I substitute-taught a class the other week called “Discovering your Design.” The course uses personality assessments to help people uncover what they were created to do. This class in particular, on “values,” included a Venn diagram illustrating how our ideal values only partly match up with the way we actually live our lives. The page in my teacher’s handbook showed two circles overlapping in a small oblong area in the middle. The first circle was our current reality; the second circle was a future ideal. I told the students that their goal was to push these two circles together until they were a single circle drawn around twice.Read More Post a comment (0)
Syncopation: you either love it or you hate it.
In musical terms, syncopation is a break in the established time signature or rhythm of the song. I remember playing a jazzy blues tune that I liked for a friend in college. Three-quarters into the tune, the music broke rhythm and a couple of seconds of syncopation ensued. My friend said, “I really like the song except for the part toward the end.” He was referring to the syncopation. He then said: “It felt like a ‘hic-up.’”
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It’s easy to deplore the excesses of American commercial Christmas with its formidable combination of Santa Claus, credit cards, and Toys R Us. Yet, sometimes I wonder if the giddy excitement my siblings and I as children felt on Christmas Eve is a strikingly good picture of the spirit of Advent—the joyful anticipation of a coming gift. What if the Santa Claus fable functions like one of Jesus’s parables: a secular story that captures our imagination and embodies what it’s like to live in the kingdom of God?Read More Post a comment (0)
There really is no better time than Advent to talk about the mystery of waiting. Under the best of circumstances, the delayed gratification of waiting is not something we embrace easily. The culture we have built bullies us into thinking that unless we have the next trinket, the next job, the next vacation, the next relationship, right away, our lives are somehow incomplete. What compounds the situation is the fact that we have effectively done away with waiting through “no monthly payments, no interest for a year” or “buy now, pay later” or “sleep with me now and I’ll still love you” or “let’s order pizza since there’s no time to make dinner.” And on and on it goes.Read More Post a comment (2)
Calgary, Alberta. November, 1974. I was eleven years old. I began the ten-minute walk from our small bungalow on Hyslop Drive to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church where I would meet up with my fellow Boy’s Brigade troop as I did every Wednesday evening. It was for me, a well-trodden path. From time to time however it had proven perilous. Twice I had been attacked by dogs, once I was accosted by a group of puffed up ne’er-do-wells intent on the scaring the hell out of me (mission accomplished) and once I had injured myself trying to leapfrog the numerous green posts that disallowed vehicle traffic down a pedestrian walkway.Read More Post a comment (9)
I love mystery stories. In grade school, I admired Nancy Drew, the titian-haired amateur sleuth, who, with considerable pluck and a little help from her friends, always solved the crime. Later, it was Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s gallant detective with the egg-shaped head and those extraordinary “grey cells.” Others followed: Peter Wimsey, Father Brown, and even Columbo and Monk.
Why are these characters so appealing?
Poet and critic W.H. Auden suggests that our delight in detective fiction is “theological.” This resonates. It is deeply human to crave justice and truth. We want what really happened to be revealed. We are attracted to those who can make sense of the world.
In a way, the crucifixion of Jesus reads like detective fiction.
There is a murder. There is a body. Yet, in a plot twist that confounds logic and all narrative precedent, the victim himself judged for the murder. Jesus Christ gets the death sentence, and the culprits are let off the hook.
How did this mockery of justice occur? You could say there was a problem finding evidence. The body went missing, after all. And later, the victim was seen alive.
It was if the murder never happened.
And so we are left with a mystery that would confound even the most punctilious of detectives—a mystery that cannot be “solved” in the same way a crime is solved. It is the kind of thing that would split the head of any logician (as G.K. Chesterton has inimitably shown us in Orthodoxy).
The apostle Paul recognized that the death and resurrection of Jesus called for a new interpretation of the word “mystery.” In the first century, the word was associated with mystery religions and used to refer to secret knowledge accessible only to an exclusive group.
Paul, however, began to write about “mystery” not as something hidden but as something disclosed. Paul writes to the Colossians that he is sent to present:
“…the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.”
And what is this mystery that has now been disclosed? Paul continues:
“…Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 2: 26-27).
Paul’s words are hard to grasp. But that’s the point. No forensics team could figure this one out. If they checked the DNA of those “saints” that Paul refers to, they would find something quite surprising: Christ.
For, every Sunday in gatherings around the world, that once-missing body re-appears. It shows up in the form of bread. That bread is tangible evidence that the wrong person was blamed for a murder—that Jesus took our blame.
We eat the bread and know: we are not able to solve this mystery. We must live it.
And when we partake of Christ, we ourselves become living mysteries. For instead of a death sentence, we receive new life—Christ in us. This new life creates in us a new kind of logic —a paradoxical logic that expects to be confounded, surprised, and exceeded. It is a logic that points beyond us.
It is the hope of glory.
If God stuck to the facts as my great detective heroes do, our future would be utterly deducible: trial, verdict, sentence: death. Thankfully, God is too foolish for that.
Do you enjoy mysteries? What is their appeal?
What do you do with the mystery of God in Christ? Is it one that you find yourself wanting to “solve”?
An uncomplicated yet powerful spiritual exercise is to merely practice the presence of God throughout our day:
When I was young, I had an insatiable appetite for Nancy Drew mysteries. I remember binge reading them Sunday afternoons, curled under a blanket on the couch with a pile of spent library books at my feet.
I shared this with my English teacher in high school and he in turn confessed that he “popped episodes of Law & Order like bonbons.”
Years later, I too am addicted to SVU. I believe I’m drawn to mystery stories like Law & Order and Nancy Drew because they possess a magic mixture of formula and suspense. I enjoy the surprise around the corner because I know it’s going to be there. I breathe easy no matter how high the conflict rises, because I know it will be quelled.Read More Post a comment (2)
Having struggled with fear most of my life, I’ve longed to live the words of the apostle John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
When I was in college I suffered from debilitating social fear. I often felt like a misfit and dreaded any interactions that would expose my social incompetence and reinforce my feelings of loneliness. One of my more painful memories is of a study-abroad quarter I spent hiding in the bathroom on breaks between classes in order to avoid small-talk with my classmates.
At night I would read Psalm 27 (“the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”) and earnestly pray that the next day I would have the faith in God to face my fears and engage in conversations with my classmates. Yet, every day was a challenge. Why did the prayers and meditations that were my lifeline also seem so ineffective in combatting the big fear that oppressed me every day?
From that time, I continued my discipline of meditation on Scripture. I learned about the fear of the Lord and the security of my identity in Christ. I read books about fearing God. I accepted my introversion. I aggressively faced my fears in social situations. Awkwardly but steadily, I learned the art of “grip and grin”—shaking hands and starting conversations. My incompetence faded away, and to my surprise, a decade later, I became known as a good hostess and conversationalist.
Yet, that college-girl impulse to hide in the bathroom is still very much with me. Every Sunday morning during the final blessing at church I feel a shot of panic in anticipation of the fellowship time to follow. My mind is aflutter with anxious questions: With whom do I talk? What do I talk about? Will I be welcoming enough? Will I seem strange? I lap up the words of the benediction like milk. Then I enter the fray and, instead of hiding in the bathroom, I pull off a successful performance.
But that’s just it: a performance. A performance through which I skillfully avoid facing a deeper fear: the fear of being truly known—the fear that if people really knew me, they would not love me.
In this way, my core of fear remains untouched. My social “skills” become a cunning strategy for keeping God and others at a distance—mere spectators. No amount of gripping and grinning, reading of books, or even, dare I say, meditation on Psalm 27, will help me if I use these skills merely to block access to my heart.
Thanks be to God that Jesus’s yearning to know me is bigger than my fear of being known. “Perfect love casts out fear,” John writes, and I think I am beginning to grasp this.
Resting in Jesus’s perfect love, I am invited to be the self He made me to be. Lately, I find myself led into surprising practices, like intentional solitude, that help me put performance aside. During a solitary walk on the beach I may burst into whimsy. I find myself making up names for the colors of the sky, skipping rocks, talking to birds, singing, and even, (if I am very brave), dancing. I’m not performing. I’m just being. My new, true self is emerging, however gingerly.
When I’m not performing, the broken pieces of my heart becoming available to the healing touch of Jesus. Slowly, I am able to re-emerge into the world as myself, offering my heart to God and to the people around me, no longer afraid of being known.
When you read “Jesus’s yearning to know me is bigger than my fear of being known” what happens in your heart?
When have you been afraid of being known?
About 18 years ago, I went through a major faith crisis. The details of that upheaval of my soul are not germane to this month’s topic. What is relevant is that, during that time of deep soul-searching, I encountered Eastern Orthodoxy. Among other things, I went to a Bible study at the local Greek Orthodox Church, which was eye-opening, to say the least.
One of the overall impressions I got from that experience is that mystery in the things of God are a given for Eastern Christians. They hardly question it, really. They are content to let God be God, working out the ways of the Kingdom in hiddenness. Unlike we in the West, they don’t have to understand every last “jot and tittle.” Mystery is what makes God “God.”