Transfiguration and the Lost Art of Listening

I’m tired of feeling the compulsion to always have something to say, to always have a response, an opinion, a wise word. I wonder how much of this comes from the fact that I’m a pastor (a vocation unfortunately far too suited for those of us who like to hear ourselves chatter) or that I’m a writer – I mean, I live by words for goodness’ sake.

Of all the compliments a pastor (a human, for that matter) could receive, this has to be one of the best: “You listen good.” I don’t hear it nearly enough.

Peter was given to bursts of words, particularly when he was caught off guard or was flustered or eager or unsure of what else to do. Of course, his most famous moment was his self-assured declaration that, no matter what, he would never deny Jesus. A little quiet humility would have served Peter well there. I have been drawn to another moment, however. In Mark 9, Jesus took his inner trio (Peter, James and John) up to the top of a mountain to witness an event they would have to see to believe. Jesus began to burn white, glowing brilliantly, as Moses and Elijah, long dead, appeared next to him.

Stunned, Peter did what Peter usually did in such circumstances: he blurted out the first words that popped into his head. “Rabbi, this is a great moment. Let’s build three memorials – one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” (Mark 9.5-6, Message)

Peter just couldn’t help himself.

The miraculous had happened. God had revealed himself in Jesus — with white-fire and mythic-like witnesses to accent Jesus’ self-revelation. But Peter had to say something. Worse, Peter felt compelled to come up with something to do, something to create, something to build – a memorial would be just the thing.

We do this all the time. God is speaking. Jesus is burning hot-white among us. And we can’t sit still. We can’t wait and ponder. We have to strategize and market and draw up a flow-chart that flings everyone into action. We have to talk, to spin ourselves in circles with all our words.

Are we tired of hearing ourselves jabber? I am. Are we tired of having more confidence in what we can manage that in what God is busy doing? I hope I am.

I want to see God. I want to hear God. I want to believe that Jesus’ words are more vital to my world than my own words. I want to believe – truly believe – that God’s voice, that God’s shining presence, is truly the center of the action.

After Peter had offered his two cents, a thundering voice spoke from the cloud. “This is my Son…Listen to him.” (Mark 9.7) Listen to him.

Actually, Peter, the Father said, this is not the time for you to say or do anything. This is the time to listen.

There is a time to act, and there is a time to wait. There is a time to speak, and there is a time to listen. My prayer is that I will know the difference.

Listening (hopefully) / Winn

Creative Destruction

A while back, we got a new bedtime book at our house, 1,000 Things to Know About Animals. Giraffes and monkeys and cute little webbed feet penguins, our sons enjoy them all. However, the boys prefer the frightening creatures. Crocodiles with powerful jaws. Vampire bats with eerie eyes. Copperheads. Tarantulas. The more poisonous, the more hideous, the better.

The pictures and the fascination with all things gory prompted Seth, three at the time, to pose a troublesome question. “Why did God make scary stuff?” A conversation on the origin of evil…with a preschooler.

Growing older, however, doesn’t silence the question. A bridge collapses inMinnesota. A crisis escalates in Darfur. A region in the Middle East seems (again) like it might spiral into chaos. God, why all the “scary stuff”?

Scripture provides some clarity. God did not intend or create evil. A mutinous angel rebelled, choosing humanity and the earth as the fulcrum of his insurgency. Forced into the fray, we routinely choose the mutiny, against God. We often invite evil.

The result, however, was that evil did not remain merely in the isolated sphere of individual choices (either of angels or humans). Like a dirty needle pumping heroine into the bloodstream, this rebellion straight-lined evil into the created order. Our planet is now riddled with the foul stench. Disease. Greed. Ruin. Can anyone truthfully look at the human race and the mess we’ve made of our planet and believe our problem is merely cosmetic?

Evil is certainly not all we see in our world. Grace and beauty and kindness abound. However, everywhere we look, we see evil’s imprint. Loneliness. Deception. Abandoned children. Shattered marriages. Hungry nations. How can our sickness be healed? How can evil’s dark stain be removed?

Strangely, the Apostle Peter offers hope via a blistering, apocalyptic picture. The heavens will vaporize with an ear-splitting roar. Falling to the earth, fire will scorch the sky. The earth’s raw chemical elements will liquefy like wax dripping from a candle. “God is going to destroy everything like this…” says Peter.(II Peter 3:11)

But destruction is not the point. With God, destruction never holds center stage. God always moves toward redemption. The devastation will work to clear the brush, to remove all the malignant infection evil has cultivated. Destruction will offer a severe mercy. With power and fire and swift, final authority, God will reach into the bowels of the earth and wrench evil’s grip free, once and for all.

This cataclysmic work is not a final destruction, the earth done and finished. Far from it. The destruction breeds new life. It will be a (do we even have language for such a thing?) creative destruction. From the devastation, God will create again, refashioning the earth once considered ruined into the kind of world He wanted in the beginning. We will enjoy the wonder of “a new heaven and a new earth.”(II Peter 3:13)

On this new earth, there will be no disease, no sorrow. No one hungry. No one lonely. The lion will lay down with the lamb. Not a single hint of “scary stuff.”

peace / Winn

The Moon is Always Rising

God is up to something, always – this I believe. God is always redeeming, always bringing hope out of rubble, always forgiving what seems unforgivable, always speaking truth into lie, always mending what is broken, always restoring what has been taken, what has been lost, what we have foolishly given away.

God often does this mending and redeeming and restoring and forgiving in ways and times and places that do not meet up to our sense of how a mending, redeeming, restoring, forgiving God would work. But then, that’s to be expected isn’t, it? We are the ones who are broken and lost, after all, the ones who can rarely make much sense of anything at all.

But then – now and then – in moments that surprise us, God sends reminders of what he has been up to all along, that we are not alone, that we are not abandoned. That God is doing what God has always been doing – “putting the world to rights,” as N.T. Wright says. Laughter breaks through our tears. Unexpectedly, the music moves us and we find ourselves dancing. A story takes us into a true world we have neglected. A kiss. A Scripture. A friend. A whisper from God. A glimpse of the moon.

The moon is our monthly proof that darkness gives way to light, endings to new beginnings. — Starhawk

God.In Time

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

Strange Redemption

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),

Winn

A Prophet and a Roaring God

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

Shamelessly Naked

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

From Genesis to Einstein

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

Physical God.2 | Why Art?

I’m still poking around this idea of God’s intrusion into all things human, all things physical. Hope you don’t mind.

How deep does God’s incarnational* impulse run? Does God care about Elvis and Mona Lisa? Do the arts really matter? Really?

When the Church engages the arts, is it (at best) simply allowing space for people to express their enjoyable (but ultimately temporal) passions? Or is it (at worst) acquiescing to the demands of a fickle, image-saturated generation? I think we ought to be cautious where we go from here. The answer touches on the very nature and character of our God.

If we say that art lacks intrinsic importance, we are saying that there is no true value in breathtaking sunsets or the thousand varying scents of spring. A devaluation of art implies there is nothing divinely profound about the reality that our world possesses both zebras and clownfish, both bananas and pomegranates.

While our human senses properly respond to and enjoy art done well, art matters because God rules over the earth. Art matters because the kingdom of God is not only powerful; it is also beautiful. And as Amos Lee sings, “Nothing is more powerful than beauty in a wicked world.”

To speak of God as Creator is to say not only much about his sovereignty but also much about how he intends for his image-bearers to function: engaging the world around us, breathing fresh life into dirt and clay, splashing vivid colors in surprising places, and allowing our imagination to take us places where our heart runs free and our body bows in worship.

We must remember that in Eden God did not make trees that were merely functional, bearing fruit that was bland but nutritious. God crafted trees that were “pleasing to the eye and good for food.”(Gen 2.9) We experience bits of God’s heart when our eyes are captured by beauty and when our taste buds erupt with wonder and delight. George MacDonald prayed this refrain, “Gloriously wasteful, O my Lord, art thou! Sunset faints after sunset into the night.”

There is something extravagant about God’s artisan heart. This extravagance does not allow us to settle for a faith that is true yet sterile. God invites our faith to be ravishingly alive and stunningly beautiful. So, art in any of its forms can never be merely a means to an end or only a conduit to spread a message. Good art tells a story about God, a God who smiles wide at Mona Lisa.

Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. Madeleine L’Engle

peace / Winn

*I know I didn’t dream up this word. I’m not that smart. However, my spellchecker always gives me the little red squiggly line telling me the word doesn’t exist — and if I keep it, I’m on my own. If any of you have connections with the folks @ the Oxford Dictionary, could you put in a good word for my little friend, “incarnational”? He wants his day to roam free on the page, unencumbered by the squiggly red ball-and-chain.

Physical God

I have two sons, Wyatt (5) and Seth (3.5). Seth is the cuddly one. Last Saturday, I lay at the end of Seth’s bed, trying to help him go to sleep. He didn’t like the separation and wiggled his way down next to me. He draped his short arm over my back, put his face right up next to mine and said, “I want to be by you, daddy. I like you.” Hearing that, I could have stayed there all weekend.

Seth knew instinctively that he didn’t want me so far away that he couldn’t touch me. He wanted, needed, his dad to be in his space, not offering comfort from a distance.

We humans are physical beings, and we need a physical God. We need God right in the middle of our space. Scriptural principles and doctrinal formulations, good as they are, are incapable of communicating to us all we need. We discover truth and experience God and receive grace, not just via our mental capacities, but also via our corporeal senses. We need to touch beauty and to catch a glimpse of peace. God knows, we need to taste mercy.

Our tangible need is met by the Incarnation. Jesus, the Hebrews writer tells us, is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Heb 1.3) Jesus is God’s definitive intersection with flesh and matter. God came to us in Jesus. In Jesus, God touched us. God ate with us. God’s tears dripped on our dirt. In our midst, God died and rose again.

Unfortunately, however, we are tempted to view even the incarnation from a distance, as if it were a once-and-finished moment restricted to the Palestinian landscape of the first century. To the contrary, the incarnation awakens our spiritual experience now. Pulsing from Jesus’ intrusion into human existence, God continues to meet us in physical encounters.

In baptism, we shiver as the cold water pours over us, submerged in a watery grave. Are we drowning? In communion, we savor the bread’s sweet aroma and feel the wine burn as it trickles down our throat. In Christian community, we hear Jesus’ words and feel Jesus’ touch. Every taste of bread, every word of hope, every drop of water – with each, God is moving toward us.

God does not stay distant from our misery or our panic. He does not leave us alone to muck our way through our sin and foolishness. God has already moved into our space. The question is not so much whether or not we have a God who appears in our physical world. The question is whether or not we will “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Ps 34.8)

peace / Winn