up with, I believe it was exactly as heroic as that of a person who, finding himself prone to violent seasickness, renounces yachting.

Peter is a young man who vomits just thinking about an overly fat cow, a person who spends all his life immersed in books, squeamish and bookish and ascetic individual.  So, when he renounces his past, his baggage, “he was looking to trick his outer self into nirvana.”

This is a darkly comedic moment, and I sat in bed for a minute after finishing the chapter.  I could not help but think: isn’t this what much of religion (or spirituality, or whatever you want to call it) is, for most of us?  I know it is for me.  Often, I try to tinker with my life, giving up things that are uncomfortable or make me unhappy.  Getting sick on the yacht, I give up yachting.  Feeling empty after watching too much television, I give up TV.  Or I resolve to exercise more after failing to for a couple days and feeling slow and lazy.  Drifting, I resolve to read and pray more.  And on it goes.

Not that any of these things are bad.  Our lives demand tinkering.  If I stop tinkering in one area, I find another that can use improvement.  Tinkering is part of life.

But, tinkering is not the radical commitment that exemplifies the religious life.  Even outside of Christianity, religion demands an all-or-nothing approach.  Pascal’s wager demands that, logically, we either go all in or refuse to play the hand.  Tinkering just won’t do.  We must be willing to part with things we love.  Not for the sake of asceticism itself, but for the sake of our God, to follow God more closely and fully and to bear God’s Image.

As a follow of Jesus, his words about dying to yourself or taking up your cross deal with so much more than watching less television.  So, while we tinker, may we also think about dying: about the places that we must leave, or go, or give up to truly and dramatically bear God’s Image, in ways that we will never reach just by tinkering around near the surface.



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A Little More on Story…

Christian worship is principally neither an affirmation of general truths nor an interior state of communion of the soul with God…but is rather a social meal- and word-centered communication informed by the key events of the Christian story.    – David F. Ford

One way to understand ourselves as part of the story is to worship in that manner.  Yet, corporate worship happens for most of us just on Sunday mornings, and the rest of the week we often fail to capture the idea of story in our lives.  A few thoughts:

We often refuse to see ourselves in the story, strangely, by trying to take the story apart.  I’ve been reading a book called Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys (I’m actually reviewing it…it’s not that I’m finally trying to become a man).  The author simply tells stories of courage and daring.  No explanation or how-to-apply-these-truths, no five main points from each story.  Just a story about what it means to be a courageous man.  I find them incredibly refreshing, and clarifying.  They inspire me in ways that the author never could if he boiled three main points out of them after reading the story.  I just want the story, and to see the possibility of myself in it.

By picking the story apart and saying its essence is in five truths, we’ve lost the power of the story.  If the most important thing was the five truths, that’s what the author would have written.  

The task of soteriology is, then, to show how the reader is included in the story and how the story is or can be the story of that reader’s redemption.   – Michael Root

My brother wrote today on views of the cross, and although the work on the cross and a person’s response are different, perhaps they stand on either side of redemption.  But we strive so hard to communicate how the cross works because it comes from a story, and that story doesn’t fit neatly into one idea.  It encompasses many.  Thus, we see why various writers of the New Testament (and after) have gotten at the cross in myriad ways, explaining the story in a way that makes sense, or stirs, them.  

And I’m somewhat of an existentialist when it comes to this story.  As Michael Root wrote, we must present the same story in different ways for different people.  Redemption comes when we understand ourselves as part of the gospel story.  The church has presented the story in many different ways.  We read the same gospels and pick out various aspects with which we identify.  And Jesus offers identification to all of us.  For on the cross, he identifies with anyone lonely, or abandoned, or suffering, or abused, or shamed, or betrayed, or oppressed, or falsely accused, or mocked, or…anyone.  A political prisoner would resonate with one aspect of the story, a wife who had been cheated on another, a lonely high schooler another.  This is the power of story.  It points at one central truth, but can offer inclusion to so many people.

So, we don’t pick the story apart.  So, we find the aspects that inspire us, and let others be inspired by other aspects.  Not that we can never pick the story apart (study is a good thing) or never check to make sure we’re still all talking about the same story, and haven’t strayed to a gospel that only aims to liberate political prisoners.  

But getting back to my daily point: in my experience, there’s no easy answer to understanding our role in the story of redemption.  Just as there’s no easy answer to living out this role.  Yet, we must read the stories, the large chunks of the Bible that we often skip over, focusing only on the palatable truths of the New Testament (and those we often water down).  We must sit with them, and see ourselves in them, or at least see that we are part of the same redemption story.  We must let them stir us.  God has acted in unbelievable ways, and if we really began to believe that he’s done some of what the Bible claims, then I think we have some praying and acting and loving to do.  

When we begin to do this, to see God’s grand story, then we begin to see it everywhere.  In stories we read, even horrific ones, we see glimpses of redemption.  In the short stories that we tell when we catch up with friends.  In movies we watch, we may see a parallel to God’s story.  In our own lives, through thinking and journaling and talking, we see how God has been moving and perhaps what role he has for us to play.

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So, perhaps understanding some of the functions of the Bible-as-foundational-story will help understand more of my meaning.  Here are a few rather random outcomes of this idea.

1) The “Christian” book or “non-Christian” book: these labels are not necessary.  Never particularly helpful, now we can see story in a new light.  A book’s value, therefore, is based on how well it lines up with the Biblical story.  Christians can embrace all story, especially that which has its essence nearest to the story of creation, fall, redemption, restoration (to put it very, very succinctly).  We can reject certain books on the lines of it’s not a good story because it doesn’t tap into the true essence of story.  And, we can embrace so many “secular” books on these lines, because time and time again writers have intuited that the Biblical story is the story that our souls lines up with, even without putting those words to it.  

1b) Breaking down story this way means that Christians can best understand any story, because we best understand the full story of human history, and what makes a story either true or good.

2) For the Christian-who-is-a-writer, then, his or her duty is to re-create reality as he or she sees it.  That is, he sees reality in the context of the true Biblical story, and he recreates this reality in his writing.  Just as you may not be able to tell a Christian from a first meeting, or even a fourth, you may need a variety of writings by one author to tell that he is, indeed, a Christian.  But, over time, you see that the full Biblical story has precedence in his writing.  Thus, by reading The Heart of the Matter you may not know Graham Greene is a Catholic writer, but the scope of his work gives you a fuller picture of his belief, because his stories match the essence of the Biblical story quite closely.

3)  In our postmodern age, we can communicate the gospel via story.  Story, as Jesus taught with parables, let’s the individual find his or her own truth: our propositional truths about the gospel, so offensive to society today, aren’t necessary to lead with.  Yet, understanding the full story of the gospel, each individual will come, eventually, to quite similar basic truths: the story of creation, fall, humanity’s hopelessness, Jesus’ incarnation and death and resurrection (eucatastrophe) and our hope today both in restoration now and full restoration in the future.  By communicating the gospel in this way to culture today, we avoid the propositional truths that many reject, and we let each person get caught up in the story.  Not only this, but in many ways the story offers a fuller picture of the gospel than the propositional truths that often have made the gospel an issue only about the future of an individual soul.  While it is this, it is much, much more.

3b) Thus, a person who seeks liberation finds it in the Biblical story, but also eventually finds more.  A person who seeks healing finds it; a person who seeks love finds it; a person who seeks meaning finds it; a person who seeks hope finds it; a person who seeks community finds it; a person who seeks…you get my drift.  Story meets people where they are in an effective way that ideas cannot necessarily, and brings them to a higher place.  Story also doesn’t allow half-gospels: liberation theology sees it is only part of the story, as well as the saving of an individual soul, as well as the theology of creation, etc.

Finally, I’m not saying to throw out propositional truth.  Rather, propositional truth has its place, but can no longer be given the highest perch if we want to both a) connect to society and b) understand the Biblical story in its fullness.  That is, there is a reason why the Bible is primarily story and not propositional truth.

In the next few days, I’ll try to post on “what does all this mean to me, today?”

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Story (Part Deux)

Yesterday I looked at story, and the concurrent breakdown of story and morality.  Today I’d like to wander around a bit, asking continuing to examine story and it’s place in our lives.

I start with J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously wrote Lord of the Rings, and much more anonymously, worked on the Oxford English Dictionary for some time.  

Tolkien loved both story and words.  We see this is LOTR: he invents whole languages.  He also employs language differently depending on the situation.  The hobbits, for example, use a sort of late 19th century English (with added words, and made-up words that would fit such a time period).  Yet, during an important and “high” meeting such as the Council of Elrond, speakers use an older syntax and words with older roots.  Such detail gives the casual reader a sense that the council is quite a hallowed meeting.

But that’s neither here nor there, just an interesting note about LOTR.  What’s more pertinent is that Tolkien, with his understanding both of language and story, pens a new word: eucatastrophe.  We’re familiar with the word “catastrophe,” which traditionally means the denouement of a drama.  Since the denouement of a drama, especially a classical tragedy, is not usually good, catastrophe has in our language taken a rather negative tone.  Tolkien adds the prefix “eu” (meaning good) to this word, thereby inventing a word that means a sudden turn of positive events at the end of a story.  

Eucatastrophe is a sudden happy turn, but one that fits within the story.  You may say, in hindsight, you could see this happy turn all along.  

Though Tolkien talks mainly about fairy tales and eucatastrophe, he also says that the gospel is a eucatastrophe:

The gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories.  And among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.  The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history.  The resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy.  It has pre-eminently the inner consistency of reality…God is the Lord of angels and of men, of men and of elves; legend and history have met and fused.

Tolkien argues that the Bible tells a story: the story of God’s relationship with humanity.  And the essence of every fairy story fits within the larger story of the Bible.  Northrop Frye, a literary critic who wrote The Great Code goes a step further: he asserts that the Biblical story is the basis for all western literature.  It’s quite a claim.

Yet, if we think about it, those who have stepped into the reality of the story the Bible tells, we see that this is the story of humanity.  We see that the Bible begins a story that everyone participates in, whether she knows it or not.  Thus, the larger story of the Bible embraces all true stories: autobiography and history and the like.  Yet, as Tolkien as Frye assert, doesn’t it also embrace the world of fiction?  

Doesn’t it embrace the essence of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?  We see a similar eucatastrophe, a fully realized world with the forces of good and evil?  Or the essence Shakespeare, and the psychology and cunning and evil and joy?  

Perhaps you may say: I’ve read some bad stories.  Some poorly constructed stories.  Some stories that aim primarily at devaluing the Bible.  Some stories that aim only to corrupt my thoughts.  

Then let me put it differently.  The Bible tells the one all-embracing and true story of human history.  It tells from whence we came.  It tells where we are now.  It tells what hope we have, and what the ultimate future holds for us.  It is the foundational story of humanity.  And, if the Bible is the foundational story, we cannot get away from it.  We cannot tell a story that in no way relates to the Bible.  If we are defined by this story, then it defines all we do.  

We’re not coming up with new stuff, unrelated to the Bible.  (I can go on about what I mean by “embrace” or “essence” but I’ll stop here.)

Thus, I believe that we can judge a story by how it relates to the Bible.  Lord of the Rings?  So many people judge it highly because it relates so closely to the Biblical story.  It has good vs. evil, hope vs. doubt, a small people against a larger empire, etc.  The same goes with Shakespeare.  The same goes with Faulkner or Hemingway or Dan Brown.  How it mirrors and matches the True Story lets us know a story’s merit, its worth, its value.  That’s partially why we like page-turners (a tight plot, closely related to the tight plot of the Bible) but, ultimately, they don’t hold up over time.  They don’t have the psychology: characters are either all good or all evil.  We know from the Bible, and from observing ourselves, that people are more complicated that that.  So, the story has moderate value.

Or it tells why the Christ-figure turns up again and again and again in literature: there is a truth about such a figure.  

Now here’s the catch, where I will leave us today: if this is true of literature and stories, is it not true of our own, individual stories?


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Story (Part One)

So, I’ve been listening to some lectures on story, and I have some thoughts (I know, surprising).

First, the lecturer talks about how difficult it is for us to understand our own, individual stories.  A couple of the reasons are that the beginning of our story is fairly vague to us: we may have a few shadowy recollections, growing stronger as our childhood progresses, without any real chronological understanding to the events, unless it was given to us by someone else.  Thus, the beginning of our stories comes from the fog, slowly becoming clearer as we get closer to the present day.

And, so it is with the end of our stories: none of us knows much beyond the next few moments what we will really be doing, and we may have five or ten-year goals, but those can quickly change.  We don’t know how our story will end, whether it will be happiness or success or failure or disappointment.  We don’t even know how today will end.

We are inexorably “middled.”  (Not my phrase, but I quite like it.)

With the breakdown of the metanarrative over the past 100+ years, we find an increasing population of people who don’t know where they came from or where they’re going.  When people can’t tie their own story into a larger story (metanarrative), they can’t even make sense of their own story.  We try to (think of how ancestry websites have become so popular as of late — people want to know their story) but ultimately find answers that are largely meaningless.  We’re middled.  We don’t really know where we’re going.

When my story doesn’t have meaning, then my actions don’t matter.  Morality, the reasoned action that I have a place and can do good to others, that my actions matter, gets thrown out the window.

As we lose our metanarrative, our place in the whole, we lose our morality.  And, as we lose our morality and values, we lose more story.  As the agnostic Robert McKee wrote, “the erosion of values has brought with it a corresponding erosion of stories.”  To paraphrase, he argues that the writer uses values to shape a story, what is good and bad, what is worth fighting and dying for.  When the writer loses these values, she loses her ability to tell a good story.  

It is a vicious circle.  Whichever ultimately came first doesn’t matter much, but we lose values, we lose the power of story, which makes us lose more values, which makes good stories all the rarer.

Think about it.  How easily do we pass by a stranded motorist, or a person asking for money?  How well do you know your neighbors?  We don’t see that our stories intersect with other stories anymore: my story is about me getting where I’m going on time, or having the money in my pocket for what I want.  It is, above all, MY story.  

We fail to see that we’re part of something larger.  We fail to understand not just a larger context of our lives, but a larger story.  Not just a set of rules, but a way of life.

We need, desperately, to be un- “middled.”  But how do we get there?

(more thoughts coming soon.)

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A Little More…

“Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus” is the title of the next section in Mark.  At least, in my Bible it is.  On the outskirts of Jericho, a place where hundreds of years ago the Israelites marched and waited for the walls to fall down, where God began giving the Promised Land to this new nation.  And now, here is a blind man, sitting on the side of the road, crying out to God.

Jesus stops and calls the man.

My text says that the man “sprang up.”  I love this.  He can walk, but he’s blind.  He doesn’t presume to approach Jesus, but calls from a distance.  Then, when Jesus hears him, the man sprang up.  I should imagine.  This blind man seems to see better than so many others, as he calls Jesus the “Son of David.”  The Son of David, of course, is the Messiah, in the line of the kings, the One Israel Has Been Waiting For.

And then there is the Son of David standing next to the blind man and saying “What do you want me to do for you?”

What would you say?  Not if you were blind — that’s easy.  But in your life today, in your going-to-work and getting-dinner-ready and blog-reading life?  What would you say if Jesus asked you that question?

Now, I understand.  We too often think of God as some genie in the sky, and we only have to ask enough or trust enough and we can get whatever we want.  Let’s be honest.  A little bit of us thinks this, somewhere that we push down and ignore, but somewhere we think that we can get what we want if we just try a little harder.  Then, our logical side steps in and reminds us that the God who created the universe isn’t bowing to our whims.  So, we don’t necessarily believe in what’s called the Prosperity Gospel, but we do believe we have a loving, powerful God who cares for us and listens to us.

So let me sidestep the Prosperity Gospel argument by saying, quite obviously, sometimes God does ask, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Or, at least he did to the blind man on the road outside Jericho.  And, I would imagine, he’s done it once or twice since.

And maybe the problem with the Prosperity Gospel is not that it asks too much, but too little.  Maybe that’s our daily problem, too, or at least mine.  My prayers are often filled with requests, and good requests.  Sometimes healing, but more often accoutrements to make the day more comfortable: a fun time with my daughter, time to get some work done, a little inspiration, maybe even some financial security.  If God would just give me a little more ______, then I could make it the rest of the way.  A little more energy.  A little more money.  A little more time.  A little more patience.

And then I realize that if God answered all these “little mores” my life might be so comfortable I’d never need him again.

So, when he asks “What can I do for you?” maybe the proper answer isn’t a “little more” of something.  Maybe it’s something radical: like sight for a blind person.  Or, in my rather comfortable life, where I have been given many “little mores”: maybe it’s a faith that I can’t control, or a love that makes me ache in the morning, or a flowering of hope that makes me laugh — literally laugh — when I feel the most frustrated.  Maybe, it’s freedom to be my authentic self no matter the situation.  Maybe it’s the courage to chase a boyhood dream.  Maybe it’s the strength to mend an unrepairable relationship.  Maybe it’s something that for so long has seemed impossible — like sight for a blind person — rather than something just out of our reach.

I do know, that when Jesus asks this question, when the Word-Made-Flesh asks, when the Son of God asks this question in a place where a miracle has already happened, the answer is not a little more of anything.  The answer is something much more difficult to provide than that.

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A Walk…

Mark 10.35-45

James and John come up to Jesus and ask to sit at his right and left hand “in his glory.”  Jesus rambles a bit, asking them if they have the mettle to follow him, and James and John say they do.  

Okay, I’ll give you that, says Jesus.  But those seats are not for me to fill.

I can half picture this.  Somewhere on the road, as groups do, little clusters of 3 or 4 disciples are walking, yet all are moving together.  James and John angle their way to Jesus, and out of earshot of the rest, ask him this audacious question.  Later, the two are walking by themselves, a few paces behind Jesus.  They are talking about what Jesus said: “can you drink the cup I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I will undergo?”  They are discussing this, and a few other disciples maybe ask what they’re talking about.  

“Oh, well Jesus said that the seats at his right and left hand are not for him to fill.”

At first, this is interesting to the other disciples, and this vague idea of “drink from the cup I drink.”  But then, someone asks, “How do you know this?”

Silence and only the sound of Jordan as they walk alongside it.  Then, finally, one of the brothers confesses: “We asked to sit in those places.”

Now for the other disciples to become indignant, this means that they, too, wanted to sit in those places.  It means that, somewhere, they all had this secret desire for power and glory.  And when James and John openly cater to their desire, questions such as “Who do you think you are?” and “How could you ask that?” might come first, followed by “Well, you don’t deserve to sit there” and the like.  

Sometimes the rag-tag team of disciples, and Jesus’ patience with them, is the best hope I have when I’m feeling rude and angry and, well, hopeless.

Here, I picture Jesus turning around and walking backward, sandals shuffling in the dirt.  “But it shall not be so among you.  Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”

And in a moment the disciples remember again what the Kingdom is about.  The whisper of the Jordan comes back, and the scuffle of sandals and dust.  Each disciples and his own thoughts.  Each disciples wondering where he must become a servant today, a person who gives without thought of recognition.  

In the slowness of the morning, I wonder the same thing.  Where am I to serve?  With my wife?  With my daughter?  With my friends and family?  For me, and most of us, the most radical acts of service are not running off to Africa or even all the time running downtown with the homeless, but amongst those who we love and hurt and love again, in the slow steady relationships that show us most truly who we are.  Yes, we must serve in those other places, but it must start in our homes and backyards and neighborhoods and coffee houses.  Because only then is it a way that we live, a way of life.  So again I ask: where can I serve today?

Two-thousand years ago a group of disciples asked the same question, and followers of Jesus have been asking it since.

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