A Box of Fairy Tales for Christmas

A few years ago, I came in from the cold to discover my mother making her way down the staircase of the new house with a large box in her hands. She set the box – marked in bold lettering of a red Sharpie with the word TRASH – by the door.

Just outside, the snow had begun to fall silently down over the world, blanketing everything in a soft white layer of frosting. I brushed what snow had started to pile up on my shoulders and hair off as I began to feel the warmth of the place once more. Placing my hands over my nose, I could feel the chill from outside still lingered a few moments more.

I glanced over as I hung up my coat. Matching worn maroon spines peeked out from their cardboard frame. Books. Old ones, too, by the amount of wear they had on them.

Erasmus once wrote, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” And while I am nowhere near as noble as Erasmus, I will scrounge for a good book from time to time.

“What do you have there?” I asked, poking my head around the corner.

“Oh, those?” My mother pointed to the box as she walked back upstairs, “Those are some collections of fairy tales that I’ve held onto for a while. Nobody’s read them in quite some time.”

I picked one up to weigh it in my hand. I remembered in grade school sitting in the old family rocking chair or my bunk as I imagined the worlds of Robin Hood and Arabian Nights. The book was lighter – or I larger – than I last remembered.

Time was not kind to these books. I imagined it to be partially my fault as well. As I flipped through the pages of the books which kept me company in my younger days, the motion kicked up some dust which had been resting on the edges of pages. The pages smelled of vanilla and almond, faintly, as if someone had been baking sugar cookies in this very same space not too long ago.

I slid the book back in its place along with its siblings. Something about these meant more to me than just entertainment.

I leaned on the banister to shout up the stairs.

“Would you mind me taking them, then?”

“As long as you have space for fairy tales in your life, I don’t see why not.”

It’s funny how the stories we are told as children often hold more truth and life than we are led to believe. G. K. Chesterton once wrote in one of his better-known works that the things he believed most in his childhood and the thing he most believed as an adult are the things called fairy tales. Little wonder that, when taken seriously, a fairy tale is a tool by which we learn to come to grips with the world.

The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim pointed out that when it comes to fairy tales, the genius behind it is that “the message is effective as long as it is delivered not as a moral or demand, but in a casual way which indicates that this is how life is.” In Bettelheim’s understanding, the beauty of a fairy tale is that it leaves room for the gray, suggesting at possible solutions while never casting judgment on others. Instead of painting the world in shades of good or bad, the fairy tale rather asks the listener which character they want to be most like.

I’ve been wrestling with Old Testament texts and the degree to which they are historical in the way we understand it to mean today. In particular, I wonder what that might mean for my faith. Mixed in with these troubling texts, the Gospel of John finds rest in the canon. In it, there’s a small epilogue which closes out the book where the narrator confirms that he was the disciple that Jesus loved. However, I cannot remember whether he ever pointed out that he himself was John or if tradition dictated it was so. Either way, the narrator’s choice to leave their name out can serve the purpose of inviting others listening to project themselves into the role of the narrator him- or herself, to taste and see whether a playing the role of someone following Christ is something worth doing themselves.

By reading ourselves into the story, we take the message that the Gospel has for ourselves, placing ourselves in the shoes -err, sandals- of the characters. Bettelheim mentions that this is one of the main orienting factors of fairy tales – they give us a frame through which to describe, but not prescribe, the world.

Just like in the example within John where the audience is invited into that role based on the anonymity (and universality) of the disciple, we are offered to evaluate our options. This, he hints at in the opening paragraph of his work when he states that “if we hope to live not just moment to moment, but in true consciousness of our existence, then our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives.” We need narratives to find meaning, so we have to remind ourselves of them – both fictitious and not – constantly.

In terms of deciding who we want to be in the story being told within the Gospel, I’m becoming pretty sure that Jesus would be fine with a person taking the time to weigh which character we think is best to be most like. I don’t think Christ is always forthcoming with the answers to every problem a person will face. He never really was when he was asked a question, instead responding to their inquiries by inviting them to come and see how life is with him in the lead.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to see how Advent takes on a renewed significance within this light. In this upcoming season of Advent, people are asked to reflect upon what it means to wait for the coming Messiah.

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, the story begins, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world… and everyone went to their own town to register.

It is in these unremarkable circumstances that the story starts, and the audience begins to settle in to hear where they might be in this story. The story of a baby who also is Christ the King. God become human.

Admittedly, faith in a god-man may sound like something belonging between the pages of the Odyssey – and to a certain extent, I think it does. Don’t get me wrong – I am still troubled and wrestle with the implications of such a position. How can a simple fairy tale ever correlate to ultimate reality? And yet, I think part of my fear is from feeling that I have begun to lose a sense of control or order which underlaid my belief. I think that many of us want to be totally, empirically certain of the events described in Scripture. We don’t want to be wrong.

We don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark, with all that we might encounter there.

I, for one, am afraid of that darkness.

What if there’s nothing?

We – err, I am guilty of seeking certainty that I forget that I’ve got this whole faith the other way around. Instead of understanding so that I might believe, I must believe so that I might understand.

In the moment when that a god-man entered human experience some two thousand years ago, the myth became more like a fairy tale. And this story gathered a community of people over the course of thousands of years all attesting that something about this story is true, going back to the disciples who died for telling such a tale. That it’s real. That even in the middle of the dark, there’s something there that lasts beyond.

The people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

In his taking on human nature and flesh, Christ took on each one of ourselves. In dying, he accomplished something which affected all of us. And yet, before we can get to Good Friday and Easter, we must first wait on the King to arrive, to show up in each one of our lives now. Sometimes in something as small and precious and fragile and seemingly universally insignificant in the middle of such a great darkness as a baby in a manger.

The stuff of fairy tales. The stuff of Good News.

A myth is a once-occurring thing for the sake of emulation. But a fairy tale is a perpetual truth central to the human condition. It need not have a defense, but rather motions others toward what might be, and what ought to be in the first place. I find it interesting then, especially after studying a bit of modern and postmodern thought, that fairy tales have become for me what they were for Chesterton. As I sit in front of texts which I once thought had a historicity and accuracy to them in the same manner that one might expect of a documentary in the twenty-first century, the thought which comforts me is the notion that these stories which I hold dear to me can be just like a fairy tale and still be real and true.

For believers, the incarnation isn’t so much an example to embody for the sake of forcing one’s set of beliefs and behaviors on others but can also be a mentality to adopt as a way of simply being with the other, whether that’s in a swaddling cloth in a manger of the first century BCE or in the DMV of the CE. It’s also a truth that something transcendent can take on flesh and move into the neighborhood. That we’re not stumbling around in the dark as much as we think we are.

I think my pastor put it best in a sermon he delivered the other day, that these stories we tell, that we remind ourselves of, kindle in us the conviction that:

At the end of it all, at the end of all things, we find that there is a King. And if there is a king, an everlasting and eternal king in charge of all things, there are answers. There is justice. All these things we seek aren’t just abstractions, distractions from reality, or baseless hopes. It’s something more.

Just because a story has the trappings of a fairy tale does not discredit its realness at the end of the day.

Advent invites us into a fairy tale different from the ones we tell ourselves day after day. The ones which culture substitutes in its stead. The ones which seem useful and attractive at first but leave us hollow in the end.

Advent is a fairy tale of a people waiting for the one who can honestly offer them an invitation they’ve been waiting for: “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves.”

Advent invites us into a fairy tale that, for once, is real.

I wound up taking the box of worn fairy tales and sliding them underneath my bed. I wonder when I’ll tell these tales to others. Maybe to myself. Some truths come to us over time. But some present themselves early on, and we just don’t realize their presence until later – especially after we live them.

And those, I think, make some of the best stories.

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The Truths We Carry

The table was covered in books and scraps of scratch paper. Lines of varying design crisscrossed among squares and circles winding this way and that. The room was quiet, except for the occasional page flip.

Names and dates were scribbled amid the gnarled knot of shapes and lines. Birthdays. Days of death. The occasional occupation. At the base was a familiar name. The name of my classmates. Or me. It didn’t seem to matter – the trees looked the same, interwoven and tangled as can be.

At one point, a classmate of mine raised her hand.

“I’ve realized that in my family, there’s a bunch of stories that each generation chooses not to pass on about either themselves or others. They do it for some reason, I guess. Sometimes we just forget. Other times, we don’t. Some stories we don’t tell because we want those to just die, I guess.

“But the downside to that is that,” she paused, “Eventually, all we have are fragments of our loved ones – a lifetime of a human lost to time. What do we do then when we want to remember?”

I shrugged, unsure of an answer at the moment. Glancing down at my own paper, my eyes focused on my great-grandfather on my maternal grandmother’s side.

A few nights ago, my parents and I were tracing our own family story when we came across this man.

Not missing a beat, I interjected, “He was a general in the Japanese military. That’s why he was in Korea. I remember when Nana told me.”

There was silence on the other line.

“No,” my mother said. “He was a tailor.”

I paused.

“What?”

The room was oddly silent. It was the moment after something big, potentially earth-shattering, had dropped in the middle of the class. My professor closed his mouth and looked around the room, trying to gauge how well my classmates and I were taking the news. The emperor, it seems, actually had no clothes.

Glancing around myself, I noticed a few of my peers shifted uncomfortably in their seats. A few others held concerned or shocked looks.

“The evidence,” he repeated softly, as if he was afraid to shatter something nearby, “just isn’t there to support a historical conquest of Canaan as the book of Joshua describes it.”

One of my peers raised his hand “But doesn’t that mean…”

He trailed off, still processing what he was about to ask.

My professor waited for a moment before suggesting, “…that very little of this is historical?”

The student nodded.

“Does it matter?”

One of the strongest memories I have of high school is of my English class. It was raining softly outside, the kind of which would otherwise be perfect for staying indoors to wrap oneself up in a blanket along with a mug of hot chocolate or tea.

Inside the classroom had been slightly chilly. The radiator responsible for the chilliness was a cantankerous bloke which could never make up its mind whether to do its job at the given moment. One could tell it was going to work only when a mess of rattles and clinks tumbled out of the ventilation shafts and onto the floor, interrupting anyone who wanted to speak. Yet, one could never be too sure when such an act would occur.

My teacher, Billy, seemed unfazed. He had taught at the school in that same room for long enough to become a bit of a legend among students. He was unique. Cool, even, in those days. Billy would lean against his desk as he taught us uninterrupted by the radiator. We would lean in close to hear what he had to say during those times.

More often than not, he positioned himself so that the sunlight from the window on the far corner of the room reflected off of the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses concealing his eyes. We could never be too sure where he was looking. Not that we had to worry about it today of all days. We were engrossed in the book which we had been reading for the past week. Most everyone had something to share about it.

One student, sitting across from me, spoke up. “I honestly can’t believe that O’Brien made this stuff up. I don’t think I can trust anything he writes anymore.”

She held up her book, pointing out a little noticed detail until then. On the back cover, in small print, were the words “Historical Fiction.”

We were speaking, of course, of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a work focused on O’Brien’s account of the Vietnam War. And until that day, all of us students had believed this work was entirely factual. Of course, that belief could have been remedied by looking on the back cover of our editions, but it wasn’t until halfway through the book that many of us had the rug pulled out from under us as O’Brien explained the difference between happening truth and story truth.

Billy nodded and unfolded his arms, gesturing to my classmate.

“So what?” he inquired, “Does it matter whether it’s factual or not?”

There is a fine distinction that O’Brien makes regarding the relationship between truth and correlation to reality. “Happening Truth” describes what actually happened at a certain point in time. Truth and actuality overlap, and the narrative is historically verifiable. “Story Truth” describes the emotional truth of the moment. Here, truth and potentiality overlap. The narrative, in terms of matching up with a physical reality– that is, how things really played out, may be sacrificed for conveying a deeper meaning to the audience.

The problem with retelling a story word-for-word is that the subjective experience of the speaker is lost somewhat as the emotions, the surrounding context, everything is compressed into the boundaries of brittle symbols on a page, and what isn’t defined by the syntax or meaning of the words themselves are cut out, leaving behind an unfinished narrative.

Sometimes, it might be necessary to construct a skewed sense of reality to better convey the significance of an experience holistically or to fit one’s own context in a new or relevant manner.

For some in the room, it must have felt as though a sick and twisted version of the empty tomb played out before their eyes.

What if Christ was missing? What if all we had were the rags?

“One of the things we have to realize,” our professor started to say as he turned toward the student, “is that the expectations of the literature to be historical in our understanding of it didn’t become a thing until the twentieth century at least.

“But in case that’s not a satisfying answer for you,” he continued, moving his arms out, “here’s another thing: the power, truth, and reliability of Joshua is not dependent on its historicity. It was thought to be mostly written when the Israelites themselves were in exile and they wanted revenge on their oppressors.

“They wrote this text from the fragments they had alongside the situation they were in. This was as a means of forming in their people a sense of hope and identity even as they were out of the land that they were promised.”

Then, anticipating the mental thread some students were following, he added, “Plus, the Old Testament treats Joshua completely differently than how the New Testament treats the life and work of Jesus. We should be aware of what kind of animal we’re dealing with here.”

My parents and I began discussing what we knew about my great-grandfather from the stories my mother had from childhood.

It turns out all there was were fragments. Quick snippets from life. Of my grandmother growing up on an orchard in Korea. Of my great-grandfather sending my grandfather a tailored suit from overseas that fit to him perfectly. Of my grandmother fleeing Korea with her family as the communists invaded.

Fragments.

I hung up the phone, sitting in the silence of my room. The sun had begun to set a while ago, the sliver remaining casting long shadows in the room. What were we to do with the rest? Moreover, what did that mean for our family? For me?

After a moment, I stood, grabbing a dry-erase marker from a nearby shelf. Scratching out the fragments out on the board, I studied the facts.

When it comes to the truth of the memories of this man I never knew, of the life he lived, did it matter if I didn’t have all of the exact details of his life? What I had instead was the community of people still around profoundly impacted by him. Perhaps I could write something that could explain a bit about the influence he had.

Slowly, at first, but then picking up speed as I continued, I began to write.

Living Life Like A Jazz Piece

I ran into one of my professors in the halls the other day. As I turned the corner, our eyes met. His eyebrows rose as he tilted his head slightly, denoting a slight sense of surprise. The man is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom, embodied in the human equivalent of Flash from Zootopia.

“What are you still doing on campus?” he inquired, a low chuckle rumbling from deep within him. “Aren’t you sick of school?”

“I guess not.” I replied.

It’s been a week and a half since I graduated from my college. For the most part, the campus has fallen silent as students packed up and moved out in a mass exodus. A majority of the student body has headed back home. A few remain for work or for summer classes. The only others around are the faculty and staff, milling about the campus, running to this appointment or that.

There isn’t much space for a graduated senior at their college. Makes sense, I suppose. After walking across the stage and getting a diploma, it would make sense to call that chapter of life done and over with.

And yet, I remain.

In the classic movie, The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock finds himself in a similar circumstance as many former college students – back at his parents’ house and unsure of an answer to the unrelenting question of what he wants to do with his life. During the first few minutes of the film, Benjamin spends a good deal of time simply floating in his parents’ pool – an action analogous to his fear of committing to a single way of living.

While the audience may not be able to directly relate to the direction the film takes action-for-action, they can resonate with the sense of aimless floating that he experiences after he leaves the structured rigor of college, suddenly being thrust into the great unknown expanse of the rest of his life.

At least with school, there was a goal for which to strive. Now, there’s not a single goal that people seem to be living for anymore. We are given the keys. We are left alone.

There! You’ve graduated! You’re on your own. Fend for yourself!

A similar sentiment cropped up in me as, there in the hallway, my professor asked the same question that Benjamin Braddock so dreaded.

“So, what do you want to do with your life?”

As I stood there sharing some of my post-grad plans with my professor, he nodded, listening. When I expressed concern regarding what concentration I should pursue for my MDiv, he laughed softly.

“Are you a fan of jazz?” he asked.

“Sure. I listen to it on occasion.”

“Well,” he started, “I think life with God is like jazz. There are parts of each piece that are distinctive which need to happen for it to be considered complete.”

“But,” he noted, “there’s a lot of improvisation that goes on between the beginning and the end. But we’ll get to the end eventually. God is still sovereign.”

“So what I hear you saying,” I paused, “is that my conceptual understanding of and subscription to limited providence needs to find a practical outlet in my own life as well.”

He coughed. “No. What I’m saying is study what you want. If your prayer is to glorify God, then I doubt that God will ignore such a request.”

He paused to crack a smile.

“But seriously – you’re a graduate of the youth ministry program? Who are you talking to, using that vocabulary set anyways? Chill.”

We laughed.

The Shawshank Redemption is a 1994 movie in which Andy Dufresne is sentenced to two life sentences for a crime he didn’t commit. While in prison, Andy befriends Red, another inmate, who tells him about the phenomenon of institutionalization – where prisoners who finished serving long sentences cannot figure out how to function in the outside world.

The notion of the familiar, paired with the limited amount of choices on how to live well given a certain set of circumstances, is comforting in light of overwhelming freedom. Institutionalization, I believe, appears to be a rational move for persons most familiar with a limited set of choices because we all hope to be good at the core of who we are. And we are better at those things with which we are most familiar. Failing to choose well in light of a massive selection of choices, most of which we hadn’t access to before because of the previous restrictions, paralyzes people trying live good lives.

I think it’s connected to the thought that we might choose to do something that is so incredibly wrong, we throw everything out of whack around us. Hidden in this assumption is the notion that there is one right way to do everything. That God has a single plan and if you mess up you can’t get back in on it.

But the thing is with jazz is that there’s a lot of space for creativity and what seems to be missteps. They all get incorporated into the piece eventually.

Likewise, if we hold that God is a creator and redeemer, he can do just that with each of our choices that we make. No matter what program, what experience, what decisions we choose. We just get to enjoy the music we make together.

Like Two Eight-Year-Olds in a Trench Coat

With all of the craziness of last semester, it’s hard to find time for recollection and reflection. Readings for this class have to be done by such-and-such a day. Graduate applications are due the same day as two papers. And, oh, did you remember about the project that’s due for work in the next few days?

Granted, with the trajectory that many students like me are taking, we’re either going to graduate on time or crash and burn in a blaze of glory. Maybe both.

Funny thing, that. Graduation from college. In little more than ten weeks’ time, many of my friends and I will cross a stage, be handed a diploma, and land in adulthood.

Theoretically. At least, that’s what it seems like we’re supposed to be doing.

But on certain nights when I’m being honest with myself, I don’t know what life will look like after graduation. I don’t know if or when I’ll see many of my closest friends anymore. I don’t know where life will take us.

And that frightens and excites me simultaneously in a wonderful, horrific amalgamation of emotions somewhat typical of the human experience, as I’ve so learned.

As a senior looking at the immanent reality of life potentially outside of academia, I suddenly feel like two eight-year-olds in a trench coat wielding a cardboard sword and sent off to face the dragons of life.

I wonder how many people feel the same exact way?

I’ve found some solace in the story of a man in a similar circumstance. He was impulsive, rough around the edges, and not the sharpest one of his friend group. But he was dependable when his passions didn’t get in the way. I think that’s why his friends called him Rock, err, I mean Peter.

When Peter began following Jesus, he had just given up his fishing nets. He had little, if any, training for the road ahead of him. He was a blue-collar worker, through and through. And yet, it was this Rock, this Peter, that Jesus chose to be the Rock upon which to build his church. It was this Peter that took up the mantle of leadership after only three and a half years of training.

I’m sure he (and the rest of the disciples) felt the same way that many of us do.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch of the imagination to say that I’m a self-professed nerd and proud of it. I count myself as one among many of the fandoms that exist throughout the world.

Lord of the Rings? You bet.

Star Wars? Of course.

Hunger Games? Maybe a bit of a stretch for it, but I can see its appeal.

The funny thing about each of these series is that each one of them boils down to the same story at the end of the day. Someone is called upon out of a backwater community to overcome some great obstacle or seemingly invincible evil. But, as time goes on, they find that they aren’t alone – they are joined by people who provide support, companionship, and advice along the way. Eventually, depending on how their allies have influenced them, the unlikely hero makes a decision that will have a sweeping impact on the world around them – for better or for worse.

But why tell the same story?

It seems as though the reason is that there is something about these stories that resonates with the core of our experience as a species. Something about these stories tells us that for any journey we go on, we need someone else to walk alongside us, providing companionship, support, and advice along the way. We need others to tell us that the journey is worth taking in the first place.

It reminds us, suggests G.K. Chesterton, not that dragons are real, but that our dragons are defeatable.

When I started on my journey at my undergraduate college, I came in confident of my positions. I thought I only had a few questions. I thought college was about merely refining the beliefs I held about the world.

I’m leaving college with more questions than I had coming in. I think that’s the point of college – to sharpen your hunger for knowledge, to whet your appetite for truth, and to give words and shape to identifying beauty and nuance.

But I’m also leaving college with a newfound respect for community.

I’m glad that the Gospel of John ends the same way that the book of Genesis begins. It begins, and ends, in darkness.

The Gospel of John’s final chapter opens a few minutes before sunrise. For those who have gotten up early enough, you’d know it’s one of the darkest moments of the day. The moon has set. The stars have disappeared. The world itself seems like it’s holding its breath.

If the chapter was part of a movie, the camera would open, hovering over the surface of the deep, just above the waters of the Sea of Galilee. As it pans horizontally, it would pause as it faced east.

And then, right where the sky meets the sea, the camera could just make out the silhouette of a small fishing vessel. On it are some men and women, not unlike you and I, puzzling over what to make of the past few years.

You see, just there on that very same shoreline came a man who invited each of them on a journey. And for those that followed him, they got to see him do some amazing things. At times, they heard him say some incredibly challenging things, too. But above all, as these men and women got to know this strange man from Nazareth, he taught them day by day how to write a better story with their lives.

And yet, in the last couple of weeks, everything went sideways. The world turned upside down and these men and women found themselves running for the hills in their friend’s moment of greatest need. They found themselves returning to writing the stories that the world told them made the most sense – basing their value and belonging on what they did or what they knew.

And for many of these men and women, what they did and what they knew had to do a lot with fish. And so, they returned to their old way of living.

Eventually, they decide to call it a night and draw in near the shore. As the boats get closer, though, one of the men leans out over the bow and squints. He points. Far off, there, on the shore, is a man. At first, nobody knows who he is. Neither would you in the same type of lighting. But as the boats draw closer, the look on his face changes. He’s puzzled, not sure whether to be overjoyed or ashamed.

As the light of the rising sun reflects off the water, it lights up his face so you can see who it is who’s doing the pointing. It’s Peter – Jesus’ right-hand man. So too, can the men and women see who is waiting for them on the shore – the same man that they left in his moment of greatest need.

But instead of reacting in a way that would make sense in a story that the world told the men and women they should tell, Jesus does something completely different. He doesn’t judge them based on how well or poorly they did. But he doesn’t laugh at the fact that they don’t know the answers to all their questions, either.

But instead of showing his power by saying “Let there be light” and throwing another star into the sky, Jesus turns to his friends who still don’t know how to react and bids them join him at the small charcoal fire he had started, one large enough to cook breakfast for his friends.

And it is over food that Jesus calls Peter, who still can’t look his friend in the eyes just quite yet, and recommissions him for the work to which he was called.

The notion of stepping out into the unknown is still a frightening thing. I have more questions than I believe I have answers. I wonder if my cardboard sword is enough to take down the dragons I face. I’m afraid to make mistakes.

But I take solace in the fact that when Jesus made the church, he made it out of humans. Humans like Peter, like Thomas, like Matthew, like Joanna, like Mary, like Martha. Humans that have in them the same amount of intelligence and stupidity, of humility and pride, of malleability and stubbornness that each of us is made of. That you’re made of. That I’m made of. They struggled with getting Jesus’ message as much as we do today.

And yet, Jesus continues to work with them. He reminds them that there’s a better story to tell. And it is the same story that allows us to do as the disciples did  – to step into the dark, into the unknown, as sheep among wolves, as a bunch of eight-year-olds in trenchcoats, advancing the Kingdom in their own little ways.

The story that they learned to tell was one that said that community and belonging and meaning was not based on how much they knew, or how much they did, but on who they found themselves in relationships with.

Their stories tell me that regardless of where I end up, I can still tell a better story. And I suppose that in this, I can find some rest.

That is if I can get this paper in first.

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.

 

Ring Around A Story

I found myself sitting in a Chick-fil-A with some friends of mine the other night. We were feeling in the mood for a quick bite after small group one evening and we knew that we were a short drive away.

Inside the establishment, the five of us sat around a set of two tables in the center of the restaurant. The crowds that normally thronged the place had long since gone their own separate ways. The only sound apart from the soft instrumental music was the gentle sweep of a broom far across the room. Somewhere, off in the distance, I heard my friends talking.

I watched as the last of the rush hour traffic slowly dissipated, a lone car winding its way past in the night. Across the road, my university campus stood quietly, tucked behind bushes and trees as if it were listening for something.

I paused to scratch a note on a napkin. Looking up, I saw that one of my friends was looking intently at my hand.

“Oh,” I said, “don’t mind me, I’m just writing down something for later.”

She didn’t seem to care.

“What do those rings mean?” she asked.

I smiled.

“Now, that is a bit of a story,” I said. “Do you have a moment?”

“Of course,” she replied. “Why do you think we’re here?”

“Well,” I started, “it might take a while. I wrote it down somewhere. D’ya mind?”

She shook her head.

“Here goes.”

Frederick Buechner once wrote that “it is the sermons we preach to ourselves around the preacher’s sermons that are the ones that we hear most powerfully.” The same can be said for stories, I think. In some strange way, we have discovered means by which to communicate as a species, where we can take one intensely personal concept, ascribe to it a sound, and send it across the void to a receiver who can take that strange, chaotic, random, arbitrary, wonderful noise and translate it into the idea once again, more or less. But in doing so, we imbue the noise with our own experience.

My notion of love is similar, but not exact, to the person that sits across from me. Such an abstract concept must have some concretion to it, and we fill in the gaps with our memories that we affiliate with the notion of love. And depending on how we were impacted and informed through these experiences, our notions of love may be related, but not exactly the same. Perspective matters.

I finished the story right as a staff member had come by to inform us that the restaurant was closing for the night. We thanked her and stepped out into the warm evening.

“So, what did you think?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “You told me a story about the ring, but you never came out with what the ring means exactly.”

I smirked. “Does it matter?”

Her inquiring look turned to that of annoyance.

“Well, yeah, it does,” she protested. “There has got to be a single meaning behind the ring.”

She paused for a moment. “Right?”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “What if you read the story and I wasn’t here? How would you know if what you believed the ring to be about was right?”

My friend was silent, deep in thought. “Well, that wouldn’t matter, because you’re here now.”

“Aw, come on,” I laughed. “That’s cheating.”

We all stopped outside my apartment complex. Here and there, one could see streetlights with their warm glow dot the area here and there. Occasionally, a tree would obscure the streetlights for a moment, until a breeze pushed their branches out of the way for a moment. In the distance, someone was shooting off leftover fireworks from their fourth of July celebrations.

After looking around for a brief moment, I turned to leave but paused, a playful smile creeping across my face.

“Here’s your last chance!” I said. “Take another guess.”

“Well,” she pondered, “You must have had some intended meaning when you wrote the story.”

I nodded as she continued. “But at the exact same time, I don’t know what you were thinking exactly at that moment. Plus, I only know my own experience.”

Her eyes lit up. “Are- are you saying that the meaning is flexible? That there’s a certain frame around which meaning is determined? Is there no right or wrong answer?”

“Maybe,” I replied, “but that would make the purpose of storytelling pointless. Something needs to serve as an anchor. I think the author only generates half of the meaning, and the other is your own experience.”

I paused at the edge of the sidewalk. “That’s why stories are so powerful. They adapt. Tolle lege.

I think the reason why we get so caught up in trying to determine one simple meaning from a story down is because we like the idea of control. We appreciate that there should only be one author and the characters simply support the plot. And yet the biblical scholar Walter Wink once observed that objectivism is possible, but not in the sense which modernity holds – that all bias can be removed and one absolute truth can be reached. However, objectivity is possible through acknowledging the biases of the authors to the best of our ability and moving through it.

I used to think that I was the only author to my story, but now I know that we all play a role in writing each scene, and each narrator has a different take on the unfolding events. Hence, every author only makes half of the meaning. The task of interpretation is left up to the recipient.

The beauty of post-modernity and storytelling is the fact that one’s perspective isn’t wrong, but it’s also not complete either. We need to continue to make room to hear others’ takes so we can see a fuller perspective.

Both ask us, in other words, to be willing to sit down over a meal with another person. By doing so, we can evaluate how each perspective is valid, rather than falling into the binary of absolute right and absolute wrong.

Oftentimes, I’d wager, the reason why a person holds a position is because it has worked for them to some capacity. Now, the task is uncovering why, how, and to what extent each position works.

And that requires a lot of listening.

I had reached the door to my apartment and was turning the key when my friend cleared her throat. I glanced up.

“Do you ever think you’ll write a story about us, then?” my friend asked.

“Perhaps,” I concluded, “but that’s a story still being written. And God knows what that means…”

My friends rolled their eyes and began to walk away.

Far off, their car started up and drove off into the night. It was almost quiet again. But as I listened, I heard that somewhere, someone was playing jazz.

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.”