“One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, ‘It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do – you can either type or kill yourself.’ We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time.”

-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

One of the things that I am giving up for Lent is the need to refine things obsessively. For a long while, I used to think that perfection was a standard for which to strive. Now, I wonder whether it serves as one of my greatest obstacles to being authentic and real with those who are my neighbors.

I remember when my wife and I were still dating. For a good while during of our three-year, long-distance relationship, we used to write one another letters and send them to one another via snail mail. I loved this. I’d go, find some special stationary, pull out my favorite pen, and begin writing.

But then, I’d make a mistake. And so, I’d crumple up the paper and start again.

But then, I’d make another mistake. And so, I’d crumple up the paper and start again.

Again. Again. Again.

Soon, it would be late into the evening, and a pile of crumpled up, special stationary had gradually, like the way moss creeps up a tree’s trunk, surrounded and embraced my wastebasket. And I sat, desk before me a mess, with no letter to show, and only a few pieces remaining from the ream left.


My wife commented on the fact that my letters seemed polished and flawless. She let me stew on that for a minute, allowing me to think that was a compliment before adding, “It doesn’t feel like you sometimes. I don’t mind mistakes if it’s you I’m getting.”

Here I was trying to make something perfect, but what happened was that I had allowed this thing meant to be a means of connection to become a barrier to it, instead.

And yet, for a while, the ghost of misunderstanding the words of Jesus haunted me, urging me to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Perfection is not a state like the abstract forms of platonic thought, but the quality of maturity that a tree holds upon growing into the fullness of what it was meant to be. Further reading has shown me that platonic perfectionism seems to be a symptom of white supremacy culture in which many of us – all of us, I’d wager – swim.

Dr. Tema Okun, on White Supremacy Culture, notes that this characteristic is among fourteen others, those being sense of urgency, defensiveness, valuing quality over quantity, worshiping the written word, believing in only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, believing I’m the only one, believing progress means bigger and more, believing in objectivity, and claiming a right to comfort. The perfectionism that Okun describes is more of the kind that I am familiar with, “such as pointing out how a person or their work is inadequate.”

If that’s the perfectionism of white supremacy culture, it appears that it’s leaked into more than just one area of my life. And, if my conversations with my former student has any bearing on me, the regular practices and habits we have build into larger liturgies that translate to all of life.

Perhaps, one of the things I need to give up for Lent is perfection, a need to strive for an unattainable standard. To allow myself and my neighbors grace to offer what we can to whatever we’re trying to address. To unlearn harmful processes over and over.

Again and again and again.

But this time, not repeating a practice as a barrier, but as one attempts, however imperfectly, to embrace those they find around them in acts of care.

May I be quick to learn, slow to speak, and even slower to anger in this.



“God was never about making me spiffy; God was about making me new. New doesn’t always look perfect. Like the Easter story itself, new is often messy. New looks like recovering alcoholics. New looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it. New looks like every time I manage to admit I was wrong and every time I manage to not mention when I’m right. New looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway. New is the thing we never saw coming- never even hoped for- but ends up being what we needed all along.”

(Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint)

I found myself down in San Jose the other day. I was there to investigate a job offer I had received. Amid lunch and some services at the church, my wife and I caught up with Nico, my friend from college who had settled in the area several years ago, over some coffee in a local two-story coffeeshop. As we got caught up with one another, we started reflecting on the directions our lives and work are taking us. And of course, with three humanities majors putting their heads together, it wasn’t long until we started referencing things we had read on our journeys.

At one point in the conversation, we turned to reflect on what denotes progress and why many people are afraid to change. Being Lent, this conversation sparked something in the back of my mind and I readjusted my position to lean in more.

“Part of the issue is that we don’t like to know that we’re wrong.” Nico noted. “It’s embarrassing, for one. And secondly, when we realize and admit that we were wrong, we also have to reckon with any harm that we did leading up to this point.”

“Plus, when we give up power in a situation,” I remarked, searching my mind for an appropriate source, “I think we worry about how those who we’ve wronged might take power to get back at us in revenge. I think… Heidegger…? said something about that in his notion of history.”

Nico nodded.

“I think that’s why it’s important in justice work to follow what was laid out in A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where King notes a step of self-purification for those seeking justice to take in order to change retributive justice to something more akin to restorative.”

“But,” Nico interjected, “Getting back at the people who have been… jerks, to put it lightly… feels so good in the moment.”

“Of course!” I said, laughing, “That’s why it’s such a pattern.”

Lent is a time to reflect on ourselves. To give up the parts of ourselves that get in the way of relationship with God and our neighbors. And, honestly right now, one of the threads I’ve been returning to time and time again is a tendency that I’ve grown accustomed to (thanks in part to the liturgy of social media algorithms and outrage) that when it comes to people who God loves, there’s a clear us-and-them. Of course, the us and them over the years has changed over time, but the breakdown is the same.

And obviously, I’m on the right side, right?

As I was reflecting and stewing over my tendencies, the wisdom of Nadia Bolz-Weber cut me to the hear in sharing her own experience while listening to her audiobook. In the middle of driving between my two part time jobs one Wednesday, she noted:

“Matthew once said to me, after one of my more finely worded rants about stupid people who have the wrong opinions, ‘Nadia, the thing that sucks is that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.’ Damn.”[1]

If Lent is all about removing the things that gets in the way of a proper relationship with God and our neighbor, I’m coming to realize that an essential step in my own discipleship in this season is (re?)-learning what it means that God is for all people, not just the people that believe like me, look like me, etc., etc. For some, it’s easy to believe God is on their side, but the reality is, when God loves all people, all means all, y’all. Far be it from me to act as a gatekeeper to God’s grace for others to encounter the Good News- even though, I really, really, want to be.

I am in need of God’s love and grace just as much as the next person.

The Catholic Church has a great synopsis of this reality, where the church is meant to be for all people, letting God sort us out later, where it states:

 “The church has often objected to rigorous currents that, contrary to the gospel exhortation, try to separate the weeds from the wheat in the present (Mt. 13:24-30) in order to set up a Church of the pure. The Church has held on the contrary that baptized sinners belong to the Church and that the Church will be ‘without stain or wrinkle” (Eph 5:27) only at the end of time.”[2]

Instead of starting up a litmus test or witch hunt as to whom measures up to the standards of the church of Timothy Loewen-Elofson, the wisdom of the church is to follow the example of the Triune God, where, while in non-essentials charity, there is a constant dance of moving to make space for others as we also have space made for us.

Perhaps that’s one of the purposes of Lent – to shed all the toxic weight of bias we carry, so that as we look to imagining what the reign of God looks like, we are lightened enough to make space for as many people as possible.

To learn how to lay our weapons down.

To become more attuned to our vulnerability.

To learn what it means to be just a child of God.

Or maybe, I’m wrong. And God willing, others might have enough room for me, too.  

[1]  (Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint)

[2] “The Church’s Confession of Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults” (IV.2 p.235)


During the last two years of my seminary career, I had, to the best of my ability, been pulling myself out of bed for morning prayer with my housemates. As the sun rises, so we pray that our souls might rise to meet God as well.

The Book of Common Prayer is a fascinating and elegant work. The words contained within are the prayers which many others who have come alongside and before me have prayed. Sleep still heavy on my eyes, I stumble through the liturgy with the others, the form still unfamiliar to one unacquainted with it.

But this morning, as I reflected on the season of Lent, I paused. As Lent leads us into a time of wilderness wandering like that of Christ in the wilderness, I’ve noticed that if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t be able to say some of the phrases as wholeheartedly as I had in years prior.

Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?

One Friday in seminary, I found myself in my systematic theology class. One of the assignments which my professor had given was to come in with a newspaper article as well as a verse or passage core to that person which might offer commentary and insight.

I watched as the whiteboard filled with words. As the empty space disappeared under black and blue ink, I could not but my heart grow heavier at each passing moment.

Most merciful God, 
we confess that we have sinned against you 
in thought, word, and deed, 

by what we have done, 
and by what we have left undone. 

When I was still attending Azusa Pacific University, I remember sitting in one of the classes within the Honors College. Upon discussing what would a virtuous life look like, the room was filled with chatter until a friend of mine, Nico, uttered, “Wouldn’t it be more useful to dig wells in Africa than to sit here and talk about the good life?”

The room fell silent. Dean Weeks shifted in his chair. And to be honest, I cannot remember what he said in response but I still remember that question Nico asked because it is the question I ask myself every day. I sit in a seminary learning all about divinity, all the while being confronted with whiteboards filled with indictments of my own situation. The world is out there, burning. And I’m in class, writing papers.

And yet, I also sense that in many ways, even if I choose to dig wells, nothing I will do, on its own, matter. The issues and problems and sins are too great. And I contribute to it all the more.

Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?

We have not loved you with our whole heart; 
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 

The whiteboard was filled with topics ranging in scope, from things happening on a global scale to others just up the road.

God, how it all must grieve you.

For the world’s relative apathy regarding the Amazon when compared to Notre Dame.

For the opioid crisis wracking American families.

For climate change running rampant because we fail (especially as Christians) to understand that we are tied to Creation and we are called to maintain and tend the world, not exploit it for a profit margin.

For times like these when we are tempted to conflate legal with moral, especially with situations surrounding refugees and immigrants at the border and in detention facilities and other situations further oppressing those who are on the margins.

For pollution destroying the health of those who cannot afford to get sick.

For the stigmatization of those experiencing mental illness.

For the continuation of gun violence and mass shootings.

God for these things and many more, I ask, how long will you allow this all to continue?

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. 
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, 
have mercy on us and forgive us; 
that we may delight in your will, 
and walk in your ways, 
to the glory of your Name.

Not because of us, but in spite of us, Lord. For the sake of your Son.

Lord, have mercy.

Have mercy.

Theology, Two Types

I remember a moment during the summer between my junior and senior year when a group of high school students got together to figure out whether ministry was something which they wanted to explore. We came from all sorts of backgrounds. Some of us were musically inclined. Others, athletically gifted. To be honest, in some ways, I felt like it could have been an expanded, uncut edition of the Breakfast Club, if it lasted for a month and took us into the Adirondacks and the capital of Nicaragua.

We were united in confession of faith alone. Even our theological convictions were disparate, adding to the complexity of our disagreements. Even today, as I try (albeit terribly) to stay in touch with my friends on social media, I am reminded of how different each of us was.

At one point in the Nicaraguan leg of our journey, one of our mentors – an MDiv student of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary at the time – looked at me as I hung from a hammock chair. I had asked him some question about theodicy at the time because in my mind he seemed to know a lot about that sort of thing.

Thinking about that moment, I laugh nowadays because I realize how funny it is how we perceive those older than us as having their act (and theology) together more often than not. But, instead of taking an outright stab in the dark, the mentor was wise enough to pause and reflect.

After a while in silence, he said, “You know, Tim, there’s definitely a distinct difference between the theology one does in the classroom and the theology one does with a couple of beers and some friends out in the backyard. You’d best remember that.”

I nodded, not realizing what sort of gift he just gave me. To this day, I can’t remember the question I asked. I don’t remember many lectures or conversations had during that month-long summer program, but I remember snippets here and there.

I remember a seminarian professor telling my peers and I, upon making some astute observation, that we were a hair’s breadth away from being profound.

I remember seeing the Milky Way galaxy for the first time in the mountains in Northern New York.

I remember the spark of interest I had in studying ministry flaring up within me.

And I remember this conversation with that group mentor, Bryn.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the friends and mentors I had during the summer of 2013. College was distant, foggy concept. I was still terribly shy and had yet to date anyone. It’s strange to realize first, how far all of us have come, and second, how in some ways, I’m in the same shoes that Bryn occupied all those years ago.

I found myself sitting around a fire in the backyard of some acquaintances from graduate school a couple of years ago. Some of the guys had cracked open a beer or two. The small talk had died down and several of us just sat looking into the flames, lost in our thoughts. One of them shifted in their seat and set their drink down.

“So, this whole seminary thing – are you certain about everything that you believe?”

I paused.

“I’d like to think so. If I’m being honest, there’ll be some days when I have my doubts about one thing or another. But for the most part, I am.”

“But what about…?”

The conversation continued long into the night, rolling back and forth between each of us like a ball.

At one point, I paused again. “And sure, there are times I’ve got questions, but that doesn’t mean I throw the baby out with the bath-”

The guy took a sip of the beer he had, causing me to erupt in laughter.


“Oh,” I started, touching my thumb and pointer finger together, “Just a memory I have. A friend once told me we need backyard moments like this to sort out everything going on in the academy. It’s just funny when we realize that we’re coming full circle. You feel?”

He shrugged. I laughed some more. Then, the conversation continued long into the night, our words mingling with the smoke as it rose into the night sky.

A Posture of Wonder

Lent, this time around the sun, has gotten me in a particularly reflective mood. While I accept that the occasion should be an on-ramp for self-reflection, confession, and repentance in preparation for Holy Week, I keep on coming back to the image of God as one who stoops. An image that biblical authors repeat over and over again is that of a God who kneels in gardens and at the side of the road alike, infusing meaning into dust through breath or through the written word.

If God is a God who likes to play in the dirt, the dirt from which we all come from, and to which we all return, then I wonder how much purpose and intention the Divine has infused into every aspect of that which we refer to as Creation. How much attention and care went into laying the groundwork to make trees, nebulae, quantum computing, modern medicine, and the banana slug eventual possibilities in terms of configurations of particles? How much in terms of sustaining it? Redeeming it?

The author Cole Arthur Riley argues that when it comes to wonder, it “is an exercise, both a doing and a being. It is a spiritual muscle of our humanity that we can only keep from atrophying if we exercise it habitually.”[1] However, many of us don’t take time regularly to exercise this muscle. Though, she argues, it’s not our fault entirely.

Riley observes that many people on the margins of society don’t have capacity for wonder, as they, along with many others have been “ushered into sixty-hour workweeks and minimum wage jobs” resulting in one’s body “spinning… into chaos with the habits and expectations of the dominating culture, giving and doing and working.”[2]

When we are conditioned to move through life at ninety miles an hour, the world blurs together. The meaning and distinctiveness of things gets muddled. But, in order to practice wonder, we are invited to look deeper at things. As Barbara Brown Taylor recalls, within certain faith traditions, the act of blessing starts with naming the innate goodness of a thing in its distinctive thingness.[3]

John Green, in his most recent book, exemplifies this quality, musing about the nature of sunsets and the role they play in his own self-knowledge:

“I think it’s helpful to know how sunsets work. I don’t buy the romantic notion that scientific understanding somehow robs the universe of its beauty, but I still can’t find language to describe how breathtakingly beautiful sunsets are–not breathtakingly, actually, but breath-givingly beautiful. All I can say is that sometimes when the world is between day and night, I’m stopped cold by its splendor, and I feel my absurd smallness. You’d think that would be sad, but it isn’t. It only makes me grateful.”[4]

And in this, I wonder, is our task – to not just see the world around us, but to also feel the world around us, to move our gaze from out there to one another as just as wonder-full. To stay and behold one another even in messiness, brokenness, and suffering. To love one’s neighbor as oneself, Jesus might say. Riley notes:

“Wonder includes the capacity to be in awe of humanity, even your own. It allows us to jettison the dangerous belief that things worthy of wonder can only be located on nature hikes and scenic overlooks. This can distract us from the beauty flowing through us daily. For every second that our organs and bones sustain us is a miracle. When those bones heal, when our wounds scab over, this is our call to marvel at our bodies—their regeneration, their stability or frailty. This grows our sense of dignity. [5]

I suppose this is one of the reasons why Lent is important. Lent is, at least, an important invitation for me in recentering my attention, by inviting me to exercise wonder of a God who plays with dust. It is a season to reckon with my mortality and yet to rest in the truth that God inspires and sustains all creation, thinking of ways to partner as a creative co-creator and tender to creation. “To be able to marvel at the face of our neighbor,” Riley concludes, “with the same awe we have for the mountaintop, the sunlight refracting—this manner of vision is what will keep us from destroying each other.” By inviting us to a season of pausing to behold that which is around us and within us, to regard those before us and those who we are, Lent invites us to study each thing in the world holds, crafted lovingly from dust, naming its goodness in a form of blessing.

[1] Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh

[2] Ibid.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World.

[4] John Green, The Anthropocene Reviewed

[5] Riley.

Liturgy, Rituals, and Vacation Bible School

A blessing I’ve received from my years working alongside and learning from the Anglican, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches is a profound respect for tradition. “Tradition,” the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky once famously said, “is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” G. K. Chesterton once described it as “giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”[1] I’ve come to see traditions as the things which we do that has been tested and tried over time through a community and found useful to living, which is the task of those in the present to negotiate with in order to bring meaning and purpose to an audience of their contemporaries.

All of us have traditions. In our churches, our families, our friend groups. To ignore the power of tradition is to ignore a powerful formative tool in the belt of an educator.

A former student of mine and I are meeting every other week to discuss James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love. We started meeting a few weeks ago upon hearing the news that he would be exploring what a life of ministry within worship arts would look like through an apprenticeship program that the church we both attend is offering, to give him some books to stew over. Yesterday, during our conversation, we paused at Smith’s definition of liturgy, a word that was unfamiliar to him, to unpack it.

“Liturgy,” according to Smith, “is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”[2] Smith goes on to argue that there are many forms of liturgy in which we unknowingly or unintentionally participate which has just as much of an impact – arguably more so – than the intentional practices we invest into in an attempt to pursue discipleship.[3] In other words, one of the main vehicles that tradition is passed down to us is through the liturgy into which we wittingly and unwittingly are immersed.

Earlier in the week, I found myself revisiting Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary and Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday, reflecting on Smith’s notion of liturgy, thinking about how practices like making the bed, brushing one’s teeth, or fighting with one’s partner can be rituals that serve as connection points to a larger Story in which Christ followers are participating.[4] Evans writes that “Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.”[5]

Funnily enough, when I mentioned the fact that even the nondenominational church that I’m situated at has a liturgy of its own, showing what story it wants to connect people to in its practices, the student was quick to pick up on them. At first, he identified the traditional ordinances and symbols the church had – communion and baptism – before moving onto Christmas and Easter. And then he paused before inquiring, “What about Blitz?”

Blitz, for those who aren’t in the know, is the absolutely massive Vacation Bible School extravaganza that the children’s ministry puts on every year which attracts around hundreds of kids year after year during the summer. As he reflected, the student concluded that for the kids, the general message communicated was the idea that “Life with Jesus is Life, Fully Lived.”

“But,” I inquired, “what would the message be for those who act as volunteers?”

The student stared off in the distance for a moment, before his eyes flicked back in my direction. “Are you saying that the same rituals have different meanings for people depending on how they participate in it?”

I nodded. “I’d like to challenge and invite you to consider how the experiences of worship that you’re crafting for people to engage in might communicate differently to everyone involved.”

After I voiced the invitation, the challenge also sits before me, causing me to wonder I can be more intentional about how each person involved in the shared rituals and liturgies of my day to day are affected.

I wonder how they currently are.

Frederick Buechner once observed a similar phenomenon, stating that “it is the sermons we preach to ourselves around the preacher’s sermons that are the ones that we hear most powerfully.”[6] It is the stories we tell ourselves around the central text before us, whether a sermon or a ritual like Blitz, that stick with us, not just what the facilitator intended. I think this is in part because we are always negotiating with meaning and relevance of things to our own lives, bringing whatever we encounter and grapple with into conversation with where we are.

Of course, a person in a healthy spot might hear something completely different from a person that’s burnt out and cynical. Which, I believe, is why we need liturgy in community, so that we can proclaim the gospel to one another. It is our job to speak the truth in ways that remind us of the larger Story together – including moments we might not realize we need to. Moments like, I think, the tradition of vacation bible school or breaking bread.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

[2] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 46.

[3] Smith, 41.

[4] Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary.  

[5] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday.

[6] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets.


I’ve been on the job hunt these past few weeks. My two-year contract at the church I currently work at is starting to come to an end. As a result, I’ve been – like a twenty-first century subscriber of the Qohelet’s advice – putting my name out into the internet and seeing what returns (Eccl. 11:1). During one of the interviews I had, the senior pastor looked over my own journey from church-to-church, denomination-to-denomination, and asked, “as someone who came from your background, what is one of the blessings that you have received from the churches of your past?”

Thinking over my upbringing in churches influenced by the Charismatic, Evangelical, and Holiness streams of Christian tradition, I paused before responding.

I remember when the first church I remember attending moved from a traditional white-steepled building in my hometown to the back of a furniture store one town over. While we had been sharing the previous space with the local Baptist congregation, the church hoped to have a place to call their own, rubbing elbows in an industrial space with some odd bedfellows when compared to our previous location.

The Presbyterian theologian Belden Lane, reflecting on his own experience in evangelical spaces during revival, noted:

The small Bible church of which I was a part met for a time in an abandoned storefront and even, for several months, in an old Army barracks, unoccupied since the Second World War. A great liminal energy was generated by both spaces. Here I discovered a God who was too untamed, too unpredictable and demanding to be contained in the cultivated interior of a traditional sanctuary. The temporary, ersatz character of the sites themselves offered a sense of immediacy in worship that was appropriate to a God who “tabernacled” with his people.[1]

In effect, the experience that Lane recalled was also shared in the back of the furniture store, a place one would not typically associate with a worshiping congregation – perhaps a carpenter, though. “Just sitting there was a defiant proclamation to the world that God had supplanted all merchandise and usurped every claim to stubborn secularity. We sang songs… and exulted in the incongruity of God’s strange presence.”[2]

For me, it marked the start of an ongoing journey bridging the sacred and secular divide, moving from seeing the world in a stark contrast of sacred and profane to one “charged with the grandeur of God.”[3] In truth, it was my upbringing in the small Assemblies of God congregation that prompted me to expect God’s presence in the world, inviting or expecting the Holy Spirit wherever I went. A gift I received along the way was when mentors and fellow pilgrims helped me to pivot, allowing me to realize that “surely the Lord [already was] in this place—and I did not even know it!” (Gen 28:17).

Perhaps it’s because it’s Ash Wednesday, or because I’m feeling particularly sentimental as I reflect on my journey today, but God in the mundane has been on my mind. As the priest placed ashes upon my forehead and reminded me that I, too, am “dust, and to dust I shall return” (Gen. 3:19), I was reminded that God too, has been in this place, this time, and I did not even know it.

Even with dust, God is present, bringing forth meaning and purpose and new life.

Even as dust, temporarily animated, God is walking with me.

And even when I return to dust, there is no place, there is no experience that we believe that God is not already there.

And I can trust wherever I land, God will be there, already bringing new life, meaning, and purpose from the dust.

[1] Belden C. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography of the Sacred. Expanded Edition (Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins Press, 2001), 183.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur.”

Learning How to Sit at the Table

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

-Mark 9:33-37, 10:13-16. New Revised Standard Version.

I remember the first time I encountered a bunch of people playing a tabletop roleplaying game back during the summer between my junior and senior year of college. Several of my friends were staying in their college apartment as a means of keeping dibs on their place for senior year and had been looking for a roommate to split rent with. I had just started a full-time job working in Azusa Pacific University’s Admissions Department and was looking for a place to stay. It was a sure match and I quickly moved all of my stuff into their place and started into a bit of a summer rhythm. 

The first Saturday of the summer, I awoke to the sounds of animated conversation in the living room. As I turned the corner, my hair all mussed up and still in my pajamas, I was greeted by the sight of all of my roommates and several women seated around the kitchen table which had been dragged into the middle of the common space. One of my roommates, Evan, was standing at the head of the table behind what looked like a trifold cardboard illustration of several figures in the middle of intense combat with a dragon, his eyes distant and his hand outstretched as he described a particular scene. As I cleared my throat, everyone froze to turn and look at me.

As a snide remark started to form in my brain, another of my roommates, Nico, waved from the far side of the table.

“Guys,” I began, cracking a smile “I knew that we weren’t the coolest bunch of people, but this… this is a whole new level.”

Nico grinned, then looked down the table toward Evan, then replied, “Well, don’t knock it before you try it. We just got to a good place and I’m sure that everyone wouldn’t mind if you joined us for the next adventure. Right?”

Everyone nodded in agreement. Jonathan went to grab a chair while I got cleaned up. Every Saturday, starting from ten in the morning to eight at night, I joined my friends as Everett Autumnriddle, a human beastmaster ranger with his kleptomaniac raccoon buddy, Chester, in all their hijinks and misadventures, launching myself into a new hobby that I still do to this day.

When people hear about a hobby like a tabletop roleplaying game, they have images leap to mind. Stereotypes abound. Many people shrink away from the hobby because they might think it’s childish. And sure, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea – but for many people, it’s a way of spending time with their friends that’s collaborative and creative. It allowed us to get outside of our heads and imagine a different world together. And it allowed us to process and grapple with things that we were wrestling with in our own lives on occasion.

I find it interesting that we are quick to dismiss something because it allows us to get in touch with our inner child. In many ways, it mirrors our culture’s tendency to dismiss those of us who are children on the outside, too.

As humans, we are made to be in communion with one another, with the world around us, and with God. That’s part of what it means to be made in the image of God–that before all of this existed and at the base of the entire universe to this day, there was and is an inherently relational God made of three members. Even before the universe, there was relationship. The universe reflects this. We also reflect this. 

Pause. Let me break that down. If we are made in the image of God, we reflect God’s character. If we reflect God’s character, then we need to know what God’s like. From our faith tradition’s wrestling with Scripture, we can see God is made up of three members. This is significant because God’s been making space and existing harmoniously without cutting anyone out or having two gang up on the third. The universe was made through this relationship. Through this relationship, the universe is also being sustained at every moment. 

You might have heard the claim that we all just need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and survive like the rugged individuals that we are. Such claims argue that we are in conflict with each and every one for the same scarce resources, and that as a result, some will always be at the top of the pile while others lose out or are ignored. Toxic hierarchies form. However, Scripture contradicts this in the first chapters of the first book of the Bible. Walter Brueggemann observes that within the Genesis creation myth, the story goes that God made us to exist in right relationship with one another in a good and plentiful world, which, when properly tended, has enough for all (Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity“). There’s a tension here between the rugged individualism of the disciples and the first few chapters of Scripture. It mirrors the tension we have today as well. We, like the disciples, oftentimes have an assumption of what a properly organized and -related world is, and that children are not important or significant enough relative to Jesus to warrant his time or attention. 

This is why the disciples were arguing about who was greatest in God’s kingdom. They had an assumption about how the world worked, and for a bunch of men, women, and children who often felt neglected and abused by outsiders, politicians, and others at the top, that assumption was that care and attention are limited quantities. They had stood on the outside of that care and attention for such a long time that when they got a taste of it, they automatically began thinking about how what they were experiencing must necessitate that others (like the children or even the other disciples) should miss out.

We still do this today, although it might look different. You might have heard that teenagers or students or children are the future, which sounds great, but in practice means that they don’t have any meaning or place in the present. People do this because children oftentimes reason in a different way than teenagers who reason in a different way that adults do. Or, they do this because children aren’t as skilled as teenagers who in turn aren’t as skilled as adults. But either way, when we talk and act in this way, we determine membership in a community is based on productivity and not on our innate worth.

When Jesus takes a child and tells his followers that they’ve got this whole who’s who wrong, he tells them that “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Then He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Jesus reminds us that community in God’s eyes, is mindful of people in all stages of life. If we are to pause and make space for children, we also need to pause and make space for others whom we might not focus on, those whom we typically are conditioned to overlook. 

I watched Encanto a few weeks ago, and I realized that within the movie, there’s this inflection point when Abuela realizes that she’s been valuing members of her family based on their gift, and not based on the simple truth that they are her family. “The miracle,” she realizes, “is you.” 

We need constant reminders of this, as seen by the fact that the second episode with Jesus and the child comes shortly after the first. So this raises the question: who are we used to overlooking or dismissing based on things like age or relevance?

For Millenials and Gen Z, do we typically overlook and dismiss the advice and perspective of Gen X and Boomers?

For Gen X and Boomers, do we typically neglect the perspective of Gen Z and Millenials, thinking that they’ll learn and grow to be just like them?

This can also happen when we look at another group that we don’t belong to and reason away their perspective without first considering it. Who do you typically not care about? There are people who are obsessed with sports. Others, academics. Some love theater. Still more might have made getting into the crypto and NFT-scene their whole M.O. Perhaps we dismiss someone based on their presumed political party. We label them as SJWs or conservatives, leftists, alt-right, and others and then tune them out without evaluating what’s being said and why. And, honestly, we can go down the line forever because we do this all the time. Before we dismiss them, we need to ask ourselves – are they bringing us closer together? What is the fruit that their life or their advice is producing?

Here’s the thing, when we pause before shooting from the hip- when we make space to hear those who otherwise go unheard, we open up ourselves to seeing the world in a new light. Scott Erickson, known on most social media channels as Scott the Painter, made a video describing what worship is, but from the eyes of a non-musician. When we allow someone who doesn’t worship primarily through music to define worship, that someone opened our eyes to understanding worship is any response to God, not just how we usually define it.

Children, like other groups of people that we overlook, can give us a glimpse into what a living faith looks like. Part of that requires imagining and acting as if the world was a particular way. We do this all the time with other narratives we buy into. I like to think that one of the reasons why Jesus blessed the children was because of the fact that children can oftentimes bless us through affecting how we might view the world. Perhaps a bunch of shirts hanging on the back of the door to their room is a dragon. Or a shadow cast by a tree can be a crazy monster that needs to be slain. Children imagine themselves in particular situations and invite others into it. 

For many of us, since we’ve spent a lot of time living, we get used to how things are and begin to struggle with how things could or ought to be. The dragon or the monster become clothes and shadows once more. The Kingdom of God becomes an imagined ideal, something that might be nice to enjoy after we die, but not for the here and now. And when we get into those ruts, we need others from another point of view to re-engage our religious imaginations once more. I mentioned before that like the disciples, we get bogged down in toxic and harmful ways that we relate to one another. But through regularly reminding ourselves of the different story that we are a part of, we turn away from the tendencies which normalizes selfishness and toward the same perspective Jesus has.

One of my favorite authors once wondered in a reply to a student who had sent him a letter “how should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; [because] perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet).

People, especially children, are skilled at imagining and acting as if the world was was different. As if. As if dragons and monsters existed. As if they were heroes and villains like in the movies. As if the world was a certain way and acted according to this new lens. When we listen and participate with them, they can help us live out our lives faithfully. Perhaps, when we allow ourselves to view a scary situation from the perspective of someone else, that which was frightening at first is shown to be frightened itself, in need of love and attention.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting with a couple of teenagers, talking about what faith and discipleship are. They tend to be Christian buzzwords, words that sound cool and trendy but struggle to be expressed in a concrete or meaningful way. I had one of them get up from her chair and posed a question to the group.

What do we know about chairs?

You see, faith is not ignorance with golden wings or dressed up to look nice and socially acceptable. Faith is belief in knowledge that we have, projected into the future. We know that chairs are designed to be sat in. We know that most chairs are built to hold an adult in it for a long time. We know that most chairs made of this particular model have held people in them. This is knowledge.

Belief is now taking all of the information that we have from reputable sources and then arriving at a decision on what might happen should we sit in the chair. Based on the fact that this chair has held all sorts of people in the past, it stands to reason that I can trust that it would hold me since I have little to no reason to doubt otherwise.

But faith is enacted when I actually sit in the chair. Throughout all of our lives, being a Christian is not just acknowledging a certain set of ideas. James talks about how even demons believe Jesus was the son of God and they shudder.

Faith is when you go through life and whenever you are presented with an opportunity to live in a way that requires you to sit in the chair of trusting Jesus, you do.

Discipleship is the process of not getting up from the chair, of acting and living in a way that might seem foolish or risky to others because they don’t trust the chair that you’re sitting in and are expecting it to collapse at any moment.

As children, it’s easier to sit in the chair and act as such despite how others might react. Kids don’t care. They’re too caught up in the story they’re telling. It’s kind of like having a friend walk in on you and your buddies gathered around a table in the middle of a roleplaying game that they’d think is kind of childish at first, and not being put off by it. Instead, you keep on doing what you’re doing, and invite them into the adventure. And perhaps, they might remark something like, “Guys, I knew that we weren’t the coolest bunch of people, but this… this is a whole new level.”

But slowly- or perhaps all at once, they realize- there’s something here that I would have missed if I had not paused and allowed myself to see differently.

Writing with Rough Edges

A few months ago, my housemate and I were sitting out on the porch of our apartment waiting for dinner to cook. The porch was of a spartan design – a concrete slab that held a grill and a single wooden chair. My roommate sat back, watching the smoke rise from the nearby grill and a cigarette as the sky slowly changed from blue to a vibrant orange. I sat against the doorframe of the sliding glass door that led into the dining room, holding a can of LaCroix in one hand and resting the other on my laptop. It had been a few weeks since I had moved back to California from Atlanta, and I was hard at work crafting a lesson plan for the youth ministry I work for. Even though I had an idea of where I wanted to go and how I wanted to present the material, I couldn’t bring myself to write a few sentences before deleting it all and starting over from the beginning.

My housemate glanced over from watching his dog running around in the backyard, the cigarette hanging from between his fingers. 

“Stuck?” he asked as he scratched his beard, “I get that. I hate trying to write things down. I feel like I want to put it in a particular way and I usually don’t get it the first time.”

He pointed to a cabinet filled with books and notebooks just inside the door. “The funny thing is, a lot of people get me these nice journals that they find because they think I’ll use them. Of course, part of the problem is that I feel like I have this obligation to fill those journals with thoughts or opinions that are equally as nice or polished as the journal that I’m putting it in, so I don’t. So they sit unused, and I just collect all these journals, beautiful things but empty inside.”

I used to write a lot on this blog. I think somewhere between the transition from undergrad to seminary, I began placing an expectation on posts that they should be completed things, refined things. Entries which are deserving of nice journals with beautiful covers. And so, somewhere in the midst of the readings and assignments and moves from state to state, I just stopped writing for the sake of writing. Or for my own sake of being in process, of grappling with concepts and sitting with them to try them out.

I remember getting a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal for my wife back when we were still dating. As I reflect upon it now, I wonder if O’Connor ever wrote in her journal thinking that someone else was reading it, or whether she wrote it for her own sake and to document how she wrestled with God. A friend of mine once made the remark that if the trend of publishing private and intimate documentation continues, we should expect to see Timothy Keller’s accountability emails on the New York Times’ Best Sellers’ List in fifty years. I don’t think O’Connor found herself paralyzed with the expectation that such an invasion would ever occur. She wrote for herself and for God, and let the rough edges be rough. 

A while ago, the dean of my alma mater’s Honors College once remarked to me that he didn’t really know what he thought until he saw it in writing. It was only then that he could refine, edit, and wrestle with the imprecise, clunky ideas on the page that something better could arise from it. I think I should take his advice – to write not for the expectation I place on the contents of nice journals but for reflection and revision. To start somewhere, regardless of how imprecise or imperfect it may be, and be comfortable being in process from there.

Going Home to the Edge

The season of Advent snuck up on me the other day. Even though I’m away from my family, from my loved ones studying all about a guy named Jesus in Atlanta, the season still caught me by surprise amid my swimming through the seas of papers and projects. It came in a question posed to me by my friend Katelyn: “Are you going home for the holidays?”

Home. That place for each of us that evokes a multitude of feelings, and for good reason. It’s a place that’s unlike anywhere else. For me, home is a small house warmed by a woodburning stove, nestled between a grove of pine trees on a hill overlooking the rocky Plymouth Bay in Massachusetts. Home might look different for you. Frederick Buechner observed that “The word home summons up a place-more specifically a house within that place-that you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and that in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment.”

Are you going home for the holidays? There’s a reason why our feelings of home are so complex. In stories, it is a well-established truth that when a hero comes home, things never go well. Like Odysseus returning to Ithaca after the Trojan War or Frodo and Samwise returning to the Shire in the Lord of the Rings, catastrophe is bound to occur soon after her or his homecoming.

In the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus leaves the desert filled with the Holy Spirit and begins a preaching tour in synagogues throughout all the countryside. He swings by his home, a newly minted golden child, to attend services as was his custom. But instead of the service going as expected, the doors fly open with the crowd bent on killing him. What happened in the span of these few moments? What has happened to home here?

The reason why all hell breaks loose in the homes in our stories and in our lives is because of the breaking of expectations. Both the hero and the community have different expectations of one another and themselves. Here, for years leading up to this point, people had been using Isaiah’s passage to claim divine authority to take up the role of liberator against Israel’s oppressors. When Christ sought out this passage, he knew what people would think. He knew what people would expect.

Despite their expectations, Christ presents a new way of being – not one of dominance, but of service. Not one of force, but of love. The heart of the matter today is that Christ is quick to remind the people that those who are most comfortable with him, those who think he owes them their due, those who want to keep them for themselves to build themselves up, to make their idea of what home should be like a reality, aren’t the ones who he has come to serve.

“I cannot claim,” Buechner continues, ”that I have found the home I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot, but I believe that in my heart I have found, and have maybe always known, the way that leads to it. I believe that […] the home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is.” You’ve heard it said that home is where the heart is. And where is God’s heart? God finds home amid the captives, in proclaiming good news to the poor, in standing in solidarity with those squatting under the highways and byways around fires in trashcans. Furthermore, if home is where Christ is, I find myself asking myself today, are you going home for the holidays? Will we go with God to the edge of society, or will we take him there, to a hill outside of town to kill him?

“I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom,” Buechner concludes, ”which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.” Even despite ourselves, even when we cannot see past ourselves, I am thankful that Christ still somehow slips through. As we struggle to be faithful to follow Christ, as we clamber down all the roads our lives take, I invite you to wonder where you’re going in life. Where does Christ say home is today? And finally, are you going home for the holidays?