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

30 Words In 30 Days: WORD

Ray Bradbury once said, If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life.

I’ve been writing with some sense of intentionality for the last 3 years but up to this point, I’ve never exercised the discipline necessary to write every single day. Most of us who fancy ourselves writers get into this strange and difficult world with idyllic dreams of perfect words falling out of us, easily and gracefully. But then we actually start to write and find ourselves staring at blank screens, pouring ourselves more cups of coffee than we need and critiquing our friends’ Facebook posts, just to keep busy, just to keep moving, anything but the wrestling required to discover the very next word.

From what my more seasoned and skilled writer friends tell me, good writing is like yoga. It will stretch us in ways we first feel as though we shouldn’t be stretched. But done daily, we will find ourselves stronger, more flexible, more capable than we ever thought we could be.

So, here goes. I’m going to commit, publicly, to writing for the next 30 days. Every. Single. Day.

This sounds like child’s play to some but for me it’s daunting. I feel too small for it so I know it’s a good place to start. Some days it may be a hundred words. Some days it may be a thousand. I really have no idea. The only thing I know is that I will wake up a little earlier, open my laptop, and type away every morning for the next 30 days. Because of the rhythm of my life, I will write Monday-Friday and take the weekends off. Each day, I will choose a word that holds some significance in my life and faith and share a few thoughts.

It seems fitting that on this first day of 30 Words in 30 Days, I should start with the word…

WORD.

In the beginning, God spoke and there was light. In the original language, the phrase from Genesis 1v3 that we most often translate, Let there be light, is actually just two short words. A more literal translation is, Be light. God speaks these brief words and suddenly it appears – that which gives life to all living things on the planet, that which enriches the earth and warms our skin, that which wakes us each morning and provides us reprieve from the darkness of night – light.  The creation story reveals that when the earth was formless and empty, there was already darkness over the surface of the deep. Darkness existed before creation. The turning point hinges on the words of God. He speaks and light enters where there was once only darkness.

In the beginning of John’s Gospel, we are reminded of the Genesis story:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. - John 1v1-5 [NIV]

Word. Beginning. Life. Light. The allusion to the creation narrative is emphatic. And it all begins and ends with a word. The Word.

I’ve been told that English was not my first language, although I can’t remember the time when it wasn’t. I’ve been told that my first words were Korean but I’ve since lost touch with my native tongue. My mother sent me to Korean language school on Saturday mornings for a time when I was young. I hated it. I fought it. Finally, she relented and stopped making me go. Now, twenty something years later, I regret it. I should’ve kept going. When I attempt to speak to my mother in Korean these days, I am well aware that I sound like an overgrown second grader. It’s embarrassing and hilarious and sad.

But my poor handle on the Korean language has taught me something about the weight of words. Struggling through syllables and syntax, scrambling to figure out what means what – the effort required to say even the simplest things in Korean has taught me that words are heavy. They are large and significant and meaningful. Like in the Genesis story, they hold the power to create. I often have thoughts I want to share with my mother that stay locked in the chamber of my mind because I do not have the words to release them. They are well intentioned ideas that lay dormant in the land of the hypothetical because I do not have the words to bring them to life.

The human story, like the Genesis story, was full of darkness before it was full of light. Sin and shame was the dominant language until a new Word was spoken. Restoration and healing are no longer hypothetical pipe dreams or well intentioned ideas. They are present and future realities because the Word was spoken.

This is the power of the Word. And it is the power of our words. With our words we can restore and heal. We can bring light where there is darkness. We can reveal the present and future reality of new life, full of hope and joy and peace. Our words can do that.

So, today, choose your words wisely.

word

An Unsettling Solidarity

Like a sudden summer storm, the past month has hit us with news of shootings at Isla Vista, Seattle Pacific University, Las Vegas, and a high school in Oregon. These tragic stories have woken us back up to reality of our world in disarray. Much has already been written, by women and men much more thoughtful than me, about how we might respond, both responsibly and compassionately, to these tragedies and others like them.

For me, the starkest reality in recent days has been a growing awareness of a disconcerting gap. It’s the gap between my shallow sympathy as one personally unaffected and the endless depth of pain being lived out by the friends and families of the victims. This gap is unthinkably wide and near impossible to bridge. So for those of us living on the shallow side, how are we to engage our national mourning in a meaningful way?

Richard Martinez, whose son Chris was one of the victims in Isla Vista, has been a fixture in the news with his inspired Not One More campaign. His words in the days following his son’s death have disrupted our national consciousness:

I don’t care about your sympathy. I don’t give a shit that you feel sorry for me. Get to work and do something… I’m asking people to stand up for something. Enough is enough.

I can’t help but sense a prophetic spirit in these words. The anger, frustration, and urgency remind me of places in the Christian Scriptures like Jeremiah 4. Much like the prophets of Israel, Richard Martinez has opened our eyes to the truer realities of our current condition. He is forcing us to strip away our flimsy facades of security and sophistication. And we are left here to face the uncomfortable truth that things are not well. The world is utterly broken and we are not as safe nor as sophisticated as we once believed. More than anything, we are compelled to answer two key questions – do we actually believe that things will someday be made right and, if we do, what’s our role to play?

This is the wonderful and bitter gift that prophets like Jeremiah and Richard Martinez have to give. They offer us a theology that is expansive enough to hold our questions, our doubts, our anger, frustration, and urgency. It is a theology of suffering that truly allows us to suffer, invites us even into the very middle of the pain of death and loss. They make the comfortable place on the shallow side of mourning unbearably uncomfortable. They bring their own anger to our very doorsteps and knock until we relent and open the door to let it in. Their anguish becomes our anguish. And in this unsettling solidarity, we find a subversive hope we never knew before. In bridging the gap between our shallow sympathies and their deepest pain, we discover that we’ve needed this hope all along. Because the tragedies at Isla Vista, Seattle Pacific University, Las Vegas, and Oregon are our tragedies. They are my tragedies. As Gandhi once said, “All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family, and each one of us is responsible for the misdeeds of all the others. I cannot detach myself from the wickedest soul.” 

And so the prophets remind us. The gap must be bridged. It is not only the world, held at an easy distance, that is in disarray – it’s me. I am in disarray. There is potential within me for both good and for evil. In helping us see this fragile truth, the prophets call us to action and remind us that there is hope to be realized if we would get to work and do something…to stand up for something…to say enough is enough.

unsettling solidarity

What We Can Learn From Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant won his first MVP award yesterday. Deservedly so, in my opinion. And as impressive as his season was, he might’ve actually outdone himself with his acceptance speech. It was thoughtful, honest, and unexpectedly moving. I think we can all learn a few things from what he said as he received the highest individual honor anyone can achieve in basketball.

I’d like to thank God for changing my life and letting me really realize what life is all about. Basketball is just a platform in order for me to inspire people. Thanking God to start your acceptance speech is a well-worn norm these days. But KD did something most athletes don’t do. He provided clear perspective. Durant didn’t thank God for giving him other-worldly basketball skills, unmatched athleticism, or a ferocious drive to win. He thanked God for changing his life, for helping him realize what life is all about. He reiterated the point by reminding us, basketball is just a platform in order for me to inspire people. Durant seems to understand that, first and foremost, our gratitude ought to be centered on the ways God changes us and gives us an understanding of what’s truly meaningful in this life. The successes we may experience are a by-product of God’s work in us and they are meant to be shared with others, to inspire, encourage, and help.

I had so much help. So many people believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. So many people doubted me and motivated me every single day. None of us have ever achieved anything worth remembering on our own. If you think you have, you’re wrong. We’ve all had help. So. Much. Help. Our cheerleaders and co-laborers are easy to point out. Those who have passionately supported us and believed in us are usually obvious. But even those who seemingly got in the way, created barriers and obstacles, stood in dogged opposition to us – each and every one of them helped in their own peculiar ways. They deepened our determination, strengthened our resolve, and motivated us with the weight of significance they gave to our work by their very position against us.

I fell in love with the game. I didn’t fall in love with it just because it was me playing. I fell in love with it because I’ve got guys like this… I just want to say thank you to you guys. Sometimes we get so busy with the “what” that we forget the “who.” For most of us, if we would just take a moment to step back, take a breath, and consider some of the people who surround us on this journey called life, the sense of joyful, child-like wonder at the gift that this life is would be completely overwhelming. Kevin Durant was the one who led the league in scoring. But he took time to thank each and every teammate by name, from fellow superstar Russell Westbrook all the way down to a benchwarmer named Andre Roberson who scored less than 2 points a game. These teammates are men that Durant spends almost every waking moment with for nine months out of the year. And yet, as he thanks each one with tears in his eyes, he sounds like a man welcoming home long lost friends. There’s something wonderfully enlightening about thanking people by name. It excavates something deep within us and gives us new lenses through which to view our lives and the amazing people in it.

Mom… the odds were stacked against us. Single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old… One of the best memories I have is when we moved into our first apartment. No bed, no furniture. We just all sat in the living room and hugged each other. We thought we’d made it… We weren’t supposed to be here. But you made us believe. You sacrificed for us… You’re the real MVP. We stand on the broad shoulders of those who came before us. Their sacrifice paved the way for our success. Unlike Kevin Durant, I have never won the NBA’s MVP award (although, never say never… my turnaround J is starting to look better lately). But like Kevin Durant, I am indebted to my own mother in ways that words cannot possibly express. Most all of us have someone like this in our lives. Don’t forget that. We weren’t supposed to be here. But someone along the way believed and sacrificed on your behalf. They bruised and bled so that you might have what once did not seem possible. We all have our own MVP’s.

kd

 

Our Resistance

Death comes knocking on every door and most of us have felt its sting, the bitterness of its unrelenting pursuit of each and every one of us.

We are born into this world. We are first loved by those closest to us and gradually we learn to love, both others and ourselves. This process is lifelong and it is never perfected. Before we know it, those we love are gone and it is always too soon. Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues – sooner or later, they leave. Death beckons and none of us are capable of resisting its pull. We are locked into time and space and the finite nature of our reality colors everything we know in a darkening gray. Every breath is one less breath we will take in this life. Every step forward inches us closer to the grave that awaits.

No one really wants to die. Even in our deepest valleys of depression, something in us wants to live. We want to survive and go on and continue.

Jesus himself could not achieve pardoning from this stark truth. In a moonlit garden he pleads with God: My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Jesus resists.

On this day, Good Friday, we confront death head on. We see it for what it is. We feel every ounce of emotion that comes along with it. And we resist as Jesus did. Our resistance is not futile. Far from it.

Our resistance is the very thing that carries us forward, keeps us alive, and moves us along.

Our resistance reminds us that death is not welcome here – in our lives and in our world.

Our resistance marks us as a free people, liberated and unchained from our self-inflicted slavery.

Our resistance is led by Christ the Victor, who won life for us, once and for all.

He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. A marvelous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat. [Athanasius of Alexandria]

So today, resist. Death does not have the last word. Its power has been annulled. Resurrection is coming.

resistance