Are you there, Father?
I can’t see you.
.No, you can’t
I need to feel that you’re there.
.Take my hand, and you will
Edit: last line was “.Believe that I am, and you will”
I just had a moment where I thought, “If I’m not a writer, am I anything?” meaning “anything of value.” I have an attachment to being a writer, or being a something, and attaining my idea of life. If I am not a writer, a thinker, an artist, a good father, someone who can control his addictions and his time, someone who can think without worry, who can find what he “should do,” who can understand, who has some unique skill or calling or benefit, who succeeds and is known for it, who doesn’t care about success or praise, who has useful and profound and beautiful thoughts, who hasn’t been found out as a failure in all these things—if I am not these things, am I anything?
But you don’t have to be anything. That’s just the message of those who disbelieve in their own innate and unchangeable value and who share that disbelief with others. Who disbelieve in life itself and have replaced it with what is death itself, the removal of life and the addition of toil, karma, earning, requirement, law, deservance, value by accomplishment, independence—which is just dependence upon things that are not life and cannot win it.
You are loved by your heavenly father; you are loved by God, who is life, who is your life, and you are his. And you are his. You are his. Because he has made you so, and not because he innately needs us, you are his life. He has made himself dependent upon you—not because he needs anything you have but because that’s love. In love, you are dependent upon the object of your love (see George MacDonald’s “Consuming Fire” sermon). Like the father of the prodigal son and of the elder son, you are wanted and chased after by him. You are drawn and taught and welcomed back with eager and open and warm and gratuitous and unbreakable arms.
So, if I am not a writer, I am loved by God, who is Life and whose love is to us life.
If I don’t know and choose the right job, I am loved. If I’m not qualified for any job that promises success or value, according to the unbelieving world, I am loved. If I’m not qualified for any job at all, I am loved. If I choose the wrong job, the wrong fit, the one that I will quit or fail at or leave, I am loved.
It almost makes you want to abandon, to avoid the world and its system of success, to not be led into it, if that were even possible. But your placement isn’t so much to stay in the right system as it is to be wherever God is with you. And he is with you with the rest of those who still need him, wherever they are. Right? “I learn so much, I remember who I am in my poverty (of all the things that are not God but that I feel like I need). Please keep me here.” Is that not “deliver us from temptation?” Is it not asking to be “the poor” in “blessed are the poor?”
Part of me wonders if persons typically associated with success—often persons that started young whatever successful activity they are now vocating—are merely addicts of whatever it is that they do. That is, they have reward circuits that allow them to get in a dark flow for that thing (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/the-machine-zone-this-is-where-you-go-when-you-just-cant-stop-looking-at-pictures-on-facebook/278185/; also Generation Wealth on Amazon Prime Video), that make them keep wanting to come back without end, that disable them from what would be more healthy activities. Maybe not, but if it’s not love, it has to be something like that, yes? I, at least, apart from love, can’t stick to something unless I’m addicted to it, it would seem. I just get bored and then curious about something else.
So I’m being reminded that the result of salvation is love and that loving is what I’m called to do. Loving. It’s the godly and essentially life-giving equivalent of “Here’s more money than you can imagine. Go spend it freely.” “Here’s the answer to death, itself. Go do it as much as you want.” I mean come on. We could be commanded to do worse things, yes? Anyways, I remembered that my big push to write was “writing is a good way for you to love.” I’ve been having some issues with my lack of motivation to do good. But it’s because of a lack of love. And that of course starts with knowing that I’m loved. So, you’re loved, and if you write or don’t, the reason for it, whatever it is, is love.
Kinda scary that to the degree that I’m godly I can do the thing(s) that I want to do most when I’m ungodly. Talk about a brilliant and devious temptation.
And one final thing. Had the thought this morning that I wonder if the toil promised to Adam was more of a blessing than a curse. It’s the toil that teaches him he needs God. It’s lack of toil (i.e., success, abundance, security) that poisons us with the lie that we need nothing and nobody.
We’ve fallen in a well, not the high seas. These aren’t carracks and caravels but the lashed-together collections of bodies, bobbing us about in the darkness. And if there’s a rope out, it’s not the sailor but the bobbing body that’s more apt to put his hand to it.
Give us this day our daily bread.
I was taught that this refers to what we need to learn. But isn’t it what we need in order to live? Not bread alone but every word of God’s, and Christ, himself, fully embodying and revealing that Word. But surely this also includes
wait for it
Sustenance, air, water, clothing, friends and family: whatever we need, as determined by God, just like the birds and the flowers, who don’t have storehouses or barns. At every moment, they depend on God’s provision (or withholding).
How different is modern American security? We idealize careers, we develop our CVs, we invest. All cultures sell their own flavors, but we sell Independence. “Need no one.”
But don’t go off to the woods just yet. Our assumptions need changing. Give us today whatever we need—food, friendship, capacity for love, ability to learn from our mistakes, changed assumptions…
Don’t we depend even in those things that secure us? Investments require stable markets. Careers require healthy minds and bodies. Commutes require that the gravitational forces that keep our tires upon the ground remain constant. We depend upon a sovereign and graceful God, who holds all things together.
And after praying for our bread, do we believe that he’ll give it and that, after the day’s provisions, we can say, “We received what we needed?” Do we depend even for that? Don’t we? Doesn’t Christ provide all things for life and godliness, so that all provision has as its core the death and resurrection of God? And while we were still sinners, did he not already give it?
Indeed he did. Give us this day our daily bread.
A conversation in response to 12/3/2016, 1/19/2017: On Perfectionism and Creativity
In early 2017, a friend had some questions about a post. My response ended up summarizing my whole soteriology at the time, which of course is built with the humble and talented bricks of so many profs, books, and pastors and mortared together with my own thought and experience. I’m putting it here for posterity and will probably comment on it later.
D: I have been thinking about this a lot lately, specifically how fear relates to perfectionism. Maybe you can expound on that some…
Me: What have you been thinking?
D: Well recently I feel like perfectionism is somehow related to self- protection or fear. But I haven’t figured it all out yet. You said it’s fear of failure which makes sense. Trying to protect a false image I have of myself maybe? But what if the fear of failure is of moral failure or sinful failure? I guess that’s what you were saying, that even that can become an idol. I’ve not thought of that before. But yes, it steals creativity & risk taking, but since perfection is impossible it also steals joy & peace.
Me: Yeah, moralism—that Christ-agnostic standard that has ruled much of my life—is a huge offender. And a sneaky one, since it masquerades so well as being scriptural. Learning the difference between moralism and the Gospel, which is about Christ’s meeting all godly standards on our behalf, was a huge change for me. The Grace Awakening by Chuck Swindol was a big help for me in this, among other things.
A corresponding key nuance is that ALL salvation—even sanctification—is by grace through faith. The emphasis in my tradition was always on our responsibility and need to work in sanctification (which we should) rather than on our dependence upon God for good works, just as much as we depend for initial belief and for future, eternal deliverance. We are called to work, but the goodness that comes within our working, when it comes, is always, always, always by grace through faith and not because of the work, itself (Phil 2:12-13). That grace—that dependence upon God for sanctification-salvation—frees us from the idolatrous tyrant of moral success. And again, it’s only because Christ has already met the standard on our behalf.
The Gospel is always, and in everything that’s eternally good (things whose goodness transcend temporal benefits, I suppose), “Christ saves us.” So any fear regarding anything eternally good, given Christ’s power and love for us, must arise from some lack of faith in Christ//faith in something in place of Christ. It must come from some flaw in our beliefs and values rather than from some valid application of the Gospel.
D: I agree. My trouble is with figuring out in the moment where my motivation is coming from- empowering grace or moralism.
Me: Another helpful nuance for me (we seem to share the same vice, though I’m not surprised)—we are at all times both sinner and saint. Nothing we do is ever wholly one or the other. So waiting for “good motivation” isn’t really a thing. We’ll never have it even if we think we do.
God just wants us to work, and to the degree that we do good, it’s because of him. And to the degree that we don’t, it’s because of us. And when we fail, because Christ has already pardoned us, we learn, and we keep on working, correcting our methods and actions on the way. It’s painful to learn through failure, but I think that’s one part of suffering we’re promised in this life. Putting to death the deeds of the body is putting them to death. It’s not a day spa. That one’s a fairly recent nuance for me—within the past six months, probably. He just wants us to keep working as best we can in each moment, and worrying is not ever a good work.
Given that all good we can do is by grace through faith, worrying about whether or not we have a good motivation with the intention of withholding that action if we don’t is, in my estimation, symptomatic of a return to moralism. The worry—the fear of failure—signs that we have lost faith in the righteousness and grace of Christ, upon which we are dependent for both our pardoning and for the good motivation/works. If we trust in him for what, in short, could be called our sanctification (good works out of good character), we trust his provision AND his withholding. Whatever he chooses to do—and he does not promise all salvation to all men—he is God, on whom, alone, we are dependent. And here it gets hairsplitting—if we trust ONLY in the provision and NOT in the (apparent) withholding (and also on our ability to know what provision we need and when, how, etc. we get it), we trust in the provision. It has become an idol. If we trust in the PERSON(S) who provides (or not), we trust not only his provision but also in what way he provides or not. We trust him and all he does in all the ways he does them, even when we have no idea what he’s doing or if he will ever extend us what we desire or what we think he should. All that to say, a person who trusts God, including his provision of the grace required for either our pardoning or our good works (again, ALL aspects of salvation) trusts HIM, and fear signs a trust in something less than him—something untrustworthy, thus the fear.
And another nuance—I use “lack of faith” more broadly than just in regard to belief. I think we are dependent not just for the belief but also for everything required for the belief, including the correct knowledge.
One mistake I fall into is making the removal of perfectionistic fear an idol. Given that God is both infinitely loving and powerful, fear is symptomatic of a lack of faith and thus sinful. If God is such, what have we to fear that’s actually worth fearing? Is he not capable to know good and evil, and in loving us and doing as he pleases, does he not give good perfectly? So the lack of faith requires grace (through faith), like all sin. So applying the above, God is good (i.e., loving and good) whether or not he gives me the grace to believe and so be free from fear (salvation from that sinfulness by grace through faith [faith is by grace as well]). And to follow that, in wanting to do the work that he commands me to do, I do my best to deny fear-led thinking and instead focus on good things and actions. Sometimes it’s a TEDIOUS moment-by-moment battle and far beyond me to be able to detect and redirect my thought life, especially when it’s led by something as strong and as confounding as fear. But I feel like that falls into the “work as best you can in all moments” and all the corresponding things I mentioned above. And I, in and of myself, am not capable of winning it because whether or not I believe it, I am wholly dependent upon God for salvation from any and all evil, whether by way of pardon or by way of outright deliverance, with the removal of temptation, whether I recognize it as such or not. And he loves us and is more powerful than we can comprehend. But I work, and if I will be delivered within that work, it will be God, by grace, through my faith— which is just another product of grace—and not by the work, itself.
All good things come from God. We are wholly dependent upon him for everything worth having. And that’s just the Gospel, which we learn on and on and on and on and on.
Do you mind if I put all this on my blog sometime? I’m not sure I’ve written all this down in one place before.
Wisdom. Intelligence. Knowledge. Perception.
Couldn’t decide what photo to use. Here’s one of some dog drool.
Edit: Took a shower. Added “Dependence?”
I woke up in the best way today—a bit stark raving. Every thought is a letter.
I drink from a red mug with a chip in it. Wabi sabi, the Japanese might call it. There’s a glory in the fractured. You won’t find it, in this world, in the perfect. This is, right now, my favorite mug. I didn’t like it especially yesterday, and I probably won’t tomorrow, having returned to that erking and ever-present worry that I might not be perfect.
The me that wakes up three hours early to peanut butter toast and 1/3 a pot of coffee is the real me. The me that’s got it figured out and wakes up with thoughts every day is not. And there’s a glory that is not mine in my fracturedness. My wabi sabi. The glory of the broken. I’ve seen trendy pictures of plates broken and repaired with gold. I am broken and repaired with another’s blood. And in looking upon the shards of my so-called perfection, you might see it’s crimson smirk, it’s ridiculous, loving smile at the stupid child whom it loves.
This is my wound. Drink from it deeply. And I put my lips to the chip in the mug, and I sip more of my whipcreamed coffee. And I type out stupid words that the angels wonder at—not at their profundity but at their stupidity, for what good thing have the sons of Cain to offer? As we shatter our mugs and call them perfect? Is it not only the blooded ones that matter? Is it not only the blood that matters?
And I sip again from my mug. Drink deeply. This is my blood. Drink deeply.
I’m tearing up. I tear up easily when I’m tired and have read things that make me weepy. Yesterday I woke up pissed. I woke up later, but still early, and pissed. Today I did not. Today I woke up bloody.
Perfectionism is setting in. Back to breaking things. I mean writing. Back to writing.
This time the photo is mine. My wife hates that I leave junk on the kitchen counter, but that’s the only place I can think to leave it. And that night light—which if on under the LED overheads lays a crazy yellow shadow behind everything it touches—accompanied my morning ruminations for many months.
Have you ever watched the sea? I’ve only really watched it from the shore, and not that even that much.
It moves like breath. In, out. Like the back of a child, up, down, as it sleeps in its crib. A heavenly hand caresses it with cloudy touch. In, out.
Dreams sleep there. Water fairies and krakens and pirates and the sky. The sea holds our dread, and it holds shores.
What are those shores worth? I wonder. Shores of sand and coconuts and spears and trading companies and rifles and gallows. Shores of magic. The cloudy hands hold those too.
From the shore, the stormy sea seems not so stormy. But get out on it… Have you ever felt a strong undertow? That restless babe is but a drowning factory. A toilet. A grave, pulling on you like time, and you tromping and splashing to escape.
Or the calm. You don’t meet that on the shore. The shore is always breathing, trading its woody fares for foreign winds and unearthed sea bottoms. And death.
And what is land but death, anyways? Porous, petrified, stillborn Adam. And here we are to work it.
I have never seen a calm sea. I suspect it’s a lot like death. No breath, just space for the walking room of your thoughts. We were all made for that place—where the water stops breathing and the wind doesn’t wander.
But were we made for that place? Is the sea made for calm? Wet movement upon stone. Waves and waves and restless weight. Like my six year old.
And like the rain to the rivers—beading and dripping down, down, down—all our lives go to the sea. And don’t get all uppity. The sky is the sea too. We drip down to the sea, to the very edge of the shore, and we fall in.
I’m not sure if it’s time or fate or possibility or creation. It’s something, and it doesn’t seem to want me to define it. But I suppose that’s just like anything God makes. And as I try, it breathes, in and out, and it sleeps and angers and dies.
Life and death are like the sea. But what can I tell, really, from this Adam? Maybe someday, God will walk me down to the shore, draw me by the hand in, and take me down to its depths.
“Only worship music is good music.”
I grew up with this belief, or something like it. I have trouble responding with any measure of clear-headedness when someone brings it back up, though I have been and am being convinced that valuable art is a much broader category than just worship music.
This is from a document for my novel:
This is the issue with southern moralistic Christianity that requires that all “art” be “Christian” to be good. It’s an application of a cultural norm more than a recognition that intent always qualifies morality and that the intent should be “love one another.”
Otherwise—and this is not a reason or a proof against this system but a symptom or result of it—a southern moralist cannot accept or interact with other cultures that do not censor the same taboos but that might still be loving. He cannot speak with the Irish or persons from Spain or the Nordic countries, who cuss like crazy. He cannot hang out with the English or persons from Seattle or Colorado (or pretty much anywhere) because he can’t handle being in a pub. He can’t regard art that incorporates disturbing imagery even when its message is the Gospel.
Indeed, how can southerners interact with the Gospel? Maybe by Lifeway books and movies.
Intent determines moral purity; rules do not (unless they are followed with pure intent). Christ certainly exemplifies this when combatting the religious leaders, whose rules had the appearance of purity but no heart. I think our tendency is the same—to make rules and then forget the heart. And maybe it’s a parenting failure, or maybe it comes from losing faith. Or maybe it comes from failing to understand or care where rules come from and why those origins matter. Though it’s probably at its core an issue of faith.
I think Israel is a really interesting example. They began with the heart, in Abraham and then down through the central figures. They also had God-given rules designed to cultivate and guide that heart. But they lost the heart, kept the rules, and built upon the rules. Didn’t they? (12/13/2017: A friend once told me that the Ancient Near Eastern understanding of Law was more idealistic or prescriptive than prohibitive—”Look upon this law, understand the truth and justice behind it, and apply that truth and justice in whatever way is best per context”; even so, it’s pretty clear that the Jews of Jesus’ day were of the prohibitive brand). It was culture that they built upon purity, but it was godless culture. The same is true, I think, of much of southern moralism today. And surely other brands of moralism.
The problem for Christians, and anyone else looking for goodness and beauty and truth (may they find Christ), is when we assign purity or impurity to culturally normalized morals, like “(So called) worship music is the only music worth listening to” or “No cussing,” “No drinking,” “No ‘vulgar’ media,” and even, sometimes, “No nudity.” I do not believe anything is necessarily impure. Impurity requires less-than-pure intent.
The standard is love. Not just lack of unlove, but the act of love. If it’s not in love, it’s impure.
I do not mean that we should disregard all prudence when dealing with these things. Paul talks about this. Don’t tempt the alcoholic with the real freedom to drink in appropriate contexts. Don’t tempt the porn addict with the real freedom to regard the human body in appropriate contexts. But the reason for those rules (I suppose they are rules) and therefore the only thing that makes them worth following is love. Assigning these rules without assigning love leads persons into sin and wickedness. So love requires that we encourage them away from things that tempt them, until such time that they grow in faith and not be overcome with their temptations as they love.
With this in mind, certainly all bad art, and bad thinking, takes at face value the norms of its cultural context—culture being the things that man has developed.
3/6/2018: If art accords with any particular culture (given that all our cultures, even in the church, are man-touched), my guess is it’s not good (stick this word on a scale in your mind before impaling me on my perfectionism). And if you think it’s good, maybe you’ve got some introspection and repentance to do. My only real point here–good art challenges.
Edit 3/7/2018: Apparently astrophysicists agree.
Bears repeating: Creativity that satisfies & affirms your world view is Entertainment. Creativity that challenges &… twitter.com/i/web/status/9…—
Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) March 06, 2018
Edit 2: Also G. K. Chesterton (whom I’ve yet to read).
"Art is born when the temporary touches the eternal." — G.K. Chesterton—
Brehm Center (@brehmcenter) March 07, 2018
The wisest things I could ever say would probably start with, “I’m pretty sure I have no idea what I’m talking about, but…”
All salvation is by grace through faith in Christ.
Present salvation comes in the form of “sanctification”—putting to death the deeds of the flesh and showing the fruit of the Spirit. It is a change in character with a resultant change in deed.
I recently wrote/recorded that I don’t think God wants us to wait until we have pure motives (as if we could even determine that…) before acting but that he wants us to act without fearing that we will fail to act purely. I won’t restate my reasoning here. But let me assume that it’s true.
Thus I act. If what I do is good (which includes having good motivations), then it came from faith, from grace. If what I do is bad or has bad motivations, or if I fail to do something that’s good, then I have acted from my own sinful flesh, and the Lord will discipline me in love, if he chooses to, in his goodness.
Even believing that God wants me to act without me knowing what my motives are or knowing for sure that what I am doing is right (something that’s probably motivated by the fear of failing anyways) is character change and a product of grace.
Recognizing my lack of faith and stopping it is an action. Reminding myself that God alone can change my character is an action. It could come from faith. It might not. If it’s good, it will have come from grace/faith. If not, it won’t have. But it’s an action, like God wants me to take, and it seems to line up with the Scriptures (“Be anxious for nothing…” “Do not worry about tomorrow…” “By grace you have been saved through faith…” etc.).
When I first started being liberated from my legalism and worry, I did this often. At the time, I wondered if my legalism had just morphed into disallowing myself from thinking about right action. But perhaps it was action from faith. Could have been either one, I suppose.
Likewise, strategizing a break from addiction is an action. Breaking addiction is an action. It could come from faith. It might not. If it’s not, God might deal with it. But that doesn’t mean don’t take action again. Whether it’s from faith or not, the action is still an action, even if it looks perhaps a bit different.
Still to be continued.