Absorbed

Hello to those of you who still surf by Wonderstuff from time to time.

I wanted to remind you that I’ve got a new blog and a new site, and it has basically absorbed the kind of thinking and writing you find on Wonderstuff. I hope you’ll add www.bobowenblog.com to your reading list, and check out the new site. As always, I welcome comments and enjoy the conversations that spring from them.

See you over there!

Your Basement is Haunted

Memory is not so much a segment of the brain as it is a room in a house. It is a particular place within the home of your being. Specifically, memory is a basement. To get there, you must momentarily step out of daily life, open that creaking door that scratches across the threshold, and descend a rickety staircase leading to a place where you keep everything that, up to this point, makes you you.

Of course, like a lot of basements, the basements of our beings can be frightening places. Sometimes the swinging lightbulb flickers, casting unsettled shadows across the cold, stone walls. Here you find an overwhelming clutter – your dusty boxes full of long-buried emotions, your pile of excess mental baggage. Few trips to this basement are convenient, and even fewer find you emerging from those depths full of positive energy. Rather, even if your intentions for venturing down those stairs are positive, you usually return at a quickened clip, as if something long buried has uncovered itself and is close at your heels in pursuit, and you must surface and slam the door shut lest it leap back into the daylight with you. Lest it escape the bottoms of your past and come to exist again in your present.

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Like many a basement in a gothic short story, the basements of our beings are haunted places. There are creaks and groans down there. The echoes of angry words we spoke to someone who we’re sure didn’t deserve it. Reverberations of hasty statements we regret we ever voiced. The basement is where the ghosts of our past reside. Some we can identify – people who we wronged mixed in with all the people we believe wronged us. All of them wander around down there, blind and lost. The only conceivable purpose for their presence is to feed our guilt or fuel our grudges. When we must descend into these cellars of our lives – whether in some fleeting, naive attempt at self-reflection or a necessary reconnaissance into our memories – we attempt to do all our business from the stairs, lest we disturb those spirits. We get in and we get out, and we try to forget anything we might have seen down there. At the top of the stairs, we wipe our feet on the dusty, cobwebby mat, intending to bring not even the smallest fragment with us back through that door into daily life.

And we wouldn’t go down there at all if it weren’t the only storage space we have. The problem is that a lot of the good stuff is down there, too. Reminders of good deeds done with no coercion, wise words we didn’t know we had in us, memories of inspiring, heroic folks with whom we once interacted. It is hard to believe how much clutter is down there, and harder still that none of it is very organized. The good words are mixed in alongside the bad, and the figures we revere mill about among the same ghosts from which we divert our eyes. There are all kinds of musty odors down there – they come from the open boxes, and just when one hits our nostrils and tickles our interest, another assaults us and we recoil and berate ourselves for ever thinking it would be okay to go poking around.

Even finding your way through such a mess is daunting.

Even finding your way through such a mess can be daunting.

Oh, we’ll try and spruce the place up a bit, especially if we find ourselves needing to venture down there on a regular basis. We’ll try to get it all organized and labeled. We make sure the good things are easy to access, and we don’t stack too many boxes atop each other because the last thing we need is them to all come tumbling down and spilling out like Pandora’s box. The goal is to avoid as much of a mess of memories as possible. There’s nothing more agonizingly tedious as cleaning up spilt memories by oneself. Sometimes, we’ll decide we need some professional help with our cleaning, and a lot of time these doctors we go to see help us. They remind us that as frustrating and intimidating as it is, the clutter is still important. They help us label things, and they don’t mind peaking into those dusty boxes with us. They help clear some room in the far back of the basement for those ghosts to wander about without getting in the way. Of course, the downside is that every once in a while one of these doctors isn’t paying attention to what he is doing and knocks over a box we’d rather not have known was there.

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For the Christian, when it comes to the basements of our beings, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is with one’s salvation experience comes the presence of the Holy Spirit – the presence of Christ in our inmost being. The bad news is one of the very reasons he takes up residence in us is that, like those weirdos on Storage Wars, he is eager to get into that basement of ours and start rooting around. He’s convinced that everything down there – the good and the bad, the pleasant and the disturbing, the loved ones and the ghosts – means something for our present and for our future. What is more, Jesus himself agrees with this idea.

I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned… When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:7-11,13)

This is one of the many reasons why we pray. We seek God’s direction before we descend into the basements of our beings. We choose to go downstairs with his Spirit at our side. It’s not that the doctors don’t help – they do. It’s just that the Spirit is even more of a specialist when it comes to dealing with all of our clutter. He’s seen millions of basements like ours, and millions more that are far worse. He’s fought his way through many a jungle of cobwebs, braved even the most frightening collection of terrors, and withstood even the most rancid of odors.

Every one of our basements are haunted places, and merely getting organized isn’t enough to restore health to, and to draw wisdom from, our pasts. So we do not go in alone, but alongside the friend and Helper whose job it is to boldly yet gently show us who we really are, deep down.

Christian Pessimism

Last week, I was listening to several ministers respond to college students’ questions when a particular metaphor struck me. Regarding issues such as prayer and the question of gender in ministry, a few of the ministers spoke about “the lenses we bring to the Bible” and how our presuppositions often prevent us from recognizing what a certain chapter and verse actually means.

This comes as no shock to the majority of us. Christians, Jews, Muslims and even atheists the world over have encountered proof-texting in some form. It especially seems the natural pastime of many Bible-thumpers, to see how many random Bible verses they can apply to issues within our society today. These are the same people who say things in general conversation like, “I have a verse for you,” or even “God spoke to me this morning about you.”

"Really? I wonder why I didn't hear from Him directly. I guess I was in the shower."

“Really? I wonder why I didn’t hear from Him directly. I guess I was in the shower.”

Even mediocre English teachers are quick to correct students when they offer a sweeping analysis of The Great Gatsby‘s themes based on half a chapter, or when they attempt to interpret “Mending Wall” solely from the line, “‘Good fences make good neighbors.'” However, those scruples rarely find their way into Bible studies and small groups. Context is one of the first things to be rejected when it comes to the applying Scripture to one’s life. Most of the time, it’s just more convenient to jump straight to personal analysis.

There are numerous problems that are born of careless reading of the Bible, but perhaps the most pervasive is the damage done to a person’s theological mooring. If the words of Scripture are so easily manipulatable to any given situation, you can end up with an incredible spectrum of conviction when it comes to particular issues and divisive matters in one’s culture. It’s why you might see Westboro Baptist Church members picketing gay marriage on one side of city street, and find members of another local Baptist church standing on the other side of the street picketing the picketers.

It's a mad mad mad mad denomination...

It’s a mad mad mad mad denomination…

Lenses

There is much to protect when it comes to freedom of interpretation, but we must be careful how quickly we apply both the Bible and even fundamental theological arguments to our present situations. This has to do with those “lenses” I mentioned before. Christians are very often as guilty of bringing a pre-established assumption about life to their reading of Scripture as a high school freshman is to assuming Fahrenheit 451 is about literary censorship.

Over the past decade or so, we have been bombarded with evidence that the world in which we live seems to be grappling in the dark. Liberties are being stolen away and evil is on an unprecedented rise. We have multiple twenty-four-hour news networks that pour over the minutia of injustice and alleged tyranny. We spend hours and hours every week clicking around the Internet and reading comment section after comment section in which vitriol is spewed and conspiracies are blamed. We sit down with friends for coffee and spend the majority of our time complaining about federal encroachment, the decline of public schooling, the supposed threat to the institution of marriage, or any number of issues. Whether we are aware of it or not, all these things fill us with a deep sense of pessimism and distrust.

Whatever happened to the old adage, "If you can't say something nice..."?

Whatever happened to the old adage, “If you can’t say something nice…”?

Christians believe solace can be found in reading the Bible and in prayer, but the irony of such disciplines is that we drag all of this angry, fearful baggage right into the middle of our times of study or meditation. We spend the vast majority of our weeks embroiled in all the problems and regrets of our society, and it becomes impossible to separate these worries from genuine times of theological reflection. Thus, what most often happens is that we turn our Bibles into a litmus test for our particular culture and give no thought to the extensive history that has unfolded since those scriptures were first spoken and later transcribed. Our times of prayer are saturated with begging God’s deliverance – for him to roll back this pervasive darkness that has apparently spread itself over every aspect of life.

It’s no wonder most people don’t see anything appealing about the Christian faith. On a day-by-day basis, how many of us exude authentic hope and unbiased joy?

Theological Suicide

In the song “Hopeless Wanderer” by Mumford & Sons, a repentant line rings out, “I will learn to love the skies I’m under.” Unfortunately, I think the concept of embracing the world we live in – actually loving it – seems an impossible task for many Christians. Why? Because we are beset on every side by voices crying BEWARE! and LOOK OUT! and DON’T TRUST HIM and THEY’RE COMING FOR YOU!. It takes a very centered person to hold all the fear-mongers at bay and truly keep the faith. It’s hard to transfer our faith away from a political ideology or an economic policy or a gun license. Solo fide in an all-knowing, almighty God is scarce these days.

I’ve written before about Mike Huckabee’s now well-known response to why the Sandy Hook massacre took place last December. His response is just another example of this kind of pessimism and the dangers of presuppositions when it comes to the Scriptures. Huckabee seems to believe that human lawlessness and the deletion of government-sanctioned prayer in public schools can effect the proximity and attitude of an almighty God. Many others who were emotionally swayed by his argument are quick to agree that the Bible reveals such terrible things can happen when people reject God. The logic seems to click – you kick God out of schools, God won’t protect you when you need him.

But a careful reflection on this thought process ends up making God look like the Little Red Hen who didn’t share her bread with the duck and the cat and the dog because they didn’t help her pick the grain and make the dough. It’s theological suicide. A person who believes this has, in their minds, effectively put to death an immovable God who perseveres in love, and has instead erected the idol of a vindictive, karmic god who has no qualms about people getting what they (apparently) deserve. Grace goes out the window. What is more, there is no evidence the God of the Bible ever acted in such a way or was ever willfully absent from any historical tragedy. In fact, the Old Testament prophets take great pains to communicate that in even the darkest and most violent moments in history, God is present and active.

"I've got a tee time with Enoch, Noah and Methuselah. Tell those Babylonians to call on that Marduk fella. I'm out the door."

“I’ve got a tee time with Enoch, Noah and Methuselah. Tell the Babylonians to call that Marduk fella. I’m out the door.”

Cleaning the Lens

So what do we do? How can we avoid such small-minded, misguided readings of Scripture? How do we free ourselves from pessimistic prayer? How do we treat the darkness we see in our world in a way that does not overshadow the hope we have in redemption and our responsibility in this “the ministry of reconciliation” (2nd Corinthians 5:18)?

Like many problems of addiction, the first step to solving the problem is admitting there is one. And Christian pessimism is certainly an addiction – a lifestyle that is difficult to escape. The second step would be to practice as much patience as possible, and to remind oneself that the news and the Internet and the complaints of other fearful people are mere opinions, and that truth is much bigger and goes much deeper than what they can touch. They will never acknowledge the full story of this life unless we limit ourselves solely to their pronouncements.

"I'm not listening. La la la la la la la la!"

“I’m not listening. La la la la la la la la!”

Finally, in addition to patience, we must seek to understand humility. Not just practice it, but understand what it is, at its core. And we must approach Scripture and prayer and even the most general of theological conversations with that healthy sense of humility. That meekness that acknowledges that we were never meant to be the end-all purveyors of truth, nor is God’s character meant to be interpreted solely by one culture in one time period other than the time of Jesus Christ on earth. If you’re going to start anywhere, start there.

And maybe, if we can calm ourselves and slow down, we will begin to see the true nature of a God who has, thankfully, never abandoned us to our waywardness. It turns out he’s been standing right beside us all the while.

A Prayer at 32

For the glory of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Spirit at work among us:

For another year of life – for breath in my lungs and a pulse in my veins and a heart that beats at a tempo I do not set – I am thankful and offer my praise to you. You know better than any human how difficult my thirty-first year was. But just as you are the Redeemer, you are also the God of new beginnings. You know my struggles and my anxieties, just as you know my hopes and the inmost desires of my heart. You know that, despite all the blessings that attended me over the last 365 days, it was a joy to write “was” up above.

You are the God of my salvation, and this grace is of old. Today, however, I look to you as the God of new beginnings – the One whose mercy is new every morning, whose redemption is as steady and faithful as the sun that runs the sky. I ask that thirty-two will find me faithfully serving you in a church, growing as a father of two little girls, and as a husband to a wife who is no doubt an extension of your grace as well as your guidance. The psalmist writes, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Beautiful savior, you told your disciples “whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” Let the delight I seek in you cultivate those desires in a manner that pleases you, and may what I ask of you each day be in genuine humility and authentic faith.

Do not be far from me, O God. As I seek to draw near to you, may you stoop low that I may glimpse your countenance and know your peace, for it is my very life – my one need in a swirling sea of wants.

You know the number of breaths my lungs will take, how may times my blood will pulse through this body, and how many beats are left for this heart. Should another 365 days come and go and I find myself still a sojourner in this world, may these words ring as true on that day as they do today.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever, world without end. Amen.

Getting a Grip vs. Letting Go

Making time to write is difficult, and I don’t just mean on this blog. For me, Wonderstuff is just a slice of the pie I would like to bake everyday, but the specific ingredients (time and energy) aren’t always in ready supply. Couple that with the fact that the oven, at times, is already in use for another dish that requires extra attention (the oven, in this lame metaphor, is life in general).

I was talking with a student today about finding a quality time during the day to spend time in prayer. I explained some ancient practices of worship and prayer, specific devotional disciplines, monastic offices, and even the neo-traditional “quiet time” structures in an effort to hone in on not only how to pick a time of day to commune with the Other, but how to stick to it as well. Unfortunately, even for a guy who’s been “doing ministry” for over ten years, I don’t have a clear answer. I have much the same problem with this as I do with maintaining a writing schedule. Despite what The Stones would have us believe, some days time is not on our side.

So what are we to do? How are we to practice a desire for daily discipline (be it prayer, reading, writing, or even spending quality time with the person you love) when our lives rarely lend themselves to undeviating order and unfluctuating structure. I’m always jealous when I read about authors who preserved a perfect writing schedule day after day after throughout their career, or the philosophers and priests and such who found time to spend not just minutes but multiple hours in prayer and contemplation. The film About a Boy even suggests that life can be divided up into thirty minute increments that can easily function as a kind of currency when it comes to arranging one’s day. Well, I don’t buy it.

The truth is, our lives tend to spin out of control at times. We exist as much in chaos as we do in categorization, and until we recognize this truth, we will continue to be frustrated by the undulating nature of our lifestyles. I tell people that I’m still working on getting a grip on all this stuff, but it occurs to me that perhaps seeking to “get a grip” is one of the problems.

Letting go … now that’s something different. It’s hard, it seems careless, and it reeks of unproductivity.

But it might be worth a shot.