The Revolutionary Act of Making Toast

BY T. M. Elofson & Nico Chera

I found myself lying awake late into the night a few weeks ago.

I glanced at my watch. The display read 12:36 AM. I groaned. I had to be up at six for work. And yet, for some reason, I just couldn’t settle down.

Across the room, I heard a sharp intake of breath as my roommate Nick rolled over.

“Bud,” I whispered, “You still up?”

After a moment, I heard him exhale slowly before responding.

“Yeah.”

“Something on your mind?” I asked.

“Yup,” I heard in the darkness, “Always.”

I rolled over to peer through the dark. I could make out that Nick had been looking in my direction from his bunk.

“Why don’t you tell me about it?”

After a moment, Nick began to unpack some of the thoughts that had simmered in his mind over the course of the last few days. He expressed frustrations, hopes, fears, and ambitions. He asked questions about life and made observations. Finally, he paused for a moment, as if he needed to scrape the back of his mind for the last of his concerns.

“You know, Tim,” he started, “I want to be a dad one day, but I know that no matter how good of a father I am, I’ll still fail in some way. I’ll give my kids insecurities or flaws no matter what I do, and I can’t avoid it. And, to be honest, that terrifies me. You know what I mean?”

“Sure. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try.”

“Yeah, but the responsibility is way too heavy; I mean, it’s shaping someone for the rest of their lives, Tim. A human being! Messing up on something so precious…”

The room was silent for a while.

“Eh,” Nick continued. “So, that’s what I’m thinking about. What about you?”

“You know,” I started, “I think I’m thinking about our toaster.”

We laughed.

“Those are the real questions that keep us up at night: The toaster ones.”

You see, we have a love-hate relationship with our apartment’s toaster. It sits perched on the counter, its black matte and chrome glory tarnished by specks of rust. Some days, it works perfectly. On others, like the days when we happen to be running out the door, it is a devoted disciple of Murphy’s Law. Half of the toast (or waffle) ends up undercooked. The other borders on singed.

We have our theories about why this occurs, but despite our best efforts, it always seems to malfunction at the most inconvenient moments.

Honestly, it seems to me that we’re often like my apartment’s toaster – designed to do something important, but having a quirky tendency to misfire. And when it happens, we burn a lot more than just toast.

This summer, the rising juniors of the Honors College at our university will read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – a story which follows three brothers as they wrestle with their father’s legacy. It’s become one of my (Tim’s) favorite reads over the course of my college career due to Dostoevsky’s skillful rendering of each of the brothers’ worldviews: The eldest son Dmitri is a sensualist who cares little for anything other than experience; Ivan, the second brother, an intellectual who cannot settle on a committed perspective other than cynicism; and Alyosha, a monk who seeks salvation.

I think the Brothers Karamazov has become one of my favorite pieces of literature because the three brothers can be used as stand ins for ways of living that we can fall into as people, that is, the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. I first realized this was the case when I read one of my peer’s papers trying to reconcile Dostoevsky with Plato’s notion of the tripartite soul.

And, while I disagree with Plato on some accounts, I think that humans do, in fact, have their identity rooted in a triune balance of the circles I previously mentioned.

These three circles emphasize that, within the human experience, there are realms in which certain items hold their being. A rock, for example, is fully physical. It has no spiritual or mental component. Likewise, a mathematical concept is based in the intellectual realm.

Finally, the last circle is that of the spiritual. This one is admittedly difficult to describe, and I suppose it is so for several possibilities. However, the reason I stick by is because, as Johannes de Silentio in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling states, the only thing you can say about faith is that, once you have it, you can’t really communicate it to others. Faith is concerned with a divine authority speaking into the lives of a community that may not abide by the same rules as the rest of the community outside of the faith. An example of this is someone trying to empirically prove that a guy rose from the dead and was also simultaneously divine and human. Outside the context of faith, it doesn’t communicate well. You might get a couple confused looks and raised eyebrows, though. I suppose that the closest we can come to talking about the spiritual circle is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might describe as the sanctorum communio, the church which transcends time and space, i.e., the cloud of witnesses we hear about in Hebrews.

As humans, I believe that we are made to have our identity balanced between the three circles. When we overemphasize one or more sides, we become imbalanced and can fall into despair. According to Kierkegaard in another of his works, The Sickness unto Death, the human person is a project of becoming that is constantly trying to relate the elements of themselves that are finite and infinite. However, this task is impossible to do unless there is some form of divine agency which brings both together. This is because only the divine can reach the infinite without stretching itself too thin, neglecting the self that the divine had set out for the person with an equal footing in both dimensions.

For those who didn’t follow what I said, it boils down to the fact that in this respect, we’re kind of like the toaster that sits smugly in the kitchen. We overcook one side and undercook the others by ourselves. We get unbalanced because we spread ourselves too thin trying to be something we’re not. But, without a principle or narrative by which to develop, we have no way to figure out where that balance is or rein ourselves in to it should we strike upon it randomly.

Despair, then, is knowing, consciously or unconsciously, that we cannot generate meaning for ourselves ex nihilo – that is, in the void where a larger superstructure should, but being unable to move beyond it.

The reason why I love the Brothers Karamazov is tied to this fact, insofar that each of the characters start off as imbalanced and attempt to move towards or away from a more integrated understanding of themselves.

For those who choose to become more integrated, like Alyosha, their identity is rooted in the world around them while also mindful and guided by a metanarrative. But for those who choose otherwise, they find themselves increasingly disjointed, as seen by Ivan’s state at the end of the book being unable to land on a worldview more in line with that of Smerdyakov or that of Alyosha. We cannot exclusively ground ourselves in any one of the circles, but must move towards integration of the three through some means.

Perhaps because of that unresolved late-night talk about parenting and toasters, Tim and I (Nick) have since had a lot of conversations about who we are as people and what we should strive for. We’ve noticed that we tend to break our experiences down into three broad categories: physical, mental, and spiritual. At first, we treated those categories as if they were mutually exclusive, but the more we thought about it, the more we realized that the lines between them are really quite blurry. Then on top of that, we realized that we also had our own favorite categories and often judged the others through the lens of our choice.

For example, I have a heavy mental focus, so it’s easy for me to downplay the importance of taking care of my body. After all, the body is messy and “impure,” and it often gets in the way of rationality. My default tendency is also to dismiss people’s spiritual experiences as the result of emotional manipulation, confirmation bias, and/or the desire to see something that isn’t there. My default is to think the spiritual is an illusion. It has to be, my mind says, or else there are things which won’t fit into the categories and frameworks that the mental provides. I devalue the physical as well as the spiritual because they threaten my favorite way of understanding how the world works.

For other people whose focus is primarily spiritual, the realm of the physical is often thought of as a transient distraction, while the realm of the mental can be downright threatening. From my perspective, it often feels like spiritual people are afraid of asking hard questions because they are afraid that a meaningful answer may emerge which threatens their way of knowing the world. Perhaps spiritual people are sometimes afraid that the mental will boil down the unknowable and miraculous into something mundane. On the other hand, the physical, with its comforts and lusts and boundaries, is thought of as fleeting and therefore unimportant. Oftentimes spiritual people care a lot more about being ready for the world to come than about fixing the world’s problems here and now — it’s easy to use the spiritual reality as an escape from how awful the physical one can be.

Finally, overly physical people tend to avoid the spiritual and the mental both. Their default is to think that the most important thing is what we can see in front of us. Sometimes physical people think of the mental realm as unimportant because in its contemplation, it creates barriers to action–these kinds of people believe we need to think less and do more. Similarly, the spiritual can also be viewed as a distraction, except the other way around. Some pie-in-the-sky promise or ‘higher calling’ shouldn’t get in the way of what we need to do here and now. Physical people might also try to avoid the mental or spiritual by distracting themselves with more extreme pleasures or shinier possessions.

In reality, our experiences are usually some kind of combination of these categories, and thinking about them or experiencing them only in one of those ways prevents us from understanding more fully and being more whole as people. If you’re like me, some of these phrases I just used may even have struck you as odd. Calling a group of people ‘mental people’ kinda makes it sound like they’re insane, calling them ‘physical people’ makes it sound like they’re violent or sensual, and calling them ‘spiritual people’ makes them sound like monks or nuns or gurus.

It’s almost like we intuitively know that restricting ourselves like that hurts us, and yet we do it anyways. For however many reasons, we choose to prevent ourselves from becoming balanced. The reality is that we are physical, mental, and spiritual beings, and we absolutely need to respect and understand all three parts of ourselves if we want to be healthy. If we don’t, we risk becoming malfunctioning toasters.

The first step in fixing any problem is realizing that there is one. And if we’re being honest, we could all be more balanced people. The thing that’s hard for me (Nick) is the fact that acknowledging a problem doesn’t fix it. No matter what I do, I will, for the rest of my life, make mistakes that have damaging consequences for myself and others. Somehow it feels inevitable. Despite my gifts and talents, I often feel like the worst of toasters.

In the end, I (Tim) think it all comes back to toast. Well, bread and wine actually. Or body and blood. By itself, bread is just bread, and we humans are, in and of ourselves, flawed beings. But something happens to that bread, whether one believes it to be in the imagination or reality, when it becomes something more in context of a community oriented toward God, where grace can be encountered, even though it may seem absurd. And something happens in people, too, when grace can be shown, calling us toward something holier, even in spite of ourselves.

There’s a passage in Galatians 2 that is usually translated as “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Interestingly enough, it can also be translated as “I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

It’s so easy to compartmentalize ourselves and our Christianity into one of those sectors, sometimes leaving us wondering how we could possibly be the people that God wants us to become. There’s part of me that thinks that, as Kierkegaard waves from the sidelines, the reason why is because we aren’t seeing correctly. Becoming ourselves may be the human project, but we would be sorely mistaken to think that we are the architects of that project–it begins and ends with God.

While we are most ourselves when we land in a place shared by all three of these circles, this isn’t to say that when we are decentered the actions we do are irredeemable. Even when the toast burns, you can scrape off most of the char. That is to say, yes, we make decisions and slip up from time to time. We have our virtues and our vices alike. And yet, there’s the absurd reality that despite our sin, we seem to come out all the more polished in the end. After all, Christ carries us always, even when we break down.

He’s why we need toast for more than just food in a physical sense. Frederick Buechner once wrote that eucharist/communion is “…a game we play because he said to play it.” He concludes, saying, “Play that it makes a difference. Play that it makes sense. If it seems like a childish thing to do, do it in remembrance that you are a child.”

When we are invited to take all three circles as they are, and not as we should like them, it won’t always seem to make the most sense. Abraham offered up his son as a sacrifice with full trust in the strength of the absurd, expecting that somehow he would have Isaac restored to him; he believed this despite the fact that it flew in the face of reason, experience, and basic common sense.

And while we are not called to the same actions, it stands to reason and experience that no matter how burnt or undercooked the toast may be, there is always space for redemption.

I think the same can be said for us, as well.

Even at 12:36 in the morning.

Nico Chera is a rising senior attending Azusa Pacific University majoring in Computer Science and the Humanities within the Honors College. He enjoys toast – lightly buttered.

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.

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.

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.

A Soul In Need Of Scrubbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” he said. “Boy, do I know.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] Jn. 13:8, NRSV.

The Places Between Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary life is characterized by movement, oftentimes at high speeds, with the absence of any real connection to the world around us. Mobility, and the speed of mobility, result in the ability and the power to disregard and disconnect from suffering. There is no space or time for the theology of celebration to intersect with the theology of suffering–there is only motion that dulls the senses.[3]

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

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

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

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

We both said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both responded simultaneously, stumbling over each other.

“Yes, I-”

“-How did you know?”

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

I was incredulous. “Well, why?”

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

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

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

“I’m Eli.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

As You Go

The Santa Ana winds have been whipping through the area recently, tearing pockets of heat from within layers of clothing. During the day, people march from place to place, their bodies bowed and bundled. At night, the temperature drops to those familiar to the earlier spring or late autumns of New England. For most, being outside is an inconvenience to be avoided by ducking inside a building on campus or their apartment.

For most, being outside is an inconvenience to be avoided by ducking inside a building. For some, that option isn’t open to them.

One evening, I found myself on my way to a conference that was a number of towns away for a job. The event I was supposed to attend was last on the day’s agenda, and, to be honest, I had some mixed feelings being on the job late Friday evening.

Soon after leaving campus, I found myself sitting at a traffic light in the car with a friend. I turned to look out my window. Outside was a man, wrapped in an assortment of worn sweaters, jackets, and scarves. His beard poked out from underneath his hat which was drawn completely over his ears. His breath formed an opaque wall between us, obscuring his face. And on his back was a duffel bag stuffed with any sort of thing. He could have been every man, given the circumstances.

The light at the traffic stop turned green. My friend turned the wheel and the car continued on its way. But halfway into the turn, I saw that another person had appeared on the sidewalk, riding a bike. He or she, too, was bundled up – a vibrant scarf was wrapped snugly around their neck, with one end trailing behind their person and the other tucked within their peacoat.

They must have said something to the raggedy man, for he turned toward the biker as they came to a stop. As the two disappeared from my view, the biker took off their scarf and handed it to their acquaintance, then hoisted the man’s duffel bag onto their own back before continuing to walk with him down the street.

As I turned to face forward in my seat, I whispered under my breath a quick note of thanks for the biker in the cold. What a way to advance the Kingdom, I thought, I wish I was doing that.

But something stopped me to reconsider what I had just said. Something related to the biker and the raggedy man and this conference that I was attending seemed to demand I reconsider my initial thought. I closed my eyes to think.

When Jesus sent out his twelve in Matthew 10, he told them:

As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.[1]

For me, the very notion of leaving for some place for anything and forgetting something of mine is horrifying. What if something were to go wrong? What would I do?

Ministry is somewhat like that. You can never truly prepare for what lies around the corner. Why should I have a false sense of comfort?

At the same time, I think that Jesus’ instruction has a positive element to it as well. The reason why the twelve were not given any additional resources to take is because they might need to realize that they are enough on their own to carry a message of hope, truth, and love. No number of translations of the Bibles, commentaries, and how-to manuals in the back seat of the car will help in a moment of need. What people often need is not a model but a person to walk alongside them in the midst of crisis. I’m sure that the biker did not leave their house with the foreknowledge that a raggedy man waited for them.

If the mission of God is reconciling all of the world to himself, I don’t think the church needs to worry about going overseas to lean into it. Enough need is right outside their own doors. While some of the church may worry about the saving of souls, the missio dei is also about the establishing of the Lordship of Christ over a redeemed Creation. This mission is needed to be lived out day by day, both on an individual level and a corporate one. And yes, proclamation evangelism does play a part. But so does healing, serving, seeking justice and reconciliation for the marginalized and oppressed, making peace, and other related fields.

“Compassion,” stated Frederick Buechner, “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.”[2] How we do anything and why we do it affects the Kingship of God in relation to others.

One of my supervisors and mentors by the name of Chris once told me to always place a qualifier before the word ministry, since anything done out of service to another is ministry in the end. Everything – large, small, and everything in between – is a form of ministry when we do it out of compassion and love. Martin Luther argued as such when he wrote:

What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels…God with all his angels and creatures is smiling – not because the father (or mother) is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.[3]

Whether living into the mission of God for you is done by making Americanos in the neighborhood Starbucks, changing a tire on a customer’s car, driving to a conference for connecting people to resources, or by stopping to offer to walk a mile carrying a man’s bag, God sees it and adds permanence to our work. The time may come when we are meant to serve in other capacities, but for now, we are called to serve where we find ourselves today.

I opened my eyes and glanced at my watch. An hour had passed. All around, red tail lights filled the whole of the windshield. To our right, a man in a SUV stared blankly ahead and began munching on something stashed in his door compartment. My friend glanced over and remarked drily, “Oh, you’re awake. Welcome back. Ready to save the world, Mr. Elofson?”

I shook my head briefly. “You know, I don’t think I’m called to that right now.”

“Well, good. We’d have to get out of this mess first.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes before my friend spoke again. “What do you think you’re called to now, anyways?”

“Playing my small part in something greater. A greater leadership role requires a greater character – something I am lacking. But now, I get the opportunity to begin building connections between people and resources. I think that’s more than enough missional activity for me.”

“What about feeding or serving the homeless? Don’t think I didn’t notice you earlier.”

“You know, I think Christ calls us to serve where and when we are. To love others as you go. If I should chance across someone in need, I’m sure Christ will call me to help then as well. Don’t think I’m limiting myself to serving in only one or two ways.”

He nodded in agreement for a moment before smiling and gesturing toward the traffic in front of us. “The only problem I have with that is this is killing your notion.”

We both laughed. My friend reached over to the radio, “Might as well enjoy the time we have now.”

“Yes, indeed.”

 

[1] Mat. 10:7-10, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Frederick Buechner, “Compassion,” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, Rev. and expanded ed., (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 18.

[3] Martin Luther, “The Estate of Marriage,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed., ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 158-159.