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.