Mobius

The other day, when I was lost in the backwoods of Kentucky, I received a call from my sister. I was driving back from work at church, my mind filled with thoughts from the previous week, when I realized that the exit which I needed to take on the highway was three or four back. Faced with heading straight on to Cincinnati, I turned off the road at the next exit and began picking my way back west on some winding Kentucky back roads.

The car wound its way through rolling hills and fields filled with corn, its meandering nature following the same course as my mind as it twisted this way and that. After a wandering the country, I noticed that my tank was hovering just above empty. As a gas station appeared, I pulled in and got out.

The smell of gasoline filled the air and mingled with the sound of crickets and the frogs which made their home in and around the Ohio River. Some folk music was gently piped in under the florescent lights of the gas station. I would have stayed a bit longer to listen and watch the sun set had my phone in my car not rang.

As I climbed in and continued my return home, I picked up the call. It had been a couple of weeks since my sister and I had caught up. I smiled as we shot the breeze for a bit. After getting me up to date on things back in New England, she switched the topic.

“Have you ever heard of Rachel Held Evans?” she asked. “I just discovered her and this book I just finished by her just has been incredible.”

“Really?” I asked as I slowed to a stop at a four-way intersection. “How so?”

“Basically, the one big take-away from the book is, and I know this sounds obvious but, bear with me here. It’s that there are multiple ways to interpret Scripture.”

There was a moment of silence as I felt laughter bubbling up in my chest. After chuckling for a few seconds, I apologized, and explained, “Kristen, you wouldn’t believe it, but I find myself learning and re-learning this constantly. If this is the first time you’ve encountered Evans’ work, you have a treat ahead of you.”

The light turned green and I continued down the road, disappearing around another cornfield a few moments later.

Several years ago, I remember sitting down with my older brother over a discovery he had made. As a math and physics person, my brother and I don’t always see eye to eye – in part because we’ve been trained that way. An elegant equation looks like gobbledygook to me. To him, it’s meaningful in some way.

In his hands, Dave had a length of paper, cut to be about an inch wide. He took the paper and twisted it one hundred and eighty degrees once before taping it together. The result was a rather odd shape.

“This,” he began, “is a Mobius strip.”

“The cool thing about this is that it only has one side.”

My mouth dropped open. “What? You’re lying. It obviously has two.”

Dave offered me a pen.

“Try and draw a single continuous line and you’ll see I’m right.”

After making my way around the strip, I was shocked to see that waiting for me at the other end was the line I started with. I flipped the strip over. The pen’s trail was still there. Dave was right.

“Now here’s the kicker,” he continued. “Imagine that you were a two-dimensional person who lived on the Mobius Strip called a Flatlander. You would have no idea that you’re flipping. It’s all flat to you. But perspective matters, as we can see what’s happening in three dimensions.”

Something clicked in my mind. “It’s kind of like living in a cave all your life and seeing the sun for the first time.”

Dave furrowed his brow.

“I mean, I guess. Whatever floats your boat.”

My mind’s been going in circles recently. Or rather, been thinking on them. Perhaps as I drive along winding country roads outside of Louisville and work with people with vastly different backgrounds and life experience as me, it’s causing me to reflect on perspective. And after a summer’s worth of reflection, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that I am a maniac. Or rather, I’ve always been. I’m just becoming more aware of it.

G. K. Chesterton makes the observation that maniacs are deemed so not because of their lack of reason, but because of their perfection of it. “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactorily […] Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is just as infinite as a large circle; but though it is infinite, it is not so large. In the same way, the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not as large.” For the madman or -woman, the explanations that they create are systematic and complete. But for those who find themselves more clued in on the reality of things, it seems as though the madman or -woman is missing out on so much more.

The theologian Frederick Buechner observed that theology is just like a dung beetle taking up a study of humans with the goal of understanding everything there is to know about them. “If so,” he concludes, “we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.” When we arrive at the notion that, while God wants to be known and does so most clearly through the person of Christ, and yet simultaneously cannot be fully comprehended as a beetle cannot fully comprehend the complexity of a human person, we realize that in a certain way, we humans have constructed, over the course of many centuries and with the work of many careful and reflective theologians, circles of our own making. We’re Flatlanders, trying to make sense of a three-dimensional reality. When we hold to one school of thought to the exclusion of others, I think that God sees us as maniacs. Or maniacs trying our best.

The nice thing is that special revelation provides us with some correlation of the bigger picture, we hope. Experience typically reinforces this notion. And yet, I must confess that oftentimes we struggle to encompass all of it because we are finite creatures in a universe that is vastly other. While I believe that there are absolutes, I’m realizing that approaching those absolutes are a much harder task than modernity had led us to believe.

Evans writes that “when you stop trying to force the Bible to be something it’s not—static, perspicacious, certain, absolute—then you’re free to revel in what it is: living, breathing, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic […] ‘The adventure,’ wrote Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky in Reading the Book, lies in ‘learning the secrets of the palace, unlocking all the doors and perhaps catching a glimpse of the King in all His splendor.’”

This, I believe, inspires humility. I trust and, I would think, know experientially that what I have received in faith is true, it also reminds me that the universe, Scripture, and the Creator it reveals is a much more complicated and multifaceted reality than the way I thought they were like back in my earlier days. Using Scripture as a window to this greater reality, then, logically would generate several meanings when viewed from different places—different rooms in the palace—as we constantly grapple with God.

Here’s hoping that, like Jacob, we might not let go until God blesses us. And may it cause us to walk differently.

A Box of Fairy Tales for Christmas

A few years ago, I came in from the cold to discover my mother making her way down the staircase of the new house with a large box in her hands. She set the box – marked in bold lettering of a red Sharpie with the word TRASH – by the door.

Just outside, the snow had begun to fall silently down over the world, blanketing everything in a soft white layer of frosting. I brushed what snow had started to pile up on my shoulders and hair off as I began to feel the warmth of the place once more. Placing my hands over my nose, I could feel the chill from outside still lingered a few moments more.

I glanced over as I hung up my coat. Matching worn maroon spines peeked out from their cardboard frame. Books. Old ones, too, by the amount of wear they had on them.

Erasmus once wrote, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” And while I am nowhere near as noble as Erasmus, I will scrounge for a good book from time to time.

“What do you have there?” I asked, poking my head around the corner.

“Oh, those?” My mother pointed to the box as she walked back upstairs, “Those are some collections of fairy tales that I’ve held onto for a while. Nobody’s read them in quite some time.”

I picked one up to weigh it in my hand. I remembered in grade school sitting in the old family rocking chair or my bunk as I imagined the worlds of Robin Hood and Arabian Nights. The book was lighter – or I larger – than I last remembered.

Time was not kind to these books. I imagined it to be partially my fault as well. As I flipped through the pages of the books which kept me company in my younger days, the motion kicked up some dust which had been resting on the edges of pages. The pages smelled of vanilla and almond, faintly, as if someone had been baking sugar cookies in this very same space not too long ago.

I slid the book back in its place along with its siblings. Something about these meant more to me than just entertainment.

I leaned on the banister to shout up the stairs.

“Would you mind me taking them, then?”

“As long as you have space for fairy tales in your life, I don’t see why not.”

It’s funny how the stories we are told as children often hold more truth and life than we are led to believe. G. K. Chesterton once wrote in one of his better-known works that the things he believed most in his childhood and the thing he most believed as an adult are the things called fairy tales. Little wonder that, when taken seriously, a fairy tale is a tool by which we learn to come to grips with the world.

The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim pointed out that when it comes to fairy tales, the genius behind it is that “the message is effective as long as it is delivered not as a moral or demand, but in a casual way which indicates that this is how life is.” In Bettelheim’s understanding, the beauty of a fairy tale is that it leaves room for the gray, suggesting at possible solutions while never casting judgment on others. Instead of painting the world in shades of good or bad, the fairy tale rather asks the listener which character they want to be most like.

I’ve been wrestling with Old Testament texts and the degree to which they are historical in the way we understand it to mean today. In particular, I wonder what that might mean for my faith. Mixed in with these troubling texts, the Gospel of John finds rest in the canon. In it, there’s a small epilogue which closes out the book where the narrator confirms that he was the disciple that Jesus loved. However, I cannot remember whether he ever pointed out that he himself was John or if tradition dictated it was so. Either way, the narrator’s choice to leave their name out can serve the purpose of inviting others listening to project themselves into the role of the narrator him- or herself, to taste and see whether a playing the role of someone following Christ is something worth doing themselves.

By reading ourselves into the story, we take the message that the Gospel has for ourselves, placing ourselves in the shoes -err, sandals- of the characters. Bettelheim mentions that this is one of the main orienting factors of fairy tales – they give us a frame through which to describe, but not prescribe, the world.

Just like in the example within John where the audience is invited into that role based on the anonymity (and universality) of the disciple, we are offered to evaluate our options. This, he hints at in the opening paragraph of his work when he states that “if we hope to live not just moment to moment, but in true consciousness of our existence, then our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives.” We need narratives to find meaning, so we have to remind ourselves of them – both fictitious and not – constantly.

In terms of deciding who we want to be in the story being told within the Gospel, I’m becoming pretty sure that Jesus would be fine with a person taking the time to weigh which character we think is best to be most like. I don’t think Christ is always forthcoming with the answers to every problem a person will face. He never really was when he was asked a question, instead responding to their inquiries by inviting them to come and see how life is with him in the lead.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to see how Advent takes on a renewed significance within this light. In this upcoming season of Advent, people are asked to reflect upon what it means to wait for the coming Messiah.

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, the story begins, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world… and everyone went to their own town to register.

It is in these unremarkable circumstances that the story starts, and the audience begins to settle in to hear where they might be in this story. The story of a baby who also is Christ the King. God become human.

Admittedly, faith in a god-man may sound like something belonging between the pages of the Odyssey – and to a certain extent, I think it does. Don’t get me wrong – I am still troubled and wrestle with the implications of such a position. How can a simple fairy tale ever correlate to ultimate reality? And yet, I think part of my fear is from feeling that I have begun to lose a sense of control or order which underlaid my belief. I think that many of us want to be totally, empirically certain of the events described in Scripture. We don’t want to be wrong.

We don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark, with all that we might encounter there.

I, for one, am afraid of that darkness.

What if there’s nothing?

We – err, I am guilty of seeking certainty that I forget that I’ve got this whole faith the other way around. Instead of understanding so that I might believe, I must believe so that I might understand.

In the moment when that a god-man entered human experience some two thousand years ago, the myth became more like a fairy tale. And this story gathered a community of people over the course of thousands of years all attesting that something about this story is true, going back to the disciples who died for telling such a tale. That it’s real. That even in the middle of the dark, there’s something there that lasts beyond.

The people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

In his taking on human nature and flesh, Christ took on each one of ourselves. In dying, he accomplished something which affected all of us. And yet, before we can get to Good Friday and Easter, we must first wait on the King to arrive, to show up in each one of our lives now. Sometimes in something as small and precious and fragile and seemingly universally insignificant in the middle of such a great darkness as a baby in a manger.

The stuff of fairy tales. The stuff of Good News.

A myth is a once-occurring thing for the sake of emulation. But a fairy tale is a perpetual truth central to the human condition. It need not have a defense, but rather motions others toward what might be, and what ought to be in the first place. I find it interesting then, especially after studying a bit of modern and postmodern thought, that fairy tales have become for me what they were for Chesterton. As I sit in front of texts which I once thought had a historicity and accuracy to them in the same manner that one might expect of a documentary in the twenty-first century, the thought which comforts me is the notion that these stories which I hold dear to me can be just like a fairy tale and still be real and true.

For believers, the incarnation isn’t so much an example to embody for the sake of forcing one’s set of beliefs and behaviors on others but can also be a mentality to adopt as a way of simply being with the other, whether that’s in a swaddling cloth in a manger of the first century BCE or in the DMV of the CE. It’s also a truth that something transcendent can take on flesh and move into the neighborhood. That we’re not stumbling around in the dark as much as we think we are.

I think my pastor put it best in a sermon he delivered the other day, that these stories we tell, that we remind ourselves of, kindle in us the conviction that:

At the end of it all, at the end of all things, we find that there is a King. And if there is a king, an everlasting and eternal king in charge of all things, there are answers. There is justice. All these things we seek aren’t just abstractions, distractions from reality, or baseless hopes. It’s something more.

Just because a story has the trappings of a fairy tale does not discredit its realness at the end of the day.

Advent invites us into a fairy tale different from the ones we tell ourselves day after day. The ones which culture substitutes in its stead. The ones which seem useful and attractive at first but leave us hollow in the end.

Advent is a fairy tale of a people waiting for the one who can honestly offer them an invitation they’ve been waiting for: “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves.”

Advent invites us into a fairy tale that, for once, is real.

I wound up taking the box of worn fairy tales and sliding them underneath my bed. I wonder when I’ll tell these tales to others. Maybe to myself. Some truths come to us over time. But some present themselves early on, and we just don’t realize their presence until later – especially after we live them.

And those, I think, make some of the best stories.

Like Two Eight-Year-Olds in a Trench Coat

With all of the craziness of last semester, it’s hard to find time for recollection and reflection. Readings for this class have to be done by such-and-such a day. Graduate applications are due the same day as two papers. And, oh, did you remember about the project that’s due for work in the next few days?

Granted, with the trajectory that many students like me are taking, we’re either going to graduate on time or crash and burn in a blaze of glory. Maybe both.

Funny thing, that. Graduation from college. In little more than ten weeks’ time, many of my friends and I will cross a stage, be handed a diploma, and land in adulthood.

Theoretically. At least, that’s what it seems like we’re supposed to be doing.

But on certain nights when I’m being honest with myself, I don’t know what life will look like after graduation. I don’t know if or when I’ll see many of my closest friends anymore. I don’t know where life will take us.

And that frightens and excites me simultaneously in a wonderful, horrific amalgamation of emotions somewhat typical of the human experience, as I’ve so learned.

As a senior looking at the immanent reality of life potentially outside of academia, I suddenly feel like two eight-year-olds in a trench coat wielding a cardboard sword and sent off to face the dragons of life.

I wonder how many people feel the same exact way?

I’ve found some solace in the story of a man in a similar circumstance. He was impulsive, rough around the edges, and not the sharpest one of his friend group. But he was dependable when his passions didn’t get in the way. I think that’s why his friends called him Rock, err, I mean Peter.

When Peter began following Jesus, he had just given up his fishing nets. He had little, if any, training for the road ahead of him. He was a blue-collar worker, through and through. And yet, it was this Rock, this Peter, that Jesus chose to be the Rock upon which to build his church. It was this Peter that took up the mantle of leadership after only three and a half years of training.

I’m sure he (and the rest of the disciples) felt the same way that many of us do.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch of the imagination to say that I’m a self-professed nerd and proud of it. I count myself as one among many of the fandoms that exist throughout the world.

Lord of the Rings? You bet.

Star Wars? Of course.

Hunger Games? Maybe a bit of a stretch for it, but I can see its appeal.

The funny thing about each of these series is that each one of them boils down to the same story at the end of the day. Someone is called upon out of a backwater community to overcome some great obstacle or seemingly invincible evil. But, as time goes on, they find that they aren’t alone – they are joined by people who provide support, companionship, and advice along the way. Eventually, depending on how their allies have influenced them, the unlikely hero makes a decision that will have a sweeping impact on the world around them – for better or for worse.

But why tell the same story?

It seems as though the reason is that there is something about these stories that resonates with the core of our experience as a species. Something about these stories tells us that for any journey we go on, we need someone else to walk alongside us, providing companionship, support, and advice along the way. We need others to tell us that the journey is worth taking in the first place.

It reminds us, suggests G.K. Chesterton, not that dragons are real, but that our dragons are defeatable.

When I started on my journey at my undergraduate college, I came in confident of my positions. I thought I only had a few questions. I thought college was about merely refining the beliefs I held about the world.

I’m leaving college with more questions than I had coming in. I think that’s the point of college – to sharpen your hunger for knowledge, to whet your appetite for truth, and to give words and shape to identifying beauty and nuance.

But I’m also leaving college with a newfound respect for community.

I’m glad that the Gospel of John ends the same way that the book of Genesis begins. It begins, and ends, in darkness.

The Gospel of John’s final chapter opens a few minutes before sunrise. For those who have gotten up early enough, you’d know it’s one of the darkest moments of the day. The moon has set. The stars have disappeared. The world itself seems like it’s holding its breath.

If the chapter was part of a movie, the camera would open, hovering over the surface of the deep, just above the waters of the Sea of Galilee. As it pans horizontally, it would pause as it faced east.

And then, right where the sky meets the sea, the camera could just make out the silhouette of a small fishing vessel. On it are some men and women, not unlike you and I, puzzling over what to make of the past few years.

You see, just there on that very same shoreline came a man who invited each of them on a journey. And for those that followed him, they got to see him do some amazing things. At times, they heard him say some incredibly challenging things, too. But above all, as these men and women got to know this strange man from Nazareth, he taught them day by day how to write a better story with their lives.

And yet, in the last couple of weeks, everything went sideways. The world turned upside down and these men and women found themselves running for the hills in their friend’s moment of greatest need. They found themselves returning to writing the stories that the world told them made the most sense – basing their value and belonging on what they did or what they knew.

And for many of these men and women, what they did and what they knew had to do a lot with fish. And so, they returned to their old way of living.

Eventually, they decide to call it a night and draw in near the shore. As the boats get closer, though, one of the men leans out over the bow and squints. He points. Far off, there, on the shore, is a man. At first, nobody knows who he is. Neither would you in the same type of lighting. But as the boats draw closer, the look on his face changes. He’s puzzled, not sure whether to be overjoyed or ashamed.

As the light of the rising sun reflects off the water, it lights up his face so you can see who it is who’s doing the pointing. It’s Peter – Jesus’ right-hand man. So too, can the men and women see who is waiting for them on the shore – the same man that they left in his moment of greatest need.

But instead of reacting in a way that would make sense in a story that the world told the men and women they should tell, Jesus does something completely different. He doesn’t judge them based on how well or poorly they did. But he doesn’t laugh at the fact that they don’t know the answers to all their questions, either.

But instead of showing his power by saying “Let there be light” and throwing another star into the sky, Jesus turns to his friends who still don’t know how to react and bids them join him at the small charcoal fire he had started, one large enough to cook breakfast for his friends.

And it is over food that Jesus calls Peter, who still can’t look his friend in the eyes just quite yet, and recommissions him for the work to which he was called.

The notion of stepping out into the unknown is still a frightening thing. I have more questions than I believe I have answers. I wonder if my cardboard sword is enough to take down the dragons I face. I’m afraid to make mistakes.

But I take solace in the fact that when Jesus made the church, he made it out of humans. Humans like Peter, like Thomas, like Matthew, like Joanna, like Mary, like Martha. Humans that have in them the same amount of intelligence and stupidity, of humility and pride, of malleability and stubbornness that each of us is made of. That you’re made of. That I’m made of. They struggled with getting Jesus’ message as much as we do today.

And yet, Jesus continues to work with them. He reminds them that there’s a better story to tell. And it is the same story that allows us to do as the disciples did  – to step into the dark, into the unknown, as sheep among wolves, as a bunch of eight-year-olds in trenchcoats, advancing the Kingdom in their own little ways.

The story that they learned to tell was one that said that community and belonging and meaning was not based on how much they knew, or how much they did, but on who they found themselves in relationships with.

Their stories tell me that regardless of where I end up, I can still tell a better story. And I suppose that in this, I can find some rest.

That is if I can get this paper in first.

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.

Traditioned Notes in the Dark

I’ve been restless lately. Some nights, I would find myself unable to sleep for hours on end. On others, I would wake hours before the sunrise, unable to go back to sleep. On those nights, I would get out of bed and find somewhere to sit on the floor of my apartment. And every time, as I tried to reach the door of the bedroom, I would always stub my toe on the corner of my roommate’s desk. Every time.

The reason why I can’t sleep is because of the doubts I have. To be honest, I sometimes doubt whether God’s out there – wherever that ‘there’ is. Or if he is, if we can reach him or know him. Sometimes, I doubt whether what I’m studying is worthwhile or some joke whose punchline ran out long ago. And sometimes, as I sit in the dark, I doubt whether the person I’ve become is worth anyone’s time.

Last night, I had written a question on a mirror I have in my office. It’s kept me up for several nights now. It’s still there: Christians hold that Scripture is infallible and authoritative, but which interpretation is that which lends itself to being infallible and authoritative? Why do we have so many denominations with different readings of the same text? Who is right at the end of the day?

Below the first question, I wrote, what if how I interpret Scripture is completely off-base from what the biblical authors intended? What God desires? What if I’m wrong? What if I am leading people astray when I speak?

It’s one game to say that a collection of writings is inspired, but another altogether to interpret it responsibly. What if I’m wrong? What if I just wasted three, going on four, years of education? 

I wrestle with the notion that all of us stumble around in the dark when it comes to truth. But I know in the back of my head that we do. We throw out notions of what truth, goodness, and beauty are, hoping we’re close with our estimations and definitions. And then people structure their lives around our approximations.

But still, it doesn’t help when I stub my toe on every expectation I come across. I’m supposed to be a youth pastor after I graduate. I’m supposed to know answers to people’s questions about life. I’m supposed to be assured that the source that I’m taking truth from is solid, that it reveals special revelation and that I can access it in a straightforward manner.

And yet, in my time studying theology and the humanities, I have become much more aware of how tenuous truth claims can be.

What if my human, American, middle class, (etc.) lens skews the ultimate truth which the authors of Scripture into my smaller, culturally-bound, limited version of the gospel?

I am left with the notion that God has the truth at the end of a fishing line and holding just out of reach, out of reach because we can’t escape our own humanness to see the world outside ourselves.

I attended the recital of a friend of mine recently. He plays the cello, you see, and has been for much of his life. And it shows. That evening, he sat, for much of the performance, alone on stage. After being accompanied by a pianist for Charles-Camille Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, she promptly left him to continue.

The room was silent as he picked up his bow and placed it in its starting position. As he started to play, his right arm directed the bow one way, then another; his left flicked up and down the fingerboard and neck. He swayed in time as if directed by some unseen conductor. And occasionally, I noticed he closed his eyes, a smile resting on his face as if he, too, had come to listen to the piece.

When I was younger, I wondered why classical music has remained so popular considering all the other genres offered nowadays. I must admit, I’ve grown to appreciate it over the years since then. But as I saw my friend perform J.S. Bach’s Suite No 2 in D Minor, I realized that it’s not that the innovative newer genres take away from classical music’s significance or effectiveness. Instead, Bach, Saint-Saens, and others have expressed some element of the human experience that resonated with people in such a way that it still connects to audiences to this day.

The new stuff we hear on the radio we might hear for a while, but soon, it’s something else. A catchy tune or attractive lifestyle might be appealing for a little while, but after a little bit, it’s gone, replaced with something else. And we move on because it all tends to be empty. The innovators stab in the dark trying to create something relevant or new in the moment. But it tends to be just that, a moment kind of thing. Some do stick around, too. But who’s to judge what will last and what will fade?

A professor of mine remarked that a text that outgrows its context loses all meaning altogether.[1] For a text to have nothing to frame it is to render it ultimately meaningless. This, he remarked, is the problem that atheists have with stating that the universe has no context outside itself.

But the same could be said for Scripture. Scholars all over the spectrum have argued for their own position as correct using the same text. For every theologian, there is an equal and opposite theologian. But if they come up with radically different notions of what is true, good, and beautiful, what hope do we have for knowing who is correct?

I rested against a cabinet in the kitchen of my apartment, feeling the coolness of the night air flow in from a window a roommate of mine had propped open. The room was still dark. I had not seen it fit in lighting it. Off to my left, my hand traced the pattern of the kitchen tiles, my mind still full of questions, doubts, and fears.

Somewhere outside, a bird began to warble out a tune. I found out the other day that birds inherit the songs that their parents sang, appropriating it for its own use. [2]

Well, why not? If it worked for them, it might just work for the bird now, too.

I thought back to my friend and his recital. The songs he played were not his own, but in a way, they still were. Even though he had no hand in its creation, in that moment, he entered a larger community of people who had performed and found a piece of their own story in the traditioned notes. Tradition, G.K. Chesterton once suggested, is the living faith of dead people. [3] It’s a way that has worked well in bringing about a well-lived life–if nothing else. And right now, it’s all I can really ask for.

I blinked. “At least it’s something. And something is better than nothing.”

Pausing, I turned to look at the window. “At least, I think…”

I moved to get up and return to my bed for a few more hours of sleep. Closing my eyes, I whispered. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

I was out in moments.

 

[1] Michael Bruner, Ph.D., (Lecture, Communicating the Gospel Through Film, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, March 22, 2017).

[2] Skyla Herod, Ph.D., “Harlowe and Skinner: Behaviorism Colloquy.” (Lecture, Nature, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, March 30, 2017).

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 53.

Modeling Discipleship

When I was younger, my older brother and I shared a room. On some nights, when the two of us were too restless to sleep, he and I would stare up at the glow-in-the-dark star-covered ceiling, listening to the spring peepers chirp from the nearby pond, and talk about things which struck either of us as mysterious. Sometimes, I wonder whether nights like that was what launched me into studying theology and the humanities: My brother was always so interested in how the world worked, I must have figured it would be nice to speculate why it worked the way it did, too.

My brother is a true-blooded member of my family; the mathematical and scientific approach to life appealed to him as the most straight-shooting, efficient way of viewing the world. Within what he considered the pure sciences, the complexities of how the universe works can be boiled down and accounted for in models. As he lay there in his bed in the darkened room, complex systems unfolded elegantly within the mind’s eye. Clockwork. Anything could be understood given time.

But understood fully? I doubt it.

Models do hold a special place in my heart. But, while I do have an appreciation for models, they always seemed to frustrate and fascinate me at the same time. When I was in grade school it felt as though as soon as I had one model down, it would be dismissed as inadequate and I would be given a newer, more complicated model to assimilate into my memory.

One evening after returning home from high school, I staggered up the stairs into my room. My brother was in his bunk, his eyes peering over the edge of his pillow at his phone as his thumbs tapped out a message to one of his friends. I said nothing, but climbed the ladder on the side of our bunks and collapsed. I lay there, unblinking.

After a few seconds, I heard my brother remark, “Interesting day?”

“You could say that,” I replied. “I just found out that the Rutherford model of the atom is inadequate to expressing what it actually is. It wore me out.”

“But why?”

“Because I’d like to know that I’m basing what I know off of something accurate.”

He laughed. “Like that’s going to happen anytime soon. Models don’t ever capture its object’s true essence. Like an electron, for instance. It’s best conveyed as a mathematical function. But that’s too hard for the average person to grasp.”

I buried my face in my pillow. “Life ain’t that simple, I suppose.”

“No, I don’t suppose it is.”

Grasping models fully can falsely lure us into thinking that we have mastered the knowledge about its object completely. While the model can help us grasp one or more elements of the object, it cannot replace the thing in itself.  Understanding Rutherford’s take on the atom gave me a false sense of security in terms of knowing about one of the basic building blocks of reality. Instead, the subject matter (pun intended) was more sophisticated than I realized.

As a guy studying to be a pastor, or something related to it, I have to admit that my brother’s right. He’s right most of the time, actually. Most recently, I realized how right he was as a senior in high school through an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with some of my peers on what discipleship looks like.

In high school, I often found myself spending my Fridays with a group of guys who decided to dedicate their evenings to studying the Word and fellowship. Admittedly, I began going Friday nights because a senior by the name of Kyle had invited me to attend. After going a few times, I became hooked. I couldn’t wait to start my own.

But somewhere along the line, in my own attempts to recreate the space I experienced in high school, I think I lost the core of discipleship. It wasn’t until I read some of Donald Miller’s work that I realized that there were words for what was wrong. He states:

I’m the kind of person who wants to present my most honest, authentic self to the world–so I hide backstage and rehearse honest and authentic lines until the curtain opens […] The same personality trait that made me a […] writer also made me terrible at relationships. You can only hide backstage for so long. To have an intimate relationship, you have to show people who you really are. I’d gotten good in reeling in a [person] and then bowing to say, “Thanks, you’ve been a great audience,” right around the time I had to let [him or her] know who I really was.[1]

Experience has led me to believe it’s due to my being prone to always feel as though I must always prove myself to my own unattainable standard. I always have to get to the material. I always have to have my act together. I always have to be a mere step below God.

And so I tried. I tried to do everything that Kyle did. I tried to make Bible Study something of a come-and-see event. I tried to incorporate what John Wesley described as “the means of grace” – that is, “channels of conveying [God’s] grace to the souls of men.”[2] Things like prayer and searching the Scriptures in a variety of ways. But nothing seemed to replicate the same space that Kyle was able to make.

I felt tired, worn out, and frustrated about what discipleship was before I stepped out of high school.

My boss, a self-professed recovering Calvinist, mentioned to me that within churches which lean towards a Reformed lens of interpreting Scripture, the stress is always on truth at the expense of everything else. Arminians, on the other hand, tend to err on the side of love, which caused the Calvinists to regard them as what the youth would describe as “weak sauce.”

I once thought that Calvin was pretty solid. I still do on some accounts. I just think his followers need to move their lens of truth in the direction of love.

I think it is for a similar reason why Saint Francis of Assisi is attributed with saying, “Preach the Gospel always and, when necessary, use words.” The church should pause for a moment from trying to answer the questions that few are asking and instead try to express the love and compassion of Christ toward all who do thirst for something more. G.K. Chesterton argued in one of his more famous pieces that he was not trying to prove that Christianity was the Truth, but rather that “the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles’ Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics.”[3] In other words, it was the best way of living regardless. And oftentimes when something is ultimately beneficial, it points to the fact that it was true to begin with. What truth is can be validated by the lives we lead.

If all discipleship is is defined by the process of getting closer to the right doctrine and living in light of it, then we have to realize that under this microscope lens of objectivism, there’s no room for error.* If there’s no room for error, there is no room left for me. Like anyone, I come from a certain place through which I have learned to see the world. While there may be (and I hope to God that there is) an objective truth, my own perspective hinders me from seeing all of it fully. My own lens is warped and I have my own beliefs, doubts, questions, struggles, and experiences which either impede or aid how I see through that lens to what is truth.

When I look back upon the model that Kyle set for the rest of us who participated in his Bible Study on Friday nights all those years ago, I realize now that the reason why it was so special was because Kyle was never one to perform in front of others. He understood that his identity rested in Christ alone. It was ok to not be ok. Being flawed was a place to begin, not just a status we had to own and manage for the rest of our lives.

I think the thing that Kyle did that I still have yet to learn is to actually begin to “swim in the baptismal waters” through allowing grace to catch up to me for once.[4] Andrew C. Thompson observes “If justification is really about how we are viewed in God’s eyes, then the new birth is how we come to be viewed in our own eyes.”[5] We become content with who we are for once, our identity secured with Christ through baptism.

Kyle’s model, while it might have not always prioritized the exact truths as worded in Scripture, instead lived out discipleship by prioritizing people, meeting them where they were. My own attempts since then, focusing more on the product than the process, never really got close.

When I was younger, models were the bane of my existence. Now I realize that they’re necessary even in spite of their shortcomings because they illustrated some truth about the world. Likewise, we Christians have our shortcomings in modeling the one we claim to follow, but all that means is that there’s always room for improvement.

Life ain’t that simple, you know.

Never really was.

[1] Donald Miller, Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2014), 1-2.

[2] Andrew C. Thompson, The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice in Today’s World (Franklin: Seedbed Publishing, 2015), 16.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 14.

[4] Thompson, 31.

[5] Ibid., 12.