On Fish, Time Travel, and the Longing for Something More


“I am encouraged when I see a dozen villagers drawn to Walden Pond to spend a day in fishing through the ice, and suspect that I have more fellows than I knew, but I am disappointed and surprised to find that they lay so much stress on the fish which they catch or fail to catch, and on nothing else, as if there were nothing else to be caught.”

I read that unfamiliar quote from Henry David Thoreau while searching for a different pithy saying, and I have not been able to shake it.

The fish alone. Nothing else to be caught.

In pondering the meaning behind what the poet/abolitionist/philosopher/naturalist wrote, it got me thinking in several seemingly disconnected directions. But that’s how I am, so bear with me.

Which is why I’m switching writing about fish ponds to time travel.

 Caspar David Friedrich - "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog"

Caspar David Friedrich – “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”

A supposed Gallup poll cited by the podcast Mysterious Universe noted that when people were asked what piece of technology not yet invented would they most want and for what reason, “time machine” was cited by just over 80% of respondents. Why? To go back in time and change their broken past.

Thoreau’s 19th century statement about men and fish and a 21st century poll that had people desiring to go back in time, though seemingly unlinked, share an underlying desperation.

What so troubled Thoreau was that the act of fishing on a frozen body of water went beyond just catching the fish. The transcendent qualities of the experiencethe camaraderie shared by the fishermen, the rapture of nature, the participation in the blessings of the Creator, the innumerable numinous aspects of the “mere” act of fishing–were lost on the men who huddled around a dark blue hole in the white canvas that was Walden Pond.

The fish alone. And nothing more.

What are the great questions that form the backbone of all human inquiry? Who? What? Where? When? How?

And why?

When more than 80% of respondents in a poll about desired technology want a time machine to go back and undo whatever it was that went wrong in their lives, the underlying question that has troubled them is the one of why. Why did things turn out the way they did?

For most of human history, people have struggled more with the other questions. Who is God? What has He done? Where can He be found? When can I know Him? And how?

But despite the why of the Book of Job, why is more of a modern question. It is a step beyond the more basic questions. That Job asked them may make him the first “modern” man.

Today, in 2015, the other questions of life pale in light of the question of why. Science has told us much, but why still eludes us. By its very nature, why is a transcendent question.

And this brings us to the American Church.

If I could categorize 2014’s chatter about the Church, one of the top three topics would be, Where have all the churchgoers gone? This lament is everywhere and everyone has an observation and an answer. (Though some good detective work will show that the actual number of supposedly “former” attendees is not so much avoiding church altogether. Instead, they still attend, only not every week as they once did, which makes the attendance numbers on any given Sunday lower, making it seem as if those people have dropped out entirely, which is not the case. Lies, damned lies, and statistics, right?)

What I see almost none of the handwringers noting is what I think is behind much of the drop–or the more sporadic attendance. And it goes back to fish and time machines.

When today’s church tries to answer the cry of why, the common response is to point to God’s sovereignty. And this proves problematic, because the Church is mistakenly assuming something.

For the mass of men, there is only the fish. When these men go to church, they get a bad rock concert atmosphere that stands in for transcendence. They get a message delivered by someone who experienced something transcendent a long time ago and has been running on the fumes of it for years now.

Most men go to church, experience nothing transcendent, fail to use amid the assembly the gifts God has given them to any appreciable measure, barely interact with their fellows, and then stumble off to a fishing hole on a bleak, frozen pond to get some fish. Because there is nothing else but the fish.

These men go to church on Sunday with the question of why eating holes in their guts, and the church tries to answer that transcendent question with a supposedly transcendent answer, yet nothing of those men’s experience in church from week to week ever takes them anywhere into the genuine transcendent light of God. You can’t meet transcendent needs of people who are stuck thinking only of fish, if all you can talk about is the fish itself. And churches today are absolutely mired in talking about the fish.

You can blame the leaders, but the fact is, most of them are generations removed from the last transcendent moves of God in this country. A lot of them are struggling themselves with the blandness of their spiritual lives.

Most people experience nothing of the transcendent moves of the Holy Spirit on any given Sunday, and we do next to nothing to empower men and women to serve each other in the midst of the assembly, so their spiritual gifts–one very real connection to transcendence–go unused.

Every day it seems I hear of another Evangelical who has “swum the Tiber,” looking for transcendence in the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m not sure the Catholics have got the transcendence thing down any better than the Protestants do, especially in America.

Or else you see once solid Christians incorporating Eastern spirituality into their beliefs, a surefire way to dash themselves on the rocks of heresy.

And it’s all because we have a serious lack transcendence in our churches today. Coincidentally, all my thinking on this started with Thoreau, and only as I sat down to write it did I recall that he was labeled a Transcendentalist. How fitting.

When human beings ask why, they will only be satisfied with the kind of answer the Church gives today if that same Church is taking those people to a place–and person–of transcendence week after week. People who experience no genuine transcendence in the day to day will simply shrug off our answers, especially if for all our talk of transcendence, we don’t deliver or experience it either.

We live in a world of the mundane, largely of our own making. For most, there is only the fish and nothing else. To solve the problems of mankind, the Church in America has got to rediscover transcendence.

The Church knows there is something more than the fish. If we’re not reinforcing this in everything we say and do, both on Sunday and during the rest of the week, then we will not be offering the one thing that people desperately need, even if they are unaware of that need.

God help us if our own experience of transcendence is as empty as the people we’re attempting to save.

Antisocial Media: Why We Are Angry on the Internet


Angry man, weak manI’ve been using the Internet since it was the old DARPANET, having sent my first email in fall 1981. Though I obviously use the medium, I am not  a fan.

Over the years, I’ve seen the conversation on the Internet turn more shrill and caustic. It especially bothers me when Christians add to the acid. Something about the Internet can bring out the worst in us, particularly when it comes to things interpersonal.

A couple weeks ago, I had lunch with Rick Ianniello, a fellow Christian and Cincinnati-area blogger, and we started to touch on the phenomenon of being angry on the Internet. In keeping with the gist of that talk, I’ve ruminated on that face-to-face conversation and want to share a few thoughts.

In fact, I’m going to jump right in and post my basic points:

People still desire interaction with others.

The inflammatory draws us because it provides points for interaction.

In a world of wrong, something in us needs to be seen as being a defender of what is right.

“An eye for an eye” is embedded in our sense of rightness.

Because Internet communication is so instant, its fleeting nature demands we respond instantly or else face exclusion from interaction.

People  still desire interaction with others.

And thus completes the cycle.

I believe that this cycle explains much about our conversation through social media on the Internet and the way we interact with others through this faceless medium.


Without a doubt, I spend far less time in face-to-face conversation with others. The excuse I hear is that people are so busy. I find it odd, though, that the vacuum that is the average day is increasingly filled with electronic communication, often hours of it. When someone posts an unusual (and often inflammatory) bit of info on the Internet, time was spent finding and reading that info. Add enough of that together and hours go by.

In a way, we suffer from a collective forgetful delusion: We no longer recall how we spent our time before the digital came to rule us. How did we interact before Facebook? How did we communicate before texting? How did we accumulate knowledge before Google? Instead of what we once did, which seemed to make us happy, we have substituted something else, and few of us are asking if we’ve made the right trade.

I used to spend a great deal of time talking with friends over a good meal. Now that almost never occurs.

But we humans still crave connectedness with others, so we post on Facebook or comment on blogs. It used to be long emails, but email is passé and Twitter taught us to condense everything into 140 characters. So we do.

And the way to generate conversation on the Internet is to post links to weird, interesting, or inflammatory statements we, or those who inform our worldview, make. Like the matador waving a red cape, we want the bull to notice us—except in this case, the bull is another person from whom we seek interaction.

We’re suckers for the red cape, aren’t we? It’s something in us. Both in waving it and reacting to it we reaffirm that we have significance at a time when so much of life seems pointless, redundant, and stupid.

“See? The bull charged. I still matter.”

We all want to matter. In the United States especially, inconsequence is a mortal sin. There’s always a cause to defend, an opinion to be had. Our democracy is built on the ideas of people who could not sit idly by without letting their thoughts be known. Something always has to be said. The Internet brings that ability to say anything about everything like no other medium in history. It is the public square on a globe-spanning level. Under that magnifying glass, every statement becomes inflammatory to someone.

So we react with what we’ve been taught from the Old Testament school of justice: an eye for an eye. If someone hits me verbally, I hit them back. I take their accusation and reverse it so that it hits them. Their strike is my counterstrike.

That sense of conversational revenge drives what passes for discourse nowadays. Few people ask whether it makes sense to lunge at the matador’s flung cape. They react with an animal’s mind and charge. That spear in their back demands a horn to the gut. And we witness all the gore played out in a public space.

Like a genuine bullfight, our reflexes must be lightning fast or else we get left out of the action. Who hasn’t come to an interesting Facebook post a couple hours afterward and found 25 comments and an already burned-out conversation? The matador and picadores went home. The flowers are already wilting in the ring. Too late.

The Internet waits for no man.

Impatience is the worst failing to pair with the inflammatory, and it’s here that we see the genesis of the anger that has come to dominate the Internet conversation and spill over into all other forms of discourse.

Before newspapers started to die because they are not fast enough to keep up with the lightning pace of information today, there was the letter to the editor. The op-ed section of the paper was our public arena for anger.

But the funny thing about a letter in those days was that it took time to write and mail. Plus, the conversation lagged by a few days. The inflammatory story of Tuesday became the slightly peeved letter to the editor of Friday. In the meantime, everyone had taken a few deep breaths and calmed down.

Whenever I was angry enough to write a seething letter, it’s funny how the seethe eased out of me as I wrote by hand. And more often than not, when I was truly livid, Jesus often said to me, “Why don’t you sit on this one for a day?” And I would. Ironic how many of those letters never got mailed. Something about a day passing made the anger of the moment seem like nothing more than an ill-thought, knee-jerk reaction.

Today, our online conversation demands the ill-thought, knee-jerk reaction. In fact, without that automatic, instant response, the Internet loses its raison d’être and no longer becomes the necessary touchpoint we have made it.

That said, for a lot of people, the Internet and social media are the only touchpoint with others they still possess. Yet what a sad trade this has been, as something precious has been lost in our rush to life online and too much coarseness has been gained.

People seem unhinged nowadays. Too many of us think we alone are the arbiters of all truth. Just witness the craziness in the aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden, when people demanded to see his death pictures so they would believe. We’ve reached a point where only my seeing and my opinion define truth.

Christians need to take this all back and react differently. This is what we say we believe:

I am dust, a vapor that passes through today and is gone tomorrow.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, even me.

I am to esteem my neighbor better than myself.

I am to love my enemies and pray for those who hate me.

All the law and the prophets are summed up in loving God and loving my neighbor, for love is the pinnacle.

Truth is truth apart from what I think or say; it can stand on its own and will go on without me.

The wise listen much and speak little.

“An eye for an eye” has been replaced by incomprehensible mercy, even in the face of hatred.

No one is unredeemable until he or she draws that final breath, so I must trust God in His dealings with people, particularly foes.

God has been patient with me and my slow growth, so I must be patient with others.

Jesus did not break the bruised reed or snuff the smoldering wick, and neither should I.

God made us to depend on each other because each of us is differently gifted by Him.

If you and I forsake gathering together in person, we lose something invaluable.

I can spend hours unpacking those realities for you, but you are smart people. You know how they should apply to our discourse and how we interact with others.

Now if we would only believe those truths enough to practice them, think how the world—even the online one—would be different.

Our Disconnected Families


I promise to write the final part of my series on Christian Education, but that final is long, involved, and taxing. It’s coming along, though.

Wanted to write a brief observation of what I witnessed this weekend. It’s sad, but it’s also critical for us to expose.

Saturday, my son and I attended an enrichment program for gifted children. The program is wonderful, and my son enjoys it immensely.

We broke for lunch and ate in the mini-cafeteria area. At the tables around ours were groups of dads with their sons and daughters sharing a lunch.

I use that word sharing with trepidation, because not much personal interaction occurred.

At one table, the dad got out lunch, then pulled out his MacBook and proceeded to spend the entire lunch absorbed in the Internet or some other computer-based distraction. His son ate his meal in silence.

At another table, a dad got a cell phone call and spent most of the meal talking to someone distant—rather than the young person immediately before him.

At the table beside ours, the daughter told her dad she loved him. He didn’t respond—too absorbed in his book.

I didn’t have a cell phone with me. I don’t have a laptop computer. My book stayed closed. My son and I talked about life over lunch.

This does not make me Superdad. I’m always Clark Kent. More often than not, I’m clumsy with this or that. I make mistakes with alarming regularity.

But at least I’m present in the moment.

What are we doing to ourselves and to our families? How did we get so distracted?

The dad on the laptop really bugged me, and I felt like saying something to him. But I didn’t. He might have responded, “Yeah, well who made you Superdad?”

That I tolerated the dad on the cell phone a bit more says something about what we’ve come to accept as normal. I hope I never become too normal, though.

And the dad so engrossed in his book? I watched that daughter’s response to the ignoring of her simple affirmation of love. She pulled her coat over her head and retreated into her nylon and polyfill cave. It’s not hard to imagine what might go down in her life as she ages and goes searching for someone, anyone, to say, “I love you, too, darlin’.”

I keep wondering what we’re doing to ourselves. It’s not like any of those dads had no choice. No, they selected their priorities.

How sad that in America 2010, we have so much, yet our much often becomes the building materials for the next generation’s hell.

{Note: I wanted an image for this post that showed a dad ignoring his child while he toyed with some electronic device . Sadly, many stock photos of such a scene exist. I say sadly not because I would have to pay to use that image but because so many pro photographers have seen fit to document such a scene.}