Mobius

The other day, when I was lost in the backwoods of Kentucky, I received a call from my sister. I was driving back from work at church, my mind filled with thoughts from the previous week, when I realized that the exit which I needed to take on the highway was three or four back. Faced with heading straight on to Cincinnati, I turned off the road at the next exit and began picking my way back west on some winding Kentucky back roads.

The car wound its way through rolling hills and fields filled with corn, its meandering nature following the same course as my mind as it twisted this way and that. After a wandering the country, I noticed that my tank was hovering just above empty. As a gas station appeared, I pulled in and got out.

The smell of gasoline filled the air and mingled with the sound of crickets and the frogs which made their home in and around the Ohio River. Some folk music was gently piped in under the florescent lights of the gas station. I would have stayed a bit longer to listen and watch the sun set had my phone in my car not rang.

As I climbed in and continued my return home, I picked up the call. It had been a couple of weeks since my sister and I had caught up. I smiled as we shot the breeze for a bit. After getting me up to date on things back in New England, she switched the topic.

“Have you ever heard of Rachel Held Evans?” she asked. “I just discovered her and this book I just finished by her just has been incredible.”

“Really?” I asked as I slowed to a stop at a four-way intersection. “How so?”

“Basically, the one big take-away from the book is, and I know this sounds obvious but, bear with me here. It’s that there are multiple ways to interpret Scripture.”

There was a moment of silence as I felt laughter bubbling up in my chest. After chuckling for a few seconds, I apologized, and explained, “Kristen, you wouldn’t believe it, but I find myself learning and re-learning this constantly. If this is the first time you’ve encountered Evans’ work, you have a treat ahead of you.”

The light turned green and I continued down the road, disappearing around another cornfield a few moments later.

Several years ago, I remember sitting down with my older brother over a discovery he had made. As a math and physics person, my brother and I don’t always see eye to eye – in part because we’ve been trained that way. An elegant equation looks like gobbledygook to me. To him, it’s meaningful in some way.

In his hands, Dave had a length of paper, cut to be about an inch wide. He took the paper and twisted it one hundred and eighty degrees once before taping it together. The result was a rather odd shape.

“This,” he began, “is a Mobius strip.”

“The cool thing about this is that it only has one side.”

My mouth dropped open. “What? You’re lying. It obviously has two.”

Dave offered me a pen.

“Try and draw a single continuous line and you’ll see I’m right.”

After making my way around the strip, I was shocked to see that waiting for me at the other end was the line I started with. I flipped the strip over. The pen’s trail was still there. Dave was right.

“Now here’s the kicker,” he continued. “Imagine that you were a two-dimensional person who lived on the Mobius Strip called a Flatlander. You would have no idea that you’re flipping. It’s all flat to you. But perspective matters, as we can see what’s happening in three dimensions.”

Something clicked in my mind. “It’s kind of like living in a cave all your life and seeing the sun for the first time.”

Dave furrowed his brow.

“I mean, I guess. Whatever floats your boat.”

My mind’s been going in circles recently. Or rather, been thinking on them. Perhaps as I drive along winding country roads outside of Louisville and work with people with vastly different backgrounds and life experience as me, it’s causing me to reflect on perspective. And after a summer’s worth of reflection, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that I am a maniac. Or rather, I’ve always been. I’m just becoming more aware of it.

G. K. Chesterton makes the observation that maniacs are deemed so not because of their lack of reason, but because of their perfection of it. “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactorily […] Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is just as infinite as a large circle; but though it is infinite, it is not so large. In the same way, the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not as large.” For the madman or -woman, the explanations that they create are systematic and complete. But for those who find themselves more clued in on the reality of things, it seems as though the madman or -woman is missing out on so much more.

The theologian Frederick Buechner observed that theology is just like a dung beetle taking up a study of humans with the goal of understanding everything there is to know about them. “If so,” he concludes, “we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.” When we arrive at the notion that, while God wants to be known and does so most clearly through the person of Christ, and yet simultaneously cannot be fully comprehended as a beetle cannot fully comprehend the complexity of a human person, we realize that in a certain way, we humans have constructed, over the course of many centuries and with the work of many careful and reflective theologians, circles of our own making. We’re Flatlanders, trying to make sense of a three-dimensional reality. When we hold to one school of thought to the exclusion of others, I think that God sees us as maniacs. Or maniacs trying our best.

The nice thing is that special revelation provides us with some correlation of the bigger picture, we hope. Experience typically reinforces this notion. And yet, I must confess that oftentimes we struggle to encompass all of it because we are finite creatures in a universe that is vastly other. While I believe that there are absolutes, I’m realizing that approaching those absolutes are a much harder task than modernity had led us to believe.

Evans writes that “when you stop trying to force the Bible to be something it’s not—static, perspicacious, certain, absolute—then you’re free to revel in what it is: living, breathing, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic […] ‘The adventure,’ wrote Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky in Reading the Book, lies in ‘learning the secrets of the palace, unlocking all the doors and perhaps catching a glimpse of the King in all His splendor.’”

This, I believe, inspires humility. I trust and, I would think, know experientially that what I have received in faith is true, it also reminds me that the universe, Scripture, and the Creator it reveals is a much more complicated and multifaceted reality than the way I thought they were like back in my earlier days. Using Scripture as a window to this greater reality, then, logically would generate several meanings when viewed from different places—different rooms in the palace—as we constantly grapple with God.

Here’s hoping that, like Jacob, we might not let go until God blesses us. And may it cause us to walk differently.

A Devil of Our Own

A few months ago, I was catching an indirect flight out of Atlanta to Portland, Oregon by way of Oakland, California. I was on my way to a wedding in Vancouver, Washington. Seeing that one of the happy couple getting hitched that weekend was my girlfriend’s oldest sister, I had planned to meet up with Olivia and her family a few days early to help set up. After the festivities, we all would then pile into the car and drive back to sunny Southern California for the rest of my spring break.

I had found my seat and, upon sliding my carry-on bag underneath the seat in front of me, began reading an assigned book on constructive political theology. After reading for several moments, I noticed someone out of the corner of my eye, looking perplexed. Glancing up, I noticed the middle-aged woman holding a bag pensively in one hand as she stared at the seat next to mine before glancing at the ticket in her other one.

“Is that seat open?” she said as I looked up from my book, “I’m hoping so. More leg room and all.”

“I’m not sure, but I’m sitting here by the window so you do you. If someone takes the seat, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

She smiled and placed her bag between us. Closing the book, I began to get up from my seat and extended my hand.

“Well, looks like we’ll be neighbors for the next couple of hours. I’m Timothy.”

Shaking my hand, she replied, “Jennifer.”

I began to sit back down and open my book again, looking for the last sentence I remembered reading. Finding my place, I looked back at the woman and asked, “You heading to California?”

“Yes. You?”

I shook my head.

“Just passing through on my way to Portland.”

Jennifer had gotten into her seat at this point and had pulled out her own book as the flight attendant came by to remind everyone to buckle their seatbelts.

“Oh, that will be nice,” she responded before finding her place in her own book and falling silent.

The two of us read in silence for the next two hours without much conversation between the two of us. Every so often, one of us would glance at the other’s book to try and discern what the other was interested in. About halfway through the flight, I looked up from Catherine Keller’s description of the undercommons to see Jennifer looking at me with a curious, if not cautious, expression.

“Are you a priest or something?”

I laughed.

“Not quite. I’m a student. This here is homework. I might be a pastor one day if things fall that way. What do you do?”

“I’m an independent consultant for virtual security.”

“You do stuff similar to Avast and all them?”

She nodded and said, “Well, kind of. I like to think I work for the sake of the little guy.”

“A noble pursuit, if ever there was one.”

“Yeah, I like working for the underdog.”   

There was a pause for a moment before I asked, “Would you mind if I asked why you wondered whether I was a priest?”

“Oh, I saw your book. Theology. And political at that! Two things that usually shut down conversation at Thanksgiving, am I right?”

We laughed and she continued, saying, “I went to Catholic school, but I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not really the superstitious type, you know.”

I shrugged.

“Fair enough,” I replied. “Thanks for letting me know. I was curious.”

I continued on with my reading for a few minutes. Catherine Keller was making some astute insights on the world with her second chapter. I found myself jotting notes in the margins and underlining more than a few times. Sometimes I think that the only difference between vandals and academics is that the latter can string a few more words together in a drier-sounding article.

Jennifer interrupted my stream of thought.

“Do you believe in the devil and all that?”

Looking back up from Keller, I looked back at my neighbor.

“I believe that there is a Satan and spiritual beings, yes. Why?”

She shrugged. “Well, I always wonder whether we need a devil nowadays. We seem to be making ones in our own image.”

I closed my book, smiling.

“Do tell. What do you mean by that?”

“Well, I told you I work as a virtual security consultant, right?”

I nodded.

“You know how sometimes you’re talking to somebody about how you want something and a couple hours later an ad for that exact thing pops up on Google? Well, I work in that space working against companies collecting info which makes those ads so relevant.”

I frowned “How so?”

“The thing is, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook have these programs that collect data on everyone that uses them. And, these big data companies don’t really have much of an interest apart from compiling a profile of you based on your interests, background, and actions to figure out when to best market to you and how.”

“Sure, I get that, but how does this connect back to a devil made in our own image?”

“Well, look at it this way. Your Satan is meant to be an accuser type who finds ways to make you slip up and sin, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Now, these companies are finding what you’re weak to and when you’re weakest to it so that they can conveniently drop an ad right when you’re most susceptible to clicking it.”

“Interesting,” I remarked. “You’re making it seem like it has an agenda. What would you say to the claim that technology isn’t good or bad, but a force for whatever uses it?”

“Well, that the worst thing, data collection programs don’t have a morality. It’s just trying to get clicks as part of just doing its job when it’s advertising beer to the alcoholic or pornography to a sex-addict. Is that good? Effective, sure. But good? No. Helping someone find a stroller for a kid, maybe. Still, one has to wonder what you give up for the sake of convenience.”

Jennifer began drawing on a napkin she had left over from the complementary drink service. “An entity – a program – which knows exactly what you want and knows when you want it most based on details about you which you thought was private and has no interest in dissuading you from destructive habits. I don’t need to be superstitious to believe in a Satan figure, because we have one now of our own making.”

I blinked.

“But wouldn’t that make a more convincing argument that there is some type of actual entity out there?”

“Not necessarily,” she commented. “Would an entity that makes perfect sense to us be evidence of human design in the first place?”

“Touché,” I replied. “I think that figures like that are a bit more alien and malevolent to us than we usually give them credit for. They’re not just programs.”

I paused, mulling what she said over in my head.

“I think your critique is pretty valid though, when we reduce agents like that to this. Still, this is terrifying at the level that we have it now.”

She nodded. “And that’s why I do what I do.”

“And that’s one of the reasons why I’m studying what I’m studying too.” I smiled. “Thanks for the reminder.”

“No problem,” she said.

And with that, Jennifer and I went back to our books. I still wonder about that conversation though, and I’d like to think that I’m more conscious of what I do online. What is lost when we exchange privacy for convenience? What is created? What is a healthy relationship with technology look like? How does theology and computer science overlap?

While I am not one to see angels and demons behind every rock and tree, it’s a good reminder of the fact that in a sacramental universe, while things might not be inherently spiritual, everything we do has spiritual implications, including within a virtual space.

Small Somethings

The Christmas break after my first semester of seminary brought Olivia and I back to my old stomping grounds, swept up in a strong northward breeze and carried upon it back to my home state of Massachusetts. It blew me into the doors of the church that I had spent in which I spent most of my youth. Much about the place had changed. So had I. The space had a new layer of paint here, a remodeling there, but for the most part, the space had remained familiar.

After the service, I caught up with a few old friends. One person with whom I looked forward to connecting was a man who many in the church have taken to calling Jeep.[1] He stood near the Welcome Center, his head of light gray hair just barely bobbing over most of the crowd that spilled out into the narthex.

After grabbing my coat, I turned to see him a few feet away. I waved him over and introduced Olivia to him before I began asking him about how life had been.

A few minutes later, he paused and asked, “So, how’s seminary been?”

Jeep, from what I can recall, was well-acquainted with the seminary life himself, going to a well-known seminary north of Boston back when I was still in high school. I began rattling off a couple of subjects that I had taken and puffed my chest out when I told him what my grades were.

Olivia rolled her eyes. Jeep laughed before holding up a hand and looking at me with a serious expression on his face.

“Honestly, Tim,” he replied, “I really don’t care what grades you got or what subjects you studied. I trust that you’ll do alright in that department. What I’m concerned with is how you’ve learned to love people more like Christ.”

That memory has stuck with me over the last year. As I find myself out in Kentucky, working for a wonderful church as its pastoral intern, Jeep’s voice just sits there in the back of my head, gently chiding me for focusing on quantifiable results that are summed up in a letter grade instead of listening to God’s voice to see where God is working on me and through me.

This has especially been the case during regular check-ins with my seminary on how I’m doing. There’s a presentation at the end of the summer that I’m supposed to be preparing for, based on our learning objectives and theological questions. That’s all well and good, but it’s been hard to change from an academic mindset to one out in the field. Every time I hear how one of my friends is working on the border advocating for the rights of immigrants and those seeking asylum, or another who is working in hospice care, I sometimes look at my own situation and wonder what quantifiable thing I can bring to the table at the “judgment day” come this August.

Not because there’s nothing to do, but on the contrary, there are so many things going on in the running of the life of the church each week. I find they’ve all been essential and formative.

This past week, for example, I had the privilege to visit two families who had children. I had so many conversations with wonderful people. I have sat with students and processed pain with them. I’ve taught Sunday School and youth group a couple times and watched as something clicked in the minds of one or two of my students. I have broken bread with children. I’ve helped teach a family how to use a washing machine and a dryer. I’ve been covered in grime from diving in a dumpster to fish out an iPad a student threw out.

Perhaps this is what Rilke meant when he advised a young man to “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”

My theological questions may not have a direct answer in a way I’m used to finding in order to get a grade. Instead, it might require getting down, into a dumpster from time to time, to find it. A flash of it might happen sitting by someone who is home-bound as we stop by to visit.

I think I heard a glimpse of it in a sermon my supervisor delivered when she observed that it’s not mountaintops or valleys or extraordinary experiences that offer the most formation in us, but the long, slow plod of the everyday -the bread and wine moments, the every day staples, the small somethings in life- which does through the habits we allow to form along the way.

I’m not used to living out uncertainties outside of the letter grade and the textbook, but I think I’m starting to adapt, trying to listen even amid the ordinary tasks of the week. Rilke concludes likewise, stating, “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I’ve discovered my time in Kentucky to be good work. Certainly, strange at times, but worth it at the end of the day.

I can’t wait to tell Jeep.


[1] To this day, I’m still not sure how people got from John to Jeep, but I’m content letting that mystery remain unsolved.

Just Like Kayaking

I found myself sitting down in a dining area of my alma mater this past Spring Break. Across from me sat a former professor of mine who I have been honored to count as a friend, advisor, and confidant throughout the course of my four years there. Seeing that I was in the area nearing the end of my first year at seminary, we decided to reconnect to see where each of us found ourselves before both of us ran off in different directions.

I found him leaving his office on his way toward the dining area. His back was turned, but the khakis and polo shirt betrayed his identity even though I hadn’t seen his face yet.

As he turned from locking up his office, I noticed that he had grown out his facial hair from the last time I had seen him, so that his glasses seemed to rest just over a slightly tousled beard. I did a double-take. The last time I had seen him, he had been more convinced of the clean-shaven persuasion. Time had certainly passed over the course of the past year.

He, on the other hand, smiled as though meetings between the two of us nowadays were still a pleasant regularity. Gesturing down the hall, he asked, “Shall we?”

Accepting his offer, I joined him as we made our way across the campus, shooting the breeze until we had gotten our drinks and sat down in the far corner of the room.

“So,” he said after taking a sip from the coffee he had ordered, “Tell me about Candler. What have you learned?”

I laughed.

“Well,” I started, “Graduate school certainly is a different animal from that of undergrad.”

He nodded, smiling. The steam from his drink condensed on his glasses, concealing his eyes for a moment. I paused, waiting for him to wipe them off. Doing so, he gestured for me to continue.

“You know,” I said, “I think seminary’s taught me within and without the classroom that I’ve got a lot more growing to do.”

“How’s that?”

“You’ve gone kayaking or canoeing on occasion, right, sir?”

He chuckled. “I was an adrenaline junkie for the first half of my life. Still am in some respects! Of course I’m familiar with kayaking and canoeing.”

“Well, almost 95% of the time, I sense that my life has been on this river on which I have been kayaking. And I’ve been making progress, but for the last two years, beginning with senior year, I feel like I’ve been pulled out of the current and have watched a bunch of friends and peers get swept downstream with chances to work in churches and other amazing ministries. I’m glad for them. I just wonder whether Jesus has left me in academia. Sure, classes have been great and thought-provoking, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing out on what I’m meant to do.”

My professor and mentor fell silent as he chewed on what I was saying. After a few moments, he asked, “What do you think you’re supposed to do?”

“Work in a church, hopefully.”

His eyes flicked up from the floor, locking with mine. “Why?”   

“Because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years of my life studying for. Because I feel ready to take on the challenge of a ministry position and yet nothing seems to be coming my way.”

I paused. “Because… that’s what I’m called to do? This May will mark the fifth year I have studied ministry in particular. It all just seems so anti-climatic and I can’t help but feel disheartened.”

Shaking his head, he replied, “You’re conflating calling and vocation. A vocation enables a person to fulfill their call. But having your vocation be your call in every season isn’t exactly guaranteed.”

I took a sip of coffee. It seemed so straightforward, and yet, part of who I have trained myself to be resisted wholeheartedly embracing it in the moment. I think it’s because it’s hard for a person, place, or thing with a trajectory one way to change.

It’s possible. It’s just difficult based on the inertia we build up over time.

“Who knows,” he said, “Perhaps your ‘call’ in this season is to just be a student. Or maybe it is just to wait for wherever God leads. There are multiple ways to go kayaking, you know.”

We continued to chat for the rest of an hour. As the hour reached its end, he and I began walking toward a presentation he wanted to sit in on. As we reached the doors of the lecture hall, he paused and turned to say a last word.

“Don’t allow yourself to buy into the idea that calling is vocation. When options begin to foreclose, or you feel like you’re being left behind by your friends who have jobs in those areas, it can be easy to fall into despair and even doubt that you’re even supposed to be doing what you’re doing.”

I nodded as I turned to make my way across campus to meet up with someone else. It would be easy to accept the concept intellectually. The issue was more of a heart problem for me. I think it will take some work, but with God’s help, I can begin to reclaim some of the places in my heart that I have allowed weeds to take over.

Probably means I need to learn to be content with just floating along in life for a bit, trusting that things will work out one way or the other for the better.

I think, for a little bit of time, there’s good here too.

Adaptation

In recent months, I find myself in one of my university’s libraries on a regular basis. As the evening wears on, I make my way to the first floor of the building. There, I find a place to sit in the coffee shop which remains open until the early morning hours.

As I type up one assignment after another, I’ve noticed that I tend to flip quickly from Word to one of several tabs I have open. Facebook. YouTube. Reddit. A random article that I found interesting but got distracted by something else halfway through reading it. Netflix.

I would think that I would get through my assignments faster if I could buckle down and focus for a solid hour or so. At least, I would make a good dent of progress going in some direction. And yet, it feels like I’m working uphill most nights.

In one of my classes, the professor had us read an article penned for the Atlantic a decade ago, the title of which asked its readers whether “Google is Making Us Stupid?” Nicolas Carr, the author, made the observation that as we have increasingly integrated search engines like Google into our everyday lives, we have rewired our brains to operate in a manner that is not conducive to the deep reading that is needed within academia. Instead, we are primed to find instant answers, fill in the respective blank, and forget what we read soon thereafter.

“Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” confesses Carr, noting that before his frequent Internet use that “My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.”

In short, Carr (and many of us today who struggle through lengthy texts featured so prominently within the humanities) has re-trained his brain to retrieve information, at the cost of knowledge retention, as evidenced by his discomfort sitting with a text of any length.

While Google, among many others, allow us to search out information quickly, it does so in a decontextualized manner, retrieving the requested information with almost surgical precision without having to do the legwork of reading a book or body of text to understand it more fully within the larger discussion going on within its field.

Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, had similar concerns about the invention of writing, saying that people who used writing were substituting the written word for actual experiential knowledge. Socrates feared that people would cease to use their memory and forget. Furthermore, disconnected from experience, they would have the impression that they are knowledgeable in areas where they aren’t.

In one respect, Socrates, in critiquing the pro-writing Greeks of his time, had a legitimate concern that writing made people stupid because it shifted the human mind to engage the world in a particular way which was foreign to the previous way of doing things. And yet, writing empowered humanity in ways that Socrates did not anticipate. For one, we know what Socrates said because Plato went ahead, much to his mentor’s chagrin, and wrote his thoughts down.

I can’t help but draw a line between the institution of writing and the internet today. While I am concerned for students who don’t seem to have the capacity to sit down and read through a passage of Scripture, I wonder how the Internet might change how the faith might be conveyed or engaged for new generations.

At the exact same time, I wonder what are necessary parts of the faith, in an attempt to understand how to teach the faith in an increasingly distracted world. Abraham Heschel claims this when he states that “spiritually we cannot live by merely reiterating borrowed or inherited knowledge.” Faith, then, cannot live within a search engine paradigm, where a propositional truth is retrieved and promptly forgotten by the one retrieving it.

We must do more. But what? And how realistic would that be? Might we find ourselves at a re-visitation to Medieval Christianity, in which many people were illiterate and yet were arguably still participating in the faith? What might that look like applied to ministry today?

Love Notes

My girlfriend blessed me with her presence this winter break. With each of us living on opposite ends of the country, it’s become a rare and cherished thing to see one another again. Thanks to each of our life situations, both of us were in between semesters for our respective programs. This being the case, she bought a ticket out east the day after Christmas.

As I write this, it’s been a few days since I dropped her off at the airport. The spring semester’s begun for both of us. Her obligations took her back to Los Angeles. Mine took me to Atlanta. And yet, I still sense that she’s with me.

On nights when my apartment feels particularly empty, I reach inside my satchel which rests next to the desk I have in my room. Inside, a collection of letters lay pressed between the pages of a novel I’m reading. I flick through a couple of them before pulling out one which I haven’t read yet.

The funny thing with reading a handwritten letter is the fact that as you read the words written by the other person, it’s almost as if their unique handwriting stands in for their voice. And as you sit, reading that letter, it’s almost as good as having the person there.

Almost.

The day after Christmas, I was late getting to the airport. Her flight had come in just before six in the morning. As such, it took me a bit longer to process where I could park my car to pick her up.

Walking into the baggage claim area of Logan, I looked around. Glancing at my watch, I felt my face heat up. Her flight had come in some time prior.

She was just inside, her luggage already picked up from the carousel. I grinned, sheepishly, hoping that she wouldn’t notice my embarrassment at being late.

She did. It didn’t matter.

She was here.

The forty-five minute drive back from the airport was filled with chatter as we caught up. It’s one thing to talk on the phone. It’s another to do so in person. The time simply flew by.

As I pulled the car into the driveway of my folks’ place, the conversation continued, spilling into the house as we walked inside. Perhaps it was the change in temperature from the outside New England air to the heat of the house, but the moment she crossed the threshold, there was a rush of warmth.

I couldn’t help but smile.

When she began unpacking her things, she paused for a moment and asked me to get some tape. The TSA has a policy to preemptively unwrap other people’s presents as a security measure, and the gifts she had brought had suffered the same fate as many others. She wasn’t too keen on having anyone miss out on the experience of unwrapping one of her gifts. It needed to look presentable.

“I swear,” she said, holding up a fist, “I’ll punch you if you look!”

Grinning, I held up my hands and slowly turned around to look for some tape to repair the damage done to the wrapping paper. I knew there was some on my mother’s desk down the hall, so I began to turn and walk out.  

As I did, I felt some pages pushed into my hand. I raised my eyebrows, not sure what just materialized there on my way out the door. I looked down.

She had pushed her hand into mine, clutching several pieces of paper. On each, I could see her cursive script and a different date on each.

“I decided I wanted to write you a letter every day for half of December up until Christmas. I hope you like them!”

I turned back around to say something but before I could thank her, she planted a kiss on my cheek.

Laughing from surprise, I hugged her.

You see, there’s been an ongoing debate between the two of us about who’s the lucky one in the relationship. I think it’s me. My girlfriend and I have been writing letters to one another for the entirety of our one year, three month, and two day long relationship, in addition to calling, texting, sending Snapchats, and video calling. Yet, whenever I have to write a letter, it takes me ages. Prior to Christmas, I had drafted a letter, edited it, reviewed it, threw it out, wrote a second draft, sent it to my roommate to read over a section, threw that one out, and was on my fourth draft of my long-overdue letter when she arrived with twelve or so in tow.

The reason, I think, is because I still don’t like the fact that I’m in process. I kind of feel like a gift whose gift wrap the TSA has torn up. Still valuable, but really gritty-looking without tape, in theory. I need a finished draft to send to anyone of whom I think highly. Or at least, I thought I did.

Nowadays, I think I’ve arrived at more of a “I strongly prefer a finished draft” or maybe just “want”.

But as I’ve gone through undergraduate and onto seminary, my friends, family, and girlfriend have helped me realize that waiting around for a final draft of myself is pretty pointless. It’ll never happen.  But, people are imperfectly perfect and still worthy of love. Moments of quality time, like unrequited, or rather, spontaneous letters, remind us of this fact.

It doesn’t matter what shape the draft is in. Or the gift. Or the person. To those who love another person, it doesn’t matter as long as they are there.

Olivia, with her letters, reminds me of what grace and love look like.

And I love her all the more for it.

(I should still probably send her my response soon though.)

A Box of Fairy Tales for Christmas

A few years ago, I came in from the cold to discover my mother making her way down the staircase of the new house with a large box in her hands. She set the box – marked in bold lettering of a red Sharpie with the word TRASH – by the door.

Just outside, the snow had begun to fall silently down over the world, blanketing everything in a soft white layer of frosting. I brushed what snow had started to pile up on my shoulders and hair off as I began to feel the warmth of the place once more. Placing my hands over my nose, I could feel the chill from outside still lingered a few moments more.

I glanced over as I hung up my coat. Matching worn maroon spines peeked out from their cardboard frame. Books. Old ones, too, by the amount of wear they had on them.

Erasmus once wrote, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” And while I am nowhere near as noble as Erasmus, I will scrounge for a good book from time to time.

“What do you have there?” I asked, poking my head around the corner.

“Oh, those?” My mother pointed to the box as she walked back upstairs, “Those are some collections of fairy tales that I’ve held onto for a while. Nobody’s read them in quite some time.”

I picked one up to weigh it in my hand. I remembered in grade school sitting in the old family rocking chair or my bunk as I imagined the worlds of Robin Hood and Arabian Nights. The book was lighter – or I larger – than I last remembered.

Time was not kind to these books. I imagined it to be partially my fault as well. As I flipped through the pages of the books which kept me company in my younger days, the motion kicked up some dust which had been resting on the edges of pages. The pages smelled of vanilla and almond, faintly, as if someone had been baking sugar cookies in this very same space not too long ago.

I slid the book back in its place along with its siblings. Something about these meant more to me than just entertainment.

I leaned on the banister to shout up the stairs.

“Would you mind me taking them, then?”

“As long as you have space for fairy tales in your life, I don’t see why not.”

It’s funny how the stories we are told as children often hold more truth and life than we are led to believe. G. K. Chesterton once wrote in one of his better-known works that the things he believed most in his childhood and the thing he most believed as an adult are the things called fairy tales. Little wonder that, when taken seriously, a fairy tale is a tool by which we learn to come to grips with the world.

The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim pointed out that when it comes to fairy tales, the genius behind it is that “the message is effective as long as it is delivered not as a moral or demand, but in a casual way which indicates that this is how life is.” In Bettelheim’s understanding, the beauty of a fairy tale is that it leaves room for the gray, suggesting at possible solutions while never casting judgment on others. Instead of painting the world in shades of good or bad, the fairy tale rather asks the listener which character they want to be most like.

I’ve been wrestling with Old Testament texts and the degree to which they are historical in the way we understand it to mean today. In particular, I wonder what that might mean for my faith. Mixed in with these troubling texts, the Gospel of John finds rest in the canon. In it, there’s a small epilogue which closes out the book where the narrator confirms that he was the disciple that Jesus loved. However, I cannot remember whether he ever pointed out that he himself was John or if tradition dictated it was so. Either way, the narrator’s choice to leave their name out can serve the purpose of inviting others listening to project themselves into the role of the narrator him- or herself, to taste and see whether a playing the role of someone following Christ is something worth doing themselves.

By reading ourselves into the story, we take the message that the Gospel has for ourselves, placing ourselves in the shoes -err, sandals- of the characters. Bettelheim mentions that this is one of the main orienting factors of fairy tales – they give us a frame through which to describe, but not prescribe, the world.

Just like in the example within John where the audience is invited into that role based on the anonymity (and universality) of the disciple, we are offered to evaluate our options. This, he hints at in the opening paragraph of his work when he states that “if we hope to live not just moment to moment, but in true consciousness of our existence, then our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives.” We need narratives to find meaning, so we have to remind ourselves of them – both fictitious and not – constantly.

In terms of deciding who we want to be in the story being told within the Gospel, I’m becoming pretty sure that Jesus would be fine with a person taking the time to weigh which character we think is best to be most like. I don’t think Christ is always forthcoming with the answers to every problem a person will face. He never really was when he was asked a question, instead responding to their inquiries by inviting them to come and see how life is with him in the lead.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to see how Advent takes on a renewed significance within this light. In this upcoming season of Advent, people are asked to reflect upon what it means to wait for the coming Messiah.

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, the story begins, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world… and everyone went to their own town to register.

It is in these unremarkable circumstances that the story starts, and the audience begins to settle in to hear where they might be in this story. The story of a baby who also is Christ the King. God become human.

Admittedly, faith in a god-man may sound like something belonging between the pages of the Odyssey – and to a certain extent, I think it does. Don’t get me wrong – I am still troubled and wrestle with the implications of such a position. How can a simple fairy tale ever correlate to ultimate reality? And yet, I think part of my fear is from feeling that I have begun to lose a sense of control or order which underlaid my belief. I think that many of us want to be totally, empirically certain of the events described in Scripture. We don’t want to be wrong.

We don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark, with all that we might encounter there.

I, for one, am afraid of that darkness.

What if there’s nothing?

We – err, I am guilty of seeking certainty that I forget that I’ve got this whole faith the other way around. Instead of understanding so that I might believe, I must believe so that I might understand.

In the moment when that a god-man entered human experience some two thousand years ago, the myth became more like a fairy tale. And this story gathered a community of people over the course of thousands of years all attesting that something about this story is true, going back to the disciples who died for telling such a tale. That it’s real. That even in the middle of the dark, there’s something there that lasts beyond.

The people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

In his taking on human nature and flesh, Christ took on each one of ourselves. In dying, he accomplished something which affected all of us. And yet, before we can get to Good Friday and Easter, we must first wait on the King to arrive, to show up in each one of our lives now. Sometimes in something as small and precious and fragile and seemingly universally insignificant in the middle of such a great darkness as a baby in a manger.

The stuff of fairy tales. The stuff of Good News.

A myth is a once-occurring thing for the sake of emulation. But a fairy tale is a perpetual truth central to the human condition. It need not have a defense, but rather motions others toward what might be, and what ought to be in the first place. I find it interesting then, especially after studying a bit of modern and postmodern thought, that fairy tales have become for me what they were for Chesterton. As I sit in front of texts which I once thought had a historicity and accuracy to them in the same manner that one might expect of a documentary in the twenty-first century, the thought which comforts me is the notion that these stories which I hold dear to me can be just like a fairy tale and still be real and true.

For believers, the incarnation isn’t so much an example to embody for the sake of forcing one’s set of beliefs and behaviors on others but can also be a mentality to adopt as a way of simply being with the other, whether that’s in a swaddling cloth in a manger of the first century BCE or in the DMV of the CE. It’s also a truth that something transcendent can take on flesh and move into the neighborhood. That we’re not stumbling around in the dark as much as we think we are.

I think my pastor put it best in a sermon he delivered the other day, that these stories we tell, that we remind ourselves of, kindle in us the conviction that:

At the end of it all, at the end of all things, we find that there is a King. And if there is a king, an everlasting and eternal king in charge of all things, there are answers. There is justice. All these things we seek aren’t just abstractions, distractions from reality, or baseless hopes. It’s something more.

Just because a story has the trappings of a fairy tale does not discredit its realness at the end of the day.

Advent invites us into a fairy tale different from the ones we tell ourselves day after day. The ones which culture substitutes in its stead. The ones which seem useful and attractive at first but leave us hollow in the end.

Advent is a fairy tale of a people waiting for the one who can honestly offer them an invitation they’ve been waiting for: “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves.”

Advent invites us into a fairy tale that, for once, is real.

I wound up taking the box of worn fairy tales and sliding them underneath my bed. I wonder when I’ll tell these tales to others. Maybe to myself. Some truths come to us over time. But some present themselves early on, and we just don’t realize their presence until later – especially after we live them.

And those, I think, make some of the best stories.