turning 30: help me dig a well in bihar, india

i remember talking with a friend of mine when i was in high school about the fact that, one day, we’d be turning 30. and i remember thinking how old we would be when that day finally came.

funny how 30 doesn’t seem that old now that it’s nearly here. funny how, in some ways, in some places, i still feel like a kid.

anyways, i’ve decided to do something special this year to mark the event. i’ve decided to use my birthday as a way to help others with the very real struggles and needs they are facing.

check out the video below to find out more.

and please, please click here to find out more about how you can get involved.

you can’t go home again

bill bryson once said there are three things you cannot do in life.

“You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he’s ready to see you, and you can’t go home again.”

and i think that’s true. especially the last one.

i was sitting on a wood bench recently, watching my (almost) two-year-old daughter run across a playground, brown curls flowing in the air behind her, pea-gravel crunching underfoot.

behind me, a baseball field stood silent and awkward. its hair slightly overgrown, the infield unkept. the same ballfield where i learned to play third base.

on the other side of the playground, a river floated slowly by. the same river on which i used to spend lazy summer days floating on large, black inflatable tubes with friends.

the stop sign across the street is where i used to catch the school bus, when i was not all that much older than our little girl, now grinning widely at me from the top of the yellow slide, making sure she has my attention.

it was home, in many ways. but it was then that i realized, in many ways, it was no longer home.

things have been quiet

with the exception of a few intermittent posts–some words on the saturday afternoon when my sister-in-law was struck by the nightmarish news of cancer at just 25 years old, a handful of posts on holy week, and asking what it means to grieve the death of a loved one as a christian–things have been pretty quiet here over the past four years.

as quiet as things have been here, things have been pretty busy in the rest of life over the past four years.

for starters, we left home, work, and community, and went to england. and we had some pretty incredible experiences along the way, while i earned a degree in theology.

in the two months between wrapping up one degree and starting another, we welcomed our first child into the world. a beautiful girl we named emma.

we moved, again, to north carolina–an entirely new country for us, in many ways–where i completed another degree in theology.

along the way, i tried to get a couple books published, and I ended up batting .500 (more on that later).

then, after another round of ‘goodbyes,’ we came home. sort of.

trying to wear someone else’s shoes

a lot has changed since we left, it seems. as much about home as about us.

some buildings have come down. others have gone up.

my grandmother’s 30-plus year prayers have come true: we finally won a superbowl.

new relationships have been formed. others have died away with time and distance.

some new people have come since we’ve been gone. others have left.

we’ve come, and we’ve gone. and we’re not the same for it.

and no matter how much i know, deep down, that this place is the place we used to call “home,” there’s still much about it that feels as though i’m trying to wear someone else’s worn-in shoes.

“you can’t go home again,” bryson wrote. and it would seem he was right.

this isn’t home. not exactly. but we’re here, we’re back, and we’re looking forward to doing life again from here.

picking up the pen again

i am looking forward to picking up the pen and beginning again. and there are a few things i’ve thinking about, things i’d love to spend some time writing on. i’m hoping to do that here, as well as pitch a few of them elsewhere.

here are some of the things i’ve been chewing on during my early morning jogs, with the smell of fresh-picked raspberries floating through the air, and the snowcapped mountains framing the horizon.

calling

i’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about calling for the last couple years.

i’m thrilled to announce that i have a memoir being published on the topic of calling–and, specifically, what it looked like in our life when we set out to pursue a calling.

it’s titled, Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again, and it’s due out in february of 2015 (leafwood publishers). i’m looking forward to sharing the cover artwork very soon.

i’ve had the chance to give a few talks on the topic of calling over the past year or two, and i’m looking forward to doing more of that as things wind up for the book release.

in addition to telling our story of what it was like to leave everything and set out in pursuit of what we believed to be God’s call on my life, more and more, i’ve begun to wonder whether we even know what we mean when we use the word “calling.”

especially as christians.

whatever it means to be called, i am more and more certain that it doesn’t merely mean following our dreams, putting our talents to use, or even simply responding to the needs of those around us.

i think it means something totally different than that, and i’m looking forward to spending more time writing about this in the near future.

life & death

i was talking with a friend before we left north carolina–a friend who had just found out that he and his wife were not going to give birth to their second child after all–and we were talking about the fact that, in the face of death and the messiness of grief, silence really is the worst response.

and yet, it’s also one of the most common responses to grief.

and i think one of the main reasons we so often respond to death with silence is because we don’t know what to do with death.

when what was supposed to be the joy of preparing to welcome a new family member into the world turns out to be a painful surgery in a matter of just a few days; when the phone call comes on saturday saying the test results came back and it looks like cancer; when the brain tumor shows up at 50 and you’re trying to put back the pieces of your life after your mom, wife, neighbor is no longer there, we are left speechless.

we don’t know what to do with death. and i have a theory about why i think this is.

i think one of the reasons we don’t know what to do with death, at least among many Christians, is because we skip right over Jesus’ death. and the reason we skip over Jesus’ death is because of our joyous expectation of the Easter Resurrection.

and i think that’s a massive problem, for which all of us pay the price.

anyways, that’s my theory. i need to flesh it out a bit–sorry, unintended pun. i’m looking forward to doing so soon.

commodification of everything

i recently heard about a theologian who was asked at a conference what he’s trying to prevent in his work. his response? “the commodification of everything.”

for some reason, i cannot get my mind off of that statement.

specifically, i’ve been thinking about the fact that the commodification of everything is the natural, logical result of capitalism.

now, i’m not about to sign up for marxism (is that still a thing?), but i do think there are some important questions to ask when everything is available for purchase.

for one thing, i’ve been thinking about the fact that, in our visual-centric society, to be seen is already to be commodified (think hipster clothing for sale at target, reality tv, artists who begin their careers on youtube, etc.). i’ve been using the term ‘ocular commodification’ for this idea. but i have much more thinking to do here.

anyway, this idea is related to two other things i’d like to write about.

raising a daughter

i’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to raise a young girl who is already praised for her beauty before her second birthday in a culture that commodifies bodies (especially physically beautiful bodies), while also, simultaneously, giving girls impossible models for what their bodies should look like, making them feel hopelessly, endlessly inadequate.

(i think boys run into the same issues, of course. it’s just that i only have a daughter at the moment, and so that’s what i’ve been thinking about).

i’m not exactly sure what this means for raising our daughter, but i think a lot of it will have to do with talking about the kind of stories we are told.

about how some stories lead to life, and some stories lead to the kind of life that is better described as death. and about how those stories that try to tell us that our bodies are something that can be purchased, or used to make us feel hopelessly inadequate, are deadly stories.

there’s much more to say here, of course, and i’m looking forward to doing so soon.

identity

with my 30th birthday looming just around the corner, on the other side of graduate studies, and still seeking clarity on what my next professional role will be, i’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately.

specifically, i’ve been thinking about the fact that i hate how identity-less i feel when i don’t have a seminar paper deadline, or when i am not entering my time card at the end of another work week.

i’ve been thinking about how much my identity is tied up into what i’m doing, instead of who i am.

i’ve been thinking about the fact that, in publishing a book that will involve the most important, intimate stories from my life–the kind of stories that have shaped who i am as a person–i have actually, voluntarily, commodified myself.

of course, i am more than my stories. which has left me wanting to think and write more about identity.

the poor & the oppressed

i’ve had the privilege of being involved with a couple organizations whose purposes are to care for the poor in the developing world and come to the aid of victims of human trafficking.

they’re both great causes, of course. but, something i’ve been thinking about lately is the question, why?

why should we care for the poor? why should we care for victims of sexual abuse?

because it’s the right thing to do? that can’t be a good answer.

i think we all assume these are good causes to be involved in–and i absolutely believe both are vitally important causes–but i think the reason why these are important causes matters greatly.

i think i know the answer, i think i know why these are important, but i need to think and write a bit more about it. i’m looking forward to doing that soon.

the living Word

and, of course, all of these questions will involve that question i simply cannot seem to shake, no matter where i am, or what i’m doing:

why does it matter that Jesus is the living, enfleshed Word of God, in Whom God is reconciling the world to Himself?

you can’t go home again

my daughter comes flying out the end of the yellow slide wearing a wide, apple-slice grin and i catch her in my arms.

‘let’s go home and get some lunch, whatta ya think?’ i ask her.

she nods her head and mouths, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah,’ as she does.

on our way back to the house, a 50-something woman i do not recognize smiles and waves to us, as though to say, ‘it’s good to see you again. it’s good to have you home.’

“you can’t go home again,” bryson says. and i think he’s right.

the place called home as well as the home inside each one of us is always changing. always moving.

and as much as i want to fight that with all my being, as much as i want to go back to how things used to be at times, i am beginning to think it might not be such a bad thing that we can’t go home again.

i’m looking forward to picking up the pen and beginning again, here from our new, old home.

as always, thanks for reading.

saturday afternoon cancer: a lament

it was 2:00 on a saturday afternoon when the phone call came, which is exactly the moment and day you would not expect such news. but it did. and with it, our entire day, week, month dissolved slowly into the shrill ringing noise of the destruction of our former peace.

we were feeding emma lunch at the time, and i was still holding her small, red plastic spoon between my thumb and forefinger when i watched the blood flow from my wife’s face. when i saw her eyes turn from a look of shock to horror and then, finally, to agony.

someone once said the most devastating news comes at the most unexpected hours. and i think that’s true. it is precisely in the surprise of unexpected devastating news that its devastation explodes exponentially.

“leann… has cancer,” she told me through tears when she had set the phone down on the table, her hands and legs searching in desperation for something to stabilize her.

leann, her sister. her only remaining sister. death took her youngest sister at the age of 19.

leann, mother of two young, beautiful girls who could not be more different, both under the age of three.

leann, 25. now staring death in the face. so close she can feel its breath.

has cancer. the news no one wants to hear. in fact, the news that means, for many of us, our greatest fear.

has cancer. as though she possessed it, rather than the other way around.

and all i could think in that moment—so, too, my wife—was why? why, God? why this? why now?

three and a half years, and our heart still aches for the loss of hayley. and yet, in these few brief years, we have only just begun to get our feet back under us, even as we struggle against the forceful tide of time that refuses to allow us to go back, to see her again, to hold her again, even if only for one brief, final moment.

and now this. why, God? are You not good? are You not merciful? Your Word tells us You are, but on this saturday afternoon, at 2:00, all signs appear to suggest otherwise.

prayer. what does it look like, in moments such as these? we are supposed to go to You? we are supposed to trust You?

but we’ve done that before. we’ve laid our hearts in Your hands before, and they were crushed, like grapes.

prayer. what are we supposed to say? because the truth is, God, that You have not been very good to us lately. our hearts hurt. and we do not know if we are yet ready to trust again.

and yet, somewhere, in the confusing, silent, upside-down mess of it all, words appear. not from us, God knows, but from somewhere.

“Lord, to whom shall we go?”

silence. and then, the words begin again.

“You have the words of eternal life.”

and in that moment, which is this moment, they are perhaps the only words for us.

sigur ros, “kveikur”

this hard-hitting, true-to-life album soars from darkness to light

-4 out of 5-

Sigur Ros - Kveikur - Album Cover

sigur ros, kveikur, album cover via RollingStone.com.

after a lengthy hiatus, the enigmatic icelandic band sigur ros recently returned to the music scene with the one-two punch of valtari (2012) and kveikur (2013). though both albums were released in late spring / early summer, they could not feel like more different seasons. if valtari’s soft, drifting sound found inspiration in the sleepy ambience of lead-singer jonsi’s side-project, riceboy sleeps, it seems their latest album took a few notes from trent reznor. The industrial rock in several of kveikur’s tracks would be at home in a trailer featuring rooney mara sporting a dragon tattoo as she kicks in a hornet’s nest.

for the uninitiated, sigur ros has been growing a cult-like following around the world since the mid-1990s, imported to the united states through such unassuming vehicles as the 2001 sleeper film vanilla sky. lead-vocalist, jón thor birgisson, or jonsi, often eschews icelandic or english lyrics for vonleska: a melodic language jonsi created that is only sung, not spoken. think scat in jazz music. the band’s hard-to-pin-down sound is often referred to as ethereal, ambient, post-rock, and even spiritual.

kveikur wastes no time in introducing its heavy sound. “brenninstein” opens with the crackling eruption of a spaceship taking lift off, incinerating the track’s edges. cue industrial rock, with massive, robotic beats thumping throughout, and jonsi’s otherwise angelic voice laying an ominous introduction to the album. the tone is enough to prompt headbanging from long-haired, heavy metal shirt clad twentysomethings, as I noted during a recent show in a rainy vancouver park.

“hrafntinna” continues the morose feel, though more subdued than angry, with what sounds like cymbals fashioned out of metal trash can lids replacing the robotic beats. the second track concludes with a showcase of haunting, funeral-like horns that play to their own distant-marching death.

if “hrafntinna” ends with a funeral procession, the next track, “isjaki,” didn’t get the memo. things pick up here, with what might very well be the most singable sigur ros chorus in years. it seems jonsi has hid his aching heart in a track that otherwise sounds optimistic, with (rare) icelandic lyrics roughly translated, “you knew about me, i knew you / we always knew that this would end / you miss me, i miss you.”  even so, “isjaki” feels festive, like a chinese new year parade, complete with brightly colored dragons dancing down the street and jonsi extending his hand, inviting the listener to join in.

though no more than my own interpretation, the emotion of the first three tracks on this album play out like an accompaniment to the paschal triduum (Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and resurrection). but we’re not out of the dark yet. several songs later, “kveikur” is perhaps the most haunting of the entire album. jonsi’s voice rips and roars in a blend of ghostlike and sinister tones, before the track concludes in a cacophony of relentless crashing drums and screeching bow guitar.

“rafstraumur” could be at home on jonsi’s 2010 solo album, go, or the playful soundtrack to we bought a zoo. its sound is flat-out jubilant, thanks to his celebratory falsetto and percussionist orri páll dýrason’s machine-gun drum lines. “bláþráður” is classic sigur ros  (see agætis byrjun). the one I keep coming back to, “stormur,” continues the optimism of “isjaki,” albeit with less parade-like jubilee. the pace is even, and jonsi’s voice soars and yearns brilliantly, threatening to make a sigur ros fan out of the most skeptical listener.

true to life, kveikur does not follow a direct path from dark to light. instead, it ebbs and flows from one to the other—and then back again—before leveling out with a sublime track in “var,” the closest things come to valtari. If a piano and strings accompaniment were set out to sea on a life raft, this is what it would sound like. at the conclusion of an album that starts out with a rocket launch and robotic drum base, the peaceful conclusion of “var” calls to mind the confident, hopeful words of 14th century christian mystic julian of norwich: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

time will tell whether any of kveikur’s songs have the staying power of such classics as “glosoli,” “hoppipolla,” or “svefn-g-englar,” but the true strength of the album is its diversity. kveikur showcases the full range of the group’s capabilities, making a fitting introduction for first-time listeners. the rich texture and diversity of this album makes it feel real to life in a unique way. kveikur not only gives time to some very heavy, emotional tracks, but it also warms like a sunrise at points.

when i heard the first songs released from kveikur, the dark sound was a bit much for my taste. but witnessing several of the more menacing tracks performed live, with jonsi bent at the waist, wrenching on his bowed guitar with all the strength his lanky frame could muster, i got it. they work.

for those turned off by the heavier sound, stick with it. when we fail to acknowledge the tragedy of human experience—which some of the darker songs on this album get at—we miss the full reality of hope. the only way to easter morning, of course, is through the darkness of good friday. contemporary worship music would do well to take note.

-kveikur is available for purchase on itunes.

a prayer in the aftermath of the boston marathon tragedy

i was scheduled to pray before today’s new testament class, the day after the boston marathon tragedy, and the last class of the semester before finals. taking a note from a well-known duke theologian, i decided to write out my prayer. here it is.

dear Heavenly Father,

we thank you for this place to study, and for its commitment to telling, and re-telling, Your story.

we thank You for instructors such as mark who give of their time, energy, and knowledge, and whose sacrifice means our benefit.

in the aftermath of such a horrific and senseless act as our country experienced yesterday afternoon, when persons who clamor for power try to inflict fear upon the world, with heavy hearts, we thank you for difficult moments, as such instances of this world’s brokenness refuse to allow us to grow comfortable, and remind us that the meaning of our work is not found in grades, but in something much deeper.

help us be ever diligent in our work, that we might, more and more, become beacons of hope in this world that desperately seeks something to hope in as we witness to the beauty, love, and hope of Your story.

though our legs are tired and we wish to stop long enough to catch our breath, strengthen us by Your Spirit so that we might finish the race set before us with deep joy and gladness.

we pray in the holy name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. amen.

when He returned

[this is the third of a three-part imaginative reflection on the first holy week.]

i woke up early that morning. before the birds began their songs. it was still dark outside, but i felt urged awake. like someone had softly touched my arm, telling me it was time.

and so i awoke, quietly. not wanting to disturb anyone, i climbed out of my window, as i had two nights earlier, and dropped to the ground. still unsure why, i began to walk, not knowing where i was going.

everything was still. everything was quiet. no one was yet up. but i felt led, somehow. and soon i knew where to.

it wasn’t long before i found myself back in the garden, making my way to the tomb of the Man on the donkey.

the woman and the Gardener

two men passed by me, before i made it to the tomb. i waited, quietly, behind a tree as they passed, not wanting them to spot me.

they looked confused. their eyes and minds distant as they walked. as though they had seen a ghost.

i held my breath until i knew they were gone, and then continued to make my way toward the tomb where the Man on the donkey had been buried.

i was not far off when i heard the faint sound of crying. it was coming from the direction of the Man on the donkey’s tomb.

i continued making my way toward the tomb, but more quietly now. not wanting anyone to hear me. not wanting to disturb whomever i had heard weeping.

and that’s when i spotted her. a woman. bent over. crouched just outside the Man’s tomb.

the large stone blocking the tomb had been rolled to the side, somehow. and the roman guards who had been there when i last visited the tomb were nowhere to be found. just the woman, weeping.

and then, suddenly, a man was there. beside her. a man i did not recognize.

“the owner of the garden, perhaps?” i thought to myself.

and then he spoke, to her, “woman, why are you weeping?” he said in a heartfelt voice. his eyes looked heavy. and sad. “whom are you looking for?”

she raised her head at his voice, seemingly taken off guard.

her eyes were glossy in the first signs of early morning light. tears ran footpaths down her cheeks. she looked as though she hadn’t slept in days.

“sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

you could hear her heart aching as her voice strained in a note of exhasperation. her words were weak and very nearly drowned out by her tears. she had nothing left. and she begged the man to help.

and then i recognized her. i had seen her that day, that day i first saw the Man on the donkey. she was with Him. she was one of His followers.

she was seeking His body, and, finding only an empty tomb, she now had nothing left.

the mystery of this scene was all more than i could take. who was this man? what had he done with the body of the Man on the donkey? why wouldn’t he just help her?

my heart raced in my chest, which now rose and fell heavily. i wanted to yell out. “help her! why won’t you just help her?!”

but i didn’t. i held back, still not wanting to be found.

the man spoke up again.

“mary,” he said to her, now in a calm, confident, and knowing voice. “mary,” He repeated, the corners of His lips upturned only slightly.

and that’s when it happened. the unknowable. that which there are no words for. and if only you could have seen her face.

her eyes fell open, as her eyebrows darted upward. her bottom lipped dropped, extending her cheeks. she opened her mouth to speak, but no words could come out.

she closed her mouth. and then, after a moment, she opened it again. quickly this time.

“Rabboni!” she said, the words now leaping out of her throat, as if they had been pulled out. as if she had no control of them.

…and then i realized what she realized, this Man was the Man on the donkey. returned! returned to life!

my mind went numb, shocked at this realization, as i felt my body awash in a warm bath of excitement. as though my heart had burst within my chest, painting my rib cage with its warm contents. as though my feet had, if only for a moment, actually lifted from their spot on the garden floor.

“He has returned!” i thought to myself. “the Man on the donkey… He’s come back!”

the woman lifted herself from her crouched position, which appeared to take all her strength, and took a step toward the Man, lunging at Him in a wave of excitement. as if to embrace Him.

but He stopped her.

“do not hold on to me,” He told her, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father. but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

and, with a face of knowing, with a face that, once again, shone with hope, she looked into His eyes, smiled deeply, and then turned and left from her spot in the garden. in a hurry that surprised me.

my eyes followed her out. and by the time my eyes returned to her previous spot, there in front of the Man’s tomb, He was gone. He was nowhere to be found.

my eyes darted around, not knowing how i had missed Him. wondering if i had somehow overlooked Him. but i hadn’t. He was gone. and yet, He had returned. and with Him, hope.

good news

i still didn’t know what it all meant, as i turned to make my way back home. i had only fragments of a story. a Man on a donkey. a quiet tomb. and now this. this good news: the Man returned.

i didn’t know what it all meant. in fact, there seemed to be more that i didn’t know than what i did know. and yet, and yet i had this good news.

i had seen what i had seen. the unspeakable. the unimaginable. i had–though i hardly believed it myself–seen a Man return to life.

and though i didn’t know quite what it meant, the stories my grandfather used to tell me soon came flooding back to my mind. the stories of a great King Who would come to restore peace to the land. Who would set all things right. and it filled me with deep gladness and hope.

my pace picked up as i walked back toward home, from a walk to a jog. and soon, before i knew it, i was running. at full speed. as quickly as my legs would carry me.

the sun was now beginning its ascent and i could feel its warmth on my face as i ran.

i had good news. and i had to tell someone. anyone. everyone.

the lonely garden

[this is the second of a three-part imaginative reflection on the first holy week.]

i snuck out of my room late that night, on the night of the passover. i waited until everyone in our home had fallen asleep–i could hear their slow, steady breathing–and then i made my escape.

i left my window quietly, dropped to the ground, and then ran. the cool night air blew on my face as i ran to the garden where my friends had told me the Man on the donkey had been buried. in a tomb of stone. i didn’t know where it was, exactly, but i knew the general direction. and so i ran, guided by the moonlight on this quiet night. more quiet than i had ever known. with only my breathing and the “pat, pat” of the soles of my feet slapping the cool, hard ground breaking the silence.

there were no stars that night. just a dark sky, relieved only by the pale-yellow disc of a moon. it was as if all the stars had gone to bed, just like everyone else.

what happened?

i was in the market earlier that day with my mother. she was buying supplies for the passover celebration when i heard the shouting. the same voices that only a few days earlier were praising this Man were now shouting, “crucify Him! crucify Him!”

and they did, as those who loved Him became His enemies.

i hadn’t watched. i hadn’t seen the Man after it happened. i was not allowed. but i wanted to know what happened. i wanted to know.

standing guard

my heart was racing from all the running as moonlight poured over the garden, where i now stood. the moonlight revealed the trampled flowers, crumbled underfoot by the roman guards who now stood on either side of the tomb.

“why stand guard over the tomb of a dead man?” i wondered.

the flowers showed no hint of life as the moonlight shone on them. if there was ever any life in them before, there was none now. now there was only death.

i wondered, as i stared at the tomb, what the Man inside felt. i wondered if He was angry. i wondered if He was disappointed. i wondered if He was cold. most of all, i wondered if He was lonely.

i’ve never understood death.

children’s stories

growing up, my grandfather used to tell me stories of a coming King. of the One Who would restore peace to the land, Who would mean the fulfillment of all our greatest hopes, Who would, somehow, set all things right.

after seeing this Man enter our village, and after seeing the response of the adults in our village, i asked my grandfather if he thought this Man might be the One Who was to come. if He might be the King he had told me stories about growing up, and Whom he had heard stories of from his own grandparents, when he was just a young boy.

he gave me a look of wonder, like my question had taken him by surprise. and then he spoke up.

“i hope so,” he told me, his eyes twinkling with the kind of excitement i hadn’t ever seen in a man of his age. like he was a young boy again.

“i hope so,” his words echoed in my ears as i stood there in the brush, eyeing this tomb and the guards standing on either side. and it was there that i remembered the looks on the faces of those kneeling as the Man on the donkey passed by. they were faces of hope.

something to tell me

but standing here now, that seemed like so long ago. for now, now there was only death. all around. and silence.

i found myself thinking back to that day. to the crowds. to the excitement. to the hope.

ever since i first saw this Man, i couldn’t help but feel like He had something to tell me. to show me. but now, now He was gone. and i didn’t know what that meant.

“where were the crowds?” i wondered. where were this man’s friends? and family? where were those who loved Him?

where was the excitement that had filled the air only days earlier? where was the hope?

“if there was any hope before, there is none now,” i thought to myself, kicking a small stone as i turned to leave. there was only death and silence. and i didn’t know what that meant.

palm branches underfoot

[this is the first of a three-part imaginative reflection on the first holy week.]

in all of my 11 years, i had never seen something like this before. the palm branches strewn across the road. the people falling on their knees, praising the Man on a donkey. the air was buzzing, faces were filled with great hope, and it all felt so special. like a king had come to town.

my friends had told me about this Man. about the people He had healed. about how He had fed thousands of people from a young boy’s lunch. about how He had welcomed children, like us. like me.

some of the boys said their fathers believed He was a wise teacher. others said He was a miracle worker. still others seem to think He might be something more. i liked the fact that, even before i saw Him, i felt like He might want me around. like He might even have something to say to me.

the men in our village removed their coats and placed them on the road as He made His way, slowly, down the village road, crunching palm branches underfoot. the “clack, clack” of my friends’ wooden swords tagging each other played background music to the adults’ impromptu worship service. “hosannah! hosannah in the highest!”

my friends were more interested in their games than this Man, but i couldn’t take my eyes off of Him.

the way He almost seemed to look past this scene, as though He didn’t notice the crowds. or as though He was simply unfazed by it all. it wasn’t so much that He didn’t seem to care, but that He was distracted. as though something else was on His mind. something bigger.

and i couldn’t help but wonder what that meant. i couldn’t help but think that no one there that day understood what this meant, not even those who seemed to think they did.

meeting frank: practical theology

we bought a car shortly after arriving in durham, and shortly after we bought our car, we realized something was not quite right.

it struggled to start. not just in the mornings, but always. i assumed it was the battery. i hoped it was the battery.

so i found a local shop online with a string of good reviews and made an appointment to get it checked out.

when i walked into the small shop on wednesday afternoon, i was greeted by an older man sitting behind a desk in a cramped, hot and stuffy office / waiting room.

frank was his name. his silver hair was clean cut, and he wore a red polo with a pair of black ray-bans around his neck.

it came out in conversation that i had recently moved to the area to start school. a woman waiting for her car’s oil to be changed–the only other person in the room–asked what I was studying, and i told her i was studying theology.

“geology?” frank asked, from his swivel chair behind the desk.

“oh, no. sorry, theology,” i said, noticing the hearing aid behind his ear.

“oh, I see,” he said. “well that’s abstract!”

“you think so?” I asked. “i think it’s incredibly practical.”

“you know, i’m sorry, but i just decided at a very early age that it’s made up,” he told me. “i think people believe it because they need to believe it.”

our conversation was interrupted when his mechanic entered the office to hand in the keys for the woman’s car. her oil change was now complete.

later on in the conversation, it came out that frank had lost his wife just three months earlier.

“she had a bad heart,” he told me. “and then, one day, she was shopping…” his words slowed, “…and she fell. she hit her head . . . and the next day she was gone.”

there was a moment of silence. a long one. and then i told him i was so, so sorry for his loss.

“what was your wife’s name, frank?”

“pamela.”

“how long were you and pamela married,” I asked him.

“51 years,” he told me proudly.

“shooo…” I mouthed. “frank, I am so terribly sorry. i cannot even imagine…”

we were disrupted again, when his mechanic came in to let me know my battery was seven years old and hardly holding a charge. he told me it looked like my alternator was running fine, so i’d just need a new battery.

i thanked him, and i told him i’d like to have that taken care of. he smiled, nodded and returned to the shop.

frank and I talked about a lot of other things that afternoon. about farming in eastern washington–he grew up in a small town in the same state i was from–, about joining the airforce, about being a fighter pilot, and about meeting his wife while he was stationed in england for four years, where i had only just returned to the states from.

i laughed at the parallels between our stories. and then i told him about hayley.

i told him how it still hurts, even two and a half years later, and how i could not imagine the pain he was now feeling.

he told me it did hurt. he told me he was constantly reminded of her absence. by things he’d remember. by things he know she’d say, if she were still around. and how those reminders made it even worse.

i nodded, and i told him i didn’t know how he was hanging in there as well as he was, in light of his loss.

“well i’m here,” he told me, looking around the office. “if i weren’t, i’m sure I’d be a vegetable.”

i nodded, again.

frank continued to tell me about pamela.

“she was an incredible woman,” he said with a smile. “everyone loved her. she used to be a secretary at an episcopalian church here in town, until she retired. everyone loved her.”

then, turning to me, he asked me if i believed in the after-life.

“yeah, absolutely,” i told him. “i don’t think I could do theology if i didn’t.”

“yeah, I suppose so,” he said.

he thought for a moment, and then asked me another question.

“when we die,” he continued, “does our spirit… go up?”

i could tell, from his question, frank had not much experience with the church. and i appreciated his honest question.

i told him it probably depends on who you ask, but that i believe that things do not end when we die. i told him i believe things continue on for us after we die.

he nodded, slowly, and sat back in his chair. i could tell he was thinking.

the mechanic returned, to tell me my car was now ready for me, but that I’d need to replace the two rear tires, as winter was coming up, and they were too worn.

i asked frank if he could help me with that, so he did a search online while i waited and gave me a quote.

we talked for a bit longer, and then he said something that took me completely off-guard.

“it’s really been a pleasure to meet you,” he told me, voicing something i had been thinking about him. “you’re really easy to talk to. it’s like i’ve known you for some time.”

then he asked me a question i often get, and that i often struggle to answer.

“what are your plans for your theology? are you going to be a minister?”

“oh, yeah. well, i’m not sure yet,” i confessed. “i am on the academic track, to teach, but i’m not sure. i’ll probably end up somewhere in the middle.”

he looked confused.

“in the middle?” he asked. “what does that mean?”

“well, maybe doing some teaching in a church,” i continued, “and maybe some in academics.”

again, frank looked at me with a face of confusion.

“well you should be a minister,” he told me, matter-of-factly, which surprised me, given that he had just told me he thought religion was “made up.”

“you’d make an excellent minister.”

“wow… well thank you,” i told frank. “i really appreciate you saying that.”

frank finished my paperwork and handed it to me, from his spot behind the desk. and then i spoke up again.

“i’m not sure what you think of this, frank,” i told him, “but for what it’s worth, i’d like you to know i’ll be praying for you. i really can’t imagine how difficult this must be…”

his face suddenly became very serious, which made me nervous. i wasn’t sure how he was going to react.

but then he began to nod. and his eyes welled up with tears.

“thank you,” he said, sniffling. “i really need some help.”

i reminded him that he had my phone number, and i told him it would be a pleasure to talk with him some more, anytime he was interested. he thanked me again, and i smiled to him as i made my way out of his hot, stuffy office, into the refreshing afternoon air outside.

and as i walked to my car, i began to pray for frank, with tears now welling up in the corners of my own eyes. i struggled to imagine the depth of frank’s pain after losing his wife of 51 years.

and then, as i prayed, i began to smile, slightly. as something cs lewis once wrote came to my mind.

“i warned you that theology is practical.”

a letter to emma

hi there, princess. it’s me, ryan. your dad. the one with the lower voice who you hear every once in a while when you’re trying to nap. or when you’re in the middle of your water aerobics routine.

you’re not far away at this point. very soon you’ll be joining us here, in the world, rather than reclining in the warmth of your mother’s womb. and we can’t wait to meet you.

we’re getting things ready for you here. picking out clothes for you to wear. setting up your bed. and tucking away plenty of fuzzy blankets. the world is getting ready for your arrival.

and i know you won’t be able to read this for a while yet, but i wanted to take the time to write you a note. i thought i’d give you a heads-up on the world that’s preparing for you, so you can prepare for it.

now, i haven’t been here for long–less than 30 years, at this point–and i’m far from having things all figured out, but i have been here long enough to take note of a few things. and so i thought i’d scratch them down for you, hoping one day they might be helpful for you.

some of this may be helpful right away. other bits will likely not be helpful until years later. and the rest, well the rest may not be helpful at all.

and if, for some reason, it turns out that none of this is all that helpful by the time you’re old enough to read it, i apologize. but know i’ve given it my best.

your mother

to start, i thought i’d tell you a few things about your mother. you’ll be spending a lot of time with her, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know her for yourself, but i’ve known her for some time now. more than 10 years, i guess. so i have a bit of a head-start, and i thought i’d give you a few pointers.

first, and most importantly, the thing you should know about your mother is that she has been waiting for you for a long, long time. in fact, you should know that you are your mother’s dream come true. it may not always feel like it, particularly when you get to the age of 13 or so, but it’s true. ever since i’ve known your mother, she’s dreamed of welcoming you into this world.

and so, on those more difficult days, never forget: long before you showed up, your mother dreamt of holding you in her arms. that will be true whether you’re 16 months or 16 years old.

the second thing you should know about your mother is that she likes her sleep. i tell you this because, if you want to earn some major points with her someday, let her sleep in. and then bring her breakfast in bed (preferably pancakes with chocolate chips). she’ll smile at you with the kind of smile that stole my heart years ago if you do.

thirdly, you should know your mother sees things in black and white. and i love that about her, mostly because it’s very unlike me. if you want to have a long conversation as you think through things, you will find i’m the man for the job. but if you don’t have time to waste and you just want a straight answer, you’re probably better off asking your mom. she’s a straight-shooter.

the last thing i’ll tell you about your mother is that she likes gerber daisies, peanut butter and chocolate (especially together), fuzzy socks, and puzzles. she does not like bananas, spiders or feet.

i could go on, but that should be good for now. i have a few other things i want to tell you that i hope might be helpful.

love

perhaps it’s good i started with your mother, because the next bit isn’t quite so nice.

you see, the thing is, emma, you’re being born into a world with a lot of wounds. i’m very sorry to say it, but we haven’t been very good to one another. the people who came before us weren’t very good to each other, either. nor were those who came before them.

and so what you’ll find as you move through life is a lot of brokenness. and hurt. you’ll find people have a hard time trusting one another. you’ll find people getting frustrated over things that really shouldn’t matter all that much. you’ll find people saying mean things and generally acting pretty ugly to one another a lot of times.

but don’t take it personally. it’s not about you. it’s about all of us. and the pain we share.

you didn’t create this pain, but you will be born into it. just like all of us. and like all of us, you will be asked to carry an overwhelming amount of this pain. more than seems fair. more than you can bear.

i’m very sorry about that, but my hope is that you may be able to help do something about it. in fact, my hope is that your life may be lived in such a way that you might help to heal it from the inside out.

now i know that seems like an awful lot to ask of you. and i know you’re probably asking yourself how you are possibly supposed to help heal the wounds of this world that has been broken and hurting since long before you arrived.

my answer? with love.

and yes, i know. i know that sounds terribly idealistic. i know it is sounds so simple. and it is. but it isn’t, at the same time.

you see, if you want to make a difference in this world, emma, if you want to help heal the brokenness and the hurt, you have to love.

love those who show you love. love those who don’t. love those closest to you. love perfect strangers.

and no matter how useless or thankless it seems, keep going. not to be noticed, not to be rewarded, but simply because you believe in it.

mother teresa, a woman who left us before you got here, and a woman who not only believed in love, but who embodied it, has this great quote where she says,

“do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. what we need is to love without getting tired.”

i hope you find a way to love like that, emma. without getting tired. if you do, the world will be better for it.

work

now i know it’s a little early for me to be talking to you about work. don’t worry. for the first 18 years or so of your life, we’ve got you covered. (and probably for a while after that, the way things are looking at the moment).

but eventually, there will come a time when you have to start thinking about what it is you want to put your hands to. we all do. here are my thoughts for when you begin to think about this.

when it comes time to consider what it is you’d like to invest your time doing, don’t over-think it. instead, trust your heart. you’ll find, as you go through life, that you like certain things. you’ll also find you dislike other things. you’ll find there are things you’re pretty good at. you’ll also find there are things you’re not so good at.

if you can, find a way to combine what you enjoy doing with the things you’re pretty good at. if you can do that, this world will not only reward you for your work, but you will find that the world will be rewarded by your work.

Truth

another thing you’ll find in this world is that everyone has questions, and everyone is looking for answers. people want to know why we’re here. they want to know where we’re going. and they want to know what happens when the curtain of this life comes tumbling down.

you’ll find, as you go through life, that people offer a lot of different answers to these questions. you’ll find some people who say their answer is the right one. and you’ll find others who say all answers are right, just as much as the next one.

we’re going to spend a lot of time together, you and i, so you’re going to find out very early on what i believe. and you’ll probably even be influenced by my beliefs. but i’m honest enough with myself to admit that there will come a day when you start poking around to find the source of Truth for yourself. when you do, here are three things i hope you’ll think about.

first, when you’re considering whether something provides answers for life’s great questions, ask yourself, “does this help make sense of what i know about the world around me? or, instead, does it sound like something someone would make up, out of some sort of wishful thinking?”

secondly, and order is important here, ask yourself, “is this aesthetically pleasing?” what i mean by that is, when you’ve found something that you think makes sense, ask yourself if it’s actually attractive, as well.

and then, lastly, after you’ve done all that, ask yourself, “does it make a difference with the pain and the hurt of this world?”

i say order is important because if something simply doesn’t hold water, in the first place, then don’t bother with how much you’d like it to be true.

but, if you find it seems reasonable enough, in light of what you know of this world, then go on to ask how it satisfies your taste for beauty. when you hear it, does it make you smile? does it make you smile uncontrollably? while not necessarily a guarantee of Truth, beauty seems to be an awfully good indicator of it.

and then, when you’ve done all that, ask yourself whether it actually makes a difference with the brokenness of this world. i can’t imagine Truth suggesting we run from the brokenness and pain that surrounds us. i can only imagine Truth healing it. any offer of truth that doesn’t do something to heal the pain and hurt of this world is too thin to be True.

i think what you’ll find when you’ve really considered things, emma, is that Truth is both intellectually satisfying and aesthetically pleasing. you’re not likely to find that all of your questions are answered with a watertight solution, but if any attempt at an explanation for our questions does not satisfy both of these requirements, and if it does not then actually attempt to make a difference with the brokenness of this world, be careful how much you trust it.

and one more thing, while we’re on this topic: there are going to be many, many people who disagree with you once you’ve arrived at a particular position. and plenty of them will be much more intelligent than you.

don’t let that bother you. but don’t shut them out, either. listen to other people’s questions. go deeply with them, and allow them to critique your ideas, as you do theirs.

but at the end of the day, when you still have questions and their arguments still scratch at the back of your mind, don’t believe or disbelieve something simply because of what others say. believe in what you think to be true and beautiful because of what you know of the world around you. at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that will provide a solid foundation for anything you hold to.

a handful of thoughts

i’m sorry these final thoughts don’t fit into any neat categories, but here are a handful of thoughts i wanted to share with you before i go.

there are an awful lot of things in life we don’t get to choose. friends is one exception. i hope you surround yourself with great friends.

i hope you surround yourself with the kind of people who love you enough to tell you the truth, even when it hurts. and if it hurts you to hear, know it hurts them to say.

if you’re hurting or struggling or lonely or confused, and you find yourself feeling like you’re the only one, remember, you’re probably not. there’s an awful lot of us. because of that, there’s someone who has likely been where you are who can help.

growing up, my grandpa (your great-grandpa) used to say, “if you see something that needs to be done, go ahead and do it. don’t wait to be asked to do it.”

i think that’s a pretty good rule. except if it’s your mom’s things left out. if that’s the case, know they’re probably there for a reason and don’t need to be picked up. trust me on this one.

i mentioned this previously, but you’re going to find things in life that you’re pretty good at. i realized i should also tell you, you’re going to meet people who are better than you at whatever that might be.

don’t let that get you down. do what you cannot not do, and do it in the way only you can.

and on a similar note, remember that we’re not likely to always be the best, the smartest, the fastest or the strongest, but we can always choose to work the hardest at whatever it is we do.

one thing you’ll come to learn is i married your mother, in large part, because she has one of the biggest hearts of anyone i know. i love that about her. i also inherited a big heart from my parents, which means you can expect to have one yourself.

two warnings about that: first, guard it. be careful. you will find your heart often leads you to love people in a way that they might not always return. and that can hurt. others aren’t always going to love as you do, and expecting them to can lead to disappointment.

at the same time, be careful you don’t guard your heart so much that you don’t allow others to feel its warmth in a way that makes their life better. that is, after all, the reason you have it in the first place.

as a girl, and later as a woman, you’ll have the temptation to believe that you ought to be defined by your body. i hope you don’t. i hope you know that you’re so much more than that. cs lewis, an author who has helped me out a lot, as you’ll come to learn, once wrote, you aren’t a body, you have a body. you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. and i think there’s a lot of truth in that.

on a similar note, one thing i hope you learn to avoid is allowing others to determine your value. what i mean is, know you are worth more than what others might think of you. or not think of you. you see, living to please others is like starting a race that has no finish line. if you can avoid this, you will save yourself an incredible amount of time, energy, and hurt.

at the same time, know that the greatest experiences in your life will come from the times you put others before yourself. they’ll come when, in one way or another, you were serving another. it seems counter-intuitive, i know, but that’s how it goes.

you’ll also find, as you go through life, that the most rewarding experiences will come from the greatest challenges. i wish it weren’t the case, but it seems to be a universal truth. knowing this, in advance, can help when you’re facing those challenges.

and, lastly, when life brings you to a point where you simply don’t know what to do, when you have to make a decision and you have no idea how to move forward, imagine yourself having to explain your decision to your future son or daughter one day (when you’re much, much older). that’s what i did with you, long before you arrived, and it helped me with some of my most difficult decisions.

see you soon

well emma, you’ll soon be making your way into this world. and we’ll be here waiting for you. like friends and family at the airport after a long flight. we’ll be wearing smiles, and we’ll be crying. well, i will be. your mom claims not to cry when she’s happy.

but here’s the thing, princess, no matter how dark this world will seem at times, know that you never have to go it alone. not ever.

when this world is overwhelming, when pain and fear is so great you want to run and hide, i want you to know this: your mother and i are here for you. and we love you. we love you with the kind of love that doesn’t make any sense. we loved you before you entered this world, and we will love you long after you arrive. we will always love you, with the kind of love that doesn’t get tired.

and at the end of a long day, a difficult month or even year, when you still have questions, you’ll find me waiting. patiently. you’ll find my lap to crawl in and my ears attentive. and when you’ve grown too big for my lap, you’ll still find my ears patiently waiting. and then, as now, i’ll give it my best.

see you soon, princess.

love,

your dad