Tuesday, March 06, 2018

We Are Who We Are

Years ago I read a very insightful book called Desiring the Kingdom by James K A Smith. Smith makes the observation that The Enlightenment gave rise to the idea put forth by Rene Descartes of “I think therefore I am.” Fundamentalism, which manifested in America as a reaction to The Enlightenment countered with “I believe therefore I am.” However Smith argues that there is something much deeper going on in human existence and that is that we humans are fundamentally creatures of desire. (This is one of the reasons why you rarely ever see folks on social media actually coming around to another person’s way of thinking even when presented with overwhelming facts to the contrary. We humans are not primarily rational thinking or believing beings but rather at a deeper level beings of desire and we each desire for the world to be a certain way.) So in Smith’s estimation the best way to understand our existence is in terms of “I love therefore I am.” This is a brilliant statement because it recognizes both that we are creatures of desire and that the most noble of desires and the most central to our existence and thriving in the world is love. But what is also implicit in the statement “I love therefore I am” is that love itself requires a context. Love cannot exist as a merely solo endeavor but requires others. 

In Romans 12 the Apostle Paul notes that the formation of our desires is going to happen one way or another and he sets forth 2 ways in which this can happen in Romans 12:2 

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature. 

The first way we are formed, or perhaps the default way we are formed is by external social pressure by society and culture. If we are not mindful and intentional with the shaping of our desires they will be shaped for us by what is going on around us. Advertisers know this all too well and so they show us pictures of the “good life” we could have if we just use their products. Marketing and advertising firms are just tapping in to the fundamental desire within all humans to keep up with the Joneses. The desire itself isn’t the problem because we humans are social creatures who learn by reflecting and participating in the desires around us and yet it is obvious that mindlessly trying to keep up with the Joneses is not truly a recipe for a fulfilling life. 

But fortunately that is not the only way our desires are shaped. Paul writes that instead of being squeezed into the mold of society and culture we need to experience transformation by renewing our minds (changing our thinking). How does this transformation happen? Paul’s answer for this is in the preceding verse: 
I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God (Romans 12:1). 
What does it mean to present yourself as a living sacrifice? I think maybe this is a matter of living sacrificially. Living sacrificially means that you don’t just do what you want when you want to but rather you give up something of great value to you in the moment for something of immeasurably more value in the future. Anyone who has ever been successful at getting out of debt or setting aside money for an emergency fund has encountered this principle. This is one of the reasons that sacrifice is such a major component of most religions because it is key to not simply surviving but truly living a virtuous life. 

However there is one more component that is easy to overlook in Romans 12 and that is the context of community in shaping one’s desires. This whole chapter (along with most everything Paul wrote) is not merely about a bunch of individuals with a private spirituality working on their own lives disconnected from one another but rather how we experience transformation individually as we live sacrificially together as we move towards something of infinite value (Christ). This is one of the most powerful aspects of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. While AA is known for the 12 Steps, the context in which the steps are practiced are every bit as important as the steps themselves. No one serious about recovery embarks on the 12 Steps alone. Instead they find an AA meeting which is nothing more than a group of people who all wish to learn how to live life soberly. Though everybody in an AA meeting desires alcohol (that desire is part of the problem) they have surrounded themselves with a group of people who are trying to live sacrificially (not drink) so that they can experience life in a better way down the road. 

So to summarize a few ideas here…
  1. Humans are fundamentally creatures of desire 
  2. Humans learn and are shaped primarily through social interaction (we tend to desire what the ones around us desire). 
  3. The most virtuous ways of living (for the Christian this would be the teachings of Jesus) do not come naturally to us and require great sacrifice to attain.
  4. If the above statements are true, then one of the greatest acts of mindfulness and intentionality in which we can engage is in the company we keep. If you truly want to experience transformation then you must make an effort to invest in community and in relationship with others that desire the same things.
  5. The result of this process is that as we experience transformation within community we also help others experience transformation. We become wounded healers. 
Reflection questions:
How are my desires being shaped by the company I keep?

If I wanted to change something in my life whether breaking free of a bad habit, engaging in community service, or learning a skill, do I have people in my life who value the same things and with whom I could live more intentionally?

What are the relationships in my life that have the greatest potential of shaping my desires in a positive way?

What are the relationships in my life that tend to shape my desires in a negative way?

Invite the Holy Spirit to lead you through a time of reflecting on your relationships while asking for direction concerning the relationships in your life that you need to focus more on or those which you may need to spend less time on.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Thoughts on Silence

I did not get to see the movie Silence but just finished the audiobook. I now understand why many of the people who saw the movie felt a bit conflicted afterward. People are most often drawn to stories in which the conflicts of life are black and white and where the hero, though he may struggle, will prevail in the end. We have an unconscious expectation for every movie to end "and they lived happily ever after." In Silence the real conflict, the major battle, is internal, in the heart, the mind, the seat of faith and trust in the heart of a believer. How does faith remain in the face of great suffering? How can trust and doubt coexist in the same heart? Why does God seem so distant, so silent sometimes? These are the lines of the battle, the space in which religious idealism is tried by fire and famine.
A friend of mine asked me if I enjoyed the book. I replied that enjoy was the wrong term. It was not an enjoyable story but it struck me as more authentic than most, and I am glad to have encountered it. Silence left me with many conflicting thoughts and emotions about my own faith journey. I am thankful for stories like this that do not gloss over the hard questions of faith, God, meaning, and suffering. It is in the conveying of the questions and struggles that I, the reader and the listener, know that I am not alone in my own struggles, questions, and doubts, and that much of the struggle of faith isn't out there but rather in the internal geography of the heart and mind.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How a Match in a Trash Can Led to Musical Inspiration

I am going to do a series of posts about musicians and albums that have inspired me over the years. To kick it off I want to look at musician who has influenced me in a big way over the years… John Scofield.  

I was fourteen years old and doing what fourteen year olds in Midland Texas did for fun, hanging out at Midland Park Mall. Oh, and I had a book of matches. And while walking around with my friends I was striking matches off the book in front of me onto the concrete and into the flower bushes. I didn’t mean anything by it, just goofing off. None of the matches stayed lit for more than a second after hitting the ground except that one that I threw in a trash can. I did not know it stayed lit until a security guard apprehended me and my friends. One thing led to another and I was required to go to teen court where I was sentenced to 6 hours of community service to pay for my crime of unintentional arson. Little did I know at the time but my community service would prove to be a pivotal moment in my musical inspiration.

I served my community service at a local community theater assisting the carpenter who was building sets. He introduced me to the music of John Scofield. I didn’t know much about jazz at the time but this stuff was pretty interesting even if I couldn’t quite appreciate it the way I do now. After serving my time I bought a cassette of Loud Jazz by John Scofield. Loud Jazz was so different from any of the music I was into at that time with lots of complex grooves and Scofield’s quirky melodic runs. 

Fast forward eleven years to 1998 and Scofield released what, to this day, is one of my favorite albums called A Go Go. A Go Go featured Scofield with back up band Medeski, Martin & Wood. A Go Go is a delectable blend of soul, funk and groove. I had never heard of Medeski, Martin & Wood but quickly became a fan. A Go Go is that rare album that is both out there and relatable at the same time. Every member of the band plays their part and has moments where they are shining. I never grow tired of this album. It has influenced me all around from bass grooves to keys, drums, and guitar.

Then in 2009 Scofield did it again with Piety Street, a Gospel Album which featured Scofield backed by Jon Cleary on keys, George Porter on Bass, and Ricky Fataar on drums. This album has become another one of my favorites. One of the highlights of this album for me is Jon Cleary who does lead vocals on many of the songs. Blues, Gospel, Jazz and Country have always seemed much more related than people assume and on this album elements of all three are woven together in a New Orleans gumbo (Piety Street, a Studio in New Orleans from which the album takes its name and where it was recorded). 

There are plenty of other Scofield albums which I enjoy but these three albums have been a special point of inspiration. I am grateful to Scofield for his willingness to push the envelope and to explore different genres. While so many jazz guys just pride themselves on playing outside the box, Scofield manages to play in an expansive way that never lacks in soul and emotional connection.  

I am thankful for that one match in a trash can at the mall that got me in trouble and introduced me to a life long musical influence.

Here are links to the albums mentioned in this blog:
Piety Street

Disclaimer: This article is in no way meant to endorse the throwing of lit matches into public trashcans as good path for musical inspiration. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Omniscient Bearded One We Worship In America Today

Every Christmas season our family will inevitably spend some time watching a few Christmas themed movies such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Die Hard (maybe not a Christmas movie but kind of). However, one of our favorite movies to watch each year is Elf. 
This year when we sat down to watch Elf, I enjoyed it as usual but was also struck by how much the popular view of God in America resembles the way we think of Santa. I know most folks don’t conceive of God as a jolly, old, obese guy in a red suit but many folks do in fact imagine God as an old bearded dude who is cold and distant but powerful nonetheless. 
Think about some of the lyrics we sing about Santa: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake” or “He’s making a list and checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” I think many folks conceive of God in the same way - He has omniscient powers which he uses to tally up the good deeds in our lives and then reward us if our good deeds meet his standard. 
In the movie Elf (spoiler alert) the climactic point of the movie is when Santa has had to make an emergency landing in Central Park because his sleigh’s jet engine has malfunctioned. We learned earlier in the movie that Santa has to use a jet on his sleigh because there has been a decline in Christmas spirit over the years and Christmas spirit (specifically belief in Santa) is what magically powered the sleigh in the old days. So the movie wraps up as the main characters gather on live TV to start singing praise to Santa and stir up their belief and Christmas spirit in order to magically fix the sleigh. And of course you know what happens, everyone joins in and Santa miraculously has the power to continue on his journey of rewarding those on the good list. 
While belief is a powerful thing whether on an individual or social level, why do we so often think that God needs us to believe in him so that he can be empowered to act in our lives or in the world? If that is the case then it doesn’t seem like God is really all that powerful. 
If we really want to know what God is like we need only look at Jesus. Jesus reveals that God is not remote, distant or cold but that he is Emmanuel - God With Us. Jesus reveals that God doesn’t simply bless the good and condemn the naughty but that God loves both extravagantly and generously. Jesus reveals how God’s power is not rooted in violence, intimidation or coercion like that of movers and shakers of our world but is rather humble, vulnerable, merciful, and kind. And when it comes to belief, Jesus reveals that God does not need us to believe in him so he can be powerful but rather invites us to be participants in the very life that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Is God powerful? You bet! But how does God use his power? This is a much more interesting question! We find in Jesus that the power of God is not power over but power under. God’s power is not demonstrated by dominating and controlling, but in humility and serving. As we follow in his footsteps we find the very power of God at work in our lives and relationships with one another. We find that it is truly more blessed to give than to receive, to forgive than to become embittered, to live generously instead of hoarding all that we have, to extend hospitality to those who are different than us rather than to make them enemies or projects, to view people as created in the image of God rather objectifying them. 
I will close with one of my favorite passages from the Bible which reveals not only how different God actually is from the way we typically think but also encourages us to follow his example in our relationships with one another. 
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:1-11)