Urban Clods

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

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

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

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

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

He raised an eyebrow, “Oh?”

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

“How so?”

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

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

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

What does it actually mean that Jesus paid it all?

What is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our friends?”

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

“I miss them.”

“I know. I do too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Mudpies for Bread

In perpetual motion I can mistake the flow of my adrenaline for the moving of the Holy Spirit; I can live in the illusion that I am ultimately in control of my destiny and my daily affairs.

-Leighton Ford


When I find myself back out East, I try to set aside some time to reconnect with old friends from high school. It’s rather difficult when so many of them have their own jobs and lives and interests. Everyone’s busy. They call that adulting, I suppose. But on the off chance that any number of us were free, and we had enough gas money to get from one place to the other, we often would spend the night at the local bowling alley.

Of course, none of us are remotely good at bowling. Tomek, maybe. One of my friends considered shot put as a more effective means of getting all ten pins down. To us, it didn’t matter. We’d laugh as we shot the breeze, hearing how one another has been doing. We’d burn $50 in the process, but I felt it was always worth it. Except, for some reason, this past December.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that my family had moved an hour away.

Perhaps it had to do with the chilliness of the New England winter evening.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that my friend served me a thick slice of humble pie round after round of bowling.

But honestly, I think it had to do with something else.

When many of us were younger, I would wager most spent the day after a long rain making mudpies in the backyard. Like bowling with my friends, mudpie-making was something of a conference for toddlers – it was the thing to do for the outgoing child who desired making connections. In my neighborhood, any little person that disliked dirt was automatically suspect. But just like reflecting about the ultimate meaning of making mudpies, I wonder whether the habits and rituals we have are just as pointless sometimes.

Recently, I was given the passage on the Emmaus Road in Luke to read. It centers around two disciples walking home when suddenly Jesus shows up and decides to join them. Yet, strangely enough, the two cannot see that it is Jesus for one reason or another. Eventually, the three strike up a conversation. Finally, after sharing a meal do the disciples see their Teacher and Lord before them, and they run back to tell the others after he vanishes.

The story, at least for me, seems deceptively straightforward because it highlights something which I have adapted to take as my status quo. I believe that part of its significance rests on the notion that we humans are so caught up in our own circumstances and situations that we are blind to the presence of Christ around us. What I am learning constantly every day is that it is not in the loud and flashy things that Christ comes to us, but in the silence and the humble events of the day-to-day.

When Christ appeared to the disciples, they were kept from recognizing him. Yet, instead of demanding that they know who he is, Christ journeyed with them until the end of the day. I sometimes wonder whether it wasn’t God who prevented their recognition of Christ, but rather their concerns about the unfolding of events in Jerusalem.

In slowing down and stilling our frenetic selves, we might begin to see the Face of God in those around us. We detach ourselves from our agendas and plans, divorcing ourselves from the demand to prove our worth through constant achievement. In so doing, we make space for

In practicing stillness, when we encounter Christ, we are reminded that our value rests in our being created in the image of God rather than contingent on our ability to produce. Humans are not merely items to be used, but rather are made to experience and reflect the love of God toward one another.

When we busy ourselves, we are tempted to think that we are the captains of our own souls. It is our agenda, filled with our tasks, to be done by us, for the sake of one of our goals. It is hard to hear the voice of the Teacher call out to us in these moments to come and sit at his feet when we are caught up in making sure that we are presentable enough to Him in the first place. When our source of value of being made in the Image of God to do good works is shifted to the quality and quantity of what we can produce, we ignore the invitation to the banquet feast in favor of our own mudpies. We may be satisfied in the present when still have room to pretend, but mudpies are a far thing from the bread of life. Our hunger pangs cannot be soothed by our imaginations.

Thomas Merton once stated that when we confuse our sense of self for an image which we manufacture, “…his spiritual double vision splits him into two people. And if he strains his eyes hard enough, he forgets which one is real.”[1] With your identity based upon what you do, you can never be satisfied with who you are. In order to pursue the ideal self, you must do more. The consequence is that when we do more to attain the ideal, we become out of touch with who we are in reality to the point that we are a shade of who we are designed to be.

How can someone love you when they don’t know who or what you are? How can you be loved when you don’t either?

When I found myself at the bowling alley with my friends this past month, I think my friends were more focused on the doing that they neglected simply being with one another and myself. Instead of using bowling as a means to connect, it became an end in and of itself. In so doing, I missed seeing Christ in my friends. I think I missed them. I think we all found ourselves bowling alone together.

All for the sake of a pointless mudpie.

[1] Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. 2002), 119.


An Autopsy Over Breakfast

Recently, I sat down to breakfast with a man I have come to call a friend. It had been a while since we had talked, but like every other time when we chance across one another’s path, it was as if only a few days had passed.

Upon ordering our meals, my friend rolled up his shirt sleeves, shifting his weight onto his elbows as he leaned forward.

“How are you doing?”

For most people when they ask this question, they usually are looking for an answer pertaining to one’s emotional or physical health. And, while my friend was interested in those categories, he and I are both men of faith.

He, a pastor finishing up the ordination process, and I, a college student studying ministry for youth and their families, often also imply how a person is doing in his or her walk of faith when we ask that question. But there is a loophole that I’ve come to notice when it comes to answering the question: most people are satisfied when you can rattle off all sorts of activities which you have been doing and not once mention how you are.

My friend has noticed this too, which is something I appreciate and slightly hate about our conversations. He calls me out on trying to weasel out of the uncomfortable truth of the matter. Once, I thought a good Christian was defined by how many Jesus-themed pies they had their thumbs in. Now, I realize that it’s more about knowing and abiding in the person of Christ.

My friend waited, sipping on the mug of coffee which had been perched precariously on the edge of the table as I shifted in my seat.

“To be honest, I feel dead – like nothing’s going on inside. I feel totally unqualified for ministry and I don’t know where my life is going right now.”

And in the moment when I was expecting what the traditional confession script would call for a sympathetic or concerned look, instead, he raised an eyebrow over the rim of the mug. Placing his coffee back down on the table, he smiled slightly, as if he knew exactly from where I was coming.

He paused to focus on the cup in front of him for a moment, turning the mug so that the handle pointed at a ninety-degree angle from either of us before looking at me again.

“Now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me about it.”

I used to do a lot of things in the name of Christ. I used to write a blog, not unlike this one. I helped pastor a church’s youth group. I used to lead a Bible Study. I had hoped that in doing all these things, I would unconsciously find myself becoming more like Christ and seeking further union with the Father through Christ as mediated through the work of the Holy Spirit. But I’m learning that nothing other than rot comes from “leaving” most things up to the work of the unconscious when faith is involved. It’s like having a person trust in their capability to sleepwalk up an escalator. In the meanwhile, they’ll sleep at the bottom until that point arrives.

Part of the problem is that we are lured into thinking that every one of us is in a good community until we ask for accountability or vulnerability. Most of our understanding of friendship has been informed by social media – that people are merely a sum of their pics and status updates. Our understanding of community is likewise stunted.

I used to do all sorts of things in Christ’s name, but I think I’ve been guilty this whole time of taking his name in vain. After entering college, I stopped blogging for my own sake because I thought the opinions of others mattered more to me. After helping with the pastoring at a youth group for a couple of years, I stopped seeing my nights working with teenagers as a blessing and more of a burden. I became a martyr in my own eyes while my friends began to pale in comparison.

My problem is the same problem that has plagued us since Adam: hubris. The problem with hubris is that it is a necrotic infection. It eats away at the healthy tissue within the body while leaving the exterior untouched for as long as possible. I don’t think I need wonder how Lucifer is still able to masquerade as an angel of light; it’s the inside that is dead and hollow. The outside is too concerned with being a validation of its own way of doing things to itself to care.

I still think that half the time, it’s better for people who study anything theologically-related to keep their majors under wraps. This is because when people do find out, we theologically-minded individuals become lepers to an extent. Nobody thinks that we need as much soul care as everyone else since we have enough of our ducks in a row to think we want to be pastors. The truth is, we are just as frail and weak and forgetful as the next person. Martin Luther once said we (all) need to hear the Gospel every day because we forget it every day. Ministry majors and pastors included.

I chose to leave vocational ministry for some time because I realize that I am at the brunt of John 15 – apart from Christ, I can do nothing. It’s time to start the Father to prune once more as I seek his lead through prayer, Scripture, and journaling.

I looked at my friend, searching his face for any sign of emotion as he processed what I had said.

“How’s that for how I’m doing?” I inquired.

His eyes focused as he glanced in my direction. “Sounds like you have a lot in store for this next season. That’s one heck of an autopsy over breakfast.”

I laughed as I began to finish the corned beef hash on my plate. “Yeah.” I ventured. “I would hope so.”

Thomas Merton once said that it was hope that emptied our hands that we might work with them again. And it is hope that drives me into this new season of living into what it means to follow Christ.

So be it. Amen.