Holy Dread – What I think I know after Hurricane Michael


Hurricane Michael
Radar snapshot of Hurricane Michael as he made landfall on Oct. 10, 2018.

What follows is my personal, frail attempt to make sense of a devastating event.

Prologue

(because prologues are cool)

While dining at my sister’s house, I sat beside my nephew, Leader, who was seven or eight years old at the time. He is eleven now. Guided by a profound impulse, he decided to ask me a series of theological questions, which he has been known to do at odd times (for example, he once told me I had to “fight the dragon” so that I could become “a king of forgiveness”).

“Unky Adam,” he said.

“Yes?” I said, turning toward him.

“Do you love God more than money?” he asked, his smile as big as a crescent moon.

“Yes,” I said. I went back to my food, thinking that would be the end of it.

“Do you love God more than houses?” he asked, his tenor elevated. He seemed to know well enough that sequels should raise the stakes.

“Yes,” I said.

His smile broadened. I decided not to take the next bite, knowing that another question must follow in the series. To him, it was a kind of game where the questions must be part of a trilogy.

“Do you love God more than the world?” he asked, raising his volume to something like half a notch above inside-voice acceptable decibels.

I waited, wanting to give myself a moment to be honest even if it led to disappointment. Anyone claiming to be a believer would want the answer to be “Yes”. But I gave myself enough time for it to be a cold, cowardly “No” if the truth of my heart demanded it. I gave myself time to fall if fall I must.

“Yes,” I said.

As soon as I spoke, I knew I had done what for me had always been unthinkable. I had made a commitment. Leader smiled bigger, but not because he had trapped me. He smiled in a kind of child-like awe. You see, because I had affirmed my love for God above money, houses, and the world—because of these affirmations of faith, he seemed to think I was some sort of hero.

The Storm

“Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” – Isaiah 8:13, KJV

I am awake when the iOS alert goes off. FIND SHELTER NOW. The sound is a challenge to describe. For me, it invites a sudden onset of nausea. If I manage to sleep, I awake within a few hours drenched in chilled sweat. Earlier this year, in Ecuador, I had descended four flights of hotel stairs to the same sound going off minutes after the building had shaken and swayed—a 6.2 temblor 75 miles west had thus announced itself. Guayaquil has seen worse; the traffic never stopped and we were back in our rooms within the hour.

Fast forward one month later: on October 10, 2018, my city saw the worst.

We fled at exactly 7AM and reached Birmingham just as Michael made landfall as the third worst storm in modern U.S. history and Bay County’s most devastating storm on record. But I have no interest in writing about Michael’s power over physical objects. I am not here to remind you how bad it was—if you live there, grew up there, have family there, then you already know.

No, I am interested in something else. I will tell you now so you can make an early break for the door if the topic seems vaporous, like the kind of nonsense a sage would ramble about while falling asleep in his favorite chair. What interests me is the thing we lose when we rely too heavily on our experience. I am interested in my capacity to feel dread—that ancient enemy of Certainty and one of the oldest friends of Spirit. I am interested in the end of pride and the beginning of wisdom.

Remember that Michael was hailed as an unprecedented storm before he made landfall. Keep that word in mind as you read: unprecedented. It is the word of the hour, the year, maybe even the decade. Perhaps your mind has already retrieved a list of unprecedented events of the past ten years. For my purposes, the word deserves to become a proper noun: a name.

Before Michael, Unprecedented may as well have been a street-corner prophet or a flittering, homeless junkie—I would rather dodge into oncoming traffic than pass within six feet of him. You, too, have been avoiding him at every turn. But at last we have seen him uncloaked, and there is no dodging him now.

You might ask why I have chosen a gender-specific pronoun for Unprecedented. For now, suffice it to say that Wisdom will introduce herself soon and it suits my sense of mise en scène to permit a balance of male and female players. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Not until Unprecedented has made himself more than a street-corner prophet—indeed, not until he has risen to the level of Archangel will Wisdom make her appearance.

See what I did there? Aren’t I clever?

Maybe you agree that I am clever or maybe you are convinced (reasonably) that I have taken the metaphors too far, that I have wandered into the misty Lost Woods of creative interpretation and have strayed from reason’s guiding melody[1]. Perhaps I have. But let me be clear: unlike our Puritan forebears, I do not interpret the ransacking of my village as some divine penalty for my apostasy. If that is your perspective, suit yourself. It is not mine.

When I think of Michael, I do not think of wrath or judgment. Nor do I think God is the mastermind behind a storm whose sole purpose was to prompt knee-jerk repentance on a massive scale. I am not Jonathan Edwards, nor am I on the lookout for the next great awakening (sorry to disappoint my fellow charismatics).

Rather, I seek an awakening where we learn that we have all been, at one time or another, patrons to a false god who offers us the promise of certainty in exchange not for our faith but for the complete lack of it.

What false god? What is he talking about? Doesn’t he know we just went through hell and misery and that all we’ve been doing for weeks is helping each other rebuild (while he sits pretty in California sipping a latte, I might add)? Please do not mistake me. You have shown your mettle and are to be held in high esteem. I can only speak of what I have found in myself and, perhaps in the process, help you renew your hope and reaffirm the cornerstone of your faith.

That thing you are holding on to—that job, that man, that woman, that ideal, that business, that house, that goal, that church, that order of things, that prophecy, that calling: imagine yourself without it. What do you fear most in this life to lose? If you can, envision yourself on the other side of that loss. Put yourself in a virtual reality where dread is the dominant emotion. But be warned: this will be almost as painful as the reality itself. Proceed with caution into this lucid nightmare and crisis of the soul.

Take a moment to manifest the vision. Breathe.

Now, what are you left with? What shape does the monster take that now stares you down? Take a long look at this “you” separated from all qualifiers, preconceptions and ideals, from everything you think you know about yourself. Put away your Bible, your creed, your kingdom, your ecclesia, your academia, your wealth, your poverty, and above all your experience—anything that has brought you certainty, negative or positive. They cannot enter here. What did you see? Who did you meet?

When I remember Michael, when I remember my dread, I am left with an opaque vision of something like a jealous Love, an untamable Hope, and Mercy as a juggernaut. If you think this is how I cope with the vision, very well. You might be right. But I believe it is something more. You see, I am a bit cracked in the head. I happen to think the Spirit of the Living God is leading me to a deeper revelation of his power and love. And this next one is a bit more controversial: I happen to think that, in his relentless mercy, he fortifies my faith in him despite my resistance. After all, I tried to ally with Certainty and build walls on the foundation of my experience. But thanks to Unprecedented uncloaked, the deal fell through.

In case you did not see it coming, Unprecedented uncloaked has a name: Michael the Fierce, who in a spirit of might reminds us of one mightier still. He comes because he wants us to remember that our experience counts for nothing unless it can be transformed and redefined by Spirit. He wants us to realize the truth (there is no spoon)—that trust in our experience has led us to invite Certainty into our hearts, where only one can dwell. Little did we know that Certainty would paint himself as a bullseye on our foreheads. A bullseye for whom? All this time and we never knew: our trusty old friend was in league with his older sister, Chaos, from the start. What a twist, indeed. Certainty guaranteed our comfort, swore upon his foundations that we would never hunger or thirst if we sustained him with our lack of faith.

But that is just the problem. Certainty had no basis for his oaths and like the serpent before him promised what was not his to give. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, for they will be satisfied.[2] To hunger and thirst is to suffer. Faith leads to righteousness, and righteousness requires suffering. We are all going to suffer regardless of where we put our trust. The question is, rather, will we suffer bitterness and betrayal at the hands of Certainty, or will we suffer ourselves to trust in Spirit? Hint: the former guarantees the absence of dread—but who can know the cost?

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.[3] For some of us, Michael may be that beginning. To dread the Almighty is to invite his guiding power to transform our hearts and minds until we depend on him alone; “let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” commands us to make him our certainty. Lucky for us, sometimes that guiding power manifests whether we invite it or not. We have all welcomed Certainty—a vampire must be invited before he can enter, after all. But the grace of God hovers before no threshold, bows beneath no arch. No longer will we be detained by the prince of this world and his false promises, for Michael has arrived.[4]

Epilogue

(because I obsess over symmetry)

“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’” (John 21:15, NIV). Whenever I read this passage now, I am moved by its eerie resemblance to the exchange between me and my nephew on a day so uneventful I do not recall the month or the year. But that part about “When they had finished eating” also makes me laugh since Leader did not wait until I had finished eating before asking me a similar trilogy of questions. He just went for it.

If you have made it this far, you might ask how this story is relevant to dread, devastation, faith, or a hurricane. Well, I am still in the middle of making sense of that myself. But if I must give an answer, here is the one that comes to me: my nephew, inspired as he is by Spirit, asked me the same question three times in a row. He asked me if I loved God more than Certainty. He wanted to know if I had the one thing required to please God—to please Being itself.[5] And in the moment, I had answered in faith, “Yes”, knowing nothing of the wrath to come. Now, on the other side of desolation, I can say with some confidence: to that answer I hold.

What will your answer be?

— — — —

P.S.

I pray that those of you affected by this terrible, unprecedented storm are recovering well. If you can, surround yourself with friends and loved ones. If what I have shared here seems too simplistic, please forgive me. Perhaps it would have been easier just to quote a sage and hope for the best:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” – Rom. 15:13, NIV

— — — —

[1] If you are not a Zelda fan, sorry for this one. You will just have to work it out on your own.

[2] Matthew 5:6.

[3] Proverbs 9:10.

[4] See Daniel 10:13 and Revelation 22:20.

[5] See Hebrews 11:6.

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Circumcision, you say? Why not go one further and cut your whole **** off!


animal with scissors

Note: this post assumes that most biblical translations are correct. That said, the KJV interprets Galatians 5:12 without specifying anything to be “cut off” except “themselves” (i.e., those who insist on circumcision). Either way, Paul’s choice of words here reflects the subject in question. For further reading on why Paul may or may not be telling his opponents to emasculate themselves, see this document and this article. If the translations that point to emasculation are wrong, then so is my post (at least from a literary standpoint). But maybe I can still contribute to the ongoing debate. Happy reading.

A Defense of Shocking Satire

“No dark sarcasm in the classroom!” – Pink Floyd

Within the community of believers (I shun the term “Christianity” because of its vast connotations), I’ve noticed a crippling and unwarranted dread of satire. Perhaps I’m imagining things, but I don’t think I am. Yes, we should detest Swift’s modest proposal of cannibalism just as we should detest C.S. Lewis’ “Saracen’s Head” on a pedestal. But we should also detest what these things deride. That is what satire is all about.

That being said, I once wrote a bit of chilling satire for one of my lit classes. That night, in a dream, the Holy Spirit rebuked me by dropping me in the disturbing scenario I had created in my poem. The next morning, I asked him whether he thought his manner of instruction wasn’t too extreme. “Isn’t yours?” he replied. Suffice it to say, I’ve never written anything like it since. So, I am aware of lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

But perhaps a central question remains: is shocking satire ever appropriate for those of us who aspire to whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy? Well, let’s take a look at what Paul (the man I just paraphrased) has to say when he feels like being sarcastic:

“As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12, NIV). This is an apostle of Christ saying in no uncertain terms, “I wish those bunch of hypocrites would just go ahead and cut their Johnsons off!” Or if we’re going with the KJV translation, at the very least he is saying, “I wish they would cut themselves off from you just as they demand you cut away [fill in the blank] from your own flesh.”

Many people, Christians and non, are probably familiar with the above passage. I paraphrase the verse to show that 1) it could be a good example of sharp, grotesque satire in scripture and 2) an example of good satire, period. While I’ve read the passage many times, it dawned on me that Paul’s language would be seen as inappropriate if used today among Church-folk in the way that he used it then.

But is it inappropriate? Or is it exactly what needs to be said?

If you know me, you’ve probably guessed my opinion—the nasty image is not only proper but excellent. But if we want to find out why the verse’s grotesque flavor is justified given the circumstances of Paul’s letter, then we need to answer for ourselves two questions:

  1. What makes it satire?
  2. What makes it good (appropriate, effective, and memorable)?

Because of the way my brain works, I find it helpful to work from big ideas to smaller ones (and back to big again) when analyzing a text, so I’ll start by looking at the passage in a bit of context (or as much context as a non-historian can offer). Does Paul really wish that the men insisting on circumcision would cut off their private parts? Or is he using vivid, graphic imagery to make a point?

If Paul is anything like me (and I admit that’s a far-fetched assumption), then I’d say it’s probably a bit of both. 🙂

But really, what is the point of such a crude image? Let’s not kid ourselves: the image conveyed in Paul’s words is nothing you or I would ever want to see played out (though I can only speak for myself). Still, we can discern that Paul felt this specific imagery was necessary to convey just how frustrated he was with teachers working against the message he had fought for—a message I believe was at the heart of his ministry: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).

By the time Paul writes this letter, he has laid a lot of foundational work with the church in Galatia.[1] But now, other teachers have come along and are insisting on ancient ordinances that, to Paul, just don’t matter. Not only do these ordinances not matter, they are direct threats to the message of grace he tirelessly promotes.  If you disagree with this, I can only stress again the passage quoted above, “The only thing that counts…” Take this exegesis with all the salt you need.

Perhaps we can at least agree that Paul is frustrated with these teachers (“Hey, teachers! Leave those kids alone!”). Knowing this, let’s take a punch at the first question we began with: what makes the passage satirical? Most definitions of the word “satire” focus on elements like irony and sarcasm, but another element and one that applies here is exaggeration. Also, in order for satire to be satire, it has to be directed at a person or a group of people and it must be a form of written or verbal criticism. Let’s see if Paul’s wish fits the satirical model:

  1. The idea of “going the whole way” exaggerates circumcision itself.
  2. Paul exaggerates his annoyance with the circumcision debate by suggesting these teachers “cut themselves off” (and thus end the debate).
  3. He is calling these men out—rebuking them—for demanding holiness through outward practices.
  4. And since we can only hope Paul didn’t really want his adversaries to mutilate themselves any more than he really believed sorcery was the problem when he asked the Galatians who had “bewitched” them (it was Lord Voldemort!), we could assume he is also being sarcastic (even though he says “really”).

But it also turns out that Paul is being ironical. In his letters, purity and abstinence come up a few times. And while he insists that marriage is better than burning with passion, he also wishes we could be unmarried like him (note: I do not share his wish, but I do abstain from any guilt in not sharing it). 🙂

Now, here’s the irony as I see it: Paul knows that those who demand circumcision as a requirement of the Law and as a requirement for salvation are doing so because, among other things, they want to pursue holiness (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here). “But,” thinks Paul, “if they really want to be holy, why don’t they just turn themselves into eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom?” Of course, he knows they’ll never do this—they will go on procreating with their wives, as they should.

And so Paul draws attention to what Christ taught: holiness begins with the heart and its orientation first toward God and second toward humanity. The outward actions that manifest as a result of this orientation are true, holy actions. Hence, the weird but prophetic metaphor of a circumcised heart that runs throughout scripture, including the “old” Law: “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deut. 30:6).

Interesting that love toward God is the end-goal of this weird circumcision of the heart, just as faith expressing itself through love is the end-goal of Paul’s message to the Galatians. Really, any message that persuades people to deviate from the simplicity found in loving God and loving people deserves to be satirized.

But we still haven’t answered our question: is there ever a time for grotesque satire in literature? In film? In art, music, television? On Sunday morning from the pulpit? Well, I guess it all depends on the context. Let me put it this way: if I had invested my life and career in making sure people took hold of a single truth, only to find other teachers disrupting and confusing what I had taught—I’d tell those teachers to go do a lot more than castrate themselves. And since I’m creative, I’d probably do it in an underhanded way, like insert it into one of my YouTube videos or put it in a blog post and plaster it all over Facebook.

But then, I’m no saint. 😉

What’s the point here? Paul used crude satire in his language to express his frustration and to call out his opponents for their ignorant practices. What’s more, Paul’s frustration with people turning from the faith that expresses itself through love is the same frustration Yahweh exhibits throughout the Old Testament every time his people drift from his commandments. So, if you were to ask me, I’d tell you that shocking satire does have its place whenever people need a good jolt.

I’ve already mentioned the dream in which the Holy Spirit rebuked me—I needed to experience a bit of my own shocking satire so that I could be freed from a wrong way of thinking. Would it have been better if I had discerned correctly to begin with and had never needed the rebuke? Yes! And if the people of God had kept his commands, the Prophets would’ve been out of a job….

Like many of the hard-to-digest images in scripture and like many similar images in literature outside of the Bible, the image Paul uses is brazen, crude, and inappropriate for young audiences. And yet, it’s there, plain as the paper it’s printed on. But it’s more than just “there.”

  1. It is appropriate for its intended audience because, for Paul, the circumcision debate was supposed to have been settled at the Jerusalem council and by this point he was fed up with its resurgence.
  2. It is effective to stir up critical thought and point people toward what matters: faith expressing itself through love.
  3. It is memorable because it outlasts its context, stirs us up, and compels us to push the limits of any “religious” barriers that enclose our modes of discourse while reminding us to shed any prejudices we might harbor toward the grittier side of literary expression.

Above all, it is good-old-fashioned satire. And it’s in your Bible.

***

Something not quite right? Let me know: leave a polite, intelligent comment and I’ll refer readers to you.

[1] I think at least this much can be gleaned from the letter without digging too far into outside historical material

The Other Rebellion – Written by Steve B. and Edited by Adam B.


James Dean and Natalie Wood
James Dean and Natalie Wood in “Rebel Without a Cause”

The following post is an original piece of literary analysis from my dad, Steve Burdeshaw. I hope it encourages you while perhaps causing you to see some things in a new way. My dad has always spoken of the New Way of Thinking, and God has helped me to take this concept one step further toward something called the New Way of Being. I believe what follows is one piece of this ideal, one small step toward what may become my family’s legacy: to turn children’s hearts to their parents, and to turn parents’ hearts to their children.

 * * *

One morning my wife and I were discussing movies, the main films being Rebel Without a Cause and Dead Poets Society. She expressed to me how it irritated her that people associated these movies with rebellion, since rebellion is neither what these movies are about nor what they promote.

Without really rehearsing in my mind what I was about to say, these were the words that came out of my mouth: “These movies are most definitely about rebellion, but they are not about a son rebelling against a father or society. Rather, these movies are about a father rebelling against a son’s purpose. In Dead Poets Society, the father rebels, refuses to repent, and loses his son forever. In Rebel Without a Cause, the father not only repents but sees his son for who he really is, and from this we might hope that they are able to begin a real relationship.”

Sons are a gift from Yahweh, God, and as parents we should concern ourselves with God’s purpose for our children rather than our own purpose for them. Old men will dream dreams and young men will prophesy. Without these two things coming together, nothing of significance will ever take place. It is young men and young women who see and change the future. As for me, I would like to be a facilitator of this purpose and go along for the ride.

 * * *

This is me, the son again. I don’t really have much to add except… well… I bet you never thought a father could rebel against his son, did you? But I am happy to tell you there is a cure to this epidemic. All you have to do is relinquish the control you never really had to begin with into the hands of One who has always had control and who always will. And yet you can still be active in that selfless trust, to the point where you look down at your own hands and see the hands of your Heavenly Father at work in you and through you. I pray that with every new day you embrace the hope of new beginnings, new ideas, and a new way of being. Thanks for reading. 

– Adam B.