true faith?

A friend writes:

“I think I’m learning what true faith is and that I don’t have any. I think when we say we have faith, we have things like “what we’ve always been used to” or “I think I’ll believe this because I don’t like the alternatives and I haven’t even bothered to consider them”. Things like that. I think true faith must be running out of all rational reasons to believe in something and choosing to still do it–and what an extraordinary, near impossible (ridiculous?) leap that is! Things like “life after death” are what I’m talking about, for example.”

In response, as the culmination of 4 distinct conversations on faith subjects today, I improvised the following, which is revealing even to me:

I sincerely appreciate that idea of true faith. It seems to me to be an act of desperation, a response to the futility of human efforts at self-preservation, defying the rational constructs of our typical ideologies.

In other words, I’m not sure I choose it or I come to it having exhausted myself pursuing all other ideas, then realize the ridiculous, the incomprehensible, irrational are all that could possibly respond to the yearning. Whatever is the answer, the deepest desires of the human heart must be outrageously ridiculous; preposterous even.

Jesus is a safe bet on those terms, and I fall back upon him for hope again and again.

Now, life after death, whatever the hell (no pun intended) that means, is another thing entirely. I cannot fathom, nor even extend my limited hope to that great length. It would be nice, but the speculation is too much for me – not only in regard to its existence, but the how’s and why’s. [To be clear, I heartily believe in heaven, and need it, but the comprehension of it, and the apprehension of it for today’s needs, as it’s typically conceived, is beyond me.]

Besides, I’d much rather have, and am more readily drawn to, life during life. Life after death seems only more appealing than that in the sense that because it is so speculative it seems to be more plausible, because the plausibility of the absolutely unknown always seems greater than the plausibilities of the preposterous within the known. But how much more glorious and meaningful would it be to have the reality of that visionary ideal in the present.

I don’t even know what that means – the coming of Christ?, some sort of rapturous transformation?, the end of the world?, world peace? – and it seems impossible, but with all the incredulity piled high, I confess it is my ultimate longing.

Less so, though, because I choose it, but rather it seems to have chosen me.  Captivated by the foolishness of hope.

God knows I’ve given what I believe to be earnest effort to cast it off, to no avail. God help us.

One further thought:  maybe, just maybe, as “I am crucified with Christ […] and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the son of God” (Gal. 2:20), life after death and life during life are not so far removed from one another.  At least they are related and share some “genetic” material.

indebted

I have borrowed from all of my tomorrows to fill today with more than it can contain in a poorly-conceived, idealistic grasping after comfort.

My fears, my certainties of inadequacy, are driven by such bonds of debt, obligations to tomorrows which cannot be met in today’s currency of unsecured hope.

Hopeless.

In folly, I have borrowed.  In arrogance, I have stumbled.

My weakness has produced and strengthened my chains.

My chains have brought me unto a death.

A death has prevented life.

A death has borne life.

“For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake . . . ”

For Jesus’ sake, but unto death nonetheless.

Sounds noble, is painful.  Vain?  Like dying.

Dying to be living?

“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

“So then death worketh in us, but life in you.”

Who?  You?  Us?

“Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus . . .”

But I came here of my own weakness, my own vanity, my own folly, my own ingratitude, my own, mine.

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

“That sin, by the commandment, might become exceeding sinful.”

Debt.  A promise which tomorrow cannot bear.  Tomorrow is only real when it is today.  Today is always inadequate to its obligations.

Where then is hope?

In weakness.

“Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

“Take no thought for the morrow . . .”

But I have sold myself into slavery unto it.  It lords over me in expectation of calamity, in the assurance of brokenness.

“The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath set me free from the law of sin and death.”

“There is therefore, now, no condemnation . . .”

“The assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.”

Bankruptcy.  Emptiness.  Vanity.  Overwhelming need coated in desperation and soaked in abject poverty.

“Corruption must put on incorruption.”

“Apart from me, ye can do nothing.”

“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

Dying.

Dying.

Dying.

Sabbath.

“Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death:  because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.”

Living.

Living.

Living.

“Nevertheless I live.”

a novel idea

Have you ever tried to write a novel?

The trick of it, apparently, has a lot to do with figuring out where to jump into the story, and what to include in the details of the story.

Conventional wisdom (which may be a hideous oxymoron) is that when writing a novel you have to stick to the story and use nary a word that doesn’t participate in moving the story forward.  In addition, a novel-writer should refrain from being overly descriptive, which is only a slightly different principle, I suppose.

All of that, of course, reminds me of the scene from The Princess Bride in which Westley, having just been revived by Miracle Max from being mostly dead, is trying to understand why he, Inigo, and Fezzik are about to storm the castle gate, so that he can come up with the plan (which is the whole reason Inigo had to find Westley and have him revived).  Inigo, in a hurry to storm the castle and find the six-fingered man who killed his father, says to Westley, who is also in a hurry to storm the castle and stop the wedding of Prince Humperdinck and Buttercup, his true love, “Let me explain.”  Then he pauses, shakes his head, and starts again with, “No, it’s too much.  Let me sum up.”

Now, I realize that, as Christians, we’re uncomfortable with the idea of spending valuable time reading, much less writing, novels because we’re serious people about serious business, and novels, being make-believe and all, are hardly serious, unless of course, they are allegories and devoid of profanity and/or sexual references and/or sarcasm.

So, I suppose the same principles can be applied to nonfiction, or even creative nonfiction, based on the evidence presented in the Gospel of St. John, in which John himself confesses to leaving out some elements of the life of Jesus from his account, by saying in the very last verse of his last chapter, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.  Amen.”

I’m not one to criticize Biblical authors, but I have to roll my eyes a bit at John for that exaggeration about the whole world not being able to contain the books.  On the other hand, John’s awareness of the actual size of the whole world may have been a bit misinformed.

Nonetheless, I get his point.  He had to stick to the central story, as he saw it, either for lack of knowledge, lack of parchment, lack of time, or lack of the ability to otherwise keep the interest of readers.

Beyond all of that, though, there’s another point we have to consider, if we have to consider this topic at all.  We have to consider the idea of engaging the readers in the creative process in at least as much as they are translating the symbols we call letters into ideas and mental images of those ideas.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, the reader is going to envision the story based on his or her interpretation of the written words.

This is dangerous, but necessary.

In the same way that every reader has distinct fingerprints, and DNA, and odors, they will have a distinct interpretation of every element of a story.  They must.  And not only is that a factor for consideration in the writing, it’s a necessity.  You have to stick with the story, using words as economically as possible, knowing that readers will each have unique images of what you’re describing, and in order to keep them engaged in the story, you have to leave out just the right elements to engage their imaginative processes and envision whatever it is that will keep them interested enough to keep reading.

Or, so I’m told.

Too much descriptive information, and they’re sleeping on you.  Too much boring dialogue, and they lose track of the point.  Too many pages, with obscure, ancient maritime references, as I found with my most recent attempt to digest Moby Dick, and they put the books back on their respective shelves, probably in the wrong locations, with disgusted looks on their faces.

But – and that’s a very big but – this is of critical consideration for all of writing, reading, and life.

We are constantly editing in the process of writing, reading, and living.  Constantly.  Always.

Some of us are not good at this.  Others are better.  None of us are perfect.

Take a minute and look around the room in which you’re sitting.  Try to think about how you would describe the room.  Try to think about every detail and imagine putting words to it.

Or, take your experiences today.  Think about describing every detail of every step of everything you’ve done today to someone else who has no contextual reference for your life.

Yep.  I know.  Maybe John was right, after all, about filling the whole world with books, right?

We take a lot for granted.  We filter out a lot of noisy details without ever recognizing we’re doing it.  Our minds do this instinctively – constantly translating data perceived through our senses, imaginations, desires, and abilities of spiritual discernment.  It’s a necessity and we’re better for it.  We don’t, and can’t, consciously process every data point that enters our realms of experience.  Thank God, we don’t.

Of course, and here’s the rub, if we, either acutely or chronically, filter incorrectly, perceive incorrectly, or imagine incorrectly, in this incessant dance between writer and reader, transmitter and receiver, leader and follower, savior and sinner, we may alter the story to something that bears no resemblance to the author’s intent.

Our contribution to the story, even as writers for whom the prerequisite of all writing is reading, in more ways than merely literally, is absolutely critical.

Stick to the story.  Use words economically.  Balance description with room for interpretation.  Do so with precision and skill.

This is a nearly impossible task, which great writers complete with the illusion of ease.  I’m listening to the audiobook version of Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens.  He’s a great writer, and his work is classic for that reason.

John was a great, or at least good, writer, and his subject matter makes up for any of his shortcomings, and that’s why his work is classic, even though he left out so much stuff.  I wish I knew more of that story, more of those unnecessary details.

As a reader, I can get distracted.  I skim, I skip, I rewind, I misunderstand, I misinterpret, I give up, I want less, and I want more.  I am also moved and inspired and enlightened and humbled.

As a writer, I write too many words, trying to convey an idea without risk of misinterpretation because I have difficulty trusting readers to get it right.  Then, I lose the story, and the reader.

See, I did it again.

I have to keep telling myself:  trust the story, trust the reader, trust the heart . . . trust the friend, trust the child, trust the vision, trust the author.

Trust the author.  Let the author tell the story.  That’s a novel idea.

but Noah found grace

Monday’s are generally difficult, but lately it seems they’ve been thick and heavy; heavier.  Actually, a lot of Thursdays and Wednesdays have also felt like Mondays.

Today, in particular, has been laden with all sorts of things a Monday is generally incapable of containing.  It’s not a good recipe.  Waking up with the distinct, disturbing phantom of a sneaking suspicion that you’re overdrawn from relationship bank accounts, and being certain that the “life” savings account is near zero, is no way to start a new week of responsibilities.

Noah must have woken up on the same side of the bed I did.  Noah is only 12.  That’s not right; a kid shouldn’t wake up feeling the world is demanding more of him than he has.

Renee called me a little after 9 this morning.  I like it when her number shows up in my office caller ID.  It’s nice to know somebody cares, especially on Monday.  As I recognize the phone number, in that second, I debate in my head whether I can talk to her about my day and how the world is turning the wrong direction for some reason.

“Hi, how are you?” I ask.

“Okay, but I’m having trouble with Noah,” she replies.

Hmmm.  I guess I won’t divulge my internal seismic pressure.  If she thinks Noah’s trouble . . .

She explains how Noah has a lot to do, and he’s struggling already.  She asks if I can help move him along.

Over the next 20 minutes, Noah and I talk through the stuff.  I am completely empathetic and understanding on this day, unusually so, and Noah responds, and it’s cathartic for me.

Noah has 12 things on his list today:

Clean the rat’s cage.  Science.  Colorado History.  Logic.  Language.  Math.  Word Study.  Literature.  Spelling.  Bible Study.  Planner update.  Read a library book.

How is it right that a 12-year-old has so much?

We talk about the rats, and how they stink and how cleaning their cage is a pain and maybe we should get rid of them and get a hermit crab instead.

We talk about how he likes Colorado History and how the homework is easiest.  His voice breaks when he talks about Science because it’s so hard and he doesn’t really understand it right now.

We talk about the things we’d rather be doing.  We talk about how much Monday’s suck.

We prioritize Noah’s list for the day.  We plan a break after he gets past number 6.

As we talked, I looked around my desk and set a few priorities for myself.  Noah unwittingly talked me back from the edge of a totally wasted day in the malaise of self-loathing, confusion and despondency.  He didn’t even know what he had done.

Still though, waves of something wash over me in some moments, and my internal voice breaks.  What is it that can make a middle-aged man choke back emotion without identifying itself?

The quote from my day-plannner notes page today says:  “Never hurry; take plenty of exercise; always be cheerful, and take all the sleep you need, and you may expect to be well.”  Apparently, a fellow named James Freeman Clarke said or wrote those words.  I don’t know what world he lived in, but he would have been a foreigner in mine.  It’s a nice sentiment, but I want to ask James, “So, what should I expect in the absence of that prescription?  Unwell?  That’s what I’ve got, James.  Unwell.”

I guess James was right.  I need to slow down, exercise, smile, sleep more.  Got it.

So, during a nonsense meeting, in which I had no valid input and nothing of substance to take away, I made a list surrounding James’s quote about the things that are disturbing me today – the things that are playing a violent game of king of the hill in my head.  None of them are work things, really, but at work is where I’m thinking about them.

34 things and people.  I don’t think it’s exhaustive, but it’s current.  Jesus is on the list.

After the meeting, I called home to check on Noah.  Renee says he’s doing great, moving right along, and he even helped prepare lunch.  He told me that he’s on number 5 – the rat’s cage cleaning – and he feels good.

I got another cup of coffee and ate some peanut butter from a spoon, and searched my iPhone for music that would respond to turmoil.  It’s difficult to find the right song for the moment sometimes.  I’m not sure the song exists.  There are glimmers of that song in other songs, like an aroma left behind when it sneaked through the melody for a moment.  It soothes a bit, like the pain of a massage on sore muscles – inflicting a painful pleasure of its own and never lasting long enough.

Who are we?  What are we?  Where are we going?  What, if any of this, matters?  Am I doing what I should be doing?  How do I know?  How do I stop doing the things I shouldn’t be doing?  How do I know?  Why does it matter?

Jesus, how is it between us?

The only lyric that keeps coming to mind is from U2, a band I hardly know:  “I want to run.  I want to hide.  I want to tear down these walls that hold me inside.”  What the heck does that mean?

Somewhere, something just beyond the naming, something elusive to my vision, but present, ever-present, stirs an ache in shadowy places inside me.  It would be best if it could be ignored, I think.  Can I kill it?  What is that?  Go away.  Stop disturbing me.  I have these things, and you’re a distraction.  You’re the wind blowing through the leaves of a tree visible only when I have the strength to pull myself up and peer through the bars of my cell window.  You’re a nag.  You taunt me.  I can’t have you.  I can’t come out and play.  I don’t know how.  You hide.  If I can’t have you, why are you here?  Go away!  Then the nagging, unidentified reply, “I’m not only outside your cell, I’m in you, in the cell walls, in the tray slid under the bars.”

Does everyone hear/see/think this garbage?

What does that mean, anyway?  Is it good?  Is it evil?  Is it just my imagination?  Am I making stuff up?  Why can’t I just be normal?

Far too dramatic.  Nonsensical romantic notions. This is silly.  Stop.  Work.  Ignore.

Then, another song-aroma, a pang in my gut.  A longing.  A loathing.

Dang Mondays.

Thank God there’s Noah.  At least there’s Noah.  He should be on his break by now.  He’s making progress today.  Tomorrow’s Tuesday.  Maybe this will make more sense on Tuesday.

reflecting: highly effective daily planner notes revisited

I came across this page of “notes” from my 7 Habits of Highly Effective People daily planner from May 13, 2011.

It’s ironic that such notes are found in the context of such a page.  Makes me chuckle a bit, sardonically.

(By the way, I had to look up “sardonically”, and found it interesting that dictionary.com says the root word alludes to “a Sardinian plant which when eaten was supposed to produce convulsive laughter ending in death.”  Insert more sardonic chuckling here.)

It’s also enlightening that, though I have no idea what events were taking place on May 13, 2011, such churning below the surface is happening again, or continuing still, behind the scenes of other equally insignificant events happening today.

The churning.  The inner turmoil, bubbling and boiling and stirring and disturbing.

I hope to God (literally) that it’s productive.

The quote at the bottom of the page from Arnold Palmer also seems ironically suitable.  Concentration on what, may I ask, and what exactly is the nature of the challenge?  Is it just getting through today’s daily planner to-do list?  Is it achieving some competitive goal and attaining consequential rewards?  Is it humbly submitting to the direction and power of Christ working within us?  Is it just surviving?

When we reach inside, what do we really discover about our personal resources?  Can we view the same resources from different perspectives and conclude, depending on the angle of the view, that they are either woefully inadequate or exceedingly abundant?  Can they be both simultaneously?

I don’t know, but I am comforted by what must have been supernatural insight (or desperation?) poking through the mist of stirrings back in May, as evidenced by the final words I wrote at the bottom of the page.

I’m hanging on to those again today:  hoping against hope, crying for redemption, confident in invisible things.  May it be so, Oh, may be it so.

wonders never cease

Lord, your wonders never cease. I scarcely behold a fraction of them. Yet, when I do, I’m overwhelmed by the extent of your engagement in the affairs of this world.

I’m persuaded there’s no place, no life unaffected by your intervention, your care and invested love.

As a gardener perceives every inch and aspect of his garden, touches it all with pruning, planting, cultivating, pervasive care, weighing each element and it’s relation to the whole – the threats, the nourishment, the slope, the shade and light, the weeds, the pests, the healthy and the ill.

The gardener takes everything into consideration and becomes invested in every part for the overall well-being and benefit of the whole – invested heart and soul: physically, mentally, spiritually, presenting the garden as a poetic expression of the essence of his own being.

Lord, there’s nothing you haven’t touched, contemplated, known and loved; even in acts of discipline, scourging, and purifying.

All things work together for good . . . you make it so.

Yet, we see in part and know in part.

We testify to your presence in the small, infrequent, more obvious ways.

It’s like witnessing the presence of water only when we turn on the faucet. The water – in the pipes in our homes, the rivers and reservoirs, or in the springs and aquifers hidden in the earth – is always present and flowing, available regardless of our awareness or access of it.

I’m grateful for this reality.

The truth and power of your unseen involvement, persistent presence, a force always exerted in every moment: the air we breathe, life and death, the hope and sorrow, the grief and joy, the struggle and pain, the power and glory.

Beauty. Inherent, ubiquitous, permeating, persuasive, constant, unfailing.

rich mineral deposits and grand aquifers

Oh God, I’m not sure you’re a blog reader, but what if you are?

I just wanted to tell you, in this public space, that if there’s any way you could open our eyes a bit, even temporarily, and allow us to see a bit of the deeper things of what you’re doing, that might help us.

It seems we go about assessing the value and weighing the outcome of your influence based on the circumstantial and tangible.

I’m pretty sure that’s hardly a glimmer of what’s really going on, and subject to vast misinterpretation, if nothing else, just due to the constant discomfort such things bring to our lives, even if they’re offering temporary pleasure.

Moreover, I’m pretty sure that what’s really going on, and what really matters, and what really draws us into this saga of your reigning power, is active in deeper places; mostly dark, unseen, cavernous depths where the foundations of your creation are moored and alive beyond imagination.  And I’m pretty sure the chiefest elements of those depths are in us.

We get confused.  We start to believe the evidence of boiling water – the unwieldy, random, violent bubbles rising to the surface – are also the intended product of the boiling.  That can’t be true.  They’re just the by-product of the heat.  The heat, and its effects, are producing the transformation.  The bubbles are just evidence that something’s happening, and they’re subject to vast misinterpretation.

They’re like a dying man on a cross.

If that’s all we see, then when the earthquake comes and the rain starts to fall, we run to our homes without a concern other than keeping our heads dry and making sure our favorite knickknacks didn’t fall off the shelves.

So, it would be great if you could just let us see more for a bit, or feel more, and then maybe we could shake ourselves free enough to be a bit more enthusiastic about what you’re doing.

We get weary and confused, Lord.  I’m sure I’m telling you nothing new with this.  You get it, I’m sure.

I’m glad you’re gracious about it.

Thanks.

Amen.