Garden

garden.jpgIt is Tuesday afternoon in the fourth grade. A student sits alone looking down into the pond for minutes. A bucket at her side and a net in hand, she is determined to catch the next fish foolish enough to swim near the water’s surface. Her head does not flinch as two more fourth graders walk by, excited to show Mr. Gilliam the chrysalis they discovered while uprooting carrots. As he explains the differences between “complete” and “incomplete” metamorphosis of critters to these students, a handful of others are daring one another to jump across the creek before Mr. Sikkema finds out – and shows them how it’s done.

Regents Science and Nature Center – the “Garden” to students – is perhaps the most beautiful classroom on campus. Its beauty is easy to showcase with stories or in a picture – especially when that picture is taken with an iPhone 7 Plus and processed through multiple Instagram filters. What isn’t easy to showcase though, is the struggle and work that exists behind the beauty.

In the Garden, students must struggle with the weeds and work against the weather as they plant seeds and tend their plots. While they hope for a bountiful harvest of vegetables, they soon understand that life is not a given and a humbling truth surfaces like a fish in the pond: Each living thing is dependent on innumerable other living things for survival. This is as true of the earthworm as it is of the teacher.
Norman Wirzba, a professor of theology at Duke Divinity School says that “Gardens are places of struggle, surprise, and deep mystery – places where we are often reduced to silence and awe.”

Considering the snapshot again, I’m encouraged to lean into the struggle of life like a gardener. I’m encouraged to appreciate life with the attentiveness of a fourth grade fisher. And I’m hoping that my joy in the deep mystery of a creation that is dependent on the love of Creator is as unbridled as the joy of a child finding a chrysalis in an overturned garden.

 

American Ninja Warrior

Sikke Ninjas
So my American Ninja Warrior debut did not get any air time last night.  I guess I could say that only a true ninja would not reveal himself on such a public stage, but truthfully I was a little bummed to have promoted the show, knowing that NBC makes no promise that my run would be televised.
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It’s probably because I spend too much time on social media, or have been too long immersed in a world with TV, that I’ve become convinced that real meaning or value only exists when something I do is made public.  We all crave celebrity or fame at some level right?  But this craving is typically centred on myself and blinds me to others.  It also tends to undermine the value of the reality in experiences like being on Ninja Warrior.

Now even a process of reflection like this, displayed publicly on a blog, tends to circle back in on the “self.” Before this becomes a black hole of introspection, I want to just list real things that I am thankful for out of this Ninja Warrior experience.

I am thankful for:

  1. Students who pushed me to try something new.
  2. Teachers and administrators who encouraged me throughout the process.
  3. A rockstar team who kept the 4th grade rolling while I was out of town.
  4. The relationships that developed between the families in my class and myself over this shared experience.
  5. A renewed sense of camaraderie between teachers at the end of a school year when many of us are feeling tired!
  6. My Canadian (pictured above) and Texan family and friends (Randy Mulder especially) who wore their shirts in solidarity last night because they were not able to make the OKC to watch.
  7. The health to compete.
  8. The opportunity to meet and cheer on 100 different ninjas and be impacted by their incredible stories.
  9. A supportive and loving wife who took time off work to come up and cheer me on, and who the editors of the show made to look like she was cheering for some guy with legendary abs.  At least she tells me that was the editors fault….

For those of you who were not able to and who did not see what happened on TV, thank you for all of your support.  (Oh, and I’ll let you know that I fell on the third rolling log). For those of you who were able to come and experience Ninja Warrior in person, thank you.

What an incredible year.

 

 

At the Table

I went the ways of wayward winds
In a world of trouble and sin
Walked a long and crooked mile
Behind a million rank and file
Forgot where I came from
Somewhere back when I was young
I was a good man’s child

Cause I lost some nameless things
My innocence flew away from me
She had to hide her face from my desire
To embrace forbidden fire
But at night I dream
She’s singing over me
Oh, oh, my child

Come on home, home to me
And I will hold you in my arms
And joyful be

There will always, always be
A place for you at my table
Return to me

Wondering where I might begin
Hear a voice upon the wind
She’s singing faint but singing true
Son, there ain’t nothing you can do
But listen close and follow me
I’ll take you where you’re meant to be
Just don’t lose faith

So I put my hand upon the plow
Wipe the sweat up from my brow
Plant the good seed along the way
As I look forward to the day
When at last I see
My Father run to me
Singing oh, my child

Come on home, home to me
And I will hold you in my arms
And joyful be

There will always, always be
A place for you at my table
Return to me
My child

Church Planting with the Brothers Karamazov

“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov

the_brothers_karamazov_by_spoonybards

A Gospel Formed Family?

The church plant Maria and I are attending is seeking to be a “gospel-formed family for the city” of Austin.

In a sermon series on Ephesians entitled “God’s Workmanship,” our pastors explained how the church must understand itself as a family – an institution where members are united despite their diversity.  Such unity in diversity is a mystery of God’s workmanship.  We see this mystery in a singular beam of refracted light which reveals every imaginable color. We feel this mystery in our beating heart, reminded that our own life is dependent on different organs all working in unison to make us walk, or breathe, or think about these things.  This organizing principle of life reflects God.  It is mysterious.  And it is beautiful.

While it may not be hard to convince people that such beauty exists in nature, it is more difficult to convince them that this beauty characterizes the family.  Perhaps this is because beauty, as described by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, is both mysterious and terrible.  It is terrible because, “God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”  This fight mars the created order and when it is waged in the family, the aftermath is divorce, separation, abuse, and neglect.  Each is an ugly reality that shapes far too many people’s experiences of this institution. This is not a 21st-century phenomenon.  The first account of brotherhood in the Bible is also the first account of murder. For many the family is a place of pain and bitterness.  It may be diverse, but it is certainly not unified.

If this is how many people experience family, is the church using the right metaphor to describe its role in the city of Austin?

Dostoevsky: Recovering the Beauty of Brotherhood

This summer I picked up Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  It is my first attempt at reading the Russian giant and I make no claim to be a literary critic.  But what strikes me about this story is how it uncovers the obstacles that prevent brotherhood and in doing so recovers the beauty of brotherhood as a force for making the world over anew.

The brotherhood between Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha Karamazov is, like any brotherhood, characterized by differences in personality and temperament.  Dimitri is a passionate sensualist who blows unearned money on entertainment, women, and booze.   Ivan, on the other hand, is a stoic rationalist who believes in the existence of God but because of the suffering he sees in the world, decides to renounce God as a deity worthy of his worship.  The youngest brother, Alyosha, is the most spiritual of the three, living his life in the seclusion of a Russian Orthodox Monastery as a novice.

Alyosha is under the spiritual mentorship of the Elder Zosima.  Early on in the story, it is Zosima who understands that the passions of the oldest brother, Dimitri, and the brothers’ father, Fyodor, threaten to unravel the unity of the family.  Before he dies, he releases Alyosha from his isolated monastic life and sends him into the broken world of his older brothers charging him to make this world “over anew.”  He is to accomplish this task through brotherhood.

Zosima:

In order to make the world over anew, people themselves must turn onto a different path psychically.  Until one has indeed become the brother of all, there will be no brotherhood.  No science or self-interest will ever enable people to share their property and their rights among themselves without offense.  Each will always think his share too small, and they will keep murmuring, they will envy and destroy one another.

It is this self-interest and envy that defines Dimitris’ relationship with his father.  Zosima warns Alyosha that both of these force destroy brotherhood, and it does so by creating a culture of isolation.  It is this isolation which Zosima tells Alyosha is the primary obstacle to brotherhood, and which must be overcome if he is to make the world over anew.

Zosima:

[Brotherood] will come true, but first the period of human isolation must conclude.

“What isolation?” I asked him.

That which is now reigning everywhere, especially in our age, but it is not all concluded yet, its term has not come.  For everyone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within himself, and yet what comes of all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation.  For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from the others, hides himself, and hides what he is, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself.  He accumulates wealth in solitude, thinking: how strong, how secure I am now, and does not see, madman as he is, that the more he accumulates, the more he sinks into suicidal impotence.  For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in people’s help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles lest his money and his acquired privileges perish. …. But there must needs come a term to this horrible isolation, and everyone will all at once realize how unnaturally they have separated themselves one from another.  Such will be the spirit of the time, and they will be astonished that they sat in darkness for so long, and did not see the light.” [emphasis mine]

Russia in the mid-19th century sounds a lot like America in early twenty-first. This “unnatural separation” of isolation which people embrace under the mis-guided belief that the fullness of life can be experienced within oneself defines our culture of competitive self-reliance.  It manifests itself in the accumulation of wealth in solitude and results in nothing more than seclusion and withdrawal from community. It is this isolation “which is now reigning everywhere,” in 2015.

The Road to Character by David Brooks, offers some statistics on this front.  Considering the decline in intimacy, he writes:

  Decades ago, people typically told pollsters that they had four or five close friends, people to whom they could tell everything.  Now the common answer is two or three, and the number of people with no confidants has doubled.  Thirty-five percent of older adults report being chronically lonely, up from 20 percent a decade ago.

Envy, self-interest, and the isolation they produce, destroys brotherhood.  It would be easy to say that unity can be attained when we go out into this world and tell others to take responsibility for their actions, to stop envying, and to form communities.  It would be easy to tell others about all the things we have figured out because of our Christian faith.  Yet, Zosima offers a way forward that is a little more challenging.

Zosima offers Alyosha a radical conception of love that begins, not by telling others to take responsibility for their sins, but by taking the responsibility for their sins on yourself.  Alyosha is not sent into the world to tell his brothers how awful they are in their brokeness.  Rather, his time in monastic isolation uncovered his own brokeness so that when he sees the passions of Dimitri that lead him to run to women, or the cold-rationalism of Ivan that lead him to run away from God, he understands the same battle is waging in his own heart.

When he admits guilt of the same battle within, he realizes he is not better than his brothers. He is not even equal to his brothers. Now he sees himself as “worse than all those in the world…guilty of everything, before everyone.”

The result of this radical shift in thinking, says Zosima, is the capacity for radical love that brings unity:

But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. […] Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and knows no satiety.

Taking responsibility for your sins AND the sins of others is the way to recover the beauty of brotherhood and bring unity to diversity.  When we are able to see our sins in the sins of others, we see the depth of brokenness in the world, and the need for a Saviour.  If we are unable to see our sins in the sins of others, we end up seeing ourselves as their Saviour, which never goes well. Or, as Zosima says, we end up “shifting our own laziness and powerlessness onto others [thereby] sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.”

Back to Austin

Radical love that brings unity is difficult.  When thinking about how to begin seeing the people in Austin outside of my church-community as my family, I considered how Dostoevsky’s brothers each possessed character traits that are evident in the father, the “buffoon” Fyodor Karamazov.

It seems obvious to say it, but the brothers share a father.  This father’s image is, like a singular beam of light, refracted into a diversity of Karamazov personalities.  This is an image that is broken, and as a result, the brothers inherit that brokenness.  Maybe Alyosha can see that he is guilty of everything before everyone because he, like everyone, is the image-bearer of a broken father.

Once we realize this ugly reality, the only hope we have in forming a brotherhood with all, a family in Austin, is that a Father exists who is not broken, and that somehow we are His image-bearers.  This would be a beautiful mystery.

Getting over Facebook // Getting over Myself

delete fb

After 10+ years, I decided to get off of Facebook.   I’ve walked right up to the edge of quitting on a number of occasions, but always ran back, rationalizing any number of reasons for staying.  (i.e. It is a great way for my family in Canada to keep up with my life in Austin.  It is a great way for me to keep up with my families’ lives in Canada.  It is a great way to network and build up an audience for writing.  It is a great way to streamline my news and keep up to date with current events…etc…etc…)

These are legitimate reasons to remain using Facebook.  But still, I decided to jump.  Actually, I felt encouraged to jump by a number of people.  One of these people is Andy Crouch.  (I’ll look at other people in different posts)

Andy Crouch is a public speaker, editor, and insightful cultural critic. During Lent, he cut back on his screen time and wrote a beautiful reflection on this season in an article entitled Small Screens, Big World.    In this reflection Crouch showed me that getting over Facebook requires getting over myself and attaining “a sense of my own smallness.”

Having reduced digital distractions from his life, Crouch took up hobbies with renewed attention.  He read, wrote, and played piano more often.  He developed “an ability to calm the noise enough to read and cry over a story, or to listen with a friend to one short passage of Scripture read over and over, four times with long silences in between.”  In these moments of sustained attention, Crouch noticed that the non-digital or unmediated world did not pay attention to him in the way that his devices did.  “Flattery,” concludes Crouch, is what our devices promise us when we give them our attention, and this is the “deeper danger of our screens.”

Our screens, increasingly, pay a great deal of attention to us. They assure us that someone, or at least something, cares. The mediated world constantly falls over itself to tell us, often in entirely automated ways, that we matter every bit as much as we secretly hope we do. They tell us we are liked, retweeted, favorited—that we are significant, useful, and urgently needed. Every generation of devices gets better at this, becomes less a persnickety, recalcitrant technician (does anyone remember the exacting syntax of command-line interfaces?) and more and more an utterly dedicated, ingratiating concierge for our preferred future.

When we pour attention into our family, career, colleagues, or fitness regimen, we cannot expect a flattering return. Often we are more aware of our shortcomings.  We are reminded of our smallness, and brought to our knees in humility.  It is this smallness that Crouch believes is a necessary prerequisite to true attentiveness.

We all long to be loved, and more often than not we look for love/approval/identity in the wrong places.  We look for them in places where we are flattered, and where our ego is stroked.  It may not be the case for you, but Facebook is one of these places in my life.   It offers the quickest way to get a fix of the approval I know I crave.   Too much of my time is spent flattering myself over who is paying attention to the things I am doing, and honestly, too little of my time is spent humbly thinking of how I can focus my attention on things of greater importance.  My hope is that a greater absence of others’ attention proves to be a similar gift in my life as it was to Crouch during this season, when he concludes that…

…nothing was paying attention to me.

And in the absence of that constant digital flattery, feeling much smaller and less significant, I was more free to pay attention to the world I am called to love.

Please take time to read the entire article.  It is worth your attention.