My Inner Monk

My recent sabbatical sIMG_1845tay at a monastery was enlightening but not particularly easy. It ended up far more challenging then I ever imagined – especially the initial 48 hours. I’m not seeking pity for having to endure such a unique experience. For many, the thought of spending extended time unplugged, isolated, and silent with nothing more to do than focus on God and one’s own spiritual life while surrounded by Trappist monks is quite appealing. It was for me too, which is exactly why I chose to do it in the first place. I certainly don’t regret it, mind you – but not to admit how hard it was would be less than honest.

On arrival day, anticipation grew as I drove slowly onto monastery property. I turned the corner of a tree-lined driveway and I could see it off in the distance. Situated well out of view of cars traveling the local country road stood a pallid medieval looking structure. The Abbey church and cloister rose high above the surrounding trees. It was a massively impressive four-sided four-storied edifice with a significantly sized retreat house attached by long corridors to the north side of the sanctuary. The Abbey’s architectural design conveyed the monastic desire for directness in the clarity of line and uncluttered veneer. It was a Gothic structure built by the monks themselves constructed mainly of concrete with touches of brick, stone and unfinished wood. Its simplicity was oddly beautiful.

The romanticism of it all came to an abrupt halt once I walked through the door of the monastery retreat house where I’d be lodging. Immediately, an institutional type smell hit me square in the face. The interior bouquet was easily recognizable. IMG_1841It carried a strong upfront nose of mothballs and old people with a hint of Lysol and a subtle finish of musty cellar. Not very inviting. Yet soon enough, I would come to realize it was simply the odor of unpretentiousness – and mothballs.

It was late afternoon when I finished unpacking. I had just enough time to conduct a brief exploration of the property before supper. The travel day was long and I was hungry. “Wonder what they serve people at monasteries?” I asked myself while walking the friary. It wasn’t long before I learned how monks, at least the ones I was staying with, rarely eat meat. Soup and salad is the dietary mainstay.

Award winning author Kathleen Norris, wrote a memoir about her monastery experience and summarized it well, “To eat in a monastery refectory is an exercise in humility; daily, one is reminded to put communal necessity before individual preference. While consumer culture speaks only to preferences, treating even whims as needs to be granted (and the sooner the better), monastics sense that this pandering to delusions of self-importance weakens the true self, and diminishes our ability to distinguish desires from needs. It’s a price they’re not willing to pay.” [The Cloister Walk] Translation? The food is modestly bland and unashamedly average but nutritious enough to live on. An obese monk is an ecclesiastical anomaly.

My time at the monastery was intended to be a silent retreat. And for the most part, I kept my mouth shut. But contrary to popular belief, Trappist monks do not take an oath of silence. They do in fact talk – just not very often. As it was explained to me, “When you’re talking, you’re not listening.” They are much more inclined to chant – which is essentially singing passages of Scripture, mostly from the Psalms.


Five times a day the monks gather in their gothic-like sanctuary with its high vaulted ceiling, arched pointed pillars and stained-glass windows that provide the primary source of light for the sacred space. Their prayer and worship times or “divine offices” start early in the morning and continue periodically through evening. Make no mistake, during the day, monks work at the monastery – farming, baking, and managing the Abbey store and retreat house. Everyone has a specific job to do. However, it’s not as if their work life is interrupted by times of worship but rather their worship life is interrupted by work. For the monks, God comes first, middle and last – a little work happens in between. That is literally how the day is scheduled.

The monks gather for Vigils at 4:00am before the sun rises. By way of prayer, singing, reading and chanting, the monks say “good morning” to God. Lauds and Mass are at 7:00am. Midday prayer begins at 12:15pm. Vespers are at 5:20pm [also known as evening prayer or evensong]. Compline is at 7:30pm followed by The Grand Silence at 8:00pm continuing to 4:00am. Between times spent in the sanctuary, monks eat, work, and sleep. They have personal time available between Vespers and Compline, but some of that time is consumed by eating soup.

During my stay, I tried to attend all of the daily offices – but confess to missing a couple Vigils. Not used to rising at 3:45 am, I rolled over at the sound of my alarm convinced even God was thinking, “Guys, it’s too early for all the chanting. Go back to bed.”

No question, my favorite office was Compline [pronounced, complin]. It represented the end of a full day. With all their work “completed” it was time for the monks to thank God for his grace and goodness – basically saying “goodnight Lord.” During Compline, the abbey sanctuary is completely dark with the exception of three candles burning up front behind the high altar. The candles illuminate an ornate box of some kind sitting atop a horizontal slab of snowy marble roughly the size of a dorm room refrigerator – only a tad bigger and much cleaner.

As bells ring in the distance, one by one through the darkness, monks appear seemingly out of nowhere. Like ghostly specters in flowing robes and hoods, they enter and bow toward the altar then glide to appointed places and stand facing the front. Each evening, I couldn’t help but feel I’d been hurled back into a 15th century European cathedral or an Umberto Eco or Ken Follett novel. I loved it. There was something hauntingly beautiful, reverent, and sacred to it all.

Compline is repeated with the same psalms and canticles every evening, so monks know it by heart and can sing it in the dark. For approximately 25 minutes, they sing hymns, recite biblical texts, and chant – the sound of their voices echoing throughout the massive stone structure. Whenever the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are mentioned in the liturgy, the monks bow in veneration.

At the end of Compline, bells ring and the monks silently form a line as the Abbot [head monk] makes his way to the front near the high altar and turns to face his brothers. One at a time, they all approach their leader, bowing before him while he waves his aspergillum dispensing a generous dose of holy water on their heads as the final blessing of the day. I was invited to join the line and receive the Abbot’s blessing each night as well. Just for the record, the water used in the aspergillum is not only holy – it is also quite cold. Given the frigid temperature of the abbey church [I wore my coat at every service, the monks wore hoods with some also donning black pullover hats], I may have seen it as an even more blessed experienced if the Abbot heated the water a little. But for the monks, loving and serving God is not about personal preference or comfort. Once blessed, the monks retire to bed. It is 8:00 o’clock at night.

IMG_1869Early in the week, I met a monk near the Abbey store. His name was Brother Michael. After chatting a couple minutes, he asked if I’d like to have breakfast with him. Somewhat surprised [not that monks eat breakfast, but that they would mingle with the likes of me], I said “yes.”

In a small private dining area where speaking is permitted, Brother Michael and I talked about life, God and monasticism. I learned that monks are normal men who simply desire above all else, to know, love and listen to God. After 20 years of monastic living, Michael exuded an inner peacefulness and humility that was captivating. He asserted that we all have “a monk within.” We all have a longing for God and a need for five things in life; prayer, silence, solitude, community and work. It was a delightful discussion that ended too quickly.

Brother Michael invited me to return to the abbey as a “guest monk” and spend a month participating more fully in the monastic experience. I’m not sure that will happen but I’ll never forget him or the week I spent in silence and solitude. As I continue to reflect on it all, here are a couple things I learned about…

NOISE – In a loud and chaotic culture, silence and solitude are difficult to pursue even for a short period of time. It took at least two days at the monastery before all the noise in my head began to quiet down and at least three days before I started being comfortable in the silence. I found the monk adage true, “If you’re talking, you are not listening.”

GRACE – For monks, the monastic rules that govern their daily lives are not seen as burdensome but in many respects – freeing. The rhythm of spirituality the rules help create allows them to keep their focus on God.  I suppose it’s hard for us on the outside to understand, but in many ways for monks, the rules are viewed and experienced as a measure of divine grace.  This fact reminds me that God’s grace comes to us in many different forms.

RHYTHM – I also realize my personal life lacks a spiritual rhythm in which God is acknowledged, praised, and listened to throughout the day. I want to work on establishing such a rhythm – not that I want to be a monk, but I’d love to experience a more God-centered, simple, disciplined, and contemplative life. The words of the psalmist are meant not just for monks, but also for me, “Be still and know that I am God.”


Puppies, Millennials and Intellectualism

In his book, Generational IQ, Haydn Shaw suggests that while Millennials [born in the early 1980s – 2000] tend to get a bad rap, the fact is they are thinkers. He explains…generational IQ

Because Gen Xers grew up on that hinge of personal truth without absolute truth, they focused more on asking if Christianity works than on wondering about the intellectual conversations of the previous two generations. But intellectual questions are back.

One of the biggest challenges we have in responding is that Millennials are asking questions again. Generation Why? wants to know, “How do we know that?” Three of the six reasons Barna Group gives in their book Churchless for why Millennial Christians are leaving their churches are intellectual: Christianity is too shallow…” You don’t have to be an expert…but you do need to understand that these questions are the big ones, and you need a go-to person when you don’t know what to say. All four of my Millennial kids have wanted to talk through these questions and many more. Whether inside the church or outside, we have to be willing to listen to those questions.

When reading Shaw’s book I had a good sense he was right. In our church we’ve seen an increased number of Millennials regularly attending – not necessarily looking for someone to give them all the answers, but at least someone who is willing to engage in the hard intellectual questions plaguing them.

millennial-tkoAt the dog park today I met such a Millennial. Her name is Rachel. She is a twenty eight year old university graduate, who lives with her boyfriend and has the most adorable Husky pup. As our dogs played, we started talking first about dogs, then weather and eventually she asked what I do for a living. Rather shyly I admitted being a pastor – a response that tends to be a conversation killer. But not in this case. Rachel was fascinated. “Really?” she said. “I’m looking for a church to attend.” Completely surprised, I asked her why? She went on to share how she used to go to church with her mom every now and then but lost interest. After doing nothing “religious” while in college, she now periodically attends “Saint something or other’s” church with her boyfriend. However in her words, the church “Doesn’t really explain anything they’re doing. We just stand up and sit down several times – go through some meaningless rituals and go home. I don’t get it.” Then Rachel said, “I don’t like it. I don’t want empty ritual. I’m looking for something meaningful. I want go where someone will talk to me about life and interact with the questions I have about it – you know? I want someone to engage in meaningful discussion with topics that matter and make sense.”

Before I was able to ask Rachel a few questions another dog rudely interrupted our discussion. Before leaving, however, Rachel turned and asked where I was a pastor and took down some information. Will I ever see Rachel at church? My guess is I’ve got a better chance at the dog park but one never knows.

Here’s the lesson for me.  As Hydn Shaw puts it, “Intellectual questions are back.” It seems young people today will engage with a church that is offering thoughtful answers to deep questions. Superficial pop-culture easy answer Christianity is not viewed as authentic or at all relevant. But for Millennials – a willingness to wrestle with questions on the origin of life, science, God, suffering, religion, atheism, sex, morality and justice is very appealing. They are spiritually open and intellectually inquisitive – at least that’s true of the young woman I met today and many other 20-somethings I know. Therefore I believe if we in the church prove our willingness to engage in honest discussions on meaningful topics with this bright generation, many Millennials will gladly return the church – more importantly to the God who loves them.


“Holy Smoke”

Like me, when taken by surprise you’ve probably used the phrase “holy smoke” to express yourself. Ever wonder where that colloquialism comes from?

The Oxford English Dictionary reports the earliest printed use of “holy smoke” is found in Of The Epiphany, a 1627 poem by Sir J. Beaumont who writes, “Who lift to God for us the holy smoke of fervent prayers.” In that work, Beaumont uses the phrase to describe the burning of incense. It’s not until 1892, however, that the phrase finds service as an exclamation or mild expletive.

Recently, someone utilized the phrase when inquiring about Sunday morning worship services that utilize what appears to be “holy smoke.” So in an effort to clear up any fogginess [pun intended], I shared these few things about it.

To alleviate concern – the machine used is called a Hazer, which actually does not produce smoke.  Instead, the haze created is a water vapor with an added protein that allows it to hang and linger for a while in the air.  There are no chemicals involved.  The vapor can increase humidity levels and if used in excess, may affect some people. And so, the goal is to use the machine in a safe, subtle yet creatively effective way.

Why use a hazer? Good question. The full answer may surprise some people.  Obviously, the haze helps create a more dramatic and artistic environment for the worship experience and is commonly used by churches around the country.  But, for me, there is more to it.  The haze serves a symbolic purpose as well. Holy smoke 2

Since the days of the early church, the “holy smoke” of incense has played a symbolic role in Christian worship with the practice continuing today in a number of Christian traditions [as I experienced recently while in the Middle East].  In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John has a vision of heaven and a kind of heavenly liturgy where the 24 elders worship Jesus, the lamb that was slain. The elders hold harps and golden bowls filled with incense, “which are the prayers of the saints” i.e., the prayers of God’s people. In Revelation 8 an angel holding a gold censer is given a great quantity of incense to offer and the smoke of the incense goes up before God with the prayers.

But the smoke of incense has an even longer history of use among God’s people.  All the way back to the days of the tabernacle and temple, incense was used as a symbol of the worship and prayers of God’s people.  In fact, the use of smoking incense was God’s idea.

In the book of Exodus, God commands Moses to make an altar of acacia wood for the burning of incense in the tabernacle. The “altar of incense” was to be placed near the altar of sacrifice. From that day forward, the incense was burned and filled the space with sweet smoke. It was the priests’ responsibility to check and stoke the altar twice every day [morning and evening].

Within the tabernacle and temple, the sweet smell of incense and its rising smoke served as a natural symbol – an image of something pleasing to God. The climbing smoke represented a person’s or people’s prayers rising up before God.  It’s with this imagery in mind, David writes, “Lord, let my prayer come like incense before you.” [Psalm 141:2] In the New Testament, it was while tending the altar of incense that the priest Zechariah encountered an angel of the Lord who predicted the birth of his son John.Holy smoke 1

All this to say, while there may be some who don’t necessarily care for the hazing effect in worship, it’s important to note such usage shouldn’t be labeled as mere worldly theatrics given the use of incense and its smoke was originally God’s idea and command. Although the use of incense is no longer required in worship – its spiritual symbolism remains.  I heard someone say, “I’m not sure there should ever be smoke in the house of God.”  According to Scripture, God seems to differ in opinion.

So, yes, the use of haze during worship does create a dramatic and theatrical effect in any auditorium space – it also serves as a reintroduction of ancient biblical symbolism – of the worship and prayers of God’s people rising to heaven. In my opinion, it adds to and helps make worship a more multi-sensory experience. And although it certainly is not the “holy smoke” of incense, we might refer to it as the “holy haze” of prayer and worship.


The Underlying Threat

With the Supreme Court ruling on marriage, social media has blown up with people from both sides of the political isle expressing their opinions. Many in the Christian community have jumped into the cultural fray with commentaries that range from thoughtful, empathetic and seasoned with grace to those that are — well, not so much.

moral relativism

I’m compelled to note that for a lot of people, the outcome of the SCOTUS judgment is a matter of “winners” and “losers.” For me, there are no real winners on either side. Why? Because as Americans, the thing that threatens all of us has gained a greater stronghold on our society.

Whatever one’s opinion, the law has been decided. However, just because something becomes a law doesn’t necessarily make it right – does it? Herein lies the problem. In the ever-evolving ethical climate of 21st century America, the clash between moral relativism and moral absolutism continues. Personal experience and proclivity, however, cannot be the basis of morality – not if a society is to survive. Pursued to its logical end, relativism means anyone can argue the legitimacy of his or her beliefs and behaviors whatever they are or however extreme they may be. Society then becomes the sum total of individual preferences and since no preference is considered morally superior; anything that can be dared will be allowed. Tolerance displaces truth. Indifference replaces religious conviction. The end result is confusion, chaos and cultural disintegration.

In a society sinking deeper into relativism, if Christians don’t accept the opinions and practices of those who favor same-sex marriage, why should the gay community accept theirs? The debate then centers on who can sway the masses, influence the politicians, muster the most judicial votes or win the litigation, not on whether something is morally right and objectively true, and more importantly, who gets to make the rules. Who does make the final decision? Who is the ultimate judge?

During a period of rebellion in ancient Israel when there was no wide acceptance of the laws and precepts God laid out for the health and protection of his people, it’s recorded that “everyone did as they saw fit – whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” [Judges 21:25]. More and more this is becoming the description of America. How do you impose a biblical and traditional worldview on any issue when so many have now become their own god?


The Church is not Your Home

I stumbled across this interesting blog entry by Scott Dannemiller [speaker, author, leadership consultant] titled, The Church is not Your Home.  Might I suggest it’s worth the read.

The Church Is Not Your Home 

Mixed Race man holding the bible in front of church


An atheist walked into three churches last Sunday.

I know. Sounds like the beginning of a great joke. In fact, you could probably come up with an awesome punch line.

But it’s no joke.

A recent Christian Today article tells the story of Sanderson Jones, the leader of Sunday Assembly — also known as the “atheist church.” Jones’ mission was to attend three London church services in one day. But he wasn’t there to debunk Christianity. No. In his words, he was just “learning from the pros.”

Jones walked away with a great appreciation for communion and prayer. While he was not converted, he was most affected by the way in which churches welcomed him and gave him a sense of belonging.

I believe Jones experienced what every single one of our churches is trying to offer. We all want to do the work of Jesus by welcoming others like guests in our home. I’ve heard that phrase a lot lately as my own church seeks to reach the community in more meaningful ways.

Like guests in our home.

It’s a wonderful analogy, isn’t it? We roll out the red carpet for houseguests. We offer them our best food and drink. We break out the fine china. Heck, we even let them use the special towels that normally stay locked behind some sort of invisible force field in our bathrooms, never to be touched by an actual family member.

In this sense, Jones is absolutely right. Christians are pros at welcoming. If welcoming were an Olympic sport, churches would be Michael Phelps, only with coffee stations and tuna hot dish. But here’s the problem:

I’m afraid the mindset behind our welcoming spirit might slowly, subtly be killing our church.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying our churches should stop welcoming visitors. And I’m not saying church shouldn’t feel like a place where you belong. What I am saying is that we need to stop viewing our churches as our homes. And here’s the reason.

While I am very welcoming to my guests, I also see my home as mine. A possession. You probably do, too. And so I create rules and expectations to protect it. I’m kinda’ particular about the grass. The mower lines should run diagonally. And the spoons should never “spoon” in the dishwasher. Kids should never eat in the living room. And I’m fairly certain that failure to use a coaster is acceptable grounds for divorce in 36 of the 50 states. These rules are our custom, and we’re unlikely to adapt quickly.

When we do have parties for others, we relax these rules. We also vacuum the carpet, mop the floor, and scour the kitchen to make things bright and shiny for our guests. All the messy stuff stays behind closed doors or tucked away in closets, just waiting to pounce on someone who mistakenly thinks it’s the entrance to the bathroom.

Finally, while those parties may be absolutely fantastic, I have to admit that they usually only happen on the weekends, and they are normally limited to friends of friends who we know will enjoy each other’s company. But during the week, the house is largely empty, save for immediate family.

Sound familiar?

Our churches do amazing things. We go on mission trips. We sponsor charities. We bring the gospel to people desperately in need of a “good news” story. But the truth is, when we think of the church, we see it as ours. Like our home. A possession.

And it has to stop.

We have rules and traditions that start to take on a God-like quality in the way we worship them. Then we wonder why some see Christians as rigid and inflexible.

We primp and prime for the big party on Sunday and greet folks with big smiles, while hiding the messy realities of church life in the closet. Then we wonder why some see Christians as lacking authenticity.

We spend roughly 82 percent of our church budgets on staff and buildings that are only open a few hours per week, mostly for programs designed specifically for our members. Then we wonder why some see Christians as selfish.

When I work with congregations, I often ask the members what they love most about their church. And 9 times out of 10, the response is, “It’s like a big family.”

And every time I hear this, I cringe a little.

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. Families are beautiful. My own family is incredibly welcoming. At the same time, we’re also loud and boisterous and overwhelming. We have inside jokes and tired old stories. If you’re spending Thanksgiving with us for the first time it can be downright exhausting. And exclusive. As an outsider, you are left to try and quickly understand decades of history and assimilate quickly.

And we ask our church guests to do the exact same thing.

We absolutely want them to be members of the family. We invite them warmly. But rather than meet them where they are, we ask them to meet us where we are. The result? Those who are drawn to us, and therefore drawn to Jesus, will be those who tend to worship like us, believe like us, and look like us. Threading the impossibly narrow eye of the needle.

And we wonder why church membership is declining.

But here’s the good news. We need not take up such a heavy burden. Christ never asked us to own His church or His building. No. Man was simply the rock it was built upon. Consider the scriptures:

The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him. (Psalm 24:1 NIV)

We are here to support God’s creation. As stewards. And it’s time we recapture that call. As church leaders, we must begin to see ourselves as caretakers of sacred ground rather than owners of a house.

Because the church is not our home. We do not possess it. We shouldn’t try to tame it any more than we should try and reign in nature. Consider the parks where gates are wide and all are welcome. This is what our churches should be. Open to all at any time. Some people come to work. Others come for recreation. Still more come to rest.

The caretakers of such spaces don’t care why you are there. They only want to assure that, no matter the reason you have come, you will feel the beauty and magnificence of Our Creator. They also hope the beauty you experience will be so real, so palpable, that you have no choice but to share the experience with others. Like vacation photos of the Grand Canyon that never quite do it justice.

There are glimpses of this in our own communities. Some churches operate food pantries. Others have given up their buildings altogether to provide transitional housing for those on the margins. I think of a recent Monday night at my own church, where a dozen homeless men slept in a fellowship hall, while Alcoholics Anonymous met in a preschool classroom, and a community development meeting took place in the sanctuary. Not a single event for church members.

But the family of God was there.

So I pray today that this will be our call. That we may tirelessly look for ways to be caretakers of the church where we serve. To look for ways to use our buildings and our gifts not for ourselves, but for others. And in so doing, may the light of Christ show through our generosity. Our openness. And our selflessness. Reaching out to the family of God.

Welcoming them home.


More than friends

Not only is Maddi Jane a gifted young artist but a personal friend and wonderful young woman.  This video Dark Horse is her newest release.  The filmmaker is also a friend and incredibly talented young man.  To see more of his work go to theLensDarkly.  Enjoy.


The Fox

With over 177 million hits, what could be better for Halloween than the current viral video phenomenon – The Fox.  What is it exactly?  Just your everyday great electronic Norwegian comedy dance music that all.


Unity in conflict

Disagreement, conflict, friction and opposing preferences are all part of life — even life in the local church community.  There is just no way around it.  As Christians, we’d all like to agree on all things all the time and enjoy the ensuing harmony.  But realistically, we will never agree on everything even on matters relating to faith, theology, and practice.  And if our hope for harmony rests in us always agreeing we will be sorely disappointed.

In his book, This World: Playground or Battleground?, A.W. Tozer explains it this way, This world AW Tozer

“Some misguided Christian leaders feel that they must preserve harmony at any cost, so they do everything possible to reduce friction. They should remember that there is no friction in a machine that has been shut down for the night. Turn off the power, and you will have no problem with moving parts. Also remember that there is a human society where there are no problems: the cemetery. The dead have no differences of opinion. They generate no heat, because they have no energy and no motion. But their penalty is sterility and complete lack of achievement. What then is the conclusion of the matter? That problems are the price of progress, that friction is the concomitant of motion, that a live and expanding church will have a certain quota of difficulties as a result of its life and activity. A Spirit-filled church will invite the anger of the enemy.”

Tozer is right, a living and expanding church will have a certain quota of difficulties and disagreements.  God understands this and is neither surprised nor displeased when friction and disagreements arise among his people.  For God, the issue is not will such things happen but how will we handle them when they do.  The enemy works for anger and division.  The Spirit of God works for humility and unity.

In our secular culture, I believe a key to the Church’s future impact rests on Christians’ ability and willingness to sometimes agree to disagree on non-essentials.  Humbly accepting some of our differences and joyfully rallying around those things that unite us – specifically around the one who unites us, Jesus, is critical.  Given our sinful tendencies, Jesus recognized the challenge and prayed for us  – his followers – the Church.  He said, “Father, I pray for those who will believe in me…that all of them may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  Summary?  Unity and oneness was Jesus’ desire for his people.

True oneness, however, requires a realistic understanding that conflict occurs.  But it also requires we learn to humbly live with the tension of disagreement.  As Tozer says, “The dead have no differences of opinion.”  Let’s face it … if you have an opinion it means you’re alive.  But no living human being is infallible. So as long as we joyfully unite around the truth of Jesus and his Gospel of grace, our ability to impact the world remains strong.  Perhaps this is one other thing we in the church can all agree on.



Not only is Eric Metaxis an accomplished New York Times best-selling author, but he’s aamazing-grace1fascinating and very funny guy with quite an unexpected story. A while back I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in Michigan with Eric and a small group of people cloistered together in a quaint little Inn. Here is his story, in his words…

Is it possible for one’s life to change literally overnight? In 1988 I had a dream in which God spoke to me in what I have come to call “the secret vocabulary of my heart.” The next morning, all was new and newness. Perhaps even newness-ness.

I had the dream around my 25th birthday, and if someone had investigated my life at that time to determine who I was, they’d likely have settled on three themes at the heart of my identity: first, that I am Greek; second, that I loved freshwater fishing; and third, that I was deeply committed to the life of the mind and the search for meaning.

My parents are European immigrants (my dad is from Greece, my mother from Germany) who came to New York in the mid-1950s, met in an English class in Manhattan, and married. I came into the world in 1963 at Astoria General Hospital, and attended a Greek Orthodox parochial school through fourth grade. In 1972, we moved to the relatively rural environs of Danbury, Connecticut, where I went to a public school and attended the Greek Orthodox church every Sunday.

Greeks in America prize their Greekness, and perhaps because I am only half-Greek, it was especially important for my dad to instill this in me. Once, when he saw the chrome fish on the back of a car, he was excited to explain that this was from the Greek word ixthys, meaning “fish,” because the early Christians used this word as an acronym—Iesus Xristos THeos Ymon Sotir. It stood for Jesus Christ Son of God Our Savior. It was their secret symbol.

My only hobby besides watching television was freshwater fishing. I fly-fished, sometimes tying my own flies. I fished for bass, once in a tournament, and of course I ice-fished a few times too.

As an undergraduate at Yale I was exposed to the intellectual life, and I half-heartedly attempted to divine the meaning of life, with mixed results. My Christian faith was essentially nominal; I never took seriously the idea that our lives are meaningless, but neither did I settle on any particular alternative.

Sometime after graduation I came up with a kind of answer, involving the symbolic image of drilling through ice on the surface of a lake. It was a vaguely Jungian/Freudian idea that said the goal of life and all religions was to drill through this ice, which represented the conscious mind, in order to touch the water beneath, which represented Jung’s “collective unconscious”—a vague “God force” that somehow connected all of humanity. It was an Eastern and impersonal idea of God, making no particular moral claims on anyone. How one went about doing any of this was anybody’s guess.
Graduation itself was like stepping off the top of the ladder I’d been climbing my whole life. Good grades got me to Yale and through Yale. I majored in English, edited the Yale humor magazine, worked in the dining hall, and sang in some musicals. At graduation I was Class Day speaker, preceding the main speaker—my future friend, talk-show host Dick Cavett—and I received several awards for my short fiction. What but success could lie ahead?

Instead I was launched into a step-less void, unable to climb toward what I thought I’d wanted to achieve, which was success and acclaim as a fiction writer. For the next few years I tried, mostly in vain, to write short fiction, and eventually sold some literary humor pieces to The Atlantic. I spent aimless and unproductive months at the elite writers’ colonies of Yaddo and MacDowell in New York and New Hampshire, respectively. I lived in sublets in the Boston area and clung to a sad relationship. You might say that I floated and drifted, which inescapably and inevitably leads to that singularly humiliating cul-de-sac of moving back in with one’s parents.

The parents of my friends saw that I was trying to find myself, but my own parents— who’d never had the privilege of a college experience and worked very hard to finance my own—preferred that I simply find a job. It was a seriously awful time. My relationship, now long-distance, was foundering, and I took the only job I could get, proofreading chemical manuals and other nonliterary arcana at Union Carbide’s world headquarters. My cubicle was a quarter of a mile from the nearest window. (And the password is … Gehenna.)

Eric-Metaxas-WebBut it was there, alone in the belly of a corporate whale, that I would finally consider the question of God. In my misery I befriended a bright graphic designer who began to engage me on the issue of faith. Ed Tuttle was older, already married with kids, and one of those born-again Christians I had been trained to steer well clear of at Yale. I was perpetually wary, but in my pain and longing for relief I was desperate enough to keep the conversation going, for weeks and then months. To avoid real engagement or controversy, I cagily half-pretended to agree with him and his positions. But whenever he invited me to church, I demurred.

One day at lunch, Ed said, “Perhaps you don’t really know God as well as you think, Eric.” I was offended. Who did he think he was, and how could anyone claim to know God? Anyone with a brain knew that even if it were all true, we certainly couldn’t know it, and would have to content ourselves with that, with agnosticism. But I wasn’t content. Ed once told me to pray that God would reveal himself to me, but I thought praying to a God I wasn’t sure was there didn’t make sense. But in my confusion I sometimes did ask for some sort of sign.

In June of 1988, my uncle had a stroke and went into a coma. Ed said he and some friends were praying for him. I was astounded at the kindness of the gesture and at the idea that these people believed there was a God who heard prayers like this and could do something about it. A few days later, Ed asked if he could pray for my uncle withme. I quickly agreed and followed Ed into a ghastly fluorescent-lit conference room. I had never done anything like this, but it couldn’t hurt. So I closed my eyes as Ed prayed aloud, and as he did, some transcendent shift seemed to take place. It was as though a window had been opened onto another realm and I’d felt the faintest touch of some heavenly breeze. When it was over, I opened my eyes. What was that?

Around this time a slight shift was taking place in my mind, too. I had picked up M. Scott Peck’s People of the   Lie, and this prominent Harvard psychologist’s experiences with real evil got my attention. If real evil existed, there must be an alternative. Would that be God? I was also reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, though I cannot remember if I was reading these before or after the dream. Ah yes, the dream.

One night near my 25th birthday, I dreamt I was ice-fishing on Candlewood Lake in Danbury. I believe my childhood friend John Tomanio and his father were with me. I looked into the large hole we had cut into the ice and saw the snout of a fish poking out. (Of course ice-fishing is never this easy.) I reached down and picked it up by the gills and held it up. It was a large pickerel or perhaps even a pike. And in the dazzlingly bright sunlight shining through the blue sky and off the white snow and ice onto the bronze-colored fish, it appeared positively golden. But then I realized that it didn’t merely look golden, it actually was golden. It was a living golden fish, as though I were in a fairy tale.

And suddenly I understood that this golden fish was ixthys—Jesus Christ Son of God Our Savior—and that God was one-upping me in the language of my own symbol system. I had wanted to touch inert water, to touch the so-called “collective unconscious,” but he had something more for me: this was his Son, a living Person, Jesus Christ. And I realized in the dream that he was real and had come from the other side and now I was holding him there in the bright sunlight and at long last my search was over. And I was flooded with joy.

When I went to work the next day, I told Ed about the dream. He asked what it meant, and I said what I never would have said before—and would have cringed to hear anyone else say. I said that I had accepted Jesus. And when I spoke those words I was flooded with the same joy I had had inside the dream. And I’ve had that joy with me for the past 25 years.


Thank you Amy

In addressing a difficult and often ignored topic, Parkview’s own Amy Simpson openly shares personal and profound insights on mental illness and provides suggestions on how the church should respond to those in our community who suffer.   Most importantly, Amy offers hope to all of us who are affected in some way or another.  Thank you Amy.  I hope many will not only join me in reading “Troubled Minds” but take the steps necessary to understand, reach out to, embrace and help those who have them.

re: the random-ness

Husband. Father. Senior Pastor of Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn, IL.

Ok...so you've located the place where I put down my random thoughts. The key word here is random: music, sports, art, food, books, news, spiritual musings, weird stories, etc. I'm especially interested in how everyday experiences of life intersect with the ancient stories of Scripture. Thanks for reading.
October 2021

Thoughts gone by

"No problem can withstand the assault of substantial thinking." Voltaire