Making Sacred Space Where There is None

There’s this moment during a misty rain in New York City where if you look up to the skyline, the familiarity of the buildings you’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the sunshine is lost to the low-hanging clouds. If you squint, you can see one of the taller towers just peering through the fog but only a darker outline; the details are lost to the haze. Other times, the clouds move with haste through the buildings revealing the architectural wonder of sculpted steel and glass very briefly before they’re covered and blurred again in the wet cloth looming over everything. In a nutshell, that’s been the last week or two here. The rain just won’t let up.

Down below, dodging puddles and avoiding a collision of umbrellas with fellow pedestrians is sort of like playing some weird video game, and I guess what I find so perplexing about New York in the rain is just how different it suddenly becomes. Of course, it’s not different. You’re waltzing the same streets. The buildings, despite their game of hide and seek in the mist, have not uprooted themselves (at least one hopes they haven’t). It’s just that the rain has brought out the unexpected, accentuated the heights and colored-in the depths. When a pothole becomes a puddle, it takes on a whole new meaning – both for people and for cars.

And it’s within those parallel worlds – where things in and of themselves are the same yet somehow altered by outside forces – that I’ve found myself residing lately.

13063024_663701240696_2805720780472638559_oLast week’s trip to the United Nations for a meeting on religious persecution in the Middle East left me desperate to come up for air. If it wasn’t the Dominican nuns describing in hurried Spanish their concern for the people they serve in Syria, then it was the harrowing and heroic story (told by her parents) of aid worker Kayla Mueller whose kidnapping and death in Turkey would not, could not be forgotten. Or it was a fifteen year-old Yazidi girl named Samia who tearfully described in Kurdish what had happened to her at thirteen, to her friends at eight and nine, to thousands of women and children at the hands of terrorists. Systemic, institutionalized sexual assault and abuse. There’s no other words for it.

And having heard these words, having been present as these stories poured out into the captivated room, there was this sense that having the floor of the Economic and Social Chamber at the United Nations could empower the once powerless. To bring your story here was to bring your story before an international audience, one that would, or at least should, stand in solidarity with the weak and the oppressed. The building’s shear presence, after all, is a symbol of hope and security. To speak among these walls is to add to the hope, to shore up a lasting chance for peace, making the brief five or ten minutes each person is allotted the floor seem always too short and yet somehow simultaneously overwhelming…

…overwhelming because story after story bounces off the walls while thousands more innocents are slaughtered to the drum of perceived inaction. …overwhelming because I couldn’t shake the notion that this chamber was an echo chamber empty of the voices of dissent who so needed to hear what the nuns or the Muellers or Samia might have to say. I walked away drained, depressed. I was powerless to affect this situation, or felt I was even if the work I’m currently doing does make a small dent in someones’ lives somewhere.

To hear of the pain and suffering and to know of the callousness of our world – a world grown especially callous as evidenced by the fiasco that calls itself the 2016 Presidential Election – can leave you a little drained. I didn’t have to endure what they did, so why should hearing it be so hard on my privileged psyche? I get why we would rather post silly memes and indulge ourselves in infotainment than actually endure true stories of what’s happening to people in this world. Isolationism is some kind of avoidance disorder promising us a life free of the suffering of others, and thereby making it a lie. And I get it, because there are times where I, too, would like to curl up in a ball and pretend I’d never heard those stories, the ones that needed to be told.

12957677_660087003656_4288971310938836022_oAs I was leaving the United Nations, despairing, I walked around the building and found a small chapel. The stained glass beside it was peculiar if not frightening. It wasn’t a chapel for more than a dozen to comfortably enter. And it was really more of a meditation room of sorts. Reading a plaque on the door, I learned that Dag Hammarskjöld, a former and well-known General Secretary, had personally planned and supervised every detail of the room to serve as a quiet retreat, an offering of stillness, to people of all faiths. In the center of the room, he had placed a six-and-a-half ton, rectangular slab of iron ore and the following words are written nearby:

But the stone in the middle of the room has more to tell us. We may see it as an altar, empty not because there is no God, not because it is an altar to an unknown god, but because it is dedicated to the God whom man worships under many names and in many forms. The stone in the middle of the room reminds us also of the firm and permanent in a world of movement and change. The block of iron ore has the weight and solidity of the everlasting. It is a reminder of that cornerstone of endurance and faith on which all human endeavour must be based. The material of the stone leads our thoughts to the necessity for choice between destruction and construction, between war and peace. Of iron man has forged his swords, of iron he has also made his ploughshares. Of iron he has constructed tanks, but of iron he has likewise built homes for man. The block of iron ore is part of the wealth we have inherited on this earth of ours. How are we to use it? […] There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in their center of stillness.

Of all the despairing, I understood why Dag Hammarskjöld felt such a room was necessary in a place like this. He, too, must have felt a sense of hopelessness. But rather than advocate for isolationism or surround himself and others with entertainment or other means of avoiding reality, he invested in stillness. He invested in holy space, in the “God whom [humankind] worships under many names and in many forms.”

As the clouds lift and warmer air returns this week to New York City, it’s important to me that I also invest myself in a spirit of Something Greater, that I take this concern and despair I know not what to do with before the Firm and Permanent, the Everlasting. And that I believe – and this part is important – that these painful stories are not told in vain, neither theirs nor mine. After all, we are and always will be some measure of who we believe we are. We believe our lives into being, or we disbelieve them into death. Not the material death we’ll all face one day, or that thousands upon thousands are facing daily with no say in the matter but a death rendered dead solely by our disbelief, by our abandonment of hope in ourselves and others. That’s a death we constantly find ourselves staring down and facing whether we want to or not, but it is not a death we should give in to ever! That’s when it becomes most important to hear again the call to life, even if that call is heard in a quiet room that’s really just a room unless whatever we’ve brought to the altar makes it something different. Because that something different is what matters. The sum of our lives is, as best I can tell, a matter of how well we hold close the tension of those opposites, the hope to belief and the despair to lack it. In that tension, we may allow the places where we find ourselves to be simply what they are, or we may make them into something more, something different, something better despite the circumstances surrounding them and by our shear presence and our living into the belief that we are called to more in this place that’s our holy home and a holy home to millions more, as well.

On Prayer

I signed up last week to be a “prayer partner” with Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly, a Methodist summer camp I frequented as a kid and worked at for four summers, and in the next few days I’ll be assigned someone on staff to pray for this summer. I haven’t always been the most prayerful person, if by “prayer” you mean kneeling or bowing your head and beginning a sentence with, “Dear God” or something similar. But then again, I don’t think we have a very healthy understanding of what prayer is, either.

It seems to me, too often, we think prayer is about outcome. I pray for someone sick or hurting, and God will heal them, or I pray for a job, and God will “open a door,” or I pray for someone’s summer, and they’re going to have a great summer, and the outcome will be good and that’ll be because God intervened to make it so. And that’s a bunch of hooey. What of those for whom no cure or relief will come or for those who remain jobless or for those whose summers isn’t going to be the greatest they could have asked for? I don’t believe in a God who works on behalf of some and not all. I know far too many people (and have been one myself) whose prayers, if prayer is solely about outcome, have gone unanswered.

The typical Christian response to this critique is to say that God doesn’t always give us the answer we want, just the answer we need. Or sometimes God’s ‘no’ is God’s ‘yes.’ And that’s poetic and pulls at the heartstrings, and I even sort of like the metaphor that runs against the whole health-and-wealth gospel where God gives you everything you want if you ask for it and live a good life. But it still revolves around the idea that prayer should have a goal, and the goal is either God’s yes or God’s no.

To me, the goal is process, not outcome. I think of prayer as being more meditative. It’s about awareness which breeds empathy and leads to connection within community. I’ll spend my summer praying for someone not because I think God will intervene like some booming voice from the sky that shouts, “Thou shalt have good summer!” but because in the process of praying for somebody else, I make the effort to stop being so absorbed in my own little world, and then, as a result of prayer, I’ll hopefully be moved to intervene to do what I can to make their summer a tiny bit better. It’s the notion that God moves through us, not because of us or without us.

In that sense, prayer is technically still about outcome, I guess. But in a world where too many Christians say, “I’ll pray for you,” while my atheist and agnostic friends are the ones who actually step up and do something, it’s time we had a healthy conversation about what prayer is supposed to be. It’s not, “God, be with this person so I don’t have to be.” It’s, “How can I help? I’m here; just tell me what to do.” If prayer doesn’t move people to act in that manner, it’s fruitless; it isn’t even really prayer. But that’s also a scary thought, because if we’re honest in our efforts to consider others outside of ourselves in our prayer lives (and I’m preachin’ to myself here), we’d be doing a hell of a lot more to make people’s lives better. It asks of us our time, energy, and money: and those are three things we don’t necessarily want to give. Prayer, though, can and should alter our mindset toward that end, and when it does, it’s communal, because when prayer moves us to act for others, we’re acting for ourselves at the same time.

So, I’m hoping my prayers this summer will be more than just prayers. At the very least, somebody is getting a really awesome mix tape (or two) and several encouraging letters. And if I can do more, I will. In the meantime, I’ll see where else prayer leads me.

From Stolen Wallets to Trusting Experience

When I was in the third grade, I had this black-and-white checkered wallet that was neon green on the fringes. It was the epitome of 1990s cool. Like, I’m pretty sure that wallet should’ve been featured on Full House. And the fact that no one else had such a cool wallet made me feel pretty special (that’s a lie: I’m sure everybody was sporting wallets like these).

But then it was stolen. At church camp. And that one experience so left a sour taste in my mouth that I didn’t return to that church camp until I started working there ten years later.

During that time, though, I carried with me – even from that one experience – a lot of anger with church hypocrisy. By high school, I considered myself atheist, not really knowing what that term even meant, and it wasn’t until another experience, my sophomore year of college, that I did an about-face on my lack of faith.

At Wabash, there was a professor I deeply admired, Bill Placher, who taught me that truth was less about fact and more about trust. I remember at one point sitting in his office and saying something like, “I don’t understand how you can know so much about the Bible, about how so much of it isn’t what we were taught in Sunday school, but still believe in it.” He took his time to respond. The next day, he handed me something he’d written at Princeton and encouraged me to continue the conversation with him. I don’t remember the details of that conversation, yet that experience changed not only how I handled and understood religion but also how I confronted any kind of pursuit for truth. Dr. Placher made metaphors matter in a way no one ever had before. It was like discovering that Santa was real again, and anyone who thought they knew the “truth” about Santa was missing the bigger picture. Or they were just a killjoy.

Dare I say that I think experience, more than logic and reasoning, more than tradition, more than anything, carves out what it is we believe. It’s almost like it’s a scale or something where, if the negative experiences outweigh the positive ones, you can just about predict where a person ends up. If a non-believer were to say that logic and reasoning were what brought her to a skeptical place, I’d say that it wasn’t logic or skepticism but the whole experience of applying logic to a previously unquestioned faith. After all, there’s plenty of deeply religious folks out there who are keenly logical thinkers, and by the same token, there’s plenty of atheists who are pretty irrational, too.

But it comes as no surprise that when people grow skeptical, they often say that they no longer trust scripture or trust God or trust the church. And I’m alright with that, because that’s part of the journey. In fact, I think it’s an important step. I think doubt breeds humility, and asking questions is so very crucial to get to the bottom of who we are and why we believe what we believe. Or why we don’t.

But I think we have a tendency to question ideas and texts and institutions without ever really questioning our experiences of those things. And that’s because our experiences often carry with them an emotive power that we’re not able or willing to easily deny or even confront. I mean, some snot-nosed kid stole my wallet, and I know why I was angry about that, and it would’ve been easy to let that experience go unengaged. So, too, I’ve seen people get caught up in a kind of spiritual frenzy where they think they’ve seen a “light,” but when they find that light, it sometimes seems like something dark turns on instead, because they start using that “light” to justify all kinds of stupid or hurtful behavior that had nothing to do with that spiritual experience in the first place.

None of that, of course, is to say that we shouldn’t trust our experiences, only that we should understand how our experiences sometimes limit or hinder us. And, for me at least, that’s not an in-passing glance at a one-time experience and how it shaped me or continues to. It’s a lifetime, difficult effort, a need and yearning to constantly refocus, to engage the past so as not to repeat the undesired or, if that’s unavoidable, to at least repeat it with more understanding the second time around.

But, as we’re making this journey on the road of life, I think if we were more comfortable with ourselves, more capable of honestly confronting those emotional, powerful experiences we have that determine what we call “truth,” the whole world might be a little better off. And that’s important, because we live in a world today where the information we’re fed is a kind of fast-paced experience itself. We’re bombarded by Buzzfeed quizzes that tell us which Muppet we are; our news sources allow us to dive into our own little bubbles that stop us from critically engaging our surroundings; we place ourselves primarily only around the people who will agree with us, not the people who might make us better, because we usually seek easy and congenial relationships. But when one experience, like a stolen wallet, can carve out our next ten years, we’d be doing ourselves a big favor if we’re willing to slam on the brakes and pay a little more attention to where we’re headed and how we’re getting there. Especially when there’s so much crap to drive through.

Beyond Resolutions, or looking for more out of life than simply achieving a few nice goals

When 2014 started, everybody setting resolutions and goals, everybody staking claims to the potential of the moment, some with certitude that this year could be theirs, I couldn’t let go of the thought that we don’t always make our own luck. There’s something ingrained in the American spirit, this old Protestant work ethic of sorts that you can have the whole world if you work hard enough to gain it. Mix in a little faith, and you have a recipe for success.

It’s not always that simple. The whole notion, in fact, that by our own hand (or with a wing and a prayer), we can change our circumstances is at least somewhat selfish. When things work out, too many are too quick to say a prayer has been answered. What of those for whom no answer ever came? And where’s the empathy in assuming God is on our side when far too many others are apparently lacking his concern?

On the other hand, I suppose if your only goal this year was to lose thirty pounds, that’s well within reach (and not to be scoffed at by any means). Hopefully, you won’t even need God’s help for that one. But I suspect that when people make goals to lose physical weight, there’s something deeper they’re striving for, a real goal hidden underneath those pounds to find human happiness and a sense of self-worth. And it’s precisely that search that doesn’t end, even once we’ve shed the extra fat.

Whether the new year, then, or perhaps mid-July, we’re all too often bumbling around wanting and needing more than what and who we are. For me, many of my friends know, so much of that has been tied to my desire to just be hired, as if a job would suddenly provide me with a greater sense of purpose, and once it comes (and it will), it may give me a sense of purpose for a while, but I’m not naïve enough to think I, too, won’t look for more in time. Anything less wouldn’t be very human, would it?

I’m not one to believe that a job or a person we’re in love with or a car or house or even the company of friends can guarantee lasting happiness. On some level, to search for lasting happiness is itself a vain and pointless search. Maybe it’s better to strive for balance so that in our worst moments we’ll know and believe that something better is ahead – not because we can make it happen ourselves but because life just is that pendulum guaranteed to swing its back-and-forth as the forces of gravity bring us both joy and tragedy.

And as for answered prayers? While I have my opinions, I’m not a smart enough man to contest God’s role (or lack thereof) in our lives. But I’ll say this: the longer we live with a kind of smug certainty that God will act on our own behalf, the less likely we are to act as we should, as we all too easily forget we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers. So, resolutions, goals, and prayers are all well and good, but they’ve got nothing on striving to live every single day a little bit beyond our hopes and dreams for just ourselves and maybe with a little more of the world in mind.

Poindexter, Dave Matthews, and following your heart

When I started Wabash, I remember the day my parents moved me into the Kappa Sigma house was a really hot August morning, and when we walked into the fraternity house, I remember being greeted by “Bill” who was huge and shirtless and immediately intimidated the hell out of me. I was a gangling munchkin by comparison, and something about fraternity life still scared me. When Bill walked across the green carpet floors of the living room, the whole place creaked, but it turned out Bill was a huge teddy bear, probably one of the nicest guys in the house, if not too nice. He asked me who I was, knew exactly where I should go, and offered to carry some of my things. Books and covers and not judging or something along those lines, right? 

Because Wabash at the time  was nearly 75% Greek, fraternity houses were used as dormitories until the end of pledge week. I moved in that morning and I never moved out. I don’t think I even looked at a single other fraternity. As Bill helped me schlep my belongings upstairs to “Upper North,” I was immediately introduced to a senior named Glenn E. “Hambone” Smith IV – or his pledge name, Poindexter. Yes, the Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds. And there was a striking resemblance.

P.dex, as he was called, turned out to be a psychology major who could play any musical instrument he picked up. Guitar, bass, drums – he was really good at drums – and some part of me wants to say he could play the saxophone, as well, but it may just be that every time you walked into his room, either Charlie Parker or Stan Getz was blaring from the speakers. I’m pretty sure there was also a long phase in which P.dex listened heavily to Bossa nova among other random Brazilian jazz.

Midway through the first semester, there was almost a routine in place. As we sat in P.dex’s hunter green room, we chatted usually about music or God or studied quietly. P.dex was a member of Campus Crusade and never missed a Sunday morning of church – probably one of the only guys in the house who attended any church, certainly the only who attended regularly. He seemed together to me, though there was the air that life hadn’t always been that simple, and that by his senior year, he’d really figured a lot out. We were paired pretty early on with what down south everyone calls “bigs” or “big brothers” in the Greek system, though at Wabash we called them “pledge fathers.” It came as no surprise that my pledge father was P.dex, given our shared interest in religion and music and the fact we were already roommates.

One of the more poignant moments of my freshman year came in the library. I was working on a religion assignment, and P.dex sat across from me doodling on a sheet of paper. He scribbled down the words, “Where are you going?” It was the second semester of his senior year. For P.dex, it was something of a literal question. What’s after Wabash? For me, with three more years ahead, I wasn’t ready to think about what was next. I’d only just declared myself a religion major. But the question still burrowed its way in and became something existential. At the time, I might have just as easily worded it, “What are you about?”

Back in the hunter green jazz room, Glenn broke out his guitar and started strumming and singing Dave Matthew’s song, the same words he’d doodled out in the library. A song that was so obviously a conversation between a guy and a girl was, to P.dex, a conversation between himself and his understanding of the sacred, of Something Greater, of God. Dave sings, “I know one thing, that’s where you are is where I belong; I do know where you go is where I want to be.”

Lately, that mantra has sort of settled over me, and I feel some of P.dex’s old dilemma. My sense of God today is not the same as it was when I was that gangling freshman in college, and it never quite matched what P.dex’s believed. Still, I’ve always felt pulled, moved, directed by something bigger than me. This morning, one of my old TA’s posted an article he wrote for Huffington Post, and in the article he confesses: “Maybe God is imaginary. Maybe love is too. So what? The imagination matters. It shapes civilizations and the saints (and even the tyrants) they produce.” These days, I feel a little like I’m learning what it means to sit with my imagination, though it’s beyond what happens in my head. I wish there were a word in English for the kind of “imagining” the heart can do. There are days where I am haunted by the fact that I don’t have a clear answer to the question, “Where are you going?” But there is a phrase that is settling on me as a kind of constant reminder to listen to myself. It’s simple, straight-forward, and it’s not the answer I wish I had, but for now is good enough: Follow your heart.

So tell me, heart, where are you going?


Paul and the Magic Rock

I don’t consider myself a mystical sort of person. I don’t think I believe in ghosts, and while I definitely believe that there’s something greater than me out there, a kind of spiritual realm akin my own mundane one, I don’t think – in my life – I’ve gotten many glimpses of something I could call a ghost or a god or an angel. Not to deny their existence (far from it); I just haven’t directly experienced those things enough times to feel comfortable calling it “proof.”

I do, however, very distinctly recall an experience I had with a magic rock. There’s no real story to it. The rock didn’t do anything special. The face of Jesus was not carved into the rock. It didn’t move or fly. It wasn’t a pet rock. I don’t even think I kept it afterward. But the experience, whatever it was, was a significant moment for me. And a friend of mine named Paul.

Paul and I were kindred spirits. We were both loners of sorts, at least in our own way. Paul was a gamer and loved philosophical discussion. I cherished my independence, and both of us loved hating our Boy Scout troop, which was where we had met.

When I was in high school, I was a Boy Scout in Troop 10, which around West Tennessee was known as the “Eagle Factory,” probably stemming from the fact that our scoutmaster was a West Point graduate who ran the troop with very high expectations. We often went on camp-outs to Camp Mack Morris, the scouting camp serving the West Tennessee area, and occasionally, those camping trips took place in the dead of winter.

I remember one in particular that has nothing to do with the magic rock, but I’ll mention it anyway. Hudson – the scoutmaster – spent a lot of time planning what he called “Merle,” a three-day weekend in the wintertime where we focused on one merit badge. Merle was also the name of a card game we would play in our free time, though I think the actual game we were playing was Euchre. I always watched and never learned how to play, because I thought the game was stupid and hard, or maybe just hard. I’m getting off-track.

Anyhow, Merle was the camping trip where I first went tree-pushing, which consisted of just running around finding large, dead trees to push over. You were the “winner” if you could push over the largest tree, though I don’t think Paul or I could push any trees over at all.

I also remember getting lost in the woods at night one year playing German Spotlight. And I remember Bob Hudson showing us the Gene Hackman movie, Hoosiers, and making us take notes during the movie and discuss “leadership” and what the movie could teach us about effective leaders.

Yeah. And you wonder why Paul and I both loved hating the Boy Scouts.

One year, everybody was standing around in the cafeteria, and it was raining outside. I remember, as the rain let up, Paul and I went outside to walk around (just the two of us) and talk, and I remember we were either depressed or complaining, though I can’t remember which one it was – maybe a combination of both. The gravel path outside (there wasn’t a paved road) was wet, and as you walked along the rocks, they crunched against one another like walking on coals or compacted snow.

At one point, Paul reached down and picked up one of the rocks. He rolled it around in his hand, and then said something like, “Hmm, interesting,” before handing me the rock. Like Paul, I held the rock, and rolled it around in my hand inspecting it. There was nothing special to it. It looked the same as all the other rocks. But it was wet and dirty, and the red-clay dirt rubbed off onto my hand as I rolled the rock around.

I handed it back to Paul, and we both sort of looked at each other, and as we did, this strange sense of awe sort of jolted us both. Paul said out loud, “Do you feel that?” I nodded and we just stood there taking in the moment. I didn’t then and don’t really know now how to put into words what it was. Paul didn’t either. But both of us felt overcome by some force, be it nature or God or a gas leak. It seeped into us and gave us chills and made us both feel like we and this silly rock were all sharing some sort of natural communion. That something as simple as a rock could make us feel like the world was huge and good and that we were brothers and somehow connected to everyone and everything.

I don’t know where these mystical feelings come from. I don’t know how a magic rock can be magic. But I think that one little experience has left me searching and sauntering my way through life always hoping I’d be jolted again, in a good way, by another person or thing that entered my life. I still do.