I recently had an audio conversation with my friend, Nathan Elmore. Nathan guided our conversation toward reflections on faith, life, and my first two books. I’d love for you to download it and take a listen.(it’s the first file on the page)
Well, sort of. My new book, Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of Francois Fenelon is out.
I am excited about this book because it is a collection of letters written by Fenelon to a number of friends, letters where he was answering their questions and offering them spiritual guidance for their life-journey. These letters connected with my own desire for wiser, elder, spiritual guides, and so I modernized them, wrote introductions to help us hear Fenelon’s wisdom in response to the sorts of questions we might ask today, and wrote an opening chapter encouraging us to recognize our need for spiritual guides in our life.
So, grab a copy. And, while you are at it — be sure to download a recent interview I’ve done talking about faith, life, and my first two books. Also, there is a special gift – two singles from one of my favorite indie artists, Tom Conlon.
I hope you like it.
peace / Winn
If God is real, why can’t we see him? If God is with us, why isn’t he saying anything?
Simple questions, so well tread that they run close to cliché. Still the questions dog us. Many of us can’t shake them free. Near his death, the apostle Peter faced a similar stinging question. Jesus had said he was going to come back to earth in a blaze of glory to once-and-for-all set this wreck of a world straight. However, several decades (at least) had passed since then, and…nothing. Not a single break in the clouds. Not the slightest sighting of an angel army or a radiant Messiah warrior on a brilliant white steed. Not a whisper of hope.
Rome still ruled. Liberation seemed no closer than before. Violence and poverty and despair were very much with them, growing even. As rebellion and disillusionment slithered in, their accusation took shape. “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” Their sarcasm was heavy. “Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” (II Peter 3.4)
Nothing had happened. Nothing was better. The world just kept rolling on…without God. Some began to view hope in Jesus as pure poppycock.
If this question was sprouting decades after Jesus’ resurrection, it is downright colossal today, almost two millennia later. There has been a lot of evil between there and here, a lot of hoping, a lot of hopes left empty. Every human decade has seen its disaster and its genocide, its famine and its plague.
If God is here, what in God’s name is he waiting for? It’s like Jan Eliason, a member of the UN envoy to Sudan, said in reference to the grim realities there: “Time is on nobody’s side.” In the world we see, evil appears to use the time quite nicely, but where is God?
Peter’s answer was salty. The problem wasn’t God’s delay. The problem wasn’t God’s silence or absence. God was always speaking; he had never stopped. His speaking brought the world into existence, and his speaking was now vigorously at work holding evil at bay until it would finally be cut-off. (II Peter 3:5-7) If it weren’t for God’s active presence, there would be nothing left of us. Evil would have consumed us long ago.
Our problem, Peter said, is that we forget the story. We forget how God is always working goodness. We forget that God is rich in patience and mercy. We forget that God has spoken the beginning and will be speaking the end – and he is speaking and working every moment in between.
We also forget that time is an entirely human internment. “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (II Peter 3:8). And God spends his days, his years, bringing us salvation. Time might not be on our side, but God is.
peace / Winn
For several weeks, I’ve been buried in the first three chapters of Genesis. It truly is the ultimate story: aching beauty, tragic deception, carnage and ruin. However, I find strange glimmers of hope in places I would not suspect, hints of redemption imbedded in the very place where the devestation is the most severe. Here are a few, with only first thoughts. I’d like to leave the commentary to you.
// Adam and Eve ate, and their world immediately shattered, a fissure rippled through creation. Their soul must have taken a harsh jolt. Immediately, they hid and began to snatch leaves in a frantic attempt to cover themselves – and God’s first action was to come to where they were, to pursue them with a question, “Where are you?” God would not leave them in their hiding.
// Adam and Eve’s fig-clothes were sad attempts at modesty. Worse, they were the very symbols of their rebellion, of how they gave God the finger. Yet God met them in this dire place they had made for themselves – and gave them better clothes. God would not leave them naked.
// Strangest to me, the more I look at what has classically been called “the curse,” I see mercy (a severe mercy, to be sure) even there. God actually did not speak a curse to Adam or to Eve. God only used the word “curse” against the ground and the serpent. It’s as though God would not use such language against his own image. What God did level against our father and mother seems to me to be -not a curse- but a redemptive judgment. God’s judgement infected Adam and Eve’s primary roles, their primary place of strength and competency (Adam working the elements of the earth and Eve nurturing life and relationships in her world). Was this hardship and struggle necessary for Adam and Eve to realize (in stark contrast to the lie that led them to their destructive choice) that no, they were not God, that no, they could not manage life on their own, that yes, they actually would be dependent on God for life and purpose and relationship and joy. God would not leave them in their delusion.
Pascal said that two things pierce our heart: beauty and pain. God’s first choice had been to flood Eve and Adam with beauty. And he had. Beauty everywhere, in everything. But they did not listen to the beauty. Perhaps, now, they would listen to pain. A strange redemption.
peace (even if it’s strange),
I love coffee. I like the aroma, the texture, the act of grinding beans and the sound of my pot sputteriung and spewing as black liquid goodness drains down into my stainless steel carafe. Now, I’m no coffee snob, evidenced by how my friend Nathan (who most certainly is a coffee snob) rolls his eyes and turns up his nose whenever he catches a whiff of me pouring the latest International Delights flavored creamer (Caramel Hazelnut Swirl, Vanilla Toffee Caramel, Southern Butter Pecan – the more words the better) in my steaming cup. Frankly, it feels therapeutic to get that out in the open. I’ve been outed – Yes, world, I pour flavored creamers in my coffee…and I like it!
My wife is the most voracious reader I know. Fiction is her first love. The good stuff – Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby, Madeleine L’Engle, Buechner, all things Dickens. Recently, when she rifled through War and Peace, I began to feel a little intimidated.
Eugene Peterson says that pastors should read fiction as part of their spiritual regimen (wonderful advice I was never once offered in seminary). I think every Christian should heed this wisdom. Listening to the story. Being captured by the narrative. Discerning truth as we are tugged through the plot. “Every good story is a retelling of the gospel,” says Chesterton. If that’s true – and I believe it is – then we need to read more good stories. God knows, we need as much of the gospel as we can get.
Here is a quick hit on four novels that have told me much truth:
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
The Chosen, Chaim Potok
‘Til We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis
Peace Like a River, Leif Enger
peace / Winn
I have spent a lot of time recently conversing with a Biblical prophet named Amos. He is tucked away in the often neglected corner of Scripture known as the Minor Prophets (the designation – minor – is unfortunate and misleading). My time with Amos has been difficult. My first hurdle is simple: my three-year-old son Seth has a stuffed monkey named Amos, and it is just hard to hear the gravity of a prophetic voice when I imagine it coming from a wide-smiled 18 inch chimp. My main difficulty, however, is that Amos is true to his calling. Amos is a prophet.
The word prophet conjures up other images and associations for me. I might think of the guy we saw on the edge of the street last Saturday wearing a “Fear God” shirt and preaching (loudly) to everyone unlucky enough to pass by. I might think of Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Jules, quoting Scripture before a hit job in Pulp Fiction. I think of crazed eyes, wild voices, strange words.
In part, it’s all true. Prophets have a wildness to them. They could never be called mainstream. They don’t ask permission to speak. They don’t spend much time trying to convince us to listen or to persuade us that they really do know what they are talking about. Walter Brueggemann has said prophets are God’s uncredentialed spokesmen. A prophet – a true prophet – is only a messenger. From God. God speaks, and God’s prophet passes the word along.
How then could a prophet’s words not be a bit wild, a bit strange?
Prophets aren’t particularly concerned with balance or with getting across the whole story. They aren’t typically big on nuance or subtlety or quiet ponderings. Those things are for another time, perhaps another person. A prophet speaks because something is drastically wrong. The moment is urgent. It is not time for deliberation or dialogue. We must listen. God is speaking. Our very life depends upon it.
When Amos spoke, urgency pushed along every word. Humanity had forgotten God, and as a result, humanity was cannibalizing itself. They had crushed and robbed the poor. They had perverted the systems of justice so the marginalized had no recourse. They had enslaved whole tribes and villages. They had violently abused the most helpless: the underprivileged, the pregnant, the elderly, the children.
This would not do. This was not the world God had created. God was angry. In fact, Amos puts it plainly: “The Lord roars.” (Amos 1:2) What’s a prophet to do when the world has gone mad, and when God will not gently let it be? What’s a prophet to do when God roars? What are we to do?
The problem with a prophet – a true prophet – is that they have little raw material to work with. Their scope is limited; their creative license is small. They can only speak what God says. And in a precarious time, when humanity is sabotaging itself and defacing all that is good, what God has to say will rarely be docile or sweet. It will “thunder from Jerusalem,” causing, as Amos says, even the mountains to wither. (Amos 1:2)
I see the destruction in my world, the pain and the violence and the evil. I see it all, and I long for God to get angry. I long to hear God roar – and to hear a strange prophet simply pass it along.
peace / Winn
I think some of the most beautiful words in the Bible are found at the end of Genesis 2 where the author paints the stunning description of humanity during that short pause between creation’s completed wonder and the disastrous Fall: The man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame. (Gen 2.25)
In an age where our body image is god, where we nip and tuck and incessantly pluck and flex, where even the most gorgeous among us refer to themselves as a “fat pig” (as I saw a sex icon refer to herself on a magazine cover this past weekend), where we are forever judged by Madison Avenue as well as by our own mirror, these words seem impossible. This physical exposure was not only in moments when Adam or Eve were prepared to be naked (and most all of us have varying comfort levels for this), but all the time, at every moment. There was no covering, ever.
The Genesis story, however, obviously speaks of more than physical exposure. The narrative vividly describes human relationships as we have never seen them: wide-open, unreserved, entirely unguarded. In this first sacred couple, love was better than you or I have ever known it. There was never a reason to hide a thought or to silence a voice. There was never reason to wonder if the other person was a safe place to pour out our soul. In our relationships, we must constantly battle the urge to hide, to guard ourselves from the harm we suspect might come our way if another truly saw all the grim, sordid places inside us.
But with Adam and Eve, our first father and mother, their body and their soul were entirely bare, not a stitch of cotton or a speck of emotional distance to hide behind. I fear this shorn, unshrouded life because I can’t imagine someone seeing all my ugly spots and not pulling back in revulsion. Contrasted to our experience, however, in the Garden, there was “no shame.” Perhaps no more beautiful words have ever been spoken. What would a world be like if shame were completely removed from the mix?
I think I’m pondering along these lines because this week is Miska’s and my tenth anniversary. Our marriage is quite imperfect, and we certainly do not know the intimacy and emotional safety Adam and Eve enjoyed. However, we want to. We are hoping and moving that direction. Every one of us needs a friend (a spouse, a father, a sister, a soul friend) who sees who we truly are, who helps us see what Jesus is crafting in us, who speaks against the many shaming voices in our life.
I hope you have one. I hope you find one.
peace / Winn
To her joy and to our sorrow, Madeleine L’Engle died last Thursday at the beautiful age of 88 in Litchfield, Connecticut, near her beloved family home, Crosswicks.
Madeleine has profoundly influenced my wife Miska and me. For my part, she has enriched my imagination as a writer, and she has stretched my calling as a pastor. Madeleine will continue to influence us, and (if we have anything to say about it) she will continue to influence our boys.
In the very young life of this blog, L’Engle has had her say. Among our small scattering of entries, we’ve quoted her and listened to her and reminded ourselves that God used her unique voice and pen to tell us wide, deep and dark truths we might well have missed otherwise.
Perhaps I’m just melancholy, but it seems to me that the elder, wiser voices are leaving us, without persons of their stature and faith and authority taking their place. In an age filled with religious glitz and quick-fix discipleship and all things techno-church, I long for older eyes who have seen the wide world, in all its wonder and all its demise – and will tell me the truth about it. I long for older ears who have heard the shallow truths and the loud noise and the screeching demands (religious and pagan alike) – and will tell me what boisterous yammering I must ignore and what quiet, improbable truths I must pay close attention to. I long for an older voice to tell me plainly, without mincing words and yet heaped high with grace, both where I am living like a fool and where I am being true to myself and to my God. God is kind, and he will help me hear and see these things on my own when necessary. But I am thankful he gives us friends acquainted with truth and wisdom to help us along.
Madeleine L’Engle has been – and will continue to be — one of these wise, elder truth-tellers.
In the spirit of eulogy, I could offer any one of hundreds of L’Engle quotes here. Something on death would be appropriate. A meditation on a theological truth, some notion with real gravity, perhaps. However, today I just want to hear her challenge and guide me, to prod me further on my Christian journey, as she has so many times previous. Along the way, L’Engle has taught me the importance of a Christian imagination, of allowing my soul to be open to things beyond the purely rational. So, may we all heed Madeleine’s wisdom:
It might be a good idea if, like the White Queen, we practiced believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast.
John Podhoretz wrote a warm, personal tribute. Enjoy it, and thank God for having graced us with a dear friend, if for only a time.
Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, particularly the past week. I’ve loved looking over all the fiction works that have embodied grace and told us bits of truth. We’ve compiled quite a reading list. It might be interesting to have a blog book club, perhaps picking a title every so often (not necessarily fiction) we could read together and then plan to converse about it on the blog. Of course, it could be a little too Oprah-like, but let me know if you think it’s a good idea – or not.
Madeleine L’Engle has a great lecture she offered at a Veritas Forum on “Searching for Truth Through Fantasy.” Take a listen.
I continue to mull over a couple themes from the last few weeks: the importance of art and the necessity of immersing ourselves in stories. I believe these artistic, creative expressions are much more than peripheral niceties tacked on to the more beefy stuff of faith. We need the arts; they are (at least to some degree) necessary because they help us read the Bible better. For most of modern history in the western world, scientific rationalism and naturalism have reigned with an iron fist. Under this regime, truth has often been equated only with facts that could be dissected, formulas that could be proven, or phenomenon that could be observed.
Many of us have learned to read the Bible in this milieu. So we have often assumed (or perhaps insisted) that the Bible’s purpose and concern centered on addressing our perceived need for a steady stream of rational, observable facts. Of course, many times the Bible does give us historical data or a straightforward, verifiable proposition. However, presuming the Bible always intends to provide such things pushes us to a small, myopic place where we totally miss far different themes and entirely other sorts of questions.
For example: this misguided presumption has, I believe, heavily influenced the way we approach the very first portion of Scripture, the early pages of Genesis. I’ve had this growing suspicion that something is amiss with the way some of us typically approach this text. Governed by scientific empiricism and the critical questions it raises, many of us have insisted that Genesis’ creation narrative was most concerned with the process of creation: exactly how the earth’s basic elements were formed and precisely how long this formation took. The whole conversation might conjure the image of a manufacturing process or a lab tech mixing formulas.
However, the Biblical word “create” (bara in Hebrew) paints a much different picture. Contrary to some popular views, create (Gen 1:1) does not immediately imply the act of making something ex nihilo (out of nothing). Rather, create refers to how one takes disordered elements and crafts something useful out of them, like a woodworker taking a piece of bare timber and carving a beautiful figure from the unformed wood mass. In fact, Genesis 1 seems little concerned with the question of how exactly God formed the first original mass of material (the Biblical notion of God creating ex nihilo is easy enough to locate in the New Testament, but it just doesn’t seem to be Genesis’ prime concern).
In fact, when the actual creation week narrative starts off, the text explicitly tells us that God did not begin with nothing. Rather, he began with a strange mess of something, a dark, chaotic, empty, useless, unformed mass. We could say he began with ugliness. However, as the six days of creation unfolded, God took those bare elements and created a world of stunning beauty.
This aesthetic concern influenced even the way the Genesis author crafted the book. The days of the creation account seem to me like recurring brush strokes, a passionate painter fully immersed in the glory of his work. Noting Genesis’ artistic nature, Bruce Waltke has referred to the Biblical book as “ideological art.”
So, I’m wondering if the question Genesis first wants to ponder is not: How did our world come to be? but (maybe) rather, Why is our world beautiful? And the arts are far more helpful than science at helping us pay attention to that question.
Frankly, this second question touches me in deeper places than the first question ever could. I don’t sense a deep need to know the exact processes or timelines by which God chose to speak this world into existence. However, I look around at our mess, my mess — our violence and despair, all the wretched ugly scars in my world. And I desperately want to know if there is a God strong enough, powerful enough, loving enough (yes, creative enough) to make it beautiful again.
The Gospel –and, I believe, Genesis – answers a loud, thundering “yes!”
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. [Albert Einstein]
peace / Winn