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A Beautiful Soul, Part 1

 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works, that I know very well. Psalm 139:14

In 1970, singer/songwriter Don McLean wrote what would become the mega-hit song, Vincent. Millions of people, myself included, were obsessed with this poetic story set to music about the 19th Century artist, Vincent Van Gogh. The song is better known by its opening words, based the title of one of Van Gogh’s many paintings, Starry, Starry Night. The lyrics of the song blend the tragic life of this troubled artist with references to many of his works. After struggling with mental illness and poverty, Van Gogh committed suicide at age 37. The line from the song that haunted me then, and still does today, is this:

“And when no hope was left inside on that starry, starry night, you took your life as lovers often do;

But I could’ve told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”[1]

In the mid-1970s and 80s, I was a folk-singer playing at bars and coffee houses, and Vincent was one of the most requested songs in my repertoire. Many people had the lyrics memorized and would solemnly sing along. I believe there is a powerful truth lying beneath these words that many of us relate to in a very personal way. That powerful something is impossible to fully express in words, but it can be triggered by words, as McLean demonstrated. Once triggered, we know the experience in an unmistakable way. It has to do with the fact that each of us, like Van Gogh, has a soul that is too beautiful for this world. Many of us, in our most intimate and vulnerable moments, feel as though no one understands us. We feel mistreated, unappreciated, and alone – just as Van Gogh felt. When the people and circumstances in our world run roughshod over our tender essence, we feel we no longer belong. And we are right – that part of us is not of this world.

What was perhaps clear to Van Gogh, but becomes clouded over in the daily grind of our lives is that at our essence, we are a pure and beautiful soul. This applies to all of us, regardless of how inartistic we may believe ourselves to be. We enter this world as a fully developed soul in a minimally developed physical body. When our physical needs are satisfied, we are a wide-eyed sponge taking in the wonder and beauty of this mysterious, enticing, physical existence. It does not take long, however, to learn that this world, beautiful as it is, does not always reciprocate the love and wonder we attempt to bestow upon it. As we grow and mature, our physical being overshadows our spiritual nature in ways that can make our beautiful soul seem almost non-existent. We are protective of our precious essence, often unconsciously, because we know it is not of this world. Unfortunately, we become so protective as to almost shield it into obscurity. When we believe our beautiful soul may be wounded by this world, we double-down on our efforts to protect it. The abuse of drugs, alcohol, and other overly risky behaviors are often attempts at self-protection that dull the pain the world can inflict on our soft underbelly. Suicide is a tragic and far too common result of this inherently protective instinct.

Clearly, a balance between protection and expression is needed. By opening our beautiful soul to the world, all manner of awe-inspiring works are birthed, as witnessed by Van Gogh’s paintings, McLean’s song, well-prepared meals, and all the amazing works of life and art we enjoy. It is only when a person exposes his or her spiritual essence that an expression of the ethereal, unearthly beauty of the spiritual realm can be made manifest for us to see, feel, touch, taste, and smell. Unfortunately, the opening required for the soul leaves the person vulnerable. Part of the pain is the responsibility of those witnessing the soulful expression of another for not recognizing and appreciating the exposure required. Part of the responsibility rests upon the artist, too, in recognizing and accepting that a part of us really is too beautiful for this world. Finding effective strategies to cope with the tension is vital.

I will delve deeper into this discussion next week. For now, suffice it to say that repressing the expression of our beautiful souls is like praying with one eye open. We cannot become fully alive to our true nature without giving birth to physical expressions of our beautiful souls.

This is the 29th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Don McLean, Vincent. Universal Music Publishing Group, 1970.

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Bits and Bytes

 Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way. Proverbs 19:2

I took a computer programming class in college in the 1970’s,. The lone computer at the university was the size of a small house with a fraction of the computing power of our mobile phones today. The computer read our instructions with punch cards, which required entering one precise instruction, i.e., “Start with 10,” on a single card before going to the next precise order on a different card. Our final class project was to write a program so the computer would count down from 10 to 0 by ones. It required 80+ punch cards. The slightest mistake in punching or ordering the cards resulted in a failed project. It was tedious, mind-numbing, and unforgiving work.

Bits and bytes are the building blocks of computer language, then as now. A bit (binary digit) is a single data point, either 0 or 1. There are only two options for a bit – on or off. A byte is a grouping of 8 bits. In a computer’s binary byte code, writing 0, 1, 2 looks like this: 00000000, 00000001, 00000010.

Prior to computers, we had pen and paper, typewriters, and slide rules with which to write and compute. Clearly, computers have provided giant leaps forward in making nearly every aspect of our lives easier and more efficient. In order for a computer to work, however, our information must be converted to a digital format – bits and bytes. Computers operate on a completely dualistic system – something must either be right or wrong, black or white, good or evil, on or off. There is no gray area in a digital language. A bit either has an electrical charge or it doesn’t, and therein lies the problem. No matter how small the space between on and off, there is an in between with an infinite range of intermediate possibilities – possibilities where the spirit inhabits.

While I am far from suggesting a return to our pre-computer days, much has been lost in return for convenience and efficiency. I would term was has been lost as depth of experience. It wasn’t that long ago that even an untrained eye could distinguish between a digitized picture, i.e., a pictures taken on a cellphone (which converts the image into bits and bytes), and a picture taken with a good, film camera. The difference was in the depth of field,  color, and contrast. Digital pictures were convenient, but not very representative. Now, with enough pixels (bits and bytes), the untrained human eye cannot tell the difference between a digital and a film picture in most cases. Yet, the difference is there in the spaces the bits and bytes cannot capture.

The situation is similar with sound recordings. The music we hear on the most prevalent sound sources today, reproduce only a small sample of the original sound. The result is usually difficult for the untrained ear to distinguish. The convenience makes it worthwhile for most of us, however, myself included.

Here is my concern in this discussion: Are we becoming blind to the depth of experience we lose for the convenience we gain? Far from suggesting a return to slide rules and typewriters, are there areas where we can distinguish the difference in depth such that the losses do not outweigh the gains?  For example, having a digitized church service available on line is a convenience for shut-ins, but the experience is far less than being present in the sanctuary. Listening to a recording of a live musical performance makes the performance more accessible but is usually a poor substitute for actually being present for the performance. Reading a book about love is not the same as actually experiencing a loving relationship. Bits and bytes, like words and phrases, substitute for the depth of the actual experience. The field of Artificial Intelligence, exciting as it is, is still incapable of reading between the on or off options available to each bit upon which it depends.

When we text or email instead of speaking in person, we are essentially converting the spoken word into bits and bytes by losing all of the non-verbal context. In the same way, we sacrifice the depth of a hand-written note for the convenience of a text.

Again, my point is not that our new technologies should be dropped for the old. Rather, it is that we need to be discerning about when and in what situations we use which method. Will we lose something of value by taking the easier, more convenient path? Our important relationships, like our spiritual development, cannot be captured in nor reduced to bits and bytes.

This is the 28th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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A Den of Thieves

 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.’” Matthew 21:12-13

There are few examples recorded in the Gospels of Jesus getting angry. We develop a picture of him as mostly even-tempered. He displayed displeasure at people who were misleading others, under the guise of religion, about what was required for salvation. He was seemingly frustrated by how slow his disciples were to grasp his message at times. But the top prize for flying off the handle goes to what we refer to as Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple.” In the various Gospel accounts, he overturns tables and chairs, runs off the sacrificial animals, and, quoting from Isaiah, says they have transformed God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. In John’s account of the event[1], Jesus even weaves together a whip of cords to aid in the cleansing.

For the leaders of the temple, the business folks, and probably even for the people there to worship, Jesus’ actions were those of a crazed lunatic. The buying and selling of sacrifices and the changing of money was a normal part of the temple experience. Seemingly, no one but Jesus saw anything wrong with it. And that is exactly the trap we can find ourselves in even today – that we become comfortable with and accept without question the possible turning of our temples into dens of thieves. It becomes so commonplace, we don’t even notice until someone comes in, loses his or her temper, and starts throwing tables and chairs.

The concept of what constitutes a temple is worth reflecting upon. In Jesus’ day, the temple was in Jerusalem and was the center of the Jewish faith. Its innermost part, the Holy of Holies, was the residence of God. No one was allowed entry to the Inner Sanctum except the High Priest, and then only once a year. Today, we often consider the buildings in which we worship – our churches, synagogues, mosques, and other buildings – as temples. But the Bible goes much further, naming our bodies as temples of the Most High. For example, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”[2] The temple that Jesus “cleansed” can be seen as a metaphor for us. In what ways have we turned our personal “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves?” In what ways have we blocked the path to our own Inner Sanctum?

Perhaps what Jesus railed against in the temple was the outrageous prices being charged and not just that commerce was being conducted. After all, his accusation was that the sellers were “robbers.” The people were a captive audience in the temple, similar to us in airports today. We pay higher prices because it is more convenient than leaving the area to pay a more reasonable price. Deeper than that, however, one of Jesus’ primary teachings was that the entire sacrificial system – that something else must die to cleanse us of our sins, or that we can buy our salvation – was a sham. God’s love and forgiveness is given freely, and all we must do is receive it. Not only do we not need to earn or pay for it, we cannot earn or pay for it. God’s love is a gift. In that sense, the buyers and sellers were simply expensive and unnecessary distractions from the real point of being in the temple – to be in God’s presence. There should be no cover charge for entry. Everything else simply draws our attention away from the primary purpose. And the leaders of the temple, then and now, smiled because the distractions often accrued to their benefit.

Even so, what about our personal temple? What obstacles prevent our bodies from being houses of prayer? Where are our distractions? Where are we wasting resources and energy to try to earn the gift God freely gives to us? What would Jesus throw out of our temple if he were to enter? Perhaps when we place conditions on the giving of our love and acceptance to others – the very love and acceptance lavished so freely on us – we become more of a den of thieves than a house of prayer. Loving attention is always life-giving and should always be free, whether given or received. Love is not a product for the marketplace.

This is the 27th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] John 2:13-16.

[2] 1 Corinthians 3:16.

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