A Painted Vision

I’ve got art on my mind a lot nowadays. I think it tends to happen when one hangs out with artists. More specifically, artists who are heavily involved in their faith communities. Naturally enough, immersing myself with people of a certain mentality will cause me to become interested in how they see the world.

A professor of mine who I regard as a mentor remarked that when we do not have the language to name something, we lose the ability to see it. The world becomes a much more complex place when one learns about the atom. Music becomes fascinatingly more complicated when things such a “pitch” and “timbre” are introduced to the mix.

In an analogous fashion, I think that the arts teach us how to see.

But see what?

I recently got off the phone with someone who sees themselves as a former person of faith. We had been talking for a bit. Rather, they talked, I listened. Every so often, I would drop a question in for clarification.

In the closing moments of the conversation, they cleared their throat and remarked, “You know, I can intellectually grasp the concept of God or some ultimate force in the universe. And yet, my experience would suggest something else entirely; I mean, I don’t feel like it’s true experientially.”

We talked for a little longer before we hung up. As I placed my cell phone on a shelf, I closed my eyes and rubbed the bridge of my nose.

I was surprised, to be honest. Usually, I would rail against the tendencies for Christianity to become an emotional, fun-fueled experience with little to no theological reflection, leaving many people prone to abandoning the faith after they found their version wanting in academia. Here, it seemed, my counterpart was experiencing the exact opposite phenomenon.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made a related observation regarding the power of art in one of his many works. He once wrote that he loved art because “we [need it] so that we might not perish by the truth.” For Nietzsche, humanity needed art to create a lie around itself regarding its place and purpose in the universe. Namely, it needed something – a story, an image of significance – onto which it might latch as a manner of hanging on in a bizarre and otherwise unfeeling world. Art, or rather the arts, in Nietzsche’s mind, created for humans an ideal and a lens through which to engage the world that offered some comfort.

Another thinker, Plato, understood the power of the arts as well. In planning his republic of words, Plato stated that the arts were so influential on a person that it was the state’s prerogative to censor art to maintain a good society. Unlike Nietzsche, Plato asserted that art could be more than just a beautiful lie – possibly because he was a premodern thinker while Nietzsche was a postmodern one – but a way to cultivate virtues which meant something in the grand scope of things. Since virtuous citizens make up a good state, a state ought to educate their citizens. It did so by exposing them to good material and shielding them from that which it deems bad.

In both thinkers’ minds, art is a means to an end. It has the capacity to manipulate, inform, and form its observers, regardless of whether it has any bearing on the truth of how things are. It trains and reinforces a frame through which we might see.

I suppose it could also apply to the sciences (e.g., heliocentric versus geocentric models of the solar system) and to education as a whole. However, I’m more interested in narratives which lie generally within the arts.

The thing is, both Nietzsche and Plato understood that there is art that misleads us – whether for our benefit or detriment is up to the thinkers to decide. And yet, we buy into it anyways for one reason or another.

Oftentimes, I think it’s because we are pursuing some form of a Good that we don’t take time to reflect. Are our priorities on our Goods are properly aligned? Do we prefer the proper thing over all else at the moment? Sometimes, it’s that we don’t prefer something as much as we ought. Yet, we cling to certain narratives because they justify something for us.

For me, it’s a sense of security and meaning. However, should it be something else?

Talking to my friend reminded me of this fact as well. I left the conversation wondering whether I cling to a narrative of Christianity because it keeps me from perishing by the truth.

And yet, simultaneously, I wonder how, if the framework of Christianity is the closest thing to getting at what is, we can best experience that which we claim to believe?

I think the arts paint a good picture of what is expected of us, depending on what road one decides to travel down.

You know, moving down any path that art paints for us might just be considered faith.

Whether we choose to move that way in the first place is up to you.

 

An Artistic Focus

I found myself sitting across from a new friend for lunch the other day. I’ve been in Atlanta for only a week. Everything, really, feels new. Along with the place comes a strangeness of culture, people, accent, even life situation. While this fall is far from my first season of diving into academia, it is the start of a new leg of that journey far from any community that I’ve known.

And with this new season comes a predominant sense of anxiety. Newness, strangeness, is stressful to humans in general as created creatures of habit. Without context for the world around us, we enter into a state that is constantly “on” – taking as much of the environment in as quickly as possible – in an attempt to make sense of it. We do so as a means of trying to regain a sense of control.

While transition is stressful, there is an openness present in the person that is otherwise closed off. The expectation is that there is no expectation. Most, if not all, of our categories and filters through which to see the world have been reset.

Familiarity can breed contempt. Without intention reflection, it can dispose us in this way.  We allow ourselves to be swept along with the rhythms of life, trying to get through the days and weeks to something we’re looking forward to.

To be sure, there is significance and beauty to engaging in regularly repeating activities and disciplines. Just like there is a reason for an athlete to exercise outside of a match, there are reasons for a person to practice for what they hope to be or where they hope to perform.

But for many of us, it can become easy to slide into doing the motions. The meaning fades. The ritual becomes dry and hollow. It is in these moments that we need a shaking-up of sorts.

This was one of the reasons why I found myself at lunch after Ross had found me wandering around the lobby of his church the first Sunday I was in Atlanta.

The thing is, Ross is an artist by trade. A graphic designer more precisely, and a good one at that. However, Ross’ passion rests in helping others visualize their role in the world, often with a theological bent to it. He uses his talent as a means to start the conversation. Naturally enough, it wasn’t long before the soon-to-be-seminarian and the artist’s talk would turn toward that general direction.

Ross was halfway through his salad bowl, munching contentedly. We had been discussing the direction our lives had gone. We mused over places where we thought they were headed as well. Several people had recently connected with Ross because of his art and wanted to begin working with him as well. Ross’ eyes lit up as he speculated what the future would bring.

At one point, I remarked, “Has it ever occurred to you that we need you to help us pray?”

Ross stopped chewing.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well,” I began, setting aside my fork and scratching my chin, “Would you say that the arts intentionally portray something – anything – which is filtered or distorted or focused in such a manner that some message is conveyed?”

Ross tapped his finger to his lips, his eyes gazing beyond me in a pensive stare.

“Yeah, but what are you getting at?”

The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem that advised its audience that one should “Tell all the truth but tell it slant / [Lest] every man be blind.”[1] Those tasked with telling the truth might find that the truth, when presented in the same way, may be so familiar to their audience that their listeners dismiss it, regardless of whether it have the significance of a horoscope or a great work of literature. Something as revolutionary and radical as the truth can be glossed over for a lie which “tickles many ears” and enthralls the masses simply because it is so familiar.

Simone Weil, on a related note, once observed that a form of loving something is fixing one’s complete and utter attention on it. Furthermore, praying is simply the act of paying attention to one’s surroundings, oneself, and to God.[2]

When we lose our expectation and openness, allowing familiarity to dull our senses, we need someone else to remind us again. We need others to recall our sense of wonder, of our reverence, and of our devotion when the motions seem to us as good enough. We need the artist to wrestle with our perceived reality and ways of being in order to communicate some element of it – the good, the bad, and everything in between – even though their manner of doing so may shake us to our cores and make us uncomfortable with where, who, or even what we are.

It is, I think, one of the reasons why the Psalmist invites their audience to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”[3]

It is for the same reason why they also cry out in Psalm 88 in their anguish, failing to resolve their lament like any other Psalm that we have in the canon.[4]

It is for the same reason why the prophets used such wild imagery, like Malachi warning the priests that God would smear fecal matter on their faces for their tepidness and corruption.[5]

The voice of the artist invites us, through disrupting our daily patterns and our assumptions about who and what faith ought to be about, to return our focus back to God and reengage with him in all our humanness.

The voice of the artist, whatever their medium, has the ability to invite us to come. To see. To experience this God of ours.

They invite us to pay attention to the mystery and wonder of the divine.

They help us to pray.

At lunch, I looked at Ross, spreading my arms wide.

“You have a gift from God, for the people of God.”

He smiled. “Thanks be to God.”

[1] Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

[2] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace.

[3] Psalm 38:4, New Revised Standard Version.

[4] Ps. 88.

[5] Mal. 2:3.

Roots

I found myself sitting in the hallway outside of my uncle’s home office the night before I left Los Angeles. The door to the room was propped open. Light spilled into the hallway and leaked across the rug and the parts of the walls.

Inside, my uncle sat at his desk. In one hand, he held the book on which he was concentrating. In the other, a pencil rested between his fingers as he held it up just enough for its end to touch his cheek. He was motionless until, all at once, the pencil would come flying down. A few marks would be made. A few lines would be drawn. Then, just as quickly, the pencil would return to its place.

The door to the guest bedroom further down the hall opened. I stepped out. Pausing briefly to step sideways, I leaned against the wall for a moment before sliding to the ground.

I let out a sigh. Just behind me, some of the light from my uncle’s office rested on my belongings, having been packed and repacked several times over the course of the past month. This time was the last for a while though. It had to be as compact as possible to fit into the back of my car as well as have enough space for two other people and their gear.

A silence returned to the hallway as I thought about the road ahead. The frames of my uncle’s glasses were just visible over the pages he was reading. He flipped a page. Silence again.

Minutes passed. Pages were turned. The pencil made marks. Silence. I began to wonder why I didn’t leave. But something, some impression of a thing, was building up in my stomach.

I knocked on the door frame. The book came down a bit. My uncle looked at me quizzically as I sat with my back against the wall in his hallway.

“You know,” I started, unsure of where I was going exactly, “I don’t think I have many regrets from my time at college.”

I fell silent, trying to figure out what I was trying to say or rather, why. I looked up to see that I had my uncle’s attention. The book remained propped up in his hand, but it hung more limply than it did before.

“I guess I have one or two though.”

He cleared his throat. “What’s that?”

“Well, I suppose that my main regret is that I came into APU like an idiot who just didn’t want to live under your shadow and ran from community when you offered it. I wanted to see if I could do this whole ‘adulting’ thing on my own. I wanted to try and pull myself up by my bootstraps. I think I was partially trained to think that way – to be self-sustaining, to not need anyone. And, well, I missed out on a great resource and relationship with you because of it.”

My uncle set his book down on the desk in front of him before saying: “The thing is, none of us are self-sufficient. We don’t even know how complicated and interconnected our society is because we don’t think about it. I don’t know how many people it took to produce a hamburger on my plate. I don’t know how many countless others it takes for every single activity of my day to happen!”

“Yeah,” I remarked, “I get that intellectually. But at my core, I still live out of a false story where true rugged individualism could be a reality. I never let that lesson to affect me and I guess I have to pay the consequences of that decision.”

Something clicked in my mind at that moment.

“I guess what I’m getting at is I’m sorry for not reaching out – and reaching out more. I’ve treated you like simply a stop on the way somewhere else.”

I paused. “I know it might not mean much now, being the night before I leave and all, but can you forgive me?”

I feel pulled. Pulled to stay and pulled to go. On one hand, culture has time and time again told us of the potential of the open road. The adventures you’ll have. The people you’ll meet.

On the other hand though, I’m been feeling an ache to put down roots somewhere for a while.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove tells the story of his friend Will and his family moving to a new place and attending a church known for taking community seriously. But after a while, Will realized that he’s not satisfied. Meeting with the pastor of the church to discuss his concerns about community, the pastor simply asked Will how long they had been attending, to which he replied a year.

“Then I guess you’ve got about a year’s worth of community,” his pastor said matter-of-factly, “Stay another year and you’ll have two years’ worth. Stay thirty and you might find some of what you’re looking for.”[1]

I was reminded again of the quote from Soong-Chan Rah I had come across in earlier readings where he stated that “Contemporary life is characterized by movement, oftentimes at high speeds, with the absence of any real connection to the world around us.”[2] When we move constantly, onwards and upwards to the next best thing, the world gets blurred. We can see miles of road, but the details and the depth to a place are lost.

American culture has taught us of the superiority of mobility. Out there is always the possibility of a new field, greener than any you’ve encountered so far. But we don’t take enough time to gather more than a surface level nutrition from the one we’re in now.

In an analogous fashion, C. S. Lewis likened his work of Mere Christianity to our desire to stay on the go. We treat our communities the same way Lewis foresaw how some might be tempted to use his book – as the end-all, be-all in life. But, Lewis wrote, Mere Christianity is simply getting a person to walk the halls of the faith. We must commit to one of the house’s many rooms to find that there are warm fires and hot meals, good books and comfortable chairs in which to rest.

In the same way, we must commit to community to begin to grow in a way we might not otherwise. Wilson-Hartgrove remarked that “I wanted to love my neighbor, but I had not stayed in one place long enough to know my neighbor or my neighborhood.”[3] This, of course, is not just an idealized love, but one where person begins to rub shoulders with one another and butt heads as time goes on – learning to live with one another despite our differences because of the reality that of community on which is based. The German theologian Bonhoeffer reminded his audience that:

Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it.[4]

I feel pulled. Pulled because my heart longs for the road and longs for home all at once. It seeks for something impossible – an in-depth community at the speed of sound. And yet, what I may need is to slow down enough to let my roots sink down into the earth between my toes.

It’s happened once. It happened around a table with people who committed to show up for four years and to wrestle with some of life’s recurring questions. When I stopped living how I was living for just enough to let me invest and be invested into. When I didn’t fear living in the shadow of others.

I wonder how they’re doing?

Back in the hallway of my uncle’s house, I waited for my uncle’s response. It was quiet for a moment. One of those wonderful moments where there is a holy stillness of sorts as someone really listens to you and doesn’t simply brush you off.

Then, he spoke. “Of course. Just make sure to stay in touch and call us every once in a while. We’d love to see how you’re doing.”

I thanked him and began to head down the hallway when he called me. I started to turn around.

“Remember,” he said, “Keep in touch.”

“Oh,” I said with a slight smile, “I will.”

 

 

[1] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), 19.

[2] Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009), 148.

[3] Wilson-Hartgrove, 36.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 13.

Living Life Like A Jazz Piece

I ran into one of my professors in the halls the other day. As I turned the corner, our eyes met. His eyebrows rose as he tilted his head slightly, denoting a slight sense of surprise. The man is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom, embodied in the human equivalent of Flash from Zootopia.

“What are you still doing on campus?” he inquired, a low chuckle rumbling from deep within him. “Aren’t you sick of school?”

“I guess not.” I replied.

It’s been a week and a half since I graduated from my college. For the most part, the campus has fallen silent as students packed up and moved out in a mass exodus. A majority of the student body has headed back home. A few remain for work or for summer classes. The only others around are the faculty and staff, milling about the campus, running to this appointment or that.

There isn’t much space for a graduated senior at their college. Makes sense, I suppose. After walking across the stage and getting a diploma, it would make sense to call that chapter of life done and over with.

And yet, I remain.

In the classic movie, The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock finds himself in a similar circumstance as many former college students – back at his parents’ house and unsure of an answer to the unrelenting question of what he wants to do with his life. During the first few minutes of the film, Benjamin spends a good deal of time simply floating in his parents’ pool – an action analogous to his fear of committing to a single way of living.

While the audience may not be able to directly relate to the direction the film takes action-for-action, they can resonate with the sense of aimless floating that he experiences after he leaves the structured rigor of college, suddenly being thrust into the great unknown expanse of the rest of his life.

At least with school, there was a goal for which to strive. Now, there’s not a single goal that people seem to be living for anymore. We are given the keys. We are left alone.

There! You’ve graduated! You’re on your own. Fend for yourself!

A similar sentiment cropped up in me as, there in the hallway, my professor asked the same question that Benjamin Braddock so dreaded.

“So, what do you want to do with your life?”

As I stood there sharing some of my post-grad plans with my professor, he nodded, listening. When I expressed concern regarding what concentration I should pursue for my MDiv, he laughed softly.

“Are you a fan of jazz?” he asked.

“Sure. I listen to it on occasion.”

“Well,” he started, “I think life with God is like jazz. There are parts of each piece that are distinctive which need to happen for it to be considered complete.”

“But,” he noted, “there’s a lot of improvisation that goes on between the beginning and the end. But we’ll get to the end eventually. God is still sovereign.”

“So what I hear you saying,” I paused, “is that my conceptual understanding of and subscription to limited providence needs to find a practical outlet in my own life as well.”

He coughed. “No. What I’m saying is study what you want. If your prayer is to glorify God, then I doubt that God will ignore such a request.”

He paused to crack a smile.

“But seriously – you’re a graduate of the youth ministry program? Who are you talking to, using that vocabulary set anyways? Chill.”

We laughed.

The Shawshank Redemption is a 1994 movie in which Andy Dufresne is sentenced to two life sentences for a crime he didn’t commit. While in prison, Andy befriends Red, another inmate, who tells him about the phenomenon of institutionalization – where prisoners who finished serving long sentences cannot figure out how to function in the outside world.

The notion of the familiar, paired with the limited amount of choices on how to live well given a certain set of circumstances, is comforting in light of overwhelming freedom. Institutionalization, I believe, appears to be a rational move for persons most familiar with a limited set of choices because we all hope to be good at the core of who we are. And we are better at those things with which we are most familiar. Failing to choose well in light of a massive selection of choices, most of which we hadn’t access to before because of the previous restrictions, paralyzes people trying live good lives.

I think it’s connected to the thought that we might choose to do something that is so incredibly wrong, we throw everything out of whack around us. Hidden in this assumption is the notion that there is one right way to do everything. That God has a single plan and if you mess up you can’t get back in on it.

But the thing is with jazz is that there’s a lot of space for creativity and what seems to be missteps. They all get incorporated into the piece eventually.

Likewise, if we hold that God is a creator and redeemer, he can do just that with each of our choices that we make. No matter what program, what experience, what decisions we choose. We just get to enjoy the music we make together.

You Are What You Eat; Choose Wisely

I am what some might call a veteran of the college life. My peers of the class of 2018 and I have been attending APU for almost four years. In that span of time, my friends and I have had the chance to sit in upwards of 250 colloquy discussions, reading more than 50 books, learning from a collection of 17 different professors, over eight semesters. And, without counting weekends, many of my peers and I have had around 1800 meals. Assuming that I had only three cups of coffee a day per weekday using a standard 12 oz. paper cup, I wager that I have had 21,600 oz. of coffee to keep me going since the first day of school.

The reason why I bring this up is because, for all of the conversations I’ve had, for all of the experiences we’ve shared, for all of the books we’ve read and papers we’ve written, I want to let you know that my time in college has boiled down to a few core truths. The one that I want to share today is, strangely enough, that you are what you eat.

The thing is, there are a number of different things that you can choose to chow down on throughout your college career. For me, coffee was definitely one of those things. As college students, we might want to stay up all night and eat our fill of the Taco Bells and McDonald’s of the college experience, basing our choices off of pleasure or usefulness. Aristotle imagined that most of our friendships begin this way. And while it is fine to have Taco Bell and McDonald’s every so often, if you make them your main source of nutrition, you might find yourself feeling ill after some time. The thing is, we need to make room for better food to help us grow in wisdom and stature – we need to make room for friends of virtue. These are those we find around us who spur us on to greater character and virtue.

The Reformer Martin Luther thought about that better food, especially when it came to one of the core symbols of the Christian faith. According to Luther, it is “through the interchange of [Christ’s] blessings and our misfortunes [that] we become one loaf, one bread, one body, one drink, and have all things in common.” Christ’s taking on of our form opens the possibility that we might take on his righteousness. This is symbolized in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Later, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer extended his predecessor’s metaphor – in the same way that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, more mature Christians are invited to walk alongside and support their less mature sisters and brothers until they can stand on their own in the community. And just as how it is in remembering Christ in the Lord’s Supper that we are also simultaneously re-membered – rejoined – into the larger community of Christ’s body, we are reminded that in everything we do, we are formed by what we partake in. We are formed by the communities of which we are a part. We are formed by the relationships we pursue. We are formed by what we read and wrestle with. In short, you are what you eat.

The word we use to describe more mature persons watching over others on any journey of life comes from Homer’s Odyssey, when the young Telemachus sets off on a coming-of-age journey to find his father. He is successful thanks to the goddess Athena who guides, supports, and walks with Telemachus in the form of his father’s old friend, Mentor. Because Telemachus listens to Mentor and not the voices of others, he ultimately comes into his own.

Mentors are essential to any successful journey, and many of us strive to practice good mentorship. The thing is though, we can’t force someone to choose what to partake in. It’s up to each person to choose his or her future. If we are changed and formed by the ideas, values, relationships, and communities we internalize–if we are what we eat– what choices do you want to define you? Who do you hope to be in four years?

Like Two Eight-Year-Olds in a Trench Coat

With all of the craziness of last semester, it’s hard to find time for recollection and reflection. Readings for this class have to be done by such-and-such a day. Graduate applications are due the same day as two papers. And, oh, did you remember about the project that’s due for work in the next few days?

Granted, with the trajectory that many students like me are taking, we’re either going to graduate on time or crash and burn in a blaze of glory. Maybe both.

Funny thing, that. Graduation from college. In little more than ten weeks’ time, many of my friends and I will cross a stage, be handed a diploma, and land in adulthood.

Theoretically. At least, that’s what it seems like we’re supposed to be doing.

But on certain nights when I’m being honest with myself, I don’t know what life will look like after graduation. I don’t know if or when I’ll see many of my closest friends anymore. I don’t know where life will take us.

And that frightens and excites me simultaneously in a wonderful, horrific amalgamation of emotions somewhat typical of the human experience, as I’ve so learned.

As a senior looking at the immanent reality of life potentially outside of academia, I suddenly feel like two eight-year-olds in a trench coat wielding a cardboard sword and sent off to face the dragons of life.

I wonder how many people feel the same exact way?

I’ve found some solace in the story of a man in a similar circumstance. He was impulsive, rough around the edges, and not the sharpest one of his friend group. But he was dependable when his passions didn’t get in the way. I think that’s why his friends called him Rock, err, I mean Peter.

When Peter began following Jesus, he had just given up his fishing nets. He had little, if any, training for the road ahead of him. He was a blue-collar worker, through and through. And yet, it was this Rock, this Peter, that Jesus chose to be the Rock upon which to build his church. It was this Peter that took up the mantle of leadership after only three and a half years of training.

I’m sure he (and the rest of the disciples) felt the same way that many of us do.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch of the imagination to say that I’m a self-professed nerd and proud of it. I count myself as one among many of the fandoms that exist throughout the world.

Lord of the Rings? You bet.

Star Wars? Of course.

Hunger Games? Maybe a bit of a stretch for it, but I can see its appeal.

The funny thing about each of these series is that each one of them boils down to the same story at the end of the day. Someone is called upon out of a backwater community to overcome some great obstacle or seemingly invincible evil. But, as time goes on, they find that they aren’t alone – they are joined by people who provide support, companionship, and advice along the way. Eventually, depending on how their allies have influenced them, the unlikely hero makes a decision that will have a sweeping impact on the world around them – for better or for worse.

But why tell the same story?

It seems as though the reason is that there is something about these stories that resonates with the core of our experience as a species. Something about these stories tells us that for any journey we go on, we need someone else to walk alongside us, providing companionship, support, and advice along the way. We need others to tell us that the journey is worth taking in the first place.

It reminds us, suggests G.K. Chesterton, not that dragons are real, but that our dragons are defeatable.

When I started on my journey at my undergraduate college, I came in confident of my positions. I thought I only had a few questions. I thought college was about merely refining the beliefs I held about the world.

I’m leaving college with more questions than I had coming in. I think that’s the point of college – to sharpen your hunger for knowledge, to whet your appetite for truth, and to give words and shape to identifying beauty and nuance.

But I’m also leaving college with a newfound respect for community.

I’m glad that the Gospel of John ends the same way that the book of Genesis begins. It begins, and ends, in darkness.

The Gospel of John’s final chapter opens a few minutes before sunrise. For those who have gotten up early enough, you’d know it’s one of the darkest moments of the day. The moon has set. The stars have disappeared. The world itself seems like it’s holding its breath.

If the chapter was part of a movie, the camera would open, hovering over the surface of the deep, just above the waters of the Sea of Galilee. As it pans horizontally, it would pause as it faced east.

And then, right where the sky meets the sea, the camera could just make out the silhouette of a small fishing vessel. On it are some men and women, not unlike you and I, puzzling over what to make of the past few years.

You see, just there on that very same shoreline came a man who invited each of them on a journey. And for those that followed him, they got to see him do some amazing things. At times, they heard him say some incredibly challenging things, too. But above all, as these men and women got to know this strange man from Nazareth, he taught them day by day how to write a better story with their lives.

And yet, in the last couple of weeks, everything went sideways. The world turned upside down and these men and women found themselves running for the hills in their friend’s moment of greatest need. They found themselves returning to writing the stories that the world told them made the most sense – basing their value and belonging on what they did or what they knew.

And for many of these men and women, what they did and what they knew had to do a lot with fish. And so, they returned to their old way of living.

Eventually, they decide to call it a night and draw in near the shore. As the boats get closer, though, one of the men leans out over the bow and squints. He points. Far off, there, on the shore, is a man. At first, nobody knows who he is. Neither would you in the same type of lighting. But as the boats draw closer, the look on his face changes. He’s puzzled, not sure whether to be overjoyed or ashamed.

As the light of the rising sun reflects off the water, it lights up his face so you can see who it is who’s doing the pointing. It’s Peter – Jesus’ right-hand man. So too, can the men and women see who is waiting for them on the shore – the same man that they left in his moment of greatest need.

But instead of reacting in a way that would make sense in a story that the world told the men and women they should tell, Jesus does something completely different. He doesn’t judge them based on how well or poorly they did. But he doesn’t laugh at the fact that they don’t know the answers to all their questions, either.

But instead of showing his power by saying “Let there be light” and throwing another star into the sky, Jesus turns to his friends who still don’t know how to react and bids them join him at the small charcoal fire he had started, one large enough to cook breakfast for his friends.

And it is over food that Jesus calls Peter, who still can’t look his friend in the eyes just quite yet, and recommissions him for the work to which he was called.

The notion of stepping out into the unknown is still a frightening thing. I have more questions than I believe I have answers. I wonder if my cardboard sword is enough to take down the dragons I face. I’m afraid to make mistakes.

But I take solace in the fact that when Jesus made the church, he made it out of humans. Humans like Peter, like Thomas, like Matthew, like Joanna, like Mary, like Martha. Humans that have in them the same amount of intelligence and stupidity, of humility and pride, of malleability and stubbornness that each of us is made of. That you’re made of. That I’m made of. They struggled with getting Jesus’ message as much as we do today.

And yet, Jesus continues to work with them. He reminds them that there’s a better story to tell. And it is the same story that allows us to do as the disciples did  – to step into the dark, into the unknown, as sheep among wolves, as a bunch of eight-year-olds in trenchcoats, advancing the Kingdom in their own little ways.

The story that they learned to tell was one that said that community and belonging and meaning was not based on how much they knew, or how much they did, but on who they found themselves in relationships with.

Their stories tell me that regardless of where I end up, I can still tell a better story. And I suppose that in this, I can find some rest.

That is if I can get this paper in first.

Fishbowl

There’s this room that looks out onto one of my university’s largest art galleries on campus. Some students refer to it as the Fishbowl. Though arguably a strange name for a classroom, a quick once-over of the place suggests to those curious a reason why such is the case.

The chamber, reminiscent of a study, is adorned with a small selection of furniture as well as the odd plastic plant. At its center rests two coffee tables. These are, in turn, surrounded by a handful of slightly worn armchairs and loveseats, suggesting that the place is often used as a rendezvous for small groups needing to discuss one thing or the other. The space itself is a tired triangular prism, whose longest side sags outward slightly in a curved glass wall. Should anyone walk on by, it would seem as though the university had decided to install a life size diorama of an early 21st century college student’s room.

The Fishbowl earned its name in part because of its ability to mute any sound within or without, depending on where one would stand. Looking in, it is near impossible to hear what those inside are discussing. Looking out, witnessing crowds of people pass on by in silence lends itself to an experience similar to that of watching fish in an aquarium. All either perspective can do is pay attention to the expressions and body language of those on the other side at that current moment.

On more than one occasion, I have found myself being among those featured few in the Fishbowl. The room itself has developed some sentimental value for me since the first time I found myself in it. Some of the most meaningful and profound classes I’ve had at my university have been in there. And now, every so often, a group of students will shuffle in to sit down for an hour or so to talk about life. At the beginning of the year, I wouldn’t have considered myself close with any of them. But now, I cannot imagine my senior year apart from them.

Some nights, we tell stories from our childhoods. Other times, we might talk about work. On occasion, we might try to plan the future. The common thread through all of these times is that on any given night, as the conversation wound down, if one were to pass by the Fishbowl, they would be able to see that it would be a rare sight to see a dry eye in the place.

During one of the most recent of those small gatherings, one of my friends confessed her apprehension of the road ahead. “I just don’t know what I want to do after college. I’ve spent all my life in school. What else can I do?”

The room was still. Her words resonated with each of us. We sat in the quiet, processing them each in our own ways. A moment of silence passed. She continued, a tear running down her cheek. “I just feel like two eight-year-olds wearing a trench coat all the time now. I thought I would know better.”

“I… I just don’t want to go.”

“None of us do.”

The summer before my senior year, I found myself sitting on top of a building on Gordon College’s campus. I had found myself attending the Compass RMI college program that was designed to help students explore whether vocational ministry was something to which they might be drawn. After spending twenty nine days with people I had not known before, I found myself on that rooftop the night before heading home having mixed feelings.

As I looked up at the sky, picking out the familiar constellations I had grown up with since I could remember, thoughts of home excited, saddened, and frightened me all at once. I was excited to head back to people I knew and loved. I was excited to share what had happened over the course of the last month. I was excited to sleep in my own bed again. And yet, I was saddened by having to leave this time and place that had become so meaningful and formative for a young Christian kid wondering if the pastoral call was on him. Most especially, I was frightened that I would never see the incredible people that I gotten to know over the span of Compass ever again.

I heard a grunt behind me. I glanced over my shoulder. One of my friends by the name of Sterling was trying to hoist himself up onto the roof. From my vantage point, I could just see the top half of his face peer over the edge of the roof between his hands. For some reason, even though I couldn’t see it, I could sense his slight half-smile was below the edge of the roof.

“Hey bud,” he said, in his slight Tennessean drawl, “How’s it going?”

Seeing that I made motions to help him up, he quipped, “Oh, don’t mind me.”

Within a few seconds, he had pulled himself on top of the roof. As he did, the wind carried sounds of laughter and shouts of joy up to us. I must have had a look of panic, since Sterling let out a small chuckle. You see, nobody was supposed to be on the roof. And yet, here we both were. And yet, no accusation of guilt came. The commotion was focused on something else entirely. We looked at each other, then at the field beneath us. Below, many of the other Compass attendees were running haphazard through some sprinklers.

Sterling took a moment to exhale. Walking to the edge of the roof to join me, he swung his legs over the edge and propped himself up on his arms as he leaned back. We sat there watching the others run about beneath us. Neither of us spoke for a while.

Eventually, the sprinklers shut off. With it, the others began to move back toward their respective living spaces. As the first of the group reached the living quarters, Sterling sighed and clapped his hands.

“Well, I guess that’s it for us. It’s been a good run, I think.”

I frowned. “I guess. Compass was a great time. It still is. I just don’t want to go, though.”

Sterling raised his eyebrow. “Why not?”

“We might never see each other again. We might not see anyone else again.”

Sterling turned back toward the field. Closing his eyes, he reclined, cradling his head in his hands.

“I don’t think that matters at the end of the day,” he replied.

Sterling’s seeming lack of concern struck a nerve in me. My face and chest felt hot.

“Why not?!” I demanded.

He opened one eye and looked over sideways at me. He was silent for a moment as he thought, his jaw moving slightly as though he chewed through the words he wanted to use. Then, slowly, he glanced back up toward the sky and spoke.

“Life is not ever going to be as smooth and unchallenged as it was here, at Compass. It won’t be as refined as we hope it will be. But, then again, that’s life. Maybe that is smooth and refined – living a dirty life but treating it like the greatest blessing.”

He paused for a moment, continuing to chew on his thoughts before continuing. “Because – because, it’s not about us. It’s about what we’re doing and who we are with. We might not want to leave Compass. We might not want to go somewhere else and stay here. But then, what was the point of this? What was the point of any of this?”

I think that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once made the observation somewhere that “being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than courageously and actively doing God’s will.” The role of the Christian is not so much living in isolation from the rest of the world and expecting that the world will find its way to one’s holy huddle. Instead, it is a role in which a person is sent into the world as a representative on behalf of Christ. The Christian instead is saved by grace through faith and is then called to live as a life-long disciple in response. He concludes elsewhere that “Only the believing obey, only the obedient believe.” Practically speaking, the Christian is meant to constantly be forging ahead, leaving what is familiar behind in some respects for whatever God desires.

I found myself flipping through an old leather-bound journal I had kept over the course of Compass a few days after the meeting up with my friends in the Fishbowl when I came across a quote someone had scrawled on the inside of the front cover.

It read:

You cannot stay on the summit forever. You have to come down eventually. So why bother climbing up in the first place? Just this: what’s above can see what’s below. What’s below does not know what is above. One climbs. One sees. One descends. One sees no longer but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one has seen higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

Just beneath it was another handwritten note:

If not us, then who has God called for such a time as this? Here I am, God, send me.

The trouble with being sent somewhere is that one must first say goodbye to the familiar creature comforts of the former stage of life. And, admittedly, it can be hard for many people. In any circumstance that a person must end a chapter of their life, it is normal for a person to grieve the passing of what once was.

We grieve and mourn when what once was had been good and beautiful and meaningful in their own ways to us. I think it’s why I feel so encouraged by Nicholas Wolterstorff’s reflection on God’s own sorrow that helps me embrace these moments when he states “It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.” In other words, God’s sorrow is over the broken, fallen state of the world. His goodness and desire that we might all experience his goodness more fully causes him that sorrow. We do not know how far we have fallen, but to see his face would be to know it and die from our own grief over what might have been paradise, lost. And yet, because of that sorrow being so rooted in his desire for others to experience what might have been and what can be, it has become his splendor.

And, come to think of it, I believe that those moments we share in the Fishbowl are moments where we allow ourselves to go through some of the stages of grief and sorrow. There is something about grief and mourning the passing of one stage of life to the next that reminds us that the last leg of the journey was a pretty good one.

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion,” wrote the Psalmist. We weep when we remember those good moments, places, peoples, and times that we are no longer with because our stories have taken us far from home. And yet, in a way, our tears communicate the goodness of what might be again. Perhaps if God’s sorrow is his splendor, ours might contribute as well.

A marriage and family therapist I’ve gotten to know well once remarked that even though counselors are trained to help others through the five stages of grief, it has been her experience to occasionally witness a sixth. After reaching a moment of acceptance, a person might, for one reason or another, turn toward gratitude even during loss.

“Perhaps,” she observed, “this is another way of dying to self – the letting go of the anger, fear, and frustration to appreciate the beauty amid the pain.”

The thing is about grief is the fact that we cannot know exactly how another person feels. Each and every case is unique depending on the circumstances leading up to it in the first place. It’s like walking by a room that you can’t hear inside of or watching a group of people far away. You can see some of what’s going on, but most of the processing is done internally.

As we sat there in the Fishbowl, all eight of us, I watched as tears made their way down my friends’ faces.

I… I just don’t want to go,” she said.

“None of us do,” I replied. “But you know, with all the time we’ve spent talking about life and faith and other people, I can’t imagine you not in ministry of some form.”

I glanced around the room, making eye contact with every one of those gathered there before leaning back in my chair, a tear or two escaping my eye.

“A friend once told me that life isn’t always going to be refined and polished. We’re going to feel like two eight-year-olds in trench coats half the time. But that’s life I guess. And besides, we’ve spent some time on this mountain of ours, who else might go but you for such a time as this?”

We climb mountains to see. And then we must carry that knowledge down below to the valleys. And in the process, we might miss the summit. We will miss our friends. We long for home once more. But I think that the process of going, carrying our own bits of grief and sorrow with us reminds us of the goodness of what had happened there. And in a way, I think those bits of pain draw us closer together, too.

At one point, the Apostle Paul writes:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I am grateful for a God who emptied himself and took on the form of a human because of his grief. And I am thankful for a God whose sorrow is his splendor, who was willing to be relegated to a cross and die for the sake of humankind. Because, I think, I hope that a God whose grief compels him to suffer for his Creation is one whose goodness is too much for anyone to imagine.

And that is something to rest in, even in our valleys.

Thanks be to God.