I am again in the middle of a strange spot. That means, of course, only that something has slowed me down enough to see where I am.
I’m always in a strange spot.
How else could it be? I’m not home. If my soul felt comfortable in this world, it would be evidence of spiritual pathology.
Every spot on every person’s journey through this world ought to feel strange. At the very least, every self-aware person should feel a sense of vague unfamiliarity, like waking at two o’clock in the morning in your fifth hotel room in as many nights and wondering where you are. The only thing you’re sure of is that you’re not home.
It has to be that way, for one simple reason: the deepest desire of our hearts, whose satisfaction alone allows us to feel fully human, cannot be met in this world. People who assume they are completely satisfied now, or one day will be in this life, are not in touch with their souls. They are like the lion that has been so long in a zoo it has forgotten how to roar. Three squares a day and a monthly check-up with the vet are now its life. All memory of the jungle is gone.
Peter Kreeft put it starkly: “There exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature, can satisfy.” 1
I’d put it this way: no spot on a journey can ever feel warmly comfortable and happily familiar for a traveler passing through an inhospitable country on his way home. The scary thing is to think for even a moment that we’ve arrived at our destination while we’re still living here. It’s even scarier to recognize that we’re not home and to lose hope that home exists.
The first danger (thinking we’re home) is as real as the second (worrying that there is no home). A fair number of people whose birth launched them on a journey have settled down prematurely and are devoting their best energies to making their cage feel like home. It’s these people (and their number is legion, even in churches) who are most hell-bent (I use the term advisedly) on convincing weary travelers to join them in their noble venture to make this world the best it can be and to give up all those silly dreams of paradise in a world yet to come. The travelers who yield to their invitation soon forget how to roar.
As I see it, forgetting how to roar is forgetting how to be. I want nothing more than to be, simply to be who I am with others who know who they are, to live and to love, to give what is in me that’s alive and human and good, to receive from others what is alive and human and good in them, and to pool my talents and resources with others for good causes.
That longing keeps me in my strange spot. I realize it will never happen, that what I want the most will never be mine to enjoy in this world, not fully. So I resist the siren call to get busy restoring this weed patch of tension, failure, and disappointment to match whatever primordial memories of Eden still linger in my psyche.
There’s just no point to that project. It’s doomed. I must look ahead, not back; and I must keep moving through this world and not settle down in it. No matter what I do or others do to make this world a better place (and we should, of course, do all that we can; Camus’ doctor in The Plague should fight disease), it remains true that nothing in time, nothing on earth, and no creature will ever satisfy my desire simply to be.
And when I see that, when I enter the strange spot that’s always there, I become slowly aware that I want something more than to be. I want the One who always is, the One who alone can release me to be, to roar, to live, and to keep moving ahead till I get home.
Every now and then, the weariness of doing, when I long to be, catches up with me, and I stop doing for a moment. It’s then I realize I’m in a strange spot.
And I feel lonely. Where can one find soul-to-soul fellowship in the inhospitable country we all inhabit? Certainly not with the deceived travelers-turned-natives who are so out of touch with their souls that they feel at home in the world. Those folks become our mission field, not our companions.
Companionship is available only with fellow travelers who embrace their emptiness as normal, as a sign of health, as evidence that they are in touch with their true nature and with the destiny God has prepared for them. Only travelers are free to live in this world but not for this world, and still to do all they can to make this world a better place while they live here without ceasing to be.
I presume most readers of Conversations journal will relate to this “strange spot” idea. We’re actually aware of our not-at-homeness; we want to experience whatever taste of at-homeness is available now by awakening to the presence of God around us and in us; we accept our present sense of incompleteness as one source of energy to keep us traveling, and we want to be faithful to whatever we’re called to do in this world that expresses who we most deeply are.
So we walk together, gathering every once in a while around a coffee table for a good chat.
The topic I want now to bring to the table is the role of Scripture in clearing our vision to see the strange spot we’re in, and in renewing our energy to keep us moving through the dark nights of incomprehensible mystery. What’s it all about? Where are we heading? How do we get there? The Scriptures, in concert with the Holy Spirit and spiritual community, light up the path and urge us forward.
But they, the Scriptures, won’t come alive as light and energy until we stop trying so hard to adjust to life in this world. They will come alive when we decide to adjust to our journey through this world to the next one.
When I see the strange spot, I’m in, when I accept the reality that I came into a world with a core hunger that nothing in this world can satisfy, that there is no food on the shelves, then I am confronted with a choice.
Existential reality, what we naturally run from, confronts me with the necessity of existential choice, which we wrongly think we can avoid.
The choice is this: Deny my nature (I was built for a better world) and my destiny (thanks to Jesus, I’m heading there, just not right away) and adjust here as best I can by becoming a responsible doer according to the standards of the world. Or embrace both my nature and my destiny and live to be in the presence of God, not adjusting to this world as a citizen, but journeying through this world as a loving stranger who demands nothing, and discovering who I most truly am in the process by taking orders from no one but the God who knows me and wants to release me into this world to advance his kingdom until he returns to complete the job.
Once I align myself, my worldview, and my expectations with the Christian message that this world is but the shadowlands of my true home, I must face the difficult reality that, except in incomplete snatches, I will never feel what I was created to feel until I die. Only then will I fully live.
Adjusting to my journey through this world requires me to sit still and say, “I don’t belong here. But it’s here where I exist, and it’s here, at least for a while longer, where I must function.”
And there’s the problem. In this country, I’m expected to function, to meet expectations. In God’s country, I’m free to be, to function by freely expressing who I most truly am.
Adjusting to this world necessarily involves living by its values. Its supreme value is personal comfort, the subjective experience of fulfillment and happiness. And the best hope of realizing that value is to make something happen, to be somebody, to gain power over others through beauty or humor or intelligence or status, to prove one’s worth by achieving wealth or acclaim.
In this world, we must do. We cannot be. And as we strive for usefulness, we lose our being, our souls, our lives, even while we think we’re finding ourselves, even when our usefulness is expressed in doing good things, Christian things, moral things, like closing down porn shops and fighting abortion.
Listen to Thomas Merton direct us to a better way. In a wonderfully titled book, Contemplation in a World of Action, which I would subtitle Learning to Be in a World of Doers, Merton writes,
“The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness. In a certain sense, he is supposed to be “useless” because his mission is not to do this or that but to be a man of God. He does not live in order to exercise a specific function: his business is life itself.
This means that monasticism aims at the cultivation of a certain quality of life, a level of awareness, a depth of consciousness, an area of transcendence and adoration which are not usually possible in an active secular existence.”2
Sounds to me as if Merton’s talking about a strange spot, the reality of living in a culture that expects productivity while seeking a culture that values presence. I’d like to think it’s possible to seek that culture in our interior world and with a few friends (could they be the church?) while still living in a culture that rewards doing more than being.
But it’s tough. So many Christians, without knowing it, have opted for Choice 1; they’ve adjusted to life in this world. The great tragedy is that all they do in order to find meaning, to build families, to strengthen friendships, to advance worthy causes, and to relieve suffering are things they would do. They would do this far better, if they learned first to be, to live in the presence of God and adjust, not to this world, but to their journey through this world. That’s Choice 2. Augustine was right: people whose citizenship is in heaven make better citizens of earth.
Doing without first being produces fleshly fruit. But doing that flows out of being with God, and therefore becoming who you are, yields a bumper crop of spiritual fruit.
I think I’m just now realizing how easily I slide into Choice 1 (adjusting to this world by putting “doing good” over “being good”; valuing productivity over presence) and actually think it’s the way of Jesus. Christianity, as we so often practice it, turns us into those proverbial human doings rather than releasing us to become who we really are, human beings.
You’ve heard the urgent challenges. What are you doing for Jesus? To whom did you witness today? Are you practicing spiritual disciplines? Have you gotten on board with the project of spiritual formation?
I hear those voices and I want to scream, “Let me out! Deliver me from church! Get me off the spiritual treadmill! Where can I sign up to be a monk?”
But here’s the value of fully facing up to the strange spot we’re all in: I’m feeling the pull of “spiritual demands” less than before. I’m learning to distinguish the voice of earthbound citizens, even those who stand behind pulpits, from the voice of the Holy Spirit, who lives in my depths. What he’s telling me to do is to be, and then to do what my being longs to do. That’s freedom.
So I’m deciding for Choice 2, at least for today, while I’m recognizing the strange spot I’m in. I’m wanting to live as a nonconformist in a world of doers—no longer to regard requests for help as obligations I must meet, no longer to see e-mails, phone calls, and invitations to speak as creating responsibilities to which I must respond.
I’m beginning to taste the Spirit’s freedom, to claim my highest privilege of being with God on a long walk or a long sit in front of the fireplace. And I’m seeing how true being can lead to rich doing. Jesus lived his earthly life in full consistency with his being as a lover of God and a lover of people. And he produced. He lists the redemption of the human race among his achievements.
We need not fear that to place being above doing will make us less productive or less responsive to human need or less responsible. It will, rather, free us to produce spiritual fruit because the process of becoming who we are in Christ is spiritual formation. And spiritually forming people generate spiritual fruit, often when they seem to be doing the least.
I see a principle here: doing without being results in productivity that looks important now, but in the final analysis won’t amount to much. Doing what comes out of being yields eternal results that may look and feel trivial now and may frustrate a lot of people who want us to do this or that, but in the last day will be revealed as truly significant. What really matters besides hearing his “well done”?
All of that is to reach one conclusion: the only reasonable thing to do is to be. And here’s where the Scriptures come in. (I’m finally getting to the point.)
Spiritual disciplines have their indispensable place. Spiritual direction is essential. Spiritual community is the soil where spiritual growth best happens. But only the Scriptures provide a sure word from God. Only the Scriptures reveal the “Thou” who lets me be the “I” that I long to be.
And only the Scriptures convince me of my true nature and destiny with enough power to help me resist Choice 1—adjust to the world—and decide instead for Choice 2—adjust to my journey through the world.
I’m not at all convinced that most Christians—especially more conservative ones like me who talk fondly about inerrancy and historico-grammatical exegesis—have found a way to study our Bibles that lets us simply be in the presence of God and recognize His authentic voice. For hundreds of years, we’ve been so caught up with technical matters we think help us master the text—as if God’s infinite speech could ever be mastered—that we’ve missed the soul-shaping power of the living Word.
And thoroughly modern Christians (I mean those who lean more toward the good parts of postmodern thinking) analyze culture, attend to worldwide need, assess levels of satisfaction and disillusionment, then go to the Bible so consumed by the failure of old-fashioned Christianity that they find in the Bible a distorted message that suits their culture-driven agendas.
Both approaches to the Bible are spiritually deforming. Neither brings us under the Bible with the naïve availability to the Spirit that only profound humility and dependence allow. Neither lets us come to the text with the prayer, “May it be the ‘real I’ who comes, and may it be the ‘real Thou’ I hear.”
Above all else, Bible reading is a unique opportunity to be with God, to do nothing but enjoy a conversation with the Trinity, where the Spirit speaks about Jesus, who reveals the Father, who tells us to listen to the Spirit, who speaks about Jesus, who reveals the Father . . .
But how does this happen?
When I open my Bible with awareness of my strange spot, I can feel within me a desperate desire to know God, to hear God, to become the real me that he created then redeemed, so that I can better resist the siren call to settle down in this world and head more faithfully toward the next.
With that longing burning within me, I find myself asking two fundamental questions of the text:
Question 1: I wonder what’s on God’s mind right now. He sees my circumstances, my failures, my dreams. What’s his perspective on everything he sees?
Question 2: What is going on in me right now?
What’s God seeing? Where am I obsessed more with God and what’s on his mind and in his heart, and where am I obsessed more with myself and how I can transform my present reality into a slightly more comfortable place for me to enjoy? (Does the pastor want to see his church grow numerically to advance God’s kingdom or his own?)
Those two questions, more than any other interpretive approach I’ve tried, put me in line to experience the spiritually forming power of the Spirit in the Word.
When I taught counseling in seminary, I devoted a major section of one course to “hermeneutics for counselors.” I remember saying something like this to my students:
If you don’t know what’s on God’s mind, if you can’t see at least a little of what he sees in your heart and in the hearts of your counselees, and if you can’t discern what he’s saying to both of you right in the middle of your conversation, you cannot rightfully call yourself a biblical counselor.
We don’t know God’s mind or see into the human soul or hear God speaking to people only in silence and solitude. We know and see and hear primarily as we immerse ourselves in the sixty-six books that God chose to uniquely inspire a variety of people to write.
I assume God wants all of us to see our lives here as a journey through a world that is not home toward a world that is home. So I assume he wrote the Bible to guide us along the way. I am eager to know how I’m to be in God’s presence as a person with desires only he can satisfy, while I live in a world that promises to satisfy me if I do good things, but never does. What am I to do with the emptiness I feel, the loneliness, with my failures along the way, with the discouragement and disappointments that are inevitable?
I’ve concluded that my only authoritative source for answers is the Bible because it’s the only source of wisdom I can trust as coming reliably from God. But how am I supposed to read it?
Let me sketch the outline of a pretty simple approach to biblical interpretation that aims at hearing God calling me into his presence and then telling me how to live while I’m still here, away from home. I first developed this approach twenty-five years ago. I still like it today. Here it is.
First, distinguish between “linear exegesis” and “pathway exegesis.” Don’t let the “single sense” principle (every text has but one meaning) narrow you so much that you look for the concise proposition that reduces the text to manageable proportions. Don’t look for the thin straight line on which the entire meaning of the text can be found. If you do, you’ll become a scientist studying data, and you’ll cease to be a person seeking God.
Visualize the text as a pathway, a highway of meaning, certainly with boundaries supplied by grammar, local culture, etymology, context, and authorial intent—getting out of the Bible what God put in it does require some work and serious study. But see the text as full of riches to be mined with the playfulness of a sacred imagination.
Remember you’re reading a blessing from your Father, a love letter from your Husband, and you’re hearing both in the poetry and music of the Spirit’s rhythm. You are a student in a classroom, but more, far more, you’re a friend joining a conversation. God is speaking. And he invites us to respond, to enter the dialogue.
How awful to read the Bible the way we read a phone book or a repair manual. The Bible is so much more than information to learn and apply. It’s an opportunity for a conversation with God. You can’t read the Bible as it was meant to be read without praying at the same time. True prayer is a conversation that puts us in line to experience God.
Then, with pathway exegesis opening the door to “boundaried” imagination (which feels free because it is), ask the two questions I already mentioned. Let me express them in a slightly different way.
Question 1: As I read the text, what question(s) is God bothering to answer? I’m too dull, too out of touch with unseen reality; his ways are too far above mine for me to know which questions I should be asking in the middle of my present circumstances. I see it as a priority in reading my Bible to remain open to a paradigm shift, to a new way of looking at things.
For example, if my teen is rebelling, I think God should answer the question, What can I do to straighten him out? As long as I’m asking that question, I will have absolutely no interest in studying Obadiah or reading Acts. I’ll put my Bible down and run to the bookstore for practical help, real help, from a human author.
But when I realize that God answers the question he wants me to ask, then I pick up my Bible. And I see him answering a better question, such as how I could draw on God’s resources to reveal Christ to my teen with no primary agenda other than to bring God pleasure, and to remain centered and whole in God no matter how my teen responds, even if he ends up in jail or commits suicide. That’s a paradigm shift. The Bible causes it, and it spiritually forms me.
Then I ask Question 2: What questions does life, when I face it honestly, require me to ask? And I come up with lots of them, but they all center on how I’m to adjust to my journey through this world to the next, not on how to adjust to this world.
My younger daughter-in-law just suffered a miscarriage. I love her. I love my son. I grieve for them both. How can I best be with them in a way that strengthens their faith or, even if it doesn’t, will still please God? With that question in my mind, I read through the first five chapters of Joshua last night.
I came away quieted by my desire to grab nothing that belongs to God. Achan’s sin served as a negative model. I felt more relaxed, more centered, more hopeful as I spoke with them both.
“Strange spot” hermeneutics: my term for an approach to Bible study that is helping with my spiritual formation. It centers on one big assumption: God wrote the book to answer the one question that contains all legitimate questions. And that one question is this: How can I (God) get sinful people cleaned up and ready for the party?
In that question are embedded a thousand others. How can God put the rhythm of trinitarian relating into hearts that beat to the cacophony of self-obsession?
How can God empower me to enjoy him when my life falls apart, when my ministry becomes more of a hassle than a joy, when my emotions run out of control? How can God enable me to resist the cheap allure of fallen-planet pleasures and to live here as a pilgrim, intent on enjoying the companionship of fellow pilgrims and inviting others by the quality of my love to join us on the journey to a better land?
When I preoccupy myself with the one question that God, in his kindness and love, has bothered to answer, and when I see all the questions life is making me ask as related to the one question he’s already answered in the Bible, then my strange spot becomes a mountaintop. When I stand on it and look through the telescope of Scripture, I see the bright mountain that Dante saw. And I press on. I ask good questions. I find answers in God’s Word. And I move along in the process of spiritual formation.