30 Words In 30 Days: OCEAN

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 | PUB

OCEAN.

I’ve always had a curious relationship with the ocean. I love it but I’m also deathly afraid of it. I almost died in it once when I was 7 or 8. A lifeguard had to save me. This also happened at Raging Waters around the same age but, surprisingly enough, I am perfectly OK with water parks.

It’s not that I’m afraid of water, per say. I really like swimming, actually. It’s the magnitude and mystery of the ocean that paralyzes me. It’s just so big. And what’s down there? How can anyone possibly know what’s actually down there?

Ocean water covers about 70% of the earth’s surface. They think that we’ve explored less than 5% of it. So, 95% of the ocean out there? Completely unknown. This is absolutely frightening. Why don’t they make more horror flicks that take place on ships out at sea? That’s much scarier than a cabin in the woods.

The ancients viewed the vast waters of the ocean with apprehension and awe. It was symbol of fear. I can relate. The reason this blog was originally titled Farewell To The Sea is because of the solace I took in Revelation 21:1:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.

The writer sees a vision of new creation, when God’s redemptive action in the world comes to completion and he restores heaven and earth back to its originally intended beauty, and the ocean – the symbol of darkness, fear, anxiety – is gone. No longer any sea.

But I did say that my relationship with the ocean has always been curious. I’m not just afraid of it. I also love it. I’ve grown comfortable with this paradox. Everything that causes me fear about the ocean also captivates me. It’s magnitude and mystery don’t just paralyze me – they also pull me in. The sights, smells, and sounds – I can’t get enough. I feel so alert and so alive when I’m near it, constantly aware of its ability to engulf me if it so chose. And yet, it’s waters rush the shore, coming close time and time again but always stopping just short of taking me back into itself. The rush is exhilarating.

The ocean reminds me of my smallness. It reminds me that there is much in life yet to be explored. It reminds me that new heaven and new earth are coming. And for that, I am most grateful.

ocean

30 Words In 30 Days: PUB

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

PUB.

I’ve only been to a handful of proper pubs over the years but I love them for three simple invitations they offer. I believe that we (you, me, the church, humankind as a whole, etc.) can learn much about the nuances of doing community right from pub-culture. And so, the three invitations…

Come. A good pub invites us to leave everything else behind for a while and enter into something completely set apart. Typically, proper pubs are quaint and cozy. Their spaces are usually intimate and they offer us a chance to be seen, heard, and known. Most of us live anonymous lives. We’re cogs in the giant machine, helping to make sure things run smoothly, appreciated for what we do but rarely for who we are. Pubs offer us a reprieve from such harsh realities. They smile at us and ask us to join in on the fun of simply being without the pressure of doing. And doing community right is all about letting people be rather than asking them to do.

Sit. This isn’t always an invitation to physically sit down. Often in good pubs, there isn’t much room for sitting. Rather, the invitation to sit is an invitation to settle in and be here a while. A pub is a place to enjoy good company, not a place to rush in and out for a quick drink. In Jewish culture, there’s a practice called shiva - a weeklong observance after the death of a loved one. The doors of the home are left unlocked and guests enter in freely to come and sit with those who are in mourning. In fact, the word shiva means seated. Sitting down and settling in with someone for a while holds an innate power that has no substitute. Whether to celebrate or to mourn, the invitation to sit is crucial to doing community right.

Drink. Nothing forges meaningful community quite like shared experiences. The shared experience of a having a drink together is something unique and pubs do this just about as well as any place. It’s not just about the drink in hand. It’s about the way sharing a drink disarms us, comforts us, makes us laugh, colors our conversations, and opens us up to each other.

So, call some friends, find a pub, and share a few pints.

pub

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