I am not a philosopher.  I admit I do not spend much time pondering contingency and necessity so my views below may be misguided.  As such, should anyone have any clarifying views or helpful comments, I gladly encourage them.  And with that disclaimer, reader beware…

C.S. Lewis

“It was necessary and the necessary was always possible.”  — C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet

In what sense is the necessary always possible?  Certainly there are instances in which what seems necessary or essential is not, by any stretch, possible.  Believing the necessary is always possible only makes one naively and hopelessly (foolishly) optimistic.  In such a world there would be no starvation, no wars over resources, and no jealousy; indeed it could never happen that one finds their car to be on “E” while driving on a deserted path with no gas station in sight.  In that case gasoline is necessary but not possible.  So what is Lewis referring to?  It seems that what is at the heart of the question is the definition of “necessary”.  When we think of what is necessary we automatically append qualifiers to make it mean more than it should.  So “necessary” may come to mean “necessary in order to maintain physical well being” or “necessary to ensure comfort”.  For example, in the gasoline example, the gas is necessary for the continued functionality of the vehicle and subsequently for our safe passage home; it isn’t necessary a se, rather it is a qualified necessity.  The qualifier describes a force outside ourselves, acting upon ourselves, to which we feel subjected and therefore to which we ascribe the power of ensuring our safety and comfort.  Having gas at that moment ensures our continued well being and therefore we see it as necessary.  But I think Lewis is referring to something far more foundational than our whimsies or our misled perspectives on the reality that surrounds us.  Put simply, if something is a se necessary, it is by definition possible, and distinguishable from anything contingent.  It depends on nothing and will come to exist absolutely, which adds a certain potency to its possibility, turning the possible into the probable and turning the probable into the definite.  Granted, to believe such a declaration seems to require the simultaneous belief in some higher omnipotent external force, albeit fate, destiny or God.  I can’t imagine a scientific naturalist being a strong proponent of this assertion unless it is being applied to the physical laws of nature.  Outside God (or whatever you call it), all is merely coincidence; all is subject to the chaos of the cosmos and nothing can be labeled as necessary even if much can still be hoped for as possible.  Outside God there is nothing but the possible.

The best approach to necessity, I think, is a Stoic one.  To be clear I’m referring to Stoicism and not stoicism as we have come to understand it in 21st century vernacular.  I’m referring to the Stoicism of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and others, the approach which, while perhaps sometimes going too far in their denial of situational influences, does accurately understand our role in mistakenly attaching undue significance to the external forces which act upon us.  A true Stoic would not be perplexed or vexed by running out of gas with no gas station in sight.  He would not see a supply of gasoline as necessary.  Indeed he would spurn such an occurrence if it inspired in him a desire to view the gasoline as anything more than what it actually is.  He would welcome the opportunity to affirm the idea that that which is is meant to be on a cosmic scale.  There is no point in letting one’s faculties rage against this force because true joy comes only in aligning oneself to this cosmic plan.  To the Stoic, then, what is necessary is a very short list because even death is seen not as something to be scorned but rather something to be welcomed with open arms for no other reason than it is the logical next step in the cosmic order of things.  Death is, in a word, necessary.  And if death is persistently necessary (which it is), then it is also persistently possible.  But this thought cannot trouble the Stoic and indeed should not even trouble the Hedonist or Epicurean.  Is it not the constant threat of death which inspires in us the drive to love each breath?  Lewis alludes to this in the same chapter as his previous statement on necessity: “I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.”  The sweetness of life depends upon (is contingent upon) the bitterness of death and the realization of its constant impending threat.

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I am now a couple months into my new career, having finally seen an end (albeit temporary) to my educational endeavors of the last several years.  I suppose it’s now time to take stock of where I am, where I’ve been and where I’d like to be.  I’m naturally an introspective person, so this sort of issue arises naturally in my mind.  But in keeping with my penchant for dreaming, not much comes of such musings unless I am intentional about it.  So this is my attempt at being intentionally reflective.

The other day I was coming home from a particularly challenging night at work when a random thought came to my mind: “I wish all that was required of me was to spend my week studying in a coffee shop.”  Of course I was alluding to the tasks that had previously occupied my day-t0-day as I finished my masters and nursing degrees.  But I quickly reminded myself how stuck I felt in those days.  How much I desired to “get on with my life” and give something back, as well as put something toward my future, instead of spending money I didn’t yet have.  I reminded myself of all the days I felt miserably alone, having spent the entire day/week/month in solitude, preparing for the next academic challenge.  But most of all I was reminded of that mentality that my life had not yet begun, that I was preparing for something yet to come, and how hard it was to understand or believe that there was no life to prepare for, that the present was in fact my life.  And this is the realization I force upon myself even now.  There is no point, as Colin Hay would assert, in “waiting for my real life to begin“.  A certain way to feel stuck in life is to persist in the mistaken idea that life hasn’t yet begun simply because you aren’t where you want to be.

I can accept this lesson.  I can welcome it with open arms because I’m on an exciting path.  I have a new job and a new home that I own.  I have great coworkers, great friends and an amazingly supportive and loving family.  There are certain things that I would say I’m “missing” in my life but all in all this is an exciting time.  But just the same I must ask myself why that feeling of longing for the past arose in my mind.  Why, at that point, did I want to go back to a “simpler” time?  I have come to the conclusion that in life there is almost always a trade off and all those cliched sayings are actually true: you can’t always get what you want, the grass is always greener, nothing worthy having is free, etc.  But cliches are fundamentally limited in their impact, by virtue of the fact that they are cliches.  But what isn’t cliche is a song that came to my mind in the midst of all this (it should be no surprise that the one thing to get through to my heart and mind would be a song).  “Painting Pictures of Egypt” by Sara Groves alludes to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt out of slavery and into the wilderness, delivered from a life of forced labor into a life of wandering and homelessness.  My point isn’t to equate school with slavery although that connection can certainly be made; nor do I wish to equate my current situation with a feeling of wandering and homelessness, although that could be the subject of some other post in the future.  But listen to these words from the song:

The place I was wasn’t perfect

But I had found a way to live.

It wasn’t milk or honey,

But then neither is this.

I’ve been painting pictures of Egypt,

Leaving out what it lacked

And the future seems so hard and I wanna go back.

But the places that used to fit me

Can not hold things I’ve learned.

Those roads were closed off to me

While my back was turned.

It’s not that I’ve arrived at some more profound knowledge that makes my past obsolete.  Rather it’s that I’ve now been called to a task that I was previously being prepared for.  The pains and struggles of my past were preparation for the demands of my present.  Going back would be a waste of that preparation.  It would be like a professional athlete wishing he could go back to the days of his training simply because the demands of competition were intimidating.  Of course there are applications beyond that of my vocational situation.  Spiritually and emotionally we are always being prepared, stretched and pulled.  We may resent the pain that such an experience can create and it may inspire in us a desire to revert back to a previous, simpler time.  But simpler doesn’t necessarily mean better.  Go ahead and give it a try and you’ll soon see that when you return to Egypt, you’ll either long for the wilderness from whence you came or you’ll simply come to love the chains which bind you there.  Either way you don’t belong.  You’ve been called to experience the trials (and freedom) that the wilderness has to offer; just another step in your preparation.  You don’t have to wait for your real life to begin because your real life is, in fact, a state of constant change, perpetually characterized by preparation for the next step, whatever that might be.

Today my seeking of Canaan takes me east of Eden.  Now, I won’t get into where people think Eden was geographically, or how the ancients arranged their cardinal directions; to today’s layperson Canaan would be assumed to be west of Eden.  But bibliophiles will instantly recognize I’m referring not to an actual geographical location, but rather to Steinbeck’s classic novel which parallels the epic story of Cain and Abel, a metanarrative interwoven with other subplots of revenge and redemption, of coming to terms with death (and life) and all the intricate and delicate interactions we experience till the day we arrive at that destination.  Above all, I think, the novel deals with the ultimate and inescapable realities of good and evil and a man’s daily choice to partake in one or the other.  Chapter 34 summarizes this theme in 3 short pages.  Indeed the brevity and mastery of this section is what led me to blog on this in the first place.  Here are some key quotes from the section:

John Steinbeck

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?”  And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go?  How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder.  Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil….There is no other story.  A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil?  Have I done well — or ill?

And in our time, when a man dies — if he has had wealth and influence and power and all the vestments that arouse envy, and after the living take stock of the dead man’s property and his eminence and works and monuments – the question is still there: Was his life good or was it evil? …Envies are gone, and the measuring stick is: “Was he loved or was he hated?  Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come of it?”

It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.”

I dare not even attempt improve upon the insight of one such as Steinbeck.  Its true, when we think of those people who existed to serve themselves at the expense of others in their lifetimes, our most natural inclination is to allow a twinge of joy to enter our consciousness, even if we simultaneously recognize an immense sorrow for a viable life wasted in self-pursuit.

The Bible comments on this in several passages, both directly and indirectly; indeed, I’d venture to say to one degree or another from cover to cover God’s Word in its entirety deals with what Steinbeck calls the “one story in the world.”  After all, Christ died that man might not; Christ conquered sin and death that man might actually have the option to choose life, rather than hopelessly wallow in his own self-perpetuated existence of evil.  Paul’s external monologue in Romans 7 is a good example of this daily fight:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  (ESV)

Here Paul is even recognizing that the default setting among us is to choose the evil, even with a knowledge and desire to do good.  Steinbeck was right, but he didn’t finish the thought.  Firstly, if we do good now, just to be missed when we’re dead, we still only serve ourselves.  Our souls experience no exercise in altruism by doing good simply because it’ll be better for our self-esteem when we find ourselves on our deathbed.  Is it a good exercise to remember our death throughout our day?  Absolutely.  Keeps us humble.  Keeps us honest.  Keeps us real.  But ultimately, it isn’t our kind deeds or lack thereof that make us good or evil, but rather our motivations.  We were made for good works, for God’s glory.  We do them to realize our existential identity in that glory, namely to be conformed to the likeness of Christ.  It’s not because we’ll feel better about ourselves for it (although we might), not so people will love us (even though they may), and it’s not to be remembered well after we die (even though we probably will be).

No, we do them because, like a flower that withers in the sun when it isn’t watered, we will never realize our God-intended existence without them.  And in the same vein, as God’s emissaries in a fallen world, if we choose to perpetuate that fallenness, we reject the role of steward that God has bequeathed to us, thereby dulling our senses ever so gradually to His eternal plan.  But if we choose to bring love, light, joy and redemption to it, we begin to see Him more clearly, for we are being aligned with Christ and his glory.

Grooveshark Widgets – Music Playlists for Your MySpace & Blog.

My girlfriend and I were discussing the other day what shapes our preferences for aesthetics, whether it be in fashion, art, architecture, music, furniture, etc.  I expressed my frustration with people who reject the mainstream by virtue of it being mainstream and by doing so join an alternative anti-mainstream, yet another mainstream just the same.  It saddens me how, in an effort to be non-conformist, people will actively avoid popular trendy things that are quite possibly beautiful, but simply because they are trendy, they are somehow beneath them.  We began talking about the issue because I just recently got a record player and am really excited about listening to all those old recordings with that relatively base technology that somehow makes the music seem more raw, natural, authentic and real; dare I say, it seems more meaningful somehow.  I recognize that my desire for a record player comes at a time when record players are en vogue, much like many other things that are “vintage”.  I will not apologize for liking something at about the same time it becomes trendy; rather I can thank the trend-setters for reminding me of something that has been cool and valuable all along.  But while the raw quality of the music one gets from an LP of Nick Drake might be motivation enough, there is another reason I like records so much: they demand your time.

In our world of mp3 players, CDs, iTunes/iPods/iPhones/ithinki’mgonnavomitmedias, we have become insatiably obsessed with the symbol FF>>.  Jump to track 3 and switch the CD.  Scroll through your playlist and find exactly what you want and move on.  Don’t get me wrong, this certainly has its place.  But records require that we invest in the experience.  The goal isn’t to hear that one song you love to rock air guitar to in the car (which I do, and certainly don’t want to discourage others from doing, but that’s not the point).  Rather, the goal in listening to a record is to embark upon a lyrical journey from track 1 through 12, complete with the 3-second breaks of silence punctuated by those scratchy commas that remind you you’re listening to an LP while at the same time inviting you to prepare for the next step in your musical journey.

MP-3 players have their value, CD players too.  And jumping to your favorite track is at times useful and prudent.   There is even a time and place for sweet mixes of unrelated songs weaved into an (un)intentional musical tapestry.  But the fact remains: there’s nothing like sitting down with a beer, throwing on an old record and taking in the whole experience from the moment the needle scratches the surface to the moment you’re once again left with that interminable scratchy silence.

In commemoration of our (Philadelphia’s) first snow of the season, here is a poem I wrote a few years ago called Baptism by Snow:

Crystalline spectra of liquid light and life
Descend upon a lifeless but wanting face
Like messengers of so sweet a song,
Reminding with each kiss of icy breath
That the wintry dust promises a new day
And a new me.

~ M.

Ok, so I admit I suck at blogging.  I don’t think I’d have enough time even if I wasn’t in school to get achieve what I was hoping to accomplish on this blog.  That much introspection is just too daunting.  Besides, it doesn’t make sense to force profundity and I’m a firm believer in not writing anything that doesn’t deserve the immortality of written word.  But yes, one may disagree with me as to what exactly deserves that immortality — my definition is often quite broad!

Now most people around this time of year start asking that question, “What am I thankful for?”  And certainly that is a decent enough question; it is a fundamentally good thing to be thankful.  But it is also inescapably self-centered: invariably what we are thankful for generally consists of those things that benefit us.  And our nation has done an excellent job at supplanting pure and sincere thankfulness by creating Black Friday, a false capitalistic holiday to immediately follow Thanksgiving, assuming the guise of being others-centered.  “What?  I’m not being selfish.  I’m waking up at 2 a.m. to buy presents for other people.  How is that selfish?”

Well, the goal of such soporific asceticism is to save yourself some money in your attempt at materialistically proving to your loved ones that you care about them.  Yeah, I know, that’s a little harsh.  Let me be clear: I am not against buying presents as a way of showing love. And to all my friends who were out shopping this morning, I hope this doesn’t sound like a moral condemnation, I too was seriously considering camping out at Walmart to get my 32-in LCD TV for $250!!  It’s just that I have been increasingly concerned by the way we jump right from being conscientiously thankful one day, to relegating that pursuit to memory as we train our materialistic gaze upon December 25th.  So my question is this: if you can be conscientiously thankful one day out of the year, what things keep you from being conscientiously thankful the other 364 days?

I asked myself that question, because I realized I was just as guilty of it as I’m sure most of us are.  And here is what I came up with: fear, worry, uncertainty, pride, anger, discontent, cowardice, pain, fatigue, and gluttony (I’m sure the list could continue).  There is one thing that is common among all these things: idolatry.  Let me define “idolatry” as anything that illegitimately commands our obsessive gaze and worship.  It is an insidious thing, and often takes the form of innocuous and even admirable things.  Even serving others can be idolatrous if the motive is ill-directed.  It is profoundly a expression of the heart.  The only path to authentic thankfulness (and authentic existence) every day of my life is to daily allow the Lord to remain enthroned over my life.  Once I let other things take the throne, I open the floodgates to every seed of malcontent known to man.  Ironically, it is only by realizing my servitude that I can be thankful toward the One I serve.  It is not possible to have nothing on that throne.  It will either be the true Lord, or an impostor.  May the true Lord reign in your life and mine during this Advent season and every day of our lives.

Perhaps this isn’t the cheeriest of subjects about which I could reinstate my blog, but it is, without doubt, the most universally applicable.  Viktor Frankl, John Donne, Qoheleth (the writer of Ecclesiastes), and Randy Pausch (the late author of “The Last Lecture”) — What do these men have in common?  They all confronted head-on the most ultimate of subjects: death.  Each man highlights a different aspect of death and gives it a color that only extensive personal experience can do.  Being a nurse-in-training, going to class or clinical is a daily reminder of that which shall one day claim us all.  But it is my desire to show that this is not an exercise in futility; indeed thinking clearly about death serves to affirm its antithesis.

We don’t like to think about death.  In the United States, so much of our popular culture seems hell-bent on ignoring this inevitability, as if by doing so one could make his present circumstances more bearable; as if the only path to happiness were paved in whatever can distract us from that ultimate destination.  On the other hand, focusing too much on death can lead to a denial of the present and philosophical fatalism.  I’m reminded of the classic conversation between Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in “When Harry Met Sally”:

Harry: …Do you think about death?

Sally: Yes.

Harry: Sure you do, a fleeting thought that drifts in and out of the transom of your mind.  I spend hours, I spend days —

Sally:  — and you think this makes you a better person?

Harry: Look, when the shit comes down, I’m gonna be ready, and you’re not.  That’s all I’m saying.

Sally:  And in the meantime you’re going to ruin your whole life waiting for it.

True.  We find it easy to see this one extreme: ruining one’s life by obsessing about death.  But too often we ignore the other extreme: ruining one’s life by ignoring it.  This is the truth Frankl, Donne, Qoheleth and Pausch were grappling with.  If I were to try to incorporate the thoughts of all these men in a single blog, I don’t think even I would want to read it, so let me go in phases.

First I want to look at some thoughts of Viktor Frankl, a psychotherapist in the Vienna tradition of Freud and Adler, but much less obsessed with his mother.  He developed his theories of psychotherapy as a prisoner in German concentration camps as he observed who survived those atrocities, those who didn’t, and why.

Then I’ll be looking at the Holy Sonnets of John Donne — make no mistake, this will be no scholarly endeavor.  I intend to only extrapolate what speaks to me and I’ll probably comment on the movie “Wit” with Emma Thompson which utilizes Donne’s poetry as a platform from which to portray a woman’s bout with ovarian cancer.

Thirdly I hope to do justice to Qoheleth, the mysterious author of Ecclesiastes…no small task.  And finally I’d like to take a modern look at death from the point of view of Randy Pausch, author of “The Last Lecture” who, in light of his diagnosis of terminal cancer (with 3-4 months to live), wrote a book of what he considered to be life’s greatest lessons.

I hope you’ll stay tuned for these installments.  Being a full-time student it may take some time to get these out; still none are meant to be exhaustive and all I hope will spawn positive discussion and introspection.

For anyone who used to read my blogs back in 2007 (when I last posted) and who for some serendipitous reason is checking my blog now, much has happened in the last 2 years.  I graduated Westminster with a Masters in Religion and have subsequently begun another degree, a 2nd bachelors in nursing at Villanova University.  I claim this will be my last degree for a while, and indeed I don’t think the American Education Service will be willing to fund any more of my academic endeavors until I pay them back for the last 5 years!  To some it may seem I’m merely delaying the inevitable with all this study; but I am convinced it will pay a return ten-fold when all is said and done.  I am on track to graduate in August of 2010, take the nursing boards that September and hopefully have a job lined up that will allow me to pay off my loans…or at least fix my Saturn and buy something other than ramen for dinner (I only slightly exaggerate).

This is merely a reintroduction to what will hopefully be a fruitful blogging season.  In it I intend to reflect on life, faith, books, movies, art, medicine, and anything else that might be tinkering around in my noggin.  I do not expect it to be exceptionally profound, but I do hope it will be received as profoundly sincere.  And so begins a new chapter in the life of this blog, a new path in my (in our) endeavor to constantly be seeking Canaan.

For so long I thought I was the only one in seminary thinking this way, constantly wondering what the point of it all was. I have wondered when and why seminary became the only way one could make a career out of ministry in an established denomination. I have wondered what all these guys and gals (myself included) are really learning if all we do is read about what other people learned by actually living. I have found that theological books in isolation from experience do little or nothing (or worse yet, do damage) for our pursuit of real wisdom and true service to Christ. Hence the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. The brightest people in the world may prove to be dull in wisdom. Likewise, the most promising “theologians” may not have a clue as to how to speak into the lives of normal people unless they’ve learned how their knowledge plays out in real life.

The idea that I was the only one feeling this way was quite disconcerting and I was beginning to wonder what my place would be in the whole equation. Could I really be an integral part of ministry and the academic community if I saw that environment’s limitations as irreparably debilitating (or at least heading in that direction)? Then I found out I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Apart from other students who have expressed concern for the American approach to education in general, I also found allegiance with a more notable fellow, one who (and this shouldn’t surprise us in the least) was an integral part of a theological revolution. He said,

“It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.”

That man was Martin Luther. His words were, as was just about everything at that point in time, reactionary to what heluther.jpg saw to be a mistaken projection of scholasticism in theological education. And while I’d personally love to use that quote to try to get out of my assigned reading, I believe there is something much more important on the fundamental level that Luther is getting at. I can conceive of a very well-read individual who has absolutely no life experience, no practical outcroppings of his knowledge. In my mind, this man has little or nothing to contribute and I would be very wary to accept anything he had to say. On the flip side, I can conceive of an individual well-versed in the ways of the world yet with no desire to search God’s Word or be challenged in his mind. This man, likewise, has little to offer since his wisdom is not grounded. God’s Word, however, calls us to do both. Nowhere in it does it say, “Be ye therefore satisfied with knowing as much as possible and keeping it to yourself.” Nor does it say, “Blessed art thou who doesn’t waste his time studying or increasing in knowledge but interacts with people a lot.” That’s because everywhere you see a call to increased knowledge, you see a complementary call to work it out practically. Each is dead without the other. Somewhat ironically, even Luther’s quote is based on events that could not have happened had Luther not been VERY well-read. The Reformation may have been spawned by an academic reaction to scholasticism, but what fueled the fire was Luther’s (and others) refusal to allow faith to be relegated to an academic exercise. It was life and death for these men. What have we let our faith become?

What I think Luther meant was that all his education, all his reading and knowledge meant relatively little until it was placed in the realm of life and death. Only then can you really know what it means, for example, when Paul says, “For to lavendar_lotus.jpgme to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Only then can you really know what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. Only then does Christ’s commands to feed the hungry and minister to the widows and orphans become lenses through which the whole Gospel is viewed. Only through being persecuted can we really understand “Blessed are you when people persecute you because of me.” How can we know what that means just by reading it or by reading what others say about it? The heart of the Gospel is rooted in knowledge, but it blooms through experience, and each is useless without the other.