Monday, May 26, 2014

Listening to Scripture

You can tell that I'm getting itchy to release my new book into the world, because I keep posting excerpts from my manuscript here. This will probably be the last one for quite a while. This comes from chapter 4: "Listening to Scripture"
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After I graduated from seminary I stopped reading the Bible. It’s been said that for all the gain that comes from dissecting a frog, all the hands-on knowledge one amasses from cutting out the organs and separating and scrutinizing the various parts, something still had to die in the process. My frog was dead. There is no doubt about that.

There had been a season before seminary in which the scriptures sang to me, playing angelic harmonies in what might have been an otherwise monotone life. The Word of God woke me up in the morning. I used to rise at 6:30AM in college, making me the first person awake on campus by about 4 hours, stroll into my drowsy college town under the guidance of an awakening California sun, and read my Bible through the steam of the largest cup of coffee I could find. One December morning I read Mary’s Magnificat and I’m sure that my heart leapt with Elizabeth’s baby when he heard the voice of the woman who carried destiny inside her. I walked back to campus exulting with the mother of Jesus: my soul magnified the Lord, and my spirit rejoiced in God my Savior. Experiences like that made it seem like I floated to seminary on the sound waves of the scriptures, called to a life of studying and proclaiming the Bible. That call was the most glorious sound I had ever heard.

By the time I finished seminary, what had once sung three part harmonies to me now sounded in the dry, unfeeling tones of a lecture hall. The Bible had become a specimen and I had teased apart its components – all its grammatical, historical, textual, and cultural tendons and joints and blood vessels - until all connection and life was gone. The Magnificat lost its singing voice, fading before new life verses, like “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east, they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.”

The word of God was elusive in those days. Don’t get me wrong: I still opened the Bible once a week, even translated Greek and Hebrew, but it was a manual for preaching, a teacher’s edition textbook. It was the word addressed to others, not to me, and my role was mediator, never receiver. Ambitious as I was back then, I tried to use the Bible as a ladder for climbing to the heights of preaching stardom, as a prop for displaying my own glamorous powers. My treatment of the Bible was not unlike what the money changers did to the temple when they started peddling in its outer courts. They pre-empted a place of personal worship for an place of impersonal transaction. Faces became shadows, persons became customers, and temple courts became selling platforms. Likewise, for me the Bible had ceased to be a place of encounter and had become a place of business.

As much as I value and rely on biblical scholarship, the problem with laboring to creating sufficient distance from the biblical text to see all aspects of it is that you can end up distancing yourself from the One who spoke the word in the first place. When you put the Bible on a slide and examine it under a microscope, you’re the subject and the Bible is the object, an impersonal artifact to be studied. You can end up like Thomas Jefferson taking an exacto knife to the Bible and excising all the miracle out of it.

For all the knowledge that I gained in seminary, what I abandoned was the practice of reading the Bible in conversation. The scriptures lost their Voice. I used to talk and listen openly to the Author of the scriptures as I read, praying that I could become what I read. I wanted my ears to ring with the scriptures as I took steps of faith and love. Yet all the scholarly disciplines I sampled made reading the Bible like a game of telephone, and by the time the message was passed through all the different intermediaries, the Author’s personal message had been obscured and his voice almost unrecognizable. The Bible had been stripped of its Personality.

I do not mean to attack biblical scholarship. Anyone who reads the Bible in her own language is absolutely dependent on the biblical scholars who gathered and translated that text. The problem that those of us who have spent time in scholarly circles face is not unlike the problem that engaged couples confront. Anyone who has planned a wedding will tell you that, from the moment the ring is placed on her finger, it is remarkably easy to get lost in all the details of event planning. In all the negotiations about venue, flowers, invitations, food, guest lists, music, how to run interference with intrusive family members, and the countless other details, many couples forget that a wedding is ultimately a personal and intimate encounter, an act of commitment between two people and the family and friends who confirm their vows. Our study of the Bible can be subject to the same depersonalizing forces. The Bible is a deeply personal book, a stage of encounter between God and his people, but the details of interpretation and the convoluted levels of methodology can crowd out its personality. We can get a wedding, but no marriage.

The good news is this: in spite of all our attempts to create separation from the biblical text, the text itself speaks of a word that refuses our estrangement and even eliminates it. The mystery of the word that originates from the Creator is that it reads us. You open the book, lay it down in front of you, but you instead discover that you have been opened, your soul laid bare by it. My subject to the Bible’s object gets inverted and I become the Bible’s object, arrested by it, revealed in it. I go to it as an actor reading a scripture, but discover that I am the script and the word acts on me. The law may have been written on tablets, but the word is now stitched into our hearts, shaping us and redefining us.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Listening to Creation

It is unlikely that the term “mountain man” will appear in my obituary. John Muir’s beard would survive longer in the wilderness than I would. Once during a blustery storm in the Sierras, Muir shimmied to the top of a tall Douglas fir to experience what it feels like to be a tree in gale-force winds. To rival that, the last time I went camping I probed so deep into the forest that there were only two bars of reception left on my cell phone. In my defense, I grew up in the Northwest, and I was warned not to go far into the woods because Bigfoot would eat me.

When I get together with my college friends, they like to tell the toothbrush story. A few years back my friends and our wives went camping in the Angeles National Forest in the mountains above Los Angeles. I think it was the second camping trip of my life. Most of them had retired to their tents after dinner, when my friend Darcy, from within her tent, called out with some alarm, “What is that sound??” My other tented friends chimed in: “Is that an engine? Is there a car here? What is going on?” Still standing outside in the dark, I looked around, and shrugged, “No, there’s no one here. What are you hearing?” “It’s some kind of whirring noise that sounds like a motor,” explained Sean, my college roommate. “Oh,” I mumbled, “that’s my toothbrush.” I never got the memo stipulating that standard camping gear does not include an electric toothbrush.

When I write about creation, I am not doing so as a naturalist or as a modern-day Saint Francis. There are no squirrels or birds perched on my shoulders as I write this. I am closer to Homer Simpson, who in imagining himself following in the footsteps of Thoreau to move into the woods and keep a record of his thoughts, writes his first journal entry: “I wish I’d brought a TV. Oh God how I miss TV.”

My entry into this topic did not happen while swooning over a 360 degree vista on a mountain peak or while tracing my finger along a somber autumn leaf. I finally became open to the power and wonder of a world out there while reading a book indoors. An ancient book which says things like:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4) 

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, "Glory!" (Psalm 29:3-9) 

Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. (Isaiah 40:26)

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. (Romans 1:19-20) 

The more I lingered over texts such as these, the more restless I became with pursuing God only in written words, and the more I suspected he had still more to say to me. The scriptures do not finally point to themselves, but instead direct us to a Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer who is present and active in the everyday, and who, to paraphrase Abraham Kuyper, surveys every plot of the universe and rightfully declares “Mine!”

I had met the God who is a master wordsmith; I was less familiar with the God who is the master craftsman of each square foot of heaven and earth. Then I stumbled on the ancient Celtic tradition that presents not one but two sacred texts to study: the Bible and what they called “The Big Book,” the creation. I have shelves and stacks and piles of theology books in my house, yet that moment revealed a creation-sized hole in my library. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux taught that “You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from the masters.” Whereas books usually speak in prose, the creation speaks in poetry. If we take the time to listen we may discover that we are surrounded by parables and allegories and lyrics that defy the skill of our most touched poets.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Listen to Your Life

In chapter 8 of my new book, I am working on a crazy theory that if we want to hear God's voice and receive his guidance, maybe we don't need to ascend to the heights of heaven, into ethereal and abstract realms, and seek all the hidden gnosis. Maybe we can start by listening to our lives.

It starts with this: what takes place in you matters and has meaning. Your thoughts, emotions, impulses, desires, values, passions, dreams, recurring questions, and bodily responses are significant, are trying to teach you, and are all interconnected. It sounds simple, but some will resist. Occasionally I hear Christians say that the path to spiritual maturity involves “forgetting myself” and directing all my attention toward God, making little of me and much of him. While we aim to glorify God in all we do, the way of following Jesus is not self-abdication. Yes, we set aside what is passing away – the old ways, the old life, the old self – and then we become fully alive by taking on our new creation life, our truest and deepest self. We do not forget ourselves; we become fully ourselves. As St. Iranaeus in the 2nd century said, “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” We are not fully alive until we love God with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength, and we cannot love God with all of ourselves unless we are well acquainted with our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. I believe that Christians should be leading the way in self-knowledge, because as John Calvin instructs us, “without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.”

The internal voices are telling you what your life is like. The voices that you choose to listen to are shaping what kind of person you are becoming. You can try to ignore them or avoid them, but if you do, you will be acting out of them unawares, sleepwalking to the step of your unconscious internal world. The realities that operate beneath the surface always hold the most sway. Instead, let’s wake up to what is taking place inside of us, to listen to it, honor it, and let it shape us into whom we wish to be. As Parker Palmer has said so well, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” If we are going to take the doctrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit seriously, we must be open to the idea that God is speaking within us, not only from places and words without us.

Deep things are stirring inside of us. Will we listen? 

And we can take this in another listening direction as well. I believe that good listening starts at home. How you listen to yourself will determine how you listen to others. Do you dismiss your own emotions? Then there is a good chance you will make a regular habit of dismissing the emotions of others. Those who are able to discern their own emotions will be most responsive to the emotions of others. Those who are unable to reflect on their own behaviors, patterns, processes, and belief systems will be unable to get sufficient emotional separation from others to listen well. They will devote too much conversational energy to defending themselves and trying to persuade others to live and think like they do. They will project their own experiences, anxiety, and beliefs onto others. Self-discovery is not the ultimate end of listening to your life; love is. If we want to listen to others with compassion, gentleness, and attentiveness, then we must learn to listen to ourselves with those same qualities. If we do the work in the quiet spaces, our compulsions will come out less when it’s loud.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Blood from a Stone


In 2010, inspired by Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence, I spent a week in Provence, in the south of France. I was eager to tour the papal palace in the stone-walled, water-wheeled city of Avignon, home to Pope Clement V after he relocated the papacy from Italy to France in the early 14th century.

But let’s not kid ourselves. I didn’t go to Provence for the history. I went for the wine.

A day after the palace tour, things got serious as I stood in the vineyards of Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape, the “new house of the pope” in honor of the French papal era. There, surrounded by rows of vineyards hanging thousands of clusters of the Grenache grape, are the ruins of the Avignon popes’ vacation home. With the half-collapsed structure in the backdrop, our wine guide explained the unique feature of the soil in the appellation. A layer of large stones sits atop the clay soil, absorbing heat and helping maintain moisture, and the appearance is that the vines sprout miraculously out of rocks. He then said this: “You can now understand the local expression that making wine is like squeezing blood from a stone.”

Blood from a stone.

Never has a phrase so captured my attention. I lost track of what our guide said for the next 10 minutes, as the long tendrils of the phrase curled around my mind.

Blood from a stone….A heart of flesh out of a heart of stone….Blood dripping down on Golgotha…Water out of a rock….A letter written not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts….A stone rolled away to allow Life to burst forth.

This is dramatic, but for me it was nothing short of a conversion. This was my Damascus road, my Augustinian “take and read” experience, my holy shit moment.

Blood from a stone is not just the story of wine. It is the story of humanity. It is the story of God, pressing stony hearts to produce lifeblood, raising a cold, hard corpse to blood-pumping resurrection life.

Blood from a stone is my story.

After that trip, wine was no longer my hobby. It was an irresistible call. Vineyards would be my sanctuary, wine pilgrims my congregation, and the fruit of the vine my everyday sacrament. I knew that my days as a pastor were numbered. But perhaps wine is not the abolishment of ministry. Perhaps wine is the fulfillment of ministry.

Life and ministry for me up to that point had been strangely disembodied. I was a floating head. Sure, I had a body, but I dragged it along as the necessary housing for my brain and that was about it. And my brain pulled off some great things. My brain is hot. It got me lots of scholarships and degrees, it wrote a good book, and it won me some awards. But my body had no voice. You’ve heard of extra-sensory perception? I had under-sensory perception.

The normal sequence is that youth is lived bodily, a time for physical exuberance, and that growing older slowly moves us into our minds as our bodies become less reliable. Well, I’m 37 and my brain just isn’t doing it for me anymore. It seems intent on protecting me from pain and on mind-blocking me from intimacy. It is time that I meet my body and experience myself as wholly embodied. If I’m going to love God with all of myself, then I best become acquainted with all of myself.

Wine is largely considered a heady thing, reserved for elitists, pretentious snoots, and those who aspire to elitism and pretentious snootiness. For me, wine has become a way that I am getting in touch with my sensuality. The nature and complexity of a great wine is so transcendent that we must experience it with our most basic, earthiest senses.

The discipline of evaluating a wine is really about getting all your senses involved. I behold the color and transparency of a wine with my eyes. I swirl the glass not only to unlock the aromas but to hear the movement of the liquid. I stick my nose as far into the glass as I can to root out the layers of aromas – the blackberries, the violets, the damp earth, the toasty oak. I allow the wine to linger on my tongue and I pay attention to how it hits every part of my palate. What does it taste like? What does it feel like? – the “touch” of a wine. I notice the warmth at the back of my palate and the lightness it brings to my body.

My quest to explore the flesh and blood of wine grapes is also my quest to explore my own flesh and blood. Wine is introducing me to my body. I am learning to pay attention to its desires and to listen to its voice. It is surprisingly talkative these days. It turns out that the things I have often given it are not what it needs and the things I have neglected are what it craves. I am exercising and lifting weights. I am sleeping more. Long walks are no longer merely a setting for deep thoughts; they are exercises in paying attention. I stop to pet the horses and donkeys on my way to work. I am spending less time with people who make me feel heavy and more time with people who make my body feel lighter. I am learning how much touch I need in order to feel loved.

When it comes to my body, blood is slowly being squeezed from a stone.