I Refuse To Be Content With Shorthand-Reality This Christmas

In front of me, there is a rectangle with rows of little squares on it. On each square a little symbol is emblazoned; bits of circles, lines, or a mash up of the two. Whenever I push on one of the squares, the symbol transfers to my screen, and I call this “writing”. Even more amazing is the fact that you can read it, because we’ve agreed by consensus with our forefathers that these funny little shapes on my keyboard correspond to real sounds, and that the sounds can be mixed together to make words, and that the words can serve as a shorthand way of communicating about real things, real concepts, and real people.

The words themselves are not the reality. They are only a crude substitution for the purposes of communication. It would be tricky, after all, to have to hold up a real tree anytime we wanted to talk about one, or a real lion, for that matter. And intangible things like love and mathematics could hardly be spoken of at all without our language of squiggles and sounds standing in for them. For the most part, having a shorthand system to use for talking about reality is a great advantage. But there is a downside to it as well, coming from the fact that words can only mean as much as we already know. For example, if I write my own name:

Seth Lewis

The words by themselves mean nothing unless you already know something about the living, breathing human who goes by that name and is writing these squiggly shapes for you to read. Even with shorthand, there’s no getting around the fact that it takes time to learn the meaning of most realities, and especially so for personalities. This is why novels must devote so many pages to character development – we need descriptions, thought processes, conversations, and reactions to various situations before we can even begin to build a realistic idea of what shorthand words like “Seth Lewis” actually mean in the reality of living flesh.

It should be no surprise to us, then, that the same is true of the word “God”. By itself, it is a funny-looking set of circling squiggle-lines.

But what is the reality behind it?

It’s popular these days to say that the reality behind “God” is whatever we personally desire: Whether I want a cosmic Mother Nature, a mindless Force, or a Holy Father, I can fill that word however I like, and live my life accordingly. The problem with this idea is that if there is any such real being as God, my personal desires won’t be likely to change his fundamental realities. If some strangers online become firmly convinced that they have the truth about what a Seth Lewis really is, how a Seth Lewis really acts, and how I really think, it still won’t change the actual reality of what I am. In the same way, if we want to know the reality of God, we’ll need something better than our gut feelings and natural preferences to tell us.

Thankfully, we have something better: words from God himself, describing to us in detail how he acts, thinks, converses, and works in various situations. Even more than that, we have the historic appearance of God himself in human flesh – the reason we celebrate Christmas this month – to translate himself into our reality. This means that we can now see how this God thinks, converses, acts, and responds to the various situations of life on earth, as a human. This Christmas season, I don’t want to be content with my current understanding of the old familiar shorthand: God, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and such. I want to take time instead to mine the gospel accounts carefully and get to know more about the reality those shorthand words represent. More about the Reality that made himself an infant, brought heaven to earth, and reshaped eternity. More about the Reality that has already changed my own reality more than anything or anyone else. I already know the shorthand. I want to know more of Him.

Gospel Music: The Happy Song That Grew From Suffering

We’ve all heard of the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From the 1500-1800’s, more than 12 million souls were captured, torn from their families and homes, and sold across the sea – with almost 2 million dying before they even landed. Those that made it were treated as sub-human property by their new masters, to be used and tossed aside at will.

Of all the people in the world, these are the last you’d expect to hear singing. Yet sing they did, with such passion and rhythm and hope that they eventually created a whole new kind of music: Gospel, a genre still popular enough today that I recently attended a concert at the Cork City Hall along with hundreds of other people who all paid €40 for the privilege of hearing the Blind Boys Of Alabama sing about Jesus in their toe tapping style. I looked on in amazement, because it doesn’t add up: Take a group of men who have personally known the depths of the hate and oppression this world has to offer (they lived through segregation in Jim Crow-era Alabama, as well as a world war), men whose ancestors were stolen and enslaved, men who began life with every disadvantage society could give them already built in – then add on top of that the further disadvantage of physical blindness. Now tell me what you think these men will sing. Why didn’t we hear the angry tirades of many modern rappers and rock stars? Wouldn’t that anger be justified? Why not at least the sorrow of a country tune lamenting all that has gone wrong? Surely they have more right to anger than Tupac or Eminem. Surely they have more to lament than the cowboys of Nashville.

How can they be so happy? How can music born in such suffering and pain have the power to lift anyone who hears it and make them want to dance for joy? And how is it that we who enjoy all the advantages they were denied choose instead to sing so tirelessly of our misery, heartbreak, and loss?

The Blind Boys know, and they were quite clear when they visited Cork: “Jesus is the answer” they said, and sang, and demonstrated with their obvious joy in the face of all they have known and experienced. Jesus is the Gospel behind the music, the reason toes can tap in joyful rhythm even in the midst of earthly oppression and disability and war. Jesus, the most innocent man who ever lived, who let himself be oppressed and unjustly killed, who did it “for the joy set before him” – knowing that his victory over the death our sin deserved would open the door to the most glorious and enduring celebration ever known, a celebration that the Blind Boys tapping toes are inviting us to glimpse and taste as we wait for their voices to join with all God’s rescued children in the Gospel Music Session of the ages!

Banksy Grabs Headlines, Even As Millions Of Masterpieces Shredded Daily

Last Wednesday the anonymous British graffiti artist known as ‘Banksy’ sold a few prints at an auction in Paris. This is notable mainly because of what didn’t happen: the last time Banksy art was sold (earlier this month) it self-destructed only moments after the gavel went down on a  bid of over a million British pounds. Banksy had installed a shredder inside the frame, which was remotely activated as soon as the sale was complete. It sounds a bit like the stuff of spy movies, and certainly was a first for the art world. Or was it?

It’s true that it had never happened at an auction before. But outside the auction halls, it’s actually quite common. Take a walk down the street from the now-embarrassed Sotheby’s in London, and before long you’ll find yourself in Hyde Park. One of the city’s large Royal Parks, Hyde Park boasts a beautiful variety of autumn colour this time of year. In other words, a profusion of striking colours fill the air with beauty as an entire natural gallery begins to transform, without any need for remote activation, in a synchronised rhythm of mass self-destruction.

Autumn in Hyde Park, London

Take a walk through the park, and you’ll hear the satisfying crunch of Autumn under your feet. Bring a magnifying glass with you and marvel at the intricate design of millions of tiny cells, each containing libraries of design plans stored in organic memory more sophisticated than any device Silicon Valley has produced, boasting internal machines with the power to convert raw sunlight into energy more efficiently than any solar panel. All of these engineering marvels are spread on eye-catching canvasses with a wide variety of symmetrical shapes and blazing colours, and some of them have found their way into your shoe. You crush them under your feet as the trees release more into the breeze with a similarly careless disregard. All over this half of the world, billions more trees are releasing billions more leaves in a wanton self-destructive shower of ticker tape, not even caring if anyone is there to appreciate their dying display or jump in the gathered piles of art that used to hang in their lofty galleries.

When God creates art, he is anything but sparing. He spreads it far and wide, covering the earth not merely in repeated prints but in billions of fantastically unique originals, and then destroys them in seemingly heedless abandon, gathering their decaying canvasses into the soil to give nutrients to a new generation of art ready to burst out in Spring. You don’t have to go to exclusive auction houses or pay a million pounds to enjoy it – the art is growing in profusion all around you, all free, all given for your daily enjoyment by the greatest Master the art world will ever know.

Banksy was original, but not as original as the leaf in your shoe.

The Noisiest Headlines Are Not The Most Important

KAVANAUGH IS CONFIRMED TO UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT, AFTER CONTENTIOUS CONFIRMATION…

What’s the most important news in that headline? Certainly, a spot on the US Supreme Court is influential in the extreme – far beyond what it was intended to be by America’s founders. Kavanaugh will have out-sized influence over American life for decades to come. And yet, I submit to you that Kavanaugh himself is not the most important part of the news cycle these last few weeks.

We are.

The only thing everyone on both sides seems to agree on is this: the entire process was broken. From that common acknowledgment, we go on to explain whose fault it is, and how corrupt the other side is. Which is fair enough. A free country ought to encourage free exchange and debate. The problem is that we don’t actually debate anymore.

In order to have a fruitful debate, two things are necessary:

1) A shared goal

2) A shared respect

Can’t we debate about our goals? Yes, but until we come to some sort of consensus on our purpose, we will never be able to debate productively about anything else. As long as we disagree on where we are going, we’ll never be able to agree on how to get there. The only way we’ll move at all is by leveraging raw power. This is the state of current “debate” in America: it is primarily rhetoric for the purpose of solidifying bases from which power plays can be made at opportune moments. The Kavanaugh “debate” stank of this. We have come to the point when even accusations of sexual abuse are political weapons to be timed and deployed and shot down with cynical regularity, each side taking turns at each role as the specific situations change. The exact same phrases, moral condemnations and righteous defences are taken up in turn by opposite sides, only to be conveniently forgotten as soon as the tables turn. The game is dirty. Everyone knows it. We justify anything from our side and believe anything against the other with one ultimate purpose: victory at all costs. But what if the cost turns out to be the very foundation of our society? What if, in fighting the monsters against us, we find that we have become monsters ourselves?

The second requirement for productive debate is a recognition that other people are actually people. Even if their perspective is different, their value remains. This is less common than it sounds. In fact, very few societies in history have intentionally valued dissent or dissenters. America has been an exception to this rule, but the revolutionary idea of honouring those we strongly disagree with seems to be falling on hard times. In our zeal to see our vision for the future established, we have begun to allow ourselves the comfortable view that our cultural and political enemies are sub-human animals worthy only of insult and abuse. We call this new reality “Twitter”.

Is there a solution? I believe there is. I believe it is possible to disagree productively. But it won’t happen as long as we define our ultimate problem as the people against us. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced the horrors of the Gulag, saw with clarity that the problem is bigger than the other side:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed. While the headlines re-direct us to the corrupt political manoeuvring and power plays in the halls of government, they allow us to conveniently ignore the ways our own hearts are manoeuvring and playing for self-justification and control over others and even over God himself, if that were possible. This is why, no matter how good the headlines are, our favourite politicians can’t save us from the problems around us. Those problems have put their roots into our own chests. The corruption is in our own hearts. This is why righteous causes throughout history have all eventually fallen apart under their own weight, why the saviours of one generation have always somehow become the oppressors of the next, why every revolution leads only to the need for another. No, a better headline won’t save us. We need a better saviour. We need Jesus.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Mind The Gaps

The world is full of words, more than ever. Never have there been more news headlines clambering for clicks, advertisements designed to arrest our attention, or friends filling us in on everything they had for dinner. Somehow, we have to muddle around this mess with our infobese heads filled to popping with more messages than they can process, too worn out to care much about what is really true and what is deceptively false.

Yet into this deluge I submit words of my own. I take a deep breath and yell into the roaring waterfall: “There are not enough words!”

Because there aren’t.

In all the daily torrent of verbiage, there are still far too many gaps. Most of the communication we hear is like a 1,000 piece puzzle from a charity shop that didn’t come with all the pieces. The pictures presented to us are incomplete, and the gaps can be hard to spot. And yet, quite often, the gaps are the most important part.

This is obvious enough in advertisements. We know that companies will tell us only the virtues of their products, shaping and bending the truth into the most desirable package they can produce. Yet even as we complain about this, we practice it ourselves on social media, where we work hard to cultivate an idealised image of ourselves, leaving out most of the actual reality of our lives. We fully expect the same from our political leaders. Fake news may be a new catch phrase, but it’s an ancient reality: the art of spin is a time-tested tradition that spans all cultures, continents, forms of government, and types of organisations. We may have more choice now over who we listen to, but often this choice comes down to which set of incomplete puzzle pieces we happen to prefer. Do we like the right side of the puzzle or the left? Are we drawn to the bits with a confusion of colours or to the parts that blend together in understandable sameness? Whatever our choice is, we can find news sources, friends, and tweets to support us.

The trouble is, with all our choosing and shaping and shouting others down, no one seems to be able to agree on what this puzzle is supposed to look like in the end. Have we lost the box top? Is there no unifying vision powerful enough to pull these pieces together?

There is a box top. I’ve had a glimpse of it. I can tell you that its picture has shapes and dynamics that are diverse enough for every person on the planet to have a place, and yet the lines and colours are so unexpected that they will leave absolutely everyone with something to be offended at. No surprise there: Did I really expect the picture of the universe to be a portrait of me? It turns out that the Artist behind this puzzling reality had a much bigger and more complicated design in mind than any of us could fathom, but he generously gave us the broad outlines of his plan in the Bible. It’s a complicated book (like the world); mixing shadows and light, greys and colours, sameness and confusion into one overarching drama expansive enough to catch up all our little pieces and finally make sense of them in the masterpiece of history.

As long as we insist on communicating without any reference to the box top, we’ll never be able to fit the pieces of our world into anything meaningful and whole. We’ll spin on in a vortex of half-truths and incomplete ideas, swinging our pendulums from one extreme to another in a never-ending series of attempts to find the purpose we long for. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we listen to the Artist, we can begin to close the gaps and find our places together in his Magnum Opus.

This Blog Post Is EPIC

Slow motion. A woman with her hair blowing in a light breeze walks confidently between library shelves packed with books. Where did the breeze come from? Nobody knows, but it doesn’t matter because the the camera has transported us to a laboratory, where a young man smiles to himself as he mixes chemicals. Is he remembering a joke from last night, or does he really enjoy chemistry that much? We can’t ask, because now we’re on the beach, and a well-dressed lady is picking up seaweed with some sort of oversized tweezers. She’s very happy about the seaweed. The music swells! Now we’re watching dirty men in jerseys fighting for victory. And then the happy people are gone, but not without leaving us with the distinct impression that going to a certain university will make every moment of every day nothing short of epic.

I went to university. I remember the library. There was no breeze there. There was no music. And no one mistook me for a model on a catwalk when I walked between the shelves. As I recall, my time there was mostly spent sitting at tables with a headache and a looming deadline.

Cinematography has come a long way. These days, the simple act of walking down the street or jogging in the park can be recorded in vivid high definition from a hovering drone with orchestral accompaniment and dramatic colour filters that make our eyes pop and convince our minds that what we are seeing is the very definition of epic.

Really? I walk down the street every day with #nofilter and no soundtrack. I see the same cracks in the footpath and peeling paint and one time a bird pooped on my hat. Even with a drone, it would be hard to convince anyone that particular moment was epic.

And yet it was.

I was breathing. Do you have any idea how many intricate miracles have to align perfectly to make that possible? I was walking. Without even thinking about it, my muscles obeyed my subconscious commands and transported me home. Is that not epic?

Yes, the weeds were growing through the cracks in the footpath. Insignificant seeds defying our engineered layer of stone and pushing life towards the blazing sun. Is that not epic?

A creature who can soar through the sky and sing his part in the dawn chorus eats the berries growing in profusion beside the road, gains strength from them, and deposits the seeds somewhere else where they can push up new life bursting with new berries for new generations of birds. Yes, some of them were deposited on my hat. Is that not epic?

We don’t need professional HD video editors to make the world seem like a wonder. It already is. We don’t need soundtracks to transform everyday moments into epic events. They already are. Every moment of every day is already overflowing with more miracles than our minds can comprehend.

All we need to do is open our eyes.

On The Origin Of Humanity’s Superpower

“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
But I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?”

So sang Sir Paul McCartney, and all it takes is a few minutes listening to the radio to prove him right. Same goes for silly rom-coms and royal weddings. For some reason, we humans get a bit silly over love. No matter how scientific our philosophy or cold and calculated our theory of existence, there’s nearly always someone in our lives who holds a mysterious power to break through our rigid shell into the gooey centre of our humanity where love is the unrivalled (and often unruly) ruler.

We love. It’s what humans do. The only real difference between us is where we each choose to direct our love: Some turn it in on themselves, while others turn it outward and upward. Still, the common thread of all humanity is this incredible ability to passionately, forcefully love with every fibre of our being.

It’s our superpower.

Our history, literature, and films have documented its use in detail, even in fantastic hypotheticals. And yet – where is the origin story? What explanation can we give for this fire burning in our blood? If it wasn’t a spider bite or an experiment gone wrong, how did it become so intensely strong that it can drive the most rational creatures on the planet to break our bodies and give our lives for the sake of a beautiful face or the colours on a flag?

If we listen to certain scientists, they calmly explain that what we call “love” is actually the inevitable result of meaningless mutations, chemical reactions, and survival instinct. This would make sense if all we ever loved was ourselves, but it makes utter nonsense of our monuments to strong heroes who sacrificed their lives protecting the weak. Survival of the fittest? This origin story doesn’t make sense of us. Our superpower is not a cold-hearted advantage over others. We have a word for people who use power that way: villain. Heroes are always born of love: For nations, for cities, for friends, for family, for strangers – for others.

In all the world, there is only one origin story that does justice to the strength and centrality of our love: It is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine has certainly been the cause of head-scratching through the centuries as we try to understand how God can be one God in substance and nature, and yet exist in never-ending relationship between the three distinct persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But this mystery of the Trinity solves the mystery of us: It shows us that love is central to humanity because love is central to the nature of God. God created us as relational beings because God is a relational being. Why does our passion burn so hot? Because it was kindled in the furnace of God himself. No other concept of God or theory of human beginnings can tell us why it is that we long so desperately to know and be known, to love and be loved. But if the God who made us in his image is himself relational by nature, then he could even be a God whose love is strong enough to cause him to give his life for the sake of humans who rebelled against him. If you want to know why the symbol of the cross is the most common monument on the planet, look no further than this: it is the place where the origin of love became love’s ultimate expression.