Blind

 

Recently, I found myself sitting down to breakfast burritos with my mentor. It was earlier than to what I was conditioned, and I found myself squinting as the sun peaked over the mountains in the distance. I chuckled and my mentor raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

I laughed again. “Don’t you find it funny that light waves travelled millions of miles from the surface of the sun through the vacuum of space for the sake of hitting the surface of the Earth, and in the last few feet before reaching its goal, it is stopped by a human who happens to be walking by?”

He paused, put down his burrito, and laughed. “No, I’ve never thought of that. Come to think of it, that’s actually pretty funny. It’s the ultimate denial of a shot.” Picking up his burrito again, “What made you think of that?”

My eyes watering, I blinked. “Because I’m staring right into the sun itself.”

It’s a fascinating thing to think of the anticlimax of light being denied its end-goal by a random passerby. It seems to fit into the same category of humor as a bird hitting a glass window or a dud of a model rocket. Something that complex shouldn’t be able to be stopped by something so simple. So when it does, it strikes us as funny.

In a similar manner, sometimes I feel as though God looks at us with the same sense of humor when we claim to want to know him more yet we allow our time with him to slip away for the sake of one thing or another. God reaches out from beyond the universe, through time and space itself, and gets flat out denied by a person choosing to watch TV or sleep in instead of spending time with him.

I say that because I’ve been guilty of that very same thing for the past few weeks. In the flurry of deadlines and papers, I have actively chosen to sacrifice time with God for extra hours of sleep. I wonder if God crosses time and space every morning just to come face to face with the mattress I’ve thrust between us. Eventually, I would wonder whether he would care to show up after a while.

It’s funny to think that a ministry major sacrifices time with God to study more about God. But admittedly, it’s oftentimes easier to commune with an impending deadline than it is to sense the Holy Spirit moving. In addition, I’m a doer by nature. I have a deep-seated conviction that if I don’t get any measurable result or feeling of spiritual enlightenment, I ought to cut my losses and find some other manner of achieving something else.

But that would be buying into an assumption that God is a commodity just like any other thing that can be managed and cut into consumable portions. There is a reason why God tells Moses that his name is I AM THAT I AM (or better translated I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE).

God, in other words, doesn’t play nice with people who try to control him. And yet, he also requires that we spend time with him, meditating and studying his Word. Martin Luther once said, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” If the father of the Reformation could manage to get three hours in, we can afford at least one.

I affirm that God meets us in our own contexts, but he also requires us to be willing to show up, willing to listen and be content with not having anything to take away. That’s usually how functional relationships work. Why would we expect our faith to be different?

“So,” I said after shifting my seat, “What do you do to spend time with God? What do you do to receive spiritual nourishing?”

“Well,” my mentor began, “I usually start with a podcast or Tim Keller sermon. That and I listen to Scripture read to me on audiobook. It might sound dumb or unscholarly, but it works.”

“And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

He nodded.

Turning to look at where I was facing before, he gasped. He shielded his eyes. “And, on that note – for the love of God, man, know when to stop doing something that you’ll regret later. Because sometimes, you might just go blind if you don’t.”

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.

 

An Autopsy Over Breakfast

Recently, I sat down to breakfast with a man I have come to call a friend. It had been a while since we had talked, but like every other time when we chance across one another’s path, it was as if only a few days had passed.

Upon ordering our meals, my friend rolled up his shirt sleeves, shifting his weight onto his elbows as he leaned forward.

“How are you doing?”

For most people when they ask this question, they usually are looking for an answer pertaining to one’s emotional or physical health. And, while my friend was interested in those categories, he and I are both men of faith.

He, a pastor finishing up the ordination process, and I, a college student studying ministry for youth and their families, often also imply how a person is doing in his or her walk of faith when we ask that question. But there is a loophole that I’ve come to notice when it comes to answering the question: most people are satisfied when you can rattle off all sorts of activities which you have been doing and not once mention how you are.

My friend has noticed this too, which is something I appreciate and slightly hate about our conversations. He calls me out on trying to weasel out of the uncomfortable truth of the matter. Once, I thought a good Christian was defined by how many Jesus-themed pies they had their thumbs in. Now, I realize that it’s more about knowing and abiding in the person of Christ.

My friend waited, sipping on the mug of coffee which had been perched precariously on the edge of the table as I shifted in my seat.

“To be honest, I feel dead – like nothing’s going on inside. I feel totally unqualified for ministry and I don’t know where my life is going right now.”

And in the moment when I was expecting what the traditional confession script would call for a sympathetic or concerned look, instead, he raised an eyebrow over the rim of the mug. Placing his coffee back down on the table, he smiled slightly, as if he knew exactly from where I was coming.

He paused to focus on the cup in front of him for a moment, turning the mug so that the handle pointed at a ninety-degree angle from either of us before looking at me again.

“Now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me about it.”

I used to do a lot of things in the name of Christ. I used to write a blog, not unlike this one. I helped pastor a church’s youth group. I used to lead a Bible Study. I had hoped that in doing all these things, I would unconsciously find myself becoming more like Christ and seeking further union with the Father through Christ as mediated through the work of the Holy Spirit. But I’m learning that nothing other than rot comes from “leaving” most things up to the work of the unconscious when faith is involved. It’s like having a person trust in their capability to sleepwalk up an escalator. In the meanwhile, they’ll sleep at the bottom until that point arrives.

Part of the problem is that we are lured into thinking that every one of us is in a good community until we ask for accountability or vulnerability. Most of our understanding of friendship has been informed by social media – that people are merely a sum of their pics and status updates. Our understanding of community is likewise stunted.

I used to do all sorts of things in Christ’s name, but I think I’ve been guilty this whole time of taking his name in vain. After entering college, I stopped blogging for my own sake because I thought the opinions of others mattered more to me. After helping with the pastoring at a youth group for a couple of years, I stopped seeing my nights working with teenagers as a blessing and more of a burden. I became a martyr in my own eyes while my friends began to pale in comparison.

My problem is the same problem that has plagued us since Adam: hubris. The problem with hubris is that it is a necrotic infection. It eats away at the healthy tissue within the body while leaving the exterior untouched for as long as possible. I don’t think I need wonder how Lucifer is still able to masquerade as an angel of light; it’s the inside that is dead and hollow. The outside is too concerned with being a validation of its own way of doing things to itself to care.

I still think that half the time, it’s better for people who study anything theologically-related to keep their majors under wraps. This is because when people do find out, we theologically-minded individuals become lepers to an extent. Nobody thinks that we need as much soul care as everyone else since we have enough of our ducks in a row to think we want to be pastors. The truth is, we are just as frail and weak and forgetful as the next person. Martin Luther once said we (all) need to hear the Gospel every day because we forget it every day. Ministry majors and pastors included.

I chose to leave vocational ministry for some time because I realize that I am at the brunt of John 15 – apart from Christ, I can do nothing. It’s time to start the Father to prune once more as I seek his lead through prayer, Scripture, and journaling.

I looked at my friend, searching his face for any sign of emotion as he processed what I had said.

“How’s that for how I’m doing?” I inquired.

His eyes focused as he glanced in my direction. “Sounds like you have a lot in store for this next season. That’s one heck of an autopsy over breakfast.”

I laughed as I began to finish the corned beef hash on my plate. “Yeah.” I ventured. “I would hope so.”

Thomas Merton once said that it was hope that emptied our hands that we might work with them again. And it is hope that drives me into this new season of living into what it means to follow Christ.

So be it. Amen.