A Box of Fairy Tales for Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I leaned on the banister to shout up the stairs.

“Would you mind me taking them, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I, for one, am afraid of that darkness.

What if there’s nothing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Truths We Carry

The table was covered in books and scraps of scratch paper. Lines of varying design crisscrossed among squares and circles winding this way and that. The room was quiet, except for the occasional page flip.

Names and dates were scribbled amid the gnarled knot of shapes and lines. Birthdays. Days of death. The occasional occupation. At the base was a familiar name. The name of my classmates. Or me. It didn’t seem to matter – the trees looked the same, interwoven and tangled as can be.

At one point, a classmate of mine raised her hand.

“I’ve realized that in my family, there’s a bunch of stories that each generation chooses not to pass on about either themselves or others. They do it for some reason, I guess. Sometimes we just forget. Other times, we don’t. Some stories we don’t tell because we want those to just die, I guess.

“But the downside to that is that,” she paused, “Eventually, all we have are fragments of our loved ones – a lifetime of a human lost to time. What do we do then when we want to remember?”

I shrugged, unsure of an answer at the moment. Glancing down at my own paper, my eyes focused on my great-grandfather on my maternal grandmother’s side.

A few nights ago, my parents and I were tracing our own family story when we came across this man.

Not missing a beat, I interjected, “He was a general in the Japanese military. That’s why he was in Korea. I remember when Nana told me.”

There was silence on the other line.

“No,” my mother said. “He was a tailor.”

I paused.

“What?”

The room was oddly silent. It was the moment after something big, potentially earth-shattering, had dropped in the middle of the class. My professor closed his mouth and looked around the room, trying to gauge how well my classmates and I were taking the news. The emperor, it seems, actually had no clothes.

Glancing around myself, I noticed a few of my peers shifted uncomfortably in their seats. A few others held concerned or shocked looks.

“The evidence,” he repeated softly, as if he was afraid to shatter something nearby, “just isn’t there to support a historical conquest of Canaan as the book of Joshua describes it.”

One of my peers raised his hand “But doesn’t that mean…”

He trailed off, still processing what he was about to ask.

My professor waited for a moment before suggesting, “…that very little of this is historical?”

The student nodded.

“Does it matter?”

One of the strongest memories I have of high school is of my English class. It was raining softly outside, the kind of which would otherwise be perfect for staying indoors to wrap oneself up in a blanket along with a mug of hot chocolate or tea.

Inside the classroom had been slightly chilly. The radiator responsible for the chilliness was a cantankerous bloke which could never make up its mind whether to do its job at the given moment. One could tell it was going to work only when a mess of rattles and clinks tumbled out of the ventilation shafts and onto the floor, interrupting anyone who wanted to speak. Yet, one could never be too sure when such an act would occur.

My teacher, Billy, seemed unfazed. He had taught at the school in that same room for long enough to become a bit of a legend among students. He was unique. Cool, even, in those days. Billy would lean against his desk as he taught us uninterrupted by the radiator. We would lean in close to hear what he had to say during those times.

More often than not, he positioned himself so that the sunlight from the window on the far corner of the room reflected off of the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses concealing his eyes. We could never be too sure where he was looking. Not that we had to worry about it today of all days. We were engrossed in the book which we had been reading for the past week. Most everyone had something to share about it.

One student, sitting across from me, spoke up. “I honestly can’t believe that O’Brien made this stuff up. I don’t think I can trust anything he writes anymore.”

She held up her book, pointing out a little noticed detail until then. On the back cover, in small print, were the words “Historical Fiction.”

We were speaking, of course, of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a work focused on O’Brien’s account of the Vietnam War. And until that day, all of us students had believed this work was entirely factual. Of course, that belief could have been remedied by looking on the back cover of our editions, but it wasn’t until halfway through the book that many of us had the rug pulled out from under us as O’Brien explained the difference between happening truth and story truth.

Billy nodded and unfolded his arms, gesturing to my classmate.

“So what?” he inquired, “Does it matter whether it’s factual or not?”

There is a fine distinction that O’Brien makes regarding the relationship between truth and correlation to reality. “Happening Truth” describes what actually happened at a certain point in time. Truth and actuality overlap, and the narrative is historically verifiable. “Story Truth” describes the emotional truth of the moment. Here, truth and potentiality overlap. The narrative, in terms of matching up with a physical reality– that is, how things really played out, may be sacrificed for conveying a deeper meaning to the audience.

The problem with retelling a story word-for-word is that the subjective experience of the speaker is lost somewhat as the emotions, the surrounding context, everything is compressed into the boundaries of brittle symbols on a page, and what isn’t defined by the syntax or meaning of the words themselves are cut out, leaving behind an unfinished narrative.

Sometimes, it might be necessary to construct a skewed sense of reality to better convey the significance of an experience holistically or to fit one’s own context in a new or relevant manner.

For some in the room, it must have felt as though a sick and twisted version of the empty tomb played out before their eyes.

What if Christ was missing? What if all we had were the rags?

“One of the things we have to realize,” our professor started to say as he turned toward the student, “is that the expectations of the literature to be historical in our understanding of it didn’t become a thing until the twentieth century at least.

“But in case that’s not a satisfying answer for you,” he continued, moving his arms out, “here’s another thing: the power, truth, and reliability of Joshua is not dependent on its historicity. It was thought to be mostly written when the Israelites themselves were in exile and they wanted revenge on their oppressors.

“They wrote this text from the fragments they had alongside the situation they were in. This was as a means of forming in their people a sense of hope and identity even as they were out of the land that they were promised.”

Then, anticipating the mental thread some students were following, he added, “Plus, the Old Testament treats Joshua completely differently than how the New Testament treats the life and work of Jesus. We should be aware of what kind of animal we’re dealing with here.”

My parents and I began discussing what we knew about my great-grandfather from the stories my mother had from childhood.

It turns out all there was were fragments. Quick snippets from life. Of my grandmother growing up on an orchard in Korea. Of my great-grandfather sending my grandfather a tailored suit from overseas that fit to him perfectly. Of my grandmother fleeing Korea with her family as the communists invaded.

Fragments.

I hung up the phone, sitting in the silence of my room. The sun had begun to set a while ago, the sliver remaining casting long shadows in the room. What were we to do with the rest? Moreover, what did that mean for our family? For me?

After a moment, I stood, grabbing a dry-erase marker from a nearby shelf. Scratching out the fragments out on the board, I studied the facts.

When it comes to the truth of the memories of this man I never knew, of the life he lived, did it matter if I didn’t have all of the exact details of his life? What I had instead was the community of people still around profoundly impacted by him. Perhaps I could write something that could explain a bit about the influence he had.

Slowly, at first, but then picking up speed as I continued, I began to write.

Foreigner

To be a Christian is to be a traveler. Our situation, say the Greek Fathers, is like that of the Israelite people in the desert of Sinai: we live in tents, not houses, for spiritually we are always on the move. We are on a journey through the inward space of the heart, a journey not measured by the hours of our watch or the days on the calendar, for it is a journey out of time into eternity [1].

There’s a couple of dreams I keep on having once or twice a week. I’ve been keeping tallies on the whiteboard in my room as a means of keeping track. I’m not sure why they keep coming back to me, but they do, as if something is nagging at the back of my mind.

I awake on my bed in my apartment. At least, I awake where my bed ought to be. It’s all but timber now, made brittle from the dry, cold air. It’s always the wind which wakes me, rattling the remnants of the shades in my room. What light is there is an unfeeling, blue-gray hue which colors the world around it.

The glass of the windows has been shattered – what remains is but shards which haven’t managed to fall out of place. The paint on the walls has long been stripped away by the elements and blasted by the sand which has appeared from somewhere. Exploring the apartment yields a similar result – a fraction of the door hangs on its hinges, the bolt long gone. The furniture is splintered. The lights, unworkable.

The sand seems to have gotten in here as well. I can hear it crunching beneath the soles of my feet into the threadbare carpet. No one has been here in quite some time.

Outside, I can see dunes where once grass-covered hills and roadways were. Off in the distance, the buildings which make up the campus of my university have been reduced to ruins. Only shadows inhabit the depths now.

I walk about the campus. The wind is my only companion, whispering among the skeletons of the trees which covered the place once with their leaves. Now, their dry fingers stretch for something, anything of mercy. Not even the sun seems to care.

The world, it seems, is quiet,

I wander the place for some time before waking up, back in my room. I make a tally on the whiteboard. I pace. I go back to bed.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

But why?

Honestly, I’m going to leave an exact answer to the psychoanalysts and the mystics among us, But, after pacing the length of the living room for a few nights now, I believe part of the answer lies in some curriculum we’ve been covering.

In several of the classes I’ve found myself in, we’ve been hammering away at the notion of hospitality and the stranger, or ger (גֵּר). In the Old Testament, the stranger was to be considered a neighbor, since the Israelites had been in the same situation once in their own story as well. In that circumstance, God loved them and brought them into their own land, their own promise. As Christians, these stories, these principles, are also passed down to us as our story and our principles as well.

In other words, we love, because we were first loved.[2]

Even still, as these principles come passed down to us, we also find that we experience themes and motifs like those which brought about the Israelites’ stories and principles in the first place. In this way, I think, we come to identify and own those stories as our own, too.

At one point within the Exodus story, we find that Moses named his firstborn son Gershom, for “‘I [Moses] have become a foreigner in a foreign land.’”[3]

I’ve started to wonder, especially as I walk the ruins in my dreams, where we find ourselves foreigners in foreign lands ourselves. It’s easy to buy into a false sense of comfort quickly once a rhythm is established. A quick change of scenery may reveal how unfamiliar a seemingly familiar place is.

For me, a coast-hopping Yankee who spent the last four years in Los Angeles and must figure out whether Atlanta is that strange at first glance; for everyone settling into the pace of the semester and yet still looking to be known; for those of us who move about so frenetically that we have become a foreign land in and of ourselves to ourselves, remind us of our wandering state so that we might comfort those who wander among us.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

[1] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Revised Edition (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 7.

[2] 1 Jn 4:19, NIV.

[3] Exod. 18:3.

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.