A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 316: Sunday God Quote from an Atheist

“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.” – Carl Sagan

It may seem counterintuitive to put a quote by an Atheist as your Sunday God Quote of the week. However, I couldn’t help but notice, though I am a Theist, that I agree very much with what Carl Sagan said.

I know that one problem Atheist have with God-believers is this notion of heaven, of an eternal somewhere in the great by-and-by, with streets of gold and shiny angels. It can be especially galling to the Atheist when they see the notion of heaven used to subjugate people, get them to accept their “lot” in life with a promise of something glorious after death. Or when heaven is an excuse to destroy the earth you live on, to strip it bare of resources and pollute it because, after all, it is all going to be burned up and replaced in the end. Or simply because it is too unbelievable, too much of an almost literal pie-in-the-sky mentality that distracts from the reality, both good and bad, of the life and the world we have to live here and now.

Though I am a Christian, have spoken and taught about heaven and the afterlife described in the Bible, have sung lots of songs about eternity and eternal life, and believe in resurrection (a necessity, I find, to accept that “Jesus Christ is Lord” thing), I have never been particularly motivated in my life by a great promise of a Hereafter. To me, the concept of a possibility of a life after this one doesn’t give me my motivation to get out of bed in the morning, to go to work, to love my family, to do good things, to consider people, to work for peace, to take care of my environment, to hug trees (which I do now and again) or snuggle with animals (which I try to do more often than now and again). Heaven is too out there, too vague, too undefined, to be something I cling to on a daily faith basis. And, frankly, I find believers who spend inordinate amounts of time thinking and talking about it kind of annoying. They are so often missing out on the original gift their God has given them: Life. Here. Now. Right in front of their flippin’ nose.

The older I get, the more I find Life fascinating. Perhaps it is because of that creeping sense of mortality. But I am learning not to be afraid of that inevitability, or even to soften the blow by talking of heaven, but to instead realize that if God has given me this time, I have a responsibility to give that time back, to live to the fullest I am capable of living, to embrace my gifts and abilities, to love people without holding anything back. In this way I am in total agreement with Carl Sagan: “Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”

Amen, Carl. Preach it. I may get me a turtleneck or two just to be more like you.

I realize that the concept of Heaven has been very, very important for oppressed people groups or people in terrible straights or conditions. In that kind of circumstance, the pondering of a God who loves you so much as to embrace you and bring you Home one day is lovely and, honestly, comforting. But for a North American Christian like myself, one who has known nothing but religious freedom all my life, who has been given so much, I choose not to focus on Heaven but on earth and on what each day brings to me. Here. Now. Right in front of my flippin’ nose.

Until Death It Is All Life

Ronald Kok, Until Death It i All Life, Craft Foam Mosaic, 2017

 

A Hike to Remember

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I have reached the late stages of my forties. In fact, you can’t get much later: I’m forty-nine. I read recently that suicide rates among men peak in their late forties. Men, as a rule, are far more likely to die from suicide than women and middle-aged men are the highest risk group of all. It has been called “the silent epidemic”. A lot of effort has been placed on understanding and preventing the suicides of teen boys and old men but there has been very little research into the growing and alarming reality of suicide among middle-aged men.

If you are reading this and getting concerned for me… I appreciate that. However, I have not had suicidal thoughts. At least, I don’t believe I have. But I have had some very low times in my late forties when life doesn’t seem to deserve this much effort. There are days I feel like I am running in sand; just exhausting myself and really going nowhere. There are days I think not being here would be a relief. Are those suicidal thoughts? I’m not sure. Certainly, they aren’t pleasant thoughts. Thinking them doesn’t improve my mood or make the day more bearable. And, frankly, it worries me when I think this way. However, I do believe that I understand more where some of those thoughts of ending your own life can come from for men in my age range. We’ve gotten to a point where the young man in us is pretty much gone for good. We still feel pretty good but the image in the mirror doesn’t fit the image in the mind. Many dreams have been set aside for practicalities. Our lives can be dominated by work that doesn’t satisfy, tensions in the family, loneliness on the friends-side of things, and a kind of day-by-day slogging that isn’t terrible but isn’t particularly inspiring either.

By the time men reach middle-age many are cynical and sad. Often it comes out as anger, if it comes out at all. A lot of times it is just swallowed up and kept hidden. That’s the “silent” part of a “silent epidemic”, I believe. Men are not good at talking about things like this and we certainly aren’t good at searching out help.

I don’t want this post to be about this downer of a subject but I bring it up to tell you about my recent revelation. If you’re reading this and can relate or are concerned for someone you love, maybe you’ll find some comfort or help in this. I hope so. Of course, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to something as daunting as this but what I experienced greatly inspired me and so I share it with you in order to, hopefully, inspire you, too.

For me what it took to gain a fresh perspective on my life was a hike in the woods. That sounds kind of simplistic but the thoughts it brought to my mind were anything but that.

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One of the hats I wear is as a part-time pastor to a great group of people who mostly live in small communities south of Ottawa. This August we had a fifth Sunday that we decided to have “off”, i.e., no service was planned. Instead, we gave each other permission to take the day to do what blesses you or others. I didn’t want to waste this opportunity so I decided to do what inspires me perhaps more than anything else: go hiking with a pack on my back and a camera around my neck. I chose to try a trail I’ve never hiked before. The trail was in the Gatineau Hills, a lovely part of La Belle Province ( i.e.,Quebec) just north of my home in Ottawa. A friend had suggested I try the Wolf Trail, an eight kilometer hike that ascends to some of the best views from the Hills, giving a vista over the Ottawa River valley.

I can’t quite describe to you how excited I get when I make the trip out on my own to take on a new trail on a beautiful day. That feeling alone is incredibly life-giving to me. I’ve come to treasure my times in the woods and hills in my area. I’m kind of giddy on those days, to tell you the truth. And I chomp at the bit to get going on the trail. This day at the end of August was no exception. The weather was warm and mostly sunny with no rain in the forecast. Late summer meant the bugs wouldn’t be too bad. And I felt good, ready for some exercise and ready for a new adventure. The trail was rated as “difficult” with lots of climbing but I know how rewarding that can be. I set out fully expecting the refreshing, invigorating experience I’ve had before.

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If you are like me and enjoy spending time outdoors and in the wilderness, you’re probably inspired by a lot of the things that inspire me, too. I love taking big gulps of the air in those places; it is so delicious and filling, so different from the stale air of the suburbs where I live. I take in the trees; I can feel the life in them and I treat them with great respect, considering any forest as their territory, not mine. I love to touch bark as I’m hiking, giving some trees a love tap now and again and even a few muttered “thank you’s” to them for making me feel welcome. The small things grab my attention too: the mushrooms sprouting up, looking very cheeky and bold; the flowers that can be so different here than anywhere else; the crash of acorns bombing down from the trees when the wind picks up; the clapping of birch leaves in the breeze. Occasionally I come upon wildlife: a beaver swimming along, a woodpecker knock knock knocking, a chipmunk making way too much noise for such a small critter. All these things and many more are priceless to me. They fill me with wonder and make those hikes feel suspended in time. So often I have felt so thankful as I’m hiking and as I leave a place. God is good; this place can be achingly beautiful; my life is okay after all.

The hike I made most recently was full of all these things and I was soaking them up as usual. But as I hiked I became more and more aware of something else, something I haven’t focused on so intently before and something I’ve come to believe was the reason I was given that chance to hike that trail. With each step, each passing minute, I became more and more aware of myself; not so much my inner life, my thoughts and things like that but aware of myself in a bodily sense; aware of my breathing, my sweat, my senses alive to everything around me. I became aware of my feet on the ground, my muscles working to help me navigate roots and rocks. I became aware of my eyes taking in colors and shades, the depth and variety around me. I became aware of my ears taking in the vast amount of sounds available when the noise of “civilization” is removed. My skin was wet with sweat, cooling me as the effort became greater. I marveled at my body’s ability to do what I was asking it to do and to do all those things I take for granted. I tuned in to my heart beat; I felt the itch of a mosquito bite on my forearm; I noted the trickle of perspiration down the back of my neck.

I was acutely aware that I was gloriously alive.

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There is a psalm of David in the Bible, Psalm 139, that contains this famous phrase: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made”. The “fear” mentioned here isn’t like the fear of spiders or the fear of falling or the fear of falling on a spider. David is talking about awe. He’s talking about that overwhelming feeling of being in the presence of something that takes your breath away, something that seems too great and too incredible to describe in just words. The thing creating awe in this instance is the creation known as humankind; specifically the human known as David as he pondered the creative power and majesty of his God.

This is as close as I can come to expressing the feeling I had that day on the Wolf Trail. I realized that I was awesomely made, that I was an incredible creation of the Creator, just like all the incredible creations around me that day. And I realized that I loved being alive. I loved the truth of my days, here and now, in this moment; the reality and immediacy of this instant. And I found myself celebrating that and feeling awe.

So often we talk about sensing your mortality as a depressing thing. So often religious people denigrate the “flesh” in favor of elevating the “spirit”. So often we complain of aches and pains, of getting older, of dealing with things like humidity, mosquitoes, and sore feet. But that day I felt an overwhelming sense of my mortality and it filled me with joy: I get to live and I get to experience this life. My days are a gift, not a burden. After all, I have no idea how long I have for this world. Each day is a treasure. Be thankful for those aching muscles, those beads of sweat, those hunger pangs: It means you are alive! Be thankful for each step of this hike: It means you are on a journey! Where are you going? Where will it end? That day on that new trail, I had no idea. That very fact was exciting for me. So why would it not be the same in my life as a whole?

We get so caught up with what we don’t have, with destinations that seem far off, that we completely miss the thrill of the trail and the gift of each moment. That thought hit me with startling clarity that day in the Gatineau Hills.

I know a life can’t be spent hiking through the woods. I know this kind of day comes along rarely. I know that dark thoughts might very well creep in again. But I want that time of clarity to remain with me as something I can access at times when I feel the burden of living. Life can be heavy, to be sure, yet there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like life. And I would rather get the opportunity to live that life than to wallow in a kind of non-life, an existence of regret and what-might-have-been. I can’t change where I’ve already walked but I can change how I approach what’s ahead.

God give me the awe I need. Fill me with wonder. Remind me that life is short but worth every moment of it.

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God, Good Fortune and My Kleenex Buddy

 

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I am just getting over a nasty cold. By my side through many hours of the fight has been my “Kleenex Buddy” (as my wife calls it), a brightly colored box of tissues. What is unique about this box is that it has Chinese characters on the side which, supposedly, mean “Good Fortune”.

As I shnorked my nose into another tissue from this buddy of mine the irony of those Chinese characters was not lost on me. “Ah, Good Fortune… Phhhhhhsssnnnaaaaaarchhhh!!!!”

I know, I know; it is just a cold. It isn’t SARS or Swine Flu or Typhoid or the Whooping Cough or the Black Plague. But when you’re sick, you’re sick and it is a tall order to see where Good Fortune is hiding amid the increasing pile of snot-filled detritus littering the floor at your feet.

However, having to look at that tissue box for the last few days has got me thinking: What does Good Fortune mean anyway? Luck? Fate? Seems like a nice thing to wish on someone but it is awful tenuous. It doesn’t feel very solid or sure; like the “Have a Nice Day” you receive in the robotic tone from the underpaid and underworking young person at the grocery checkout.

If my life really depended on Good Fortune maybe, possibly, hopefully happening but maybe not… well, that is just a bit depressing. And why should I experience Good Fortune when my neighbor just received a diagnosis of cancer or the guy I know at church rolled his car in a ditch or a family member of mine struggles with a debilitating mental illness?

Maybe I’m dwelling too deeply on my Kleenex Buddy. Maybe all that snot-expelling loosened up my brain a bit. It’s likely.

Have I experienced Good Fortune in life? It’s hard for me to say “Yes” to that because Good Fortune feels accidental and I don’t believe things happen accidentally. Sure, there are accidents in life and these include happy accidents. But even then I don’t believe those are somehow outside the plan, outside the purpose of my life. I don’t believe in an impersonal something that either does or does not bestow good things on my life. I believe in a personal God who is Good; and that God has a plan for me. Does that mean I understand it all, that I don’t have doubts, that I feel solid and sure every waking hour that my life is in His big and capable hands? Of course not. My life is like your life: At times it feels like I’m almost touching heaven and at other times like I am totally adrift in a leaking life raft in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by circling sharks the size of semi-trucks.

But choosing to believe in a Good God instead of Good Fortune puts my life under the auspices of the One who is love, who doesn’t create anything by accident, who doesn’t get blown back and forth by the whims of Fate or by my pathetic human whims either.

By believing in this Good God do I mean to say that nothing but good will come my way? No. Hell, no. I don’t believe in a Good God who has my personal happiness as his #1 priority. I believe in a Good God who has a Master Plan for all of Creation and I just happen to be an infinitesimal but integral part of what He is up to. That thought makes me feel very humbled and exalted all at the same time. Weird but true. God loves me but it also is not about me. He knows me personally but my personal fulfillment doesn’t trump the Fullness of His purposes.

More deep thoughts coming from a box of tissues. That rattling sound you hear is my brain.

I could be diagnosed with cancer one day. I could have any untold number “bad” things happen to me in the days, months, years I have left. That still doesn’t change the Good about my God. And it doesn’t change the good about my life.

I’m not trying to be morbid but if it all ended for me today…

I have been deeply loved by so many people. I have an awesome family that laughs long and loud and sings together. I have felt the profound love of one woman who I am bound to in this trip through life together. I have seen my two kids being born and have experienced the extreme sport that is fatherhood. I have traveled to Africa, Europe, around North America. I have climbed to the top of Pike’s Peak. I have created artwork and acted on stage and banged on guitar strings while singing my lungs out with a “Hey, Ho”! I have preached the Word. I have been witness to the death of my Mom and not been afraid. I have felt so much Good, so much God. I have lived. That is enough.

Life is never easy for anyone. But it can be so Good.

Life can blindside you with trouble. But God’s eyes are always on you.

That is solid. That is sure. That is what I choose to believe.

So Good Fortune to you? Nah… I’ll wish you instead a lifetime supply of a Good God for however long that lifetime is for you or for me.

Peace & Love, all.