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.

 

Within Those Amber Moments

Every so often, I find myself walking through some small group material curriculum with one group of friends or another on occasion. We would gather somewhere either on campus or nearby, shooting the breeze as we waited for everyone to drop in, collect themselves and their thoughts, and ready themselves for whatever we decided to discuss for the evening.

On one of those nights, I remember I was meeting with a group of students who had volunteered to be mentors to some incoming first-year students to the university. We had elected to gather at the Starbucks just down the street from where many of us lived. As the mentors trickled in and slid in line to place their orders, I paused for a moment to take a quick look around.

The glass windows of the coffee shop caught the light of the setting sun, casting a large swath of the place in a golden hue. Outside, where we had placed all of our books and bags, a gentle breeze swept in, turning a page or two in the notebook I had set upon a table a moment or two earlier. There was a faint whirring that grew in volume. My laptop, which I had opened before walking inside, had been taking its time starting up. As it did, it shed a blue glow upon the tabletop before it.

And then, my name. I heard my name somewhere being called. I looked back to where I was, back to the counter where the barista had just placed my order – a cold brew by itself. Nothing added.

I made my way to our table. The others, at this time, had already gotten their drinks and had set about touching base with their friends. As I sat there, sipping my cold brew with my eyes closed, I listened as some talked about this event or that class. It was as if I wasn’t even there for a moment.

When I came to Azusa Pacific University as a freshman, I distinctly remember unpacking all of my gear on the first day in the middle of the standard chaos of Orientation Weekend before spending three hours alone in my room, exhausted from all of the socializing that went on outside my door and around campus. I guess it was an apt response at the time to the community-building process, since I spent most of my first year only half-heartedly making connections. The reason, you see, was because in those early weeks of college, I used to ask myself a question that even I didn’t have the words for. It never fully formed on my lips, but had haunted me in the form of a specter since my days in high school. It was a question about the nature and value of community. It explored its impact and benefit. It wondered whether community was simply a thing we do to distract ourselves from the bigger problems.

I found myself finally putting the question to words in a quiet moment I shared with a mentor of mine late one evening.

“What if… what if…” I started, unsure if whether the next words out of my mouth was going to shock or horrify the man sitting across from me, “What if what we’re doing here is just a joke? Like, what is the point of relationships if in three years I’ll be packing my bags and will probably never see you again. What if these – these friendships that we seek, these relationships we crave – are just a waste of time in the grand scheme of things?”

As I look back on that brief snapshot of a memory, I can say that I am grateful that my mentor didn’t respond in the way that I feared. He didn’t dismiss my question as pointless. He didn’t admonish me for having such thoughts. He also didn’t simply provide some type of cop-out answer that many of us would tend to offer as a Band-Aid to place on an infected gash.

He just sat there in silence as I simmered in frustration and anger. As the minutes ticked by, the only motion that he made was to take an occasional sip from his tea. He could very well have excused himself from my place of darkness and pain, from my doubt and cynicism. And he could have tried to say something to correct my thinking. And yet, I think that if he had, it would have only denied the depth of the issue in the first place. We tend to do that with all sorts of our problems – sweep them under the rug and pretend they don’t exist. And yet, when we put off those problems, be they obstacles or questions or doubts, they tend to fester there in the dark.

In a way, though, I believe my mentor was answering my question in his actions, or rather, lack thereof. I was in a crisis about what community was and what role it was to play in my own life. And instead of simply seeing the question as another thing to answer for the sake of checking it off his list, he sat there for an entire hour, listening.

I used to buy into the notion that the reason why people get together in groups is for the sheer utility of it – that it was useful for some end in mind. Aristotle mentions it’s utility, pleasure, or virtue. Hobbes basically suggests it’s to keep another group of outsiders from killing us. In a similar manner, I bought into community by weighing my investment of time and energy against the profit I would receive further down the line. Community, for me, was only there for what I could receive from it. But, as I moved from high school onto college, flying more than six hours to a place I would learn to call home, I began to realize that what I invested here may not pay off in a long game, that my investment would potentially vanish in its entirety upon graduation.

My mentor knew this, probably more than I would ever know. But instead of receiving some satisfaction by providing an easy answer, he sat in the tension with me. And in that space, his willingness to simply give his presence and his time asked that frustrated freshman who sat before him whether by doing this, he was receiving anything.

Community wasn’t primarily defined for my mentor as what he could receive from it, but what he could give.

One of my favorite professors once mentioned that the point of any education a person receives is to affect how we live at our core level. If we are not changed or transformed in some way, we have just wasted our time. When I look back on that evening with my mentor, I think that my professor’s insight could not have been better illustrated than by that moment.

Lying on the table between the two of us, its pages dog-eared and marked up by pen, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. At one point, Bonhoeffer points out that the key to community was the mindset that it is not what one can get from the group that will matter, but what each person can bring to give away instead. It was about how each person could be Christ to one another, not demanding that others be Christ to us.

And yet, even though the words lay only two feet from my head, it was the eighteen inches from my head to my heart which proved to be the most difficult terrain to cross. Even though I knew what Bonhoeffer had to say about community in his book in my freshman year, I never let it begin to affect me until the start of my senior year.

When a half dozen of my friends and I gathered at my professor’s house around his fire pit, we broke bread and shared soup. One of us, Meredith, remarked, “I find it incredible that we get to read Bonhoeffer and talk about his thoughts on community, because… Well, because I think we’ve been living out an experiment of whether what Bonhoeffer was suggesting in his works really is what true and meaningful community is. We’ve been trying to live the question out and wrestle with it ever since we set our bags down in Engstrom.”

The rest of us were silent as we reflected on her observation. She continued by asking simply, “Well, how have we developed since freshman year? How can we live out Bonhoeffer’s message even now as this community?”

We sat there for a moment as we stewed over her challenge. It was a while before anyone else spoke that night.

Eventually, the other voices in the Starbucks began to peter out. I shook my cup. Empty. Well, I thought, All things must come to an end sometime.

Glancing upwards, I saw that the others were waiting for me to say something. I flicked the trackpad of my laptop, muttering to myself about what we were supposed to go over that evening again. Eventually, my browser helped me locate the appropriate file. It opened. Admittedly, even though I was excited to go over the material with my friends, I felt as though it might, in some way, be more productive to just remain in that amber time with those others.

I decided that it would be best to launch into the curriculum after all – it was the reason why I dragged everyone out for the evening in the first place. I remember noting how fitting it was that the material we happened to cover was on some element of community which leaders can foster in the people of which they are a part.

As the conversation continued, there came a point where one of the mentors, upon hearing all of the questions that I had been asking of them, turned and asked, “Well, what about you?”

In that moment, it was as if my brain decided to pull the carpet out from under my tongue. For a second there, I knew what I wanted to say, but in the next, what came out of my mouth was a jumbled, disorganized mess. I tried to backtrack, but what I had to say was noticeably absent from my mind.

And suddenly, I laughed. I- laughed because of my momentary clumsiness and because in this space, I knew that I could feel free to make mistakes. The others joined in after a brief second, perhaps out of the awkwardness of the mangled sound or out of sympathy. But I would bet that it was because in that space, there was a grace there that I have learned to expect.

Perhaps I might not ever see any of these young men and women after I graduate, but I don’t think that invalidates these moments. Instead, it makes them all the more precious, because it reminds us that community is a means of grace through which God can be most present. Where the Christ in me can rise to meet the Christ in you. Where instead of looking only to receive, we can look instead to give. Perhaps that’s what makes these amber moments what they are – they remind us of something close to home.

Personal Over Professional

I found myself sitting in my supervisor’s office recently. The reason why I found myself sitting in a chair in the middle of the room was to assess how I have been doing at the job I have been given. My assessors sat across the room from me, flicking through their notes.

For the most part,” they began, “you seem to have done pretty well.”

They paused. A pen clicked. I waited for the other shoe to drop.

“One of the only problems we need to work on is that you seem to come across as too professional to be relatable.”

There it was.

For the most part, this trait wouldn’t be too much of a problem in a career. Except, I work in my admissions department at my university, trying to share parts of my own experience with students and families who are interested in the school.

In other words, it’s my job description to be relatable.

I think my problem lies in the fact that I still get stuck in the rut of a narrative that it’s better to be efficient than real to others. Somewhere along the line, I bought into the notion that I inherently have no value. I either produce or I get out of the way. Others value results, not relationships. Therefore, I cannot be a burden to anyone else.

Intuitively, as a guy finishing up his undergraduate degree in ministry, I know that this cannot be further from the truth. But in practice, when I reflect on many of the choices I’ve made up through high school and into college, I realize that when I respond with a gut reaction, my gut is still very much a firm believer of this narrative.

I don’t ask for help. I project a polished image. I psychologically own situations I am in, subconsciously believing that how they end are a direct reflection on my own worth. I stay out of others’ ways. When in leadership, I tend to over-function and lose sleep.

Relationally, I tend to undermine relationships that I think are getting too close because I know that one day, I will probably be a burden on those involved. In a twisted sense of the word, I think I act that way because I care about those persons involved because to have them care for me is to be a hindrance and limitation to their potentials.

What a great cocktail for a guy who thought he was cut out for ministry, right?

The strange thing is, when I find myself back in this rut, I remember my time as a summer camp counselor in New Hampshire. Come to think of it, the summer camp should be starting right around now.

After finishing my freshman year of college, I found myself teaching kids about wilderness survival skills and outdoor cooking throughout the summer. In the evenings, I would stroll back to the cabin that I oversaw and made sure all the campers had taken their showers and done their chores before settling down. But, while being a counselor was fun, I began to feel burned out and disillusioned by camp ministry – the kids would never pay attention to the Bible studies in the mornings or the devotionals at night I had prepared. No one seemed to care about faith. I began to look forward to the evenings when the day was done so I could sit up at night, alone with my thoughts.

I had already become well habituated with writing blog posts, not unlike this one. But, living in the woods, even with all its perks, did not provide any naturally occurring signal or electricity to charge a laptop. Writing blogs, in other words, was out of the question. And so, I found myself resorting to journaling with pen and paper by flashlight once more.

At the beginning of the last two sessions of camp, we had a single ten-year-old join us with the intention of staying for a month. He wasn’t a good kid, wasn’t a bad kid, but seemed to keep to himself for the most part.

One evening, I walked into the cabin to see this kid’s feet poking out from under my bunk. After clearing my throat, the boy crawled out from under, holding my wastebasket full of paper, rough drafts of some thoughts I had written days, weeks before.

His eyes were as round as saucers.

“Are you a storyteller?” he asked, animatedly.

I muttered something, which he took it as a mark of affirmation. He ran off to the far side of the cabin to share his discovery with the others. Before long, the cabin had conspired to refuse to fall asleep until I had told them one of my stories.

It became a ritual – every night, I would have to stop by the main house in order to print off another blog post before making my way back to the cabin. The boys loved them. Honestly, I didn’t see it coming – these were the thoughts of a college student about college. Why would campers in grade school care about that?

To be honest, I admit my writing isn’t the most engaging thing. For the most part, when I started telling my stories, the cabin didn’t make it to the end. One by one, the campers would drop off to sleep. But every night, as I turned to turn off the light, the month camper would be awake, still listening on his bunk.

This pattern continued until the last week of camp when our cabin went on our overnight hiking trip. That night, as the boys collapsed into their sleeping bags about the shelter, I didn’t expect the boys wanted to hear another story. But as soon as I turned off the light, I heard the same boy object:

“Hey, you promised!”

I sighed and turned the light back on. I pulled out a piece of paper I had tucked in the side of my backpack – the last story I would tell them. It was a little longer than the others. But I read it until the end.

When I finished, the shelter was silent. The darkness within the cabin seemed to hold its breath. Most of the campers had fallen asleep long ago. I yawned and moved to click off the light.

“Wait!” I heard, the same boy making his presence known, “Could we – talk?”

I raised my eyebrow.

“Sure,” I said, “Let’s sit over by the fire pit so not to wake the others.”

We walked about ten feet over to the small ring of stones where we had recently cooked smores. My co-counselor was watching the last of the smoke rise from the ashes.

“We got it from here, James,” I said. He nodded and headed over to his nearby hammock.

We sat by the fire for a moment before I ventured, “What’s up?”

I couldn’t see the camper’s face. The darkness had obscured his eyes from me. He said nothing, though it looked as though he was searching for words.

I heard water hitting the ground before I saw it. It was slow at first, but it gradually grew the constant sound of water pit-pattering against the stones of the fire pit. It continued, uninterrupted, for fifteen minutes.

Finally, a sob escaped the camper’s mouth. “What-” he choked out, “What caused you to write that story?”

I glanced down at the piece of paper, now a sodden piece of pulp, in my hand. I had begun crying, too. “My friends,” I said. “My family.”

I found myself revisiting that same story today, after work. It narrated my last day as a freshman at my university, saying goodbye to strangers who had become some of the best of friends.

I wrote of how I had been sitting in an empty dorm room, my gear outside, when I had been suddenly struck with a sense of loss. The room was filled with people, with memories, once – not even a week ago. Now, it was gone, disappeared into the past.

I had come to call the place home. But, as the walls and the room itself became increasingly bare, the very life that resided within the room breathed its last. I was looking at the corpse of a year’s worth of strangers who became my family, of mornings and nights filled with incredibly meaningful conversations, of “mountaintop experiences” and more than one visit to the valley of the shadow of death. And my friends were there through it all.

And now, now it was all over.

A lump formed in my throat as I stepped outside. A friend was heading home, her bags already all packed away in her parents’ car. Her eyes red, she looked at us, the faithful few, and asked, “Why is it that loving people is so exhausting?”

In that moment, I remembered that a professor of mine once told me that to truly love something, we must acknowledge that one day, that person or thing will die in its own way.

We allow for change in all its forms, but change is only a nuanced term for the continual putting to death of one thing to make room for something new. To love the people that we are force us to act in the same manner, else we risk falling for an idea of the person and not the person themselves. And this love, this state of caring for one another even until death and beyond, is what makes us human.

I could have said something, but instead, I stood, a tear running down my own face, silent, a smile softly playing at the corners of my mouth.

The camper and I sat in silence around the dead fire, unsure of what to say. Eventually, he began to share his own story, one filled with brokenness and hurt and pain – the likes of which I would have never guessed a ten-year-old would have experienced. I heard of his fear of abandonment and a father that had been the world to him who he never could see. I heard of how he got up every morning wondering whether it was his fault. I heard of how he put on a brave front every morning and worked constantly to do something of note so that maybe, one day, his father would call him and congratulate him and tell him he was proud.

“Those words,” he stammered, “Those words your friend said have given me words for this pain I have.”

He paused and looked up across the fire pit at me, “It’s just, I don’t want to be a burden, you know?”

I gritted my teeth.

“More than you know, man.”

I never got to follow up with the camper after that night. Upon returning to camp, I found myself having to pack up my bags to make it back to my university on time for my sophomore year.

I found myself in a friend’s living room, checking my emails when I saw an email had been forwarded to me by way of my camp director. It was from my camper’s mother.

For a good portion of the email, she mainly addressed the director and thanked him for the program that he had put on, going into detail all the elements of the program that made the camp stand out, but as I reached the end of the letter, I stopped scrolling.

The last two paragraphs were addressed simply, to my son’s counselors.

I still have them.

The reason why I hold onto these paragraphs, the reason why I love doing what I do, was summed up there.

Thank you, it read, for investing a month of your lives into my son. He loved the program and he loved having you as counselors. In fact, he won’t stop sharing the stories you shared about your own lives at night.

But I want to thank you, especially, because my son hadn’t really smiled in a long time since his father left. But when he talks about his counselors and his time at camp, all he can do is grin. I don’t know what you said or did that changed something for my son, but it has made all the difference.

It’s strange how, when we find ourselves poured out into others, when we take the time to invest in the people that we are with, they have a habit of always leaving something behind.

Why is it that loving people is so hard? Because we fear that if we let go, they might not return. So, we don’t burden others, or try not to be, I think. But if we live that way, we can never fully be present with those with us in their triumphs and trials.

It’s only when we open up to others that connections like the friends I’ve made at my university or the moment shared around the fire pit can occur.

Why is loving people so hard?

Because, I think, it’s when we are most fully ourselves.  

The pen clicked again. I was back in my supervisor’s office. I refocused as I came back from my thoughts.

Blinking, I started, “Sorry, come again?”

My supervisor smiled. “Sure!  What I was wondering was, do you think we can work together on being more relatable?”

“Oh,” I paused, smiling slightly, “Most certainly.”

 

 

  

 

Those Human Moments

I have become indebted to a good number of people around my university because of all their investment in me. This summer, I’m staying at my university, in part because of a job, but also because I’m taking a summer class with someone I am grateful to know.

I ran into him the other day as I was trying to take a picture for my university’s Instagram. He was sitting on a marble block and reading under the shade of a tree, preparing for our next discussion on the life and works of Kierkegaard.

To be honest, I don’t know if he would be on campus this summer if not for me. To the best of my knowledge, he has no summer classes apart from the one he’s teaching for me. But this past spring, after I received an email from our financial and academic service on campus informing me of the sheer impossibility of my graduating within four years, my professor found me sitting, shell-shocked, in the hallway on his way to class.

I felt the blood drain from my face as I finished reading the email. I thought I was on track. How did this happen?

My professor had just turned the corner when he saw me out of the corner of his eye. Turning, he paused and asked what happened. After informing him of my dilemma, he closed his eyes, thinking.  A few moments later, he looked up, spun on his heels and walked back down the hall to locate a form. Finding it, he returned and handed it to me.

“This is a form for an independent study and course replacement,” He said, “And, while I can’t teach every single one of those classes you need, I can teach your upper division philosophy course.”

“What?” I asked, still recovering from the email.

“I don’t have my summer plans firmly established yet, but it seems as though you need some help.” He prompted, still holding the form. “Let’s see if we can meet over coffee or something over the summer and talk about something you’re interested in. Let’s get you back on track for graduation.”

I blinked.

He smiled, “Well, do you want to talk philosophy or not? Come on, it’ll be fun.”

I took the sheet, folded it, and placed it in my bag.

“Sure,” I started. “I’d like that. Thanks!”

“Don’t mention it,” he said. “Besides, I’m late to class!”

And with that, he disappeared down the hall as if nothing happened.

I found out later that I received the email due to a mishap in the system that could easily be fixed. But by the time that happened, the deadline for dropping classes had already passed. Not that I would drop it if I could, because when a professor, err – when anyone – goes out of their way to help others I usually try to spend time with and become that type of person.

This story brings to mind a quote from one of my favorite shows. As the plot reaches its resolution the main protagonist, realizes that his companions won’t remember their previous adventures with him as history. As they begin to fall asleep, he remarks, “I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s OK: we’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”[1]

The thing is, even after I graduate and move on to other things outside of college, I will still remember the people who have influenced the time I have spent here. These will become some of the stories that I will remember fondly when others’ stories have connected with mine.

Frederick Buechner writes “I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are yours. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human.”[2]

Those moments of overlap, those moments of sharing our secrets in moments of vulnerability—  when a professor stops to help a student, when friends show up at three in the morning to support another, when strangers become family through the sharing of their lives over a fire—are the moments when we are most human.

For me, this professor helping me in a moment of need was just one example of numerous times someone has poured into me. I don’t know if it would be possible for me to recall them in their totality. At least, not in a reasonable amount of time.

I am grateful for them all.

 

[1] Doctor Who (2005). “The Big Bang.” Episode 13. Directed by Toby Haynes. Written by Stephen Moffat. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 26 June 2010.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (HarperCollins e-books, March 17, 2009), 40, Kindle.

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 Business of Creating Home

Recently, I have been learning how to best represent my university to potential students who are interested in the school. From what I hear, one of my larger responsibilities will be to show students around the campus which I have been privileged to call home for much of the past three years.

For some of those years, I would find myself returning back to the New England coast to see my friends, my family, my home once more. But this summer, I find myself unpacking boxes in an empty apartment. An empty apartment on a mostly empty campus.

As I walked around the university, trying to memorize what I would say at such-and-such a location, I would turn to see a person pass by, preoccupied with their own thoughts. They were off to some class or meeting of theirs and disappeared as quickly as they came around the corner. The campus grew quiet again, the only exception being the low thrum of my voice as I spoke to some imaginary audience.

My supervisor encourages us to use stories to bring the campus to life. It makes sense. We humans are geared for story. Our ears perk up when someone starts off with the phrase, “Once upon a time.”

Why is that?

Later that day, I found myself reclining in my hammock, lost in thought for an hour or so. Apart from a street and a traffic light, my hammock boasts an unobstructed view of my workplace. In the summer, cars pass here uninterrupted. Come Orientation Weekend, it will be a completely different matter.

People make a place.

As much as I love my university, it’s quiet here. Too quiet. Without the people, my university is but a shell of itself.

My college is not the same without sophomores screaming and cheering for incoming first-year students as they drive up the main street to unload their luggage. It’s not the same without Smith students regularly voicing their loyalty to their living space to all who might overhear them. It’s not the same when the coffee shop is empty and the library is devoid of persons seeking to crunch before an upcoming test or finish a project or paper late into the evening. It’s not the same without the trolley and its incredibly loveable staff. My university is not the same thing I know it can be without my friends.

People make the place, home.

I suppose that’s why hospitality has always been a central part of humanity’s cultures. In the midst of a great amount of the unknown, to be hospitable to those who happen to find themselves at your door one day is the first step to taming the perceived hostility of the other, seeing more of ourselves in those with whom we might not affiliate.

Even back in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean worlds, hospitality was seen as a primary means by which the divine could bless people through the arrival of the stranger. Or, at least, to find something or someone of worth behind our initial fears and suspicions.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the beast Enkidu became human after having a meal extended to him by another person typically found on the margins of society – a prostitute. A beast is literally given humanity through the medium of hospitality. A foe becomes a friend. The strange takes on a familiar form.

In other ancient texts, the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian patriarch Abraham encounters God in the form of guests on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah. In welcoming the strangers to a feast, Abraham is brought to a divine encounter and a blessing for both he and Sarah, his wife.

Finally, in Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus’ welcoming of a stranger regardless of his own difficult circumstances leads him to be seen as favorable in the eyes of the divine, who had been disguised as the stranger the entire time. By practicing hospitality, Telemachus won the allegiance of the gray-eyed Athena, who enables him to learn of his father’s fate and mature in spite of the suitors’ attempts to kill him.

The act of hospitality is understood in these foundational cultures to bring forth and preserve life in difficult circumstances. It leads us to encounter others on a deeper level, seeing the good in those with who we might not connect in the first place. It allows us to be more ourselves, too. And, it reassures us that the great, mysterious world outside may not be as frightening as we once thought.

But what happens when people aren’t there? What then can we do?

Like the Israelites in the middle of the wilderness, like the Greeks pondering why things are they way they are, like the Sumerians attempting to build one of the first civilizations,  we are invited to remember. For us, it is to recall the times when the stranger became a friend, when we arrived on campus for the first time and were overwhelmed by cheering sophomores who held signs welcoming freshmen on campus, when a professor took the time to invite his entire class to his house to get to know one another around the fire until three in the morning, when classmates became confidantes, or when a university became a home.

We do so through telling stories. We tell stories to remember in the quiet times, to keep us company in the lonely dark, and to give direction when we’re lost. 

We tell them to provide hope that, one day, we might find ourselves home once more.