Fishbowl

There’s this room that looks out onto one of my university’s largest art galleries on campus. Some students refer to it as the Fishbowl. Though arguably a strange name for a classroom, a quick once-over of the place suggests to those curious a reason why such is the case.

The chamber, reminiscent of a study, is adorned with a small selection of furniture as well as the odd plastic plant. At its center rests two coffee tables. These are, in turn, surrounded by a handful of slightly worn armchairs and loveseats, suggesting that the place is often used as a rendezvous for small groups needing to discuss one thing or the other. The space itself is a tired triangular prism, whose longest side sags outward slightly in a curved glass wall. Should anyone walk on by, it would seem as though the university had decided to install a life size diorama of an early 21st century college student’s room.

The Fishbowl earned its name in part because of its ability to mute any sound within or without, depending on where one would stand. Looking in, it is near impossible to hear what those inside are discussing. Looking out, witnessing crowds of people pass on by in silence lends itself to an experience similar to that of watching fish in an aquarium.  All either perspective can do is pay attention to the expressions and body language of those on the other side at that current moment.

On more than one occasion, I have found myself being among those featured few in the Fishbowl.  The room itself has developed some sentimental value for me since the first time I found myself in it. Some of the most meaningful and profound classes I’ve had at my university have been in there. And now, every so often, a group of students will shuffle in to sit down for an hour or so to talk about life. At the beginning of the year, I wouldn’t have considered myself close with any of them. But now, I cannot imagine my senior year apart from them.

Some nights, we tell stories from our childhoods. Other times, we might talk about work. On occasion, we might try to plan the future. The common thread through all of these times is that on any given night, as the conversation wound down, if one were to pass by the Fishbowl, they would be able to see that it would be a rare sight to see a dry eye in the place.

During one of the most recent of those small gatherings, one of my friends confessed her apprehension of the road ahead. “I just don’t know what I want to do after college. I’ve spent all my life in school. What else can I do?”

The room was still. Her words resonated with each of us. We sat in the quiet, processing them each in our own ways. A moment of silence passed. She continued, a tear running down her cheek. “I just feel like two eight-year-olds wearing a trench coat all the time now. I thought I would know better.”

“I… I just don’t want to go.”

“None of us do.”

The summer before my senior year, I found myself sitting on top of a building on Gordon College’s campus. I had found myself attending the Compass RMI college program that was designed to help students explore whether vocational ministry was something to which they might be drawn. After spending twenty nine days with people I had not known before, I found myself on that rooftop the night before heading home having mixed feelings.

As I looked up at the sky, picking out the familiar constellations I had grown up with since I could remember, thoughts of home excited, saddened, and frightened me all at once. I was excited to head back to people I knew and loved. I was excited to share what had happened over the course of the last month. I was excited to sleep in my own bed again. And yet, I was saddened by having to leave this time and place that had become so meaningful and formative for a young Christian kid wondering if the pastoral call was on him. Most especially, I was frightened that I would never see the incredible people that I gotten to know over the span of Compass ever again.

I heard a grunt behind me. I glanced over my shoulder. One of my friends by the name of Sterling was trying to hoist himself up onto the roof. From my vantage point, I could just see the top half of his face peer over the edge of the roof between his hands. For some reason, even though I couldn’t see it, I could sense his slight half-smile was below the edge of the roof.

“Hey bud,” he said, in his slight Tennessean drawl, “How’s it going?”

Seeing that I made motions to help him up, he quipped, “Oh, don’t mind me.”

Within a few seconds, he had pulled himself on top of the roof. As he did, the wind carried sounds of laughter and shouts of joy up to us. I must have had a look of panic, since Sterling let out a small chuckle. You see, nobody was supposed to be on the roof. And yet, here we both were. And yet, no accusation of guilt came. The commotion was focused on something else entirely. We looked at each other, then at the field beneath us. Below, many of the other Compass attendees were running haphazard through some sprinklers.

Sterling took a moment to exhale. Walking to the edge of the roof to join me, he swung his legs over the edge and propped himself up on his arms as he leaned back. We sat there watching the others run about beneath us. Neither of us spoke for a while.

Eventually, the sprinklers shut off. With it, the others began to move back toward their respective living spaces. As the first of the group reached the living quarters, Sterling sighed and clapped his hands.

“Well, I guess that’s it for us. It’s been a good run, I think.”

I frowned. “I guess. Compass was a great time. It still is. I just don’t want to go, though.”

Sterling raised his eyebrow. “Why not?”

“We might never see each other again. We might not see anyone else again.”

Sterling turned back toward the field. Closing his eyes, he reclined, cradling his head in his hands.

“I don’t think that matters at the end of the day,” he replied.

Sterling’s seeming lack of concern struck a nerve in me. My face and chest felt hot.

“Why not?!” I demanded.

He opened one eye and looked over sideways at me. He was silent for a moment as he thought, his jaw moving slightly as though he chewed through the words he wanted to use. Then, slowly, he glanced back up toward the sky and spoke.

“Life is not ever going to be as smooth and unchallenged as it was here, at Compass. It won’t be as refined as we hope it will be. But, then again, that’s life. Maybe that is smooth and refined – living a dirty life but treating it like the greatest blessing.”

He paused for a moment, continuing to chew on his thoughts before continuing. “Because – because, it’s not about us. It’s about what we’re doing and who we are with. We might not want to leave Compass. We might not want to go somewhere else and stay here. But then, what was the point of this? What was the point of any of this?”

I think that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once made the observation somewhere that “being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than courageously and actively doing God’s will.” The role of the Christian is not so much living in isolation from the rest of the world and expecting that the world will find its way to one’s holy huddle. Instead, it is a role in which a person is sent into the world as a representative on behalf of Christ. The Christian instead is saved by grace through faith and is then called to live as a life-long disciple in response. He concludes elsewhere that “Only the believing obey, only the obedient believe.” Practically speaking, the Christian is meant to constantly be forging ahead, leaving what is familiar behind in some respects for whatever God desires.

I found myself flipping through an old leather-bound journal I had kept over the course of Compass a few days after the meeting up with my friends in the Fishbowl when I came across a quote someone had scrawled on the inside of the front cover.

It read:

You cannot stay on the summit forever. You have to come down eventually. So why bother climbing up in the first place? Just this: what’s above can see what’s below. What’s below does not know what is above. One climbs. One sees. One descends. One sees no longer but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one has seen higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

Just beneath it was another handwritten note:

If not us, then who has God called for such a time as this? Here I am, God, send me.

The trouble with being sent somewhere is that one must first say goodbye to the familiar creature comforts of the former stage of life. And, admittedly, it can be hard for many people. In any circumstance that a person must end a chapter of their life, it is normal for a person to grieve the passing of what once was.

We grieve and mourn when what once was had been good and beautiful and meaningful in their own ways to us. I think it’s why I feel so encouraged by Nicholas Wolterstorff’s reflection on God’s own sorrow that helps me embrace these moments when he states “It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.” In other words, God’s sorrow is over the broken, fallen state of the world. His goodness and desire that we might all experience his goodness more fully causes him that sorrow. We do not know how far we have fallen, but to see his face would be to know it and die from our own grief over what might have been paradise, lost. And yet, because of that sorrow being so rooted in his desire for others to experience what might have been and what can be, it has become his splendor.

And, come to think of it, I believe that those moments we share in the Fishbowl are moments where we allow ourselves to go through some of the stages of grief and sorrow. There is something about grief and mourning the passing of one stage of life to the next that reminds us that the last leg of the journey was a pretty good one.

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion,” wrote the Psalmist. We weep when we remember those good moments, places, peoples, and times that we are no longer with because our stories have taken us far from home. And yet, in a way, our tears communicate the goodness of what might be again. Perhaps if God’s sorrow is his splendor, ours might contribute as well.

A marriage and family therapist I’ve gotten to know well once remarked that even though counselors are trained to help others through the five stages of grief, it has been her experience to occasionally witness a sixth. After reaching a moment of acceptance, a person might, for one reason or another, turn toward gratitude even during loss.

“Perhaps,” she observed, “this is another way of dying to self – the letting go of the anger, fear, and frustration to appreciate the beauty amid the pain.”

The thing is about grief is the fact that we cannot know exactly how another person feels. Each and every case is unique depending on the circumstances leading up to it in the first place. It’s like walking by a room that you can’t hear inside of or watching a group of people far away. You can see some of what’s going on, but most of the processing is done internally.

As we sat there in the Fishbowl, all eight of us, I watched as tears made their way down my friends’ faces.

I… I just don’t want to go,” she said.

“None of us do,” I replied. “But you know, with all the time we’ve spent talking about life and faith and other people, I can’t imagine you not in ministry of some form.”

I glanced around the room, making eye contact with every one of those gathered there before leaning back in my chair, a tear or two escaping my eye.

“A friend once told me that life isn’t always going to be refined and polished. We’re going to feel like two eight-year-olds in trench coats half the time. But that’s life I guess. And besides, we’ve spent some time on this mountain of ours, who else might go but you for such a time as this?”

We climb mountains to see. And then we must carry that knowledge down below to the valleys. And in the process, we might miss the summit. We will miss our friends. We long for home once more. But I think that the process of going, carrying our own bits of grief and sorrow with us reminds us of the goodness of what had happened there. And in a way, I think those bits of pain draw us closer together, too.

At one point, the Apostle Paul writes:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I am grateful for a God who emptied himself and took on the form of a human because of his grief. And I am thankful for a God whose sorrow is his splendor, who was willing to be relegated to a cross and die for the sake of humankind. Because, I think, I hope that a God whose grief compels him to suffer for his Creation is one whose goodness is too much for anyone to imagine.

And that is something to rest in, even in our valleys.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

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.

The Places Between Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both responded simultaneously, stumbling over each other.

“Yes, I-”

“-How did you know?”

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

I was incredulous. “Well, why?”

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

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

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

“I’m Eli.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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