30 Words In 30 Days: CATHEDRAL

This piece is a part of the series 30 Words In 30 DaysRead previous parts of the series here: WORD | HOLY | RELEVANT | WONDER | WINDOWS | TOWER | BENCH

CATHEDRAL.

I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters this week for something I’m working on at church and I came across this brilliant bit the other day:

The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents – or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.

For those unfamiliar with The Screwtape Letters, it’s important to note that the book is written entirely in the form of letters from a “senior demon” named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a “junior tempter.” The “Enemy” is God. The man is someone only called the “patient” in the book but really, the man is all of us.

The excerpt is especially timely for our day and age. We’re living in an era of cathedral-builders. Everyone’s working on the next big thing. Here in the Silicon Valley, we’re surrounded by the best and brightest, men and women who are making and creating some of the most interesting stuff in the world. And regardless of the industry, we all find ourselves caught up in the energy of this ever-growing cadre of innovators. My industry happens to be the church – the world of preachers and prophets, artists and theologians – and even we find ourselves swept up in it, laying brick on brick, admiring our cathedrals as we build them high into the limitless heavens.

There is however a subtle danger that Lewis astutely points out. It’s the danger of self-centered attachment. I have time and time again found myself dealing with this destructive sort of fastening on to the various cathedrals I work so hard to build. Sometimes it’s a message preached and other times it’s a blog post written. Sometimes it’s something else. I build my cathedrals and admire them as my own. But soon enough, each and every time, they come crashing down and I’m left with the familiar rubble of my own shallowness and self-centric tendencies. Much like a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall, the real power of the cathedrals we think we’re building lies in something completely beyond us. The sooner we recognize that, the better off we’ll be.

Some friends of mine wrote a song a while back called Cathedral (be forewarned – it’s loud). The song is about the Church and the many ways we try to build her in our own image…

We raised Her body. 
We made Her mind think. 
We told Her mouth speak. 
We built Her heart beat. 

…only to be left with a single unwavering question in the end: But where’s Her spirit?  

Despite all our best efforts, all of our brilliance and imagination, there is only one thing that elevates those cathedrals which most move and inspire us. Spirit. And for that, may we acknowledge God alone, who is Himself the Spirit and gives to us freely. As Lewis encourages us, may we rejoice, free from any bias in our own favor, with gratitude.

cathedral

30 Words In 30 Days: BENCH

This piece is a part of the series 30 Words In 30 DaysRead previous parts of the series here: WORD | HOLY | RELEVANT | WONDER | WINDOWS | TOWER

BENCH.

I saw her only for a moment, the time it took for the light to go from red to green. I swiveled as we drove off slowly and craned my neck as far as it would go to hold her in view for as long as I could. Her skin was dark and she had a well worn countenance, both exhausted and proud. She was clutching a plastic bag with some items from the local mercado y carniceria behind her. Sitting there alone at the bus stop bench, she seemed to exude a sort of strength that could only come from surviving years of backbreaking struggle. Our eyes had met for just a second and I knew immediately that hers were deeper than mine. Her eyes had undoubtedly seen more hope and heartbreak and triumph and tragedy than mine. They’d shed tears of love and loss in ways that mine never have. I was unexpectedly mesmerized. This plain, elderly Hispanic woman leapt off the page of the passing scenery, reminding that she was human, that she had a story, and that this all matters.

While we drove past, my friend was playing a song in the car called St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues by the band La Dispute. It tells the story of a once-thriving, now-empty church.

That parking lot grew dim and thin of sinners and saints,
Until the voices, unceasing, slowly faded to black,
Until the weeds stormed the concrete from unattended cracks.
Ten years now standing vacant. Ten years on empty, maybe more.
Once held the faith of hundreds, soon one more cell phone store.

The song was about an empty church but it also seemed to be about something else. It seemed to be about this woman at the bus stop bench. And it seemed to be about me. I think it might’ve been about you too. Because we all know what it’s like to be a part of the passing scenery. Maybe we mattered once but no longer. Maybe we’ve never mattered and are afraid we never will. And what we want more than anything is to leap off the pages of our lives, to remind the world that we’re human, we have a story, and we do in fact matter. If they could only see that we matter! We’re all afraid of the weeds storming from unattended cracks, of sitting too long at the bus stop bench, unseen and unnoticed, waiting for a bus that never comes, headed nowhere, atrophying in place, slowly fading away into a quiet nothingness, unremembered and unmissed.

Recent estimates say that there are more than 750,000 illegal immigrants living in Los Angeles County, which means that there’s about a one in seven chance that the woman I saw that day at the bus stop bench is herself an illegal. But I cannot possibly see her that way. I don’t know any details of her story but I know that her status, legal or illegal, has very little to do with who she is to me and who she ought to be to the rest of us. Shortly after passing her, we stopped to take a picture of this banner hanging from the front gate of a church just a block down the street from the bus stop:

banner

I’m not informed enough to intelligently and responsibly contribute to the dialogue regarding the politics, socio-economics, and ethics of immigration reform. That isn’t the point or purpose of this piece. But I will say this. The possession of proper documentation or lack thereof does not and cannot ever dictate the irrefutable, irrevocable, and intrinsic human value in each and every one of us. The gift of one’s humanity, of one’s humanness, is a gift given only by God, not by government, church, or any other institution. Therefore, I believe that the primary work of the Christian is to identify, appreciate, and accentuate this gift of God in each and every person we encounter.

The La Dispute song about the dying church concludes with this hopeful image:

And just the other day I swear I saw a man there pulling weeds out of the concrete,
Sweeping up and patching cracks,
I saw him lift a rag to wash the years of filth from off those windows.
Made me wonder if there’s anyone like that for you and me
and anybody else who’s broke and lost hope.

It is the work of the Christian to pull the weeds out of the concrete, to sweep up and patch the cracks. It is the work of the Christian to wash the years of filth from off the windows so that others too might see. It is the work of the Christian to see those sitting at bus stop benches, alone and afraid, tired and weary, pushed to the margins by systems and structures designed to keep them underfoot, and to give them a longer look than most others would, to give them time to leap off the pages of the passing scenery so that they might remind us that they’re human. So that they might remind us that we are too, just like them.

bench

30 Words In 30 Days: TOWER

This piece is a part of the series 30 Words In 30 Days. Read previous parts of the series here: WORD | HOLY | RELEVANT | WONDER | WINDOWS

TOWER.

In Genesis 11v1-9 we read the story of people building a city and a tower. The story tells us that at the time, everyone had one language and a common speech. Can you imagine? Everyone speaking the same language with no communication barriers whatsoever. But soon after, things go wrong, as they tend to do in Biblical stories. The people decide to build. Their reasons for building? So that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth. They believe that making a name for themselves is the only way to keep from being scattered over the face of the earth.

When this story was first circulated, orally, and then eventually written down, it was during a time in human history when location mattered a great deal. The land you lived on was usually land handed down to you by previous generations of your family. The land you lived on signified more than a mortgage payment as it does today. Back then, it signified your lineage, your tribe, your heritage. Some would even go so far as to say that the land you lived on signified your identity. We see this in the story of the Israelites. When God rescues them out of slavery in Egypt, he does so in order to lead them to their Promised Land. If it so happened that the land you lived on wasn’t handed down through generations of your family, then you were living on someone else’s land. And if you were living on someone else’s land, you were likely enslaved to this someone else, hoping against all hope that someday you too might find your own land. We’ll come back to this shortly. But first, a bit more about the city and the tower.

The story seems to go out of its way to tell us not just why but also how the people built their city and their tower. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. These details are about technology. They’re displays of human ingenuity, of what’s possible when people put their minds to work. In some measure, they ought to be celebrated. Somewhere along the way, a few brilliant people discovered that you could shape and harden dirt into something much more conducive to tower-building than stones. Building a tower with stones is near impossible, particularly during a time in history when shaping rock was an arduous and often impossible task. But with brick? And mortar to keep things together? Even the heavens themselves seemed within reach! Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens. 

This is a story about what happens when land and technology, the things we own and the things we make, corrupt and deteriorate us into a version of ourselves that misses the point entirely. Remember, there was one language and a common speech - a oneness the likes of which we haven’t seen since the story of this city and its tower. But the desire to keep what was never ours to begin with and to create for the sake of making a name for ourselves rather than for the common good – these tragic human tendencies ruined the beauty of this oneness. God intervenes.

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel - because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

But within this story of failure, chaos, and confusion, there’s a surprising hope. It’s a hope for those on the underside of the story, those being trampled underfoot by those who own the land and invent the brick and mortar. The city was called Babel. And Babel was another name for Babylon. Many scholars today believe that this Jewish story of the Tower of Babel was first told and written during a time when the Jewish people were landless, living on the outskirts, relocated and dispersed to live nomadically by the Babylonian Empire, which ruled with technological might and military ingenuity at the time.

And so, this story is about more than just land and technology and the consequences that follow. This story is about those at the foot of the tower, gathering dirt, mixing it into brick, laying on the mortar. This story is about the oppressed and powerless and marginalized. This story is about slaves living on someone else’s land. And ultimately, this story is about God’s promise to them… and to us… that a new day is coming, when the high and mighty will be laid low, when those who desire only to make a name for themselves will be thwarted, when God will restore the oneness of us all with one language and a common speech. This is a story about the fall of empires that believe they might reach the heavens and the lifting up of the rest of us who so desperately need heaven to reach down low to us.

tower

30 Words In 30 Days: WINDOWS

This piece is a part of the series 30 Words In 30 DaysRead previous parts of the series here: WORD | HOLY | RELEVANT | WONDER

WINDOWS.

Everything we see, we see through windows.

Some are large and some are small. Some are wide and others are narrow.

The frames are built by our histories, both personal and communal, by our experiences and by our personalities.

The glass, burnt and shaped by the homes where we grew up, the food we ate, the sights we saw, and the heartbreaks we felt.

Our windows have been crafted by the world we were exposed to and the world we are shaping.

They are tinted with the colors of our ideologies and politics, our denominations and dogmas, our theologies and varying orthodoxies. Our windows are tinted with the colors of our prejudice and our fear, our insecurities and our ignorance.

And so, our windows are prison bars, the frustrating blinders that keep us from seeing the whole picture. They frame and limit our view in such a way that what we know to be real is only a glimmer of what’s actually true.

Because what we know, what we all know deep inside our unchained souls, is that God is not in the window. We know this because while our eyes can only see through our windows, our souls fly free and return to us from time to time with whispers of what’s possible out there, beyond – peace, hope, grace, love.  Our souls return to us to remind us that God is not in the window. God is beyond, in the distant colors, vibrant, beautiful, and true.

And so, everything we see, we see through windows. But may we learn to see beyond, past the window, into the world, where God lives, breathes, and moves.

windows

 

30 Words In 30 Days: WONDER

This piece is a part of the series 30 Words In 30 DaysRead previous parts of the series here: WORD | HOLY | RELEVANT

WONDER.

Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me. - Abraham Joshua Heschel

Admittedly, I do not have much to offer anyone in the way of life advice but in my brief 30-something years, I have grown confident of this: WONDER is a great and necessary gift. In our technologically advanced age, we’ve grown accustomed to immediate answers and simple solutions, as though they were our birthrights. Yet we’ve forgotten what it was really like back when we were closer to birth than to death. The writer G.K. Chesterton reminds us, What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world.

A miraculous world. What would it be like to see life through the unjaded eyes of children or to touch it with the uncalloused hands of youth? Certainly, it would look and feel quite different. Some believe that wonder is a sort of naïveté, an unchecked foolishness that refuses to see things as they truly are. But I believe that wonder is in fact the way to achieve the truest brilliance we can ever know – to experience and embrace the hidden beauty latent in even the most common things. Wonder illuminates everything. It allows us to see the extraordinary where others only see the ordinary.  It holds us, still and breathless, at the sight of the setting sun or the cooing of a newborn child. Wonder invites us to leap for joy and to fall in love.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, as they say, but only those full of wonder can behold true beauty. Without wonder, our eyes grow dim and our hands grow calloused. Without wonder, our hearts become static, a muscle designed to feel that gets relegated to an organ of functionality, simply pumping blood to keep us breathing but not really, truly alive. But with wonder, even as our bodies inch closer to death every moment of every day, we come alive in inexplicable ways.

I have come to believe that the spiritual life is, simply put, a life of wonder. As the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. [...] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed. So today, and for the rest of our lives, may we live in radical amazement, full of wonder at life, taking nothing for granted.

 

wonder

 

30 Words In 30 Days: RELEVANT

This piece is a part of the series 30 Words In 30 DaysRead previous parts of the series here: WORD | HOLY

RELEVANT.

Is your message relevant? Is your church relevant? Are you relevant? Just how relevant are you?

I’m not sure exactly when it happened but at some point in recent American church history, the word relevant became chic. It started popping up in vision statements, mission statements, statements of faith, tag lines, t-shirts, billboards, websites, and on and on. And it always meant well. For a while, it was actually quite helpful. It gave us a new filter for thinking about the creation and execution of sermons, programs, and events. Relevant breathed new life into the church and how we might reach the world in which we live. It reminded us that the here and now matters a great deal. It gave us permission to engage and, in some cases, even enjoy the culture we found ourselves in. The emphasis on being relevant forced us to take notice of what was happening in the news, on television, in film, music, and the arts. We started seeing the Gospel in everything, from Starbucks to Harry Potter to The Sopranos. Every other church service I went to in the early 2000s seemed to use either this clip from The Matrix or this one from Saving Private Ryan. We couldn’t get enough. Everything was a potential illustration, a metaphor for God or Jesus or heaven or hell, just waiting to happen.

But I think something has gone awry. In this tidal wave of effort to make the message more accessible or more palatable for the masses, we’ve often ended up slightly disingenuous and marginally insincere. The danger is that our deceit is rarely explicit. Everything usually looks fine on the surface.

We need to be relevant, so we’ll use this illustration, we’ll brand the series this way, we’ll set up these particular programming elements, etc.

{It’s not really the most genuine representation of who am I and the story I’m living, but…}

It’s what seems most relevant to what’s happening in culture, what’s chic, what’s popular… so that’s what we’ll do.

This is a common line of thinking that has entrapped me time and time again over the years. Instead of giving people my most genuine self, I have often given them what I think is the most relevant version of myself. Instead of simply presenting The Gospel According To What God Is Actually Doing In My Life Today, I present The Gospel According To The Version of Jay That Will Probably, Most Likely Garner Some Level Of Comfort Because It Looks, Sounds, Feels Like Something Vaguely Familiar. I have discovered in recent years that if I’m not careful, my tendency to bend awkwardly toward relevance comes off looking like this or like this. What does a terrible “rap” song about Jesus’ resurrection actually tell the world? Well, for one, the lyrics tell the world that when Jesus died, Devil said, “Yo he’s on tilt for real”, He felt so crush, he busted a pose (?). But more importantly, it tells the world what horrendous comb overs tell the world: I’m really bald but I don’t think you’d like me as much if you knew that so here are nine thin strands of hair over my dome. Enjoy.

Socio-economists say that we’ve now entered the era of authenticity, where the highest commodity for consumers isn’t what culture says is relevant but rather, what their intuition tells them is real. In this new era, relevant content that we think will make a message accessible and relevant illustrations that hold some sort of contemporary significance take back seats to the simplicity of genuine, authentic, real humanness on display. One of my favorite seminary professors told me once, As a communicator, if your focus is on “being relevant” to your audience, you’ve already given in to a perceived separation. But if you focus on “developing rapport”, you are moving past the separation and leaning into your common heritage as human beings, beloved children of God, the Church. I love that. Rapport over Relevant. Leaning into our common heritage rather than overcompensating for a perceived separation.

Loosening our tight grip on the desire to be relevant will take much work. The space we used to fill with relevance – in our teaching, preaching, programming, music, branding, etc.- will now need to be filled with something else. I would suggest that the best thing to fill it with is vulnerability. And vulnerability is frighteningly hard but it’s also what creates rapport between us. It’s what builds trust and out of trust comes the opportunity to courageously speak truth into the lives of others. The writer Brené Brown says, Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.

So if you are responsible for communicating the beauty and goodness of God’s kingdom (and I would suggest that all things that are truly beautiful and good are of God’s kingdom), stop trying so hard to be relevant. I do not mean stop using metaphors or illustrations. But when you do, make sure they’re really you. And be vulnerable. Be genuine and authentic and real. Be yourself, with all of your faults and failures and flaws. Leave relevance behind. Let’s start building rapport.

relevant

30 Words In 30 Days: HOLY

This piece is a part of the series 30 Words In 30 DaysRead previous parts of the series here: WORD

HOLY.

When I was 10 or 11, I threw the sacramental communion bread at my friend Brent. We chuckled. He grabbed some and threw it back at me. What started out as a quiet joke ended up a food fight. Problem was, this all happened during the service. My mother was furious. She grabbed my wrist so hard I thought my hand would fall off. She dragged me out of the sanctuary and reprimanded me in that fierce, I’m-seriously-considering-disowning-you sort of way that only angry mothers can. She said I couldn’t treat the bread that way. She said it was the body of Jesus Christ and that it mattered more than I could possibly understand. She said it was holy.

What does it mean for a thing to be holy? To me, it was just bread. If holiness is a self-sustaining, undeniable reality, independent of the beholder’s subjective response or opinion, shouldn’t I have felt it the moment I grabbed the bread? To me, it just felt like stale sourdough, nothing more, nothing less. It didn’t look good for eating but looked great for throwing. At my friend. So I threw it. We laughed. And nothing about it felt holy to me.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that both my mother and I were wrong. It was all holy. The bread. The laughter. Both the reverence and irreverence.

Regarding our often mundane, occasionally mesmerizing lives, the writer Frederick Buechner encourages us this way: In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it. 

The holy and hidden heart of life. Touch. Taste. Smell. Holiness is not an ethereal mystery, out there somewhere in some non-existential reality held deep within the fathomless depths of God’s imagination. No. Holiness is something else altogether. Holiness is something very present and very real.

Holiness is the fathomless depths of God’s imagination taking ground in our reality.

Holiness is heaven crashing into earth, eternity invading the temporary.

Holiness is the separation between God and humankind bridged by body and blood.

Holiness is in cathedrals and on street corners, in the shaking fists of fiery preachers and the trembling hands of broken beggars.

God’s presence, in all of his fire and fury, with all of his grace and love, is what makes a thing holy. Where God is is always holy ground. And God is here, now, in your life and in mine. And so our lives are holy; the people we meet and the places we go are wrapped up in this holiness. All of our love and all of our loss, all of our happiness and all of our hurt, all of our courage and all of our fear – everything is holy.

Knowing this, may we live with a fresh awareness, embracing every moment as an opportunity to touch, taste, smell our way to hidden holiness of God all around us.

holy