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.

 

 

Butterfly Wing Flutters

I found myself sitting across from a friend of mine late one Thursday night. We had been going about our own business as usual when we ran into one another in the middle of the college coffee shop. Seeing that she had to read for class, and I needed to do some research for a paper, we decided to keep one another company and share a table.

After spending a half hour intently focused on our work, my friend looked up from hers and tapped the top of my book with her pen. I glanced up and rubbed my eyes.

“What’s up?” I asked, closing my book and setting it down beside me.

“Could I ask you a question?”

“Sure! What of?”

My friend took a deep breath and held it, weighing whether asking me would be productive. Then, having made up her mind, she leaned forward, shut her laptop, and whispered, “It’s about relationship advice.”

I raised my eyebrow. “Oh? Well, I’m not the most well-seasoned individual when it comes to that topic, but I can give it the old college try!”

She laughed and proceeded to tell me about this one guy that she met at college and had gotten to know rather well over the past few years. As she talked about him, I couldn’t help but notice that she seemed to get more animated. Her face brightened. She couldn’t help but smile as she remembered.

After a few minutes, she fell silent and leaned back in her chair. I waited for a moment to see if she was going to ask me anything. Nothing.

I leaned forward, resting my elbows on the table between us. “So,” I ventured, “it seems as though you’ve made up your mind about him. What would you need my advice on?”

“Well,” she started, “the thing is, even though I have feelings for him, I will be studying away next semester and I don’t know if he’ll be around after that.”

She paused. “I just don’t know if I should let him know that I have feelings for him and ask if he did for me as well. I don’t want to ask because if he didn’t I think that would make the few remaining weeks awkward. And I think that a certainty of a few weeks as good friends is pretty good.”

“But you also want to see whether he has feelings for you as well because pursuing a relationship would be more fulfilling.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, but if it doesn’t work out, I fear that he’ll withdraw. I don’t want to lose him. I just want him in my life, even if these feelings I have go unaddressed. You know?”

I chuckled.

“More than you would expect.” I leaned back from the table and folded my arms. “I can give you two pieces of advice. But the thing is, they’re both antithetical to one another, so you have to choose one or the other. Both have perks. Both have risks. But I have lived or am living both. So, no matter which you choose, I get it.”

“Who knows,” I said, “Perhaps you’ll find a third way?”

There are some stories that are told. And then, I think, there are the stories we are meant to live.

For much of my college career, even though my mantra has been Be Here Now, I believe that my actions have told another story upon further reflection.

A story I used to tell myself was that the person that looked back at me in the mirror didn’t matter. Who a person happened to be didn’t matter. It was whether they could produce and be a constructive member of a team that meant something at the end of the day. Where I got that story into my head, I don’t know. Grade school? An unchecked case of theology gone sour? Something from childhood? In any case, I had internalized the narrative that in any account, I should not – I could not – be a burden on others.

Such thinking paralyzed me when it came to community. What if something I did caused another person to stumble or messed up their plans? What if my choices interrupted someone from following the call of God on their life?

But as I spent time living with and among and for others, that story began to get chipped away. Just today, my pastor mentioned that an overarching theme of many Old Testament stories is of a God who prefers to do life with friends and is influenced by them. “If God’s going to Houston,” he remarked, “then, by all means, he’s going to Houston. That’s sovereignty. But the stories of Moses and Abraham and the people of God remind us that if we ask him, he wouldn’t mind passing through Albuquerque.”

God, the Old Testament seems to indicate, does not prefer passive passengers on his road trips. He’ll put up with us, but the trip can get awkward if there’s no conversation the entire way. Plus, if we need a pit stop along the way, we might need to let him know before it’s too late. He wants to engage us in conversation when he’s about to move. There are some stories in which we are meant to be simply observers, the audience, the ones who listen and watch and try to gain something from a bystander perspective. But eventually, the story ends, the cast takes a bow, the curtain falls, and we are left trying to figure out what is next. But our stories are the ones in which we are the actors and must live into them.

Sometimes, oftentimes, we don’t have a single specific narrative we’re supposed to follow. To act responsibly in the time we’ve been given is one thing. To worry about every choice we make might be the butterfly wing flutter to set off a class 5 hurricane elsewhere is another thing entirely.

The funny thing is the fact that whenever we enter into community and engage others, we become burdens and burdened with those we are with. But that’s not a negative thing. Humans are inherently relational. We limit and define ourselves when we come into relationship with the other. I am not you. You are not me. But we find ourselves walking with one another for a time. By ourselves, in a vacuum, we would have no obligations or duties to others. The trade-off is that we have

By ourselves, in a vacuum, we would have no obligations or duties to others. The trade-off is that we have little, if any, story either. We lose out on meaning by ourselves. We must trade some of our freedoms to be with and for others. We must give some of them up to abide by our storylines too. A mentor of mine once stated that his grandmother advised him to choose his rut carefully because he’s going to be in it for a long time. We give up in committing to one rut, one way of living, one group of people, to live any differently for a time. But that rut gets you somewhere eventually. The story unfolds along that journey. When we relate to others, we allow them to write that story alongside us, too.

I’m reminded of a scene from a play that my university’s theater program is performing. Within the play Into the Woods, the protagonists find themselves confronted by a giantess out for revenge against Jack and demands that they hand over the boy as a sacrifice. In a bid for time, the protagonists sacrifice the narrator – the one who frames their story – as a replacement. He is consequently killed by the giantess soon thereafter. Later, as the characters attempt to process the ramifications of what they’ve done, they conclude that in absence of a previously established guiding narrative, they must now write their own. In a similar manner, I don’t think many of us have that sense of a specific narrative set out before us as much as a general one.

And for once, I think, that’s exciting.

Practically speaking, it means we needn’t worry about those butterfly wing flutter decisions. We have the space, we have the grace to make our own stories, that eventually, hopefully, can glorify God now and forevermore.

For me, it means being free to improvise and take life step by step. It means keeping one eye on the horizon but never fearing it. It means I can Be Here Now – I can write a new story instead of waiting on the sidelines, even though the sidelines seem more certain and secure.

You see, I’ve found someone that I think is helping me write a better story. When she laughs, she brightens my day. When she talks about what she’s passionate about, her face lights up and it’s hard not to get caught up in her animation.

Sometimes, we stay up until the early morning hours, looking up at the stars. In those moments, sharing bits about who we are. We tell our stories. We share them because we know we are all just stories in the end. Where we came from. Who we are. Where we might end up. It’s all a part of a larger story each of us is writing.

The thing is, though, when she tells one of her stories, you can’t help but notice her knack for setting up the scene, the characters, the plot all at once, and in a moment, set them all into motion. It’s why she studies theater, I think. She studies how stories are lived out and lived into because there’s something about the arts which can communicate elements of what it means to be human. All those moments and decisions that may send us off onto the next adventure as well as those that don’t – all of it helps tell us who we are and who we might be.

And, I must confess, I am no exception to this knack of hers. I am grateful that she helped me stop thinking I was supposed to be a member of the audience and to begin living my own story, too.

It’s funny who you meet when you begin to be present and appreciate the people around you. Especially in coffee shops. Particularly over great books.

“So,” I said, leaning back from my friend in the college coffee shop, “what type of story do you think you’re experiencing right now, friend?”

She looked at me for a second with a spark in her eye.

“Which do you want to have?”

When she answered, it made all the difference. But that’s not my story to tell. She’ll have to tell you herself one day if she so chooses.

God only knows what type of hurricane that will bring.