Inklings, The Book

Inklings in John: Snake-bitten finger waggers

snake bitten finger waggers

Today at lunch I watched an old lady shuffling through a grocery store parking lot take the time to stop and read a bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck. I couldn’t read it from where I was, but I saw her turn and look thoroughly disgusted. I laughed and shook my head.

“It must be exhausting for you to be outraged with the world all the time,” I scolded her in my head.

Immediately I had the proverbial four fingers pointing back at me (which doesn’t make any sense by the way, but whatever). She was judging bumper sticker guy (who probably deserved it) and I was judging her and now you’re probably judging me (who definitely deserves it) and on and on… When we live this way, every day is like fun-house mirrors of “judgieness,” filled with people we see ourselves as better than.

We can stop already. Here’s why:

Somewhere in the middle of the desert a few thousand years ago, the wandering tribe of Israel was tired of being free from slavery, tired of God’s provision of free food every morning, tired of all the protections meant to help them flourish. They grew bitter about life. God sent a plague of fiery, poisonous snakes. They started dying. God tells Moses to raise a bronze serpent on a pole in the middle of their camp. When a person was bitten, they simply had to look at up at the icon to be healed.

Sounds crazy right? God had Moses present the people with a picture of their sin (the serpent) judged (bronze forged in fire). All that was required was the faith to look up and believe that what God said was true. Just like Israel in the wilderness, we’re all snake bitten. We are all dying, spiritually, physically because we love darkness rather than light.

Look up.

Jesus compared himself to the snake in the old testament story, right before he told Nicodemus this:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” John 3:16-17

Boom. Mind blown. Faith in God’s provision through Jesus is the only way to life, nothing else.

Now, if we have looked to our savior and been saved from our own deaths, what do we do? Walk through the camp and turn up our noses at the purple, bulbous, poison filled limbs of the dying? Shake our heads at bumper stickers or laugh at old ladies? Or, remember our own scars and point people to the cross?

After all, it is exhausting to be outraged all the time.

Inklings, The Book

Inklings in John – Don’t wanna be a ‘self-made man’

Self Made Man
Jesus isn’t an American. So, when he hears someone praised as a “self-made man,” he probably cracks a smile. Maybe it’s a sad, wise one like in the movies. Maybe not. He didn’t die on the cross to help those who help themselves. He died for one purpose, to give us a new life and new eyes and ears and heart along with it. We don’t need to remake, reimagine, refortify, recycle, reincarnate or reanimate ourselves. We need to die and be born again.

“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:3

What a cliché’ – “born again.” For many, it’s only heard as a slogan or insult, depending on who’s speaking. But Jesus’ words will never lose their power as long as there are people like Nicodemus, with hearts of faith and heads of doubt, who look at the darkness of the world around and the universe inside. It’s natural. Maybe it’s a tornado, maybe it’s a breeze, but the feeling is there, and we can never hear, see or know the answer until we’ve been born again.

To be born again means we are a new creation, “created for good works in Christ Jesus.” We are born into the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus ushered in with his life, death and resurrection. Just as the Father breathed life into Adam in the garden, the Spirit breathes new life into the one who has been placed in Christ. God works in us to transform our self-centered natures. Like a newborn, we see the world with new eyes, kingdom eyes. We can hear others with new ears, kingdom ears. We can love with new hearts, kingdom hearts. And like a newborn, we slowly learn to speak and walk and we grow strong.

New life brings freedom. We are free to praise without feeling diminished. We are free to forgive, without feeling slighted. We are free to obey without feeling constrained. We are free to look at the faults of others without judging. We still have pain, but it should come from new places. Instead of screaming because we don’t get a juice box, we should scream because others don’t get bread. Instead of crying when someone hurts us, we should cry when we hurt someone else.

We are not self-made, we are God-breathed – from our first breath of life to our first breath of new life as children in the Kingdom of God, now and forever.

Inklings, The Book

Inklings in John – What Do You Seek?

“Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What do you seek?” – John 1:38

John the Baptist had drawn quite a following of earnest seekers who gathered in the desert to wash away their sins in a muddy little river. Along with them, there were skeptics, scoffers, teachers, preachers and politicians – all in a wilderness of nothing looking for something. As important as the ministry of John was, the greatest of all the prophets could offer little to these men and women apart from religious symbolism – pointing to the one who was to come. The seekers were still seeking.

Into this scene steps Jesus. The creator’s feet were in the dirt again. Instead of the garden it was the desert. Instead of “Where are you?” he’s asking “What do you seek?” Unless your answer is, “Who cares?” it’s a more difficult question than you might think. You must answer honestly if, one day, you want to know as you are known.

Today, our wilderness is concrete and digital, yet still full of dirt and despair. Many of us are still seeking – filling up church pews, checking in pill bottles, staring at screens and collectively digesting billions of words each day on self-improvement when there is only one thing that will satisfy our uneasy quest for fulfillment, and it lies behind the eyes and in the veins of the man in the desert who turns and sees us looking at him in individual shades of disbelief and asks, “What do you seek?” and then invites us to “Come and see.”

Inklings, Poetry

Southern Summer Echoes

Southern Summer Echoes

And he sat listening in the twilight to the cicadas screaming
And his ears strained at echoes of something he forgot
And it rattled around in his brain and down his spine
And it was so purple-grey outside and he was so cold inside
And a little girl came and put her hand in his hand
And her laugh was pure and her eyes were clean
And full of afternoon tea and ice cream and day dreams
And they made him want to strain harder to hear
And he watched as she danced away on lilting feet
And frightened the fireflies into light and flight
And the clouds boiled and they rumbled and threatened
And he loved the electricity they promised
And the breeze smelled damp over the expectant grass
And there was an eternity in the instant
And he heard a voice within the echoing light and the cicadas
And the girl and the heavy electricity of the billowing clouds
And the voice was as real as a red, raging sword coming down
And the sword was speaking only to shrunken little him
And it invaded his belly and his boney joints and laid him bare
And it hurt and it healed and he sat shivering in the summer.

I woke up with the first four lines in my head and the rest is nonsense trying to make sense. 


Too Much Grace: A Manning Mashup

Brennan Manning

Brennan Manning

I started re-reading Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel. I think everyone should read the first chapter. The first time I read it, I would bring it up in conversation and people got a little quiet. They had warnings. “He sells a cheap grace. There’s too much emphasis on it. I think it’s a little dangerous.” I catch myself thinking the same thing as I’m reading it. But then I remember Jesus say, as he’s hanging, draining and ragged on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  There was nothing cheap for Jesus in the grace he displayed. That insane love, so alien to our human nature, only and ever beckons. Because of the infinite separation between the human and the divine, there can never be such a thing as “too much grace,” and that should make us joyful, not cautious.

Here’s a mashup of quotes from the first chapter… and other places:

My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it. Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion. When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, “A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.”

The gospel of grace nullifies our adulation of televangelists, charismatic superstars, and local church heroes. It obliterates the two-class citizenship theory operative in many American churches. For grace proclaims the awesome truth that all is gift. All that is good is ours not by right but by the sheer bounty of a gracious God. While there is much we may have earned–our degree and our salary, our home and garden, a *Sierra Nevada Pale Ale* and a good night’s sleep–all this is possible only because we have been given so much: life itself, eyes to see and hands to touch, a mind to shape ideas, and a heart to beat with love. We have been given God in our souls and Christ in our flesh. We have the power to believe where others deny, to hope where others despair, to love where others hurt. This and so much more is sheer gift; it is not reward for our faithfulness, our generous disposition, or our heroic life of prayer. Even our fidelity is a gift, “If we but turn to God,” said St. Augustine, “that itself is a gift of God.”

I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery. The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make a brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.

Inklings, The Book

Inklings in John – Cave dwellers and the true light


Let me tell you an old story: Prisoners sit chained in a cave, bound head and foot so they cannot see around them – only look straight ahead at a large, stone wall. Behind and above them is a fire. Objects pass in front of the fire and cast large shadows on the stone wall. The prisoners stare up at the wall, entranced by what they see. Shadow images of people and animals dance in the flickering light, but the prisoners are unaware of what’s passing behind them. Sounds enter the cave as unintelligible, distant echoes. One day, a prisoner is released from the cave and dragged up into the light. Outside, the true light of the sun blinds him, but soon his weak eyes adjust. In amazement, he sees that reality is much more than the images and echoes to which he had become accustomed and attached. Overcome, he runs back into the cave to share the news, but his fellow prisoners do not understand. They see his large shadow and are not accustomed to his voice. He appears to them as everything has, a dark image.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a wonderfully crafted metaphor and a profound concept. I don’t think the apostle John was ignorant of this when, 400 years later, he was inspired to write this about John the baptist and Jesus:

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” John 1:4-12

Both the allegory and the scripture are statements about how the reality of our natural state confines us in darkness. The light of a liberating ultimate reality not only exists, but we are beckoned by it and compelled to share it once we find it (or we are dragged into it). Plato told this story to his students about 400 years before Jesus came. Some say this is evidence that the gospels borrow themes from much older philosophies. An alternative is that “much older” philosophies carry shades of truth as divine imprints. They are all pointing to Jesus, who is the fulfillment of truth sent “in the fullness of time.”

We shadow-gazers lack imagination. Apart from the light of Christ, we are constrained to a reality, satisfied with dancing shadows. We often substitute temporary, shifting, poor substitutes for the real and divine in the name of comfort, familiarity, tradition and because of an underdeveloped imagination. When we are satisfied with what’s in front of us, we can’t imagine the need for anything else. The possibility of anything else becomes irrelevant. The Bible calls this (among other things) idolatry. There is a wonderfully sarcastic metaphor of idolatry in Isaiah 44 when a man cuts down a tree, uses it to build a fire to warm himself and cook his food. He is satisfied. With the leftover wood, he makes an idol and bows down to worship it.

The wooden-idol worshipper is the personification of shallow materialism. He is fixated on the immediate and visible, the resource and not the source, the shadow and not the reality. Like him, we often worship what’s in front of us, what makes us feel good, and what’s easy to believe. When I say worship, I’m not talking about strumming a harp or sitting slack-jawed in front of an overhead projector on Sunday morning babbling familiar words. Worship is what you live for, and misplaced worship leads to all kinds of personal and, by extension, social problems.True worship is acknowledging our creator while whole-heartedly living our purpose.

There is light, but not our own. Jesus is the true light. There are other false lights, like the fire that projects the shadow. These draw our attention to people, things, ideas that allow us to craft our own identity, to build ourselves in our desired image. But, that’s an upside down way to live. In Matthew 6:23 Jesus says, “And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!” Plato and Socrates and many before and after have prized the pursuit of knowledge above all else. For them, to possess true knowledge meant to be connected with the oneness, the logos, the power behind the universe. It’s a noble virtue that appeals to the seeker in all of us. It is not unlike the hope offered by ritual religions and secular humanism, but it does not offer the same hope as the Gospel.

Because we have been created for a purpose, true freedom lies with our creator, divorced from our present, constrained reality. To borrow a truth from Lloyd-Jones, Plato’s allegory is good advice, John’s gospel is good news. Good advice says: “I’m a former prisoner. You’re chained in a dark cave, break free, follow the steps, find the light, discover reality.” Good news says: “You were chained in a dark cave. I am your creator. I have freed you.I am the true light. Follow me. You have a purpose. This is reality.” That’s the message of Jesus.

Inklings, The Book

Inklings in John — Babies, Double Rainbows and the Logos

Is it possible that the almost painful feelings we get from the beauty and innocence of rainbows, trout streams, babies, and art aren’t random neurons firing, but echoes of something that has been spoken to us? Something we heard but forgot when we stopped singing songs of innocence and started singing songs of experience?


Some think so. Others don’t.

“God is not some chief executive who sits behind a control panel and calls all the shots. I don’t believe in a god who answers prayers. At the same time, I think there is a reality behind what we can see with our eyes…something large and mysterious and eternal and unknowable,” said bestselling author Johnathan Franzen, during a 2004 interview in New York’s upper east side.

Meanwhile in Yosemite, there’s a dude named Yosemitebear62.

“Double rainbow all the way across the sky! Ohhh!” he cried and moaned five years ago. The camera in his hand shakes as he begins to weep and laugh uncontrollably. “What does it mean? It’s so bright and vivid! It’s so beautiful. Please tell me what it means!”

It means sunlight cuts through water and creates colorful arches, stoner, big deal. It went viral. We all laughed. He got auto-tuned. He went Kimmel. His 15 minutes are over.

It may be silly, but for Yosemitiebear62 (aka Paul Vasquez), the double rainbow seemed to mean a lot more than random molecules. It was a message. Unlike Franzen, as crazy as it sounds, Vasquez felt like the “unknown force” was calling the shots and it was speaking directly to him. At least that’s the way he saw it:

“I knew that it meant something. …I was not high. I was all alone in my front yard and I recognized I was in the presence of God. …God was looking at me, but I didn’t know why God would choose to look upon me. Just like a double rainbow is a mirror of itself, my video is a mirror into the people watching it. What you see and hear in that video. …That’s in you.”

The rainbows triggers something in Vasquez, maybe a nostalgia, a longing that leads us to questions like: Does it all mean anything? And, if you haven’t asked that question, then maybe you haven’t hit your ten-year high school reunion yet, or seen “almost a triple rainbow.” From what I gather, Vasquez isn’t a classically-trained theologian or philosopher, but he tapped into this idea that modern minds have been trained to explain away – rainbows, light and water, big deal.

Hundreds of years before the advent, Stoic Greek philosophers looked at rainbows and the stars and the sun rising and setting in the same place each day. They looked at their ability to reason, think, govern and apply ethics. They had an altar in Athens “to a god unknown” and a poem about the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” They saw the design and sustainment of natural order as evidence of an unseen, divine force they called the “Logos” – a truth that holds the universe together.

John’s gospel, by no mistake, opens with these words:

“In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” John 1:1-3

The statement is simple. The ideas are profound. John makes the most exclusive truth claim imaginable, one that, if correct, gives ultimate authority to everything Jesus says and does. He is the incarnation of the triune God. He is the truth behind everything that you see. He is the uncaused cause. He is also, almost preeminently, a communicator. The very act of creation was communication. The author of Hebrews tells us that he “upholds all things by the word of his power” – a spoken word which is stronger and infinitely more stable than the theoretical physics of dark matter and dark energy (an attempt to explain what we still can’t explain). He speaks and his story is all around us. Jesus did not simply create truth, and come to testify to the truth, he is truth personified.

For anyone who has been frustrated with a desire to understand this universe and their place in it, who cannot come to a place of contentment, there is simple beauty in John’s introductory statement. It holds an answer to that unattainable longing that makes you laugh and weep and search for meaning (maybe not quite like Yosemitebear62), but that desire comes from our creator, and our creator came to us so that we would see and know the truth and be set free to sing songs of innocence again.

Jesus gives a face, a voice and a heart to what must be a scary notion of an “unseen force” that exists but is disconnected and unconcerned with our existence. Franzen is right that there is a reality behind what we can see, and God is not some chief executive who sits behind some control panel, but he is wrong in his assertion that God does not answer prayer. Jesus demonstrates that God cares about each of us. John’s gospel goes on to show, through signs and teaching, that that Jesus is intimately concerned with our joy, our sickness, our doubt, our desires, our trials, our blindness, even our death. He gives purpose to everything. He is the purpose, the Logos, behind everything, even double rainbows.