Telling Stories

“I hate reading.” That’s what I hear from my English students on a regular basis. The older the literature, the louder the complaints. The more Shakespeare, the more tears. And if my students were to read this blog entry, they would chastise me for my obscene sentence fragments and loudly protest my ability to put my own instruction into action. Hypocrite.
I can’t be too critical of my students, however, because their gripes and complaints are no different than my own when I was in high school. I didn’t hate reading per se, but I found no value in such works as Catcher in the Rye or The Scarlet Letter. I thought Holden Caulfield was a jerk and just needed to have the living snot beat out of him. (He is a jerk, but he needs the grace and restoration of a loving God more than anything else). I thought Hester Prynne was trashy and deserved her punishment. (Trashy was a bit extreme, but I failed to hate Dimmesdale and his spinelessness, and I had absolutely no sympathy for Chillingworth in all his misery.)
I am not lost on the irony that I now teach these works to disgruntled teens. I have a completely different view on the so-called classics, and not because I’m a teacher. My opinion has changed regarding these stories and these characters because I have much more life experience that I bring to the table when interacting with a novel. They say that reading literature helps provide us with life experience. They also say that we can better understand/interpret literature if we have a greater accumulation of life experience. Hey, Chicken, meet Egg. Feel free to argue over who came first.In the fray of complaining, I think we lose sight of mankind’s innate need to tell stories. We’ve been telling stories for thousands of years to entertain, educate, inform, etc. Culturally, we seem to enjoy watching stories more than reading them, but the number of movies being made from books tells me that written stories still matter.

Why is it that stories are so important to us?

For starters, because God is a storyteller. When Job finally gives in to peer pressure and complains to God about all of his suffering, God shows up and tells Job the story of the universe. Joseph learns his own life story from God through dreams. When Moses talks to God via the burning bush, God tells the story of rescue and redemption. Granted, the event had yet to take place, but a story is still a story. Jesus frequently told stories, or parables, to help communicate his point. I love the fact that the disciples were often confused by Jesus’ parables and needed him to explain his purposes. Whether it’s prophetic, historical, scientific, or symbolic, we see example after example of God telling stories. In creative writing classes, professors and writers teach that the best stories include characters who have motivations/desires, they make choices to get what they want, they’re provided an opportunity to change, and then have to deal with the consequences or fallout. Starting with Adam and Eve, the Bible tells story after story following this pattern of motivation-choice-change. The apostle Paul even writes that God is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). God is writing our story, and in writing our story he is revealing his own story of grace and redemption.

Genesis also tells us that we are made in God’s image. So if God is a storyteller, we are created to be storytellers. I had a guy once tell me that I was a sinner because I read fiction. Fiction stories, he claimed, were synonymous with lies because they were fabricated and made up. I asked him how he felt about Jesus making up stories to prove a point. He claimed that Jesus had the God-given right to do what he wanted and we weren’t holy enough to do it on our own. I thought about asking him if he drank special kool-aid but I refrained. That guy’s stance can’t be further from the Biblical command to live like Jesus.

This idea of God being a storyteller strikes me as I reflect on my own view of literature over the course of my life. My attitude towards literature was very much like my attitude towards people. My heart was hard and sympathetic. I had sharp edges and, unbeknownst to me at the time, I cut a lot of people. God’s story for me was one of grace and redemption, though, and I have had an opportunity to reconcile with almost everyone that I had burned my bridge with in high school.

I don’t hate classic literature anymore. I’d like to think I don’t have quite as much disdain for people either. Looking back, I can see God’s handiwork designing my faith and my life.

What does your story look like? If you’ve placed Jesus at the center of your life, have you seen your motivations change over time? Have you seen your story begin to unfold? The answers to these questions could be thought provoking and challenging. But then again, isn’t that what a good story should accomplish?

The Superhero Conundrum

Kids love superheroes. Whether it’s the more traditional, old-school comic hero like Superman or Batman, or a character from the recently popular X-Men and the Avengers, as children we love to pick our favorites, play dress up, and save the world from the grips of evil. (Side note to all comic aficionados: I realize the latest Marvel comics-made-movies go back to the sixties, but I don’t remember anything but Superman, Batman, and Hulk undies being available when I was a kid. It just seems that superman paraphernalia has historically been more available than Iron Man or Captain America. No slight intended!)

Even as an adult, I love the popularity of the comic book heroes and the all the new movies. Color me excited that The Avengers comes out on DVD next week. If you aren’t familiar with the story line, a group of superheroes are gathered together by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to fight Loki, Thor’s adopted evil alien brother. I wonder how many people out there find themselves identifying with any of the characters–good or evil–as they watch the story unfold. I seem to gravitate towards Captain America and Iron Man, which, if you’ve seen the movie, is ironic to say the least.

I love technology. The gadgets and the Iron Man suit are beyond cool. As long as I’m a teacher, I’ll never have the resources of Tony Stark. And I don’t like free falling. I could never be Iron Man. But that suit is stinking awesome! Stark is a jerk, but he’s hilarious. He’s magnetic. He’s hip. He’s cool. And I would never be friends with him in real life.

Because I’m too much like Captain America.

I understand how arrogant and self-serving that statement may seem. When I was getting smashed into lockers in high school, or getting pantsed during passing period in junior high, I would have given anything to have that same magic juice injected into my body so I could become like Captain America. (I’m sure there’s a lesson about steroids in there somewhere, but that could present the problem of taking the story out of context.) I was Steve Rogers–small, scrawny, not going anywhere important like my Air-Force-Academy-bound older brother.  I was picked on by guys like Tony Stark. So it’s almost laughable that I’m drawn to these two characters and their dysfunctional relationship.

And why wouldn’t Captain America and Iron Man be as compatible as fire and gasoline? Steve Rogers is the stereotypical World War II era American: patriotic, respectful of authority, loyal, moral, etc. Tony Stark, on the other hand, is independent; he rejects authority, struggles with commitment, and cares more about his own well-being than the well-being of his country. The juxtaposition of these two characters provides a stark (sorry for the pun) picture of our American cultural journey over the past 70 years. As a greater culture, we question authority–especially our parents and our educators. We have a hard time committing to relationships because the statistics show that we only have a 50% chance of those relationships lasting over the long haul. We aren’t patriotic about our country because what has our country done for us lately? We’re wounded, and we’re skeptical. And Captain America wants to punch us in the face.

When all is said and done, Captain America and Iron Man get over their differences and work together to save the world. I think that their relationship can be a good example of how generations can bicker within the church. I’ve had the “Captain America” Christians tell me that I live in sin because of my affinity for heavy metal music. I’ve heard both “Captain America” Christians and “Iron Man” Christians complain about church music–it’s either too loud or too old-fashioned.

Yet, at the center of all the noise, God sits quietly, waiting for us to turn to him and worship him. Through the Holy Spirit God prompts us to serve him and to love our neighbors. How effective can we be if we are stuck in our own superhero suit, isolated and alone? Like the Avengers, if we try to make our own voice the loudest and the smartest, we’re nothing but a bunch of misfit freak shows crashing to our own destruction. We won’t be the body. We won’t be the church that Christ has called us to be.

Iron Man has a certain bravado that drives Captain America crazy. But it’s that same bravado that allows Iron Man to risk his life to restart a blown-out engine on their super-sized flying metropolis. It’s Captain America’s loyal desire to see things through that allows him to fight off bad guys while controlling the turbine speed of the engine Iron Man is trying to restart. It’s a riveting scene that shows how successful a team can be when the individuals lay down their own issues–even their lives–for the sake of working together.

As Christians, we don’t have a critical issue forcing us to unite at all costs. Most of us aren’t dodging bullets on our way to church. We don’t disappear when we proudly proclaim our faith in front of our neighbors or on the Internet. We don’t have to worry about our children making it to their fifth birthday because of rampant disease. We are so comfortable that we make stuff up and smack an “Important!” label on it so we can feel like we are battling a cause. We argue about the style of music that best fits our likes and insult everything else. We complain about that one pastor who preaches in jeans, or has a visible tatto. Who’s at the center of all these issues? You and me. Who should be at the center of everything?

Jesus.

That’s easier said than done. But if we could stop manufacturing drama for just a little while, we might see that church isn’t about us. It isn’t what we can get out of it. It’s about how we worship God, how we can hold hands with our Captain America and Iron Man neighbors and raise our voices in one glorious song and praise God for his power, grace, and mercy. And then maybe we can even go the extra mile and give the Hulk a hug. Or maybe a new pair of pants.

Dust

I’ve always been a bit of a wanderer.

As a boy, and especially into my early teens, I was always captivated by the world around me; by nature. I remember being on Virginia Beach as a child, relishing the feeling of wet sand beneath my toes as I explored the horizon, venturing as far down the coast from my parents as my legs would allow. I remember always trying to swim past my brothers in the shallows- and laughing as I was carried back to the shore by the embracing arms of the ocean tide. I held seashells to my eager ears, marveling at the symphony of the big blue. The musician in me was watered by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

The woods are a particularly fascinating place when you’re a young lad. You waltz and walk through the forest; you are braving new territory, even if, in reality, you’re only yards from your own backyard. Every tree branch that has collapsed across your path is no branch at all; rather, it is your trusted blade, your storied sword with which you will vanquish all the foes that dare stand in opposition to your righteous boyhood. Every tree that rises against you from the ground is such a foe; you slash, stab, and parry, and, in a stunning display of swordsmanship, you disarm (or perhaps, de-branch) your opponent. As you leap from bank to bank, you are traversing Middle-Earth, escorting and leading Frodo and the Fellowship toward Mordor. You are a knight on his way to rescue the most beautiful princess in the land. Personally, I was Link, solving puzzles and fighting monsters in order to get the six medallions needed to rescue Zelda and free Hyrule. Above all, you are an explorer…you are wandering. You are dreaming. You are daring to believe something more than circumstance.

Though I’ve grown older, I still wander…but not in the way that I used to as a child.

Rather, I often find myself wandering through fields of green, pacing along lakesides, all while my flip flops leave a trail tracing where I’ve been…but giving no indication of any sort of destination. Truth be told, my wandering has been entirely directionless, for the most part. Rather, they are walks that are built upon communion and intimacy, rather than a desire to reach a certain point on the horizon. The Lord and I have been going on a lot of walks lately. I often find myself daydreaming as I walk…wandering feet are often the product of a wandering mind. Thus, I often catch myself in Midwest towns, upon the shores of vast bodies of water, at the tops of grey peaks, and swimming in the midst of saltwater rooms. However, my wandering was also spurred on by a heavy heart- by a confusion that needed to be taken before the King of Kings, before my Great Counselor, before my Best Friend. He certainly met me and journeyed with me, which I am immensely grateful for.

When you embark upon a journey, it’s a good idea to plan what you bring along, lest you find yourself overburdened or severely lacking in necessary items. Typically, when I set out from whatever port I find myself at home in, I bring my Bible and my water bottle; living water and H2O, if you will. However, I noticed something recently. When I’ve been wandering in warm weather, I tend to wear flip flops. I’d go barefoot, but I have a nasty history of pointy things finding their way into the soles of my feet. However, I tend to accost a fair number of stowaways on my journeys. As a boy, they were sticks that had proven themselves on the field of battle, or perhaps rocks that were my trophies and medals from a particularly long campaign. As an adult, I notice that my feet tend to get rather messy in my wanderings. I tend to accumulate a fair amount of dust on my feet. Although I set out to be with my Saviour on these excursions, I can’t help but bring along a bit of a mess.

My feet have been covered with dust.

In life, our journeys tend to accomplish the same task. No matter what we do, our paths will always have their little stowaways- especially if we find ourselves tramping through deserts and arid plains, so to speak. All too often, I have spent time on the plains of my life, swept by gale winds, pelted with rain and pebbles, barely able to see the ground in front of me. But I never give up. I always keep plodding on, regardless of the storm in my heart or my life. After all, those who turn back in the face of adversity might as well have never set out in the first place. The goal is intimacy with God, and thus, any dust we accumulate is entirely worth the price. However, the dust that cakes our feet slows us down, displaces our steps…and makes for a rather difficult time. Given enough journeys, perhaps we would lose our ability to wander entirely…and that is a rather frightening thought.

Humans were made from dust- dust that was breathed into by God. Dust was made into God’s image; we were not perfect…but still beautiful-reflections of the one true beauty in this world.

God made a beautiful thing out of the dust. However, the dust did not remain…dust. It changed. It was breathed into. It was made beautiful…and it became us.

I love that, within the gospel of John, chapter 13, Jesus stoops down, and, with the dignity of a servant (which is no dignity at all), begins to wash the feet of His disciples. Peter (it’s always Peter, by the way. He’s kind of “that guy” in Jesus’ disciples) initially refuses to let the Lord cleanse him, but Jesus quickly stifles his protests. He says, “Unless I wash you, you will have no part with me” (NIV). Peter, of course, quickly gives in, begging the Lord to wash his entire being, rather than simply his feet. I wonder if that’s why Jesus said “Unless I wash you,” rather than “your feet.” It went further than Peter’s feet, messy and dirty as they were. Jesus states that those who have been bathed still need their feet to be washed…I have to wonder if that has some more meaning than we initially think.

We as Christians have indeed been bathed- we are given new life, made into new creations, and given the very image of God to bear…we are indeed clean. However, in our journeys, our wanderings…our feet still get dirty.

Unless He washes us, we will have no part with Him.

My feet have been covered with dust.

Notice, too, that Peter determined his worth, how worthy he was to be washed by Jesus, not based upon who he himself was, but rather by where he had been, by his journey. However, Jesus saw much more than that. He saw his dear friend, his comrade, his brother, his disciple in whom He had and would invest so much. Peter, in his self-deprecation, was denying his very identity- how Jesus saw him- based upon his tangible self, the physical dust he carried with him.

I’ve been doing much the same.

I can clearly tell you about why the way I am is so new for me, about the wonderful journey the Lord has taken me on…but in many ways I still bear the dust of my wanderings, and I define myself all too often by where I’ve been, by what I’ve already accomplished, and by the scars of my past that have yet to fade…rather than by the reality of my son-ship and companionship with Christ.

The reality is, I will never be able to truly serve, to love those around me, or to fully glorify and follow my Lord unless I let Him wash my feet. Then I can do the same for others…then I can serve, and lower myself and do a bit of foot-washing.

The fact that we can do so for one another is absolutely humbling and beautiful. By lowering Himself the way He did, Jesus was serving in a way that a Master should never have to. He was dealing with cuts, and scars, and learning, forgiving, and accepting where His disciples had been-indeed, He had been with them all along-defining them not by their dust, but by their true selves.

Perhaps, once we are cleansed from the dust of our lives, we will know what it truly means to love and care for those around us, and what it truly means to follow the Lord. I would indeed be able to resume the wandering I did as a boy…indeed, I believe that we must all re-learn what it means to wander and dream. After all, as a dear friend of mine stated decades ago, not all who wander are lost.

If Jesus can turn dust into humans…then surely He can turn our dust into something beautiful. After all, He makes beautiful things out of the dust…and He makes beautiful things out of us. Perhaps, once we allow Him to wash our feet, our dust will be made into something beautiful….and we will finally be granted peace. We all have dust; whether it’s a giant cuff around our ankles or a slight discoloration of our feet, we have it. And it can all be purified and cleaned…if we take ourselves out of our comfortable places and allow Him to wash us properly.

I’m ready to wander without dust clinging to my footsteps.

Our wandering may not have a clear direction. We may not be able to see the horizon. We may not even know why we wander. All we must know is who we are wandering with, and who we are as we wander with Him- and, suddenly, journeys to distant shores aren’t quite so frightening.

For we may wander…but we are not alone.

I am utterly amazed at the care with which the Good Shepherd bathes the feet of His wandering sons and daughters. He binds up our wounds…He anoints our heads and feet with oil…and our cup surely overflows.

We were made from dust.

But that doesn’t mean we have to stay that way.

Indeed, we are not our own…for we have been made new.

And now that we are new…will we allow the Lord to finish His work and wash our feet?

Will I?

Will you?

Living Christian in an Evil World

When I first opened up Mark Galli’s article on the Colorado theater shooting, I thought his words would feel dated and no longer that applicable, since I had “moved past” the event. You know, the news stops showing photos of panic, you stop thinking about it (mostly because you didn’t want to think about it in the first place), and life goes on.

But his essay wasn’t just another prayer for the victims’ families, not another cry of outrage to God, not another explanation of why bad things happen. Galli drives home what we all should have considered back when the tragedy occurred by widening the scope: this horrible event wasn’t an isolated violent incident in an otherwise perfect world.  It was yet another impossible-to-ignore example of just how broken, messed up, and violent our world really is. While we try to rationalize and spiritualize until that troubling fact goes away, we seem to be missing the one question we should be asking: what does this mean for my life as a Christian?

I saw myself in the author’s description of his reaction to the tragedy. First thoughts are of blank shock, then disbelief, then anger, then fear. If I would have been there, what would I have done? If I had lost a loved one, how would I feel? If I carry a gun, can I prevent something like this from happening again? But I never asked God what He thought about the situation, and I never thought about how the existence of evil should shape my Christian life. Do I live in fear because of this? Or can I find a way to walk in faith?

Galli reminds us of the irony of our religion: that the God to whom we bring our grief is also the God who has already worked to bring an end to all suffering, death, and sin. The same God who allowed Lazarus to die and wept at his tomb was also the one who brought him back to life, told him to walk into the sunlight.

Our God is a God who both knows suffering and gives healing. So as Christians, Galli asks, why do we respond to tragedies like everyone else: in fear, confusion, and unfocused anger? Is there a better way to deal with evil, and if so, what is it?

God does have an answer to suffering, if we’re only willing to take it: the peace that comes through knowing and believing in Christ Jesus, the one who suffered and overcame.

As this violent summer slips behind us, Mark Galli’s article is a timely and thought-provoking message with which we can strengthen our souls to face another day in an imperfect world. Click on the link below to go to his column on the Christianity Today webpage.

Making Non-Sense of the Colorado Shootings | Christianity Today.

Gluesticks and Grace

Dear Internet Citizen,

You don’t know me, but you probably assume that I possess three doctoral degrees, mile-long legs, and a perfect sunflower-farming husband and organic-cotton-wearing, multi-lingual toddler.

Sorry to disabuse you of such a pleasant image, but in reality, I am simply another twenty-three year old ex-pat living in South Korea, eating jajungmyeung and teaching small children to read, write, and dance to early 90’s rap tunes. This hardly sounds glamorous, and I haven’t even told you about the sneezes in my face.

Technically, I’m not trained to be a kindergarten teacher. I did help teach English 101 for two years in grad school, and I’ve encountered many a child in my twenty-three years of life, but I first stepped into my kindergarten classroom armed only with my creativity, my language, and a shamelessness capable of fascinating small children for approximately five hours a day.

However, I wasn’t prepared for the strange, cult-leader-admiration that is the territory of teaching small children. I am thoroughly, profoundly, goo-ily loved by my tiny students. Every morning before school begins, they start filing up to my desk to make obeisance. The Liz Teacher (myself) smiles goonily down as they extend offerings: crayon drawings, poorly-spelled messages, linty bits of candy, strange-looking stickers, or pieces of grass they found outside. Sometimes, the girls bring me Disney Princess paraphernalia, or ask to share their purple Barbie lipsticks, which they then apply to my face with grave, thoughtful expressions.

If you could see these children shuffling towards me in perfect faith to give their gifts, I think it might break your heart. At five years old, my students are already shuddering under a cultural burden to perform; when Rebecca or Julia or Andrew hands me a home-made card, trusting perfectly that I will love it so much I might suffer a fainting fit, that is when I feel the heavy burden of faith.

There are two facts you should know:

  1. At least 50% (and probably more) of Korean women have received plastic surgery. Many of those who can’t afford it, fake it. Eyelid tape–look it up. Ten-year-olds wear it to school.
  2. South Korea’s suicide rate is the highest in the world. High schoolers, young adults, celebrities, businessmen . . .

South Korea is an amazing country that has pulled itself from the rubble of war to become an economic powerhouse. Unfortunately, the sacrifice required for such a transformation seems, at least partly, to have been the South Korean people. The ethos is that everyone can (and should) work harder, better, and faster. Even five-year-old students are expected to out-read, out-write, and out-sit-nicely their peers. Essentially, my students are learning how to measure their worth by their output.

But, back to the burden of faith. As I dispense glue sticks and hugs, I’m looking into perfect children’s eyes that, statistically speaking, will be carved into a new form by a plastic surgeon in only eight or nine years. I wonder, with a sense of heaviness, how I can make grace drip from my fingers and into their five-year-old hearts. I want to fill their spirits to overflow with it. When I help Brian hold his pencil, I am hoping that the truth of his own soul will sink somewhere deep in his very marrow; or, when Anne, who’s wearing a plastic tiara because it’s her birthday, tells me how she slept with Mommy last night and cleaned up her father’s puke in the morning, I want to hug her so hard that my arms will leave a permanent, invisible shield: a shield to make her remember that her body is not a landscape to refashion, but the most perfectly sacred, perfectly designed house of the spirit. I want her to feel, even if she can’t objectively know, how God formed her tiny Korean nose with her soul in mind, and how Christ himself wore a sacred body so we, also, could be holy in our skin.

But in the end, by trying to love so hard that grace will ooze, invisible and permanent from my fingers, I find that God reveals my own doubts and corrects my faith. In class, I always wonder, “Can I really give enough?” Even if I pour a little grace into these children’s lives every day, how can I pour enough to keep them full for years to come?

Then I remember that I, too, incarnate something sacred. I remember that God stretches the heavens, the flour, the oil . . . my imperfect gropings towards grace.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Arise, go to Zaraphath . . . behold, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you.” 

So he arose and went to Zarephath, and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks; and he called to her and said, “Please get me a little water in a jar that I may drink.” 

As she was going to get it, he called to her and said, “Please bring me a piece of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die.” 

Then Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go, do as you have said, but make me a little bread cake from it first and bring it out to me, and afterward you may make one for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.’” 

So she went and did according to the word of Elijah, and she and he and her household ate for many days. The bowl of flour was not exhausted nor did the jar of oil become empty. . . 

Christ breathes eternity. He does not make a thing to watch it perish.

He will not let our offerings be exhausted.

Individualism, Collectivism, and the Unconquerable Image of God

I worship individuals for their highest possibilities as individuals, but I loathe humanity, for its failure to live up to those possibilities. –Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s Anthem stands as a classic example of the power of fiction to accomplish by way of story what can only with great difficulty be accomplished by traditional argument or essay. The book is an examination of the force of collective consciousness, and in this case, the brutal violence that results from the eradication of individual consciousness and will. But it is also a testament to the impossibility of conquering the human spirit, and by extension, a testament to the profound protection of God, who has wisely chosen to make it impossible for one human being, or any group of human beings, to destroy the individual sovereignty of another.

Anthem’s artistic merit lies, at least in part, in Rand’s well-executed pairing of form (the way the book is written) with content (the ideas themselves). At first, it’s not an easy book to read, because the text is a journal record written by a man who has no access to first person singular pronouns or the ideas that come with them – he cannot use words like “I,” “me,” or “myself,” because he does not know them. His society has eradicated them in an attempt to destroy the kind of individuality that causes revolutions.

Here’s an example from the beginning of the book: “Our name is Equality 7-2521, as it is written on the iron bracelet which all men wear on their left wrists with their names upon it. We are twenty-one years old. We are six feet tall, and this is a burden, for there are not many men who are six feet tall… But we cannot change our bones or our body.”

What Equality 7-2521 (yes, this is his name) means by “we” is “I,” but he cannot say “I,” because the word does not exist in his world.

The first time I read Anthem, I found myself “translating” the book in my head as I read. I knew that Equality 7-2521 was an individual person, and so I started reading “I” every time I saw “we.” I was experiencing what psychologists call Cognitive Dissonance – my mind was having trouble reconciling what I was reading to what I knew to be true, and so I automatically “fixed” the words on the page without even thinking about it.

And I think that this dissonance is exactly Rand’s point. Without me even realizing it, she put me in the shoes of her main character. My battle was the same as his – the bounds of the language I was reading, and he was writing, were insufficient to accurately describe the most basic, undeniable facts about reality.

C.S. Lewis once described the power of reality this way: “What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.”

Lewis had in mind our moral choices, but I think his idea applies to any situation in which we confront the created world. God has embedded within our reality certain undeniable truths, among which is the necessity of both individuality and community. And as is the case in so many facets of our existence as human beings, God’s natural revelation, when we are appropriately attentive to it, pushes us toward balance.

Every one of us, like Equality 7-2521, is “unconquered” in our individuality. We simply do not have the ability to once and for all surrender ourselves, mind, body, and will, to a collective. But neither do we have the power to exist in total isolation from our kinsmen.

Here I find what is perhaps the most timely of Rand’s ideas. When Equality 7-2521 finally escapes his society and begins to assert his individual will, he is alone. But shortly after his escape, a woman named Liberty 5-3000 chases after him and finds him in the forest.

Ironically, his life in the collective made relationship impossible, because in the collective it was illegal to think any thought that did not belong to the society. Because individual consciousness was subsumed into the collective mind, no individual person had anything to give to another individual person.

But when Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000 gain their individuality, they gain with it the ability to relate to one another. And in showing us the impotence of the “relationships” that exist in the collective society, Rand makes quite clear that giving, that is, service, is the most basic and practical foundation of all human connection.

Clearly, Rand intentionally draws our awareness to the impossibility of finally conquering the individual human spirit, but even in her forceful reaction to the communal consciousness of her fictional society (and perhaps also to those communal societies she saw being attempted during her lifetime), Rand cannot ultimately escape our innate need to connect with one another (and this, I think, is the most fatal weakness of her individualist philosophy).

In this impossibility – the inability, even in fiction, to imagine a truly autonomous and isolated human life – I see once again God’s protection, and I see His image lived out in the deepest expressions of human consciousness.

Like God, we are not alone. And like the community in which He eternally exists, our communities are only as strong as those individuals of whom they consist.

In short, our examination of our reality continually reveals to us the fact that the most foundational, grounding value of all existence is love; that is, the unselfish, continual giving of oneself that begins with strength and ends with the kind of fullness (that is, glory) that can only come from willingly emptying ourselves.

Like God, we are one, unified, individual, and we cannot be other. And like Him, we are unconquerably tied to one another in the inescapable community of our shared humanity. We are simultaneously both “we” and “I,” and the tension of living within both these realities is where God teaches us the true beauty of His Trinitarian essence.

Who are the poor?

Have you ever had one of those moments when a speaker says something that shakes you to the core, leaving you thinking about his or her comment for days and weeks to come?  I was shaken this way recently when I heard a speaker say “The poor are anyone who can’t cope with life.”  When I think of the poor, I generally think of people in other places that don’t have money or about people in oppressive circumstances.  These generic definitions don’t include me at all, so the idea that I might be in poverty was shocking. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I can’t cope with life in various ways from time to time.  Fear, loneliness, anxiety, responsibility, and yes, sometimes money and oppressive circumstances leave me unable to cope. I don’t want to diminish the extreme examples of poverty in our country and others that I, from my socio-economic status don’t come close to experiencing.  However, I believe that Jesus engaged with many different kinds of impoverished people from socially impoverished lepers to the spiritually impoverished but religiously powerful Pharisees.

I work for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Arizona State University (InterVarsity is a ministry to college students).  My job is highly relational and highly administrative.  For all the face time I get with students, there is a lot of planning, calling, emailing, and prepping.  I dislike administrative work immensely.  It’s hard for me.  During last school year, there were many times I would be planning for a leadership meeting and feel stuck, at a loss for where to go next in the planning process.  Then I’d feel silly and slightly ashamed that something so (seemingly) trivial could cause me such duress.  I was sitting at my computer one afternoon planning for a few meetings I had that week as well as drafting a talk I was giving soon.  I switched from project to project writing a few words here and there but, getting bored and distracted, anxiety creeping in, I was feeling terrible that I was so bad at my job.  When my wife came home and asked how my day was, I was so mad at myself for being a captive to administration that I didn’t want to share with her.

Am I really poor if I get anxious because of administrative tasks?  Isn’t that belittling the issue compared to the suffering of so many?  Isn’t this just a silly, trivial story?  In light of the extreme examples of poverty around us, we have to ask where is the threshold when our suffering “makes the cut” and God sees our impoverished state?  What does Jesus have to say about my administrative challenges?

Well, if our definition of poverty is being unable to cope with life, then yes, I am in poverty and you are too if you’re honest.  I was left defeated, ashamed, and feeling lost by my Gmail inbox.  As embarrassing as that is, it’s true.  There are countless other examples from our lives than can be identified as poverty; some are just acknowledged more by society.  If Jesus recognizes a wide range of impoverished people, how does he respond to them?  If you, like me, find yourself unable to cope with life, what does that mean for us as followers of Jesus?

In Luke, Jesus quotes Isaiah 60 to begin his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  He goes on to say that he will heal the broken, and free the captives.  Jesus came for the poor, specifically to heal and set free.  If we don’t count ourselves among the poor, can we experience this transformation?  I did tell my wife that I had looked at my computer for three and a half hours that afternoon but got no work done at all.  In admitting my need, I allowed Jesus to begin the process of transformation.

What happens then, after Jesus the doctor has begun his healing work?  Isaiah goes on to say that those healed and set free were transformed so “that they may be called oaks of righteousness” and that “they shall repair the ruined cities.”  When I am in the midst of my poverty, all I can think about is getting by; my goal is the bare minimum.  All God thinks about when I’m in the midst of my poverty is all he wants me to become. God turns those who were broken into mighty oaks, deeply rooted and able to stand on their own. He turns former prisoners into artists: the repairers of ruined cities. We are not healed so we can limp around, barely functioning; we are healed so we can be as sturdy as a mighty oak.  We aren’t set free so we can get by; we are set free to create. These pictures, echoing from the creation story, show a God who can transform the poor into a blessing for others.

The question is, do you have the courage to hope with God, for yourself and those around you, that Jesus’ transforming power can turn prisoners into artists and the broken into mighty oaks?

The most challenging aspect of this passage is that if we are followers of Jesus, then we, like him, have to “bring good news to the poor.” As inadequate as we may feel being in poverty ourselves, Jesus is inviting us to tell others who are poor – everyone around us – of Jesus’ transforming power as we ourselves continue to be transformed.  If we acknowledge the poverty in our own lives, how much more clearly can we see it in others and tell our story of healing and freedom through Jesus?  Then we will be a community of artists and a forest of mighty oaks “that [Jesus] may be glorified.”