Dead Men Tell No Tales

The Dying Man 

To say I’ve been dying for some years now is probably a gross misrepresentation, even to those who knew depression had become both my regular and ever abiding companion.  Nevertheless, this very real experience in my life will serve as a useful entry point into what I want to talk to you about today.

I’ve actually thought about writing about this particular life experience I only began to learn something about 11 years ago now.  But for whatever reason, I simply made it part of my own daily remembrance since then.  In fact, I have written it over and over in my weekly prayers, visibly posted it in familiar places where I can see it’s other-worldly common sense more regularly; and its compelling wisdom has been occasionally known to echo from my lips to others seemingly lost amid this thing called “life”.  Particularly those “examined” lifers that are always willing to call the baby fat when it should be equally obvious to the rest of us.

A Visit to Mepkin Abbey

It started out during my enamored flirtation with the spiritual disciplines as a way to perhaps get more of God into me somehow.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I had always given that a college try throughout most of my life at least, but somehow the promise of more attentiveness to these matters as a way to keep me on the narrow path drew me closer to take a look see.  That particular focus in my life would lead me to a place called Mepkin Abbey where I unexpectedly got some manna from heaven that I sorely needed.

Mepkin Abbey is a Cistercian monastery nestled along the Cooper River in a place appropriately called “Monk’s Corner, S.C.”.  And in my search to find a cure for my impending death, I decided to not only go there and pray, but to also take a tour into what the life of men who did nothing more than work, pray and sing praises to God might be like.  I wanted to see if where my particular trajectory in life seemed to be taking me was worth paying a little more attention to, instead of simply drowning it away in the evenings from the bottom of a bourbon glass.

After we walked through the various areas of where the men lived and worshiped and learned about the daily rhythms of their life, we were finally ushered into a room at the conclusion where we could ask any lingering questions that we might have for our tour guide.  I remember distinctively others asking what I perceived to be rather trivial and superficial questions, that in my dying mind were not becoming to a man who had sold out his life to what I have come to believe is truly the “heart of the matter”.  And so, as I continued to listen I grew ever more impatient, yet waiting my turn, I finally got the go ahead to take center stage.  It was then that I looked at the monk now in his mid to late seventies, and I asked him what had been on my mind for some time now, and that as of yet had not found an answer to.  I then said, “Sir, what is it that you have learned here, that you could not have learned on the outside in the real world”?  And it was in that very pointed moment, with all eyes now waiting to hear his words, that without hesitation he played for me something of a movie short of his life.

He told me he had lived as a Catholic priest his whole life, and he then felt, nearing his retirement, that the most logical step for him was then to enter the monastery.  We all listened on.  He then said that the one thing that he learned in his life of ministry, specifically as he spent a lot of time with the sick and dying in the hospital and in parishioners homes, was that those who were dying all of sudden became the most selfless people he had ever met.  He then added that these dying people came to realize in their looming death, that the only thing that really mattered, was to now “lose oneself” in the service of God and to others.  Sniff, Sniff.  He then said, “That is what I learned here, without having to die”!  And to this day, I have never forgotten it.

The King’s Wisdom

Now for those of you who know about what I speak; the dying that is; you also know that pouring fuel onto a walking dead man on fire is not typically the best course of action.  However, for me, hanging out in the book of Job, or particularly with a wise and somewhat nihilistic King were actually just what the doctor ordered.  For King Solomon pulls no punches.  He’s not whispering tiddlywinks or blowing smoke up our ass!  He’s been there, done that and bought the t-shirt; as well as the t-shirt factory.  And by way of introduction, he lets us dead people know that we’re actually right.  All this stuff he says is a vanity of epic proportions, and so he has to spend a great deal of time shoving his epiphanic nihilism in our faces, just in case we have a tendency to forget.  Because of course; we do.

And so our sagely friend starts with the bad news by expounding on a litany of things all of us dying men already know all too painfully.  For instance, things like being obsessed with having “stuff”; receiving accolades from men; becoming freakin “know it alls”; and those who embrace an epicurean lifestyle.  And he says in no uncertain terms, that these things are in fact on the road to a dead-end street (no pun intended).  And quite honestly, if we are wise, we stand up and pay attention, because we are hearing this from the lips of a man who spared no amount of time, money or devotion to those very things for the entirety of his life.  And the result: A man who could find no rest for the one thing he needed most when it counted—his very own soul.  And his reminder to us is that in the end, you and I will die!  And regardless of whether or not we cherish the thought, they will forget us more than likely before the freakin weekend!

Now just let that sink in for a moment.

But before we criticize the man for stealing our mojo, he rightfully steers us towards a practice that most of the world simply won’t sign up for.  For he says in chapter 7:3 that “death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart”.  In other words, Solomon tells us that the way to really live rightly is to do so out of the certain and futuristic crystal ball depicting our own demise.

Death-talk Is Not In Vogue

Now to say that people in general don’t like to talk about this subject, and Americans more specifically, should be self-evident.  We are constantly told, “you’re as young as you feel”, and “you’re not old, you’re just getting better” and other mounds of bullshit just like that!  Oh, now don’t get me wrong, keeping a young mind so to speak, while obviously growing old, is a perspective we should all embrace.  But the fact remains, that in order to live a good life, a life that really matters, the reality of death and taxes as absolute certainties in this life should occupy our thoughts much more than it does I’m afraid.  Because the facts are in man, and none of us are getting out of this damn thing alive!

Now I’m fortunate in the sense that I began to think somewhat like this as I mentioned earlier during a particular economic death I experienced some 11 years ago now.  Which consequently always makes me a great companion for Tony Robbins types (no offense Tony), which are everywhere man!  And though I’m all for goal-setting and reaching for the stars (whatever the Hell that means), quite honestly, I’m much more comfortable with a little morbid thinking that gives me a healthy dose of undeniable reality which reminds me that I’m really not that big of a deal in this whole drama.  In fact, this reality, if we will allow it, can infuse us with something that will really teach us how to live rightfully, more so than simply “successfully”.  And though they can be companion bedfellows (if they are rightfully defined), oftentimes they are most emphatically not!

Dead Men Tell No Tales

It was Friday the 13th of this year when I got an up close and personal brush with what death might actually feel like.  And to show you how disordered my thinking still was, even though I had been in this class for some time now, the one thing that I kept rehashing over and over in my mind was the fact that I would leave my family with nothing as far as this world’s goods was concerned.  Now not that being able to do so is a bad thing.  It is most definitely not.  And we should endeavor, without killing ourselves (pun intended), to do that.  But the fact still remains, that if we die, and the saying that “he who dies with the most toys wins” is bullshit (and it is), then the legacy we leave in terms of what kind of person we were before God and to others is the only thing people will remember.  Which is one of the reasons we are still talking about Mr. Rogers now some 16 years after his death.  And the summation from both Fred and our somewhat nihilistic King is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”.  It’s the only thing, and I mean the only thing that matters!  I promise you.

And yet I know, at the stroke of my keyboard, many of us still consider this talk to be nothing more than poppycock and endless sermonizing from some “negative Nancy” types, only trying to rain on our parade.  And I get it.  I really do.  However, the last time I checked; I never ever saw a hearse carrying around a trailer hitch.  And to be sure, I never heard a dead man tell any tales to speak of.  But then wait; perhaps they do after all.

Are you listening to this one?

Selah

If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right

Rod Stewart Theology

As I thought introspectively about the impetus for this blog, I couldn’t escape a flashback of the cover Rod Stewart did of the song “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right” for some reason.  In fact, I can remember listening to that song for the first time in 1977 somehow knowing it was not just saying something about an affair between a married man and a woman that he is erotically smitten with.  Also lurking there was somehow something much deeper in my mind that told me this song was about much, much more as it relates to an age-old problem most of us seem to never shake.  And perhaps understandably so.  For the very real but unquenchable pull of what we feel, see and touch is a powerful seduction that most of us fall prey to time and time again; causing us to howl like a cat in heat, repeatedly choosing the satiating temporal over our perception of the inaccessible eternal.  Is it any wonder then that when the disciple that Jesus loved tells us to “love not the world“, we would prefer to cast our lot with those on the “highway to hell” instead.  For after all, the cure for what ails us seems nowhere in sight, and often times the world feels pretty damn good—for a season that is.

John is trying to tell us something though in I John 2:15-17.  The text reads,

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him, because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions is not from the Father, but is from the 

world. And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever” (NET).

This is something that we must pay attention to very closely.  For if loving the Father is right, and yet we choose to be wrong (in bed with world), there is a juxtaposition that cannot be reconciled on the narrow path laid out for us.  And it is this paradox that constantly wars against our soul, beckoning us to draw straws for that which we actually believe gives us the best bang for the buck in the here and now, in stark opposition to the best the Father has for us.  And according to biblical history and our collective human experience, our public record is replete with examples that matter-of-factly illustrate the fact that our allegiances to one or the other do matter; both in the here and now (which is a point we often miss), as well as in that everlasting place that our hearts both secretly and restlessly long for. Yet for the life of us, it often is a day late and at least a dollar short in our ability to somehow let it under our skin.

The Root of the Problem

We are in fact given more insider insight to the age-old problem we’re forced to grapple with in Genesis chapter 3, when the author alerts us with a news flash across our cerebral screens that “when the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it” (Gen. 3:6 NET).  The temptation of course was deeper than the sensuality of the forbidden that summoned her that we just mentioned, but went much deeper into the human psyche of the very distinct possibility of becoming the master of her own destiny, and of somehow putting herself in the spot of the God who was somehow holding her back from “my body, my choice” or, just fill in the blank.  Evidently Adam also thought this was an equally grand idea; and coupled with the thought of sleeping on the couch, the passive male now entered onto the world stage for our abiding education.

But let’s not give Adam and Eve too much of a go of it, for if we had stood in proxy, we would have eaten the whole damn tree; roots and all!  For it is in the very raw and organic nature of mankind to run like a moth to a flame to grab hold of anything that we have been told is off limits for us.  Thus to deny the instantaneous satiety of the smoldering red stew on the fire, the Delilah-like “brick-house” promising ecstasy for the night, or the subtle lure of calling one’s own shots; this is indeed the trifecta that has told the sad tale of mankind’s unhealthy love for the world, rather than for the creator who understands the rules it mercilessly plays by.

The God-like Fool and His Money

John however adds some additional insight that is equally helpful to us in discerning a better way forward from the shape we are in. In fact, we learn that it is not only the trifecta aforementioned, but also lurking behind “calling one’s own shots” isthe arrogance produced by material possessions”.  It would seem that the very god-like characteristics that money exemplars gives us the added ammunition to tell God to “take the job and shove it”, while adding a heaping teaspoon of pride that makes man think he’s “gangsta-rich” and thus invincible, even when he hasn’t got an eternal pot to piss in!  And if there is such a thing as “creating a monster”, this is one now full grown and ready to rumble.

So then, at the risk of being repetitive, we already learned that the biblical story and our own tells the tale well.  Yet for our further reflection on the matter,  Ezekiel 7:19 also reminds us that just like our current lesson, part of the Israelites own dilemma, and a direct result of their exile was in recognizing that it was their “god-like” wealth that was actually the “obstacle leading to their iniquity”.  Several chapters later Ezekiel even goes so far to say that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was much deeper than we assume at the surface, as he chimes in that the Lord’s very own chosen had now given them a run for their money.  In fact, in chapter 16:48-50 we learn that it was their “haughtiness” and “carefree ease” that caused them to not only neglect the weightier matters of giving a damn about others less fortunate than they, but also was the main ingredient that ultimately caused them to do the “abominable deeds” that wiped them off the map in the first place.  And then I all of sudden remembered this prediction that has still yet to come to fruition.  Ruth Bell Graham once said (paraphrased) “that if God doesn’t punish America soon, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah”.  But let’s not give America too much credit.  Because the real problem with the world, as G.K. Chesterton once so eloquently put, is in fact just plain ole (you) and “me”.

Who’s Your Real Daddy?

So the question we must answer then is both a simple and complex one I’m afraid.  But you probably already figured as much.  For John clearly tells us to make a decision as to “who’s our daddy”, and we know the right answer.  We’ve been in that class for far too long I’m afraid.  The eternal difficulty however lies in dealing head-on with the enigma I put before us at the outset of our brief talk today.  For if it is in our DNA to prefer loving what we know is wrong because of its temporary yet aphrodisiacal nature, and thus consequently continually choosing not to be right instead; then the answer, like the snake that should have already bitten us, has to be both a daily and disciplined choice.  A choice of putting in our lot and our love with the right family.   The family that we are told first loved us with a whole lot of blood poured out to prove it.  For the world promises much yet delivers little once our finite dust is settled, and thus choosing who you will love is of a most epic proportion!  And yet if we cannot learn from our own mirrored history, then as one wiser than I once said, “we are eternally destined to repeat it”.

Selah

 

Trumpism, Not Donald Trump: Part 3

For the last two weeks, I diverged off of the beat and path of my usual meanderings of this cracked up American life in order to talk about something that had been on my mind for some time now.   I had been desiring to first of all introduce the idea primarily as to why Christians showed up to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, but also speak to the fact that it has more to do with “Trumpism” and not necessarily a vote for Donald Trump.  I introduced that thought process in the blog entitled https://marknealprince.com/2019/07/18/trumpism-not-donald-trump-part-i/as well as last week’s post https://marknealprince.com/2019/07/23/trumpism-not-donald-trump-part-2/.  I left off last week beginning to unpack why Christians actually voted for the avant-garde Commander and Chief, speaking along the lines of understanding the difference between two kingdoms; the world and the church.  I’m going to pick back up where I left off as we plundered the narrative of the scriptures as a whole from the Old Testament, and this week I hope to zero in on how that progressive understanding also further shaped the sentiment of the New Testament writers.  Hopefully, as we progress a little further, we can at least get a better understanding as to how people who claim to be about love, care for the poor and needy and the alien and the stranger, can also be for their own country’s kingdom and values simultaneously.

An Understanding of Two Kingdoms(continued)

As we enter into the New Testament world with the introduction of Jesus on the scene, the consensus of “kingdom” and what it means to the Jews is still on the minds of everyone.  Mostly, that idea of kingdom is very wrong in that the majority of the people, as well as the disciples at first, still think prematurely of a Kingdom of power that will come and rightfully restore the Jewish people  to a renewed Davidic kingdom, finally free from their oppressors and a force of both good and strength for the world.  Others such as Simeon and Anna (Luke 2), who hang around and pray in the temple all day, know this is indeed not the case.  Ironically, as we fast forward to Jesus’ ascension at the birth of the early church (Acts 1) we still find many of the Lord’s followers asking basically, “Is this the time that you will establish your kingdom on earth”?  Jesus reply is both telling and frustrating to his hearers, as Jesus has been speaking about the kingdom to them for days and yet they still don’t get it.  He essentially lets them know that this time of which they speak is only for the Father to know, but for now His kingdom will enable them to receive power to be “witnesses” of a kingdom that will instead be one of a reordering of the heart.  And also, one that empowers those who heed its message to be a transformative “salt and light” in how they live their lives, show love and compassion to others, and who also speak kingdom truths regardless of the costs associated with doing so.

     Slow to Learn

It would take both Peter and Paul a little later on, as the New Testament was being penned and circulated, to help the early church broaden its view on this subject.  However, it was Jesus that first homed in on the differences of the two kingdoms people thought they knew something about; many of which had forgotten their very costly Old Testament lessons.  The first case we’re given for our instruction is when Jesus is taunted by the Pharisees in an effort to catch him in a trap, where they ask him whether or not it is lawful to give taxes to Caesar or not (Luke 22:19-26). And here it is that we have the statement that has no doubt changed the world that we exist in, and that is equally educational in this tale of two kingdoms, where Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.  The clear idea here that Jesus wants to get through people’s heads first of all, is that the kingdom of power they envision now is not the one He has come to set up.  His synopsis for the crowd is that governments have a job to do in that they render law, order and protection; and as a result of that representation, taxes are due to them for that service they provide.  Likewise, Jesus is stating that the Kingdom of God is a different matter altogether, but that is also has things (time, tithes and talents) that it also will require of us, but that are to not to be confused with what Caesar is about.  But stay with me here.  Let’s fast forward now after Jesus has been arrested and taken to Pilate, where we witness another teachable moment to the inquiring minds who truly want to know that is put before us regarding this two-kingdom motif.  Pilate in essence asks who Jesus is and whether or not he is indeed King of the Jews.  Jesus’s reply is that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and that if it were, His servants (like all worldly kingdoms) would be fighting forcefully to overthrow it, and because they are in fact not fighting, this explains that the kingdom He proclaims is not a worldly kingdom. Case in point: The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world are two kingdoms with vastly different agendas and purposes.

     The Pillars of the Faith Guide Us Onward

From here, gleaning from the pen of the two most famous apostles who laid down what the church was to believe and practice in these matters was both Peter and Paul.  And ironically, both in fact took these same things to mean a clear distinction between the two kingdoms, both positively and negatively.  Negatively in the sense that we are to be separate in terms of our values from the world’s, and rather to instead of conforming ourselves to them, be transformed by reorienting our minds to thinking Godly (Rom. 12:1,2).  Positively, in the sense that we are compelled to pray for all people, including our rulers and those in authority. Timothy in fact tells us this, under the tutelage of his mentor Paul, by admonishing us that we are to do this so that we might have the possibility of having quiet and peaceable lives, even in the midst of an ungodly society (I Tim. 2:2). Peter in fact tells us in I Peter. 2:13-17 this very thing as well where he writes:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (ESV)

And for those who might be inclined to think he said this because they had such a well-mannered Emperor in office that everyone simply adored, we need to be reminded that Nero was his name-O!  And far from “liking” Christians as a people, history tells us that he did however appreciate their usefulness for lighting up his gardens at night, and the very pillars that gave us these instructions were both “given the ax” under his reign!  And yet Paul nonetheless correspondingly tell us this in Romans 13:1-7:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.Therefore, one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (ESV)

     A New Understanding

And it is here that we begin to see the formulation of the church’s two kingdom variances.   And through the teaching of the scriptures, the church begins to understand that though they are to speak boldly as to the truth they have been commissioned with, they are likewise; where it does not conflict with thwarting the preaching of the gospel, to be the best of citizens.  They do so by cooperating with the worldly kingdom in the good that it does and the order that it provides, and which is indeed sovereignly set up by God to enact justice for their specific kingdom of which they are residents.  Conversely, this does not mean that all kingdoms are good, and in fact many throughout history have wreaked havoc on their constituents in the most brutal of ways.  In this case, the early church always used its influence to speak in the right way to power, trying to change the things they saw as grave injustices, even at great cost to themselves.  Some such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, went so far as to join a band of Christian brothers to assassinate Adolph Hitler, however unsuccessfully.  And yet even Paul in Acts 22, uses his own rights as a citizen of Rome that he was indeed born into to stop the powers that be from treating him like and dog and beating him unjustly.  The term “wise as serpents, and gentle as doves” is pregnant with meaning in order to discern the right approach in our day to day lives here, however it will always be done so with both pluses and minuses along the way.

Selah

Stay tuned for Part 4