Monday, May 5, 2014


The paradox of our silence, emptiness, stillness is that in the absence of our activity we discover the presence of God. What had seemed an empty nothing is in fact filled with the fullness of Christ who "fill[s] all things" (Eph 4:10).

Many others have said it better than I could, so I will simply quote a couple of my favorites.

From "Hope" by songwriter Michael Card:
Hope that you can see is really no hope at all 
And like children who see faces in the clouds 
We hopefully listen to the silence of life 
And find that it is shouting out loud 

And from "Out of the Silent Planet" by C.S. Lewis:
 “But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of 'Space': at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now-now that the very name 'Space' seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it 'dead'; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he now saw that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes-and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name.” 

Monday, April 21, 2014


I've been conditioned to believe that most of what I do in worship is all about filling up empty space. A sanctuary is just an empty building until we gather together to fill it. Silence is barren and devoid of meaning until we play our music and sing our songs. Time is wasted and significance is lost if I don't conscientiously invest my personal energy to redeem it through some kind of meaningful activity.

In some ways, all those things are true...but they are not the whole story. Scripture often encourages us to just stop, as if God is gently shushing us to peacefulness despite our restless anxiety and nervous activity. It's quiet and it's calm and it's tender and it's kind, but I imagine that sometimes the still, small voice of 1 Kings 19:12 is simply pleading, 'Enough, already!'.

I admit, I like to hear the sound of my own voice. I get to teach philosophy to college students during an average of 6+ hours of class time per week, and if I'm not careful I can fill up that whole time all by myself. I get to sing in church every Sunday, and most of the time mine is the only voice that gets to be artificially amplified via microphone. Or, just ask my wife how often I lecture her or the kids, or try to get in the last word, or justify some excuse, or defend myself and my choices, or try to prove that I'm right.

Perhaps it's strange to say so, especially as a Pastor of Worship Life, but I think there is much more to worship than just what I say and do.  It matters, of course, not just what I say and do but how and why I say and do it. Jesus is the way, not just the what.

But I think there is much to be said for what I don't say and do that is important for worship as well.  I don't think Jesus was encouraging silence on Palm Sunday when he told the grumpy Pharisees to stop complaining about the disciples' theological 'noise': “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” But I think it might be a good idea for us to slow down and listen to the silence of rocks every once in a while.

I guess that's why I love the promise of Easter and the shocking emptiness of the empty tomb. As we read the stories of Easter morning and appropriate its images -- the quiet empty early morning garden, the silent stone that had been rolled away, the dark empty tomb where no body could be found -- we are confronted with emptiness.  We are forced to listen to the deathly stillness of those silent stones, empty spaces, and shadows.

The question that challenges my faith is: how will I respond to the emptiness, the stillness, the absence, the silence?

I can take the evidence of my eyes and ears as final, and come to the conclusion that the meaning of this emptiness is that something is dreadfully wrong, no one is there, I am utterly alone, and my so-called God has disappeared into a void of lies and broken promises.

Or, by an exercise of faith, I can receive the emptiness as good news. My Savior lives, He is risen just as he said, and He is present whether I can see and hear him with my eyes and ears or not.

I think most of what I call 'worship' comes down to trying to live my life with just that kind of exercise. Some might call it 'whistling in the dark'. Some might call it 'wishful thinking'. Some might call it 'denial' or 'self-deception'. Some might call it 'foolishness'.

Scripture calls it faith.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Last Hour

Childrenit is the last hour.  1 John 2:18

Coming only a day after the start of Daylight Savings Time, perhaps the title of this post should be "The Lost Hour"!  It's humbling to be reminded twice a year that "time" is both an artificial social construct (dependent on whatever laws political authorities decide to impose and enforce) and a natural phenomenon (dependent on the orbits and revolutions of planets).  I can change my clocks, but my body still somehow keeps its own schedule...

That being said, after wrestling my boys to bed an hour before their bodies told them it was sleepy-time, I collapsed on the couch to catch the last few minutes of the new Cosmos re-make on Fox. I don't remember much about the original, but I've been a big fan of Carl Sagan since his novel Contact was made into one of my favorite movies of the '90s (back when Christie and I could still find the time, money, and wakefulness to actually enjoy the cinema!).

Anyway, the show ended with an illustration of "cosmic time" in which the entire history of the universe, starting with the Big Bang, up until this present moment in the year 2014 Anno Domini is condensed into a single day. It's a neat little trick for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it helps me better understand 2 Peter 3:8 -- "Nowdear friendsdo not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like thousand years with the Lord and thousand years are like a single day."

If you believe in "cosmic time", then in this illustration it's billions and billions of years in a single day, but the point is still the same: perceptions of time are fundamentally relative to one's perspective!

According to the Cosmos version of the "cosmic time hour" I saw on my TV last night, Jesus was born 5 seconds ago. Now, that isn't a literal 5 seconds.  That is "5 seconds" relative to the entirety of "cosmic time" conceived of as a single day.  But it's fun to look at it that way.  For one thing, it reminds me that the earthly life of the historical Jesus, with which much of my own faith connects, is just a moment passed.  Or, as Jesus preached in the Gospels, the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus embodied on earth really is "near".  Repent and believe the good news!

In Scripture, and probably throughout much of Christian history, the problem of time has been conceived in the opposite direction.  Instead of celebrating how close we are to Jesus (both to his first coming in the past and to his second coming in the future), the historical record seems to contain a whole lot of angst about how far away we are.  That passage from Peter quoted above is one such instance -- he's trying to reassure believers who felt that they were having to wait too long a time for Jesus to come back. And it's a somewhat cliched complaint nowadays to claim that the Bible is "outdated" because it is so old.

And then there's John, who writes with utter conviction that it is now the last hour. And, as of now, that last hour has lasted around 2000 years.  That is one long hour! To make things longer still, we have no idea how much longer the last hour will last. It's mind-blowing. Just like the "cosmic time" illustration, 2000 years may be only a few seconds into the start of the last hour. Or it may be that the end of the hour is only a few actual seconds away.

I don't know how that makes you feel.  I'm not even sure how I feel about it.  But Scripture seems pretty clear that we are going to have to figure out how to live in the tension.  It is the last hour.

I've been told that the perception of imminent death has a tendency to radically reorient one's priorities and values in life. I'd like to say I'm fortunate that I've never been in a position to experience that.  But then again, perhaps my values and priorities are in such need of reorientation that I shouldn't be so thankful for the omission. Perhaps I (and those around me) would be better off if I did believe I had only a few months, weeks, days, hours to live. Maybe then I'd finally become the kind of person I'd always hoped I'd be.

Maybe that is the point. Maybe Scripture teaches us that it is the last hour in order to encourage us to reevaluate our priorities. We hear it said all the time, in various ways: "Live as if it is your last day on earth!"  John just ups the stakes.  Forget about the last day: it is the last hour!

Of course, the last hour is itself a relative term. In Scripture it always presupposes that something will happen after the last hour. In thinking about how to live this last hour, a whole lot depends on what I think will happen to me (and to the rest of the cosmos) when time is up.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Last Word

This post is probably not the last word on the idea of Jesus -- and those of us who follow him -- living as "subversives" in a world that is fundamentally antithetical to him.  But I caused some people some discomfort with some of the ways I overplayed the tune, so I'll try to change that from here on out.  If you are one of those who felt hurt, I sincerely apologize.  It was never my intention to be anything other than honest.  And I do appreciate those who have engaged with me on this issue.  I hope to prove myself open and accepting to differing viewpoints.

All that being said, almost everything I have to say about being "subversives" for Jesus comes from my readings of Eugene Peterson (probably best known as the author of The Message).  His book The Contemplative Pastor contains a chapter entitled "The Subversive Pastor" which has become hugely influential for many in my little circle of Christianity.  He now has an entire book dedicated to Subversive Spirituality.  I haven't read that one, so I can't recommend it except by reputation.  But I do recommend reading "The Subversive Pastor" in The Contemplative Pastor.  That single chapter alone is well worth the price of the whole book.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Do you hear what I hear?

A whole lot (some might say everything!) depends on perspective. What I hear in a word may be very different from what someone else hears. I was reminded of this by a commenter to this blog who wrote about how crucially important it is to 'know your audience'. One of the most intriguing and frightening things about writing (perhaps especially in an online web-based blog format) is that to a large extent I can't know my audience.

Sure, I have friends and maybe followers that I invite to read one way or another.  But there is an entire online world out there that might interact with this blog in ways I can't even imagine, let alone predict. Like I said, that's scary...but it's also part of what makes it so potentially fun!

I pair those words - scary/fun - intentionally. Personally, I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to scary things. I recall as a child the embarrassment of having to sit with my mom outside of a local community haunted house (at the old Fashion Square in La Habra if anyone cares to remember) one Halloween because I was too scared to go inside. For many years I refused to ride Space Mountain at Disneyland because I was convinced, contrary to any and all testimony from family and friends, that it went upside down. For some reason I equated roller coaster inversion with imminent bodily danger.

Anyhow, now that I'm a parent, I'm determined not to raise kids as wimpy as I was. So I've been constantly repeating to them the mantra that 'it's not scary, it's fun!' in the hope that it will somehow rub off. I think I'm even seeing some modest results. Whenever there is the potential for something to be thought of as 'scary' we consider instead whether it might not rather be (or also be) 'fun'. This tends to involve lots of talk about what is pretend and what is real, which seems to me like an added bonus.

Anyway, so much depends on our perspectives. One person's 'scary' is another person's 'fun' - and vice versa. Given that simple fact of communication, it's obvious why 'know your audience' is such valuable advice.

But I wonder if there isn't also a corollary equally as valuable: 'know your speaker'. 

As depicted throughout the Gospels, Jesus deserves a lot of credit for how well he spoke to his various audiences. If anyone could serve as a model of quality communication, it would be him. But, then, if that's the case, why was he (and why does he continue to be?) so widely misunderstood?

It's significant to me to recognize how often Jesus almost pleaded with his audience to acknowledge who he was and where he was coming from as a speaker, and to listen to and interpret what he was saying accordingly. It seems it just isn't enough for a speaker - even a uniquely gifted speaker like Jesus - to know her audience. The audience plays an indispensable role in what is heard, determined in large part by the assumptions, preconceptions, past histories and present judgments each one holds about the speaker to whom they are listening.

As I read it, "to whomever has ears to hear" is one of Jesus' most troubling subversive sayings...

Monday, February 17, 2014


I mentioned in the previous post that one of the reasons I appreciate wordplay is that it can be subversive. To be "subversive" is to overthrow, undermine, or contribute to the downfall of something already established.  When Chapter 1 of the Gospel of John uses the ancient Greek philosophical term "logos" to identify Jesus, the author is taking something that already had an established network of intellectual and cultural associations, and redefining it in such a way as to replace those with something new and, in many ways, incompatible. In doing so, those who hear the subversive word are offered the opportunity to change their minds about what they had previously believed and enter into a new reality transformed by the redefinition of once familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways.  This is the essence of what the Bible calls "metanoia" -- repentance.

So, the way I see it, subversive wordplay is one of the best things a Biblical text can do for us. But, when I've expressed this view to others, I've repeatedly encountered substantial resistance. It seems that some of us are pretty uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus of all people would be a subversive.  This makes sense, since the "subversive" label is sometimes used as a cynical political weapon to silence or slander one's opponents.  With such negative connotations, it is understandable why we might not want to paint Jesus with that same brush.

This in itself is one reason why I think reclaiming the positive label of "subversive" for the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an important task. In order to get a better understanding of the Word, we need to "overthrow, undermine, or contribute to the downfall" of our possibly mistaken preconceptions.  To quote "Sound Theology" by Jonathan Rundman -- "you can't build up nothin' 'til you knock down somethin' first"...

'Friendly Fire' is an intentionally subversive title for this blog. Tom's initial comment on the previous post goes in the right direction.  More to come...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Welcome, Friends!

I like wordplay. And if the Bible is any indication, God does, too.  It's not only evident in the fact that the first recorded act was performed through the creative use of language ("Let there be..."), but all throughout the Hebrew and Greek Testaments there are numerous examples of puns, alliterations, innuendos, metaphors, ironies, parables, allusions, meaningful namings and re-namings, and other literary devices.
For me as a Christian, the word "word" itself is a significant plaything -- an intentionally subversive re-imagining of an ancient Greek philosophical concept ("logos") in the person of Jesus.
So, when I think of wordplay in this context, I like to think about playing around with Jesus, the Word. And I appreciate the idea that Jesus might want to play around with me.  It's too easy for me to take most things -- especially myself-- way too seriously.  And then life becomes nothing but a burden of obligations and expectations and deadlines to be met or, more often, to be missed. Yet, all the while, Jesus is calling -- like a mischievous truant outside my boarding school window -- "Come away with me.  My yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Song of Solomon 2:10, Matthew 11:28-30)
So, I'm using this blog to set up some playdates for myself and Jesus.  I'll share them with you in the next few posts, and I hope you'll play along in the comments section.  But the basic idea is that the title of this blog -- "Friendly Fire" -- has been intentionally chosen for the many wordplays it conjures up for me. Follow with me as we explore some of them, and maybe we can have some fun wordplaying together.