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Isaiah 7:14: Hardship, Hope, and My Emmanuel Child (Part 5)

Isaiah 7:14: Hardship, Hope, and My Emmanuel Child (Part 5)

In my final chapter in my Isaiah 7:14 series, I wish to share a very personal story regarding the impact the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 has had in my life. Allow me to just jump right into the story…

A Most Surprising Conception
In 2006, I got married. A year later, my wife and I had moved to Alabama, where I began to teach at a small Christian high school and she enrolled in a nursing program. Three and a half years later, in December of 2010, she had achieved her goal and became a registered nurse. With that accomplishment achieved, we both felt we could finally start a family.

The thing was, though, she had a bit of endometriosis, and so she made an appointment with a doctor in early December to have a D & C done. Within days of having the D & C done, though, she started feeling nauseous in the mornings, and for that matter, throughout the days as well. It couldn’t have been morning sickness, we assumed, because we hadn’t had sex since her D & C yet. In addition to the nausea, she also started having pain in her right leg, right around her knee.

Christmas came and went, the nausea continued, and the pain in her leg seemed to get worse. And so, in early January, she went back to the doctor to ask about the constant nausea. He wanted her to do a birth control test, which she found funny, because, due to the constant nausea since the D & C, there had been no opportunity to “make a baby.” In any case, she took the test, and lo and behold…she was pregnant.

What soon became apparent was this: we had gotten pregnant about 7-10 days before she had gone in for the D & C, and they had done the D & C while she was pregnant…and somehow, that little fertilized egg had survived the D & C. That was one tough little fertilized egg! So wouldn’t you know it? We were going to have a boy!

…but the pain in her leg continued to get worse.

Bad News
The doctor didn’t want to do an x-ray on her leg during the first trimester, so it wasn’t until the end of February that we had the x-ray done. What it revealed, though, caused our hearts to sink: that pain in her leg that started around the time our child was conceived was cancer. My wife had osteosarcoma in her leg, and the cancer had already almost eaten through the bone.

Within days, I, my wife, and her mother were driving down to Birmingham to see surgeons, cancer doctors, and to find out what treatments were possible, and whether or not she would be able to keep our baby. The drive down to Birmingham was quiet and somber. There was a sense of doom, and I had this foreboding feeling that I was going to be a single parent.

Once we got to Birmingham, our initial visit didn’t ease that sense of doom. The surgeon’s initial comments were ominous: yes, it was cancer, yes, there would have to be chemotherapy and eventually surgery, and no, he wasn’t sure if it was possible to keep the baby. If we held off on chemotherapy until after the baby was born, it might be too late for my wife, and she might die. The choice might be forced upon us: the mother or the child.

I remember that moment after the doctor left the room—my wife’s mother and I were silent, just trying to soak in the news. At that moment, my views on the whole abortion issue took a radical shift. No, I do not like abortion, and no, I am not 100% “pro-choice.” But at that moment I realized that there are situations in which such a choice is forced upon you—you sometimes have no choice but to be forced to make a choice. I can’t be for banning abortion in all cases, because there are horrific circumstances when the government shouldn’t force the hand of a couple when they are forced to face the hardest, most painful decision they will ever have to make.

In any case, after a few moments, my wife looked at both me and her mother and said, “What? I’m keeping this baby. It was a miracle that he survived the D & C, I’m not going to terminate this pregnancy.” Personally, I was relieved to hear her say that. It was a miracle our baby even survived the D & C—I didn’t want to terminate the pregnancy. In any case, I told her I would support her no matter what.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to make that dreaded choice after all, for when we saw the second doctor, the one who specialized in cancer, he informed us that there was a chemotherapy treatment that would attack the cancer, but that wouldn’t affect our unborn child. Our child would probably be born smaller than normal, and would probably be a little delayed in developing initially, but in time he’d should catch up.

And so, that was a relief to hear. Still, that meant that we were facing chemotherapy during pregnancy. That was going to be tough.

Treatment…and the Name Emmanuel
And tough, it most certainly was: trips to Birmingham for chemotherapy every three weeks, vomiting, sickness, constant worry—this was the new normal. My wife’s mother came to help, and ended up living with us for a year, first to help with the cancer treatments, and then to help with the baby while she was recovering.

Early on in the chemo treatments, we were still trying to finalize a name for the baby. We had agreed that his first name was to be Elliot, but hadn’t figured out a good middle name. I had been mulling over the name Emmanuel for some time. I reflected on what the name meant, “God with us.” I also reflected on what I had learned about the greater biblical context of Isaiah 7:14. Yes, it meant “God with us,” but it was a prophecy spoken in the midst of turmoil and trial. It was a prophecy that said, “Yes, God will be with you when His salvation comes, but He is also currently with you, in the midst of hardship and suffering.

Hezekiah was born in the midst of Assyrian oppression; Jesus was born in the midst of Roman oppression. We were dealing with the oppression of cancer. And so, one night while we were in the ER due to what ended up being complications, I suggested that we give Elliot the middle name of Emmanuel. My wife agreed—it was our statement of faith that God was with us, even in the midst of cancer.

The Birth…and More Surprises
Our fifth wedding anniversary was spent in the hospital in Birmingham. That was the date my wife had surgery on her leg to cut out the diseased bone and to have it replaced with a titanium rod.  A happy anniversary, it was not. The surgery was successful, though, so that was another hurdle we cleared.

A month later, though, my wife developed preclampsia, and due to her situation, the doctor wanted to keep her in the hospital in Birmingham. Elliot was originally due to be born on August 25th, but because of the preclampsia, the doctor determined Elliot would have to come a month early. The date was set: July 25th we were going to have a caesarian.

Because I had to finish fixing up the house and putting in new flooring in the baby’s room, various family members helped out by spending time with my wife in Birmingham. I had spent time with her for a few days up until a week before the new due date. Then as I went back home, her mother came down to spend a few days with her, and then when she had to leave, her aunt and grandmother spent a few days with her.

The caesarian was scheduled for a Monday. As it so happened, her aunt and grandmother had to go back to Illinois the Saturday before the caesarian. My parents had driven over from Little Rock on that Saturday to our house. The plan was then for my parents and I to drive down Sunday, and then be there for the caesarian, and then her mother would be able to get there shortly after that. That meant my wife was by herself for Saturday.

…and wouldn’t you know it? (Yes, you’re guessing correctly)…

With the baby’s room ready, my parents and I were ready to drive down first thing Sunday morning. We all went to bed that Saturday night, but then at 2:40 am, my phone rang. It was my wife—her water broke, and they were about to take her into the delivery room. Our unborn baby had his own timetable, and I was a two-hour drive away.

I hung up the phone, told my parents to go back to sleep and just drive down in the morning, and then by 3:00 am, I was pulling out of my driveway. On my way down to Birmingham, I actually got pulled over by a police officer. I hadn’t been excessively speeding, but at 4:00 am, he apparently had nothing better to do. When he came up to the car, I explained that my wife who had cancer was about to give birth to our premature son. He immediately said I could go.

I got to the hospital at 5:00 am. My wife was in recovery…it turned out that our baby, Elliot Emmanuel, was not the type of baby who was going to wait for anyone. He had made his entrance to the world at 3:00 am, the very time I was pulling out of my driveway. The labor had been all of 15 minutes. I missed the birth of my son.

My wife was fine, but obviously in need of sleep, so after checking in on her, the nurse took me to the NICU. It was there I met my son, Elliot Emmanuel Anderson. He was born at 3 pounds, 6 ounces. His arms and legs were so skinny, my first thought was that he looked like a Kermit the Frog doll. When I held him for the first time, I can honestly say there wasn’t any immediate emotion. It was just surreal. I was sleep-deprived, exhausted, and just in shock…but also extremely relieved. At the same time, I remember thinking, “O wow, this is going to be hard.”

Well, as small as Elliot was, even though he spent the first few days in the NICU, he turned out to be just fine. Within the first 24 hours he was breathing without help, taking a bottle, and yes, he showed he had the ability to poo. Although my wife still had two more chemo sessions to go, we felt the light in a very dark 2011 was finally breaking. Our son was born, Elliot Emmanuel had arrived…God was with us.

Only, the darkness continued…

But There Rarely Is a Happy Ending
I wish I could say that the light dawned and that everything turned out fine. But life isn’t always like that. There still was a long road to recovery for my wife, and over the course of the next year, the stress and strain of everything that had happened resulted in the eventual end of our marriage. In October 2012, she filed for divorce, and that started another painful chapter of life that went on for another year and a half. And then, once the divorce was finalized in May 2014, it was at that time that another chapter in my life began, one that I’ve written about before: I was informed by the new young earth creationist headmaster of the school I had worked at for seven years, that I was no longer a “good fit” for the school because I didn’t subscribe to the belief that humans and dinosaurs lived together a mere 6,000 years ago. I have to hand it to the guy, he had an incredible sense of bad timing. Talk about kicking man when he’s down.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And through all that, I was faced with the challenge of raising my son, my Emmanuel child, as a single parent. The foreboding sense I had on that first drive down to Birmingham proved to be true, just not in the way I had feared it would.

The delays the doctor said Elliot would have are there, but he’s improving and catching up every day, and I still have hope that we’ll get to that point in the near future. Every night I tuck him into bed, more times than not in my own bed. Every night, when I’m ready to go to bed, I pick up my sleeping child and move him to his room. And every morning, right around 6:15 am, he comes into my room, crawls into my bed with his Kindle, and I slowly wake up while he attempts to sing along to some numbers song, or the alphabet song, or “The Wishy Washer Washerwoman” by the Learning Station.

This is my life…and God is with me. Every day. Through IEPs, speech and occupational therapy sessions, through potty-training, through unemployment, through the pain of divorce, through cancer, through all the pain, hurt, self-doubt, frustration and despair—Emmanuel.

I know it’s easy to focus solely on a cute Christ child, and feel the warm fuzzies of Christmas as you drink hot cocoa and open presents, but I’ve got to tell you, Emmanuel isn’t cute to me. Emmanuel and the Christmas story is a harsh slap in the face of reality. Yes, the Emmanuel sign is ultimately one of hope, but it is born in pain and despair. It is born in times of oppression and heartache. The Emmanuel child is raised when it seems all hope is gone, and his first steps are often those taken in flight from danger.

When I read Isaiah 7:14 and contemplate its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, I am reminded that life is harsh, and tough, and unforgiving. When Emmanuel comes, we do not escape those harsh realities. If anything, Emmanuel signals the beginning of more, and he forces us to bear even more than we thought we could bear. Yet somehow, we do, for the burden we bear is Emmanuel’s gift of Himself. We bear that gift because it becomes our responsibility. By bearing Emmanuel’s gift, we learn what transformation looks like in real time: it is absorbing the pain and suffering while dedicating ourselves to go about the business of raising the salvation gift God has allowed to be born in this world of heartache and sin, all in the hope that one day, “those walking in darkness will see a great light.”

After all, for unto us a child has been born. Unto us, a son is given.

But we must remember, that’s not the end. That is only the beginning. We must live out, and actually raise, that salvation in the course of our lives, in the midst of a world that can be very bleak at times.

So, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.

Isaiah 7:14–O Come, Emmanuel: A Personal Story (Part 4)

Isaiah 7:14–O Come, Emmanuel: A Personal Story (Part 4)

Over the past couple of days, I’ve shared some insights regarding Isaiah 7:14—it’s original context during the lifetime of the prophet Isaiah, and then how that impacts our understanding of Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 in his story about the birth of Jesus. Today, though, I want to share more of a personal story of how that verse, and the famous Christmas song, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has impacted my life. Biblical insights and biblical study are good things, but without the personal encounter in one’s life, such things are in danger of remaining solely intellectual exercises.

Episode One: My Epiphany in Kazakhstan
As I am guessing many can relate to, when I graduated college, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a teaching certificate, a degree in English, and no job. In fact, for my first two years after college, I lived with my parents and scrapped through life as a substitute teacher at the various schools in the Wheaton area. That could be a story in and of itself, but suffice it to say, I was miserable. Many of my friends were off getting married, getting into careers, and starting families…and I was living with my parents, unable to get a date to save my life, and routinely being called “Doogie Howser” by junior high brats. I did that for two years—and as my mom would tell you, I was “not a nice person to live with.”

Such is the angst of many kids in their early twenties. They feel they’re supposed to be “adults,” but really aren’t, and in a tight job market, they feel like they’re spinning their wheels and going nowhere, and they feel like utter failures. That was certainly me. And so, what I decided to do was to join the Peace Corps, and by the summer of 1993 I found myself in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, teaching English as a Foreign Language to Kazakhstani nationals. I had figured that since I had an English degree, why not use it to see the world?

Joel in Karaganda…Lenin statue still standing

And I had gotten to…Kazakhstan, specifically, the northern city of Karaganda, where winter came by October, and they didn’t turn the hot water on until November. Now, it certainly was an adventure, but I quickly realized one thing: I found teaching English as a foreign language really boring. And, as anyone who has lived overseas will tell you, there is a significant culture shock and the inevitable feeling of loneliness.

To make a long story short, by mid-October I found myself at my desk in my little, cold dorm-room, writing to my parents about how much I hated my life, and how I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Even though it was October, I decided to put in a Christmas tape that another Peace Corps member had given to me: A Winter Solstice, Volume 3. It was that night that I had an epiphany that changed my life.

I don’t like to over-spiritualize things, but I don’t know how else to explain it—God entered the room, through that tape. It was one of those moments in one’s life that you remember distinctly. I was at my desk, writing to my parents about how I hated my life, and then the Turtle Island Quartet’s version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” came through the speakers. Here is the actual recording:

I had heard that song all my life, but for some reason, that version, that particular arrangement, was light a shaft of light in my soul:

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, who ransoms captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Two things immediately struck me. First, how is that about Christmas? It’s about Israel in exile, not the baby Jesus in a manger! O, I knew that yes, ultimately it is about Jesus, but having grown up in church, I had just been conditioned to “jump to the end,” so to speak, and get the “Jesus answer” without really pondering the deeper questions that the Old Testament lays out.

But the other thing that struck me at the same time is what changed my life. I knew, before that song finished playing that night, that I wanted to go back and get a master’s degree in the Bible. I had always been fascinated with biblical stories; the Bible had always fascinated me. I just had never thought of pursuing that as a mode of study, though, because I thought the only thing I could do with it was to be a pastor—and believe me, if there was one thing I knew about myself, it was that I was not suited to be a pastor.

But that night, as I listened to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I felt God saying to me, “Look, you have that interest and passion…pursue that. Even if you end up not doing anything with it, learn it for the sake of learning it. Pursue that interest because the desire is in your soul.” And so, I ended my letter to my parents by asking them to send me some college catalogs, so I can look into programs for theology or biblical studies. I stayed in the Peace Corps for that year, but then came back to the states to work full-time at anything for a year, so I could save up enough money to go to graduate school.

My two closest friends, Ian Panth and Jason Carroll, at Regent College

During that year, as I worked as both a custodian and a teacher-aide, I also took a correspondence first-year New Testament Greek class. I ended up going to Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, where over the course of the next two years I took classes from Eugene Peterson, Bruce Waltke, J.I. Packer, and Gordon Fee. It was the best life decision I had ever made. I got a master’s degree in New Testament, and then, as life tends to go, I ended up getting a job teaching English and Bible at a small Christian high school in California.

Episode Two: Academic Emmanuel
After four years at that Christian school, I decided I wanted to go back and get a PhD in the New Testament. As it turned out, I didn’t get in to the programs I applied for, so I decided on a “Plan B.” I went back to British Columbia, to Trinity Western University, and got another master’s degree—this time in the Old Testament. I had figured I should “bone up” on the Old Testament before I went on and pursued a New Testament PhD.

Well, my time at Trinity Western altered my path a bit. Growing up in Evangelicalism, I thought I knew the Old Testament fairly well. Guess what? I didn’t. But far from being discouraged, Trinity Western opened the door to the world of the Old Testament for me, and as I looked through to that country, I realized I could spend my entire life exploring it, and I would never see it all. And so, I decided I would still pursue a PhD, but it would be in the Old Testament.

In any case, one of the classes I took was on the Book of Isaiah. Peter Flint, the famous Dead Sea Scrolls scholar taught the class, and it was in that class that I had first ever heard of the “Syro-Ephraimite Crisis.” As I took that class, it simply amazed me to realize that all those verses from Isaiah I had thought were just predictions about Jesus really had their own original contexts in which that actually made sense. I ended up doing my paper for that class on, you guessed it, Isaiah 7:14 in its original context.

In the process of researching that paper, I realized there was a whole lot more to Isaiah 7:14 than I could fit in a 25-page paper. And so, as it turned out, a few years later, when I wrote my PhD dissertation, I chose to expand on that paper from my Isaiah class, and write on Isaiah 7:14 within its original context in Proto-Isaiah.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was the song that essentially began my path into the academic study of the Bible, and the verse that inspired that song, Isaiah 7:14, was the focus of my PhD dissertation that essentially completed my formal academic study of the Bible. Emmanuel was at the beginning, all throughout, and at the end of that particular journey in my life.

But my Emmanuel story doesn’t end there…

What do Fruit Flies Have to do with Eternity? (Still more celebratory excerpts regarding evolution and the Christian Faith)

What do Fruit Flies Have to do with Eternity? (Still more celebratory excerpts regarding evolution and the Christian Faith)

Fruit Flies, Transformation, and Eternity
Since I’m on the topic of fruit flies, let me make another point. Due to the short life span of fruit flies, scientists can observe generations upon generations of them in a short period of time. Typically, a fruit fly’s entire life is about 30 days. Let’s put that into perspective: from a fruit fly’s perspective, a human being who lives for 85 years would have lived 1,034 lifetimes. For human beings to get an idea of what’s that like, trying imagining a being living 87,890 years. And then try to imagine that being’s lifetime of 87,890 years being only one generation in a long history of that species’ existence. Time becomes so vast that, from the perspective of the limited blip of a lifetime of a human being, you might as well just say it is eternal.

Trying to understand “eternity” really is impossible from our perspective. Even to say “God has always existed,” or “God exists for all time” is to, in fact, confine God to the limitations of time. You simply cannot express the concept of eternity in human language, for human language is ultimately a product of this limited realm we call “time.” When we consider the difference of perspective of a fruit fly in comparison to a human being, though, I think we can at least get a better understanding of it. One day in the life of a fruit fly is the equivalent of almost three years in the life of a human being. Recently in my life, I went through a period of three years that saw some major life-changing experiences in my family: pregnancy, cancer, chemotherapy, major surgery, recovery, birth, raising a toddler, and a long, drawn-out and bizarre divorce that lasted for 19 months.

From my perspective, as I was going through that time, those three years seemed like a hellish eternity. I thought those trials and conflicts would never end. Still, even though they have had a life-changing impact on me, those three years will have amounted to a relatively short period of time in the course of my entire life. The thing I realized in the midst of those trials was that the kinds of changes those conflicts had on me were entirely dependent upon the way in which I chose to react to those conflicts. Or to put it in “evolutionary terminology,” my Spiritual life has “evolved” (I think for the better) because I chose to respond to the inevitable conflicts in life in certain ways, whereas if I would have chosen to respond in different ways, my Spiritual life would have regressed, or ultimately might have taken a darker turn.

Genetic studies have shown us that there is already in living organisms something capable of adaptation, evolution, and transformation, that, when a certain “switch” is flipped, makes it capable of adapting to its environment for its relatively brief life. By the same token, God has “built into” human beings the ability to choose how to react to the inevitable conflicts of life; and our ability to choose, to “flip certain switches” woven mysteriously within the very fabric of our being, will determine if we in our “natural state” (what C.S. Lewis calls Bios) will transform (and “evolve,” if you will) into the higher form of Spiritual life (what C.S. Lewis calls Zoe), into not just more highly developed creatures, but into transformed beings who mature fully in Christ, and who thus will be revealed as “sons of God,” just as Romans 8:19 states, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”

We in our natural, time-limited states, tend to only see the immediate pain and conflict in our lives, and we can’t really get “the big picture” of God’s eternal perspective. But the evolutionary changes we see in fruit flies, within their brief, entirely natural lives can help us put our own conflicts into perspective. We are made for eternity, and although we cannot yet fully comprehend such a thing, we can see that the trials and tribulations we inevitably experience in this life shape, mold, and transform us in ways that have eternal consequences.

As long as we respond to those trials and tribulations with faith, hope and love, we can be assured that such “fiery ordeals,” however presently painful, will turn out to be fires that purify us into eternal righteousness. Yet we should also remember that if we respond to those “fiery ordeals” with hatred, contempt and bitterness, those very same fires that could purify us will end up enveloping us in our own personal hell. Strange at it may sound, evolution helps us see the trials in our lives from an eternal perspective.

Reflections on Divorce…From Bright Avenue: The Songs of Bob Bennett

Reflections on Divorce…From Bright Avenue: The Songs of Bob Bennett

Welcome to the second year of resurrecting orthodoxy. One of the things I read last year as I was getting ready to launch this blog, was the bit of advice that said one should keep one’s blog focused—have Biblical Studies blog, or a Science blog, or a personal blog. Be very clear so that the readers will know what to expect when they visit your blog. Well, although in many ways that advice makes complete sense, it’s a piece of advice I don’t want to take. This past year, I suppose one could summarize the majority of my posts as falling into one of three categories: the New Atheist Movement, Young Earth Creationism, and Biblical Studies…with an occasional post about some personal experience.

I’m going to continue to be rather eclectic in my posts for the simple reason that I am more than just about Biblical Studies, and although I’ve written a lot about the New Atheist Movement and Young Earth Creationism this past year, in a lot of ways I wish I didn’t have to write about them. I was an English major in college, and I’ve always seen myself first and foremost as a poet, not an academic. And the reason for that is because I’ve always felt that what speaks most deeply to my soul comes in the form of poetry and songs—they are the creative expressions of the biblical truth and revelation that I discover in my academic study. In truth, they really can’t be separated.

In any case, as I look back and consider some of the most influential songwriters and songs in my life, particularly a number of Christian songwriters from the eighties, I am constantly amazed at how so many of the biblical themes that learned to articulate in my adult life were already there in the form of music during my teenage years and early 20s.

Bob-Bennett-Bright-AveOne of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time is Bob Bennett. His Matters of the Heart marked my late junior high/early high school years in ways I’m still realizing. I’ve already written on a few songs from that album here and here. In this post, though, I want to write on two particular songs from another album of his that came out (I think) in 1991: Songs From Bright Avenue. The backstory to that album was that he had recently gone through a divorce, and the album was essentially a look into his soul as he journeyed through that dark time in his life.

Now, when I listened to it as a twenty-something, I couldn’t relate to being divorced. But I’ve always had somewhat of a melancholy and brooding side, and the depth of many of those songs really spoke to me. A few years ago, when I was going through a divorce of my own, I found myself listening to Songs From Bright Avenue more than just a few times, and experiencing the heartache and pain of so many of those songs on a deeper level that I never knew existed. Here are my reflections on two songs from that album.

Here on Bright Avenue


The opening song, “Here on Bright Avenue,” introduces us to a man trying to piece his life back together after a painful divorce. I remember Bob Bennett had written in the CD jacket that the first place he moved into after his divorce was on a street named “Bright Avenue,” and he felt it was rather ironic and yet hopeful: at the darkest time of his life, he was living on Bright Avenue; yet at the same time, it pointed toward a hope of living on the other side.

As you listen to the song, the opening stanza is quite straightforward: the questioning of ever being able to be a part of a family again, the acknowledgement that you never wanted to be in this place, the feelings of loneliness and failure, and the realization that all one can do is keep breathing and focus on the present tense:

Living in this present tense is the best that I can do
It’s clear that I am supposed to be here…Here on Bright Avenue

The truth of those lines is not limited to someone trying to recover from divorce. They are applicable to anyone who has suffered loss, hurt, or disappointment. Too often I think we live our lives “in the future” without ever focusing on the present. We imagine what things will be like, the kind of person we will be, but we neglect focusing on what is and who we are. Why do we do that? I think sometimes it is because we don’t want to really look at our present situation and who we are because that would mean acknowledging our own fears and insecurities. Ironically, as painful as suffering is, oftentimes it forces us to look inside and acknowledge those dark places within our souls that need to be cleaned up.

Living in the present tense isn’t always exciting; and it is oftentimes hard—but it is essential if we are ever to become whole.

The second stanza begins with the lyrical beauty and deep honesty that I’ve long admired in Bob Bennett:

Hope that hides in darkness, healing under pain
Roses asleep in the winter, but the spring will come again

What can I possibly say in prose to further illuminate what these poetic lines so clearly express? It is one of the plain mysteries we experience at every facet of life, and see in the heart of the Gospel: life conquers death, but it doesn’t take the pain of suffering and death away—it is something one must go through in order to get to resurrection. And yes, in the middle of winter everything seems dead—at various times in our lives, we will experience the death of a relationship, a loved one, a career, or a dream—but once we come out the other side, once spring comes again and we experience a new life that we never knew existed before, we look back on those “winter” times in our lives and realize that things weren’t truly dead, they were “asleep” in death, and waiting to be transformed.

As beautiful as the entire song is, it is the third stanza that always gets to me, particularly these first lines:

If those who sow in tears will reap in joy somehow
Then surely I am watering my fields of future now

There were many, many times during my divorce in which all I did was cry. And when I wasn’t crying, I was on the phone, venting my anger and frustration into the listening ears of a handful of close family members and friends. I’ll say it now—I never knew I could swear so much as I did in so many of those conversations. There simply is no adequate way to describe the pain that one feels when one finds him/herself in that situation. As odd as this image might be, it feels as if a giant ice cream scoop that has been heated up in a furnace simply scoops out your entire chest cavity—not only are you hollowed out, but everything within you is burning.

Given that reality that divorce brings all too often, those lines are utterly astounding, not only in their brutal honesty, but also their incredible declaration of faith in God. Saying those lines when you are in the middle of so much pain is humbling, hopeful, and rather terrifying. For if God could take that kind of pain and bring about new life, He is more powerful than I can fathom; and that means I am more helpless that I can imagine, and therefore am completely dependent on His mercy. I never knew before how it was possible to be so confident and yet so terrified at the same time.

In any case, Bob Bennett ends the song with a tremendous declaration of confidence and hope. In the midst of going through the pain of divorce, he sings:

My feet will walk a golden street and when all is said and done
I will be found on holy ground as a good and faithful son
Walking toward a promise that frees this convict heart
The Lord will never lose me and He can finish what he starts
And when I least expect it, I believe these things are true
It’s as if to say I am on my way from here…Here on Bright Avenue

In all honesty, I don’t think I’m completely at that point yet. I guess you can say that there are parts of my heart that are freed, but there are still other parts that are “doing time” of that convict heart. I see a light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m still in the tunnel, and there still is a way to go. Hopefully the page will fully turn one day, “when I least expect it,” but until then, it’s just one foot in front of the other, living in this present tense.

If you have gone through a divorce, or perhaps more properly speaking, been the victim of divorce, I’m sure you can testify that it changes you. I’m still piecing things back together, and I’m well aware that the man I’m putting back together isn’t the same man who was broken apart. It’s hard to put into words.

Thankfully, Bob Bennett has written words that I can latch onto and take as my own.

I’m Still Alive Tonight
The final song on the album is called “I’m Still Alive Tonight.” It perfectly illustrates the loneliness many of us feel after a failed relationship, the frustration we often feel deep within our souls, and yet, in the midst of it all, that deep, brooding, mysterious sense that God will bring us through these uncharted waters. But instead of me saying too much, let me just share the lyrics and the song. I hope you enjoy it.

I’m still alive tonight, I can feel my heart beating
Emotions on the surface of my skin; I can hear my breathing
Wind upon those bedsheet sails, Spirit broods over the deep
I see an image of my Father, and he bids me: “Come and sleep”

No one is sleeping down the hallway; no one is here beside me now
And the loneliness, like a fever is hot upon my brow
I know life is more than just survival, but that’s all that I can see
I’m still alive tonight, and that’s good enough for me
I’m still alive tonight

Lightning Flashes, and Encounters With the Divine…

Lightning Flashes, and Encounters With the Divine…

lightning-picture-1I know I am in the middle of writing my review of God’s Not Dead 2, but a very unusual thing just happened to me this afternoon that I thought worthy enough to share.

Those of you who know Elliot’s story know what a miracle child he is. He has defied death already a few times in his short life. I’m telling you, God has big plans for that boy. It might just be the parent in me talking, but I believe that boy is truly special on some very deep level.

In any case, this happened today…

It was after school, and I took my 4-year old son Elliot to the mall to walk around. As is our custom, he will hold my hand and walk through the parking lot to JCPenny. As soon as we get inside, he stops, backs up against me, and indicates he wants to ride on my shoulders. At some point, I know he’s going to say, “Daddy, pick me up,” but as of now, it still is the simple, “Up!”

In any case, as is our custom, I walk through JCPenny and into the mall area, still carrying Elliot on my shoulders as we walk past the food court, Belk, a hat store, as well as other shops. Right about the time we get near Victoria’s Secret, Elliot slides off my shoulders to walk. No, he does not walk into the den of iniquity known as Victoria’s Secret…he walks past and goes into MasterCuts. Why? Because the hairdressers there love him, and they give him suckers.

Well, today, there was a wrinkle in that custom. Today, when we got near Victoria’s Secret, Elliot got off my shoulders, started to walk on as he normally does, but instead, he stopped. He then turned around and saw three women walking behind us. I’m assuming it was a mother with two adult daughters…the daughter in the middle was clearly pregnant. Elliot walked directly toward them, and in fact, directly to the pregnant woman.

As he was walking up to her, her eyes got really big and started to tear up. Elliot went up to her, put his hand on her belly, and just looked up at her for a few seconds. He then turned and walked back to me. Obviously, as soon as he had started walking toward these women, I immediately was followed him, so by the time he turned back to me, I had come up to the women as well.

I laughed and said, “Wow, that’s weird. He never does that!”

The pregnant women said, “No, you don’t understand. A few days ago I just lost my son who was about his age.”

She then knelt down, and Elliot walked back to her and gave her a hug.

The woman’s mother said to her, “You know what that is, don’t you?”

The pregnant woman then took a few dollars out of her purse, gave it to me, and said, “I always took my son to Dippin’ Dots. Please, go take your boy to Dippin’ Dots and get him something for me.”

And that was it. Elliot said, “Bye, bye,” and we parted ways.

***

So what had happened there? I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure. But something happened there that I don’t understand. Elliot hardly ever walks up to random people. And in this case, it was something deliberate. He stopped in his tracks, turned around, and almost targeted this woman, walking directly up to her, placing his hand on her pregnant belly, and, perhaps in some unintelligible way, pronounced a blessing upon her.

Somehow, he knew to comfort a woman who had lost her little boy.

IMG_20160311_150922017_HDRAnd as quickly as it happened, it was over. We were walking towards MasterCuts, and he was ready to get his suckers. Such are glimpses of eternity and moments of Christ in our midst. We are out and about, living our lives, and like a bolt of lightning, something illuminates our existence and we see there is something much deeper and more mysterious to our existence than we realize.

And then the moment passes, and we find ourselves with the challenge, dare I say vocation, to continue to live that lightning flash in a world of darkness and shadows.

Sam Harris and “The End of Faith”: Scientific Spirituality and a Hopeless Contradiction (Part 9)

Sam Harris and “The End of Faith”: Scientific Spirituality and a Hopeless Contradiction (Part 9)

Sam Harris

Sam Harris’ final chapter in The End of Faith is entitled, “Experiments in Consciousness.” In light of the basic premise of his book (i.e. faith is destructive and irrational, and needs to come to an end), it will surprise the reader to find that Harris essentially advocates for eastern meditation and religious practices, all the while trying to convince us that it really isn’t religious…it’s what he calls “a science of consciousness.”

Ironically, Harris provides yet another clear example of how the New Atheist movement and the Young Earth Creationist movement actually share the same worldview and engage in the same semantic tricks. Both movements actually denounce and disparage religion for being religious and not scientific, and then both movements slap the “scientific” label on the specific religious texts or practices they particularly like in order to legitimize them. The fact is, though, we can say to Ken Ham, “No, Genesis 1-11 isn’t trying to be scientific; it is perfectly fine, inspired, and legitimate as it is.” And we can say to Sam Harris, “No, eastern religious practices aren’t scientific—they’re religious; that’s fine too—something can be beneficial without being scientific.”

The “Reasonableness” of…Spiritual Practices?
In any case, Harris begins his chapter with his rationalization for engaging in “spiritual practices” by saying that they are “often recommended as the most rational response to this situation [feeling of loneliness]” (206). This truly is amazing, given the fact that his entire book tries to argue that faith and religion are inherently irrational. Is it possible that there are practices that really don’t have any “religious” connotations to them?

Sure enough, Harris does make reference to the kinds of practices he has in mind: “The history of human spirituality is the history of our attempts to explore and modify the deliverances of consciousness through methods like fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, prayer, meditation, and the use of psychotropic plants. There is no question that experiments of this sort can be conducted in a rational manner. Indeed, they are some of our only means of determining to what extent the human condition can be deliberately transformed. Such an enterprise becomes irrational only when people begin making claims about the world that cannot be supported by empirical evidence” (210).

Fasting, chanting, prayer, and meditation are all major spiritual practices found in most major religions of the world. Even in ancient cultures they used “natural drugs” to enhance their religious experiences. So it seems that Harris is promoting the spiritual practices that have been developed by the major religions of the world, but then is insistent that faith and religion is bad.  That simply does not make sense. Let me back up a bit and attempt to review the “flow” of Harris’ argument throughout his book.

  1. Harris claims that religion is violent, irrational, and should not be tolerated.
  2. Harris highlights only the negative examples of religious extremism to bolster his thesis.
  3. Harris ignores and dismisses any religious example that promotes reason, peace, or anything good, for that matter.

BUT…

  1. Then Harris speaks of “spirituality” and claims that science can discover objective truth regarding happiness, beauty, and spirituality.

BUT…

  1. Then Harris, in his discussion of ethics, turns around and says that certain things like love and compassion do not need to be validated by tests, thus discounting his claim that science can give us definitive answers to these things.

BUT…

  1. Then Harris puts forward the idea of “spiritual practices,” which look strangely identical to the traditional spiritual practices of many religions, specifically Christianity, and actually claims that these practices are rational ways to transform the human condition.

BUT WAIT…

  1. Harris said earlier that religion is irrational, unreasonable, and ignorant. If that is so, then how did such irrational religions come up with such rational ways that can transform the human condition? That would seem to indicate that the very rational and spiritual practices Harris is promoting come from something…religion…that Harris has condemned as violent and irrational.

BUT WAIT…

  1. Harris also argued that what lies at the heart of religion and faith is belief in things of which there is no evidence.

BUT…

  1. These spiritual practices that he promotes, that he claims to be utterly rational, that he claims can transform the human condition, that find their genesis in religion, seemingly bring about a real transformation of human beings who practice them, and those examples of transformation thus act as evidence that they are good, helpful, and true.

BUT…

  1. When it came to pointing out the good examples—the evidence, if you will—of how religion brings about a positive change in the world, Harris dismissed them as not constituting real evidence.

No, I’m sorry, I don’t think there is any way Harris’ argument can maintain coherence. It is irrevocably self-refuting. You cannot condemn “all religion” as irrational and violent, then take the very spiritual practices that come from religion and call them rational and peaceful, while at the same time maintaining your charge that “all religion” is irrational and violent. Such an argument is the opposite of reasonable; it is delusional.

The “Science” of Buddhism
As it turns out, even though Harris promotes certain spiritual practices (in the name of atheism and science) that are common to most of the major religions, it becomes apparent that he specifically has in mind the practices of the eastern religions, namely Buddhism. He specifically condemns Western philosophy for not “discovering” what lies at the heart of Buddhism, namely that the source of all human suffering is our illusion that we are individuals when he says, “Personal transformation, or indeed the liberation from the illusion of the self, seems to have been thought too much to ask: or rather, not thought of at all [by Western philosophy]” (215).

The core Buddhist belief regarding human suffering is that we try to live out an illusion—that illusion is that our “selves” are real. Buddhist teaching claims that the way to get rid of suffering is to realize that “you” are not really “you”—you are simply a drop in the ocean of universal consciousness. Your “self-consciousness” is an illusion and the source of all human pain and suffering. Nirvana, therefore, is not an admittance into some sort of paradise; it is rather the negation of all attachment to the material world and a complete renunciation of any sense of self. It is, for all practical purposes, nothing—a complete denial of human individuality.

This view, quite obviously, flies in the face of the Christian belief that we are all made in the image of God and that creation is good and to be enjoyed by human beings who rule over it through service to it. Such a view also flies in the face of Enlightenment thinking, that insists on the rights of the individual to pursue personal happiness. This is extremely ironic because Harris, along with the New Atheist movement, champions the values of Enlightenment thinking.

Basically, in the name of Enlightenment rationality that champions the individual and autonomous reason, Harris is arguing that we embrace the spiritual practices of a religion that says the individual is an illusion, and that the belief in the individual self is the root of all human suffering. Again, this line of argumentation by Harris is inherently contradictory and self-refuting. It is irrational and delusional.

Despite his claims, what Harris is advocating for has nothing to do with science and reason. It is, straight up, eastern Buddhist thinking. Consider this quote:

“Inevitably, the primary obstacle to meditation is thinking. This leads many people to assume that the goal of meditation is to produce a thought-free state. It is true that some experiences entail the temporary cessation of thought, but meditation is less a matter of suppressing thoughts than breaking our identification with them, so that we can recognize the condition in which thoughts themselves arise” (217).

I find it highly ironic that Harris, who sings the praises of reason and rationality on virtually every page of his book, can turn around, and with a straight face, advocate a type of eastern meditation whose “enemy” is…thinking! Harris doesn’t seem to quite get the idea that if you “break your identification” with your thoughts, then they are no longer your thoughts. If there is no “you” who is thinking the thoughts, then there is no “you” to “recognize” the condition of those thoughts.

The Inevitable Contradictions
Harris the Scientific-Enlightenment-Buddhist goes on: “Break the spell of thought, and the duality of subject and object will vanish—as will the fundamental difference between conventional states of happiness and suffering” (218). This is basic Buddhist teaching: once you realize that “all is one,” then you will realize that there really is no distinction between good and evil, suffering or happiness. Apparently, this is what Harris believes as well. Unfortunately for Harris, though, this Buddhist teaching that he embraces completely contradicts everything he has said in his book. For instance:

(1) If Harris believes Buddhist meditation leads to a vanishing of the distinction between happiness and suffering, then how can he claim that “a rational approach to ethics” should be based on questions regarding the happiness and suffering of human beings? According to what Harris says he believes, there is no distinction between happiness and suffering, so how can there be a rational approach to ethics based on things that don’t really exist?

(2) If Harris believes that there really is no distinction between happiness and suffering, then why does he spend so much time decrying the evils of religion? Shouldn’t he have realized through his meditation that there is no real difference between burning witches and having sex while on LSD?

Harris continues by making simply an absurd distinction:
“Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance” (221).

Such a distinction between mysticism and religion is a caricature at best, and utterly misleading at worst. First off, Harris seems to be ignorant of the large mystical tradition within Christianity, as well as other religions. It seems that his predisposition to “hate religion” has given him license to not even bother investigating what religious traditions actually have said, done, practiced, and advocated.

Secondly, look at how Harris defines mysticism: (a) it is “a rational enterprise,” (b) the mystic has “empirical reasons” for what he believes, but (c) it cannot be analyzed, but only “experienced free of concepts.” If mysticism cannot be analyzed, if it can only be experienced free of concepts, then how can it be “rational” or supply “empirical reasons” for belief?

Mysticism and mystery lie at the heart of Christianity. It can be seen in the Lord’s Supper, or most precisely, in the Orthodox “version” known as “The Mystical Supper.” There is a realization that there is a profound mystical mystery that is experienced during the Lord’s Supper. It cannot be defined in any “scientific sense”—it is a mystery that is experienced by the faithful. This is the exact thing that Harris is saying “mysticism” is, but “religion” is not—but here we have an example of mysticism that lies at the very heart of the Orthodox tradition in the Christian religion.

More can certainly be said, but let’s keep it simple: Harris simply doesn’t take the time to understand religion, therefore his critiques of it simply display his own ignorance. And when Harris then turns around and argues for a “science of spirituality,” not only does it undermine then entire argument of his book, but it undermines the very Enlightenment worldview that he champions. Such is Harris’ argument: a hopeless contradiction.

The Crash: Part 2 (How the Fallout Changed the Course of my Life)

The Crash: Part 2 (How the Fallout Changed the Course of my Life)

In my last post, I told about the life-changing car wreck I was in as a teenager on December 22, 1985. I said that it was that car wreck that changed my life, but that post really didn’t go into details as to how my life changed. In this post, I want to share a little bit of how the course of my life changed because of that car wreck.

Over the course of that Christmas break, I did a lot of soul-searching, at least as much soul-searching as a 16-year-old kid is capable of doing. Having grown up in a Christian home, having gone to an Assemblies of God church for most of my life, and as I was going to an Evangelical Christian high school, I was, simply put, a good suburban, Evangelical Christian kid. I was still a kid though, and for all practical purposes didn’t know all that much about anything outside of conservative Christian Evangelicalism.

In any case, the car wreck made me think—and what I thought about were the countless youth group sermons and high school chapels where I was constantly being told that I need to “get on fire” for Jesus, and not give into “apathy.” If you attended a Christian high school, you’ll be able to relate. I decided that it was time that I really did “get on fire” for Jesus—I was going to get serious, really serious, about my faith.

16-Year-Old Joel Gets Christian Hard Core

Franky Schaeffer

It was the mid-80’s, at the height of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” and I had started reading books like The Great Evangelical Disaster, by Francis Schaffer, and Bad News for Modern Man, by his son, Franky Schaeffer. These books, as others like them, had a single message: Evangelical Christianity is going down the tubes because of secular humanism and liberalism.

Now, to be sure, there really is a lot wrong with our increasingly secularistic culture, and I am by no means any kind of liberal. But, however well-intentioned books like those were, I think they helped whip up a certain amount of paranoia in the Evangelical world, and ended up blurring the lines between the Kingdom of God as proclaimed in the Gospel, and a right-wing political ideology of the GOP. Again, I say that as someone who still is largely conservative, and who has, by and large, voted GOP. I might overall agree with the GOP platform, but I know the difference between that and the Gospel. The two are not the same. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case with many people. But I digress…

Reading these books made a huge impact on me during the second semester of my junior year. I happened to be taking a Bible class on Doctrine that semester, and the major assignment was to write a doctrine paper. My paper wasn’t so much on any particular doctrine, as it was the parroting of the books I had been reading. The title of my paper was, Christianity 1986 AD: Rotting from Within. I still have it. The thing that strikes me most about it, is that it’s the kind of essay you could probably find written by Ken Ham, the ultra-Fundamentalist young earth creationist. In fact, he had written his first major book, The Lie, in 1987. I’m astonished to realize that my paper had a jump on him by about 9 months.

Instead of me explaining what my paper was specifically about, allow me to just share the first few sentences. It will give you an idea:

“Many liberals, under the name Evangelical and Christian, have twisted and molded Christianity into some fashionable, non-controversial religion that anyone can join without giving up one shred of immorality. The greater orthodox Christian community, on the other hand, has refused to speak out against these so-called Evangelicals, and has even said that staying uninvolved in biblical and love. These two groups make up the majority of today’s Christian church. Because these two groups compromise the Word of God and cop out, the secular liberals, in the meantime, are tearing down every wall of morality and even are attacking the church directly.”

It goes on in that vein for 12 pages. In the paper, I condemned church leaders and Christian colleges like Wheaton and Calvin; and I decried abortion, homosexuality, and somehow (yes, this is ironically true, for those of you who’ve read my other posts on Ken Ham) linked it to the creation vs. evolution debate.

I really didn’t know what I was talking about. All I knew was that if I was going to be “on fire” for Jesus, it meant that I judge and condemn any and all Christians who were, in my opinion, too compromised. It turned out that my Bible teacher was really impressed—so impressed, in fact, that she arranged for me to read my paper in chapel. I thought I had arrived. I was convinced I was going to start a revival at my school.

After I read my paper, I challenged the student body to stand up out of their pews if they were really serious about following Christ. Of course, being a Christian school, everyone did (more out of peer pressure than conviction). Then I challenged them to come down to the stage after chapel was over, and write their names down. I was going to form Christian action groups for next year. I was convinced that I was going to be some great “leader” for my Senior year.

And Then God Tapped Me On the Shoulder
The reason why most of my classmates might not even remember that chapel was because that great “movement” was I going to lead never happened—soon after school got out for the summer, God displayed his ruthlessness once again in my life…just not in the form of a car crash. I can’t explain it, really. I just had the sudden realization—conviction, if you will—that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or what I really believed. It was at that time that my sister was telling me about a book she was reading, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. She had also read something about Francis Schaeffer that was interest to me. After he had become a Christian, become a pastor, and had been a pastor for a number of years, he had the realization that he wasn’t sure what he believed. Long story short, he admitted it, left his pastoral position for a time, went off into the Alps, and completely rethought his faith.

That blew me away: here was a guy who was a pastor for years, and he admitted his crisis of faith, and essentially went back to square one. I was a 16 year old kid—what did I know? Maybe I should admit the same thing to myself. And so, over the course of that summer, without really telling anyone, I was essentially an agnostic. I took the summer to read Mere Christianity to see if there really was anything truly convincing and substantial to Christianity. (You can read all of my 30 + posts on Mere Christianity starting here). That book gave me a solid start and sure footing as to what Christianity really is. Years later, once I became an Orthodox Christian, and actually taught Mere Christianity in my 11th grade Bible class, I was amazed at how fundamentally Orthodox C.S. Lewis (an Anglican) really was.

As for Schaeffer, although I’ve ended up disagreeing with a number of his arguments about Christianity, philosophy, and Western Culture, I still appreciate the fact that he was one of the first Evangelical Christians to really attempt to engage Western philosophy and culture. His books opened the door to my attempts to understand culture and philosophy. His books, How Should We Then Live, The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He is There and He is Not Silent, are still worth the read.

Sting: The Evangelist
In addition to Lewis and Schaeffer, my sister introduced also me to the music of Sting—and Sting’s music probably can constitute the soundtrack of my life. In the summer of 1986, though, he had just come out with his first solo album, Dream of the Blue Turtles, an incredibly artistic, jazz-infused piece of musical perfection. Not only that, though, but the topics it covered and the lyrics of virtually every song spoke to my soul. I listened to “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” a song actually inspired by the Ann Rice novel, “Interview with a Vampire,” and heard in the lyrics the dilemma of being human.

I could comment on every song on that album, but I will limit my comments to just one more: “Consider Me Gone.” This song, probably more than any other, signified my leaving my childhood behind. After reading Mere Christianity, I realized two things: the Christianity Lewis described made sense, yet the Christianity I had grown up in smacked of shallowness. By the end of the summer, I knew I was going to follow the Christ I found in Lewis’ book, and that meant that I just wasn’t going to feel at home in the Evangelical world I had grown up in—hence, Sting’s song, “Consider Me Gone.” The lyrics are as follows:

You can’t stay there, you can’t stay there

There were rooms of forgiveness in the house that we shared
But the space has been emptied of whatever was there
There were cupboards of patience, there were shelf-loads of care
But whoever came calling, found nobody there

 After today, consider me gone

 Roses have thorns, and shining waters mud
And cancer lurks deep in the sweetest bud
Clouds and eclipses stain the moon and the sun
And history wreaks of the wrongs we have done

After today, consider me gone

I’ve spent too many years at war with myself
My doctor has told me it’s no good for my health
To search for perfection is all very well
But to look for heaven is to live here in hell

After today, consider me gone

I’ll say it right now, that song is my life’s soundtrack. That song speaks more of the hard part of the Gospel to me than virtually anything else: take up your cross and follow me; let the dead bury their dead; the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. That song set me out on my new life, and for the most part it has been quite lonely.

I Never Really Left, Until Recently
Now, I never completely “left” the Evangelical world. Even when my Christian journey led me to the Orthodox Church (I remember distinctly thinking the first time I ever went to an Orthodox liturgy, “I’m home”), I remained teaching Bible in Evangelical schools for 16 years. That being said, I never did fully feel “at home” in Evangelical churches and schools ever since that summer of 1986. And I still don’t yet understand why, after I had found the Orthodox Church, God would take me away to a place where there is no Orthodox Church. I find myself a 46-year-old divorced Orthodox Christian with no Orthodox Church, and whom Evangelical schools have rejected because (as you know if you read my blog) I don’t think the universe is 6,000 years old.

So when Jesus turns to me and asks, “What about you? Are you going to leave me too?” What else can I say, other than the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom can I go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Translation? I keep driving. I keep wrestling with God…
…and I sing,

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.”

The Crash: Part 1 (A Sort of Christmas Story From My Youth)

The Crash: Part 1 (A Sort of Christmas Story From My Youth)

Thirty years ago, almost to this day, I was involved in a car crash that changed the course of my life. I was a 16-year-old junior in high school who had his driver’s license for all of six weeks. It was the evening of December 22, 1985, and Christmas was in a few days. My brother was coming home from college the next day. Nothing was really going on in the Anderson household that night, and I wanted to get out of the house. I thought there might have been a home basketball game at my high school that night, but I wasn’t sure—it might have been an away game. In any case, I thought I’d kill some time and drive over to the school, just to see.

1968_Catalina

I hopped in our 1968 Pontiac Catalina (our car was white), and drove the few miles down North Avenue to the school. As soon as I turned into the school, it was all dark, so before I even made my way down to the gym and parking lot, I turned around to go home. I drove back down North Avenue, took a left at Kuhn Road, and was all set to go home. But I was enjoying driving, I was listening to Todd Rundgren’s tape Acapella, and I thought, “Maybe there really was a home game; maybe all the cars were down in the parking lot.” I figured I’d drive back, just to make sure.

I drove back to the school, went all the way down to the gym, and sure enough, everything was dark, and the parking lot was empty. Back home I went, down North Avenue, toward Kuhn Road.

I was on the inside lane, getting ready to make a left hand turn, north onto Kuhn Road. The light was green, but there was another car on the inside lane facing the other way, waiting to make a left hand turn to go south on Kuhn Road. Being the inexperienced driver that I was, since I didn’t see anything behind that car, without any hesitation I turned left at the intersection. It never occurred to me that there was a blind spot, and that there could be a car on the other side of the car waiting to make a left turn that I could not see.

As soon as I was into my turn, I saw the headlights. Instantaneously came the crash.

I know that sometimes, people who go through major car accidents black out the whole thing and can’t remember any of it. I remember it all. I remember the headlights screaming through my line of sight, I remember feeling the impact through my whole body as my car spun around and ended up facing the opposite direction. I remember feeling my knees slam up under the dashboard. I remember screaming out, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” to no one in particular. Although, in my heart I felt I was addressing God.

And I remember the tape player kept playing. The song was “Something to Fall Back On.”

When the car came to a stop, and I realized the music was still playing. I yelled, “Shut up!” and ejected the tape. Realizing that I had spun around, I knew that if I opened the driver’s side door, I would be stepping out onto the highway; and so I slid over and got out of the passenger’s side door. I looked at the car: the entire front chrome bumper was practically ripped off.

Pontiac Fiero

Then I looked up and saw the car that had hit me—or rather, the car I had pulled in front of: it was a red Pontiac Fiero. I was driving a Catalina tank, and I got into a crash with a fiberglass car.

Fortunately, I had turned just enough, so when the Fiero hit me, it was not a direct head on collision. The impact had spun my car around, and the Fiero had jettisoned off the road and hit a pole. I got over to the car and asked the driver and his passenger if they were alright. The only thing he said (he was obviously in shock) was, “Why did you do it?”

I remember being very angry at this question. I thought, “What do you mean, ‘Why did I do this?’ Like I had nothing better to do, so I thought this would be fun?” It’s weird the odd things you remember in times of crisis. I also remember learning that the driver had borrowed his friend’s car, and was taking a girl out on a date. Boy, did I make that date memorable.

Within minutes there were police cars, fire engines, and the flashing lights were everywhere. As it turned out, a classmate of mine was driving past the scene of the accident and saw it was me, so he stopped to see if I was okay. I asked him to drive up the road to my house and tell my family that I had been in a car accident. The police officers took me over to the police car, and I told them what had happened. I was shaking and on the verge of breaking down, so they told me to sit in the back seat. Things were going to be okay, they said. It wasn’t a matter of me being intentionally reckless. It was simply a matter of me being inexperienced.

It turned out that the couple in the Fiero (although they were going to be fine) were pretty much wedged in the car, and they had to use the “jaws of life” to cut open the car to get them out. If I would have turned a fraction of a second later, and it had been a head on collision, I think they would have been dead.

A few minutes later, my parents and sister drove up to the intersection. By then I had gotten a hold of myself, and was quiet in the back seat of the police car. When the police officers brought them over to the police car, though, and when I saw my mom, I broke down and sobbed as she held me. The terrifying reality of life hit me: we are all on the edge of death.

It was a long night. Officially, I was given a ticket for failing to yield the right of way. As soon as the police officer wrote out the ticket and gave it to me, the song “Yield to the Spirit” by a Christian singer named Joe English played in my head. This was the chorus:

“Yield to the Spirit, He has the right of way
Listen and hear it, we must obey.”

It had been more than just a car crash for me. It was the night I experienced the ruthlessness of God.

Eventually the tow trucks came and towed both cars away. Both were totaled. Both the couple and I were taken to the hospital to get checked out, and we all were eventually released to go home. My entire body was sore for the next few days, but somehow neither I nor they suffered any major injuries…although I am sure that my dad’s insurance payments took quite a hit.

The next day, when my brother came home from college, we had to tell him that I had totaled the car that my parents were going to let him take back to college. The other thing that happened the next day was that my dad took me out in the other car and made sure I drove. My grandpa had told my parents, “Make sure he gets right back behind the wheel. Don’t let him get afraid of driving.”

Such is the life God has given us. Such is the life He has given me.

From time to time in my life, not because I’ve been necessarily rebellious or bad, but rather because I’ve just been my inexperienced, fallible self, I have unwittingly failed to yield the right of way to the Holy Spirit, and have been hit back and spun around by the crashing waves of the chaotic sea of life that God’s Spirit has whipped up as He goes about creating…something I know not what.

All I know is that I still feel the impact of that car crash 30 years ago. It continues to echo somewhere deep down in the caverns of my soul. It is terrifying, angry, hostile and fearsome. And yet I’m not allowed to be afraid of it.

I have to get back in the car, and keep driving. Where I’m headed, God only knows.

About six weeks after the crash, my sister and I were passing through that intersection. As we were waiting at the red light, we looked at the side of the road and saw that there was still some debris from the wreck. And so, we pulled off the road and got out. Sure enough, there were still bits of glass, reflectors, and fiberglass parts to the Fiero strewn about. I picked up a piece of the Fiero and took it with me. I still have it, packed among the memories of my youth.

Bob Bennett’s “Heart of the Matter”: If this doesn’t sum up life, I don’t know what does

Bob Bennett’s “Heart of the Matter”: If this doesn’t sum up life, I don’t know what does

In this post, I share yet another song from my childhood that was pivotal in the formation of my very worldview: Bob Bennett’s “Heart of the Matter.”

BobBennett

On the same album with A Song About Baseball, Bob Bennett had a song entitled Heart of the Matter—it served as the closing song, and given the fact that the first song on the album (as well as the title for the album itself) was Matters of the Heart, it also served as an appropriate bookend to the album. As you’ll see, the end of Heart of the Matter actually takes the listener full circle with another verse to the tune of Matters of the Heart. Even as a 12 year old, I remember being thrilled with how Bennett so creatively structured the album, and how the title of the last song was a clever variation to the first. I suppose I just see a poetic structure to life as a whole, and I love it when I see that sort of thing in a song, poem, or story.

Since Matters of the Heart came out in 1982, that would have put me in my 8th grade year. As I have mentioned in a few earlier posts, junior high  was not fun for me. If you were one of those people who experienced bullying in either junior high or high school, you can attest to the fact that being picked on and bullied tends to force you to be a lot more serious about life—I know for little 12 year old Joel, those experiences made think a little more deeply about life, for sure.

When you’re not picked on, it’s easy to just go along and think that it is really that important to win that baseball game, get a perfect grade on that test, or have your parents buy you that new Luke Skywalker action figure. In reality, though, those things aren’t that important. To allude to Bennett’s song, none of those things—and indeed none of most of the things we are so easily conned into longing for—get to the heart of the matter of our lives. In fact, those trivial things tend to distract us from ever having the courage to get to the heart of the matter.

For whatever reason, it seems that most people never get to the point in realizing that. Especially in this day and age, it seems we are a society of individuals suffering from with existential ADHD. We’ll let ourselves become distracted by anything, so that we don’t have to gaze upon, contemplate, and truly grasp the reality regarding ourselves, God, the world, and the often painful riddle of living a life that means anything.

Nobody likes suffering—that’s why we’ll avoid it if we can. But, as I wrote about concerning Irenaeus, one of the truths found within Christianity is that as bad as suffering is, it is an inevitable prerequisite of salvation. Unfortunately, it seems too many people would rather try to build their own smoke-filled illusions than allow themselves to be broken on the stone of suffering. Yet that’s the irony of going through suffering—when you find yourself already broken, the solidity of stone and good earth is something you cling to. All you want to do is rest your broken bones on something that is sure. But until that happens, you mistakenly think that the one thing that gives you firm footing is the one thing to avoid.

In any case, 8th grade Joel found Bob Bennett’s Heart of the Matter to be perhaps one of the best appraisals of the human condition in this confusing world ever written—I still think that is the case.

Heart of the Matter: Bob Bennett
I’m just a man in a world full of men just like me
With a heart full of questions and answers
That seem to be somewhat connected
And a head full of preconceived notions
That manage to get in the way

And I find myself longing to return
Back to the place where I started
Back when I knew next to nothing
Back to the heart of the matter

Hand reaching out for another one
Love leading into the light

Hearts alterning between tears and rage
A short journey through the human zoo in this mortal cage
Words, like weapons, ask no questions as they kill
People, wounded, once dancing, now they’re standing still

And all these things I can’t explain
They keep on running round my brain
They drive me deep, deep to the heart of the matter

Lamb to the slaughter, well aware of the consequence
Saving fallen men, living and dying in this present tense

So many things I can’t explain
They lose and confuse me again and again
They drive me deep, deep to the heart of the matter

A light shining in this heart of darkness
A new beginning and a miracle
Day by day the integration of the concrete and the spiritual

You can show me your sales curves
Plot my life on a flow chart
You can count up your converts
And miss where it all starts

But there’s just some things that numbers can’t measure
These fragile pieces of priceless treasure
But there’s just some things that numbers can’t measure
Matters of the Heart

A spark of truth that catches on fire
These Matters of the Heart

COMMENTS
I’m telling you, that is theology right there–not systematic theology, but truly creative theology. Not only that, but man, I wish I could play the guitar like that. I’ve been listening to that song for over 30 years, and it still makes my hair stand on end.

The first two stanzas might very well be the lines I should put on my tombstone—the honesty and humility of those lines still leave me breathless. Admitting that the world is overwhelming and confusing is one thing; admitting that your inability to truly understand anything is primarily because of your own biases and limitations—that is quite another. In many respects, it’s the beginning of the possibility of repentance and new life. The thing I appreciate about these lines is that the singer isn’t saying, “I’m a filthy, disgusting, evil wretch,” but rather something, I think, a whole lot more honest: “I’m lost, confused, and longing for the simplicity (not simplistic answers) that lies within the heart of the matter.”

Short of men like Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, and child rapists, I think most people, if they are truly honest, would admit that they are more “lost and confused” than “evil”. Sometimes I think people who have grown up in Evangelical environments are led to believe that the only way to truly repent is to confess to God just what a maggot you are. But I don’t think God sees us that way…I think he sees us much like the way the first two stanzas depict us. That’s actually a comforting thought.

Another thing I think is revelatory is the idea that we need to go back to the heart of the matter—it is something we’ve wandered away from. In our attempts to “grow up” according to what we foolishly think is “grown up,” we actually simply pile on delusion after delusion and let ourselves be ruled by our passions and pre-conceived notions. Those things end up being blinders to the truth about ourselves and reality itself. In that sense, this common human dilemma is simply a replaying of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden: foolishly grabbing for what they think is wisdom, they end up wandering in their own exile. As I’ve said before, the story of Adam and Eve’s folly is the story of us all.

But there’s no reason to despair, for just like the over-arching story of the Bible itself, the next two lines sum up the story of salvation: “Hand reaching out for another one; love leading into the light.”

From this point onward in the song, the melody changes to the melody from Matters of the Heart, but the lyrics remain a double-edged sword. What better stanza can there be to describe the state of the world—not just in this age, but in any age throughout history?

Hearts alterning between tears and rage
A short journey through the human zoo in this mortal cage
Words, like weapons, ask no questions as they kill
People, wounded, once dancing, now they’re standing still

Throughout my life, particularly starting in junior high, I have been able to relate to that last line—how many times have I been wounded so deeply that I’ve found myself just standing still in shock. But the fact is, that reality is reality, and no one is immune from it. Any attempt to get to the “heart of the matter” of our lives will necessarily demand that we stop for a time, feel those wounds inflicted on us, and mourn through joyful tears we don’t understand that these are the steps we must take in order to eventually receive healing.

…and it’s not going to be a one-time thing. Throughout our lives we will experience many crucifixions in our lives. Whether or not we also experience the subsequent resurrections is a matter of what we do with the wounds. I think that’s what the following lines are ultimately getting at:

Lamb to the slaughter, well aware of the consequence
Saving fallen men, living and dying in this present tense

Another line I’ve always found mysteriously enticing is: Day by day the integration of the concrete and the spiritual. I’m actually very thankful that I came across this line while still a 12 year old boy. Why? Because all too often Christians are fed the line (by many in the church, nonetheless!) that salvation is some purely esoteric “airy” thing, completely detached from this material world. But the fact is, if you understand “spiritual” as “non-material,” then you’re not thinking Christianly—you have more in common with Buddha or Plato than you do with Christ.

The very purpose of the cross is the resurrection, not to some non-material reality, but of the very material creation that God has made—the resurrection of the flesh…and the resurrected transformation of the very creation itself. A good sign that your Christian walk is “going in the right direction” is that day by day you see more and more “the integration of the concrete and the spiritual”—that you can discern the Spiritual life of the Trinity in all aspects of life, be it movies, music, literature, or in the living of life itself…and you can rejoice it in, even in the midst of your suffering and confusion. And THAT is the mystery of the reality of the crucifixion-resurrection in our world today.

Finally, the last stanza should act as a challenge to anyone who equates spirituality with mere numbers—Sting, in another song, has a memorable line that somewhat fits with this stanza. It says, “Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.” Ultimately that is true. The Christian life isn’t about big numbers, or being able to notch “50 converts” on your witnessing belt. It’s about “these fragile pieces of priceless treasure” that must be allowed to be crucified in this world’s confusion and chaos, so that they can be raised to incorruptibility in the Resurrection that we can experience “in part” even today.

Reflections of Songs that Impacted my Life: “Beautiful One” by Daniel Amos

Reflections of Songs that Impacted my Life: “Beautiful One” by Daniel Amos

FearfulSymmertry

As I continue going through the Christian music from the 1980’s that I listened to growing up, I feel compelled to share a song from the group Daniel Amos, a Christian New Wave group from the 1980s—at least I think they would be categorized as New Wave.

Daniel Amos vaulted to prominence among my circle of friends in high school in the early to mid-80s with their Alarma Chronicles albums (four of them in particular): Alarma, Doppleganger, Vox Humana, and Fearful Symmetry. At first, they were a bit too out there…and quite frankly weird…for me. I was used to basically what could be categorized as “easy listening” Christian music. And if I wasn’t listening to Amy Grant, Bob Bennett, Keith Green, or Ken Medema, there was always the family tapes of John Denver. If you are familiar with those artists, and take a trip on itunes, check out Daniel Amos, you’ll fully understand why my first reaction was, “What kind of crazy music is this?”

But what got me eventually hooked on Daniel Amos was their creativity, their conscious allusions to poets like TS Eliot and William Blake, and more than anything else their satire. In a darkly humorous and yet still prophetic way, those Alarma Chronicles albums were a running commentary on the shallowness and plastic faith of popular Christianity. In a way, I suppose you could compare what Daniel Amos did with the Alarma Chronicles to what U2 did with their three albums of the 1990s: Achtung BabyZooropa, and Pop. And the reason I was attracted to both projects was simple: cutting, prophetic biblical satire of a world that often cries “Lord! Lord!” but who is more interested in the idols of pop culture.

But despite all that cutting and creative satire (and trust, me at some point I’ll write a post or two on those songs), the very last song of their very last Alarma Chronicles installment struck me as a thoughtful, poignant, and beautifully poetic song that encapsulated how I felt as a senior in high school. It was a song called Beautiful One. Here is the youtube link to it, as well as the lyrics:

Leaves of sound are shed; they fall
on this murmuring mind where the lullabies call,
From these words I sink and fall to the Beautiful One,
Behold this dreamer in the arms of the Beautiful One.

Deep waters sound; who loves that deep?
I make my way up the toilsome steep,
In green meadows now I sleep in the Beautiful One,
Behold this dreamer in the arms of the Beautiful One.

And in the wind, a song and moonlight on the lawn,
Draw me on and on,
And through the day, a sigh for dreamers such as I,
who steal away to watch and pray.

The night above me whispers low and I have many miles to go,
I will not wake until I know the beautiful one,
Awake the dreamer in the arms of the Beautiful One.

Commentary

If I could sum up this song in two words it would be these: poetry and mystery. For me, the fact that it was the last song in a four-album project full of biting satire and humorous commentary resonated with me. For people who know me, know me as a very sarcastic and humorous person. I love mocking the absurd  that is passed off as “cutting edge,” or the glitzy crap that is praised by the world but is in reality uncreative plastic. In short, I love to mock the “emperors” of this world who are wearing no clothes. Sure, we should flee from the devil, but I certainly love exposing and mocking his minions.

But the thing is, the living faith of Christianity does not lie in songs like “It’s the 80s, so Where’s Our Rocketpacks?,” “Dance Stop,” “Mall All Over the World,” or “New Car” (find those Daniel Amos songs on itunes or youtube, and you’ll understand). However clever, satirical, humorous and prophetic they may be, the heart of the Christian faith does not like in mockery, even of the devil’s designs. It lies in the mystery of the night in the middle of a journey of faith. It lies in the quiet moments when you are alone, often weary and worn out from the pressures of this life. It is in those moments you find that you have a sense of quiet assurance and confidence that those dreams you find within your heart—dreams that you did not dream, but were rather dreamed into you—will be realized when you awaken in the arms of the Beautiful One.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, talks about eternity’s relationship to time. Since we are limited to a linear timeline, we see things moment to moment. Seventeen year old Joel could only experience seventeen year old Joel, could only remember vaguely what 12 year old Joel was like, and pretty much had no clue what 45 year Joel would be like. But since God dwells in eternity, he is not bound to those linear limitations. He sees the complete package, the whole person of Joel from beginning to end. He knows who I am, whereas I only can remember bits of who I was, and can only speculate who I will become. But at the same time, I think sometimes eternity breaks into our limited world of time, and we catch glimpses, however brief, of who we are. And those mini-revelations comfort us as we make our journey of faith, and continue to become who we already are.

“Beautiful One” impacted me so much that I put the last three lines of the song next to my senior picture in the Wheaton Christian High School yearbook of 1987. The poetic imagery of the life of faith as a journey, and the mysterious assurance that our deepest dreams are echoes of the certain hope of a resurrected reality is a kind of poetry we can live and breathe. And although we will eventually experience it in full, we also experience in the here and now through the Holy Spirit who blows where he pleases…often over the turbulent waters of our hopes and dreams, and often revealing glimpses of that resurrected land of the future, yet mysteriously present, New Creation.

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