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.

 

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.

Those Small Eternities

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

-Frederick Buechner

At the end of my freshman year, a group of my friends and I decided to get together to watch the sun rise upon our last finals week for the year. Climbing on top of a building, we spread out blankets on which to sit.

And we waited, listening for something. I can’t remember what.

I, a New England guy, had turned toward the city, half expecting the sun to rise from the ocean like in years gone by. But that was then, in a far-off place, overlooking a far-off ocean.

The stars had disappeared from overhead some minutes prior. All that was left was a navy quilt overhead, threatening to suffocate those beneath its crushing weight. Beneath us was a bed of gravel which crunched as we shifted our weight. I picked some up. Tossing one at a time, I counted the minutes as they passed.

The sky lightened to a periwinkle. A small, hot ember peaked over the ridgeline of mountains behind me. And for a moment, I felt as though I had fallen through a mirror into a place where everything was all turned around.

“The sun,” one of my friends whispered as they tapped me on the back. “You’re going to miss it!”

I dropped the stones and, turning toward the mountains, I watched, awestruck.

Church tradition holds that the apostle John saw a glimpse of heaven on one of these days while exiled on the island of Patmos. At one point, he says, enraptured, “the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was a single pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.”[1] I honestly wonder what he saw, sometimes. Other times, I doubt whether he saw a city at all. Either way, I don’t think I’m too worried whether that was the case or not.

What does it mean for something to be golden? To be literally made of gold? Or something else?

The Romantic poet William Blake once wrote in the opening lines of a poem of his:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
and a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…[2]

In the moments of trying to get from one place to another, I think we forget that even our work habits influence how we see the world and our faith. Perhaps the things of greatest truth, goodness, and beauty seem dull compared to the sensationalism we are used to.

Recently, I stopped a friend of mine in the hall who looked troubled. Asking what the matter was, they said, with a blank expression on their face, “I don’t know if I know what heaven is anymore.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because if heaven is where God is,” they started, “And God is all around us, wouldn’t that mean that heaven is all around us, too?”

I shrugged. “What do you think?”

“Well, I don’t know what to think! What would that do to my understanding of the afterlife?”

“Something, I’m guessing.”

“No, yeah.” They said. “But I’ve been spending so much time thinking about how it’ll be like to leave this place after I die. But this will, in a sense, keep me grounded.”

I raised my eyebrow at the pun.

“If heaven is here,” they asked, “Why can’t we experience it?”

“A number of reasons, I think, but I think the first reason is because we’re always looking down and too busy to pay attention to what’s going on around us.”

“Perhaps if we do,” they thought aloud, “we might be able to see the small eternities around us in the every day. And we might just realize how precious everything actually is.”

“Sounds poetic,” I said, “I might just borrow that.”

They laughed.

I found myself in the same place that I had been with my friends that last full week of school during my freshman year the other day. The sun, however, was setting. And I was alone.

It’s been a while since I’ve slowed down to watch the sun disappear beneath the distant waves of the Pacific. Most days it seems to sink beneath a dust cloud or squeeze between skyscrapers. And most days, I’ve found myself always on the go to do something. Or be somewhere.

But this day, I found myself near the close of my junior year with no one to be with and nowhere to go. And the day had been pleasant enough that I felt at ease and sat down to watch the sun sink lower in the sky.

Here and there, birds wished each other good night as they found their homes in which to rest. And as the sun began to disappear beneath the horizon, it shot out orange-gold tendrils of light into the oncoming darkness. Squinting as I faced the dying sun, I traced the inroads that the light had made with my finger and felt the breeze on my face.

“Streets of gold, eh?” I chuckled to myself. “Good one, John.”

Perhaps it isn’t so much that there will be literal streets of gold or mansions for the average believer that John was getting at. Perhaps it is that, when heaven is united fully with earth and all things are made new, perhaps we can glance at a tree and see, maybe for the first time, the full splendor of God that had been present all along.

Soon, the sun had all but disappeared. And as it vanished beneath the horizon, I heard crickets composing their nightly performances somewhere. The birds had settled down for the night. I yawned.

Grabbing my jacket, I turned to leave. But before I did, I reached down and picked up a single pebble. Studying it, I placed it in my pocket and began walking back home.

“Right, well, I better get settled in, then.”

[1] Rev. 21:21, ESV.

[2] William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence.” The Poetry Foundation. Accessed March 26, 2017. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43650

We Paper Planes

When I was six, my family was invited by my father’s younger brother to visit his home in California. My uncle had been making it a regular practice of visiting his old stomping grounds every couple of years, spending a week or so at our house. This time, it was our turn to visit him and his wife. To be honest, I cannot remember much of the trip. Yet, somehow, I still have a memory—or was is a dream? —from when we were waiting to board our flight to Los Angeles.

A plane touched down on the tarmac somewhere in the distance. I pressed my nose against the cool glass, following the metal bird. It slowed and turned, disappearing behind another part of the airport.

My father looked up from his newspaper. He had bought it from a nearby kiosk along with a small packet of peanuts to pass the time while waiting to board the plane. Next to him sat my brother, playing on his GameBoy. My sister lay on the ground, coloring with her crayons. About fifteen feet away, I stood at the window.

My nose was still pressed against the glass as I watched planes take people to and from strange, unknowable places. To my right, a line of nose scuff marks had begun to form as I gradually moved further down the terminal.

Something tapped my shoulder. I turned. A neatly folded paper plane labeled The Classifieds lay on the ground next to my right shoe. My father smiled as I picked up the plane and waved.

“Hey, get over here. I have to keep an eye on all of you, you know. Your mother would kill me if I didn’t. Don’t wander off too far.”

I groaned and puffed out my chest. “But I’m bored.

“Well,” My father whispered, “How about I tell you a story about when I flew a plane?”

My eyes grew large. “You flew a plane?

“Yep. A small one, though. But, do you know what?”

“What?”

“I learned something that I’ve lived by for most of my life then. And I’ll tell you what I learned, too. But you’ve got to promise me something.”

“What?”

My father grew serious for a moment. “You’ve got to remember it for as long as you live. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“You swear?”

Swearing was my pledge, a six year old’s word to do something. This was a solemn act, which here means deeply sincere. I was equally solemn when I promised to clean my room all those years ago as well. However, I still have to fulfill my duty in this respect. This, of course, has no impact on my earnestness. I’ll get to it. Someday. Maybe.

I swallowed and squeezed my eyes shut. “Cross my heart.”

“Okay, bud.”

My father sat back, as he began to tell his story. And, to be honest, I cannot for the life of me remember the story that he told me back when I was six in that airport, despite my earnestness to do so. But, I still can recall what life advice he gave me at the end.

“So,” my father concluded, “what I learned is that no matter what happens, you’ve always got to remember to fly the plane. Don’t worry about the smaller details. Don’t worry about what else is trying to grab your attention. Focus on your goal and don’t stop until you do what you meant to do. Fly the plane.”

“Fly the plane,” I repeated to myself.

Taking the newspaper airplane from my hands, he nodded. “Fly the plane,” he said, before tossing it into the air once more.

A few weeks ago, I found myself at a resort in Southern California for a department-wide retreat for my college’s practical theology majors. After a day’s worth of activities, I found myself flipping through some old journal entries when I came across the words Fly the Plane inscribed upon the top of a page. Come to think of it, I think I have spent much of my life trying to simply fly the plane. But, whatever my father intended to communicate to me in his story, I am becoming increasingly convinced that I have misapplied his words.

The morning of the second day, some alumni of the Department of Practical Theology stopped by to give advice and insight of their own to the newest classes of ministry majors. One of them, a man in his mid-twenties, said something which gave me pause.

“My advice to you all,” he stated after pausing to reflect, his words rolling off his tongue slowly as if he were measuring the weight of each and every syllable, “is to learn to be insignificant. That, and also learn to notice the insignificant all around you.”

For much of my life, I could argue that I tried to do my best to do the first half of this man’s advice. But when one doesn’t take the time to notice the insignificant people and things and thoughts and words and deeds which are going on all around, one tends to elevate oneself over their surroundings. We’ve got people to see, tasks to accomplish, meetings and presentations to do. God knows what else.

One of my mentors always encouraged me to Be Here Now. And I do. I try, but only if I made sure that I could still Fly the Plane. But this call the alumnus gave to simply notice the insignificant is a call to deny a drive to be efficient, to base one’s worth off performance and deeds. It was a call to respond to Christ’s question of what good is it if a person gain the world yet forfeit their soul.

And I didn’t like his call of denial of self and of ego one bit. But I knew that I needed it driven deep into my heart like an arrow.

There’s a professor of mine whom I stop by his office from time to time to seek advice. We used to meet regularly, but due to us both being busy, we only see one another in passing nowadays. Yet, in those moments, I sense that he knows where I am as soon as we begin talking.

A couple days after returning from the department-wide retreat, the two of us crossed paths in the hallway. He was carrying some books, dog-eared and stuffed full of Post-It Notes, from his office when he saw me step inside out of the rain.

After exchanging some small talk, he paused and said, “You know, oftentimes I think the reason why we need our neighbors is because it is through our neighbors that we can properly learn to love God and, ultimately, ourselves.”

He smiled as he glanced at his watch. Tapping his forehead, he disappeared into a nearby room full of students. “Think about that.”

As I turned to walk away to my next appointment, a leaf floated by outside, carried by small streams of water to God-knows-where.

Suddenly, something clicked.

In that moment, I realized, in actively learning how to be insignificant, we embrace the normative human condition. We become content and satisfied with who we are. We aren’t anyone’s messiahs and certainly not responsible for anything too terribly important. We become more likely to accept grace because we can see ourselves more aligned to divine grace. We accept that we are small as opposed to God’s vastness, that no matter what we do, our words and deeds are still smaller than the grand metanarrative and person of God.

And, in noticing the insignificant, we become aware that even in what we deem as insignificant there is great mystery and wonder. That even the smallest of things is valuable and has a place somewhere.

But, in neglecting the insignificant, something inside us begins to fear whether God would even think about us if we do not do something of worth. We, who are here today and gone tomorrow. Why would the transcendent divine being care about us small creatures on a tiny, blue marble, anyways?

I think we aren’t so much pilots who have one objective to accomplish at all costs. Instead, we might better see ourselves as paper airplanes–complete with our own folds and crumples and creases from one too many hard landings–who just so happen to be traveling on the same gusts of wind which God sends our way for a time. And if all we care about is the end, we might miss the thrill of the journey itself.

A voice came on over the intercom announcing that the flight to Los Angeles was about to begin boarding. My father stood to stretch his legs. Yawning, he pointed toward the door. “Ready to go?”

I looked up from examining the folds of the plane. “I suppose. Is the trip going to be long?”

“Depends on what you think long is.”

We began carrying our bags over to the line. I frowned. “How long are we staying in California?”

My father crouched to look me in the eye. “A week or so. But, I’ll let you know. Some places and people stay with us long after we leave them. Depends if you’re willing to see them.”

“Oh,” I said, my brow furrowed as I tried to understand what he meant. “What if we never leave a place?”

He smiled, “You never really know where you’ll end up, so you might as well do your best to fly the plane wherever you find yourself.” He laughed, “Maybe one day you’ll be living in California!”

“I don’t think so.” I objected. “I don’t even know what it looks like! Or who even lives there!” He waved off my comment as we handed the attendant our tickets.

After making our way to our seats, my brother sat and continued to mash the buttons on his Gameboy Color. My sister, on the other hand, had fallen asleep next to my mother. I hopped onto my seat, looking back out onto the tarmac. My father opened the overhead storage compartment, placing our bags one-by-one inside. After taking the blue backpack I brought, he paused. “Just do me a favor,” he said.

“What?”

“Wherever you end up, let me know how you’re doing. I’ve got to keep an eye on you somehow. Can’t let you get yourself into too much trouble, now can I? Your mother will kill me if I don’t. You promise me that?”

“Cross my heart.”

He laughed. “Well then, that’s good enough for me. Just be sure to fly the plane.”

 

These Word Games We Play With The Wildness of God

“Be still and know that I am God.”[1]

 

Contrary to popular belief given my penchant to utilize excessively polysyllabic and absurdly convoluted expressions within my dialoguing among my peers, I suck at playing Scrabble. I’m simply terrible at it. When it came to game night in my family’s household, I was never one to mince words. Instead of strategizing with how to budget my tiles, I would try and create the longest word possible each and every time. Eventually, I would be left with a bunch of consonants spelling out nothing but gibberish.

What a concept.

If I can be honest, there are nights when I wonder whether the Bible we read is nothing more than gibberish on a Scrabble board when considering the universe.

I have been having trouble reading Scripture lately. When much of one’s day is spent talking about God, thinking about God, studying God’s Word and the many peculiarities within it, it is hard to simply sit and open Scripture as something which is a living text that wants to speak to me. Most days, when I do crack open my Bible to read it devotionally, the words glare back unblinkingly, its eyes glossy to me.

Sometimes I wonder if I am just an infant trying to play Scrabble with God. Across the table, he would sit, with all his letters and words ready to play, while I remain in my high chair, a Q-tile stuck in my mouth without a thought in my mind even close to comprehending the notion of “Q-ness,” let alone the rules of the game. And no matter hard I tried, I could not find it in me to perceive the eternal truths which God had spelled out for me – as well as the fact that he just got a triple word score.

On some nights, I doubt whether Scripture’s claim on accurately describing some element of any objective truth is feasible at all.

Postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty once stated that “To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations…”[2] When we do not have the words to describe something, it cannot be judged as true or false. Part of the purpose of the sciences is to observe and hypothesize systems which can assimilate new phenomena which we lacked words to describe prior to that point. When we have no words for something, we are blind to it. “The world is out there,” Rorty concluded, “But descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false.”[3]

Now, while I am prone to disagree with Rorty on some of his later arguments in his book, I have to agree with his notion here. There is no view from nowhere.[4] Every time we speak, we draw upon our own prior experiences and use language to express what we mean. The universe in and of itself is not true or false—as if something can be falsely existing on its own—but our attempts at interpreting the universe around us can be. Language, as I stated before, is a self-referential system of a word game that we play with ourselves and with one another for the sake of understanding the “out there” to which Rorty refers. The frustrating thing is that even our understanding or comprehension of what is may actually hold no bearing on what actually is. Even if every person came to understand the same perspective, we still cannot escape the lens of humanity.  Who’s to say what we collectively experience has any bearing on what is?

Even if we believe in God’s existence (which, in the same spirit of G.K. Chesterton, I will state is an underlying assumption within this piece and will not dedicate space to that topic here) – how can we begin to think that anything we say or write or think would properly illuminate who he/she/it/etc. is? And by extension, how could Scripture be considered “god-breathed” when it, too, was written by human hands?

The biblical writers provide a story of theirs regarding this topic in the opening few chapters of the book of Exodus. After spending a good portion of his life living an average existence, Moses encounters God in a burning bush and is commissioned by him to return to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of bondage. Turning to leave, Moses pauses for a moment and asks, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”[5]

God replies, and replies by giving Moses his name. Within the Ancient Near East, there was a common belief that in order to control or manipulate a god into providing favorable circumstances, a priest would have to invoke the respective deity’s name. In a similar manner, Frederick Buechner points out:

When I tell you my name, I have given you a hold over me that you didn’t have before. If you call it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not. [When] God tells Moses his name is Yahweh, [he] hasn’t had a peaceful moment since.[6]

The difference between the gods of the ancient Near East and the God of the Hebrews was the fact that most of the gods had names which defined them, limiting them to their role or realm which they controlled. When Moses’ God responded, he gave Moses a name that is commonly rendered: I AM WHO I AM, or better yet: I WILL BECOME WHO I WILL BECOME. The problem with the former is that it still smacks of a property of definition and limitation similar to that of the other ancient Near Eastern gods, with ties to the Septuagint’s rough Koine translation of “the Being One.”[7] Instead, the latter emphasizes the dynamism of God being unable to be bound unless He wills it. This, of course, even extends to our language. Because God cannot be adequately expressed through the words we speak, this only emphasizes that He can do or be how He will, free from any forms of human meddling.

A Franciscan theologian with an oddly similar name in relation to the postmodern philosopher previously mentioned, Richard Rohr, once describes this frustrating quality of God as his wildness:

“Now, believe it or not, we are threatened by such a free God because it takes away our ability to control or engineer the process [of transformation.] It leaves us powerless, and changes the language from any language of performance or achievement to that of surrender, trust, and vulnerability…. That is the so-called ‘wildness’ of God. We cannot control God by any means whatsoever, not even by our good behavior, which tends to be our first and natural instinct…. That utter and absolute freedom of God is fortunately used totally in our favor, even though we are still afraid of it. It is called providence, forgiveness, free election, or mercy…. But to us, it feels like wildness — precisely because we cannot control it, manipulate it, direct it, earn it, or lose it. Anyone into controlling God by his or her actions will feel very useless, impotent, and ineffective.”[8]

If we think we can get a grasp of the divine on our own initiative, we deceive ourselves. God would not be God if his fullness can be grasped by a human – the notion, if possible, would suggest human invention if comprehension were possible. Instead, he can only be known, but only in part.

That being said, how would this lead us to then accept Scripture as authoritative even while accepting that the word games that we play cannot grasp God in his wildness, that a divine reality exists when Scripture too is also an obvious human invention? What might bridge the gap between God and humanity?

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrestled with this subject within his magnum opus. Within the opening pages, relatively speaking, of his Church Dogmatics, he remarks: “The fact that God’s own address becomes an event in the human word of the Bible is, however, God’s affair and not ours… The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be his word, to the extent that he speaks through it.”[9] Given that all language is contingent, shaped and informed by our own personal experiences, we would have no ability in and of ourselves to reach the divine. Or, if in the case we could, that we could determine from our own limited perspective that the thing we claimed as an eternal truth was in fact an eternal truth. Instead, the divine, knowing that we had no capacity to save ourselves from the mess we had gotten ourselves into, breaks into our limited subjective lenses through which we interpret and relate to the world and one another in such a manner that we might be able to know Him and truths about Him. And as Christians, we also hold that he specifically broke into our subjective experience first through the Law, then the Prophets, and finally, most fully, in Christ.[10]

Of course, this does not mean that every insight or proposition that a person might gain from Scripture correlates with the reality of the divine. Less than two hundred years ago, we Americans used Scripture to justify slavery. Less than one hundred years ago, we used it to justify colonialism and social Darwinism. Discernment through tradition, reason, and communal experience is necessary to keep our interpretations of special revelation in check. Rorty was right in this respect. We must understand that how we read something is how our culture or subculture has taught us to read it. Insofar that we realize our contingencies, we will become better Christians and people in general.

Doesn’t mean I won’t suck at Scrabble though.

But here’s to hoping.

 

[1] Ps. 46:10a+b, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dennis Okholm, “Gathering: You Can Only Act in the World You Can See.” (Lecture, Theology and the Christian Life, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, January 11, 2017).

[5] Exod. 3:13, NRSV.

[6] Frederick Buechner, “Buechner,” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 13-14.

[7] William Yarchin, Ph.D. “St. Jerome and the Latin Bible.” (Lecture, The History of Biblical Interpretation, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, January 31, 2017).

[8] Richard Rohr with Joseph Martos, From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 2.

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, §4:2, 109.

[10] Heb. 1:1-2, NRSV.