Letters from lockdown: The dangerous games we play

Clearance required to travel outside your suburb. No work given to anyone without the government supplied injection. One hour of outdoor time is allowed daily. No more than one person in a household allowed out at a time. Faces are to be covered in public at all times. Helicopters and cars will patrol at random. A curfew of 9pm to 5 am is necessary for problem people. This sounds like a scene from a dystopian novel. Yet here we are in Sydney, August 2021, in the midst of the COVID19 delta pandemic. In efforts to control the spread of the virus, the government has pulled and tugged at every straw.

They’ve tried to become the hero the people want, rather than the one they need. I don’t know whether these Herculean expectations come from the people or from the politicians presuming to be the new patheon on Olympus. I suppose it’s a bit of both. After all, I don’t remember governments ever being blamed for failing the eradicate the spread of a virus. I mean… did people blame the king for the bubonic plague? Like Medicare, if something’s broken, people want the government to fix it. And in trying to fix everything, they inevitably make everything else… well, worse. Vaccines be damned.

The truth is it’s the world that’s broken. So being the hero people want is a dangerous game to play. I don’t fully blame them. The people made it necessary. This government has had to enforce and coerce and infringe on as many freedoms and privileges it can, short of a riot, just to cajole citizens to obey the advice they were giving before. ‘I strongly advise you to have no more trips to Bondi.’ It’s sad that we’ve come this far.

The limits of a scientific imagination

The government’s not without sidekicks. Their best one is “what the science says.” Scientists? Which ones? It’s often portrayed in the media as though science is a uniform term with enshrined dogma no one can disagree with. That’s not how it works though. Especially not in a postmodern age. Modernity’s fetish for rationalism keeps coming back. But it’s bunk with the people. All they’ll see are politicians playing power monopoly.

Is listening to science, even if it was unanimous going to work? By making eradication of COVID the measure of a healthy society, I think the government inevitably misses things. Like the effects on the economy. Like the widening gap between rich and poor. Like the mental health stress of the vulnerable whether elderly, ill, female or child. Going with what the ‘science’ says assumes that science also defines the good life. From a scientific point of view, this is no less than life without death, without viruses and illnesses.

We’ve yet to see the full cost of pursuing a solely scientific mindset to addressing this virus. One would think that now would be a good time for Plato’s philosopher king to make an appearance. Because many scientists a wise man does not make. Science as it is, tries to look at the world objectively, to make detached judgments, focusing on empirical data, to the expense of all that is natural and human; to the expense of life itself. Listening to “the science” under the pretense of objectivity actually makes people and society more detached and less human. NSW after all isn’t a laboratory and people aren’t lab rats.

The relationship between a government and its people

The biggest thing it has missed here is the relationship between power and responsibility. Uncle Ben was right. With great power comes great responsibility. The more the government tries to lockdown the virus and its people with science, the more it’s taking responsibility both for the virus and the welfare of its people. I wonder if it’s up to the task of making people happy. If it has the power to lock anyone and anything down, it should also be able to reimburse forced closures. It should be able to reimburse mortage debts. It should compensate for suicides and abuse under lockdown. That’s a tall order the people will ask for. It’s like what 1 Samuel says, the people will cry out for their king to deliver them but he will not hear.

People say that the lockdown brings out the worst in us. But I think it reveals what’s in us. We’re seeing where everyone’s faith was placed (or perhaps misplaced). That’s why the government is under so much pressure. It’s where our faith’s been all along. We’re desperate for order in a disordered universe. We need someone or something to blame so that we can at least pretend we’re in control. And our government happily plays along to be the hero in our darkest hour.

Every disaster requires a sacrifice to the gods believe will save us. Whether it’s mortgages or mocha takeaways, we’ll find an offering to plead the gods we believe will take COVID from us. But people don’t sacrifice their livelihoods easily. They don’t do it without requiring a return — one that’s eternal. The question is — is the government’s treasury big enough?

See the Joker was also right. You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain. The heroes we want, like science or the government, won’t save us. Because what the hero we need is the one who’ll save us from ourselves. So when the gods we put our faith in, inevitably reveal that they’re human and all too human (vaccine rollouts perhaps?), then there’ll be a clamor for new gods on Mt. Olympus. But trying to replace a society’s gods never goes smoothly.

Letters from Lockdown: Look Each Other In The Eye

Dear you,

I’m addressing you as a you because that’s what you are. You’re a person; a human being. Yet you’re also a you because that’s what lockdown has made you. Without face or name, you’ve become an indistinguishable person. You’re more than an individual. Yet you’re also less than one. You’ve become a crowd. And what I’ve noticed about lockdown is that you’ve been split into two faceless crowds. Like my most painful tooth extraction, you’ve become a bifurcated you. On one hand, you see our greatest need to be the protection of our rights. On the other hand, you see that to be a society means giving up our rights out of our obligations to one other.

And you’re right. Humans are meant to live with a center. Perhaps you could call this a soul. You’re meant to be integrated both as a society and as a person. But as the wisdom of Facebook has said, “the lockdown has brought out the worse in us.” One of these is the bifurcation of our souls. Someone who struggles with bipolar disorder struggles to exist. Do you think that you can cut off your other half without harming yourself?

I know that your other half seems to be a demon. It’s annoying. It lies. It didn’t save up the money you’d work so hard to earn. It blew it on whiskey and clubs and $10 avocado sandwiches and Netflix. Isn’t housing unaffordable enough? It tells horrible jokes. Jokes like, “the government can’t tell us what to do. Lockdowns don’t work. Live free!” You want to laugh in its face. It’s easy to demonize him. Especially when he shows up at a protest the next weekend. Damn. Just when you thought you’d locked him at home, he gives you the finger. He’s the reason you got in this lockdown mess in the first place.

I know your other half seems to be a demon. It’s cruel. It’s a tyrant. Every day, it seems to crack its whip at you, driving you further towards despair. It whispers lies like “being a good person means listening to everything the government says.” “Protesting the lockdown means that you only care about happiness of the majority.” “You should’ve saved up and gotten a job you Centerlink bum.” It seethes with resentment at every line that isn’t toed. You’ve worn yourself out listening to it for much of your life after school. But there’s been nothing to show for it. Instead of freedom, there’s tyranny. Instead of happiness there’s only mediocre conformity. He’s the reason you got in the lockdown in the first place.

Order and chaos. Rights and responsibilities. The ethical and the aesthetic. Conservative and liberal. These paradoxes capture the struggle of what it means to be human. This is the tension between truth and love. Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes love hurts the truth. It can be maddening living with that tension. I know it keenly myself. But I believe that’s what we’re made for. You see, life is a constant struggle to integrate these two halves of yourself spiritually. The ethical and the aesthetic part of life are the melody and harmony which consummates in the ultimate religious life — what’s transcendent and beyond all values, God himself.

One of the things about media like the press or Facebook is that it all takes place behind closed doors. You can post under digital identities to people you’ve never met or heard of. You can participate in causes beyond your time and country. The anonymity of distance means that you can become someone and something else. You can engage with other people who are just this faceless Other, someone less than you. And so you can let fly whatever corrupting impulses you feel at a particular moment into the internet void towards people who are no longer people.

Media especially social media tries to eradicate this tension of being human. It amplifies extremes. It gives your natural corrupting urges a platform to be heard at any moment. And it reinforces these impulses to be who you really are. There’s no center to you. Just one polar ideology that demonizes the Other. And so you’re either proud or disgusted, elated or angry, jubilant or despairing.

Dear you, please look beyond social media. Look each other in the eye. Because what you see is who you are. In hating them, you’re just hating yourself. It’s not hard to imagine that you wouldn’t act differently given the circumstances. Neither our rights nor responsibilities makes us who we are, but it is before God that I am and that you are. You’re neither protestor or persecutors, neither anarchist or tyrant. Look each other in the eye. Really look. Only then will you be able to see the log in your own eye and pick the speck out of your brother’s. Only then will you be able to be integrated, one and whole. Look each other in the other eye. And look to God. That’s your greatest need.

From one human you to another,

Nathan

”My mind hums with poetry and madness”: The Toughest Semester Ever

My mind hums with poetry and madness. Virginia Woolf

I turned in my final paper for the semester on Friday, July 9th and waited for that sigh of relief. You know, the one every student experiences at the end of each term. It never came.

All I could think about now was the coming week. Semester 2 would start in 3 days. And I would be flat, burnt out like the Lancer-made donuts around Auburn, before I could even start. Worse, I was scheduled to preach at Captivate Presbyterian on July 18th on Psalm 100-101. It was the toughest semester I had ever been through. And yet when I finished it, there was no rest, no relief and no end in sight. Had it truly ended? That’s what I thought as I shoveled bits of rice and eel into my mouth.

I don’t even know how I got to this point. Without a day off, and one extension after another, the last 3 months have just become a blur. I feel like I’ve done nothing and yet everything. I remember moving houses at the end of last year. I remember leaving a job I fairly enjoyed. I remember leaving my church to become an intern at another. I remember making friends in the unlikeliest places. At the same time, I’ve never taken so many extensions. I’ve never had ongoing medications for my health. And I’ve never felt so empty in my life. There’s never seemed to be so many fires to put out. With so many things out of my control, I couldn’t help but ask myself — Was I a failed student? Worse, was I…a failed human being?

Throughout life, in all of our words, and feelings and actions, we seem to be measuring ourselves up against some ideal. We’ve got some vague sense that we’re not who we should be. What is it though? Does this ideal exist somewhere in society? Is it in my mind? Or is it made by me? Am I just making myself up as I go along? Beyond our successes and failures, the worst thing to fail at is as a human being. Yet… we can’t seem to agree on what that is. And maybe that’s why I felt such despair. The uncertainty and the failure around my life made me ask myself if all these things really reflected who I was and what I was like as a human being. If we’re ultimately responsible for our lives then the failure to live up to your constructed identity is yours, and yours alone.

These thoughts ran through my head. They ran through them when I was faced with my grades. Or when I was forced to acknowledge that I was never going to meet that deadline. And they ran through my head just as it dropped down on my soft pillow to sleep. It’s too bad these thoughts were nothing like my pillow. I remember thinking, “my mind hums with poetry and madness.” Words and images. Feelings and sounds. Without any narrative, any story, what are they? My head, no my life, just becomes full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. So I’ve come to realize this semester’s the toughest one I’ve ever had. Not because of anything I did or didn’t do. But because of who I was. It’s made me have to come face to face with myself. And when you see the shadow of who you truly are, that can be terrifying. Sometimes it’s a monster in the mirror. This semester was the toughest one not because of successes or failures, but because through it all, I had to ask the question, “did I fail… as a human being?”

There Is No Magic Pill: On Waiting For Grace

Some people are drawn to despair and destruction. Solitude and loneliness beckon to you like the abyss under a skyscraper on a windy night when the moon shines but nothing is illuminated. And as you stand on the precipice of the roof you feel yourself pulled to stand on the edge…and maybe even jump? The prospect is exhilarating yet nauseating, knowing that you are one-second away from oblivion.

Is this me? Will I have to tread the road not taken? I was reminded of this in a film called Lucky Per about a Danish prodigy who leaves his clerical family to become an engineer only to throw it all away. Not even a woman’s love could save him from his destiny. He ends his life poor, in a wilderness of his own, working the land from his cabin, slowly dying from disease.

I’m reminded when I read the biblical story of Cain, who was condemned for a sacrifice that wasn’t good enough for his Father. The unbearable pain of rejection became resentment for his brother Abel because he was loved. Then resentment became bloodshed. And Cain became doomed to wander the earth forever because he added guilt on top of guilt. With every step his brother Abel’s blood cried out for justice. Could he have helped it?

There’s something about nothingness that is alluring. It’s not so much that you want to die, you just don’t want to live. Life is so painful let alone when you’re haunted by guilt! Why bother? How do you find rest? Emptiness haunts you left and right. Dread and alienation dog every step. It reminds you that you’re different from everyone else and everything else. So being nothing can seem more attractive than being itself.

It’s almost like a primeval call harkening you to return to where you came from. “Naked you were born into the world and naked you shall return.” Is it a curse from God? A pig farmer who once cursed God upon a hill and became the richest man in Copenhagen. Yet his son Kierkegaard became the most anxious man of Europe. His father forever believed that his family was cursed by God. Perhaps like Kafka, it’s the disappointment of my father that always follows me. And my sensitive childhood only serves to remind me that someone is coming for me. I don’t know who. But one day they will find me out.

These questions run through my head at night. Where have I gone wrong? And what can be done? What can possibly wash my hands of the unknown crimes I’ve committed blindfolded? Is God dead? Have I killed him? It certainly appears that way. Out damned spot! Out. But no amount of washing is sufficient. I think that Lady’s Macbeth cries would be more heard than mine.

These days I find the solace of friends the most soothing to this emptiness. Yet as I fill it up with friends, it drains just as quickly away. It leaves me even more exhausted. It’s a hell of a drug. I can’t exactly define what this emptiness is. Maybe it’s a haunting of death in a broken world exiled from Eden. And sometimes I think I love it too much because it’s all I have. Still… what am I meant to do with it?

Maybe, just maybe, there’s nothing I can do. Maybe I don’t need to do anything. Maybe what is required is an act of faith — to seek and humble myself under God, to recognize that only God can provide joy and fulfillment in his own time and in his own way. Maybe faith is the true defense against anxious and weary living, a pursuit of life that only takes from you until you have nothing left to give. But how can I rest in something that doesn’t even seem real in this moment? That’s the real leap of faith — to rest and wait.

Sometimes we think there’s a magic pill. We’re so results oriented. We want a solution to our life’s problems and a fix to it. But maybe there is no fix. All other fixes are only means of escaping and running away and hoping the problem doesn’t resurface whether its Netflix or alcohol or shopping and even Christian ministry.

Maybe God means for us to face this head on. After all, the story of the Exodus reminds us that there’s a rock in the wilderness where springs of life flow from. Maybe in the midst of darkness is light. Only in confronting this nothingness will we become ourselves. We will overcome as a light in the darkness for others. And the darkness will not overcome it. We will truly be.

I have read in Lewis, in Kafka, in Steinbeck and in Dostoevsky sayings that are wise and beautiful. But never have I read in any of them, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The grace that God gives and the rest he lays you down to is a life and a joy that never stops giving. It gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. It raises you up on eagle’s wings. Though even youths grow weary, you will run and not be tired, you will soar even amidst a fragmented and forsaken world. You will know who you are and who God is in the midst of it all. You can wail and pour out your soul because weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes in the morning. We just need to wait.

To My Readers: Med students, Doctors, Theology Students, Teachers, Arts Students, Eccentric Pastors And Those Forced To Read Nonsense. Why I Write: Because Saying Beautifully Is Seeing beautifully

A few people have asked me lately why it is I write the way I do. A friend of Captivate and infrequent peruser of my blog called Tim Cheung me a really good question yesterday. In fact I’m not sure if I’ve ever been asked it before: where do you find beauty? For him lately it was in urban solitude. As a worker in the city he would try to capture in his moments of stillness amidst its hustle and bustle. Moments like the morning fog, the gentle rush of workers to work, the stops by coffee shops and silent commuters on their phones. Before I really had any time to think about it, my intuition responded with, “Words.”

Yet as I reflected on this I realized that it was inevocably me. Somehow, somewhere, as a boy and now as a man, words have come to define my life. When you think about it, it makes sense. In the beginning God said, “let there be light and there was light”. He spoke and it came to be. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. And in Jesus, the Word became flesh and dwelt with men. In him was the life and the light and there was no darkness at all. God’s Word, the order and reason and understanding beyond all creation and reality, his perfect revelation of himself, actually became a human being so we could know him. And God continues to speak through his words.

Last year, I often woke up to blurry numbers on an alarm clock. I brushed my teeth in the orange glow of dawn. I showed up to work and didn’t stop till I finished. There was a bite to eat and some time to check my phone. But otherwise it was one patient after another. One person who had taken 2 and a half years to recover from a nerve root compression and could barely balance on her feet or get out of bed. Another person had lost a family friend in a freak truck accident on Sydney’s freeways and her body wasn’t holding up. There were so many demands and so little time.

My body felt spent. My mind was foggy. I didn’t know what I was seeing or where I was going. On the rides home I would just stare ahead on the freeway, a straight gray road and drive in silence. My mind refused to think coherently. There was no way I would’ve thought of putting pen to paper or even writing a decent half sentence. Yet there I was. Sitting on my desk in the darkness completing another paragraph. Why did I keep writing day after day like that?

I’m sure there are more words in the world than there are stars in the sky. Mine are not terribly important nor powerful. I won’t be starting any reformations or overthrowing any governments or inventing any new theories. My voice is simply a drop into the vast ocean of words, soon to be drowned in its watery depths. There must’ve been a reason why I continued to write on those days. It had to go beyond simply the influence or effect it had on others.

I think it’s because of what words are and what they mean to me. Language, writing, ideas; these are all reflections of God’s living Word. These words are tools which create a picture, a way of seeing behind appearances to what’s really there, into Being itself and the God who is there and not silent. Create enough pictures and you have a whole world. Though it’s imperfect, God and Being communicates itself to us through these imperfect words, shaping our hearts and minds. God reveals himself in his Word and we see him clearer through ours, a two way traffic lane.

Being aware of my experience and articulating it makes me more aware of the one behind it, who is with me and in me. During seasons of existential alienation and loneliness, it helps me when I cry to know what I’m crying about and what I’m experiencing and the thoughts and fears that come during this way of living. But then I remember the memories of God’s presence and his comfort mysteriously there. I recall other moments of comfort from others. I discover in my grief, that I am not quite alone. And the pain now becomes an ache rather than unbearable and unending pain. Misery loves company? Yes, because there is a deepening sustenance in the company of those from and with whom we can receive love and care. Through my own words, God’s Word comes to me and agony is transformed. It is redeemed.

When I write I remember reading the words of Pastor John Piper years ago, that “saying beautifully is seeing beautifully”. I think I continue to write not only for the pleasure it gives to others (although that would be nice) but because there exists a depth of my soul that hasn’t fully been explored without expressing itself. That is to say, that only when I can speak of who I am and what I know that I know myself better. And in knowing myself better I also know the One I was made for better. I write because saying clearly is seeing clearly. And I long to see God and myself as he sees me and to know him as I’m fully known. Writing in a way is meditation. Sitting and reflecting on my own words and giving a voice to my thoughts helps me to understand what I think and feel and what I should do. And I think I should write. So I write because saying beautifully is seeing beautifully.

Theology or Therapy? Does Depression Even Exist? A Fresh Perspective

Whose reality counts?

Last week I was finishing a pastoral care plan for Captivate Presbyterian, the church I’m currently interning at. The pastoral care plan was aimed at addressing the holistic needs of those suffering from depression in the congregation. What I repeatedly encountered during my research was a tension between the natural and the supernatural that approached the level of paradox (just like most of reality). Modern society sees depression as a distinct clinical entity like having the flu (although I’d much rather have the flu) without any spiritual element to it. But Christians recognize that every person is an embodied spirit and that the Christian Scriptures cover every aspect of human experience. All personal experience is therefore a spiritual one too and depression likewise. But people struggle to balance different perspectives. Christians tend to either treat depression as any other physical illness or to blame it on some spiritual cause. My friend shared this paper with me that gave us a fresh perspective on theology, philosophy and psychiatry through its examination of depression and I want to explore this a bit further.

Does depression even exist?

Natural brokenness

There’s no denying that depression exists. But no one can seem to agree on what it is or who has it across any culture. These days in the West, it can be a matter of ticking a few boxes on a DASH questionnaire. Which raises the question — in what sense does depression actually exist? This is the issue that Swinton’s paper recognizes.

Worse, there isn’t a consistent understanding of depression across time or cultures. We’ve struggled to determine whether one even has it. This is tied to the problem of whether depression actually exists as a disease in itself. Even the symptoms and the way people with deep sadness or apathy describe depression differ from what mental health ‘experts’ offer. So am I depressed because I say I am? Whose reality ultimately counts?

When a diagnosis is reified (that is the idea that the person has depression is made real), the psychiatrist pronounces that the patient has a certain disease. But when we understand it in this way, it focuses on the individual and the problem he has. It numbs us to the possibility that perhaps depression is not a disease in itself, but a signal of the emotionally toxic society we live in. Instead of better understanding our time and place, the emphasis is often on numbing and medicating and treating the ‘sick’ person.

Spiritually transformative

Swinton’s paper reviews one approach to spiritually understand depression. Rather than something innately bad, the potentially transformative model frames depression as a natural experience that can be interpreted differently and used to grow and transform the individual. The problem of modern society is that it treats health and wholeness as the absence of any disease and tries to avoid any suffering. Because it views it as the greatest evil any God and spirituality have to answer to it (this might account for the problem of theodicy). Yet even Nietzsche the true postmodern saw suffering and depression not as an evil but as a necessity for transformation and true life. Just like the movies, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Theology over self actualization

But without a transcendent dimension, the potentially transformative model only becomes a “spiritually” oriented self actualization. It’s just another tool for your psychological wellbeing. The focus is still too therapeutic. It is as spiritually bankrupt as mindfulness and meditation without any reference to anything else but yourself. Theologically, Judaism and Christianity has always viewed health not as self-actualization, or the absence of disease or sadness. Rather it’s the presence of God (the divine) in the midst of suffering (cf. The story of Job). You don’t have to be happy or guilt free or physically whole to be healthy! It’s about one’s relationship to God and their assurance of his love and presence.

If this is true, then suffering doesn’t have to be inevitably bad. Yes, it still sucks. The feeling of suffering especially depression can feel like an eternal longing that never ends. It can be paralyzing guilt over who we are. It can feel the alienation of being and the shame of being unlike others. After all, it is the regret between the ideal of what life could be and what it really is: a sad abyss, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Lemony Snickett puts it like this, “the sad truth is that the truth is sad.”

Where to go?

I’m not saying that understanding depression as a transformative opportunity denies how awful it is to experience it. I don’t think we have to mutually exclude paradoxical ideas. Instead, if we realize that there is more than one way to understand depression and suffering in general, we can understand ourselves and the world better. We can understand what depression ultimately points to. And we don’t have to simply treat a person with depression like some sick individual who just needs panadol. They have to change. But maybe we do too.

For Christians it is only the evil and suffering that separates us from God that is truly evil. Only when one recognizes that, can one transcend suffering. As Dostoevsky would say, “How can one be well when one suffers morally?” So suffering can be transformative. It can lead us to know God and through knowing him, to become better than who we are. And it highlights the need to reform society before the face of God and the need for him to manifest his transcendence in the immanent. Depression becomes not a final destination but a pothole along a journey. There is a time for weeping and lamenting and healing. But there is also a time for learning and growth and overcoming. As it is written, weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes in the morning.

”Other People Have It Worse”: Modern Stoicism and Self Pity

Does knowing that someone else has it worse than you really ease your suffering? As I thought about this, I was seared with a memory from years ago. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. “It’s okay Nathan. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” The Confucian advice was from my well meaning dad. I just sat crying into my rice as my mom and sister exchanged glances and shook their heads. Another memory flows from its subconscious dregs into my mind — a recent friend of mine became a pastor in a rough area. Being from a more privileged background, the suffering and disorder he encountered was overwhelming. One way he continued to keep himself going was by minimizing his difficulties. After all, how can he complain when so many of his flock have it worse?

Thinking through this matters because suffering is real. In fact, it may the most real part of life. Life is suffering. Unless you close your eyes. So how do you find comfort? How do you counsel? And how do you understand what you will inevitably go through at some point in life? Without understanding suffering you may find yourself broken, shipwrecked, and damaged beyond recognition. You may become someone you never knew.

This was the case for many wives and children waiting to welcome their dads home after the Vietnam war, only to receive someone who was dad half the time and a raging alcoholic the other. This is the case for every single guy and girl after a break up or divorce. Who will they be now? The gym provides little answer.

While reminding yourself of the triviality of your suffering keeps self pity and pride in check, its objectivity doesn’t help you suffer well. It doesn’t give you the resolve to overcome it or to ease its sting. Suffering is costly. It eats you up the more you have it. Everyone has a breaking point. At its worse, such a stoic saying simply denies it and leads to the pretense that “I’m fine. And you’re fine.” And therefore nobody is.

It is written somewhere in the Psalms that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy. As I listened to pastor Tim Keller preach from this Psalm I realized this: that what comforts and heals and changes you is not knowing that people have it worse but that no one had it worse than Jesus. This man was a man of sorrows. But his sorrows were for you. His life was one trial after another and ended in agony – forsaken by God and condemned to die nailed on a tree by men. And it was all for the joy set before him.

Just as he wept for the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept bittersweet tears on that cross for us. His pain was undiminished. But his resolve was firm. And his joy was magnified. Because he knew it would reconcile humanity to God and ultimately fix this broken world. The darkness of alienation from God and men was worth every tear if it meant we could share his joy.

So when I suffer, without denying what I experience, I can remember that Jesus had it worse. I can continue to live, sowing tears and knowing that not one will fall to the ground and be wasted. Each drop will be reaped with joy. And though we don’t quite know what suffering will do to us, we know that we will be like him and see him as he is – one who suffered and triumphed and laughed over life even in death. This is the hope of redemption and the immeasurable glory that no suffering can overcome.

How to Receive Christmas Magic

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go…” I’ve heard those lyrics crooned in every department store in every town and city of this country. Ad nauseam. Any time I realize that I should really get some Christmas shopping done and I walk into the mall there is a faint chance that some shuck with a PA system will play those lyrics. And then I’ll feel like popping a Buble.

But underneath my old man’s cantankerous demeanor is a child who realizes this truth – that Christmas is a special time of year whether or not you’re religious. It’s been that way for most of the English speaking world. And it’s increasingly exported to other unfamiliar countries. In Japan, they celebrate Christmas with KFC. Upon tasting some mince pies or seeing a neighborhood lit up under the night sky, I remember that there was something magical in that December air. There was the damp air of Kuala Lumpur next to the Christmas tree. There was that chilly and sharp gust that blew across Shanghai’s Bund.

God knows we’ve outgrown believing in magic. But every Christmas seems like people want to relive these childhood illusions or drug themselves into doing so until they forget that fateful day they realized that Santa didn’t exist. Then they can play and pretend it’s all for the kids. Or is it? How can such desires come from illusions?

The yearning for something magical reminds me of the insights we have after finishing a book and scaling the peak of some great mountain and staring into the expanse of the starry starry night. It’s the yearning for the transcendent – a desperate desire for a time and space that exists outside this world yet can only be found in it.

In it, the divorce never happened. The kids are quiet and happy. The family is united around the dinner table. The turkey and the gravy blend together in perfect harmony, each flavor enhancing the other. Not just that but on a Christmas night, the inanimate world finally becomes what humans have always thought it to be – magical and personal. Reindeer speak. Old men climb down chimneys and leave half eaten cookies and milk. Jack Frost greets us at the windows. Whether it is before us like Eden or beyond us like heaven, we crave a taste of it with the ones we love on Christmas and with the world’s creatures.

But then the turkey sucks away the moisture of your mouth and mom and dad end the night screaming at one another again and your uncle is drunk from too much wine. You can’t help but feel just as Sylvia Plath did. “I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas.” Is that all there is? Is that all there is? I’ve often asked God that very same question. Every Christmas over promises and under delivers like some cheap motel. The cynical of us just get on with the show. We hope the whisky can drown out the fake smiles and presents.

God’s answer has always befuddled me. A good father meets his kids where they are. If they want to build a robot, he’ll make one alongside them rather than give a lecture about mechatronic engineering. So 2000 years ago God answered our yearning not by giving us more rules as ladders to heaven…but by reaching down into something wholly other to him. He became a man. There was no fire and smoke. There was just a crying baby in Bethlehem in a manger with no cradle for a bed. In the most mundane of all things, eternity entered time and the infinite became finite.

Christmas is special. Because the incarnation is special. God answers us in the most paradoxical way. He doesn’t get rid of our yearning just giving us what we want but what we need. We don’t make things magical. He does. So the beauty and meaning of Christmas can only be received by knowing him. 2000 years ago he met us in a little Jewish boy. He was born in darkness so that the world might know light. He was lowly so that he might lift us high. I don’t need to grasp in the dark anymore, hoping for that Christmas spark. It’s already there. I just need to see it and receive it. If God became man, everything is possible. We just need to see it. Every Christmas we don’t need the gift of having more but seeing more. Because even a manger can reveal him.

You Across Time

Stop. Breathe. Hear the wind around you. You too will be gone like it. Breathe. Just as the flowers on that curbside bloom on this sunny spring day you too will be gone tomorrow. Winter is coming – that cold dark uninvited guest.

When you look at a childhood photo of yourself you can recognize who you are. But your appearance then and now are completely different. What remains? This remnant of you, this essence, doesn’t seem tangible. You can’t pick it out of a facial feature like a bushy eyebrow or a bulbous nose. Still, you know deep down that something remains. Something or someone has reminds you of what and who you are. No matter when and where, no matter how much time has passed, you remain to yourself and to those who know you.

Surely you’re more durable than a year old Big Mac. That’s why Eastern wisdom doesn’t sit well with you. We’re just one drop returning into the ocean? When one is all and all is one then there is no individuality, no uniqueness, no you. No, there isn’t even love because love requires a relationship between different human beings. You’re indistinguishable from everything else.

When finally you return to the dust you came from then all will be one. No mom, no dad, no sister or brother. Nothing separates you. And nothingness unites you. Should you go gentle into that good night? Or does someone else remember you? Someone out there – the other. Someone from the stars? I shook my head. My breath sighed into the chilly night air and I walked in the theater. The Avengers were playing.

How Do I Get: The Right Answers

Can life make any sense? Or are you doomed to make the same mistakes and hope Fortune will smile on you once in a while? In all the apparent randomness of our world, what’s surprising is for anyone to claim to have the answers. Because as we all know, no one can have all the answers. And that seems like that’s just what I’m doing here and what my church St John’s is attempting to do in October as we seek to do a series of online talks on honor, joy, fulfillment, meaning, certainty, and the most Aussie value of all: a fair go.

But whether you think there’s an answer or not, your response and attitude to the big questions of life like meaning and fulfillment will impact how you live. I was encouraged to watch our pastors David ask his barista about why she believed fulfillment was the important question and Ronaldo who interviewed his barber in a similar way. Despite all the corruption in the world, I was reminded that in each of us the pursuit for life remains. Whether it is man’s search for meaning as Victor Frankl recognized or Pascal’s observation that “all men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

So why ask these questions? Because while I believe no one but God alone has all the answers, everyone looks for them. But why would we look for something that we would never have a capacity for? As CS Lewis said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Without joy or fulfillment, meaning or certainty, honor or equality, death is the only logical choice. We need these answers. Not because we can know all of them. But because we were made to know the ones that matter to us. We need them to live a proper life.

I suppose what I’m saying is not to waste this opportunity. You can avoid thinking about these things. You can live hedonistically only for your own pleasure. But that is still an answer. And we would love to know what you think. How is it working out for you? Join us online athttps://www.facebook.com/stjohnscathedralparramatta stay tuned for Oct 18th, 25th and Nov 1st where we’ll answer a survey of the people of Parramatta to provide some and not all of the answers. But we hope they’ll be the ones you need.