Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “Articles”

The Art of Changing the Subject (and Thus, the Predicate)

(originally published in The Upper Room Disciplines 2008)

image The Center for Survivors of Trauma and War Torture in St. Louis started in the early ‘90s after therapists began noticing the widespread effects of post-traumatic disorder within the immigrant community. Refugees from troubled regions of the world come to the Center in hopes of finding healing for their hurts. These men, women and children – victims of political oppression and social injustice – tell stories of horrific abuse suffered in their homeland. They describe their inability to eat and sleep, the panic that can arise from the slightest trigger, and the disorientation of their emotions.

The clinic director describes how the Center aims to rebuild lives: “So many [immigrants] come here saying, ‘I am destroyed,’ and part of the Center’s job is to change that sentence, to find a seed, so they’ll say, ‘I am alive.’”

In Psalm 17, David is under attack. He is surrounded by those who wish him harm, those without pity who are plotting his downfall. Tired of living on the run and hungry for home, he turns to God. And when he does, he finds a beacon of light in the midst of the fog. After all his anxious complaining, he concludes, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.”

We utter many statements throughout the course of our days that sound similar to the sufferings of the afflicted: I’m in trouble. How will I ever get through this? When will it ever stop?

As we learn to speak the name of God into our life, we change the sentence from one of dread to one of hope. We learn to say, I’m alive. I’m alive by God’s grace. I’m living in God’s care.

In Christian worship, we come together each week to change a few key sentences in our speech patterns, to find whatever seed of hope is there, so that we can walk back to our world and say, “I’m alive and well.” And who knows? You might get so good at this gratitude thing that you find yourself walking around humming a song by Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews.

The Eye of an Artist

(originally published in The Upper Room Disciplines 2008)

Read Matthew 14:13-14

image Recently a friend and I paid a visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.  My friend, a gifted artist himself, was quite familiar with the gallery and proved to be an incomparable tour guide.  With all the passion of an enthusiast and the trained eye of a practitioner, he showed me more than I had seen before or would have seen on my own.  On my own, I would have seen “a painting’” and “yet another painting.”  But my friend Thom drew my attention to qualities of excellence, the refined techniques for infusing light and casting shadows, the skilled layering of paints on the canvas, “the clever way the artist caught the slight life in the subject’s smile”.”

Whenever we hang around with someone in the context of that person’s deep appreciations – carpentry, music, movies, cooking, birdwatching, dog training – we see through his or her eyes all that is worthy of attention and admiration.

It is not different with Jesus.  When we keep company with Jesus in the journey of the Gospels, we pick up on the his peculiar way of noticing what we so often overlook.  In the midst of a great sea of people, with all the commotion of a crowd, Jesus spots lonely and diminutive Zacchaeus, who climbed up in a tree, hoping to find new life.  In all such gatherings of the self-important, Jesus calls attention to the outcasts, the ashamed, and the belittled.

Here in Matthew 14 when Jesus “went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he has compassion for them and healed their sick.”  Jesus has the eye of an artist.  Be assured that he sees you and that he sees you with the eyes of compassion.

Prayer: Jesus, help me to see what you see, having your eyes and your heart for those around me. Amen.

Finding God in the Dead of Night

(originally published in The Upper Room Disciplines 2008)

Read Genesis 32:22-31

jacob-v-god1

Chris Cook, American Artist

Are you prepared to accept that a dislocated hip can be a sign of both the presence and the blessing of God? Will you allow, if only for the sake of argument, that the loss of creature comforts might itself be a comfort from the Creator?

More typically, we connect divine blessing with favorable circumstances – financial prosperity, a good report from the doctor, satisfying relationships and safe neighborhoods. If we are really creative, and determined to count all of our blessings and name them one by one, we might even reckon that getting a good parking spot at the mall is one more indication that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives.

Jacob found divine blessing in an all-night wrestling match with a mysterious stranger. In the darkness of night, with his household at rest, Jacob was left alone to struggle and fight. Like two prize fighters going the distance, Jacob and the man went at it, each determined to come out the victor. How the fight started is anybody’s guess. But when it ended at the break of day, Jacob was weary in body and soul. He limped from the place of encounter, realizing that he had seen God’s face.

Be prepared to locate God’s presence and blessing in those places where you least expect to find them – in a broken body, a heavy heart, a painful loss, a winding road, a sleepless night. Learn to trust that God always loves you, even where you struggle – and especially when you think the night will never end. The saints who have gone before us keep insisting that they have often spotted God’s face in the darkest of nights and the most unlikely of circumstances.

God give me the eyes of faith to recognize how you are with me, at all times and in all places.

Growing Up on the Late Great Planet Earth

Originally published in Crux, June 1999

rapture2-1 Every month or so I would see it again. A giant billboard blurting out the question, "Are you ready?" You couldn’t miss this sermon of a sign. It was posted at the T-junction of Illinois State Highways 36 and 79, just before you turned right to cross the Mississippi River heading west into Hannibal, Missouri. Our gray Chevy Impala would slow to a stop sign and meet this message head on as if we were momentarily parked in the front pew. The billboard pictured cars careening off other cars, recklessness resulting from The Rapture. The picture frightened me. It introduced hazards into my life of a size and proportion I had yet to encounter. Nevertheless, I knew that this sign asked a question I would one day need to answer for myself before ever getting behind the wheel. Having Jesus with you in the car was something like wearing your seatbelt or putting on your glasses for proper nighttime vision. It was essential to good driving. One could be warned against hydroplaning, or could take precautions against over-aggressive motorists. But what to do when cars on the freeway were suddenly abandoned by the mass disappearance of other drivers? I figured any safe motorist concerned with defensive driving would no doubt repent at the junction of State Highways 36 and 79.

That, at least, is the place where it all came together for me. I began the day shopping in Illinois a sinner, unprepared and unrepentant. By the end of the day I had met God at the gospel junction. While my dad was watching for a break in the oncoming traffic, my eyes were transfixed by the sign. My heart was beating to the rhythm of a blinking turn signal. Before Dad turned right, I turned to Jesus — a kind of metanoia in motion. Less than thirty seconds later I crossed the baptismal waters of the Mississippi and came out on the Missouri side a seven-year-old saint.

Saintly living in Hannibal was none too easy for me, however, and I needed a lot of help. The periodic shopping trips to Quincy, Illinois were too infrequent to keep me from backsliding in between junction stops. The billboard couldn’t always remind me of who I was and where I was going. I needed something more local than that. Help arrived in my mother. She was a sort of in-house invitation hymn. She lived to make sure my head was bowed, my eyes were closed and that I was ready to meet God. Mom had given some money to the PTL and 700 Clubs, and for her advancement of the kingdom she had learned how to decode Satanic messages encrypted in rock music. She knew when music had left that old-time religion and was no longer "good enough for Grandma." She could keep time well enough to know when a beat had jumped the chasm between heaven and hell. For the price of a love offering, Mother’s ear was trained to discern the subtle nuances of heaven’s music and the distinct bugle sounds of "the last trumpet." Any other music was suspect. Any other music would precipitate one of her apocalypses. "Travis, they’ve done backward masking on ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Hotel California.’ You listen to that music and you’ll still be mowing the lawn during the Rapture."

Mom was a guard dog who could smell the scent of fear. She knew exactly what to say to make sure I didn’t commit a pleasure in humming my brother’s tunes. Because of her I was born with an over-realized eschatology. An end-times fixation passed right through the placenta. I could chart the last days before I could say my ABCs. I began counting 666 before I ever got to 1-2-3. While other children were watching Sesame Street and Jailhouse Rock, I was watching A Thief in the Night. While they were learning the fifty state capitols, I was plotting global developments with Gog and Magog. I knew how ominous the future could be. Rapture reality was nothing to take lightly. Cars swerving off the road without drivers. Jumbo jets falling out of the sky as a result of white-robed pilot souls ascending from their cockpit to higher, more heavenly altitudes. Cemeteries swirling with saints rising like hot air balloons. A woman wakes up and her husband is suddenly gone, nowhere to be found — faucet water still running, razor still buzzing. There’s no time to change your mind; the Son has come and you’ve been left behind. The unraptured penitents going hungry and homeless during the Tribulation. Getting turned down at the grocery store, not because they are shoeless and shirtless, but because they don’t have the mark of the beast, the end-time equivalent to a Sam’s Card. (A mark, incidentally, which had already been spotted on the UPC codes of all General Mills cereal boxes.) A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold. Running until your legs feel like Jello as you flee satanic surveillance at every turn. Finally getting trapped in the middle of a bridge and given the Tribulation choice: get tattooed or guillotined.

My eschatological imagination was feverish. Not a morning went by but I woke up expecting Jesus to return. Every breakfast became the battle of Armageddon. A spoonful of wrongly coded cereal might involve me in the work of Antichrist so I had to be on guard in this skirmish for the soul. Fortunately for me, I had a mother who shopped for groceries as if Ezekiel’s watchman. She labored to deliver my family from hell by avoiding Satan in the cereal aisle.

Such was life on The Late Great Planet Earth. It was high drama stuff. Other neighborhood children might fritter their time away, but I was different. My life was cosmic in scope. At any moment I could be whisked away. . . .

Some years have gone by now and I am still here. The sign at State Roads 36 and 79 has been taken down, replaced by more worldly commercial interests like advertisements for Chinese buffet and a free checking account at Farmers and Merchants Bank (perhaps signs in their own right that we are "as in the days of Noah"). But the billboard served its generation well. It lodged a question in my mind that will last for a lifetime: are you ready?

That question for me is no longer framed simply by the wooden construction of a junction sign and its picture of urban apocalypse. It has taken on vastly wider, more biblical proportions. It stretches across the horizons of time to include all the saints of God who have ever hoped for something: the nomadic patriarch who walked with his head up to heaven counting the stars of the sky as his promised future; a captive people who cried out for deliverance amidst the sweat of an Egyptian sun; the Hebrew poet and king who sought to dwell in the house of the Lord and gaze upon the beauty of his face; the spice-bearing women who received Easter good news from an angel at the empty tomb; the exiled islander who daydreamed of a new heaven and a new earth to come; African-American slaves who put a melody to their mistreatment by singing of a chariot "coming for to carry me home." And . . . I suppose it includes me, driving down the highway ready for ascension, having second thoughts about my box of Cheerios and wondering how many more weeks I will need to mow the lawn.

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