Make it Mean Something: “‘How did I get Here?'”

lark1

He glanced at the open meadow, capturing the surrounding scenery as though he had reached the closing scene of a heartwarming family film. He could almost hear the orchestra waltzing in the breeze.

‘How did I get here?’ he wondered. None of this seemed real. Baseless, even.

Suddenly, a jovial lark twisted itself into his line of vision. Its flight pattern was sporadic; it was as though this creature had no vertebrae.

“Come, and join me,” it said, treading the air temporarily before it continued on its hectic journey.

Just like that, it had gone. The boy was unsure how he could follow this brown bird when it had hardly even given him a chance to catch his bearings.

He sat down in the tall grasses of the meadow, being careful to bend as few stems as possible. His arms were wrapped around his knees as he pondered this present scene.

‘I know this is not a dream, because I know it’s not a dream,’ he thought, realizing the confusion presented by this conclusion. He has an imagination, but his logical side was fully functional at this moment.

Far in the back left corner of his eye, a herd of deer marched out from the trees in a uniform manner. They carried on as usual.

* * *

This is the [potential] start of a short story series I’m calling “Make it Mean Something.” It was essentially improvised and influenced by the classical music we had playing for the dog in the other room. As the music changed, so did the “plot” progression. But of course, writing like that can be sporadic, and it can lead to… well, not really knowing what’s being said.

But maybe we can still get something from what’s presented. Maybe we, as individuals, can grab something from what we read and find a moral, a theme, a lesson from something that, at the surface, seems to be pure chaos–much like the content of this particular story.

Because this story had no meaning when I wrote it, I will maintain the notion that it does not and will never have any official meaning. But after reading it over again, I started to see some themes, perhaps indicative of subconscious responses to our society today, in the content of this short story.

I see a distorted reality in this story (well, duh). The scene is set with a sense of daze. Our protagonist, an ageless child, is conscious, but knows that the situation he’s in is not normal. The scene is populated by this boy, a talking bird (and–I didn’t realize this until I looked this up just now: apparently larks live almost exclusively in dry climates, not meadows); marching deer; and, well, I guess that’s about it.

But throughout the [very] short story, our friend is kind of just taking it in. Not necessarily accepting it, but also not necessarily rejecting it.

Is this indicative of complacency to a changing world? Or shock and confusion in response to it? Is our world normal right now, or has it always been filled with paradoxes?

Really, I think the exciting thing about this general premise (that is, of a meaningless and improvised story) gives us all the opportunity to find a meaning. It doesn’t have to mean what I say it means. But we can still take what is presented to us as it is and use it to create something unique. Maybe something sticks out to other readers than what stuck out to me (even though I wrote it). But I cannot explain the scene, the setting, the character, or the plot anywhere past what we see above. Why is the resolution kind of vague? Why don’t we know how this boy ended up in the meadow, and why doesn’t he even seem to know?

I have intentionally decided to leave the story untouched from the point I decided I’d finished, lest I taint the improvisational and open-ended feel it contains. Of course, being my own worst critic, I am having a hard time not noticing some things about what I’ve written that I wish I could change.

So how about you? What do you find out from this story once you make it mean something?

 

Photo found from: http://paradisefoundsantabarbara.com/articles/power-animal-for-may-lark-by-backyard-shaman-amy-katz-m-a/

The Kingdom of God, Part III: A Many-Splintered Thing

This is Part III of a 4-part blog series I am writing on the theological concept of the Kingdom of God, to correspond with the classes I had been leading at my church. You can read Part I by clicking here, and Part II by clicking here.

* * *

We are at the heart of the first century in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ, and a new culture is being developed. Contrary to the culture of the Roman empire and even many of the traditions of old, this new society is built upon communities that seek to live out the message of the Messiah–of Jesus Christ who lived as the ultimate human example and died as a source of redemption for all the times in which we would end up succumbing to all that ran counter to that example.

Leading the charge in this new experiment are Jesus’s former disciples and a new recruit named Paul, who had previously been an adversarial figure to these people he now refers to as brothers and sisters.

Their goal: advancing the Kingdom of God about which Jesus spoke so frequently and passionately.

The means: not through overpowering the Powers That Be (much to the dismay of many), but by instead forming communities built on love for God and others, compassion towards the outcasts, and the pursuit to choose this better way of life both through radical outreach and inclusiveness, and through fermenting the homegrown communities that are present today so as to be brought down and continued for generations to come.

But, as is the case with every human effort, this cause does not come without its fair share of struggles, confusion, and conflict both from the outside as well as from within.

This becomes evident through even a surface-level study into the latter books of the New Testament, most of which are letters written to the early Christian communities by the first major leaders regarding how best to advance the Kingdom of God within their own respective contexts.

For the church in Corinth, Paul was adamant about ensuring that access to the Kingdom of God was not hindered by people’s skills; rather, their goal instead was to define their communities by the ways in which they loved one another. For the church in Galatia, Paul was outraged when they were causing unnecessary divisions because of poor interpretations of ancient laws. And in so many other places, Paul and the early churches found themselves constantly struggling to figure out how to handle everything from slavery, to gender roles, to diversity, to those who tried to lead the people astray.

James got mad when people did not serve others.

Peter focused a lot on laziness and still being active in light of the second coming of Jesus that had been foretold.

John focused a lot on seeking unity in the midst of those who kept trying to create divisions within the communities.

With the advent of the Church comes the start of a pursuit that is still being realized today: how to advance the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in Heaven. With each passing day comes a new element, a new layer of what it looks like to be a follower of Christ in a world that has always been against his teachings. How to respond to cultural movements and social mores, how we are influenced by our society, and how can we determine our role today in the midst of all that is presented to us.

But the Kingdom of God is not defined by any one culture; rather, it is a conglomeration of many elements of many cultures, influenced most, hopefully, by the message of love and compassion taught and lived out by Jesus Christ with each passing day.

The direction my lessons for my class ended up turning towards the most in these past few weeks (including the weeks I ended up having to work instead of going to church), is the conclusion that the greatest key to advancing the kingdom of God–i.e., the ultimate template for Christian belief and practice–is rooted in what Jesus labeled as being the two greatest commandments. These two commandments are instructions for us to love God, and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40).

Rarely was Jesus ever so explicit as he was with that designation. Even after someone acknowledged these commandments and went on to ask, understandably, who exactly qualified as a “neighbor,” Jesus went on to tell a story rather than just give a simple, straightforward response (Luke 10:25-37, I promise you that you know this story). This, as well as my own study of the Bible and other Christian texts, leads me to believe that love is the hinge upon which every single element of life should be supported. Regardless of our context, our culture, and whoever may support us or tear us down, love is our tool for bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. Love is the light that seeps through the cracks of Babel’s infrastructure. Love is the counter–the twist–to this hyper-Shakespearean tragedy that humanity has written.

If you are Christian, you most likely believe that Jesus is coming back again, and that it is our job to prepare for that arrival in whatever way possible. Christian conservatives tend to see this as a call for evangelism and ‘right belief’–or orthodoxy. Christian liberals tend to see this as a call for action, justice, and service–or orthopraxy (literally, ‘right practice’). But love for God and love for others seems, to me, to be the two main requisites of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

When we read the two best-known biblical passages for what Christian love should look like (1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4:7-21), these seem to support my theory further. Likewise, love for God and love for others seem go hand-in-hand. Love separates us from the legalism found in extreme orthodoxy, and the self-dependence found in extreme orthopraxy. Instead, love for God is right belief; and love for our neighbors is right practice.

Now, what we ended up discussing in class after looking at these verses were, of course, things like:
“Okay, but what exactly is love, beyond what we hear in songs and see in movies [e.g., the beautifully-arranged and performed but ridiculously delusional Elephant Love Medley in Moulin Rouge]?”
“What does it mean to love ____________?”
“Does love for God occur before love for our neighbors, or vice versa? Can we learn to love God more through the way we love our neighbors, or vice versa? Can we love our neighbors without loving God, or vice versa?”

None of these questions are particularly new, and neither is my so-called “theory.” But to think that this concept is any less relevant or groundbreaking today than it was 2,000 years ago is to also think that the earth is flat, or that waterfalls aren’t super majestic and awesome.

The pursuit for love in our world today is no harder now than it was for the first century Church, nor is it really any easier. It’s hard to say, honestly.

But I maintain the idea that at the heart of the Christian lifestyle remains the same today, 2,000 years ago, and 2,000 years from now. Our goal is, has always been, and will always be, to advance the Kingdom of God in our world by loving the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and by loving our neighbors as ourselves. This is a very simple and absolute idea, but beyond this point lies layers upon layers of questions, implications, dead ends, contexts, and, most of all: God. Eden. The New Jerusalem. Peace. Joy. Grace. Truth. Justice. Authenticity. Vulnerability. Perfection.

Andy Williams sang, “Love is a many-splendored thing [referring to romantic love, but still].” That doesn’t mean that love is an easy pursuit. But when we do choose to love above all else, surely that is when we can see how incredible the world can really be when it strives to function as God had always intended.

My friends, may we choose to love and learn what it means to love. May we not avoid vulnerability, and may we strive to look past ourselves. May we tread the hard path of love so that we can prepare the way of the Lord.

Thank you for reading. Stay tuned for my final post in this series, coming… soon.

2016 is Dead. Long Live 2017.

2017Well, friends, it’s finally come. 2016 is finally reaching its bitter and welcomed conclusion, and while 2017 may be blanketed in fog and uncertainty, there is still something inherently hopeful about the turn of a new year. There’s still something radically reassuring about opening a new year’s journal and flipping through its fresh, un-inked pages with nothing but wonder pressing you onward.

Of course, looking back upon this past year, I can see that it was not all bad. No year–no event–is complete without a bit of good, bad, and ugly all claiming a seat at the vast, simultaneously-abundant-and-impoverished table. And this year in particular was among the most polarizing years I have ever personally experienced, where the moments of triumph and accomplishment bellowed with much of the same vigor as the moments of frustration, guilt, and disappointment.

Among the highlights of my year, one would be hard-pressed to find a reason to complain. I graduated from college and began pursuing my Master’s Degree. I was invited to eight weddings and attended all but two. Several other people I’m close to, most notably my brother, got engaged, and come May 13 I’ll get to see myself donning the Best Man’s outfit for the first time. One of my best and oldest friends announced her pregnancy. My family was graced with a fifteen-pound bundle of bark and bounce named Lily. I’ve started to pick up learning Spanish (again) with the free(!) Duolingo app and the Spanish translation of the Harry Potter books. And–while I’m not the healthiest person on the planet–I’ve also started drinking homemade smoothies roughly five times a week.

On the other hand, this year has not been free of its struggles. While I certainly take pride in my commitment to stay informed and keep up with current events this year, the products have, needless to say, been harrowing. I watched as two flawed presidential candidates brought themselves center-stage in front of the eyes of the world, the entire election season leaving a bitter taste in my mouth, and mourned as our nation’s Christians and Electoral College put one of the most hateful, arrogant, and un-Christlike persons alive into the Oval Office. Not only that, but I felt helpless as I heard reports of yet another shooting, another bombing, another Syrian neighborhood being driven out. And what is worse: I began to feel numb in response to all these things.

Personally, I felt as low as I’d pretty much ever felt at several different points this year, in particular when I was turned down from my “ideal job” in September, and when I was let go from the job I’d previously maintained up until this month, and when I faced non-responses from what felt like hundreds of other potential jobs throughout the year. I had to say goodbye to my college friends and am now forced to settle for conversations through text and the occasional weekend visit every couple of months (the frequency of which will likely only decrease as time goes on). I witnessed firsthand what distance and disconnect can do for relationships, and I spent the entirety of my summer [and beyond] learning that healing cannot exist without pain and suffering first coming into play, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or any combination of the three.

All that being said, I’m doing my best to greet 2017 with the same sense of hope I used to always pride myself in. While it’ll be beginning with a whole bunch of cliffhangers, I refuse to see these things as an excuse to mope about or especially give up.

Among the many lessons I learned this year (yes, I know this entire post of made up of cliche’s–what New Year’s reflection isn’t?), perhaps the most prominent one of all is the fact that life is not meant to be experienced alone, apart from everyone else. We must find value in the things our friends and family provide for our well-being, and we must, in turn, learn how to better be there for them.

As far as resolutions go, I don’t really have anything specific. I hope to keep learning Spanish and to keep drinking smoothies (and possibly do a few more things to try to live a healthier life). I obviously want to find another job–if not one with a church then at least one that will help me pay for grad school–and I hope to keep moving forward in my pursuit of my Master’s Degree. I want to continually learn what it means to live as a follower of Christ–submitting to peace, but refusing to be silent on matters of injustice, loving my enemies, and abiding by the Spirit by emanating love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in every situation.

While most of 2017 is still a completely empty slate, I’m kicking the new year off by going to an interfaith retreat this first week, and through it I hope to do something I’ve never really done before: try to friends with people who aren’t exactly like me. It’s gearing up to be a refreshing and educational first few days of the year, and you can bet your bottom that I hope to produce at least one good blog post out of this event.

Thank you for reading. Until next time, may we reflect on this passage from 1 John 4, a passage that I’ve been asked to read at my brother’s wedding and one that’s been on my heart and mind quite a bit these past few months in particular.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8 ESV)

May we learn to love, and may we learn that love begets love and that hate begets hate. The God I strive to know calls me to love my neighbor and my enemy, and this oh-so-divisive world we live in loves to make enemies of one another. But may we love one another instead. May we strive to make peace instead. May we seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God instead as we start this new year.

Grace and peace be with you until we meet again.