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.”

Traditioned Notes in the Dark

I’ve been restless lately. Some nights, I would find myself unable to sleep for hours on end. On others, I would wake hours before the sunrise, unable to go back to sleep. On those nights, I would get out of bed and find somewhere to sit on the floor of my apartment. And every time, as I tried to reach the door of the bedroom, I would always stub my toe on the corner of my roommate’s desk. Every time.

The reason why I can’t sleep is because of the doubts I have. To be honest, I sometimes doubt whether God’s out there – wherever that ‘there’ is. Or if he is, if we can reach him or know him. Sometimes, I doubt whether what I’m studying is worthwhile or some joke whose punchline ran out long ago. And sometimes, as I sit in the dark, I doubt whether the person I’ve become is worth anyone’s time.

Last night, I had written a question on a mirror I have in my office. It’s kept me up for several nights now. It’s still there: Christians hold that Scripture is infallible and authoritative, but which interpretation is that which lends itself to being infallible and authoritative? Why do we have so many denominations with different readings of the same text? Who is right at the end of the day?

Below the first question, I wrote, what if how I interpret Scripture is completely off-base from what the biblical authors intended? What God desires? What if I’m wrong? What if I am leading people astray when I speak?

It’s one game to say that a collection of writings is inspired, but another altogether to interpret it responsibly. What if I’m wrong? What if I just wasted three, going on four, years of education? 

I wrestle with the notion that all of us stumble around in the dark when it comes to truth. But I know in the back of my head that we do. We throw out notions of what truth, goodness, and beauty are, hoping we’re close with our estimations and definitions. And then people structure their lives around our approximations.

But still, it doesn’t help when I stub my toe on every expectation I come across. I’m supposed to be a youth pastor after I graduate. I’m supposed to know answers to people’s questions about life. I’m supposed to be assured that the source that I’m taking truth from is solid, that it reveals special revelation and that I can access it in a straightforward manner.

And yet, in my time studying theology and the humanities, I have become much more aware of how tenuous truth claims can be.

What if my human, American, middle class, (etc.) lens skews the ultimate truth which the authors of Scripture into my smaller, culturally-bound, limited version of the gospel?

I am left with the notion that God has the truth at the end of a fishing line and holding just out of reach, out of reach because we can’t escape our own humanness to see the world outside ourselves.

I attended the recital of a friend of mine recently. He plays the cello, you see, and has been for much of his life. And it shows. That evening, he sat, for much of the performance, alone on stage. After being accompanied by a pianist for Charles-Camille Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, she promptly left him to continue.

The room was silent as he picked up his bow and placed it in its starting position. As he started to play, his right arm directed the bow one way, then another; his left flicked up and down the fingerboard and neck. He swayed in time as if directed by some unseen conductor. And occasionally, I noticed he closed his eyes, a smile resting on his face as if he, too, had come to listen to the piece.

When I was younger, I wondered why classical music has remained so popular considering all the other genres offered nowadays. I must admit, I’ve grown to appreciate it over the years since then. But as I saw my friend perform J.S. Bach’s Suite No 2 in D Minor, I realized that it’s not that the innovative newer genres take away from classical music’s significance or effectiveness. Instead, Bach, Saint-Saens, and others have expressed some element of the human experience that resonated with people in such a way that it still connects to audiences to this day.

The new stuff we hear on the radio we might hear for a while, but soon, it’s something else. A catchy tune or attractive lifestyle might be appealing for a little while, but after a little bit, it’s gone, replaced with something else. And we move on because it all tends to be empty. The innovators stab in the dark trying to create something relevant or new in the moment. But it tends to be just that, a moment kind of thing. Some do stick around, too. But who’s to judge what will last and what will fade?

A professor of mine remarked that a text that outgrows its context loses all meaning altogether.[1] For a text to have nothing to frame it is to render it ultimately meaningless. This, he remarked, is the problem that atheists have with stating that the universe has no context outside itself.

But the same could be said for Scripture. Scholars all over the spectrum have argued for their own position as correct using the same text. For every theologian, there is an equal and opposite theologian. But if they come up with radically different notions of what is true, good, and beautiful, what hope do we have for knowing who is correct?

I rested against a cabinet in the kitchen of my apartment, feeling the coolness of the night air flow in from a window a roommate of mine had propped open. The room was still dark. I had not seen it fit in lighting it. Off to my left, my hand traced the pattern of the kitchen tiles, my mind still full of questions, doubts, and fears.

Somewhere outside, a bird began to warble out a tune. I found out the other day that birds inherit the songs that their parents sang, appropriating it for its own use. [2]

Well, why not? If it worked for them, it might just work for the bird now, too.

I thought back to my friend and his recital. The songs he played were not his own, but in a way, they still were. Even though he had no hand in its creation, in that moment, he entered a larger community of people who had performed and found a piece of their own story in the traditioned notes. Tradition, G.K. Chesterton once suggested, is the living faith of dead people. [3] It’s a way that has worked well in bringing about a well-lived life–if nothing else. And right now, it’s all I can really ask for.

I blinked. “At least it’s something. And something is better than nothing.”

Pausing, I turned to look at the window. “At least, I think…”

I moved to get up and return to my bed for a few more hours of sleep. Closing my eyes, I whispered. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

I was out in moments.

 

[1] Michael Bruner, Ph.D., (Lecture, Communicating the Gospel Through Film, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, March 22, 2017).

[2] Skyla Herod, Ph.D., “Harlowe and Skinner: Behaviorism Colloquy.” (Lecture, Nature, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, March 30, 2017).

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 53.

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

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.

A Soul In Need Of Scrubbing

“God creates everything out of nothing. And everything which God is to use, he first reduces to nothing.” -Soren Kierkegaard

I used to think that a regular practice of kenosis (“the emptying of self”) was mainly for the sake of talking to people I normally wouldn’t. Now, I understand that kenosis also reveals, to those who practice it, the person of Christ located properly within a theology of suffering.

My mentor and I sat down to grab lunch at one of the more popular dining options on our university’s campus. After chatting about the weather and classes – those which he was teaching versus those which I was taking – he noticed that I had barely touched my food, resorting to simply pushing a fry from one side of my plate to the other. My brow was furrowed.

He blinked. Leaning back from his daily special that he had been working through, he let out a sigh. Waving a hand, he remarked, “But enough about your classes, I’m assuming you have something on your mind. How are you doing, really?

I let out a laugh more bitter than a typical cup of three-day-old coffee which has sat unused in a French Press. “Yeah, about that.”

Looking at him, I muttered, “I used to think that Paul wasn’t being serious. I thought he was using hyperbole when he said that we are dead in our sins.”

“But now,” I paused, “Now I think I am beginning to understand. I’m starting to see that my righteousness is like filthy rags.”

He nodded. “That’s a pretty valid point for most of us. All of us, I would argue.”

Yet, still, it was as if a crack had formed in the wall holding back a flood of thoughts, doubts, and fears. My demeanor began to crumble. “And the thing that gets me the most is,” I said, my voice growing louder as I continued, “That, when we get down to it, I realize that even what I consider as goodness and virtue is motivated out of pride, a desire for control, and a fear that I am not who I have portrayed myself as.”

I tapped the table, stressing each syllable as I pronounced them. Words like rocks hit the floor and began piling around my feet. “God, I hate myself sometimes.”

He was silent. His eyes scanned my face as I stared at the table with the same intensity as if to count every speck which made up the design of its surface.

“Nothing! Nothing I do is ever good in its entirety!

They say that in Hebrew, the word for one’s face is the same as that person’s presence–as if to suggest that to really see a person’s face is to bear witness to their very soul. Little wonder, then, that as my mentor witnessed tears, hot with frustration, strike the tabletop between us, I could sense that, for one of the first times, I knew that he could see who and where I really was.

“No matter how hard I scrub my soul, it’s still filthy.”

And for some time, a holy silence rested between us. Somewhere, some time, a slight smile flickered across his face.

“You know, being nothing is a good place to start. God usually creates from nothing.”

“Being nothing sure feels like I’m nothing but dirt.”

“I know,” he said. “Boy, do I know.”

 

A few days ago, I found myself at a church during a Celebrate Recovery session. Celebrate Recovery is the Christian equivalent of any recovery program which was started out of Rick Warren’s church almost twenty-five years ago. The beauty of this program is that participants place their hope in the higher power of Jesus Christ, explicitly. People, regardless of demographic, come to bear one another’s burdens and sins, offering, in turn, the grace and truth of God in equal measure.

I almost felt like a complete outsider, an observer without any draw toward a program like this, until I heard someone share that they struggle with pride and self-acceptance. Suddenly, it was as if Jesus himself was speaking to my soul.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sets the characters of a religious leader and a tax collector against one another to illustrate a point, stating:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” [1]

Typically, the Pharisee was looked up to as an illustration of what people ought to strive for in regard to holiness. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were considered among the vilest of society.

In walking into Celebrate Recovery, it was as if I walked into the midst of Jesus’ own parable. I am well on my way, in more ways than one, in becoming like the Pharisee. And many people would consider the people who attend accountability groups like Celebrate Recovery to be of the same class as the tax collector. I think they’re right. But not in the way that they intend.

I think that Celebrate Recovery, and groups like it, are places for where people are more open about what they wrestle with. I think that they are more in touch with being human than most of us, too.

I am just as much in need of grace and love and forgiveness as each and every one of my brothers and sisters here. On what grounds should I even think I am better than them, that I don’t need just as much grace (if not more!) as the next person there? For every person there, they own and voice their flaws and shortcomings, seeking help and community. I still cling to my pride and desire for control because they are familiar.

Who here is closer to God, then? Who here is just playing games?

Frederick Buechner once commented that recovery groups like A.A. or Celebrate Recovery “is what the church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be big business. Sinners Anonymous. “I can will what is right but I cannot do it,” is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).” [2]

When you realize that you are in over your head, you have a greater propensity to run back to the one we can call Abba Father – Daddy, in other words. No wonder why Jesus mentioned that the spiritually poor are blessed – they know this to be true. When you find yourself in over your head, you realize in your darkest moments that you cannot save anybody, even on your best day.

But it is here that you realize that in this, in the fact that you are not anyone’s messiah, you also recognize that the reason why God has you here is not to bear the burden of others’ salvation, but to spend time cooperating with the Father, being fully present to those with whom you find yourself. There is no pressure to be perfect because God is, instead. All we need to do is be there, and bear one another’s burdens as a brother or sister. Compassion simply means “to suffer with.” Not save.

When Peter protested that Christ would even stoop so low to wash his feet, Jesus responded by stating, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”[3] Peter, like many of us, found himself in the uncomfortable position where Jesus began to wash his feet, an act reserved for the lowest slave or servant within a household in the Ancient Near East. Christ was too good, too honored, too holy to wash the grime from everywhere that Peter had been in the past seven or so days.

Likewise, when Christ reveals himself in our moments of self-emptying, I think we are prone to try and skirt away from his ministering to us. We, rather, should be ministering to him, our Lord and Savior, in the least of these. Shouldn’t we?

But I think the reason why Christ still comes in the form of the least of these to minister to us is because each and every person that we encounter is a reminder that we are in need of grace and cleansing in some way, too.

If I realize that, on my own, nothing I can do or be is ever good – that’s kind of the point of needing Christ in the first place.

 

A week passed between my conversation with my mentor before I found myself seated in a liturgical style chapel at my university. His words he offered were helpful, but nothing had changed in terms of my mood. I had tried reading Scripture and meditating on God’s love and forgiveness. Prayer seemed like an empty respite. It would be another two weeks before I would speak with my mentor again. Yet, as the pastor presiding started to deliver the Eucharistic rite, something happened.

“Come to this table,” he said as he widened his arms in a welcoming gesture toward all, “Not because you must but because you may…”

It was as though the voice of the speaker trailed off. No longer could I hear him. My heart beat in my ears. I could hear the breath inside my lungs. I could barely hear his next words.

“Not because you are strong, but because you are weak…”

I realized I had been holding my breath. I exhaled. Suddenly, tears flowed once more, freely.

God wants me anyway. He wants to work with me, on me, for me, despite me.

I blinked as the Gospel made itself clear to me once more, a ministry major of all people. Realizing that I am nothing feels a lot like reducing me to dirt. I think that it’s because it’s the way which God goes about reminding us of who is the Potter and who is the clay. It’s his way of letting us know who is the Savior and who needs the saving.

I sat there in my chair, silent as I felt full of meaning and purpose once more, even despite my emptiness. Kenosis is as much for the person emptying him or herself as much as it is for others.

“Thanks be to God,” I whispered. “Thanks be to God.”

 

[1] Lk. 18:10-14, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Frederick Buechner, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 5.

[3] Jn. 13:8, NRSV.