Ring Around A Story

I found myself sitting in a Chick-fil-A with some friends of mine the other night. We were feeling in the mood for a quick bite after small group one evening and we knew that we were a short drive away.

Inside the establishment, the five of us sat around a set of two tables in the center of the restaurant. The crowds that normally thronged the place had long since gone their own separate ways. The only sound apart from the soft instrumental music was the gentle sweep of a broom far across the room. Somewhere, off in the distance, I heard my friends talking.

I watched as the last of the rush hour traffic slowly dissipated, a lone car winding its way past in the night. Across the road, my university campus stood quietly, tucked behind bushes and trees as if it were listening for something.

I paused to scratch a note on a napkin. Looking up, I saw that one of my friends was looking intently at my hand.

“Oh,” I said, “don’t mind me, I’m just writing down something for later.”

She didn’t seem to care.

“What do those rings mean?” she asked.

I smiled.

“Now, that is a bit of a story,” I said. “Do you have a moment?”

“Of course,” she replied. “Why do you think we’re here?”

“Well,” I started, “it might take a while. I wrote it down somewhere. D’ya mind?”

She shook her head.

“Here goes.”

Frederick Buechner once wrote that “it is the sermons we preach to ourselves around the preacher’s sermons that are the ones that we hear most powerfully.” The same can be said for stories, I think. In some strange way, we have discovered means by which to communicate as a species, where we can take one intensely personal concept, ascribe to it a sound, and send it across the void to a receiver who can take that strange, chaotic, random, arbitrary, wonderful noise and translate it into the idea once again, more or less. But in doing so, we imbue the noise with our own experience.

My notion of love is similar, but not exact, to the person that sits across from me. Such an abstract concept must have some concretion to it, and we fill in the gaps with our memories that we affiliate with the notion of love. And depending on how we were impacted and informed through these experiences, our notions of love may be related, but not exactly the same. Perspective matters.

I finished the story right as a staff member had come by to inform us that the restaurant was closing for the night. We thanked her and stepped out into the warm evening.

“So, what did you think?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “You told me a story about the ring, but you never came out with what the ring means exactly.”

I smirked. “Does it matter?”

Her inquiring look turned to that of annoyance.

“Well, yeah, it does,” she protested. “There has got to be a single meaning behind the ring.”

She paused for a moment. “Right?”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “What if you read the story and I wasn’t here? How would you know if what you believed the ring to be about was right?”

My friend was silent, deep in thought. “Well, that wouldn’t matter, because you’re here now.”

“Aw, come on,” I laughed. “That’s cheating.”

We all stopped outside my apartment complex. Here and there, one could see streetlights with their warm glow dot the area here and there. Occasionally, a tree would obscure the streetlights for a moment, until a breeze pushed their branches out of the way for a moment. In the distance, someone was shooting off leftover fireworks from their fourth of July celebrations.

After looking around for a brief moment, I turned to leave but paused, a playful smile creeping across my face.

“Here’s your last chance!” I said. “Take another guess.”

“Well,” she pondered, “You must have had some intended meaning when you wrote the story.”

I nodded as she continued. “But at the exact same time, I don’t know what you were thinking exactly at that moment. Plus, I only know my own experience.”

Her eyes lit up. “Are- are you saying that the meaning is flexible? That there’s a certain frame around which meaning is determined? Is there no right or wrong answer?”

“Maybe,” I replied, “but that would make the purpose of storytelling pointless. Something needs to serve as an anchor. I think the author only generates half of the meaning, and the other is your own experience.”

I paused at the edge of the sidewalk. “That’s why stories are so powerful. They adapt. Tolle lege.

I think the reason why we get so caught up in trying to determine one simple meaning from a story down is because we like the idea of control. We appreciate that there should only be one author and the characters simply support the plot. And yet the biblical scholar Walter Wink once observed that objectivism is possible, but not in the sense which modernity holds – that all bias can be removed and one absolute truth can be reached. However, objectivity is possible through acknowledging the biases of the authors to the best of our ability and moving through it.

I used to think that I was the only author to my story, but now I know that we all play a role in writing each scene, and each narrator has a different take on the unfolding events. Hence, every author only makes half of the meaning. The task of interpretation is left up to the recipient.

The beauty of post-modernity and storytelling is the fact that one’s perspective isn’t wrong, but it’s also not complete either. We need to continue to make room to hear others’ takes so we can see a fuller perspective.

Both ask us, in other words, to be willing to sit down over a meal with another person. By doing so, we can evaluate how each perspective is valid, rather than falling into the binary of absolute right and absolute wrong.

Oftentimes, I’d wager, the reason why a person holds a position is because it has worked for them to some capacity. Now, the task is uncovering why, how, and to what extent each position works.

And that requires a lot of listening.

I had reached the door to my apartment and was turning the key when my friend cleared her throat. I glanced up.

“Do you ever think you’ll write a story about us, then?” my friend asked.

“Perhaps,” I concluded, “but that’s a story still being written. And God knows what that means…”

My friends rolled their eyes and began to walk away.

Far off, their car started up and drove off into the night. It was almost quiet again. But as I listened, I heard that somewhere, someone was playing jazz.

Those Human Moments

I have become indebted to a good number of people around my university because of all their investment in me. This summer, I’m staying at my university, in part because of a job, but also because I’m taking a summer class with someone I am grateful to know.

I ran into him the other day as I was trying to take a picture for my university’s Instagram. He was sitting on a marble block and reading under the shade of a tree, preparing for our next discussion on the life and works of Kierkegaard.

To be honest, I don’t know if he would be on campus this summer if not for me. To the best of my knowledge, he has no summer classes apart from the one he’s teaching for me. But this past spring, after I received an email from our financial and academic service on campus informing me of the sheer impossibility of my graduating within four years, my professor found me sitting, shell-shocked, in the hallway on his way to class.

I felt the blood drain from my face as I finished reading the email. I thought I was on track. How did this happen?

My professor had just turned the corner when he saw me out of the corner of his eye. Turning, he paused and asked what happened. After informing him of my dilemma, he closed his eyes, thinking.  A few moments later, he looked up, spun on his heels and walked back down the hall to locate a form. Finding it, he returned and handed it to me.

“This is a form for an independent study and course replacement,” He said, “And, while I can’t teach every single one of those classes you need, I can teach your upper division philosophy course.”

“What?” I asked, still recovering from the email.

“I don’t have my summer plans firmly established yet, but it seems as though you need some help.” He prompted, still holding the form. “Let’s see if we can meet over coffee or something over the summer and talk about something you’re interested in. Let’s get you back on track for graduation.”

I blinked.

He smiled, “Well, do you want to talk philosophy or not? Come on, it’ll be fun.”

I took the sheet, folded it, and placed it in my bag.

“Sure,” I started. “I’d like that. Thanks!”

“Don’t mention it,” he said. “Besides, I’m late to class!”

And with that, he disappeared down the hall as if nothing happened.

I found out later that I received the email due to a mishap in the system that could easily be fixed. But by the time that happened, the deadline for dropping classes had already passed. Not that I would drop it if I could, because when a professor, err – when anyone – goes out of their way to help others I usually try to spend time with and become that type of person.

This story brings to mind a quote from one of my favorite shows. As the plot reaches its resolution the main protagonist, realizes that his companions won’t remember their previous adventures with him as history. As they begin to fall asleep, he remarks, “I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s OK: we’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”[1]

The thing is, even after I graduate and move on to other things outside of college, I will still remember the people who have influenced the time I have spent here. These will become some of the stories that I will remember fondly when others’ stories have connected with mine.

Frederick Buechner writes “I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are yours. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human.”[2]

Those moments of overlap, those moments of sharing our secrets in moments of vulnerability—  when a professor stops to help a student, when friends show up at three in the morning to support another, when strangers become family through the sharing of their lives over a fire—are the moments when we are most human.

For me, this professor helping me in a moment of need was just one example of numerous times someone has poured into me. I don’t know if it would be possible for me to recall them in their totality. At least, not in a reasonable amount of time.

I am grateful for them all.

 

[1] Doctor Who (2005). “The Big Bang.” Episode 13. Directed by Toby Haynes. Written by Stephen Moffat. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 26 June 2010.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (HarperCollins e-books, March 17, 2009), 40, Kindle.

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 Business of Creating Home

Recently, I have been learning how to best represent my university to potential students who are interested in the school. From what I hear, one of my larger responsibilities will be to show students around the campus which I have been privileged to call home for much of the past three years.

For some of those years, I would find myself returning back to the New England coast to see my friends, my family, my home once more. But this summer, I find myself unpacking boxes in an empty apartment. An empty apartment on a mostly empty campus.

As I walked around the university, trying to memorize what I would say at such-and-such a location, I would turn to see a person pass by, preoccupied with their own thoughts. They were off to some class or meeting of theirs and disappeared as quickly as they came around the corner. The campus grew quiet again, the only exception being the low thrum of my voice as I spoke to some imaginary audience.

My supervisor encourages us to use stories to bring the campus to life. It makes sense. We humans are geared for story. Our ears perk up when someone starts off with the phrase, “Once upon a time.”

Why is that?

Later that day, I found myself reclining in my hammock, lost in thought for an hour or so. Apart from a street and a traffic light, my hammock boasts an unobstructed view of my workplace. In the summer, cars pass here uninterrupted. Come Orientation Weekend, it will be a completely different matter.

People make a place.

As much as I love my university, it’s quiet here. Too quiet. Without the people, my university is but a shell of itself.

My college is not the same without sophomores screaming and cheering for incoming first-year students as they drive up the main street to unload their luggage. It’s not the same without Smith students regularly voicing their loyalty to their living space to all who might overhear them. It’s not the same when the coffee shop is empty and the library is devoid of persons seeking to crunch before an upcoming test or finish a project or paper late into the evening. It’s not the same without the trolley and its incredibly loveable staff. My university is not the same thing I know it can be without my friends.

People make the place, home.

I suppose that’s why hospitality has always been a central part of humanity’s cultures. In the midst of a great amount of the unknown, to be hospitable to those who happen to find themselves at your door one day is the first step to taming the perceived hostility of the other, seeing more of ourselves in those with whom we might not affiliate.

Even back in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean worlds, hospitality was seen as a primary means by which the divine could bless people through the arrival of the stranger. Or, at least, to find something or someone of worth behind our initial fears and suspicions.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the beast Enkidu became human after having a meal extended to him by another person typically found on the margins of society – a prostitute. A beast is literally given humanity through the medium of hospitality. A foe becomes a friend. The strange takes on a familiar form.

In other ancient texts, the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian patriarch Abraham encounters God in the form of guests on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah. In welcoming the strangers to a feast, Abraham is brought to a divine encounter and a blessing for both he and Sarah, his wife.

Finally, in Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus’ welcoming of a stranger regardless of his own difficult circumstances leads him to be seen as favorable in the eyes of the divine, who had been disguised as the stranger the entire time. By practicing hospitality, Telemachus won the allegiance of the gray-eyed Athena, who enables him to learn of his father’s fate and mature in spite of the suitors’ attempts to kill him.

The act of hospitality is understood in these foundational cultures to bring forth and preserve life in difficult circumstances. It leads us to encounter others on a deeper level, seeing the good in those with who we might not connect in the first place. It allows us to be more ourselves, too. And, it reassures us that the great, mysterious world outside may not be as frightening as we once thought.

But what happens when people aren’t there? What then can we do?

Like the Israelites in the middle of the wilderness, like the Greeks pondering why things are they way they are, like the Sumerians attempting to build one of the first civilizations,  we are invited to remember. For us, it is to recall the times when the stranger became a friend, when we arrived on campus for the first time and were overwhelmed by cheering sophomores who held signs welcoming freshmen on campus, when a professor took the time to invite his entire class to his house to get to know one another around the fire until three in the morning, when classmates became confidantes, or when a university became a home.

We do so through telling stories. We tell stories to remember in the quiet times, to keep us company in the lonely dark, and to give direction when we’re lost. 

We tell them to provide hope that, one day, we might find ourselves home once more.

 

Blind

 

Recently, I found myself sitting down to breakfast burritos with my mentor. It was earlier than to what I was conditioned, and I found myself squinting as the sun peaked over the mountains in the distance. I chuckled and my mentor raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

I laughed again. “Don’t you find it funny that light waves travelled millions of miles from the surface of the sun through the vacuum of space for the sake of hitting the surface of the Earth, and in the last few feet before reaching its goal, it is stopped by a human who happens to be walking by?”

He paused, put down his burrito, and laughed. “No, I’ve never thought of that. Come to think of it, that’s actually pretty funny. It’s the ultimate denial of a shot.” Picking up his burrito again, “What made you think of that?”

My eyes watering, I blinked. “Because I’m staring right into the sun itself.”

It’s a fascinating thing to think of the anticlimax of light being denied its end-goal by a random passerby. It seems to fit into the same category of humor as a bird hitting a glass window or a dud of a model rocket. Something that complex shouldn’t be able to be stopped by something so simple. So when it does, it strikes us as funny.

In a similar manner, sometimes I feel as though God looks at us with the same sense of humor when we claim to want to know him more yet we allow our time with him to slip away for the sake of one thing or another. God reaches out from beyond the universe, through time and space itself, and gets flat out denied by a person choosing to watch TV or sleep in instead of spending time with him.

I say that because I’ve been guilty of that very same thing for the past few weeks. In the flurry of deadlines and papers, I have actively chosen to sacrifice time with God for extra hours of sleep. I wonder if God crosses time and space every morning just to come face to face with the mattress I’ve thrust between us. Eventually, I would wonder whether he would care to show up after a while.

It’s funny to think that a ministry major sacrifices time with God to study more about God. But admittedly, it’s oftentimes easier to commune with an impending deadline than it is to sense the Holy Spirit moving. In addition, I’m a doer by nature. I have a deep-seated conviction that if I don’t get any measurable result or feeling of spiritual enlightenment, I ought to cut my losses and find some other manner of achieving something else.

But that would be buying into an assumption that God is a commodity just like any other thing that can be managed and cut into consumable portions. There is a reason why God tells Moses that his name is I AM THAT I AM (or better translated I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE).

God, in other words, doesn’t play nice with people who try to control him. And yet, he also requires that we spend time with him, meditating and studying his Word. Martin Luther once said, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” If the father of the Reformation could manage to get three hours in, we can afford at least one.

I affirm that God meets us in our own contexts, but he also requires us to be willing to show up, willing to listen and be content with not having anything to take away. That’s usually how functional relationships work. Why would we expect our faith to be different?

“So,” I said after shifting my seat, “What do you do to spend time with God? What do you do to receive spiritual nourishing?”

“Well,” my mentor began, “I usually start with a podcast or Tim Keller sermon. That and I listen to Scripture read to me on audiobook. It might sound dumb or unscholarly, but it works.”

“And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

He nodded.

Turning to look at where I was facing before, he gasped. He shielded his eyes. “And, on that note – for the love of God, man, know when to stop doing something that you’ll regret later. Because sometimes, you might just go blind if you don’t.”

Those Small Eternities

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

-Frederick Buechner

At the end of my freshman year, a group of my friends and I decided to get together to watch the sun rise upon our last finals week for the year. Climbing on top of a building, we spread out blankets on which to sit.

And we waited, listening for something. I can’t remember what.

I, a New England guy, had turned toward the city, half expecting the sun to rise from the ocean like in years gone by. But that was then, in a far-off place, overlooking a far-off ocean.

The stars had disappeared from overhead some minutes prior. All that was left was a navy quilt overhead, threatening to suffocate those beneath its crushing weight. Beneath us was a bed of gravel which crunched as we shifted our weight. I picked some up. Tossing one at a time, I counted the minutes as they passed.

The sky lightened to a periwinkle. A small, hot ember peaked over the ridgeline of mountains behind me. And for a moment, I felt as though I had fallen through a mirror into a place where everything was all turned around.

“The sun,” one of my friends whispered as they tapped me on the back. “You’re going to miss it!”

I dropped the stones and, turning toward the mountains, I watched, awestruck.

Church tradition holds that the apostle John saw a glimpse of heaven on one of these days while exiled on the island of Patmos. At one point, he says, enraptured, “the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was a single pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.”[1] I honestly wonder what he saw, sometimes. Other times, I doubt whether he saw a city at all. Either way, I don’t think I’m too worried whether that was the case or not.

What does it mean for something to be golden? To be literally made of gold? Or something else?

The Romantic poet William Blake once wrote in the opening lines of a poem of his:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
and a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…[2]

In the moments of trying to get from one place to another, I think we forget that even our work habits influence how we see the world and our faith. Perhaps the things of greatest truth, goodness, and beauty seem dull compared to the sensationalism we are used to.

Recently, I stopped a friend of mine in the hall who looked troubled. Asking what the matter was, they said, with a blank expression on their face, “I don’t know if I know what heaven is anymore.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because if heaven is where God is,” they started, “And God is all around us, wouldn’t that mean that heaven is all around us, too?”

I shrugged. “What do you think?”

“Well, I don’t know what to think! What would that do to my understanding of the afterlife?”

“Something, I’m guessing.”

“No, yeah.” They said. “But I’ve been spending so much time thinking about how it’ll be like to leave this place after I die. But this will, in a sense, keep me grounded.”

I raised my eyebrow at the pun.

“If heaven is here,” they asked, “Why can’t we experience it?”

“A number of reasons, I think, but I think the first reason is because we’re always looking down and too busy to pay attention to what’s going on around us.”

“Perhaps if we do,” they thought aloud, “we might be able to see the small eternities around us in the every day. And we might just realize how precious everything actually is.”

“Sounds poetic,” I said, “I might just borrow that.”

They laughed.

I found myself in the same place that I had been with my friends that last full week of school during my freshman year the other day. The sun, however, was setting. And I was alone.

It’s been a while since I’ve slowed down to watch the sun disappear beneath the distant waves of the Pacific. Most days it seems to sink beneath a dust cloud or squeeze between skyscrapers. And most days, I’ve found myself always on the go to do something. Or be somewhere.

But this day, I found myself near the close of my junior year with no one to be with and nowhere to go. And the day had been pleasant enough that I felt at ease and sat down to watch the sun sink lower in the sky.

Here and there, birds wished each other good night as they found their homes in which to rest. And as the sun began to disappear beneath the horizon, it shot out orange-gold tendrils of light into the oncoming darkness. Squinting as I faced the dying sun, I traced the inroads that the light had made with my finger and felt the breeze on my face.

“Streets of gold, eh?” I chuckled to myself. “Good one, John.”

Perhaps it isn’t so much that there will be literal streets of gold or mansions for the average believer that John was getting at. Perhaps it is that, when heaven is united fully with earth and all things are made new, perhaps we can glance at a tree and see, maybe for the first time, the full splendor of God that had been present all along.

Soon, the sun had all but disappeared. And as it vanished beneath the horizon, I heard crickets composing their nightly performances somewhere. The birds had settled down for the night. I yawned.

Grabbing my jacket, I turned to leave. But before I did, I reached down and picked up a single pebble. Studying it, I placed it in my pocket and began walking back home.

“Right, well, I better get settled in, then.”

[1] Rev. 21:21, ESV.

[2] William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence.” The Poetry Foundation. Accessed March 26, 2017. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43650

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.