Monday, December 26, 2016

Something Old for Something New

Any time something comes to be so universally accepted that we take it as given, it might be time to take a step back and reconsider. I suggest that one such mindset we ought to challenge is that new is always improved. The "new" must be better some of the time or we would never adopt it, but ought we welcome with enthusiasm every thing available, simply because it's new?

In their book, Mindhacker, Evans and Evans point out:
We've heard it observed that as Western societies grow richer, with a higher level of technology and more leisure time, they tend to adopt hobbies that used to be considered tedious jobs, such as candlemaking
The Ghostbusters, re-imagined as Steampunk.
The more people are stuck with inevasible technology and suffocating connectability, the more they seem to crave a simpler time. Along this line of thought, the Steampunk movement is likely one of the largest world phenomena that you may not have heard of. It is driven by an obsession with Victorian-era technology to produce modern solutions, and is in some way a colorful protest against the seemingly inexorable advance of modern technology. When you see a reignited love for old materials like brass, copper wood, glass, and ornate engravings, you are seeing an impact of this mindset. Even the great thinkers who launched what would become the Renaissance were obsessed with classical Greek poets and philosophers. "Ad fontes!" they would say. "Back to the original sources!"

On a personal note, I have become a devoted practitioner of bullet journaling as a way to organize myself, and have made a deliberate effort to reduce my own dependence on technology for productivity where possible. If you want to have your mind messed with a bit, click around on this collection of links about why paper is still a superior medium to any other option.

This sort of inclination can also inform our faith. Because publishers need to sell books and because authors desire to speak and be heard, there will always be people trying to say something new about God. Some of these things will be useful. But rather than chasing after whatever the newest thoughts are and accepting them uncritically, we will often be better served to chase after what is true, good, and beautiful, because these things will be valuable, regardless of their age. Some wise people have told me, "Always spend more time reading the Bible than reading about the Bible."

The prophet Jeremiah says in 6:16:
Thus says the Lord: "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
The true, good, and beautiful will sometimes be new, but even when they are old, they have a newness about them when experienced. The end result of chasing incessantly after any trend will be exhaustion. As you think about how you plan to live differently next year than you did this year, I want to encourage you to think about what it is that you are chasing. What is it that is making you exhausted? Must you really do all the things that you are doing and in the way that you are doing them?

If you're trying to grow spiritually, the truth is, the tools through which God shapes us are pretty much the same as they've been for thousands of years: steady practices of reading from Scripture, calming ourselves in God's presence and praying, practicing self-control, choosing to spend our energy on acts of kindness and mercy, etc. Before you try to find a new way to Google yourself into a better way of living, why not first consider the ancient paths, as Jeremiah calls them. They are less flashy than some other options and are generally more difficult than the other roads, but they've been found reliable paths by many generations before us, and they lead us to a place where we find rest for our souls.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Great Revealing

Mystery is interesting. At Christmas time, with God's help, we mature to where we enjoy giving more than we enjoy receiving. But the excitement of gift giving comes in part from the mystery involved therein. Whether you're the young child trembling in anticipation of what could be underneath the beautifully colored paper and ribbons, or you're the giver, watching for the look of joy that appears on another person's face because you've blessed them in some way, it is the cheerful unveiling of a mystery by someone we love which provides us with a deep sense of satisfaction. If it weren't so satisfying, it is hard to imagine this tradition in late December would have persisted for the many years that it has.

While we wait for the mystery to be revealed, most of our focus is on the packaging. It's the shape and size of the box that gets our imagination going. It's the patterns and colors in the wrapping that keeps us guessing what could be inside. But once the gift is revealed, the packaging is discarded, because the gift itself is greater than the packaging.

In Romans 8:19, Paul says that all of creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. The earth, subjected to many centuries of bloodshed and corruption, stands trembling in anticipation, waiting for Christ to return and for all of God's faithful children to be revealed, to receive their crowns and their beautiful white garments, and to have their proud Father say, "Well done!"

But for now, we're stuck most of the time looking at the world's packaging, and it has not always been well wrapped. Some of this is because of the ugliness of people's choices, their dishonesty, and their corruption. Some of it is shiny and gaudy, because people shower themselves with luxuries, never thinking to share with those who struggle to get by. If you look at history books and magazines, you'll see leaders and dictators, tycoons and socialites. But underneath this crinkly thin exterior, God has many children whose stories remain hidden from sight.

People tend to look past or even avoid the things God thinks are beautiful. The family member who puts their own life and ambitions on hold to be a caregiver for another family member. The person who quietly sends anonymous support to another family who needs the help. The person who accepts a thankless responsibility that no one else wants so that others can be blessed. The quiet things you do because of your love for God are the hidden treasures in this world that, for now, often only God knows.

Jesus has told us to stay dedicated and not to be afraid, because one day all things covered are going to be revealed, and all things hidden are going to be made known (Matthew 10:26). God is going to tear off and discard the world's shallow packaging, and reveal the beautiful treasures that have been hidden from everyone but himself. The real stories will be told, and those quiet souls who've shared God's love without reservation or recognition will be held up and celebrated as the gift to the world that they are; the pride of their Father. It will be the cheerful unveiling of a hidden mystery, and one that we hope to make even more beautiful because of our own unseen devotion. Spend your life showing kindness and mercy with God as your only intended audience. God is watching, and everything is more beautiful when it is revealed in God's good timing.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Healed Again

One of the stranger, lesser talked about miracles is when Jesus healed a blind man at Bethsaida. Described only in Mark 8, Jesus spat in the man's eyes and asked, "Do you see anything?" The man replied, "I see men, but they look like trees, walking." It was after Jesus laid his hands on the man's eyes again that his sight was fully restored, and he saw clearly. He had to be healed twice.

This, to me, adds a feel of realism to the stories of Jesus' miracles. I like the idea of the personal interaction with people, and the concern that they really were well. But for some, it adds a layer of discomfort. Did the Great Physician really botch a healing?

This is a case where context is important. Mark has chosen to sandwich this story in between two other stories, and all of them shine different angles of light on a common struggle. Preceding it is the lesser discussed feeding of the 4,000 and a discussion with his disciples. He was warning them against the Pharisees' "leaven" but they were thinking he was talking about physical bread, since they didn't have any with them. The discussion ends with Jesus' words, "Do you not yet understand?"

Caesarea Philippi was several days' journey
from where they had been. The large rock
formation had a cave in front of it with a
pagan temple to Pan built onto it. The natural
stream of water from the cave was like a gate
to the underworld.  It provided a meaningful
location for Jesus to talk about building
his church on "rock" and how the "gates of
Hell" would not prevail against it.
Following the healing story is the journey to beautiful Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus had a conversation with them about his true identity. Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, but as Jesus began to explain the need for his betrayal and suffering, Peter protested, and Jesus offered the famous rebuke to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men."

In all of these scenarios, you have the issue of people who have a glimpse of God, but one that remains obscured. The disciples had learned something about God's provision, but couldn't seem to quit worrying about what's for dinner. The blind man could see something, but not clearly. The disciples could understand Jesus was the Messiah, but couldn't get comfortable with a Messiah who would be both a King and a suffering Servant.

Despite our best intentions, we all struggle sometimes to see clearly. Some have been glad to receive the Gospel, but manage to see only more Law where God has given Grace. Some have been glad to receive freedom in Christ, but apply it in a way that is destructive and negligent. Others have settled for a culturally appropriated version of Christ that fails to embody the courage and boldness of the Savior we meet in Scripture.

It's nice to know that for all of us recovering blind people, Jesus is still with us, wanting to know what we can see so that he can help us see more. What truth we've grasped has come by his mercy, and sometimes we'll need more mercy so that we can experience more growth. The good news is that he is patient, and quite willing to help us a second time to see better. Our challenge is to extend to each other the same patience.