Ring Around A Story

I found myself sitting in a Chick-fil-A with some friends of mine the other night. We were feeling in the mood for a quick bite after small group one evening and we knew that we were a short drive away.

Inside the establishment, the five of us sat around a set of two tables in the center of the restaurant. The crowds that normally thronged the place had long since gone their own separate ways. The only sound apart from the soft instrumental music was the gentle sweep of a broom far across the room. Somewhere, off in the distance, I heard my friends talking.

I watched as the last of the rush hour traffic slowly dissipated, a lone car winding its way past in the night. Across the road, my university campus stood quietly, tucked behind bushes and trees as if it were listening for something.

I paused to scratch a note on a napkin. Looking up, I saw that one of my friends was looking intently at my hand.

“Oh,” I said, “don’t mind me, I’m just writing down something for later.”

She didn’t seem to care.

“What do those rings mean?” she asked.

I smiled.

“Now, that is a bit of a story,” I said. “Do you have a moment?”

“Of course,” she replied. “Why do you think we’re here?”

“Well,” I started, “it might take a while. I wrote it down somewhere. D’ya mind?”

She shook her head.

“Here goes.”

Frederick Buechner once wrote that “it is the sermons we preach to ourselves around the preacher’s sermons that are the ones that we hear most powerfully.” The same can be said for stories, I think. In some strange way, we have discovered means by which to communicate as a species, where we can take one intensely personal concept, ascribe to it a sound, and send it across the void to a receiver who can take that strange, chaotic, random, arbitrary, wonderful noise and translate it into the idea once again, more or less. But in doing so, we imbue the noise with our own experience.

My notion of love is similar, but not exact, to the person that sits across from me. Such an abstract concept must have some concretion to it, and we fill in the gaps with our memories that we affiliate with the notion of love. And depending on how we were impacted and informed through these experiences, our notions of love may be related, but not exactly the same. Perspective matters.

I finished the story right as a staff member had come by to inform us that the restaurant was closing for the night. We thanked her and stepped out into the warm evening.

“So, what did you think?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “You told me a story about the ring, but you never came out with what the ring means exactly.”

I smirked. “Does it matter?”

Her inquiring look turned to that of annoyance.

“Well, yeah, it does,” she protested. “There has got to be a single meaning behind the ring.”

She paused for a moment. “Right?”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “What if you read the story and I wasn’t here? How would you know if what you believed the ring to be about was right?”

My friend was silent, deep in thought. “Well, that wouldn’t matter, because you’re here now.”

“Aw, come on,” I laughed. “That’s cheating.”

We all stopped outside my apartment complex. Here and there, one could see streetlights with their warm glow dot the area here and there. Occasionally, a tree would obscure the streetlights for a moment, until a breeze pushed their branches out of the way for a moment. In the distance, someone was shooting off leftover fireworks from their fourth of July celebrations.

After looking around for a brief moment, I turned to leave but paused, a playful smile creeping across my face.

“Here’s your last chance!” I said. “Take another guess.”

“Well,” she pondered, “You must have had some intended meaning when you wrote the story.”

I nodded as she continued. “But at the exact same time, I don’t know what you were thinking exactly at that moment. Plus, I only know my own experience.”

Her eyes lit up. “Are- are you saying that the meaning is flexible? That there’s a certain frame around which meaning is determined? Is there no right or wrong answer?”

“Maybe,” I replied, “but that would make the purpose of storytelling pointless. Something needs to serve as an anchor. I think the author only generates half of the meaning, and the other is your own experience.”

I paused at the edge of the sidewalk. “That’s why stories are so powerful. They adapt. Tolle lege.

I think the reason why we get so caught up in trying to determine one simple meaning from a story down is because we like the idea of control. We appreciate that there should only be one author and the characters simply support the plot. And yet the biblical scholar Walter Wink once observed that objectivism is possible, but not in the sense which modernity holds – that all bias can be removed and one absolute truth can be reached. However, objectivity is possible through acknowledging the biases of the authors to the best of our ability and moving through it.

I used to think that I was the only author to my story, but now I know that we all play a role in writing each scene, and each narrator has a different take on the unfolding events. Hence, every author only makes half of the meaning. The task of interpretation is left up to the recipient.

The beauty of post-modernity and storytelling is the fact that one’s perspective isn’t wrong, but it’s also not complete either. We need to continue to make room to hear others’ takes so we can see a fuller perspective.

Both ask us, in other words, to be willing to sit down over a meal with another person. By doing so, we can evaluate how each perspective is valid, rather than falling into the binary of absolute right and absolute wrong.

Oftentimes, I’d wager, the reason why a person holds a position is because it has worked for them to some capacity. Now, the task is uncovering why, how, and to what extent each position works.

And that requires a lot of listening.

I had reached the door to my apartment and was turning the key when my friend cleared her throat. I glanced up.

“Do you ever think you’ll write a story about us, then?” my friend asked.

“Perhaps,” I concluded, “but that’s a story still being written. And God knows what that means…”

My friends rolled their eyes and began to walk away.

Far off, their car started up and drove off into the night. It was almost quiet again. But as I listened, I heard that somewhere, someone was playing jazz.

Personal Over Professional

I found myself sitting in my supervisor’s office recently. The reason why I found myself sitting in a chair in the middle of the room was to assess how I have been doing at the job I have been given. My assessors sat across the room from me, flicking through their notes.

For the most part,” they began, “you seem to have done pretty well.”

They paused. A pen clicked. I waited for the other shoe to drop.

“One of the only problems we need to work on is that you seem to come across as too professional to be relatable.”

There it was.

For the most part, this trait wouldn’t be too much of a problem in a career. Except, I work in my admissions department at my university, trying to share parts of my own experience with students and families who are interested in the school.

In other words, it’s my job description to be relatable.

I think my problem lies in the fact that I still get stuck in the rut of a narrative that it’s better to be efficient than real to others. Somewhere along the line, I bought into the notion that I inherently have no value. I either produce or I get out of the way. Others value results, not relationships. Therefore, I cannot be a burden to anyone else.

Intuitively, as a guy finishing up his undergraduate degree in ministry, I know that this cannot be further from the truth. But in practice, when I reflect on many of the choices I’ve made up through high school and into college, I realize that when I respond with a gut reaction, my gut is still very much a firm believer of this narrative.

I don’t ask for help. I project a polished image. I psychologically own situations I am in, subconsciously believing that how they end are a direct reflection on my own worth. I stay out of others’ ways. When in leadership, I tend to over-function and lose sleep.

Relationally, I tend to undermine relationships that I think are getting too close because I know that one day, I will probably be a burden on those involved. In a twisted sense of the word, I think I act that way because I care about those persons involved because to have them care for me is to be a hindrance and limitation to their potentials.

What a great cocktail for a guy who thought he was cut out for ministry, right?

The strange thing is, when I find myself back in this rut, I remember my time as a summer camp counselor in New Hampshire. Come to think of it, the summer camp should be starting right around now.

After finishing my freshman year of college, I found myself teaching kids about wilderness survival skills and outdoor cooking throughout the summer. In the evenings, I would stroll back to the cabin that I oversaw and made sure all the campers had taken their showers and done their chores before settling down. But, while being a counselor was fun, I began to feel burned out and disillusioned by camp ministry – the kids would never pay attention to the Bible studies in the mornings or the devotionals at night I had prepared. No one seemed to care about faith. I began to look forward to the evenings when the day was done so I could sit up at night, alone with my thoughts.

I had already become well habituated with writing blog posts, not unlike this one. But, living in the woods, even with all its perks, did not provide any naturally occurring signal or electricity to charge a laptop. Writing blogs, in other words, was out of the question. And so, I found myself resorting to journaling with pen and paper by flashlight once more.

At the beginning of the last two sessions of camp, we had a single ten-year-old join us with the intention of staying for a month. He wasn’t a good kid, wasn’t a bad kid, but seemed to keep to himself for the most part.

One evening, I walked into the cabin to see this kid’s feet poking out from under my bunk. After clearing my throat, the boy crawled out from under, holding my wastebasket full of paper, rough drafts of some thoughts I had written days, weeks before.

His eyes were as round as saucers.

“Are you a storyteller?” he asked, animatedly.

I muttered something, which he took it as a mark of affirmation. He ran off to the far side of the cabin to share his discovery with the others. Before long, the cabin had conspired to refuse to fall asleep until I had told them one of my stories.

It became a ritual – every night, I would have to stop by the main house in order to print off another blog post before making my way back to the cabin. The boys loved them. Honestly, I didn’t see it coming – these were the thoughts of a college student about college. Why would campers in grade school care about that?

To be honest, I admit my writing isn’t the most engaging thing. For the most part, when I started telling my stories, the cabin didn’t make it to the end. One by one, the campers would drop off to sleep. But every night, as I turned to turn off the light, the month camper would be awake, still listening on his bunk.

This pattern continued until the last week of camp when our cabin went on our overnight hiking trip. That night, as the boys collapsed into their sleeping bags about the shelter, I didn’t expect the boys wanted to hear another story. But as soon as I turned off the light, I heard the same boy object:

“Hey, you promised!”

I sighed and turned the light back on. I pulled out a piece of paper I had tucked in the side of my backpack – the last story I would tell them. It was a little longer than the others. But I read it until the end.

When I finished, the shelter was silent. The darkness within the cabin seemed to hold its breath. Most of the campers had fallen asleep long ago. I yawned and moved to click off the light.

“Wait!” I heard, the same boy making his presence known, “Could we – talk?”

I raised my eyebrow.

“Sure,” I said, “Let’s sit over by the fire pit so not to wake the others.”

We walked about ten feet over to the small ring of stones where we had recently cooked smores. My co-counselor was watching the last of the smoke rise from the ashes.

“We got it from here, James,” I said. He nodded and headed over to his nearby hammock.

We sat by the fire for a moment before I ventured, “What’s up?”

I couldn’t see the camper’s face. The darkness had obscured his eyes from me. He said nothing, though it looked as though he was searching for words.

I heard water hitting the ground before I saw it. It was slow at first, but it gradually grew the constant sound of water pit-pattering against the stones of the fire pit. It continued, uninterrupted, for fifteen minutes.

Finally, a sob escaped the camper’s mouth. “What-” he choked out, “What caused you to write that story?”

I glanced down at the piece of paper, now a sodden piece of pulp, in my hand. I had begun crying, too. “My friends,” I said. “My family.”

I found myself revisiting that same story today, after work. It narrated my last day as a freshman at my university, saying goodbye to strangers who had become some of the best of friends.

I wrote of how I had been sitting in an empty dorm room, my gear outside, when I had been suddenly struck with a sense of loss. The room was filled with people, with memories, once – not even a week ago. Now, it was gone, disappeared into the past.

I had come to call the place home. But, as the walls and the room itself became increasingly bare, the very life that resided within the room breathed its last. I was looking at the corpse of a year’s worth of strangers who became my family, of mornings and nights filled with incredibly meaningful conversations, of “mountaintop experiences” and more than one visit to the valley of the shadow of death. And my friends were there through it all.

And now, now it was all over.

A lump formed in my throat as I stepped outside. A friend was heading home, her bags already all packed away in her parents’ car. Her eyes red, she looked at us, the faithful few, and asked, “Why is it that loving people is so exhausting?”

In that moment, I remembered that a professor of mine once told me that to truly love something, we must acknowledge that one day, that person or thing will die in its own way.

We allow for change in all its forms, but change is only a nuanced term for the continual putting to death of one thing to make room for something new. To love the people that we are force us to act in the same manner, else we risk falling for an idea of the person and not the person themselves. And this love, this state of caring for one another even until death and beyond, is what makes us human.

I could have said something, but instead, I stood, a tear running down my own face, silent, a smile softly playing at the corners of my mouth.

The camper and I sat in silence around the dead fire, unsure of what to say. Eventually, he began to share his own story, one filled with brokenness and hurt and pain – the likes of which I would have never guessed a ten-year-old would have experienced. I heard of his fear of abandonment and a father that had been the world to him who he never could see. I heard of how he got up every morning wondering whether it was his fault. I heard of how he put on a brave front every morning and worked constantly to do something of note so that maybe, one day, his father would call him and congratulate him and tell him he was proud.

“Those words,” he stammered, “Those words your friend said have given me words for this pain I have.”

He paused and looked up across the fire pit at me, “It’s just, I don’t want to be a burden, you know?”

I gritted my teeth.

“More than you know, man.”

I never got to follow up with the camper after that night. Upon returning to camp, I found myself having to pack up my bags to make it back to my university on time for my sophomore year.

I found myself in a friend’s living room, checking my emails when I saw an email had been forwarded to me by way of my camp director. It was from my camper’s mother.

For a good portion of the email, she mainly addressed the director and thanked him for the program that he had put on, going into detail all the elements of the program that made the camp stand out, but as I reached the end of the letter, I stopped scrolling.

The last two paragraphs were addressed simply, to my son’s counselors.

I still have them.

The reason why I hold onto these paragraphs, the reason why I love doing what I do, was summed up there.

Thank you, it read, for investing a month of your lives into my son. He loved the program and he loved having you as counselors. In fact, he won’t stop sharing the stories you shared about your own lives at night.

But I want to thank you, especially, because my son hadn’t really smiled in a long time since his father left. But when he talks about his counselors and his time at camp, all he can do is grin. I don’t know what you said or did that changed something for my son, but it has made all the difference.

It’s strange how, when we find ourselves poured out into others, when we take the time to invest in the people that we are with, they have a habit of always leaving something behind.

Why is it that loving people is so hard? Because we fear that if we let go, they might not return. So, we don’t burden others, or try not to be, I think. But if we live that way, we can never fully be present with those with us in their triumphs and trials.

It’s only when we open up to others that connections like the friends I’ve made at my university or the moment shared around the fire pit can occur.

Why is loving people so hard?

Because, I think, it’s when we are most fully ourselves.  

The pen clicked again. I was back in my supervisor’s office. I refocused as I came back from my thoughts.

Blinking, I started, “Sorry, come again?”

My supervisor smiled. “Sure!  What I was wondering was, do you think we can work together on being more relatable?”

“Oh,” I paused, smiling slightly, “Most certainly.”

 

 

  

 

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.

A Snapchat Story Kind of Life

I dropped my brother off at the airport the other day. He had grabbed a friend of his one Friday afternoon and started driving from the Massachusetts coast in a southwesterly direction. His plan, to my knowledge, was to make his way to Chicago and then take Route 66 all the way to my college town just outside of Los Angeles, taking detours whenever they saw fit to see some genuine Americana along the way.

If I hadn’t been informed that he had planned to end his journey across the country at my apartment, I would have thought he might have just intended to wander for a while.

As he picked his way west, he documented his progress on his Snapchat story within a series of Captain’s Logs – so-called for the unspoken reason that it just seemed to fit the spirit of the occasion. This was an adventure after all. And adventures require a bit of whimsy from time to time.

And even though my brother and his buddy documented their journey, I still feel tempted to say that they didn’t get to really see some genuine Americana. They didn’t have time to, anyways. They were going too fast.

I sat in the airport parking lot for an hour, wondering whether increased mobility is always a good thing. As I watched my brother’s Snapchat story updates, I noticed how the landscape behind him seemed to blend together into a vibrant blur. Galileo once noted that “the only motion which is observable to us is the one which we do not share.” But when we’re the ones moving, everything else seems to become less distinct.

The author Soong-Chan Rah writes that “Contemporary life is characterized by movement, oftentimes at high speeds, with the absence of any real connection to the world around us.”[1] When we have the ability to move, especially to a pasture that seems greener, we become less invested in the one we find ourselves in at the moment. “We learn early on to keep our options open,” writes Kathleen Norris in the foreword to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability, “We consider stability tedious at best. At its worst it is seen to restrict our freedom and limit our potential.”[2]

I drove back toward my college town, lost in thought. The headlights of those heading back into the city appeared like bright streaks through the windshield, passing by without much of a second thought and disappearing into the darkness. Upon getting to my exit, I continued onwards, eventually finding myself driving up into the nearby mountains and parking at a place that gives a view of the surrounding towns. Below, stood a thousand, no- ten thousand points of light against the black backdrop.

How many of those lights had I been to? How many of them represented families or businesses I had never met or frequented? When we are trying to get to the next place, we miss out on all of the millions of possible experiences around you in the current moment. We instead get an idea of what some place or some people are like without much else. We mistake the shallow glimpses as the full thing.

But how did we get here in the first place?

In my summer class, we’ve been going over some of Kierkegaard’s works. In his Either/Or, I think I found my answer. Kierkegaard, in the persona of an aesthete, writes that “The more you limit yourself, the more resourceful you become.”[3] Here, the aesthete is concerned with not being bound by meaningful commitments – as that would demand his or her involvement in living in a manner which also has to take the other party into consideration. Instead, it is good to always practice what the aesthete describes as crop rotation – that is, avoiding activities that require repeated efforts in order to avoid boredom but instead doing the thing that is always new, always fresh.

The catch, of course, is that eventually, even that will become boring, as all activities will become run of the mill, leading him or her to despair.

I think the same mentality has gotten into the psyche of a good many people, myself included. Many of our problems, suggests Wilson-Hartgrove, come from our mentality that success is always defined by moving up and out.[4] It’s because we’re afraid of restricting ourselves.

As I looked out over the city, I glanced at my smartphone. A green light indicated that I had received a message on Facebook. It was from a guy who I’ve gotten to know over the course of the past year.

Do you ever think that some people are more special than others? My screen read. Because I think that God made me for something big… That I am made more important and more special than others.

I think the funny thing is that we all happen to foster some of the same attitude expressed by my friend. I think that’s why we feel driven to constantly move to the bigger and better-looking experience. We don’t want to settle for anything less than what God has for us.

And yet, the Christian thinker G.K. Chesterton wrote why, practically speaking, this mentality is unhelpful at best, and paralyzing at worst. He states:

All the will-worshippers […] cannot will, they can hardly wish […] they always talk of will as something that expands and breaks out. But it is quite the opposite. Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense, every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else… it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.[5]

Perhaps then, as we constantly strive for the greener pastures and commute out of the less favorable places, we should keep this notion in mind. In order to be invested, in order to affect meaningful change, we ought to consider that perhaps the place where God is calling us is the neighborhood right where we are living.

As I drove down the mountain back towards my university, I recalled the ending of the story of the demoniac at the Gerasenes. As Christ and his disciples begin to head off into the sunset, the former demoniac runs after them and begs Jesus to take him with them. But Christ refuses. Instead, Jesus suggests, tell everyone in the surrounding area of what happened here. And with that, they push off from shore and sail off into the distance, the demoniac still standing at the seashore.

What if our greatest form of ministry is right in front of us, and yet we miss it because we think Jesus wants us somewhere else? What if our call to ministry is a call to put down roots somewhere and stay for years on end?

“Mobility, and the speed of that mobility, result in the ability and the power to disregard and disconnect from suffering.” Rah concludes, noting that “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.”[6]

To be a minister of the gospel means, I think in part, to embed oneself in the story of a place and see how healing and the newness of life can be brought forth from it. If we simply plan to pass on through, we barely get a glimpse of it as it blurs together through the rearview mirror. There must be something more, something longer lasting than a shallow engagement with the world around us to change it for the better.

It’s a challenging thought, I know, I stand guilty of it myself. But as I pulled into the parking lot of my university late that evening, I paused once more to take another look at the place where I have called home for three years and for at least one year more.

There’s a lot of living to be done in one place. And a Snapchat story kind of life simply can’t cut it.

[1] Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009), 148.

[2] Kathleen Norris, foreword to The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), vii.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, ed. Victor Eremita & Alastair Hannay (New York, NY: Penguin Books USA, 2004), 233.

[4] Wilson-Hartgrove, 46.

[5] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 45.

[6] Rah, 148.

The Business of Creating Home

Recently, I have been learning how to best represent my university to potential students who are interested in the school. From what I hear, one of my larger responsibilities will be to show students around the campus which I have been privileged to call home for much of the past three years.

For some of those years, I would find myself returning back to the New England coast to see my friends, my family, my home once more. But this summer, I find myself unpacking boxes in an empty apartment. An empty apartment on a mostly empty campus.

As I walked around the university, trying to memorize what I would say at such-and-such a location, I would turn to see a person pass by, preoccupied with their own thoughts. They were off to some class or meeting of theirs and disappeared as quickly as they came around the corner. The campus grew quiet again, the only exception being the low thrum of my voice as I spoke to some imaginary audience.

My supervisor encourages us to use stories to bring the campus to life. It makes sense. We humans are geared for story. Our ears perk up when someone starts off with the phrase, “Once upon a time.”

Why is that?

Later that day, I found myself reclining in my hammock, lost in thought for an hour or so. Apart from a street and a traffic light, my hammock boasts an unobstructed view of my workplace. In the summer, cars pass here uninterrupted. Come Orientation Weekend, it will be a completely different matter.

People make a place.

As much as I love my university, it’s quiet here. Too quiet. Without the people, my university is but a shell of itself.

My college is not the same without sophomores screaming and cheering for incoming first-year students as they drive up the main street to unload their luggage. It’s not the same without Smith students regularly voicing their loyalty to their living space to all who might overhear them. It’s not the same when the coffee shop is empty and the library is devoid of persons seeking to crunch before an upcoming test or finish a project or paper late into the evening. It’s not the same without the trolley and its incredibly loveable staff. My university is not the same thing I know it can be without my friends.

People make the place, home.

I suppose that’s why hospitality has always been a central part of humanity’s cultures. In the midst of a great amount of the unknown, to be hospitable to those who happen to find themselves at your door one day is the first step to taming the perceived hostility of the other, seeing more of ourselves in those with whom we might not affiliate.

Even back in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean worlds, hospitality was seen as a primary means by which the divine could bless people through the arrival of the stranger. Or, at least, to find something or someone of worth behind our initial fears and suspicions.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the beast Enkidu became human after having a meal extended to him by another person typically found on the margins of society – a prostitute. A beast is literally given humanity through the medium of hospitality. A foe becomes a friend. The strange takes on a familiar form.

In other ancient texts, the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian patriarch Abraham encounters God in the form of guests on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah. In welcoming the strangers to a feast, Abraham is brought to a divine encounter and a blessing for both he and Sarah, his wife.

Finally, in Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus’ welcoming of a stranger regardless of his own difficult circumstances leads him to be seen as favorable in the eyes of the divine, who had been disguised as the stranger the entire time. By practicing hospitality, Telemachus won the allegiance of the gray-eyed Athena, who enables him to learn of his father’s fate and mature in spite of the suitors’ attempts to kill him.

The act of hospitality is understood in these foundational cultures to bring forth and preserve life in difficult circumstances. It leads us to encounter others on a deeper level, seeing the good in those with who we might not connect in the first place. It allows us to be more ourselves, too. And, it reassures us that the great, mysterious world outside may not be as frightening as we once thought.

But what happens when people aren’t there? What then can we do?

Like the Israelites in the middle of the wilderness, like the Greeks pondering why things are they way they are, like the Sumerians attempting to build one of the first civilizations,  we are invited to remember. For us, it is to recall the times when the stranger became a friend, when we arrived on campus for the first time and were overwhelmed by cheering sophomores who held signs welcoming freshmen on campus, when a professor took the time to invite his entire class to his house to get to know one another around the fire until three in the morning, when classmates became confidantes, or when a university became a home.

We do so through telling stories. We tell stories to remember in the quiet times, to keep us company in the lonely dark, and to give direction when we’re lost. 

We tell them to provide hope that, one day, we might find ourselves home once more.

 

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.