Abu Dhabi: what is wealth?

What a dry place, and yet this city founded on your consumption of oil has water from somewhere. Enough for pools to swim in, bottles to drink for every guest. We went through customs, got a hotel room, went to that rooftop pool and Jacuzzi, sat on the sun deck, relaxed, looked out over the city. It’s a marvel, even if Dubai is showing them up. There’s a Ferrari theme park here, etc. But… when the oil, a.k.a. the money, dries up, what will be left here? Nothing.

On the plane ride in, I watched a couple gangster and spy movies. Gangster’s lives make for interesting movie scripts, but at the end, there’s a little footnote. “Died in prison” or whatever. I reflected on how I, and many of my friends to an even greater degree, take risks on a daily basis, risks that result in travelling the world, risks that can even land us in prison, it’s true. There are lots of ways we go through similar stresses that gangsters or spies do, travelling the world, but without the first class tickets or white tuxedos, and many fewer martinis. Admittedly, white wine on the plane. If it’s free. But the results are not the same, the effects upon our psyches, because instead of death, we hope to bring life. Instead of wealth as our goal, wealth is our goal. Just a different kind. The kind that builds cities that outlast oil.

What I am getting at here is that what we chase and hope for is a diamond, a watered city in the desert, but it’s one that doesn’t shut down for lack of funding. Ever. Now that’s real wealth. And what does it cost you to live there? Read to the end.

Isaiah 43:18 Forget the former things;

do not dwell on the past.

19 See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I am making a way in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland.

20 The wild animals honor me,

the jackals and the owls,

because I provide water in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland,

to give drink to my people, my chosen,

21 the people I formed for myself

that they may proclaim my praise.


Why We Eat Dessert First. Thailand ’16 #1.

Why We Eat Dessert First: Hope breeding Intent at the crossroads of The Arts and Mission

Megan and I are invited to attend a conference for a week as members of the arts team, providing music and visual art for a group of missionaries in February. We now have tickets for Thailand, and my assignment (as I understand it today) is to write about my observations as missionaries encounter artists and their arts, and as the artists encounter missionaries and interact with their lives.

The first question that naturally comes to my mind is “what do artists and missionaries have in common?”

The writer of the first letter to the church at Corinth famously noted that, of the three great spiritual gifts (I call them this because the writer of this letter does not differentiate them from gifts in the previous chapter), or what theologians have termed “graces” or “fruits” from God – faith, hope and love – love remains as the greatest (1 Cor. 13:13).

I find the silver medalist, Hope (anticipation of good outcomes), to be more accessible than its companions. Each of the three strike a sort of musical chord. We have strong emotional connections at a heart level, yet we recognize both an intellectual harmonic or overtone and a mystical bass note which throbs through our soul and transcends even our emotion. The word ‘throb’ implies a rhythm as well. In other words, at the top of the chord we can think about these things, and in the center we feel them, but at the bottom they explore things in nature beyond expression, a bass note and a driving rhythm.

Like a chord, they all have potential to move us when they’re well-tuned. A dance is created, and this means we’ve been spurred to action.

As I mentioned, I find the chord struck by Hope to be the most accessible in terms of how easy they are to discuss or understand. I don’t say that this means the mystical bass note of Hope is any less complex, because it isn’t. That brings me to a different metaphor. If faith, hope and love were wines, we might say that Hope is the dessert wine, adding a sweetness, faith the more complex wine which pairs with the main course (the works), and love, well, even “outside the Work” (hors d’oeuvre) love is essential. We must have love from the very beginning, love is the hors d’oeuvre; and love is the alpha and omega. We must have faith, without which our works are dead, but Hope satisfies our sweet tooth. I may want chili one day and salmon the next, (my works change as life is lived) but I always like to have a bit of chocolate around to finish with.

And yet we have a rather popular saying: “eat dessert first, life is uncertain.”

In the face of uncertainty, indeed, we do need some hope to bring us to the main course of faith. In this sense, I believe that hope is the breeding ground for intent. “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief” is not a statement of faith, it’s a statement of hope: I hope (anticipate) that I can have faith, that you can help me. Where hope gives intent, faith gives action, and love produces fruit. I will say this several times so that we don’t forget the gold medalist in all of this.

For both the artist and the missionary, the uncertainty of life brings us to a decision to eat dessert first. One might say that the concept of retirement is a bit like eating dessert last: you have an assumption that you’ll be around to do the things you enjoy after completing the stuff that’s expected. You clean your plate, then you get a treat.

The artists and missionaries who I know never seem to live that way. They follow the passion of their hearts first. They pass through some financial difficulties that others don’t experience because of this passion (sometimes necessarily and other times unnecessarily) because they’ve chosen to pursue something delicious first.

They break a bottle of embalming perfume before death has taken their Lord. “Responsible” people criticize them, but their hope brings them to intent, their intent drives them to action (work), and they make something of the moment they have.

The reason hope is so easy to understand (in comparison to the other two) is that it’s perhaps easiest to connect with hope’s opposite: Despair.

Few things are as powerfully carnal (even to our souls) as Despair is. The problems generated by lack of faith, fear, and apathy can be turned aside by hope. The problems missionaries encounter, and artists as well, is that in their work environments, isolation and the very difficult and real challenge of communicating complex ideas across cultural barriers leads one very easily to lack of faith and even apathy. “If people don’t even want to hear what I’m trying to tell them, well, who cares, anyway? So what?” This leads to burnout, which is a function of despair. If hope breeds intent and faith and work, despair breeds burnout.

Artists and missionaries both, therefore, need regular injections of hope. They’ve chosen a lifestyle that goes after the sweetest thing they can imagine first, eschewing stability in the process, and hope drives everything. For a missionary or an artist, hope is the gasoline, faith is the pistons and the drive shaft, love is the wheels.

Ask a missionary who’s kept a beater running for ten years. Last year I drove around Chiang Mai with a guy whose car was so old it was like … it was old. It defied metaphor; it defined clichés about oldness. He’d bought it for $600 or so from another missionary who was leaving town. It’s amazing how many missionaries can keep their cars moving forward, a spare part here, duct tape there, as long as they have gasoline.

I think a missionary’s life is like that. Give them hope, and they’ll patch together the faith to work and love to bear fruit as they go. It may not be pretty, but without hope, they’re standing on the side of the road like the blind man in the song, singing “show me the way to go home” and that statement in itself is a final statement of hope.

Artists have similar dreams for society. They hope that people will see the world differently. They wonder at times (or often) whether their work will make a difference. They grapple with faith in what God has given them. Consider the prophetic art of Elijah, who had a great big installation project entered into an important competition (The First Book of Kings, Chapter 18) and his results stunned everyone. Afterwards, he had faith enough for rain, but when a small portion of his audience (Jezebel) was displeased with his art, (not even fair to say she’s part of the audience because she didn’t attend, like a critic who talks about an installation they didn’t bother to see) he spun into a tailspin of despair (chapter 19) and was ready to end his own life. Biggest success to date, followed by suicidal thoughts, a sense of complete isolation. What’s going on here? Despair. Finally God reminds him there are plenty of connections left and sends him back to work (at least long enough to anoint his replacement, because, God knows, he’s burned out for good; Elijah has fought the good fight, and given everything he has). Had Elijah used up all his hope? Or did he operate primarily on faith and miss large chunks of both hope and love? Possibly. After all, he was human.

When we function with hope, it breeds intent. The question of “what is art” is a deeply involved philosophical question which I don’t intend to address in full here (or perhaps ever) but one critical aspect of artwork is that it is a product of some sort of intentional working out of a problem or puzzle that often times the artist has created for themselves.

It means finding a way to say something, to address an issue in society, in a fresh way, and that takes intent.

Much of writer’s block can be said to stem, then, from a lack of hope. Intent-crushing despair. Such despairing statements as “nobody will publish this book anyway” or “nobody reads this blog anyway” or “nobody understands me” will kill hope. These will frustrate the working out of the puzzle; while the statement “I will make myself understood” is a statement of not only of faith, but primarily of hope, for we feel that if we are understood, someone may also come to a life-changing conclusion. Once we’ve made that statement, we have voiced an intent to do it. What we speak with intent is what we do. And this is the crux of the work of a missionary as well, the attempt to communicate something to people who’ve never seen life a certain way before, with intent born of hope to faithfully work towards world-change.

Hope breeds intent. Intent breeds work, which breeds faith. Or, faith breeds work, these two are symbiotic. Love, a fruit of the Spirit, transcends the others, and produces the fruit from the others.




Fusions in the Void, Part 4. Distance and Closeness: Vision

Previously in the series: 1. Fusions in the Void; 2. God and Darkness: The Future; 3. Resting and Motion: Power. See archives.

Today — Distance and Closeness: Vision

Watch a bird of prey sitting still. Their head bobs now and then. They are taking a rapid sampling, triangulating the depth of field of their vision with one eye. Our eyes, both in front of our head, make an automatic triangle (two eyes plus the object make three points) with whatever we’re seeing, and that triangle is what gives us depth perception. We can tell how far away something is without bobbing our heads. Eagles have to read two points with one eye, so they bob their heads to get a reading.

Butterflies and moths do this with their olfactory nerves. Their flight patterns seem odd and irregular because they are doing the same thing that birds of prey do: taking readings from two different spots, then redirecting based on their sense of distance to the next flower or mate.

The Void is a place where distance and closeness blend into each other. We feel when we are in a spiritual and psychological space of blindness that we have no vision at all. We are, in the present moment, unable to sense either distance or closeness, but paradoxically, we are both far and near from our objectives, our goals, our dreams.

God is developing vision in something very much like a photographic darkroom. For things to come together when the lights come back on, a photograph needs darkness to develop. You may feel that you cannot see six inches in front of your face, so distance and closeness have fused to the point that life itself is imperceptible.

This same thing happens when we close both eyes to sleep. We rest, we prepare our minds for vision. We dream, in our sleep, refocusing our energies and psyche for the next day. It is in this not-seeing state, this Void where distance and closeness seem to be lost, that they actually fuse together, allowing our spirit and psyche to triangulate and find depth and direction. One day, when the Void moment (or decade) is over, we open our eyes and we see the path clearly. The Void has allowed our picture to develop, and the lines are sharp again. This is the hope the photographer has when she turns off the lights in the darkroom and begins to work. This is the hope the eagle has when he scans the ground for prey from his aerie. This is the hope that the spiritually yearning voyager has when nothing is clear, and nothing feels comfortable — the closeness pressing, the distance vacuous: This hope is that in the Void, Distance and Closeness are fusing to create Vision. Dawn will come no matter how long the night may seem, no matter what terrors the dark may hold.

Fusions in the Void Part 2, God and Darkness: The Future

This is the second in a series of essays on Fusions in the Void.

Time stands still in the Void. Everything that may have been is not yet. Everything that could be isn’t beginning yet. Living in the Void is like an attack of living in the present. Yes, we hear from wise sages about how living in the present is this glorious thing, but right now it sucks. It’s not what we want, though we know we should want it, and so it becomes an ever-present reminder in and of itself of how disconnected we are to both our own past (which is supposed to be forming us into something, even the bad parts of our past) and disconnected also to our future, all sorts of dreams on hold while we sit, our vision set up on a shelf like a can of sardines which nobody wants to open for fear that it will stink. Even ourselves (pretend that you love sardines for the sake of this argument) even we do not want to open what we, perhaps uniquely and alone, may really want. We can’t get it because we can’t live in the present, because even though we want to, we don’t want to. It stinks, all of it, like a primordial pool of fertilizer.

God-self is fusing with the darkness itself in the Void. God has decided, after many aeons of not-past, not-present which contained not-future, to draw a line in the sand, that everything before will now be thought of as “past” and everything to come will be considered “future” and yet God’s Spirit is hovering over the waters … in the moment. Stirring, perhaps, a pot of gruel or a pot of pourri (what the heck is pot-pourri?) or a pot of something. The first thing God creates is time, and God does this by being in the moment with the Darkness. God encounters Darkness in the void and in that very act God creates The Future. “In the Beginning” it says, “God created the heavens and the earth.” But by the very words “In the Beginning” we can see that the first creation is time itself. Followed closely by heavens, earth, and water.

What is the first thing God and the Void are coming together in creative, motion-based fusion to create? Your future. You could be in a deep depression, you could be in such a Void you can see nothing. But time is literally on your side because by its very nature it includes not only a past or present. “But my future looks so bleak!” Right. That’s because in the Void you cannot see anything. At all. Everything has come to a halt. Mystically, in the Void, even the future itself seems not yet to exist. It is only an idea that God has not yet had. Sure. That’s what it seems. I get that. But the future is really the first creation of all, and it comes with a side of hope; hope that there may be ice cream for dessert. The past, too, may seem not to be leading anywhere good. All your momentum headed in the wrong direction. The present just Void, dark, the future, if it’s a continuation of what has been, worthless. But this is not so. God fuses with the Darkness to create future. Hope that it will be worth seeing. The future is the sun rising in the east, again.


Fusions in the Void, Part 1: What are “Fusions in the Void”?

Some years ago I built an artsy coffee table with walnut, maple and a marble top. It also has a drawer. In the bottom of the drawer, covered with plexiglass, sits a piece of paper with fifteen written lines, the first of which (reading bottom to top, seeing the first line as you open the drawer) is “Fusions in the Void:”

I covered the plexiglass with sand, added some pebbles and made some small rakes out of copper with wooden handles, and a tiny hoe as well, so that, to uncover the words underneath one must rake the sand aside, a sort of zen garden tucked in a drawer. The contemplative exercise allows for discovery of the lines, hidden in a similar way to how things are hidden when we experience Void in our lives. This Void has other names: the Dark Night of the Soul, or a Valley Experience. It’s thought of as not only a spiritual but also psychological phase which includes depression and a significant sense of spiritual disconnection, but also can be a time of simplification and purification as well — depending on how you engage it.

In a move of pure hope, (because I was in such a Void when I made the table) I decided that surely in the Void some things were also fusing. It’s a sort of spiritual cold fusion, more based on a hope than a science.

Scientists talk of “pathological science” as a scientific pursuit of something which has been proven not to exist, or of “the science of things which are not so.”  Cold Fusion, the idea that fusion energy could be produced at room temperature, is one example. People keep researching it because there’s some sort of hope that it could be, though scientists have proven it’s a thing “which is not so”. Richard Feynman talked about “cargo cult science” where people do things scientifically in the same way that South Pacific Islanders attempted to bring planes full of cargo back to their island by creating air strips complete with a hut with a home-made air traffic radio man inside it, complete with a headset, made of balsa wood, basically the cult creates all the trappings they’ve observed of an airport but it does not deliver airplanes. No cans of Spam arrive with obesity ensuing.

I suspect that hope must seem a pathological thing during the Void, and that even the trappings of spirituality seem like a cargo cult. We pray and journal and fast and pray some more, we read the Bible, and the harder we try the more God seems distant, as though on a journey or indisposed. His airplane never lands on our airstrip. What are we doing wrong? Where is the God who lit Elijah’s offering in a second? Where are the cans of spiritual and psychological Spam we wanted?

Hope, however, was David’s pathology all through the Psalms. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” (Ps. 42:11)

I like David’s use of the word “again”. It is as if to say “someday” as well as, maybe, now, as if to say “even though I don’t feel like it now, I will come back around to it eventually.” My friend Tim told me that in the newspaper office where he used to work, the standing joke was that any headline could gain added depth or at least humor by adding the word “again” to the end of it. “Mayor caught embezzling money– again” or “Eagles fall by a score of 52-0 to Panthers, again.” There’s power in that little word.

Part of my hope at the time I made my table was that in spite of the Dark Night or Void, when I had a deep and pervading sense of spiritual and psychological blindness, that there was some sort of Fusion going on, a cold fusion perhaps, when you’re neither hot nor cold, you’re just at this tepid room temperature, virtually numb, feeling little, groping for solutions. Living in fog as thick as pea soup (an image that has stuck with me from the children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs). But in that fog, there’s a hope that fusion will happen in our lives, again.And perhaps even now that fusion is happening, though unseen.

Cold fusion may be an impossibility in the world of physics, but in the spirit/psych world of the Dark Night or Void, I am happy to pathologically believe that fusion is happening.

I invite you to follow a series of 14 more essays on Fusions in The Void. I’m sticking with the Void idea (and will not clutter future essays with the other terms) because it’s a place of creativity, of creation. I invite you to the paradigm shift that we are experiencing Void, not, perhaps in the sense of Eastern Mystics, but in this sense:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and VOID, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:1-2)

What happened during a time covered in darkness? Two verbs: creation and motion. The combination of these two verbs happening together is the idea I call fusion. (By the way, we need to pay attention to the fact that the motion here is not particularly directional! Think of it more like the motion happening when your stomach is growling: a churning and digesting motion.) The following essays (which, on my blog will bear titles beginning with “Fusions in the Void, Part __”) will explore what may be created in the Voids we experience from time to time. It is my hope that you will take this journey of pathological hope too, and that, in the end, you would find that this is not a cargo cult activity, but ultimately a productive one. Especially if you’re in a Void, I urge you to come back and read more of these Fusion essays … again.