Saturday, March 29, 2008

Canyonlands as Sign

When you turn onto Utah 211, you have the sense that you're near the end of the earth. For one thing, you haven't seen a house for miles and miles. There are no lights showing. There's a strand of barbed wire fence, sketchy cell phone service, almost no cars, definitely no towns. I mean, you're on your own if you break down out there. And then, there's this sign: "Canyonlands National Park: Needles District", and Utah 211. That's it. Oh, and that the road goes 34 miles. No outlet.

If you don't get it at the intersection, you get it as you drive towards the Park. There is one house 3 miles in, old Marie's House, the lady who started a cult and planted it here on the top of the first rise. But after that, there's nothing. Not a telephone pole, not a store, not a house, not a human created light. No phone service, no intersecting roads, seldom a car coming up behind you or coming at you. You're alone, more alone then many of us have ever been in our whole lives. And to tell you the truth, the first time you do it, it's unnerving, especially for those who grew up in a city or in the East where there are people everywhere.
Along the way you pass through a gallery of monoliths, huge red rock sentinels, mesas called collectively the Vermillion Cliffs, where I think Tom Cruise was filmed in his free climb at the beginning of Mission:Impossible. And if you're lucky, the only people you'll see on your drive in are rock climbers 300 feet up, with hands jammed into the vertical cracks in these cliffs. It'll take your breath away. But what it adds to is the sense that you are out on an edge, far from the familiar, stripped of most of what you've come to trust for your health and stability and security.

At last, you cross the National Park Boundary, and the thought is, "Now at last all will be well. People, services, lights." But as you pass the one lone person in the entrance booth, you miss the Visitors' Center because it's so well hidden and blending in with the scenery, and there's only 5 people there anyway, and you drive to your camping spot, get out of your car to. . . silence. No car sounds, no airplane sounds, no people sounds, no sound at all. And you realize for the first time that maybe, just maybe, Canyonlands Needles is a sign. A sign that points to your desperate need for silence and absence of distraction. A place of such total wilderness that you might find God there, because there's nothing left to get in the way.

When you finally get the chance to hike, the sense of sign intensifies. The beauty is enormous, huge, breathtaking. A lot of it has to do with contrast. A tree growing out of a rock isn't simply incongruous and unexpected; it thrust the color of flora life into the very different color of red rocks. The life in the desert is a sign of the beauty of God. It teaches us to have eyes to see Him in the midst of that which we may have been lured to believe is a wasteland.

And the longer one is there, the "sign" of Canyonlands grows louder. It is a place that points beyond itself, reminding us that we are powerless, small, insignificant in the grand scheme of things. . . unless of course the One who fashioned all of this fashioned us as well. And more than simply creating us that He spoke us into being as the very crown of the beauty and creation we are walking dumbfounded in. We find ourselves honored in such places as the very best of what He has made, and yet, reminded that we would do well to receive this honoring with an abject humility. In the end it is all about God who made us.

As C.S.Lewis said, "these manifestations [that is, you and me, in addition to the hoodoos of Canyonlands] are not the hope of glory, they are an exposition of the glory itself." Canyonlands are a sign, you see, that point to the hope of glory.

So, when you see the sign for Utah 211, make the turn. But remember, what lies ahead are signs which are far more important.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Sorry I'm out of touch with whomever reads this blog. I was in Canyonlands National Park, Needles District. I'll write about that as soon as I have pictures to add. Needless to say, for those of you who have ever stepped on that earth, I have been to the portal of heaven.

But what I am so intrigued by on this Holy Saturday is something Desmond Tutu said in an interview in Vanity Fair magazine in July 2007. It has to do with a word in one of the African languages, the word ubuntu:

"Ubuntu is the essence of being human. . . something you find especially in the Old Testament, when you're not quite sure sometimes - when you are reading, say, the Psalms - whether the Psalm is speaking, where it says 'I', only of an individual, or is it speaking in a corporate sense? We [Africans] say a person is a person through other persons. You can't be human in isolation. You are human only in relationships."

This confronts the dominant Western view that what it means to be human is first and foremost defined individually. We never even question it. To be human is to be "me." Finding one's humanity means finding one's self.

But Tutu, speaking on behalf of most Africans, is saying that what it means to be human can only be found by finding oneself as a part of a people. As N.T. Wright says, significance and personhood can only be known by being a part of a people. In other words, as a Christian I am led to confess that the Church, the people of God, is what I am born into, and it is only from the Church that I come to find out who I am. It is only in the Church that I can know why I was dreamed up and placed here. One's true identity is only to be found by immersion in the people of God.

I think that's exactly what I experienced last night after the Good Friday service at the church I serve. The couple who have not been able to have children, and who have sought adoption of a baby, and who held that baby in their arms, and who had that baby taken back by the birth mother on Thursday last week - I hugged them and listened to them, and realized that what life is really all about is being in relationship together as we suffer our way through this Veil of Tears. The couple who have just returned from Serbia, where their lives were in danger because of political hatred for the U.S.A. - I hugged them and listened to them, and realized that what life is really all about is reunion with loved ones, safely home. The young man from South Carolina who has just arrived to be our Senior Pastor, broken hearted by the absence from their dear, dear friends in Hilton Head, in the midst of strangers - I hugged him and introduced him to some of his new family in Christ, realizing that it is in the midst of the family of God that he and I will find out the will of God for our lives.

Ubuntu. Now that's something worth pursuing.

Monday, March 10, 2008


"All basic decisions are based emotionally. The difficulty is not 'knowing the Bible'; it's getting it into experience. We must feel deeply."
Howard Hendricks

"These affections are the 'spring of action,' the things that set us moving in our lives, that move us to engage in activities. . . I believe that no one is ever changed. either by doctrine, by hearing the Word, or by the preaching or teaching of another, unless the affections are moved by these things." (holy fear, hope, love, holy desire, joy, holy sorrow, gratitude, compassion, zeal, delight)

Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Religious Affections

So, what is delight-full in my life, that moves me to act?

Delight is an exquisite song that captivates both head and heart at the same time.

Delight is the richly connecting, revelatory, heart-to-heart conversation.

Delight is the feel of pen on paper, the written word, the idea or quote that comes alive on the page, revealing what I could only sense, or giving in words that which I knew was true but could not say.

Delight is walking above tree line in an alpine meadow, and walking a sawtooth ridge with dropoffs on each side.

Delight is my body working as it was meant to work.

Delight is the companionship of a faithful dog, and the charm of a carefree puppy.

Delight is the first cup of coffee in the morning, in the silence and darkness of a new day.

Delight is knowing You in the Word when I'm alone, and in worship in the midst of the people of God.

Delight is speaking just the right words, those that match Your exquisite truth with the emotions appropriate to that truth.

Delight is taking part in the emergence of a disciple, as that person enters into his or her glory.

Delight is in the innocence, and sense of humor, and cuteness of grandsons!

Delight is laying down one's head at the end of the day.

Delight is a fruit pie, homemade, topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.

Delight is the freedom of driving into the sunset.

Delight is a high camp, backpacking, where every bite of food is the best you've ever had.

Delight is when Susan affirms me.

Delight is watching my adult kids interact around the dining room table.

Delight is seeing the dry hills of eastern Washington and western Colorado, dotted by those first trees, filled out with sage brush and pasture grasses, crisscrossed by meandering creeks - and evoking in me that uncanny sense of home, Your pleasure for Your creation, wonderment like I've at last come to the place I was made to inhabit before the world began, a foretaste of heaven, the edge of wilderness.

But even then, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has the last word: "If you seek God alone, you will gain happiness. Seek God, not happiness."

How about you? What brings you delight?

Friday, March 7, 2008


Modernity, the Enlightenment's 20th century legacy, was and still is characterized by an immoderate and conspicuous self-preoccupation. That is, centered on the individual, it proclaims that man/woman is the measure of all things, the center of the universe; and that through reason, humanity is able not only to discover the principles, nature, and metanarrative (overarching story) of the universe, but also through this to rule all things, solve all things, systematize and order all things. In other words, modernity reeks of arrogance.

The Church (at least that part of the Church most influenced by western European history) in the 20th century, breathing in these toxic fumes, was and still is characterized by the same arrogance. Dressed up in Christian thought forms and terminology, our expression of the Christian faith has suffered a cultural captivity that most of us do not see. We speak of God as at the center of all things but operate as if the individual and his/her choices lie at the center of universe. We speak boldly of faith, but we pray little, and only then about things that mostly have to do with our comfort and experience of life. With respect to the world around us, we pour ourselves into strategic planning, seeking and disseminating principles, which enable us supposedly to rule all things, solve all things, systematize and order all things. Just look at the shelves of our standard Christian bookstores - they are filled with "10 steps to success" solutions. In much of evangelical Christianity in particular, the message is clear: just do the right things, and God will provide the solution we seek, for God has placed His freedom under our choices. His goal is our happiness. In other words, we also reek of arrogance.

What is missing in all of this is mystery. Who can begin to fathom the mystery of the Triune God, who is in His Being three Persons in covenant love, perfectly and mutually indwelling and coinhering in One Another, and yet distinctly three? Who can discern where the common grace of God, by which He blesses all the world and not simply those who are saved, ends and the saving grace of God begins? Which of us has a clue as to how the sovereignty of God interacts with the very real freedom, limited as it is, of human beings? Or how Jesus changed the molecular structure of water into wine? Or how a pianist with crippled hands reached out to touch the bread of Communion one Sunday and was instantly healed - in a Presbyterian church no less? Or how to understand the phenomenon described by practically every significant Christian who has written of the Christian life, that of God withdrawing from His children for seasons - where is the love of God in this? Who knows how God can soften and transform the human heart? And yet, even in what I believe to be the greatest of the schools of theology, that which is called the Reformed faith, there are many who have squeezed all but a few drops out of the mysteries, claiming certainty (and thus control) where there is none.

I am exhausted by the pursuit of human control and certainty, both within and outside the Church. I am saddened by how much I have bought into a modernity-infected Christianity. I am embarrassed by the damage that has been done, is being done even still, by well-meaning believers in Christ.

It takes me back to something Bob Dylan wrote 40-plus years ago.

"Crimson flames tied through my years
Rollin' high and mighty trapped
Countless violent flamin' roads
Using ideas as my map
We'll meet on edges soon said I
Proud neath heated brow
Ah but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now"

My Back Pages, Bob Dylan

In other words, the older I get, the more mystery I find. The less certainty, spoken of as modernists speak, but the more assurance of faith.

As St.Augustine said, our quest is "faith seeking understanding." Not understanding that leads to faith.