Learning How to Sit at the Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we know about chairs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing with Rough Edges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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