Tag Archives: Gray

The Simple, Complex Mystery

The Simple, Complex Mystery (CaD Ps 37) Wayfarer

Turn from evil and do good;
    then you will dwell in the land forever.

Psalm 37:27 (NIV)

A while back I found myself in a conversation with a friend who is a very strong Enneagram Type One. Ones have a very strong moral center with an instinctive “gut” for sensing right-and-wrong, black-and-white, and this influences their own lives. It also influences how they perceive and approach the rest of the world. I, however, am an Enneagram Type Four and Fours tend to see the world in the broad spectrum of gradients between black and white. We Fours live well in the gray, which gives us tremendous empathy for others wherever they find themselves on that spectrum.

The conversation with my friend basically boiled down to our contrasting temperaments. My friends saw the issue we were discussing in very simple, black-and-white terms which made things very simple for him. I saw the issue in all the subtle complexities that it presented for people in everyday realities. It was a spirited conversation that ended up with us agreeing on the essential issue but having to agree to disagree on what to do about the issue.

Along my life journey, I have struggled with simplistic contrasts. We don’t think about it much, but our lives are full of them. As children, we’re taught that Santa will find you “naughty” or “nice” which will be the determining factor in your Christmas haul. When we grow up there are all sorts of other binary ways we continue to approach life. In fact, we’re having major social upheaval in our world because of all sorts of issues that we and the media have reduced to simple binary, black-and-white issues. I’m “mask” or “no masks.” I’m “racist” or “BLM.” I’m “conservative” or “progressive.” I’m “Democrat” or “Republican.” And, we’re making choices about how we perceive and treat others based on how their binary choices line up against ours. It breaks my heart.

In today’s chapter, Psalm 37, I am confronted with the reality that even the Great Story often reduces life and matters of Spirit into simple, binary, black-and-white terms. The entire song is dedicated to contrasting the “righteous” and the “wicked” and bringing it down to almost Santa-like “naughty-or-nice” terms.

Simple contrasting metaphors are a foundational spiritual building block throughout the Great Story. In the days of Moses, God places before the Hebrew people “Life” or “Death” and asks them to choose. Hundreds of years later the prophet Elijah stood on Mount Carmel and asked the people, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If God is God, go his way. If Baal (an ancient deity in Mesopotamian cultures) is God, go his way.” Hundreds of years later, Jesus spoke of Judgement Day in terms of separating humanity into “sheep” (good) and the “goats” (bad).

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking back to the conversation with my Type One friend. In my spiritual journey, I learned that following Jesus begins with very simple “yes” or “no.” Here is another simple, contrasting metaphor Jesus used:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV)

My journey with Jesus began on a cold February night when, to the lyrics of modern psalm proclaiming “I have decided to follow Jesus,” I made that simple decision. I don’t know how to describe the way my life changed that night. There were all sorts of simple binary choices I then began to make about my life, words, relationship, and behavior based on that foundational yes-or-no decision.

At the same time, the further I traveled down life’s road I found that the journey of being a Jesus follower has been a never-ending, daily experiment in figuring out what it means to continue walking that “narrow road.” Sometimes I find things coming down to a very simple black-and-white choice. More often, I find a gradient of complexity in things. So, seeing the world in simple binary terms isn’t such a simple binary issue. I’m sure my Type One friends find it much easier than I do, but that only feeds my point. There are nine Enneagram Types and we’re not all Ones.

In the quiet this morning I find myself back at the mystery of things being “yes, and.” This journey of following Jesus is both simple and infinitely complex. Lest my Type Four heart get lost in the infinite mystery of living in gray, I always have Psalm 37 to pull me back and remind me that sometimes life does simply come back to a black-or-white choice to do either the thing I know is right or the thing I know is wrong, recognizing that there are natural consequences of life and Spirit that will follow the choice I make.

Another day of choices in a very complex world lies before me. Pray I simply make good ones.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Living in Gray

When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem.
Esther 2:8 (NIV)

Yesterday at the breakfast table Wendy and I were having breakfast and reading the news, as is our daily habit. Wendy happened upon a news piece that quite clearly divided the United States into two generalized racial groups. Implied in the article was the notion that in America you are either black or white. I find the distinction of choice ironic.

The simplistic divide does not account for the vast number of people of Hispanic, Asian, or Native American descent, nor does it account for the population of interracial couples and their children which, according to U.S. Census figures, has steadily grown since 1967 and continues to do so.

Our culture loves binary, either-or choices. I have observed this to be true of both institutional religion and mainstream news media who are critical one another. When dealing with a large population of people, simple binary choices are much easier to deal with. Here are some examples from both of them:

  • Black or White
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Fox News or MSNBC
  • Capitalism or Socialism
  • Red State or Blue State
  • Progressive or Deplorable
  • Blue Collar or White Collar
  • Educated or Uneducated
  • Urban or Rural
  • Republican or Democrat
  • Protestant or Catholic
  • Sacred or Secular
  • Christian or Secular
  • Holy or Worldly
  • Evangelical or Mainline
  • Religious or Atheist

And yet, as I have traversed this earthly journey and spiritually followed in the footsteps of Jesus, I find most binary distinctions simplistic and inadequate for addressing complex circumstances and issues. The world and its people with whom I interact every day are an elaborate mosaic of DNA, thought, spirit, background, and experience. To put one complex person into one of two binary boxes for the sake of simple definition is foolishness.

One of the things that I love about the story of Esther is how God works through this young Jewish woman who appears to navigate the tremendously gray territory between binary choices of Jew or Gentile, Hebrew or Persian, and Moral or Immoral. She keeps her heritage and faith secret. Whereas Daniel refused to eat meat provided by his foreign captors, Esther has no such qualms. There is no indication that Esther balks at being part of the Persian harem system that would have instructed her how to pleasure the king sexually on demand.

The book of Esther has confounded binary thinkers for ages. One commentator wrote that Esther’s behavior would not pass any test of modern ethical theory. Her cultural compromises coupled with the pesky fact that God is never mentioned by name in the story led some editors in history to introduce prayers into the book that were never part of the original text along with commentary stating that Esther hated being married to a Gentile. I’ve observed that when the truth is too gray for our comfort zone, we like to shade it to fit our personal binary leanings.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the value and importance of a story like Esther. She successfully navigates a very uncomfortable world of gray politically, culturally, religiously, and morally. From a position of powerlessness and critical compromise, she is used for God’s purposes in profound and powerful ways. In a time when our political, religious, cultural, and social systems seem perpetually intent on placing me in one of two simplistic boxes, I pray I can, like Esther, find a way to successfully navigate the territory of gray that lies in tension between simplistic, black-and-white definitions.

Unexpected Twists of Plot

“But I know where you are
    and when you come and go
    and how you rage against me.
Because you rage against me
    and because your insolence has reached my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth,
and I will make you return
    by the way you came.
Isaiah 37:28-29 (NIV)

Things did not look hopeful for the residents of Jerusalem. The city was under siege by the Assyrians. The trash-talking parley of the Assyrian field commander had instilled fear in the hearts of the men on the walls, standing in defense of the city. Inside Jerusalem’s temple courts the king of Judah, Hezekiah, held conference. The ancient prophet Isaiah was there. Once again, we have a front row seat, and eye-witness account of history.

There are two things I find fascinating about the events described in today’s chapter.

First, Isaiah repeats an earlier prophetic message: The Assyrians had been acting as agents of God. Even the field commander in yesterday’s chapter claimed that they were acting at the behest of Israel’s God:

“‘Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this land without the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.'”

One of the lessons that I have learned along my journey through God’s great story is that things aren’t always as cut and dried, black and white, or simple as some would like it to be. God using the “bad guys” as His agents? Really?!

This isn’t the only place in the Great Story in which this happens. The subsequent Babylonian empire would also be prophetically tapped as God’s agents. Reading the story of Daniel, we find that God took keen and special interest in Nebuchadnezzar, the evil king of Babylon. In the story of Israel’s greatest King, David, God seemingly pulls his support of the sitting King (Saul) and sends the anointed King David as a mercenary to fight for Israel’s enemies.

The second thing that strikes me in today’s chapter is the eucatastrophic deliverance of Jerusalem. Isaiah tells King Hezekiah that the Assyrians had been acting as agent’s of God, but now the jig was up and God was going to deliver Jerusalem from Assyria’s hands. At the moment when things seemed darkest for the people of Jerusalem, hope was going to miraculously break.

The next morning when light dawns, the Assyrian army were all laying dead.

The Assyrians had actually divided their army to conquer two different cities. King Sennacherib was laying siege to Lachish while his field commander was laying siege to Jerusalem. Isaiah records that when Sennacherib hears of the mysterious death of his forces at Jerusalem he withdraws from the region and heads home.

This morning I’m once again reminded not to place God in a box. I don’t completely understand why the Author of Life uses certain characters such as Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib in the plot line of the Great Story. I don’t understand why God miraculously delivers Jerusalem from Assyria and then allows Babylon to destroy it. It reminds me, however, to hold on loosely in judgement of current events on a grand scale. The Great Story is often a thriller with unexpected plot twists. Just ask the Assyrian field commander.