Lagoon

My wife and I recently celebrated our ten-year anniversary in Kona, Hawaii. It was an incredible trip, though not your typical romantic getaway. The reason? We brought along our eight-month-old son.

It’s amazing how many things you can’t do on the Big Island with a baby in tow. No surfing, no snorkeling, no kayaking, no crater climbing, no late-night luaus.

More than once we wondered aloud whether we should have made the trip with such a young child. But by the end, we were glad we did. There’s nothing quite like watching a child watch the world. And when that world is filled with the vivid sights of a tropical paradise, it’s even better.

On one of our first evenings there, while my wife was getting ready to go out for dinner, I walked our son down to the beach. The early months of his life had passed in the landlocked Midwest, so this would be his first glimpse of the ocean.

As we neared the water’s edge, I was curious to see his reaction. Would he smile? Giggle? Open his mouth and unleash one of his familiar “Gee, gee, gee!” exclamations? Or just stare, wonderstruck?

He cried.

I should have anticipated his response. The tide was in. The waves were high. They sped toward us with a growing roar before slamming into the rocky shoreline, churning up stones and spewing them across the pebbled beach. It was a violent scene.

As my son took it all in, his bottom lip started to tremble. Then he jerked his head from the sight and stifled a scream against my shoulder.

Suddenly I understood how strange and terrifying the pounding waves must have appeared to him. He’d never seen anything like it. What guarantee did he have that the next angry surge would stop before swallowing us whole?

His reaction made perfect sense: the ocean is overwhelming. And not just for children. Truth be told, I’m a little scared of it too. Poets wax eloquent about the ocean’s beauty, its power to inspire serenity and introspection—and that’s all true.

But there’s another side to the sea, a scary side, the side of powerful tempests and deadly creatures and dark depths. There’s a reason swimming instructors tell you to respect the ocean. If you don’t, it can kill you.

When I was about twelve years old, I remember looking out over the ocean at night and trying to imagine what it would be like to swim out into those black waters. It was about the scariest thought I’d ever entertained.

Vast, beautiful, powerful, dangerous—that’s the ocean. It makes me think of God, which is probably appropriate. Both are immense, mysterious. Both can make us feel frighteningly small. The appropriate response to such greatness is respect and awe, even resignation. Yet often we tend to do something else, something very strange. We devise ways to make them more manageable. We scale them down to our size. We domesticate them. Or at least we try.

The god lagoon
One of the highlights of our anniversary trip to Hawaii was staying in the Hilton Waikoloa Village, a sprawling four-star resort located on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island. We could only afford to stay there two nights, but it was worth the price. You didn’t even have to leave the 62-acre, 1,240-room resort to have a good time. It featured a dozen restaurants and a variety of shops, boutiques, and galleries.

In the daytime we swam in the pools and dined in the open-air restaurants. In the evenings we strolled the meticulously gardened grounds, taking in the lush vegetation and cascade waterfalls. When our feet got tired or the baby got fussy, we simply hopped on the air-conditioned tram that whisked us back to our room.

But the big draw for us was the lagoon, an enclosure the resort’s website described as “teeming with tropical fish and rare green sea turtles . . . a protected oasis perfect for snorkeling and swimming.”5 The lagoon, of course, was man-made. Every min- ute ten thousand gallons of water were pumped in from the ocean. All dangerous marine life was screened out.

There were no jelly fish or barracudas or sharks in the lagoon. Nothing with stingers or poison or fangs. No spiny backs or razor teeth. Just slow-swimming turtles and brightly colored fish. Beside the lagoon was a perfectly rectangular, white-sand beach, with cabanas for rent. And yes, a Lagoon Grill to fill you up between swims.

After getting situated on the beach, my wife and I took turns swimming while the other parent watched the baby. I jumped into the water first and swam for the other side. The water wasn’t perfectly clear, but I made out several large fish passing beneath me. When I reached the rocks on the far side, I even spotted a sea turtle. I swam back to the beach, toweled off, and it was my wife’s turn.

The lagoon was enjoyable (it definitely beat a cold night in Chicago), but after an hour or so something unforeseen happened. We got bored.

Why did the initial thrill of crisscrossing the enclosure fade so quickly?

Maybe we had unrealistic expectations. I had been attracted by the promise of an authentic marine adventure, but this felt more like swimming in a large pool stocked with fish and turtles. Perhaps the experience was diminished by the fact that the lagoon was crowded with other vacationers, many riding inner tubes, paddleboats, canoes, and giant water bicycles.

But the problem really wasn’t what was in the lagoon. It’s what wasn’t. There were no waves, no spray from the surf, no tides, no coral reefs, no danger, no depths.

It wasn’t the ocean.

At one point I looked over my shoulder at the sea. It lay about a hundred feet away and seemed to stretch forever beyond the horizon. “You know,” I said to my wife, “we could swim in there.”

I believe there’s a spiritual equivalent to that man-made lagoon. If the ocean is like God, the lagoon is a poor, but useful, replacement. It’s domesticated Christianity. It’s engagement with a lesser deity. It’s the golden calf in place of Yahweh. It’s a life designed to give us spiritual experiences while cushioning us from the reality of a dangerous God.

Just like the manmade lagoon had real ocean water and marine life, this “god lagoon” may contain some spiritual truths. We may even encounter qualities of the true God—but only the ones we deem acceptable. Divine characteristics we find threatening or that clash with our modern sensibilities, we carefully screen out.

Life in the lagoon means never being surprised by God. It means never having to take seriously what he might have us do or ask us to give up. Ultimately, it means we are in control.

The power of the god lagoon lies in its subtlety. It’s easy to think you’re in the ocean when you’re immersed in saltwater and surrounded by sea turtles. And it’s easy to believe we’re encountering God because we go to church, sing the songs, pray the prayers, and interact with Christians. But we can do all of those things without ever having to grapple with the real presence of God.

And it’s not like the lagoon is filled with pagans and heretics. It’s filled with us—well-meaning believers who gladly pay lip service to the central doctrines of the Christian faith. But here’s the rub. Somewhere along the line we’ve distanced ourselves from those truths. We haven’t let them, or the God who revealed them, invade our reality. In a thousand little ways, we’ve chosen the comfort of the shallows over life in the deep.

Of course it’s natural to ask, if the lagoon is so comfortable, why leave? Why not remain ensconced in its safe, warm waters?

Well, for the same reason my wife and I were disappointed by that resort lagoon. It’s not real. And it gets boring. Sure, it’s fun for a while. But it’s not invigorating. One day you wade in and realize you’ve been splashing around in a bounded enclosure of your own imagining.

And there’s something inside you that longs to leave the lagoon and strike out for the deep.

So many of us live what one writer called “lives of quiet desperation.” We’re bored to death of living but scared to death to really live.

What if what’s really missing are the deep things of God?

What if it’s not that next accomplishment or superficial thrill? What if only a ravishing vision of God’s grandeur will make the difference? Maybe that’s what it takes to make you want to crawl back into your life. Maybe only the deep will do.

Eye-Popping Beauty
What is the deep? It’s where we encounter God. Not God as we might imagine him to be, but God how he really is. How he has revealed himself to us.

We might not always like what we find in the deep. We will likely discover truths that make us uncomfortable or even offend us. We should never expect eternal truth to neatly fulfill our twenty- first-century expectations. Nor can we demand safety there.

Poet John Blase writes a reflection in which he invites readers to leave the shallows to follow Jesus out into the deep. But he offers this caveat:

Now in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that out there in the deep you might drown, or get eaten by a shark, or get a charley horse then flail around thus drawing the attention of leviathan. The only guarantee is God’s presence. That’s the deal. That’s the deep.

Of course he’s right. Life in the deep is dangerous because it’s life with God. So why risk it? Because there isn’t just danger in the deep; there’s wonder too.

deep

Again, consider the ocean.
 In 2010, after a decade of work by nearly three thousand researchers, scientists produced the first Census of Marine Life. The researchers discovered six thousand new species, bringing the total number of known marine species to two hundred and fifty thousand.

Highlights from the study ranged from the bizarre to the beautiful: six-hundred-year-old tube worms, herring that swim in formations as large as Manhattan, the yeti crab with long downy claws, a jellyfish with a Darth Vader–like helmet, and another jellyfish that uses “lights” to “scream” for help.

One of the leaders for the project said, “Life astonished us everywhere we looked. . . . The discoveries of new species and habitats both advanced science and inspired artists with their extraordinary beauty.” Another scientist who participated in the research effused, “The most surprising thing was the beauty. . . . Our eyes were popping out of our heads.”

That’s the kind of beauty that’s worth searching for. And it’s a mere glimpse of the wonders awaiting us in the depths of God. To communicate something of the boundless nature of God, the apostle Paul turns to poetry:

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?” (Rom. 11:33–35)

We will never plumb the depths of God. Yet I’m amazed by how much God has chosen to reveal to us. Paul also writes that we have received God’s Spirit, who “searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10).

If we have access to the deep things of God, why would we ever be bored? Why are we so often spiritually complacent? I don’t think it’s because we lack faith or are more sinful than anyone else. And it’s certainly not because God is boring. But over the years, we slowly lose sight of how strange and splendid God truly is.

My friend Margaret Feinberg wrote about this tendency:

“Many of us say we want to experience God, but we don’t look for his majesty. We travel life’s paths with our heads down, focused on the next step with our careers or families or retirement plans. But we don’t really expect God to show up with divine wonder.”

Slowly, subtly, God becomes ordinary, commonplace. As our view of his grandeur dims, our spiritual lives become dull. Instead of striking off for the depths, we never leave the beach. We’re like marine researchers, equipped with all the tools and resources to explore the deepest fathoms of the sea, who instead opt to build sandcastles on the shore.

Speaking of the sea, something strange happened next time my son saw it.

The day after swimming in the resort we went down to the water again. Not to the man-made lagoon but to the wild sea itself.

This time my son’s reaction was different. Rather than turning in fear from the pounding waves, he was mesmerized. Craning his neck to see past me, he looked out at the majestic swells.

He wouldn’t stop staring.

THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM YAWNING AT TIGERS: YOU CAN’T TAME GOD, SO STOP TRYING. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE!

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The Op-Ed (Oprah Edited)

September 8, 2014 — Leave a comment

OPED“Drew! Grande Americano!”

I skipped up to the counter to claim my caffeine. But just as I was about take my first sip, I spotted something on the java jacket—a quote from the former Queen of Daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey.

I usually like quotes, but this one was bad—a dreadful cliché masquerading as wisdom. My half-wakened brain reeled. I had a dilemma: go without a java jacket and burn my hand or contemplate Oprah’s “wisdom” all morning. A classic first world problem, you might say. But hey, suffering is suffering.

And my suffering increased. As the weeks passed, Starbucks continued printing Oprah quotes trumpeting a Disneyfied gospel of self-actualization. Then I realized that the solution was right in front of me. Oprah’s quotes weren’t that bad; they just needed a little editing. And guess what I do for a living? I edit stuff! So I applied my craft to make Oprah’s life lessons less grandiose and (hopefully) a little more biblical.

See the edited java jackets at PARSE.

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Rethinking Sin

June 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

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It’s easy to imagine holiness as a stoic staving off of temptation, a perpetual washing of the hands to keep from being defiled from the world. But holiness is so much more than that. It’s full engagement with humanity. It means getting dirty up to your armpits. Holiness is about what you’re willing to risk to love others and to see God glorified.

I’m also realizing that holiness isn’t merely about refraining from certain activities; it’s about redirecting and redeeming our desires for holy pursuits.

The nineteenth-century Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers spoke of the “expulsive power of a new affection.” For him, conquering sin wasn’t just a matter of steely resolve; it was best accomplished by replacing sinful affections with holy ones. “A moralist will be unsuccessful in trying to displace his love of the world by reviewing the ills of the world,” he preached. “Misplaced affections need to be replaced by the far greater power of the affection of the gospel.”

This principle gives us insight into why people indulge in destructive behaviors in the first place.

Take, for instance, a middle-aged man who cheats on his wife. Why does he do it? It’s not simply because of raging hormones. He had more testosterone in his twenties. It’s rarely because he’s dissatisfied with his spouse’s appearance. In fact one study found that only 12 percent of cheating men said their mistresses were more physically attractive than their wives.

So why would he cheat?

Often it’s because he’s thirsty for transcendence, for adventure. He wants an experience that will lift him, if only temporarily, above the boredom of his mundane, workaday existence.

Of course sexual desire plays a role, as does selfishness and lack of self-control. There’s no excusing his actions. But at the heart of the act is a legitimate desire that has been twisted into sinful expression. As someone once said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is really looking for God.”

Misguided attempts to grasp for transcendence affect many areas of our lives. Connie Jakab, a Christian writer and activist, lamented the ways women have been reduced to their appearances through messages sent through shows like Desperate Housewives. Playing off the word desperate, she challenged other women to reimagine their role:

You weren’t created to be desperate, you were created to be dangerous. You have life-changing impact living inside of you. That’s what is going to make you beautiful and vibrant, not another Botox treatment. Dangerous will look good on you. Go try that on for size.

It isn’t just sexual sin or self-image problems that are fueled by an undercurrent of misdirected desire. We warn against drug and alcohol abuse, and rightfully so. But it’s easy to miss the bigger picture. I believe the primary reason it’s wrong to get drunk or high is because of what such experiences replace. They are synthetic forms of transcendence, cheap replacements for encounters with the living God. When the Bible warns against drunkenness, it includes a corresponding command: “Do not get drunk on wine. . . . Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).

Why is drunkenness wrong? Because there’s a better experience awaiting us—being filled with the Spirit!

Our desire for transcendence isn’t the problem; satisfying it in destructive ways is. Sin is the result of desires that have been sublimated and sent sideways.

Sin hurts people and ruins relationships. But perhaps the greatest tragedy is what sin keeps us from—the grand adventure of a life lived with and for God.

* This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying
photo credit: Christos Tsoumplekas (Back again!) via photopin cc

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I was watching a TV show recently in which one of the characters was struggling with whether to go through with an arranged marriage.

In his home country arranged marriages were the norm. But after living in America, he was having second thoughts about adhering to this ancient custom, especially since he’d never met his wife-to-be.

Still, when she flew into the airport, he dutifully waited for her, flowers in hand, and a gloomy expression on his face. But when she stepped through the terminal, everything changed. She was beautiful! Suddenly his glum demeanor disappeared. The thought of marrying this woman was no longer a dreaded duty; it was a delight. What had changed?

He’d seen her.

Often we serve God out of obligation. We drag ourselves to church, force ourselves to serve others—but our hearts aren’t in it. We’re like that guy at the airport, grudgingly holding flowers for God.

We’re trying to live holy lives because we know we should, but it’s burdensome, joyless.

What can change this?

Seeing God.

When we get a vision of who God truly is, suddenly we’re energized to do his mission.

Once we gaze upon his grandeur and glory, obedience ceases to be arduous. Once we grasp his great love, serving is no longer a duty—it’s a joy!

* This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying
photo credit: Βethan via photopin cc

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Tiger Sighting

June 2, 2014 — Leave a comment

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We’re always reduced to using metaphors when we talk about God, and I based my new book on a strange one.

I compared God to a tiger.

I hope that doesn’t offend people. My goal was to illustrate how dangerous and different from us God truly is.

Tigers are some of the most striking creatures on the planet. The sight of their vivid orange and black striping and lithe, muscular bodies produces a mixture of fascination and fear. Perhaps no one captured the essence of a tiger better than William Blake in his classic poem, “The Tyger.” The first lines read:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night

When we think of tigers, that’s where we envision them—“in the forests of the night,” or maybe stalking prey through the jungles of India.

We imagine them wild.

The reality, unfortunately, is not so idyllic. Tigers are in trouble. Over the past century the global tiger population has dropped by 97 percent. An estimated thirty-two hundred tigers remain in the wild, fewer than the number of captive tigers in the United States alone.

Today most tigers know nothing of dark forests and dense jungles. They live out their lives in cramped cement enclosures or chain-link cages. Most don’t even know how to hunt. This apex predator, which for eons hunted vast territories and feared no natural enemy, no longer roams free. One of the most formidable animals in the world now slumbers behind safety glass while tourists file by to snap pictures.

The tiger has been tamed.

It’s a tragedy that reminds me of another one: our attempts to tame a holy God.

God should command our highest loyalty and deepest reverence, yet often we try to domesticate him. Whether out of fear or pride or ignorance, we no longer appreciate his strangeness and splendor. We’re not moved by his greatness and grandeur.

We fail to tremble at his holiness. We avert our eyes from his brilliance. We spend our lives yawning at tigers.

Of course God will never suffer the fate of the tiger. We can do nothing to confine his power or reduce his majesty. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

No, in our attempts to tame the Almighty, we succeed only in confining ourselves.

My hope is that we will break free. My prayer is that we will awaken to the awe of God, that we will open our lives to his holiness and love. May he forever stalk our hearts. May we learn to see his burning eyes amid the forests of our lives.

* This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying
photo credit: Steve Wilson – over 3 million views Thanks !! via photopin cc

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