Are We Alone?

Genius by Stephen Hawking was on the tube last night. It's a PBS broadcast, a television show which poses a scientific problem and teaches average people to "think like geniuses" in order to solve it. Last night's episode explored the universe, asked the question that niggles at the back of all our minds--are we alone.

Hawking and the participants began with an examination of the immensity of our galaxy, the 100 billion stars that comprise it. Comparing our sun to a grain of sand (can you imagine it on your fingertip?), the participants created a stunning visual representation of the number of starts in the Milky Way, dumping ton after ton of sand on the ground. The pile spread out, rose to a height of over eight feet, maybe ten. Grain after grain represented a star; star after star represented the possibility of life; possibility after possibility expanded my imagination (in common parlance, I might say "blew my mind"). And in that moment, I felt a wash of emotion. I felt grateful.

There are, perhaps, infinite worlds in the universe, each world comprised of infinite number of atomic particles. Time--isn't it infinite, too? Isn't it true that my own atomic particles could have been spread across the galaxy, could have existed as a moon orbiting Uranus? Couldn't my particles have existed millions of years ago, millions of years in the future? The building blocks of my life--what if they had been space dust? Couldn't yours have been? Sure, this is all speculation and conjecture, but I suppose that in the universe of possibilities, these possibilities are among them. And despite all of these possibilities--the infinite, boundless, inanimate possibilities--I am here, typing on this keyboard. You are here, reading the words. We are here together, two collections of innumerable possibilities sharing this space and time.

Welcome Time Travelers.

When I consider the immensity of the galaxy, the billions of stars comprising the Milky Way (not to mention the 100 billion trillion stars in the universe), when I consider the boundlessness of time (prehistoric and historic) it's unfathomable that I was given this passage on Earth. It's astounding that I have a lover, four children, a job, and two dogs. Is it possible that I'm working on a meager retirement? How is it that I'm paying down a kind, if not modest, house? How do my lungs work, work, work without thinking. How does my heart pump, it's rhythm in my ears when my head hits the pillow? How do I sleep, dream, wake?  How am I now, both volitional and autonomic?

Surely there is a God.

I have a life of tiny blessings. I live among billions of others with their own tiny blessings. (Aren't these blessings nothing more than possibilities existing by divine providence. Is there any other explanation?) We are small specks, traveling on a small speck, around a speck of a star, in a speck of a solar system, during a speck of time. Everything here--life, time, humanity, the ability to possess and dispose of possessions--is a speck-worthy miracle.

Be grateful for this miracle. Make love. (Do not be afraid of this pleasure.) Hug your children. Pet your dog. Buy ice cream. Star gaze. People watch. Self examine. Love the tiny explosions that animate you--explosions of love, happiness, anger, and sorrow. Look at your watch. Count ten seconds. Know that each second is another tiny miracle. Bless the divine. Search for it, even among the possibilities.

Live to the end.

Sing your doxologies.

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*Photo by Lwp Kommunikáció, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Recovery Room: Writing My Identity

This year, I'll be releasing my first book, Coming Clean (Zondervan, 2015), a book about recovery and the abiding presence of God. In conjunction with Coming Clean, I'm hosting various writers, pastors, and counselors as they step into the Recovery Room. Here, we’ll discuss the things that supplant inner sobriety and connectedness to an abiding God. Couldn’t we all use a little recovery from something?  Today, welcome Jennifer Camp. Jennifer is the founder of  Gather Ministries, and the author of Loop: What Women Need to Know. You can connect with her on Twitter, or visit her blog, JenniferJCamp.com. Welcome Jennifer Camp to the Recovery Room!

*****

Writing My Idenitiy

I flip through the pages of the catalogue I get in yesterday’s mail. The girl on the cover looks cute, with her long brown hair flowing down past her shoulders and her blunt, straight bangs. She grips a “I got you Babe” porcelain coffee cup with a big red heart stamped on the front. She smiles down at a stout bulldog with droopy cheeks and pink, wet tongue and has the word “Marlowe” sharpied on her arm. I study her outfit, her hairstyle, her expression and wonder if I could pull this look off, too.

It’s not simply her plaid flannel shirt in bright patchwork that draws me, or the way she perches jauntily on top of the brown, antique desk. She is advertising an identity of strength. She appears indifferent to the camera, engrossed and happy in the moment, confident to be who she is. Her appearance is actually a bit of a mess: her hair is disheveled, her jeans are torn, and there are crumpled papers littering the desk where she sits. But she seems to not care about the disarray one bit. She just sits there, gazing at her drooling bulldog and smiling. And, even though this is a secular advertisement for women’s clothing, I am captivated by something else, something deeper. Is there truly joy and freedom to be had when we embrace God’s invitation to be exactly who He invites us to be?

I can hear you say it. Because my heart says it too: “But I’m such a mess! How can He love me, how can He like me, like this?” I am nothing like the woman on the cover of the catalog. But, what if He loves us nonetheless? It feels kind of crazy-awesome, doesn’t it, to imagine that, in our mess, despite all of our mistakes and wounds and wishes-I-were-different, that He is smiling, sticking close, wanting us to believe that not only does He love us, but He actually likes us too.

God likes me?

I sit across the room from my friend listening to the musician Misty Edwards sing hope through the speaker. My friend and I are both startled when we hear God’s words for us, through her song: “I knew what I was getting into when I called you. I knew what I was getting into, and I still said your name. And I am not shocked by your brokenness. I knew what I was getting into, and I still like you.” He likes me. He likes me. It is that word “like” that makes my heart beat fast. Why am I so surprised by this reminder—that God likes the very girl He made? Do you ever wonder about this, too?

It is somehow easier for me to believe that God loves me than it is for me to accept His liking me and wanting to be with me. And do you know why I struggle here? It’s because I have trouble surrendering to the truth that my being liked is not about whether or not I deserve it. Despite all my sin, despite all my brokenness, His liking me pushes up against my wanting to earn His favor. And I can’t. He loves me and He likes me because I am whom He has created and He sees the end of me—all of me, in my fullness, with Him.

Years ago, in college, I came home from class to find a watercolor painting pushed under my dorm room door. On a single sheet of eight and a half by eleven white were painted waves of green and blue and these words brushed on carefully, by my friend’s loving hand: “But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, O Jennifer, he who formed you, O Jennifer: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine’” (Isaiah 43:1). I grasped the sheet with trembling fingers and could hardly believe what I was reading. I was desperate to believe He sees me; I was aching to believe I am enough, I am delighted in and adored and redeemed. I struggled to imagine God loving me, so beautifully, so personally, just as I am.

This was the beginning of my heart being open to God reaching out to me, His girl, His daughter. This was the beginning of my armor of protection being softened, exposing layers of wounds and pain God wanted to reveal and heal in me.

Knowing—believing—that we are pursued and loved, despite our sin, is the place where the pursuit of our heart begins.

I have heard the Father’s words of love whisper directly to my heart, the message almost too good to believe:

You are not made to live without Me, child. You are not made to live life on your own, trying to be strong. You are not more likable based on your efforts. I like you because I have made you. I like what I am made. And I love you because that is who I am.

He has made me. He has made you. No matter what we do or what we have done, this Father of ours pursues us with a love that does not change. That is why we are saved. Paul writes the church at Ephesus “We are saved by grace through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

I hear Paul’s words and something in me both aches to believe it and rebels against it, too—even though I know what He says is true. My being saved by Christ’s sacrifice reveals God’s ultimate love for me, and there is nothing I can do to make Him love me more or less. Yet it can be difficult to believe that God likes us when we continue to feel that there is something we can do to try to earn His affection, or to somehow measure up.

I can easily care a lot about what you think of me.

I want to be the girl on the catalog. If I feel sure of myself, in who I am, perhaps this will help me believe God likes me. Maybe this will be what it takes for me to believe others might like me for who I am, too. I can’t help wanting to look like I have it together, even when I really don’t. An unexpected knock on my door prompts me to take quick inventory. Is the house picked up or a mess? Are the kids’ shoes still piled up by the door? Are the breakfast dishes in the sink? Did I tidy up the bathroom after the get-to-school-quick rush? Do my yoga pants have dog hair on them? Do I have makeup on? Is my ponytail straight? Before I’ve pulled open the door to greet you, I have graded myself on how put together I look.

The Bible tells me not too worry more about my outside appearance—that it is the condition of my heart that counts. “Charm can fool you. Beauty fades. But a woman who has respect for the Lord should be praised” (Proverbs 31:30, NIV). But when I don’t know the truth of who I am, in God’s eyes, what other people think of me is what I care about most. We all want—and need—to feel loved. And we will do what it takes to get it.

The problem is that there is a cost to striving to be loved by the world rather than abiding in the love of God. Our heart breaks a bit when our lives are spent trying to prove our worth.

I’ve lived this. This is my confession.

*****

Jennifer Camp

Jennifer Camp is the co-founder of Gather Ministries and author of Loop: What Women Need to Know, grew up in the middle of an almond orchard in Northern California and now lives in the busy San Francisco Bay area with her husband, Justin, and their three kids. Connect with Jennifer on her blog, jenniferjcamp.com, where she wrestles with God about worship, imagination, and faith and loves to get to know women eager to hear God’s whispers to their heart.

***COMING CLEAN ANNOUNCEMENT***

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An Unimaginative Lot

I.

Are we an unimaginative lot?

Yesterday I shared lunch with a good friend. He is a creative fellow, a man with a third eye who sees beyond the is of the mundane everyday and straight into the beautiful heart of life. Sitting on a bench in a crowded park, he can identify the decisive moment. He can capture the moment with his camera, slap a frame over it, and make you want to spend a week's salary to call it yours. He is a fine photographer. It is his gift.

We sat in the diner and he asked me how I knew that God is good. I was stumped, but not stumped in the "if God is so good, what about the starving Indian children," kind of way. Instead, I was definitionally stumped. What is "good," anyway? Isn't good, after all, subjective? Isn't it notional? Isn't "good" a subjective measuring stick?

For the first time, I thought about the term "good." For the first time, I wondered whether we all mean the same thing by it.

II.

"'Good' is a known quotient, a thing around which entire catechisms have been written," you might say.

Really?

I've been considering my dear brothers in the developing world. Would the day-laborer in Rajpur call a warm cot and a loaf of bread good? Most certainly he would. Would we in the developed world call a warm cot and a loaf of bread good? Perhaps not. Be honest. Don't you wan't a little better than mere good?

Good is a matter of degrees, see.

"Didn't Jesus call God good?" you ask. Yes, he did. But even then, he didn't provide us any definition of "good," except to say that God was it.

"Seth, do you believe God is good?" you ask. Yes, I do. But does good to me mean the same thing that it does to you?

III.

I wonder whether we're asking the right questions. It seems for all of our creativity, we're still mired down in vague, un-nuanced visions of God, and so many are still coming up empty. Perhaps it's difficult to see God as good when life takes a hard left turn. How do we know God is good then? What is good? I wonder instead, whether we ought to be asking a more imaginative, more creative question. I wonder whether we ought to be asking whether God is, in fact, God, and if so, whether he is in us, and for us, and through us. If we come away with the eternal yes to these questions, maybe we should just leave it at that and live in gratefulness.

This year, I'm moving on, wrestling less with the questions of God's goodness and more with the mystery of God's Godness. I'm trying less to define all of His undefinable contours and accepting, instead, the reality of his indwelling.

Where does that leave me?

Perhaps it leaves me with a God who is bigger than my smallish notions of an acceptable Him.

IV.

Language Limited

Consider recovery from language limited, from the constraints of ever and always, from dualities of tender or capricious. Consider throwing off the yoke of subjectivity or objective knowing; instead, reach for the mystery of the air around you of everything that is eternal, un-understandably yours.

*****

Photo by Capt' Gorgeous.

The Goodness of God (A Song)

I was called a man of faith not too long ago, and it seemed ironic to me in the moment. Lately, faith is hard. When I was a child, I recited my mass responses in a sing-song manner--"I believe that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." In those days, it seemed little more than a repetitive practice perpetuated by the Sisters of Mercy, nuns who struck the fear of Christ in the fourth-grade hearts of the non-participating. Some might say this kind of rote memorization is little more than manipulative programming; others might say it is training up a child in the way he should go. I'm not sure about either of those sentiments, but I have come to find the words of Psalm 27 in the granaries of my memory lately, and they have been a comfort.

It's been a long five months. We've been through the ups and downs of raising a sick child and there are days when I go back to the Psalms to remind myself of the goodness of God. It is a constant effort to recall the truth, to speak it to myself even when the easiest notions of God trend more toward agnosticism or deism. It's a constant effort to remember the power of the Gospel--that Christ is all-sufficient.

I've written this piece as a reminder. It's simple, much the way my faith feels these days.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MyQnIfyzYY&w=420&h=315]

*Amber is sharing a brief Titus update at her site for those of you who are following along.