Soul Drought

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2014 by jcwill5

I grew up in California and have may friends and family members who live there.

They speak with growing concern about the severe drought that grips the state, and, when your father-in-law grows oranges, it touches us personally.

But there is another kind of drought over the land.

It is a drought of the spirit.   A season of dryness and inner aridity that is producing a mass falling away from God.

We’re going through the motions, working harder and enjoying it less, and finding ourselves far from the fountain of living water.

Part of it is the spiritual season we’re in.

It’s been over 100 years since a heaven-sent, sustained outpouring of the Spirit.   None of us alive now can remember what it was like then, when a mass turning to God and experience of new life happened.

Such things still happen and are happening in the Third World.

And perhaps that is part of the answer–when flooded by material prosperity there’s a corresponding drying up of spirit.

We sense our needs less, can more readily indulge in various and readily available distractions, and grow fat and sassy.

As the writer of Proverbs puts it, “Give me not…riches, lest I be full and say, “Who is the Lord?”

We lose touch with our frailty, warehouse the elderly and the dying away in special institutions, and amuse ourselves with multitudinous distractions.

And these distractions are another part of the reason we’ve dried up within.

We protect ourselves from as much pain, unresolved tension, and immovable difficulty as we can.

We hide in our bubbles and live in virtual worlds–growing more sedentary and disengaged with the real world with every day.

We grow numb and fall spiritually asleep–”He has poured out a spirit of slumber and deep sleep over the land.”

Ironically, it is desperation and unmet need that faithfully drive us to God, who loves us in wilderness.

A life without wilderness and desperation is a life without burning bushes, without encounters with God.

And without encounters with God, we dry up and lose touch with Him.

We resort to self-managing, self-indulging, and self-collapsing back in on ourselves.

In such a place maladies like depression, addiction, and boredom multiply.

The things we use to solve our problem only make it worse, and we head for a crisis.

We think it’s our body that’s the problem, when it’s a dry spirit that’s completely disconnected and far from God.

So we grow more frenzied and compulsively give ourselves over to increasingly empty pleasures.

Our very capacity for enjoyment fades, the pleasures grow empty, and we grow hollowed out inside–but we don’t see it.

Our spiritual eyes are blinded, our ears are deafened, and our hearts are hardened.

For a fortunate few, awareness dawns.

Hitting bottom, we begin to look out and away from our miserable, collapsing self.    We realize our pleasures are empty and our real need is spiritual.

We begin to cry out in the desert of our own making and begin to long for deliverance.

And God is there, has always been there, waiting for us to come to our senses and return home to Him.

He beckons those far away and invites the lost to return.

He gives a warm welcome and embraces us as sons and not as dirty refugees.

And in His fresh embrace a fountain begins to bubble up within our soul.

We realize our true longing has been to be loved by Him, and our true calling is to share the overflow of His restoring love with others.

These streams in the desert turn it into a lush, spacious garden–vast enough to burn off every false desire and to satisfy every true one.

The drought is over!

 

Jimmy Carter Redux

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2014 by jcwill5

I grew up during the 1970′s.

It was the era of high inflation, gas lines, and deep recessions.  It was also the Cold War era.

After the travails of Vietnam, the pendulum in our politics and in our government had swung to the opposite extreme of interventionism:  which was disengagement and passivity.

It was a short walk from the anti-war marches to the discotheques.

We let events drive us, and we were perceived as weak, rudderless, and able to be disregarded without consequences by aggressive foreign governments.

So the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with impunity, and the Iranian militants stormed our embassy in Tehran and held our diplomatic staff hostages for over a year–both violating international norms of behavior and showing profound contempt for the United States.

It was the era of Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter was and is a nice man.   He is a man of principles and deeply committed to peace.

He tended to over-rely upon speeches and appeals to good intentions, and preferred to see the best in everyone.

It served him well in negotiating with the Israelis and Egyptians to secure the Camp David accords.    It did not serve him well in confronting the cold, hard, calculating Russians or Ayatollahs.

All were admirable personal qualities, yet all were disastrous when confronting organized evils.

I remember when he gave a speech about inflation and started the W.I.N campaign–Whip Inflation Now!

My high school peers and I thought it was both ridiculous and funny-sounding.

And it did nothing to quell inflation.

Jimmy Carter, rightly or wrongly, came to be seen as ineffectual and incompetent.    He was held up for scorn and had a penchant for micro-managing and half-measures.

When he tried to send in a commando team to rescue the embassy hostages in Iran, he was on the phone in direct contact with the rescue team, overriding decisions and withholding go-ahead authority the people on the ground.

And when several helicopters crashed into each other, bad luck and micromanaging combined to create a fiasco.  The operation was aborted and our entire covert structure was exposed for no gain at all.

The key failure of Jimmy Carter was the belief that he could talk his way out of any problems and that good intentions were enough to secure the good-will of anyone in the world.

And the resulting perception that he was all talk and no action.

In his heart of hearts, we suspected he didn’t really believe there was such a thing as real, palpable evil and no such thing as a bad person.

Sound familiar?

I have the sinking feeling we are in the same situation now as then.

We have a President who over-relies upon words and good intentions, and who doesn’t really believe in actual evil.

Just as Jimmy Carter substituted a quest for human rights for a sound foreign policy, Barack Obama has substituted gay rights for a sound foreign policy–it’s the one issue where he is proactive and it’s largely irrelevant to most of what’s happening on the planet.

He also would much rather concentrate on the home front, and allow events overseas to transpire largely without our interference.

His foreign policy is reactive and minimalist, and our friends and enemies pretty much disregard us in their counsels and calculations.

He resorts to half-measures and temporizing, and withholds action when small measures might have large impacts.

Then, after the full-blown crisis happens, all we are left with are bad options which require major intervention to solve.

Iraq, Syria, the Ukraine, Afghanistan, China, Iran–in all these cases the worst elements have acted with impunity on his watch.

In all these cases, sanctions, diplomatic meetings, and hand-wringing were a substitute for early action.  About the worst the bad guys could expect from our leader was a series of condescending lectures over many months.

So, in all these cases, evils are now entrenched and a thousand times more difficult to dislodge than they were at the beginning.

Americans will tolerate a lot of things, but they don’t tolerate a bumbling do-gooder as their chief executive.

What we need, and fast, is a proactive, drive-the-events kind of foreign policy that has an overarching, master goal that not only serves America’s best interests, but the world’s best interests as well.

What we are so sorely lacking is moral authority.

It’s like we don’t stand for anything anymore–except gay rights.

America is seen, rightly or wrongly, as no different morally from the evil forces it is confronting.

If there is an indictment to make against both our political parties, it is they have abandoned all moral absolutes for an ends-justifies-the-means approach to life and the rest of the world.

Raw self-interest in the moment, rather than overarching values that don’t change from administration to administration, is what marks us.

So we undulate between huge passivity and outbursts of raw, amoral power.

God help us!

The River Still Runs Through It

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2014 by jcwill5

Today is free Slurpee day at 7-11.

But it’s significant to me for a far greater reason: today would have been my dad’s 85th birthday.

So, in his memory, I started off the day by watching the classic fly-fishing, father-son movie, A River Runs Through It.

Two sons, the older a sensible, soon-to-be college professor who narrates our story as an old man looking back, the younger a risk-taking journalist who raises hell and dies young and fly-fishes brilliantly.

Because my dad and I went on many Boy Scout campouts together and shared a deep love of the outdoors, the scenes that got me choked up were the ones where the boys and their dad still went fishing after they reached adulthood.

The river was where the father-son bond had morphed into a man-to-man bond.   Where they shared fellowship in the fraternity of men.  Where their father was proud of them in spite of themselves.

The river is therefore the metaphor of both danger and triumph, of tragedy and resolution, in their family’s journey.

The river is a metaphor for life itself.

At the end of the movie, and at the end of his life, the older son is fishing all alone and remembering, remembering, remembering.

His father and brother were gone.   His wife of many years had passed away.

His own sons didn’t fish with him and didn’t understand why he ran the risks to keep on fly-fishing in a strong current of a deep river.

Yet it illustrates how there is another society we are initiated into, a fellowship of those who have lost those they love.

And in older age the losses accelerate until we eventually we are in a society of one.

The river is a metaphor for something bigger than the solitude and the silence of old age.

The movie also raises the age-old question of how we love someone when they are self-destructive.

When we don’t understand them or where who we are isn’t the kind of help they most need.

So it is natural that I think of those timeless words, “A certain man had two sons….”

And both the father in the movie and the father of the Prodigal son did something unusual in today’s world:  they let their sons go.

My dad did that with me.    He didn’t try to hold onto me as if I were a perpetual child.

And both the father in the movie and the father of the Prodigal missed their sons, looked in the distance in the sure knowledge they would eventually return, and received them gladly in the low moments of their lives.

That’s how we love the difficult to love:  letting go, waiting hopefully, kindly receiving them back on the other side of hitting bottom, and celebrating their return by lavishing them with undeserved affection.

The river is a metaphor for coming to terms with sorrow and finding redemption.

Strangely, I am finding this day to not be the difficult day I thought it would be.

My son and I went on a very long bike ride after the movie.    We climbed steep hills and coasted down the other side of them.

And we even took a small detour to pick up our free Slurpees and enjoyed sipping them together in the shade.

I find myself enjoying him in new and different ways now that he is becoming a young man.

He, too, is joining the fraternity of men and I’m very much looking forward to making some more memories with him.

It reminds me that the choice to go on living on the other side of loss, to have new adventures, to invest in those still around, is how God created us to live.

Rapids on the River of Grief

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , on July 7, 2014 by jcwill5

It’s been six weeks since my dad passed away.

And since I last wrote about the subject, my mood has improved and the heaviness has largely lifted.

I’m happy to discover that what others said was true of their grieving experience was true for me as well.

I know it’s not the end of the journey, but I’m happy to make it past a rough state.

My family and I went whitewater rafting on the Snake River in Wyoming about a week ago.

The river wasn’t one long rapid, nor was it a rapid-free zone of calm drifting.

Instead, it was a series of rapids interspersed with calm stretches.

There were places you had to hang on for your life and paddle hard with the oars.

And there were places where the oars could go up, where you could relax and look around to enjoy the scenery.

I suspect grief will be just like that.

But it is also true that not every set of rapids are the same.

We found that some rapids are little more than glorified ripples, while others are terrifying, 6 ft. tall monsters.

Some rapids last many hundred yards.   Some are boiling cauldrons of whitewater that are soon over.   Others are easier on one side of the river and much harder on the other side.

As a novice, I could only see a little bit ahead and had to take them as they came.

And, again, I am finding grief to be just like that as well.

Then there’s the eddies. 

There were times when our boat drifted into an eddy on the other side of the rapids.

You could get stuck there while the water goes around in a circular fashion away from the main current.

Sometimes our guide steered us into the eddy to wait for the boats behind us to catch up.  And sometimes we were positioned rightly and floated into them.

Either way, it took paddling and effort to get out of the eddy and head down the river again.

I see a lot of people in an eddy while grieving–stuck in the same spot, finding it comfortable, trying to keep everything frozen and exactly the same.

I’ve know people who spend years and years in a grief eddy until it became a way of life.

There bodies may be alive, but, for all practical purposes, they’ve died to everyone and everyone else and withdrawn from life completely.

It is a terrible tragedy.

And if anyone or anything disturbs their bubble, they get ferociously angry and all the years of accumulated, frozen sorrow erupt violently like a sleeping volcano.

Which is why God gives us the paddle.    It’s paddle of daily choices to go on living and to step outside of protesting self-pity in order to love and help others.

The people I most respect in their grieving are those who use their paddles to get through the rapids and get out of eddies.

I’m trying to be one of them.

Which is why I wrote these blogs.

So thank you, dear readers, for indulging me!

The Nature of Freedom

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2014 by jcwill5

It is highly appropriate, on this July 4th, to reflect upon the nature of freedom.

Sometimes it helps to start with the opposite idea, tyranny, and speak of what freedom isn’t.

Tyranny is arbitrary, despotic rule over a person or populace.

It might be imposed upon an unwilling person or nation, as in a communist dictatorship through armed force and a police state.

Or it might be popular, where multitudes clamor for a dictator to save them from some internal or external danger.

The key factor all tyrannies have in common is the over-concentration of power in the hands of one or few, who then misuse and abuse such power to enslave all others with or without their permission.

In this sense, freedom is the liberty to think one’s own thoughts, to write and speak one’s own mind, to go wherever one wants, to associate with whomever one wishes–without impediment, resistance, or persecution of those in power.

So they separated the governing powers in various branches and expected the executive, legislative, and judicial branches to check and balance each other.

And they formed a representative republic, not a democracy, under the Constitution.

But our founding fathers also recognized not only the tyranny of the governing few, but a tyranny of the many.

They called it the tyranny of the majority.

And what they were protecting was the right of dissent in matters of conscience, opinion, thought, and activity, where the majority trampled upon the liberties of the minority.

For a government or a majority of citizens to use power to compel a minority to conform or to require individuals to violate their conscience was a violation of this principle.

Which is why we have an electoral college, and why we have a senate with filibusters and long terms of office and many other tools to slow down the process.

Our Founding Fathers knew that despotism and mob rule went hand-in-hand.

So they built slowness, frustration, and inefficiency into their system–allowing for the passions of the mob to cool and checking the success of reactions and counter-reactions.

The right to dissent and not be coerced by a majority is why also wide liberties were granted to religious groups, why wide liberties were given to the press, and why wide latitude was given to protest.

But there is another, even greater tyranny then that of  the few or the many.

It is the tyranny inside of us.

There is a tyrant inside of us that holds us completely in its sway, that drives us endlessly as a slave-driver, that never gives us rest, and is never satisfied.

We take this tyrant wherever we go, and it uses every trick and stratagem imaginable to fool us into gratifying its every whim.

In a paradox, when we indulge ourselves and gratify our every desire, we lose more and more control to whatever we practice repeatedly.

The harder we try to control our lives, the more out-of-control they become.

A lot of people are deceived into thinking freedom is nothing more and nothing less than to indulge myself in whatever I want as often as I want.

But that’s not freedom, it’s slavery.  Just ask any addict.

And behind every addiction is an out-of-control, control-obsessed self that cannot stop and cannot admit it cannot stop.

We have this grandiose, inflated, bloated ego–king me, his or her majesty, the baby.  And we are in its clutches.

Freedom is not merely the freedom to do.

The greatest liberty is a freedom to be.

It is the freedom to be something more and better and higher than an abject slave of our selves.

That’s why we all need an inner liberation.

As long as the “taker/wanter” is in charge, we are able to be bribed or threatened into compliance because someone can give us what we crave or take it away from us.

Only when we are liberated within, only when an outside, far greater and supremely good power intervenes from the outside to dethrone the self, will we be truly free.

When a government or a majority cannot punish us or reward us into compliance, it has lost all power.

Only when a new, inner principle of life, even a new self, is born within us, can there be a hope of emancipation from self and protection against external tyrannies.

Our Founding Fathers understood this reality as well.

Only when there was a check on the inner tyrant, and a counter-balancing and greater force within us, would we be a free people.

Then we would also be a good people, and would indulge in good desires and refuse evil desires without the need for multitudes of restrictive laws, vast bureaucracies to administer them, and a tyranny in place to compel compliance.

This is the nature of freedom.  And this is what it means to be truly free!

The Waves and the Tide

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2014 by jcwill5

It’s been a month now since losing my dad.

I’ve walked others through grief.  And I have seen how 3-6 weeks afterwards often begins the deepest valley.

Interestingly, it’s during this very period that my parent’s anniversary, Father’s Day, and my dad’s birthday all fall.

I knew enough to circle those days and accept the fact in advance they were going to be harder days.  But they’re still hard!

It’s the high tide of grief.

During the past month, I’ve seen how grief comes in waves–how a small event or word can bring back a memory, and bring on another round of sorrow.

Sometimes it takes a few minutes for the emotions to subside.   And sometimes it can be a few days.

There is no science to this, no predictability or single factor that one can factor out.

It really is like the ocean, with its surging and receding tides, with its frequent but unique waves.

In the first few weeks, the cards come, the prayers are most frequent and intense, loved ones are there, and there is a lot to do to occupy one’s mind.

But all that support subsides.

The cards go to other people with other losses.   The prayers are less.   And others go on with their lives, as they should.

But I am left alone with my grief and it’s a lengthy, messy, up-and-down process that nobody can do for me.   The tide is coming in.

My loss is my loss, and my style of grieving is different than others.

It is a journey that others can watch and sometimes offer comfort.

There are no detours, no healthy ways around it, and a lot of life on the other side of it, even if I will never be quite the same.

But like all tides, it very slowly begins to recede.

Individual waves can still be great, but mercy’s gravity is pulling them ever so steadily backwards.

Just as the ocean eventually, imperceptibly starts to recede, so do all traumas and sorrows.

I will find what others have found, that laughter returns more often and life on the other side beckons.

Roles and responsibilities still need me to do them.   Others need to be loved.  The kingdom of God is still on the march, and I have my orders.

Wallowing in self-pity and endless self-absorption is no place to end up.

But emotionless stoicism and heroic self-suppression is also a dead-end.

We don’t just put a brave face on it.

God, for His part, says to the redeemed, “Do not go on grieving–as those who have no hope.”   Appropriate grief, yes.   Hopeless despair, no.

Even Jesus wept.   But He spoke of how our sorrow would one day be turned into joy, and how He was going to prepare a place for us to receive us unto Himself.

There is an eternity, a life beyond this sad one that stretches on to a limitless horizon of endless bliss in the presence of Christ.

All tears will be wiped away, and there will be no more mourning, or sickness, or crying, or pain–the present order will have passed away.

We tend to want to hurry to this place of hope and by-pass grief altogether, or we get stuck in grief and never allow the tide of hope to wax while the tide of grief wanes.

I’m not quite there yet.

So I share a poem I wrote on the darkest of days, that, ironically, lifted my spirits once it was said.

 

Lament of a Son

You ask me about this loss, and I will tell you

 

It is a loss big enough to swallow me whole, like Jonah’s fish.

It is deeper than the deepest sea.

Hidden there in the murky depths in deepest darkness.

 

A man, a mere mortal, has such power.

Owing to the word, “father”.

Only in his irretrievable absence does it strike me

With blow upon fresh blow

Until I am undone.

 

Is this what it means to be called

A son?

© Jason Willoughby – 6/2/2014

Heading Towards Justice

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2014 by jcwill5

There is a world of difference between seeking to be honest and seeking to be right all the time.

Being honest vs. being right

An honest soul faces the truth about his or her self, looks it square in the face, and takes full responsibility.  A self-righteous soul doesn’t.

An honest soul asks the hard questions, even ones that make his or her self look bad or aren’t comfortable for his or her group to answer.  A self-righteous soul doesn’t.

An honest soul confesses sin to God and is open about failures, weaknesses, and constant need for God’s grace.   An self-righteous soul hides, always puts its best foot forward, and boasts in its self-reliant self-achievements.

An honest soul looks at their own faults with a microscope, and the faults of others with a telescope.   A self-righteous soul minimizes/excuses their own faults and magnifies the faults of others.

An honest soul is a God-made, redeemed broken person.  They empathize and have compassion on others because they’ve been there and failed in the same way.  And they know the way home.

A self-righteous soul is a self-constructed person, and has no patience or compassion for others.  In fact, they like it when others fail because it makes them look better by comparison.

So the first step towards a truly more just world is personal repentance and brokenness before God.

It’s where our self-righteous egos are deflated and collapsed, leaving us small and vulnerable and in need of help.

It’s where God’s great and redeeming love for the unworthy is fully received.

It’s where kindness, gentleness, patience, mercy and love are born and grow, and where harshness, malice, vicious judging, and callous disregard die down and die off.

It is when we are deeply loved at the very bottom of our lives, where God and others embrace us with mercy, that a servant of others is born.

We learn to listen, and truly hear the life story of others without clogging our ears with our own reply.

We listen for commonality, for parallel journeys between the other and our own life, where we both need Someone infinitely higher and better than ourselves to rescue us.

We humbly tell our story of our collapse, escape, and redemption in the shadow of a suffering Savior on a Cross who met us and loved us at our lowest and worst.

We invite them to entrust their very self to Him, and to exchange the sham of sinful self-righteousness for the gift of perfect righteousness earned by Another for us.

The blessed, contagious unfairness of grace

Divine love conquers hearts by first killing them with kindness and then birthing a new self that loves God and others.

It births a desire to do positive good towards others, even at the expense of our self.

It not only heads us towards justice, it goes far beyond it!

By a transforming encounter with Christ, we become vessels of goodness to the undeserving, the failures, the losers, and the lost.

Hearts and minds and lives are changed, and the kingdom of God secretly expands.

The graced people gather into grace-giving communities in constant contact with Christ Himself, energizing and re-filling those who pour themselves out on others.

A parallel system of personal grace-giving and heart transformation co-exists alongside the world super-system of tyranny, pride, and injustice.

This secret society of the graced spreads person-to-person, under the radar, without photo-ops, celebrities, or headlines.

Yet, under its sweet influence, much evil is mitigated and many cycles of ungracious vindictiveness are broken–creating a better world one person at a time from the bottom up.

We cannot change the corrupt super-system of the world.   Nor can human means change human nature.

No, our one hope for a more just world is escorting people to the God who lovingly transforms sinners into servants, who over-loves them to the point where they spill this excess kindness on everyone around them.

This is what heading towards justice really means.

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