Light and Shadow, Part Two: How I Learned to Love Harry Truman and Hate the Bomb.

Mushroom Clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

Mushroom Clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

PART TWO: SHADOW

Yesterday, I posted the first installment of an essay reflecting on a work of art I saw in 1973, and subsequently purchased in 1984—a Japanese woodblock print by Jun’ichiro Sekino, entitled Hara: Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji. It will be helpful, though not absolutely necessary, to read part one first. The theme of part one is that God can and will speak to us authoritatively, in the time and place of his choosing, using anything he desires, including a work of art done by an artist who was most likely a Buddhist and whose work may reflect more than anything else the mindset of a culture seemingly more likely to bow the knee to the creation rather than to the Creator.

In that encounter with the art, the artist, and the One who created the artist, I received a palpable sense of how art can be one of the highest expressions of what it means to be created in the image of God. It can be argued that we bear the image of God in our being and in our works even when we are unaware of it or when that is not our intent.

Sadly, we bear something else in addition to the imago Dei, something dark and evil that rises all too often in an effort to turn the image of God in each of us upside down. For all the positive messages conveyed by Hara, there lurks a dark undertone that is an irreplaceable part of observable reality. Recognizing it is necessary to reveal what Alister McGrath calls the “deeper value and true significance” of the world.

The print does not seem to directly speak of that darkness, but the overall dark grey tones of the piece remind me that for most of us the light is seen only in contrast to the dark. I am also reminded of that darkness each year in August on the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred on August 6 and 9, 1945.

It is not at all far-fetched that an image of Mt. Fuji, subtly portrayed, but leaving no doubt as to its physical majesty, could reveal and reflect the immanence of God, not just for those who live in its shadow, but also for me, someone whose only direct connections to Japanese culture are a Sony® television and the fact that my father was stationed on Okinawa in August of 1945 waiting to invade the Japanese main island. But like the upside down image of the mountain in Hara, my personal connection to Japan is defined by a disorienting reality. Had Harry Truman not dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I might never have been born.

The assault on Japan was expected to be far worse than the D-Day carnage at Normandy Beach. War planners’ conservative estimates projected that over a million American troops were likely to die in the battle for Japan, perhaps multiple millions among the Japanese. Those numbers are not unrealistic. Over 100,000 people died in the 82-day-long battle for Okinawa, the first island to fall. Given the front-line role my father would have played in the invasion as a sailor on a small craft that carried troops onto the beach, his life-expectancy in the battle probably would have been measured in seconds, not minutes, hours or days. Had the invasion occurred, at the very least I would have a different last name.

The Germans attempted to build an atomic bomb and failed. The United States, in an enormously expensive effort code named The Manhattan Project, successfully developed the capacity to “harness the basic power of the universe…” in order to loose it “…against those who brought war to the Far East.” Once testing confirmed that the bomb would perform as advertised, the Americans sought the unconditional surrender of Japan, which they rejected. There is much historical speculation about the ultimate motivations for using the atomic bomb, but politics notwithstanding, it was used—first on August 6, 1945 on the city of Hiroshima, and second on August 9, 1945 on the city of Nagasaki. It was seen as the most efficient means to accomplish the objective of ending the war, and likely was used for additional purposes, such as serving as a stern warning to a nascent Soviet expansionism.

Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945. My father was still safely docked on Okinawa, 350 miles from the main island. It is one thing to thank God for the end of that war and for the grace that brought my father home before I was conceived. But the sobering reality is knowing that so many people died in those two Japanese cities. Estimates vary but the numbers are between 150,000 and 250,000.

For those looking for even more religious irony, while both cities were active in producing materiel for the war effort, Nagasaki was probably the Japanese city with the largest Christian population, having been evangelized first in the 16th century by the Jesuits. Despite struggles over the centuries, a large underground church had flourished, and by the time of the bombing, the community was growing and healthy above ground. Unfortunately that meant above ground-zero.

We try, vainly in my view, to justify the bomb using a familiar calculus in which “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” From that perspective you would try to say it is better that only a quarter million people died instead of the two million who would have perished in an invasion.

In the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill elevated that principle into the philosophy known as Utilitarianism. They argued that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number… is the measure of right and wrong.” Happiness is defined as pleasure, or the absence of pain. Unhappiness is pain. Increasing human happiness, or decreasing human unhappiness are both good. Increasing happiness for the most people in a given situation while attempting to minimize the unhappiness of others guides the proper decision-making process for the Utilitarian. We all want more people to be happy and fewer people to suffer, therefore: Invasion bad; bomb good. Sounds reasonable, right? Even logical.

Utilitarianism is only one of the attempts that humans have created in order to decide the difference between good and evil ever since Adam and Eve attempted to steal that job from God back in Genesis 3. You can find an excellent, non-technical introduction to human ethical systems in Steve Wilkens’ Beyond Bumper-Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong. The systems we have constructed tend to be based either in reason, like Utilitarianism, or in faith, like Buddhism. (I believe all the systems we have developed are based in faith in something but that is a discussion for another time.)

Utilitarianism may be about as close to Buddhism as a couple of Victorian Era, philosophically-inclined, British gentlemen could possibly get. Both practices seek to diminish suffering. Both place high value on ethical behavior. Significantly, both outlooks wind up diminishing, even negating, the importance of the self or the individual—for the Buddhist as a means to enlightenment, and for the Utilitarian as a logical consequence of a philosophy that ultimately advocates the principle that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

I’m no expert in either Utilitarianism or in Buddhism, and bearing in mind how the main character in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was driven crazy through wrestling with some of these issues, I’ll leave more comparisons between the two philosophies to others. I will say, however, that there is some irony in the fact that Truman’s approach is similar to a principle that underlies the belief system of those who were killed and wounded in the bombings. There must be in that a hint of the universality of the fallen state of human nature.

I am not especially critical of Truman’s decision, and not merely because I am alive, though I admit that is part of it. The truth is I shudder and imagine I would have made the same choice. There are unresolvable issues in this life, situations where every choice is a wrong choice. To rescue most of a group of hostages, some may die. It is a risk we train rescuers to take when negotiations fail. To save the most people injured in an accident, a battle, or a disaster, we perform triage, separating those who cannot be saved from those who can, in order to utilize limited resources more efficiently. We often describe those who must make those decisions as having moral courage and perhaps that is true of some. But the more likely case is that they are only playing what they believe to be the least destructive hand in a game where they are dealt no other cards. The choice to sacrifice the few for the good of the many is always an accommodation to the bitter reality that this is a fallen world and every last one of us is a part of that fallen order.

In John 11:50, the High Priest, Caiaphas, attempts to justify the execution of Jesus by saying, “…it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” The utilitarian logic here is inescapable. But we ought not believe that God’s reason for allowing Jesus to die for our sins was based in utility. As hard as it is for us to fathom, he sacrificed Jesus in the exact same way that God does everything he ever has done or ever will do, out of love, not in some desperate hope of making the best out of a bad situation.

The idea of making the best out of a bad situation is our natural predicament. It is why we come up with things like Utilitarianism, or Buddhism, or “Galatianism,” or every other form of ethical and religious expression. Our ethics and our religions are, in the end, complete failures. As Isaiah put it, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) But underlying that effort is something worth thinking about. That we attempt to define good and evil at all is a tacit recognition that something called good and evil exists. Apart from the Fall, I suspect that even the idea of good and evil might have been entirely God’s domain. We would never have even had to think about it.

But we do think about it. Our desire for the good informs everything we do, though we are mostly unaware of it and our evil desires interfere with it all. Still, desire for the good motivates us to build legal, ethical and religious systems because our hearts long for the good. We seek friendship and community and love out of the same desire. We build homes and buildings and create music and art because we long for the good.

And when, in art, we recognize that universal longing, imperfectly presented though it may be, it moves us, occasionally with the intensity that Sekino’s woodblock print moved me. Art is truly an expression of our role in the universe as image-bearers of our Creator. In the darkness and the shadows of our art, as well as in the sin and darkness of our acts, the image of God is still visible, although in what artists call chiaroscuro, what St. Thomas Aquinas called the via negativa.

When scripture tells us “we see as through a glass darkly” it is not unreasonable to ask what is it that darkened the glass? To me the answer is obvious. Our sin. We continue to contribute to the darkness on a daily basis. But in his mercy, God has given us longing. We long for the time, as in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, when all was truly right with the universe. And we long for a new Genesis, the time when our encounter with good will once again be face-to-face, all-encompassing, and when all evil—including wars and the hideous weapons of war—will be nothing more than a passing and utterly alien memory, immediately dismissed.

Light and Shadow, Part One: How A Japanese Wood Block Print Turned My Worldview Upside Down.

Hara: Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji

Hara: Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji

PART ONE: LIGHT

It has been my experience that those moments in which I find myself in an encounter with the eternal are seldom (probably never) the result of my own effort. Instead, the One who is eternal chooses how, where and when to manifest himself on exactly the right frequency to break through the noise in my life to deliver his message to me. God’s effort. God’s presence. God’s message. And most often, that message is at once both bare simplicity and infinite complexity, such as when he said to Moses, “I am that I am.” The simple stuff, I can usually grasp. The complex stuff will take forever.

One encounter happened to me in the Fall of 1973. I was in the student union at the University of Arkansas walking through an exhibition of Japanese wood block prints when I was literally brought to tears by a work of art. I have seen a pretty fair share of “religious art” done over 20 centuries, often in class or study, but many times even in person. Rodin’s Gates of Hell, full-scale replicas of Michelangelo’s David, (decidedly the King of Israel, but perhaps done in secret homage to Paul’s message to the “troublemakers” in Galatia), numerous depictions of the martyrs, endless Madonna and Child paintings, images of the resurrection, etchings of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Rembrandt’s sketch Walking to Emmaus, icons, Gothic architecture, Dali’s “floating crucifixion” and Last Supper (a pale satire on Leonardo’s Ultima Cena) and even the purportedly inspirational paintings of Thomas Kinkade. All works of art, some exquisite and evocative—some not so much—all capable of inspiring a degree of connectedness to the Almighty.

Many of those works of art were and are quite moving. But in my case, a simple wood block print, created as part of a “traditional documentary and disciplinary exercise” managed to speak more immediately to my spirit about the reality of God’s existence, his presence and his love than any work of art I have ever seen.

The extraordinary contemporary artist, Mako Fujimura, in his commencement address to Biola University graduate students, spoke of Vincent van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night, as a genesis painting. Vincent was a man of faith, despite the mental illness that plagued him throughout his life. The expressions of that faith in his art were as intentional as they were sublime. Here is part of Fujimura’s description:

“The Spirit welcomes you into the margins, into the liminal spaces far away from the doors of the church.  And yet there you will be met by a Shepherd/Artist who will guide you into a wider pasture of culture. He will guide you into the night skies in which the sun and the moon are held together by his hand. Create in Love, as Vincent so loved the world that rejected him, as he so longed to be home in the church, the only building without light.

In such darkness, we may be overwhelmed: but precisely because it is dark, and precisely because we must look up, we experience a genesis moment.”

The work of art that God used to grab my attention that day, could also be considered a genesis print, though not necessarily one with explicit and intentional Christian content. At that time, almost no one would have described me as a Christian and quite possibly the artist was not Christian either. Yet, I am certain that, within my encounter with that artist, through his beautifully created image, I also had a genesis encounter with God.

The print shown above is called Hara. Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji, by a well-known Japanese master named Jun’ichiro Sekino. He worked in the Japanese tradition of sōsaku-hanga (lit. creative prints), a 20th-century offshoot of the ukiyo-e (lit. pictures of a floating world) wood block printing movement. Hara is part of a series entitled 53 Stations of the Tokaido. The Tokaido is a road that runs the length of Japan’s main island. The names of the stations are taken from the 53 Buddhist wise ones visited by an acolyte named Sudhana. Numerous Japanese artists, including Sekino and Hiroshige (the most famous Japanese wood-block artist), have followed the same path, executing some sort of image at each station. The entire process is seen as a metaphor for Sudhana’s—and presumably the artists’—quest for enlightenment.

Given that religious context, it may be safe to assume that Sekino, who died in 1988, was Buddhist. If there is intentional religious expression in the print, it most likely would have arisen out of that world-view. Regardless, I wanted to buy one, but as a “starving” college student I could not afford to buy the print. Eleven years later I ordered one from the artist’s US representative in Seattle. It remains my favorite work of art of any period. Period.

Done mostly in shadowy grays and blacks it depicts the rhythmic lines of a ceramic tile roof on a structure at the base of Mt. Fuji. The print was made in 1964, and has strong, simple and graceful, graphic lines. Subtly reflected on the roof is the faint but easily recognizable image of the mountain—Japan’s most famous geographic landmark—upside down. Perhaps the reflection is due to a light coating of rainwater on the roof, or perhaps it is an artifice of the light itself, manifest on clay tiles.

On first viewing, the image is pleasant, but vaguely disorienting. Mt. Fuji is not immediately apparent, yet one has a mild urge to turn the picture over—it must be hung wrong. Once the viewer recognizes the outline of the mountain, the questions begin. Surely there is no angle from which to view a roof on which Mt. Fuji could be seen upside down in reflection. After some experimenting with mirrors I determined that it is not an optical illusion, but that given the right perspective the image can be seen exactly the way it is presented in the print. The optics are possible solely because the roof is right at the base of the mountain, and because the mountain is gargantuan, dwarfing everything around it.

It is a graphically appealing, nearly abstracted image, but what exactly is it that evoked such an overwhelming emotional and spiritual response in me?

Japan is a nation of perhaps 50-70% atheists. The predominant belief systems are either Buddhist or practices (even among the atheists) that are heavily influenced by Buddhism. Less than 1% are Christian.

Among the religiously inclined, Mt. Fuji is considered sacred. Similar to the way the Greeks regarded Mt. Olympus, Fuji is revered by many as the source of all good that is Japanese. Mt. Fuji is alone not simply in scale but in location. At over 12,000 feet, it is not only the highest mountain in Japan, but no other mountains are even near it. It reigns supreme above the landscape and plays a dominating role in the Japan’s cultural and religious mindset. In the shadow of the mountain are in excess of 1500 religious cults, some offshoots of Buddhism, some Shinto, some peaceful and some exceedingly evil such as Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that concocted sarin gas in warehouses at the base of Mt. Fuji and released it in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. They killed thirteen people and injured close to a thousand more.

When I first looked at the piece thirty years ago this verse immediately popped into my mind: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 ) I was in some philosophical turmoil at the time, trying to decide if I was going to be able to become a Christian. By God’s grace I was cautiously beginning to recognize the truth, but like so many people, I was struggling with the issue of how all the rest of the world’s religious experience fit in to the big picture. You know the questions. How can a loving God send someone to burn in the flames of Hell for eternity when they never even had a chance to hear about Jesus in this life? Whose fault was it that they were born in a place where everyone was Islamic, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or atheist and were taught from childhood that those perspectives are the whole truth?

Somehow, in this obscure work of art I heard—apprehended, understood, received knowledge, however you wish to describe it—God speak to me. I received an impression on my heart that the apparently unresolvable conflict of a multiplicity of religious beliefs and practices had been resolved.

But that impression was not a ratification of, or a divine blessing upon, Buddhism or Hinduism or any other “religion,” including, to my surprise, Christianity, at least what Kierkegaard referred to as Christendom. I did not come away from the experience with an eclectic “there are many paths to the top of the mountain” kind of understanding—there is, was and ever shall be only one. Neither was it a message that said, “Don’t worry, you Westerners have it all right.” It was a message that, like the image of Mt. Fuji itself, turned much of what I understood upside down. It was as simple and straightforward as God reminding Moses,  “I am that I am.” Sometimes I have to admit that a more apt comparison may be when God answered Job and his comforters out of the whirlwind with, “Who do you guys think you are?” (Job 38)

The idea of seeing through a glass darkly came through with ironic clarity. Certainly, as Christians we want to believe we have access to the best understanding of these issues, thanks, not to our own reasoning (well, that too) but primarily to the grace of God’s revelation. Yet, even in the face of the marvelous gift of revelation in Scripture, we still see only “as through a glass darkly.” More importantly, and also owing to the grace of God, neither our correct interpretation of Scripture, nor our well-reasoned understandings of theology and doctrine are what saves us.

Instead, our salvation lies in the reality that the One whose throne is the heavens and whose footstool is the earth became a human being and took on himself the punishment for all of our sin—his intervention, not our striving. We are at the mercy of his initiation, just as I believe He initiated a conversation with me, through the medium of an unassuming Japanese wood block print—a conversation that continues even today.

“Our favourite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of the human condition and, by presenting completed instances of human actions and passions, freed from the contingencies of everyday life, to show the worthwhileness of being human.” (Scruton, Roger 2009 Beauty p. 129)

Over the years, reflection on this print has given me many other insights—ideas that might never have occupied the mind of the artist. Consider that the mountain is reflected on a rooftop. A roof is the work of human hands. Human craft, human design, human engineering, human labor. In and of itself, that labor might be even be said to be simply motivated in ego, humanity constructing its own kingdom. But in a way, the water on the roof, which falls beyond our control as Scripture says “on the just and on the unjust,” (Matthew 5:45) becomes a divine element which makes the reflection possible. The print reveals, again as in a mirror, something of the image of God reflected in the efforts of humanity. We can see an affirmation of the value of human effort, of craft, and of art itself as evidence of our role as “image-bearers.”

Consider also that tiles are made of clay, just as human beings were created out of clay. We are, in part, created out of the mud, the baser “stuff” of the universe, and yet it remains possible to see the imprint, or the reflection, of the Creator on that. Consider further that the image is one of a roof. A roof is a covering, protection from the elements. A roof covers a house, forming a place of refuge, safety, and, one hopes, a place where relationship grows. I could go on, but you get the point. There are layers upon layers of revelation in even the most ordinary things, and when art serves its purpose and we are receptive to it, the layers can multiply exponentially.

Such are the exhilarating and joy-creating thoughts this supposedly non-Christian work of art has offered me. In it, I am able to see how, as Alister McGrath, explains, “The natural world thus becomes God’s creation, bearing the subtle imprint of its Maker. We see not only the observable reality of the world but its deeper value and true significance.” (McGrath, Alister, 2009, The Passionate Intellect, p.82)

Joni Mitchell sang, “Every picture has its shadows; and it has some source of light.” Thus far I have written of the light within the print. In deference to the depth of the artistic expression in Hara, as well as God’s artistic expression in the natural world, I will write of the shadows and their necessity if we are to grasp the “deeper value and true significance” of either a work of art or the natural world. As part of that, I will reflect on the 68th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bad Robot!

What follows is a reflection spurred on by a blog post from Richard Beck, who always challenges me to think more deeply than I am ever comfortable with. His post can be found here, but it is not for the faint of heart—it talks about things like universalism, and (oh my!) Rob Bell.

Sometimes I think we hang on to the concept of free will at our peril. (Maybe I should have warned that my post might also not be for the faint of heart, Don’t shoot. I’m just thinking out loud.) Is it possible that the idea of free will is a defense mechanism that tries to keep our own self at the center of our universe, a way of fending off the true God who rightly owns that cosmic real estate—among his other vast holdings (for example…everything)?

Now any self-respecting discussion of free will inevitably leads to someone saying something like this: “God gave us free will because he wanted us to be free to love him. Without free will we would just be robots and robots only do what they are programmed to do.” That is probably right, and I am not arguing that free will does not exist or that it is not an important component in what we know as love. But there a couple of things that bother me with the concept. First is the idea that love is a choice and only our will is needed to act on it, and second is the idea that we are not robots. I’ll address the question of choice before getting into whether I think we might actually be robots.

I always thought there was something bloodless about the notion “love is a choice,” despite the fact that smug little epigram has the air of a self-evident statement. You hear that admonition when someone says, for example, “I don’t love my wife/husband any more.” The response is often, “Suck it up, bucko. Love is a choice, you simply have to make the choice and eventually it will be true.” I’m sure that sometimes works. It is occasionally possible to overcome a lack of passion through gritting your teeth and accepting your obligation—what philosophers call “deontological ethics.” But think about it, do you want to be loved by someone who does it out of a sense of duty—especially if they refer to it using ridiculous words like deontological, which sounds as painful as a root canal—or do you want to be loved by someone who loves you as you, not out of duty, but passionately and completely, head over heels? You know, the way God loves us. I thought so.

Just so we are clear, I am not dismissing the value of duty or obligation. I am merely pointing out their insufficiency compared to love. See the story of the prodigal son.

Our choices are always going to be motivated by our desires. Why act at all except out of some sort of desire? Even when we make the choice to go against some seemingly urgent but wrong desire (Step away from the dessert buffet.), it is because of a deeper and more significant desire that we hold to be ultimately more important. The problem is that we no longer, as Jacques Ellul described Adam, have a heart which “beat[s] in rhythm with the heart of God…” (To Will and To Do, 1969, p.5) Our affections are not just out of synch, we are obliviously playing John Cage, while God is playing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. We are conditioned and determined by sin and the consequences of our own and other’s actions. Very few, if any, of our desires are in accord with the heart of God. So even if we have free will, we will be exercising that will to execute the programming instructions of disordered desires. What could possibly go wrong?

Here is where we begin to understand our robot-like nature. And no, that was not what God had in mind originally. We did it to ourselves.

St. Paul described the problem about as well as anyone ever has. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” Rom 7:19. There is very little “free” will in our behavior. No, we are not robots, but we do act like robots, conditioned like Pavlov’s beagle to behave in all kinds of ways, no matter how much we try to fast-forward through the commercials. Even when we do something that has the appearance of being good, we are often so conflicted in our motivation that we suspect we did it for selfish reasons. And we probably did. Bad robot!

According to behavioral psychologists and some neuroscientists we may think we are free, but we are mistaken. That’s more biblical than you might expect. Thanks to the Fall, our own sin, advertising and the determinisms (physical and spiritual) of the world, we are held in captivity. Paul again: “I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” Rom 7:23. We cannot clearly conceive right desires, much less act upon them. It is only through the direct intervention of a loving God that we can even desire to be free from those captivities.

God describes that intervention in terms that sound like a heart transplant: “I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” Ez 11:19. (The Lord really loves a good metaphor; at least I hope it’s a metaphor.) Beck argues, “God can’t just change our affections overnight without that being experienced as a volitional assault upon us.” Volitional assault is psychologist-speak for a violation of our free will. I suppose he could, but that would be as messy as a heart transplant. The process Beck describes sounds more like God sort of sneaks the changes in over a long period of time so that we don’t reject the new tissue and flatline just as he is ready to close up the incision.

I could argue that it is still a violation of our will, regardless of how long God takes to do it, but that’s not my main concern here. Theologically correct or not, I can think of a few wills that need to be violated, mine included.

Whatever process the Lord uses, and however long it takes, I welcome it. At least I have reached the point where I want to welcome it. In becoming free, even by small increments, on most days I can increasingly cooperate with God in his project to turn this bad robot into a human being. It is a process, not an event that occurred in the moment of asking Jesus in, nor when I was baptized, nor at any of the other ritualized milestones of spiritual life. It is ongoing and not likely to end soon, but in eternity I suspect the transformation will seem to have occurred “in the twinkling of an eye.”

Robot @triplee

 

Bigger Miracles

Last week and this week, my Twitter devotionals have been brief reflections on this verse:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

Now I don’t know about you, but while everything we know about Jesus is glorious, there are some things that really appeal to the little kid in me. When I was in the first grade, like everyone who has ever been in the first grade, I was in a play. I have no idea what it was about and I’m not sure I knew what it was about even then. I had no lines. I played the part of a cloud. It wasn’t exactly the lead role, but then I was no Ron Howard or Justin Timberlake either. And I didn’t care.

My mother, an instinctively creative woman, made me a white cape to wear for the part. Naturally, as any self-respecting six-year-old boy with a cape would tell you, I wasn’t just a cloud. No sir, I was “SuperCloud.” Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound—you know the story. And with great power comes great responsibility. Like the responsibility to wear the cloud cape to school. Unfortunately my first-grade peers did not share my enthusiasm for the cape, so I was teased mercilessly the one and only time I wore it to school.

But seriously, when you read in Acts 1:9,10 that Jesus just sort of rises on a cloud (yep, a cloud) into the sky as he is talking to his disciples and two men in white robes (see my costume, above) tell them not to worry because he’ll come back the same way, and you know that someday you will be like him, how cool is that? Kind of makes you want to break out into “I Believe I Can Fly“? Or, if you’re not a fan of R. Kelly, how about “I’ll Fly Away” by Albert Brumley.

Look at John 20:19. The disciples were hiding from the authorities, the doors were locked, and Jesus came and stood with them. Catch that? Doors locked? He either walked through the wall or just teleported himself in. How cool is that?

The Jesus with superhero powers is found throughout the New Testament—and the Old Testament for you fans of theophany. He walked on water; healed blind, lame and crazy people; raised Lazarus from the dead; fed more than five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes; and (among my personal favorites) turned water into wine. How cool is that?

Now back to 1 John 3:2. “We shall be like him!”

I’m going to be able to teleport, and walk through walls, and fly and I won’t even have to wear my cloud cape? How cool is that?

Well, it is very cool, but Jesus reminds us often that while miracles are nice, they aren’t that big a deal in God’s economy. Despite my enthusiasm, I am reminded of Paul’s admonition to stop thinking like a child 1 Cor13:11. And when he said “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom,” 1Cor 1:22 I don’t think it was intended as a compliment.

So what is bigger and better than the miracles?

We shall be like him. That is what is bigger than a miracle. I’m not talking about walking through walls here. Let the next sentence sink in before you read further: We shall be like him who is without sin.

This may sound harsh, but sin is who we are. The prophet Jeremiah told us “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick… ” Jeremiah 17:9. Some people think Jeremiah was eventually stoned to death. We don’t really know, but you can be certain he didn’t make a lot of friends saying things like that.

In the 6th century a Pope Gregory 1 came up with the definitive list of the Seven Deadlies: pride, wrath, lust, gluttony, envy, sloth, and greed. Apparently there were eight before Greg did a little editing. In 2008, the Vatican graciously updated the list adding seven more ways to run afoul of God(?) in the modern world. These helpful new additions include genetic modification, experimenting on humans, polluting the environment, causing social injustice, causing poverty, becoming obscenely wealthy, and taking drugs. (I sure hope that does not include antihistamines.)

At the age of 19, several years before a falling apple revealed to him the secret of gravitational attraction, Isaac Newton discerned the gravity of sin and made a list of 48 sins  he had committed. Some of them seem harmless enough, “Making pies on Sunday night,” “Squirting water on Thy day,” and “Missing chapel.” Then again, we also learn from his list that he punched his sister, struck many, and threatened to burn the house down around his mother and father. It appears that one of the greatest scientists in history had anger management issues. Intelligence does not exempt one from sinfulness.

One helpful Interweb source has catalogued 667 specific sins from the Bible. I have no idea why they didn’t stop at 666, since they do state that it is not a complete list. Superstitious, I guess.

If you want to do your own research, here are a few popular lists just from the New Testament: Matthew 5:28-32; Matthew 19:18-19; Mark 7:21-22; Romans 1:26-32; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-7,18; Colossians 3:5-8; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; and Revelation 21:8. If after reading those lists you still don’t see yourself, you can go ahead and read the first five books of the Old Testament—the Pentateuch. Start with “Don’t eat from that tree!” in Genesis 2 and read all the way through Deuteronomy. Pay close attention to Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11, “Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together.” My mother would hasten to add “Thou shalt not wear stripes and plaids together.”

Suffice to say, we’re doomed. Every single one of us. That includes Mother Teresa, Pope Francis, Francis “I did it my way” Sinatra, Bono, you and me. All of us. Even those well-intentioned souls who drive Priuses with the COEXIST sticker on the bumper, commit murder in their heart when someone in an SUV cuts them off in traffic, or votes for a political candidate they don’t support.

But we shall be like Him. If we are in Christ we will, one day, be like the only person who has ever lived who was without sin. The picture of him in Scripture will become a family portrait as we “become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many.” Romans 8:29  Rather than defined by our sin, our character—like his— will be defined by these words: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22,23

That is the bigger miracle. The one the world thinks is even more preposterous than someone rising from the dead. How cool is that?

Small Martyrs

I am grateful to the resolute lion in winter clothing, psychologist Richard Beck, for bringing to light a quote by the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. Here it is in part:

“Martyrdom is not gallantly standing before a firing squad. Usually it is the losing of a job (and so the means to life) because of not taking a loyalty oath, or buying a war bond, or paying a tax…Martyrdom is small, hidden, misunderstood.”

We often mistakenly assume that the big things in life are the important things and that the smaller things are somehow trivial, less important in our eyes and in God’s. Very few of us in early twenty-first century America will lay claim to the label of martyr for our faith in Day’s “gallant before the firing squad” sense. We won’t wind up on a cross, upside down or otherwise. But there are those moments in each day when we find ourselves faced with a choice to do or not do the good and in choosing (either way) we suffer consequences, however small.

There is that moment, standing in the checkout line at the grocery store when an elderly man or woman gets in line behind you. The internal debate begins. Should I step aside and let them get to the cashier before me? Will they be insulted or feel patronized if I defer to them? Will I be doing it out of kindness or simply as a way to prove what a kind person I am, seeking their approval (or perhaps God’s) for my unselfishness? Over-thinking this kind of choice can be paralyzing.

Or how about that last piece of your favorite pie sitting in the refrigerator right now? Your ever-ravenous teenage son would love it—not to mention that it is safe to assume his metabolism can handle it better than yours. But it is your favorite; and besides, the kid’s not around right now anyway. Whatever shall you do?

By comparison even to Day’s small martyrdoms, these decisions seem infinitely less important. Without a doubt, if we do set aside self-interest in those little things but do it with a “woe is me” attitude, then we will have fallen into the kind of martyrdom that the apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:3. I’m guessing it would be better to simply eat the pie than to “surrender my body to be burned” (figuratively speaking of course).

We could be forgiven for assuming that those kind of situations are trivialities—small things that don’t matter so much in the big picture. But is that true? Do they matter? Perhaps those seemingly trivial choices are the ones that are most instrumental in developing our character. Maybe the decisions we make in those small choices are like the thin, translucent layers that build up around a grain of sand in an oyster. Maybe they are the raw materials that go into producing a pearl of great value.

And just maybe they are a part of the process that God uses to answer the Psalmist’s prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” (Psalm 51:10)

The Devo140 Back-Story

On launching a devotional Twitter account: @Devo140
I am not, by nature, a morning person. From what I understand (or at least from what I am told by my friends who are morning people) all of the greatest followers of Christ—the divines, the Christian mystics, the great evangelists, the most famous theologians from Augustine to Oprah, Dr. Phil and Christopher Hitchens (can you say via negativa?)—are, or were, morning people. Most of the time I am in a fog from about 7:30 AM until 10:00 AM. 
 
I’m usually up by 7:30, but up does not mean awake. I operate on autopilot. Making coffee. Showering. Making and eating breakfast. Checking email. Attending a conference call. Working, etc. I could beat myself up for this propensity and label myself as lazy. But with all due respect to Ben Franklin, I prefer to rest in the fact that I have no interest in spending my earliest waking hours catching worms. 
 
March 8, 2013, the day I started @Devo140, was not much different. I “woke” up about 7:30 with a vague idea from out of the blue that creating a Twitter devotional would be a cool thing. Not especially original, but cool. I even had the idea for a name and, before I even had my coffee, I set it up, designed a simple little logo, and launched the first Tweet: 
 
“In the beginning was the Word.” John 1:1 The best place to start. Word Up!” 
 
Given my tendency to have an idea, then figure out all the reasons why it won’t work, and eventually talk myself out of it, the fact that this went from idea to reality in about 45 minutes is evidence that it did not originate in me. And keep in mind that prior to this point, I had created maybe 40 tweets out of my personal account, mostly about politics.
 
The first profile, which lasted barely an hour before I started to tinker with it, included a line from one of my favorite Mark Heard songs (Orphans of God), “…beating our wings against the walls of this place.” I thought of it as a reference to how confining 140 characters could be, but something about it sounded a bit too serious for someone as prone as I am to occasional bouts of the eighth deadly sin—snarkiness. I’m not a real theologian, and even though I had just committed to playing something like one on Twitter, I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea. So, in acknowledgement of all that, I changed the profile to read: “I am the voice of one tweeting in the wilderness. (Honey, please pass the locusts.) Daily Devotionals in 140 characters or less.” Certainly sets the tone—for now. 
 
Feeling somewhat self-satisfied as a newly minted purveyor of Twitter wisdom, I brewed my first cup of coffee. Then I had a second cup. Then… I woke up. The realization hit me that I had just launched a DAILY devotional. Emphasis, if you hadn’t noticed, on the word “daily.” Unsure if that was a promise I could keep, I added a question mark after the word “daily” in the profile copy to provide me with a little breathing room. Last thing I wanted to do is over-commit. (Myers-Briggs fans would say I like to keep my options open, but they would use only 4 letters to do it with.) Anyway, if this goes well, I might drop the question mark after, say, 40 days (nights, too, just to be biblical.)
 
About a week after starting the Twitter account, I decided to look into what it takes to write a good devotional. Yeah, I know. Ready. Fire. Aim. For some reason, there seems to be a consensus that devotional writings—at least those you find in places like The Upper Room—are short reflections of 250-300 words. A little quick math: The average number of letters in an English word is about 5. That means a 300 word devotional is around 1500 characters, or roughly 1160 characters more than I have available to use in a Tweet. 140 characters is 28 words, give or take. This box is smaller than I expected.
 
It also occurred to me that most of the devotional writings I have read contained three elements—scripture, insight and application. Sometimes, though, it is just scripture followed by a really good question that creates a holy pause. So here’s the plan: Daily. 140 characters. Scripture. Insight and application, or maybe just a question. 
 
The more I reflect on this adventure the more challenging it becomes; yet it is even more appealing. Something valuable is taking place on a personal level. First, I am going to be forced into daily examination of scripture. Second, it is not just light reading, if I am going to come up with insight and application, this will require genuine study on a verse-by-verse basis as well as actual reflection, followed by careful and sometimes frustratingly concise writing—likely much more difficult than I expect. I hope it helps. If not, it keeps me in the Word, and if that is all it does, that is enough.