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.

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.

A Snapchat Story Kind of Life

I dropped my brother off at the airport the other day. He had grabbed a friend of his one Friday afternoon and started driving from the Massachusetts coast in a southwesterly direction. His plan, to my knowledge, was to make his way to Chicago and then take Route 66 all the way to my college town just outside of Los Angeles, taking detours whenever they saw fit to see some genuine Americana along the way.

If I hadn’t been informed that he had planned to end his journey across the country at my apartment, I would have thought he might have just intended to wander for a while.

As he picked his way west, he documented his progress on his Snapchat story within a series of Captain’s Logs – so-called for the unspoken reason that it just seemed to fit the spirit of the occasion. This was an adventure after all. And adventures require a bit of whimsy from time to time.

And even though my brother and his buddy documented their journey, I still feel tempted to say that they didn’t get to really see some genuine Americana. They didn’t have time to, anyways. They were going too fast.

I sat in the airport parking lot for an hour, wondering whether increased mobility is always a good thing. As I watched my brother’s Snapchat story updates, I noticed how the landscape behind him seemed to blend together into a vibrant blur. Galileo once noted that “the only motion which is observable to us is the one which we do not share.” But when we’re the ones moving, everything else seems to become less distinct.

The author Soong-Chan Rah writes that “Contemporary life is characterized by movement, oftentimes at high speeds, with the absence of any real connection to the world around us.”[1] When we have the ability to move, especially to a pasture that seems greener, we become less invested in the one we find ourselves in at the moment. “We learn early on to keep our options open,” writes Kathleen Norris in the foreword to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability, “We consider stability tedious at best. At its worst it is seen to restrict our freedom and limit our potential.”[2]

I drove back toward my college town, lost in thought. The headlights of those heading back into the city appeared like bright streaks through the windshield, passing by without much of a second thought and disappearing into the darkness. Upon getting to my exit, I continued onwards, eventually finding myself driving up into the nearby mountains and parking at a place that gives a view of the surrounding towns. Below, stood a thousand, no- ten thousand points of light against the black backdrop.

How many of those lights had I been to? How many of them represented families or businesses I had never met or frequented? When we are trying to get to the next place, we miss out on all of the millions of possible experiences around you in the current moment. We instead get an idea of what some place or some people are like without much else. We mistake the shallow glimpses as the full thing.

But how did we get here in the first place?

In my summer class, we’ve been going over some of Kierkegaard’s works. In his Either/Or, I think I found my answer. Kierkegaard, in the persona of an aesthete, writes that “The more you limit yourself, the more resourceful you become.”[3] Here, the aesthete is concerned with not being bound by meaningful commitments – as that would demand his or her involvement in living in a manner which also has to take the other party into consideration. Instead, it is good to always practice what the aesthete describes as crop rotation – that is, avoiding activities that require repeated efforts in order to avoid boredom but instead doing the thing that is always new, always fresh.

The catch, of course, is that eventually, even that will become boring, as all activities will become run of the mill, leading him or her to despair.

I think the same mentality has gotten into the psyche of a good many people, myself included. Many of our problems, suggests Wilson-Hartgrove, come from our mentality that success is always defined by moving up and out.[4] It’s because we’re afraid of restricting ourselves.

As I looked out over the city, I glanced at my smartphone. A green light indicated that I had received a message on Facebook. It was from a guy who I’ve gotten to know over the course of the past year.

Do you ever think that some people are more special than others? My screen read. Because I think that God made me for something big… That I am made more important and more special than others.

I think the funny thing is that we all happen to foster some of the same attitude expressed by my friend. I think that’s why we feel driven to constantly move to the bigger and better-looking experience. We don’t want to settle for anything less than what God has for us.

And yet, the Christian thinker G.K. Chesterton wrote why, practically speaking, this mentality is unhelpful at best, and paralyzing at worst. He states:

All the will-worshippers […] cannot will, they can hardly wish […] they always talk of will as something that expands and breaks out. But it is quite the opposite. Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense, every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else… it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.[5]

Perhaps then, as we constantly strive for the greener pastures and commute out of the less favorable places, we should keep this notion in mind. In order to be invested, in order to affect meaningful change, we ought to consider that perhaps the place where God is calling us is the neighborhood right where we are living.

As I drove down the mountain back towards my university, I recalled the ending of the story of the demoniac at the Gerasenes. As Christ and his disciples begin to head off into the sunset, the former demoniac runs after them and begs Jesus to take him with them. But Christ refuses. Instead, Jesus suggests, tell everyone in the surrounding area of what happened here. And with that, they push off from shore and sail off into the distance, the demoniac still standing at the seashore.

What if our greatest form of ministry is right in front of us, and yet we miss it because we think Jesus wants us somewhere else? What if our call to ministry is a call to put down roots somewhere and stay for years on end?

“Mobility, and the speed of that mobility, result in the ability and the power to disregard and disconnect from suffering.” Rah concludes, noting that “There is no space or time for the theology of celebration to intersect with the theology of suffering—there is only motion that dulls the senses.”[6]

To be a minister of the gospel means, I think in part, to embed oneself in the story of a place and see how healing and the newness of life can be brought forth from it. If we simply plan to pass on through, we barely get a glimpse of it as it blurs together through the rearview mirror. There must be something more, something longer lasting than a shallow engagement with the world around us to change it for the better.

It’s a challenging thought, I know, I stand guilty of it myself. But as I pulled into the parking lot of my university late that evening, I paused once more to take another look at the place where I have called home for three years and for at least one year more.

There’s a lot of living to be done in one place. And a Snapchat story kind of life simply can’t cut it.

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

[2] Kathleen Norris, foreword to The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), vii.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, ed. Victor Eremita & Alastair Hannay (New York, NY: Penguin Books USA, 2004), 233.

[4] Wilson-Hartgrove, 46.

[5] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 45.

[6] Rah, 148.

The Stories We Tell

Edited by Nick Chera

There’s a carving in the basement wall of my old apartment. It’s been there long before my family moved in. I can only assume that it was left there by the owners of the place when it was first built. On evenings when I found myself with nothing to do, I used to stare at it and wonder about the story and people behind it.

John Koenig defined the word sonder as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own […] in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”[1] As the evenings wind on and the years roll by, I can’t help but ask myself how I might imagine myself the center of any meaningful story at all. Perhaps our purpose is to always play the supporting role.

The past week, I found myself walking the streets of Los Angeles when I came across something remarkable. As I made my way down the street, past the line of shops and other small businesses, I happened to glance down to check the time when it caught my eye. There, on the sidewalk, was a colorless piece of plastic well on its way to becoming one with the concrete underfoot.

Granted, in most urban centers, melted plastic is not much of a spectacle. But as my eyes flicked from my watch to the ground below, I noticed that someone had gone and taken a brush to paint over parts of it.

As I stepped back to get a better look, I realized that the exact same somebody had gone and painted every other piece of melted plastic along the entirety of the street. It had taken me until this point to notice their work, their art, their contribution to the city.

I wonder who that somebody is. Or was. Or will be.

Brenda Salter McNeil once wrote that “we can’t forever avoid contact with people who are unlike us […] This is when our view of reality is threatened and the foundational way of seeing our lives is shaken.”[2]

Someone told me that art arises out of a person’s need to express some element of the human condition, something that they wrestle with themselves and try to release upon the world. I think that when we express ourselves, it is an attempt to leave our work, to tell a part of our own story. And should we stop to listen and observe, we learn that the world is a much more complex and gritty place than the monochrome stories we like to tell ourselves.

I found myself wandering around my college campus a while ago when a friend of mine turned the corner. “Hey,” they started, “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Oh?” I asked, “What for?”

“I just wanted to know: Why did you pursue ministry? What influenced you? That is, if you’ve got the time.”

I nodded. “Let me grab some coffee and we’ll find someplace to sit. Mind if I ask you the same?”

To be honest, as I shared my story and as I heard theirs, it wasn’t their story about their call which struck me as profound. Instead, it was the circumstances out of which their desire to pursue ministry.

For me, when I compared my life to their own, my own story seemed mild-mannered to say the least. My own story and call arose from a life characterized by middle-class suburbia, defined by weekly soccer practices and church attendance.

For them, life was defined by the city, drugs, and loneliness.

“It might sound strange,” they remarked, “but when you’re entering middle school as someone looking for a community to be yourself and not be judged, the drug community is hard to beat. Nobody ever thinks themselves is better than anyone.”

They looked away briefly, commenting, “It’s sort of hard to do when both of you are sitting there with a needle in your arm.”

“But why didn’t you go to church?” I asked.

“Because my parents didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be condemned again. I just wanted to fit in somewhere. Oftentimes, the church seemed like the last place where I wanted to be.”

After a moment, they continued, “But it’s really only the church that can bring healing and a meaning which lasts longer than anything else. That’s why I went into vocational ministry – because we all need healing in areas of lives which we don’t want to show to the public. But instead of inviting people to come to us, we really ought to be going to them. Isn’t that what having compassion on people and seeking reconciliation is all about?”

Frederick Buechner once wrote that “my story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours […] To lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”[3]

In the stories we tell, we express who we are through who we have been, often trying to discern who we might become. But by ourselves, we often will find ourselves getting trampled into the sidewalk like a piece of plastic on a hot summer day. It is when we pause to reflect upon the stories of others that our own experiences are contrasted tonally and structurally, allowing that which was previously invisible to stand at the forefront.

As I sat and listened to my friend, Buechner came to my mind once more, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”[4]

Even as contrast occurs, we find in our brokenness shared threads common to humanity. We all want to belong. We all seek community to some degree. We all hope our lives are going somewhere, for someone or something’s sake. Like the carving in the basement wall or the painted plastic in the street, our stories may seem like a random and contextless organization of meaning amidst the chaos. But when we listen, when we share, when we allow that haunting feeling of sonder to seep into our soul, we begin to realize that our story is not monolithic or unique. It is but a tiny part of a vibrant web, a piece connected to millions of other pieces, a part in a hundred thousand plays each with their own plot. Ours is a story unlike any other and yet the same as every other, a story of longing, of loss, of brokenness, but of hope too. And in this tension of uniqueness and connectedness, maybe we can find a basis for true community.

[1] John Koenig, “Sonder,” The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. 2013, accessed March 11, 2017. http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com

[2] Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice. (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015), 45.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 30.

[4] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1993), 18.

Urban Clods

Late one Wednesday night a few weeks ago, I ran into a professor of mine on campus. He was headed home after staying to work on a project of his. His satchel was slung over his shoulder, coat tucked under his other arm.

“Oh!” he started, stepping backward to avoid colliding with me as I appeared around the corner. “What are you still doing here?”

I had been taking a film class which met for three hours each week on Wednesdays.

“Film? You haven’t gone and changed majors on me, have you?”

I laughed and shook my head. “Nah, man. I just think learning to watch films well is important to ministry majors. Staying relevant, you know?”

He raised an eyebrow, “Oh?”

I shrugged. “Film is able to engage people in an experience where they are forced to wrestle with something that they might be otherwise closed off to.”

“How so?”

“Film is the everyday American’s rendition of story. But more than that,” I continued, “I think we all need film because movies explore dimensions of human brokenness which we wouldn’t be exposed to in the first place.”

My professor smiled as he scratched his chin. “And why would that be important?”

“Because,” I said, pausing to mull over my thoughts, “Because when we are made aware of another element of the human condition, we become aware of a new depth of significance of the Gospel. When we claim that Jesus paid it all in our worship, we don’t realize its full implications. We can spend the rest of lives figuring out what that means.”

What does it actually mean that Jesus paid it all?

What is it?

Spring Break has recently settled over my university’s campus. The faculty, staff, and students have gone their own separate ways. As for me, I found myself as part of a team of other ministry-minded people.

The LA Dream Center is a volunteer-driven organization focused on meeting the needs of the city. It finds its home in a renovated hospital on top of a hill on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. Off to one side, it overlooks Echo Park. Stretching off into the distance runs the 101, cars scuttling along its length like ants far into the distance.

We found ourselves on the roof of the Dream Center to have a look at the community that it serves. Beneath, cars crawled toward the horizon between rows of houses. Overhead, a single cloud glided by in a stupor. Every so often a breeze would pick up, carrying with it smells and sounds from the city below.

I found myself standing alone next to the Dream Center sign. Further down the roof, the tour guide that our group was with was running through the history of the organization. I could barely hear her.

Some time passed before I felt a tug on my sleeve. As I turned, a familiar voice spoke. “How are you feeling returning to the Dream Center?”

I turned away from the ledge. Behind me was a friend who I first met at the Dream Center when we both were taking the class last year. She, another friend, and I had returned as assistants of a sort, helping our professor facilitate the class for the others.

I took off the sunglasses I had been wearing. “I- I’m not sure. To be honest, half the time I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. The other, I feel like something’s off. Something’s missing.”

“Our friends?”

Squinting in the sunlight, I yawned. “Perhaps.”

“I miss them.”

“I know. I do too.”

“Fellowship,” writes Brenda Salter McNeil, “Truly getting to know and bond with people in an intimate and life-giving way, comes from being on mission together.” William Blake once wrote a poem on how the notion of the concept of fellowship and love can change based simply on the social location which one grew up.

We tend to remain pebbles in the current of life when we do not allow the circumstances of our life to form us. Blake’s notion that one’s definition will change based upon time or place—being either in a slow-moving stream or continually crushed underfoot—is also true to life. We will remain rocky and inhospitable to others if we don’t witness the adversity which others experience.

Streams do not demand of pebbles a fundamental change in nature – they can afford to think that the world revolves around them. Clods of clay, on the other hand, used to be small pebbles long ago but were made subject to forces which ground them down and reformed them into what they find themselves today. Clods have experienced what brokenness and pain feel like, and so they are more prone to be able to serve others out of the experience that they are not the most important thing around.

The Apostle Paul once hit on something similar when he mentioned that, to keep from becoming proud, he was given a thorn in his flesh to torment him. Even after begging God three times to remove it from him, Paul remarked that God replied by telling him “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”[1] Amid brokenness and weakness, we find that we become stronger by realizing our dependencies upon others. We are not as self-sufficient as we think we are.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk from the 20th century, noted that “Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy […] A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.”[2] Pebbles in streams do not realize their need for grace and only focus on their own desires. If they have no recognition of their hunger for grace, why would they seek it out in the first place?

Clods crushed under the foot of cattle, however, do.

I signed up to return to the Dream Center partially out of a notion that the experience would be the same. That the people and places and food would be the same. That I would get to play a part in reproducing it.

I thought that the experience was static to a certain extent. That what I paid for last time would be what I would get this time around.

But I’m always reminded that if I wanted to create reproducible experiences with little margin for error, I signed up for the wrong field. Ministry is not a hard science. When we show up to a neighborhood to pick up trash or play with kids or hand out food on behalf of the Dream Center we open ourselves up to something greater than what can be seen within the petri dish and the microscope.

I think we need outreach events as much as we like to watch movies; when we are placed in unfamiliar circumstances we can resort to ducking behind our defenses like Blake’s pebble. That, or we learn to embrace our insecurities and weaknesses like the clods we were meant to be.

Like movies, service opens us up to challenge our preconceived notions in order to replace them accordingly.

My professor muttered something to himself before starting back toward his car. “Someone once said that there is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence which Christ does not cry ‘Mine.’”

“But sir!” I protested, “What does that mean practically?”

As he reached the door at the end of the corridor, he lifted his hand in a wave. “To be honest, tell me when you find out. Spring Break’s in a few weeks. Have a great one – and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” And with that, he disappeared into the evening air. The door swung closed. Silence settled over the campus once more.

 

[1] 2 Cor. 12:7-10, ESV.

[2] Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1983), 21-22.