The Impossible Now–Part Four

This is the final installment of an introductory position paper I’m calling “The Impossible Now” or “Towards a Theology of the Impossible.”  There are three previous parts.  You can find them here, here, and here.  In this final installment I talk about “the religious question.”  Cheers!

…The im/possible is refusing, as it always does, to be pinned down and become a part of someone’s strategic planning. It will always retreat from our view, from our expectation, from our massaging of what is possible, and back into the realm of the unexpected and truly unimaginable….

The Event of the im/possible cannot be prepared for and at the same time cannot be depended on. These are horrible words to hear for strategic planning! How then do we live with such (non)knowledge? If authenticity, imagination and experiment are the tools that we shape the relative future with, what are the tools we use to embrace the wildcard future—the im/possible? What can we possibly do or say or prepare in reference to something that lies so completely out of our ability to do or say or prepare for? It is for this place, this absurd, unexpected, undeterminable place that a different set of internal reservoirs are needed. Religion, good religion, seeks to address this sort of question.

Having done all to encounter the present in a meaningful way, we are still often left with seemingly meaningless events that continually take us by surprise, disturbing our best laid plans. This realization is, at its highest, a religious experience. It doesn’t require belief in a Personal Origin, or First Cause. But it does require something of us. That much is certain. The “what” is actually rather well-known. The attributes I’m going to mention are in many ways universals. They’re what philosopher’s might call “un-deconstructables,” in that they are ideals—almost always un-fully-realized urges that keep us reaching toward them. The most famous of Jesus’ early followers, the apostle Paul, said it best, in my opinion, “…in the end, these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love.”

This simple three word formula provides the basis for the intersection between the im/possible and the real. Faith isn’t so much a mental adherence to theoretical propositions about the nature of truth, but rather living today in the light of the future as it should be. Faith sees the idealized Peaceful Tomorrow, the future where swords have been beaten into plowshares, and tanks made into tractors, and determines to live peaceably today, even while the world is filled with wars and rumors of wars. Faith is an active, aggressive leap forward toward the Good, the Just, and the Best in spite of evidence contrary. Faith is an investment in particularity and locality, refusing to be theoretical and (merely) universal. Faith is always personal, though hardly private.

Hope isn’t the spindly sickly stuff of fantasy; it’s longing contentment. Hope sees the possibility of renewal and resurrection where others see lifelessness or death. Hope believes in commonality, compassion and a desire for connection with the Other where fear informs us that only Strangers and Monsters await on the other side of the unknown.

And love…Love is the greatest of these. Even faith and hope must give way before love. What can be said of love? Those who have known both Love and God have said that God is Love. If God can be spoken of and said to be anything at all, God is spoken of as and said to be Love. The substance of the divine is bound up in love. Concrete love. Active love. Visible, tangible, touchable love. Love, which covers a multitude of sins. Love which walks the extra mile. Love which gives up the second coat. Love which willingly lays down its life for another, for the Other. Love, of whom we may sing a thousand songs.

Our deep need to account for the unaccounted for, forces us to build up, to work on, a different skill set entirely. The things that are simply cannot prepare us for the things that are not. For those sorts of im/possible occurrences we must draw on the deep fountains that lurk at the corner of our being, not quite yet realized, still in formation, and dependent on some previously unforeseen happening to unleash their potential in our lives. In some strange way, these too, carry the stamp of Artistry. Art, in all of its forms, somehow allows to us to look upon, and hint at, those things which we cannot view in a straightforward way. Artistry gives birth to the Encounter of im/possibility which we are able to meet with arms open, acting out of faith, hope, and love.

The Impossible Now–Part Two

…There’s another kind of future, one we’re even less equipped to face….

Truthfully, the kind of event I’m envisioning can’t be prepared for. We cannot even begin to imagine or plan ahead for this kind of future—the wildcard future. It’s always out of nowhere. Nobody sees it coming. As post-structuralist philosopher Jaques Derrida said, it is the im/possible—the impossible that becomes possible by colliding with our immediate reality. The im/possible is truly unimaginable. And of course, the unimaginable happens all the time. We hear it in the sobs of the newly widowed, “I never thought anything like this could happen.” We observe it on the shocked faces of political pundits as outsider-unaccounted-for’s win primaries and then even presidential races. We feel it from time… to time…to time. In fact we encounter the im/possible so often in life that it’s a surprise that we’re surprised. Of course the examples I’ve used are basic, even bottom of the barrel; they’re somehow incredible familiar events. Truthfully, the reason why they’re familiar to us at all, why we relate to sentiment of the grieving widow or the shocked commentator is because we expect the unexpected. Culturally, we’ve built them in to our routine. Think about emergency rooms. What a strange place. It’s an institution built entirely on the premise that we will be taken off guard. Emergency rooms are a societal contingency plan. They’re an admission of our own lack of control. But even this apprehendible-unanticipatible is not the im/possible I speak of – not really. What I mean is an event outside of the built-in contingency plans; circumstances that overturn the apple cart altogether.

It’s difficult to get concrete with that term, “the im/possible.” Partially this is true because as soon as the unexplained and the unexpected enter our universe, we begin to explain and expect it. The impossible becomes…possible. That’s why I notate it with a little slash separating the word, because it is simultaneously possible and impossible.  Take a Biblical example, something outlandish – the crossing of the Red Sea for instance. In the book of Exodus, as their Egyptian taskmasters and previous owners are in hot pursuit, the children of Israel get stuck between a rock and a hard place. The armies of Egypt are behind them, and a body of seemingly un-crossable water is ahead. What happens next is remarkable. The im/possible occurs. There’s a divine intervention. The wave’s part and dry land appears. The ex-slaves pass through the clearing just in time and the story ends with pursuant horse and rider being swept away by the collapsing wall of water. Miraculous. My point isn’t the “fact” of the event; whether it happened that way or not. Actually my point is the absurdity of it all. These things don’t happen every day. It couldn’t have been expected or anticipated. And while the cries of the desperate would have certainly bordered on polite requests for rescue, no one could have imagined that the Sea itself would have been parted. Within the context of story itself it is a brilliant example of the impossible intersecting reality. What’s more is that the event is not only unexpected but is also unexplainable, at least within the text. The author of Exodus doesn’t attempt to give detailed scientific or historical precedent for the event but allows it to remain teetering on the edge of chaotic disturbance.

Several years ago the History Channel aired a series called “Mysteries of The Bible.” It featured various scholars, historians, archeologists and other experts in the field, each of whom took their best shot at rationalizing a handful of biblical stories such as the one above. I’ll never forget the slough of explanations for the crossing of the Red Sea. There were several of them. One focused on wind power and hurricane strength to clear water, rather instantaneously, from sea floors. Another proposed a case of mistaken identities; the body of water mentioned in the book of Exodus couldn’t have rationally been such a huge expanse as the Red Sea we know of, so it must have been a smaller one, such as the Sea of Reeds. The Sea of Reeds, being rather shallow, could have conceivably dried, in due season, in one place or another, allowing for a mass exodus such as the one described in the Bible. On and on the explaining went, until any logical person watching the show would have been sufficiently convinced that the real crossing of the Red Sea was slightly (or vastly) different than presented in the Biblical rendition, but was therefore entirely possible, conceivable, and explainable. In other words, the im/possible just became possible. As soon as the unimaginable future enters into our reality we immediately reconstruct our thinking to account for it. We rationalize how we could have been prepared (had we only thought far enough ahead or enough outside the box). As this happens an event ceases to be impossible and starts to acclimate into our version of reality. Experts figure out the science behind the magic. Historians matriculate the timeline of crucial events. Theologians and philosophers craft carefully articulated statements of description and prescription. Going back to a previous example, we build Emergency Rooms.

Son of who, exactly? Exactly.

It’s not going to surprise anyone that the story of the Exodus, and particularly elements from the Moses biographic portion, are about (un)knowing God.  Take the burning bush incident for example: here Moses asks to to know the name of God.  From the ancient cultural understanding to know the Name of something, to name someone, is to control it or them; it is to have power, the power of knowledge or definition.  And you know how the story goes. In a manner of speaking God gives Moses the great kiss off.  The “name” he tells Moses is far less of a name and far more of an event, or even a stiff middle finger. One well known Old Testament scholar said that YHWH, “I am that I am” or “I am what I will be” is actually rather like saying “Never you mind, is my name”.  God refuses to be controlled, conquered, or even discerned.

Later on, as you again already know, Moses gets up the courage to ask God to show his glory.  Glory, T. Austin Sparks said once, is the “fullness of something.” The glory of a Rose would be a fully blooming one, fully developed, etc… It has to do with maturity and reaching the apex of possibility.  In other words, once again Moses was asking to see the very being of God. Coming from his Egyptian tradition, in a way, he would have been requesting substance, form…an idol.  He wanted a knowable God.  This time God concedes…but with a caveat.  God’s would shelter Moses’ eyes as His glory passed before him, and then Moses could look at God’s backside.  I’ve always thought that was strange.  But I love the ancient rabbinical reading of it suggesting that by “backside”, the writer’s meant where God had just been.  Moses could look upon God’s fullness, but only where it had just previously been.  Once again, God refuses to be given form or definition.  He is knowable…but inscrutable.  His goodness is not question, but rather his discernibility at each and every level.  

Those are both rather well known examples. I’ve read them in a dozen places it seems in the last year alone.  But recently I saw something that I hadn’t heard before. It had to do with Moses’ actual name.

Moses is not a Hebrew name.  It is actually Egyptian.  We’ve actually seen it so many places that it has become common to us. Tutmoses, Ramoses…etc…Moses means “son of”.  In the Egyptian tradition royalty were given the name of their patron God and declared themselves to be divine.  Son of Tut. Son of Ra. Etc…  Historians presume that at one time Moses had a longer name as well. He was defined by his divine lineage. He had a certain God and a certain manifest destiny.  But…somewhere along the line his name was cut off. His name was abbreviated to simply “Son of”.  Son of what?  Son of who?  Exactly.  Uncertain. Inscrutable. Indefinable.  Even his own name would be a constant reminder to him that he could not fathom God.  

Pretty interesting stuff.

when the plot falls apart.

Following along in the vein of “Story” I’ve had a further thought…

What happens if you’re watching Star Wars and the camera zooms in on Luke Skywalker…he’s summoning all power of the force to battle the Emperor when…BAM!  Bob, the mechanic, shoves Luke out of the way and co-opts the movie…around his plot?!?  Ridiculous right?  I mean, imagine, how boring is Star Wars when it’s central character gets side lined, and Bob–the mechanic who was simply meant to work on spaceships, suddenly becomes the main character.  Think of how mundane that story would be.  Maybe there would still be an epic struggle, but it would be in the background now, a subplot to the new central theme of “if Bob can repair the Galactic Cruiser today”.  Bottom line–it wouldn’t make for an interesting movie, let alone a trilogy or an empire of toys and comics.  Why?

Because plot is like a cart being pulled by the horse of the central character.  Think of Tom Sawyer.  I barely remember the book’s story as much as I remember who the story is about…Tom…

The movie Mission Impossible…it’s the story of a daring attempt for Ethan (played by Tom Cruise) to restore his name, to find out who the REAL bad guys are, and to bring them to justice…but the driving action is Ethan…the main character.

Without the main character–the plot falls apart…the cart doesn’t go anywhere unless it’s being pulled.

The critics are always saying this about big budget movies these days: “No one took the lead!” or “There was no compelling central character”.

So…you get it…

But the funny thing is…maybe we don’t get it…take the Bible for instance.

Who’s the main character?

And maybe you instantly answer: “God!”  And yes…that’s it!  He’s the central character…and that’s what we have to remember. Every story, each narrative, is an extension of His Story.  Every one else becomes a character helping lead His plot to fulfillment.  He is the star.

And it’s easy to know that…but what about approaching it story by story?  Take David and Goliath for instance. What’s it about?  The most true answer is: God…and probably more specifically how God champions the weak and overturns the proud and strong.  This is a reflection of God’s priorities.  But when was the last time you heard that message?  Instead, I’ve heard all my life…this is the “story of David and Goliath”…not God and Goliath. Hah!  See…it’s about David…for us…the central character in this story isn’t God, it’s David.  It’s about him using the tools he’s got on hand. It’s about his not wearing Saul’s armor. It’s about his trusting in God…etc…etc…and in that telling God is still there…but he’s sidelined. He’s Luke Skywalker pushed aside by Bob the Mechanic.

No wonder Scripture is boring to so many people.  No wonder we grossly misinterpret it.  No wonder it becomes a “me” centered promise book.  We’ve shoved the main character out of the picture.  And without the central forward mover…it’s just not a compelling story anymore.

I propose:

1)We plunge into the Story of God

2)We keep in mind that it’s a narrative about him…First that it’s a narrative first and foremost.  It is not a series of propositional truths and blanket statements. It is not a complex set of systematic doctrines.  It’s a story. And to quote Richard Rohr: “it’s all true and some of it really happened”…this means that the priority is not first historical, that’s secondary…the first priority is: what’s he doing? what does this reveal about his peculiar character and priorities? what are we learning about the nature and mission of God…etc…

3)We do all this in the context of community…where it can’t just be about me the individual…by virtue of it being interpreted in community it will automatically become  larger than us…

What Color Is God-Part 5

It appears all over the New Testament and literally means “laid bare” or “being made naked”.  It is a process that God initiates—a process that ultimately ends in the unveiling of something.  But the action of revelation is far less interesting than the object of revelation.

“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel and the revelation of Jesus Christ” Romans 16:25

“I don’t stop giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him…”
Ephesians 1:16-17
“For I did not receive it [the gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Galatians 1:12

“Therefore, prepare your minds for action, be sober minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you when the revelation of Jesus Christ comes to you.”
I Peter 1:13

“The revelation of Christ Jesus which has been given to His servants…
” Revelation 1:1
The significance about what God is longing to show us is that it is not an “it” at all, but is actually a “person”, Himself.    A person—living, breathing, actual, is not an it.  An it is inanimate.  An in it is unmovable.  An it is fixed and stationary.  An it has no need to be seen.  You can quarrel over an it.  You can build an it.  You can regulate an it.  It can be administrated.  It can be discovered, disputed, and sent into disrepute.  It has a shelf life.  It collects dust in museums.  It has no life at all.
The capacity of faith is tied up in the object you have faith in. I have very little faith that my two year old son’s high chair will hold my weight.  On the other hand I have a great deal of faith that the posh leather reading chair my wife purchased for me last Father’s Day will.  The difference is not in me as the believer but in the object I am believing in.
No wonder we are experiencing such a crisis of faith today.  But actually it is linked with a lack of real vision.  Good vision.  True vision.  20/20 clarity of vision.
Our utmost essential is for revelation.  An unveiling of the person of Jesus Christ.
Recently I’ve come to understand that you can know plenty about Him but never know Him.  Kind of like a wonderful illustration that a friend of mine tells about his familiarity with Michael Jordan.  He was fascinated by Michael Jordan.  He knew every detail.  He knew every statistic from on the court and knew the juicy gossip from off the court.  Each factoid and detail was a prized possession to my friend.  He was the epitome of a fan.  He really thought he knew it all about Michael Jordan, and in many ways he did.  But of course all this information really didn’t translate into actually knowing the man behind the number 23.  Can you imagine what would happen if during a chance encounter my buddy acted chummy with Air Jordan?  He might casually drop the question of “How’s your mom doing, man?” or informally refer to him as Mikee and talk about his lesser known business dealings or invite himself over for beer and pizza.  At that point MJ’s security guards would suspect him of being a stalker and haul him away.  Why?  Because knowing about someone is very different from actually knowing them.
Participation not information.
That’s what it says in Scripture, “We have become partakers of the Divine…” Interacting.  Responding.  Engaging.  Relating.  These can only be done in connection with a person.  So God never gives us data…predictable and rational static facts…a how to manual…a dummy’s guide to what we can expect out of God…He just gives us Himself…a glimpse of Himself.
Have you ever heard someone described as being “colorful”?  That phrase might mean they tell great stories.  Or it might mean they laugh a lot and make others laugh too.  Maybe “colorful” means feeding five thousand hungry mouths out of a few slices of bread and a couple cans of tuna.  Maybe “colorful” means touching the untouchable leaper or allowing a prostitute to apply her hard earned treasure of oil and perfume as a gift upon your feet while offended religious folk look on. Maybe “colorful” means being capable of raising your friend from the dead—knowing you would a few moments later—and still wailing like a child when you discover the bad news.  Maybe “colorful” means unexpected friends and undeserved enemies.  Could any one person be that colorful?
Our Lord is the definition of color.
That’s why, for my part, I wonder if Job saw God as vivid techni-color.  It makes sense to me. Like I said, it’s hard to argue with a color.  It’s hard to have expectations of a color.  A color…like a person is always on the move…never quite how you remember them to be.
You just enjoy the dazzling hues and tones while they’re around.  You engage it with your being and you take pleasure in its existence.  When tragedy happens you experience the blues.  When anger crashes your way you get the “Mean reds” (as Audrey Hepburn said in “Breakfast at Tiffanies”).  And when all is well…it’s a bright sunshiny day. There’s color in everything and it’s everywhere. Wherever life is happening you’ll find color there also.

I don’t know if Job got stuck in a rut later and picked up a new dogma.  Probably.  That’s how we humans are.
I heard some one say once that there are only seven lessons in life and we just keep repeating them over and over.

So…here I am…having already learned that God couldn’t be boxed in—having already understood that God was bigger than my pet theologies and theories.  And I’m staring at the floor while everyone else is eating in the kitchen.  I can’t get up yet.  I just want to drink in the golden pine grain of the hard wood floor beneath me and the ocean foam blue of the chair I am sitting on and the charred ginger reds of the fire ahead…I am rediscovering God…a God I can’t disagree with or debate about…A God aimed at my senses…a tangible Lord…a visible and visual Lord…a Sensual Jesus.

What Color Is God-Part 2

I suspect that lately my view of God has become a list of rules. A systematic theology. A set of doctrinal certainties. A series of viewpoints that you should adhere to—should believe—should agree with—should promote to others, and if you do not or cannot then you’re out of luck.
So I have wrangled mentally to “get my mind right”. I have worked very hard to agree with all the current “orthodox” ideas…which are fine and good.
But, a color?
If God is a color then it takes Him out of the realm of argument and orthodoxy all together. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I disagree with Blue!” Or “I have serious doubts as to the reality of Eggplant purple!” You may dislike a certain shade or not take pleasure in a particular tinge but you would never make a case about it—divide over it—take a stand on those grounds—form a serious opinion on it at all—sign a membership card to join with other’s, be they fan or foe of that tone. That’s what’s great about colors! They have nothing to do with theoretical concepts…They’re something to be appreciated. They target impressions and awareness beyond cognitive thought. They are meant to be enjoyed. They’re aimed at your senses.
The pupil lets in light—
Light attacks the retina, pin balling off of rod’s and cones, fragmenting in the awareness of reds, and blues, and yellows—
Traveling up the optic nerve in an information bundle until it is deposited in the brain—
And then pleasure sets in. Delight strikes. Consciousness occurs.
A color can only be understood in the context of action and enjoyment.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that God longs to be seen…action and enjoyment…

Part 1 Part 3       Part 4        Part 5

Transient Presence

One of the most gripping things in Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis were the thoughts that revolved around our knowledge of God…and more importantly our lack of knowledge. He talked about Moses wanting to pin down God by knowing His Name (an Eastern concept and superstition that suggests if you know the secret name of something then you can know it fully…think of Simon the magician who goes around using the NAME of Jesus to perform magic…the Name is the Reality)….so Moses asks for a Name that will define and ultimately articulate who God is, hedge Him in, and give a human being a set definition for God’s reality…what does God do…He gives Moses the most unlimited, unconstrictive, nebulous Name ever…and the one that actually encompasses all and everything…I AM…absolutely everything…

Then Moses does it again…He gets tired of not seeing God, of not being able to identify God like the surrounding heathens–who can all demandingly look at and touch their deities. He asks to see God. But God won’t let him…God refuses to be identified again…instead He says, “Moses, you can see my back”…and that’s what happens. Moses is sheltered in the rock and looks upon God’s passing and sees His…backside…but Bell points out that the ancient Rabbi’s translated that passage as meaning something different than God’s rear end…they thought of it as Moses could only see where God had JUST BEEN. In other words…Moses didn’t know where God was right now, nor where He was going next, but only where He had just been.

How beautiful. How Transient. How utterly free.

A God who is unwilling to be defined. Who refuses to be categorized. Who tells us “I am…” but doesn’t finish the sentence. A God who let’s us see Him…but only in accordance with previous and perishable. A God who constantly leaves us guessing.

Is that my God? Am I constantly surprised? Do I even want to be?

Or do I, like we all do, want assuredness…constance…safety…security…stability…

I AM what I will be…

And while we may not like thinking of a God who changes, evolves, and emerges…maybe that’s exactly what He’s doing and has always done…maybe that’s why He refuses to hedge himself in with our puny defining characteristics…maybe that’s why His Story is so peculiar…

I want a God who conveniently fits all my preconceptions…or at least fits SOMEONE’S conceptions…Definable Jesus.

Not our God…the One who is absolutely free…

Crucify my sedate images to the fixed permanence of your cross…leave it there…dead and buried…then rise again in my imagination, walk forward, then ascend upward…God…be free to MOVE again in me!