Marriage and the dark side of “Jesus is enough” theology

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It was a refrain I heard from just about everyone as I came of age as a Christian.

I first remember listening to sermons by John Piper proclaiming that God is most glorified when I am most satisfied in him. Later, Timothy Keller would speak of how putting our ultimate hope and identity in a romantic relationship will ultimate fail us and lead us to despair, showing that it’s only through finding complete love and acceptance in God through Jesus that we gain the spiritual buoyancy to weather the inevitable disappointments of our spouse.

Indeed, just about every article about singleness and marriage that I read on Christian blogs, websites, and magazines, it seemed, warned against putting too much stock in the hope of fulfillment from a potential spouse that gets stirred up with the exhilarating experience of falling in love. Whether married or single, these voices said, you already have all of that in Jesus. Just delight in him and stay rooted in the perfect love and complete acceptance that he has given you through the cross.

At the same time, I also read both secular and Christian books that critiqued our modern image- and material-obsessed culture. They exposed how, absent a robust faith in God and given the prevalence of pop culture’s Hollywood endings, the modern person is taught to long for ideals of physical beauty and happily-ever-after in a romantic partner that will never satisfy us. Literature is replete with examples of men and women torn apart and ultimately crushed by the failure of their lover. Even my favorite music artist, Jon Foreman, sang of trying to drown his existential pain with a friend who’s “got a pretty face with her wedding lace.”

But in the end, he laments, “I’m still waking up with myself.”

The great danger, it seemed clear to me, was idolizing a romantic partner. Don’t make your spouse (or a prospective spouse) your savior: first, because they can’t be, and second, because you already have one.

To be clear, I take no issue with the greater truth of these exhortations, only with how I followed them. With my guard firmly up against romantic idolatry, I embarked on a relationship with the woman who is now my wife. I fell for her hard. She was beautiful, exuberant, friendly, free-spirited, and full of God’s life and love in a way that I’d seen in few other people. She was the kind of woman that a lot of guys would find instantly attractive, and I didn’t want to be the latest addition to a list of desperate suitors. I quickly grew to love her and desired to be with her, but I didn’t want to become so attached that I wouldn’t have the emotional and spiritual capacity to walk away from the relationship if that’s what was best for both of us.

The result of my wariness was a painful cycle driven by my projected sense of cool detachment covered with a spiritual veneer. She would become fearful and threaten to break off the relationship, and I would calmly reply that while I really liked her and wanted to stay together, she was free to end things if she really wanted to.

And if she did, I added, I would be okay. Privately I rationalized that I had my relationship with God to fall back on, and while it would obviously hurt to break off our relationship, she wasn’t the ultimate thing in my life and eventually I would recover and move on. I could marry her and it would be great, I told her, but if that wasn’t what she wanted, then ultimately I didn’t want it either.

To her, this came across as a take-it-or-leave it attitude, and it stoked a deep-seated feeling in her that I didn’t really care about her or our relationship all that much. “I could leave,” she would tell me at various times, “and you’d be totally fine.” Worse, my fear of falling into idolatry led me unknowingly to maintain a certain emotional distance from her. I don’t want to idolize her, I thought, so I’d best work out my deepest hurts and fears between myself and God. Better that than letting her into the pain I would feel if our relationship ended.

The problem was that I didn’t let my care for her show in a way that was vulnerable—that was woundable—because I had subtly conflated the sin of idolatry with the experience of being deeply hurt by losing someone I desired. I failed to grasp that a relationship with God, truly experienced and understood, leads not to detachment from the world but into a deeper love for the world and for the people made in God’s image. More than that, I failed to understand that satisfying one’s deepest needs for love, purpose, and belonging in Jesus does not inoculate us against the wounds and sorrows of world—least of all those caused by one’s significant other. In fact it does just the opposite.

It took several more cycles of my projected detachment during the early months of our marriage for me to start opening my heart and showing my wife through confession and tears that the prospect of losing her would cause me more pain and grief than anything I’d ever experienced. I had to learn to show her that she affected me not only in positive ways like being fun and encouraging me to follow Jesus, but that she also had the capacity to deeply hurt me. She needed to see me make myself vulnerable to know that I cared for her.

Is this not, after all, how God shares his heart for us? Is this not the song of the prophets, whose words ache with the grief God feels when his people leave him to chase after other gods? Is this not the experience of Jesus, who not only wept over the death of Lazarus but ultimately suffered the death of a perfect relationship with his Father for our sake?

God does not have a desperate or needy love for us, I understood that well enough, but his love for us is reckless and deep and woundable. Our romantic relationships, while no substitute for God himself, should look the same.

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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.

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.

Dyin’ to Live: Smallpools’ millenial anthem

A good friend of mine once remarked that our generation is the first that isn’t willing to die for anything. I think he was on to something – not to say that we don’t care about anything (quite the contrary), but rather that confidence and conviction in something outside of self is hard to come by these days.

If Fun.’s “Some Nights” is the anthem of my generation, unsure of what we stand for, then the band Smallpools has written something of a secondary anthem with their new song “Dyin’ to Live.” It probably won’t make the same cultural waves, but it captures the digital ethos of the new millennium. Consider the opening verse:

I wonder, Have I lost my mind?

I was having a meltdown, but I don’t know why

‘Cause I sleep alright, and I eat just fine

I’m not scared of being a lonely man, or even dying, just missing out

That’s a remarkable statement. It is weighty with a sense of its own irony. Who isn’t afraid of loneliness or death? Those are the quintessential human fears. But it is pithy in substance. In the modern age, all of our immediate material needs have been met. We sleep safe and sound with a roof over our heads; we can afford to eat healthy. And so “FOMO” – Fear of Missing Out – is the not-so-deep and dark terror that haunts us. What could be worse than missing out – blowing a chance for greatness or love, not being there with your friends in the most “epic” moments, lingering in your own unfulfilled potential while everyone else goes out and lives awesome lives?

Image from WikipediaWhen you consider the current human condition in the broader perspective of history, it’s not hard to see that FOMO is trite. It is caught up in the present era, decidedly narcissistic, and arises from a skewed view of our friends and acquaintances. But trite or not, the lyric is still an accurate diagnosis. If you were to somehow chart my mind’s activity, a fear of missing out would come up much more frequently than a fear of loneliness or death. And I suspect I’m the rule among my peers, not the exception.

So what is the answer? The song issues no grand aspirations to heroism, honor, or immortality; instead it cries out for an elusive, simple contentment:

It’s not much to ask for

We’re only trying to just feel alright

We’re only trying just to find that steady love

We’re only trying just to buy some time

We’re all just dyin’, we’re all just dyin’ to live

What an anthem. I can imagine this one in a live concert, all of the kids belting it out, voices raised in a unified cry. We wonder why we’re so sad, and feel a rush of fleeting camaraderie with the strangers around us. We think of the love we’re still looking for, and feel just a little more optimistic. We remember the times we wish we could have back and consider the ever-shrinking future. The very act of expressing the longing washes us in a wave of catharsis, which reaches its peak in the bridge:

I know there’s something better

I cannot fight what’s falling apart

I’ll get myself together, together, together

My shield of rusted metal can’t keep this world from falling apart

So let’s tear this down together, together, together

It’s not much to ask for

It’s easy to dismiss the young person’s angst in the midst of raging emotions and a life with hardly any meaningful responsibility. But as C.S. Lewis might suggest, this guttural sense that the life we have right now isn’t good enough is a clue about the deeper appetites of the soul. It’s pretty self-evident, after all, that the world is falling apart. We also know that our lives could be better. And we fear (rightly so) that there’s nothing we can do to stop it or fix it. We don’t think we want much, just to feel alright and find that steady love and not feel pressed for time.

Time, love, and a clear conscience, however, are a tall order. Should we really expect life to deliver them?

The older voices in our lives tell us to suppress these questions. They tell us to suck it up and realize the world doesn’t revolve around us. There’s a lot of practical wisdom in this. Most of us won’t amount to something “special” – whatever “special” means. We may find a surprising amount of satisfaction in casting aside some of our insatiable ambitions, making a decision, and sticking to it even if it doesn’t fulfill all our expectations. Planting ourselves in one place with a steady job, a spouse and a family may feel like settling, but there’s a lot to be said for stability – and for choosing contentment (which is a choice, after all). Here in the routine of selflessly sustaining others, perhaps, is something of that steady love. Maybe by letting go of our obsession over all the things that we potentially could be doing with our time, and enjoying on the present moment, we can buy a little more time.

Maybe. There’s a scene near the end of the film Boyhood where the main character Mason’s mother is about to send him off to college. At this point we’ve spent about two hours watching him grow from grade school nearly to adulthood. He decides not take a certain picture of himself to college. Why would he want to take a piece of his past with him like that, he reasons. His mother sees it, and for some reason the act of leaving the past behind, forgotten, triggers an existential breakdown. She begins to weep.

“You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my f***ing funeral!”

I haven’t been through the generational process of marriage and children, but that scene scares me. It sounds like even the more traditional steady life, pursued as an end in itself, will leave us like Saito in the film Inception: lost in unreality, “filled with regret, waiting to die alone.”

Where, then, can you go for the life Smallpools is singing about here? I think they’re asking the right questions. They’re right to feel dissatisfied. Most nights we don’t know what we stand for, but we’re pretty darn sure it’s something better than what we’ve got right now. We’re all just dyin’ to live.

Spiting Winter: The Cold Is A Stage

Deep Creek Lake, MD – I’ve been here two days now. The weather app says it is zero degrees Fahrenheit outside. You can see the wind gusting as it picks up the fine powdery snow. That probably brings it down to a wind chill of negative ten or fifteen. I’ve hardly left the house, but I’ve spent a lot of time looking out the big glass door windows at Deep Creek Lake, a snowy plain for the sport of snowmobilers, with other cabins and hibernating trees surrounding it.

I decided last Thanksgiving that Winter has a beauty to its barrenness. I spent the weekend in a cabin in Virginia, much like the one I’m in now. In the morning I would go out to the big living room windows and look out over the gently hilled farmlands that precede Shenandoah. The unkempt grass still had traces of golden green. I could see bright red barns and silos and cows through the rising mist. A few small streams crisscrossed with aged barbed wire fencing to make little dividers in the hills. It was delightful, Psalmic even – streams and pastures and sheep and sublime divinity and all that. Seasons change as surely as God’s faithfulness. The days may grow colder and darker, but there’s a fire in the hearth, and I have a full belly and a heart of good cheer. Life outside may retreat, but it is replaced by a stunning stillness and peace that is wondrous to behold.

Being from California, the reality of Winter, as in Winter as a distinct season, is a new phenomenon to me. I can probably still count on two hands the number of good snows I’ve experienced. Now that I’m in a climate where temperatures regularly dip below freezing, I’ve determined that there are two different kinds of cold when temperatures reach such nether regions. There’s a gentle, welcoming cold that is pleasant to be out in; it wraps around you like a soft blanket without penetrating and sapping the vitality out of your body (I suspect humidity may affect this). Oftentimes this is the cold that accompanies a snowfall. But then there’s the hard, soul-sucking cold; it starts at your extremities – hands, feet, nose and ears – then travels right to your heart. Whenever you’re so unfortunate as to spend any length of time in it, it keeps you walking as quickly as possible for your warmer destination, and makes you stiff as a cold piece of plastic that would snap in half from a strong thwap.

This is undoubtedly the cruel sort of cold.

It occurred to me, as I was staring out at the pure, empty meat locker of a world stirring just a few inches away from me, that I was spiting Winter. Here I stood, oh so close to a world that could kill me in hours, if not minutes, calmly enjoying a cookie in my sweatpants and slippers. Someone had just flipped the switch to turn on the fireplace. Thank you, modern comforts. I’d been at leisure all day, and yet the elements raged and flew. The cold and ice used to constrain man as it pressed in, making us still and slow and impotent. Now it just makes us irritable.

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With this thought subconsciously in mind, I went outside on the lake for a few minutes this afternoon (pictured). The sun illuminated the world in white – beautiful clean light. Winter may command us to be still, may narrow our lives to this sharp focus of a single time and place, but she herself does not sit still. Not today, at least. The wind commands my attention and my senses, whisking up the powder as with a paintbrush, a ghostly, ethereal artist. We often use the wind as a metaphor for the spiritual, to show how it is unseen yet still real and felt. But I can see it right now as it catches up the snow, at least a little, like a current or perhaps a song around me. Yes, maybe that starts to get at the essence of it. What is the wind, or the Spirit, if not a melody?

Before the cold has seeped in to my extremities and nips crisply at my nose and lips with dry teeth, I feel a sense of grandeur on the lake, as if I am suddenly a great character in a great story bent upon a great mission. James Bond in some arctic locale, or maybe the dogged remnant of Shackleton’s crew. I follow the packed path of a snowmobile toward a bridge a few hundred yards away. It spans the lake, allowing automobiles to traverse the snowy hills. The wind whips at my back. I raise my hood to defect it. As I walk underneath the bridge the wind narrows between the pillars. Currents of frost dash around and between my feet. I can see through the ice more clearly under the bridge where the snows hasn’t fallen. It looks thick – at least six inches or so. I start to feel cold, like actually chilled, and I suddenly understand why that epic feeling swept over me.

This world of snowdrifts and flat white ice is beautiful; it has a sense of uncharted purity, and I must explore it, must chart the icy wonder. But more than that it is alien to me, and invites action. I must make it across the lake before my arch nemesis escapes, or find a way to stay alive among the ice floes until help can arrive. It fills me with awe and wonder, so why wouldn’t it be a stage on which I play out the adventure?

It also compels me for its hostility. The very act of existing in these conditions, putting one foot in front of another, slipping along the ice when the wind persists in its bitter course, is a feat. No sane person should be living out here, and yet here we are, conquerors against the elements. Life below freezing showcases man’s resolute will to survive, adapt, and take dominion, despite and against the hostility. But his boots, gloves, hood, and sunglasses give away his weakness – my weakness. I concede that this ten-minute adventure has been nice, but soon I am sprinting into the wind, letting the ice cut my eyes and face, so that I can get back indoors to the warm. I run as if a blizzard is behind me, to feel the cold in my lungs, to be chased by Winter, to admit that without the cabin and the road so close there is mortal danger. I can’t stay out here much longer. And so I flee, exhilarated, leaving a trail of heavy footprints behind me, and taste the first drops of exhaustion.

I recently heard a story through a friend of a friend about two snowboarders in Colorado who tried to make it down a run in a whiteout, much like one that came through and smothered the lake yesterday evening. I could barely see the trees 30 feet away. These two guys couldn’t see the run and mistakenly strayed onto a closed trail. By the time they realized their mistake, they couldn’t make it back. One of them huddled against a tree to wait it out. The other struck off for help, but only made it 500 yards in the wrong direction. The blizzard lasted two days. They were found six months later.

And so my looking out the window in serenity at the white plain and the gray trees and windy rivulets singing their song really is spiting Winter. My sense of adventure is not misplaced. The snow doesn’t exist solely for our enjoyment, but to stiffen the business of life, slow our routines, and make us wonder. That’s why I’m growing to love Winter, learning to give thanks for it, because when the whiteout storms through I don’t have the last word. My existence is subject to forces far beyond my control, and sometimes they demand humility. At best I can mitigate it, but my freedom doesn’t extend much beyond the glass doors through which I gaze. Instead, I must contemplate, blow the knee, and be still.