Expanse II

I have been spending the weekend on the edge of a salt marsh, a tidal inlet from the ocean. It’s a constantly changing ecosystem with the seawater coming and going every moment of the day. It can be entirely filled so that it looks like a lake, or an infinite number of variations of grasses, shrubs, wildlife, and twisting furrows as the water comes and goes. I’ve seen coyotes, a red-tailed hawk, rabbits, geese, ducks.

On Friday night, I took the dogs out before bed, and the sky was crystal clear without a cloud or a moon. It was simply stars. As I gazed up across the marsh, I thought how amazing the view. I felt a sense of welcome and wonder. I took the dogs in, and they curled up into their spots, and I remembered that I had bought some binoculars. I thought they probably wouldn’t make that much of a difference. But what the heck? I’ll just step out the front door and take a peak.

I could not believe it. Honestly, I had never seen anything like that sky before. Where maybe there were 500 stars, I was now seeing 5,000. When I looked at Venus (my iPhone Planets app said that’s what it was), it was almost too bright to look at. Another bright star turned out to be two very close stars. Another bright star wasn’t a star at all because it looked like a galaxy I’ve seen in so many space pictures.

I had a horizon to horizon view. For 30 minutes I just gazed. Until, with the wind and the cold, I had to go back inside. I was unsettled, in a way. And so I sat in front of the fire that was almost out, stirred the remaining embers, and regenerated some flames and sat to take it in. I realized that the fire was a little star in itself. Burning fuel and giving off light and heat. Of course, it was not a star.

I reflected, if we are just on this very little planet compared to that immense night sky and we are the only ones here in the universe, then that is very scary. We are so tiny, and if our planet ceases to exist the universe will not notice. Whole galaxies collide and are destroyed, and the universe continues on. If nothing is binding all the universe together, giving it meaning and sense of order, then all I have is the little fire, my dogs, my wife, my sons, family, friends, work, and some hobbies. And then I will go away, forever, and the universe will not care or acknowledge anything of my brief time here.

As I was about to go to sleep, I went outside for just a minute more. As I looked up, I felt the comfort of my unaided, familiar view of the night sky. Then a quick sweep with the binoculars. I was reminded of a verse from Job of how God “made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south.” I closed my eyes, and I let that sink in. Yes, I am a believer, and yes, God did have a reason for making all of this.

And yes, we are not alone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have immense moments of awe in His presence and His creation. The overwhelming sense at that moment was of His great love for me and His great interest in who I am even in the middle of the immensity of the stars and planets and galaxies around me. The Creator was showing me for the first time His bigger creation. To take it in with humility and to know I am a part of it. To rest in the peace of His beauty and awe.


The Holy Spirit

Of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the least talked about among my churchgoing friends. The Holy Spirit is such a profound teaching and is so far outside our experience. It’s a mystery. While Jesus is the perfect Son and by his acts, we are adopted by God as His children; the Holy Spirit resides in our hearts. The Holy Spirit helps create a clearer vision of God’s love for us and helps to develop a closer relationship with both Father and Son. That is easier written than realized.

On some days on my way to work, I get off the train a stop early, and I walk the last mile or so to the office. A few weeks ago, it was 30 degrees and a deep crystal blue sky. As I started walking, I fell into an easy cadence, and in my mind, I began to say, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.” In a short time, even those words left me until I was simply walking and observing the world around me in silence.

Gradually, everything I saw and heard and felt and smelled had an intense focus, and throughout the whole walk, I had an overwhelming thought inside that said, “This is my world…” There were other people walking and I noticed their faces — old and young and happy and sad and empty — there were children walking hand-in-hand with parents, there were dogs playing in a park, there was the fresh smell of coffee and pastries, there were school buses, and taxi cabs, and birds. A whole world filled with God’s creation. “This is my world, and I love it so… do you see?” was the overwhelming sense I had.

I wonder how I am changed with the very reality that something of God abides in me? I think it is this: through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, I become more aware of what God’s world is. I experience it with the senses he has given me—sight, sound, smell, feel and even taste— which unleashes in me a heart that loves more and more as His does, and I come to understand that even the smallest details are known to Him.

“You know Him, because he abides with you.” John 14:17

Making the time to acknowledge Him and by letting His presence be who you are, we open ourselves to loving as He loves. Why is it that we don’t talk only about the Holy Spirit? And why is it we seem to be afraid of people who have a connection and experience with the Holy Spirit as if God were talking to directly to them? I think it’s because, in this day and age, we need and crave certainty. We need clarification on the rules of conduct for our lives and affirmation of our political and social views. The Holy Spirit is not leading me in that way. In fact, I think He is asking me to give up all I know, and to rest in His presence.

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” John 14:26

This year, I will be spending more time listening to the Holy Spirit, and allowing Him to cultivate in me the mind and heart He is opening inside of me. It feels natural, but it is way outside my comfort zone.


It’s so rare

I just came back from a meeting of rare disease patients. These are the people who have few treatment options, and who have few medicines and therapies being pursued on their behalf. It’s an incredibly complicated issue, and sometimes when there is a glimmer of hope that something might work, there’s an insurmountable safety issue or the stability of a compound can’t be achieved. In other words, the drug might have some serious side effects, or it can’t be made consistently.

On the last night of the event, there was an art show of paintings by artists who had captured children living with these diseases. This group of artists exists to bring to the world’s attention the suffering and hope of the estimated 350 million people worldwide who have them. Of the 7,000 known diseases, only about 150 have treatments.

One painting caught my attention so firmly. Colorful, of a boy, standing and laughing. It invited me in. And made me feel the wonder of life from the eyes of someone young and seemingly living his life with a degree of joy captured in hues and texture that must have taken weeks to create.

After walking around in the crowded room, I struck up a conversation with a man looking at another painting, and he observed to me its subtle mystery of hope and whimsy. And we talked about the event, and the challenges of living with these rare diseases, our families, and life in general.

At one point, I asked him if he had seen a picture of a laughing boy, and he said that he had. So I shared my thoughts on this work and talked more about how the painting conveyed so much zest and openness. After a few minutes of talking about this picture, the man said, “Thank you.” I said ‘You’re welcome.” He said, “No, you don’t understand, I am the artist, and the boy is over there.”

But the boy was not walking. And he was having a lot of trouble sitting up. But he was laughing. The artist explained that when he painted the picture about six months ago, the boy could stand, but his disease was slowly killing off his white brain cells, and he was gradually slipping away. At age 6, he would not live beyond 10. There is no cure.

There are only 200 known people in the world with this condition. I had the honor of talking with the man who painted life, and I was also honored to see that the boy was surrounded by a loving family who was playing with him, while he laughed, and clapped his hands, and looked with the deepest, most expressive eyes at the world around him. This family loved him unconditionally. As I listened and watched, there wasn’t regret and sadness. There was life and a real presence that the moment was now. Not tomorrow.

I have been reflecting on the age of the universe. It’s 14 billion years old. Galaxies and solar systems formed, stars came to life, planets found their orbits, and life emerged on at least one of these places, and now this moment with the artist and the boy and his family came and went. It was 14 billion years in the making. And I was there.

What an incredibly blessed day I had. In a crowd of hundreds of people, at the right place and time, I encountered creativity and love coming together.

I have been praying that God would make these moments happen more for me. I want to know that His love is real and that there is a hope that is greater and bigger than anything I know. I want to live life in renewed ways and be open to the mystery of a creator, a redeemer and a sustainer who is as concerned with the forming of a planet as he is with a single life in a single moment. It’s a simple prayer. Give me your eyes and ears.


A Monastery. An Incarnation.

Up until I was 14, my family lived outside of Washington, DC. On Christmas Eve, we would go to the midnight mass at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington. It was all of these things — quiet, holy, beautiful, somber, peaceful, uplifting, light, dark, simple, complicated. Full of ritual. Full of yearning. Full of hope. And full of a sense that this baby, Jesus, was someone different than the rest. So as a boy of 8 or 10 I thought of this baby Jesus as strangely the same and yet strangely different and yet supremely important in an intangible way in the midst of middle-class, suburban DC. My parents divorced, I moved away.

The Christmas mass at the monastery was the blending together of heaven and earth. A celebration of the moment the worlds collided and heaven restated its part in the world. The incarnation. Indeed, God becoming man. And so Jesus came to be with us. But why? Because. Because God would not simply be a distant, all-powerful being that would receive the accolades of His people in temples and ritual and priestly orders.

You see, God wishes that no person should be His enemy. Yet in desiring that no person should be His enemy, he became a person so that he could dwell with us, be us, show us, love us in the flesh, and be for us what we could not be ourselves — perfect love. He became us. He became one of the beings who were, in fact, His enemy.

From the beginning, God walked with His people in the Garden. And He would return to dwell with the people he intended all along to be with. And yes, if Christ became Man, it is because He wanted to. Not because He had to.

We ourselves, and all the part of the world we encounter, decide if we can accept this presence, can decide if we will allow it to consecrate our being, and can move among people as if Christ were here. This is the great invitation to each person and for us to contemplate and live out. God with us. We live like this because we want to. Not because we have to.

If we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth — not a single person, not a religious affiliation, not a political view, not a racial identification, not a gender orientation, not an economic class, not a educational background — in whom we are not prepared to see, in deep transformative and holy ways, the mystery, the presence of Christ. We can choose to accept others as part of this created world in which God dwells, or we can choose to ignore the hidden, encompassing beauty of God being with us.


God with us.

Great joy is in seeing Christ in everyone.


Losing Faith

Imagine your nature is such that all you are designed to do is to love God. Everything that you are and everything that you can be is simply transcended by this idea. Then imagine finding that this completely eludes you and that everything you hope for is completely misaligned with this idea, and you find your own existences is still the fulfillment of your own desires and cravings. In The New Seeds of Contemplation, this is essentially what Thomas Merton calls compunction, a feeling of guilt followed by an unhealthy behavior that leads us into more alienating behaviors and takes us away from faith.

I have seen it happen a lot. People have an emotional connection with God, we extol this experiences, and encourage the believer to extend the divine encounter with bible reading, small groups, acts of service, and evangelizing. But the emotional divine connection is elusive, and often believers are left wondering how to obtain it again. And so the church encourages the same activities… Bible reading, evangelizing, small groups. The believer may recover a sense of connection, but many times these methods lead to a complacency and abandonment of the initial hope of a changed life.

When people stop “believing” most times they say it is because they don’t “feel it” anymore. And it is usually followed by a sense that music has become boring, the sermons irrelevant, the service projects a chore and church friends distant. In or words, spiritual loneliness. But so often, this is the experience right on the cusp of something better, and these activities that are unfulfilling are human endeavors to keep you engaged. What God is asking is you abandon your whole self, including your church self, to His will, and to enter into a one-of-a-kind relationship with Him. A relationship exactly suited to who you are created to be.

Having experienced this myself (and continue to experience), this is the path we must go through to arrive at a deep, abounding faith. But many times the church, especially us evangelicals, fail to recognize this critical juncture. Instead of acknowledging that the journey to tranquility goes through the desert, we direct more of the same activities that are leaving so many without a path to a truer experience of God. Is it any wonder churches don’t grow when the constant barrage of “let’s feel good” wears thin?

The truth is, friends, if you are at the point where you want to walk away because you no longer “feel” it, this is the place where God wants you to be, and this is the place where God is asking you to abandon all your conceptions of what church and faith has been, and to walk with Him into the next phase of your relationship.

Your spiritual path must be simplified and redirected. Yes, by all means continue to go to church and engage in His word, but as spiritual seekers, sometimes — and often for long periods of time — the barrenness of faith is real, and His love for us is not built on the gimmicks of lights, sounds, sermons, service and experience. True love, true peace, true engagement is found by those who acknowledge that faith cannot rely on what others have made for us to experience. Faith is my sole and direct engagement with Him.

It is in great praise and thankfulness that I accept this emptiness. The vast love of God’s hope for us when is where we stand at the edge. It is a gift. And any gift from God is better than my own dim understanding of how to experience Him. When the sermons or the music stop resonating, it’s because He is saying, “That is not me. I am something better. I am something richer. Come, let me show you.”

I know, right? It sounds really, really crazy that when so much of Church becomes empty He is actually asking us to walk more closely with Him. He is asking us to abandon a false sense of who He is and to enter into a deeper, genuine relationship with His divine self. Not somebody else’s music or somebody else’s words or somebody else’s service project, but our own concerning Him.

So do this first every day, and be committed to just this. Tell God, in your own voice, that you are seeking Him. Tell Him honestly what your faith feels like. Tell Him honestly where you are struggling. And wait. I can’t tell you for how long. But I assure you He is there with you. And you will not look back on this time as anything other than a great transformation and a great gift to a deeper awareness of His presence.



Love Wins!

Late last fall, my church had a mini retreat on love. I left with a profound feeling that I needed to work more on my heart. I had, for example, spent the previous three years reading through the bible — first chronologically, then in order, then by genre. Each year I also had some devotional content to accompany my reading. But after the retreat, I realized my devotions had become dry. I was gaining knowledge about God, but I was not really loving Him or others more. God was living in my head.

One recommendation from the retreat was to read Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence. The essential point of the book was to cultivate 5, then maybe 10 and maybe even 30 minutes a day in which I would simply sit and listen for God. No distractions. No reading. Being quiet, in solitude and waiting for God. Nothing else.

So now I have a brief devotion to prepare my heart, and I sit for 26 minutes in quiet, waiting for God. Emptying myself of my raging mind and being quiet is nearly impossible. But truthfully, I have realized that I am not capable of this approach, and I have come to understand that it is only by God’s grace that I can sit for even a minute and wait for Him.

And He has begun to cultivate my heart. In big ways. In small ways. I am almost ashamed, really, to say how much I have felt God’s love for me and in comparison, how little I love Him.

I never read Love Wins by Rob Bell. But a week ago I was reminded how quickly the church turned against Bell, and so I felt a need to read his book. Honestly, I don’t know why people vilified him so much. He never denies Christ’s divinity, or His work on the cross, or that God is the creator of everything. I thought his views on Universalism were interesting, and in fact I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce (and no one I have met vilifies Lewis). Who and how God saves is still a mystery to me.

But this is not a blog on whether or not Bell is right or wrong in regards to eternity. Instead, this is about something else he said in his book. He said that one of the reasons evangelism has fallen off so much is that Christians have a really hard time expressing what it means to love God. Put another way, to express our love for God really requires us to understand just exactly who it is we are loving.

Sadly, I think a lot of Christians portray God as a rule maker, one who will chastise you if you fall away from the proscriptive direction of a church, and a God who has no tolerance for alternative theological viewpoints. Witness the liberal versus conservative debates that rage online and in churches. Or even look at the fallout from Bell’s book.

Unbelievably, God placed this issue on my heart months ago. And as He has worked on me, the words “I love you Jesus” and “I love you Father” and “I love you Lord” have become more natural to me. In many situations, I am seeing that the language of God’s love is becoming more and more a part of my everyday conversations. And I see more and more, as Bell put it, that being an effective witness for God is directly tied to my ability to express who it is that I love.

So who exactly is the God that you love? Ask yourself this seriously. And then really, really ask yourself honestly, can you without a doubt say that you love God? Does this God shame you or forgive you? Do you see this God as joyful or harsh? Is there room in your relationship for ambiguity, or do all the rules have to be defined? Sit quietly, alone, and say the words, “I love you Lord.” How do you really, honestly react to that?

When you genuinely love God, you can’t help but talk about Him. And that’s what evangelism is all about. Love.

Love does win.

Sadly, I think this is where a lot of Christians are missing out.