Urban Clods

Late one Wednesday night a few weeks ago, I ran into a professor of mine on campus. He was headed home after staying to work on a project of his. His satchel was slung over his shoulder, coat tucked under his other arm.

“Oh!” he started, stepping backward to avoid colliding with me as I appeared around the corner. “What are you still doing here?”

I had been taking a film class which met for three hours each week on Wednesdays.

“Film? You haven’t gone and changed majors on me, have you?”

I laughed and shook my head. “Nah, man. I just think learning to watch films well is important to ministry majors. Staying relevant, you know?”

He raised an eyebrow, “Oh?”

I shrugged. “Film is able to engage people in an experience where they are forced to wrestle with something that they might be otherwise closed off to.”

“How so?”

“Film is the everyday American’s rendition of story. But more than that,” I continued, “I think we all need film because movies explore dimensions of human brokenness which we wouldn’t be exposed to in the first place.”

My professor smiled as he scratched his chin. “And why would that be important?”

“Because,” I said, pausing to mull over my thoughts, “Because when we are made aware of another element of the human condition, we become aware of a new depth of significance of the Gospel. When we claim that Jesus paid it all in our worship, we don’t realize its full implications. We can spend the rest of lives figuring out what that means.”

What does it actually mean that Jesus paid it all?

What is it?

Spring Break has recently settled over my university’s campus. The faculty, staff, and students have gone their own separate ways. As for me, I found myself as part of a team of other ministry-minded people.

The LA Dream Center is a volunteer-driven organization focused on meeting the needs of the city. It finds its home in a renovated hospital on top of a hill on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. Off to one side, it overlooks Echo Park. Stretching off into the distance runs the 101, cars scuttling along its length like ants far into the distance.

We found ourselves on the roof of the Dream Center to have a look at the community that it serves. Beneath, cars crawled toward the horizon between rows of houses. Overhead, a single cloud glided by in a stupor. Every so often a breeze would pick up, carrying with it smells and sounds from the city below.

I found myself standing alone next to the Dream Center sign. Further down the roof, the tour guide that our group was with was running through the history of the organization. I could barely hear her.

Some time passed before I felt a tug on my sleeve. As I turned, a familiar voice spoke. “How are you feeling returning to the Dream Center?”

I turned away from the ledge. Behind me was a friend who I first met at the Dream Center when we both were taking the class last year. She, another friend, and I had returned as assistants of a sort, helping our professor facilitate the class for the others.

I took off the sunglasses I had been wearing. “I- I’m not sure. To be honest, half the time I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. The other, I feel like something’s off. Something’s missing.”

“Our friends?”

Squinting in the sunlight, I yawned. “Perhaps.”

“I miss them.”

“I know. I do too.”

“Fellowship,” writes Brenda Salter McNeil, “Truly getting to know and bond with people in an intimate and life-giving way, comes from being on mission together.” William Blake once wrote a poem on how the notion of the concept of fellowship and love can change based simply on the social location which one grew up.

We tend to remain pebbles in the current of life when we do not allow the circumstances of our life to form us. Blake’s notion that one’s definition will change based upon time or place—being either in a slow-moving stream or continually crushed underfoot—is also true to life. We will remain rocky and inhospitable to others if we don’t witness the adversity which others experience.

Streams do not demand of pebbles a fundamental change in nature – they can afford to think that the world revolves around them. Clods of clay, on the other hand, used to be small pebbles long ago but were made subject to forces which ground them down and reformed them into what they find themselves today. Clods have experienced what brokenness and pain feel like, and so they are more prone to be able to serve others out of the experience that they are not the most important thing around.

The Apostle Paul once hit on something similar when he mentioned that, to keep from becoming proud, he was given a thorn in his flesh to torment him. Even after begging God three times to remove it from him, Paul remarked that God replied by telling him “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”[1] Amid brokenness and weakness, we find that we become stronger by realizing our dependencies upon others. We are not as self-sufficient as we think we are.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk from the 20th century, noted that “Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy […] A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.”[2] Pebbles in streams do not realize their need for grace and only focus on their own desires. If they have no recognition of their hunger for grace, why would they seek it out in the first place?

Clods crushed under the foot of cattle, however, do.

I signed up to return to the Dream Center partially out of a notion that the experience would be the same. That the people and places and food would be the same. That I would get to play a part in reproducing it.

I thought that the experience was static to a certain extent. That what I paid for last time would be what I would get this time around.

But I’m always reminded that if I wanted to create reproducible experiences with little margin for error, I signed up for the wrong field. Ministry is not a hard science. When we show up to a neighborhood to pick up trash or play with kids or hand out food on behalf of the Dream Center we open ourselves up to something greater than what can be seen within the petri dish and the microscope.

I think we need outreach events as much as we like to watch movies; when we are placed in unfamiliar circumstances we can resort to ducking behind our defenses like Blake’s pebble. That, or we learn to embrace our insecurities and weaknesses like the clods we were meant to be.

Like movies, service opens us up to challenge our preconceived notions in order to replace them accordingly.

My professor muttered something to himself before starting back toward his car. “Someone once said that there is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence which Christ does not cry ‘Mine.’”

“But sir!” I protested, “What does that mean practically?”

As he reached the door at the end of the corridor, he lifted his hand in a wave. “To be honest, tell me when you find out. Spring Break’s in a few weeks. Have a great one – and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” And with that, he disappeared into the evening air. The door swung closed. Silence settled over the campus once more.

 

[1] 2 Cor. 12:7-10, ESV.

[2] Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1983), 21-22.

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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.