The Only Legacy Worth Leaving

michael jackson
“I’m an atheist. But I want to leave a legacy. I want my life to leave an impression, an impact, on others after I die.” That’s what one of my young philosophy students told me after class. I told her, “You won’t.” And, by the way, I won’t either. Irregardless of which is true, on neither theism nor atheism will personal legacies be made.

When you die the world will not stand up and take notice. The event of your expiration will go unattended to, except for a few people who will be the equivalent of, perhaps, a hundred grains of sand on the entire Pacific coast shoreline. Out of those hundred grains of sand most will quickly leave your memory behind as they discuss the fried chicken and potato salad at your funeral luncheon.

What about your family? If you were married and your marriage was a good one, your surviving spouse will grieve your loss. The better your marriage was, the easier they will move on without you. If your marriage was lousy, they will lie awake at night filled with the bitterness of unfinished business, words of love never said, pain inflicted and suffered. At times they may wish they could forget you, but they cannot, and the thought occasionally comes to them that they wasted a lot of years being married to you.

The same goes, I suggest, for the children. Before he died my father told me he loved me, and he blessed me with these words: “John, you’ve done well.” My father’s blessing has helped me go on without him. I now think of him, and my mother, occasionally and unpredictably, and I feel thankful for the life and care they gave me.
“But what if I become Michael Jackson? Then, surely, I will be remembered?”
I answer this: “You won’t (become ‘Michael Jackson’).” “You won’t (be remembered personally, and not for very long).” Upon your immediate death your music would be revived and a small group of people will pay to see your your memorabilia. But people will not remember you precisely because they did not know you. And, in this case, you did not even know you, at least as far as we can tell (which isn’t very far). In your death you can rest assured that, even if your post-mortem star briefly shines bright, it’s glory will certainly fade.
I suggest that there is one difference here between theism and atheism worth noting. I explained it to my student in this way. Several years ago I was the speaker at a conference that was held in a retreat center on the Atlantic shoreline. It was winter, and during a long break I walked north on the beach for at least a mile. I don’t often get to see the ocean, and it was my delight to take this walk. It was bitter cold. There was a strong wind blowing, and the waves were surfable. No one else walked the beach that day so when I turned back to the south I saw that the footprints that I had just made were fast-disappearing, and finally gone. “That,” I thought, “is how my life shall be.” So much for any personal legacy. But, I thought, for the theist, the point of this life was never meant to be about personal legacies. If, through my life, the imprint of God is made on people’s lives, then I could not be more pleased.
I’m certain every atheist is not obsessed with leaving their mark on the world. But, sans God, that’s all they have. And that will be microscopic and come to nothing.
I like what Thomas Merton wrote, in closing his autobiography The Seven-Storey Mountain. He writes: “And when you have been praised a little and loved a little, I will take away all your gifts and all your love and all your praise and you will be utterly forgotten and abandoned and you will be nothing, a dead thing, a rejection. And in that day you shall begin to possess the solitude you have so long desired. And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth.”
That is something my soul can rest in.

Needed: Deep People

(Sterling State Park)
Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation makes my personal top ten list of books I have read. I’m slow-reading some of this book this morning, and the result is that I’m being taken into the deep places of the heart where I meet Christ in me, the hope of glory. For me, Merton is an exceptionally good guide in this.
Merton, who died in 1968, was a Trappist monk who spent countless hours praying and meditating on God, Jesus, the Spirit, Scripture, and culture. One reason he had time for this is that he never watched TV – not once, I think. Good for him. And, for us, the beneficiaries. Yet Merton had more insights into life than most people. Merton cultivated discernment and wisdom and real knowledge. He was a deep person. Which is, by the way, what we really need today – more deep persons (rather than internet top-feeders).


Merton died while on a trip to Bangkok, which is where I am going Nov. 12-19. He was accidentally electrocuted in his room.
In New Seeds Merton writes:
“When the time comes to enter the darkness in which we are naked and helpless and alone; in which we see the insufficiency of our greatest strength and the hollowness of our strongest virtues; in which we have nothing of our own to rely on, and nothing in our nature to support us, and nothing in the world to guide us or give us light – then we find out whether we live by faith.”
Nice. Deep. Life-and-death stuff that brings perspective. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding will draw them out.” Merton understood things. To “understand” is, literally, to “stand under.” Which implies: to go deep. To understand one’s own self in the face of God is a very, very deep thing. Self-understanding before God is a necessary prerequisite to understanding others. Remain self-ignorant and you’ll misunderstand others. Why? Because the deeper we go in persons the more we are all the same. If that were not true the Gospel would only be for a few people. The Gospel speaks to us all precisely because it refuses to be shallow and descends into the heart’s deep waters. Merton went there. That’s why, for example, he’s so brilliantly insightful about ontological issues like life and death (per the quote above).
As God took Merton by the hand and led him into the deep waters of his own heart the vastness of the human heart opened up before him, in all it’s majesty and tragedy. This caused Merton to write, e.g., in No Man Is an Island:
“No matter what our aims may be, no matter how spiritual, no matter how intent we think we are upon the glory of God and His Kingdom, greed and passion enter into our work and turn it into agitation as soon as our intention ceases to be pure. And who can swear that his intentions are pure, even down to the subconscious depths of his will, where ancient selfish motives move comfortably like forgotten sea monsters where they are never seen!” (110)
What are life’s important themes? They include: life, death, self, people, trust, fear, hope, faith, knowledge, truth, falsehood, right, wrong, hope, love, and God.
Turn off the TV for a few days. Leave your laptop behind. And your I-phone. Text no one. Meet with God in the depths of your heart. And live.

My Love-Need



I was recently sitting in a restaurant reading John chapters 14-17, looking closely at the verses where Jesus tells us to love one another with the kind of love Father, Son, and Spirit have in the perichoretic union. Then a person walks in that I have not seen in many years. When I saw them a feeling of hatred towards them arose inside of me. I remember the things they did a long time ago that hurt a lot of people. I know these things because, though they did not come to my church, they were pointed my way and came for help. This particular person rejected my counsel and continued to make choices that devasted many people. They crucified a lot of people, including their own family members.

Now, coming though the restaurant door, was this person. Inside me there is this feeling. I’ll call it hatred. I am sure no one would have been able to tell what was happening inside of me. But I knew. And God knew. The God-thought that came to me was: “I have a problem with love.” I know. I’ve known about it for a long time. In my recent times with God my love-problem has been focal, especially over the last six months. Add to this the fact that we are now preaching John 14-17 on Sunday mornings and it all adds up to me being unable to get away from the centrality and supremacy of love.

Love, for Jesus-followers, is not optional. It is, simply, the “greatest” (1 Corinthians 13). Without love a person is “nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Jesus said: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:12-14) It does not take a rocket scientist to understand this logic.

But, I rationalize, this person is not my friend! To this Jesus says, “I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” I hear you Jesus. So just what kind of love do You want from me? Jesus said, “Righteous Father…, I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

I am swimming in the thick, rich teriyaki sauce of God’s deep Triune Love, and gasping for breath, wanting more of it because I have so little God-love in me and because, cognitively, I know that the love of God is the answer for this world today. In Christian theology love comes before power; indeed, before all things. Mercy wins out over judgment. Power-freaks take note: love is the greatest. Power without love is halloween-scary.

I’m asking God to remove the love-mask from my face and transform my heart into His heart. The answer as I now see it is: abide in Him, dwell in Him, trust Him. Jesus’ promise in John 14-17 is that, even though my “love” falls short, He wants to give me His love. “In order that the love you (Father) have for me (Jesus) may be in them (you and me).”

Freedom From Quantitative Worrying

God is helping me get free of quantitative worry. Let me call this QW. QW frets about not having “enough.” “Enough” is defined numerically. QW is worry over not having enough money, not having enough people in one’s church, and not having enough time. QW agonizes over the past and doom-and-glooms over the future. QW cannot live in the present, precisely because the present does not yet have “enough.”
I learned QW from my parents, who acquired it from humanity at large. I remember, as a little child, being told “We don’t have enough money to get this thing we need.” I wasn’t told that a lot. Maybe, for me, once was enough. I was powerless to help my family, and I laid in bed at night worrying about it.
Worry is impotent. When Jesus asks “Why worry about things?” (Matthew 6:25) I respond, “Why, indeed?” “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? (Matthew 6:27) I keep thinking about Jesus saying “Don’t worry about clothes” at a time when most people had only one or two items of clothing to wear, rather than the closet-and-attic-full of clothing I have. The “quantity” of things those people had approached zero. They had little or no money, there were only a handful of people in the Jesus-movement, and their leader was turning things upside-down. So here am I, with a significant quantity of clothing, a quantity of material goods, things that would cause first-century Jews to jaw-drop, one gazillion Facebook friends, and money to go buy a coffee this morning. What, then, is the deal with the QW thing in me? And how can it be overcome?
The answers are:

1) Trust – because in areas where one trusts worry is absent. The amount of worry is in inverse proportion to the amount of trust.

2) Trust in God – because one’s object of trust must be able to provide.

3) Provision – needs are what are needed, not wants.

4) Be free of the consumer god – the message of American consumerism is: “You don’t have enough if you don’t yet have this.”

A while ago I received a call from someone who does not attend my church. They wanted my time. I gave it to them. But I did think, “I’m spending my time on someone who will be of no advantage to me, so this seems to be a waste of my time.” Now that is not the heart of Jesus. It comes from, I believe, a lack of trust that produces the sleepless fruit of worry.

When I am completely purged of QW I will be fully free to spend my life on others. That’s my prayer, and I’m trusting that God is doing this in me.

Religion & the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent



I’m preaching this Sunday on John 14:15-17:

Jesus said: “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”

This week I’m marinating in the teriyaki sauce of these Jesus-words. Here’s one thought…

“If you love me, you will obey what I command,” is a conditional statement. Like, e.g., “If it rains, the ground gets wet.” Both these statements are true. But note this: this statement is not necessarily true – “If the ground gets wet, then it’s raining.” In logic this is called the fallacy of affirming the consequent. So also this statement is not necessarily true: “If I obey what Jesus commands, then I love him.” Maybe. But not necessarily. One could obey, e.g., like the Pharisees obeyed; viz., in some religious sense. The Jesus-idea here is that when one dwells in Jesus (lives within the perichoretic triune-Godhead), then it inexorably follows that one will “obey” what Jesus commands. This is huge, it being all the difference between relationship with God and religious law-abiding duty.

Objective Truth & the “W-Word”

ad hominem


In my MCCC Logic classes I tell the students that, in philosophy, “logic” is about:

1. evaluating arguments

2. arguments are composed of statements (or propositions)

3. a “statement” is a sentence that is either true or false

4. an argument has only one conclusion

5. an argument has one or more premises

6. for an argument to establish (either deductively or inductively) the truth of the conclusion, there must be a “claim of inference” from the premise(s) to the conclusion. That’s the “logic” part of logic.

7. then, if the premises are true, the conclusion follows either deductively (necessarily) or inductively (probably)

When I get to (3) some interesting things happen. I use, as an example of a statement, The lights in this room are now on. That sentence is a statement; viz., a sentence that is either true or false. Now imagine that this statement is true. What that means is that, objectively, the lights in the room are on. Put another way, this means that the statement The lights in this room are now on is true. Now if this statement is true, it is true independently of our human subjectivity. That is, the truth of this statement is not a function of how we think or feel about the lights being on in the room. Even if everyone in the room thought the statement to be false, that would not make the statement false, and we would all be wrong.

Here’s where the trouble begins. My use of the ‘w’ word (“wrong”) strikes a chord of offensiveness. For some of my students it is wrong to say that anyone else is wrong. The w-word marginalizes people into two groups, and that’s wrong to do. My experience is that when I say (3) above, and use the words “So if you were to think that the statement The lights in this room are now on is false when, objectively, they are on, then you would be… wrong.”

Every semester I have students who cannot bear to hear that. They think I am arrogant to call someone else wrong. They think I am wrong to do such things, and some of them walk me to the parking lot letting me know how very wrong I am to talk like that. When I try to tell them that they are using the w-word against me, it is as if they are placed in a position above me and thus can use the w-word in a non-offensive way to let me know how offended they are. Logically, I get ad-hominized.

This kind of response happens within the minds of some, not all, students. Yet it seems to be a moment of stunning revelation to a number of them to hear a professor utter words like “true” and “false.”

Welcome to the world of philosophical logic, which caters not at all to human felings and desires. It is only after truth. Truth is a function of statements. Statements are sentences that are either true or false. You have just finished reading this. Arguably, that is true.

Drawing Close to God This Week

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(*Dim Sum, in New York City. Nov. 2008)

Here’s what I’m doing this week to enter into greater intimacy with the Triune God.

– Setting aside time for just me and God
– Praying “Draw Me Closer, Lord”
– Reading & meditating on John chapters 14-17
– Listening – when God speaks to me I’ll write it in my journal
– Obeying (“If you love me obey my commands”)
– Welcoming the Holy Spirit into my spiritual house (i.e., my heart)

* literally, “touch the heart”

Prayer: Ask Anything In Jesus’ Name

autumn red tree
I spoke this morning on John 14:12-14. Of course these words of Jesus all come in a flowing stream, yet here at Redeemer we’re taking them very slowly, since it seems that in each Jesus-sentence there is a universe of meaning.
For example, John 14:13-14: Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” How are we to understand these words? Here are some bullet-points that I shared this morning.
1) One must understand what Jesus is talking about, and the import of it, when he says “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” This is trinitarian stuff, the perichoretic union of mutual indwelling and interpenetrating and co-inhering. Peri-choresis means: to dance in a circle (from “peri'” [around], and “choresis” [dance; cf. Plato’s use of this word as “cosmic dance” in the Timaeus]. In the Godhead we have the Big Dance.
2) What Jesus says, and what Jesus does, is explained by the perichoretic union of Father, Son, and Spirit.
3) Jesus invites “anyone,” who puts their faith in him, to the Big Dance. This is huge. David Crump of Calvin College states it hugeness when he writes: “Divine union is at the heart of the Gospel of John. Jesus is the one sent from the Father to lead his people into a provocative, new terrain of perichoretic union with God.” (slightly edited by me) The Father comes to make his home in us. Jesus is the vine, the Father is the gardener, and we are the branches. Now what we say and what we do comes from unity with the Godhead.
4) Understand points 1-3 above, and you will understand prayer as: talking with the Godhead about what we are doing together. Real Prayer comes out of the Big Dance. N. T. Wright, in his commentary on John, writes: “Praying ‘in Jesus’ name’, then, means that, as we get to know who Jesus is, so we find ourselves drawn into his life and love and sense of purpose. We will then begin to see what needs doing, what we should be aiming at within our sphere of possibilities, and what resources we need to do it. When we then ask, it will be ‘in Jesus’ name’, and to his glory; and, through that, to the glory of the father himself (verse 13). But, when all this is understood, we shouldn’t go soft on that marvelous word anything. He said it, and he means it.” (64)

The Source of Fruitful Action

Thomas Merton wrote that “a certain depth of disciplined experience is a necessary ground for fruitful action.” (Contemplation in a World of Action) Activity for activity’s sake breeds soul-shallowness. Out of soul-shallowness comes fruitless action. Irrelevancy is the fruit of not listening.

The cultivation of the inner life is a slow-cooker, not a microwave. It is true that, on occasion, God can nuke the human heart such that it fast-forwards in maturity (= fruitfulness). But in general fruit grows slowly, and must be cultivated and attended to. McHearts are cheap; hearts slow-morphed into Christlikeness are thick, expansive, and costly.

Needed: much still-time with God spent listening and meditating on what one hears from God. It is out of this inner place that relevant, fruitful action comes.

Being Like a Child Does Not Mean Perpetual Intellectual Toddlerhood

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In Matthew 18:3 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Part of this is one of those upside-down-kingdom things, since children approached to lower levels of human expendability. To understand Jesus one must give up all self-pretension and all self-aggrandization. It’s instructive to note that this does not mean that one remains, mentally, as a toddler.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, writes:

“Because Christ said we could only get into His world by being like children, many Christians have the idea that, provided you are ‘good’, it does not matter being a fool… Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence: on the contrary. He told us to be not only ‘as harmless as doves’, but also ‘as wise as serpents’. He wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head.”