The Songs of Youth

I was nostalgically talking to a friend yesterday about some of the music we grew up listening to. The context of the conversation was “one-hit wonders,” and how we remember some of their catalogs going deeper than one hit.

I suggested one band in particular: Eve 6. They had one big hit that everyone remembers, “Inside Out,” and then basically nothing that got real airtime. That song was on their freshman album, which was coincidentally released when I was a high-school freshman myself. I was fifteen years old at the time. That song is catchy, a cleverly lyrical poem about self-destruction at the end of a failing relationship. The rest of the album is more or less awful.

Two years later, when I was seventeen and had enough money to buy music without hearing it first, I bought their second album, “Horrorscope,” on faith. It was a complete reversal in the sense that every song on the album is listenable, and some of the tracks were good enough that I played them to death.

If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that this is the part of the essay where I typically wax poetic about how I had missed some profoundly spiritual lesson in a song, and then share the lyrics and a YouTube link, and detail a few bible verses that highlight those lessons.

This entry is going in a different direction.

About a month ago, I was having a conversation with a friend and mentor, Pastor Mark (of TheSpringsChurch.net), and I asked him a question about finding spiritual balance in my life. We live in a secular, material world that is rife with profanity, hatred, sex, and violence–and that’s just what’s on television! My struggle, I said, was in knowing what parts of my old life I needed to shed, and what parts I could maintain. His answer, which I dive into at a later date, went something like this: when I am living with God in my soul, and a gratitude for salvation, and love in my heart for my neighbors, the rest will take care of itself. When I’m confronted with a behavior that I’m unsure about, the answer will present itself. The old saying about pornography is that “I know it when I see it.” This was the same idea, but on a less specific scale.

Yesterday, I logged into Spotify to relisten to that old Eve 6 album, expecting to be transported back to my youth. Don Draper, in one of the most powerful scenes in the history of television, addresses nostalgia. (It’s worth noting that Don’s mentor Teddy actually misquotes the etymology of the word. It actually means “A painful yearning to return home”)

When I played the album, though, instead of being teleported back to that time, what I felt was more akin to what Mark was telling me about. I felt as though I was sloughing off old skin. Every song was profane, sexualized, and contained drug references. What I once thought was clever now seemed trite and contrived. The entire experience made me anxious.

This was a new experience with nostalgia. I expected to be comforted, and to fondly remember an easier, less stressful time in my life. What I found, however, was a barometer by which I can measure my spiritual growth.

I think I finally understand this verse in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “But when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:10-12). My old, childish taste for that album fell away as I ran through the tracks, because it is no longer a part of my journey.

 

In the Right Place at the Right Time

Yesterday, I spent a few words here talking about the idea of predetermination. It’s a very difficult thing to wrap my mind around. (Almost like a story about time-travel where travelling into the past closes a loop–the thing that you travel to the past to accomplish has already happened, because in any version of the present from which you originated, you had already traveled back to the past to change that thing. Whoa, right?) Today, I’d like to spend a few minutes further exploring that, and the opposite, and how free-will (choice) figure into it.

Determinism is the branch of psychology/philosophy that says that every event in our lives has led to this moment. Every decision we’ve ever made, and everything that has ever happened to us, has colored our mind in a way that determines how we will act, or even how we will make a choice. When we go to make a choice, the confluence of events that led to the choice being presented shape how we will react to that decision. The core of the idea is that external stimuli determine our actions and thoughts. Some take it a little further, and say that we are not really responsible for our own actions, because we could not control those external stimuli. (That last part is baloney.) Predetermination is similar, but is the idea that everything that is happening cannot be changed at all. It’s a very fatalistic view.

I remember reading an article a few months ago about the idea of predetermination. The article started with a simple “experiment,” wherein the author addresses the reader directly and said, “lift your right arm,” or something to that effect. The author’s point was that the reader chose to lift his or her arm, but it’s difficult to say whether or not it was predetermined that they would do so. I remember not lifting my hand.

I also remember an episode of the television show “Fringe,” which I loved dearly. A quantum scientist explained the idea of time by pouring a bit of water through a tube. This illustrates the idea we can only see part of time at one time. But in reality, he said, time is not so linear. The truth, he argued, is that the tube is always completely full, and all events are happening simultaneously. Just because we cannot see the entire tube at once, we perceive time as linear because we perceive everything linearly.

(As an only slightly humorous aside, one of the fathers of American science fiction, Ray Cummings once wrote that “time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” This quote is commonly misattributed to Albert Einstein.)

For the purpose of this essay, there are two ways to look at it, and both have effectively the same outcome. One: God, who is omnipresent, exists outside of time and can see across it. Two: time does not exist (or rather, only exists in our perception), and therefore God, who is omniscient, perceives everything all at once because everything is happening simultaneously. Either way, the outcome is that God knows what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen.

Here’s the rub: if everything is predetermined, then what is the point of this exercise that we call life? If there is no free will to choose our own path, then there would be no need to continue the experiment. If there is no choice, and our path is predetermined, then we would already be where we’re headed…

Let’s take a look at a few key verses (at least they’re key to me), with my thoughts in italics:

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). There is no need for patience if our choice has already been made for us.

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free” (Galatians 5:13). We have the freedom to make our own decisions. If we didn’t, we would have no need for salvation.

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:20). God is asking us to let us into our hearts. If that choice were already made, and we could not change it, there’s no reason to ask.

“And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden” (Genesis 2:16). This is the big one. This is the first one. This is why the whole thing started anyway. If we weren’t free to choose, and our choices were predetermined, none of this mess would have happened anyway!

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic soon, but I’m mentally spent. Maybe I’ll go watch a time-travel movie.

On His Will

The purpose of this writing space is to spill onto paper what’s in my mind, and gain perspective on what troubles me. Today I will offer far more questions than thoughts.

I was reading part of “Desiring God” by John Piper, and Piper drew attention to something that always struck me as odd. He begins a chapter with a question: “Who planned the murder of Christ?” The answer, of course, is God. Christ was sent to earth to spread the Word and love of God, but he was also sent here for the explicit purpose to suffer for our sins. His preordained purpose, before He even descended down to earth, was to be betrayed and murdered.

That’s not the odd part. That was the whole point.

What’s always struck me as odd was that Judas and Pontius Pilate and Peter, who respectively betrayed Christ, sentenced Him to death, and denied Him three times, are treated as though they behaved of their own volition. They sinned against God, of course, but did they really have any choice? Was this their free will acting? Or was it God’s will, executed through their actions? In the book of Acts, Peter himself says: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

I’ve said before that one of my great struggles with understanding God is that I am poorly equipped to grasp these two opposing threads of thought. This is the greatest paradox of faith. These people (along with others) sinned against God, and by that sin fulfilled their purpose within His will and plan.

I’ve come to understand what free will means within my own life and choices. I choose, every day, to get up and try to become closer to the best version of myself. Sometimes I falter along that path, but I try to use my own will to stay focused on achieving that best-possible outcome. The tricky part comes when self-evaluating retrospectively: were those choices really mine? Or was I simply acting according to a plan? Could I have acted any other way? Was the confluence of events that led me to those decisions simply part of God’s machinations?

Part of my daily prayers is to take to heart the line “Thy will be done.” I ask God to make me an instrument of His will, and to show me my path to becoming what he has in mind for me. Sometimes, that feels like the only choice I have in the matter: I can choose to submit to that willingly, or I can choose to deny that. Either way, though, it is difficult to tell the difference between being a part of His will, and being apart from it.

The real rub is that this is one of the oldest philosophical questions, and belongs alongside “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is Love?”.  I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as an answer, except what we can take on authority. And that’s always been the hardest part of the Word to swallow, if I’m being honest.  Even C.S. Lewis, a man whose own personal journey and thoughts I respect greatly, struggles to give this sufficient reason in his masterwork “Mere Christianity.” In the chapter entitled “The Practical Conclusion,” he writes on the subject of authority: “In other words, I believe it on His authority. Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy.” Fair enough, but the logic is still circular. Trust that this is the real word of God, and believe it because God said it is so.

I’m not going to solve this one today, I don’t think. It’s just something to think about. It’s not going to change which side I choose (if I even have such a choice).

What I’m Looking For

Today is an auspicious day for those who nostalgically delight in revisiting music from the past. Today, U2 released a 30th anniversary version of “The Joshua Tree,” which is not only ostensibly their strongest effort (I personally prefer 1991’s “Achtung, Baby!”), but is also arguably one of the very best albums of all time. It is both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, and the first three tracks are universally known and beloved.

It also, surprisingly, contains perhaps the most famous and commercially successful Christian rock song ever written.

There are a few hints at spirituality throughout several tracks on this album. Take this lyric from “Where the Streets Have No Name:” “I want to feel sunlight on my face/I see the dust-cloud disappear, without a trace/I want to take shelter from the poison rain.” The allusion is loose and vague, but the imagery does contain the connotation of salvation. Even the song title feels vaguely spiritual. It could refer to a small town where one might find freedom in being a stranger, or it could refer to the true freedom of finding heaven.

Look also at these images in “With or Without You:” “See the thorn twist in your side . . . Through the storm we reach the shore.” It’s an aching love song written to a woman, but there are definitely some biblical references.

But track two, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” is unquestionably, undeniably religious. It’s about yearning for something beyond the confines of this dusty and material world. It’s about seeking warmth in all the wrong places, and finding that you are still cold. It’s about a burning desire to find a spiritual connection to God’s will, and it’s about the chains of slavery to earthy desires being shattered. See for yourself:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you.

I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her finger tips
It burned like fire
(I was) burning inside her.

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone.

[Refrain]

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I’m still running.

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.

The strange thing to me is that the song is so popular, and so ubiquitous that I always overlooked that part of the content. For years, I always assumed that it was just a simple love song (and in a way it is, but not worldly love). I never even considered the fact that it might be a song about seeking God, or even seeking something beyond this world.

There’s a psychological occurrence called the “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon” or “frequency illusion.” The idea is this: when you learn about a piece of obscure information, like an uncommon word, you will start to see it pop up more and more frequently, because you are aware of it’s existence. Essentially, when we are aware of something, we are more likely to see it’s prevalence. A childish example of this is the car-game “Slug Bug.”  When you are looking for Volkswagen Beetles, you will see far more of them than you will if you’re just driving around.  The same is true of Christian allusions, at least for me.

Now that I know what I’m looking for, I see it everywhere.

The Fear of God

This may be the most personal thing I’ve ever shared here in this space, in the sense that I have never told anyone this story.

I don’t have many nightmares these days. When I do, it’s more about something catching me off guard than something actually being frightening. In fact, I’m not afraid of things like I used to be (except snakes, because they’re extremely creepy and they’re terrifying and anyone that doesn’t think so is wrong.) Once in a great while, I’ll admit that I still have the dream where I realize I have an upcoming final in a class I didn’t realize I was enrolled in. That’s a relic and a quirk, though. That’s not fear.

When I was little, however, I had a recurring nightmare. I can’t really explain the content of the dream, because it’s not really like anything was actively happening. It was more of a feeling. I would dream that I was being admonished by an unknown entity. I remember the feeling of being literally crushed under the weight of the admonishment, as though the actual words being spoken to me were physical things. They felt infinitely large, and unbearably heavy. They made me feel very, very small and meek. Standing up against them felt like I now imagine it might have felt to be Atlas, holding the weight of the entire earth on my shoulders. Mostly, these nightmares made me feel overwhelmed, and indescribably afraid.

Today, when I hear someone use the phrase “fear of God,” or “God-fearing,” I imagine something akin to that feeling. Those nightmares were never something that I’ve told anyone about, nor were they something that I necessarily associated with God, but the idea of fearing a vengeful God is familiar to me through recalling those dreams.

The entire point of this diary is to explore my relationship with God, and the daily thoughts that I have regarding that relationship. So here’s a major thought that I’ve been considering for a long time:

I do not think that I fear God.

I think that God is the very definition of awesome–I am in awe of Him. I think that the fact that God is infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient is fearsome. But I do not feel afraid. What I feel is peace, love, acceptance, and comfort. And especially I feel gratitude.

There’s a reason that almost all of the references to fear of God are in the Old Testament. Simply put, that reason is Christ. I think the sacrifice He made and the love that He brought with Him made it so we have nothing to fear. One of my favorite verses is in the book of John: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). In that chapter, Jesus is talking about being a slave to sin, and being set free, but I believe that with that comes the freedom from living in constant fear. The freedom from sin is also the freedom from fear, and is also the freedom to feel joy in its place. This freedom does not advocate sinful behavior, but lifts our burden of it.

That is what I think Paul means when he writes about freedom throughout the Epistles. Consider what he says in Galatians, chapter 5: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh ; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:13-14). In that way, that freedom from fear is also the freedom to love each other.

When I was very small, the sheer weight of fear in those nightmares would burden me, so I think it’s fitting that what God offers me is the opportunity to lift that burden from my shoulders and have Him carry it instead.