Month: August 2017

Life Is Deeper Than Survival: Responding to Dueling Narratives in the Wake of Charlottesville

The older I get, the more I notice that life is not only a continual process of growth and maturity, but also a continual battle against the instincts to which we often defaulted as children and thought we outgrew.

One of my biggest struggles has been tempering my competitive nature. When I was about eight years old, I joined the Awana program at a local church. Every year, they held a pinebox derby contest (similar to that of the Boy Scouts) called the Awana Grand Prix. I entered with my blue speedster, more hopeful than ever that it would take home first place. But I ended up getting eliminated fairly early into the competition, and a girl named Ellen won it all.

My fragile, eight-year-old-boy mind couldn’t take it. A girl? How could this be possible?! I couldn’t let this be!

grand-prixStorming off in a huff, I returned home with vengeance at next year’s race at the top of my priority list. While at a local county fair, I studied all the Boy Scouts’ top designs and how aerodynamically sound they were. I joked around with friends about how we could sabotage the competition and make sure Ellen’s car wouldn’t survive. Even in my head, I fantasized about building a remote control airplane that could drop an arsenal of bowling balls on the track to crush everyone else. (To this day I still have no idea how this would’ve actually worked. At all.)

After what seemed like an eternity, next year’s race finally arrived. I had grown fond of the game Frogger in the intervening months, so I painted my car to look like a frog, complete with googly eyes. The first few races proceeded smoothly. But elimination struck once again, and I was out of the competition – devastated a second time. Only this year, the pain stung even more because of all the buildup to the big day. My mom took a picture of me with the Frogger car after everything was over, in which I grimaced at the camera – while, ironically enough, wearing a shirt with a giant smiley face.

Looking back at that now, it’s hard not to chuckle at how silly that all was…right?

I’d like to say that I’ve overcome that propensity toward being overly competitive and letting my pride run rampant. But if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I really have.

My life may not be turned upside down by a loss at a pinebox derby contest anymore. But my adult life is sometimes turned upside down by seismic relationship shifts and spirit-crushing losses. And while my responses may not be characterized by overtly inflammatory tantrums and wild fantasies, it’s hard not to see shades of that fragile little boy sometimes surfacing in what is ultimately communicated.

charlottesvilleThis past weekend, I heard about the horrific events of Charlottesville while waiting for my car to get some repair work done. Almost immediately, my heart sank. There was a part of me – a very cynical part of me – that wasn’t surprised at what was unfolding. At the same time, another part of me wanted to stand up indignantly and shout against the bigotry as loudly as possible. How could the neo-Nazi group gain the traction and support that they had, even to the point of inspiring other rallies elsewhere? Why weren’t more of my Christian brothers and sisters speaking out against this brand of hatred? Where was the passion over other recent travesties of injustice that may have looked less severe but were still harmful?

It didn’t take long before the internet answered some of those questions with many deflective reactions:

“Why is this group getting all the attention instead of [insert other extremist group with an opposing view here]?”

“This other group started all the trouble! But no one’s talking about it.”

“We wouldn’t have all this national strife if it weren’t for [insert disagreeable person or group here].”

“It’s not like anything I’m saying isn’t true.”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Amidst all the pain, all the hurt – this is how we respond? This is the best we can do? And then it hit me: I could be a critic, but what am I going to do to respond? Will I pay this tragedy lip service by mentioning it on social media and forget about it later, or will I live my life differently having learned something from it? Will I simply sit back and criticize others, or will I point to a better way? Will my response reflect allegiance to a broad political ideology, or will it reflect allegiance to Christ and His Kingdom?

I’ve never been a huge sports fanatic, but I’ve admired the camaraderie that develops over committing to a team and its success. A few years ago, I ran across a Gatorade commercial featuring Derek Jeter on the eve of his retirement. Maybe you’ve seen it too: Derek arrives in New York, chats with a few adoring fans, climbs into a taxi, and arrives at Yankee Stadium to thunderous applause. It wasn’t just a moving tribute to a baseball great, but also to being a Yankee. Under the Jeter tribute, the subtext of the commercial was that being a part of the Yankee tribe bolstered your identity.

What’s often harmful is that the same sense of tribal identity is often grafted into arenas where competition is ultimately detrimental toward building relationships with others. Politics is certainly one of the worst.

These days, it’s not just a matter of “beating the other team.” Our identities can become so intertwined with membership within the red tribe or blue tribe that it ultimately informs the greater metanarrative with which we want to be involved. In such a story where we’re the heroes, everything else becomes an obstacle to victory. No longer is the other side a rival; now, the other side is a sworn enemy. No longer is understanding those different than we are an acceptable option; now, those who are different are interlopers in our quest who must be made to understand us.

In the wake of Charlottesville, I realized I had several choices to make. Was I going to allow my response to the tragedies of the weekend to be colored by a narrative, or by the Gospel? Was I going to let that competitive edge take over and look at the parties involved as pawns in a giant chess game where total victory was the ultimate goal, or as people – immortal souls – who were desperately crying out for love and grace?

red-blueIf my identity is defined by my participation with the red or blue tribe, what am I really committing to? Is my response being dictated by what that tribe claims is acceptable? Or am I avoiding the awkwardness of responding because doing so fits outside the list of comfortable talking points to which one or both tribes cling? Or because I’m afraid of being labeled as something I may not be?

On top of that, I came to another convicting realization. It’s easy to point a finger at the Nazis who wear evil and hatred in such overt ways. But what am I doing when there isn’t such an obvious scapegoat at which my indignation could be directed? Am I actually serious about listening to or learning from my friends of color, or am I only concerned about justice when an easy target makes itself visible?

Looking back at Jesus’ ministry, we can quickly find pieces and parts that neatly fit into our personal narratives. But when viewed holistically, the Gospel presents the uncomfortable yet necessary tension of the Kingdom of God between this world and the world to come. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged His audience to show love to one’s enemies (for many at the time, the oppressive Roman Empire) and live with the next life in mind, instead of asserting political power for themselves in this life. And at the same time, we read about how he walked into and spoke over racial tension in this world in His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

Both were not just “worldly” or “social” concerns, but Kingdom concerns. Both managed to upset a number of people, yet both reflected the heart of the Father and subverted the world’s economy of narratives. Jesus acknowledged the evils of oppression while also acknowledging that mercy was available for the oppressed and the oppressor.

I can’t say that I’ve made the right choices when faced with these questions. I can’t say I know all the answers. But I want to listen to the hurting. I want to learn from the broken. I want to life to be more than mere survival and competition. I want to acknowledge white supremacy as evil and extend a hand to those who have been scarred by its whip. I want them to know that there is a place where the pain is validated, where grace is offered, and where hope can be found. I want my words and actions to point to the One who provides it.

And I hope I’m not alone.

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Stop to Smell the Twinkies

dead-poets“Medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for!” – Dead Poets Society

Ever have one of those moments when your olfactory receptors get blasted with nostalgia?

When I was 12, I had a crush on a girl named Alicia in my small Awana group at church. For several months, she was the only girl in our midst. Maybe it was the sweaty adolescent guys in our circle, but she always seemed to carry a distinct scent whenever she entered the room. Being a socially awkward, bookish 12-year-old, I had no idea how to instigate a friendship, much less a romantic relationship at that age. I couldn’t even bring myself to mention her name around my parents since I was so smitten. I was just glad to be in the same room with Alicia.

wonder-factoryA few years later, my family was driving through the highways of San Francisco when we passed by the now-closed Hostess Cake and Wonder Bread factory. A strangely familiar aroma wafted through the smoggy air. “That smell!” I exclaimed after getting a whiff. Among the cocktail of yeasty, jammy, artificial scents was the Alicia scent, which I finally realized was the magical smell…of Twinkies. For a wonderful, age-long moment, I was transported back.

Okay…so maybe reading all of that was a little strange. But I wrote all that detail because I know I don’t appreciate life’s little pleasures enough today and stop to smell the roses (or Twinkies, for that matter). My 12-year-old self may have been infatuated and foolish, but looking back now, I can’t help but wonder if he may have been onto something.

knowledgeAs an adult, my instinct is to bite when the lure of the pedantic is dangled. I crave a predictable life. It’s comforting when everything is boiled down to function, when I’m constantly aware of the purpose of every action or encounter, when everything carries some discernable meaning. Knowledge feels empowering, whether it’s educational (“the world works like this because of A and B”) or interpersonal (“this person works like this because they hold Opinions X and Y or have been through Experience Z”). When every question is answered, when every person’s action feeds into a preconceived narrative, when everything is explainable – the world feels safe and secure.

There’s a whole host of problems with such a life, but the one that stands out is this: a predictable life robs us of wonder, one of God’s greatest gifts.

creation-2What must it have been like for God to speak the universe into existence? He didn’t have to do so, after all. But He did – and even more, He took delight in what He created. He pronounced it good. And when man was created, something special happened: God was no longer alone in the creative arena. Man was made in His image, with all that urge to create, tend, and nurture. His entrusting of creation to man wasn’t just an obligatory mandate, but also an invitation to use the resources he stewards wisely, to be more Christ-like in the process.

Growing up, I never felt like God’s delight was a part of the creation narrative I was taught. Creation was merely a regimented, distantly ordered series of incremental steps to get the universe going. And while the details of creation and God’s orderliness are important, they’re only pieces of the whole story. If we, as imperfect human beings, experience the exuberant euphoria of delight in our own creation, how much more did God experience it when He created us in His own image?

edenScripture doesn’t go into great detail, but the unmarred relationship Adam and Eve shared with God in the sinless idyll of Eden suggests delight and intimacy were both present in the context of working to tend the garden. I love imagining God smiling down upon Adam as he discovered and named all the animals. There’s a timeless truth tucked away in the garden: God isn’t a distant deity watching us from afar. He, too, engages in work – and in the context of relationship with us.

In our individualized, compartmentalized world, I often struggle with the practical, day-to-day living out of that truth. It’s far easier to respond to the overwhelming maelstrom of noise in the world by hunkering down and focusing on myself. In such a paradigm where everything begins and ends with self, work is only a quest for survival instead of an act of creative service in a much larger, relational context. Relationships are nothing more than a means to a self-fulfilling end instead of an opportunity to pour into the lives of friends and then band together to pour into others. The value of creation is measured by nothing more than its usefulness to us. Even in the context of following Christ, salvation ends at our own personal atonement and admission into Heaven instead of continuously seeking after the purpose of our salvation in this life.

The more I’m tempted toward focusing on personal efficiency wherever I go, the more I’m convicted. Several months ago, my pastor challenged all of us in church with a word for the year:

Behold.

aweIn the narrative of Scripture, whenever God or an angel commands someone to “behold,” the word can usually be translated to mean “stand still and be amazed.” I know I don’t stand still often enough. I know I don’t rest often enough. But arguably saddest of all, I know I don’t stop to be amazed often enough.

In a world riddled with distractions, where novelties are sought out in the service of pursuing the next high, the concept of amazement – particularly in the mundane doldrums of everyday life – feels antithetical to all we know to be true. In a world fraught with cynicism and pain, pure awe doesn’t seem deserved. In a world where the amassing of information and knowledge is valued, the idea of wonder is foreign and reminds us that we’re finite. In a world where competition and transactional encounters are commonplace, the idea of expressing amazement and love toward another without expecting anything in return is contrary to our natural instincts.

I think about the moments when Mary anointed Jesus at Bethany. When she poured the oil on His feet, and Judas responded with indignation, claiming it was all a waste, Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Leave her alone.” I think He recognized that Mary’s selfless act, sitting at His feet in wondrous awe, would be a waste if our calling in life was simply to be transactional. But in God’s economy, even something that looks as ephemeral as pouring out a bottle of perfume is meaningful. For Jesus, it wasn’t a matter of quantity or physical value, but of the heart. He recognized that Mary understood the gift Christ had given her and responded by showing generosity – even extravagant generosity. Her act of worship was beautiful.

Seeking beauty, responding to God’s gifts in wonder, standing in awe – why is it important?

cpLast week, I had the privilege of spending time with a number of friends who were a part of a writing forum with which I was briefly involved in high school. Some of them were old friends, while others were new. Some of them were only meeting for the first time, while others were reunited across the country for the eighth time. But no matter our background, there was a camaraderie present among us that wasn’t just manufactured.

After a while, I began to discern a trend: though we’re now adults, and some of us decided not to pursue careers in writing, there was a distinct awareness threaded throughout our group that we, our creativity, and our storytelling are all imperfect. We are fragile. We are frail. And sometimes, all we can do is approach each other – and Christ Himself – with our struggles and stand back in wonder as we watch God at work. But it doesn’t end there. In a room bristling with creative energy, many of us recognized that life isn’t just about healing ourselves, but also healing others – whether through the power of storytelling, sharing beauty, or extending a hand in selfless friendship.

By the time the week ended, I felt my walls beginning to crumble. Those transactional, pedantic instincts I described earlier felt so foolish and unfulfilling. I realize that I’ve still got a long way to go with respect to standing still and enjoying God’s gifts. I’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to living a life defined by wonder. And that’s okay. There’s no shame in being a work in progress. We all are.

Maybe it starts with stopping to smell the Twinkies.