Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Fourth Wall

The Forth Wall - It is the imaginary boundary between those within a story and those beyond it. Intuitively you know what it is, even if you cannot put a name to it. It is the invisible “wall” between the actors in a drama and the audience, the joint, the seam between this world and that. It is the plane that both separates and joins, the window behind which we in the “real” world exist unseen alongside the realm of the narrative.

To my mind, there is something very potent and suggestive about this idea. Perhaps it’s because, like you, I find myself enmeshed in a story I did not write. In a way altogether unknown to me, I woke up one day in a coherent world and found myself playing a bit-part in something the scope of which I cannot begin to imagine. Like you, a far sight into the story I entered stage-left and found that this thing was well underway. Multiplied ages had already passed when I was not, and yet here I was and am, plain as day. And that is that.

Now, if your response to this is: “What of it?” - forget everything you think you know and take another crack at this. Just step away from the computer for a while and listen to your own engine idle. Think about thinking, the inscrutable feedback loop that makes you aware of you in all your you-ness. Think about the simplest of things - colors, sounds, memory. Feel, as if for the first time, the texture of your life. Take your time. I’ll wait here.......

In the early part of the last century Neils Bohr helped usher in a new era in our understanding of the world. He and others pioneered a hyper-surreal and yet uncannily accurate model of matter and energy know as quantum theory. Bohr once quipped, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”

This sentiment, in my judgement, applies here. If at some level you’re not taken aback by who and what you are and where you find yourself, you have not, to be brutally honest, understood it. We, you and I, have an incredible knack for cutting ourselves off from this fundamental awe, either distracting ourselves with all kinds of inanities or permitting ourselves be blinded by over-familiarity. But let’s stop letting ourselves get away with this. I’ll wake up if you will.

Let's take this a step further. It's not enough to say the world is a mysterious something and leave it at that. It's a mystery alright, but a mystery with a particular shape. You get the distinct impression when looking at it that the meaning is not something you’re just imposing on it. That is, it’s decidedly not like the ink-blot in the Rorschach test. Rather, the meaning seems to be independent of you, really out there in the world, beckoning, indeed demanding to be unearthed.

Then again, perhaps it's best to say that final meaning is not exactly out there in the world, but somehow, necessarily, beyond it. For the world, like you, cannot account for itself. It woke up one day, just like you, and here it is. And that is that.

In the last posts we’ve alluded to the fact that the strangest truth in this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction world is this: The secret of my existence and of yours and of the entirety of this great drama is hidden in a reality that exists beyond the horizon of our world. And we’ll never know ourselves, or why we are, or what we’re for unless, somehow, someway, there is contact.

You’ve seen shows in which an actor turns aside from the happenings on the stage and, peering, as it were, through the boundary between realms, addresses the audience. And you’ve seen moments when someone from the outside, a narrator perhaps, speaks into the world of the story. At times someone from beyond will even penetrate into the story itself. It’s called breaking the frame or breaking the fourth wall.

Let me suggest that your hope, my hope, and the hope of the world rests squarely upon this - the breaking of the fourth wall. Then again, it is a hope realized. For, I think we have every reason to believe this unthinkable thing has already happened, that the One who enacted the story stole into it once upon a time in this the real world. And with him he brought the resolution to the whole story, because he is himself that resolution.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Get it?

Electronic switches.... millions of them, all very small. And something about a lot of 1’s and 0’s. It’s like this: 10010100000111110001 10011 11110 1000011 0110111111110 111000000000111 000100111100111 111110 11110000000 00010001 00011111 011110 111001 000011 01101111100010100 100011100010

Get it?

Yeah, not really. Of course, that’s about all of an explanation I can get when asking people who know to explain how computers work. Now, I don’t know about you, but sometimes an explanation of what something is or how it works is almost worse than having no explanation at all. At times it’s just better not to ask.

Some things are notoriously difficult to explain. An early Christian writer once wrote: “If no one asks me what time is, I know. But, if I try to explain it to the one who asks, I don’t know.” There is a sense in which this thing we’re calling ‘spiritual life’ is like that. If no one asks me, I know. But if you ask me to explain it, I don’t know. You know?

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that a full understanding of what it is can only be had through direct, personal experience. Many things are like this. If you’ve never seen the color blue it doesn’t help an iota if I say: “Well, I’m glad you asked. Blue is a sensation that emerges in the human subject when the retina is stimulated by exposure to light frequencies in the range of 631 - 668 terahertz.”

See, it was better not to ask. It’s better just to have a look at blue.

Or, suppose you’d never laid eyes upon an animal. Never. Not a one. If I gave you a stack of schematic diagrams charting out everything from fine micro-structures in the cell to the big features, would that do it? Nah, it’s better just to spend some time with a lion.

I think spiritual life is something like this. It can only be fully known if you’re on the inside. It’s true. Nevertheless, having said that, there are certain true things that we can, indeed must say about it.

From the vantage point of the Bible, the answer to the question “What is spiritual life?” may be summed up in a word - God. God is the beginning and highest aspiration of the spiritual life. Put differently, true life, the life man was made for, is existence carried out in relation to God. It is, more pointedly, life lived in right relation to God.

If this rings at all true to you, it’s because, in one sense, this life is man’s native element. It’s where you belong. If, however, it doesn’t compute, it’s because it is also the most foreign of things. Exiled from this our true life, reports of home fall on our ears as an alien sound.

To be sure, there is a sense in which this life we are speaking of is the only authentic life that is. That is to say, Biblically speaking, whatever man is when he is alienated from his Maker is not even life, but a species of death.

Now, what you make of this will largely depend upon your thoughts on God. This is where it gets interesting. When I say that the highest goal, and indeed the great reward of spiritual life is God himself, this will not go over well unless you already know who God really is. That is, unless you already possess true knowledge of him.

And - follow me here - it is just exactly this, embracing God as he truly is, knowing and being known, that is the very definition of the spiritual life. Jesus said something like this when he said that eternal life is the knowledge of God. “Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) He is the great One whom to know is immortality and fullness forever.

Having said that, if we have a distorted or skewed understanding of God, we will never come to him for said life. That is, if we only know him from the perspective of one alienated from him, only know him as judge and adversary, we will not come. First we must come to know his invincible power to reconcile us to himself, to reconcile those of us who are wandering in a far country, far from home.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Beware the Jabberwock!

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

So begins Jabberwocky, the famous nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll (of Alice in Wonderland fame) and a personal favorite. I want to say that this is one of the cleverest poems in the English language, but it’s not English! And that is just the point. The genius of Jabberwocky is that it convincingly imitates English while remaining firmly planted in the realm of the meaningless.

What’s the point? Beyond sheer entertainment value, I submit that the great upshot of this poem is that it’s possible to say a great deal without really saying anything. Ha!
In the last couple of posts we’ve been referring to this thing called “spiritual life.” But have we been saying a great deal that signifies nothing? I hope not. However, if we have, we would not be the first. It turns out it's fantastically easy for talk about the spiritual to devolve into something that's all icing and no cake.

Maybe you’ve noticed what I have. In recent years styling yourself as a “spiritual person” has come into vogue. And the reason for this is not far to find; As a self-description, it is at once non-threatening and helpfully vague. That is, it’s inoffensive because non-specific while maintaining a desirable air of profundity. Not bad. Not bad at all.

I will say that I think people who say this are on to something true. If by this they want to affirm that there is more to the world than meets the eye, that there really is some great transcendent reality behind the cosmos, then I get it. But we can’t stop there. If by “spiritual” we only mean that we get chills when we listen to Cat Stevens sing “Morning Has Broken,” or that we feel a sense of the sublime when we look deep into the night sky, I don’t think we’re really saying enough. To do so really is not to say anything that goes beyond a general description of the human experience, as significant as that is.

Other times people have something more definite in mind when they speak of “spiritual life.” They may think that it’s simply synonymous with an ethical life or high-minded way of thinking about humanity and our plight in this world. Or they may associate it with something altogether unworldly, people who ceaselessly ponder extra-mundane realities and see celestial visions - You know, unearthly creatures and wheels of fire and light set to an alternately dramatic and ethereal soundtrack. Think Wagner and Enya on continuous repeat.

But is any of this what “spiritual life” is really about? To be clear, I do think that it involves a belief in the transcendent, leads to a life that chooses the good and rejects evil, and that some people really have seen visions like the one described above. (Go read the first chapter of Ezekiel) Nevertheless, I don’t think that any of these lays hold of the essence of the spiritual life. But, more on that next time. For now, I’ll let Lewis Carrol play us out.......

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Terra Incognita

I recall once reading an article about a team of explorers who set out to travel on foot through the interior of Africa. Beginning deep in the continent, they trekked 2,000 miles through some of the most untamed wilderness on the planet. They called the 15 month project “The Megatransect” - which I guess is just explorer lingo for a really long walk across something. (Of course, you don’t get to be a celebrated explorer if you use man-on-the-street descriptors like “big walk across Africa.”)

The great vision of the team was to experience Africa in all its rich vastness and keep careful field notes along the way. Of course, no man can take in an entire continent, so they would do the next best thing; If they just kept going - through dense jungles, across raging rivers, over jagged peaks - they would see a cross-section of the whole. Along the way and amidst the struggles, they would witness some of the most fantastic sights on earth and, hopefully, live to tell the tale.

In many respects, what we've set about doing here can be thought of in these terms. As soon as we dare begin asking questions about God and life and what all of this means, we find ourselves hemmed in on all sides by mystery. And I’m not just talking about the big questions like, “What was I made for?” Some of the most vexing questions are the everyday riddles like, “Why do I keep doing this thing that I hate?” or “When I finally get what I think I want, why does it seem so hollow and empty, like a mouth full of ashes?”

Puzzles beget puzzles, and soon enough we find ourselves in a situation not unlike that of the intrepid band cutting their way through the bush in the Congo Basin. Outstretched before us lies a landscape full of marvels, but it’s vast and daunting, and the forest about us is thick. It’s hard to know how to start, much less make headway.

Stepping back from the analogy for a moment, let me say that the beautiful thing about a forum like this is that it has the potential to bring together people who are in very different places, spiritually speaking. For some of you the spiritual life is a great undiscovered continent you’ve never set foot on. Maybe you’ve heard second-hand stories, but don’t know what to make of it. It is like those borderlands on old maps labeled “Terra Incognita,” wholly unknown territory. Like people in former times, perhaps you’re convinced that this unknown place, so foreign and remote, is peopled with strange things and inhabitants. And you would sooner stay at home and leave those curiosities unseen.

On the other hand, some of you set out on this way long ago. You’re familiar with both the trials and piercing joys of a life lived in pursuit of what is ultimately, lastingly real. But, if you’re anything like me, sometimes you lose your way. Ever read the opening lines of Dante’s
Divine Comedy? - “In the middle of this life’s journey I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” In addition to being a really fantastic way to begin a book, it’s an apt description of where many of us find ourselves. Its a great way to say, “I’ve been walking for a while, but it’s dark and I don’t know where I am, much less where I am headed.”

It could be that every story worth telling passes through the “Dark Wood.” At one point the
Megatransect explorers had to traverse a region they came to call the Green Abyss. A tangled mass of life, it took them two and a half months to make their way through. Maybe you’re in your own personal Green Abyss now.

I suppose my word to you, wherever you are, is this: Stick around. Join us for a while on this
Megatransect of the spiritual life. Why not? If there’s even the remotest chance that there really is something to all of this, shouldn’t you find out? So, stick around. And grab a machete, while your at it.

By way of encouragement, let me say this: One of the most incredible things I have discovered about the life of faith is that, as you move forward, it shows itself to be true. This is something you can bank on. Dare to believe and you will find in due course that all things will conspire to show you just how very real it is. You are, happily, no match for this Truth.

I think Jesus had this self-authenticating power of his message in mind when he says in John 7:17, “If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will see whether my teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.” In other words, if you dare take his message and embrace it as true, you will soon find that it is genuinely from God and not something he just whipped up out of thin air. The Old Testament puts it more simply, but no less powerfully, “Taste, and see that the Lord is good.”

But, let us speak plainly. This is a dangerous game. If you decide to go down this road, you’re just asking for trouble. So, be forewarned; You may well find that the great
backstory of the world is so compelling that it swallows you whole. You may just discover that the story of redemption, running like a golden thread through history, is so beautiful that it eclipses everything else you’ve ever lived for. So now’s your chance! Get out while the gettin’s good. It would be easier if you just minded your own business and went about your merry way, no?

At the end of the
Megatransect, after 456 days beneath the jungle canopy, the team of explorers reached their goal. Emerging from the wilds of the Congo and spilling out on the shore, they raced across the platinum sands of the African coast and sprang into the shining surf. So doing, the leader of the band reportedly quipped, “I would gladly do it all again.”

So stick around.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Beginning

Welcome to Neon Cross. In this inaugural post I wanted to begin by simply explaining the vision behind this blog. I thought about doing this directly by merely laying out a list of objectives. But, between you and me, this seems a bit too sterile for the opening words of what I hope is a lively conversation about very important things. So, I’ve opted for a less direct, but perhaps more meaningful approach.

Let me tell you why I’ve chosen the name Neon Cross. If you’re anything like me, perhaps your first impression is that it’s an odd, almost jarring coupling. An ancient symbol of faith and one of the most conspicuous hallmarks of life at the turn of the third millenium.......What gives? If this is what you’re thinking, my response is: Exactly. You get it.

I'll put it this way: The name gives expression to something that, to me, tastes real. It breathes the same air I do. Like me, it inhabits a world where working out deeply held beliefs in the everydayness of living is fraught with all kinds of tensions I’m not sure how to resolve.

Beyond this savor of authenticity, the name Neon Cross really distills the essence of a constellation of ideas I hope characterize this conversation. That is, it captures well the spirit of what I desire to see happen here. You see, my hope for the blog is that, like its name, it will represent the intersection of ancient truth and our real life, now, in all its messy actuality. It's one thing to search out truth and examine it at the safe distance of the abstract. It’s quite another to find out how to map it onto the specific world that you inhabit, letting it shape the way you see everything and do life. This is what I hope we can do together. In this conversation of ours, I want to look for truth that we can live out, truth that can be brought to bear on our lives in context.

In that connection, Neon Cross is a tip of the hat to my own life context, the city of Seoul. For the last year I have made my home here with family and many wonderful friends and colleagues. Now, if you’ve ever been to Seoul, you know where I’m going with this. Arrive here after nightfall and your eyes will meet with a vision that is unlike anything I, for one, have ever taken in, a cityscape forested with what must be thousands of luminous crosses. Whatever you make of the aesthetics of this, a sea of Neon Crosses is a potent and provocative symbol. And, to my mind, paradoxical and strange as it may be, it somehow works.

Neon, you may know, is a colorless, formless, unreactive element. Considered in and of itself, it is the picture of lifelessness. Left to itself it literally does nothing. Nevertheless, as an evening's walk will confirm, when acted upon by a power beyond itself the result is the striking, prismatic brilliance that is so familiar.

From the vantage point of the Bible there is a clear parallel between what I’ve just described and the human condition. Spiritually speaking, man, considered in himself and left to his own devices, is inert, unresponsive. Far from being a source of illumination, he is blind, having no capacity to perceive the great backdrop of meaning that is behind his world. Lost and groping in the dark, he cannot find his way to true life. He is, in a word, dead. Yet, when acted upon by a power beyond himself, the Power that is beyond all powers, the result is, when all is told, unspeakably glorious.

Paul, writting in the New Testament, speaks metaphorically of a kind of veil before the eyes of mankind that prevents us from perceiving truth. Nevertheless, he would have us know that there is hope of emancipation from this unseeing death. He writes:

“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” ~ 2 Corinthians 3:16-18

One of my favorite authors, A.W. Tozer, makes a similar case for a paradigm of living and growing that looks to a source beyond ourselves. “Christianity,” he maintains, “ takes for granted the absence of any self-help and offers a power that is nothing less than the power of God.”

That’s what I want this blog to be about. I’m like you; I can’t give you any wisdom or power to live, because I don’t have any. Rather, my sincere hope is that together we can learn to live in the transformative warmth of borrowed light.