Used Books, Annie Dillard, and the Vanity of Life

Each year at this time, our town holds a used book sale at the local library. Like Jesus’ sojourn in the grave, it usually lasts for three days. Hardcover books sell for two dollars, softcover books are a dollar, and paperbacks are fifty-cents. On the third day, the books aren’t resurrected. They are left on the lawn for those who pass by to take home for free.

I look forward to the sale every year. As a reader, I love it. Especially on the third day, when I can take as many books as I like for nothing. I’ve found books by my favorite authors, Bible commentaries, even a few obscure reference books. But as a writer, the sale always makes me a little melancholy. There is something about the experience that always makes me think of the grave.

I recognize many of the names on the books. I can remember shelving them when I was a student in seminary and worked for B. Dalton Bookseller at a local shopping mall. There are books about leadership, books about spirituality, cookbooks, and out of date computer manuals. There are novels, of course. Boxes and boxes of novels and series of novels. Almost any type of book you can imagine.

Many of the titles I see as I wander among the boxes were the “it books” of their day. At one time they graced the shelves of bookstores or in someone’s home, with shiny jackets and unfrayed corners. Now, cast down from their former glory, they lie discarded on the library lawn. No one will buy them, even at a discount. You can’t even give them away. After a few days, the remainders will all be consigned to the recycling bin.

I suppose this view is pessimistic. Some would marvel at the longevity of these books. After all, these are only the books that didn’t get sold. A few days earlier hundreds of people were handing over their dollars and quarters and extending the shelf life of these old books. They carried them away by the bagful. Many of the leftovers still found a home. The day after the sale, I saw a woman crossing the street with both arms loaded down with free books she had retrieved from the library lawn. So what if the leftovers are recycled? Recycling is good for the environment.

But I find myself wondering how the authors would feel to see their books in the sale. Maybe they would be happy about it. After all, the more popular the book was in its day, the more likely it is to end up in some used book sale. Most writers want to be read, even if they don’t get the proceeds from the sale of their used book. Besides, all the books in the sale were purchased by somebody at some point. Everybody wins in the end.

Still, there is something about the library book sale that reminds me of the Preacher’s lament in the book of Ecclesiastes. It all seems like vanity. When the Preacher speaks of vanity, he’s not talking about pride but futility. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body,” he says in Ecclesiastes 12:12. “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” he complains in Ecclesiastes 6:12. “There is nothing new under the sun,” he says (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

As I scan the spines of these books, I see names that I recognize and wonder whatever happened to them. Some are still writing, of course. Some are dead. But many have passed into obscurity. Their fifteen minutes of fame is over. Some are easily forgotten, but others deserve better. On more than one occasion, after the sale is over, I’ve come across books by Annie Dillard in the discard pile. She’s one of my favorite authors, and it disturbs me to see her work lying there. I feel that I should rescue it, even though I already have copies at home. Would she be bothered to see her book lying abandoned in the grass?

 A while back, I read an article in The Atlantic, which purported to explain why Dillard doesn’t write anymore. But after reading the piece, it seemed to me to be only a survey of her work, mixed with speculation and a few back-handed compliments. I think I remember seeing a quote from Dillard somewhere, in which said that nobody wants to read the kinds of books she writes anymore. But I don’t remember where I saw it, and I can’t find it on the Internet. Which as everyone knows, means that the quote probably doesn’t exist. Even if I could find it there, that doesn’t mean it was legitimate. Dillard’s personal website offers no real insight into the question either. “I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters,” she says. “I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.” She seems to have gone into seclusion, like Bob Dylan in Woodstock after his motorcycle accident.

When I was a young writer, two of my great ambitions were to write an article for an academic publication in which I quoted myself and to publish an article in Leadership Journal in which I quoted Annie Dillard. Both ambitions, I suppose, sprang from vanity. Not the sort the Preacher talks about in Ecclesiastes, but the other kind. On more than one occasion, I tried to imitate Dillard’s style but found that I lacked her patience of observation. To some of us, a frog is just a frog.

Eventually, every writer’s voice grows silent. Either we run out of ideas, or we lose our platform, or maybe we die. The majority of those who want to write never do. Most of those who do write never get published. Of those who do get published, only a few gain recognition. Then, after a few years in the sunshine, their books are left on the library lawn. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes is right.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling a little guilty about abandoning Annie Dillard there. Today I wish I had picked up her book and brought it home. I’m sure I could have found space next to the two other copies of the same book that I already have on my shelf. On the other hand, I wonder why I didn’t feel a similar compulsion to rescue the books by Shakespeare or Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck or J. R. R. Tolkien or Dorothy Sayers that I saw lying nearby. I saw a few books by one of my friends too and didn’t feel a need to reclaim those either.

A couple of years ago, my wife Jane was sorting through the stacks, and came across one of my books. Instead of buying it, she decided to leave it for someone else. I’m pretty sure it ended up on the library lawn. I guess it’s o.k. if it did At least it was in good company.

God, Be Merciful to Me

I am a sinner. I don’t deny it. But most of the time I don’t think much about it either. I don’t seem to obsess about sin the way the ancients used to, at least not about my own sins. I  don’t punish myself or go to extreme measures to fight sin off. Most of the time, my sin feels more like a low-grade fever more than it does a raging fire. Its presence is an ongoing irritation that may hinder me from being my best, but it doesn’t keep me from functioning. Sin doesn’t bother me that much either. If anything, the fact that I am a sinner serves as a kind of escape clause when things go badly. “What did you think would happen?” I want to say. “I am a fallen person living in a fallen world. Of course, I went off the rails.”

The fact that we are sinners is one of the few religious concepts that a majority of people agree upon. Most people identify with the label sinner. I think we actually derive a measure of comfort from the assertion. We are strangely comforted by sin’s universal presence. For some of us, the comfort we take in knowing that we all sin is the kind that a bad student might take from the class curve. We reason that if sin is normal, then we are normal. Even if there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it. Surely God won’t penalize everybody?

The ancients weren’t as sanguine about the subject. The early Christian monastics went into the wilderness not only to pursue holiness but to make a study of their sinfulness. Those early Christians analyzed sin and categorized the many ways it manifests itself. They were interested not only in identifying the specific acts that should be regarded as sinful but wanted to understand the internal dynamics which shaped sinful behavior.

Why do we think so differently? One reason is that we have very different notions about virtue. Most moderns don’t think much about virtue at all. The word seems too out of date. Virtue sounds more like something our Victorian great-grandparents would have been concerned about. The notion of virtue is indeed an ancient one. The Greek philosopher Aristotle saw virtue as the pattern of right behavior that characterized a person. Virtue is a habit of life that moves in the right direction. Vice is the same, only moving in the opposite direction.

But even if the term seems archaic, the idea of virtue is not as old fashioned as we might think. Not if we understand virtue as a preferred pattern of life. We may have dropped the philosophical language as a culture, but we still have strong feelings about the way people should live. Theologian James K. A. Smith captures this when he defines virtue as “an ultimate vision of the good life.”

We may not talk about virtue much, but we believe in it. If you doubt this, spend a few hours reading through the opinions expressed on your favorite social media feed. What is all that outrage about? More often than not, it is about virtue or the failure of virtue. We may not all agree on the standard but our vision of “the good life” is clear enough that we regularly criticize those who don’t measure up to that vision. Contemporary interest in virtue seems to be primarily negative. Our ideas about what is good do not necessarily serve as a basis for self-examination and personal improvement. Often they merely provide the grounds for carping against others we perceive to have fallen short.

Others of us treat sin the same way we do high cholesterol or obesity. We know that if we ignore it, things will go badly for us. But our hope is that if we take certain basic measures, we can keep sin under control. This approach takes two primary forms, one is medical, and the other is athletic. The medical model sees sin as a kind of disease. The athletic model approaches sin like a weakness that can be remedied through discipline. Either view makes sin seem manageable. If sin is a sickness, it can be cured through treatment. If it is a weakness, that weakness can be eliminated with training.

One of the appeals of the medical model of sin is that it alleviates the moral pressure that comes with an awareness of sin. So far, I have had two major illnesses in my life. When I was a child, I contracted polio. As an adult, I was diagnosed with a form of cancer. I felt bad on each occasion, but I did not feel responsible. I knew that something was wrong with me, but I did not think that I was at fault. Even Jesus seemed to give credence to the medical model when, after being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, He observed, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12). But the Bible also says that sin has a moral quality. Every sin is an act of rebellion. This is because sin’s ultimate reference point is God. As theologian Cornelius Plantinga explains, “All sin has first and finally a Godward force.” Plantinga defines sin as an act (any thought, desire, emotion, or deed) that displeases God and is worthy of His blame. This is what makes sin different from disease. Sin always comes with guilt, and that guilt is deserved.

The appeal of the athletic model of sin is that it makes me my own savior. If sin is a matter of weakness, then all I need to do to fix the problem is to find the right program or the right guru. I need a spiritual gym and a trainer. With a few disciplines and a little determination, I can lick this sin thing. But if you’ve ever known anybody who has tried this approach, you know that success inevitably gives way to intolerance. The “good” can’t understand why the rest of us can’t seem to “get it together” like them. The rest of us recognize such thinking for the pride that it is. But the virtuous are so fixated on their improvement that they are no longer able to see their sin.

According to Romans 7, sin is more than the absence of positive qualities in our character. It as a living force that resides within us. In that New Testament chapter, the apostle even gives sin’s location. It dwells “in my flesh” (v. 18). Flesh, in this case, is not a physiological term. It is not the skin that covers our bones. Sin is not organic in that sense. Rather, it is organic in an altogether different way. Sin is a force that is integrated into our nature. As New Testament scholar H. C. G. Moule so vividly puts it, “the intruder has occupied the whole dwelling, and every part of it is infected.”

There is no medicine that will cure me of this problem. There is no training program strong enough to counter sin’s own strength. But there is a remedy. It is the remedy that is echoed in the sinner’s prayer in Jesus’ parable: “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). It is not the prayer that is the solution. It is the one to whom the prayer is addressed. God’s mercy, shown to us in Jesus Christ, is the only solution when it comes to sin.

We cannot reason our way out. We cannot work our way out. We can only look to Christ to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus alone is sin’s answer. He is the only antidote to its poison. Sin is far more serious than we could have imagined, and God’s answer to sin is far greater than we know. Indeed, this may be the worst effect of all when it comes to our downgraded view of sin. Because we fail to understand the depth of our sin, we cannot see the magnitude of Christ’s salvation. Jesus was right. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. A sinner like me needs a savior.

Fame is a Fickle Food

The other day I heard a guest on NPR describe blogging as old technology. Weblogs were what people used to do in the days before social media. He was a young, hip entrepreneur. His company sells T-shirts, or as he called it “gear,” so I suppose he would know. I was startled to find this out. But I guess I should have known. My age should have told me that what I thought was cutting edge was actually the internet’s equivalent of “dad jeans.” If I can do this, I suppose anyone can.

Still, I feel powerful every time I click publish on my WordPress blog. Suddenly the thoughts I’ve labored over are out there for the whole world to read. I feel like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. Within minutes I start checking my stats to see if the Reformation has begun. But just because we put something out there is no guarantee that anybody will be interested in it (or even know where to find it). The more voices in the room, the harder it is to make out what is said. Often when I post, I wonder if I am only adding to the background noise.

In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized publishing in Europe by using printing presses that employed mechanical, movable type. He was to the world of books what Henry Ford would eventually become to the automotive industry. Gutenberg didn’t invent books or printing, but his technology made them affordable and available. Books weren’t just for the rich or the church anymore. Now ordinary people could own books, and for many, it meant they could publish them as well. The internet mirrored Gutenberg’s revolution and extended it. Thanks to the internet, we are all writers, publishers, and broadcasters now.

Unfortunately, with so many other voices crying in the digital wilderness, one must startle to be heard. The attention of the multitude is reserved for the loudest, strangest, angriest, or crudest voice. Such an environment is toxic for those who merely want to reflect. It is even worse for those who set out to tell the truth. These days publishing in any form seems to be more about marketing than it is about words and ideas. We sell the sizzle instead of serving meat. In the process, we may end up selling our souls to be heard. The effort that is required to capture the attention of an audience that has become deafened by the sound of so many voices can cause Christian communicators to shade the truth, smoothing the sharp edges in an attempt to make it more palatable. We may succumb to the temptation to exaggerate, telling our own story but with a flourish that makes us seem more interesting than we are. We resort to cheap sentimentalism and manipulation.

Or maybe we just get cranky. When I preached regularly as a pastor, I discovered that in my earnest desire to hold the wandering attention of my audience, I sometimes limited the emotional range of my sermons.  Looking back, I think I had confused volume with dynamism. Or maybe it was a function of my personality, which tends more toward critical thinking than chirpy effervescence. Whatever the reason, it meant that my sermons were disproportionately “prophetic” in tone. On most days there was more thunder than sunshine in them. After one of these sermons, someone approached me and wanted to know if everything was alright. “Why do you ask?” I said. He smiled nervously and replied, “Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but lately, it seems like you are always yelling at us.”

Ambition is another complicating factor. The promise of a limitless audience can lead to unrealistic expectations.  More often than not, it turns out to be a false promise, and I am disappointed. I am not blaming the internet for this. The ambition is my own as are the unrealistic expectations that come with it. But I find that I am not the only one. Nearly every evening, you can turn on the television and find some talent show whose contestants are convinced that they are destined for greatness. A few manage to capture the brass ring. The majority finish disappointed, wondering why the viewing public failed to recognize their star potential. The losers are sent home with hyperbole and accolades, which only reinforces their conviction that if they only believe in themselves and keep trying, their dreams of fame and glory will come true. Most of the time, we never hear from them again.

C. S. Lewis has rightly pointed out that “pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools” is a kind of false humility. But we live in an age that moves in the opposite direction. Today every child is a prince or a princess. Commonplace actions that were once treated as matters of ordinary civil responsibility are now spoken of as heroic. These days everybody is a hero.  The sin of our age is not one of explicit pride so much as it one of ill-conceived hyperbole. There is no longer any room in the world for an ordinary person. We are all exceptional now.

A similar spirit is abroad in the church. It is not enough to be a plain Christian. Instead, we must be extraordinary. It is no longer acceptable to come to church simply to worship and give thanks. We need to do something “life-changing.” Quiet reflection is self-indulgent. Don’t just sit there and concentrate your attention on God. You should be trolling the aisles, looking for divine encounters with strangers and engaging in strategic conversations. In this case, fame is not the goal but spiritual greatness.

All this pressure to do something great is tiresome. Whether the pressure I feel has been self-imposed or is an expectation placed upon me by someone else, it seems strangely out of harmony with the Apostle Paul’s directive to make a quiet life our ambition (1 Thess. 4:11-12). This command is fulfilled in the home, the workplace and the neighborhood. Its success is not measured in greatness but by responsible living. Do your job. Pay your bills. Be a good neighbor. A deadbeat who can walk on water might indeed be an intriguing spectacle. But he is still a deadbeat in the end.

I do not want to give the impression that there is no place for greatness in human experience. However, in the majority of cases, those who achieve such status were not pursuing it. If it is not an accident, it is at best a byproduct of something else. Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1,800 poems, but only a few were published while she was alive. Dickinson wrote, “Success is counted sweetest By those who ne’er succeed.” Dickinson also wrote, “Fame is a fickle food…Men eat of it and die.”

Others long for it and go hungry.

God’s Emotional Life

My father was a man of his times. He lived in an age when dads were not expected to be “engaged” with their children. In the 1950s, fathers weren’t in the delivery room coaching their wives as their children were being born. Not those fathers. They were all in the waiting room, smoking cigarettes. Parenting in that era was far more detached than it is today.

Like most children, I was happy to see my father when he returned home from work. But I knew he expected to be left alone. He sat in his favorite chair and read the Detroit News before dinner. After dinner, he returned to his chair and slept through George Pierrot Presents, as the show’s white-haired and gravel-voiced host interacted with his guests who showed 16 mm films of their various travels. When we tried to change the channel to some more child-friendly program, he awoke immediately. “I was watching that,” he said.

God & Feeling

I mention my father because it is his image that first comes to mind whenever I hear the word impassible used in connection with God. Impassibility is the word theologians sometimes use when they speak of God’s emotional nature. Actually, in theology, the term’s meaning is narrower. Theologian J. I. Packer explains that the theological doctrine of divine impassibility does not have anything to do with God’s emotional detachment but with God’s relationship to suffering. To say that God is impassible means that God’s capacity to enter into the suffering of His creatures is voluntary. As Packer so vividly puts it, “he is never his creatures’ hapless victim.”

That God does have feelings is the inevitable conclusion for anyone who takes divine self-revelation seriously. The Bible often speaks of God’s emotions. It does so in such human terms that we are sometimes disturbed by the thought. This is especially true of the three primary emotions which the Bible seems to mention in connection with God: love, anger, and jealousy. The problem is not that we can’t relate to such references but the opposite. We are all too familiar with these kinds of feelings and believe that God should rise above them.

Well, perhaps not love. We like the biblical thought that “God is love.” It is the other negative emotions that make us uncomfortable. We can accept that God might feel a measure of irritation at times, as any superior being might with an inferior. But the notion of wrath seems too uncontrolled, especially when it is attended by flames, plagues, stinging serpents, and the earth opening up to swallow the unfortunate objects of God’s wrath. We comfort ourselves with the thought that they probably deserved it. But deep inside, there is a lurking uncertainty about the whole thing. It all feels just a little too out of control. We feel just as awkward about those passages which describe God as having the kind of emotions we usually associate with vulnerability. How is it possible for God who is eternally blessed to experience sorrow or jealousy?

What are We to Make of God’s Grief?

When I was young, I did something that made my mother cry. To be honest, I don’t remember what it was. I only recall the dismay I felt that I had hurt her so badly. It was a kind of horror to realize that this was even a possibility. Of course, I knew that it was theoretically possible. But to see the reality and to know that something I had said or done had sparked it was too much to bear. I felt the same way as I watched my father spiral down into despair in the months after my mother died. Sometimes I sat with him late into the evening as he spoke to me of the grief and anger he felt at being left behind. I was a new believer at the time and thought I should have a remedy for his pain. But I could think of nothing to say to make him feel better. It shook me to discover how helpless he felt. I must confess to feeling a measure of anger at being placed in such a position. It was not the anger of bitterness but the anger of impotence. I had no remedy for his grief because I had no remedy for my own. I could only hold his hand and weep.

If we feel so disconcerted over something as commonplace as human grief, what then are we to make of God’s grief? And let us make no mistake about the fact that God does indeed experience sorrow. The sorrow of God is spoken of in both Testaments. Even if we had doubts about whether such a thing was possible, Jesus placed the answer beyond doubt when He shed tears over Jerusalem and wept at the tomb of Lazarus. “How do we tend to the sorrow of God?” Thomas Troeger asks. “How do we answer the sorrowing God who asks: ‘Is there no balm in Gilead’?”

My most truthful reply to Troeger’s question is that I have no answer. How often must the child tend to the father? How can the child even begin to do so, when the Father is God Himself? If God cannot manage His own grief, what can I possibly do for Him? But this instinctive response misunderstands Troeger’s question just as it so often misinterprets God’s emotional life. Troeger is not asking me to manage God’s grief. He is not calling me to fix it. He is urging me to take note of it and respond in kind.

The Problem of God’s Emotions

It is easier to accept the fact that the Bible speaks of God having an emotional dimension to His nature than it is for us to understand it. Using the emotional life of Christ as his Rosetta stone, theologian B. B. Warfield underscored the two primary temptations we face when it comes to the question of God and emotions in his essay entitled “The Emotional Life of Our Lord.” At the one extreme, there are those who tend to minimize Christ’s emotions. At the other, there are those who magnify them unduly. “The one tendency may run some risk of giving us a somewhat cold and remote Jesus, whom we can scarcely believe to be able to sympathize with us in all our infirmities,” Warfield writes. “The other may possibly be in danger of offering us a Jesus so crassly human as scarcely to command our highest reverence.” Yet those who attempt to follow the middle path between these two extremes may find that they stumble as well. Warfield warns, “Between the two, the figure of Jesus is liable to take on a certain vagueness of outline, and come to lack definiteness in our thought.” The result is a Christ that is neither godlike enough to inspire our devotion nor human enough to enable us to identify with Him.

Perhaps the key to understanding the emotional life of God is to move in the same direction that C. S. Lewis does when he attempts to imagine the nature of heaven. In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes a heaven where all the analogous delights of earth are infinitely heightened. As Lewis puts it, heaven is “a larger space” and even “a larger sort of space” that would give the untransformed visitor “a feeling of freedom, but also of exposure, possibly of danger.” The features of its landscape are like those of earth but also substantially different. The flowers and the grass are diamond hard. The realities of heaven as Lewis imagines them are so substantial that all that is of earth becomes mere shadow and ghostly imitation by comparison. Likewise, Lewis imagines a hell which is so diminished by the heavenly that it is smaller than one pebble of the earthly world and smaller even than one atom of the “real” heavenly world. Might not a similar dynamic be true when it comes to the affective nature of God?

This would mean that, instead of viewing God’s emotions as mirrors of our own, we would see our emotions as signposts which point us toward something in God that is infinitely higher, purer, and more solid. In this view, the line that connects our emotional nature with God’s moves from the lesser to the greater. We are like God, but He is not like us. His love and His joy are immeasurable in their scope and substance. Our experience of love or joy are only a faint echo of His, but in them, we may sometimes catch the fragrance of the undiscovered country.

The Way God “Feels”

What is true of love and joy must also be true of God’s wrath and His grief. Not only are they untainted by sin or self-interest, but they are also likewise immeasurable in scope and substance. God’s anger is not like the petty wrath of the pagan gods. He is not selfish or petulant. If the flash of justified human anger in a parent, spouse, or employer is enough to make us shiver, we cannot begin to imagine what it will be like to cower under the withering gaze of Christ on the day of judgment. No wonder the biblical writers described God as a consuming fire and warned, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

To “tend to the sorrow of God” is not to manage it. If God’s sorrow is like His joy, we cannot begin to comprehend it, let alone stanch it. We might just as well attempt to quiet Niagara by capturing its rushing waters in a thimble. We can only glimpse God’s sorrow from a great distance. But He fully comprehends ours. Scripture tells us that He voluntarily entered into them through Jesus Christ, “the man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3).

Finally, the biblical language of God’s emotions should be interpreted through the lens of the divine attribute of immutability. This attribute is simply articulated by the Psalmist when he compares God to the variableness of all that God has created: “They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end” (Psalm 102:27-28). The author of Hebrews makes a similar affirmation: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). God does not have a variable emotional disposition like ours. He does not fly into a rage and then regret it. He does not get “bummed out.” He is not given to whims or to uncertainty. He “does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). The emotive language which the Bible often uses when speaking of God describes the various ways in which God relates to us. The old lines from a children’s hymn which celebrates the incarnation of Christ are also in some measure true of God in general: “He feeleth for our sadness, and He shareth in our gladness.”

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Monotone Worship

The worship wars are over. In church after church that I visit, we all seem to be singing the same handful of songs. To me they seem more like chants and shouted slogans than anything else. Melodically uninteresting and lyrically unimaginative, the music we are singing in the church these days isn’t composed, it is compiled. It feels more like the work of a committee than it does the creation of an artist. That’s because the songs we sing are often the result of a production process that might best be described as creation by committee. If you doubt this, count the number of names listed at the end when the song’s credit appears.

Instead of reflecting the personal faith experience and artistic skill of an individual, today’s church music has the feel of mass-produced goods of a marketing machine. There is plenty of enthusiasm. What is often missing is imagination and beauty. Today’s measure of what makes for good worship music rises no higher than the aesthetics of what used to be called top forty radio. As the teenagers observed on American Bandstand in the ’50s and ’60s, “It’s got a good beat, and it’s easy to dance to.” But the result of such an approach inevitably tends toward banality and cliché. This is true both for the music and the words that the music frames.

In an essay entitled “Thoughts about Music,” theologian Josef Pieper makes three observations about the music of the post-modern era, which also apply to much of the church’s music today. First, Pieper notes that the most common and pervasive feature of today’s music is its triviality. Pieper describes this sort of music as the kind whose primary function is entertainment and mood management. According to Pieper, its chief characteristics are “a happy sound” and a “numbing beat.” Second, Pieper observes that the music of the post-modern age is, “frequently selected and consumed as a means of personal enchantment, of escapism, of a certain pseudo-deliverance, and as a means to achieve delight that remains merely ‘skin-deep.’” Third, and most important, Pieper explains that post-modern music “lays bare man’s inner existential condition.” Or to put it in other words, the music of a culture exposes the soul of that culture.

We have been conditioned to believe that all cultural artifacts are morally neutral. We not only see music as amoral but as something whose value is so subjective that it cannot be criticized. In the practice of the church, this post-modern perspective has resulted in a kind of cultural tyranny which demands that worshipers embrace the latest musical style uncritically, no matter what its effect might be on their experience of worship. Some may dismiss Pieper’s observations because his mention of the beat is reminiscent of a kind of musical criticism that was once characteristic of certain branches of Fundamentalism and which condemned modern worship music for its “jungle beat” or employed a pseudo-scientific argument to warn of the psychological and spiritual effects of rhythm on the listener.

But this is not what Pieper is criticizing. His point is not about what music does to us but about what our music says about us. If the music we use to express ourselves in worship is trivial and sentimentalized, it is because our thoughts about God and the Christian life have become trivial and sentimentalized. The danger with this kind of worship is not merely that it exposes our shallowness to the world but that it reinforces that shallowness. George Orwell makes a point in his essay entitled “Politics and the English Language,” which seems pertinent here.  “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” Orwell notes.  

The aim of worship is not merely to express our feelings. It is also intended to shape our thinking. According to Ephesians 5:19, when the church sings together, it is talking to itself as well as to God. Colossians 3:16 speaks of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as modes of instruction and admonition. We serve God when we worship, but the music we use to worship with also serves us. My complaint about the church’s culture of contemporary worship is that it often does neither.

Instead of serving God, the worship of many churches inadvertently pushes God to the margins by employing music as a marketing tool. Rather than serving the congregation, our worship is aimed at those we want to visit the church. Our songs usually speak of God but often in a sentimentalized and even a narcissistic way, so that the message is more about us than it is about God. There is a place in worship for speaking of our own experience. The Old Testament book of Psalms often speaks in the first person. The Psalms also show that worship should have an emotional dimension. Nor is it wrong to hope that outsiders and seekers might sense God’s presence when the church worships. The problem here is one of perspective. The church’s marketplace culture objectifies God by treating the reality of His presence liking a commodity and using it to increase its share of the religious market.

At the same time, the church sends a mixed message about the importance of worship. Even as it spends considerable resources to put on a display that will attract people, so much so that in some churches the worship pastor can be paid more than the preaching pastor, church leaders are dismissive of congregational worship. Pastors often chide those who “only come to church to worship.” Such language gives the impression that congregational worship is the least important thing a church does and that those who make congregational worship the center of their week are self-centered spiritual deadbeats.

Ironically, the Greek terms that are the basis for the term “liturgy” originally referred to a work undertaken for the sake of the community. Apparently, worship is for the sake of people as much as it is for God. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, these same terms were associated with the kind of service rendered by the priests and Levites. In Acts 13:2, this language is used to speak of the worship of the church at Antioch. The apostle Paul uses a different term in Romans 12:1 when he expands the New Testament idea of worship to speak of the offering of the whole self to God as a living sacrifice.

It is not just the tyranny of contemporary style that has flattened our corporate worship to a monotone; it is our view of worship itself. Congregational worship is not the least important thing the church does. Worship is the church’s primary vocation. Indeed, if the first article of the Westminster shorter catechism is correct, worship is humanity’s primary vocation, since “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.”

The worship wars are indeed over, at least where the battle over musical style is concerned. But I am afraid that in the end, none of us is the victor.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Practicing the Present: The Art of Being Self-Conscious

Before we had to put her down, my dog, Gidget, never seemed to worry about the future. She did have a sense of time—or at least she seemed to know when I was due home from work. If she thought at all about the future, it was never very far into the future. And she didn’t worry about death. Right up to her last breath, she never gave it a thought. When we took her to the vet to have her put down, she had no clue what was coming. I don’t know if that made it easier or harder for us.

Many of us live in a world of strategies, five-year-plans, and future goals. My dog’s life was lived entirely in the present. If she had a sense of the future, it extended only as far as the next few moments. She looked forward to the cookie that I tossed her when she came in from outside. But she didn’t wake up in the morning and think about what she was going to do that evening. Even if she could, she would not have asked me to mark an important date on the calendar. As far as I could tell, she existed entirely in the present tense.

Yet her experience is not what I mean by living life in the now. Practicing the present doesn’t mean that we live our lives with a kind of animal immediacy, thinking only of what we need or desire in the moment. It is not reactive living that responds to whatever stimulus I happen to be experiencing in the moment without reflection. Christian living in the present tense demands a kind of self-consciousness that is guided by the Holy Spirit and filtered by the truth of God’s Word. It is a reflection of our capacity to act as a volitional being created in the image of God.

We don’t usually think of self-consciousness as a virtue. It is a trait of an awkward soul. Our image of the self-conscious person is one of shuffling timidity. It is the aspect of someone who has no confidence but is nevertheless self-absorbed. The self-conscious person is one who is continually engaging hand wringing and apology. Even worse, self-consciousness seems to us to be the path that leads to unhealthy introspection, if not to outright narcissism.

We are suspicious of introspection because we associate it with the kind of navel gazing that is characteristic of eastern mysticism. Are we really supposed to sit on a mat and think about ourselves? Such an approach seems to be looking in the wrong direction, especially for Christians who are oriented toward doing. We suspect it would be better to turn the focus away from ourselves. We would prefer to be busy rather than spending extended periods of time thinking about ourselves.

We are right to be suspicious of morbid introspection. Any practice of self-conscious introspection that is not informed by both the truth of God’s Word and the hope of the gospel can only move in two directions. Either it will lead us in the direction of denial, so that we persuade ourselves that we are better than we really are. Or it will move in the direction of shame and despair. Introspection alone does not necessarily lead to a genuine self-understanding. Genuine self-understanding in turn does not always lead to hope.

When we stop and engage in self-conscious introspection we continue to feel the momentum of all that preceded that moment. This is why our initial experience may be unsettling instead of peaceful. In a sense, our minds and our lives are still in motion. The jumble of thoughts, worries, that have been stirred up by the turbulence of our lives comes rushing into that quiet space and we can’t help feeling like we should move with it. We may be distracted at first and agitated. We feel like we should do something. If we are determined to be still and wait for the disorder to settle down, we soon discover something else. We have been in motion because we have been busy but that is not the only reason. Those who wait out the initial storm often realize that they have been in motion because we have been in flight. Perhaps it is a flight from ourselves. It may be a flight from God. Usually, it is a combination of both. As the dust settles in that quiet space of reflection, we begin to see those aspects of ourselves and our lives that we have been trying to keep at bay.

For me, this usually happens at night, when I am forced to stop moving. I lie down to sleep, but the momentum of the day continues. I rewind the events of the past day and watch them again, evaluating my performance. I am like an athlete watching a video of the game that just ended. I criticize my actions. I replay my conversations, improving my responses with all the things I should have said when I had the chance. After I have sorted through all the remains of the day, I turn my attention to the more distant past and begin to sift through my memories like an archaeologist looking for clues. From there, I project into the future with the past as my template. Will it get better? Will it be worse?

I am not alone in this. The intersection of the past and future at the point of the present is a pattern we often find in the Psalms. But the psalmist does more than simply review the past and speculate about the future. The psalmist ponders the reality of God’s presence. When you read the Psalms you discover that The psalmist intentionally directs his gaze toward God. This is an exercise of the intellect. It is an exercise in reasoning. He doesn’t blank his mind in an effort to unite with God’s essence. He argues with himself and takes stock of the facts. “This is what my situation is,” he says. “This is what God has done in the past. Is it really possible that He will deal differently with me in the future?” The implied answer to the psalmist’s question is no. This sounds like it could be a pep talk, and in a way, it is. But it is more. It is the psalmist’s attempt to detect God’s presence on the landscape.

Several years ago, I visited the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As I walked the grounds, I noticed that there were photographs displayed throughout the park. Some things had changed. The people in the pictures were gone. They had died long ago. But the basic features of the landscape were still the same. I recognized the same rolling hills and the same great boulders portrayed in the faded photographs. The recognition sent shivers down me. Suddenly this historic battle no longer seemed like an artifact of history. It was as if what was past had somehow been transported into the present. Something similar happens for the psalmist as he traces the lines of God’s faithfulness onto the landscape of his present experience. As he surveys the future, he expects those features to remain. The circumstances may change, but God’s presence will remain the same. When we engage in this kind of introspection, we are trying to do the same. We are examining the landscape of the present to find the recognizable features of God’s presence in our lives.

In contemplation, we do not try to work ourselves into a state of spiritual bliss. We do not need to elevate our feelings or put a good face on our bad mood. We do not need to be spiritual giants to practice the present. Is it the spiritual work of ordinary people. It is a discipline that helps me to align my perspective with God’s by tracing His presence on the landscape of the past, present and future.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Leaving Home

We put our house up for sale a few weeks ago. It sold quickly, but it unnerved me to have strangers peering into our closets and judging us for even a few days. As anyone who has purchased a home can tell you, the experience is just as awkward for the buyers. Perhaps even more awkward. Buying a house is like getting engaged after a round of speed dating. You spend a few minutes with the object of your desire frantically trying to gauge what its bones really look like under all that makeup. Then with fingers crossed you commit your life and fortune to it.

The experience brought to mind all the houses I have lived in over the years. Each has been good in its way, a testimony to God’s provision for me. But I have not always felt the same about every place. I have loved some and others I have not liked at all. The difference between them was not due to aesthetics alone, although beauty does often play a role in the way we feel about the places where we live. Nor do I think that the comfort of a home is entirely a function of its design. Design is important, of course. The old architectural dictum which says that form follows function is true. But there is more to a home than merely organizing and decorating space.

The difference between space and place is lived experience. But after residing in our current community for almost two decades, I realize that it is only space to me. I leave it without feeling any great sense of loss, at least, not yet. I suspect that once I have moved, I will discover that I am more bonded to the house, the neighborhood, and the city than I knew. As theologian Gilbert Meilaender has observed, we are “creatures of place and time.”  We shape the spaces in which we live, marking them to suit our tastes and our personalities and they, in turn, shape us both for good and for ill. The habits of life we practice while living there become familiar and offer a kind of comfort even if we don’t especially like the area. Happy experiences are engraved upon our memory, while the things we suffer leave scars.

The Bible seems to speak in two voices when it comes to this matter of place. On the one hand, it speaks of those who belong to Christ as displaced persons. We are aliens and strangers in the world (1 Peter 2:11). We are pilgrims who are on the way to somewhere else. At the same time, the God of the Bible is a God who recognizes the importance of location. He interacts in time and space. Before He created humanity, He created the dwelling place they would inhabit and placed Adam there (Genesis 2:8). Humanity’s purpose is similarly linked to location. The statement of Genesis 1:27 that humanity was created to be male and female anticipates the commission given in the next verse that they should “fill the earth.”

God’s call to Abraham was one that required him to change his location. Although Abraham is praised in the book of Hebrews for living his life as a pilgrim, God’s promise to him had to do with place. According to Genesis 12:1, “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’” Abraham was not called to rootlessness but re-location. It is also no accident that the final act of the Bible’s redemptive drama will be played out on a stage which places one particular location at the forefront. Scripture calls Jerusalem the place where God chose to put His name (Deuteronomy 12:5; 2 Chronicles 6:6).

What does this mean for us in the here and now? It means that we are pilgrims like Abraham, but we are also rooted. It means that we have been designed by God to be “in place.” I realize now (perhaps too late) that I have lived most of my adult life in ways that fail to acknowledge this fundamental dimension of human design. That is to say; I have lived my life in a hurry, moving through the world as if it were little more than a space that I passed through on my way to somewhere else. I have lived a life without roots to any particular locale. Some of this has been a function of my vocation. The call of God drew me away from my home and family when I was in my twenties. But these days I wonder if there were other less noble reasons for the sense of detachment I so often feel. I was a pilgrim, but I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t also in flight, not only from my family of origin but perhaps even from myself.

This is an old story, of course. It is also a biblical story. The theme of flight from home is the story of the prodigal son, Jacob, and ultimately Adam himself. In an essay entitled “The Work of Local Culture,” Wendell Berry observes that through much of human history the normal pattern was for one generation to succeed another in place. Berry sees this pattern reflected in the benediction of Psalm 128:5-6 which says, “May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you live to see your children’s children—peace be on Israel.”

But the Bible is too honest to limit itself to this beautiful vision. It is also full of stories where this cycle of succession is broken. Tension with his brother forces Jacob to flee from his family to live with his uncle. Moses is taken from his mother and raised in the palace of Pharaoh and then eventually flees Egypt to take refuge in the wilderness. David is called away from his family to serve Saul and is eventually anointed as king in his place. Then David’s son instead of succeeding him mounts a coup in the hope of replacing his father. Many of these stories include the corollary theme of return. Like these biblical figures, we know what it feels like to leave. What we don’t know is how to return. “Our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return,” Wendell Berry writes.

One of the mundane tasks connected with our impending move was the need to subscribe to cable service. Adam, the salesperson who waited on us, bore all the trademarks of a certain generational style: scruffy beard, piercings, and tattoos. He was amiable and talkative. After asking about our story, he shared a little of his own. Adam was originally from Michigan and had moved back to that state after spending many years away. He had recently moved back and relocated his mother to the town where he now lives. “You know, I didn’t keep in touch with her very well during the years that I was gone,” he told us with a pained expression.

“Young people still grow up in rural areas and go off to cities, not to return. But now it is felt that this is what they should do” Wendell Berry explains. “Now the norm is to leave and not return.” For many young people, there is nowhere to which they can return. There is no family homestead. If the parents are alive, they are often as rootless as their children. They now live somewhere where their children have never lived. The children may feel bound to their parents but not the community where they live. How could they? They have no shared experience there. They possess no cherished (or dreaded) memories of it. The children may visit, but they do not go home. They cannot go home because home no longer exists.

A couple of years ago I drove by the house where I grew up. That house, a small brick ranch in a working-class suburb of Detroit, was not especially attractive. It was functional, which is more than I can say for our family. When we lived there the address on the front porch hung slightly askew, perhaps loosened from its place by the hardships of ordinary life or some seismic upheaval from within. For some reason, my father never fixed it. Maybe he liked the off-kilter look it gave the house. Perhaps he was just lazy. Whatever the reason, it was a fitting symbol of the lives we lived inside. As I sat in the car looking at the house from the curb, I could easily imagine that my mother was on the other side of the front door, seated on the living room couch with her legs drawn up beside her and the amber tip of her cigarette pulsing like a heartbeat. But I knew it was only a fantasy. My parents were long gone. Nobody I knew lived inside. If there was comfort in the sight, it was the kind one gets when visiting a grave.

There is an old gospel song which declares, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” But it seems that these words are only half true. To say that we no longer feel at home does not mean that we have no home. It also does not mean that we should have no sense of place. The final picture that we see in the Bible, or perhaps better, the first glimpse which the Bible gives us of the life that is to come, is one which is anchored to place. Like Abraham, we too are “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). That will be a real city in a real place. We are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth and for the new Jerusalem to come down out of heaven from God (Revelation 12:1-2). These biblical promises are a reminder that even in this rootless age, those who belong to God are rooted in place. There is a home even when no place feels like home. It is the place where all God’s pilgrims will finally come to rest.

Practicing the Present: Race Among the Ruins

When I was a pastor, I found that the hardest part of visiting church members at the hospital was leaving them in the same condition I found them in when I entered the room. It seemed to me that my visits should make a difference. If they did not, what good were they? On each occasion I read Scripture, spoke words of comfort, and prayed. Yet when I was done people seemed no better off.

It’s one thing to talk about practicing the present when life is ordinary. We can face the bread-and-butter struggles of daily living with some serenity, confident of God’s presence. As long as we know that our problems are merely day visitors who show up for a few hours and then go on their way, we can easily put up with them. We might even be willing to bear with them for a few days or a few weeks because we know that in time, things will go back to normal. Our trials are unwelcome guests, but we say to ourselves, “This too shall pass before long.” 

But sometimes the circumstances that visit us arrive for the long term with no sign of leaving. They don’t come for a short stay. They move in and become part of the family. My employer tells me that my position has been eliminated and there is no other opportunity for me with the company. The doctor’s diagnosis indicates that my condition will be prolonged, without any certainty of treatment. My spouse decides to leave me, or my child says that he or she is gay. We have entered into a new “normal” in which boredom is the least of our problems. Suddenly, we hate our life as it currently is. The thought of practicing the present under such conditions not only appears foolish but seems cruel. How do we practice the present when the present is no longer a good place to be? It is almost impossible to offer an answer to such a question that does not sound glib.

Furthermore, the answer that we might offer while contemplating such circumstances from a distance is liable to be very different from the one we would give while suffering through them. The Psalmist might well say, “It was good for me to be afflicted” in Ps. 119:71. But that is the perspective of someone after the trial is over. His tone is very different when he is in the midst of it. Then he cries, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1–2)

Frankly, the church has always tended to mistake stoicism for grace. That is why many of us are so inclined to offer platitudes in the face of suffering:

“Suck it up and tough it out.”

“Look on the bright side.”

“Things could be worse.”

These aren’t the things we actually say, but the things we do say often amount to the same sentiment. We dress our platitudes for church, of course. We mention God and talk about things working together. We remind people of the blessings that will come out of this suffering and of the wisdom they will gain as a result. We tell them that obstacles are only opportunities in disguise. What we say is sometimes true and may even help. But they can’t remove us from the circumstance. Our friends move on and return to their ordinary lives while we are left in our suffering to contemplate what has happened to us. “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”  C. S. Lewis observed.

It took me a long time to realize that my role as a pastor when visiting the sick was not to fix their problems but to practice the present. Every visit was a symbol of God’s presence with them in the midst of their suffering. Scripture promises God’s control and care in even the worst of circumstances. Prayer opens the door for God’s involvement and serves as a reminder that our suffering does not go unseen. Years after those visits, which seemed so impotent to me at the time, church members would tell me how much comfort they derived from them.

This ministry of being present is an important pastoral tool in helping people take ownership of difficult circumstances that are beyond their control. It’s also a tangible reminder of Christ’s presence and His dominion over sickness, death, and destruction. “The kingdom of God is where Jesus Christ is. But Jesus Christ always lingers in the darkest places in the world” pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke observed.

Practicing the present doesn’t magically make grief or anxiety disappear. When we practice the present we are not transported emotionally into some other realm, so we do not have to deal with the trauma that has happened to us. Nor does it deliver us from the changes that inevitably come. Eventually, our appetite returns. We put on our clothes and go back to work. We pick up the kids from school and feed the dog. But it’s not as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed.

Practicing the presence does not deliver us from turmoil. It does not transfer us into a special state of grace that somehow enables us to float above our circumstances so that we feel untouched by them. We may experience regret. We can be confused about what we should do next. We might feel afraid. We may even be angry enough to scream and sad enough to weep. Or we may feel nothing at all, as we seek a temporary respite from our circumstances in the numbness of shock.

If practicing the present is unable to deliver us from the frailty that attends all mortals when they find themselves in great difficulty, what good is it? What exactly does it do for us? The answer is that it delivers us into the hands of God.

If you practice the present, God will not magically make all the bad things that have happened to you disappear. Things can always get worse. What I can promise you is that if you look for God amid your circumstances, you will find Him. Our afflictions often act as a goad whose uncomfortable prodding compels us to follow paths we would not have chosen otherwise. The landscape may appear barren. It may seem to you that you have been abandoned. Even though you may not sense Christ’s presence amid your circumstances, you can trace His proximity on the map of His promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you. I will be with you always, even to the very end of the age.”

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Practicing the Present: The Courage of the Ordinary

When my friend Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he started reading obituaries. He found comfort in the newspaper’s daily litany of the departed. Somehow it made him feel less alone. Like a pilgrim who is traveling in company, instead of someone who stumbles along a difficult path by himself. It was the ordinariness of the thing that helped him the most.

I feel something similar whenever I thumb through the old yearbooks in the faculty lounge. Their faces framed in horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses, the images of former faculty gaze back at me with pursed lips or shy smiles. I do not recognize any of their names. They are long forgotten by the school they once served. Along with them are rank upon rank of students who are also long gone. They are not remembered either. Indeed, most of them were hardly known when they were here. Like the majority of us, they were just ordinary people.

It’s hard to be ordinary. Especially in a culture which worships the heroic. This is particularly true of the Christian world. Author Wendell Berry writes that the Judeo-Christian tradition favors the heroic. “The poets and storytellers in this tradition have tended to be interested in the extraordinary actions of ‘great men’–actions unique in grandeur, such as may occur only once in the world” he explains. This is a standard that is impossible for ordinary people to live up to.

As a young Christian, I remember being captivated by the story of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who lost their lives when they attempted to bring the gospel to the Huaorani people of Ecuador. When I was finished I got down on my knees and prayed that God would make me a martyr too. It was a foolish prayer, prompted more by romanticism than by devotion. It was a request born of youthful impatience and a rash hunger for glory. Not at all like the real martyrs, most of whom stumbled into their unique calling.

It takes another kind of courage and a different skill set to follow the path assigned to the majority. “The drama of ordinary or daily behavior also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance” Berry observes. “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”

On some days we feel like we are only going through the motions, merely shuffling along as we pass into oblivion. Instead, we are traveling in company. We are upholding the world with hundreds of small and ordinary efforts. We make the bed. We drive the kids to school and worry about the kind of day they will have. We go to work. We clean the bathroom. We wait for the end of the world and the dawning of the age to come. It is a kind of liturgy.

Practicing the present requires that we reclaim a sense of the eternal significance of the mundane spaces in our lives. We don’t do this by trying to change the quality of our experience in those areas. The mundane will still involve the mundane but by accepting the ordinary as a context in which God is present. The ordinary tasks assigned to us by our calling and life situation are no less meaningful to God than those that are extraordinary. We don’t need to be attempting great things all the time. We don’t need to make a name for ourselves. As far as we know from Scripture, Jesus spent most of the first thirty years of His earthly life doing very little that was worth writing about. He lived in Nazareth and worked an ordinary job. To the people in His hometown there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about Jesus. He was “the carpenter,” just somebody from the village (Mark 6:3).  

We do not need to resort to extraordinary acts of devotion to experience the reality of God’s presence. Nor does the reality of God’s nearness evaporate when we grow busy or our circumstances become difficult. During those times when we find it difficult to sense the nearness of God, He is as present as ever. From the highest heavens to the lowest depths, whatever situation we may find ourselves in is one in which God is already there (Ps. 139:8).

Although we always inhabit the present, we often feel as if it is moving past us. Try as we might to seize upon the moment and hold it fast, it still slips from our grasp. That good feeling we have passes or the season changes. The song that moved us so deeply comes to an end and somehow replaying it over again does not quite have the same effect. It is easy to think that we are standing fast as time marches past us and fades in the distance. We are caught in time’s irresistible current and swept into the future. As much as we might want to revisit the past, we can do so only in our minds. We have moved beyond the past and cannot return to it, no matter what the science-fiction writers say. The future is as removed from us as the past. We may be moving inexorably toward it, but the future will always remain in front of us. We can only imagine or speculate what will take place there.

But God is the master of time. It serves God’s purpose. The same God who established the regular cycle of day and night, summer and winter, seedtime and harvest also orders the seasons of our lives (Gen. 8:22). Our times are in His hand (Ps. 31:15). God always acts on our behalf at the “right time” (Rom. 5:6). This was true of the birth of Jesus Christ, which occurred “when the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4). It is just as true in the commonplace things that concern us every day. Why do we brood about the past and fret over the future? According to Jesus, it is because we have lost sight of God. God gives meaning to the present.  His presence sanctifies our boredom and redeems our discomfort. The present is more than a place where the past comes to rest. It is more than a staging ground for the future. The present is where God shows up.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Practicing the Present

I am a sucker for books and movies about time travel. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, the DeLorean in Back to the Future, and any Star Trek episode in which the crew of the starship Enterprise travels back to the twentieth century—I love them all. But over the years, I’ve learned a few important things about time travel. For example, as far as I can tell from these books and movies, backward is better than forward. When you travel back in time, you know what you’re getting. The future, on the other hand, is unknown and always seems to get worse. But that doesn’t mean that the past is safe. When you travel back in time, you had better not touch anything. Apparently, the smallest change can have devastating effects on the space-time continuum. You may come back to the present and find that you don’t exist.

In real life, time travel is impossible, but that doesn’t mean I have no interest in the past or the future. The truth is, I’m often preoccupied with both. Sometimes it’s because I’m thinking about the past, trying to understand what I have experienced and how it affects my life. Just as often I’m concerned about the future. Maybe it’s because I’m looking forward to what comes next. More often it’s because I’m worried about it. What gets lost in all of this is the present. Like the quiet child in a loud family, it’s often overlooked. Either way I tend to brush by the present, as if it were some stranger I pass on a busy street. Or if I do give it attention, it’s usually only a kind of grudging consideration—the sort you might give to someone who whines until your attention is wheedled away from the thing that really interests you .

“I have been scattered in times I do not understand,” St. Augustine complained. He saw his life as one that stretched in many directions at once. Like Augustine, our minds too are scattered in time, so that our interests range far beyond the present. At one moment, we peer intently into the past, hoping for the mists to clear and longing to catch a glimpse of a present that has disappeared from view. In the next, we skip far ahead, hoping to scout out the future and stake a certain claim. Unfortunately, the beauty and value of the present is often lost. We are here in body but not in mind. We are only halfhearted in our attention and sometimes in our service. To someone whose interest is chiefly on the future, the present is only a way station. Its primary function is to serve as a staging ground for what comes next. For the person whose focus is mostly on the past, the present is a cemetery filled with monuments to the glory days that will never come again or with a painful record of the injuries and slights we have suffered.

I want to propose an alternative. I call it the “practicing the present.” Practicing the present is more than the habit of slowing down and making ourselves aware of what is going on in the moment. It’s a way of locating ourselves in the world. It’s a way of seeing. Practicing the present is the habit of reining in our wandering mind and concentrating our attention on the here and now. This means, first of all, taking stock of things as they really are. What is the real landscape of my life? What do things really look like? We are doing more than assessing. We are trying to orient ourselves to reality. Those who dwell on the past and future are often living in a fantasy world. But God is at work in the real world. As we take stock of things as they really are, we do so with an awareness that God is truly present no matter how mundane or how bleak the circumstances appear.

Those who practice the present believe that God dwells in the midst of the muck and mire of daily life. Practicing the present doesn’t ignore the future or the past. But it does view both with a measure of sanctified skepticism. The future and the past can both be an unhealthy refuge for those who are disappointed with their present. Practicing the present also demands that we rein in, as much as we are able, our ambition and our anxiety. Both are common to human experience, and each in their own way can blind us to the reality of God’s presence. Ambition and anxiety can both cause us to forget the One who has numbered the hairs of our head and who is really responsible for the effectiveness of what we do for Jesus. Both ambition and anxiety can cause us to take too much responsibility for the success or the failure of what we do.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was shattered by the news. I felt betrayed, not so much by God, but by my own body. I lay awake nights thinking about the thing I had inside me and wishing that I could go back to the day before I knew of the diagnosis. When the doctor told me that my surgery appeared to be successful, I felt like a condemned prisoner who has just been given a pardon. “This is what forgiveness feels like,” I told my wife. Five years after the surgery, my blood work showed a slight change, and I panicked. The doctor assured me that the difference was insignificant. As far as he was concerned, I was still cancer free. Yet the old fear had returned, and I found it difficult to break free from it. What if the doctor was wrong? How did I know that the next test results wouldn’t show that my cancer had come back? I still think about it.

Fear often casts a shadow over the future as we worry about things that might happen. Just as often we fret about the past. Sometimes we worry that we have taken a wrong turn along the way or we regret some choice we have made. We wonder how the past has shaped our present or how it will affect our future. We speculate about how things might be different if we had acted otherwise. The trouble with all such fears is that we can do nothing about them. Once our choices have been made and the action is taken, we cannot go back and undo them. No matter how much we may regret the past, we do not have the power to change it. The future is similarly out of reach. We can speculate but we cannot know for certain what the future will be like. The past is a shadow, and the future a mirage.

In one sense, we can’t help practicing the present. We have no other temporal framework within which to live. Time travel is only the stuff of science fiction. We may remember the past, but we cannot return to it. We may place our hope in the future or dread its approach, but we cannot suddenly transport ourselves there. The truth is that the present is the only context available to us for living out our lives. So we may as well learn how to practice the present.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.