Eternity On Our Hearts, I.

Dear friends and readers: I am beginning a short, 6-7 part series of essays on the Christian faith. It’s a blend of apologetics, explanation, and thought experiment. I wrote it with a casual, conversational tone, and I hope its helpful and thought-provoking to both non-Christians and Christians. I’ll update regularly, since I’ve drafted the whole series. Thoughts and comments welcome throughout! [/end introduction to the introduction]

Part I: An Existential Crisis
What’s the point? 

In high school English class, they taught us to make our thesis clear in the introduction. I remember that all-important statement needed to come in the last sentence of the first paragraph, and it had to exhibit clarity, take a stand, and pave the way for all the trailing paragraphs. (If you wanted to make an A, at least.) A tall order for a single sentence. Anyway, those were the days before we learned that real writers, whoever they are, usually break the rules.

Well, this is my introduction, and since I’ve freed myself from those Scarlet Letter and Shakespeare spark-noting days, you won’t find anything much like a thesis here. It’s more of a philosophical and personal note—a motivation for my writing this series of essays, and a heartfelt hope that you will consider the content.

2016 turned out to be a bizarre year for many people I know, and the world at large. Perhaps it’s this strange conglomeration of farfetched world events, the stage of life many of my friends find themselves in, etc. etc., orchestrated by God’s providence, that opened the door for a number of thought-provoking conversations and correspondences. Conversations about politics, philosophy, purpose. Conversations with friends of different backgrounds and beliefs. They’ve forced me to wrestle with questions of my faith and worldview, and for that, I’m grateful.

Whenever we go beyond the superficial, our questions ultimately converge to a search for truth and meaning. Where did our universe come from? Is this life all there is? What happens when we die?

What’s the point?

In the halls of elite universities, I hear that question reverberate. We are frail, mortal beings, a vapor that appears for a time on this earth, and then vanishes. Sometimes, I desperately want to throw that question at people I know, pushing their kids into sleepless exhaustion and endless SAT prep, wondering if they remember we are all going to die one day. Harvard or community college, prince or beggar, engineer or janitor, at 35 or 90 years old—we are all going to die. And then what?

(My mom reminds me that would not be a polite thing to do.)

So instead, I felt led to write this: a series of essays explaining and defending the Christian faith, the only worldview, I believe, that consistently, truthfully and beautifully answers the deepest questions of humanity. The only worldview that sees the world and the human heart through, maskless and naked, and offers real hope—God-given, and not man-made.

A disclaimer, since this—like a high school English thesis—is obviously a tall order: I’m a poor, young grad student, not a biblical scholar or theologian. (You can probably already tell from my tone and overuse of parentheses, if nothing else). Nothing I say here is really original, but you’ll find it said by better and wiser people than me. (Many of them probably dead for centuries). But I wanted to write this, partly as a reference for myself, since much of this I gathered and learned and reasoned through over years and different resources—books, sermons, late-night philosophizing with friends. I wanted to consolidate the highlights in one place, and a lot of this content was informed directly by conversations with others.

This is also for you: my friends, both Christian and not. I hope it will encourage you. I hope it will make you think, and ask yourself hard questions. And I hope, by God’s grace, this might be a small stepping-stone on your journey to find truth.

Outside of the church, I have grown up and lived most my (short) life in a progressive, secular environment. I have listened to the anthems of post-modernism marching through our world. And something I’ve learned: even in our open Internet, free-speech touting days, we tend to hear what we like. Echo chamber. Donald Trump’s win suddenly made this phrase a phenomenon. But it’s true, there are such things as “Christian bubbles” and “liberal bubbles” and many more. Sometimes, when I flit in and out between the two, I step back and think of how something that can be spoken in passing, taken for granted, in one circle would be so shocking and senseless in the other.

If you are a skeptic, I simply ask you to consider these things, to question your own assumptions, to doubt your own doubts. We should all do that. I submit these thoughts and arguments to you humbly, but not without conviction, because I stand not on my own authority, feeling, or intellect, but on the Word of God.

Here’s an outline of what’s to come:

  • Objectivity and the existence of God
  • Assumptions and axioms we live by
  • The authority of truth
  • How can we know the Bible is true?
  • What is the Gospel of Jesus?
  • What is faith, and what are its ramifications?

 

* I drew the title for this collection from the following verse, which speaks to the eternal longing and God-shaped vacuum in our hearts:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11

The First Love Story

Hark! The herald angels sing,
while wise men ask, how can it be?
That this is your immortal decree:
The Word that spoke us into being
would take on flesh to be an offering.

What Child is this?
The great I Am, the eternal God,
born to live a perfect life.
Emptied Himself of heaven’s glory,
born to be a holy sacrifice.

O holy night,
the advent of redemption’s drama,
when Love unraveled space and time:
a God came to dwell with sinners,
a Savior came to win His bride.

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:1-5

Merry Christmas!

Maps in the Dark

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth.

I look around and wonder what we are, really. A mortal yarn that spins its life away with each second, each breath. A small beating, blood-colored muscle surrounded by a fragile cage of bones. Thump, thump. A frail fleshly body that houses an eternal weight of glory, made to worship and chase and love with an undimmed blaze that we have canned and isolated like preservatives with a shelf life. Here’s a candle for your career. A brief, colorful firework for your love story. A lamp for your Sunday religion, if you want it.

We have learned to make filters that cover our brokenness. What, I wonder, would we find, if we tore the layers away? Where is the raw, bleeding heart buried in the rubble?

A splintering world can’t be bandaged by human hands and machines. I want to shake you, when I see you drawing maps in the dark and sprinting through a maze with a cliff at the finish line. What good are these bits and bytes, these Babel-like structures, these soaring speeches if we all come to dust and ashes?

Still our hearts love these glints of gold, gleaming in the dull iron landscape of existence. Oh, how we live for that bright and elusive tomorrow, forgetting that all tomorrows will end in the grave. I suppose we must forget – because we are not human without hope. Hope that there is more, that the glimmers in the gray are not liars, but angels. Hope that we simultaneously cling to and crush because we love and hate holiness.

Before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. 

The mad world spins on. But on the other side of the veil, glory dawns like a sunrise. And in the still, quiet moments, it calls to us.

The stone was rolled away. And He is not silent.

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

Gospel to Glory

An angel chorus sears the night

From the hollows of eternity

Hallelujahs from a host that longs

To gaze upon the marvelous mystery.

God Incarnate emptied Himself

The Word becoming fragile flesh 

So men bereft of faithful deeds

Might shed their sin for righteousness.

Praise Him who ransoms Adam’s race

The One who crushed the serpent’s head

The fulfillment of Israel’s hope

In Whom grace and holiness met.  

Summer Thunder

I woke up last night to the skies rumbling—like horsemen storming through the heavens, white light lancing through the thunderclouds. Curtains of water unleashed on our dry and thirsty streets. They fell in ceaseless waves, like mercy and mourning.

Do you ache for the broken beauty? The splendor of creation, diminished in our minds and narrowed to the small confines of our festivities, troubles and traffic jams.

We spin in the familiar orbit of our daily routines, insignificant creatures on a blue orb soaring through space. Stars wink out of the universe, their violent gaseous flames extinguished, and our lives continue untouched. Galaxies bend and spiral into a black unknown and we linger on, blissfully unaware. What is man, that You are mindful of him?

But when the thunder rolls, I am cut with heavenly hunger.

We spin, a world made for heaven but flying straight towards hell. We stand at once in rebellion and in shame, with one hand thrown into a fist against the skies and another chained to the collar of corruption. People cry out in a hailstorm of contradictions. Truth is a joke and life is cheap. But still we fight so hard—stirring words and bloody bodies—but for what?

We hate hypocrites yet find them in the mirror. I will preach the full and unmatchable value of life, of the equal worth in yours and mine. But when the waters rise, I’ll know, painfully and clearly, how empty pretty words are if I can’t trade my mortality for yours.

How much we need someone who sees us all the way to the core, in a wreck of frailty and failure, and loves us even in agony.

Do you ache for glory undimmed? Think hard and search deeply and tell me. Because I don’t believe you’re an existentialist. You don’t want to watch the world burn. You want to be on the right side of history with your trumpet of justice and kindness, these noble things that have no meaning in a world that exploded from nothing for no purpose. Simply to spin and spin and spin and die.

Like a diamond in the rough, lies only spring from pale imitations of truth. And it is there—the truth and the glory—gleaming beneath the dirt and grime. A crimson flower, blooming in the ashes of ravaged land. Creation groans, but not without the silver edge of hope on the horizon.

I listen to the rainfall and the roar. The mercy and the mourning. Our little corner of our small world trembles quietly.

But one day the skies will rend wide open for Heaven and Earth to collide. You will fling off the dark covers and creation will shrug off its old burdens. Shadows flee. Beauty unbroken. Glory undimmed.

Have we seen Light, until we see that day?

 

Young, Reckless and Nonconformist – Religious Thoughts on “Blue Like Jazz”

BluelikejazzI finally read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, a few years behind its explosion onto the Christian book scene. I’m not very good at writing book reviews because I tend to get long-winded and dig a hole into one idea, but I felt compelled to share some thoughts. (For excellent and witty book insights, I recommend my friend Veronica!)

Miller is something of a controversial writer in Christian circles, often associated with the emergent church, but I believe he doesn’t consider himself party to that movement. His emphasis on feelings and experiences tend in that direction, though he holds to the depravity of man and the need for salvation. He speaks to an increasingly polarized culture and subcultures of Christianity, and for that I applaud the naked honesty and vulnerability in his writing, which inevitably garners critique from various groups. (And it has—I’ve skimmed the Goodreads reviews.) Needless to say, Blue Like Jazz comes with a host of strengths and weaknesses. I will say up front, though, that I don’t plan to rehash some of the widespread critiques I’ve already seen from many in the conservative, Reformed corner: he’s all about emotion, lacks a high view of Scripture, fuzzy on atonement, and on. I agree with a large part of the criticisms (not all), but at the same time, he’s writing more of a memoir, not a theological treatise. So I want to try to look at it as such.

What I Liked

He’s a good storyteller—humorous, compelling, honestly irreverent (which is sometimes refreshing, sometimes inappropriate), and surprisingly shrewd. Some reviews accuse the book of being nothing more than a meandering diary, but he manages to make that form engaging enough. I particularly liked his stories of living in Portland and attending Reed; it struck close to home for me, and he relates his tales in an up close, personal way, as if you were chatting over coffee in a hipster café.

Dying for something is easy because it is associated with glory. Living for something is the hard thing. Living for something extends beyond fashion, glory, or recognition. We live for what we believe.

He’s honest and real—in a way that can be scary and bold, as he gives a voice to universal but rarely spoken doubts, struggles, and desires. I do think he almost elevates the importance of self-expression and authenticity above objective Truth, but then again, the entire book is a product of his self-expression.

They are lonely. I’m not talking about lonely for a lover or a friend. I mean lonely in the universal sense, lonely inside the understanding that we are tiny people on a tiny little earth suspended in an endless void that echoes past stars and stars of stars. 

He has a sharp gaze into the human soul—I can’t quite compare him to C.S. Lewis, but I found some gems in the book that were reminiscent of Lewis’ insight. The unique edge Miller brings comes from the very different culture he grew up in, and how the severe rift between postmodern thought and conservative Christianity shaped his perspective. Having lived and breathed in both sorts of communities, his observations and struggles resonate with me (and I would guess, with many in our generation).

Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, by judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away. 

The Self-Addiction Cycle

Early in the book, Miller expresses his belief in human depravity, and he describes coming to the realization in a personal way.

“Do I want social justice for the oppressed, or do I just want to be known as a socially active person? I spend 95 percent of my time thinking about myself anyway. I don’t have to watch the evening news to see that the world is bad, I only have to look at myself. I am not browbeating myself here; I am only saying that true change, true life-giving, God-honoring change would have to start with the individual. I was the very problem I had been protesting. I wanted to make a sign that read “I AM THE PROBLEM!”

He goes on to speak of our helpless, natural self-addiction many times over. He says, “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: life is a story about me.” I couldn’t help but find it somewhat ironic that the overall theme of the book radiates with an intense focus on self. He repeatedly writes about his opinions and views almost as if they were a law unto himself—his dissatisfaction with relationships, with churches, etc. It made me wonder, “So how did the Gospel rescue him from self-absorption?” He speaks of the inestimable value of love and sacrifice, and how he found beautiful examples of that in the world outside the church. Perhaps this is where our theology comes into play, because I don’t see how one can truly begin to overcome the depth of depravity apart from bringing the full Gospel to bear—Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sin, and His righteousness alone credited to those who believe. I get the sense Miller has a strong grasp of the Gospel’s core, yet his book blurs a lot of lines. It leads me to ask: If he believes in the fullness and centrality of the Gospel, wouldn’t his writing display it?

In short, he shows a keen sensitivity to our innate self-obsession and he speaks of the need to grow in Christlikeness. I can’t help but think of John 3:30 – “He must increase, but I must decrease.” As the outcome of Miller’s conclusions, I half-expected and half-hoped his memoir would naturally grow in speaking more of the glories of Christ and the Gospel and less of himself. Not because “that’s what you’re supposed to do in a Christian book” but because “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).” He believes that wonder is the best worship of God, yet what aspects of God command his awe, and where is his authority for the character of God? I’m sure he can give an answer, and I wish he had in the book.

The Division of Head and Heart

Miller brings a flavor of mysticism to his view of God, denying the need or ability to rationalize the spiritual. His story is an interesting case study of many drawn to postmodern, emergent breeds of thought—young, highly intellectual and educated people who seek to divorce intellect from spirituality. It’s an odd but strangely trendy phenomenon in our culture today.

While many flying the flag of Christianity over the centuries have sought to make faith viable by shutting down science, compromising to science, co-existing in supposed contradiction yet peace with science, etc., biblical faith never needs or seeks to do that. The Truth is able to appeal to the heart, mind, and soul and withstand the test of being embraced by our entire being, without turning a blind eye or fleeing from tough questions. False religions are the ones that latch onto one part of our faculties alone with an iron grip (e.g. science-as-religion that speaks to the intellect exclusively; spirituality that speaks to the heart and emotions exclusively).

And yet, we are sinners, imperfect in all our ways, and none of us achieve that right tension of loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. Miller falls into the “heart and soul” camp more than the “mind,” but those on the opposite end of the spectrum can surely learn from his basking in the “pure and furious” love of God and compassion for the lost and needy. These things can be lost in a narrow focus on doctrine. At the same time, I think Miller’s love for and faith in the Gospel comes with the undeniable influence of postmodern thought, which favors experientialism over doctrinal conviction. But doctrine is not simply for intellect’s sake, and deep theology and knowledge of truth is the firmest foundation and fuel for abiding love. Love for the sake of love is meaningless in the end and will not hold up in the face of our sin and brokenness. I think Miller would agree with that.

In closing, I’d echo his own well-spoken belief:

“I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel.” – Blue Like Jazz

Against All

Against all intuition,
there’s a King that chose
a crown that bleeds,
and a God who wore
the frailness of humanity.

Against all expectation,
men scoffed and spurned
and crucified their Maker,
but it’s for these He died,
the wretch, the fool, the sinner.

CHORUS

I AM, the Word made flesh,
Your ways are higher than mine,
Your love is better than life.
We forsake all other gods,
it’s You alone we glorify.

Against all explanation,
He trampled over death,
broke the grip of the grave
and undid condemnation
for the bride He came to save.

Against all hesitation,
we tread the Savior’s path,
count all our treasures loss
to comprehend Your holiness
and marvel at the cross.

BRIDGE

Lord of light, I’m undeserving
of Your steadfast love.
God of grace, I’m so unworthy
but Your righteousness is enough.

CHORUS

I AM, the Word made flesh,
Your ways are higher than mine,
Your love is better than life.
We forsake all other gods,
it’s You alone we glorify.

He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. – 2 Corinthians 5:21

Between Mercy and Justice

Mercy and justice are not opposites, but they often find themselves at odds, particularly in the justice system. The tension between the two, between gracious love and rigid law, is a core conflict in so many stories. Recently, I’ve developed a penchant for legal dramas (by which, I mean Suits and The Good Wife) and I can’t help but notice this theme replaying itself. Suits has a spectacular ensemble cast, and I’ve grown to love each of the characters: their quirks, wit, heroics and vulnerabilities. I cheer when they win, when they beat their enemies, when they have their moments of glory. I ache when they ache. (And yes, I realize I may be overly emotionally invested.) But let’s be honest – all of my favorite characters are basically crooks. By the law, they deserve to be thrown into prison.

Good storytellers know how to play on our sympathies. Call it manipulative, but you have to admit, it takes skill to do. A well-executed emotional appeal strikes our heartstrings harder than impartial justice. Storytellers know that. The justice system knows that: attorneys would not be so bent on picking impartial jurors if most people could not be swayed by compassion, personal experiences, or anything other than cold, hard facts. We find ourselves rooting for “good” protagonists even if they aren’t completely by the book, even if they’re rule-breakers, because of something redeeming in their motives or heart. We empathize because we’ve been in their shoes, or simply because we understand their dilemma as fellow humans. We’re not robots, we don’t see the world in binary, and there’s no algorithm to our emotions.

But there you find the tension. The other day, I was watching an episode of The Good Wife where Alicia defends a middle-aged Indian woman facing deportation. She entered the U.S. illegally 27 years ago, but built her entire life in the States: two children, a job, and a home. In desperation, she tells Alicia, “I have nothing in India.” Her situation and her plea tugged at my feelings. I was totally rooting for Alicia to kick the opposing counsel’s behind on the case and save the poor woman. But as the other side put it, the truth is, she entered the country illegally. In the eyes of the law, she should be deported. It is mercy that cries for an alternative. So, what’s the right thing to do? The courts weren’t created for charity, and if every case like that was granted an exception, all sorts of chaos would break out. And yet … I felt compassion, and out of pity, I wanted an exception for her case. (I promise, I haven’t forgotten this is all fiction. I just get this way about stories.)

Where is the perfect meeting place of mercy and justice? Where is the sweet spot? Sorry. I don’t know. Sometimes, the two seem to be in direct opposition to one another, and we can all empathize with both sides at different times, depending on our natural bent and personal experiences. The only good answer I have isn’t my own: the cross of Christ is the only place I see the two come together in perfect, agonizing union. A picture of perfect justice and a picture of perfect love. The fair and full punishment for the wickedness of sin, and a love so unfathomable it embraces the worst of us unconditionally. It is something we cannot hope to emulate as broken sinners in a broken world, with our imperfect love and laws.

Personally, I love stories that deal with the tension well. Not in a cookie-cutter approach, where everything gets simplified and squared away. We are messy and complicated, tarnished by sin. Yet at the same time, we see a reflection of the image of God, the Imago Dei, imprinted on our souls – a God who is holy and just, yet also compassionate and slow to anger. One day, He will set all things right.

[pc]