Essay Approaching the Infinite and the Intimate


A lot of ink has been spilled on the topic of prayer. Currently, if you search Amazon Books for "Christian Prayer", Amazon will present you with over 55,000 possible results, a number that increases to over 96,000 if you take out the word "Christian." Everyone is interested in prayer. Many of those books share similar ideas, quote similar passages from the Bible, and give similar advice, but I think it is probably a safe assumption that within that massive list there are thousands of different definitions of prayer and thousands of different suggestions as to how we should approach God in prayer.

Given the massive amount of material available, a person could easily get lost trying to get prayer "right." So, I would like to set those 55,000 books aside for a moment and ask a really simple, fundamental question: What is prayer?

I'm not asking for another definition. I'm asking, at the most basic level, what is it?

The entire Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, is a long story about how God pursues people. And in that story of pursuit, God is always the first to move. John stated it as clearly as anyone ever could, "We love him because he first loved us." People are the recipients of what God has done. God creates, and we exist. God speaks, and we listen. God reveals the corruption in the world, and we confess our sin. God loves, and we are saved. God acts first.

That means that at the most fundamental level prayer is always a response. It might be a response to our sense that God is present, or it might be a response to our sense that God is absent. It might be our way of responding to his justice, his mercy, his love, or his wrath. It might be a response to the claim that he can heal us or that he can free us from our circumstances. We might even pray simply because we believe he has told us to. Regardless of our reasons for praying, genuine prayer is always a response to God.

But that leads us to another big question: What kind of a god are we responding to?

For those of us who have been Christians for a long time that may sound like a ridiculous question, but it's an incredibly important question, because what we believe about people determines how we respond to them, and what we believe about God will determine how we pray, or if we even bother to pray at all.

Recently, an older gentlemen and I were having coffee, and he made the following suggestion: "The entire Bible is a commentary on the first three chapters of Genesis." I agreed with him, but when it comes to questions about God, I think we should be particularly interested in the first two chapters of Genesis.

Our scripture begins with Genesis 1:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good...

Adults don't read Genesis enough, and when we do, it's often for the purpose of scientific debate. But if we only read these chapters when we have a problem with something scientists are telling us, we've missed the point. These passages are not about us. They're not scientific treatises. They're inspired statements about the god to whom we pray. This opening passage, in particular, is about a god who sees nothing but chaos out in front of him. There's formlessness; everything is a void. There's darkness everywhere. But he does something about it. He speaks, and order comes from chaos, light is produced from darkness, and the meaningless void becomes something good.

God is presented in this passage as a god of supreme power, a god who produces good things - a god who can repair the void in your life with a single word. This god, however, stands apart from his creation. He creates the universe with his voice, from a distance. As the psalms and the prophets tell us over and over again, his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. He's bigger than we are. His power extends beyond the universe, which scientists tell us is still visible from the earth 46 billion light years away. Theologians, pastors, and writers throughout history have referred to this aspect of God as his "otherness." He's different than we are.

I think Mr. Beaver says it best in The Chronicles of Narnia. Susan and Lucy, two of the four children who entered the enchanted land, are speaking with the Beaver family about Aslan, and they ask if he is a man:

Mr. Beaver: Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you, he is the king of the woods...Aslan is

a lion - the lion, the great lion.

Susan: Ohhh! I'd thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous

about meeting a lion.

Mrs. Beaver: That you will dearie, and make no mistake, if there's anyone who can

appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver

than most or else just silly.

Lucy: Then he isn't safe?

Mr. Beaver: Safe? Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being

safe? Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king, I tell you.

God is good, as the saying goes, but we should never forget that he isn't safe, and he certainly is not a man. He's not like us. He's "other." As the Celtic poet, John O'Donahue has suggested, "If we had an absolute meeting with God, our consciousness could never survive it... There is a certain sense of danger and adventure about God." So, when we pray we are responding to a wild, untamable god who, as Isaiah told the Israelites, is higher than anything we can imagine. And practically speaking, this means that our life of prayer should be characterized by humility and reverence.

I cringe when Christians, of all people, pray like they have God figured out, like he's a vending machine and if we punch the right numbers and drop in the right coins we get what we want. There are stories in the Bible about people who think they can tame God. Those stories never end well. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't petition God for the things we need, for healing, or for our concerns, but we should remember that God is different from us. He thinks differently than we do. He's bigger than our church, and he's bigger than our denomination. We could be wrong about many things. So with humility, we ought to pray as Jesus did in the garden, "Take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done."

If we are really humble, reverence should come easy to us in our moments of prayer. I don't think our knees should knock every time we speak to God, but I do think we ought to respect the one to whom we are praying. Respect, of course, looks different in different cultures, and most churches today contain multiple sub-cultures that cross ethnic, regional, and age based thresholds, so reverence will not always look the same. We dress differently, act differently, and speak differently, so we will pray differently, but however we do it, we have to do it with reverence. The Apostle Paul warned the Galatians that God will not be mocked. We will reap what we sow.

Genesis 1 is powerful, but it doesn't stand alone. Genesis 2 describes God as well:

...Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed in his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had till it and keep it.

The second chapter of Genesis provides us with another way to understand God. Instead of a supremely powerful, distant God who creates with his words, God and his creation are intimate in this passage. The language in this chapter suggests that we ought to use our imagination as the story is told. We imagine God scooping up the earth and carefully shaping it into a human being, exactly as he wants it to be. When his project is finished, he shares his own breath - his own life - with it. Then, he gives it a divine task. This image of God is so beautiful and so profound that Jesus echoes it in John 20 immediately following his resurrection. The disciples are still in the upper room, afraid and confused - lifeless - and just as God breathed life into mankind, so Jesus breathes purpose, meaning, life, and power into his followers. And just as God instructed the man with whom he had shared his life to tend the Garden of Eden, so Jesus instructs the people with whom he shares his life to tend to one another, as well as the broken world around them.

From this Genesis 2 perspective, God is closer to us than we are even aware. The Apostle Paul told the Colossians that all things are held together in him. And a few hundred years later, St. Augustine, the famous fourth century theologian, claimed, "God is more intimate to me than I am to myself." God is involved. He works for us, with us, and through us. So, our life of prayer should not only be characterized by humility and reverence but also by our authentic presence and emotional conviction.

I often hear people say that we should be honest with God because he knows everything already, and I agree, but that implies we are doing all the talking, which is not how prayer really works. Sometimes we're supposed to listen. In both cases, we have to learn how to "be present" before God. We have to learn that if we are angry or sad, God needs to be a part of that. And if we are happy and filled with excitement, God needs to be a part of that too. He has shared the breath of life with each of us, and each of us should share our life with him. This is something we have to learn and practice and discuss with one another, because we don't do a very good job in our culture of simply being present with anything or anyone, much less with God. But Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and many people since them knew how, and it changed their lives.

If we are authentic and present in our life of prayer, our emotional conviction will come naturally. Before I became better acquainted with charismatic Christians, I was highly critical of "emotionalism", as many people are today. And I still think that it can become dangerously self satisfying, but I have also learned that emotional conviction is important. Our feelings can deceive us, but they are powerful motivators and a central part of who we are in any given moment. I believe an intimate creator would wish for his creation to embrace emotional experiences with him, but like reverence, how that happens will vary from person to person, so we have to give one another other plenty of room to let it happen the way it needs to happen.

If we take Genesis 1 and 2 seriously, the god that we respond to is farther away than we can ever imagine but closer than we can ever know. He's supremely powerful but intricately forming us. There's a mystery about him, a paradox. And it is this paradox that makes God everything we've ever needed him to be. There's nothing wrong with books about prayer. There's a little book called Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton that I read every couple of years and another book called The Art of Prayer by Igumen Chariton that I'm working through. They're encouraging and useful. But, they aren't necessary. I often tell my students that if they want to approach something the right way, they need to understand it the right way. And I believe that if we keep the god of Genesis 1 and 2 before us, then we will naturally approach him with humility, reverence, our authentic presence, and emotional conviction. I believe we will each be approaching God as he would have us approach him.

Josh Fraley   # June 21, 2014 : COMMENTS ( 0 )

Essay Coffee with Michael Card?

Jesus the Jubilee

Like most Christians, I rarely open the book of Leviticus. It's full of rules and regulations. It's a book of technicalities. Until recently, I probably couldn't name one Christian who would brew a hot cup of coffee, flip on his favorite worship play list, and then read through the property laws from ancient Hebrew society. It's not the sort of book we enjoy. But some time ago I had a conversation with Michael Card, and now I can name at least one.

If you're in your twenties or thirties you probably don't know who Michael Card is, but your parents may have loved his worship music. On the other hand, they may have loved it so much that they wore his cassette tapes out listening to his hit song, El Shadai, as mine did. My parents played his music all the time; I even remember listening to Michael Card on our family camping trips.

Michael Card was a permanent member of my internal jukebox from the 80's, and that's probably why I was never a big fan. But then I met the man at one of my school's chapels, and now I am tempted to convince my church to have him up for a concert just so I can take him out for coffee afterwards. That's one of the first things I learned about him in our conversation; he loves good coffee. Not just Starbucks, he said, - "good coffee." And where coffee is concerned, money is no object. That's exactly what he told me. Then, he told me a story. In the story, he and Keith Green, another Christian artist your parents may have loved, were at a party where there were lots of rough individuals, and by the end of it, Keith Green was in a car with a pretty scary drug dealer, trying to convince him that there was a better way to live life.

That's when I was really hooked. Not only was I chatting about coffee with one of my parents' favorite Christian artists, a man who had been a regular part of my family's long drives and rain soaked camping vacations in the Smokey Mountains, but I was becoming convinced that he was, in fact, a Christian artist - the kind that cares about Jesus' perspective more than he cares about other people's perspectives. For Michael Card, Jesus stands at the center of it all. Oh, and its worth mentioning that it takes a pretty cool guy to wear jeans and a t-shirt to a Presbyterian chapel. And he had an awesome beard.

After our conversation, Michael (I'm pretty sure we were on a first name basis by then.) did his thing. He played all of my parents' old favorites. There were points when I actually thought I was sitting in my family's old station wagon heading down I-75 toward Tennessee, the mountains growing larger in front of us and my dad threatening to pull over and spank me for punching my sister while the rest of the family was trying to listen to El Shadai.

But at some point in that short Presbyterian chapel, Michael began commenting on another famous song, Jubilee. Nostalgia had been working on me, and I was daydreaming about the mountains, but when he began citing a passage from Leviticus 25, I began to listen a little more closely, because I was pretty sure I had never seen a worship leader crack open the bible and encourage a congregation to worship with ancient Hebrew property regulations.

He spoke for a moment. Then he sang:

The Lord provided for a time

For the slaves to be set free

For the debts to all be cancelled

So his chosen ones could see

His deep desire was for forgiveness

He longed to see their liberty

And his yearning was embodied

In the Year of Jubilee

Once again, this man had intrigued me. I grabbed my phone, recorded a note to take a closer look at Leviticus 25, and let myself drift back to the Smokey Mountains.

As I later discovered, the passage in Leviticus is part of the Holiness Code, supposedly given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The passage contains a set of regulations that were to be observed by all levels of ancient Israelite society. It was a celebration that rolled around every 50 years or so called the Year of Jubilee.

Jubilee literally means "trumpet," after the instrument that was designated to announce its opening. "Have the trumpet sounded everywhere...sound the trumpet throughout the land" (25:9). The name itself is significant, because at that time trumpets were not used for musical purposes much at all. They were primarily used in military and religious ceremonies, and they invoked a certain sense of attention and respect. They were public proclamations that something very significant, probably life altering, was getting ready to take place. The book of Exodus, for example, tells us that "the voice of a trumpet" was heard amid the thunder and lighting on Sinai when God met with Moses, and it caused the people to tremble. Trumpets were also used when the Ark of the Covenant was returned after being captured, when Jericho was destroyed, when there were victories in battle, when kings were anointed, and when the temple was dedicated. The sound of a trumpet was a signal that everyday life was about to change - that it must change.

So, the Jubilee was actually a time of celebration that God used to announce to all of his people that it was time for their lives to change. And thankfully, God did not let his people decide for themselves what changes they needed to make. He made it very clear. Leviticus 25 contains a detailed list of the things that must be done during this celebration, and they can generally be boiled down to three dominant themes: freedom, return, and forgiveness.

The ancient Israelite economy, like most all ancient civilizations of that time, was heavily influenced by slavery. Slaves could be attained any number of ways, and in most of the world, slavery was a permanent condition. For the Greeks and the Romans, for example, slaves could be set free by their masters or they could purchase their freedom, but most of the time, slaves remained slaves for life. But that is not what God desired for his people. They were not to remain slaves, nor possess one another as slaves permanently. The people were instructed, "Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants" (v. 10). One of the conditions of the Jubilee was a complete emancipation, a complete proclamation of freedom throughout the land.

Another theme that dominates all of Leviticus 25 is the theme of return. "In the year of jubilee everyone is to return to his own property" (v. 13). For the Israelite civilization, which was largely agricultural, the specific form of return to which God called them was to their ancestral lands and farms. People were supposed to move back to where they came from. They were supposed to reconnect with the land of their family heritage. But for them, a return to ancestral property represented much more than a change in location. It was not simply an opportunity to pack up and move. The Israelites associated their land with their relationship with God and the covenant God made with their forefathers. For example, God told Abraham, "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant...The whole land of Canaan where you are now an alien, I will give you as an everlasting possession, to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God" (Gen 17: 7-8). For the Israelites, words such as: God, land, presence, blessing, tradition, family, heritage, and salvation were all related to one another. They were not interchangeable, but in the minds of the ancient Israelites, they occurred together. So, a second condition of the Jubilee was that the people should return, not just to their land, but to God, to the traditions of their ancestors, to the way God intended things to be.

Finally, having been commanded to proclaim freedom and return, the Israelites were to practice forgiveness. In the Jubilee this primarily took the form of the forgiveness of financial debt. "If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him...he is to work for you until the year of jubilee" (v. 35-40). In a society where debt could lead to oppression, God offered his people a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel. But God's insistence that his people's debt be forgiven in the Jubilee was not the only way he protected them. Leviticus 25 lists many different ways someone's debt may be 'redeemed', even if the jubilee year had not yet arrived. "If one of your countrymen becomes poor...he retains the right of redemption...a relative may redeem him...any blood relative may redeem him...but if he is not redeemed in any of these ways, he and his children are to be released in the jubilee year" (v. 47-55). Redeem means "to gain or regain possession of", and God expected the Israelites to redeem one another, especially those with family ties. He expected them to work hard and to sacrifice in order to free one another of their debts and the things that oppressed them, even if it was costly.

If we step back for a moment and look at the bigger picture, we can imagine what a beautiful moment we would be witnessing if we saw an entire nation of people proclaiming freedom, return, and forgiveness. The trumpet blasts would echo across Israelite territory - through the crowded city of Jerusalem and out into the countryside beyond. Parents, broken beneath insurmountable debt would cling to one another and praise God for his provision. Children, living in terrible, oppressive conditions would erupt into the streets singing the songs of their ancestors. The evening meals would be taken with gratitude and thanksgiving. Fathers would slaughter the fatted calf and mothers would serve the best wine. Entire villages would dance and laugh together. And they would bless the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who commanded Moses to rescue them from slavery, the God who brought them safely through the waters of the sea.

It's a wonderful image isn't it? But it gets even better.

There was a prophet named Isaiah, and he believed there would be a day when this celebration of freedom would not belong to the Israelites alone but to every nation, to every person from one side of the world to the other. He believed there would be a day when God would extend his peace and his love, his shalom, to the entire world. And here is the interesting part: he believed that when this happened, that celebration would occur in the form of a person. This ancient tradition of freedom, return, and forgiveness would no longer just be an Israelite festival rolling around every 50 years or so. Instead, freedom and forgiveness would exist in the form of a living, breathing person.

Isaiah called this person the 'Servant of God'. He was convinced that this person would be anointed by God to accomplish a specific task, and he believed that this person's task would be to set things right in the world again. Isaiah said that God's spirit would be upon this servant in an incredibly special way. He said this person would be determined and strong, that he would be unstoppable, that he wouldn't rest until justice and peace had been established on earth. This servant would be a symbol of all Israel, but he would be a light to all the nations. He would open the eyes of the blind and he would set the prisoners free. His very existence would be the proclamation of the year of God's favor (42:1-7). The Servant of God would be a perpetual, living Jubilee, a celebration that would cross oceans and seas, deserts and mountains, political ideologies, language barriers, ethnicities, philosophical differences, intellectual disputes, and cultural norms. This person would be a Jubilee for everyone.

And we know the rest of the story, don't we?

Hundreds of years after Isaiah, a man came from one of the poorer regions around Jerusalem, and he began teaching in local synagogues - just the small ones - but it was enough for him to build a reputation and get himself invited to speak at the larger synagogue in a town called Nazareth. There, he opened Isaiah's scroll and found one of the more famous passages about the Servant of God. Then he read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (Lk 4:18-19).

We are told that he finished the reading, rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the synagogue official, and simply took his seat. So, people began whispering. They already knew that passage by heart. It had been read to them hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. Was this all he was going to say, this man whom they had heard so much about?

But he wasn't finished, not even close.

"Today," he told them, "this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." This man from Nazareth was claiming to be the Servant of God, the one who would proclaim Isaiah's world wide Jubilee. Everywhere he went he preached those same themes: freedom, return, and forgiveness. He acquired a following, people that wanted to help him. And he told those people to free the poor and the helpless, to be a light so others could return to God, and to forgive as many times as they needed to along the way. As Isaiah had believed, this man from Nazareth healed people, raised the dead, cast out demons, and destroyed all kinds of oppression. He was powerful, determined, and strong. Nothing, not even death, could stop him from his world wide mission of Jubilee.

This is the Gospel, and it's not just good news; it's the best news possible! So, I wish we could stop right now and celebrate God's Jubilee and worship the Servant of God. But there is one more really important point.

Before he played the song, Jubilee, Michael made a casual comment in that Presbyterian chapel service that has not left me since. In fact, I would say it has changed everything for me. He said that there is no biblical, historical, or archaeological evidence that the ancient Israelites ever fully practiced the Jubilee. And, having done some investigation, it seems like most scholars agree with him. Apparently, the Israelites talked a lot about the Jubilee. They even used it to help measure time. For hundreds of years, their religious leaders argued about it, wrote books about it, and studied it. They talked about its symbolism, its meaning, and its theology. They read about it publicly. The people memorized it, hoped for it, and longed for it. But they didn't actually do it. God had commanded his people to follow a straightforward list of laws that would revolutionize their own hearts and their entire society. The laws were a compulsory invitation to experience God's blessings for his people, a way for them to take the advice of the Psalmist - to taste and see that the Lord is good. But they didn't do it, because it was too impractical. It would have cost them too much. It would have elevated the lowly members of society and humbled the proud. Unlikely individuals would have stood alongside the successful, the wealthy, the moral, and, by the standards of those days, the righteous. Freedom, return, and forgiveness would have altered the entire world that the Israelites had built, but it was the world that they had built around themselves, so they wouldn't do it.

Typically, this would be the point when good Christians who know their bible and their systematic theology would say, "Of course they didn't do it. Those Israelites never got anything right. But it was all part of the plan anyway. Now we believe in Jesus!"

We believe in Jesus? What do we mean when we say we believe in Jesus?

Let's rephrase the question: What does it mean to believe in a man who claimed to be committed to freedom, return, and forgiveness?

Jesus said amazing things like: "Love your neighbor as yourself," "When you give a cup of cold water to the least of these you do it for me," and "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God." Did he really mean all of that stuff about making peace and seeing God, or was it just nice talk? What does it mean to believe in a man who says things like that?

Jesus did amazing things. He fed the masses, healed the sick, and raised the dead. He died for the world. But he told his followers that they would do even greater things than that. So, have you raised anyone from the dead lately? What does it mean to believe in a man who does things like that?

The Apostle Paul and many of the other early followers of Jesus taught their churches that belief in Jesus was not just an idea but an actual agreement to be his hands and his feet. They agreed to be his body, his presence among the brokenhearted, the blind, and the oppressed. They would partner in his Jubilee mission. The problem is: followers of Jesus are often a lot like the ancient Israelites. We spend a lot of time arguing about Jesus, writing books about Jesus, studying Jesus, memorizing Jesus, hoping for Jesus, publicly preaching Jesus, and even personally longing for Jesus, but sometimes his mission is strangely absent. So, I'll ask again. Have you raised anyone from the dead lately? Have you even tried?

I know people who are trying. I know a girl who is obsessed with combating the child slave trade that is creeping into the U.S. I know an older gentleman with a PhD who teaches for pennies at a local business college, because he is passionate about helping his students return to the love of God. He teaches Business Writing, but he always tells me his real mission is restoration. Recently, I spoke with a young person who wanted to make people more aware of the growing rate of teen suicide. I know people in medicine, business, legal professions, education, and all kinds of other careers who see their real mission as freedom, return, and forgiveness. The mission looks different for each of them, and they aren't physically raising people from the dead, but they aren't afraid of being impractical either.

My prayer is that we won't sacrifice the real world aspect of our mission simply because it's impractical, costly, or because we have built a church culture and put ourselves at the center of it. If we do, we will miss out on the blessings of renewed, spirit filled hearts and a changed society.

Josh Fraley   # May 28, 2014 : COMMENTS ( 0 )

Essay The Divine Spark of "Firework"

Pop Stars and Celtic Poets

Wisdom often appears in the oddest places, that is, if one is paying attention. Katy Perry, sex symbol and pop star, was quickly elevated to the status of popular sensation after her hit single, "I kissed a girl," was released in 2008. Obviously, the song's sensual character shocked many listeners, enticed others, but demanded the intrigue and attention of everyone. With Perry's reputation preceding her, she then released her chart topping album, Teenage Dream in 2010, which included the hit singles "California Gurls," "Teenage Dream," and "Firework." In the eyes of the public and critics alike, the last of these has seemed to stand out. "Firework" sold more than half a million digital copies in the U.S. alone, and has been described as a powerful self esteem anthem on more than one occasion. In addition to the positive reviews, Perry says that the song is her favorite on the record and ultimately what she wants to communicate to her fans. As she says, "It's a bit like my, um... opus, I guess you could say."  [1] , 2010. Although there are a lot of singles each year that are praised by both the masses and their artists, there does seem to be something special about "Firework."

Aside from the catchy melody and rhythm, this chart-topper's lyrical message raises issues concerning subtle and deep types of human experience, experiences many people would relate to if they actually sat down for a moment and gave their own emotions, thoughts, and feelings some attention. In a curious, but slightly rhetorical tone, Perry opens her song with a series of three questions:

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting through the wind
Wanting to start again
Do you ever feel so paper thin,
Like a house of cards
One blow from caving in
Do you ever feel already buried deep
Six feet under scream
But no one seems to hear a thing

Perry's questions correspond to three negative life experiences, and her use of visual imagery and metaphor is anything but subtle. The first question invites the listener to reflect on whether or not he feels like life is moving in a particular, purposeful direction. The image of a drifting plastic bag is actually a profound and appropriately contemporary analogy to the tumbleweed, often depicted rolling through ghost towns and deserts in the Old Western milieu. Tumbleweeds are simply dead plants, and once they are sufficiently dried out they break off their stalks and roll around aimlessly, blowing wherever the wind takes them. This meaningless movement is, unfortunately, a characteristic experience for a person who feels like he is simply drifting through life. At some point such a person would even lose interest in even an attempt at self control, simply allowing the circumstances of life to push him from place to place.

The visual imagery of the second question presents Perry's listener with a paper thin person. His central experience is lack of depth or complexity. The imagery is arguably similar to Lewis Carroll's famous characters from Alice in Wonderland, the Queen's Court members, who are literally depicted as playing cards. For the Queen, of course, these paper-thin subjects are highly disposable. Who can forget the famous line, "Off with their heads!" As Perry suggests, they do easily collapse, or "cave in" when the wind of the plot blows them over. These characters hardly exhibit any internal complexity - a dissatisfaction for sympathetic audiences, but there is something infinitely more tragic about real individuals who perceive their own lives to only be similar, paper-thin predicaments.

Finally, the previous two questions culminate in a slightly morbid burial metaphor, which implies that living individuals ought to feel alive, not "already buried deep." The subject in this case, however, is not death, but solitude or loneliness. The tragic element of the question is that the listener is screaming for help, but his attempt to attract attention is futile. It is this unheeded cry for help that creates the experience of being buried alive, separated from everyone else. Perry seems to imply that meaningful life experiences are accompanied by relationships and clear communication with others. Of course, individuals who suffer from an affirmative response to Perry's initial questions will also probably find meaningful relationships difficult, and from "six feet under," experience intense solitude.

Although "Firework's" three questions correspond to different experiences in life, they are united by one dominant theme, emptiness. A person feels like a drifter when he is emptied of direction, and paper-thin when he is emptied of complexity. He feels "buried deep" when life seems to be emptied of meaningful relationships.  [2] Taken in isolation, Perry's negative theme seems rather bleak. Luckily, Perry does not abandon her hurting audience to these dark, existential questions. Instead, the music builds through the bridge, and creates vital anticipation as the song quickly moves away from the pessimism of the verse, and toward a powerful optimism in the chorus:

Do you know that there's still a chance for you,
Cause there's a spark in you
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
Cause baby you're a firework.
Come on show 'em what you're worth
Make 'em go "Oh, oh, oh!"
As you shoot across the sky

At this point, the song's actual message becomes clear. It is indeed a self-esteem anthem, but not the heroic type that encourages individuals to simply trudge through their problems. The opening question of the chorus quickly overcomes all the negative rhetoric of the verse. The question, "Do you know that there's still a chance for you, cause there's a spark in you?" implies that the listener has only been deceived by his experiences of emptiness. Perry does not seem to be suggesting that the negative experiences themselves are fake, false, or insignificant; what is false is the negative worldview and unnecessarily harsh self-evaluation they create.

According to "Firework," a human being cannot be emptied of meaning. Each person contains at least a "spark" that is present whether he is aware of it or not, and the ignition of this spark begins a highly transformative process. The speed with which the music builds in this portion of the song artistically suggests that this process may occur rapidly, with a significant amount of power. According to the lyrics, it is accompanied by a strong sense of intrinsic value and entitlement, just as the Fourth of July, a powerful national symbol, is entitled to "own the night." It is also a highly visible process. People cannot help but notice an enlightened individual who "shoots across the sky"; they become astonished. Their only response is to go "Oh, Oh, Oh!" the lyrical equivalent to utter confusion and amazement. How could a person's peers avoid marveling at such a change in their friend, coworker, or family member?

Given Perry's reputation in pop culture, there is a temptation to overlook the significance and relevance of her "opus." A very similar message, however, runs throughout the work of the late contemplative, John O'Donahue. The world lost this Celtic poet in 2008, but he spent many years of his life intentionally pointing people toward meaning, friendship, beauty, and value in religious, artistic, and even business-corporate settings. O'Donahue's life was characterized by prayer, meditation, reflection, and genuine interest in service to others, goals which culminated in one of his most well known works, Anam Cara.  [3] Throughout the book, O'Donahue claims that people tend to experience cynicism and emptiness because they often overlook a great, internal significance that is always available:

"If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us... If you attend to yourself, and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life... If you focus your longing on a faraway divinity, you put an unfair strain on your longing. Thus it often happens that your longing reaches out toward the distant divine, but because it overstrains itself, it bends back to become cynicism, emptiness, or negativity. This can destroy your sensibility. Yet we do not need to put any strain whatever on our longing."  [4]

Although O'Donohue's poetic, spiritual language differs from Perry's popular, lyrical expression, the thematic parallels are undeniable.  [5] The reader longs for meaning and fullness, but typically he seeks meaning in faraway places or external goals that are too difficult to obtain in daily life, and so, his longing remains dissatisfied. Slowly, a negative, cynical worldview begins to cloud his mind, not because it is necessary or true, but because his perspective has become distorted. For O'Donohue, humans long for divinity, but divinity is incredibly close, its expression is internal and foundational, part of what it means to be human in the first place. He illustrates his point beautifully in a poem that certainly deserves a full reading:


On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life. [6]

Beannacht means "blessing" - something everyone needs when life feels like "dead weight," " frozen eyes behind gray windows," or "black stains in the ocean." The hope of O'Donohue's blessing is twofold. The first portion of the poem suggests that hope has an internal source. He frequently uses clay as a visual image to emphasize the earthy, but majestic identity of human beings. "We need to remain in rhythm with our inner clay voice and longing. Yet this voice is no longer audible in the modern world. We are not even aware of our loss."  [7] In the first stanza of Beannacht, it is this lost inner voice that is capable of bringing balance back to a distorted experience, and in the second stanza the vibrancy of awakened internal colors and light allow the blessed to experience a life of peace and joy.

The second portion of the poem suggests that hope has external sources as well, but these are all still intimately related to the internal clay voice. For instance, they are all natural sources: moonlight, earth, ocean, and ancestors.  [8] In addition, O'Donohue implies that external hope processes to the location of the blessed, as opposed to the blessed setting off on a strenuous journey in search for it. The reader is not told exactly what propels this external hope, whether it moves naturally or is sent by a higher power, but the moonlight approaches horizontally, bringing direction and purpose from "across the waters," the earth approaches from beneath and "nourishes" hope, and the light is an encompassing, clarifying power that makes experiences sensible.

Although it is probably the case that human beings have always struggled with the sort of self-attentiveness prescribed in Anam Cara and the negative experiences expressed in Beannacht, O'Donohue is certainly correct to point out that the modern world makes it increasingly difficult to attend to these deep problems. The speed with which modern technologically driven days move makes it nearly impossible to sit and be attentive, and most folks today are indeed so alienated from the depth of the natural world that they hardly even consider that there might be intimate blessings to be found there. No one, therefore, should be surprised when messages such as Perry's are met with great enthusiasm in American pop-culture. They touch a deep yearning. A significant portion of the American population struggles with emptiness, ill-communication, darkness, meaninglessness, and fear. Everyone from philosophers to biologists seem to be searching for the value and meaning of life. Anxiety and depression, clinical versions of these issues, are on the rise. Hurting individuals want answers, and will even settle for suggestions. Artists such as Katy Perry and John O'Donohue provide just that. Generally speaking, they encourage their audience to adopt a method of turning inward for hope. From this perspective, meaning, value, and hope are not circumstantial; they are intrinsically present at all times. They are intricately woven into the tapestry of the human person.

A lot of folks, especially many religious folks, tend to disapprove of the suggestion that hurting individuals ought to turn inward in search of hope. In particular, Christians often seem as if they might even fear the concept. To these offended ears, discussion of an internal spark is at best fruitless or theologically confused. At worst, such discussion is perceived as idolatrous and heretical.  [9] Pop stars and Celtic poets may speak their minds, but in the end, their romantic ideals are too often trumped by the determination of the closed-minded. So, the prescription for a hurting individual is not to attend to himself, but to attend to religious services and volunteer ministries, to spend more time simply asking God about direction and guidance, and to more consistently participate in financial giving - all quantitative remedies driven by external circumstances. If this truly is the modern Christian approach, then Christians have lost sight of a historically subtle, but deep and long standing tradition of introspection that is probably more in line with the pop artists and the hopeless romantics.

For a Christian, precedence for an internal source of hope appears early in the biblical tradition, but is hardly discussed at all in many Christian congregations. This might be because it appears in conspicuous places in the scripture or because it might sound dangerously individualistic; maybe it is simply too vague and esoteric to be relevant to most readers. In any case, it appears in the book of Deuteronomy following the proclamation of divine law, which is directly related to experiencing a meaningful life. "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendents may live... "(Deut 30:19, NRSV). The life giving law, as it is laid out throughout Deuteronomy, is a daunting list of externally driven regulations, but the Lord is quick to encourage the Israelites that choosing life is possible precisely because there is a powerful internal element to the Lord's life giving words:

"Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, "Who will cross the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe" (Deut 30:11-14, Italics Mine).

Several hundred years later the Apostle Paul re-applied the same idea to Christian faith. Writing about the revelation of Christ in the first century CE, he exhorts the church at Rome, "But what does it say? 'The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart' (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)...For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved." (Rom 10:8-10). Scholars and systematic theologians may debate the technical, theological implications of both of these passages, but there is simply no denying that these sacred scriptures generally present a pattern of meaning that, in practice, flows from the internal to the external, from the heart to the mouth, from the depths to the shallows of human experience.

As the centuries passed, this biblical tradition may have reached its height of practical application with the ancient Christians who are today referred to as the Desert Fathers. Although many Christian authorities in the second and third centuries were highly occupied with administrative and theological debates, the Desert Fathers were desperate to preserve Christianity as a spiritual, practical experience. "In solitude they made careful observations...they talked about their thoughts and feelings, about their concrete way of life, and about their path to God."  [10] Highly influential ancient Christians such as Antony and Pachomios believed strongly that the first significant step toward a meaningful life was attending to the depth of the self with honesty and humility. As the famous fourth century Christian, Evagrius Ponticus, stated, "If you want to know God, learn to know yourself first!" Isaac of Nineveh, a seventh century theologian who spent more time contemplating love, prayer, humility, and faith than rigid church programs and lofty ideals, may have said it best, "Strive to enter the treasure chamber that is within you; that way you will see the heavenly treasure... The ladder to the kingdom of heaven is hidden in your soul."  [11]

This ancient focus has become increasingly popular in both scholarly and public circles in recent decades as both religious and non-religious folks continue to struggle with the same contemporary problems. As Anslem Gruen, a Christian monk and scholar from Germany, has pointed out, "Psychologists are taking an interest in the experiences of the early monks, in their methods of observing and dealing with thoughts and feelings. They sense that this isn't mere talk about humans and God, that the monks' words come from sincere self-knowledge and real experience of God."  [12] In addition, this spiritual method, however ambiguous its theological particulars might be, in practice, can be traced to many contemporary Christian authors such as Thomas Merton and George Maloney, whose works also emphasize self-attentiveness, meditation, personal prayer, and devotion, and have, not coincidentally, been widely received by the public. The systematized, externally driven prescription for hurting individuals that is so often prescribed by many modern Christians is simply too often a temporary answer for deeper questions.

Cynics, especially Protestants and Evangelicals, may certainly criticize the theological implications of turning inward for hope, but an honest Christian cannot ignore the fact that his own world is full of hurting individuals and sincere questions about the fullness or emptiness of life. In these moments, a purely intellectual faith may be too shaky.  [13] Experiences of emptiness pervade modern culture and create false realities. There is a tremendous amount of wisdom in the suggestion that folks begin a journey of self-discovery. The discovery will demonstrate that the most meaningful experiences possible are closer than anyone can intellectually imagine, hidden away from the distortions of all the false realities, deep in the recesses of the soul. As Gruen would claim, "There is something that wants to come alive, to bloom."  [14] It is no coincidence that this wisdom surfaces in all sorts of artistic material, even in the music of best selling pop stars whose work is often saturated with crudely explicit content. It is also no coincidence that when it does surface the public gravitates to it. Perry may or may not have any sort of systematic or logical beliefs to support her ideas,  [15] and she may not have put this much thought into her opus, but the positive message in "Firework" has obviously been exposed to millions of listeners, and for that, credit is due.

[1] Katy Perry,

[2] Emptiness continues to be a characteristic theme in the remainder of the song, "You don't have to feel like a waste of space... " (Verse 2).

[3] Literally, "Soul Friend".

[4] John O'Donohue, Anam Cara, (Harper Collins Publisher, 1998), xvi-59. Italics mine.

[5] In place of "spark," for example, the former uses "divinity," and in place of "ignite" the reader is told to "attend."

[6] O'Donohue, Epigraph.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] The last of these might also be considered an internal source.

[9] It might also be added that in such discussions many Christians would throw around terms such as "mystical" and "New Age" really having no idea what those terms actually mean or represent.

[10] Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers, trans. Peter Heinegg, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1999, 11.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] Ibid., 7. Italics Mine.

[13] It is important to keep in mind that what is being suggested here is a type of spiritual method and practice, not particular beliefs. In practice, Christians are often far too occupied with external conditions such as visible, measurable accomplishments to give any authentic attention to their own condition and needs.

[14] Ibid., 25.

[15] For instance, Perry does not seem to make any suggestions about the origin of the spark in "Firework." Is the spark purely a humanistic concept or does it imply something divinely other, as it does with the ancient Christians and other similar religious individuals? The lack of information may or may not be intentional. The song's lyrics are brief, and many influential songs revel in brevity.

Josh Fraley   # August 26, 2013 : COMMENTS ( 0 )


A Plea for Authenticity

Thomas Merton, one of the greatest spiritual writers of the twentieth century, put out a strong warning about authentic community. He believed that it is extremely common for individuals to be false, to live behind a facade. He even believed that this condition can be passed along from one person to another like a highly contagious disease. If the disease spreads unrestrained, he warned, it is like a terminal illness. It will ultimately result in nothing less than "the falsification of the whole religious life of the community."  [16]

Merton's warning may feel a bit dramatic. We might think it is simply the rhetoric of a writer and poet, but it should not be dismissed. After all, what should community focused individuals, even secular individuals, fear more deeply than falsification? And the weight of the question increases significantly for Christians, for those of us who have had some sort of personal experience with the Cornerstone of our faith who said, "I am the truth" (John 14). For us, Merton's point simply cannot be overstated. Very little threatens Christian vitality and passion as severely as relationships based on facades.

We should be aware that religious facades have been problematic for folks as long as there have been religious folks, Christian or otherwise, but the fact that the disease is common in our history hardly diminishes its threat. The following symptoms are everywhere in plain sight, and they demonstrate that churches ought to suspect and fear the presence of falsification: (1) enormous amounts of material published on the topic (2) a plethora of leadership meetings to discuss the problem (3) a general sentiment among many folks that church is more life-draining than life-giving (4) extreme boredom in the congregation (5) extreme apathy in the congregation (6) lots of church advertisements boasting friendly environments and authentic community (to convince the public), and (7) constant discussion about the need to return to an "Acts 2" experience.      Admittedly, the disease is hard to nail down, but the detrimental effects, the mind numbing symptoms of false relationships can be seen running rampant in local churches and seem to point to the existence of a tremendous amount of infected individuals.

Many Christians who suffer from an advanced version of the disease have simply given up, succumbing to what they consider to be a monotonous church life. Their attendance is consistent, but mentally they have checked out. This, of course, frustrates pastors and teachers to no end, so they commit themselves to the search for a magical remedy. Unfortunately, most of their attempts to pull the congregants out of comatose end in failure, and the leaders go on wondering if anything can be done to cure the dull stares in their congregations.

Feeling defeated, the leadership finally tethers the poor souls to religious life support, repetitively drip feeding them Christianity in the smallest doses possible, and praying for the best. Sermons are watered down with political ideology and then sweetened with an intriguing historical concept here and a comical story there. Attendance at social gatherings is bribed with food, and the whole package is slapped with a label: "Fellowship." Apparently, authenticity can be mass produced. Leaders are then baffled and distraught when they finally notice that attendance at these gatherings correlates directly with the number of courses they decide to serve. Still, if they were flies on the wall it might bless their tired ears to hear that honest, open conversations do in fact occur at these gatherings. But they don't hear them because authentic discussions typically occur aside from the main group in hushed whispers, lest the daring conversationalists be judged and turned into pet projects by the arrogant who have unknowingly already been taken by the disease and buried in white-washed sepulchers.

There are, of course, Christians in the community who are not yet directly infected but highly affected by the onslaught of spreading symptoms. For these folks, religious survival is a continual struggle. Often, their health is maintained because circumstances allow them to discover like minded people. There is strength in numbers, and they may produce some sort of creative way to band together and keep the infection at a distance, a sort of self imposed religious quarantine. In these instances, life is more than a drip feed, but it is often still desperate, and it is mostly nourished by sources outside the local church. Religious food is dropped in by humanitarians and benevolent forces. Crates of medical supplies arrive in various forms: rogue small groups, reading material, media, entertainment, and ironically, even doctrines and practices from other religions.

Although these struggling Christians are vital enough to refuse the drip feed treatment, they still suffer from the tragic task of watching the disease run its course with the infected members of the congregation. Like an intensive care unit, the church works to keep the injured alive, meanwhile the healthy wait up all night in uncomfortable chairs and live on bags of trail mix and other random snacks visitors drop off. A midnight coffee run, an irritatingly generic magazine subscription set out by the office staff, or an occasional outburst from an annoying soap star on the outdated television in the corner of the room might be the only thing that keeps their blurry, red eyes from much needed rest. Yet they remain with the community because they hope that sometime in the near future a doctor will burst through the door and announce that a miracle has occurred. The sick have been made well! There is life and passion in the community again.

Infected or not, we evangelicals tend to reject the unsavory truth about the condition of our local churches. By the time we are finished attending the prescribed quota of services, fellowships, activities, discussions, meetings, conferences, Sunday school sessions, camps, and holiday picnics, the Truth goes down like an artificially flavored fruit juice. We have invested a tremendous amount of time, but the Gospel's lasting positive effects are minimal. The sweet concoction may occasionally produce some temporary, hyper activity - a "mountain top experience" - but how many of us despair when the sugar high ends and we begin to crash? We are like spoiled children who stubbornly keep our mouths shut tight unless our medicine is presented in the preferable brand and mixed with strawberry syrup. Who would have guessed two millennia ago that a steady drip feed of politics, comedy, and history would be sustaining the life of so many churches today?

It would be a very serious mistake, however, for us to lay responsibility for a cure squarely on the shoulders of our church leaders. Most pastors and teachers are well intentioned, capable individuals. But falsification is like cancer, it is often too subtle to catch in the beginning and too large to manage once it has spread. Pastors, even the mature ones, are simply unable to perform enough preventative operations to ensure that everyone is guaranteed a healthy, long life. They are not dermatologists with quiet, suburban offices, carving out little religious moles before they become large problems. Congregational issues are usually already desperate. Church leaders are more like surgeons on a battle field using leftover bourbon to sterilize wounds and boot laces to sow up lacerations while bullets whiz by overhead. Their wisdom is real, but mostly defensive, and sometimes their best efforts are simply inadequate for the task.

Pastoral healing skills may also be inadequate if the pastors themselves are infected. Typically, leaders are oblivious to the presence of the disease in their own bodies. Their symptoms may be as subtle as persistent naggings from the Spirit in their contemplative moments, but they repeatedly swat those away for administrative responsibilities and the much louder naggings of irritable congregants. Solitude and inner peace seem more like luxuries than the necessities of a thriving Christian life. So, they really end up with nothing to offer their flocks but well organized services, nice power point videos, and a polite atmosphere. Meanwhile, all the passionate sheep are being torn to pieces by wolves so a couple stubborn, belligerent sheep can be wrestled back into the fold, bleating the whole time about how green the pasture used to be and how unhappy they are with Sunday's worship set.

No, we simply cannot expect leaders to single handedly rid the world of our religious obesity. We have only the circumstances of history and our own individual efforts to blame for the differences between the New Testament community and our own local churches. When we are open and humble, leaders may guide us, but they cannot force change. Pastors and teachers are in the divine profession of healing, but they are not shamans. They do not heal by spells and incantations and certainly not by sheer act of will. Leaders simply cannot program, plan, organize, or magically create authenticity on our behalf.

For theological good or bad, there is a distinction being made these days between religion and spirituality, and the gap is widening as more and more Christians become frustrated with the former. It is becoming increasingly popular for all sorts of folks to claim that they are spiritual but not religious. The differences between the two terms are often vague and ambiguous, but can be incredibly useful nonetheless. We should think of religion as form, structure, repetition, organization, and tradition. It is appropriate that the term literally means "to bind." Spirituality, on the other hand, is often understood as content, experience, a personal sense of something transcendent. It is often associated with other terms such as "intimacy," "awareness," and "vitality." From this perspective life is not simply a beating heart, and religious life is certainly not church attendance. Life is not quantitative but qualitative, and our religious lives ought to be characterized by passion, hope, discovery, inner peace, personal progress, and meaning.

Merton's use of the phrase "religious life" should be taken in this sense, and if his warning seems dramatic it is precisely because he understood that falsification is a subtle, sneaky disease that attacks the most fragile elements of that life. Unless attendance and tithes fall to economically intolerable lows, leadership can and will ensure that religion - services and traditions - continue, barely keeping everyone alive. Other issues like authentic community and intimate relationships, however, will suffer to no foreseeable end, and no amount of five step self-help books or Acts 2 campaigns will successfully stand in the gap and heal the diseased community. The cure must be developed and administered by individuals, by leaders and congregants alike. The mythical potion evangelical pop culture has been searching for is very much like the Gospel itself, intellectually simple but a difficult, humbling pursuit. The remedy is transparency in our congregations and responsibility in our pastoral leadership.

Transparency is difficult because we are frequently fooled by our own facades. Some of us have been living off the drip feed system so long we possess only vague memories of what a healthy, vibrant spiritual life feels like. What we actually need to do is pull out our Church's feeding tubes, come to grips with our own ideas and behavior, and find out who we really are. And if, after some reflection, we need to admit that we are not sure who we are or whether we really line up with the rest of the saints in our denominations, then we are one step closer to a cure. The Kingdom of Heaven is for humbly confused children like us. We may just have to dodge some dogmatic disciples to get to our Healer.

It might be useful to point out two general forms of falsification that tend to threaten our transparency. Self-righteousness, a particularly vile disease, conceals our reality by making us look like an exact replica of our church's culture. It's the perfect camouflage. When we are self-righteous everyone thinks we are the picture perfect evangelicals, the enforcers of all things distinctive in our denominations, the living traditions or frightfully, the living dead - depending on the perspective. Some symptoms are quite obvious. When self-righteousness takes hold of us, honest advice and criticism makes us defensive, and we are certainly not open to theologically diverse conversations. Diversity threatens self-righteousness. We like to think of ourselves as the examples of spiritual health, the most holy cities set on the highest hills for all the unconverted and unconvinced to follow. Indeed, a self-righteous man is all of this and more - at least for the less perceptive members of the congregation.

False humility is another dangerous facade. This disease creates an obsession with the worst aspects of our human nature. For those of us who have contracted false humility our relationships are an emotional theme park full of group confession and a public invitation for everyone to stroll through the haunted house of our own souls. When we pray we stand on the street corner and cry out, "Blessed are those who mourn!" We shout with the Apostle, "All have sinned!" and "I boast only in my wickedness!" But no matter how many of these scriptures we quote, they never seem to culminate in the comfort and peace promised by the original Author of the sermon. We plagiarize and proof text in the worst way, and we fool ourselves into thinking the moral life is impossible. Like the self-righteous, we cannot take advice, but in this case it is because we think our souls are too dark to change. Improvement is simply not a practical goal. For the man suffering from false humility, grace is not a necessary aid or a redemptive shove. It's a theological ventilation machine. We insist that our Teacher had no interest in personal responsibility, so we stand by and watch creation drown in its suffering, arguing that there is no point in effort. The whole thing will be burned and built anew one day anyway.

Of course, most of us don't actually suffer from such extreme cases of these diseases, but we often do suffer from at least a mild version of one type or the other. Transparency is rare in religious communities. Whether Baptist, Pentecostal, or Methodist, the honest truth is most of us are not really perfect examples of our church's culture. I know very few legitimate Pentecostal saints. On the other hand, most of us are also not as morally filthy and pitiful as we could be. I know even fewer wicked Lutherans.

I do know, however, a whole lot of evangelical Christians who show up at church and switch their relationship controls to auto pilot. They share their authentic friendships with folks from fishing trips, exercise facilities, work places, and athletic events. Those are the folks they really want to play cards with or meet at the mall. Those are the folks that don't care what beverage wets the Christian whistle or whether Netflix has sent the latest rated R film to a Christian mailbox. They don't care whether the Christian household is immaculate and smells like hazelnut every time they visit or whether the creation account in Genesis is completely literal. Our hazelnut candles are appropriate symbols for our Christian facades. They cover up the fact that most of us really do not live in an immaculate environment, spiritually or physically. But then again, we are not complete religious slobs either. Many of us do watch R rated movies selectively, drink beer safely, and play poker for entertainment, and our consciences remain clean.

On the theological side of things, many Presbyterians can't really articulate their view of predestination, and most members of the Assembly of God have never even bothered to read 1 Corinthians. (Otherwise, we might rethink our lofty view of speaking in tongues.) Many Methodists don't know what their method is, and a lot of Baptists are unaware that there are thousands of years of history between them and the New Testament. Still, our gray behavior and our intellectual failures have not yet resulted in deadly thunderbolts from the heavens. The Lord must know that we evangelicals heap plenty of torment and punishment onto one another!

The point here is not to excuse or debate what some folks might view as spiritual shortcomings; the point is that our real lives and thoughts consistently remain hidden. We refuse to be transparent, and this deprives other Christians of the opportunity to live out their calling to the Gospel in authentic fellowship with us. How can they love us as they love themselves if they don't know who we are? How great is our sin if we steal their freedom to decide whether they want to love us or not? We continually live life with our left foot in the church and our right foot in the world. And it is extremely unfortunate for the spiritual health of our communities that it's the life on the right foot that we really enjoy.

If authentic community is really important, maybe it's time we practiced a little honesty. Perhaps we should put away the scented candles and leave the vacuum cleaner in the closet when it's our turn to host a community group. There's nothing wrong with scented candles, but it's not how we typically live. Maybe we should invite more of our church acquaintances to our poker games, not because we want to bicker about gambling in the scripture, but because that is where they will really get to know us. Perhaps we should not frantically run and hide the fruit of the vine every time someone from the church stops by for a visit. After all, our visitors might be closet drinkers as well, afraid of what the church will say. Perhaps we should all stop abusing the Apostle's advice to avoid offenses or to "be everything to everyone" just so we can maintain control over folks we disagree with. If we bring who we are to the Table we might be rejected, but at least we will have given our congregations the opportunity to follow the Savior into true humility, sacrifice, and service. Merton was right. Facades are highly contagious, but so is transparency. A little honesty would begin to heal this rampant disease.

Leaders do have their responsibilities as well, and they are heavy burdens to bear. If we begin dropping our facades all sorts of things will seep up to the surface. Leaders have to be prepared to shepherd their flocks and use relational leadership to guide individuals in the midst of their messes. They must be prepared to distinguish between wholesome behavior and legitimate pollution, the Spirit and the traditions of men. If authenticity is really a high priority -more than just lip service from the pulpit - pastors must be committed to its defense and preservation. They should be prepared to gird up their loins, provide some loud instructions, and protect the living from the dead, the healthy from the infected. The self righteous might need to be fought off tooth and nail, culture might have to shift, people may have to get upset, and the monthly tithes may have to suffer. Pastors will have to go looking for the homemade whip they put away in storage after the years in seminary and ministry killed all their enthusiasm. Moneylenders will definitely have to be run from the temple. But in spite of all this responsibility, leaders cannot even begin to shepherd, guard, and grow their people until their people show them who they really are. Iron does indeed sharpen iron, but not when it's draped in velvet.

[16] Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation, The Liturgical Press 1960, 37.

Josh Fraley   # October 11, 2012 : COMMENTS ( 0 )