What in the World are Spirits?

You may not know this, but I’m a bit of a board game enthusiast. Yes, I’m self-aware enough to know I’m a nerd. Ever since being introduced to Dominion in college, I’ve often been searching for newer and even crazier games to play with friends and family. And I have accrued quite a collection over the past few years. Codenames, Avalon, Pandemic, Puerto Rico, you name it… But there’s been one game in particular that I found this past year and boy has it been a joy to play. The game is Spirit Island.

For those of you who have never heard of it, it’s like a mix between Dominion, Pandemic, and Settlers of Catan. Hopefully I didn’t lose all my readers there. It’s the perfect game for millennials because the spirits of the island are teaming up with the island natives to fend off those oppressive European settlers who intend to settle and blight the island. Hopefully I didn’t lose all of you by now because this isn’t a board game review. Although this is one of the highest rated games and I do recommend it!

I think Spirit Island provides illustrations of the widely held views of what spirits were to ancient people. They were those invisible forces of nature that tribal people used to believe in. They were the mysterious entities crafted by our older generations before they had the ability to disprove their existence through science. They were the result of person-hood being assigned to the elements like fire, water, and lightning. These phenomenons that they experienced at the time but could not explain in any other way.

Maybe that’s what our ancestors thought. I’m sure that is what some of them in fact did think. But maybe there’s a bit more to this idea of spirit as well.

If you consider yourself a Christian, you will likely have to ask yourself what to make of the references to spirits within the Bible. And even if you’re not a Christian, you’re probably wondering why those Christians believe in spirits at all? I mean the Holy Spirit is right in the Trinity right? It’s kinda a big deal. Yet, speaking for myself personally, for many years I have avoided giving this question sufficient consideration. Maybe you have as well.

What made me initially want to become a Christian was my adoration for who Jesus was. The way he interacted with people. The wisdom he shared. The love he said he had for me and everyone else when he gave over his life in his execution. Isn’t it adoration that makes us want to follow anyone? I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t at least like Jesus. They may not like Christians, and I understand why, but Jesus himself, tends to be a pretty likable figure for many people today.

Yes, some of you may say I was suspending disbelief to put my faith in a man who died and rose again. The resurrection is as much today, as it was then, a mystery and a miracle worthy of debate and doubt. But I was at a point where I decided Jesus was worth following, he was the basket I was willing to put my eggs in, and I would see where it would lead. But I wouldn’t at the time suspend my disbelief on spirits. It just wasn’t something I was giving much thought to at the time.

I have often struggled or avoided this topic of spirits. To me, spirits were similar to the topics of angels and demons, which have unfortunately been represented often in a manner similar to that depicted in The Emperor’s New Groove with an angle and a devil on each shoulder telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. I mean c’mon, it’s clear to everyone today that this was an antiquated way of representing what we now know is our consciousness. It can be reduced to a bunch of synapses and neurons firing at all times.

As an engineer, someone who has spent much time in mathematics and the sciences, how could I believe in these spirits? There’s no proof of them. Nothing materially to show they exist. If it weren’t for their prevalence in the Bible, I probably wouldn’t be wrestling with this question. But here I am. I cannot continue to kick this can down the road. For myself, I needed to give some more thought to the topic. And before that question of who the Holy Spirit is could be answered, I had to ask what in the world spirits even are.

what spirits do we have today?

When you hear the word “spirit” in what context is it often used today? School spirit possibly? Team spirit? The type of spirit associated with Halloween that floats around like a ghost? Wine and spirits? Spirit fingers?

According to Google NGram, the use of the word spirit, not surprisingly, has diminished in use over the past couple centuries. I know I personally don’t use the word often and would often turn my head sideways when I met someone who did. But it’s with this diminished use of the word that I believe there’s been a loss of understanding of what in the world “spirit” even means.

If we consider uses of the word like team spirit and school spirit, I think we can start to get an understanding of what spirits may be. As a Penn State alum, I know full well what school spirit looks like. There are few experiences that compare to that of watching a Penn State football game with over 100,000 other Penn State fans at Beaver Stadium. People screaming their heads off. Giving up their entire Saturday to tailgate, eat food, yell chants, sing the Alma Mater and show up shirtless for a November game. The same school spirit that causes people to lose sleep for days when Joe Paterno was fired. How do you define that school spirit? Is there a scientific way for representing what that school spirit is?

Or consider team spirit. I’m sure many of us have taken part in a team sport, musical ensemble, or worked with a group of people at multiple times in our lives. There are different feelings associated with each group. Maybe times where everyone “gels together” and maybe times where there is clashing and infighting amongst the group. Is there a way that this team spirit can be quantified or measured? I don’t know that it can.

Maybe instead of spirit, we would call these “values”, or more broadly “ideas”. But I think the problem with using the term value or ideas is that we often state that we have values or ideas. Yet Carl Jung, a well-known psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, flipped this notion on its head and said “People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.” I think this quote is quite relevant for explaining how we experience values, ideas, and even things like team or school spirit.

How responsible are we for adopting these spirits or values? It didn’t take much effort at all for me to hop on the Penn State school spirit train or to want to belong to the teams I have participated in over the years. Do we possess these values or ideas, or could it possibly be that these values, ideas, or, dare I suggest, spirits have us?

Consider the dark side of these so-called spirits. Is it that hard to say that a spirit colonized the people of Germany leading up to and through World War II? We’re not talking about a few people here. We’re talking about millions of people who fell in line with what turned out to be a horrific viewpoint. To them at the time, it was completely rationalized, yet look at the fruit that spirit produced. They were in a sense controlled by what we would term an evil ideology today. This isn’t to absolve individuals of responsibility, but to demonstrate how people can passively, and sometimes actively, absorb these mindsets and ideologies. Is it hard to say that maybe “spirit” would be an appropriate term for this example that is comparable to the team and school spirits we discussed previously?

Or even spirits within families? As children, aren’t we largely passive in our intake of the spirits of the very relationships of our parents, siblings, extended family members and communities? Are there not “spirits” that occupy the interpersonal spaces and relationships that we breathe in every day of our childhoods? When we say “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” can we not see that there is often some momentum within family dynamics that can be difficult to overcome? Can we not ascribe the word “spirit” to this constantly evolving (both positively and negatively) interpersonal space that affects us all?

These spirits aren’t quantifiable. They cannot be measured. They are unseen to the naked eye. But I think we can all admit they exist. We may call them values. We may call them ideologies. We may even give them the name essence. Could their fluidity, invisibility, potency, and ability to (again dare I say) possess people make them worth considering more deeply?

If you followed me to that point, then the next step beyond that would be assigning these spirits personhood. I realize that’s no small leap in assumptions. I’m not sure I’m there yet myself. But when one looks at the spirits that contend for our allegiance in political, familial, and societal spheres of life, I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to think there may be some credibility to the statement that a spiritual world exists. I was struggling with this idea of spirits before, but I think I’m slowly starting to see that maybe they just look different than the ones in Spirit Island. Maybe, just maybe, there’s some legitimacy to this whole spirit thing.

Who is the Holy Spirit?

I wouldn’t say I was an avid reader growing up, but there were several books that I thoroughly enjoyed reading as a child. The Lord of the Rings, The Hardy Boys, and Harry Potter come to mind immediately. When I first read them, I appreciated these books simply for the story. The joy of an unforeseen plot twist in the Hardy Boy mysteries. The constant evolution and unfolding of characters like Severus Snape. And the freedom to imagine new worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize these books contain more than just the stories themselves and have started to appreciate the author behind the story more and more. .

Similar to authorship, someone without going through proper education and training cannot just wake up one day and be an architect and design a house that will both stand and be aesthetically pleasing. And someone cannot instantly become a composer and write a piece of music worth listening to without some type of instruction. There are years of developing the skill and accumulating experience that leads to the final piece of art. I’m blown away by the creativity of these authors and am impressed with their ability to construct such poignant stories. I wish I could craft a story like the ones I read growing up, but it could not just happen by chance as The Simpsons so aptly illustrate in this clip.

In a way, the work of art is an extension of the artist. The house in some way takes on the character of the architect. Music takes on the character of it’s composer. The narrative takes on the character, or essence, of it’s author.

revising an old post

One of the first posts I ever had on my blog was “The Relationship of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter.” It seemed like the most fitting story to write about, as I was a big Harry Potter fan as a kid.

I was the type of fan who was waiting in line at the bookstore before the store opened to pick up my reserved copy of each book when it was released type of fandom.

The type of fan that would forgo sleep to read each book in a matter of days.

The type of fan that went to the Barnes & Nobles midnight release party for the seventh and final book.

The type fan that dressed up as Harry Potter himself (and in my opinion pulled it off well) for Halloween! Sorry Ashley and Alex for not running this by you beforehand. Nice cat ears by the way Alex.

The whole post was intended to share an interesting illustration of God the Father and God the Son that I had stumbled upon. The premise of the illustration was that the only way Harry Potter could know who J.K. Rowling is would be if she were to write herself into the story. Then, and only then, Harry Potter would be able to know his author. The realization for me being that the only way to truly know the author of our story, would be for that author to write him or herself into human history. As Paul says in Colossians 1:15, “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” Christ took on human nature to reveal himself and walk alongside people to show who the author (if we stick with the analogy), God the Father, is.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over seven years since I published that post. Within that time, my thoughts on this analogy have changed. Not that I think it’s a wholly inaccurate illustration but that it’s incomplete. The Father and the Son, although being incredibly complex on their own, seem to be easier to grapple with than the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, which I completely omitted in that post.

The Holy Spirit has often been mysterious, difficult to understand, and rarely discussed specifically, especially in our culture. Even as a regular church attender, I rarely hear much time dedicated to understanding probably the most obscure Person of the Trinity. And yet, the Holy Spirit is mentioned throughout the Bible from beginning to end. If you’ve been baptized, we are told that it is symbolic of being baptized with the Spirit. And that you have been given the Holy Spirit to dwell within you. What in the world does any of this mean? What is it that the Holy Spirit is doing? And who exactly is the Holy Spirit? I know these questions have been some of the most difficult for me to answer personally.

In my last post, I started exploring what spirits are. “Spirit” is no longer in our vernacular, and is probably indicative of why the Holy Spirit gets so little conversation in our culture. Spirits are similar to what we would call values or ideologies today. They are dynamic and invisible and are shared and developed within interpersonal spaces. Spirits can influence individuals, families, communities, and nations in both positive and negative ways.

But I think to really begin to see how spirits, and the Holy Spirit specifically are at work in the world, we need to explore what this word “spirit” has meant historically.

the root of the word “spirit”

Our use of the word spirit today derives from the Latin word “spirare,” which means “to breathe”. There are many other words that we use today that come from this same root that we probably wouldn’t associate with the word “spirit.” Aspire means to “breath on”, or to work towards a goal. Conspire is to “breath together” or craft a plot together. Inspire is to “breath into”. And even respiration, or to “breathe again” comes from this same root word “spirare.”

So what in the world does “spirit” have to do with breathing, and is this just another one of those weird aspects of the English language that our word spirit would be associated with this Latin root that seems unrelated?

Surprisingly the answer is an emphatic “No.” This isn’t just a “the English language is weird” thing. The Greek and Hebrew words for spirit were “Pneuma” and “Ruach,” respectively and both of these words were used to represent the words breath, spirit and wind. While in English we have separate words for all three of these, the Hebrew and Greek languages have one word that means all three. That breath, spirit, and wind were all related to one another within these cultures.

And this is consistent with how the Holy Spirit is depicted throughout the Bible. The Spirit hovering over the waters at the beginning of creation. God breathing life into the nostrils of Adam. God breathing life into the dry bones in Ezekiel. The Holy Spirit descending like a dove onto Jesus at his baptism. Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. The loud wind that is associated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This imagery is even used for those born of the Spirit.

"The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." - John 3:8 -

From the vantage point of the writers of scripture, they saw the wind, breath, and spirit as one and the same, animating and giving life to the world around us. It sounds very mystical and like an antiquated way of looking at the world. But should it be?

the “trinity” in harry potter

Sticking with the Harry Potter analogy, consider that part of J.K. Rowling’s essence is found in every word, every sentence, and every chapter that moves the plot line. Her character, her values, her dreams, her aspirations, and her experiences are distilled and breathed into these books and animate the characters bringing this fictional world to life. That if J.K. Rowling were to write herself into the story, we could see a similar “trinity” in play. J.K. Rowling as the author, J.K. Rowling as the character within the Harry Potter story line, and the dynamic “spirit” of J.K. Rowling that permeates through and inspires the entire story line to bring about her desired plot line.

For Augustine, an early Christian theologian from the 4th and 5th centuries, love served as the best example he could use for the Trinity.

“Now when I, who am asking about this, love anything, there are three things present: I myself, what I love, and love itself. For I cannot love unless I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. So there are three things: the lover, the loved and the love.”

The person of the Holy Spirit only becomes more beautiful when we consider His role within the Bible. God’s Holy Spirit emanates from this relationship between the Father and the Son and it’s what gives life to the very story we are a part of. It’s similar to J.K. Rowling’s love for Harry Potter, and that love manifesting itself in what I think is a very beautiful and well-written story revolving around him.

And just like how J.K. Rowling worked through Dumbledore, Snape, Hermione, Ron, and a host of other characters to carry out this storyline, God has invited us to breathe in His Holy Spirit. He has invited us to allow Him to dwell within, motivate and empower us as He carries out his story. Not that this is the only spirit we are inspired by, but that it is the one spirit that gives life and blows us like the wind towards the things in keeping with who God is.

Maybe this is all sounds weird and strange. I would completely understand anyone who felt that way as I clearly couldn’t have articulated the Holy Spirit this way seven years ago when I first attempted this illustration. For me, this recent shift in my perspectives on the nature of God and specifically His Person of the Holy Spirit has been life giving. The ability to rest and not feel like it’s all in my power. And the ability to “test the spirits” as John would say and see what’s worth breathing in.

I’m sure many of us heard the old adage growing up “You become what you eat.” May I suggest one slightly modified? Maybe that you become what spirits you breathe in? The questions then are, “Is there an author to this crazy thing we call life?” and “Do you trust the author enough to breathe in their spirit and allow them to work through you?”

Quick disclaimer

I’ve heard it said that theology is like a map. The maps we use are scaled down and smaller representations of the actual world. It’s this smaller size that allows us to use the map. And the map hopefully has sufficient details for our purposes of navigating the world. Likewise, this illustration is not a complete and exhaustive depiction of who the Holy Spirit is. It is a reduction, or a map, that for me helps me to navigate my relationship with God. And my hope is that it helps you. And hopefully over time, that map becomes more detailed, more vibrant, and more accurate.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:12

Let me know your thoughts and if you have any other helpful ways you have found to explain the Holy Spirit.

Jordan Peterson and the Question of Belief

Within the past few months I stumbled upon Jordan Peterson. And by “stumbled” I mean, I was binge watching his videos for pretty much all of November and December last year once I was introduced to him. Some of you may know exactly who I am referring to and I’m sure many of you have no idea who he is as well.

Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist from Canada, who is known for his contributions to conversations on psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. His videos with Joe Rogan and a contentious and laughable TV interview with Channel 4 News are a couple of the videos that gained him a significant following. Also his highly publicized book entitled “12 Rules for Life” has sold over 3 million copies so far.

His personal YouTube channel has nearly 2 million subscribers and one of his most popular lecture series on the stories of Genesis consists of two-hour-long videos each with hundreds of thousands of views and in some cases millions. He captured the attention of so many people, who never would have ever considered listening to approximately 40 hours of lectures on the Bible, and presented the stories in a more sophisticated manner than many of us experienced in Sunday school. I found them to be incredibly fascinating (especially the one on Cain and Abel) and I linked one of my favorite excerpts from his lectures below to give you a quick peek into who he is.

He never claims to be a theologian but sought to demonstrate the value in these older texts and the lessons that could be learned from reading them. He never even claims to be a theist, atheist, or agnostic during his conversations. The result of his lecture series though, among his many other interviews and lectures, is that people have been reconsidering their own personal beliefs and worldviews. And not just that, there are many cases of people being lifted out of depression and nihilism. So what the heck is going on with this guy and the people who are listening to his lectures?

At the end of each lecture, he would have a time for attendees to ask questions. And one of the most common questions he gets presented with is “Do you believe in God?” It’s a personal question. It is a question so often asked to determine which group are you in. Do you belong to the Christian, agnostic, or atheist communities or a different faith group all together? We like to delineate ourselves and see if we’re rooting for the same teams. Especially with all of the success and publicity he has received recently, there are many people clamoring to hear him identify with their group.

I’m sure at some point in our lives we have all been asked this exact question. Sometimes we’re prepared to give an emphatic “yes” or “no”, or maybe we cringe a bit at the question and evade an answer out of fear of how our answer will be received. Many have felt pressured into saying they believe something that inside they really don’t believe. Or maybe among friends and family, there is a pressure to say we do or don’t believe in a God, because the alternative answer would be unpopular or shameful.

Jordan Peterson, put into a similarly awkward position, however gives quite an interesting response. He most often replies to this question with the response “It depends what you mean by ‘God’ and it depends what you mean by ‘believe’?”

His response initially seems like a cop out. “C’mon man… just answer the question!” But I think as you listen to his lectures you realize the genuineness with which he says it and the deeper reasoning behind the response.

The word “God” can mean so many different things to so many different people. Do you mean the old white dude up in the clouds standing behind the pearly gates? Do you mean white Jesus with the dashing brown hair and those spiffy brown sandals who’s everybody’s best friend? Do you mean that judgmental God who is willing to let people burn in hell because they didn’t obey the rules? Do you mean the Jesus who would be taking part in social justice parades today or rocking a MAGA hat? Or a different God from a different religion all together?

And what about the question of “What do you mean by belief?” Is it just a verbal proclamation? Is it mostly an intellectual posture? Is it a matter of how we act? Is belief a one-time occurrence in our lives where we say the magical prayer so we get an out-of-jail free card to go to heaven?

To answer “Do you believe in God?” with a simple “yes” or “no” requires so many assumptions that we may be completely misunderstanding each other when discussing the topic. I think that is why Jordan Peterson responds the way he does. And I think it’s for this reason that he has gained so much popularity. Jordan Peterson elaborates in over 40 hours worth of these lectures that God and belief, among many other topics, are not so simplistic, that there is more nuance to the conversation, and he allows his listeners to explore their own ideas.

The Bible is full of stories of people’s understanding and knowledge of God changing as they experienced him. Even the disciples, those closest to Jesus, had their understanding of who God was completely changed within the last week of his life. Jordan Peterson, though not a self-proclaimed Christian, is wrestling in front of everyone with who he thinks God is and it has been changing people in incredible ways, myself included. 

And dare I say that we can look elsewhere than the Bible to gain an understanding and knowledge of God? I think Jordan Peterson’s contention with the tragedies of the 20th century and watching his own daughter struggle with debilitating health issues that has shaped his understanding the way it has. 

Jordan Peterson in one of his interviews said that he avoids answering this question with a simple “yes” or “no” because he isn’t even scratching the surface in his forty hours of biblical lectures. That takes humility to admit that honestly. And I think it’s his authenticity that really makes people gravitate to his messages. He doesn’t provide an exhaustive explanation of who God is or what it means to believe because he can’t, and if we’re being honest, none of us can. 

I agree with so much of what he says but not everything. But that’s not really the point. He’s clearly struck a chord with so many that were longing for this type of long-form conversation on God and meaning within our lives. It’s been absent for so many of us and I think there’s been a longing for it. I would highly recommend watching his videos, especially if you’re within the church, because I think there are many things to be learned from him from how he has conversations, the insight he can give into the psychology of the human mind, and a fresh outsiders view on the value of these stories.

Maybe we can all revel a little more in the mystery surrounding who God is. Maybe it’s okay for us to admit just how little we know and be willing to ask tough questions. Maybe it’s in the seeking out of who God is that we will find the deepest and most profound answers. Maybe Jordan Peterson just might be helping this younger generation take a step back and really assess what we all believe in and what “belief” really means. 

The Lenses Through Which We See the World

Once a year I have to go see the optometrist. Each year it’s the same old tests. “What are the smallest letters you are able to read?” To which I always reply, “I cannot read the big E without my contacts.”

I’m usually laughing as I mention it because I know it’s an E but it just looks like a blob. If it weren’t for contacts and glasses, I would have a hard time believing I would still be alive today. Tough to imagine that I wouldn’t have walked out into traffic or off a cliff by this point. Thank goodness for technology and for specialists who have been trained to help people like me attain eyesight. I wouldn’t be able to function through life otherwise.

While we all may vary in our level of independence, we all to some degree or another depend on others. That is unless your a hermit tucked back in the middle of the woods. But you wouldn’t be reading this blog post if that were the case….

Anyway, many of us see specialists to help us through all sorts of aspects of our lives. Doctors, financial advisers, and gym trainers are perfect examples. But they can’t do everything for us. Even though we oftentimes rely heavily on their expertise, we almost always still have a role to play. Doctors may recommend a treatment plan, but often it requires us to follow through on the recommended modifications and sometimes significant lifestyle changes to realize the desired health outcome. Financial advisers may recommend savings plans and investment strategies to get you to where you want to be financially in the future, but it requires discipline to stay to a budget and a commitment to achieve those financial goals. Gym trainers can encourage and push you through their recommended exercises to improve your health and conditioning, but ultimately you need to push yourself to actually complete the exercises and say no to that third Yum Yum Donut.

Our wants and needs drive us to pursue the assistance of others if we are unable on our own to meet our needs. We start planning for the future, knowing that we want to help pay for our child’s tuition in the future or save for a new house, and seek the assistance of a financial planner to get there. We go through the holidays and pack on the pounds and then realize maybe I should get a trainer to lose this weight and keep it off. Recurring illnesses or pain may drive us to finally visit the doctor for a diagnosis.

Until we recognize the need or want, the need for assistance is not evident. More often than not though, the earlier the need is recognized and corrective actions are taken, the greater the outcome in the long run. Establishing good financial, exercise, and health habits at an early age is of much more benefit than waiting until later.

So this got me thinking, what want or need are people like mentors, life coaches, psychiatrists and pastors addressing? And I’m not talking about the life coach who helps you brush your teeth and not act like a snowflake. I’m talking about the life coach who helps feed you the thoughts that drive you to push through the daily grind. To get up in the morning with a purpose and be able to keep pushing through life. Because it can be a grind at times.

Now I realize there can be significant differences between all of these people. There are substantially different qualifications for being a life coach, a mentor, a pastor, and a psychiatrist. But I think there is some significant overlap in the roles these people play in the lives of others.  Paul Vanderklay, a pastor who runs his own YouTube channel, which I would highly recommend, defined his role as a pastor as “helping people align their story with the story of others and the story of the Bible.” Now, this is not necessarily a post about pastoring. For the purposes of generalizing this for all mentors, life coaches, and spiritual leaders we could replace “the story of the Bible” part of his quote with “a framework or lens through which we see the world.”

Our story can be quite complex. There have been things within our control and many things out of our control. Highs and lows. Both comedic and tragic moments. Mistakes made and incredible feats accomplished along the way. Maybe there have been unrealized dreams or everything we could ever need has been handed to us. Each of our stories, though they may share some similarities, are incredibly unique.

The stories of others, although often hidden beneath the perfect facade of social media and our “put-together” behavior in public, often have many of the same elements that ours do. Pain, happiness, hardship, joy, strife, love, peace, war, injustice… The more you listen to other peoples stories and study history, the greater sense you get of how difficult and complex this world has been, continues to be, and always will be. A visit to the Holocaust museum or a brief study of the 20th century is all it needs to be overwhelmed with the heaviness of the human condition.

Today more than any other time in history we are confronted with, more often than not, the worst of the worst stories in the world. Mass casualty shootings, natural disasters, the spread of disease, wars, kidnappings and murders, sexual predators, corrupted institutions… At no other time in history have we been bombarded with the tragedies of life from across the globe with the frequency and explicitness we do today. It doesn’t take long to see the depravity of this world and how incredibly sad and difficult the stories of humans have been and continue to be.

And this is why I love how Paul Vanderklay defines his role as a pastor. In addition to knowing your own story and engaging with the stories of others is the need to have a framework or lens through which to understand these stories. For those of you who go to optometrists you are probably familiar with a phoropter. (Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know the name for it because I certainly didn’t.)

Closeup of medical equipment in an opticians clinic

The optometrist will continue to change the lenses in front of your eyes and check your vision to see how clearly you read the letters in front of you. The very first lens used usually provides a very low resolution view of the letters, but as additional lenses get added or changed, your vision should improve assuming your seeing an optometrist worth his or her salt.

Likewise, the role of mentors, life coaches, and spiritual leaders in our lives is to help us to find a lens or framework through which we can see our lives and the lives of others in the greatest clarity possible that we can. Easier said than done, because as I stated before this world is incredibly difficult and the more you study the human condition the more complex the framework and precise the lens must be for us to function well. I think more often to not, the emotional, spiritual, and mental turmoil we all experience is almost always due to dissonance between our story, the stories of others, and the framework or lens we are using to view the world.

Maybe we haven’t dealt with an aspect of our story and really gotten to the root of an issue. Maybe we’re so disconnected from others, that our story gets out of alignment of the shared human experience or we lose an understanding of others and what it means to relate with them. Or maybe our framework through which we view ourselves and others is incompatible with our life. Maybe the lens through which we view the world is directing us in a direction that does not lead to the betterment of our story, or to a life that is compatible with the rest of humanity.

Similar to the optometrist changing out lens as they are determining our prescription, we can all be modifying our frameworks to try understand the world, and I think that’s so often done best with the assistance of others. As we talk through our lives and really dig into our perceptions of the world, the low resolution frameworks like happiness, popularity, power and money being the meanings of life will inevitably have to be replaced by higher resolution lenses through which we can see the world if we will ever be able to handle the complex and difficult stories that we all share. And who knows, maybe that new worldview that we adopt can take us beyond a state of just coping with the difficulties of life and extend to a greater appreciation of what existence has to offer.

We may never get a 20/20 vision of the world, but here’s to hoping we can all at least read the big E of life, whatever that may be, and continue to refine our worldview from there. And don’t be afraid to reach out to someone for guidance. We all need guidance whether we wish to admit it or not. Just like the optometrist is saving me from blindly walking into traffic or off a cliff, that person, or those people may help us from falling into the deepest pits of life. We have a role to play in figuring out our way but we weren’t meant to figure this out on our own. 

Longing for Something Different

This past year has seemed especially difficult. Natural disasters, international tensions, shootings, bombings, all on top of our personal hardships that wear us down repetitively. And while it seems like this year has been particularly difficult, which I believe it has been, these hardships have always been a component of the story-line.

Just a couple weeks ago we remembered the terrible event 12 years ago, that shook our nation and demonstrated just how evil man can be and just how much pain a people can endure. And this isn’t by any means the lone instance of this. Just think back to history class when we learned of all of the suffering that has occurred in the history of mankind, let alone just in the past century.

Oppressive leaders, sex-trafficking, child abuse, poverty, racism, hunger, disease and illness, war, genocide, slavery, domestic violence…. Our news is saturated with hard times, sad stories of pain, and the cruel actions of so many people. But is this new? Has there ever been a peaceful time? A time without pain, or hardship, or suffering? A time where everyone treated everyone else with complete respect and received the same?

It seems like a lofty thing for us to ask of humanity (this whole peace and love thing), and yet isn’t that what we hope for? Why do we feel as if the world should be different if this is all we’ve experienced? Hardships, pain, and turmoil is “normal”, the only thing we’ve known, and yet we long for something different. It’s like desiring apple pie when you haven’t tasted apples or pie before.

So have you personally ever noticed this gap? Have you longed for a better world despite the repetitive failure of our circumstances to even come close to meeting that expectation. If many people desire an ideal world, which I believe many of us do, it says a lot about who we are. Exhausted, we may start to give up hope, but even if we start to accept the status quo, the reality is we still preferred something else. We crave something this world isn’t offering.

So is this “better world” attainable? Is there a legitimate hope that exists for something different than the status quo? And if so, what do we rest our hope in?

Those are the big questions.

I’m going to offer my worldview and I would encourage you to keep reading, and join the conversation.

It was when I saw how messed up this world is, the pain we all endure, my own shortcomings in being a “good” person, and the trouble and hardships I’ve caused others, that I first realized the gap between what I longed for in the world and reality.

I believe that this gap can only be crossed with the help of Jesus Christ, who came and lived a perfect life, and sacrificed himself through death on a cross. God loved us enough to come down as a man, weak, tempted, beaten, mocked, and killed. He suffered like us. He shared in the hardships just so we could know him and know that He loved us and was willing to die for us. He died as an atonement for the mess that exists in our lives that has caused the turmoil and miseries of this world.

Even since Jesus’ death and resurrection, his commandments to love one another and make disciples, has pushed the church into the next chapter of His story-line: to work on restoring this world to how it’s supposed to be. A perfect community with God and one another, and without pain, hardship, suffering, or death. And he promised he would come again to restore this world completely, ridding it of all of its shortcomings.

A peaceful world is what we long for. On our own, we haven’t been able to fix it, but God has entered our story, shared in our suffering, and has offered hope for a better world and a better life for those who follow. He has been, is, and will continue to be working to fix this world. It’s a story that fits what can be observed about this world. It’s a story that offers hope in the midst of sadness and despair. It’s a story that if true, changes everything.

These struggles we go through are real. The pain is real. But there’s hope given that says it’s only temporary and that it will be dwarfed by the happiness and fulfillment of what’s to come. I long for the day, when I experience something different. Much, much, much different.

Changing for Better or for Worse?

Well these past four years sure did go by fast, and upon reflection it’s amazing how much I believe I’ve changed since my freshman year. I can remember auditioning for the Blue Band and then thinking that so much of my self-worth was riding on that result. I remember planning to pursue engineering because I enjoyed the subject, but also because I wanted to live comfortably and this occupation would give me the money to do so. I remember thinking that wearing your dorm key on a lanyard was cool. I couldn’t have been more wrong on all three (especially that last one).

We are constantly changing. Day-to-day we may seem the same person, but really reflect over the past few years or even months and I’m sure there’s something that has changed in your personality, your temperance, your desires, or your dreams. To believe that we are unchanging, that we can’t grow and develop or diminish and decay, can be dangerous. The truth is, we are taking one of those two paths in almost every situation. So are you changing for better or for worse?

First, what are you working towards? What is culminating goal that you have set for yourself? Your final destination dictates the trajectory that you will try to take and therefore should be given much thought. The thing to watch for though is that in pursuit of this goal, does it cause you as a person to grow or deteriorate? Pursuit of happiness, a common goal for people, could lead to the compro In the grand scheme of life though, lanyards are of much less importance than things like relationships and our contributions to our community. The goal you have makes you more aware of the progress or the retrogression you make over time.

Second, what setting are you putting yourself in? A plant placed in fertile soil with plenty of nutrients will often thrive more successfully than when it’s planted in a bunch of rocks. Are you surrounding yourself with groups that instill good values and support for you? I wrote a post before called “The Rule of Five” which talks about this exact topic. The people we surround ourselves with will have a big impact on who we change into.

Lastly, what attitude do you have regarding change? In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. They both go into the temple to pray. The Pharisee was prideful and lists off all of the great things he does and then lists the ways that he is better than the Tax Collector. But the Tax Collector simply humbles himself and asks for mercy. Humility leads to positive change because it allows us to recognize our shortcomings instead of keeping them in the dark. We can always find worse actions of others to compare ourselves to. If we use these actions to justify our actions ourselves entirely we’re in trouble.

This world is changing, and watching the news lately I have been deeply saddened by just how much more pain, violence, deceit, and discouragement there has been lately. We all contribute to how this world changes, for better or for worse and we probably contribute more bad than often we would like to admit. So let’s do our best with what we have because we could always use more people consciously trying to change for the better.

Unanswered Questions

People act weird sometimes… I mean, isn’t it strange some of the habits we have? All of the tendencies and social norms that we adopt as we age. They are natural reactions that are cued by scenarios that we are presented everyday and they are almost all dictated by what society as a whole has deemed “correct” or “wrong.”

Andrew Hales has a whole YouTube channel dedicated to forcing these awkward situations. Here’s a great video of him putting people in one of his socially awkward situations.

As much as I love the awkwardness of seeing how people react to Andrew trying to hold their hand in this video, I think we can easily observe these strange tendencies in an “unfabricated” setting.

The typical classroom situation where the teacher asks, “Does anyone have any questions?” is my favorite. The teacher opens the discussion to anyone in the class to speak up, and students with questions look around unable to get themselves to just raise their hand. Students turn their heads side-to-side, avoiding eye contact with the teacher, and hoping someone will ask their same question so they can get the answer without all the attention of the class. Embarrassed about not knowing everything, we are afraid of just the thought of asking a question. 

Two years ago, two big life questions were constantly on my mind. 1. What is my purpose in this life? And,  2. Why is it that no matter how hard I try, I can’t be as good of a person as I feel I should be? Up to this point, I had refused to address deep questions like this, unable to quote-on-quote “raise my hand” in life, and I enjoyed the simple life where I acted like I knew all the answers afraid to come across as not knowing.

But then I realized, if I don’t ask I’ll never know. Something has to be true. There must be an answer, whether I ask the question or not, and I want to know it. But who do you ask to answer these questions? And if many people claim no one can know the answers to these questions, why ask at all? Sticking with the classroom scenario, if in the classroom the answer to a question could determine whether or not you pass or fail the course would you ask it?

I ran into students at Penn State who lived with a purpose, and seemed to be living a good life and wanting to know what made them different I spent time with them and learned from them. I asked questions. The answer to those two questions came from people I barely knew explaining the story of Christ to me.

This is still the only answer that appropriately answers all of my questions about humanity, this world, our past, our purpose, and what our future will look like. For the first time ever I was in a classroom where I wanted to ask the teacher every question I had and could come up with. And every step of the way that teacher has followed through on answering those questions, because I asked Him.

We all have questions, and there are answers to those questions whether we ask for them or not. And by no means have I had all of mine answered. But in times of doubt He has “conveniently” had me read the stories of Gideon, David, and Thomas, who doubted the existence or plans of God also. Yet God/Jesus was patient with them and helped them step-by-step in overcoming these questions and doubts. He’s not expecting us to understand everything right away. He wants us to ask questions about Him and His purpose for this world and watch as our questions get answered.

I still don’t have all the answers, but I had found where I could get them from and I have never felt more fulfilled than in these moments when I learn from Him. Every day that I spend time reading His Word more truths become visible and present. I believe we all have those moments where truths about this world “resonate.”

Andrew and some of the individuals in that video embraced the awkwardness and some didn’t. I find the ones who play along or have fun remarks afterwards are more enjoyable to watch than those who are annoyed. Are you willing to embrace going against the social norm of staying quiet? Are you willing to ask questions? Are you willing to ask the tough questions? To come across as the person who maybe doesn’t know everything? Because that may be the most freeing decision you ever make in your life. It was for me.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”                                                                                                      – Matthew 7:7-8 –