Monday, August 22, 2016

"Here Be Dragons"

In medieval days when the world was not yet fully explored, vast swaths of space on maps remained empty of land or sea. These uncharted territories were often filled with drawings of mythological beasts and fantastic creatures of the human imagination, as they remained mysterious to explorers who had no idea what lay there. In modern times this has given rise to somewhat popular belief that the phrase "Here Be Dragons" was widely used on maps to indicate unexplored territory. This, however, was not the case. Only one ancient map actually has the Latin words Hic sunt dracones printed on it:  the Hunt-Lenox Globe, built in 1510 in Europe and made of copper. These now famous words probably originally served as an artistic warning that what lay in this unexplored territory was unknown and was therefore dangerous. Those brave enough to venture into such uncharted space would be wise to heed the warning, either proceeding with extreme caution or to simply not go there at all.

The spiritual journey should be prefaced with a similar warning.

I have learned this in my brief time as a spiritual explorer:  The further you travel in your spiritual development, the more “uncharted territory” you will discover. At this very moment, there are enormous, undiscovered realms of untapped energy and potential within you. They are places of joyful discovery and profound wisdom, but they are also places filled with mystery, fear, and danger.

If you have eyes to see in such places, you may notice there are signs posted:  “Here Be Dragons.”

Over the last few months I’ve moved into one such unknown place, a place I knew all too well existed, but where I had long ago placed the “Here Be Dragons” warning and vowed never to go there. I knew what awaited me there, or at least I thought I did. And that knowledge generated a great amount of anxiety and fear within me.

I have been reluctant to write about this for many reasons, but I’ve only recently realized that nothing else I’ve tried to write has had any depth of meaning or purpose because THIS needs to be said first. This is the starting point. Everything else just might depend on getting this right. I’m not sure if that’s right or wrong or somewhere in the middle, but I definitely have the sense it’s what I must do.

So here goes.

After nearly 19 years of virtually no contact, I reached out to my father. We talked. We laughed. We cried. We hugged. We shared stories. I introduced him to his grandchildren, and though it took a little bit, they warmed up to “Peepaw” and played with him, laughed with him, and later told me, “He was nice. Let’s see him again.”

I cannot express how happy this makes me. Or relieved. It feels like a giant, twisted, dark, sticky, nasty ball of anxiety and fear and doubt has begun to come undone. I can see it breaking into ashy bits, and beginning to blow away in the wind. It feels like I can breath deeply again.

For years I was under the impression that my father was not someone with whom I would wish to associate. There were lots of reasons and plenty of blame to pass around. It’s really quite the soap opera but I won’t go into all the gory details. It wouldn’t be appropriate or loving. But I will say this:  when parents separate and divorce it is never easy for anyone, especially children.  And while I wish things had been different, I also have arrived at the place where I choose forgiveness and reconciliation and love over continued anger and fear and indifference.

Nowadays I’m not blaming anyone for anything. Because in the deepest places of my being all I want is a loving, healthy, and abundant relationship with everyone in my life. And nursing old wounds and grievances only poisons and sabotages that process. No more.

Nineteen years is a long time. It feels like a lifetime. And while there wasn’t really a day that went by that I did not think of him in some way, I began to develop a kind of hardness toward the situation. I became indifferent, dismissive, almost casually unconcerned about it as if it were no big deal. There certainly were times when God managed to break through that stiff outer shell, and showed me the truth. But I would quickly restore my defenses and trudge on in willing ignorance.

For years I worked as a hospice chaplain. I would routinely see family situations and histories that eerily mirrored my own. I would watch as families scrambled to get in touch with an adult child who “Papa hadn’t seen in 30 years” so they could say their goodbyes. Sometimes another family member would speak up and say “Well he hadn’t come around in 30 years so why would we want him here now?” To which an elderly family member, usually a matriarch, would reply, “Because it’s important. If they don’t do it now, they’ll regret it for the rest of their life. They just don’t know that yet. And if they ever do figure it out, it’ll be too late.” Sometimes the estranged person would be found in time, but other times they would not. And somewhere in the back of mind I would think:  “Someday that’s going to be me.” And the anxiety would build, because the whole hospice team would shake our collective head and say, “What a shame they couldn’t have had a better relationship. What a loss.”

And I’d shake my head with them. Yes, what a loss indeed.

I saw the above story played out too many times, but as powerful as it is, it was not my primary motivation for reaching out to him. Along with seeing other peoples’ experiences, there was always a vague sense of emptiness, of regret, the constant nagging sense of this-is-not-how-things-should-be, just itching in the back of my mind. There was always a feeling of incompleteness, of things left undone. Another step to take.

I’m not sure how it happened, but that nagging sense of this-is-not-how-things-should-be became things-could-be-different. That sense of emptiness and regret was replaced with a longing for things to be different. That desire and longing kept creeping up on me, getting closer and closer, until one day I realized not only was it something I wanted but the possibility for reestablishing a relationship was very real.

So I took a step of faith. Like Peter, I got out of the boat and walked on water. I’m learning this is an ongoing process. Getting out of the boat isn’t a one time thing. It happens over and over and over again. It’s an intentional choice I continue to make.

While God used a wide variety of people, situations, and experiences to take a step of faith and make that phone call, one poem by Robert Bly captures the essence of my experience.

There was a boy who never got enough.
You know what I mean. Something
In him longed to find the big
Mother, and he leaped into the sea.

It took a while, but a whale
Agreed to swallow him.
He knew it was wrong, but once
Past the baleen, it was too late.

It's OK. There's a curved library
Inside, and those high
Ladders. People take requests.
It's like the British Museum.

But one has to build a fire.
Maybe it was the romance
Novels he burned. Smoke curls
Up the gorge. She coughs.

And that's it. The boy swims to shore;
It's a fishing town in Alaska.
He finds a telephone booth,
And calls his father. "Let's talk."

For many years I had a longing within me, a deep resonating call, an almost primeval desire that I could not easily identify. Just a few short months ago I could ignore it no longer, so I responded and followed it into the wide, unknown place of the wilderness. And it led me to the depths of the abyss, what the psalmist calls “the valley of the shadow of death,” or what mystics call “the dark night of the soul.”

There, in the shadowy deep, I saw it:  the great dragon, that monstrous beast I was sure was sent to devour me and rip up my soul into tiny bits to drown in that awful, dark place. My God! Here really be dragons!Trembling with fear and rage, I despaired. I was sure I had neither the strength nor the ability to get out of its grasp. But I soon discovered the beast was there not to destroy me, but to bear me from the place I was to a place I needed to be. He would be the unexpected vehicle that would transport me further along on the journey.

In the belly of that great beast is a library:  there is wisdom and truth and grace in that wretchedly dark place, and it is treasure that can be found nowhere else in all of creation. It is hard won, and therefore precious.

While in the belly of the beast, I did what I needed to do to survive:  I am learning how to say goodbye to my desires for how I want things to be (much like burning the “romance novels” in the above poem!) in order to ready myself to embrace whatever comes next. Accepting life on its own terms. Allowing God to be who he is in my life on his terms, not my own.

The resulting fire warms and promotes life in those dark places, but it is also a catalyst, a spark that creates movement, and again I journeyed, this time upward, to a new reality, more spacious and real than the last, but also more dangerous, because I now knew what I had to do. Now I knew the source of my longing and desire. Now I knew why I could only arrive at this place in the belly of the beast as it traversed the darkness of the deep.

It sounds simple enough, yet the cycle of death and resurrection was the only means for me to do it. I found myself in an unknown place, and with a telephone in hand, I called my father. And we talked.

Here be dragons? Yes, but not all are evil. Some I have mistaken for dragons, but were really angels in disguise.

And they have been sent from beyond as guides, as messengers, as honorable guests who, as the ancient poet Rumi says, “may be clearing you out for some new delight.”

A new delight? What an understatement!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

God, the Chaos Monster, & the Walking Dead

I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks, months – years perhaps?! – of news reports have been devastating to watch. As I listen to the horrifying details of the most recent shooting/massacre/killing spree and then hear the opinion of pundits and other talking heads, I shake my head and weep. I suppose bad news has always been what gets reported, but never before in history have so many details of so many acts of violence, crime, and natural disasters been so readily available to us. Certainly technology has done a great deal to propel us forward into a bright future as a species.

But it also reminds us of just how far we have yet to go towards that bright future. I know some who doubt there is even a bright future ahead of us. Tragedy after tragedy have struck us like mighty waves, tsunamis of shock, doubt, fear, uncertainty, and outrage have left us shell-shocked. One response I’ve had is to do some studying and reading the Bible. I’m a Christian and a Chaplain, so reading and studying the Bible is kind of “my thing.”

But you can try it too. we won’t arrive at the same conclusions, but differences in opinion and interpretation make for fertile ground where really interesting discussions and debates can happen. That’s how we learn and grow and evolve. So keep an open mind!

Recently I’ve been reading about Noah and the Flood. In case you’re wondering why, there’s an attraction that’s just opened down the highway from me: the Ark Encounter. It’s a life-size replica of Noah’s ark as described in the Old Testament. I haven’t been yet, but it looks really impressive. Now, I don’t agree with much of what Ken Hamm and his “Answers in Genesis” organization says is true about the Bible, human evolution, the earth’s age, carbon dating, etc. But he has got me thinking and reading and studying and digging deeper for answers for myself. And that is a good thing.

What have I found? Plenty actually. And really none of it has to do with the claims that dinosaurs existed alongside humans, or that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old, or that Noah’s ark really could float.

 In fact, I think those claims are really child’s play compared to what I’ve been discovering.

It’s actually fairly complicated but here it is in a nutshell: There are actually not one, not two, but THREE stories of creation in Genesis chapters 1-2.

The first is perhaps the most well known and covers all of chapter one and the first few bits of chapter two. This is the famous “7 days” of creation, with God resting on the 7th as a pattern for humans to follow.

 The second is the rest of chapter two, where more details are given about the creation of humans in the image of God. You know the story: Adam found himself alone, and God said “This is the only thing about my creation that’s NOT good!” So he created Eve. And after Adam woke up from this little out-patient procedure of having his rib removed, he looked at Eve in all her God-given glory and said, “Whoa! Man! Now THIS is the best idea yet!!” And that’s how we got the name “woman.”

The third story? It’s actually deeply embedded in the text of chapter 1 verse 2 which says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” This verse actually hearkens back to an ancient mythology shared by pretty much all ancient near eastern people: the gods did battle with the monstrous primordial forces of chaos, and won, destroying them and creating the world from their dead carcasses. That’s a pretty rough summary, but there it is.

There are plenty of other references to this story sprinkled throughout the Hebrew Bible. We get glimpses of it here and there, but never a full telling. Why? Because everybody kinda knew it already; they didn’t have to explain it. It would be like explaining the history of the American Revolution every time somebody mentioned the Constitution.

The ancient Israelites took this story and ran with it, saying, in effect, ‘Yes, that monstrous primordial force known as Chaos was/is real, and our God – btw, the only true God and his name is Yahweh – subdued Chaos and established an orderly, sensible creation where life could flourish.’ Notice the text doesn’t say God destroyed Chaos so that it’s no longer around to mess with us. Chaos is still present. And active. And oh how active it is!

Now predictably, this raises some tough theological questions, such as….
• Where did Chaos come from in the first place?
 • Did Yahweh create it? If so, what was he thinking?!
 • If Yahweh didn’t create it, then who and/or what did? (And what were they thinking?)
 • Did it always just exist as Yahweh does?
 • Was it just by chance that Yahweh won this primeval battle?
 • Could it have played out in other ways with Chaos being the winner?
 • Perhaps Chaos actually did win – or at least is winning now – and this explains the current national political environment?!?!?! (I intended that to be funny, but…)

[Please note: None of this is original with me! I’m slugging my way through the work of scholars like Greg Moberly, Jon Levenson, John Walton, Walter Brueggemann and others who aren’t afraid to dive deep into the text and sift it for its hidden treasures.]

Of course, there’s A LOT of other stuff there in the text, and I’m just starting to scratch the surface, but the central idea for now is this: Chaos is alive and well – though subdued by the Creator – and it has been a part of our world since the beginning. Perhaps, and this is where my mind continues to exponentially explode: perhaps Chaos is even a necessary part of our world.

Necessary? Maybe “necessary” is too strong a word right now. Perhaps the biblical authors are simply saying Chaos is an inherent part of our world. That it’s simply one part of the created order, which God declared over and over again to be “good.” (See Genesis 1)

So maybe the essential message here is NOT “Why is Chaos present?” or “Why is it allowed to be so active?” Maybe the biblical writers just took it at face value that Chaos was part of life on planet Earth. And what the Bible calls “sin” is humans rebelling against our Creator and unleashing Chaos into our lives and our world.

But maybe, just maybe, the message is much deeper than we might imagine. Or want to imagine. Maybe the message is this: we should not bemoan and lament the presence of Chaos as much as we should actively join forces with Yahweh and participate with Him in keeping Chaos bound in its proper place.

After all, Yahweh said, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Ruler over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground…” (Genesis 1:28, NIV)

What?! What are we supposed to do to the earth? “Fill” it for sure. (That’s the fun part!) But also “subdue” it? Wait a minute! Isn’t that what we said Yahweh did to Chaos – he “subdued” it? Yes! Exactly! As Yahweh subdued Chaos, so we are to “subdue” the earth. Yahweh only said creation was “good.” He didn’t say it was perfect, as if it needed no improvement, as if there were no work to do, as if we were designed to just lie around in the buff and eat grapes and oranges and watermelon and pineapples without a care in the world. (And bacon. Bacon for sure!)

Creation was “good,” but the earth wasn’t yet subdued. The rule of the Creator had not yet been established everywhere. It wasn’t free from danger, and the possibility of violence or injury or death was, perhaps, very real. Yahweh was essentially saying. ‘Guys and gals, proceed with my blessing, and also with caution. But please do proceed…’

As one paraphraser of this verse has written, “Be fruitful and have children, filling the earth with your life so that you can have power to fight against everything in it that leads to death. Rule with care and fairness over the natural world, over the myriads of My beautiful creatures – from tropical fish to soaring eagles to dogs and cats – every creature that is a part of this living world.” (Christopher Brown,

“…fight against everything in it that leads to death.” I like that. It sobers me, though, that there is far too much that “leads to death” in the world, and far too few humans – myself included! – who are actively opposing it.

It bears repeating: Chaos is alive and well today.

And though it is “subdued,” (Can you imagine if it were running unchecked and without restraint? In some parts of the world it is!) it continues to wreak its random havoc and senseless destruction and unpredictable death. In Baton Rouge. In Dallas. In Baltimore. Orlando. Newtown. San Bernardino. Fort Hood. South Carolina. Colorado. In thousands of villages and hamlets and communities and cities that never get any attention. This list is too long. The bad news is it’s just getting longer. The worse news is this is just the United States in the last couple of years. We’ve got work to do. A lot of work to do. What God has created is good, but it is being threatened from every side. And it has been threatened by the forces of Chaos for a LOOOOONG time now. What we are seeing are just the latest battles in a war that began “in the beginning.”

I mentioned bad news and worse news. How about some good news? The good news, I think, is captured in what the psalmist wrote:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear,
though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46:1-7, NIV)

Though Chaos wreaks havoc around us, Yahweh is with us. That’s good news. The One who defeated and subdued Chaos in the beginning is with us now. He knows how to do it. And he has not left us powerless. He has not left us alone. He has not left us to figure it out for ourselves by trial and error. He came as one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and showed us the Way. That’s how Yahweh did it: through a love so passionate that it sacrifices itself for others so they might be saved. That’s how Yahweh continues to do it. And will continue to do it, because that's who he is.

I conclude with a nod toward a modern cultural phenomenon, and what might be, perhaps, one way our culture manifests or understands the Chaos monster: The Walking Dead. I’m a HUGE fan. And yes, I think Glenn is toast. (Ok, really mushy toast :-o) The words we need to hear are spoken by the most appropriate character to speak them, the cowardly priest Father Gabriel.
Here is the setting: The walls keeping the hordes of walkers out of Alexandria have been breached. Our heroes are cowering in their homes, leaderless and fearful of what to do. Rick, their leader, has left the infirmary and in a dazed yet furious rage over his son’s injuries and possible death; he starts killing walkers. One by one they being to fall. There are thousands of them, and it seems Rick will be overwhelmed and eaten alive. But he is joined by others. Now the walkers fall in twos, and threes, and fours. But still they are overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, another small group has sought refuge with Father Gabriel to pray for salvation and deliverance. At one point, Father Gabriel gets up, grabs a machete, and goes to leave the building. One in the group asks what he is doing. He responds with words we desperately need to hear and take to heart:

“We’ve been praying together,
praying that God would save our town.
Well our prayers have been answered!
God will save Alexandria.
Because God has given us the courage
to save it ourselves.”

How prescient. I wonder how many of us realize God has given us the courage to save this world ourselves? I find myself gazing heavenward too often, in hopes that God will miraculously intervene and make things right again.

But he has already intervened.

And he is intervening. He is working diligently to reconcile a wayward creation to himself by loving us even when we can’t love ourselves. He is working through Love to put Chaos back in its rightful place.

And he wants us to join him. So lament and grieve the loss of life. That is very appropriate. But we’ve also got work to do. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth with goodness and peace and love.

Remember: though this world is good, it’s not safe. So proceed with caution.

But, for the love of all that is good and life-giving, PROCEED!