Here or There

Like most people, I wanted to be a number of things when I grew up.  I remember wanting to be an architect, a writer, a teacher, a counselor, a pastor, and a geographer.  As it turned out, I became none of those things, but in growing up one of the difficulties I faced was in knowing what God wanted me to do with my life.  My belief was that God had a specific will in mind for my life and that, if I failed to discover what that was, I would miss out on God’s best and be miserable.  Since then my understanding of God’s will has undergone some transformation.

For one thing, I have come to the conclusion that God’s will is more about living in relationship with Him.  Regardless of our circumstances, God’s will is that we daily abide in Him.  Out of that relationship, our responses to what we encounter in life will more naturally be in line what that of Christ’s.  The late Dallas Willard shaped my thinking in this area when he wrote, “Generally we are in God’s will whenever we are leading the kind of life he wants for us. And that leaves a lot of room for initiative on our part, which is essential: our individual initiatives are central to his will for us.” 1  Here, the case is made that God is not trying to dictate every decision we make in life, but trying to form us spiritually.  Willard expands on this concept by clarifying to what end God is forming us.  “God must guide us in a way that will develop spontaneity in us. The development of character, rather than direction in this, that, and the other matter, must be the primary purpose of the Father. He will guide us, but he won’t override us.” 2 God is more concerned with forming us into a people who reflect the very character of His Son, Jesus Christ.

But how does knowing this help us in our journey through life and deciding what to do?  I find the poet T.S. Eliot to be of some assistance here.  In his Four Quartets, he writes in “East Coker” that “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living…Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter. / Old men ought to be explorers / Here or there does not matter”. 3  T.S. Eliot is not merely describing a physical exploration, although that may be implied.  Rather, life itself forces us to be on a journey.  I am not an old man, but I do believe that we all ought to be explorers, and that we have to move outward from where we are starting at, whether physically or relationally.  On some level it does not matter where we are as long as we are in the process of exploring.

Stepping out in faith and leaving home, or the place one is starting from, is risky and there are some people who, like I was, fear making a mistake and falling outside of God’s plan and purpose for them.  Regardless, we we are called to act.  In Revelation 3:15-16, Jesus is dictating a letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea when he proclaims, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth.”  I have often heard this interpreted as Jesus wants people to be either for God or against God, rather than be a person who is lukewarm in their commitment to Christ.  However, scholarship has placed this passage more firmly in it’s first-century context and the meaning of this passage had subsequently changed.

Laodicea was located in modern-day Turkey near two other Roman cities, Hierapolis and Colossae.  Hierapolis received warm water from nearby hot springs, which was used for healing.  Colossae, on the other hand, received refreshing, cold water from nearby mountains.  Due to Roman aqueducts Laodicea received the lukewarm mix of hot and cold water, which was not very useful for either healing or refreshing drinking.  Jesus would not want us to be against Him. 4  Rather, this passage is saying that whether we live a life of warm healing or cool refreshment, we are to act for God.  Or as Scripture makes more plain elsewhere, “Therefore…whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

I’ve drawn upon the wisdom of Scripture, Dallas Willard, and T.S. Eliot, because I firmly believe that where we are at and what happens to us in life is far less important than how we choose to respond.  Before ending, I am going to draw upon the wisdom of one other individual.  I always experience a sense of excitement and possibility from the following scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo is in despair at all that has gone wrong in Middle-Earth.  After learning of Sauron and leaving the idyllic Shire, being pursued and injured by Ringwraiths, and pressing onward from the haven of Rivendell toward a perilous journey, Frodo bemoans, “I wish it need not have happened in my time”.  And Gandalf responds with, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” 5 There is wisdom and simplicity in this perspective.  We can’t control what comes to us in life, but we can decide how we want to respond and choose to act accordingly.

Who we are and who we are choosing to become is more important than where we are physically located or what we are doing.  My life has taken me to places and given me experiences I never would have expected when I was a kid trying to puzzle what I should do with my life.  I’ve been an explorer, whether I’ve wanted to be or not.  And I’m all the better for it.  May you go and explore likewise.

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1 Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 13. eBook.

2 Ibid., 31.

3 “Four Quartets” Wikiquote. Accessed on 27 January 2018. <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Four_Quartets&gt;

4 Although my first exposure to this way of interpreting this passage came from a Ray Vander Laan video, one can also read about it at the following blog: “A Lukewarm Interpretation of Hot and Cold: Revelation 3:15-16” Andy Unedited. Accessed on 12 May 2018. <http://andyunedited.ivpress.com/2014/01/a_lukewarm_interpretation_of_h.php&gt;

5 “J.R.R. Tolkien Quotes” GoodReads. Accessed on 20 May 2018. <https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/656983.J_R_R_Tolkien&gt;

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Stammtisch

“Ich möchte ein schnitzel mit pommes, bitte.”  That was my standard order when eating out in Germany.  Translated into English it means, “I would like a schnitzel with fries, please.”  Oh, occasionally I would order something other than your usual Wiener schnitzel, such as paprika schnitzel or Rahmschnitzel, but most of the time it was the same and it was always schnitzel.  And there were certain places I enjoyed frequenting more often.  I can’t say my family and I were regulars at any place, but we showed up on occasion.

I love the way Germans, and Europeans in general, are willing to spend large amounts of time at a table or a pub, talking, eating, drinking.  The Germans even have a word for those who show up at a particular place on a regular basis: Stammtisch.  According to the handy guidebook to German culture I have, “German pubs and beer halls often have a table that is set aside for regular clients. If you as a stranger sit at it, you may be asked politely to move because you aren’t Stammtisch – regular at the table.” 1

This habitual showing up at a restaurant or biergarten got me thinking about how this reflects our own relationship with God.  Like Meister Eckhart, that German mystic, once wrote, “God is at home.  It is we who have gone out for a walk.”  God shows up on a daily basis.  He is Stammtisch.  But the question is whether or not we will show him the hospitality he is waiting for and give him the gift of our own attentive presence.

Just recently, the great evangelist of our time, Billy Graham, passed away.  He had a simple message and it was to point people to Christ and to have them commit their lives to him.  In other words, to be “born again”.  My own conversion to Christ came in grade school when my parents were watching a Charles Stanley broadcast.  Growing up in the church I did, I was often told that to be saved I “just had to believe that Christ died on the cross for my sins”.  But the people that kept telling me this seemed to display and be communicating to me that such belief was mere intellectual assent (not a phrase I knew in grade school).  “Sure”, I would think to myself at the time, “I believe that the sun will come again each morning and that gravity will keep me on earth and that oxygen will keep me alive, but what do I care?”  In other words, what I felt I was being told was that a relationship with God is like the sun, air, and gravity – a necessary but hardly life-change, paradigm-shaking way of living, moving, and being in the world.  Stanley, however, helped me to see that I needed to invite God into my heart and my life, which I promptly did privatley after the broadcast ended.

As I’ve grown and matured in my faith, and while I still love and respect both Billy Graham and Charles Stanley, as I look back to that experience the common evangelistic language regarding salvation can still sound as though it is something we do.  To go back to my analogy of Stammtisch, their vocabulary suggests that we are the regulars at the table deciding whether we want to invite Him there with us, but I think Meister Eckhart might be closer to the truth of what is really going on.  God is the regular Presence in our lives, in our households, and at our tables.

I have a feeling Jesus would have liked the German pub culture.  He often liked to eat and drink at parties and others’ houses.  In one such encounter in the Gospel of Luke, we find exactly what I have been describing about a relationship with God being like Stammtisch.  Jesus goes to Simon the Pharisee’s house, but apparently is not treated with the hospitality common to first century Palestine.  We find this out because a woman comes along and and begins to wipe Jesus’s feet with her tears and hair and anoints his feet with oil.  Simon becomes indignant, referring to the woman as a sinner.  After Jesus roundly puts Simon in his place (with a parable no less), Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she, with her tears, has washed My feet and wiped them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing My feet since I came in.  You didn’t anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with fragrant oil.  Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; that’s why she loved much.  But the one who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:44-47).  Jesus is already in our lives and in our homes.  But will we respond with extravagant hospitality or will we give the cold shoulder?  Will we be like Simon the Pharisee or like an unnamed sinful woman?  Will we love the Stammtisch in our midst?

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1 Barry Tomalin, Culture Smart! Germany (Hutton Grove, London: Kuperard, 2003), 61, ebook.

Post Nubila

Volendam.  It’s been over ten years, but the first time I visited this quaint, little harbor town in high school, it was a cold, cloudy, rainy day.  This time it is bright, sunny, and cool.  The waters in the harbor are calm, unlike the choppy waters more than a decade ago.  As we park the car in order to stretch our legs and go to the walkway along the shore, we park next to a little vehicle with a large decal of Marilyn Monroe on it.  We stop and I have my picture taken “with Marilyn”.

DSC_0539

Although the town is what steals my heart, Marilyn Monroe has been an inspiration to many.  In an interview in 1988, Enya credits her song “Cursum Perficio” to Marilyn Monroe, specifically to Monroe’s house.  As she elaborated in the interview, “‘Cursum Perficio’ comes from a documentary about Marilyn Monroe. It means ‘Here ends my journey’ and that saying was engraved in the entrance of her last house. But that’s how it often happens. Those two words haunted me for weeks and then I finally used them in a song.”1

The lyrics in the song are minimal as Enya repeats the Latin phrases several times over, re-recording over her voice to create her distinctive style, but the lyrics and the sound is appropriate to the subject matter.  The song strongly implies a sense of the afterlife, with Enya’s haunting sounds making one feel almost like one is journeying through Dante’s spheres of the afterlife, particularly in the lines which follow “my journey ends here”, which are translated into “a word is enough for the wise; the more one has, the more he desires”.  This appears to be a warning to others based on Marilyn Monroe’s own troubled personal life, which patterns that of many celebrities.  The closing lyrics, “Post nubila, Phoebus. (in) Aeternum”, are most suggestive of Enya’s hinting at what lies beyond death, translated as they are into “after the clouds, the light. Forever.”  But although this may be how Enya and her lyricist Roma Ryan translate the Latin into English, I find it curious that the name Phoebus is kept capitalized, with it being another name for the Greco-Roman god, Apollo – the embodiment of “sun and light”, among many other things.2  

Although Roma Ryan provides the English translation of “Phoebus” as “light” in general, I find the capitalization of the noun to be significant.  Jesus Christ eventually replaced Apollo as the Ultimate sun god.  So perhaps Roma Ryan’s ambiguity with the capitalization of Phoebus as general light is intentional, referring not specifically to Apollo, but to the Source of light, whoever or whatever that might be.  And if that is the case there is no reason not to interpret “Cursum Perficio” as referring to Jesus Christ and the eternity with him that his followers wait for.

We celebrate Easter because we believe that Jesus did not remain dead, but rose to new life.  And when he conquered death and was resurrected, “He also said to them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem…He led [his disciples] out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them.  And while He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:46-47, 50-51).  Although we believe, based on this passage, that Jesus Christ “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father”, we also wait for His return to earth when “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory illuminates it, and its lamp is the Lamb.  The nations will walk in its light and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:23-24).

In my last blog post, I wrote about being obedient to Christ’s path of humility, even to the point of death on a cross.  But such humility only makes sense if there is a resurrection to new life to follow, and Christ’s resurrection is bringing about new life in all areas of life, here on earth.  Followers of The Way, as early Christians were called, suffered persecution under the Roman empire for centuries until Constantine’s edict of toleration.  They were persecuted largely because it was believed their presence angered the gods.  But the ascended Jesus Christ overthrew the Roman gods.  In our lives, too, we have to pass through the clouds before we can experience the light.  For followers of Christ, such light isn’t received only after we die, but can begin to be experienced now on earth and into eternity.

Earlier, I compared my two experiences at Volendam.  As I reflect on them now, they were strangely prescient.  What many people don’t know is that the first time I lived in Germany in high school, I felt a strong sense of depression.  Everything in Germany was so gray, as exemplified in my first experience of Volendam, and I was so resistant to what my time there had to offer and teach me.  I know that many co-workers and friends may have been puzzled by my subsequent decision to go back to Germany many years later.  But I had to go in order to know if in the intervening years I really had grown and changed as much as I felt I had.  Sure enough, my second experience in Germany was much more pleasant, as typified by my sunnier experience at Volendam.  Although I still occasionally experience bouts of melancholy, and although I am far from being perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect, I have learned to stop resisting the transforming work of the Holy Spirit and to be more accepting of how He brings change in my life.

As Teilhard de Chardin exhorts, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”3  Most people reading that passage from de Chardin tend to emphasize the slowness of God’s work, but I would suggest that we also stress that the work is God’s to begin with.  As I mentioned previously, we tend to want to change each other, perhaps not trusting that God is capable and is enough, but it is so much more freeing if we allow God to do His work without trying to control the process.  For we are each of us “on the way to something unknown, something new”, and “only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.”4  In the meantime, let us rejoice in the Christ whose resurrection and ascension is the firstfruits of new life.  And let us patiently wait for the fullness of time, when the time is right, for Christ to return and make His home among us for all eternity.  After the clouds, the Light that is Christ…Forever.

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1 “Cursum Perficio” Enya.sk. Web. Accessed on 3 March 2018. <http://enya.sk/music/watermark/cursum-perficio/&gt;

2 “Apollo” Wikipedia.org. Web. Accessed on 4 March 2018. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo&gt;

3 “Prayer of Teilhard de Chardin” IgnatianSprituality.com. Web. Accessed on 4 March 2018.  <https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/8078/prayer-of-theilhard-de-chardin> 

4 Ibid.