A Bump in the Road
I’ve been consistently drawn to the passage I want to put before you today for a good portion of my life, and even more so of late, somehow trying to “get it in me” if you will. The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke each give their spin on the story, and I’ve heard every analysis from preachers to business people, to self-help gurus, who each spin it in a variety of most interesting ways. Some quite accurate, some, not so much. Nonetheless, this has never stopped me from periodically coming back to it like a dog continually intrigued to run after the same bone tossed a thousand times, in order to glean from its hidden gold beneath that rather funky ground we often find ourselves in. And because of that, somehow, I’ve always inferred that Jesus wants this ole dog to set up permanent camp here; put my Martha cap on; sit at the feet of the Master till the cows come home; or until pig’s fly, or, when something starts to actually grow for goodness sakes. You get the picture. So, I guess it’s my new address in between life’s hell and high water, even my permanent one. Perhaps it should be yours too.
The backdrop here is familiar through the gospels. Jesus is getting slammed with people wanting to touch the hem of his garment in light of their dire straits, get something from him, or perhaps crucify him; or maybe even betray him with a kiss. But we won’t be picky here. The names change, but the scenery and the mixture is pretty much the same. And so Jesus is sitting in his fishing boat looking at the people hanging on the beach gazing back at him with bated breath, and he begins to speak in one of his favorite ways that continue to baffle us all; in parables. Nonetheless, the passage goes like this:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear (Mt. 13:1-9 ESV).
What you Talking About Willis?
Now interestingly, in between verses 9 and 18, Jesus gets the right question thrown to him by the disciples. They simply ask what maybe you and I have asked, or are currently asking, “Why do you speak to them in parables”, or, “how about giving the dog a bone here”? Makes sense. And of course here it is all too easy to skirt by this part and get to his explanation coming up about what the dang parable actually means. But we want to get to the punchline, we just want to pass the gosh-darn test. Cliff notes please! And Jesus gets it. So he responds basically saying that the understanding usually comes to already spiritual awakened people (not even the disciples yet apparently), and to those who are really seeking what the kingdom is about because they’ve run out of bargaining chips. This of course is opposed to those who are not so much seeking the life he wants to give, but what they gain if they decided to do it; or perhaps more importantly, those whose hearts are already hardened by what’s wrong in their ground, and as a result wouldn’t see or hear even if Jesus slapped them upside their nappy heads with it! Evidently, it has a lot to do with a lifetime of shutting their eyes and ears to what’s already been said and done all around them, and as a result have missed the proverbial forest for the trees. Somehow, I wonder if he’s talking to me!
But Jesus doesn’t leave them hanging, nor does he want to. Because it is now that the kingdom is just beginning to be ushered in. And so, he realizes that as the Holy Spirit inevitably comes just a stone’s throw down the road, more awakened people will start to get it, and if they do, he knows some kind of “living water” will then engulf them, and they’ll finally graduate from the class, or at least move on to a new class. And as a result, they’ll get to write a book on 4 steps to Spiritual Gardening or something like that, because there will be fruit-flies everywhere for goodness sakes! And it is here that you and I need to set up camp for the morning, noon and night. So, the Master gets right to it. He says:
Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”(Matthew 13:18-23 ESV)
And the plot thickens.
There’s a Thief Among Us
Jesus opines that the word, His word, actually comes to the lot of us, with often mixed results. No argument there. The first is the majority of us in the vast cosmos so it seems. And in this case Geraldine was partly right, the devil evidently did make them do it. Jesus says that the evil one can and often does “snatch” away what was initially sown somewhat haphazardly along the path. We could chalk it up as bad soil, or that it was kind of strewn about by happenstance and not purposely. The sky is the limit. There are probably no wrong answers here. But what we do know, and the synoptics are in cahoots, is that the devil steals some stuff, a lot evidently. In fact, Jesus reminded us that the evil one came to kill, steal and destroy, whereas Jesus came to give something along the lines of abundant life or something like that. So we get it I think. Evidently stealing is one of the extra special aspects of the Prince of Darkness’ MO. And it makes perfect sense does it not?
Is The Enemy We’ve Found in Lock-Step With Us?
For instance, we see people get little morsels of the word thrown on them in a multiplicity of ways, and all at once, they start to take it in. However, in the blink of an eye it seems, the habitual lies and isms and survival of the fittest mantras that have been on autopilot most of their lives, rush in and talk them off the edge of their merely circumstantial naivete back to the safety of popular consensus and comfort zones. And then “poof”, it’s as if nothing ever happened. Business as usual. Case closed. The curtain is now pulled on what coulda, shoulda, woulda been.
But perhaps before we move too fast and put all the lost in this prayer list bucket, maybe the devil still steals from the enlightened of us too I suppose before we get a block down the road. For the same family traditions, worldly indoctrinations and our own eternal struggle to somehow finally listen to this still small voice more readily while simultaneously seeking to pull our own bootstraps up somewhere I guess, causes us all to buckle, and shuck it off as working perhaps for some; but maybe, just maybe, it’s really not for the likes of us after all. So we dodge the fish, and cut the bait instead; again and again, and again.
So yeah, the devil steals stuff like I said, well like Jesus said. And it’s kind of sad don’t you think. Perhaps we need an alarm or something, or a wall, or maybe there’s something in our ground I suppose.
Stay tuned for Part II
I stumbled across a portion of scripture for about the umpteen millionth time this morning. It’s one that indeed struck a chord within me that has been perhaps longing to be strummed for some time to in order to awaken my own calcified heart to its melodic revelation. And as I polished off that last slug of morning Joe before entering into morning prayers, it occurred to me that in Christendom, this illumining disclosure I stumbled upon, that was once so blatantly obvious to the whole damn lot of us, has become shall we say somewhat “passé” and rather obsolete to us now. A fact at which should cause even the most confident extraverts to blush as one caught with their pants down just before the lights go down.
The scripture I am referring to is found in the gospel of Luke in chapter 11, where in verses 34 & 35, from the mouth of Jesus himself, He states the following:
“Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness”.
And as I mentioned earlier, though I have read this scripture time and time again, it occurred to me that its incontrovertibleness somehow now seems to have escaped both the church’s and our individual brotherhood and sisterhood in the community of Christ’s own mortification of it all. And, if it were not yet clear what Jesus was trying to say to us, the Apostle Paul, like many other of the authors of the New Testament, no doubt explains this verse rather unmistakably when he writes in Ephesians 5:8-12:
“for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true) and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret”.
So here we have it. Both Jesus, and now reiterated and explained in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we find that whatever light or “worldview” if you will that we have, that guides our day to day goings on, is in fact either light or darkness. And it seems crystal clear again as Paul reminds us, since we as brothers and sisters are now “light in the Lord”, that we are in fact to walk (yes that’s correct) as “children of light”, and that this is descriptive and representative of all that is “good and right and true”. He of course adds to that narrative that discerning whether we have light or darkness requires a judgement of sorts on our part, that then sifts through the numerous or oppositional false lights that come at us each day through the flickering pixels of our lives, in order to now find “what is pleasing to the Lord”. Paul takes it even a step further for us and says that we are not to take part in those “unfruitful works of darkness” and instead should expose them, which causes most of us “non-offense” postured Christianity-light Christian hearts’ to skip a beat, or perhaps even the whole bloody drum solo!
Nevertheless, I say all of these things, not because I too am not at fault at coming short at observing the standard put before us. However, more importantly, I am also increasingly aware that it is the standard itself that is now in question and has now fallen on the hardest of times.
And of course, we all know acutely well I’m afraid that the light in the world that represents itself as luminary to us is off kilter and off its rocker so to speak. And that likewise, it is also the ever-prevalent light of the god of this world, and to those who “buy in” to its modus operandi; forever drawn like moths to a flame to its attractive gaze. Or at least, we should know this.
And perhaps that is my ever so observable point. And it is that when those of us who are called “the light of the world”, or those who are to be “light in the Lord” are no longer even able to discern what the “unfruitful works of darkness” are that we are participators of, you can bet “dollars to doughnuts” that we will come up a country-mile short in having the ability to light anything for people to truly see with. And that as a result, the light we now are purported to have, like the world around us, will now also be in fact truly darkness!
Don’t Fear the Reaper?
And of course it then occurred to me, as I hope is also at least obvious to those of us with a smidgeon left of spiritual acumen in our hearts and minds as to the current balderdash being pumped into us both with and without our invitation on any given second, that this is indeed a watershed issue! And it is so both in the visible church, who by their own self-promotional appointment to the role of knowing better have incessantly and yet now hypocritically remind us, and to the rest of the church invisible who are unreluctantly following suit. Those of us who have almost flagrantly conceded to the god of this worlds’ false light bearers, and have now like Pavlov’s fricking dog, salivated their way into convincing us to mix both lights together like the candy man can, hoping somehow to make it all taste good for us to drink with our Kool-Aid cups, as if the Grim Reaper is not now at our own front door!
And so now, the thought occurred to me in that epiphanic moment of which I spoke, that if the light that is now in the church and in us has also become darkness, and if the road to the “fruits of darkness” as opposed to being “light in the Lord” has become mere indiscernible shades of inevitable gray, then perhaps a day of reckoning is indeed upon us. And maybe, just maybe; it won’t be far too long in the prophetic, yet not much paid attention to distance, that we’ll look up, and as all is now verifiably trampled on the floor before us, we will actually then finally wish that we’d all been ready!
I guess you could say I’ve gotten a little off focus lately, with you know… with um, that narrow path thing I’m always going on about. It’s of course always on my wayward heart and mind as it relates to the part of it I see drastically missing now in the church, and equally in this here ragamuffin. But I can’t let it go. It won’t let me I’m afraid. Old age and senility is a bitch I guess.
You see after at least 50 years of reading the scriptures devotionally, academically and in mostly utter desperation to grovel to the crumbs from God’s table in order to get through the given day, its commissioning and its constant beckoning to be on that exact path, will not escape me. I want, I need, I have to be on it—but, there aren’t many travel companions as a Nazirite once opined. And so I’m walking, I’m hobbling along. But here I go again, thinking I can, thinking I can, and resting in the fact that somehow He can, through me…conceivably.
A Prophet’s Graduation
So yes, it haunts me pretty regularly, it is true. And I often wake up from my grandiose narrow path dreams mesmerized at the fact that Christianity went and stole Jesus right from under our noses as we were sipping our lattes, planning our next weekend excursion, and tipping our way into the final icing on our “cake life” of the treasures that yet await us in heaven—or so we’ve been told.
But I’m not so sure.
And though I’ve been accused of sometimes being a “wanna be” prophet of woe, I get the feeling that perhaps I’ve now graduated from the class and am the real McCoy now. Not that anyone is listening, but I’m beginning to feel the “Thus Saith the Lord” off in the distance of my ears ringing, and so I’m speaking it out for those of us who have ears to hear and eyes to see. But maybe first we need to lose the air pods, cut the noise off, turn the lights down or simply turn around.
Sign, Sign, Everywhere A Sign
It’s funny how things go in life. There are little signs, little guideposts along the way that you know are leading you to something, even when no one else may be paying bloody attention. And then God subtly reminds us in that still small voice thing that there are yet remnants of witty bitty prophets of worldly insignificance who have not yet bowed the knee to Baal or Molech, and who confirm to us that the answers that have been blowing in our collective wind have the potential to raise up a valley of dry, dead as Hell bones if we will let it. That’s happened to me a lot lately.
It started with a few epiphanies that I wrote in my prayer journal which I then posted on social media, as those rare instances where you feel God pointed his finger right through the sky and into your heart and soul and “stuck” around for a month of Sundays. Things such as:
“We absolutely must drop the notion that as a Christian, everything we say and do will be liked by others regardless of our earnest desire to be winsome. In fact, if we are now to truly follow Jesus, we will more than likely earn the title of court jester”.
“Either you work for the glory that is now, or for the one Jesus says is yet to come. But very rarely does He entrust both to us”.
And then last but not least:
“Either we believe all of what Jesus said was true or we don’t. But it’s high time we absolutely believe that the behavior should reflect our conclusion on the matter”.
And if that wasn’t enough, Ann Voskamp walked in my reading life and upset what was left of my own very self-protected, yet very broken applecart. The one, two punch. Kaboom. She came, she conquered, I’m now done.
So, What Is the Narrow Path Anyway?
And so, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a pastor friend of mine several months back. The poor guy actually read some of my blogs a time or two and so he asked me, “Mark, so what is the narrow path anyway dude”? And I thought to myself, “Why’d he have to go there”? Foul ball. No, but really, I’m glad he did. Because perhaps I need to redefine it for myself again before I can sheepishly begin to articulate it to others. Drumroll please!
You see the truth is the narrow path is designed to tell us something right out the gate. It says to us ever so, I don’t know, OBVIOUSLY, that by the road being narrow, and few finding it, that the way is…well, hard I think. Cruciform. Yep, I’m sure of it. In fact, G.K. Chesterton once said about this exact fly in the ointment that “The Christian life has not been tried and found wanting but has been found difficult and thus left untried”. I couldn’t have said it better myself G.K. You see the narrow path first and foremost has to mean that if the Christian life costs your nothing to walk it, speak it and live it out in Sodom and Gomorrah (in case you thought you were in Kansas), then more than likely you took a detour of some kind, and that perhaps if you see all your friends there with you too, you may need something akin to a minority report.
I also think the narrow path has to mean something that sounds an awful lot like LOVE. No, not the easy peezy, Japaneezy kind for goodness sakes, that simply loves those who are “loveable”. Even gosh darn pagans do that. But something more akin to enemy love I heard a teacher once say, or that at the very least seeks to love and bless even when others will occasionally, or perhaps frequently curse and join ranks with gossip columnists eat up with days of our lives of which they mostly know nothing about, or who secretly hope for our final undoing. Yea, I think it’s that. And It’s not a cheesy love either that simply “grins and bears it”, but one that often is “butt hurt” and yet chooses to love anyway, and to bless anyway, and even gives a tunic and goes a mile or two further, and even turns a sore cheek now and again. Something about “love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things” rings a bell. Yea, I think this is to walk a narrow path–sometimes alone I’m afraid. In fact, oftentimes of late it seems.
Oh, and I think it might have something to do with FORGIVENESS too perhaps. Yea, so Jesus kind of talked a lot about that I believe. We are to forgive. Not necessarily to forget, but maybe to throw it in a “sea of forgetfulness” or something like that maybe. Like God did, and always, always does. Maybe its “seventy times seven” or maybe “to infinity and beyond” as Buzz always said. It means sometimes saying, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”, or maybe even “Forgive them, since I too have often been unforgiving and unloving too”. You know, tit for tat. Reciprocal FORGIVENESS maybe even. Love and forgiveness have to be the dynamic duo I’d say. Yea, that’ll work.
Oh, and perhaps it means to GIVE maybe. Oh not the 10% thing necessarily, though perhaps not to its exclusion somewhere, or to something, or to even someone. In fact, to walk with the narrow path jive turkeys, it means giving a lot; maybe everything, even when knowing it is pearls thrown to some swine of sorts. Maybe even most times. No return on investment, no pragmatism, no accountability, and no blind man coming back to thank us. Just giving out of our plenty and out of our nothing maybe, for some joy set before us perhaps. Very Macedonian-like methinks. Very Pauline if you will. And perhaps Petrine, and Johanine, and all very disciplee and stuff. Or better yet, very Jesusesque don’t you think?
It means giving a good damn about all the plight you see both inside and outside your four walls without scurrying about so quickly so as to not think hard or deep enough about what it is you just saw, or if there is anything I or my collective brethren should do about it.
It means churches not so hung up on services but perhaps more SERVICE to others, both in and outside the sheep gate. In word and deed. Good news and Good works alright. And maybe, just maybe even with one of them there church thingies on every city block in the good ole bible belt, maybe we become a real talk of the town and own the plight of the homeless, the mentally ill, the widow, the single Mom and the fatherless. And perhaps while we’re at it, instead of churches becoming more like mausoleums, gymnasiums, Tony Robbins workshops, and the only spot you get your weekly “ex cathedra”, they become more like homes of refuge to those types. You know, the ones Jesus said are actually like looking directly at Himself I believe, and are the difference between becoming a right-handed sheep or a left-handed goat-for-nothing.
Hard Times At Narrow Path High
Yea, I think it kind of means all those things, and of course a whole lot more. But, that’s a good damn start, I think. That’ll get us going I believe. Yes, the difficult road of love, forgiveness and where we actually store up what we have and what we haven’t somewhere else I heard a man born in Bethlehem once say. And whether or not we hang around sinners, beggars and whores, or stay comfy inside church doors. Hey, that rhymed!
But you can bet that it’s a lonely, sparse road though this narrow path thing. I’m telling ya. And evidently, there are few there be that find it I heard a Galilean once say. But perhaps you’re either in or your out, you sink or you swim, you separate boys from men, put on your big girl panties, or something like that. But what I do know is, that the narrow path doesn’t get a word in edgewise around here much anymore, and I think that’s why the church increasingly looks pretty much like everybody else on that other road over yonder–safe and secure inside a cocoon of orthodoxy, while the rest of us are busy not even applying the itching ear salve their serving up on any given Sunday.
It would be no grand secret to say that it would have been virtually impossible for my children to not have become Beatles fans. In fact, I dare say that I would have felt like an abysmal failure as a father if it had not been so. And I guess you could also say, in terms of handing down things almost instinctively, it makes perfect sense in more ways than one. For instance, though I have very little memory of my mother who was snatched from us at an early age, and though childhood and even teenage memories are for some reason a dismal blur to me, I have old film archives of my sister Kim, and my brother Mike and I, dancing feverishly in the late 60’s to anything the Beatles were currently playing. And to be sure, this was none other than the conspiracy of my beloved Aunt Gayle and my dear Mother Agnes, who were undeniably in cahoots for the branding of us into the hysteria known as Beatlemania.
Fast forward till now, and indeed all of my sons have joined the addiction, but none quite as infected as my eldest namesake Mark. Consequently, I grinned like the Grinch peering down on Whoville, as I watched him pick up musical instruments and play them almost effortlessly as a child, and equally so as some of the first songs he played and reflected upon were from the timeless musical catalog of none other than John, Paul, George and Ringo. And now, many moons later, I would get the news that both he and his lovely wife would name their expected child Julia, as I then shed an irrepressible entourage of tears to hear that her middle name would be the namesake of the Mother I never knew: Agnes. That most beautiful, amazing and ever mysterious name.
The Mother Wound
And as I reflected more on the thought of this beloved child coming into the world and John’s myriad of meetings for the song, it was almost haunting then to know that at least one of the meanings was indeed a tribute to John’s equal beloved Mother named Julia, who evidently most influenced his decision to abandon all else for the sake of his music. And what a wise soul she was indeed. John actually tells of losing her twice, both as a young lad who was then raised by his Auntie, and then who later picked up his relationship with his Mum as a teen, but who later died in a dreadful car crash. The fate of both of our Mothers was tragic to say the least. The difference was however being a glorious love of his Mother that John then lost, and mine of loving the mere thought of someone I only imagined from old film reels and family stories of her love for me that had vanished abruptly in the fall of 1969. The gaping Mother wound was significant nonetheless for us both, and one which I believe explains also the restless “Ocean Child” in me, and the equal desire at least to express it in words that are perhaps inspired from the wound itself. It is then only fitting that my little ocean grandchild Julia will carry on that namesake, and who will possibly also be one who like me, looks to the ocean like a long-lost lover longing for some sweet reunion.
Mutual Love of the Ocean
My Aunt Gayle told me not along ago that she kind of got the sniffles when she heard that I was moving to Surfside Beach. She then shared with me that my mother Agnes loved it immensely. This of course made me smile from ear to ear as I contemplated the thought of it. And it occurred to me that perhaps somehow in a mystical way she left that to me, perhaps to ponder her own equal restless heart and perhaps find it, and somehow to be touched by a shadowy piece of her, and to feel the healing warmth of her love that I missed long, long ago. It brings me great comfort to think so nonetheless, and I now long to share my love for the ocean with my beloved Julia and the comradery that now the three of us will share. I will equally look forward to opening up to her of both my love and thoughts on God, what her namesake means, and to watch her grow into her very own individuality and to blossom into an unrivaled beauty as my late Mother clearly was. And of course, as one who will also grow up with a wonderful Father and Mother, and into an extended family, who if they possess nothing more, are full of love and grace and peace ready to bestow upon her without measure.
The truth is, though I speak of namesake here, and talk of the beauty of family, I am not an expert of feeling its effects outside of the grateful creation of my own, with the real hero of that being my beloved Paula, of whom I now share my “ocean child” life with. In fact, I can remember as if it were yesterday as a child, often being in a crowded room of people, and yet somehow feeling as if I was always the “odd man out”. And though I have now grown into an old man by the sea, the reclusive nature of a soul somehow disconnected from relational intimacy outside of my own little family is now fully grown and more observable, and that which compels me to spill it out with musings on paper for perhaps nothing more than my own catharsis, or in flickering hopes of an epiphany of sorts into the mystery that is now Grandpa Prince. I know my little Julia’s life will be markedly different than mine was, and I praise the Father above for that, and thus do not wish my unpredictable perplexity on her for a moment. However, I do hope and pray that she shares the love of the ocean with her Grandpa, and the desire to know the unique nature of what her namesake means to those of us who will be unable to look at her without starry-eyed reminiscence of some transcendent essence of Agnes that she will possess. But most importantly, I pray that she will always rest her beautiful head and all of her hopes and dreams into the loving arms of Jesus, who will never leave her nor forsake her, and who will always hold her near and dear to His most blessed and sacred heart.
Now to be sure, Julia will enter a world in a familial sense that will be drastically different than my own experience, and of that for which I am eternally grateful as I mentioned. For she will be a child armed with love and in knowing the unconditionality of that love. A love that has absolutely nothing to do with what she becomes, or for that matter, for any namesake that she indeed carries; but one that is hers simply because of whose she is, and for who she is. And whether or not she will look just like me, be a “chip off the ole block” as they say, have my sense of never-ending sarcasm, or share my obvious bibliophile tendencies; I cannot yet know. However, my sweet Julia, from one ocean child to another, Grandpa will look forward to seeing you at the beach!
Well if it isn’t that glorious time of year again! And no, there is absolutely no hint of sarcasm in my pen! Seriously. I kid you not. You know, it’s that wonderful time when parents glee with snap-happy anticipation about spending a shit ton of money they actually don’t have, and then counting down the moments until everyone tears open their presents. And afterwards, the “fan damily” then scurry about to some in-laws or outlaws to once again get through the heart attack-ridden gluttony without having to call 911; a couple of more mandatory presents in between, and just for good measure; we’ll throw in a little bit of all too familiar ungraciousness, relational trepidation, and a good dose of leftover familial guilt just to close out this blessed day! Ah, there’s nothing quite like it. In fact, one can hardly wait till next year to do it all again.
But wait, did I just say, “Bah Humbug”? Well kinda. But at least I didn’t add “decrease the surplus population”to it. I’ll leave that to God. But just for the record, there is no way that I should be in charge of the zapper button that obliterates people out of existence on any given day. God in his infinite wisdom stores up his wrath for another day and keeps me out of the consultative loop. Be thankful. No, but seriously, be thankful.
Genes are a Bitch
My disdain for Christmas is complicated, so let me explain. I guess after all I inherited it from my old man. I used to see the look on his eyes every Christmas and it literally scared the shit out of me, kind of like Clark Griswold finally unhinged in the aftermath of surviving an insane family for the holidays, and an equally negligible Christmas bonus https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQXuazYI_YU, or like Neil Page finally unglued at the airport counter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWRxPDhd3d0 if you get my drift . In fact, you could see his eye veins pulsate as he looked at you, and coupled with the tone of his voice, it was a sight so palpable that you could cut it with a freaking butter knife. In fact, to this day, I swear if that ole boy didn’t have a flask stationed in every room of the house during Christmas, he missed a good damn opportunity! And I know for sure that whatever smidgeon of joy he experienced couldn’t have lasted more than a millisecond on Christmas Day, seeing the ecstasy in our entitled little bug eyes, saving just a bit more to be sure when he opened his one damn present with everybody’s cheap ass name written on it, that ended up being a frickin tie or some generic cologne that couldn’t get you any action with two out of work hookers and an American Express black card for goodness sakes! His response was like, “Oh gee, thanks everybody, you really shouldn’t have”! In fact, I’m quite sure that the 26th couldn’t come soon enough, and I imagine him and Mrs. Claus partying like it was 1999 as they ushered in their new, but only temporal freedom from the sheer agony of it all. But I digress.
To get deeper into the heart of the matter, I guess it’s summed up quite nicely in my title with the sheer “X-mas” of it all that we have come to know all too well. In fact, though raised in a home that took fairly seriously the customary reading of the Luke 2 Christmas story, our culture had successfully conditioned us to tolerate the moment in order to get to the real shindig. The bliss of discovering whether or not we got everything we had on our list, concluding that we were more nice than naughty, and breathing a sigh of relief that Santa or Dad, or whoever the Hell it was, somehow graded on the curve. There was also the token Christmas service, the watching of “A Christmas Carol”,“Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman”, and then a stark reminder from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to get at least somehow close to the sheer meaning of it all not a moment too late for possible bargaining chips down the road at the pearly gates. But Jesus, you know, “the reason for the season” and all, got somehow lost in the periphery; and by the day after, had come up again a day late and a dollar short of truly gripping us with the ultimate gift that longs to continually give year after year–if we but allow it. And somehow, I guess you could say I’ve at least somewhat repeated the cycle, though in James Dean like defiance, left to my own contemplative thoughts once the trash bag of endless wrapping paper is nestled where the soon to be memory of fleeting present glory also rests: in the garbage can of grasping for meaning straws, and coming up with the same vanity and emptiness before the hysteric flimflam began. And as much as I long to extract significance from this blessed day amidst the rigmarole of what we’ve made it, I often find myself most of the time waiting for the again depressing climax of December 26th as well, with the temptation to then light up a smoke and perhaps even bathe in the ambiance.
Well, perhaps you’re like me this Christmas, and you’re one who has to survive it rather than experience the magic and thoughtful exuberance of it all. A magic like the star that guided wise Magi a couple of millennia ago to gaze upon a face and a meaning that’s only response to it was to give every bit of gold, frankincense and myrrh they could lay down at His feet of soon to be glorious good news. And a child born with the power to save mankind from both his perpetual capacity for sin, and the slavery-like oblivion to repetitively put all his eggs in a basket of smoke and mirrors, continually hoping for left over manna instead of the daily bread of contentment proceeding out of that precious mouth of God that man surely should not live without. And likewise, for a gift that is wrapped in love and peace, forgiveness, and good will toward man. Something to which we many times have left time and time again wrapped under that oft forgotten tree. But in the meantime, it’s beginning to look at lot like Christmas.
The Purpose of the Ocean View
It’s been 3 years ago now since the Prince family moved to the quiet refuge of a salt life that has been a oceanic sanctuary in and of itself, and that which makes me never want to leave the healing powers it seems to bestow upon us as we breathe in both its infinitude, and its endless array of perspective and hope for any given moment.
As I have written about before, there were many motivations for our detour here, one of which was personal, in that it was my last excuse I could muster up for not finally sitting down and writing anything this lost soul could get down on paper. I had made a promise to my wife years ago that I would write, and was equally commissioned by many others that I was uniquely qualified to do so, and therefore should get busy doing it! And yet as many of us know all too well, belief in one’s self, belief in what others think of you, and the action it takes to realize one’s potential or God-given destiny, are not always natural bedfellows.
The plan nonetheless upon arrival was to start a blog and eventually write a book and evolve somehow into a true writing life alongside my life as a sales dog in the world of business. I guess you could say that in some respects I finally morphed into doing something of what I said I would…well, almost. Indeed, I actually started the blog (check) and had a goal of writing at least 1 entrance each week. Yet after the first year or so, I was writing perhaps only every two or three weeks. And now at the tail end of 2018, once a month has been my most consistent “inconsistency”. And, so it seems that fantastic distractions are not as hung up on geography as I once proposed.
Conversations with Brother Al
My brother from another mother’s name is Al. We live an eastern seaboard apart, yet we talk on a very consistent basis about everything from politics (not always a good idea), to faith, and about the constant foray of fantastic distractions that keep good men and women from taking a shot at something that has the potential to breathe new life into their soul, and that oftentimes seems to also lie on the other side of a slimy, nasty little thing called fear. We are both now in our mid to late fifties collectively, and we are likewise in constant awareness of both the certainty of potential that still exists for us, and the equal hourglass of sand in the days of our lives that is at least in some very real sense running out here on the “back 9”. These uniform realisms give us both reflective pause, and the additional communal “Atta boys”, reminding each other in something of a melodic harmony, that since today we are alive and well, the train has not yet run out of track, thus there is still runway for bold and more consistent attempts at what gives meaning to our lives this side of paradise.
A Song That Remains the Same
As I reflected on our meditations of late, I was reminded of a song that I first heard back in 1997 by the Dime Store Prophets. It was a time when Christian music was in a brief state of relevance and equal talent, which has seemed to die a slow death since then unfortunately. The song however is appropriately titled “Fantastic Distraction”, and for sure it has a repertoire of meaning to the eye of various beholders. However, for me, it echoes quite succinctly where I’m at, and mirrors quite sadly, why many of us go to bed at night dreaming about becoming some knight in shining armor, yet wake up each day limping to a coffee pot of desperate rescue to more of our both comfortable and equally predictable distractions, which seem to be on eternal autopilot in the beds of our lives that we have faithfully and meticulously made.
The lyrics are as follows:
Michael looks up at the bottle from under a glass table
He’s mouthing words I can’t make out, something about innocence
He calls us all his best friends
And swaggers into the haze of no questions
Joy keeps a strict diet of popsicles, pop-tarts, and heroin
She likes to open the doors and go looking for Morrison
She biped and fell on Jesus
He says I’ve been walking the gardens looking for you
I’ve been desperate too
Maybe she’s just hiding from the one thing
Maybe she’s just hiding from the one thing
In a fantastic distraction
Twelve steps forward and thirteen steps back
Sonny works hard on the pavement all of the live long day
He drives home, sits down with his burdens placed where his wife should be
Turns on the tv set
And toxicates himself with gamma rays
White noise for the pain
Maybe he’s just hiding from the one thing
Maybe he’s just hiding from the one thing
In a fantastic distraction
Twelve steps forward and thirteen steps back
Moth on the window pane
Drawn to the light
Can’t find an opening
Back to the light
To say that the song speaks volumes about our current topic, is to state the obvious. At first glance, they speak of fantastic distractions such as bottles of our favorite nightly elixir, narcotics, and wasting away on gamma rays, which are descriptive of just a few of those that can keep many of us all from the “one thing”. Of course one is also free to insert their own distraction of never-ending choice that range from incessant entertainment, endless Facebook surfing or simply biding time in your ass imprinted easy chair, simply waiting for the light of your life to finally go out or for some other “white noise for the pain”. The light forever longs to get in, but “can’t find an opening”, so we simply rinse and repeat. And as I listened to the song today, it was haunting in its prophetic tone as if the weeping prophet himself was speaking across the ocean waves of my distractions directly at “yours truly”. And then the thought occurred to me, that though I have been known to commend others to a life well lived and full of purpose, and have sought to employ it in my own life, at times the revelatory paradox from my lips is more like, “Do as I say, not as I do”. And thus I too many times live my life “twelve steps forward and thirteen steps back”.
Learning to Number One’s Days
I heard the story once of a man who made it a practice each day of looking in the mirror and saying something to the extent of, “Today, perhaps today, you will die”. When I first heard of it many years ago, I thought it quite morbid, yet the longer I live, I know exactly why this was his practice. Because you see, realizing the brevity of one’s life, is indeed the proverbial key to a life lived well in the here and now, and evidently King David also knew this ancient secret as he writes in Psalm 90:12:
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom. (ESV)
I’ve now inscribed this verse on just about every page of my prayer journal so that I see it each day as I offer prayers for myself and others. It is there to remind me to “get busy living” (Andy Dufrane), and to stop allowing life’s fantastic distractions to keep me from being on mission with my creator by tapping into why I am here, as well as to put my own small “dent in the universe” (Steve Jobs), rather than being caught with my pants down for my final dress rehearsal.
Oh to be sure, a life of contentment and as a faithful ordinary is commendable in the eyes of the Lord, but yet this all depends on how many talents you currently have in your pocket. Perhaps it’s only one, maybe you have two, or perhaps you have been blessed with five or more. The goal for each of us is to simply use our talents and invest them in the service of others, rather than bury them in the ground of our most favorite fantastic distractions, only to find out that life went ahead and did the numbering for us, in our otherwise preoccupied absentia from it!
The Devil’s Advocate
In 1997, I was quite captivated by a movie starring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves entitled “The Devil’s Advocate”. I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Pastoral Ministries and Bible, preparing for my entrance into a Master’s program, eagerly ready to embark on a call into “the ministry”. The movie struck an analytical chord in me, first of all because Al Pacino is one of my favorite actors, but secondly, because the movie seemed to get the aspect of “demonology” visually depicted that was most accurate for a Hollywood movie, and painted a grim picture of just how far any one of us particular “Humpty Dumpty’s” can fall prey to his many times unsuspecting devices.
Ironically, the lead attorney who has never lost a case (Keanu Reeves) plays Kevin Lomax, and Al Pacino plays a character by the name of John Milton (ironically the name of the author of Paradise Lost), but who is none other than Mephistopheles himself. In the introduction to the movie, we witness Kevin Lomax representing someone accused of child molestation, that as the case unfurls, he actually finds out is guilty as Hell. Nonetheless, as he cross examines the prosecution, he finds more holes in their story than a high-powered lawyer has a right to, and as a result, the jury rests with a “not guilty” verdict.
Fast forward through the movie’s twists and turns, after Lomax now has a carrot of an even higher-profile job being dangled before him from John Milton, and a credulous ride on the dark side that he could have never imagined, the movie then concludes with Kevin realizing the error of his ways through his chaotic dance with the devil, and we then enter the same introductory scene. Only this time, the now enlightened and virtuous Kevin now refuses to represent the guilty pedophile. Our hearts soar as we see this spiritual epiphany of Kevin revealed to us, while the reporter Larry grabs Kevin and his wife (played by Charlize Theron), and essentially lets them know that Kevin is now the hero, and he wants to do a story that will be the ultimate “do-gooder” story sure to grant him a new kind of fame. As Reeves and Theron smile at each other with a sense of utter righteous nirvana, the scene then fades as Larry now turns into Al Pacino’s character (Satan) who then says with his shit-eating grin, “Vanity, It’s Definitely My Favorite Sin”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3M68wcB6L0s
Vanity’s Slippery Slope
The thought occurred to me as I considered my own entrance into a “do-gooder” profession at the time, just how imperceptibly oftentimes Satan can take the good that we would do, and can “ipso-facto” turn it into a narcissistic plunge without us even recognizing it, until it’s web around us is fully grown and we’ve been consumed by it ever so completely. It’s a very slippery slope that catches us incognito, and in its aftermath, it devastates not only our own lives, but also the star-gazed lives of those who falsely project their spiritual hopes and dreams upon us, looking to us for their proxy of Christ himself. Of course, the apostle Paul hammered this age-old problem out for us quite clearly in the book of I Corinthians, correcting their “celebrity preacher” propensity, when he reminds them that it is neither He, nor Apollos, nor Peter that is anything at all, but that it is only Christ that we all should follow. He further reminds them in Chapter 13 quite shockingly, that we could even become so good in our own eyes, perhaps even giving our bodies to be burned alive for those who follow us, and yet; if we have not love (the true motive of righteous living), we are in his words…nothing. Or perhaps a close second dilemma, is that of being nothing more than a sounding gong or a clanging symbol that everyone can hear, yet no one can seem to turn off as we genuflect at the sound of our own voice and virtuous tabloid.
When I was a rebel pastor, I was constantly confronted both with my own potential for good, and equally my ability to disappoint, continually humbled as I would step into the pulpit to even attempt to say “Thus Saith the Lord” to anyone. As a result, I tended to preach on topics that I myself was working through in my own life, before I could even begin to hold out anything sacred and substantive for others to take a hold of and embrace for themselves. I saw the potential for vanity in me, as I looked out Sunday after Sunday at vanity’s equivalent congregational reflection staring back at me; equally caught up in having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof. The kind of power quite frankly, that is only made perfect in the weakness we experience both from our arduous journey into our quest for righteousness as nothing more than sinners saved by grace, and from the malevolent force called “this fallen world” that is persistently antagonistic to such a paradoxical caveat of true winning. Yet it is only here that Christ can form the crucible of love that has even the remote possibility of making us into someone who would even dare to say, “follow me, as I follow Christ”.
All is Vanity Saith The Preacher
I realize I have written about this in some form or fashion a lot lately. I guess you could say it is my soul’s quiet preoccupation as I reflect on all the world’s fool’s gold that abounds, and in constant amazement that no matter how much I know it, it is still so easy to fall into its predatory grasp time and time again, as vanity indeed thrives everywhere in our culture today. I see it in the eyes of “road rage” as I sneak out into an intersection with plenty of room to cross, as those I encounter speed up, almost as if to taunt me with the idea of smashing into my car because I dared to cross while they were on their way to God knows where. I see it in bowed up chests and laser like stares, as men and women walk confidently and defiantly with observable chips on their block, daring anyone to look at them in the incorrect way as they live out their daily survival of only the fittest. I see it in the media outlets and political pundits who put forth their “two cents” on every matter under the sun, arrogantly claiming their lack of “deplorable” status, distancing themselves from the obvious “dregs of society” that suck up all the space that they occupy. I see it also in Hollywood’s constant big-headed projection of itself as the standard of which we are all to aspire and work for. And I now see it equally in the church, where ministers dangle very closely on the precipice of being far too caught up in their own reflection, while the casualties of their unsuspecting tutelage continue to wonder who will yet take up the basin and the towel, rather than succumb to a form of self-consecrated, white-washed simony that rivals the marketplace of which we are all apart.
I believe Tom Conlon tells us the truth of the matter in his song Ohio, where he writes these words that I have reflected upon a good bit lately. He says, “Everyone wanna be famous, no one wanna be righteous”. And, well, I suppose both he and the devil are both right after all, because vanity; well it really is our (my) favorite sin.
A Slave Mentality
I wrote some weeks ago a post entitled “Broken Into Disbelief” https://marknealprince.com/2016/11/16/broken-into-disbelief/. My basic premise was in seeking to understand and thus attempting to explain why many find it so difficult to believe consistently due to a lifetime of a what I call a slave mentality–much as was the experience of the Israelites in transition to a proposed promise land the first batch of desert wanderers would never reach. I related to not only actual slavery, of which the Israelites were a part of for four hundred years, but also to the many other slaveries we either allow to come in by stealth and stay for far too long by our own choices and decisions, and by the slavery that we are caught up in by virtue of the hands we have been dealt upon our entrance into this thing called LIFE. My purpose was…
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An Epiphany of Sorts
It was about a year and a half ago that I found myself on a particular “ship of fools” shall we say. I don’t mean by my deprecating comments to exclude my own ability to “play the fool” from time to time in regard to what I will reflect upon today. But what alarmed me this precise evening, was a specific “comfortable numbness” to the things that should actually really matter, but that were not only “uncharacteristic” of my chosen drinking buddies this insightful evening, but that also sounded an alarm inside of me as to just where we are at with the culture, and even the Christian sub-culture at large. And in the aftermath, it has since then caused me to further cogitate on the abysmal shape we are currently in regarding our once revered and assumed virtues once taught by the Alpha and Omega himself.
For those who don’t know, I’m in the educational software business as a sales dog, and I travel quite a country mile in my particular territory to get the job done on most weeks of the year. As is also typical, at least two to three times a year, I leave on an overcrowded and suffocating jet plane to our corporate office for various sales meetings of sorts. After all day meetings and “death by PowerPoint”, we are typically whisked away, absent of any down time, to a posh restaurant or venue where dinner and drinks are served, and where those of us across all departments spend time getting acquainted, sharing stories, and enjoying some sodality of sorts. And on one particular evening not too, too long ago, we were scheduled to go on an excursion upon a luxurious yacht for a moonlight dinner cruise. That sounds nice enough I know. Yet as fate would have it, the weather was not conducive to taking the coveted “three-hour tour”, and we simply spent the evening in dock and went about the business at hand without missing a beat.
Now in my usual Mark Prince manner, I am somewhat the “life of the party” when I’m up to the task, and I found myself this particular night at the table with a group of ladies that ranged from their early 30’s to late 40’s, leaving me (yours truly), as is now often the case, as the Senior at the table. As I was enjoying my dinner and a few adult beverages, I was also doing my level best to get the table laughing and engaging everyone to make the night go both fast and well. And then, without really noticing it, we wandered adrift into this conversation about love and marriage, as each one talked about everything from their almost picture-perfect marriages, to some who had pulled the plug on the institution long ago. And then there it was, like a lady of the evening waltzing in and settling down in the front row at church during the middle of a really bad sermon, an awkwardness and a hush you that you could have heard a mile away plopped down on the dinner table right in front of us–when I rather abruptly related the struggles of marriage to individuals not being will to die. Mic drop!
Now as I peeled the elongated stares off of the center of my forehead like dead skin on a wound, it occurred to me that we were in the middle of a Sunday School lesson that both no one had graduated from at this particular table, and that no one was volunteering to take part in for the present or near future. So, I guess you could say that my popularity contest with the ladies took a sharp turn now going from “hero to zero”, and I was now center stage with my pants down left to explain my most unwelcome and equally unfamiliar conversation. At that point, as I tried to simply explain, that in order for marriages, or any relationship for that matter to work long term, it all boils down to someone, at some point, and oftentimes the same person quite frankly, being willing to essentially “die” to themselves, forgive, and live and let die. As I then continued to peel the remaining skin off of my forehead, in a moment of apparent frustration, I looked at them and said, “Damn, have none of your gals ever been to Sunday School for goodness sakes”? Of course, this didn’t go quite how I planned, and from then on, my only course of action was to make an attempt at a quick joke amid the deafening silence, and slowly disappear out of my chair like an escape artist to the barstool of rescue awaiting in the next room.
Who the Hell Wants to Die Anyway?
And of course, the thought then occurred to me quite perceptibly so; that no one wants to “die” anymore. In fact, we see it just about everywhere we turn our heads these days. For instance, I see it often and quite sadly at a plethora of dinner tables in any given restaurant in America, where aged depravity coupled with long standing marital bitterness comes full circle to our bated eyes, as elderly couples sit opposite one another drinking their wine and eating their food without even a glance in the other ones direction, reflecting alone in their quiet and un-blissful misery of “till death do us part”. And the profound sadness I feel as I witness this time in marital “living Hell” is almost too much to bear. I can scarcely take it in. And as unpopular as it may seem, and equally out of step with the current ethos of pervasive thought in the public square and average living rooms, the lack of death in our individuals’ lives is the fresh steamy dog shit on the squeaky clean living room floor! It simply has to be addressed, yet we’re finding ways it seems to simply sweep it under the rug, and then in a quite diversionary manner, imagine that the stench is simply a newly discovered aromatic that will over time simply “blend in”. But of course, the lack of death in relationships across the board “is” the crux of the problem, despite its unpopularity at dinner conversations on your ship of choice. It is indeed why marriages exit on irreconcilable differences and the like, why siblings grow apart; why kids grow up without Moms and Dads; and why there are after all wars, wars, and rumors of wars, as a Nazarite once opined long, long ago.
The Cruciform Road Less Traveled
Several years now I watched a fascinating and equally poignant movie entitled “Calvary” that almost no one even heard of. It was a subtle “Christian” masterpiece if I must say, that was not even remotely billed as such, but that hammered the nails of its message right into the feet and hands of any who dared to receive it’s unwelcome and yet healing balm it offered us. In one particular scene Father James Lavelle, played by Brendan Gleeson expresses to his daughter as they brisk about on an Irish seashore, that “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues”. To which his daughter Fiona replies, “What would be your number one”? Father Lavelle then readily replies, “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated”. And later, for our conclusive purposes today, the movie then comically explains why the subject of death is such an awkward and unpopular dinner conversation aboard our various ships of obtuse fools, when it explains in particular wittiness, as the person simply called “the writer” says to Father LaVelle, “You know how you can tell you’re really getting old”? To which Father Lavelle says “No, How”? To which the writer then retorts, “No one says the word ‘death’ around you anymore”?
And perhaps that explains it after all does it not? You see the truth is, that the Outlaw preacher came to die because the world on its own terms both wouldn’t and couldn’t, without some cosmic divine intervention. It was indeed an experiment already tried for quite some time and was found wanting, and still very much is. In fact, Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, that in describing the virtue at its core, it is; or rather should be, the ability to be willing to be “defrauded” at times, and to even “suffer wrong”, to which is oftentimes the real “one-two punch” to the gut of our eternal unwillingness to budge in our relationships, when quite frankly; someone almost always has to be the one who is willing to, well…die.
But the bruised reed from Bethlehem came in by stealth quite cleverly, and fooled the world in a constant mad dash to always incessantly fight to be #1, and to stoically never let anyone else see them sweat, so help them god. And while we are dead set on living and winning still, He turned the world upside down by cruciform losing, which is why many today call him Lord; yet sadly wear his statement of “deathful” winning around their necks, rather than as a quite regular mantra as to how we all should actually seek to live. And as a result, the talk of death on the ship of obtuse fools still makes for a most awkward dinner conversation.