Foreigner

To be a Christian is to be a traveler. Our situation, say the Greek Fathers, is like that of the Israelite people in the desert of Sinai: we live in tents, not houses, for spiritually we are always on the move. We are on a journey through the inward space of the heart, a journey not measured by the hours of our watch or the days on the calendar, for it is a journey out of time into eternity [1].

There’s a couple of dreams I keep on having once or twice a week. I’ve been keeping tallies on the whiteboard in my room as a means of keeping track. I’m not sure why they keep coming back to me, but they do, as if something is nagging at the back of my mind.

I awake on my bed in my apartment. At least, I awake where my bed ought to be. It’s all but timber now, made brittle from the dry, cold air. It’s always the wind which wakes me, rattling the remnants of the shades in my room. What light is there is an unfeeling, blue-gray hue which colors the world around it.

The glass of the windows has been shattered – what remains is but shards which haven’t managed to fall out of place. The paint on the walls has long been stripped away by the elements and blasted by the sand which has appeared from somewhere. Exploring the apartment yields a similar result – a fraction of the door hangs on its hinges, the bolt long gone. The furniture is splintered. The lights, unworkable.

The sand seems to have gotten in here as well. I can hear it crunching beneath the soles of my feet into the threadbare carpet. No one has been here in quite some time.

Outside, I can see dunes where once grass-covered hills and roadways were. Off in the distance, the buildings which make up the campus of my university have been reduced to ruins. Only shadows inhabit the depths now.

I walk about the campus. The wind is my only companion, whispering among the skeletons of the trees which covered the place once with their leaves. Now, their dry fingers stretch for something, anything of mercy. Not even the sun seems to care.

The world, it seems, is quiet,

I wander the place for some time before waking up, back in my room. I make a tally on the whiteboard. I pace. I go back to bed.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

But why?

Honestly, I’m going to leave an exact answer to the psychoanalysts and the mystics among us, But, after pacing the length of the living room for a few nights now, I believe part of the answer lies in some curriculum we’ve been covering.

In several of the classes I’ve found myself in, we’ve been hammering away at the notion of hospitality and the stranger, or ger (גֵּר). In the Old Testament, the stranger was to be considered a neighbor, since the Israelites had been in the same situation once in their own story as well. In that circumstance, God loved them and brought them into their own land, their own promise. As Christians, these stories, these principles, are also passed down to us as our story and our principles as well.

In other words, we love, because we were first loved.[2]

Even still, as these principles come passed down to us, we also find that we experience themes and motifs like those which brought about the Israelites’ stories and principles in the first place. In this way, I think, we come to identify and own those stories as our own, too.

At one point within the Exodus story, we find that Moses named his firstborn son Gershom, for “‘I [Moses] have become a foreigner in a foreign land.’”[3]

I’ve started to wonder, especially as I walk the ruins in my dreams, where we find ourselves foreigners in foreign lands ourselves. It’s easy to buy into a false sense of comfort quickly once a rhythm is established. A quick change of scenery may reveal how unfamiliar a seemingly familiar place is.

For me, a coast-hopping Yankee who spent the last four years in Los Angeles and must figure out whether Atlanta is that strange at first glance; for everyone settling into the pace of the semester and yet still looking to be known; for those of us who move about so frenetically that we have become a foreign land in and of ourselves to ourselves, remind us of our wandering state so that we might comfort those who wander among us.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

[1] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Revised Edition (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 7.

[2] 1 Jn 4:19, NIV.

[3] Exod. 18:3.

Those Human Moments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am grateful for them all.

 

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

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

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.”