Tuesday, July 11, 2017

O Mighty Metaphor: Models and Beyond

Oh, the wisdom of Veggie Tales. A generation was shaped by those adorable talking produce items and I’m pretty sure the parents who had plugged the VHS videocassette in were occasionally struck by the humor-wrapped life lessons—at least the first few times through. For my parenting part, a less noticed Veggie Tale episode became a classic: the story of St. Patrick. I was always interested in Patrick’s transformation of Ireland and had watched every Liam Neeson narrated documentary out there, but then decided that the Veggie Tales 8 ½ minute summary of the historical Patrick was basically, as David Letterman used to say, “all you need to know”! Talk about postmodern blurring of genres—there ya go—stunning truth from animated produce! (And, like all good things, it’s now on YouTube if you are interested.)

While there are many profound things to be said about Patrick’s story that apply to us all, the treasure I took away from that video—lateral thinker that I am—was a truth about humanity that really had nothing to do with him. Veggie Tales had introduced the pre-Christian pagan religion of the Irish people via a scene in which their leader held up a tree branch while the cartoon characters gathered round chanting, “Oh mighty twig.” When Patrick famously used the shamrock to teach the Irish people about the Trinity—you remember: 3 leaves = Father, Son and Holy Spirit—those same cartooned Irish switch to, “O mighty shamrock.” (It was the Veggie Tales comment on the challenges of cross-cultural missions!) Patrick quickly counters with the correction: NO! It’s a metaphor! And then comes the treasure: the worshipping Irish are definitely not yet reached and respond with, “O mighty metaphor!!!!” I don’t care who you are—that’s funny---and genius!

We are worshipping creatures but we are also what I call, “rapid-attachers”! We are so desperate for understanding that we latch on instantly to explanations, steps, procedures, metaphors and MODELS that seem to promise us control of those things in life we can’t see and touch! Models of the unseen—metaphors and beyond—are incredibly useful—until they’re not! They are, after all, just models. They point to broader realities to aid us in the unseen dance with Truth! But they are NOT actually the reality! If we start to simply “work the model,” we have lost the point entirely—and our dance becomes drudgery indeed. We are far too “sticky” when it comes to reasonable explanations and we pay a heart-price for it!

There are amazing laws and principles surrounding the topic of faith and many of them are grounded in Scripture—and helpful. Steps like “believe you receive” and then “rejoice before you see it” are part of a model that swept through the Christian consciousness in the 70’s so thoroughly that the medical community noticed the benefits of positive affirmation and “faith-based” support. There is nothing wrong with having steps and principles. There is everything wrong with letting it end there—worshipping the model so much so that you forget the broader picture of reality to which it was pointing! Principles of faith are so profoundly much more than “name it; claim it”—they are mere portals into a veritable world of available possibilities—almost the least of which is actually receiving the goal on earth! We were meant to live in a realm of “more than meets the eye,” and the meeting of our needs is the doorway into far more provision than the narrow peephole that got us in! The swirling kaleidoscope of God-stuff in dynamic, exciting motion is where we are meant to live! The model is not the point—it is merely the point of departure! We can enjoy the instruction, but we need not get stuck at, “O mighty model.”

Consider the atom. In school, we learned a model of these smallest (well sort of smallest—there are smaller, it turns out) building blocks of matter. The simple circle with protons and neutrons in the middle and electrons orbiting in perfectly concentric energy levels around is beautiful—and comforting—and seems controllable and completely explanatory. If you took college chemistry you will know that this simple model was vital to understanding what elements would do in a chemical reaction. It gave you an A in the course if you could translate that model into action on the test and in the lab. However, if you took college chemistry, you also had to learn what that simple model couldn’t do!

It turns out that electrons and protons seem to have a whole other life that the model was hiding: they exist more as probabilities than “particles” as we know them, and manifest as energy waves more than discrete points in space! In fact, as Dr. Heisenberg helped us understand, we lose a portion of what we get to know about a particle when we try to pin it down! The more “accurate” model of the atom which is taught in high school now features electrons not as “dots” but “probability clouds”---regions where it is likely that a concentration of energy we know as an electron might occur—hazy clouds of minute and fleeting pixilation rather than the neatly orbiting black sphere! The quantum message seems to be that the atomic truth is accessed by simple models but not at all defined by them!

And isn’t that just like life? When we were younger in our faith and our journeying, we got excited about the ability to understand and work the principles! Our models of reality gave us hope, as well they should! Whatever had come into your heart and inspired you did its work well if you marched forward with a God-induced smile on your face and a confidence about your role in the world! But, when the “dots” on your diagram seem more like “clouds,” you will then be called to temporarily—like Abraham with Isaac—lay your model on the altar for the receiving of a larger AND LESS TIDY grasp of reality! At that moment, we discover whether or not we have begun to say, “O mighty model”!

God is never against simplification. He gives models so we can relate to unseen realities. But He might be against that which is simplistic! Our need to control and over-define hurts others and ourselves. Our narrow definitions of success and acceptability spawn legalism and judgment that do not belong in the kingdom of this particular benevolent King!

Jesus was the Master Communicator. He told stories (that we call parables) to invite people into His the heavenly vision of unseen reality. Stories are living models. They are truths with people-handles on them. Jesus’ stories prevented His truth from becoming sterile or clinical by earthing it in gritty real-time experience, closing the gap between a far away heaven and a messed up earth. One of the most “model-like” stories Jesus told was the parable of the seed and the soil. Four kinds of soil each receive the seed of the word of God differently, and therefore yield vastly different results. (And people have taught that throughout the centuries with the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 attached—bullet points long before there were PowerPoint slides.) But, the whole point of that parable—the whole key to the model—is a quality of HEART—which everyone knows is more a “cloud” than a “dot”! There is no literal chemical analysis of the soil that receives the seed—no machine that will give you a printout of the technical condition of the heart! Instead, while showing us there are reasons for things, Jesus points us back to the openness and trust that makes the dance with the Unseen work in the first place! Take heed to the condition of your heart and you’ve got the point of the metaphor! You won’t be saying, “O mighty metaphor” but, “O mighty Truth”!

Renee Magritte, the Belgian surrealist painter, was not all that surreal in his thinking. His painting, The Treachery of Images features a very real image of a pipe with a phrase in French underneath that translates to, “This is not a pipe.” Was he being cute or ironical? No—he was making a statement that the image of the object is NOT the actual object! He proposed that if, while looking at this painting, you believed it was a pipe and tried to stuff if with tobacco, you would be immediately educated: This is not a pipe. If you like pipes, look at it, but please don’t attempt lighting it: you will only have a canvas on fire! The treachery of images is that they won’t “smoke” in real life! If a pipe is your real desire, let the image—or the model—point you to action and go find the real thing!

Faith is a big reality. We need models. They work like magic to inspire us. But let us guard against our tendency to camp out on them and fight for their universality. They are PORTALS INTO BROADER EXPERIENCE, which is the whole point in the first place. Faith is an experience that is meant to “melt into wonder” daily as we dance with it. When we remember that the models are only necessary wardrobes into the Narnia beyond, we will be able to keep our experience fresh and flowing, children of a good, giving God who cooperate with spiritual realities in open-hearted adventurous expectation. I’ll stop here before I sound completely like the Message Bible reworded! After all, even this article is just pointing to something far beyond: Go out in search of THAT!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Living Loud (This one goes to 11...)

Remember Riverdance? It was that 90’s moment when Irish dance landed on the pop culture radar as a viral sensation before the adjective even existed. The show’s humble beginning as a Eurovision Songfest “filler” opened the way for a full-length production that would ultimately be performed from New York to London and everywhere in between, inspiring episodes of such artistically diverse works as “Pinky and the Brain” (the one where Brain tries to clone himself to create the world’s best-loved Irish dance troupe from which to take over the world)! Who didn’t love or parody Riverdance?

I still listen to Bill Whelan’s masterful soundtrack from time to time and cherish it as an impression of Celtic fire at it’s best—a thought about life frozen in digital time with a feel that is both ancient and modern (and those who know me know that I yearn for that mixture). But here’s the thing—on said soundtrack, in addition to the musical prowess, there are also the sounds of the dancers themselves! When I am listening to the tracks, I can hear the moment Michael Flatley takes the stage for his solo—and the moment the whole troupe falls in behind him like an army as if proclaiming in masse, “we know we are rocking your world right now!” As the famous Irishman, Liam Neeson pointed out in the documentary about Riverdance, it represented a nation and culture whose time had come to be celebrated! Dance was clearly fueling that awakening.

This morning found me listening to the remix at the end of the Riverdance album and suddenly a memory from the time—and an inspiration—captured me! In an effort by a few purists to discredit the uninformed populism of that Riverdance represented, someone had targeted Michael Flatley (a Chicago native) for the arm movements and otherwise non-traditional pizzazz he seemed to be adding in to the traditional dance form. (I mean, there is that moment in the opening number that seems vintage Michael Jackson…but who cared?) The other criticism was the one that spoke to me, however. Someone had tried to expose the fact that—wait for it—the producers of Riverdance had actually mic’ed the floor so that they were actually amplifying the sounds of the dancers shoes! How impure!

I don’t remember thinking it at the time, but this morning, it occurred to me mid-track as if my heart was shouting it back to the critics in the 90’s, “Why NOT mic the floor????” I mean, after all, isn’t the dance the point? When you are listening to the track, how great to also “hear” the dance? And if you are in the theatre for the show, why would you object to an enhanced auditory experience of what you actually came to see? Impure? Or boldly expressive of the grand theme?! Yes, like Michael Flatley, mic’ing the floor represented a showmanship, but thank God for the gift of showmanship when we came to see a show—when our psyches are the canvas for the brushstrokes of impact! Come on, those who can, give us a show!

We have had the good fortune of being friends with some of the members of Delirious?, a Christian band whose impact on their genre was no less “viral-pre-viral” than Riverdance. At a time when American Christian music was languishing, some people were calling Delirious? another British invasion. (For the uninitiated, the question mark is part of the band name, not a typo!) Delirious? shows in America were packed and we were all thankful for their artistry and hearts. I remember one show in particular (“Paint the Town” tour, I think) when the band leaned into some Elvis flair. They sported white suits that featured cape-like “wings” from the arms and the production and effects were a little bit space age (so maybe Elvis meets “Lost in Space”?). It was a blast of creative fresh air!

In a time when Matt Redman was writing about getting back to the heart of worship, here were his friends in Delirious? expressing it quite differently—the opposite of “stripped away”. And that’s when it hit me: Delirious? got it: they “got” what a concert is. They understood the platform they had been given and their responsibility to turn it up loud and “show up” on the night! They were mastering the genre in a way not previously done, perhaps because of the fear—not the reality—of losing the heart of worship. Delirious? knew that the heart of worship resided exactly there—in the HEART that worships! Outward expressions, no matter how creative, are either filled or empty based on the heart that generates them. If their show had featured Irish dance, they probably would have mic’ed the floor and flapped their arms!

Society is filled with shaming of “showboats” and I get that. We all definitely need to be pressing into the life skills of noticing, connecting with, and understanding others. And the most creative among us must have an injection of relational capacity into our otherwise self-referenced inner chambers! BUT, there still is a floor to be mic’ed, a dance to be done and amplified, an idea to be celebrated and a show to be put on! We must hold others in high value and learn to be a team player for sure, but God help us not forget the call to produce our own life’s unique “SHOW”! As Bono said at the beginning of “Vertigo,” after counting to fourteen, skipping a few, “Turn it up, Captain!” I take that personally: I am the Captain of my own ship and there are plenty of folks telling me to turn it down! (For what if Spinal Tap was right, not about an amplifier, but about me or you: “This one goes to 11!”)

Riverdance was not just Irish dance. It was a celebration of many dance styles, including my favorite piece from the show, the Fire Dance, which featured the world class Spanish flamenco dancer, Maria Pages. I remember being fascinated to read that flamenco owed its “stomping” style to its gypsy origins. The gypsies, a persecuted people shaped by their lack of a homeland, developed a style that broadcast defiance. With a forceful heel driven into the floor, it is as if they were saying, “I will be here, fully present, in this territory!” If you don’t know you are permanent, greater force is necessary in showing up with all you are right now in the temporary place! Perhaps that accounts for their passion as a people. But aren’t we all transient, in a way? Shouldn’t we all put our feet down strongly in the “now place” to leave a mark once we have moved on? Shouldn’t we all mic our floors???

There was a man named Shammah in the Biblical narrative who was listed as one of the warrior King David’s “mighty men”. What did he do to earn that “mighty man” status? He defended a pea patch against attackers! He warred single-handedly to secure a single plot of land growing legumes. Surely there were other plant-based protein sources available but evidently, Shammah deemed this patch worth his life—and his honor. The lesson is clear: When is a pea patch not just a pea patch? WHEN IT IS YOURS!! When you have lived into the soil, tended the seed, endured the seasons and invested yourself into what “Chariots of Fire” calls, “your one true chance of greatness,” it might be time, like Shammah did, to take your stand “in the middle of the plot” (and do a flamenco stomp if you have to) to defend it! That dance inside you that just won’t quit will inform your determination!

There are preparation times; there are incubation times, but if Shammah’s pea patch was in harvest time, he knew it was time to give the world a show! If you are (like me) afraid of “showboating,” as long as you have realized that you are not the only show in town, then your answer is “fear not”! (Some creatives are the shyest extroverts in town!) Showboating is a matter of the heart and if your heart is right, sincerely desiring to lift up this world that definitely needs lifting up, go ahead and mic the floor, stomp the stomp and impress the fans! God’s opinion about the gift inside you being expressed was settled when He made you. You are a gift. You are a “show”. You are a wonder. You are an idea whose time has come. The purists might not understand. Smile and dazzle them anyway. It’s not too late. Your pea patch—your inner world—is worth it. The show must go on.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Turn Aside and See (previously unpublished Facebook status)

There's a saying in our culture, "perception is reality," and it's functionally true but then again, it is so very incomplete! It's a useful concept that can, like many useful concepts, keep us from a larger scope of truth if we park there and refuse to move! Your perception of yourself and your situation, and even of God, will tend to govern your EXPERIENCE, and that does explain a great deal of human behavior. But, we can shake ourselves and wake ourselves, intentionally changing our perceptions. We don’t have to default into that very human habit of accepting our experience as "just the way all things are”. We can break the vicious cycle of self-defeat in which we keep blaming our circumstances, failing to pause and realize that WE are the custodians of the inner vision that is governing those circumstances! (Ouch!) All the while, however, there is another music playing in the background, another frequency of light trying to break through the shroud of darkness! REALITY--the sum total of it that God rolls it out from the center of His "pantocratic" (Creator of all) Being--could not possibly be limited to my post-Eden sensory perception! BUT THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT NEITHER AM I!

PERCEPTION will govern my experience UNLESS I allow another EXPERIENCE to intervene! The fact is there's a whole world of perception-adjustment from God Himself waiting to be summoned into my inner world! Psalm 139 is a good place to start. There we can read the words of David, who certainly had opportunity to feel persecuted and marginalized, as he raves about the vast number of thoughts God has toward him: "If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand!" The whole Psalm is a dose of God's amazing fatherly attentiveness that flies in the face of man's ill-treatment of those on a creative journey! Could it be that Psalm 139, which declares, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made, and my soul knows it very well!" was an intervention experience that David needed? Could it possibly be that he was not only writing great Scripture, but also actually living a real life? Could it be that David's perception was being adjusted to accommodate God's healing and liberating REALITY which is readily available to all those who dare to "turn aside and see"?

When your perception meets a NEW God-reality, bondages break. Perception is only local reality, but a global treasure trove of truth as God sees it (and dispenses it) await you every day of your life. Like the situation with Peter on the rooftop praying in Acts 10, there may be a sheet full of shockingly wonderful experience-changers being lowered to you! Huge changes to your perception--and therefore your version of reality--may be descending from heaven even as we speak (or as you read)! They may look as wild as unclean animals did to Peter, but, how we all need our limited perceptions expanded! (The Holy Spirit once whispered to me, "Perrianne, there are always people on the other side of your paradigm shift." In Peter's case, it was the whole Gentile world starting with a man named Cornelius who would pave the way for the rest of us non-Jews!)

All it takes is a hole, a tear, a small opening in our vapor-locked left brained assessment of our lives for the reality of heaven's hope to leak through! You don't have to labor to bring your whole consciousness under control; you don't have to sit in your room until you are "fixed" and every thought is captive; you don't even have to go away to a mountain to pray. You just need to get quiet enough for a small moment and ALLOW (that's your only real job and it's not really a job, but more a choice) a reality beyond your perception to inform your experience!

One of my favorite quotes comes from the novelist, Franz Kafka. He described for me what happens when I allow the reality of heaven to impinge upon my earthly experience. For me, it describes the "mini-Pentecost" each time I rediscover this wonderful God who is NOT holding anything back from his children (contrary to that lie in the garden). Kafka wrote, “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Surely this is describing the GOD-REALITY which longs to invade my perception and ultimately change my experience! All that is require on my part is the willingness to let my perception be redefined by a huge contrasting God-reality and admit that, in fact, my own limited pragmatic conclusions may not actually be the only operating system available! Sit a moment today and see what happens when you when you turn aside and see. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.