Where the Light Shines Through – an exercise in being surprised by joy

switchfoot_where_the_light_shines_throughI confess I had a hard time making sense of Switchfoot’s new album, “Where the Light Shines Through,” at first. I’d read that frontman Jon Foreman said it was the product of one of the darkest times he’d ever been through, and then I listened to the album and thought, really?

The songs of “Where The Light Shines Through” are not the creative product you’d expect to emerge from a place of pain and difficulty. Most of the songs are not sad dirges or tragic laments, strictly speaking. They’re the kind of tunes that lift your head up, that make you smile, that send your feet moonwalking on the ceiling.

It didn’t make sense. Songs about wounds aren’t supposed to be warm summer rock tunes that make you want to roll down the car window or crack open a cold one.

But I kept listening, and soon I began to see the album’s starting point of pain and loss. It’s in the blackened Southern California landscape scorched by wildfires. It’s in the orphans and refugees of the Middle East, looking for a way to float above the trials and tribulations that have devastated their homes. It’s in the way we fall apart better than we fall in love. It’s in the wound that can’t be numbed with the bottom of a bottle. It’s in the Choctaw and the Cherokee that America will never see.

It seemed like there was a disconnect there, but perhaps a better word is “tension.” “Where the Light Shines Through” is stretched to the poles of the human experience with the tension between how things are and how they should be (the signature tension, incidentally, that marks every Switchfoot album). Darkness is pierced by light, fear and despair run parallel with hope and confidence, slow moments of contemplation give way to the raw, energetic life of rock and roll.

As Annie Dillard said, this is the only honest way to live. “We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here,” she once wrote. “Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

Disconnect and tension. Swaddling bands of darkness and songs of praise. Could these paradoxical places be the intersections of joy?

I believe they are, because joy is mysterious like that. It springs up in the most unlikely places at the most unlikely times. You can’t predict it, can’t summon it by force of will, can’t earn it – only accept it as a gift.

We often miss this in the modern age because we conflate joy with happiness, and our longing for the former drives us to pursue the latter. But happiness is a yuppie commodity (at least that’s what the billboards tell us). It has a knack for lingering just out of reach. Maybe we try to bridge the gap with a salary increase or vacation or a lover, and yet it keeps drifting away, and all the while everything around us fails and runs its course.

“Where the Light Shines Through” reminds me that something runs deeper and truer through our lives than the American pursuit of happiness. It proclaims that there’s a purpose and redemption out there that only shows up at the point of despair – that hope appears most bright and burning just when its object seems furthest away. We find meaning at the brink. We encounter the healer only after we’ve been wounded.

That’s something worthy of rock and roll – something worth singing out when our hearts are beating like blown speakers. The healer of souls is out there, holding out a hand to the wounded and broken, offering a freedom that isn’t contingent on the appearance of our scarred bodies or the size of our bank account or the quality of our political leaders.

That’s my takeaway from “Where the Light Shines Through.” It’s an exercise in being surprised by joy, a proclamation that even in the hardest, saddest moments of our lives, hope deserves not a lament, but an anthem.

The five best books I read in 2015

In 2015 I set what I thought was a modest – but not insignificant – personal goal for reading: one book every two weeks – or 26 over the entire year (by comparison, Mark Zuckerberg set a similar goal for himself, and Bill Gates reads about a book a week; so I figured if those guys can carve out time then surely I can too). By the end of December I had finished 31 books, which I was pretty satisfied with. From those books, here are the five that made the biggest impression on me and were most worth my while.

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed there is something elemental about this masterful work. It aims for the moon and soars to the stars. Through the multi-generational story of several families who all cross paths in California’s Salinas Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century, it captures both a thousand stories of an era and that singular, timeless, origin story of human nature. At a time when many people still felt bound by fate, especially their own heritage, East of Eden proclaims the great freedom of human choice in a fallen world to break the moral trajectory of one’s lineage. The book finds its mythic roots for this in the Old Testament: Genesis 4. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, to which Cain responded with jealousy and anger. God asked Cain why he was angry and challenged him to overcome his temptation to sin. Per the King James Version: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” The key word here, one character insists, is timshel – the Hebrew verb that means “thou mayest.” The “thou shalt” from the passage, he says, should be rendered “thou mayest.” The message for young Cal Trask, who poetically revives the part of Cain in the book’s retelling of the story, is that evil is crouching at his door, but he is not destined to repeat Cain’s sin (or the sins of his parents).

Steinbeck’s prose – his ability to portray characters, to delve into the great perversities and nobilities of human motives, and to craft scenes that deeply engage the reader – is some of the best I’ve ever read. East of Eden is a tome, weighing in at more than 600 pages, but it is well-worth the toil of reading it.

2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

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Before reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’m not sure I had much of a propensity to connect road trips and motorcycle mechanics with philosophy, but I do now. Robert Pirsig’s account of a former college professor’s motorcycle road trip to the American northwest with his son alternates between the physical, concrete, and calculable to the realm of values and meaning. It moves to and fro from the task of keeping a motorcycle in top shape to abstract musings that probe all the way back to The Phaedrus, the ancient dialogue penned by Plato between Socrates and Phaedrus. These musings, conducted over long hours spent traversing America’s backroads, revolve around a deceptively simple question: what is quality? It eludes simple definition, but put two papers of decidedly differing quality in front of an undergraduate English composition class and nine out of ten of them will pick the same one as being of better quality. So quality is real, it shapes how we live and perceive and engage with the world, but is there any way to put a finger of what, exactly, it is – to capture its essence in words?

The book grows more and more philosophical as the narrator delves deeper into the troubled intellectual toils of his past, but as it grows in abstraction it also grows in tension and suspense as it is revealed that the narrator’s inquiry into values ultimately drove him mad. Will he return to the madness of the pursuit? Is there any other conscionable thing to do – any other way to stay committed to the truth? The book was published in 1974, but its subject remains timeless and profound.

3. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

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In The Denial of Death, the late Berkeley anthropologist and writer Ernest Becker works his way through the inherent tension of man’s nature, delving farther into the Nietzschean abyss than most modern, secular people have gone. As the title indicates, this book is about man’s struggle to reach the eternal and find meaning as a mortal creature – the result of this impulse being that we obsessively deny the impending reality of our own death. Sure, we have the head knowledge and pay lip service to the idea that we will die eventually (YOLO!), but most people go about their days without a deep existential realization of the dagger hanging over their heads by a thread. We long for greatness and transcendence and try to find it by investing all of our purpose in the nation state or existential act or romance or faith. We are gods, so to speak, yet we all end up as worm food. As Becker memorably put it, men are “gods who s***.”

The Denial of Death’s diagnostic of the human condition is spot on and much more honest about the secular worldview, I think, than most intellectuals are willing to be. It is bleak and concludes without any hope beyond some abstract notion of throwing oneself into the life-force of the universe. Reading it shook me up pretty bad and deeply disturbed me at times, but in a good way. It’s not beach reading, but for those courageous (and perhaps foolhardy) souls who can’t get past the most basic questions of what it means to be alive and who value delving into the ideas of guys like Freud, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, I commend this book to you.

4. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“I have sworn not to put pen to paper until my ideas either clarify or depart entirely; I have quite enough sins on my soul without putting dangerous, shallow epigrams into people’s heads…” This conclusion to the despairing rant of Amory Blaine, the young protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s freshman novel, captures the angst of the young, talented writer. It’s a conundrum I often run up against myself. How does one justify his own participation in a world constantly in flux, in which public opinion shifts with the winds of the media’s ideology, true love feels eternally elusive, and matters of life and death seem to be dictated by cold, impersonal happenstances of car accidents and stray bullets?

Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at the age of 23, delivering a quintessential coming of age tale as America entered the Roaring Twenties. It is a fictionalized memoir of sorts, drawing heavily from his own crash-and-burn experiences with women, attending Princeton University, serving in World War One, and moving to New York City as a young man. I don’t have an answer for all of his frustrations, but it’s nice to encounter a youthful, zealous personality whose ambition and optimism crashes on the rocks of vanity. It’s also refreshing to encounter someone who is aware of his own self-absorption enough to refer to himself repeatedly as “the egotist.” Millennials may be the self-absorbed generation, with our Instagram and smartphones, but This Side of Paradise shows that adolescence hasn’t really changed much since it first came into being a century ago.

5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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I don’t read many autobiographies (or biographies, for that matter), but maybe I should. Back when I was in college a writing professor once referenced the Autobiography of Malcolm X, so when I saw it sitting in a box of free stuff on the sidewalk I picked it up. My professor had recommended the book because of its account of the turning point that steered Malcolm X’s life away from a vicious cycle of crime and prison to standing as a ideological and political leader among African Americans in the tumultuous lead up to the civil rights era. Everything changed in prison, as Malcolm himself recollects. When he first went to jail he estimated he had a vocabulary of just a few hundred words. He got religion through a Black Muslim, and then he decided to teach himself English – proper English. His method was simple. He opened a dictionary and started meticulously memorizing it one word at a time, starting with “aardvark.” By the time he was out of prison, he had read a vast swath of literature, history, and philosophy, and his education rivaled that of any college graduate. He became an eloquent speaker and powerful societal voice. As my professor would have said, he “mastered the civilization in which he lived.”

The literary and intellectual prowess of Malcolm X is evident in this book. It thoroughly transported me into his shoes. Given the great disparity between our life experiences – me, a college-educated middle-class white Christian from California, and Malcolm, a black hoodlum who cut his teeth on all manner of unlawful dealings in Boston and then Harlem – that’s really saying something. Even though much of his career was marked by decidedly extreme, violent rhetoric, reading his autobiography gave me a fresh empathy for the African American experience that has expanded how I think about racial issues today.

My Top Five Music Albums from 2015

Like last year, here is my annual, obviously subjective, list of the best music albums of 2015. If I could only listen to five records from 2015 for the rest of my life, it would be these. Give them a spin.

1. The Wonderlands – Jon Foreman

Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman released his second quartet of solo EP last year. Like his Seasons Eps, in which each album was named for one of the four seasons, respectively, The Wonderlands revolve around a cycle. Each track represents an hour in the 24-hour cycle of a day, and each album draws its name from the appropriate part of the day: Sunlight, Shadows, Darkness, and Dawn. Together, the Wonderlands capture much of the remarkable breadth of the human experience, including Foreman’s signature reflections on mortality (“Terminal”), his compassion for the broken and downcast (“You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are”), his personal vices (“Ghost Machine”) and doubts (“Inner Peace”), and above all his desperate faith in the saving work and person of Jesus (“Mercy’s War”).

These aren’t the wonderlands of the fantastic imaginings of a Lewis Carroll type, but the wonderlands of life in this world – a place of tension between the beautiful and the oppressive, between eternal truths and damnable lies, between paradoxes and facts and leaps of faith. They’re part of that rare breed of music that I can listen to no matter what mood I’m in, though more often than not I’ve found myself seeking solace in the Wonderlands in the hard times of despair, doubt, and fear. Indeed, Foreman may be the most empathic music artist in the business these days.

2. Blurryface – Twenty One Pilots

If last year was the year my eyes were finally opened to the wonders of Needtobreathe, this was the year of discovering Twenty One Pilots. This duo out of Columbus refuses to be pinned down by genre conventions. They serve up elements of hip-hop, pop, rock, electronica and more, not so much blended together as implemented at different stages of their songs. Frontman Tyler Joseph has said he didn’t realize there were rules to songwriting when he first started creating music, and it shows. Their songs don’t follow an expected progression, but somehow they work.

What truly makes them the cream of the crop of today’s music scene, however, is their lyrics. Twenty One Pilots songs are full of angst, but the not the sort of angst we laugh about when we think about listening to Paramore and Linkin Park in high school. It’s the post-youth angst found in coming to grips with one’s eternal responsibility. The stakes are higher. As we realize we cannot retreat to the petty problems of childhood (“Stressed Out”), we see more and more clearly the struggles and insufficiencies embedded deep in our “heavydirtysouls.” So put away all the gods your fathers served today. Put away your traditions. Believe me when I say we don’t know how to put back the power in our souls. We don’t know how to find what once was in our bones (“Hometown”).

3. Dear Wormwood – The Oh Hellos

My music tastes heavily evolved in another way this past autumn: I fell in love with folk music. I’ve know of The Oh Hellos for years, but they didn’t show up strong on my radar until I saw them open for Needtobreathe last year. It was an opening act that I’ve rarely seen matched, so when they went on a headlining tour for their new album, Dear Wormwood, I made sure to catch a show. These guys are one of those bands whose live show markedly changes how you hear their music, infusing it with vivacity. How many times has a banjo player snuck up behind you during a concert? Probably never, but thanks to the Oh Hellos, it happened to me. That’s not a show you forget in a hurry.

Their second full-length album, Dear Wormwood, draws its name from C.S. Lewis’ classic work, The Screwtape Letters. The book follows an imaginative situation in which a senior demon named Screwtape writes letters to his nephew, Wormwood, instructing him in the art of tempting human souls. The title track of the album speaks to that scenario from the human perspective, perceiving with clear eyes the purposes of the tempter and declaring opposition: “I know who I am now, and all that you’ve made of me. I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy.

4. Home – Josh Garrels

I had the privilege of interviewing Josh Garrels this year shortly after this album dropped. Garrels is one of those artists who (it seems to me) has succeeded through the sheer force of raw talent rather than stage presence or marketing. He first caught my attention with his breakout album, Love and War and Sea In Between. As the title suggests, it is an album full of conflict, spiritual warfare, taking a stand, and persevering on the journey home. On his latest album, Home, Garrels makes a shift in style and tone toward the soulful and contemplative, seeking that deep, intractable, divine rest and comfort available to the believer in the here and now.

Like Jon Foreman, I go to Garrels’ music for therapy and for encouragement. He captures the difficulties and joys of the Christian experience without sounding cliché or effusive. Here’s what he had to say about the new album: “In Home, there is the sense that I needed to know that things could be ok. I can tend towards being melancholy, wearing the weight of things on my shoulders. That can be a good thing, but I think on this album I really was searching. Where is the place where it’s going to be all right? Where is the place that we can find rest and joy and peace?”

5. Strange Trails – Lord Huron

This last slot was a tough choice, but ultimately I have to give the nod to Lord Huron, if for no other reason than that it is autumn incarnate. In the months after I saw them at DC’s Landmark Music Festival at the end of September, Lord Huron was the only band I wanted to listen to. Their music evokes recollections of long, formative journeys and stirs fond memories of foolish romances. I would describe it as ethereal and detached if it didn’t conjure such concrete images of the Virginia countryside descending into winter – cloudy days, damp paths, cool air, old forests and falling leaves.

If I were to sit down to write poetry or literary fiction, this is the album I’d put on in the background.

 

Honorable Mentions

Kids in Love – The Mowglis: This band takes the millennial ideal of love to its most extreme. Sometimes it’s fun to let my worries go and feel like I’m not alone, and even if I show up late, my friends will love me anyway.

Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES: The track “Clearest Blue” might have the sickest build and drop of any song I’ve ever heard, and the album as a whole represents a solid sophomore effort from the Scottish electronic trio. Also, I might be in love with lead singer Lauren Mayberry.

LOVETAP! – Smallpools: If I were to rank this list by songs I listened to the most, this album would have cracked the top five. These guys are like Walk the Moon’s cool little brother.

Mobile Orchestra – Owl City: While I think this is Adam Young’s weakest album as Owl City to date, I still has a lot to enjoy. He takes his faith to new levels of explicit spiritual expression in My Everything and You’re Not Alone, yet also collaborates with mainstream artists across a variety of genres – namely Jake Owen, Aloe Blacc, and Hanson (yeah, apparently Hanson’s still around). The juxtaposition doesn’t always work, and it lacks the innocence and charm – but not the sentimentality – of his earlier albums. Even so, I still count myself a dedicated fan.

California Nights – Best Coast: I’ve lived in DC for three years now, but I had a friend tell me recently that I still exude a decidedly Californian aura. I’d like to think this album by Best Coast (meaning the west coast, of course!) helps keep the Californian alive in me – sunny, beach-bum, alt-rock. The opening track makes me want to roll down the windows and drive through Los Angeles in the summer. And if you want a way to sonically capture the experience of going up to the Hollywood Bowl overlook at night, fire up the title track and drift into the psychedelic night.

Thaumatrope – Marah in the Mainsail: Rather than feeding off of petty breakups and navel-gazing emotion, this self-described “cinematic indie” outfit out of Minneapolis strives to tell stories fit for the movies, and I think they succeed. Their aggressive, boot-stomping folk is the perfect soundtrack for any post-Christmas winter adventure, yet Thaumatrope also has enough deep tracks to undergird those long, cold nights spent around the hearth, gazing into the fire.

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Autumn’s death and the whisper of resurrection

It’d be a damnable shame to dwell on morality, as in my previous post here, without a subsequent meditation on the prospect of immortality. Namely, the hope of resurrection.

Autumn is like dying. There’s a reason we use the seasons as metaphors for the trajectory of life. We have the glowing, invigorating spring of childhood, the glorious summer years of adulthood and family life, the ripening of autumn and decay of old age (not without its own beauty of peaceful, resigned contentment) and finally the cold death of winter, the lifeless chill from which the fauna retreats into hibernation and the flora goes dormant.

Here we are in the heart of autumn. October is over, but November and December feel full of promise. The holidays bring with them the prospect of rest – most of us aren’t farmers these days, but even those working in today’s information economy need rest from the digital harvest of their labors. And so winter seems to me to offer a gateway to restoration, through time to retreat and reflect, to spend long hours in reflection and conversation under blankets and around fires with hot mugs of tea and coffee. Winter is a time to take stock of my soul, to descend into dark places so as to correct the awry trajectories of my heart, and to refresh my zeal for another year of adventure in a world of stories.

What I’m getting at here is that whispers of restoration and resurrection run everywhere through the fibers of the natural world. “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime,” said Martin Luther. From the falling of the leaves to the eclipse of the moon, we live in and among these divinely orchestrated cycles, mighty and mysterious. The rain falls down, waters the land, fills the rivers, and runs to the sea. What brings it back? Evaporation, changing from liquid to gas… you can describe the scientific process, sure. We might as well call it a miracle.

Marilynne Robinson has some wonderful reflections on this question in her book “Housekeeping.” At one point the narrator, a young girl named Ruthie living in her deceased grandmother’s house, looks out and sees that two of the apple trees in her grandmother’s orchard have died:

“One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as if expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost.” (emphasis mine)

shutterstock_343082936Things perish. That is their nature in a universe of entropy. And even though they have a tendency to come back in new incarnations, what about when those cycles cease, as surely someday they must? Will they perish forever at the end of all things? Robinson doesn’t think so, for it would contradict our nature, our great expectations, our pesky, tenacious human impulse to cling to hope in the most wretched circumstances – especially, in fact, in the most wretched circumstances.

Indeed, for Robinson, desire and longing are a type of prophecy. As C.S. Lewis might say, we have cravings only because something exists to satisfy them. Here’s Robinson again (emphasis once again mine):

“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when does our sense know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

The darker life gets, the greater our craving for the light. Where evil and oppression proliferates, our cries and prayers for justice go up all the louder. Where the world is salt, there is greater need of slaking. In the valley of the shadow of death, the soul yearns for life abundant beyond the grave.

I’m at a loss to explain why, but the plain fact is that struggle, destruction, and lack are built in to the universe – often as a necessary precursors to some good end. Craftsmen labor for decades to hone their handiwork. Scholars study books without end in order to master a subject. The athlete trains with weights that make his motions more difficult and becomes strong. Salmon swim upstream against nature’s currents. Irritation turns grains of sand into pearls. Forest fires till fertile ground. Grapes are smashed, left to ferment, and become wine.

Back to the question. Does the autumn of life, the waning years, represent the final descent into vanity and death, or is it the path to new life? That’s the rub. Like Robinson, I can’t bring myself to accept and end of nothingness, of trees that never return with spring leaves. If autumn were followed by a never-ending winter (a la “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”), it would be a depressing time indeed – the last gasp of life’s pleasantries and warmth and joy. The sentimentality we experience during this season – harvest festivals and joviality, pumpkins and spices, flannel and friendship, bronzed foliage and wood fires burning through the nights – would become impossible. It would be the season of deepest despair and futility.

For those with a limited view of reality, it is a season of despair. Death is the last enemy, the one fate that we cannot defeat. We all fall to winter’s chill in the end, completing the cycle from dust to dust, and we cannot see past it, at least not with our physical faculties.

“Is there someone buried beneath this skin?” sings Jon Foreman. “Is he free when I am locked in my coffin?” Foreman finds a grounded answer first by looking back to the Maker, the one from whom all births spring, who ordained the seasons, turns the rain back into clouds, tells the trees to put out new green leaves, and who has himself passed through the great death of winter. From that old story we look forward, with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.

“Resurrection comes, but death comes first. All of our entitlements and rights drive the hearse. In the Maker’s death, death is unmade. And when I lose myself I’m saved – in my coffin.”

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Memento Mori: My Signposts of Mortality

In normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality. We are intent on mastering death…. A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it—but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission. The affect of fear is repressed.

– Gregory Zilboorg, “Fear of Death”

I think most people understand there’s a difference between intellectual assent and genuinely believing something. It’s the difference between mentally affirming that something is true, and experiencing it existentially so that it is felt and understood from the heart – as Mark Twain might say, the difference between a lightning bug and actually lightning. We all know, as a factual matter, as head knowledge, that we are mortal. Everyone dies. One day we will too, and yet, as Zilboorg says, we suppress that knowledge, we fill our lives and our thoughts with other things to escape contemplating the fate that awaits us – that one day we will cease to exist in this world.

As a 25-year-old, in the peak of vitality and strength, this is especially true for me and my age demographic. I know I’ll die, but I can type that sentence without a shudder. Death is likely still decades off, after all, why should I be so preoccupied with it? Statistically I still have a good 50 years or so, and sure, maybe I’ll suffer a premature death, but the odds are slim, and I don’t want to be controlled by the minuscule odds and irrational fears of plane crashes and shark attacks.

But the years are starting to go by faster, and still I suppress the thought of death. Well, perhaps not so much the thought as the belief in my own mortality. I can be a pretty cynical person. The news reports make me aware of death – again, as a matter of head knowledge. As a Christian, almost every Sunday when I step into church I’m driven to consider the ancient wisdom of the Psalmist: “Teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” But still, odds are I am relatively distant from the Reaper, and so I remain emotionally estranged from that most obvious, grim, and terrify fact.

Sometimes, however, reality breaks through, terrifying and exhilarating, and we confront our mortality head on. In these experiences, the tenuous nature of existence comes into sharp focus: I could die tomorrow, tonight, so soon; my God, it’ll happen so soon.

As best I can remember, I have had three of these moments over the past three years. Each only lasted a few minutes, perhaps just seconds. They were outside of my control, impossible to generate, unpredictable, but awfully real.

The first occurred in my apartment in Santa Clarita, CA about three years ago. I was home alone at night reading the Bible. I don’t remember which passage exactly, but it was somewhere in Job or Ecclesiastes, when suddenly I felt the sharp, stabbing sense of my own morality. The temporal concerns of my first job, unrequited romance, food, chores, what-have-you – those all vanished. I felt the nearness of judgment day and the immanent prospect of heaven. The spiritual waverings that kept me in a state of lukewarmness steadied and became grave. The stakes beamed bright and clear and eternally high. I shuddered, resolved to continue seeking God, sat in place, fearful.

The second happened in Washington, DC, in 2013. I was going for a walk at dusk on a warm summer day around the parking lot at RFK stadium. I had earbuds in and was listening to a song called “The Setting Sun” by Switchfoot. The vibrant hope of the music and the poetry triggered an eternal rush: “It won’t be long, I belong somewhere past this setting sun. Finally free, finally strong, somewhere back where I belong.”

shutterstock_329406311It’s a great song; I’ve listened to it dozens of times, maybe even hundreds. Many of them were during sunset, in more idyllic settings, but only once has it struck me quite this deeply. Something lifted the fog of digital distractions and musical escape and city noise. I’ve never had an actual vision, but the sky looked ripe for one, like a conduit of final redemption and restoration. The Savior and Judge is coming back in the skies. Good Lord they could rip open any moment. And soon I’ll be past them, past this world with its burning-out sun and universe of entropy and chaos. I’m so close, I thought, so close. If my hope is true, paradise is but a sky away. The sun of my years will set, and I’ll awaken to a dawn that makes the first 25 years of sunrises look like a tiny lantern in the dark. I’ll run with no pain in my side, glorified, invigorated, and whole.

The third was probably the least intense of the three, and the most perplexing given the context. It took place just a few months ago – again in DC. I was at a friend’s house watching the film District Nine for the first time. It is full of action and swearing, nothing too atypical for Hollywood fare, but it has a realism that few alien films achieve. The story is dark and hectic, but designed to evoke pity and empathy. The main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, contracts alien genetics somehow and begins to turn into an alien. He is taken into a secretive lab, forced to fire guns and blast aliens to jelly, and soon doomed to be harvested so that human researchers can unlock the genetic secrets of the alien race they are oppressing (I promise I’m going somewhere with this, stick with me). The South African setting makes the apartheid undertones of the film clear. Wikus is a rather unassuming chap, just trying to do a little humanitarian field work (except not, technically, humans; “alienatarian”?), and suddenly he finds himself about to be harvested – doomed to a lab death behind closed doors. I don’t know why but that sense of “that could be me” enveloped me – a tiny taste of the fear and shock experienced by those who lose loved ones in freak car crashes, a microcosm of the soldier whose buddy is shot, inches away, while he lives unscathed. It’s that sense that we really do live on a precipice of comfort and normalcy, and the next moment could snatch it all away and drop you in some secret, merciless underground lab. That poor guy with the alien hand, friendly little Wikus, he’s going to die right after celebrating his birthday. That’s horrifying, I thought. Because I will too.

I had a fourth episode just a few months ago that didn’t quite reach the intensity of the prior three, but I want to point it out because while all of aforementioned experiences drove me to hope, this one ended on a much darker note. That’s what’s scary about these moments; they push the soul to the extremes – either a radical, desperate leap of faith, or the deepest despair on the brink of the abyss. I was reading a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on the metro on the way home from work. It’s a long, meandering philosophical reflection woven into a motorcycle road trip through the Pacific Northwest. The narrator is a father traveling with his young son. As he tries to piece together his past as a philosopher, looking back at all the havoc and angst it wracked in him as he sparred mentally with human history’s greatest thinkers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all the way down to today’s academics, he looks into the future and sees the same relentless, endless drive for truth in his son:

“(He’s) being driven by forces he doesn’t understand. The questions… the same questions… He’s got to know everything. And if he doesn’t get the answer he just drives and drives until he gets one and that leads to another question and he drives and drives for the answer to that… endlessly pursing questions, never seeing, never understanding that the questions will never end. Something is missing and he knows it and will kill himself trying to find it.”

At that moment on the yellow line train to Fort Totten, I saw my life splay out before me as an endless string of questions, with answers I have no choice to embrace but cannot help but doubt. I saw myself driving on, floundering, in an endless sea of knowledge, data, ideas, and theories for the rest of my earthly days. It was nauseating.

The late anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Becker uses that opening quote from Zilboorg in the opening for a chapter in his book, The Denial of Death. In that book Becker says: “I believe that those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right, quite literally right.”

I’m inclined to agree.

It’s a funny exercise, writing about these moments. I can’t re-experience them, and even if I could I couldn’t find the words to do them justice. But they’re worth remembering and treasuring. They remind me of the truth of my condition. They prove that the ruminations of philosophers like Becker, bands like Switchfoot, filmmakers like Neill Blomkamp, and Moses aren’t some dry intellectual exercise. Rather, they cut to the core of who I am and the fate I am destined for, which is death: to perish, to cease to exist in the face I look at in the mirror every morning. These moments are markers, mementos mori left by the Teacher to teach me to number my days. They remind me that I’m too weak to handle the ultimate reality of death; that I must suppress it and go about my business of eating, sleeping, talking, walking, and all the passing things that make up my life, or else go insane. By causing my awareness of my suppression, however, they affirm and ultimately validate my hope that in the end I will escape the black of the void. And not only the black of the void, but the much more terrifying and disturbing prospect of the horrors of damnation.

From whence comes that hope? It comes from a Man who came from beyond the setting sun, a place of true freedom and eternal strength, somewhere back where I belong.

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In The Holy Land: The Value of Traveling to Israel

Last June I traveled to Israel for the first time. It was one of those “study tours,” a structured, rigorous trip aimed at seeing as many biblically-relevant sites as possible – and learning as much as possible.

Israel. I try not to overuse the term “unique,” but it applies to this nation and its people. It exceeds my faculties and surpasses my knowledge. How does one fully appreciate such a trip? How can you capture the experience? What should I learn from it?

Perhaps it would be best to start with the negative. As a Christian, I came to value my time to Israel not for an experience of place. There’s nothing particularly spiritual about being baptized in the Jordan River, as opposed to a baptismal in Washington, DC or a swimming pool in Bakersfield, CA. My heart didn’t skip a beat when I touched the rock where Jesus was likely born or the rock where he was likely crucified. And the prayers I offered up at these places, though perhaps a bit more informed than they would have been otherwise, were not exceptionally sanctified compared to my prayers in America.

The legions of sketchy souvenir and pilgrimage shops around these places soured the experience. Watching them profit off tourists’ (should I call them pilgrims’?) attempts at piety, I thought of the money changers that Jesus purged from the temple: I don’t want your trinkets. I recall Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:

The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Here, man seems to be looking on the outside, but the God of the Bible strikes me as more concerned with the inside.

shutterstock_135319565There are competing Catholic and Orthodox churches built on most of these traditional locations, lending an aura of spiritual significance to the place. At first blush I find this off-putting. It’s as if two millennia of religiosity, conflict, tradition, and superstition have marred and obscured their original simplicity – the earthiness of the place. I want to be careful here, though. I won’t presume to search out the heart postures of the people in these churches making the sign of the cross in front of a rock. As a born-and-raised Evangelical (who happens to be Baptist at the moment), I cannot empathize well with the high-churched and their icons, incense, and relics. Perhaps these physical elements aid their worship. I admit I feel a heightened sense of solemnity and awe in these Constantine-era churches, but I’m still wary. They’re just rocks, after all.

No, the true value of my time in the Holy Land was more subtle than that, but I think more beneficial in the long term. More than anything, it gave me a new appreciation for the poetry of Scripture – the beauty of its prose and the richness of its historical narrative. For me the parts of the trip that really mattered happened in the brief moments, the quiet moments alone in the places that inspired the biblical authors. At the spring of Engedi, where David fled from Saul and cut off part of his cloak in the cave, I contemplated the Psalms that may have been inspired by this brook in the wilderness:

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.

At Masada, one of Herod’s fortresses during the first century AD, we considered the words of the prophet Jeremiah. The fortress is basically in a desert, but it utilized a brilliant system of irrigation to catch and store rainwater in massive cisterns carved into the mountain. These cisterns were lined with plaster to keep water from escaping, and in the event of a siege they would have stored enough water to supply the defenders for years. They would have provided a lifeline in desperate times, but they could be damaged, infested with debris, and eventually exhausted, so they were a poor substitute for a natural spring. In Jeremiah 2, the prophet uses them as a metaphor for the vapid pleasures of the world compared to finding satisfaction in God:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

While staying on the Sea of Galilee, one evening I walked to the shore and contemplated Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, watching as the sun set over the hills where he preached. Why should I worry? God knows what I need. The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure. Will you sell yourself to buy the one you’ve found?

When Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth,” he may have pointed to a port on the Galilee called Magdala, which was a major exporter of salted fish at the time. When he says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” he may have pointed to a real city on a hill overlooking the Galilee, the lights of which would have been visible across the entire region.

After all these years, we’re so used to those metaphors. It’s easy for me to lose sight of their tangible, historical roots.

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Outside of the geopolitical conflicts that torment the region, we hear mostly good things about the Holy Land – the glory of Jerusalem, the richness of its history, the fertility of its fields. But I think its religious significance gives us rose-tinted glasses. Israel isn’t a beautiful, remarkable land, at least not relative to many other places in the world. It’s southern California without Hollywood, Santa Monica, or San Diego. The hills and fields around Galilee look almost exactly the same as the Grapevine that connects California’s central valley to Los Angeles. I’ve taken it dozens of times. No one drives that route for its scenery.

But isn’t that just like God? Israel historically has strategic value, with the ancient International Coastal Highway running through it, creating a critical juncture of commerce between Asia, Africa, and Europe. For thousands of years, the world’s eye has been drawn to the land of Israel, and still is. And yet if God wanted his people to have a beautiful country or to be a world superpower, he could have picked a lot of other places. But God doesn’t operate by the same calculus we do. Here’s what he tells Israel about his rationale in Deuteronomy:

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.

The divine reasoning is similar in the formation of the church, as the Apostle Paul writes:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.

There is much theological debate among Christians over the significance of Israel today and its relationship to the church, but regardless of your position, both give us insight into God’s nature – his care for the poor and downcast, his concern for the integrity of the heart, his tendency to favor the underdog, his desire to make himself known to the world through his people, his longing to satisfy us with himself, and perhaps most incredibly, his willingness to get dirty.

I don’t know for sure if I touched the exact spots where Jesus was born and died. Just as you never step in the same river twice, I didn’t swim in the same Galilee water that Jesus walked on. But that doesn’t negate the reality that he did, in fact, enter history as a flesh-and-blood man – the same history on the same planet that I am living on right now 2,000 years later. Indeed, the land of Israel reinforces that reality, standing as a testament to it. God left the abstract realm of spirituality and ideals and theory, and he came down and got in the dust and grime and corruption of the human experience. He wept and hungered and wearied and bled, so that someday we wouldn’t have to.

In Israel. That’s a remarkable thing to consider.

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Ulysses and the Paradox of Freedom

Last year the band Switchfoot released an EP of songs they recorded for a documentary tour/surf film. One of the songs is called “Liberty.” As the title suggests, it is about freedom, but it begins with a metaphor that challenges our conventional understanding of what freedom actually is:

I tie myself up to the mast

Give up the semblance of control

The sirens sing, but I let them pass

‘cause only you can free my soul

The reference, of course, is from the classic Greek epic The Odyssey. At one point in his journey home, the hero Ulysses is warned about the irresistible song of the sirens, which entices men to chase after it to their destruction. Because he wants to hear the song, Odysseus has his crew tie him to the mast so that he can hear the song without pursuing its seductive beauty.

The songwriter Josh Garrels makes a similar reference in a song called Ulysses, in which he asks to be tied to the mast of the ship on which he is sailing.

But look at those first two lines from Switchfoot’s song: I tie myself up and give up control. What kind of freedom is this?

I had a professor in college who used to point out in his philosophy classes that anytime you are freed from something, you become enslaved to something else. In other words, you always freed into a new place of slavery. Any realistic talk of freedom must include this nuance because freedom cannot exist in a vacuum. The song gets this in the reference to giving up the semblance of control. To deny our “creatureliness,” as the late anthropologist Ernest Becker might say, is to live in an illusion.

“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives,” he writes in The Denial of Death. “We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us.”

Odysseus-003Becker is saying that our meaning and motives are contingent on forces outside of us; we simply must give ourselves away to something or somebody. If we don’t, we will despair, go insane, and generally cease to live in any meaningful sense. It is our nature to latch onto something bigger and better than the self because we are weak and live in the constant shadow of death. This greater object can be a lot of different things – an abstract ideal of virtue or heroism, a lover, a god, or even something as debased as a number in a bank account.

The pastor Tim Keller gives a practical example to explain how freedom must coexist with slavery. If you want the freedom to play the piano, he says, you must put in long hours of practice, forfeiting the freedom to do many other things with those hours. But it is only after you’ve enslaved yourself to the practice of the piano that you can sit down and play stunning pieces of music.

When I was in college, I saw this firsthand as I roomed with a number of music majors. Many days they would leave for the practice rooms early in the morning and not return until midnight. Sometimes they looked weary and miserable from the grind, other times elated because of a breakthrough in mastering a new technique or portion of a piece. Their spirit changed according to how the work seemed to be going in the moment, but at the recital at the end of the semester I saw the fruit of their labor. It was always wondrous to behold – both the magnificence of the piece they played and the raw elation they displayed from performing it.

As finite beings that can only exist at a single place and time, any meaningful sense of freedom must therefore mean a sort of enslavement, because as the example of practicing music implies, saying yes to one thing means saying no to everything else.

Now extrapolate that freedom-enslavement paradigm to the soul – the self, the seat of our core identity and deepest desires. What would it look like to free that? What would it take to free the part of us that has the longings of eternity written on it? Is there any one thing, any one person, to which we can subsume all of the lesser pursuits of freedom?

The philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard thought so. Becker summarizes Kierkegaard’s view thusly: “Once the person begins to look to his relationship to the Ultimate Power, to infinitude, and to refashion his links from those around him to that Ultimate Power, he opens up to himself the horizon of unlimited possibility, real freedom.” In other words, real freedom comes when one grounds his identity and purpose fundamentally in the almighty God.

Both of the aforementioned songs have two additional components to their understanding of liberty that shows us why nothing short of this infinite God will do. The first is an implicit understanding that our impulses and desires are fundamentally flawed.  Ulysses understood that even though he had been warned that pursuing the siren song would kill him, he still had to lash himself to the mast. He knew his own self-control would not be enough to stop him from throwing himself to his doom, and so he gave up control. He sacrificed his own volition, but he preserved his life.

This is profoundly instructive for us today in a world where similarly destructive comforts and pleasures are ever before us, singing a siren song that sounds damn good. When one embraces his own self-centered passions under the guise of authentic self-expression or self-actualization, he will inevitably find himself thrashing after the siren song to an end of bitterness, despair, and (perhaps literally) death. Individual stories of these self-destructive pursuits abound – just read some history or great literature, or look at the lessons of your past.

Thomas_Cole,_The_Voyage_of_Life croppedWe’re bent out of shape, but how can we be set straight? What’s the solution to disordered desires? You can lash yourself to the mast, but that won’t help in the long run unless that mast is on a ship and unless the ship has a destination. Therefore, the final component to this theology of freedom we see in these songs is the idea of the present journey and the hope of home.

Here’s another line from Switchfoot’s Liberty:

Mine is the story headed home.

And Garrels:

I’m sailing home to you and I won’t be long…

So tie me to the mast of this old ship and point me home

Before I lose the one I love

Before my chance is gone

Here we see the faith that our lives have a destination, an ideal home that this world only gives us a small foretaste of. These songs understand that the experience of lashing yourself to the mast is not the end goal of freedom, but a means of self preservation until you make it to your true home – the final resting place.

But how can we reconcile that hope with the siren song in the here and now? How can you be free at your current home when so many of our impulses and desires are misguided? I believe Kierkegaard rightly found the resolution in Christianity, a faith that holds forth a paradoxical freedom by proclaiming both our liberty and our enslavement. One moment, Jesus Christ is saying “come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” And the next he says “if you would follow me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross.” The Apostle Paul says that “where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty,” but then he says “you are not your own, because you were bought with a price,” and it is therefore incumbent upon you to live for God’s glory.

And so the Christian, looking beyond the limited possibilities of this present life, submits to a temporal, liberating enslavement. He entrusts himself to Jesus Christ, the freest man to ever live who, in his freedom as God-incarnate, submitted himself to the will of his Father. In being united to Christ, the Christian has hope that one day we will experience true freedom from our selfish, damning impulses in a new home – the Father’s house.

But for now we live in the tension of our depravity. In matters of the self and the soul, we only find freedom by denying our baser nature, fencing ourselves sin, cutting off hands and putting out eyes, tying ourselves to the mast and giving up the semblance of control. The sires sing, but we can let them pass, because only You can free my soul.