As Ulysses sailed into the straights known for its seductive Siren songs, he was prepared. Homer’s Odyssey details the resolve Ulysses took to stay the course – being rope-tied to the mast and stuffing wax into his crew’s ears, lest they hear the beauty of the voices around them and change course.
One modern take on this story is a “Ulysses Pact” — medical slang for an advance directive: I instruct my future doctor to ignore my future wishes, trusting my current health and information is the best I’ll ever have.
A Ulsysses Pact approach is very useful for avoiding temptation – If I were trying to kick alcohol I would make a plan to avoid happy hour situations, knowing when I got there my resolve would go up in flames faster than liquor on bananas flambé. If a friend were thinking of cheating on his spouse I could recall to him the wedding vows made, (maybe put blinders on his wandering eyes?).¹
But should we follow the pact for interpreting how our faith interacts with the world?
When technology, science, medicine, art, travel and globalization continue to give us more information about the earth we live on, our understanding of God’s mysteries evolve and so must our faith. This adaptability – letting the interpretation change while keeping the main thing as the main thing – has been one of the keys to Christianity’s survival all these centuries.
Temptations aside, making a Ulysses Pact with our course of faith can be stunting. With wax in the crews’ ears, we cannot hear or take in new information – our beliefs are set and that’s that.
Shoving my ears with wax means choosing to become tone-deaf to the world around me.
To put it another way, shoving my ears with wax means choosing to become tone-deaf to the world around me. Ostensibly, to protect myself. Afraid of being swayed by their words, the wax means I can no longer hear that my own words now sound disparate to the next generation.
Into this exact mindset walked Jesus, two thousand years ago.
The religious of that time had set their minds on God’s kingdom, and, picturing just how it would look, shut their eyes tight in order to stay the course.²
So how do we remain open to new information when we already, “know what we know”?
Pursuit of Truth
Here’s a crazy suggestion: look to the scientific method.
Brian McLaren makes a great case for religious communities to learn a lesson from science that’s worth considering: “Science is deeply interested in facts – in determining them, organizing them, presenting them in an orderly way, and using them in practical ways. Religion, we might say, does the same thing with beliefs: it determines what beliefs are acceptable, organizes them and presents them, and uses them in practical ways.”³
He goes on to say that science’s primary loyalty is to its method or practice, rather than the facts it currently proclaims. It starts with a mystery, moves to hypothesis, and after experimentation and time, can be considered scientific fact and acted upon. But notice: if new evidence arrives that undermine accepted facts, there is room to incorporate new evidence, and emerge with conclusions that are even closer to the actual truth.
As opposed to putting fingers in our ears and saying, “Nah, nah, nah I can’t hear you. But the Bible says it and that settles it.”
“Breaking up with old facts is hard to do…but doesn’t discredit science as being unfaithful to its tradition…[instead] it enhances credibility because of its relentless pursuit of truth…even to the point of overturning previously proclaimed certitudes.”³
Late to the party
But if learning from science sounds like something the church should never do, I would argue that we already do it, we’re just perpetually late to the party. Well, first we deny there even is a party, then start listing all the dangerous things that could happen at the party, then through some emergency phone call step into the party and see that it’s not so bad, and at one point or another we call an uneasy truce with the party and finally come to recognize the image of God in the faces of those at the party.
The church survives by latching onto God’s big story and adapting itself to cultures, languages, and epochs, interpreting anew the powerful and innovative words of Jesus.
We must today acknowledge that we are, right here in our seats, living in a new culture and language, maybe even epoch, and begin the process of adapting. God’s grace is too good to keep it all the same.
Even if we think we have agreed upon an answer, the scientific method asks us not to forget the questions.
♦ weekendswell ♦
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²Since there were no movies to quote back then, maybe Jesus was making a Homer ear wax reference when he said, “For him who has ears to hear?” (c’mon, you know he would have been a movie quoter with that omni-memory)
³These quotes and paraphrased explanations come from The Great Spiritual Migration by Brian D McLaren, pages 35-38. I would recommend this book to you. As a start, hear him on this Nomad podcast and then see if you are so excited that you can’t go back to sleep either.
I’m continuing to quote McLaren because I think he’s onto something, as usual about a decade earlier than the rest of us. [remember how mind blowing, “A New Kind of Christian” was? (well at least the ideas in it, not the shabby fiction he wrapped it in). He wrote it in 2001]
Source for N.C. Wyeth’s illustration of Ulysses at the mast: http://comicsbookstories.blogspot.com/2010/04/n_10.html
“He leaves the creature to stand on its own two legs – to carry from the will alone duties which have lost all relish.” ¹
It doesn’t exactly paint a picture of fun, this quote from C.S. Lewis, “to carry from the will alone duties which have lost all relish,” though standing on our own two legs is quite fulfilling.
Any lofty goal requires discipline to set your mind to it and stay the course, and this includes faith.
But should we always power through, whatever it takes?
If we woke up each day deciding whether we felt like going to work at our jobs – our feelings would rarely lead us there. To survive we must do the needful, ignoring our yawning mornings and beach-hooky visions.
But we do, from time to time, change jobs.
Likewise there is no athlete in the Premier League who grew up playing soccer only when he felt like it, when the teammates were fun or the weather cool. Working out is an age-old and proven metaphor for the rewards of the disciplined life.
But we do vary the workout in seasons, change up the route of the run, keeping the end goal in mind.
And here is what I can miss about the life of faith: distinguishing the goal from the course we take to get there. We want to simply say:
Know the goal + choose the course + stay the course = finish well
This equation works for stretches of time, but we must be willing to review our workout regimen, lest we overuse some muscles and atrophy others.
The trouble comes when we confuse the course with the goal:
Know the goal + stay the course + don’t question the course = trouble
We first come into a faith community agreeing that we want to understand our creator more than we do, tacking snapshots of Him onto the communal wall, then pulled onward by the joy of discovery. Posting more pictures each week, the collage fills in as we see God in more settings, in each other’s lives, through service and praise.
The goal is seeing God more², but eventually we stop adding photos, content merely to visit the wall, mimicking the settings and poses in the pictures already on the wall. We’ve found a course toward the goal, and it seems to work, so why change it?
The goal is reduced to protecting the course. We’ve changed from being primarily explorers, innovators, and learners, instead becoming protectors, watchmen, fearful of the outside. (Fearful even of the insiders who might begin to rearrange the photos).
We’ve changed, and so has our image of God.
Throughout, we’ve been learning to make up our mind to follow God “no matter what” (more on that next week), so when we see a few people here and there drop out, we might pity them, concluding they’ve lost the end goal when in fact they may have only changed course.
Into this mystery I suspect that God may be changing up the ways He reaches us
I am challenging myself to keep adding photos to the wall. Thinking beyond, pictures themselves may not be enough to hold the eternal mystery. The collage I am beginning to see has paintings, sculpture, tear art, even wild stuff like Cristo’s umbrellas
strewn about the countryside. All contributed by so many people (who, back to the earlier analogy of photos on the wall, might not even own a camera)
At times, we can see how extraordinarily good God is, how extravagant with us, how stable and unchanging a rock to hide away in. He is also a living God who created millions of different organisms with varied ways of living into their “Imago Dei” – the image of God.
Into this mystery I suspect that God may be changing up the ways He reaches us, maybe always has been.
Varying the course has not changed the goal, but does give glimpses of “the relish” to Lewis’ creature learning to stand on its own two legs.
“He leaves the creature to stand on its own two legs – to carry from the will alone duties which have lost all relish.” ¹
♦ weekendswell ♦
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1Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. Ireland: CrossReach Publications, 2016 (but it is much older than this)
2Is this an oversimplified faith goal? Enjoying and glorifying God, for instance, captures the goal defined by the Shorter Heidelberg Catechism.
Photo of Harry Kane / Tottenham Hotspur from Getty Images
The elephant discovered by a group of blind men, each feeling a different part and being sure of their description, crosses my mind a lot. The first man touches the elephant’s huge leg and convinces the others he has found a strong pillar, the second finds the tail and describes it as a rope, and so on, until they begin arguing about who is correct.
Each of them is right of course, about their part, but wrong in concluding their part is the whole.
It’s easy to relate this to our disagreements about God, but perhaps it also illustrates how blind-spottedly we see each other. I talk to that friend about soccer, this friend about work, the other about his kids. But I never really know the whole of someone’s experience. Even if we are close friends – even if we live in the same room – I didn’t live their childhood, I don’t live inside their thoughts.
Uniqueness: We are all in the river, but the river is never the same twice.
It follows then that no one else truly knows me, and realizing this can make me feel alone.
I remember bonding moments, times we were “all on the same page”, like a close sports team or camp experience, when we may have come together for that experience but didn’t know the guts of how each arrived there or what each returned to. We may have shared a cause, uniting in protest or praise; we were a part of a larger movement and it invigorated our sense of direction. But when it runs its course, when I didn’t get what I fought for – or worse, when I do – what then?
Why is everyone around me moving on with their own causes when I’m still stuck here with mine?
If I’m surrounded by friends but still feel alone, are my friends flawed?
When you think about that part of you that no one understands, how it makes you feel alone, know this: I feel it too.
And so does everyone else.
Which means it’s something we have in common.
Which means we’re not alone.
I had a deep and moving conversation recently with long-term friends about the challenges they have faced caring for a loved one with hidden disabilities. The classroom struggles, what people say and don’t say, having to guide others through this while also guiding yourself: Alone-ness. And all along we have been friends chatting on about life, with no real – REAL – understanding of what it’s like for them to walk forward making decisions without a roadmap.
“Alone-ness” here, if a word at all, is less about how many people hang out with you and more about how many people understand you.
I am thankful that a friendship can mature to the point where we can acknowledge that we are not the solution to each other’s alone-ness. I am not the one who can say to them, “This disability that challenges your loved one, I understand exactly what it’s like.” I will try, and I do well to encourage them to keep looking for those people who can say it, or as close as exists.
But I can surely say, I know what it’s like to feel alone. It’s something we all share.
Connection: The river is never the same twice, but we are all in the river.
♦ weekendswell ♦
For another take on understanding others, see Cover Songs
In my songwriting group, we sometimes assign ourselves to “cover” a song – creating a new expression of another artist’s song – and in the process I find myself understanding both the work and the artist in a deeper way. Listening to the song can be moving enough, but to write out, play, and sing it, is to enter in to another person’s experience, to take it on and take it in. What were they seeing when they wrote this song? Were they writing what they were feeling or what they wanted to feel?
When trying to create original music, covering a song might feel like a step backward, a waste of time. But in doing so, our creative process is pushed forward: first we duplicate (cover songs), then we imitate (write something that sounds like…), and then we create. As we get behind the artist’s eyes, we begin to see not only their canvas but also their decision-making process.
First we duplicate, then we imitate, and then we create.
A writer I would like to imitate is Henri J.M. Nouwen, but he immediately points me to “cover” someone else. Show me the Way, a book of Nouwen readings for the 40 days of Lent, has been in our family for over two decades, inspiring me year after year. During holy week, Nouwen recounts Jesus washing the feet of his disciples with the words, “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done for you.”
When we hear Jesus tell us to love and serve, not just each other but the hurting and oppressed, we may resist – that would be an interruption to my life, my studies, my learning about God, for heaven’s sake. Perhaps we could instead spend our religious efforts in doctrinal classes trying to understand more of God’s qualities.
But this would be like only listening to the song.
Listening to the song might have some effect on us, but we haven’t truly known the songwriter until we have sung their song. To more deeply know Jesus, Nouwen says, we must follow in his steps by living a compassionate life. Going beyond listening, we begin to serve others by looking into their eyes and allowing God’s whisper – “I accept and love you” – to speak itself into action. Entering into the life of Jesus means entering into the life of his creation.
In other words, as we draw closer to the downtrodden, we discover Jesus there; as we draw closer to Jesus, we are drawn to the hurting around us.
In other words, the deeper we know the song, the deeper we know the songwriter; the more we know the songwriter, the more he encourages us to sing his song.
Nouwen himself lived this out – giving up his prestigious academic life to live and serve at the L’Arche Daybreak community for the intellectually and physically disabled. Since I am currently writing from the comfort of my life, I will now (at last) hand the pen to Nouwen:
“Prayer and action, therefore, can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation.
If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. In prayer we meet Christ, and in him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them the suffering Christ.” ¹
♦ weekendswell ♦
For another view of understanding each other, see Alone-ness.
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¹Nouwen, Henri J.M. (1994). Show me the way: readings for each day of Lent. New York, NY: The Crossroads Publishing Company
Knowing about ourselves and our Creator are intertwined.
My favorite corner downtown has within its reach art, music, books, coffee, and food. If I could afford to, I’d live there and never leave the block, while a rotation of artists, musicians, and writers filled each venue, illuminating truth. Could I find the Creator on this creative corner?
Art illuminates the truth.
It shows us who we are, paints our humanity, bypasses the entanglement of words to bring our soul to understanding. When we see Picasso’s, Blind Man’s Meal, we can feel his loneliness and thus better accept our own. The joy, the memory, of discovery is ours when we spend a minute with Renoir’s Gabriel et Jean (top of blog image). When art sheds healing light onto each wound of life, we inch closer to making peace with the many insults pockmarking our memory.
Then science shows us a strand of DNA and we feel wonder even before we understand it. (skip forward if you’re not in the mood to geek out) DNA is amazing: it stores blueprints for every short-lived cell in my body, and yet the DNA itself can last hundreds of thousands of years. It is small enough to be seen only with an electron microscope but somehow contains over 700 Megabytes of data, leading computer hardware designers to copy its design. Data scientists are building databases of unusual size (D-O-U-S’s for Princess Bride fans?) to unravel the mysterious coding sequences which make me – me.
But images of eternity are not themselves eternity.
We must take our art, our DNA, our human experience, and hold it up to the light. Instead of being squished between microscope slides, we might imagine them printed onto old square Kodak slides and projected onto an empty wall of a cathedral. We could glaze these into stained-glass and leave them up for the sunlight to shine through, casting images onto the concrete floor.
It becomes a double projection: We are projected up into the form of stained glass, then God projects back through the stained glass. With each projection, each painting, each well-crafted song, each scientific discovery: the less foggy is our mirror.
If art can know the soul and science can know the body and music can know the heart, then we – miraculous combinations of these and more – can surely know the Divine.
The breathing bashful bloody human can know the Creator. Next post will bring out some of the problems with this God-through-the-stained-glass model, but for now, sit back and let the light shine in.
A protestant friend recently invited us to a service project. He briefly mentioned the details then told how he last served there alongside some “Roman Catholics”. While huddled in preparation these Catholics were praying the rosary to Mary – he went on to say – so he just observed and silently prayed, “to the living God,” repeating this last part twice.
Hmmm. His story had all the facts, but his headline seemed to be theological correctness rather than, say, how beautiful it is when people of varying faiths unite around a common cause. Or focusing on the cause itself.
His headline seemed to be theological correctness
A different friend had a big stage-event to share his music and the next day I asked him what it was like. “It was so hot up there,” was his reply. But how was the music, I probed, and he replied that it just was so much work to setup instruments on the outdoor stage. I was hoping to hear what he liked about the experience, but he chose discomfort and work as his headline.
He chose discomfort and work as his headline
Newspapers may have their own reasons for choosing headlines (see this example¹ of a same-day, same-paper rewrite).
But when it comes to your personal stories, do you realize the headline you’re publishing?
Of course, the majority of our days are spent down in the body of the article. We can’t always choose the who, what, when and where of our day, but eventually a few subtitles bubble up as themes. Finally we settle on a headline, sometimes only if asked. If we’re not reflective, we immediately grab onto the most recent thing, or strongest feeling, and print it as our headline.
Granted, we take relational context into account when we share, and in fairness, my two friends may have assumed our same page-ness when they focused their headlines.
For instance when my bride and I share about our workday, we don’t usually start by saying, “I’m so thankful for my job and overall my co-workers are great,” even though that is our long-term mindset. We tend to jump right in with the most frustrating thing that happened that day. But in this familial context we may consider large swaths of days as one body of work, knowing that on the weekend, or on our next vacation, we’ll reflect again together how good the work is.
And that is our chance to reset the headline.
We once again pull ourselves out of the body – with its small paragraphs and many quotations – to summarize the story we are living. Writing this I am reminded that headline selection is a key role that meditation and prayer can play in our lives:
A few breaths to let go of being in charge and remember Who is.
A few readings from timeless scriptures to see how transient our troubles are.
A few moments to stop talking to the temporary and instead listen to eternity.