Within You

For The Ink Well Creative Community

“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck.”

Prompt: Write something in response to the quote.
Parameters: 15 minutes


They choose a billboard.

Though there is still thirteen years to go, they follow the instructions of their pastor. They put down a deposit and find someone to design the look of it. After this, one of the crews that changes out the facades takes that design, renders it according to the necessary materials, and a few days later the date is displayed for every northbound motorist to see – an intentional eyesore, gaudy in its size and color.

Beneath the date, in smaller letters, they offer a cryptic subject line and provide their website.

And now they wait.

In thirteen years they will fly to Israel. They will bring along suitcases packed solely out of practicality: what do you wear to a Second Coming?

They will do a little sight-seeing first. Who wouldn’t? It’s the Holy Land, after all, and they don’t expect to ever lay eyes on it again. At least not on the way it looks now, all corrupted by non-believers and heretics.

And then, on the determined day announced by the pastor who, in his adamancy, has satiated their hopes for an escape from this corrupt world, they will climb Mount Olivet (as they prefer to call it), pick a nice spot facing the once holy Holy City, and fix their eyes on the vista. They will wait to see it change. To see the clouds do something out of the ordinary. To see Someone split the sky.

And take them home.

And then, once the day ends and that which they have waited thirteen years to see does not unfold, they will look at one another, confused, heartbroken, disillusioned. Some will make concessions, suggesting an innocent glitch in their pastor’s figuring due to time zones or hemispheres. The one who endlessly quotes the Old Testament will suggest that the day the sun stood still, as recorded in the Book of Joshua, could be a reason, and they should stay put one more day to be sure. A few others will feel their hopes – both in deliverance and in the man they have called their pastor – dissolve. The pastor himself will say nothing. Not yet, anyway. Not until he can figure out how to explain himself without losing the bulk of his flock.

They will return to their home country. The deposit will expire. The billboard will revert to the company that owns it, and an advertisement for a truck stop or a local university, or perhaps just one of those “Does Advertising Work? Just Did.” signs will replace their announcement.

And one of them – at least one of them – will turn to her well-worn Bible out of despondency, to the Scriptures she has memorized and manipulated but never respected. On one sunny morning, not long after her return from the Mount, she will sit at her kitchen table, a mug of steaming coffee to her right and a journal and pen to her left, and she will read the words before her with no predetermined agenda. And for the first time in longer than she can remember, the sound of the Savior’s voice will not sound to her like the voice of the old pastor with his curmudgeonly sermons and dire predictions.

Tears will well up, because for the first time in so very long, Jesus will not sound angry or disappointed. He will sound kind. He will sound patient. He will sound like love.

In that moment at the kitchen table with the steaming mug of coffee and the morning light filling the room, he will gently remind her that hoping in his return has nothing to do with predictions and signs and best-laid plans. The escapists and code-breakers and treasure hunters go after such things. “Here it is,” they cry, though they have found nothing at all.

She will pick up the pen and write only seven words in her journal, the shortest entry it has ever received.

“The kingdom of God is within me.”

Are We Up for This?

I wonder if most believers are really interested in the salvation Jesus offers people.

Let me clarify that statement. In my last post, I wrote about the alleged difficulty of defining the term “spiritual formation.” My argument was that the difficulty only comes when we lose sight of what those two words really mean. When you look at their roots, it’s not difficult to see what we’re describing when we’re saying someone is being spiritually formed. The Spirit is at work in that person, forming him or her into something different. Something new.

But for those who think that sounds perfectly agreeable, Jim Smith, executive director of The Apprentice Institute, reminds us, “Formation involves every single aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our experiences, our relationships, our resources, our time management, our loved ones, our health, our sexuality, etc. … There is no area of our lives that is not a part of our formation process. It is not, as I used to think, a separation of sacred and secular, of spiritual and physical, but a holistic, unified endeavor.”

I’m not sure many of us are up for that kind of formation.

But that’s the kind of conversion Jesus wants to bring to us. It is a far-reaching formation – a wholesale wholeness.


By and large, though, people have stopped seeing Christianity this way, as a comprehensive transformation of body, mind and soul. Instead, we’ve portrayed a faith that is concerned only with moral behavior, or “traditional” values, or what comes after death. Christians have ceased seeing the all-inclusiveness of God’s transformative power.

I’m a Spiritual Person

I’m a fan of modernity. As a former teacher of American literature, I didn’t think the curriculum became fun until we hit the 20th century. However, with the modernization of the West came the tendency to relegate “spirituality” to one facet of what we began to think of as a multifaceted existence. Those who wanted to maintain belief in the supernatural – in that Something beyond ourselves – nonetheless compartmentalized that perspective in such a way that “the things of the Spirit” gradually began to lose influence over the other aspects of our lives. As modernism permeated the culture, our identities began to look like a region full of autonomous city-states. The social/relational sphere of our lives won its independence from all the others, as did the vocational/financial sphere, the familial sphere, the emotional sphere, the physical sphere, and so on. Sure, there has always been interaction between all of these various parts of our identity, but people are quick to guard the self-sovereignty of each one.

Pictured: Our identities.

Pictured: Our identities.

A perfect example of this is the all-too-common referral to being “a spiritual person” (many professing Christians included). Rarely are these people referring to a tangible, active presence – or Spirit – at work in their lives. Rather, what they are describing is a more self-seeking posture that feeds off of feelings we can’t easily name but still enjoy. Modern spirituality has become an amorphous pursuit – a hobby easily tailored according to each person’s preferences. Because of this, it is not uncommon to encounter a person who claims to be very “spiritual” but whose other spheres of life seem mostly unaffected by that spirituality.

This was not the kind of spiritual formation Jesus was referring to when, in Gethsemane, he promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming.

All the Fullness of God

Likewise, there’s a moment in the middle of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he expresses what his prayers are for them, a church he so dearly loves. Having challenged them to recognize that the mysteries of God have finally been revealed in Jesus, and that this revelation changes everything, he writes the following:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

Paul was referring to a transformation that affected every aspect of a person’s existence. So was Jesus, when he said he came that we “may have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).

Thus, the salvation offered by Jesus is not found in laying down only one sphere of my identity, but when I relinquish them all. Jesus is not the Lord of only the spiritual parts of my life. He is the Master of it all – my social interactions, my job and finances, my family, my emotions, my physical health, and so on. Jesus understood that just as we are not created in part but in whole, our recreation must happen the same way. Salvation is all or nothing.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Sure, there will be times when our rationalism causes us to doubt even a good and beautiful God, and we feel a need to hold something back. But this is why Paul’s prayer included a plea “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” – that our doubts would not lead to self-reliance, and our minds would be transformed alongside everything else. That by surrendering, we would learn surrender.

Simple, Not Easy

Like I said, I’m not sure we’re interested in that kind of salvation.

The Gospel is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. We understand that by our own efforts we cannot save ourselves. Our healing and wholeness requires an act of God, and that act was Jesus. Believing this is simple enough. But responding to it is not so easy.

The problem for those who stop at mere belief is that salvation requires belief and response. What kind of response? Oh, just the relinquishing of every element of control you enjoy over your existence. Just the surrender of every sphere of your life into the hands of Another.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Simple? Yes.

Easy? Definitely not.

Maybe this is why so many of the most powerful stories of transformation we hear – the ones that stick in our minds long after we’ve listened to their telling – are the ones in which people surrendered their lives to Jesus after their lives became a complete wreck. They were at the end of their rope, the candle was flickering, the water was almost over their heads, there was nothing left to live for … and that’s when Jesus changed everything.

Perhaps too many of us still feel like we have something worth living for – a sphere of life we’ve arranged too much to our liking. Even if its not perfect, we’d rather keep things as they are than risk what might change if it were devoted to God.

I wonder why that is.

I’ve heard a lot of ministers complain that people are just too lazy to really seek after formation. But what if laziness isn’t our core problem?  What if our problem is bad theology? I mean, do we or do we not believe that God is good? That he is generous and trustworthy? That he desires the best for us, and that he has promised to daily care for us?

Because, if we really believe those things, what on earth has prevented us from responding?

The Answer in the Question

I’m two months into a new position at a new church. That position is Minister of Spiritual Formation. Apparently, the title isn’t self-explanatory, because upon introducing myself to church members, I am often asked to explain what exactly I do at the church.

Now, the puffed-up, self-centered part of me wants to balk at such questions, and the cynic in me wants to scoff and say, “What do you mean? Do you ask the music minister or the youth minister to explain what it is they do?” But, at the same time, the realist in me just gets anxious.

"Whatever happened to a simple "'preciate ya'" and a handshake?"

“Whatever happened to a simple “‘preciate ya'” and a handshake?”

Here’s why. Several years ago, I remember sitting in an interview with a church’s search team and being asked essentially the same question. The woman who asked it had done her homework on me; from where I sat across the conference table, I could see her detailed notes written into the margins of my resume, a legal pad replete with questions she considered asking me, and underneath that a black, three-ring binder containing photocopies of several posts from my blog. Perusing these for a few seconds, she looked back up at me and said, “You write a lot in your blog about ‘spiritual formation.’ It seems like that term comes up a lot. I was just wondering, what is spiritual formation?”

I remember feeling simultaneously excited and apprehensive by her question.

Excited, because this was one of the first interview questions that had to do with my personal convictions and interests in ministry (as opposed to programs I had started and events I had planned), and it would be refreshing to speak to a deeper level of what it means to be a minister.

Apprehensive, because I was hardly prepared to give a succinct and comprehensive answer to her question.

"Uhhhh... no comment?"

“Uhhhh… no comment?”

You see, at the time “spiritual formation” was still somewhat of a nebulous concept to me, despite however many times the term found its way onto my blog or into my lessons. It was something I was profoundly interested in, of course, but also something that intimidated me as much as it inspired me. I was convinced I wanted to focus on it in my ministry, both in philosophy and practical direction, but despite collecting several books on the subject, I was still unsure how to work with, in, and toward spiritual formation.

Still, it is not like me to forego offering my opinion on anything. So when this woman asked her question, I let very little silence fall before I opened my mouth to speak. However, another person on the search committee beat me to answering. He said quickly and dismissively, “It’s just another word for ‘discipleship.'”

His answer threw me off, and I slowly closed my mouth. It’s tricky enough to respond to the open-ended question, “What is spiritual formation?” Explaining the error in confusing it with discipleship, especially in the context of a job interview, is a whole other level of difficulty.

"Which brings me back to why you are all completely wrong and have no choice but to hire me to save you from your wrongness."

“Which brings me back to why you are all completely wrong and have no choice but to hire me to save you from your wrongness.”

The Hunt for a Good Definition

I learned two things in that interview. The first was that it is not uncommon to encounter long-time, active church members who have little idea what spiritual formation is. The second was that I was one of them.

Defining spiritual formation is not necessarily a hard thing to do. People have been offering their elucidations on the term for quite some time. (Jim Smith just wrote a great series of posts covering it from every angle.) However, because every person whom the Spirit forms is a unique individual woven together by an elaborate and distinctive collection of characteristics, attributes and idiosyncrasies, sometimes the only definition that seems to truly fit is the one you craft yourself.

How pompous can you be, Merriam-Webster?

You don’t know everything, Merriam-Webster.

After the interview, I at least knew where not to start. I knew spiritual formation was not simply another term for discipleship. The two are intimately related, for sure, but even my limited understanding cried out against belittling either term by calling it a mere synonym of the other.

I decided to start with defining discipleship, something that did not intimidate me as much. Oddly enough, it was this endeavor that led me to an answer for the other.

Defining discipleship seemed easy enough; I just looked more closely at its root word: disciple. Once I cleared away the cobwebs of antiquated Christianese words that were part of my small town Baptist church upbringing – words like “discipleship training” and “church discipline” and “Disciple Now Weekend” – I was able to return to the original meaning of the word. From the Greek mathetes, meaning learner, pupil or apprentice, it was often used to describe the students of a rabbi, and in the case of the Gospels, this means Jesus. Rabbinic disciples were meant to learn from their teacher, to emulate them in every way possible, and, eventually, to carry on that rabbi’s teachings – also known as their rabbi’s “yoke” – as a formative part of their own.

If this is not the very example provided us by the likes of Peter, James and John, I don’t know what is.

The Mount of Transfiguration. Also known as the original Disciple Now Weekend.

The Mount of Transfiguration. Also known as the original Disciple Now Weekend.

So, if discipleship is the commitment to being a disciple, and being a disciple means emulating one’s teacher, then Christian discipleship simply means, as one of his disciples wrote, “walking as Jesus did,” and another added, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is both the example and the focal point for our thoughts, words and actions.

And wouldn’t you know it, this was all right there in the word itself. It wasn’t complicated.

The Title Is Self-Explanatory

Naturally, this led me to reconsider the term “spiritual formation,” taking again the root word – or, in this case, the root words. “Spirit” and “forms.” I was struck by the fact that these two words alone was almost a workable sentence in itself. Spirit forms. What is more, it sounded as much like a declaration as it did a reminder. In John 16, Jesus declares that it is the Spirit who leads us into all truth. And every time I try to arrange and organize and methodize my life so that I might feel like a more effective person, my inevitable shortcomings bring God’s reminder: “No, Bo. The Spirit forms. Not you.”

This, then, must be the first step toward any measure of spiritual formation. There must be the element of surrender. I’ve heard some people describe the concept as a “pursuit of God,” but spiritual formation is not about us chasing after God. Rather, we are the ones who lay down our arms – the dependencies and life structures that rival his promised provision – and wave the white flag. It is not us creeping closer to God’s territory, but rather God invading our once guarded spaces. If it is a pursuit, it is a pursuit of man by the Holy Spirit.

I could do a whole predator-becomes-prey illustration thing, but not everyone sees the deep theological implications of this movie.

I could do a whole predator-becomes-prey illustration thing, but not everyone sees the deep theological implications of this movie.

This is similar to discipleship. Jesus said that if anyone wanted to be his disciple, that person had to deny himself. This doesn’t mean that discipleship and spiritual formation are the same, but it doesn’t reveal that an essential element of the Christian life is the relinquishing of control over our abilities and circumstances.

The difference between the two is that discipleship is the commitment we make to follow Jesus according to his call. Spiritual formation is what takes place once that following begins, when the Spirit begins its transformative work in our hearts and minds.

So, what exactly does a Minister of Spiritual Formation do?

If I’m shepherding a person effectively, then I am helping him understand the principle common to both experiences – that it isn’t all about him. A minister attends to the needs of others, so I’m reminding him that he doesn’t need the worship service to conform to his preferences. That his Bible study doesn’t need to utilize his favorite curriculum. That fellow church members don’t need to think and act the way he feels they should.

"Again with the rattlesnakes?! I really think he should use more copperheads! They much more aesthetically pleasing."

“Again with the rattlesnakes?! Copperheads are much more aesthetically pleasing, Pastor.”

I tell him that what is truly needed is something only God can give. And, if I do this well, he learns to accept that the community of God is something larger and grander than his own imagination’s limits. He comes to see it is infused by a very big and very beautiful God who has a purpose and an agenda so much greater than any one mind can grasp.

A Minister of Spiritual Formation provides opportunities upon opportunities that challenge people to experience the grandeur of God. I’m pointing them to ministries and programs and events and studies not simply because that’s what going to church is all about, but because these things hold the potential to reveal how, as Hopkins wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

It’s not always the easiest thing to explain, but not everything has to be easy to explain. When people hear my job title and ask me what I do, I’ve stopped sweating the question. Instead, I smile and tell them, “I make sure people aren’t so focused on their own lives that they forget they’re a part of something much, much greater.”

It may not be the answer they are expecting, or the one that clarifies things the way they were hoping when they asked the question. I’ve only been here two months, so I’ve still got a lot of work to do when it comes to helping people live into their own definitions.

But when it comes to explaining spiritual formation to someone, I’ve decided that is as much the Spirit’s job as it is mine.

Aaron Sorkin, Pope Francis, and the Last Bastion of Idealism (Part 2)

Working in the area of spiritual formation, I often find that once a person discovers (or returns to) the foundation upon which being a Christian is based, he or she quickly begins to operate more and more like an idealist.

After all, when you get right down to it, Christians are meant to be idealists. The sum and substance of our faith is rooted in dynamic, unswerving idealism. For instance, truly committed Christians believe collective duty trumps individual aspiration. They believe personal comfort must never be prioritized above the greater good of a community. Simply put, as often as it is pertinent to do so, committed Christians put others first.

Others-first behavior is not necessarily what makes Christians unique, though. Any Christian who claims it is insults a multitude of people – non-Christians and non-believers – who also believe strongly in the virtues of selflessness and compassion for fellow human beings.

For example, that "love your neighbor as yourself" line originated with these guys.

For example, that “love your neighbor as yourself” line originated with these guys.

However, the difference between Christians who put others first and a non-believers who do the same is that the Christians who act selflessly and compassionately do so out of theological conviction. They believe that these are the characteristics of the God who has saved them. Now, I’ve actually heard some skeptics criticize Christian charity as somehow less pure because it is not proactive but reactive – meaning it is performed out of duty to a directive. The misconception is that such virtue is less genuine/effective because it is done in response to a divine command, whereas the charity of non-believers comes solely from uncoerced human decency, making it nobler. But this kind of criticism is absurd! It’s akin to claiming an enlisted soldier’s patriotism is less genuine than a politician’s because the soldier is commanded to serve his country whereas the politician freely decides to do so.

The only real difference between these two forms of charity is the ideal that drives the act. For the Christian, the ideal that compels acts of charity for our fellow human beings is a God whom we believe modeled this very behavior, and then commanded us to do the same (John 13:34-35, 14:12). For the skeptic, the ideal that compels acts of charity is found in an undefined ought-ness. While it is no less effective, it is based on a fluctuating perception on what is the right thing to do, or what makes a person feel most satisfied.

"These coats would probably keep us warmer if they hadn't been donated by Christians."

“These coats would probably keep us warmer if they hadn’t been donated by Christians.”

A Sense of Something

I believe this is why the Church is still alive and well in our society today, despite droves of so-called “members” who have lost sight of (or never originally discovered) the foundation of this faith. The Church is still hanging in there because idealism is not instinct, because everyone wants to be inspired by something. We are naturally wired to fix our eyes on some kind of ideal – something on which to base our lives.

Sometime a person might have trouble naming exactly what that ideal is, but they nonetheless believe in the power of it.

There’s a scene from The West Wing in which a plucky young Republican lawyer is offered a job in a Democratic administration. After initially rejecting the offer, she changes her mind when she witnesses the employees’ idealistic dedication to their jobs. However, her particular brand of politics leaves many of those same people bewildered as to why she would even want to work with them. Her new supervisor, disgruntled at her presence in the office, presses her to explain her reason for accepting the job. Frustrated, she blurts out, “I feel a sense of duty.”

Her supervisor growls that her statement sounds like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. However, the beauty of the episode is that many of the people who initially view this Republican as an enemy not to be trusted gradually recognize a deeper sense of … something (duty? honor? conviction?) that binds them all together. What unites them is revealed to be greater than what divides them.

It’s actually a really great scene. I recommend taking 2 1/2 minutes and watching it here:

I believe that people want to be inspired – that we all long for a “sense of duty” to drive us and give our lives purpose and transcendent meaning. I believe we want an ideal we can believe in and that we can commit our lives to. And I believe the kind of ideal we’re really looking for is one that will not fade away – one which cannot fail (even if we fail to live up to it).

This is why I do what I do. Because I believe that kind of ideal is not simply taught by a guy named Jesus – it is embodied by him. If it is true that every person longs to know purpose and to experience a sense of significance in this world, then the message of Jesus Christ is truly for every person.

The Greater Good of a Great God

Interestingly, this is the message our world is currently witnessing in the figure of Pope Francis. He is not only living out his idealistic belief. He is showing people that they matter – that there is hope and purpose in this life, and that God – the ultimate ideal, full of love and truth – has ordered things in such a way that we can catch sight of this hope in and through the lives of his followers.

Why is Francis preaching messages of pacifism and peacemaking and compassion for those who suffer? Why is he continually calling for prayer for Ukraine and Syria and Israel/Palestine? Is it simply because that’s what religious people do (or are supposed to do, because our dogma demands it)? Or is it because there is an ideal that compels all people – from lonely individuals to whole continents – to strive for greater and greater levels of selflessness and compassion?

For the lazier among us, his Eminence is thoughtful enough to condense his messages to 140 characters.

For the lazier among us, his Eminence is thoughtful enough to condense his messages to 140 characters.

I’ll end this examination of Christian idealism with a story that happened very recently. In it we see what it looks like when people – particularly Christians – lose sight of the ideal established by God and perfectly modeled by Jesus Christ, as well as what it looks like when truly committed Christians keep that ideal firmly in mind.

You may remember a particularly distressing debacle regarding the Christian-based advocacy organization, World Vision. In the fall of 2013, the company changed its hiring policy, choosing to no longer bar homosexual individuals from employment. However, when the decision was leaked and Christianity Today reported on it the following March, droves of conservative evangelicals collectively threw a ginormous hissy fit. There were immediate calls for a boycott, and thousands of Christians terminated their sponsorship. After only two days, approximately 5000 child sponsors had ceased their relationship with World Vision; later estimates reported that somewhere around 10,000 children had been hung out to dry because of the drop in financial support. Forty-eight hours after the story broke, Richard Stearns, the organization’s president, announced that they had decided to nix the policy change. Sadly, since then, only a small fraction of sponsorships have been renewed.

However, one group of believers not only maintained their sponsorships, but chose to act further out of faithfulness to the ideal set before them by Jesus. This church, where a friend of mine serves as pastor, decided to literally put their money where their mouths were. They decided that they would not – could not – stand by and watch child after child be rejected like an unwanted newspaper subscription. Through social media, e-mails, letters and phone calls, they made it clear that they were willing to take on the financial responsibilities of every child that had lost his or her sponsorship. They claimed that while it was one thing to disagree with World Vision’s decision (a decision that had even been reversed), it was a whole other thing to withhold education and medical care – not to mention the Gospel – from an innocent child because of that disagreement. In other words, there was something much greater at stake.

Pictured: "the least of these brothers of mine" (Matthew 25:40)

Pictured: “the least of these brothers of mine” (Matthew 25:40)

We have been given an ideal that surpasses all others. We have been called to live unto a sense of duty instilled in us by a God who is living and active and on the move in this world. Let us never forget the deeper sense of something that binds us all together. Let us never lose sight of the greater good to which we have been called. As the writer of Hebrews encourages, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

Aaron Sorkin, Pope Francis, and the Last Bastion of Idealism (Part 1)

I feel guilty. Last weekend, I bought four great books at a library sale (also known as the Holy Grail of cheap used book sales). But I haven’t even cracked one of them yet because I can’t stop watching The West Wing on Netflix.

I’ve already seen every episode, some more than once, and yet it continues to play on my iPad. On the treadmill. Before going to bed. Passing time on a lazy Saturday. I’ve even been taking in portions of episodes while eating lunch at my desk. I keep telling myself that good writing is good writing, and The West Wing still represents some of the best television writing of the past few decades. Even when its creator, Aaron Sorkin, departed the show after season four and the show suffered an inevitable slippage in quality, it still remained a cut above most of the other TV dramas at the time.

They lost a Sorkin, but they gained an Alda and a Smits.

They lost a Sorkin, but they gained an Alda and a Smits.

However, my real problem isn’t neglecting a stack of great books. Nor is it that I’m watching these episodes again despite remembering 95% of what happens.

My real problem is that watching The West Wing is dangerous behavior.

Why? you might ask.

Because with every episode of this show, I am once again exposed to the kind of unabashed idealism that is usually reserved for Disney movies and Lord of the Rings characters.

It doesn’t matter what your preferred political stance is. The story lines of The West Wing were less interested in advocating a particular partisan viewpoint than they were focused on the what-if’s and what-could-be’s of a group of sincere idealists working in the highest levels of government. This is Sorkin’s M.O. The “Well-Educated Idealist” is his favorite character archetype, and he has often been criticized for his repeated imaginings of such a character at work in our society’s systems – systems which the majority of people are quick to label corrupt, or unprincipled, or wayward, or incompetent. His most successful imagining – The West Wing – placed such idealists within the political sphere, but he’s done it similarly with sports broadcasting (Sports Night), network television (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), and cable news (The Newsroom). Even the film Moneyball, whose script Sorkin was hired to polish, portrayed a sense of resolute idealism – of bright people struggling to trust in the value of a system that so many around them said could never work.

The West Wing is dangerous because that kind of idealism is dangerous. It might have won Sorkin a few Emmys, but in real life it rarely wins you many friends.

And since the other three programs mentioned above were cancelled in three seasons or less, it apparently isn't something even television viewers enjoy all that much.

And since the other three programs mentioned above were cancelled in three seasons or less, it apparently isn’t something even TV viewers enjoy all that much.

“O Beautiful for Tragedy”

So, why is it that uncompromising idealism – people showing loyalty to collective duty over individual aspiration – is a dangerous thing?

The answer, of course, is that it just doesn’t seem like the world works that way anymore.

During my years teaching American literature at an international school for missionary kids, I was beset with complaints from the kids when we delved into the units on realism and naturalism. They protested that every story, play, and novel we read was depressing. Copies of The Crucible and The Great Gatsby came back to me with dented spines and tattered covers inflicted by kids who had thrown them across the room in frustration. During one class, an intelligent young woman with an infectiously sweet disposition asked me, “Why do all these stories have such sad endings?”

“Well,” I said, intending a joke, “you may not realize this because you haven’t spent much time there, but Americans are really depressed people. Nothing ever goes the way we want it to, so of course our stories are going to be sad.”

Instead of laughing, everyone in class looked at me like I’d just dropkicked a puppy.

"If there are no more questions, let's take a look at the next novel we'll be discussing: Cormac McCarthy's The Road."

“If there are no more questions, let’s take a look at the next novel we’ll be discussing: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.”

Idealism in the Church

Of course, there is plenty of art and pop culture that portray joy and optimism. But unabashed idealism is hard to come by.

As a minister, when I watch The West Wing, I can’t help but transfer some of its pie-in-the-sky views to the Church. Idealistic action rarely claims victories in our modern world, and a rapidly growing number of Americans see Christians not at people of irresistable joy and impressive integrity, but as corrupt and unprincipled. Today, churches are accused of being wayward and incompetent.

Consider the exception that proves the rule. One of the few figures that has fascinated many non-believers in recent months is Pope Francis. I think the reason so many non-Catholics admire Pope Francis is that he has not adhered to the assumptions of what a Pope is supposed to do. His Eminence is speaking and acting less like a pietistic empty shirt and more like a living, breathing example of pragmatic idealism. People appreciate that… at least in small doses.

Wishful statements are made that today’s churches need more people like Pope Francis in them. I agree, of course, but I can’t help but wonder if it is still possible to cultivate that kind of fleshed-out idealism in the modern Church.

Genuine emulation will probably cost a bit more.

Genuine emulation will probably cost a bit more.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to be a pessimist. I want to be an idealist. But do we have the courage and determination to cultivate such a committed belief in our church’s members – that the greater good must trump personal comforts?  Can such idealism become a viable, sustainable reality in our churches? Could it really last, or, like most of Sorkin’s television dramas, would it only be tolerated for a few brief seasons before its luster wears off?

Critics of The West Wing often pointed to the fact that the decisions and actions of characters on the show would never happen in real-life Washington D.C., either because of legal issues or simply because no one with such a viewpoint would last long in a job like that. I sometimes fear that the same drab reality may be true in the majority of our churches.

What do you think? Is it possible that an authentic, visionary faith can be reawakened in the Church? Can the current few genuine idealists we have in our churches become a potent multitude of uncompromising ambassadors of hope? Can more of the people of God act like the people of God?

Or will we continue to be sidetracked by a plethora of distractions, from popular political squabbles that unnecessarily divide us to the weekly hassles of why the preacher moved the pulpit? Will we insist that all of our members learn how to share the gospel, or look the other way while some of them only share gossip? Will we spend our money on global initiatives dedicated to alleviate the suffering of all people, or on activist groups who want to take a Hollywood production company to task for the creative liberties they took filming the story of Noah?

Noah-Watcher V2 -luca nemolato

“Rock monsters! I’m, like, 99% sure that’s not in the Bible!”

What do you think? Am I off-base here? Is idealism dangerous? Is it deluded? Dead? Or, does it have a place in today’s churches?


In part two of this article, I’ll further explore what idealism looks like when it’s lived out in a church. Stay tuned… 

Bedtime Prayers

I became a Christian because I was afraid of hell. I was afraid I would die before I woke. I was afraid of where I might end up if I didn’t pray a special prayer that assured my protection.

As a kid who already struggled with a plethora of nocturnal fears – of monsters and ghouls and all manner of wicked-faced, sharp-toothed frights – the last thing I needed to fixate on at eight years of age was the dreadful image of an eternal, fiery torment. I had enough trouble falling asleep as it was. So, one night, moved as much by an overactive imagination as by the Spirit, I prayed a patchwork sinner’s prayer – penitent phrases I had gleaned from church services and Vacation Bible Schools and stitched together by my hushed lips mumbling the words into my pillow.

Beside my bed, a Voltron nightlight projected the blazing image of a robot protector on the ceiling of my bedroom. In hindsight, I realize that the image wasn’t a far cry from my theology at that time – that God was an all-powerful being who watched over the weak. Something invincible that could vanquish the terrors that slithered out from a dark realm. But, as I understood it, if you had not acknowledged his all-powerful-ness and verbally professed your belief in his invincibility, you were bound for that dark realm, where you would suffer forever and ever. And so, I prayed.

It’s been twenty-six years since I lay in my childhood twin bed and whispered a desperate prayer for, among other things, peace of mind at bedtime. I’ve grown quite a bit since then, in every form of the word. I’ve learned quite a bit about God and Jesus and salvation and faith and grace, not to mention about sin and hell. I’ve been baptized. I’ve led Bible studies and taught Sunday School classes. I’ve obtained a seminary degree. I’ve been ordained into full-time church ministry. I’ve worked in many different churches and organizations in which all of the above beliefs and experiences have been well utilized.

And yet…

There are those nights lying in bed, waiting for sleep to usher me away, when I feel surrounded by fears as irrational but as palpable as the ones that tormented me when I was eight.

I don’t fear the darkness of hell anymore, but I do fear the very real possibility of separation – of loss and abandonment. I don’t fear the agony of the fire, but I do dread physical ailments and illnesses and the cruel what-if’s they cast before my mind’s eye like a fishermen’s lures. I don’t fear the prospect of an eternity apart from God, but in the quiet of my bedroom I stress over the realization that I have not lived my life as closely to his truth as one should.

My theology has developed in countless ways over the past twenty-six years. My God is bigger than he has ever been, and he only continues to increase, emerging from the shadows cast by my limited understanding in ways that remind me he is not – he cannot be – a figment of my imagination.

But the darkness at the end of the day remains a place where doubt resides, where fear thrives. So, with the same mixture of hope and terror that I possessed when I was eight, I still speak words into my pillow. Words of trust and rattled optimism. I ask for protection. I ask to be saved.

And I am convinced that, just as it was when I was eight, there is something greater going on. Something wider and deeper is taking place – something invincible and yet as connected to me as these doubts and fears that never fail to show their threatening faces and gnash their vicious teeth when I turn out the lights. This Something is that which fulfills the words of the Apostle John, that “perfect love casts out fear.”

It is in this Something that I must trust as much at thirty-four years of age as at eight. And when sleep does usher me away, it is this Something that I still believe watches over me while I sleep, like a light on the ceiling.

I am never alone.

The Problem with First World Problems

“First world problems.”

It was a funny categorization at first, but that phrase has begun to wear thin, don’t you think? It’s one thing to recognize that my problems aren’t as significant as other points of suffering in the world. Rarely, though, was this sobering realization followed up by action on behalf of those who are suffering with greater significance.

After all, few of us appreciate suffering. We don’t want to experience it, we get uncomfortable when we witness others go through it, and more often than not it is our guilt and our pity, rather than our compassion, that is aroused when we hear of global atrocities near and far. And, save for a bold few, it would seem that over time Christians in the West have lost their stomach for suffering.

Which is odd.

Because suffering is intimately connected to what Christians are taught to look to as the source and the power of our faith.

Pictured: suffering.

Pictured: suffering.

The ultimate activity of following Christ is to be made like him. It is the journey of sanctification – by the movement of the Spirit within us, we are slowly, day after day, made holy.

Our culture, however, encourages us to have our desires, needs, and aspirations met as quickly as possible. This selfishness is found in a slick-suit preacher who says, “Come to Jesus and he will make your life one joy after another.” While it is true that Jesus promised abundant life to those who would follow him, as the pioneer of that life, he set his “face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7) and walked faithfully on into a violent, fallen world.

Thus the question comes, what is more tragic: the poor and needy who have experienced suffering, or the proud and naïve who have no stomach for it?

If we are to become like Christ, suffering is necessary, and faithful perseverance is the goal. In his influential work, The Orthodox Way, Bishop Kallistos Ware writes, “The Son of God suffered ‘unto death’ not that we might be exempt from suffering, but that our suffering might be like his. Christ offers us, not a way round suffering, but a way through it; not substitution, but saving companionship.”

When we pray for God to reveal to us his glory, we should remember this. It was only after the visibly heartbroken Jesus washed his betrayer’s feet, broke bread for him, and bid him leave to fulfill his treachery that he was able to proclaim, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”

To identify something as a “first world problem” may be to communicate perspective on hardship, but may we never forget that suffering is not something to always be on our guard against. May we be open to whatever comes our way, trusting in the provision and the compassion of a God who truly has seen it all.

Confessions of a Car Thief

The first sin I remember committing was stealing a car. I was four years old at the time.

That's the way life is out here in da 'burbs.

Yo, dat’s the way life is out here in da ‘burbs.

I should probably clarify. I stole the car from my neighbor’s garage. And the car I stole looked exactly like this.



Swiping that Matchbox car from my neighbor’s house is the first memory I have of knowingly doing the wrong thing. I can remember feeling both exhilaration and immediate guilt. I realized that if I kept this toy car (which I’m pretty sure I did), I could never tell anyone where I had gotten it. Thankfully, I had about a dozen other General Lees, so I figured my parents wouldn’t notice a new addition to the collection. But that makes my first act of wrongdoing all the more puzzling. I didn’t need that car. I’m not even sure why I wanted it. I had twelve others back in my bedroom!

This is the mystery of selfishness, which I am convinced is at the heart of all wrongdoing – what Christians call “sin”: that our self-serving deeds seem completely logical but, when unraveled and examined, show themselves to be illogical.

We can understand the reason for our selfish impulses. From a sociological perspective, we recognize that people are wired to preserve their lives and protect their interests. This is as much instinct as anything else. And from a Christian perspective, we understand that the divine creation was corrupted by this. The original intent for human beings was to be wholly dependent upon God’s provision and order, but in our free will, we chose instead to depend on our own desires, judgments and innovations. This is the heart of Genesis 3, and even people who find it difficult to take that story literally would, in their most honest moments, be apt to agree that this is the tendency with all people. More often than not, we rely on our own way rather than on the way of another.

I mean, c'mon, who doesn't get a feeling of superiority when you ignore these things?

I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t get a feeling of superiority when you ignore these things?

It seems logical, doesn’t it? If our instincts are geared for self-preservation, then our acts of selfishness make perfect sense. Sure, every once in a while I make choices for the betterment of others (sometimes I’ll even make personal sacrifices in order to help someone else), but the more deeply I examine my day-to-day activities and decisions, the more convinced I am that the majority of these things conform to an attitude of self-service.

What’s the illogical part?

Well, if we return to the Christian perspective, one of the truths we recognize is that no matter how many careful acts of self-preservation we commit, we are incapable of fully preserving our lives. Selfishness can delay trouble, but it will never defeat it. And what is more, we also believe that the man who completely shuts out the world – who does everything on a “me-first” basis while forgoing nothing and making no acts of personal sacrifice – becomes a pretzel of a man. He is twisted inward so dramatically that he has tied himself into a knot of uselessness. He could even be a wealthy man who invented something found in every household, but when it comes to basic human interaction, he has made himself worthless. And he has revealed the illogical nature of selfishness.

I'm looking at you, Ettore Staccone, inventor of the shower squeegee.

I’m looking at you, Ettore Staccone, inventor of the shower squeegee.

Consider this famous excerpt from the C.S. Lewis classic, The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Ever wonder why acts of love and devotion are such a pervasive theme in movies today, especially Disney and Pixar films? Because while we’re getting tired of Hollywood remaking and rebooting and reimagining stories we have already seen, what we haven’t tired of (and never will tire of) is the age-old theme of sacrificial love. Rick tells Ilsa to get on the plane to Lisbon. Atticus Finch jeopardizes his reputation to defend Tom Robinson. Kyle Reese gives his life to protect Sarah Connor. William Wallace does the same for the sake of his countrymen. Captain Miller leads a dangerous mission into Nazi-occupied France solely to locate and rescue a single soldier. With her last bit of energy, Anna steps between her sister and the man with the sword. We love these films because they celebrate triumph while acknowledging that we are at our very best when we have chosen vulnerability over personal comfort or safety.

For the antithesis of this, go watch The Wolf of Wall Street. Only, you know, please don't go watch The Wolf of Wall Street.

For the antithesis of this, go watch The Wolf of Wall Street. Only, you know, please don’t go watch The Wolf of Wall Street.

What’s the point of all this? What does it have to do with stealing a Matchbox car when I was four? Simply that whether you are four years old or thirty-four years old or sixty-four years old, you can’t escape the addiction of selfishness. This side of the heavenly kingdom, it is the opponent in the ring of our hearts and minds, knocking its gloves together, itching for the next round to begin. It’s a natural thing to want to serve ourselves, and yet, oddly enough, it is a natural impulse to appreciate acts of kindness and stories of sacrifice.

May you come to see that living a good life is less about self-concern and more about concern for others. May you perceive new opportunities to turn away from me-first decisions, and may that act fill you with a greater peace than self-serving decisions could ever produce. And may you learn to love sacrificially, for, as the Prayer of St. Francis reminds us, “It is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”

A Great Wind is Blowing

I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and a one-word answer keeps shoving its way into the forefront of my mind.


It took me a while to figure out why that particular word should mean anything. But the other day I got one of those questions pastors often get from church members:

“What’s your favorite story in the Bible?”

Now, most of the time, these questions are posed by the younger members of the church – those in VBS classes or, when they’re not preoccupied with shaving cream shenanigans, the church youth group. I have to say, I appreciate this question more than some related ones like, “What’s your favorite Bible verse?” or “What’s your favorite Psalm?” Here’s the deal: I’ve been going to church all my life, and I’ve been a minister for thirteen years, but, in all honesty, I have never been able to arrive at a favorite verse or Psalm. The former requires selecting one statement out of over 31,100 statements, and anyone who thinks he or she can pull that off with confidence probably hasn’t given equal time to all 31,100 of them. The latter involves ranking incredibly personal and historically poignant prayers that will only hold up until Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman finds a catchy new hook for one you hadn’t cared about up until that point, and then your whole echelon crumbles.

Soundtracking your quiet times since the mid-90's.

Soundtracking your quiet times since the mid-90’s.

But I’m confident in naming my favorite Bible story. Unlike the others, my preference for it seems to endure.

It’s John 20:19-23. You probably know the story. The disciples (most likely referring to the Ten, culled by an absent Thomas and a dead Judas) are back in the upper room featured in chapter 13, and they’ve got the door locked “for fear of the Jews.” In other words, they believe they’re next on the Temple Guard’s list. Now that the Sabbath has ended, perhaps the High Priest will be gunning for them. Perhaps they were also part of Judas’s treacherous deal. Perhaps the reports that the tomb has been robbed will bring centurions to their door. They are disorganized, inhibited, and terrified. Whatever confidence and strength they once possessed was lost in the woods outside Gethsemane.

Into this anxiety-filled room, however, steps Jesus. He is just… there. As flesh and blood as his followers, but somehow no longer bound by pesky hindrances like deadbolts or walls. “Shalom,” he says to them, and then he allows them to inspect him – to climb out from underneath the weight of their doubts and fears and behold that, yes, what the woman from Magdala had told them was indeed true. Their Master is alive!

Pictured here. The disciples' expressions suggest Jesus may not be pulling off the stripes as well as he thought.

Pictured here. However, the disciples’ expressions suggest Jesus may not be pulling off the stripes as well as he thought.

But it is in this moment that the high drama of the scene takes an odd turn, and John includes a detail that at first, second and even third glance does not always stand out to readers.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

He breathed on them? Was that… um… customary? A Jewish thing? Something you did when you blessed someone?

It took me a while to grasp the deeper meaning here, but the mystery started to come together when I looked up “breathed” and discovered that the word in Greek – emphysao – shows up nowhere else in the entire New Testament. However, it is the exact word used by the translators of the Septuagint (the Hebrew-to-Greek translation of the Old Testament by Jewish scholars in the second century BC) when they rendered Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

Michelangelo, however, preferred a less intimate, "phone home" interpretation.

Michelangelo, however, preferred a less intimate, “phone home” interpretation.

There’s something deeper than the drama going on in John 20. John – whose narrative resonates on many different levels – isn’t just describing a resurrection appearance and proclaiming the peace that Jesus brings. He is insinuating that what went on in the upper room that day was none other than the beginning of the new creation. The original creation was completed by the breath of God placed into Adam, making him more than what he was – more than an ineffectual clod of dirt. And on the day of his resurrection, Jesus spoke words of peace to his friends and then he breathed on them and said, quite intentionally, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It was his way of inaugurating a new age – and a new covenant – in which faith in the Risen Savior changes everything.

Funny thing about the word spirit – pneuma in Greek. It can also mean “breath” as well as “wind.” Even funnier thing, so can its Hebrew equivalent, ruach. The Old and New Testament writers, by the way, have all kinds of fun with this wordplay.

For instance, think about the other famous story of the gift of the Holy Spirit, found in Acts 2. How does Luke describe the coming of the Spirit? With the sound of…

Google Image search would like to offer this picture of a person's face being met by "a violent wind."

Google Image search would like to offer this picture of a person’s face being met by “a violent wind.”

According to both the end of John and the entire book of Acts, the mark of a Christian is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – the Counselor and Teacher Jesus describes earlier in John’s Gospel. The One that would guide the disciples into all truth. It comes to us as if on a breath, unseen, but filling us with a purpose and a conviction we could never produce on our own. Like Adam, we are made more than what we are. Like the disciples, we are transformed from fearful doubters into bold witnesses.

What is it like to be guided by the Holy Spirit? What is John trying to communicate to the Church? What does this mean for us?

Simply that there is a great wind blowing. It is the wind of God, the pneuma of transformation. It cannot be contained, it cannot be stopped, and it brings with it the glory of the new creation.

The Spirit prompts us like a stiff wind at our backs. It is as close to us as the breath we take into our lungs. To be guided by the Spirit is to be transformed into something a little less like ourselves, and little more like the One who created both.

In the Details

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you…” – Genesis 12:1-2a

When I was growing up, my father often told me that I had trouble “seeing the big picture.”

When we would talk about something – my homework or my extracurricular activities or my household chores – I would often fixate on specific details of the subject in question. I would make arguments about the little things, and it was not uncommon to hear my father interrupt me by saying, “Son, you’re not seeing the big picture.” He would tell me that I was focused on one little corner of the picture, his thumb and index finger raised to indicate just how small a detail it was. He said what I needed to do was step back and see the whole thing.

As a teenager, I usually disagreed. I didn’t think I was overly fixated on the details. I just thought my father’s diagnosis was nothing more than his way of asserting his own opinion over mine. However, twenty years later, I realize that maybe the old man was on to something.

When it came to eating vegetables, though, he was totally unreasonable.

When it came to making me eat vegetables, though, he was totally unreasonable.

We are detail-oriented people in many, many ways. Even in an instant-gratification, product-obsessed society, we still place a lot of importance on process. Even the more impulsive of personalities are not immune to the comfort that comes from knowing how something is going to work out – how the product is going to be produced. A movie is praised not merely for its opening and closing sequences, but even more for the quality of its content – its effects, its writing, its characters, and the enduring power of its themes. Video games are judged as much for the intricacy of their graphics as for their overall concepts. Politicians can hardly make an off-the-cuff statement to their constituents without it being analyzed, dissected, and conjectured on 24-hour cable news.

We are detail-oriented people, and therein lies the problem. It is not so much the problem my father identified in me, though. It has more to do with our capacity for trust. It is becoming harder and harder to exhibit trust – to act without full knowledge, to make a decision without first hedging our bets. When it comes to our motivations in this life, the well-known idiom, “The devil is in the details,” is not far from true. We want to know how its going to work out for us before we even agree to the it. In this day and age, faith may sound noble, but there is little actual room made for it.

The devil is also in a lot of 80's metal music, but they play that stuff on Oldies stations now, so...

The devil is also in a lot of 80’s metal music, but they play that stuff on Oldies stations now, so…

Twenty years since my father diagnosed me with detail-obsession, I finally realize how indicative the problem is in my own life. For instance, I recently accepted a staff position at Dunwoody Baptist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia, the offer for which came on the heels of a five-month interview process. And even though I was eager to take the position, I found it terribly difficult to put away the anxiety of how it was all going to work out. Most of all, I was hung up on discerning whether or not God was really “calling” me to serve in this church, and, if so, why would he call me away from my previous church after only two short years? What was God thinking? What could his reasons possibly be?

In short, I got lost in the details. It didn’t occur to me until after I’d devoted a healthy heaping of brain cells to this dilemma that a big part of faith is trusting God’s plan without having to know the ins and outs. There are plenty of examples in both Testaments that remind us of this fact, none so profound as the life of Abram (a.k.a. Abraham). In chapter 12 of Genesis, God’s call completely uproots Abram from what was certainly a comfortable, sensible life. The most unsettling thing about that call, though, is that it didn’t come with a ten-point plan attached. There was no explicit, bullet-pointed directive on how God was going to fulfill his promise and make Abram a “great nation” – how he was going to bless him apart from the very things the people of that time looked upon as blessings: homeland, ancestry, and reputation of family.

"Leave the silly hats, too. 'The land I will show you' has a certain dress code."

“Leave the silly hats, too. ‘The land I will show you’ has a dress code.” – God

If I struggled with accepting that God was calling me from one job in a Baptist church to another job in a different Baptist church, then I can’t fathom the kind of turmoil going on in Abram’s heart and mind as he sought to discern the call of the Creator who, unlike the gods of his father’s house, was active and boundless and interested in an establishing an intimate, interactive relationship with a mortal.

And yet…

Abram went.

We are detail-oriented people because, if we can, we want to exert control over those details. We are detail-oriented people because we cannot shake the self-serving desire to manipulate and control our situations in order to preserve our lives in the best way we know how. It’s hard to trust someone else with the details if I am unwilling to place faith in anyone but myself. The same is true for my relationship with God.

Le bon Dieu est dans le détail,” wrote Gustave Flaubert. The good God is in the detail. The aforementioned idiom is but a cynical adaptation of a life-defining truth.

It turns out, God wants us to trust him with the details. He wants us to see him as trustworthy. It’s why he had a habit of reminding the people of Israel, time and time and time again, of all the ways he had come through for them over the years. “God is our refuge and strength,” proclaims the psalmist, “a well proved help in trouble” (Ps. 46).

It’s no easy thing to respond to the call of God without getting a look at his blueprints. But the faith that makes us able to hear his call is the same faith that should remind us that God is in the details – that he’s always been remarkably careful with them – and we would do well to trust in the goodness of that.

Maybe the old man was right. Maybe seeing the big picture is what’s important. Maybe it’s time to take step back and see the whole thing.