Month: June 2011

We have grown old

A few years ago I was asked by one of my students at church, a lovably chubby 13 year old, if I wanted to LARP with him.  I was in my late twenties at the time, had no idea what LARP’ing was, and wasn’t particularly interested in finding out.  I skillfully fabricated some lame excuse and navigated my way safely out of the conversation.  Then a few months ago, I watched this movie:

Darkon is an award winning 2006 documentary about, you guessed it, LARP’ing.  LARP stands for live action role play.  Yes, these are the people you see from time to time on your Saturday morning hikes, rustling about in the woods just off the path, dressed like Lord of the Rings characters, with rubber swords and plastic shields, speaking with pseudo British accents.  They battle each other at half speed with an intensity in their eyes that belies the awkward middle school dance choreography of their fight sequences.  It can be rather comical.  The rest of us mock and are cruel because we say they are too old for that.

I don’t remember what it felt like to breathe this earth’s air for the first time.  I can’t recall the moment I first opened my eyes, only to be blinded by the light, awed by the unnamed colors.  I have no recollection of the novelty of human touch when the doctor pulled me into this world or when my mother first held me.  None of us remember the moment we were born and consequently, we take for granted the wonder of it all.  We forget that we did not work or earn our way toward existence.  All of us were simply invited into being by a God who chose us and this makes the whole of life one giant, splendid, inconceivably generous gift.  And every breath we breathe is this same gift.  But we develop a dislike for what we consider its monotony.  Like the Israelites grew weary of heaven-sent manna in the desert, we grow tired of this existence.  When people ask us how we are, we often respond, “Same old, same old.”  But maybe we have something to learn from the LARPers.  Maybe their childlike fascination with dragons, wizards, and elves is a reminder to us all that we were once young and everything was magic.  Maybe their outward expressions of make-believe can point us to that inward desire in all of us to believe in something heroic and triumphant.

G.K. Chesterton writes this in Orthodoxy: “A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.  Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.  But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon… It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Tonight, I walked out of our church building after our college gathering and stood in the parking lot speaking with a friend.  Our church sits on top of a hill that overlooks the city.  My friend, who was visiting, said, “Wow, look at that view.”  And I did.  It was the same view I’d seen almost every day and night for the past 7 years.  But I saw it for the first time.  The lights flickered like yellow and orange sparklers against the black curtain of the night sky, announcing that a grand and epic story was about to unfold.  On my drive home I thanked God and said, “Tomorrow, let’s do it again.”

Father’s Day

When I think about my father, I think of this photograph:

It’s one of my favorites because it’s one of the very few I have that includes both of my parents.  But really, these are just strangers in this image.  That’s my father.  We don’t have much of a relationship these days but that’s him, holding me in his arms.  That’s my mother, younger than I’ve ever known her.  She smiles much more in pictures these days.  She smiles much more in real life too.  Maybe she’s happier.  I like to think she is.  And that’s me, small and innocent and mesmerized by the novelty of life, the newness of all things.  My hair still sticks up like that if I don’t keep it under control.  There we are, one family.  Together.  This was a completely different time.  Probably 1980.  I’m not really sure.

My father wrestled with demons throughout his life and lost most times.  Maybe he was weak or just weak-willed.  Maybe he had no discipline.  I’m not certain.  I don’t really know the man.  From what I’ve heard, he’s still wrestling some of those demons today.  My mother left him and took me with her when I was very little.  And from what I know, he didn’t put up much of a fight.  He never came after us.  He never visited.  He never showed up dramatically at one of my games or watched me in a talent show from the shadows of the back row.  He wrote me a few letters and we shared a few synthetic, monotonous conversations over the phone when I was in high school.  He simply let us leave.

I wish I loved my father.  I wish I loved him more than I wish he loved me.  My mother is incredible.  She’s a nominee for sainthood in my book.  And she loved me with the love of two parents and then some.  She still does.  I’ve never felt unloved or not loved enough.  My life from as far back as I can remember was filled with love and affection.  So I don’t feel cheated or slighted that my father wasn’t around to love me because my mother loved me enough for the both of them.  But I wish I loved my father.  I don’t though.  All I feel is apathy.

I am beginning to realize that this apathy I feel toward my father is a harsh reminder that I am indeed my father’s son.  You see, I’ve never gone after him.  I’ve never visited.  I’ve never shown up dramatically at his doorsteps or watched him from a distance, debating what to say when I finally mustered enough courage to say something.  I wrote him a few cards over the years on holidays and shared a few synthetic, monotonous conversations over the phone with him when I was in high school.  I’ve simply let him be.

I am indeed my father’s son.  I care far less than I should.  But today is Father’s Day and I am inspired to change.  I’m not sure what I’m going to do.  Maybe I’ll write him a letter.  Maybe I’ll get his number and call him.  Maybe my wife and I will plan a trip to go see him in the next few months.  I believe fathers and sons are reflections.  Sons see their fathers, reflect their fathers, and become their fathers.  But maybe it works the other way around too.  Maybe a father can see his son, reflect his son, and become his son.  Maybe we all have demons we’re wrestling.  Maybe my father and I are in some ways wrestling the same demon.  And maybe, after all these years of wrestling with alcoholism, addiction, and apathy, he and I, my father and I, can beat this thing together.

Walking among giants

For the last seven years, I’ve walked among giants.  When I first started journeying with them, I was nervous and intimidated.  I didn’t know how to interact or engage.  But over time, friendships formed and they began growing roots in my heart.  I’ve met hundreds of them over the years and they are all larger than life in their own particular and distinct ways.

They’re temperamental and irrational, but they’re also passionate and committed.

They often speak before they think, but they also regularly love before they judge.

They are both selfish and selfless, but always compassionate.

They have mean streaks in them but when they are kind to each other it’s illuminating.

They are loud and boisterous and quiet and subdued, all depending on the day.

They are full of laughter, joy, and insatiable exuberance.

They are thoughtful, contemplative, and deep.

They think I’ve taught them but really, they’ve taught me.

I will deeply miss being a pastor to the students at Church on the Hill.  They are giants in my eyes, standing tall in the face of adversities that generations before never knew.  They are bigger than they know, capable of more than they can imagine, and loved infinitely more than can be measured.  They are God-shaped and God-designed.  And I am excited to see just how large they become.

 

A street full of splendid strangers

“How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference!  You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you.  You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.” - G.K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy)

I’ve spent the past seven years working full time as a student ministries pastor at a local church.  This Wednesday is my last day on the job and, as such, I am a bit more contemplative about things these days.  As I think about the hundreds of students who’ve come through our ministry over the years, I can see specific faces, hear specific voices, and think of specific stories.  They merge into a wonderful collage of memories in my mind and I am grateful for every color and every hue in this unique mosaic.  I’ve learned that there really is no perfect formula for engaging and befriending people because no one is the same.  But there are universal principles that apply to all our interactions with each other.  Here are just a few I’ve come to know and begun to embrace.

Selflessness.  I’m a selfish prick sometimes.  Most times, if I’m being totally honest.  I am self-absorbed and self-centered.  I am an only child and shared nothing growing up.  Everything was for me and about me.  This handicapped me as I grew into adulthood.  Life is never simply for us or about us.  God created life to be much too vibrant, complicated, and full of wonder for any single individual to encapsulate in and of themselves.  Life must be shared to be fully experienced.  In the film Into the Wild, the principle character Chris McCandless writes this into his journal as he is dying: “Happiness only real when shared.” 

Curiosity.  A number of years ago, a sixteen year old came to our Wednesday night high school gathering high as a kite.  Students showing up under the influence of something other than Jesus is nothing new but this kid was higher than high.  He made the entire night awkward and uncomfortable.  Afterwards, I berated him and demanded that he get his act together.  He never set foot inside of our church again.  I found out months later that his home situation was one of the worst I’d ever heard of and he was in the habit of doing whatever it took to detach himself mentally, emotionally, and physically.  He wasn’t out to scandalize our pretentiously pristine Jesus community.  He just wanted to smoke a few joints, sing some songs and hear a message about Jesus, all in the hopes that he could escape the horrors of home.  And I pushed him away because I didn’t give a rip about his situation, his story, and his heart.  When we place curiosity ahead of blame, judgment, and categorization, we put ourselves in position to view others with…

Grace.  Ultimately it is grace that is, in my estimation, the most important element of our interactions with one another.  We must learn to engage our world and the individuals we encounter in it with grace.  Please understand, grace doesn’t mean we let sin slide.  In fact, grace demands that we call for repentance because the purpose of grace is to draw all toward Christ.  But at its center, grace isn’t driven by judgment; it’s driven by love.  Love is a heart and grace is its every beat and palpitation.  God is love, his love is an ocean, and grace is in every swell rushing hard and fast toward dry shores in need of healing waters.  We must live this out, in real life and in real time.  Karl Barth once said this: “Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace.” 

This is some of what I’ve learned from my students, volunteer leaders, and coworkers over the past seven years.  And so my hope is that we’d all learn to carry this out in every action and intention.  Walk through life selflessly, recognizing that the greatest freedom is found when we centralize Jesus and extend ourselves to others.  See with eyes of curiosity and look deeply into people, into their stories, and maybe God will even give us glimpses of that which lies beneath the stories – the soul.  And extend grace to anyone and everyone, at all times and in every circumstance, trusting that when God’s love is the source of our grace, it never runs dry and we will all be drenched in his healing waters.

Two Kevin’s and theology as art

A week ago I found myself hanging out at a bar called Al’s Den in downtown Portland, drinking a locally brewed stout and listening to an acoustic set by indie songwriter Kevin Devine.  It was undoubtedly one of the hippest environments I’ve ever been a part of and it made me feel completely out of place and completely satisfied at the same time.  

At one point during his set, Devine said something to the effect of, “Thanks for coming out to listen to a guy you’ve never heard of.”  I’m not sure exactly how true this statement was.  Certainly there were some in the bar who came to share a few drinks with friends and there just happened to be a guy wearing skinny jeans, playing the guitar, singing songs.  There were others, like me, who came specifically to see him.  I was amused and intrigued by Devine’s self-deprecation in regards to his own celebrity, or perceived lack thereof.

On our way out, my wife and I agreed we’d seen someone who looked incredibly familiar in the bar but we couldn’t put our finger on it.  After deliberating briefly, we concluded that this familiar face was none other than…*drum roll*… Kevin Gillespie!  Yes, the Kevin Gillespie!  At this point, chances are you’re wondering, “Who’s Kevin Gillespie?”  Ladies and gents, this is Kevin Gillespie:I know what you’re thinking.  “That’s not Kevin Gillespie.  That’s Conan O’Brien with one of those iphone apps that makes people look fat.”  Wrong.  That is indeed Kevin Gillespie.  Let me explain.  We’re big fans of food and, in turn, fans of food television.  And our favorite of the lot is a show called Top Chef.  Kevin Gillespie was the runner-up on season six and one of our all time favorites.  He was stellar on the show, serving dish after dish that wowed the judges and came within a hair of winning the whole thing.  And here he was, sitting in Al’s Den right next to us, having a beer, enjoying Kevin Devine.

I’ll admit, I was a bit star struck in the presence of these two pseudo-celebrity Kevin’s.  I gave significant consideration to becoming fanboy and bugging both of them.  When Kevin Devine’s set ended, I contemplated going over and asking him about his guitar or about his next record or about his favorite color.  I thought about going back into the bar after realizing it was our favorite chubby television chef of all time [sorry, Mario Batali] and chatting it up with Kevin Gillespie.  I thought maybe I could ask him about his favorite recipe for hot wings or about his tattoos or about the weather.  But I didn’t.  I assume they both would have been gracious and kind and given me some of their time.  They both seem like solid down-to-earth guys.  But in the end, maybe it’s better that I only know the art they create and nothing else.

I think this is something we may have lost somewhere along the way.  Accessibility and media saturation have acted to blur the lines between art and artist in dangerous ways.  The music industry today really isn’t as much about music as it is about really good looking people who sing songs.  The movie industry isn’t about great, original storytelling; it’s about famous people who happen to act.  Even the food industry is evolving because of the advent of the celebrity chef, as illustrated by my ogling of Kevin Gillespie.  And, alarmingly, this trend has found its way into the church.  Rob Bell was blasted as a heretic weeks before his book was released.  John Piper was blasted as a pompous critic based on a three word tweet in response to Rob Bell.  The minute Brian McLaren opens his mouth, conservative Christians are ready with a hundred reasons why he’s a hell-bound false prophet.  Every time Mark Driscoll raises his voice, liberal hipster Jesus-followers everywhere are ready to bash him for his stingy orthodoxy.  This is a frightening reality.

I believe theology is art.  It is art because it has the power to wrap itself around individuals and people groups in all sorts of ways.  This does not negate the existence of universal truth.  There is such a thing and it does not change.  But just as the one same sun burns at all sorts of varying temperatures depending on where we stand, theology feels different to different people because we stand in different places.  Karl Barth once said,“the best theology would need no advocates; it would prove itself.”  No one needs to prove the sun.  We’ve all felt its heat and we know its power.  At its core, the sun burns at one maximum temperature but our differing distances create variance in how it feels to us.  Our insistence on focusing on the artists rather than the art, particularly when it comes to theology, is diminishing our ability to embrace ideas which challenge us and could potentially be formative in us.  We are becoming a people eager to put our eggs in one theological basket so as to identify ourselves definitively.  And this in turn is creating a false sense of belonging.  It is false because there is no such thing as being a liberal or conservative or reformed or emergent Christian.  There is only Jesus, crucified and resurrected, and the people who love and follow this Christ.  This is the only Christian thing anyone could ever belong to.  All the other labels are simply stylistic.

This isn’t to say the nuances and particulars of theology aren’t important.  They are crucially important.  And this is where art comes in.  I believe that pastors and preachers and prophets are artists in the truest sense.  They paint cathedrals with their words, compose symphonies with their writing, and erect monuments with their teaching.  But they do so to point us not to themselves but to the inspiration of their art.  No one listens to Mozart and then proceeds to argue that it’s right or wrong, true or false.  No one does this because art doesn’t fit in this sort of paradigm.  The nature of art is to point us toward truth, not to definitively present it.  Art is a question mark, not a period; at the very least, art is…  So this is also the nature of theology.  The greatest theologians are unsure.  There may be certainty regarding salvation but any theologian who tells you they’ve got it figured out is no theologian at all.  It would be like saying, “I perfectly understand the color blue.”  It doesn’t make sense.  The idea of blue isn’t beautiful; but a sky full of it is.

So here’s to hoping that we could see past the differences and fix our gaze on the sky above.  God is good and he is love.  And in his kingdom there’s room for all sorts of questions.  The artists of our day, theologians and pastors and writers and prophets, the ones you like and the ones you hate, they’re all just unsure people like you and me, trying to navigate our way home.

We are hands and feet

My life is in transition.  In a couple of weeks, my average day will look drastically different than it looks now.  So will the paycheck I collect every 15th and 30th.  Very different.  No one forced this on me.  My wife and I just sensed this was the direction God was pointing and we’re trying our best to head that way.  But the nerves are kicking in.  I’m fairly certain everything will work out and I still believe that God is Jehovah Jireh, the Provider.  But sure-things always seem a little tidier than risks.  And this is most definitely a risk.

I was surrounded by thirty or so people from my church community earlier this evening.  Some friends, others strangers.  I stood there and listened as they prayed for me.  It sounded like a sea of words, a calm chorus washing over me like ocean mist on a balmy morning.  And I felt their hands on me.  Even through my jacket I could feel the warmth of their palms, emanating like the sensation of good wine as it waterfalls down from mouth to belly.  Although I couldn’t make out exactly what individuals were saying or to whom each caring hand belonged, I knew that there was love for me in them.

Sometimes we need the words and touch of others to assure us that God is still in our midst.  Being the hands and feet of Jesus isn’t just a clever saying we ought to use when speaking of serving the poor or loving the lost.  It’s literal.  Our hands, our feet, they hold within them divine power.  To use them to touch those stricken with fear or to walk toward those overcome by anxiety is to exercise the greatest gift God has given us to share with the world; namely, the gift of presence.

So speak kindly to someone today.  Extend your hand in friendship.  Walk toward the ignored and neglected.  You are the sons and daughters of God, you are drenched in love, and you carry within you the ability to restore.