Tag Archives: Tension

The Dude Abides

[The man of lawlessness] will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
2 Thessalonians 2:4 (NIV)

Yesterday, as I was getting ready, I had the Cohen brothers’ classic movie, The Big Lebowski, playing in the background. It’s become one of my all time favorites movies. What most people don’t realize is that The Big Lebowski is basically a classic 1940s film noir detective story set in the early 1980s with an unlikely stoner named The Dude unwittingly placed in the role of the protagonist detective.

I grew up watching a lot classic films and the hard-boiled detective movies (e.g. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade) of the film noir genre were among my favorites. In The Big Lebowski you have all the classic detective movie motifs: the old millionaire, the millionaire’s daughter with whom the protagonist falls in love, blackmail, rabbit trails, crime lords, a secondary detective, and the protagonist detective getting “slipped a Mickey” (drugged with a drink).

I’ve observed that most people watch films in a vacuum, as though each film sort of stands alone. The reality is that all good stories and films borrow themes and motifs from one another. All of my favorite epics, for examples, have the overarching theme of good versus evil. Usually an epic story is about an ancient struggle coming to a climax. There’s always a prophecy woven into the storyline, as well. In Harry Potter there is the prophecy Harry retrieves from the Ministry of Magic. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe there is the prophecy and deep magic of the stone table. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn is led to take the Paths of the Dead because of the “words of Malbeth the Seer.

I say it fairly regularly: “All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story.” Our stories reflect our own humanity. Deeper still, I believe that human history is a Great Story being told across the ages. I believe that evil exists and there is a very real struggle between good versus evil. I believe in the prophetic.

Along my life journey I’ve experienced the prophetic. I have found it to be both mysterious and messy and therefore quickly dismissed by many. I have come to believe that tragedy lies on either side of the tension between two possible errors: Dismissing the prophetic altogether or drowning too deeply in the mystery. I’ve always tried to hold the tension between the two.

In the early years of the Jesus movement there were many prophecies given concerning where the plot line of the Great Story was going. This led to many arguments and mistaken assumptions.  In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing some mistaken assumptions  in today’s chapter. Without drowning too deeply in the specifics, I find myself being reminded of two things.

First, there is evil, and evil opposes good. Jesus was very aware of the evil opposing Him. He knew that His coming was prophesied (He proclaimed Isaiah’s prophetic word in His first sermon). He cast out demons throughout His ministry. He knew He was being tempted by the evil one to abandon His sacrificial mission. We don’t like to think too much about the reality of evil, but it exists.

Second, evil cannot create but, instead, it always counterfeits. Tolkien clearly picked up this theme in his epic stories. Orcs were counterfeits made in opposition to elves. Trolls were counterfeits made in opposition to ents. Paul says there is prophesied a counterfeit messiah to come whom he calls the Man of Lawlessness. The Greek term he uses is anthropos (man, mankind, humanity; as in anthropology the study of humanity) anamos (opposition, lawless, wicked; from which we get the English word animosity). Paul explains that it has been prophesied that this counterfeit messiah will come before Jesus’ return in a climax to this Great Story.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering all of these mysteries. I don’t want to get lost in them, but neither do I want to dismiss them. Again, I find myself trying to hold the tension. I believe my life journey is part of the Great Story. How it fits and weaves into the larger plot lines is a mystery to me. I’m just trying to stick to the path appointed for me, to follow the steps I’m led, to do the good God calls me to do, and to be shrewd as a serpent and gentle as a dove, aware of both the evil and the good around me.

Or, as Jeffrey Lebowski would put it: “The Dude Abides.”

Abide well today, my friend.

Order and Freedom

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40 (NIV)

Along my spiritual journey I have been a part of worship with many different traditions. I was raised in a very liturgical Methodist church, meaning that every part of the service was very structured around ancient traditions. There was a lot of repetition and it was largely the same service every week with minor differences to account for different seasons of the traditional church year. I get how repetitive religious practices lose all power of their metaphorical meaning when a) no one remembers why we’re doing it in the first place and b) there’s no Spirit connection between the repetitive words/actions and the spirits of those worshipping.

At the other end of the spectrum I spent some time in the Quaker tradition (also known as the Society of Friends) which developed out of reacting to all the liturgical structure of the traditional church. In a traditional Quaker service (even their anti-liturgy style becomes its own form of “tradition”) there is little or no structure. Everyone sits in a circle and is quiet (they call it “centering”) until someone feels moved by the Spirit to speak or to sing or to do whatever. Anyone can do so and can say pretty much whatever it is they want to say. The original intent was that everyone would wait for Holy Spirit to prompt them and to be loving and mindful of everyone else in the group. It’s a beautiful idea, but eventually things were so unstructured that there were problems with things in many Quaker churches becoming what would be described by some as a chaotic free-for-all.

I have come to understand that we as human beings like and need a certain amount of structure and order. I think this is part of us being made “in the image” of our Creator. If you stop to think about it, everything in creation has a certain detailed structure and order to it. This is the way God made it. Even the seemingly chaotic tangle of bare tree branches is actually an orderly visual fractal. At the same time, you can get so lost in the order that you, as we say, “lose the forest for the trees.” I’ve come to believe that corporate worship is another example of truth being found at the point of tension between the extremes.

Along my chapter-a-day journey through Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth, I find there is no doubt that their local gathering was rapidly moving along the disordered chaos side of the spectrum. Paul points this out multiple times. There had been a breakdown to the point that Paul even says their weekly gatherings to worship were doing “more harm than good” (11:17).

In context, I find today’s chapter to be about Paul trying to reestablish some order and structure to the chaos in Corinthian worship. He’s trying to pull them back from their chaotic free-for-alls. Paul hints that they’d come to resemble a pagan food orgy (11:20-22), and the chapter reads like an instruction manual for bring some semblance of structure and order to the Corinthian gatherings. He sums it up by saying “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

This morning I’m thinking about differences, even in our human personalities. Some of us tend toward the side of “free spirit” in which we go with the flow. As such, it’s easy for us to get little accomplished and to create chaos around ourselves that becomes counterproductive. Some of us tend toward the side of detail and order. As such, it’s easy for us to major on the minors and to create rigidity that becomes counterproductive.

In the quiet this morning I once again find myself seeking balance: freedom with ordered structure; order with room for movement of Spirit and expression.

Life Between the Prevailing Wind and Hard Heart

Then King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria. He saw an altar in Damascus and sent to Uriah the priest a sketch of the altar, with detailed plans for its construction.
2 Kings 16:10 (NIV)

Last week Wendy and I found ourselves in a discussion about the hazing rituals we experienced growing up. For Wendy it was the process of pledging in a college sorority. For me it was being part of a high school swimming team. In both our cases, the hazing was the relatively minor and harmless. It was the ages old exercise of new members demonstrating allegiance and loyalty to the group and its elder members. There are nightmare stories of those who have been forced to do things against their will in order to be accepted. There are also stories of those who choose to behave against their beliefs, morals, or personal values simply to accommodate the prevailing cultural forces. And, it is ages old. These things have always been part of our human experience east of Eden.

Today’s chapter is dedicated to the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. According to the description provided us by the scribes, Ahaz appears to have had a pattern of choosing to accommodate the prevailing winds of his society’s popular culture. Ahab was a follower. Rather than being faithful to the Law of Moses and adhering exclusively to the faiths of his fathers, Ahaz seemed willing and open to worship anything anywhere. He even went so far as to sacrifice his own child which was a common practice among some of the more gruesome Canaanite cults (and explicitly forbidden by the law of Moses). Ahaz also worshiped the idolatrous gods of their northern counterpart, Israel.

When threatened by military conquest by his neighbors, Ahaz was unwilling to stand up and lead his army in defense of his nation and people. Ahaz was a follower. So, he appealed to the biggest bully in the neighborhood for protection: Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria (note: featured photo of this post is a relief showing Tiglath-Pileser standing over an enemy). The Assyrian warlord was happy to take Ahaz’ gold and defend Judah, but protection came with a higher price than just gold.

After the successful defense of Judah, Ahaz had to complete an ancient form of hazing by traveling to Assyria to pay his respects to Tiglath-Pileser and to prove his subservience. While in Assyria, he copied the plans to an altar there and sent it to be replicated and placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Scholars believe that this altar was likely the royal altar of Tiglath-Pileser, and its presence at the center of the Temple in Jerusalem would have been a sign that Tiglath-Pileser was to be worshipped as their protector. Ahaz, ever willing to worship anything, anywhere was only too happy to make this accommodation.

This morning I’m thinking about character, subservience, and accommodation. There is a fine line between harmless societal rituals and cruel hazing. There are some who will go along with the crowd to the point of losing themselves, and there are also some who err on the side of being so self-righteous about their beliefs that they cannot extend even an ounce of grace and mercy to those who disagree with every jot and tittle of their dogma. Once again I’m thinking about finding the truth in the tension between the extremes. I don’t want to be an Ahaz who simply “goes with the flow” and follows the prevailing winds of culture to the point that my faith is meaningless. I also don’t want to be so rigid and hard-hearted in my personal standards that love, grace, mercy and forgiveness get squeezed out of my life and relationships.

Affecting the Almighty

source: oxfordshire church photos via Flickr
source: oxfordshire church photos via Flickr

If you sin, how does that affect him?
If your sins are many, what does that do to him?
Job 35:6 (NIV)

Elihu, the fourth and youngest of Job’s so-called friends, continues his pent-up diatribe in today’s chapter. His point seems to be that God’s lofty omnipotence places the Creator above the affectations of humanity. Eli calls into question whether our sins or wickedness have any affect on the Almighty, and I find the question fascinating.

A few summers ago I read the book Holy Sh*t by Melissa Mohr who explores the history of swearing and profanity. I learned therein that throughout the middle ages Western culture would have answered Eli’s question emphatically. The really bad swearing of the day was to swear by Jesus’ blood or Jesus’ wounds. For example, in the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, the bawdy Jack Falstaff utters profanity in saying “‘sblood” (contraction of swearing “by His blood”) and “‘Zounds” (contraction of swearing “by His wounds”). The culture of that day held that swearing by the body, blood, or wounds of Christ was so profane that swearing in such a manner resulted in further bodily injury to Jesus. If you swore you were perpetrating actual physical harm to the Savior in heaven. Wow.

This morning I am once again finding truth at the point of tension between the two extremes. Elihu’s projection of God who is above being affected by humanity is inconsistent with the entire story of God’s Message, in which God intimately cares for His fallen creation and loves us sacrificially in order to redeem us. The believers of the middle-ages, however, took that intimacy to an opposite extreme in thinking that when my momentary frustration leads to an inappropriate utterance, I have Jesus crying “ouch” in heaven’s throne room. That idea of that, in fact, seems more than a little bit twisted.

My long sojourn through God’s Message and my experiences in this life lead me to believe that God does care about us. I believe that God cares about what we think, say, and do. I believe that God is grieved at our penchant for doing the things we know we shouldn’t and choosing out of the things we should say and do. Let’s not forget that at the beginning of Job’s story God actually expresses His pride and deep appreciation for Job’s righteousness. God could be above it all, as Elihu suggests, but that’s the beauty of the Christmas story which we just celebrated last week. God cared. God sent His Son as a gift to make a way for salvation, and He made a point by sending His Son to be born of a seemingly insignificant peasant girl, arriving in squalor, worshipped by poor shepherds. That doesn’t sound like an aloof God unaffected by humanity. It seems to me that this is a story of God’s affections for even the least of us.

Three, Two, One

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 70

But I’ve lost it. I’m wasted. God—quickly, quickly! Quick to my side, quick to my rescue! God, don’t lose a minute. Psalm 70:5 (MSG)

Can you think of how many movies and television shows you’ve watched that include a countdown timer on a bomb or other device? The device was first used in film by German filmmaker Fritz Lang in the 1929 Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) and filmmakers quickly understood that the inclusion of a countdown heightened the tension for audiences who watch the numbers slowly ticking down towards an uncertain climax. Even this week Wendy and I were watching the television series Homeland. As the tension built we were huddled together on the couch squeezing each other’s hand.

Psalm 70 is similar to a number of songs that David wrote. The unique thing about David’s lyric in today’s psalm is the sense of urgency that David expresses. He’s not casually asking for help. You can feel the countdown timer ticking down. He’s crying out in desperation.

There are times in life that our prayers take on a sense of urgency. It is said that “desperate times call for desperate measures.” Psalm 70 is an ancient reminder that desperate times also call for desperate prayer. It once again reminds me of why I love the psalms. Across the 150 song volume, the breadth of human experience is expressed reminding us that we can take our momentary circumstances and emotions to God no matter what they might be. If life seems to be ticking down to some impending doom, we can cry out to God and squeeze His almighty hand.