Fishbowl

There’s this room that looks out onto one of my university’s largest art galleries on campus. Some students refer to it as the Fishbowl. Though arguably a strange name for a classroom, a quick once-over of the place suggests to those curious a reason why such is the case.

The chamber, reminiscent of a study, is adorned with a small selection of furniture as well as the odd plastic plant. At its center rests two coffee tables. These are, in turn, surrounded by a handful of slightly worn armchairs and loveseats, suggesting that the place is often used as a rendezvous for small groups needing to discuss one thing or the other. The space itself is a tired triangular prism, whose longest side sags outward slightly in a curved glass wall. Should anyone walk on by, it would seem as though the university had decided to install a life size diorama of an early 21st century college student’s room.

The Fishbowl earned its name in part because of its ability to mute any sound within or without, depending on where one would stand. Looking in, it is near impossible to hear what those inside are discussing. Looking out, witnessing crowds of people pass on by in silence lends itself to an experience similar to that of watching fish in an aquarium.  All either perspective can do is pay attention to the expressions and body language of those on the other side at that current moment.

On more than one occasion, I have found myself being among those featured few in the Fishbowl.  The room itself has developed some sentimental value for me since the first time I found myself in it. Some of the most meaningful and profound classes I’ve had at my university have been in there. And now, every so often, a group of students will shuffle in to sit down for an hour or so to talk about life. At the beginning of the year, I wouldn’t have considered myself close with any of them. But now, I cannot imagine my senior year apart from them.

Some nights, we tell stories from our childhoods. Other times, we might talk about work. On occasion, we might try to plan the future. The common thread through all of these times is that on any given night, as the conversation wound down, if one were to pass by the Fishbowl, they would be able to see that it would be a rare sight to see a dry eye in the place.

During one of the most recent of those small gatherings, one of my friends confessed her apprehension of the road ahead. “I just don’t know what I want to do after college. I’ve spent all my life in school. What else can I do?”

The room was still. Her words resonated with each of us. We sat in the quiet, processing them each in our own ways. A moment of silence passed. She continued, a tear running down her cheek. “I just feel like two eight-year-olds wearing a trench coat all the time now. I thought I would know better.”

“I… I just don’t want to go.”

“None of us do.”

The summer before my senior year, I found myself sitting on top of a building on Gordon College’s campus. I had found myself attending the Compass RMI college program that was designed to help students explore whether vocational ministry was something to which they might be drawn. After spending twenty nine days with people I had not known before, I found myself on that rooftop the night before heading home having mixed feelings.

As I looked up at the sky, picking out the familiar constellations I had grown up with since I could remember, thoughts of home excited, saddened, and frightened me all at once. I was excited to head back to people I knew and loved. I was excited to share what had happened over the course of the last month. I was excited to sleep in my own bed again. And yet, I was saddened by having to leave this time and place that had become so meaningful and formative for a young Christian kid wondering if the pastoral call was on him. Most especially, I was frightened that I would never see the incredible people that I gotten to know over the span of Compass ever again.

I heard a grunt behind me. I glanced over my shoulder. One of my friends by the name of Sterling was trying to hoist himself up onto the roof. From my vantage point, I could just see the top half of his face peer over the edge of the roof between his hands. For some reason, even though I couldn’t see it, I could sense his slight half-smile was below the edge of the roof.

“Hey bud,” he said, in his slight Tennessean drawl, “How’s it going?”

Seeing that I made motions to help him up, he quipped, “Oh, don’t mind me.”

Within a few seconds, he had pulled himself on top of the roof. As he did, the wind carried sounds of laughter and shouts of joy up to us. I must have had a look of panic, since Sterling let out a small chuckle. You see, nobody was supposed to be on the roof. And yet, here we both were. And yet, no accusation of guilt came. The commotion was focused on something else entirely. We looked at each other, then at the field beneath us. Below, many of the other Compass attendees were running haphazard through some sprinklers.

Sterling took a moment to exhale. Walking to the edge of the roof to join me, he swung his legs over the edge and propped himself up on his arms as he leaned back. We sat there watching the others run about beneath us. Neither of us spoke for a while.

Eventually, the sprinklers shut off. With it, the others began to move back toward their respective living spaces. As the first of the group reached the living quarters, Sterling sighed and clapped his hands.

“Well, I guess that’s it for us. It’s been a good run, I think.”

I frowned. “I guess. Compass was a great time. It still is. I just don’t want to go, though.”

Sterling raised his eyebrow. “Why not?”

“We might never see each other again. We might not see anyone else again.”

Sterling turned back toward the field. Closing his eyes, he reclined, cradling his head in his hands.

“I don’t think that matters at the end of the day,” he replied.

Sterling’s seeming lack of concern struck a nerve in me. My face and chest felt hot.

“Why not?!” I demanded.

He opened one eye and looked over sideways at me. He was silent for a moment as he thought, his jaw moving slightly as though he chewed through the words he wanted to use. Then, slowly, he glanced back up toward the sky and spoke.

“Life is not ever going to be as smooth and unchallenged as it was here, at Compass. It won’t be as refined as we hope it will be. But, then again, that’s life. Maybe that is smooth and refined – living a dirty life but treating it like the greatest blessing.”

He paused for a moment, continuing to chew on his thoughts before continuing. “Because – because, it’s not about us. It’s about what we’re doing and who we are with. We might not want to leave Compass. We might not want to go somewhere else and stay here. But then, what was the point of this? What was the point of any of this?”

I think that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once made the observation somewhere that “being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than courageously and actively doing God’s will.” The role of the Christian is not so much living in isolation from the rest of the world and expecting that the world will find its way to one’s holy huddle. Instead, it is a role in which a person is sent into the world as a representative on behalf of Christ. The Christian instead is saved by grace through faith and is then called to live as a life-long disciple in response. He concludes elsewhere that “Only the believing obey, only the obedient believe.” Practically speaking, the Christian is meant to constantly be forging ahead, leaving what is familiar behind in some respects for whatever God desires.

I found myself flipping through an old leather-bound journal I had kept over the course of Compass a few days after the meeting up with my friends in the Fishbowl when I came across a quote someone had scrawled on the inside of the front cover.

It read:

You cannot stay on the summit forever. You have to come down eventually. So why bother climbing up in the first place? Just this: what’s above can see what’s below. What’s below does not know what is above. One climbs. One sees. One descends. One sees no longer but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one has seen higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

Just beneath it was another handwritten note:

If not us, then who has God called for such a time as this? Here I am, God, send me.

The trouble with being sent somewhere is that one must first say goodbye to the familiar creature comforts of the former stage of life. And, admittedly, it can be hard for many people. In any circumstance that a person must end a chapter of their life, it is normal for a person to grieve the passing of what once was.

We grieve and mourn when what once was had been good and beautiful and meaningful in their own ways to us. I think it’s why I feel so encouraged by Nicholas Wolterstorff’s reflection on God’s own sorrow that helps me embrace these moments when he states “It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.” In other words, God’s sorrow is over the broken, fallen state of the world. His goodness and desire that we might all experience his goodness more fully causes him that sorrow. We do not know how far we have fallen, but to see his face would be to know it and die from our own grief over what might have been paradise, lost. And yet, because of that sorrow being so rooted in his desire for others to experience what might have been and what can be, it has become his splendor.

And, come to think of it, I believe that those moments we share in the Fishbowl are moments where we allow ourselves to go through some of the stages of grief and sorrow. There is something about grief and mourning the passing of one stage of life to the next that reminds us that the last leg of the journey was a pretty good one.

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion,” wrote the Psalmist. We weep when we remember those good moments, places, peoples, and times that we are no longer with because our stories have taken us far from home. And yet, in a way, our tears communicate the goodness of what might be again. Perhaps if God’s sorrow is his splendor, ours might contribute as well.

A marriage and family therapist I’ve gotten to know well once remarked that even though counselors are trained to help others through the five stages of grief, it has been her experience to occasionally witness a sixth. After reaching a moment of acceptance, a person might, for one reason or another, turn toward gratitude even during loss.

“Perhaps,” she observed, “this is another way of dying to self – the letting go of the anger, fear, and frustration to appreciate the beauty amid the pain.”

The thing is about grief is the fact that we cannot know exactly how another person feels. Each and every case is unique depending on the circumstances leading up to it in the first place. It’s like walking by a room that you can’t hear inside of or watching a group of people far away. You can see some of what’s going on, but most of the processing is done internally.

As we sat there in the Fishbowl, all eight of us, I watched as tears made their way down my friends’ faces.

I… I just don’t want to go,” she said.

“None of us do,” I replied. “But you know, with all the time we’ve spent talking about life and faith and other people, I can’t imagine you not in ministry of some form.”

I glanced around the room, making eye contact with every one of those gathered there before leaning back in my chair, a tear or two escaping my eye.

“A friend once told me that life isn’t always going to be refined and polished. We’re going to feel like two eight-year-olds in trench coats half the time. But that’s life I guess. And besides, we’ve spent some time on this mountain of ours, who else might go but you for such a time as this?”

We climb mountains to see. And then we must carry that knowledge down below to the valleys. And in the process, we might miss the summit. We will miss our friends. We long for home once more. But I think that the process of going, carrying our own bits of grief and sorrow with us reminds us of the goodness of what had happened there. And in a way, I think those bits of pain draw us closer together, too.

At one point, the Apostle Paul writes:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I am grateful for a God who emptied himself and took on the form of a human because of his grief. And I am thankful for a God whose sorrow is his splendor, who was willing to be relegated to a cross and die for the sake of humankind. Because, I think, I hope that a God whose grief compels him to suffer for his Creation is one whose goodness is too much for anyone to imagine.

And that is something to rest in, even in our valleys.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Butterfly Wing Flutters

I found myself sitting across from a friend of mine late one Thursday night. We had been going about our own business as usual when we ran into one another in the middle of the college coffee shop. Seeing that she had to read for class, and I needed to do some research for a paper, we decided to keep one another company and share a table.

After spending a half hour intently focused on our work, my friend looked up from hers and tapped the top of my book with her pen. I glanced up and rubbed my eyes.

“What’s up?” I asked, closing my book and setting it down beside me.

“Could I ask you a question?”

“Sure! What of?”

My friend took a deep breath and held it, weighing whether asking me would be productive. Then, having made up her mind, she leaned forward, shut her laptop, and whispered, “It’s about relationship advice.”

I raised my eyebrow. “Oh? Well, I’m not the most well-seasoned individual when it comes to that topic, but I can give it the old college try!”

She laughed and proceeded to tell me about this one guy that she met at college and had gotten to know rather well over the past few years. As she talked about him, I couldn’t help but notice that she seemed to get more animated. Her face brightened. She couldn’t help but smile as she remembered.

After a few minutes, she fell silent and leaned back in her chair. I waited for a moment to see if she was going to ask me anything. Nothing.

I leaned forward, resting my elbows on the table between us. “So,” I ventured, “it seems as though you’ve made up your mind about him. What would you need my advice on?”

“Well,” she started, “the thing is, even though I have feelings for him, I will be studying away next semester and I don’t know if he’ll be around after that.”

She paused. “I just don’t know if I should let him know that I have feelings for him and ask if he did for me as well. I don’t want to ask because if he didn’t I think that would make the few remaining weeks awkward. And I think that a certainty of a few weeks as good friends is pretty good.”

“But you also want to see whether he has feelings for you as well because pursuing a relationship would be more fulfilling.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, but if it doesn’t work out, I fear that he’ll withdraw. I don’t want to lose him. I just want him in my life, even if these feelings I have go unaddressed. You know?”

I chuckled.

“More than you would expect.” I leaned back from the table and folded my arms. “I can give you two pieces of advice. But the thing is, they’re both antithetical to one another, so you have to choose one or the other. Both have perks. Both have risks. But I have lived or am living both. So, no matter which you choose, I get it.”

“Who knows,” I said, “Perhaps you’ll find a third way?”

There are some stories that are told. And then, I think, there are the stories we are meant to live.

For much of my college career, even though my mantra has been Be Here Now, I believe that my actions have told another story upon further reflection.

A story I used to tell myself was that the person that looked back at me in the mirror didn’t matter. Who a person happened to be didn’t matter. It was whether they could produce and be a constructive member of a team that meant something at the end of the day. Where I got that story into my head, I don’t know. Grade school? An unchecked case of theology gone sour? Something from childhood? In any case, I had internalized the narrative that in any account, I should not – I could not – be a burden on others.

Such thinking paralyzed me when it came to community. What if something I did caused another person to stumble or messed up their plans? What if my choices interrupted someone from following the call of God on their life?

But as I spent time living with and among and for others, that story began to get chipped away. Just today, my pastor mentioned that an overarching theme of many Old Testament stories is of a God who prefers to do life with friends and is influenced by them. “If God’s going to Houston,” he remarked, “then, by all means, he’s going to Houston. That’s sovereignty. But the stories of Moses and Abraham and the people of God remind us that if we ask him, he wouldn’t mind passing through Albuquerque.”

God, the Old Testament seems to indicate, does not prefer passive passengers on his road trips. He’ll put up with us, but the trip can get awkward if there’s no conversation the entire way. Plus, if we need a pit stop along the way, we might need to let him know before it’s too late. He wants to engage us in conversation when he’s about to move. There are some stories in which we are meant to be simply observers, the audience, the ones who listen and watch and try to gain something from a bystander perspective. But eventually, the story ends, the cast takes a bow, the curtain falls, and we are left trying to figure out what is next. But our stories are the ones in which we are the actors and must live into them.

Sometimes, oftentimes, we don’t have a single specific narrative we’re supposed to follow. To act responsibly in the time we’ve been given is one thing. To worry about every choice we make might be the butterfly wing flutter to set off a class 5 hurricane elsewhere is another thing entirely.

The funny thing is the fact that whenever we enter into community and engage others, we become burdens and burdened with those we are with. But that’s not a negative thing. Humans are inherently relational. We limit and define ourselves when we come into relationship with the other. I am not you. You are not me. But we find ourselves walking with one another for a time. By ourselves, in a vacuum, we would have no obligations or duties to others. The trade-off is that we have

By ourselves, in a vacuum, we would have no obligations or duties to others. The trade-off is that we have little, if any, story either. We lose out on meaning by ourselves. We must trade some of our freedoms to be with and for others. We must give some of them up to abide by our storylines too. A mentor of mine once stated that his grandmother advised him to choose his rut carefully because he’s going to be in it for a long time. We give up in committing to one rut, one way of living, one group of people, to live any differently for a time. But that rut gets you somewhere eventually. The story unfolds along that journey. When we relate to others, we allow them to write that story alongside us, too.

I’m reminded of a scene from a play that my university’s theater program is performing. Within the play Into the Woods, the protagonists find themselves confronted by a giantess out for revenge against Jack and demands that they hand over the boy as a sacrifice. In a bid for time, the protagonists sacrifice the narrator – the one who frames their story – as a replacement. He is consequently killed by the giantess soon thereafter. Later, as the characters attempt to process the ramifications of what they’ve done, they conclude that in absence of a previously established guiding narrative, they must now write their own. In a similar manner, I don’t think many of us have that sense of a specific narrative set out before us as much as a general one.

And for once, I think, that’s exciting.

Practically speaking, it means we needn’t worry about those butterfly wing flutter decisions. We have the space, we have the grace to make our own stories, that eventually, hopefully, can glorify God now and forevermore.

For me, it means being free to improvise and take life step by step. It means keeping one eye on the horizon but never fearing it. It means I can Be Here Now – I can write a new story instead of waiting on the sidelines, even though the sidelines seem more certain and secure.

You see, I’ve found someone that I think is helping me write a better story. When she laughs, she brightens my day. When she talks about what she’s passionate about, her face lights up and it’s hard not to get caught up in her animation.

Sometimes, we stay up until the early morning hours, looking up at the stars. In those moments, sharing bits about who we are. We tell our stories. We share them because we know we are all just stories in the end. Where we came from. Who we are. Where we might end up. It’s all a part of a larger story each of us is writing.

The thing is, though, when she tells one of her stories, you can’t help but notice her knack for setting up the scene, the characters, the plot all at once, and in a moment, set them all into motion. It’s why she studies theater, I think. She studies how stories are lived out and lived into because there’s something about the arts which can communicate elements of what it means to be human. All those moments and decisions that may send us off onto the next adventure as well as those that don’t – all of it helps tell us who we are and who we might be.

And, I must confess, I am no exception to this knack of hers. I am grateful that she helped me stop thinking I was supposed to be a member of the audience and to begin living my own story, too.

It’s funny who you meet when you begin to be present and appreciate the people around you. Especially in coffee shops. Particularly over great books.

“So,” I said, leaning back from my friend in the college coffee shop, “what type of story do you think you’re experiencing right now, friend?”

She looked at me for a second with a spark in her eye.

“Which do you want to have?”

When she answered, it made all the difference. But that’s not my story to tell. She’ll have to tell you herself one day if she so chooses.

God only knows what type of hurricane that will bring.

 

Blind

 

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

Those Small Eternities

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

-Frederick Buechner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

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

I shrugged. “What do you think?”

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

“Something, I’m guessing.”

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

I raised my eyebrow at the pun.

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

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

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

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

They laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Rev. 21:21, ESV.

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

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.”