on that “forever empty”: 1 Corinthians 10.

read 1 Cor. 10.  Why do many of us find ourselves talking about the same issues, over and over? Don’t we have anything else to talk about than that person who slighted us, or how we didn’t get into that stupid college twenty years ago, or how that annoying person dumped us, or how our genius child should have started instead of warmed the bench, or how that gorgeous though aging celebrity sneezed in our direction two weeks ago and actually wiped their nose on our sleeve?  Are we THAT boring? Do we have some kind of collective Terrets?

Maybe.  But there’s several reasons for the way we keep scratching the same itches, the way a mangy dog goes wild trying to catch the same wily flea.

First of all, if this shoe fits you, Cinderella, there’s good news.  Apparently Vincent van Gogh called the phenomenon of revisiting the same ground repetition.  Van Gogh painted the same scenery and people over and over again.  Each time he focused on a different aspect.  He used different mediums, techniques and kinds of paper.   In some he used a flurry of strokes, suggesting he painted outdoors.  In others, he gave the same scene a more refined, perhaps less immediate, feel probably because he did it from memory.  Sometimes he even copied his own work.  Some think he even traced his own work.  An ear appears in one portrait of a postman, whereas it disappears in other portraits – and we’ve all heard of poor van Gogh’s fixation on ears.  He makes some props pale and other times paints them in dramatic dark black to make them pop.  The differences are subtle but real.  Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker, NY Times.

Why would Van Gogh do this?  Was it just a crisis of imagination, as some critics say?  Or is this how the creative process has to work?  Is TENDER IS THE NIGHT just a more unwieldy scene study for the elements Fitzgerald worked out to perfection in THE GREAT GATSBY?  As someone who thinks THE GREAT GATSBY is the perfect American novel… yes!   We humans work through our creative ideas, concepts, pasts and dreams, over and over, trying to refine them until we get them right.

Sometimes we’re the ones who have to be ‘gotten right’.  We might have a dream, but we might not yet have the character to carry it out.  As Joyce Meyer said in her TV show today, when God is preparing us to fulfill our dreams, He often waits to make us sweeter.  He perfumes us with His qualities.  He gives us His humility and His kindness.  See “Have a Dream for Your Life: Part 2“.

Because a successful person who is hard-hearted is a danger.  A synonym for hard-heartedness  is being insensitive: “callously indifferent (blinded, hardened, and made insensible).” Romans 11:7 (Amp. Bible).  Insensitivity can strike any of us at any time.  One of the problems of being insensitive is that we can see it in others but not ourselves.  We become insensitive to our insensitivity.  So how do we escape its subtle chains?  One way is to learn its side effects; to track its symptoms like clues.  The comedian Louis C.K. said recently on Conan O’Brian that he hates cellphones.  Here’s why.  He says children try out different behaviors, and that it’s good for them to experience the consequences of their bad behaviors. “Kids are mean,” Louis C.K. said.  “They say, ‘oh, you’re fat.’  Then they see your face scrunch up and they feel bad.  They think: ‘Oh, I don’t like how it feels when I do that.'” Louis C.K. went on to say that we shouldn’t let kids text because they miss out on seeing people’s reactions.  He added that we shouldn’t text, either, because we should sit in our own emptiness.  Here is how he put it:  “Underneath everything in your life, there’s that thing.  That forever empty.  You know what I’m talking about?  The knowledge that it’s all for nothing, and you’re alone…. The knowledge starts to visit on you.  Life is tremendously sad.”  See: Louis C.K. on Conan.  He asked Conan if he felt the forever empty, too, and Conan nodded.

Haven’t we all felt the forever empty?  And don’t we feel it curl in on us when we hate?  Somehow the forever empty is tied up with evil.  That’s strange, if we think about it, because we associate emptiness with nothingness.  But somehow evil, including hate, discrimination, disdain, and sneering, lead us straight down the path to a horribly empty feeling.

For instance, when we start feeling cold toward someone, it feels really bad.  Coldness is terrifying.  It makes us feel inhuman.  It makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us.  Why can’t we be more loving?  But instead of escaping our inner coldness by distracting ourselves or instead of spiraling into self-hatred, we can use a coldness in our hearts as a clue.  Somewhere, we’ve gone wrong.  We’ve slipped into hard-heartedness.  The Bible would tell us that our coldness suggests pride has crept in and taken us captive while we were looking the other way.

Luckily, there’s an antidote to a hard heart.  It’s called truth.  And truth, luckily for us, is a person named Jesus.  Jesus came to soften every heart, even our own.  Jesus’ tender love for each of us teaches the truth about love.  Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love is rich in mercy and slow to anger.  Love is willing to sacrifice everything it has for the one it loves.

Therefore the only reason we can feel hard hearted toward a fellow human is that we’ve forgotten grace.  We’ve slipped out of God’s safe arms, like a toddler wriggling away near a busy highway.  Like a child, we race out into the middle of the road and – SLAM.  A case of hard-heartedness takes us over.  Just like that.  We forget we’re saved by God’s mercy alone.  We forget we can do “nothing” to earn our salvation. See e.g. Romans 11.  We start to believe the lie that we’re superior because we can manage to do a small number of things on a small list we’ve made up for ourselves – and we even forget that we can’t even live up to our own small standards most of the time.  We’ve taken our eyes off of true holiness – God – and fixed them on our own navels.   But if we look up for just a moment, even a mountain can remind us how enormously great God’s standards are.  If we crack open the Hebrew Scriptures, we’ll be reminded we can’t covet, we can’t lust, we can’t have a moment’s greed, we can’t have even a whiff of a mixed motive – or boom – we’re excluded from a perfect and holy heaven.

It’s as if we’re standing on the outside of Gramercy Park in New York City with our noses pressed between the spaces in its wrought iron fence.  We’re looking at the flowers in its gardens, but we’re not even able to get close enough to smell them.  That’s the way of the world.  It’s where you have to earn your own salvation by living according to a set of rules – and it’s a harsh way.  It’s an impossible way.  It’s a way without forgiveness.  It’s a way that excludes constant beauty joy and meaning.

Which brings us to the second, and less good, reason we repeat the same stuff over and over.  We keep trying to force our own way into heaven.  We want to break down the iron gates with a crowbar.  We don’t want to have to give up our bad habits or do anything that might cause us discomfort.  How do we know?  Because right here in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul tells us: “the temptations in your life are no different from what others experience.”  1 Corinthians 10:13.  When other people do bad stuff, we can’t pretend we haven’t thought of doing the same thing.  Scripture reveals to us our hearts.  This chapter implores us, for instance, not to crave evil things; not to put anything ahead of God in our hearts; not to be sexually immoral; not to put God to the test; and, lest we imagine we’re safe from anything of those, not to GRUMBLE.

And even if we delude ourselves into thinking we’re not grumblers — by forgetting whatever it was we just complained about under the guise of ‘solving’ a problem –, Paul adds that if we think we can stand, we should be careful.  The same temptations beset us all.

The only way to get inside Gramercy Park in New York City is by buying one of the adjoining apartments.  The old owner will hand the key to the new one.  But what if we have no money?  What if we can’t afford the price?

Luckily the owner of all earth wants to let us in.  “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”  1 Cor. 10:26.  The owner is holding out to each of us the key to the most beautiful garden of all.  Jesus is the key.  The only way we can get into the garden is if God Himself comes and lifts us up and brings us in.  That’s what the cross was for.  He wants to carry us in.

All too often, we feel like God shouldn’t do that.  We think we don’t belong.  No, no, we say, when we see ourselves as if from a distance, enjoying the lush lawn, the pink roses, the cherry blossoms and the flowing fountain.  We don’t belong there.

And God says: I know you don’t.  But I want you there anyway because I adore you.  So that’s why I took the punishment for you, so I can bring you into my garden and enjoy it through your eyes.  So stop resisting me.  Don’t fight me off.  Stop having trouble believing that I actually love you.  Accept my love.  Let me in.  Let me take you where I want to take you, because only I know the way.

God’s way is very similar to the creative process, as God is the Creator.  He gives us a vision for our lives.  He gives us a deep knowing that we want to be loved, that we want beauty, that we want unity and peace.  He also gives us an inner restlessness to drive us away from the safe and boring toward Him.  He gives us the desire to be sweeter, and then He wants us to let Him sweeten us.  He asks us to keep going, keep painting, keep processing, until we let go of all our hurts, fears, bitterness, envy and rage, and let Him paint the poems of our lives.

God is turning His ear in heaven, listening for the sound of us sighing for Him. How do we know?  Listen to these verses from the Hebrew Scriptures:

“The Lord says, “I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help. I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am!’” to a people that did not call on my name. Isaiah 65:1.

If we can hear the emptiness at the core of our lives the way we can hear the sea in a seashell, why wouldn’t we do the simple thing?  Why wouldn’t we ask the maker of the seas to fill us?  What’s stopping us except perhaps something we probably shouldn’t trust – our hard-heartedness?  So maybe we should use even our disbelief in a creative way.  We can turn it over and over, and ask the question of God in new ways every day: help me!  Show me yourself!  Help me find you!  Show me your glory!  I’m empty and I want You.

If we hold out our hands, who knows what the Creator will put in them….

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on October 9, 2013.

 

who you are, Reader: 1 Corinthians 4

The opening chapter of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is as ironic as a New York woman’s wardrobe of black. Calvino exorts the Reader to relax and lose ourselves, even as his words deny us that possibility.  How can we lose ourselves when the author has stepped out of his required role of being a silent tour guide, and intruded his presence on our solitary experience?  The narrator even has the nerve to tell us: “Dispel every other thought.”  But how can we dispel all thoughts when we’re wondering why an author is chatting with us as if he’s in the room?  We are confronting the nosiest of Stage Managers.  The fourth wall has been cracked apart, and we want it back.  “Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes,” the narrator tells us.  “Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you.”  But is this helpful but bossy narrator ever going to let us get absorbed?

At the same time as Calvino blocks our ability to lose ourselves, he fans it by observing so accurately the joys, wishes, hungers, needs and travail of the reader.

Calvino continues to toy mercilessly with our desire to lose ourselves as the novel progresses.  He starts a fascinating mystery.  We are drawn in.  Then Calvino  interrupts us with readerly problems.  The pages are glued together.  He starts a new mystery plot.  After a few pages, where we feel a sense of loss about the prior story, we’re drawn in to the new one.  Then we’re told the Reader’s pages are blank.  The Reader gets a paper knife, and a new mystery plot begins.  Annoyed, we find ourselves drawn into a third story.  The Reader in the novel stops being us and becomes a character, someone who purses the Other Reader.  The Other Reader is attractive.  We seek out a crazy professor of a dead language.  A new story begins.  After beginning so many new mysteries, we grow weary.  We put the book down in disgust.

We start reading the new Harry Potter – oops, I mean Robert Galbraith – oops, I mean J.K. Rowling — novel.  It’s a mystery, a real mystery.  We sink our teeth into it.  We read it to the end without putting it down.  We feel a gleeful satisfaction in putting down the Calvino, clever as it is, and losing ourselves in the grittiness of Rowling’s novel.  Until, of course, even the J.K. Rowling ends and we’re left with that same old feeling of restlessness.

Now what?

There is an inherent problem here, brought to light so forcefully by Calvino.  He drags the paradox up out of the darkness of his book as if he’s caught a bat by the scruff of its neck.  How can we humans use our self to lose our self?  Our self has a memory.  How can we lose our self when every other time we’ve lost ourself, our self has reemerged?  But if we can’t lose ourself, how do we find joy in real life?  How can we hope for something good to happen in our lives, when it’s so often been dashed?  Calvino tells us: “It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book.  You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything.  There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store.  But not you.”

Is that true?  Have we stopped expecting anything of life?  Have we become victims of cynicism?  Are we pessimists in disguise, masking our ennui?  Or has Calvin’s world weary description of us caused us to elide into the very person we are reading in order not to be?

Here is where we circle from Calvino into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and come up just as seemingly dry as a child reading a novel under the covers by flashlight until the point that her eyes hurt from the strain and her body hurts from lack of sleep and she has to admit to herself but never out loud to her father that her father was right about reading under the covers.  Saint Paul seems to echo this world weary cry of Calvino when he excoriates his audience for behaving as if they were content.  Here’s the verse that jumps out of 1 Corinthians 4 like a live wire:  “You behave as if you are already filled and think you have enough.”  The Amplified Bible adds:  “you are full and content, feeling no need of anything more!”  1 Cor. 4:8 (Amplified Bible).

Hone in on that verse.  Because there’s a perilous way to read the Bible to which most of us tend, that would mean we’d avoid this verse.  All too often, when we encounter these sentences that don’t seem to make sense, we gloss over them.  We close our minds to the strangeness of them.  We think: “oh, the Bible is supposed to make sense so I’m just going to ignore this sentence because it’s too confusing.”  We block the seeming wrongness off the way we do entire sections of math problems.  Some statements seem too dense and thorny for our minds to solve, and so we skip to brighter lighter parts, like where math problems affirm that two plus two really does equal four, or where Saint Paul says that we should be stewards of the mysteries of God.  We like the implication that we alone know the mysteries hidden to the world.  We don’t like verses that are mysterious.  But there where the Bible gets the thorniest is the very place for us to focus our minds like freshly sharpened machetes.  Because we encounter God’s brightest lights in the darkest places.

Because perhaps the real problem that needs solving here is not the Bible but ourselves.

So why would Paul suggest it’s bad to be content?  Isn’t contentment good?  Didn’t Jesus say that he came to bring rest to the weary?  Didn’t he offer to heal the sick, give sight to the blind and open the ears of the deaf?  Didn’t Jesus say that the enemy comes to kill, steal and destroy but that he came so that we might enjoy our lives?  And what is enjoying life if not contentment?  Aren’t they the same thing?

Or is enjoying life different than being content?

Paul went on to warn the Corinthians about boasting about their leaders.  Paul told them not to brag about having the best minister and teacher.  He said that the only reason anyone has any talent is that it was given to them.  We don’t have our gifts because of our own efforts.  Everything is a gift from God, and Paul said this should exclude boasting.  Paul went on to say that while the Corinthians were behaving as if they were rich in spiritual gifts and graces, in their conceit they “ascended” their thrones without including Paul and his fellow travelers.

Paul said that he and the other apostles at that moment of writing were weak,  hungry and thirsty, shivering in cold, beaten and wandering around homeless.  He said, however, that when men reviled them, Paul and his fellow travelers blessed them.  When he was persecuted, he took it patiently.  When he was slandered he tried to answer softly and bring comfort.  He said that he was being made the rubbish and filth of the world.  He was being treated like the scum of the earth.  He concluded that the Corinthians should become imitators of him.

Is Paul saying we should all leave home, abandon our families, go hungry and thirsty, be hated and reviled and treated like scum?

Maybe.

Or maybe his point is that in some ways this is already happening to all of us, all of the time, and we’ve been trying to hide this truth from ourselves.  And if it’s not happening to us right this very minute, it is to people that we know and love.  So if suffering is an inescapable part of life on this planet for us and people we’re connected to, what is Jesus talking about when he says he came so that we may enjoy life in abundance?

Here is where the mysteries of God start to reveal themselves.  Apparently, there is something in our emptiness, dissatisfaction, rejection and discontent that enables us to enjoy life in the way Christ promises.  Maybe if we walk around in our loneliness instead of numbing ourselves, ignoring it or denying it, we will find a hidden treasure.  What do you find?  Who are you, Reader?  Are you alone in your dissatisfaction?  Are you sitting on the subway feeling more alone than ever?  Are you walking down a crowded sidewalk being rammed into by people who don’t care if you die?  Are you sitting at your desk feeling a sense of dread?  Are you the only one who feels slighted?  Are you the only one who is ignored?  Will nothing good ever happen to you?

Or did God Himself come down to earth and suffer alongside us?  Did God come down for real?  Did He suffer loneliness, isolation, rejection, slander and hatred?  And was God really murdered on the cross?  Did Jesus experience the rejection of God, something infinitely worse than the rejection of men?  Did Jesus suffer hell when God abandoned Him?

Those are the real mysteries of God.  That’s the truth God wants us to open our eyes to.  The mystery has been revealed.  God redeemed the loneliness of our world by becoming the loneliest of all.  God was excluded from God.  The great divide occurred.

And the gap has been closed forever.  The pages will never be blank again.  Self is reunited with self.  The Lord is our vindicator.  The cross has wiped away shame, loneliness, failure and despair forever.  We are all the ambassador of that truth.

And forevermore, we can step out into fields under an open sky and know, really know, majesty.  God will never leave or forsake us.  We find ourselves in Him.  We open up our emptiness to Him and cry out from the depths of our souls.  We surrender.

That’s who we are, Reader.