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.

We Paper Planes

When I was six, my family was invited by my father’s younger brother to visit his home in California. My uncle had been making it a regular practice of visiting his old stomping grounds every couple of years, spending a week or so at our house. This time, it was our turn to visit him and his wife. To be honest, I cannot remember much of the trip. Yet, somehow, I still have a memory—or was is a dream? —from when we were waiting to board our flight to Los Angeles.

A plane touched down on the tarmac somewhere in the distance. I pressed my nose against the cool glass, following the metal bird. It slowed and turned, disappearing behind another part of the airport.

My father looked up from his newspaper. He had bought it from a nearby kiosk along with a small packet of peanuts to pass the time while waiting to board the plane. Next to him sat my brother, playing on his GameBoy. My sister lay on the ground, coloring with her crayons. About fifteen feet away, I stood at the window.

My nose was still pressed against the glass as I watched planes take people to and from strange, unknowable places. To my right, a line of nose scuff marks had begun to form as I gradually moved further down the terminal.

Something tapped my shoulder. I turned. A neatly folded paper plane labeled The Classifieds lay on the ground next to my right shoe. My father smiled as I picked up the plane and waved.

“Hey, get over here. I have to keep an eye on all of you, you know. Your mother would kill me if I didn’t. Don’t wander off too far.”

I groaned and puffed out my chest. “But I’m bored.

“Well,” My father whispered, “How about I tell you a story about when I flew a plane?”

My eyes grew large. “You flew a plane?

“Yep. A small one, though. But, do you know what?”

“What?”

“I learned something that I’ve lived by for most of my life then. And I’ll tell you what I learned, too. But you’ve got to promise me something.”

“What?”

My father grew serious for a moment. “You’ve got to remember it for as long as you live. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“You swear?”

Swearing was my pledge, a six year old’s word to do something. This was a solemn act, which here means deeply sincere. I was equally solemn when I promised to clean my room all those years ago as well. However, I still have to fulfill my duty in this respect. This, of course, has no impact on my earnestness. I’ll get to it. Someday. Maybe.

I swallowed and squeezed my eyes shut. “Cross my heart.”

“Okay, bud.”

My father sat back, as he began to tell his story. And, to be honest, I cannot for the life of me remember the story that he told me back when I was six in that airport, despite my earnestness to do so. But, I still can recall what life advice he gave me at the end.

“So,” my father concluded, “what I learned is that no matter what happens, you’ve always got to remember to fly the plane. Don’t worry about the smaller details. Don’t worry about what else is trying to grab your attention. Focus on your goal and don’t stop until you do what you meant to do. Fly the plane.”

“Fly the plane,” I repeated to myself.

Taking the newspaper airplane from my hands, he nodded. “Fly the plane,” he said, before tossing it into the air once more.

A few weeks ago, I found myself at a resort in Southern California for a department-wide retreat for my college’s practical theology majors. After a day’s worth of activities, I found myself flipping through some old journal entries when I came across the words Fly the Plane inscribed upon the top of a page. Come to think of it, I think I have spent much of my life trying to simply fly the plane. But, whatever my father intended to communicate to me in his story, I am becoming increasingly convinced that I have misapplied his words.

The morning of the second day, some alumni of the Department of Practical Theology stopped by to give advice and insight of their own to the newest classes of ministry majors. One of them, a man in his mid-twenties, said something which gave me pause.

“My advice to you all,” he stated after pausing to reflect, his words rolling off his tongue slowly as if he were measuring the weight of each and every syllable, “is to learn to be insignificant. That, and also learn to notice the insignificant all around you.”

For much of my life, I could argue that I tried to do my best to do the first half of this man’s advice. But when one doesn’t take the time to notice the insignificant people and things and thoughts and words and deeds which are going on all around, one tends to elevate oneself over their surroundings. We’ve got people to see, tasks to accomplish, meetings and presentations to do. God knows what else.

One of my mentors always encouraged me to Be Here Now. And I do. I try, but only if I made sure that I could still Fly the Plane. But this call the alumnus gave to simply notice the insignificant is a call to deny a drive to be efficient, to base one’s worth off performance and deeds. It was a call to respond to Christ’s question of what good is it if a person gain the world yet forfeit their soul.

And I didn’t like his call of denial of self and of ego one bit. But I knew that I needed it driven deep into my heart like an arrow.

There’s a professor of mine whom I stop by his office from time to time to seek advice. We used to meet regularly, but due to us both being busy, we only see one another in passing nowadays. Yet, in those moments, I sense that he knows where I am as soon as we begin talking.

A couple days after returning from the department-wide retreat, the two of us crossed paths in the hallway. He was carrying some books, dog-eared and stuffed full of Post-It Notes, from his office when he saw me step inside out of the rain.

After exchanging some small talk, he paused and said, “You know, oftentimes I think the reason why we need our neighbors is because it is through our neighbors that we can properly learn to love God and, ultimately, ourselves.”

He smiled as he glanced at his watch. Tapping his forehead, he disappeared into a nearby room full of students. “Think about that.”

As I turned to walk away to my next appointment, a leaf floated by outside, carried by small streams of water to God-knows-where.

Suddenly, something clicked.

In that moment, I realized, in actively learning how to be insignificant, we embrace the normative human condition. We become content and satisfied with who we are. We aren’t anyone’s messiahs and certainly not responsible for anything too terribly important. We become more likely to accept grace because we can see ourselves more aligned to divine grace. We accept that we are small as opposed to God’s vastness, that no matter what we do, our words and deeds are still smaller than the grand metanarrative and person of God.

And, in noticing the insignificant, we become aware that even in what we deem as insignificant there is great mystery and wonder. That even the smallest of things is valuable and has a place somewhere.

But, in neglecting the insignificant, something inside us begins to fear whether God would even think about us if we do not do something of worth. We, who are here today and gone tomorrow. Why would the transcendent divine being care about us small creatures on a tiny, blue marble, anyways?

I think we aren’t so much pilots who have one objective to accomplish at all costs. Instead, we might better see ourselves as paper airplanes–complete with our own folds and crumples and creases from one too many hard landings–who just so happen to be traveling on the same gusts of wind which God sends our way for a time. And if all we care about is the end, we might miss the thrill of the journey itself.

A voice came on over the intercom announcing that the flight to Los Angeles was about to begin boarding. My father stood to stretch his legs. Yawning, he pointed toward the door. “Ready to go?”

I looked up from examining the folds of the plane. “I suppose. Is the trip going to be long?”

“Depends on what you think long is.”

We began carrying our bags over to the line. I frowned. “How long are we staying in California?”

My father crouched to look me in the eye. “A week or so. But, I’ll let you know. Some places and people stay with us long after we leave them. Depends if you’re willing to see them.”

“Oh,” I said, my brow furrowed as I tried to understand what he meant. “What if we never leave a place?”

He smiled, “You never really know where you’ll end up, so you might as well do your best to fly the plane wherever you find yourself.” He laughed, “Maybe one day you’ll be living in California!”

“I don’t think so.” I objected. “I don’t even know what it looks like! Or who even lives there!” He waved off my comment as we handed the attendant our tickets.

After making our way to our seats, my brother sat and continued to mash the buttons on his Gameboy Color. My sister, on the other hand, had fallen asleep next to my mother. I hopped onto my seat, looking back out onto the tarmac. My father opened the overhead storage compartment, placing our bags one-by-one inside. After taking the blue backpack I brought, he paused. “Just do me a favor,” he said.

“What?”

“Wherever you end up, let me know how you’re doing. I’ve got to keep an eye on you somehow. Can’t let you get yourself into too much trouble, now can I? Your mother will kill me if I don’t. You promise me that?”

“Cross my heart.”

He laughed. “Well then, that’s good enough for me. Just be sure to fly the plane.”

 

These Word Games We Play With The Wildness of God

“Be still and know that I am God.”[1]

 

Contrary to popular belief given my penchant to utilize excessively polysyllabic and absurdly convoluted expressions within my dialoguing among my peers, I suck at playing Scrabble. I’m simply terrible at it. When it came to game night in my family’s household, I was never one to mince words. Instead of strategizing with how to budget my tiles, I would try and create the longest word possible each and every time. Eventually, I would be left with a bunch of consonants spelling out nothing but gibberish.

What a concept.

If I can be honest, there are nights when I wonder whether the Bible we read is nothing more than gibberish on a Scrabble board when considering the universe.

I have been having trouble reading Scripture lately. When much of one’s day is spent talking about God, thinking about God, studying God’s Word and the many peculiarities within it, it is hard to simply sit and open Scripture as something which is a living text that wants to speak to me. Most days, when I do crack open my Bible to read it devotionally, the words glare back unblinkingly, its eyes glossy to me.

Sometimes I wonder if I am just an infant trying to play Scrabble with God. Across the table, he would sit, with all his letters and words ready to play, while I remain in my high chair, a Q-tile stuck in my mouth without a thought in my mind even close to comprehending the notion of “Q-ness,” let alone the rules of the game. And no matter hard I tried, I could not find it in me to perceive the eternal truths which God had spelled out for me – as well as the fact that he just got a triple word score.

On some nights, I doubt whether Scripture’s claim on accurately describing some element of any objective truth is feasible at all.

Postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty once stated that “To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations…”[2] When we do not have the words to describe something, it cannot be judged as true or false. Part of the purpose of the sciences is to observe and hypothesize systems which can assimilate new phenomena which we lacked words to describe prior to that point. When we have no words for something, we are blind to it. “The world is out there,” Rorty concluded, “But descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false.”[3]

Now, while I am prone to disagree with Rorty on some of his later arguments in his book, I have to agree with his notion here. There is no view from nowhere.[4] Every time we speak, we draw upon our own prior experiences and use language to express what we mean. The universe in and of itself is not true or false—as if something can be falsely existing on its own—but our attempts at interpreting the universe around us can be. Language, as I stated before, is a self-referential system of a word game that we play with ourselves and with one another for the sake of understanding the “out there” to which Rorty refers. The frustrating thing is that even our understanding or comprehension of what is may actually hold no bearing on what actually is. Even if every person came to understand the same perspective, we still cannot escape the lens of humanity.  Who’s to say what we collectively experience has any bearing on what is?

Even if we believe in God’s existence (which, in the same spirit of G.K. Chesterton, I will state is an underlying assumption within this piece and will not dedicate space to that topic here) – how can we begin to think that anything we say or write or think would properly illuminate who he/she/it/etc. is? And by extension, how could Scripture be considered “god-breathed” when it, too, was written by human hands?

The biblical writers provide a story of theirs regarding this topic in the opening few chapters of the book of Exodus. After spending a good portion of his life living an average existence, Moses encounters God in a burning bush and is commissioned by him to return to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of bondage. Turning to leave, Moses pauses for a moment and asks, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”[5]

God replies, and replies by giving Moses his name. Within the Ancient Near East, there was a common belief that in order to control or manipulate a god into providing favorable circumstances, a priest would have to invoke the respective deity’s name. In a similar manner, Frederick Buechner points out:

When I tell you my name, I have given you a hold over me that you didn’t have before. If you call it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not. [When] God tells Moses his name is Yahweh, [he] hasn’t had a peaceful moment since.[6]

The difference between the gods of the ancient Near East and the God of the Hebrews was the fact that most of the gods had names which defined them, limiting them to their role or realm which they controlled. When Moses’ God responded, he gave Moses a name that is commonly rendered: I AM WHO I AM, or better yet: I WILL BECOME WHO I WILL BECOME. The problem with the former is that it still smacks of a property of definition and limitation similar to that of the other ancient Near Eastern gods, with ties to the Septuagint’s rough Koine translation of “the Being One.”[7] Instead, the latter emphasizes the dynamism of God being unable to be bound unless He wills it. This, of course, even extends to our language. Because God cannot be adequately expressed through the words we speak, this only emphasizes that He can do or be how He will, free from any forms of human meddling.

A Franciscan theologian with an oddly similar name in relation to the postmodern philosopher previously mentioned, Richard Rohr, once describes this frustrating quality of God as his wildness:

“Now, believe it or not, we are threatened by such a free God because it takes away our ability to control or engineer the process [of transformation.] It leaves us powerless, and changes the language from any language of performance or achievement to that of surrender, trust, and vulnerability…. That is the so-called ‘wildness’ of God. We cannot control God by any means whatsoever, not even by our good behavior, which tends to be our first and natural instinct…. That utter and absolute freedom of God is fortunately used totally in our favor, even though we are still afraid of it. It is called providence, forgiveness, free election, or mercy…. But to us, it feels like wildness — precisely because we cannot control it, manipulate it, direct it, earn it, or lose it. Anyone into controlling God by his or her actions will feel very useless, impotent, and ineffective.”[8]

If we think we can get a grasp of the divine on our own initiative, we deceive ourselves. God would not be God if his fullness can be grasped by a human – the notion, if possible, would suggest human invention if comprehension were possible. Instead, he can only be known, but only in part.

That being said, how would this lead us to then accept Scripture as authoritative even while accepting that the word games that we play cannot grasp God in his wildness, that a divine reality exists when Scripture too is also an obvious human invention? What might bridge the gap between God and humanity?

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrestled with this subject within his magnum opus. Within the opening pages, relatively speaking, of his Church Dogmatics, he remarks: “The fact that God’s own address becomes an event in the human word of the Bible is, however, God’s affair and not ours… The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be his word, to the extent that he speaks through it.”[9] Given that all language is contingent, shaped and informed by our own personal experiences, we would have no ability in and of ourselves to reach the divine. Or, if in the case we could, that we could determine from our own limited perspective that the thing we claimed as an eternal truth was in fact an eternal truth. Instead, the divine, knowing that we had no capacity to save ourselves from the mess we had gotten ourselves into, breaks into our limited subjective lenses through which we interpret and relate to the world and one another in such a manner that we might be able to know Him and truths about Him. And as Christians, we also hold that he specifically broke into our subjective experience first through the Law, then the Prophets, and finally, most fully, in Christ.[10]

Of course, this does not mean that every insight or proposition that a person might gain from Scripture correlates with the reality of the divine. Less than two hundred years ago, we Americans used Scripture to justify slavery. Less than one hundred years ago, we used it to justify colonialism and social Darwinism. Discernment through tradition, reason, and communal experience is necessary to keep our interpretations of special revelation in check. Rorty was right in this respect. We must understand that how we read something is how our culture or subculture has taught us to read it. Insofar that we realize our contingencies, we will become better Christians and people in general.

Doesn’t mean I won’t suck at Scrabble though.

But here’s to hoping.

 

[1] Ps. 46:10a+b, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dennis Okholm, “Gathering: You Can Only Act in the World You Can See.” (Lecture, Theology and the Christian Life, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, January 11, 2017).

[5] Exod. 3:13, NRSV.

[6] Frederick Buechner, “Buechner,” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 13-14.

[7] William Yarchin, Ph.D. “St. Jerome and the Latin Bible.” (Lecture, The History of Biblical Interpretation, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, January 31, 2017).

[8] Richard Rohr with Joseph Martos, From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 2.

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, §4:2, 109.

[10] Heb. 1:1-2, NRSV.

The Places Between Us

Simply put, we are creatures of habit. We are going to follow one routine or another. If we don’t make some intentional commitments about what that routine will be, then our life circumstances will dictate it for us […] If you believe that Saint Augustine was right when he prayed to God, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you,” then you’ve got to consider that the only true happiness is the happiness we know in Jesus Christ when we grow in our faith and learn what it means to be mature disciples.[1]

I found myself sitting by the side of the road the other day. I was waiting for the bus, watching people in cars flash on by. Every so often, someone would pass by and glance at the guy on a bench before continuing on their way. But, for the most part, everyone had somewhere to go, somewhere to be, something to do.

Someone coughed. At the far end of the bench was a man dressed in a maroon polo shirt and jeans. He, too, was waiting for a bus. Or, at least, I thought so. His eyes never strayed from the screen of his phone. In his ears were headphones and I swore I could hear what sounded like salsa music. That would probably be me, I thought, if I had remembered to bring my phone. By the time I had reached the stop, I had realized that my phone was sitting on my desk back in my apartment.

I groaned inwardly before deciding that the walk back to my apartment wasn’t worth missing my ride. I shifted my weight as I began to settle into waiting on the side of the road.

The traffic light ticked red. A Lexus stopped in front of the bench, long enough for me to get a look inside the vehicle. The driver was on the phone, his eyes focused on the car in front of him. Behind him, a small child was sitting with his face pressed against the window.

He waved. I waved back. And in another instant, he was gone.

Eventually, the bus turned the corner and began making its way down the street towards my bench. The door opened. I clambered on and found my seat.

On an average day, I might find myself strolling around my college campus, scuttling from one class to another as I made my way through the schedule for the day. On occasion, I would glance up from examining the scuffed tops of my shoes to see whether I had chanced upon a familiar face while on my way. Belonging a small Christian university, my campus almost guarantees such an event at least once while going from point A to B. When such an event would occur, I would wave at my friend or acquaintance momentarily and greet them. In rare events, I might stop to chat and exchange pleasantries before moving on, mentioning that I would hope to see whoever it was soon over coffee or some other college staple.

But come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever once stopped and ignored the marching orders which I have set in front of me to actually make space for my acquaintances. I tell myself it’s because I have commitments and a responsible person always makes them. But late at night when I’m lying in bed, counting the number of stucco peaks in the ceiling to fall asleep, and I’m too tired to deceive myself, I begin to think the real reason is because I’m too comfortable to want to leave what my agenda requires of me.

Agendas are a terrible thing for people like myself. They’re clean-cut. They’re clear. They plot out one event from another without much, if any, overlap. In my own little arrogant way, my agenda affirms that I am the god of my day. I have control over what I do. And, insofar I abide by such a mentality, hell can easily become other people detracting from my sovereignty.

No wonder, then, that C.S. Lewis described hell as an ever-expanding city. In The Great Divorce, Lewis writes:

You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing […] What’s the trouble about this place? Not that the people are quarrelsome—that’s only human nature and was always the same even on Earth. The trouble is they have no Needs.[2]

We like to be the centers of our own universes. Needs remind us of our dependencies. When that’s removed, we become our own gods; gods who don’t want to coexist with others demanding that they abide by their own rules and schedules and lives. When we allow our pride and arrogance to take the precedent over people, the places between us grow wider still.

In a similar manner to how Lewis describes Hell’s residents, when we become increasingly mobile, it’s easy to remove any form of intrusions to our basic way of seeing the world. We’d rather be free to move away from any form of discomfort or inconvenience by jumping into the car for greener pastures. Soong-Chan Rah, in The Next Evangelicalism, points this out:

Contemporary life is characterized by movement, oftentimes at high speeds, with the absence of any real connection to the world around us. Mobility, and the speed of mobility, result in the ability and the power to disregard and disconnect from suffering. 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.[3]

When we are independent from one another, we tend to want to throw up some walls between us and whoever the “they” are. People tend to be messy creatures. Inefficient. There is no clear-cut formula to dealing with each one.

I think it’s because God intended it that way.

At the same time, when we share in the mobility with others, when we become dependent on some schedule which is independent of our own desires, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Either we could retreat behind a screen as a last attempt to control our space, or we could be present with those who we find ourselves.

I sat in my seat for a good while in silence while I took in my surroundings. Across the bus sat an elderly man. He was dressed in a patterned tan dress shirt, which was complemented by worn black sweatpants and a visor like those which some accountants might wear. Next to him was a walker, presumably his, that collapsed to fit neatly in the aisle. At some point, he noticed that I was examining him and his walker. I looked away, slightly embarrassed that I was caught staring at someone. When I glanced back up, his focus hadn’t shifted.

We both said nothing.

Eventually, the bus came to another stop. A handful of others came and found seats. A drowsy, middle-aged man who seemed to just be getting off his shift as a security guard. An elderly lady carrying bags of groceries. A young man, not unlike myself. Many of them brought something which commanded their attention. All of us said nothing.

I glanced at my watch. Only fifteen minutes had gone by. Across the bus, the elderly man cleared his throat. I looked up. He had turned himself to face me. Still, he remained quiet. It wasn’t until the young man, who seemed to be about my age, shifted from his seat and settled himself next to me that the older gentleman began to speak.

It is here that I believe it appropriate to mention the writer Frederick Buechner who, in musing on the notion of the word “you,” once wrote:

It is possible that the whole miracle of creation is to bridge the immeasurable distance between Creator and Creature with that one small word, and every time human beings use it to bridge the gap between one another, something of that miracle happens again.[4]

The elderly man looked at both of us and remarked, “Both of you aren’t regulars on this bus, huh?”

I glanced at the man next to me. He did likewise. Suddenly, it was as if the bus, which had been placed on mute, had the volume restored in an instant.

We both responded simultaneously, stumbling over each other.

“Yes, I-”

“-How did you know?”

The older man smirked, “I ride this bus every day.”

I was incredulous. “Well, why?”

“Why the hell not?” He stated, matter-of-factly, as if taking the bus was the only real option for transportation. “We old timers need to get around in style somehow.”

He extended his hand. “Name’s George, by the way.”

“Hi, George. Pleased to meet you. I’m Tim.”

“I’m Eli.”

George gazed intently at Eli, the man who had shifted his seat earlier. “What’re you two doing here anyway?”

And with that, the three of us launched into a conversation which lasted the remainder of the hour. I reached my stop and thanked George for his insights and thoughts about life. It’s funny how similar, yet how different, people are.

Most of the time, if we care to slow down enough and pay attention, we might just realize that most of us just want to be heard. And truth be told, I’m starting to wonder why conversations with random strangers aren’t more common.

I guess what I’m asking is how can we claim to want to love our neighbor when we don’t know who or what they are? 

We are creatures of habit. We don’t like uncomfortable situations. We’d rather stay where we are and have others come to us. But if nobody came to us, and we didn’t go to anyone else, I’d figure that we’d find ourselves eventually in a Hell of Lewis’ imagining.

Instead, Christ showed us another way. He came to us by leaving his place of comfort for the sake of humanity. Perhaps then, we should divorce ourselves from our agendas from time to time to go and do likewise more often, too.

 

[1] Andrew C. Thompson, The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice in Today’s World. (Franklin: Seedbed Publishing, 2015), 103.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “The Great Divorce,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 472-473.

[3] Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downer’s Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 148.

[4] Frederick Buechner, “You,” in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 128.