Out of Place, Perfectly Placed

This frostbitten morning I sit aslant inside the shop and know myself as the coffee sloshing gently over its finely curved, porcelain lip, too full not to be fragile, too warm not to let its steam curl lazily upward in contented and inviting presence.

Not always, but today one feels a joyous emptiness here at the end-of-the-week drain when work is finished off to lie (please lie down) hibernating for coming days, for later, later, because, dear work, my emptiness waits and opens expectantly as the autumn roses (now closed) stirred in their roots for the late bee’s company.

Perhaps this sensitivity is only a convergence of where the year’s complete and culminating exhaustion meets to converse a little slower and less flippantly with Advent’s multivalent, layered expectations of a Messiah who comes to us, who comes to us, who must keep coming to us to draw us again and again like that little flower out of ourselves where we have all lain down winter-dead and snowbed-dormant and

unappreciative of the beauty in the worry-lines like ripples from a child’s touch on the still pond face next to us on the street trying, failing to keep warm, adding line to line,

of the hands, withered and worked to surprising strength, pleading for your change because longing for change has withered to a surprising sleep,

of the wind’s gentle yet seductive lisp whispering of all the little lands and little kings it has swept and cleared out for your arrival, expecting.

I sit empty and expectant, daring all with nothing in hand and losing more every second. When have I ever been so full? I shall not be soon.

Useless Glory: Special Needs, Chinese Wisdom, and God’s Love

This week in Japan a man broke into a care center for disabled adults, tied up employees, and began killing disabled men and women with a knife. The man was a former employee who quit after revealing his deep disdain for the special needs men and women for whom he was helping to care. What began as dislike became hatred and resulted in mass murder.

A discomfort around those with “special needs” is not unique to one man in Japan, but is embedded in every culture across the globe. In fast-paced, capitalist cultures like those of the U.S., Japan, and Western Europe, people are measured by occupations and productivity. Try to remember the last time you were introduced or introduced yourself without answering the question “What do you do?

And so, it is a matter of course that those who cannot be measured or categorized in this way often do not make for easy company. What can you talk about apart from your job, your last big vacation, or your active hobbies and team sports?

Let’s start by finding a solution in ancient wisdom. The Chinese sage Chuang Tzu or Zhuangzi (c. 4th century BCE) stands as perhaps my favorite Chinese thinker among those such as Confucius (Kongzi), Mencius, Han Feizi, and others. Chuang Tzu was all about what he called “wu wei,” acting by “non-action.” What he meant by this paradox was that life lived according to the nameless and eternal Dao (Way) was a way of letting things be as they really are, and of working in such perfect conformity to nature that it became unclear whether you were acting yourself or if things were simply unfolding by themselves.

I bring up Chuang Tzu because of a short poem he wrote about the glory of being “useless.” It ties in directly to the issue of understanding the glory in every person regardless of whether they are deemed “useful” by everyday societal assumptions. I quote it here in full because it is that worth reading. The translation comes from Thomas Merton, who was a Christian monastic also impressed by Chuang, in a book called The Way of Chuang Tzu (2004, p. 31-2):

Hui Tzu said to Chuang: I have a big tree, the kind they call a “stinktree.” The trunk is so distorted, so full of knots, no one can get a straight plank out of it. The branches are so crooked, you cannot cut them up in any way that makes sense.

There it stands beside the road. No carpenter will even look at it.

Such is your teaching—big and useless.

Chuang Tzu replied: Have you ever watched the wildcat crouching, watching his prey—This way it leaps, and that way, high and low, and at last lands the trap.

But have you seen the yak? Great as a thundercloud he stands in his might.

Big? Sure. He can’t catch mice!

So for your big tree. No use? Then plant it in the wasteland in emptiness. Walk idly around, rest under its shadow;

No axe or bill prepares its end. No one will ever cut it down.

Useless? You should worry!

And so this bizarre little episode ends. Hui Tzu was a friend of Chuang’s, a logician who sought to bring order to everything. Needless to say, the two of them argued a lot. Hui Tzu thinks much like modern culture: everything is evaluated based upon its usefulness; but this is a usefulness according to preconceived (often practical, yet shallow) notions.

What Chuang Tzu points out in talking about the wildcat and the yak is that everything animal, like every person or tree, has its own way of being that is good apart from what we make of it, and that such difference is a good thing. Hui couldn’t see the goodness of the tree because it didn’t conform to the patterns of “good” and “bad” he was used to.

But Chuang Tzu says, “Stand back. Just walk around the tree for a while. Maybe you’ll discover its inherent goodness when you stop projecting onto it your desires—desires which don’t take it for what it is, but for what it is not. Really, it’s very ‘uselessness’ frees it from the certain abuses society heaps upon everything labeled ‘useful’. In fact, Hui Tzu, it’s you who should be worried: because you’re so intent on being labeled that way, people will use you up as thoughtlessly as you wanted to chop down this tree!

Our discomfort with those with special needs doesn’t really come from the people themselves, but from the realization that our categories and our way of thinking are completely insufficient to deal with this straightforward reality. The way forward isn’t to know immediately all the “intellectual” answers, but rather starts with an openness to understand and in giving up time simply to be around those with special needs. It takes a willingness to see differently.

The reward lies in a new ability to see the glory in simply living, the power of accepting people for exactly who they are. In Christianity, all dignity for people comes from two aspects: being created by God and being loved by God. Neither has to do with what we do. God does not love us because we are so great; rather, the goodness in us is only a result of God’s inescapable love. The difficulty—and the need for radical, in-breaking grace—lies in accepting the very love of God that pursues us all.

It means confessing that when it comes to letting-be and accepting our being-loved-by-God, those of us “useful” people are often the truly disabled, defining ourselves by things not central to who we are and thus abusing ourselves and abusing others.

Loving others for who they are as they have been created begins with accepting the love of God made concrete in the life, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who came for us before we looked for him with love that pursues us even know—when we are ready to let ourselves be loved, and let that be enough.

Conclusion or Beginning?

What happened in Japan was a tragedy. But the same seed of discomfort which grew to murder in this man’s heart sits inside most of us. We can’t ignore it, or it’ll fester and grow. Please, don’t give it that chance. More than ever this world of violence and hateful speech needs those who are ready to begin with the knowledge of the brokenness and the goodness of every person: a goodness not based on our action, but God’s constant love.

So let’s stop. Breathe. Let’s do that admittedly hard work of appreciating those around us before we label them, before we use them, and before we let them be used—or murdered—carelessly by others.

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What’s With All the Work?

In the 1980’s, a German theologian named Jürgen Moltmann wrote an essay entitled “the Right to Meaningful Work,” in which he examined the meaning and ethics of work from a Christian point of view.

He looks at work from three basic points of view: the person who works, the working community and society, and the big picture meaning of life, God, and everything.

In the ancient world, “labor” was seen as unvirtuous and meaningless, in large part because those who did that work were people defeated in battle. They were subjugated. The idea of work was tied to the idea of slavery.

In the Hebrew Bible, however, the first one who works is actually God! Yahweh, far from being a slave, worked creatively in total freedom. Work was an expression, not of slavery, but of freedom. And so when we get to Genesis 2:15, mankind’s first responsibility was to cultivate the earth—to participate with God in doing work. Moltmann makes the comment about the narrative:

“Not work itself, but work after the fall is regarded as work cursed by toil, pain, and uselessness. Therefore the deliverance of human beings from sin actually cannot lead also to deliverance from work, but only to a transformation of their work from curse to blessing.”

That’s a tall order. But another key in Genesis is Sabbath, or weekly rest. (It’s possible this conception invented the work week as we have come to know it.) Work isn’t just about producing, but it’s also about presenting, says Moltmann, meaning that we are not just working, but we can (and should) take time to be happy and pleased with what we’ve done. Work and enjoyment are in some sense tied together. It’s not just about “working for the weekend” when we can escape work, but about resting in the knowledge of what’s been done.

Moltmann next sees that Jesus himself is pictured in Isaiah 43 and 53 as a servant, one who carries sins like a porter. It was Jesus’ servanthood which led to the redemption of many. This flips the world upside down; now we are free because God has done the work of a slave. This is, for Moltmann, the hermeneutic for how we come to a Biblical understanding of work.

“The transference of the human concept of work to God and especially to his redeeming activity, then the redirection of the concept to human beings who are supposed to correspond to God” changes everything. Now we are taking part, in our limited way, in God’s continual creative and redemptive activity in the world.

But in a world which is work-crazy or which defines itself by its work—either by identifying work and life or by defining oneself by the work one avoids—there are some important things to keep in mind:

  1. Work doesn’t define who you are or your value. Work, first of all, is for most all of us a means to make a living. But, as Moltman writes, “No one has to justify himself through work. No one has to demonstrate her right to existence through work! No one has to realize himself through work.” To argue those things, to follow up every introduction of our name with our work and make that the definition of a person, necessarily excludes the jobless, the disabled, and all of those who do work we don’t recognize officially as such but nevertheless is crucial for society (like raising children). It’s not really about ­self-realization, but Moltmann argues that work should provide a place for formation—helping you meet certain personal goals—and allow for some possibilities of self-expression—so that some of your work is identifiably yours.
  1. Work in community can’t just be defined as “production,” or have to be what is called “creative” work. Production, reproduction, services, housecare, raising children, all of this is work which participates in cultivating our world, physical and social. Moltmann would rather define work in the communal sense as “active participation in the social process.” Everyone takes part in creating and shaping what we call our world. Unfortunately, by means of payment we can legitimize certain work and de-legitimize other work. Moltmann argues that all work which meets the definition should receive proper payment, but I am unsure how far this would correct our problematic assumptions. But it is something to consider.
  1. Finally, he offers a few points for thinking through the place of work in the big picture. He writes:
  • “In his or her work a person corresponds to the creating God.” This goes back to that Genesis account of people being made in God’s image and told to participate in creation. God isn’t a cosmic watchmaker, but someone actively engaged in making the world what it is, and he wants the people he has created to participate in their own ways.
  • “In his or her work a person participates in God’s self-emptying for the purpose of liberating humanity.” We give up a lot of our time and energy just to work. But we need to see that in a bigger context. Work isn’t just about us. It isn’t just about our families. It’s about doing a small part to help make the world a better place. Work isn’t just about the present—it’s also about making a future for the generations to come.
  • “In his or her work, even if not in it alone, a person realizes his or her call to freedom.” In work, we realize we have a self, and that we are able to make a difference, whether that’s making a box or negotiating between nations. There’s a world, and we all can do something with it. He cautions us though that we should not make what we usually legitimize as “work” the sole means of achieving our freedom or worth. But it can play a part.

There’s a lot more in the essay, but these are the basics. It’s not just about how I work, or how we work, but also about how we run jobs and corporations, about what kind of jobs we make and how we improve them. Is there room for self-expression in this job? Can we help those who are in charge appreciate how helpful—healthful—this would be? Is there a sense of community at work, or is it all competitive? Am I helping this situation?

Comment below with other thoughts you have on Moltmann’s ideas and any ways you’d improve them! Or with wholly new ideas inspired by this post!

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Sparrows, Swallows and Finding Home

Home is an elusive place. For some, home is right where they are. Family, friends, joy, and peace are all around them. For others, home is merely a memory. Some of those memories are good, other memories are so bad that they have nearly been forced out altogether.

For some, it is people that make home what it is. For others, its tied to a physical place, that room where the light filters through just so, where the chair lets you sink in so far that the world is left somewhere out there, away. For still more, home is tied to a certain culture, a tradition, a way of life shared by people around us.

And then there are some of us who never really feel quite at home. Sometimes it feels so close, but we never quite reach it. That’s the position of the poet at the beginning of Psalm 84. He considers home to be where he can worship God in peace, but he is sad because he can’t be there.

Read through the beginning and try to connect with that sense of longing, that sense of homelessness.

Psalm 84:1-6 (ESV)

How lovely is your dwelling place,

O Lord of hosts!

My soul longs, yes, faints

for the courts of the Lord;

my heart and flesh sing for joy

to the living God.

 

Even the sparrow finds a home,

and the swallow a nest for herself

where she may lay her young,

at your altars, O Lord of hosts,

my King and my God.

Blessed are those who dwell in your house,

ever singing your praise!

 

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,

in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

As they go through the Valley of Baca

they make it a place of springs;

the early rain also covers it with pools…

All life is, in a sense, a quest for home. “Home” carries with it connotations of peace, of rest, of happiness even in the midst of struggles. “Job” isn’t home. “College” isn’t really home, either. “Abroad” reshapes our perceptions of what we call home, but in the end we want to get back home, even if it isn’t in the same place as we left. We define ourselves by our proximity to home.

Why does Psalm 84 mention birds? Sparrows are tiny birds. The Psalmist is talking about those who are the least significant in society. Those who feel like they can’t make a difference. Home can be hard to find when you feel like you don’t matter.

Next, the swallow desires to have a place for her children, where they can be safe and grow up well. She wants to be a home for others who are dependent on her. So many around seem like they can’t find a place to belong. What can we do?

But both find that home in the Temple. The poet wishes he, too, could fly off from where he is, far from home, and make his abode near to God.

But even if he can’t make it, there’s still strength to be had; the situation isn’t hopeless. There’s a home which begins in the heart. His deep longing for God and his devotion to God’s ways help him to realize that God is near to him. He is aware of God’s presence, so that even the driest of places (the Valley of Baca) becomes an oasis, a home. 

Blessed are thoseWhile home can begin in one heart, it’s never meant to stay a solitary place. Now, often I don’t feel very at home anywhere. But I know that wherever I end up, I can worship God through the mediation of Jesus Christ, whose Spirit is present everywhere and who makes a home in the lives of those who love him. And God’s home is open to anyone, significant or insignificant. It’s a place we can all come, no matter our differences or backgrounds. And it’s a better place the more who come. Come exactly as you are, and together, perhaps, we’ll begin to find…home.

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Jesus, Psalm 88, and Killswitch Engage

Did you ever play that board game where you were given three things and had to come up with something that tied them all together? At first glance, Jesus and Psalm 88 may seem to go together, because, you know, the Bible. But what about the metal/hardcore band, Killswitch Engage?

I’m not quite the music connoisseur that I used to be, but I still love some metal. It’s all about a free reign for creativity, and, contrary to what non-metalheads often think, the genre is probably the most diverse. Killswitch Engage is one of those bands that I have really enjoyed. They blend interesting rhythms, shredding guitar riffs, and a scream/clean vocal combination that I find is just the right proportion for my musical taste.

Oh, and the lyrics are often written juxtaposing the usual metal despair with a sense of hope. A lot of that comes from the fact that the two vocalists who have been a part of KSE have been Christians. It’s not and never will be a “Christian” band. Their lyrics are “modern” in the way American poet Christian Wiman defined it in My Bright Abyss, modern meaning something doesn’t explicitly mention “God,” leaving the implications to the reader/listener.

What these three really have in common is lament. A lament is a genre of psalm in which the psalmist or his community laments a past or impending tragedy, but then experiences a movement toward hope because of a turn to confidence in God.

What makes Psalm 88 different is the fact that it is the only lament within the collection of 150 psalms which never has this turn. It literally ends “…and darkness is my only companion.” (Now I’m thinking Simon and Garfunkel…) The whole thing would make some of the best metal lyrics ever produced. Another of the lines reads “[I am] lost among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave.” Heavy.

From the cross, Jesus quoted another lament, Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Unlike Psalm 88, however, Psalm 22, just like Jesus’ story, has a turn, though in Jesus’ case the turn came three days later rather than a few stanzas later.

Killswitch Engage has a great song called “In Due Time” off of their 2013 record Disarm the Descent. A part of one of their verses reads,

What victory

When my soul is weak?

Where does my help come from?

 

If you know your psalms, the last line should sound familiar, a quotation of a line from Psalm 121, which begins,

I lift my eyes up to the hills; where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

 

Since this song is “modern,” the answer is implied for those who know a thing or two about Psalms. See if you can call to mind any other passages when reading the bridge:

 

All that we suffer through

Leads to determination

The trials we all go through

Gives us the strength to carry on.

Something within us burns

Desire feeds the will to live

A reason to believe

I will see redemption.

 

Killswitch Engage here holds together the tension of the Christian life, the tension of Jesus’ life. There really are times of suffering, moments in life like Psalm 88 when hope doesn’t feel close, when we experience the death of someone close, when we are left in despair and depression. The Bible doesn’t say, “Get over it!” or “Cheer up!” Rather, it validates the use of lament.

However, Psalm 88 is followed by Psalm 89, which begins “Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing!” We’ve moved from darkness as a companion back to the light of God’s love. It doesn’t happen in a moment. For Jesus it was a life of suffering that seemed to end in defeat and despair. Hope only came after three days of death. For some of us, we go through years of difficulty. Some of us live with mental illness which always threatens to encroach on our lives and steal our joy, and sometimes it succeeds.

But resurrection is promised in Christ. We can trust God that our times of Psalm 88 will turn to times of Psalm 89. I’ll end with the chorus of “In Due Time”:

All in due time

See the world through different eyes.

All in due time

Shadows will give way, give way to light!

Yeah! Comment below with some of your favorite lament songs!

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God Descends in Blue

Morning traffic like the red sea broke

Around us as we split through

The barest rain which softly spoke

Your grace to this world and to us, too.

The silence full as sky poured forth.

Serenity and heavy eyelids; sleepiness we shook

Off like thick, down coats in new spring warmth

And all other burdens the sunlight took.

Stopped on red at the turn. Wipers clean the dew

Fallen on the glass and we eyed wide the world anew:

in mourning clouds God had snuck down in a shade of blue

To kiss the day with faintest hue.

God descends in filtered blue

Which covers all and lifts as soon.

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“When I was driving Michelle to work this morning, it was just barely raining. We stopped at a light just after dawn, and somehow, because of the way the light was moving through the very thin clouds which were breaking up, everything took on a light shade of blue. It was very pretty. And by the time the light changed and we started driving again, it was gone.”