Flattening our reality, one share at a time

This past semester I taught our school’s senior class a unit on media studies. This was mostly an excuse to geek out on Marshall McLuhan and call it “work.”

But in the context of our course as a whole, I had another aim. We are spending the year studying the way in which we derive stories from various influences and then enact those stories in our own lives. When we live our lives, full of thought, passions, and actions in the world, we tell a story—what we’re calling (after Richard Rorty and Mark Edmundson) our ‘Final Narrative.’

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I’m hoping to help students identify the sources (scriptures, rituals, works of literature and art, philosophies) from which they hope to consciously construct their Final Narratives. I am also hoping to make them aware of the ways in which their immersion in the structures of social media may inhibit their efforts to discern, adopt, and enact dimensions of the Final Narratives proposed by compelling authors, mystics, filmmakers, and artists.

In short, it’s hard to mine Homer, Hemingway, Hebrews, Heidegger, Herzog, or Handel for actionable glimpses of the good, true, and beautiful when most of our attention is captured by #hashtags, handles, and header images.

And, even if our minds and hearts are profoundly moved by an encounter with great Final Narrative proposals, the life-changing impact of such encounters may be significantly diminished by the way in which our social media supervenes upon our lived experience. We are brought crashing back down from our mountaintop experiences not by the demands and duties of our daily lives, but through the banality of living within social media’s world-flattening reality.

We put down a great novel and pick up our phones. The Old Man and the Sea was trying to convince us that doing what we were made for, and doing it with heroic perseverance, is intrinsically valuable. But now Twitter is trying to convince us, by the very structure of its ‘world,’ that the latest nuclear provocation by Kim Jong Un is worthy of the same amount of concern as a snarky comment by Stephen Colbert.

We come home from church, where the liturgy was attempting to en-world us in the life of the world to come. We sit on the sofa and amputate that far off world in order to save the World of Facebook, within which a historically private moment like a marriage proposal is photodocumented alongside the also historically private (but for opposite reasons) event of my high school buddy’s afternoon snack.

When we bookend our reading experiences, however immersive they are, with immersion in social media, however brief, we tell our souls that the worlds of those books are fantasy, and these selfies and cat videos are reality. When we enfold our corporate worship within a life more fundamentally framed by Facebook, in a subtle but undeniable fashion, it is Facebook that corporate worship becomes about. 

Our technology has enabled us to see the world from the vantage point of distant planets. But our technology has also given us lifelong memberships in the Flat Earth Society. And, when our lives are through, it will be difficult for people to discern from their movements story arcs other than, perhaps, “they were born, they posted, they died.” Our Final Narratives, our supposed visions of the life well lived, are telling the story not of deep conviction and persistent action, but of things liked, things shared, things retweeted.

Are there some of us who manage to utilize social media in ways that do not allow its structures and its ‘world’ to supervene upon the ‘real world’? Are there some of us who primarily live within a world wherein duty, heroism, conviction, love, and sacrifice are treasured and enacted, rather than a world of mere likes and retweets? Certainly.

Do we have the reflective capacity to recognize when we’ve swapped the enchanted world of the great texts, great films, great artworks, great religions and real-life heroes for the flattened earth of Facebook? Do we have the will power to make a substantial change if we recognize that we’re living in the wrong world? I’m not sure.

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Were you there when you were converted?

Thankfully I’ve been in circles within which obtaining a job in a church or ministry has not depended on my ability to identify the year, month, day, and hour of my conversion. Nor have I been turned away from a job that would have required me to have been baptized after having made “a decision for Christ.”

Yes, of course, many (equally snarky) people point to the crucifixion of Jesus, or to his resurrection, as the moment of their salvation. But I now have one more snotty answer if anyone should ask me to give a precise account of the moment I got born again: “Bro, I wasn’t even there.”

What makes us think that there were sufficient reasons for us to be born again? What makes us think that our decision had anything to do with our spiritual birth? It didn’t even have anything to do with our natural birth.

Jean-Luc Marion:

“Birth is no less incomprehensible [than death]. … It was an event that in some sense the whole world witnessed except for me. In short, the event that saw me show up remains an event I never attended.”

To get born requires the decision of others, of parents and particularly of a mother. Any “I” that could decide on anything of consequence was not even around.

Ironically, if we are going to take “being born again” as seriously as Jesus and Nicodemus took it, we are going to have to relinquish the right to choose, the ability to decide, the prerogative to pass judgment.

The seriousness of the new birth as a doctrine and as a spiritual necessity requires the theological rigor to conceive of my spiritual genesis as an event that can’t depend on me, because I was not alive to give myself life.

“Where were you when the world was made?” may as well be the same question as “Where were you when you were converted?” The answer to both is, I wasn’t.

The Expatriations of Bono and TS Eliot

As soon as I became an expat in the summer of 2015, I began feeling a new kinship with those who throughout history have gone to take up residence in a land not their own.

In the past year I’ve been fixated on the so-called “Lost Generation” of expats who lived in Paris after the Great War. First it was a near obsession with Hemingway. Then I got a group of friends together to read this generation. We’ve read Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, and now Eliot. In their lives and literatures, they were trying to dial into life after the cataclysm that was World War I.

Eliot’s difficult waistcoat

As I’ve studied The Waste Land, I’ve paid close attention to Eliot’s expatriation. As Yale’s Langdon Hammer humorously notes (in his Open Yale Course), Eliot is the only major British poet from St. Louis. In speaking of Eliot’s forced entry into British culture, Hammer makes a big deal out of the young poet’s waistcoat. (Being a sartorial old soul myself, I was all ears.) Hammer says Eliot’s waistcoat can be read as a symbol of his quest to strip himself of his Americanness, to fully embrace British culture, and to inscribe himself within its literary tradition, however uncomfortable, stuffy, and restrictive that might seem.

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Photo: The Telegraph

As Eliot settled into his British tweed, he made it his practice to quote heavily from authoritative literary and religious texts of the past. He was conscious of their power to convey an authority to him by their very citation. But he was also conscious of the fact that everything had changed in the wake of the Great War, and that he would have to do something new with the old he treasured. The result was a sort of bricolage of lines from Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, the Bible, and Buddhist texts. Nick Mount’s fantastic lecture on The Waste Land likens Eliot’s use of texts to a Canadian soldier’s gathering of bits of broken stained glass from across Europe and their assembly into a new window at the University of Toronto. Eliot was old and new.

He was also difficult! In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, he insisted that, following the War, poetry had to be difficult.

And so Eliot set out to become a tastemaker in his new home. By quoting authorities, he wanted to tell Britain what its literary and cultural legacy was, and he, the American, wanted to make himself the standard of what it meant to be literary, cultured, and British. Spoiler alert: he basically succeeded.

Bono’s star-spangled jacket

U2’s front man maintains a home in Dublin, and has most definitely not renounced his Irish citizenship or roots. And while in 2000 he had “just got a place in New York,” he was not new to America. The Joshua Tree feels like the wide open spaces of the American west. The video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was filmed under the pulsating lights of Las Vegas. “Bullet the Blue Sky” was addressed to the American industrial military complex and its commanders-in-chief. The Rattle and Hum album and tour was an immersion in American sounds and culturescapes. They re-toured The Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary, convinced that it had something yet to say to the two Americas under Trump.

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Image: Getty/GQ

After 9/11, it was U2 who memorialized its dead at the Super Bowl halftime show that winter. The names streamed up the screen like a New York skyscraper as though they were headed to “Where the Streets Have No Name”. Bono showed his American flag jacket lining in solidarity with the country reeling from the attack less than six months prior.

All of which is to say that Bono is a lot like Eliot. He has quoted America’s traditions to it, and has made himself himself its modern interpreter and its most enthusiastic champion. Though while Eliot renounced his Americanness to cozy up to the British, Bono has used his outsider status to hold a mirror up to America—to try to convince America of its exceptional history, ideas, status, and burden to serve and lead the world in all things free and brave.

However, Bono hasn’t postured himself as America’s authority. As recently as last night, Bono sang two songs to America on Saturday Night Live. In one of them, he sings:

I could sing it to you all night, all night
If I could, I’d make it alright, alright
Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside
I can help you, but it’s your fight, your fight

Moreover, Bono, unlike Eliot, increasingly doesn’t seem to be convinced (as perhaps he was during the Zooropa/Pop period) that, in order to point America back to its founding documents, his music and lyrics need to be difficult. Where Eliot thought the cataclysm of World War I called for difficulty, Bono seems to think the post-9/11 world needs joy and simplicity “with an acid drop mixed in with the sweetness.”

Bono’s and Eliot’s expat churches

One final consideration of Bono’s and Eliot’s expatraiations.

Everywhere in the world where there are expats, there are congregations for them. Eric Liddell went to the English-speaking presbyterian church in Paris on the Sunday when he skipped his Olympic event. Flushing, New York has Korean congregations that dwarf the rest of my denomination’s churches. I currently pastor an English congregation in Seoul.

Perhaps it was just another of Eliot’s anglophilic waistcoats, but the poet converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism in 1927. He submitted to the authority of a bishop despite his professed Puritanical temperament. While he moved and shook the literary world, effectively becoming its archbishop, in ecclesial matters he sat in the pew and became, liturgically, an English commoner seeking communion. For all we can tell, he was a quiet orthodox church member until his death. Two years after his death, his name was emblazoned in stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. That seems like a fitting place for one who became both the English language poet of the twentieth century and a humble Anglican.

On the other hand, as one of my fellow expat churchmen has recently pointed out to me, Bono’s relationship with the church has been a different sort of expatriation experience. As Joshua Rothman ably recounts, U2 struggled in its early years with their potential for international stardom and the felt demands of their fringy ascetic ecclesial community. Eventually, they chose rock n roll over church. The Irish context of Protestant-Catholic violence certainly contributed.

The result, as I’ve hinted at above, is that Bono became something of the megachurch worship pastor of America’s sorta-spiritual and maybe-kinda religious stadium rock crowds. He doesn’t fancy himself a papal authority in American music or culture the way Eliot saw himself in the world of British letters. Bono has always taken more of a persuasive posture of influence; he just doesn’t have an ex cathedra temperament. But if one made a bit of a Puritanical analysis of Bono’s dealings with the American soul, one might say he is an unauthorized street preacher; a circuit-riding camp meeting convener; an officiant of strange fire.

In the end, Bono has not expatriated the way Eliot did. Part of me thinks Bono is doing it right. Who instinctively cozies up to Eliot’s renunciation of homeland? Who can bear his stuffy sartorial affectations? Who cannot look on quizzically at his brazen cultural interpolation? And, by contrast, who cannot help but admire Bono’s admiring pep talks in star-spangled jackets?

But the churchman in me, along with the would-be rebel in me, knows that while Bono bends over backwards not to be seen as an American authority, his churchless spirituality ultimately amounts to an unwillingness to sit under authority. He’ll read the Psalms, interpret them, sing them, and make them sexy enough to sing in an arena. He’ll earn his money, and then he’ll decide where it should go and who it should help. And ultimately, he’ll make himself a sort of Unitarian pastor in a “church” where everyone that’s feeling the vibe feels at home, as long as their politics are sufficiently socially conscious and they’re okay periodically holding up their consciences to a certain figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

Bono has expatriated not from Ireland, but from the church. This leaves him homeless, dislocated in a way that Eliot would have remained had he merely gone all-in with the British literary tradition and not settled into the back pew in his local parish church.

It has been 35 years of ecclesial homelessness for Bono. My hope is that he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for in churchless spirituality. My hope is that, if he still can’t reconcile church and rock n roll, he will become uncool or irrelevant enough, soon enough, to settle down into some quiet parish outside Dublin and perhaps duck into Redeemer when he’s playing expat at his other home in New York.

To be at home, to repatriate, he’ll need to take some of the advice he’s giving to America on the new album and get out of his own way.

[Update: As I mentioned to my critical fellow U2 enthusiast, sometimes we assume we know the perspective from which Bono speaks and the audience to which his songs are addressed. We don’t, necessarily. It turns out that America may not be the primary audience of “Get Out of Your Own Way”—instead, that honor seems to belong first to his daughter and second, to himself. ]

Don’t call it an “office”

There are a couple things in life that I’m passionate about. Hills upon which I am willing to die. In no particular order:

  • One does not put two spaces between sentences; the computer will space it appropriately for you.
  • One does not grind one’s coffee until it is time to brew said coffee.
  • North Carolina is in no wise “first in flight”; Ohioans commandeered their beach and wind.
  • The bottom button of one’s blazer, suit coat, or sport coat is to remain unbuttoned.

And, more recently, a new rule:

Don’t call my study an “office.” It’s a study

Nomenclature matters, folks. Our words create the worlds we experience and the quality of our experiences therewith. John Culkin famously said that “we shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us.” Names of things are human-shaped tools, which thereafter shape us. They shape our expectations and our realities.

I don’t have a classroom of my own. I instead have a tiny room at the end of a hallway. I love this arrangement. I get lots of privacy and in turn I get lots of things done. And, by “things done”, I mean principally “thoughts thought” and “learning learned.”

That’s because my room is my study.

When I tell a student to come see me in my study after school, I am indicating to them that we are going to learn together. Whatever problem they may be having with their grade, the paper they’re writing, their attendance record, their behavior, their language acquisition process, or their mastery of the course content will be approached in a specific way: it will be approached with the conviction that we are, together, learning.

Consider the alternative. I could call my room my “office.” What experience can a student, a colleague, a supervisor, or a parent expect to have in my “office”?

They can expect to have their problem dealt with administratively. They expect their problem to be solved like the unclogging of a procedural bottleneck. They show up to get a grade fixed, a paper corrected, an assignment postponed or a concept explained. People who come to an “office” expect bureaucracy, and they pray that maybe this will be the one time in a hundred when that bureaucracy actually works efficiently, achieving the results desired. They expect, though, to be processed like any other data input that might come into that space, whether through paper and ink, email, telephone, or flesh and blood.

As for me and my study, we shall serve the learner. The learner inside me, and the learner inside student, teacher, administrator, and parent. I want people to come into my study–myself included!–with the expectation that both solitary and collaborative learning takes place in this sacred space. The sofa and armchair, the bookcases, the coffee station and the aroma that regularly makes it into the adjoining hallway, the round table (as opposed to a desk, aka bureau, hello!), and the natural light coming through the windows–all of these things help indicate what this space is for.

But especially the name of the space. Don’t call it an office.

The Capacity to Admire

If there has been one intellectual and spiritual preoccupation of mine for the past 7 or 8 years, it has been a preoccupation with love. I believe it all started in a slogan of Augustine’s which I must have first encountered as a newlywed sometime in 2003. Credo ut intelligam, as Anselm later codified it. “I believe in order to understand.”

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Anselm of Canterbury | 19th-Century Stained Glass | Image: Wikipedia

For Augustine, this faith that seeks understanding, this belief unto learning, is an act of the passions, of the will, of the decision-making faculty that resides at the core of who we are as human beings.

All of this is another way of saying that love has priority over knowledge, and is the pathway of knowledge. Knowledge grows as love grows, not the other way around. One must admire someone before one can learn about them and from them.

I was stunned recently by Jean-Luc Marion’s reflections on admiration. In a recently-published book of conversations (translated by Crina Gschwandtner, my secondary doctoral supervisor!), Marion recounts the ways in which, as a young thinker and Christian, he both succeeded and failed to admire well.

‘You’re doing it wrong’: How (not) to admire badly

Sometimes the young Marion would come close to foolishly hitching his wagon to a pseudo-Master, someone who was making a lot of noise, gathering a lot of disciples, and, as we might say now, “building a platform.”

Other times, Marion would miss a real master right in front of his eyes. He recounts when he and his classmates were bored and passively rebellious in the midst of the tedium of basic lectures on German. Only later did they realize that the man who was teaching them declensions and conjugations was the great Paul Celan. You’ve got to have your eyes, or, better, your heart open in order to recognize the possibilities for a life-transforming mentor-protégé relationship right in front of you. 41+5NJrfRhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Still other times, Marion noticed the temptation to appropriate a master at the expense of receiving their contribution. To get to true understanding, one cannot strip-mine the masters for their material. You can’t go beyond your masters without truly going through them.

True admiration is the key. Marion sums this up poignantly:

“Those who do not have the capacity to admire cannot receive what is there. They want to imitate or confiscate the inheritance instead of receiving it as one should, namely as a task that is too great yet cannot be avoided.”

Admiration of the Image-bearer

Augustine and Anselm’s motto has to do with the human quest to love and know God. But Marion shows that this same love-first openness to God’s self-revelation must be recapitulated in one’s human relationships. As we reckon with the incomprehensibility of God, we discover knowledge of God opening only insofar as we are, first and last, poised with loving anticipation for what God might reveal.

Humanity, in God’s image, is likewise fundamentally incomprehensible, a reality we do not often fully appreciate. As we abandon attempts to understand people apart from a loving openness to them, a true admiration grows. This admiration opens the space for a love-borne understanding. In turn, such a quality of understanding brings us to the place where our “use” of those we admire sheds its posture of appropriation. Instead, we move through and beyond those we admire by engaging them in winsome, charitable conversation. Our conclusions, even insofar as they diverge from our masters, are nevertheless indebted to them. And this indebtedness honors them. 

When I take the posture of admiration at the outset, I honor the incomprehensibility of my human interlocutor. As I do so, I am able potentially to come to a quality understanding that would never be possible had I attempted to know first before admiring.

Love, for humans as well as for God, unlocks the potentialities of understanding and refuses the impulse to reduce another to brute facts or usable truths. Fatih seeking understanding ‘works’ among humans, too.

Every one of us has people whom we admire for one reason or another. The only question is: will we admire well, or poorly?

5 Theses on Tim Tebow’s Foray into Pro Baseball

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Photo: nfl.com

1. This dude is freaking huge. Those bulging muscles. Dang. Kudos to him for working hard. The day I quit playing football was the day I quit lifting, running, and eating right.
 
2. People who rip on him should get lives. Everyone is allowed to have a personal brand. His includes being a famous athlete. If his personal brand gains him a place on the Mets Instructional League roster, GOOD FOR HIM.
 
3. It’s called an instructional league for a reason. Hitting a professionally-pitched baseball is one of the hardest things humans could attempt to do. But there is a beloved Cleveland Indian (Yan Gomes) who gets a hit approximately 1/10 of the time he’s at the plate. Whether you think it’s realistic for Tebow to play in the Bigs is irrelevant: he’s in the Minors. WAY down in the minors. Being instructed.
 
4. “Oh, but it’s just a big publicity stunt.” So what? Business is business. Is this any more bizarre than Michael Jordan endorsing tighty whities, or than Michael Jordan’s own foray into pro baseball? Hardly. If the Mets and Tebow think they can make some money, GOOD FOR THEM. This is a business, and it’s entertainment.
 
5. In the end, Tebow is to be commended, because he knows he’ll face all this criticism, and he’s still going for it. He is an *athlete* and as such he’ll fail in some respects and succeed in others. You can’t tell me he doesn’t actually want to play—that it’s *only* a publicity thing, or a money thing. The dude is an athlete, and athletes gonna athlete.
 
Appendix: It’s too bad all this happened just as the Browns lost their starting and backup QBs. Is it too early for Tebow to do a Bo Jackson and sign with the Browns as well as the Mets? He’d be the anti-Manziel.

Stabs of Sorrow

It’s odd. I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been.

Big-city life is thrilling to me, and Seoul bigger than the biggest city in America. My wife and kids love living overseas. We’re all enjoying learning Korean, more or less. Work is tiring, but fulfilling. I have some fine colleagues and some generous friends. Church life is joyful and familiar: Presbyterian, liturgical, biblical, theological, communal, small, foodly. The kids are flourishing, my wife is wonderful, and the cherry blossoms will bloom in a couple weeks time.

Things really are great. Really great.

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In his memoir of his spiritual journey, CS Lewis writes about occasional, unpredictable experiences that he called “stabs of joy.” He was mostly melancholic, but every once in a great while, he was deeply moved by something otherworldly and joyous, painful because freighted with longing.

I, on the other hand, feel as though I am living in a world of enchantment—things are great, and I’m happy. But every so often I experience not the Lewisian stabs of joy, but rather their opposite: stabs of sorrow.  

I’m rather new at this.

I was new to the unforeseen disappointments of leading a group of prodigals and pilgrims in a shared and local life. I was new to having my influence rendered, in many cases, surprisingly uninfluential.

I was new to seeing families rent asunder up close, and I was certainly new to that peculiar sort of failure one feels when one knows that one’s help didn’t help—especially when help, it seemed, was so desperately needed.

I was new to opening my heart and my life and my home to so many different people. And I was most definitely new to having many of those people close their hearts and lives and homes to me.

And I’m new at the grief and melancholy that now strike unexpectedly, when the sheer awfulness of some particularly awful days in a hard season not so long ago come flooding into my consciousness. Without warning, it all comes back, but somehow stronger and more achy with the passage of time.

I make my attempts to reconcile with the apparent inevitability of it all, which blunts the force of these stabs of sorrow. But even my belated ‘acceptance’ (whatever that means) of these severe providences seems to cement this season in my past and make it always retrievable. My disappointments have become memorialized now; they’re a thing of my historical record, a chapter in my unwritten memoir that gets read aloud to me involuntarily from time to time, whether I like it or not. 

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There are books with titles like Leading With a Limp and The Wounded Healer that sound like they were probably written for punks like me; for people who find themselves—what’s the Christianese word?—humbled. I should probably read those.

There are also many people I know whose present suffering makes my reflection on these stabs of sorrow, situated as they are against a backdrop of steady happiness, feel utterly unwarranted. I should probably remember this.

My grief isn’t utterly overwhelming like the grief of many others. My vocational failure isn’t utterly catastrophic. But since my sorrows stab me every so often, perhaps my grief is a grief that nevertheless ought to be observed. I’m attending to these sorrows when they come upon me. Surely they have something to teach me, even though I suspect at times that the truths I’m meant to learn are ones I already know: fallenness, finitude, frailty.

I take these stabs of sorrow to be indicators that my knowledge of these postlapsarian conditions needs to be deeper still. More personal. It’s not “people” who are fallen, but me. It’s not “the world” that is frail, it’s me. It’s not “creation” that is finite, but me

These stabs of sorrow are no fun, but the creatureliness they underscore is true. And a reckoning with true things, however not-fun, has got to be a good thing. 

“There’s an Opening …”

You can fill an opening. Or you can go through an opening. These are actually two very different openings. I have experience with both.

When I realized there was a position open at a school in Seoul, I imagined the prospects of both excitement and relief. The thought of finally getting a chance to live in a big city thrilled me. The notion of getting rid of most of our belongings tempted me with the beauty of the simplicity it would yield.

From The Guardian, 2011: "Volunteers make kimchi to donate to needy people in front of Seoul City Hall, South Korea. About 2,000 women made 270 tons of kimchi. A pungent dish made with cabbage, other vegetables and chili sauce, kimchi is the most popular traditional food in Korea."

From The Telegraph, 2011: “Volunteers make kimchi to donate to needy people in front of Seoul City Hall, South Korea. About 2,000 women made 270 tons of kimchi. A pungent dish made with cabbage, other vegetables and chili sauce, kimchi is the most popular traditional food in Korea.”

Life itself had gotten really complicated. Relationships, planting a church, homeschooling kids, running a small business: none of these things by themselves were simple to navigate, and navigating them simultaneously was less simple still for me and my wife.

A job opening in Korea meant less complication.

A job opening initially meant, in our case, a chance to earn enough money doing mostly enjoyable work with enough time away from that work to explore an exciting city, country, and region. It meant a chance to send the kids to a great school, which de-complicated my wife’s life, especially.

And that is what the past 5 months has indeed been. Less complicated by far.

“Look! There’s an opening! We’ll fill that slot. We’ll swap this crazy life for that really attractive and simple life.”

This opening has been filled.

But there’s a second sort of opening.

This sort of opening isn’t filled. It is not applied for. It can’t be plugged into. It’s not a job-plus-time-off.

Rather, it’s an opening the other side of which yields a new, unforeseen, and perhaps complicated life. This opening presents itself as a summons to walk the long and hard road with a promise attached that there’s a good end. It’s fraught with danger, not from the surroundings, but from the souls one finds on the other side, volatile souls that will look your soul in the eye and dare you to not turn away from them.

We are just about to head to Thailand for vacation. Though I’ve been working for 5 months, I see this coming vacation as the vacation to cap off the vacation I’ve been on since arriving in Seoul. A vacation, in a way, to end all vacations.

Five months after filling an opening, I’m being called in through an opening. Double-dog-dared to start looking souls in the eye and to allow the eyes of souls to look mine in the eye. Summoned back to a way of being-in-the-world that would please good ‘ole Heidegger because it reckons with death by living in light of it.

A job opening attracted me to vacate a complex life and manage a new rhythm balancing work and leisure. A summons calls me to vacate vacation and enter, once again, but really for the first time, through an opening into a world of souls. The first opening allows me to be either on or off. The second opening challenges me to be either in or out. 

I want in.

I think.

Be Vulnerable. And Prepare to Have it Thrown Back at You.

I’m working on my promised posts about how I believe a Sabbath / Neighborhood / Vocation ecclesiology can and should give evangelicalism’s Donald Millers no need to quit going to church. Truthfully, it’s been challenging to think through why exactly I believe what I believe on this issue. Hence, the delay.

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In the mean time, another standard church planting proverb.

I remember in seminary and during my several pastoral internships, I received a particular challenge and an accompanying caution.

The challenge

The challenge was not to set myself up as the unreachable paragon of spiritual maturity in my congregation. People needed to hear, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and family, that I knew I was a sinner. That I had abiding idolatries that needed to be pulled from my heart’s embrace. That I was prepared to be the Lead Repenter. That I was in the same spiritual battle for holiness by grace that they were engaged in.

I believed what my professors and pastors said concerning this challenge. I committed myself to struggling for holiness by grace in the context of my community, just as I called others to do. I exhorted people to holiness by grace in my preaching and teaching, all the while sitting under my own preaching (and, thankfully, that of others in our community), and often made my own struggles plain to my congregation. I believe, fundamentally, that a pastor’s first identity is that of a plain, ordinary Christian. And I believe that emphasizing this helps people in their pursuit of holiness by grace.

The caution

In the very next breath, however, my profs and mentors would caution me. “Andy, whatever you say to people about your own struggles and sins, your own propensities to idolatry and your own inadequacies, these very things will be used against you. You can guarantee it.”

Really? People are that big of jerks? Yessir. And of course I’m one of those jerk-people myself at times.

And, in fact, this is just what has happened. 95% of my self-effacing references to my own hang-ups and inadequacies are at least somewhat effectual in enabling people to think more honestly about their own, and about the gracious Savior that is intent upon making us holy. But 5% of my disclosures are being gathered as intelligence data against me, and will be thrown back upon in a moment of fury.

Just recently, I suggested to someone that they could stand to imitate me in one respect: I have learned, relatively speaking, to bridle my tongue. The person had been setting forests ablaze with their torch of a tongue. I pointed out that I have a lot of relationships with people, many of which have been intact for a number of years, and that I’ve had much sweetness, a fair amount of authenticity, and very few fallings out. And that the individual, on the other hand, had burned bridge after bridge.

This individual replied that the only reason I have intact relationships is because I’m a people pleaser. I had fireproofed my relational bridges not because of growth in grace, but because my relational bridges were lacquered in idolatry.

This person must have been reading my blog or something.

The counsel

What did my profs and mentors say? They said to be vulnerable. They said to expect your vulnerability to be used against you. What else?

They told me to do it anyway. It’s worth it.

In fact, one of my mentors told me that the people who are most angry at their pastor, who use his shortcomings against him, are often the people who are in a spiritual jam. They are often the ones who are uncomfortable with the God of grace who seems to be an inescapable, claustrophobic presence surrounding them. They are those who take out their frustration with Jesus on someone other than Jesus. And so they are those whose outbursts and condemnations you cannot take personally, because it’s not about you; it’s about Jesus. Unlike the people half asleep during the sermon and half asleep through most of their spiritual lives, these people are miserable.

So I’m simply here to reiterate what my teachers have said: Stay vulnerable. Know that it’ll be thrown back in your face. Don’t take it personally.

What’s at stake

What’s at stake here is not your self-esteem or your career or your emotional equilibrium. You probably are a people-pleaser on some level, even if it’s not to the degree that I am. But it’s not about you and it’s not about me. It’s about Jesus. It’s about the culture of gospel-drenchedness you’re hoping to cultivate. It’s about the unabashed pursuit of holiness-by-grace and the culture of loving challenge that must develop in order to provide the right environment for that pursuit. It’s about abiding in and with and under Christ Jesus. Yes, it’s about Jesus.

So don’t lose heart. Make yourself the bond-slave of your people for Jesus’ sake. Work on your idol of people-pleaserness, and trust that Jesus is more determined to get rid of it than even you are. But don’t quit being vulnerable, and don’t take it personally when that vulnerability is turned into condemnation by a few. Pray for these people: they’re miserable and their hearts are going to be restless until they find their rest in Jesus.

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Find Yourself One of These, Now.

Back when I was writing up the core values and vision of Hill City Church—what dorks church planters can be with all their visionizing!—I came up with something cool. I thought it was original, and of course it’s not. It was about discipleship. I wrote that, ideally, everyone in the church would be both a Paul and a Timothy. Every Paul would have a Timothy, and every Timothy would have a Paul. Everyone would seek out someone less mature than they are, and pour themselves into them like Paul poured himself into Timothy. Everyone would also seek out someone more mature than them, and insist that that person pour themselves into them.

Pretty cool, huh?

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I forgot at least one big role that we all need. I forget who it was that brought this to light for me. But I experienced it last night, and it struck me afresh how vital this role is in the life of any Christian, and especially church planters.

Barnabas. Everyone needs not just a Paul, and not just a Timothy. Everyone also needs a Barnabas.

Barnabas was the encourager. Not the disciple. Not the discipler. Of course, he himself was both of these. But his overwhelming contribution to those around him—especially the ‘apostolic’ types who are always starting new things, taking risks, and getting disappointed when those ventures don’t cash out in the way they imagine—was to be an encourager.

My Barnabas eats frozen pizza with me. He meets burns the midnight oil with me in order to burn away my discouragement. He preaches the authentic gospel to me when I’ve been preaching phony gospels to myself. He grabs my identity by the scruff of the neck and slams it (gently, of course) back into Jesus Christ when it has become parasitic on the applause of others. He drinks beer with me even though he doesn’t like beer. He has a well-tuned BS Detector, but he wields it kindly.

You can’t afford to not have a Barnabas.

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