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.

The Lonely Planet

Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

There’s a long stretch of highway between the place where my parents live and my old hometown which rambles past old forests and hills. I found myself driving it this past December time and time again, getting lost in my thoughts as traffic lines whizzed by in one long, continuous, yellow blur underneath the cold, gray New England clouds. I would drive it again later at night, accompanied only by stars which held vigil for the sun to return.

Galileo, when he looked through his telescope at the very same skies, once noted that “the only motion which is observable to us is the one which we do not share.” In other words, when two objects are moving in the same direction, it appears as though both are standing still. I wonder if he ever realized his thoughts about space and celestial bodies were just as applicable to the space and persons around him.

Sometimes I wonder whether the reason why Galileo had so many enemies was because people worried about what it would mean if we weren’t the center of the universe. Suddenly, life would become confusing and mysterious. Its basic structure about understanding our importance in light of everything else would be twisted around. We needed to figure out what was up from down.

Do you ever think that the Earth feels lonely in her journey around the sun?

I wonder if it’s the same reason why people don’t like hanging out with many people that they used to when they were younger. They fear what their friendship meant if their companions don’t travel in the same old paths that they once did. Old stomping grounds become abandoned fairgrounds. Whole cities built and maintained once by the bonds of friendship are lost to and reclaimed by the forest of the unknown.

I’d been traveling back to catch up with old friends and tie up loose ends. But most recently, I’ve been spending some days sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table and listening to her tell stories. She’s trying to write her memoirs, you see, but writer’s block had frustrated her. And so, I sat and listened to her as she partly read, partly narrated, stories about her coming-of-age and into young adulthood as the daughter of a Japanese Imperial Army officer around the time of World War II. My particular job, if you could call it that, was when she would pause to search for what to say next, I would ask a clarifying question about some time, place, person, or event.

The day would begin after I would walk in and unbundle myself from all of the layers I had wrapped myself with before taking out a pen and a notepad and setting them beside a teapot full of green tea. Most times, they would rest unused unless I heard something so remarkable I didn’t want to forget it. In those moments, I would sit up from my chair, jot one or two words down, and return to the position that I was in before.

Erik Erikson describes the last stage of psychosocial development as the crisis between ego integrity versus despair. It’s when a person begins to look back on their life and reflect on whether or not the choices they made were worthwhile and meaningful in light of the impending void. It’s why so many of the elderly tell stories, they want their lives to mean something. And, personally, I think that stories are one of the best gifts that the elderly can give.

When I was younger, my grandmother would tell my brother, my sister, and I the same stories. We would sit, listening intently as she described growing up in what would become North Korea after a successful military campaign by the Japanese Imperial Army to colonize it and later escaping as refugees when the communists invaded. But these stories were just entertainment for our young minds. Their purpose, to us at the time, was merely to keep us out of trouble when my grandmother babysat us. But I realize now that in each story was wrapped a part of herself, a small diamond in the rough. A passing light in the night sky.

I think the reason why we didn’t value her stories as much was because she was always there and always available. As a small child, I could not understand the amount of maneuvering that my grandmother did to get where we were then because we all were going in the same direction at the same speed. Our extended family shared in the same day-to-day narrative.

Perhaps it’s the fact I have to drive further than when I was younger. Or, perhaps it’s because I’ve grown to appreciate the wisdom and experience that the elderly have to offer us. Perhaps it’s because living away from my family has made me value the time I have with them more. Whatever it is, this past winter break, time at my grandmother’s house has been substantively different.

Perhaps it is because my orbit has differed significantly enough that I can finally look upon that of my grandmother’s and appreciate her own long Odyssey through space and time. However, it’s one thing for a person to leave for a time. But what happens when a friend’s orbit takes them away from us indefinitely?

Even though it was I who left on a plane for another place for another time, I feel like it is my family and friends who are spinning away with frightening speed. Galileo was right: we all are in the everyday motions of living our lives. It’s only when we begin to take a step back or begin to live into another story that we see the motion of others. It is the motion that we do not share in. It is not our story to live. But when we listen to the stories of our fellow travelers around the sun, we might be able to catch something now that we might have missed before. We might catch a new side of someone that we glossed over before because we assumed we knew them as they traveled with us.

Try as I might, I don’t think I have the capacity to begin to comprehend what looking at life from death’s vantage point is like.

Some truths can only be discovered after living it out.

Some truths need to be unpacked over time.

Some truths are not for the young to know.

But we can still listen. If we lean in close enough, perhaps from across an old kitchen table and two cups of tea,  we might be able to see the motion of our friends. And in knowing the distance between them and us, accepting that some paths are not for us to follow but simply to watch through the lens of a telescope, we can love each other’s lonely planets still all the more.