Faithful in the Grey

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.

These words from 1 Corinthians chapter 10 were written to a church that was celebrating the freedom they had found in the grace of God. They were once under a law that was too much for them. The covenant of the Old Testament between the people of Israel and God. After many thousands of years the nation of Israel had found time and time again that it was impossible for a man or woman to live in complete accordance with these laws.

This was not unjust. The level of difficulty of a law or order has nothing to do with its rightness.

And so when this Church heard the news of Jesus and how his death had overcome sin and paid the price for them, they rightly rejoiced! The freedom that came after the burden of being a slave to sin and constantly offering sacrifices of no real power, and to find that the sacrifice had been made to cover all past and future sins meant the release of a burden that no man could bear. The celebration was justified. A peace in the heart that could never have been explained or foreseen is a cause for great joy.

But that is not what the writer of this letter is talking about. There are other actions, with less clearly drawn lines for if they are to be considered sin in the first place. I have spent a great amount of thought on these grey spaces. Some are spoken of little, and others not at all in the Bible. But there are ways to determine if they are lawful and beneficial for you or if they are unhelpful, and actually destructive, in your life.

I have heard a preacher once say that you know the things in your own life that either increase or destroy your affection for truth, Jesus, and other people, and whether or not you can handle some or any of those things.

I’ll start with an example of the sorts of things that are spoken directly to in scripture, and work into the more difficult to define.

Alcohol. Christians, as has been written by better men before me, must be “teetotalers”. We must put to death any desire in us to be seen as strong or manly in the site of others by the amount of alcohol we can consume without passing out or talking foolishly. Ephesians 5:8 states “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” And so we have a clear guideline for the place of alcohol in our lives. Can Christians with a clear conscience take part in a glass of wine? Absolutely. Assuming we have not and are not being drawn into addiction. But what is the redirect in this verse? “But be filled with the spirit.” We know the focus of much of the world is to be filled with new and better and stronger drink. It is epidemic. But in the church our epidemic should be a desire for more and better and stronger works of the Holy Spirit. I could put it this way: Don’t worry about what you drink, but become obsessive about your pursuit of holiness and intimacy with the Holy God. As a serial hobbyist I know that all obsessions of material things will forsake you and ruin you, and the only obsession that I know will improve you and leads you to care more for others is of God’s word, his presence, and the recognition of his voice. So, let our ears be tuned to it.

But what about things that are “morally neutral”? Sure I can have a glass of wine. Sure I can spend a day playing video games. Sure I can and probably should get regular exercise. God has made the world with a myriad of good and right things that for each person, may (with a heart of glad thankfulness to God) be enjoyed for our joy and HIS glory. But some of these things may hurt you. I have found that I can’t spend multiple hours on video games. I can’t explain why and I don’t fully understand it. But for me in my life, with the personality that God has given me, I am made to feel weak to temptation, despondent, inattentive, and mentally drained when I partake. So what do I do? I abstain.

What about exercise? I enjoy running in crisp air or hiking in the woods, the rush of blood and the heightened heart rate that makes me feel alive. But what if it is taken past enjoyment of God’s creation and how he has wonderfully made us all? Am I constantly examining myself for physical improvements? Am I so focused on my flaws that I need to purge them from me by excessive exercise? Do I constantly compare myself to others and give pride yet another foothold to distract me from the beauty of the metaphysical, for God’s love and his immensity and how the way he has made us speaks to his wisdom and goodness? In all honesty, I would say: sometimes. What does that mean for me? It means that I don’t carve out my day to go running all the time. I don’t give up time with my wife and son very often for the sole purpose of physical improvement. But I do make an effort to include my family in things that benefit my spirit. Climbing mountains, walking on riversides, and taking those times to drink in the good that God declared over his creation, the bits that are still there despite the fall.

So I take my exercise in measured and intentional amounts, I don’t play video games, I enjoy an occasional drink in an appropriate setting, with those who take a similar view. There is a second part to this idea in 1 Corinthians, and that is “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” Now what does that mean? It means in the grace and power of God we take this thing one step further. We work by the Holy Spirit to identify those things that are beneficial, and which are neutral, and which tear down ourselves, but God’s work on the inside of us is always and forever making us look outward at others to see what we can do for their benefit and their good, so they would glorify HIM.

Once those things are identified and we have good conscience about all of them in light of the truth of the Bible, we must stop thinking about ourselves almost altogether, and about the good of others. Other people are going to have different strengths and weaknesses, and if we wish to live a life that puts others first, then we need to consider our morally neutral acts in light of those around. It says in Romans 14:15 in the context of whether or not someone may think eating or drinking of a certain food be sinful or not: “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” So if we know that our friend can not drink alcohol, and indeed is convinced it is sin, then we abstain at the very least in his/her presence. For the Christian, we must almost universally participate in less than our conscience allows us, for the sake of others. 

For the first time in my entire life, I recently had to ask my gracious and godly friend to refrain from something that was causing me to stumble. I don’t think he acted wrongly, but I could not in my heart get around his opinion on something that I held dear. I am a vegetarian, someone that Paul earlier in chapter 14 of Romans calls “the weaker brother.” And I had to ask, in a sense, for my friend to apologize to me. I had never thought of it in this light before but to plead with a stronger brother on your behalf, that you might not sin in your heart but be in good communion with the church family was one of the most humbling things I’ve experienced. I’ve rarely had a real problem doing what was right (generally, and even that not to my credit, but a gift of God), and I’d up till then held that it was a strength of character that allowed me to endure the light ridicule of others if it meant not grieving their hearts by admitting my hurt. There may still be some truth to that, and we should always try to suffer all offense graciously, but that’s not what was going on inside me.

Why do I write all this? I write it to say that you can never know if the day will come that you will be the wounded one, the weaker brother or sister, in need of the grace and kindness of your family and friends to be willing to sacrifice things they have every right to, covered by the grace of God for your benefit and yours alone.

When,–not if– that day comes, you will want to look back and see that you had always conceded your rights for the good and building up of others. Many things are lawful, but not everything is beneficial or helpful, so let us seek not just our own good, but the good of his neighbour.

In this way, we can live righteously, together in love, in the grey.

Japanese Car, Juggernaut Heart

I was around fourteen when I started writing about love. I wrote poetry of infatuation, odes to beauty and heartbreak. Phrases that I thought at that age summed up well all there was to know about love, that great muse of the Greeks, beauty and truth herself wrapped in pure sunlight and veiled by shimmering clouds. Until only a few years ago, my imagination of love and pure rapture of its presence gave me more delight than the real thing itself. The love of my mind was fierce and impervious to attack. It was kept as the secret source for hope, joy, happiness and resilience for those who knew its mysteries. The love of my mind was the love of the romantics, or what I thought I read in Shakespeare and all the writings of dead men that I placed firmly in the mental file of “Old Poetic Stuff.”

It is worth taking stock at various junctures in life of the progression one moves along, (not progress in the evolutionary sense, but intentional work one does in pursuing perfection) if only to mark the differences, and to view the imagined trajectory of ones inner growth along the spectrum.

This is that.

Note the wisdom of the maker. As I grew up, I started to understand the love one must have for their neighbour. In friendship and acquaintance, I learned dedication and loyalty, and the ferocity one may find in themselves at the degradation of their closest friends. As situations present themselves and you feel the inner heat flare inside yourself and the sense of justice and the war for peace you feel for those you care about you start to get your first inkling of what love looks like.

–Note: I am leaving out the different definitions or types of love for my purposes. Many have worked out their distinctions and I think could easily point out and categorize the ones I name here, I am not presently concerned with definitions, but of my personal interaction with these loves through the course of my short life. —

This first sense of love then paints itself into the picture I had held in my mind of perfect love. Love now had grit to it. It was taking form somehow, becoming alive. My heart had been given the premium fuel and I craved the passion that made me weak but made me feel somehow beyond powerful. The strength of genuine human connection.

If the love of friendship is the ideal fuel for the human heart, then romantic love that is forged into the steadfast love of lifelong marital commitment is a crude retrofit of parts bolted onto the heart of homo sapiens. You start with the inkling of a feeling, an understanding, that you and some other person have begun a journey toward something you both value but do not understand. Like any experiment all of the parts bolted together spew smoke and boiling hot oil outside and any operator must wear his goggles if he wishes not to be (as is often accused of those in love) stricken blind by the new firepower that backfires and spits and threatens to break through his rib cage. And if this were to continue forever the caged heart would break.

Now what I’ve found happens next is not a fearful thing. It is not a thing to bemoan. It is the engine of the heart being tempered and tweaked and optimized and made efficient. After a time those in love must calm themselves and the temperature must cool if they wish to be any good to the world at all. And the cooling is a sign that the heart of their love is running well, because the fights become less regular, there is more harmony, all of the parts of the two become one milled and engineered to exact specifications.

Those who know the truth of chosen love and experience it as I have and do, know that there is a regularly occurring reminder that to lose the other person would be the most horrific and degrading of amputations. “The two become one flesh” is not a euphemistic turn of phrase. As I have only known in nightmare the fear deep set in every man’s heart is to lose the one they love, stolen by the one I call the organ thief. To be awake in the operating room unable to speak and only scream in your own head “Please! You’ve taken my good leg! My strongest lung! The very best of all that I am…” And then to be forever a cripple, knowing that what you had thought, before you met the one you love, was complete health was only a half-man.

Despite the fear, it is a life of great peace. 3 years in and I already know I’m owed no more than this. No one has lived a life deserving of more than the joy I’ve already been given. And yet, in the divine wisdom of an infinite God, I received, a son.

What I’ve found since the birth of my son is that if marital love is a retrofit for the heart, then parental love is a completely new transformation. All the excess is cut out to make room for a heart that no young man suspected could beat beneath his chest.

I could never believe myself capable of the humility and servant-heartedness that is required to love an infant. It seemed a trick to find it in myself and when you deeply love your child it is a reward, even if not the end in itself. Somehow, all work and all sacrifice made for them seems like its own pleasure, and one has the sense that it is the baby who is doing you a favour. Or at least through him you can learn humility, gentleness, kindness, consideration, to be quiet and calm.

I’ve looked back and seen the way God has taught me through this ever expanding love for others, and the love itself was its own sort of lesson. Seeing that it has grown in me is proof of the hand of God growing and teaching and reproving in me. There is no other explanation, for I know that left to myself I would only crave chaos.

But here. My shaking hands with her smooth hands, his tiny hands held tight, I know at the bottom of this juggernaut heart that I have been made new.

Happiness as the Supreme Value

Life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. That, according to a certain man, is part of what every human being is entitled to. I’ve spent enough time thinking about the first two and so I would like to address the third. The pursuit of happiness. If I can be frank I think we westerners at least are for the most part taken sick with our pursuit of happiness, and like children with bags full of Halloween candy, we have pursued it to its inevitable end. Sickness.

Why I say we are sick of/with happiness is that the thing never lasts, and though every generation struggles its whole life through it can never arrive at a perpetual state of happiness, as it needs to be maintained, fed and ends up being a sort of all consuming monster that we eventually give all ourselves in the pursuit of.

It is elusive, it is fleeting, and completely unsustainable.

But there is a better example. I have found that by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.(Hebrews 12:2 ESV)” there is a hope that transcends happiness. The terms of happiness and joy have often been used interchangeably and some have assumed they were synonymous, but according to the author of Hebrews, there is a dramatic difference, and it almost seems that joy has almost nothing to do with happiness at all.

While joy often has happiness as a side-effect, focusing on happiness almost always the the thief of our Joy

What Jesus endured on the cross was unimaginable and not fully explainable; on every level of the senses, emotional, physical, spiritual, it was absolute horror. Rejection from friends, family, and God, the worst death the Romans could concoct, and a disconnection from the Creator of the universe. Yet the writer of Hebrews says there was Joy that was set before Jesus in the face of all that he knew was to come. In his allegorical book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis says (paraphrase) that to everyone who leaves the grey city (which is allegorical for hell or purgatory) and comes to walk the difficult path of becoming whole and more solid in heaven, the joy he/she comes into will be so great it is retroactive. The joy that is set before those who grab hold of it will turn all trial, all obstacles, all of the darkest possible horror in a person’s life into joy, as it can be seen so clearly as something that was simply an obstacle or trial on the way to true joy. And there is then joy in the conquering. But to those who do not leave the grey city, even life will be seen as a sort of hell, as it has only served the purpose of bringing them into further hell.

So what is set before us? Is it True Heaven or True Hell? It seems that identical lives could be led and one considered heaven and one considered hell based solely on the end of the journey. My Christian brothers and sisters, we have no choice, in view of what our God has set before us, to see life through the joy of the promise. We cannot dwell in the temporary as if it were an end in itself, but consider all things in view of what is promised. To those who may not believe, there is a sort of retroactive proof of heaven in the joy of redemption. That the joy the Christian can rest in foreshadows the heaven itself is a great mystery, but it is also wondrous and terrible, that both heaven and hell are having their effect on every single person, every single day, for their joy, or their torment.

Radical Forgiveness

“What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’
Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

Dear Lewis,

I do not propose to map out a method for the release of all hatred, malice, vengeance, and anger, but only to plead with you passionately on behalf of your soul. I have seen the world, and I have seen the way we humans get when we are together. The progression of technology that has brought us closer than ever, or more truly brought those of us already in agreement together, is a double-edged blade in itself.

I have tried to reintegrate myself into this world in careful measure but I admit to you now that I have ever and always the increasing inclination to reject wholeheartedly what I have seen called tolerance and social justice, “crying out against oppression” and forms of patriotism. I want to live somewhere I can no longer see the smoke of our cities burning. The online communities that have sprung up serve as a benefit to those who felt alone by replacing that feeling with one of being surrounded by many like-minded friends, all sympathetic, to their cause and station.

Now it is true that the foundation of all great sins are good things. The most passionate violence can stem from the deepest love. The motive, however, cannot redeem the action.

I cannot read the news. Every day there are people being ugly to one another in unimaginable ways. It hurts me but it does not anymore surprise me. Worse yet when a person of some importance is found guilty of something that was supposed to be “beyond him” there are two responses that I despise the most. The first is an arrogant declaration of the person’s guilt and how so-and-so knew all along they couldn’t be trusted, and he yells harshly “look at your God now!” They feel that they have been justice itself all along. A lone blind judge holding the balance.

The second response is similar and it is the response of those who take on the pain of others as a personal insult, as if they were owed righteousness from their famous ones. They, then, make it their personal goal to find and inform every person who will listen about the many horrible things the fallen person has done and replay and rehash until breathless every horrid thing, and in doing so shove their hands deep into the filth of the accused, and I think, take some joy from it.

Not so for you. You cannot judge the heart of man. If there is anything that I hope you learn from me it is to practice daily the forgiveness of the unforgivable. This is the greatest benefit to the shrinking of the globe. Now that you know who the worst people are in all the earth, think of them. Think of their faces before you. Look them in the eyes and wonder and pray and ask God how it is they came to take part in these things. Pray with tears and be thankful that whatever your lot in life was it hasn’t brought you to the place this person now dwells. Then, take pity. Console the victim. Encourage the downcast. But never take on the hate of this world for any cause. If you must rise up, rise up in justice, but never in anger or out of vengeance. I assure you it cannot be born without ruining you. Forgive the war criminal. Forgive the murderer. Forgive the liars, cheaters and the self-justified who would die without admitting their guilt. I say again you cannot bear the judgment for the sins of the world, for none is righteous.

This may seem impossible. But it is a practice that I think will serve you well. If these are your thoughts, then maybe, just maybe, you will in life be able to forgive your friends, and your family, and your neighbour, and possibly even yourself.

The Great Fear

I don’t suppose this should interest anyone. Though as you’ll soon see, I crave its being interesting. I have found myself a long way from where I once was, having at one time written a draft entitled “The Reformed Egoist.” This was to be a declaration of my methodological putting to death of pride in me, and my ways of practicing this reformation.

Here is where the darkest of shadows lays over my heart. The proof is everywhere and I see it and despise it. The attempt to practice in the most literal sense, humility, holds in it the great fear of my heart. To presume myself capable of an escape plan from my own bravado is to believe myself so far beyond human pride, to see within myself the potential for so much more than my peers is to believe impossible greatness about myself. C.S. Lewis wrote something to the effect that humility is like trying to see the back of one’s head in a single mirror, the moment you position yourself to be able to see the back of your head you find you are looking at yourself again. Focusing on the self. Find humility in yourself. Soon enough you will be quite pleased to find just how humble you are and a good deal more humble than your peers.

I was tonight brought to bear the realization of my fear. The fruits of my labours were graded and found to be average. Unremarkable. How long have I left unchecked the view of myself as one who sees, one who stands in this world but has an arm’s length disinterest in the vulgar, or common things, and thinks only of the high and lofty? A man outside of time, viewing it all at his fingertips, a man who truly understands. My great fear is that I get to the end of my life and find that I was un-extraordinary.

Lewis again writes that when you meet a humble man he is very unlikely to be the sort of man who is always talking about how low a person he is and how ordinary he is, but he will more likely be a person that you meet who seems to have a quiet joy as he speaks to you, and is genuinely interested in what you have to say. I wonder how often I have ignored the things that others say, meandering through time and space, delving into depths of philosophy in which I have no business being. And I miss it. I miss the crucial, most beautiful things that have been said because I think I could say them better. Like I know anything about beauty.

I cursed my false heart in prayer today that it would be made new, in the way that the Christ cursed the false fig tree that, though in bloom, bore no fruit.

Real transformation is not exercise, it is surgery. It is not evolutionary progress, it is a cosmic leap. It cannot be the same heart, because that heart was growing and progressing into absolute cold degradation, and I need one with a different builder, a different set of mechanics that is tuned “not to think of myself as more that I ought to, but to consider myself with sober judgment.”

It is all false, and I cannot use my mind to judge the progress of my heart. It does not have the education or experience to do so with any sort of qualification.

Life is Short is Long

“Life is short.”

– Woman in Starbucks

 

This is going to be a bit more reflective and sentimental, so if you don’t have time for that sort of thing, you may leave it off.

Life is short. This is one of those things that throughout the course of my life I’ve heard said when people encourage others to make personal changes, to take risks, to open up, to find forgiveness, and sometimes to justify absolutely terrible and irresponsible decisions. We have all of these funny little mantras that we use every day and express to one another and often don’t really consider the weight of.

We also don’t often remember the original purpose. Phrases like “Life is short” may be helpful to the sort of person to whom change is a fearful thing, or maybe put off the right decisions and actions because they, in the back of their mind, believe there will always be time to mend hurt feelings, or make a call that will make someones day. It’s effect could clearly be seen to those growing up in a more rigid societal climate where propriety and cultural obligation meant more in western culture. And maybe that was the message they needed to hear at the moment.

I think now is a good time to consider that certain phrases, pieces of advice, and things that strike true to a generation and become a phrase that invokes change may just be the thing that those people at that time needed to hear. We all know that telling someone “Just go for it!” will at one time be excellent advice to jump into new joy, or it could be terrible advice to bring terror, pain, and evil things.

Perhaps the shortness of life has played it’s role, and may now leave stage. It has become perhaps a little too popular in the younger and older generation to use this idea as license to do all manner of selfish and dangerous things that hurt themselves in the long run. It has helped us justify the denying of moral and ethical truths about life simply because we attach them to the old world way of doing things. It is license for substance abuse, for lack of perseverance in difficult relationship issues and to not take care of your body, or take care of others. I know that there are times when this is good advice, but there are times when it is not.

There is an opposite and in my experience, actually more true possibility. I haven’t lived all that long on this earth and am a considerably young man, and as I have grown up and become more aware of who I am and who I want to be, (without trying to sound ungrateful or unhappy), I find that life tends to go on a bit.

In fact there are days I find it to be a bit long-winded. If we’re honest isn’t that the case? Anyone who has spent an afternoon waiting at an airport with no spending money, reading material or a dead cell phone can tell you that things tend to drag out when you’re not doing anything. People will also tell you that time flies when you’re having fun. Somewhere between airport afternoons and a day at an amusement park there is a middle ground. This is where I find myself.

I find that if you look at each moment, if you are really where you are when it is happening, if you are trying to remember what happens every second if you look a day in the face and ask it to tell you all about itself and find yourself running into the next, then life doesn’t seem so short. If you look into a sunrise in the morning and try and count every shade of orange, or maybe if you walk with the one you love and while listening to every word she says look at her hair and note the exact texture, or her clothes or what the sky is doing or what the trees look like, if it’s evening or morning or the consistency of the mood and attachment between you. If you write everything down mentally and soak it in and really truly know any bit of your own life, you will find that it is hard to remember everything from yesterday, from the last week or month, and that one or two years ago seems like a lifetime away. But what do I know, I’m just a young man.

People say they look back on their lives in their twilight years and see that life simply went so fast, that they spent too much time doing this or that and not enough time on something else. They have all these regrets about time spent and places never ventured, and these are legitimate. But I know this, they remember the big things, and the time in between seems like a blur because their was so much in it, granted they were watching. Every minute you may have had your own mental dialogue, and for me, I think it’s okay that a fair amount of my life I’ve spent getting to know myself as well as I can. I don’t imagine regretting that decision. I kind of like the person I’ve come to know.

See, I could write a book about what happens to me between breakfast and my lunch break. I’ve had mornings that contain such intense uncontrollable anxieties that a prayer will suddenly dispel by lunch and change the rest of my day. The amount of running commentary in my mind that is freed from it’s prison in just a few hours could fill many volumes. On a Sunday afternoon I could have a pleasant lunch, get drowsy, say something rude, have an argument, time alone, and have it rectified by dinner. Setting. Time. Place. Conflict to be overcome. Love. Romance. Separation. Unrequited affection. Rising action. Then a reconciliation and two lovers reunited again feeling that nothing could ever come between them. All the elements of excellent storytelling on any day of the year.

I am twenty-six years old and I know this about life. That if I get to the end of my life and find that I can’t remember much between the big details about what I’ve done and where I’ve been it won’t be because nothing happened. It will be because my life has simply been so full of the comical, the dramatic, the wonderful, endless amounts of excellent stories and friendships and triumphs and self-destruction, faith and love, lost and found, that it would simply be impossible for the human mind to contain it all. Life is wonderfully and almost excessively long.

Life is long. That is my mantra, my message for our generation. If there is something to be changed, change it now because no one wants to realize that forty of their eighty years were spent hating someone. Or living dishonestly. Or not taking time to breathe (because you do have the time), or not being reconciled to family. In fact, I think it is more important that we act now not because life is short, but because it is so very epically, fantastically, radically, expansively, and exquisitely long. Like any tapestry with countless threads, beautiful because it is complex, wonderful because of the tedious care of the craftsman, and extraordinary because of how commonplace the extraordinary occurs.