mono no aware

March 17, 2009

The summer before my senior year of college, I spent two months working with Warringah Church of Christ outside of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. My friends Benji Jones and Hunter Harris were also helping out. Within a few days, we’d discovered that your average Australian lives by a different rhythm than your average American. We’d gone expecting to every day to be full of service—home maintenance projects, church work, and vacation bible school. 

What we found instead was plenty of down time. Hunter and I had both brought our bouldering shoes, so we’d take a bus out to Malibu beach and do some bouldering on the house-sized rock there. We’d take a bus or ferry across the bay to downtown and eat dinner or go to a movie. We went surfing a few times and went on plenty of hikes around Manley and Bondi beach.

Near the famous shell-shaped opera house is the Royal Botanical Gardens. After meandering through it one day, we bumped into the Art Gallery of New South Wales

I am always surprised by what I take away from such places packed with beauty, history, and creativity. My favorite was an exhibition of Japanese art. I’m a sucker for the placards next to each piece. Where else would I learn that the Japanese see in the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms the transience of all life. 

One phrase in particular has stuck with me: mono no aware.

We were staying with the Walmsleys at the time, and lucky for me, Yuriko Walmsley could translate the words. She said they were archaic, no longer used. They meant “the sadness of things.”

Mono no aware imprinted in my memory because I have seen it in my father’s eyes. I have heard coyotes sing it in their dirges to the moon. Even in moments of exuberant joy, it stands in the corner and follows our laughter with a hint of regret. Nothing stays the same. We are but a vapor. We are sound and fury.

Like water, sadness runs through everything.  
I ran across a lovely letter written by the poet Franz Wright the other day. He was commenting on a poem my friend Anna Laura wrote and posted on her blog.

He wrote:

Haven’t we completely misunderstood the true nature of happiness? I am not even sure I understand these terms anyone: sadness, happiness! I mean this literally, even though I would like to be happy as much as anyone else. But happiness can clearly not be expected to last or remain the same, anymore than this life of ours can. I am not even sure I can tell the difference between happiness and sadness anymore! There are moments of sadness and loneliness when I love my life every bit as intensely as I do during moments of great joy.


Just some 3:30 a.m. thoughts. There is a sadness in your words, but this seems to give them a kind of poignancy and beauty that I respond to and recognize.Maybe we just need to give up all thought or intention of attempting to control these things-it is so obvious that that is impossible!-and just allow ourselves to be carried, or guided, without bitterness, with trust? I don’t know, but this is how it seems to me at the moment.

When I read his words, I thought, mono no aware. The sadness of things. John Keats wanted “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” on his tombstone. The sadness of things. A wife and her baby killed by a drunk driver. The sadness of things. Our loves lost, our fears realized, our dreams trampled, our families splintered—the sadness of things.

Each morning when I arise, if I will continue to breathe and move in this sad, beautiful, broken world, I must continue to believe that God has written my name and yours on the palm of his hand.

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an end to hurting

March 15, 2009

I am convinced that few people reject Christ after an arduous journey in search of truth.

Few people climb mountains of books, navigate oceans of conversation, endure storms of dogma, doctrine, and opinion. Few people put scripture, spiritual disciplines, and worshipping communities through the strainer of logic and meditation, lived experience and openhearted inquiry.

I am also convinced that most people who actually meet Jesus fall in love with him.

What happens to everybody else?

They get hurt. Rejecting Jesus has very little to do with dimissing Jesus as a lunatic and the Way he preached about as a fable created by a ragtag band of disappointed followers. Rejecting Jesus has everything to do with pain.

Plenty of folks will bring up genocide in the Old Testament, or the death of a child from a birth defect, or the historical inaccuracies, multiple authors, or discrepancies among biblical manuscripts.

You might meet a nonbeliever troubled by the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem Witch trials. He may ask, What about sex scandals in the Catholic priesthood or the greed of televangelists? What about hypocrisy and every injustice and atrocity carried out in the name of God?

If God loves us, why do we suffer?

Why does your God allow rape, molestation, slavery, starvation, disease, war, and avarice?

If you listen carefully when someone is building a case for God’s absence or nonexistence, you will hear him or her describe evil – human depravity.

Each person will say in her own way, “The world is not as it should be.”

Underneath all the arguments and counterpoints, you will discover other people’s pain. People want to know whether or not God cares about human suffering. They have been wounded by pastors and preachers, lovers and strangers, who claimed to carry the message of the gospel. They never meet Jesus because they must push through so many broken relationships to find him.

If you think you have something to share with nonbelievers, you first ask about their pain. You must then walk with them to Jesus. They are tired of apologetics. They want your heart and they want his. They want to believe there is an end to hurting.

Ebenezers and Deserts

March 14, 2009

I was a month into my first semester at Lipscomb University.

After sleeping in, I walked over to the Student Center to check my mailbox. Through the glass on the rectangular brass door I could see the card. I already knew what this card meant: my new satchel from L.L. Bean had arrived. It was going to be a good day.

The person behind the desk in the small office handed me my package. I opened right there, threw away the mailer and bubble wrap, and walked upstairs. No one was around. Strange. Uncle Dave’s and the coffeeshop and the bookstore should be humming with activity. Where was everybody?

My grandmother, who was working in the bookstore back then, must have seen me walk by because she caught up to me while I was standing underneath the portico looking out on Bison Square and wondering why it was deserted.

“Did you hear the news?” She touched my shoulder then wrapped her arm around my waist. I put my arm around her shoulders. This is the way we’ve stood every since I grew taller than her.

“No. What news?” Now I felt my stomach turn over with the first hint of anxiousness.

“Some people flew planes into the twin towers and the World Trade Center.”

My mind failed to wrap around this information. She had to repeat herself and explain that the videos were on every news channel. Where had I been?

What alarmed me more than anything else is that after she shared this news—events that changed our world and the very fabric of our lives forever—I felt nothing. No fear. No sadness. No warm rush of compassion. I was devoid of emotion. She may as well have told me that the cafeteria was serving corndogs. Hundreds and thousands of people had just died and more would die to save the survivors, but I found no response in my heart but a curious emptiness.

This apathy disturbed me. I wondered what had happened to harden my heart, and that day, I began praying a prayer that I continue to give to the Lord:

“Let my heart be pierced with other people’s suffering. Soften me, open me, to their pain and fear, their insecurity and pressing need to be loved even while their lives are wastelands. Give me the strength to roll up my sleeves and work alongside you to turn the rubble into temples, ebenezers, altars of praise. When their hearts and faith are scorched, may you bring them hope through me.”

I have a bad habit of praying prayers before I fully understand their ramifications. The same thing happened two years later when my friend Taylor and I decided to pray for humility. He prayed for my humility, and I prayed for his. We knew enough about how sanctification works to know that brokenness leads to humility, and neither one of us could pray for brokenness with sincerity. God answers such prayers, I guess because they align with His Perfect Will for our lives.

He desires that we walk with one another through the valleys of dead bones, through the dark nights of our souls. He has certainly answered that prayer from my freshman year of college by resensitizing me to a groaning world full of hurting people. I struggle not to feel overwhelmed by such deep need. We are all so needy. Everyone I know is starving for love, and here God offers his love as a free gift and a way of life that leads to peace and wholeness—to shalom—and we pluck out our own eyes even as we pluck out the eyes of others.

O! I am filled with such a longing to be in the temple of God, ringing His praises off the flagstones, and O! I am eager for the return of Christ when his kingdom will come in its fullness and he will use the corner of his white robe to wipe away every tear.

Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do with myself because I feel like what I have to offer is never enough, and I can never cry enough tears to answer the thirst of every parched soul. God answered my prayer, and perhaps the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, and I am now too sentimental, too tender-hearted. I live in a new kingdom, and I don’t feel cut out for life as an alien in the old kingdom. 

Oh, Lord, thy kingdom come…Please let thy kingdom come. Before we all perish. Before fear, blindness, and pride, before the world we have created consumes us all. Give us water to transform every desert.

Please do something right now. We have nowhere else to turn.

Sweet freedom

March 13, 2009

When I was leaving my house this morning for work, I noticed a mockingbird in a skirmish with two bluejays. One of the bluejays gave up and flew away over the roof of the Church of God next door. The mockingbird and his other nemesis looped around and through the Blueberry Tree. They would both land as if to catch their breath before the mockingbird would lunge at the larger bluejay and they would begin their aerial combat all over again.

I’m unsure what kind of tree it was that was their battleground. My friend Caroline dubbed it the ”Blueberry Tree” simply because blue berries have begun to appear on the tips of its branches. Spring starts officially on March 21st, the Vernal Equinox.

Everywhere I see splashes of yellow, green, and pink. Delicate flower petals, new grass, and blossoms on the trees.

Rebirth.

We need it. Our moods are tied into the seasons. Sunlight keeps us healthy.

I wonder if the mockingbird feels it and responds in its own way—chasing the intruder around the block. That’s what was intriguing about the spectacle. The numbers were in favor of the bluejays, two to one. They are much larger than the mockingbird. Yet, he was routing them like a couple of amateurs.

He was bold. He was persistent. He was fearless.

He reminds me of Paul’s words to Timothy:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1.6-7)

Power and love and self-control. 

Maybe that’s where the metaphor breaks down. The mockingbird wasn’t loving on the bluejays. 

However, I still believe that we are the Blueberry Tree, the Spirit is the mockingbird, and the bluejays are anyone or anything that that tries to convince us that God is aloof, immobile, or impotent.

Again, I think of Paul:

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4.4)

Jesus did more than disarm the dark powers of this world. “He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2.15).

What does that mean for us?

Hope.

We were dead, but now we are alive. We move and breathe in sweet freedom.

Mr. Millson

March 12, 2009

I first met Mr. Sid Millson in the 8th grade. After breaking the tibia and fibula on my left leg playing cornerback in the fall, I decided to rehab my leg the following spring by running track. Mr. Millson was my coach. He asked me run the open 400, 4×4 relay, and 4×8 relay. I ran with a limp, but I still won most of my races.

I got to know him better my sophomore year when he was my Biology teacher at David Lipscomb High School. If someone acted up in class, he would say, “I oughta beat you like a red-headed stepchild,” until a kid named Carter raised his hand and said, “I am a red-headed stepchild, and that kind of offends me.”

Those are the moments you cherish later on.

He had a tragic story. His mother fell through a rotten dock while pregnant with his younger brother. She skewered one of her legs on an old piling. Their family was in a remote area, so Mr. Millson’s dad decided not to take her to the hospital that night. Her leg was already so infected the next day, the doctors later had to amputate it. That was the first of many surgeries for his mother, and the first of his many stories that broke my heart.

He also told funny stories. Some friends asked him to house-sit when they went out of town. While snooping around in a hallway closet, he found a Flowbee. He’d seen them on tv, a combination hair clipper and vacuum. The idea was to suck the hair away from the scalp, making an even cut possible. Either Mr. Millson didn’t follow the instructions or the device malfunctioned: it ate into his scalp and blood went everywhere.

Mr. Millson didn’t have much hair left by the time I was in his class. He kept it buzzed and for good reason. An older man in the congregation he attended growing up would go along on the youth functions. All the boys loved him because he still knew how to have a good time. They decided to go swimming one day. The older gentleman stripped down to his suit and dove in. When his head broke the surface of the water, Mr. Millson saw something he would never forget—a thick cord of hair attached just above the man’s ear. It was plastered down the side of his face and reached past his jaw. The man’s wet combover looked like a misplaced ponytail. On that day Mr. Millson swore that if he ever lost most of his hair, he would shave off the rest.

He designated special days for cooking. He boiled some crawdads that I caught in the creek. He tantalized us all year with descriptions of his Creamy Cricket Soup. It wasn’t bad. He made the best omelet I’ve ever tasted. Secret ingredient: heavy whipping cream.

My senior year, I had Mr. Millson again for Environmental Science. After double-checking the floor’s load-bearing capacity with the architects of the new wing of Harding Hall, he installed a plastic swimming and put tilapia in it. We were going to grow some tilapia and eat them. That same year, we took a field trip to a water treatment plant in Smyrna. That’s the only time I’ve smelled an odor so foul that I choked back vomit, but it was still better than sitting in a classroom.

Mr. Millson was humble, eccentric, and generous. He couldn’t help but be himself and in doing so, he gave us the freedom to be ourselves. He took me under his wing and gave me two pieces of advice that have shaped how I view and engage in relationships with women:

1) “Rather than ask what you’re going to get out of a relationship, ask what you have to offer her. Leave people better than you found them.”

2) “Become the kind of man who will attract your ideal woman.”

In Mr. Millson, I saw someone who had borne the worst life can pile on a man—abandonment by his father, growing up in an orphanage, divorce, single parenthood, his second wife’s cancer.

In Mr. Millson, I saw someone who didn’t blame God but rested in him. Mr. Millson shone with God’s love.

He discipled me. He poured his life into me. He was my first mentor.

Take a nap

March 11, 2009

I want to share a simple insight from John Ortberg’s The Life You’ve Always Wanted. I read it in high school. He said something that caused a huge shift in my posture towards God:

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your spiritual life is take a nap.

We are not cogs in a machine. God did not call us out of Egypt to grind us into dust in the promised land with all the good works we do to show him how thankful we are for grace. Grace does not call us to constant physical exhaustion and working without ceasing in the Kingdom of God.

He knows we need rest. 

That said, I’m going to bed.

Gratitude

March 10, 2009

“Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits-
…who satisfies your desires with good things 
      
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103. 2, 5)

I met with my spiritual director tonight, and he asked me to compare the way I am feeling, the state of my heart, to a season. 

“Spring,” I said. “I feel so hopeful, confident, exuberant.”

“And you know what to do?”

“Yes. Give thanks.”

Here’s is a list of 35 things for which I am thankful:

1) Bradford Pear trees blooming on Henley Street

2) Marvel candy sticks at Halloween and the Lucky Strikes and Mustang boxes of candy cigarettes sold at dirty gas stations across the country. World Candy Co.= good candy cigarettes; Necco=garbage.

3) Coffee as black and strong as you get it

4) Taking a shower and washing off all the sunscreen, sweat, and sand after a day at the beach. Wearing a linen shirt that night to counteract the inevitable sunburn

5) A Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur No. 1 English Claro

6) My niece Emery asking to ride on my shoulders

7) Daisy, Patrick and Caroline’s puppy, a Malinois and Great Dane mix from Young-Williams Animal Center

eight)  the pulse of a wild trout on the tip of my Scott 6-weight

9) my cool-down walk after a long run

10) orange juice with as much pulp as possible

11) salmon nigiri

12) a small basket of buffalo chicken tenders and fries at McDougal’s in Nashville

13) making my dad laugh so hard he cries

14) bending over to hug my mom

15) my best friend Hunter Harris and 22 years of collective memory

16) haircuts

17) a slow shave with a straight razor

18) gingko leaves turning lemon-yellow in autumn

19) 10-year-old Laphroaig

20) Sundays

21) eating lunch at Grandmother’s house then taking a nap

22) poetry

23) riding my bicycle down a steep hill without a helmet on

24) pepperoni pizza

25) fine pens

26) funny hats

27) Big Creek, Idaho

28) my sisters Elizabeth and Laura

29) a tea called Lapsang Souchong

30) cutting up fallen trees with a chainsaw

31) bad actions movies with Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Segal, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzeneggar or any kung fu movie

32) weddings

33) clean bathrooms

34) Roald Dahl books

35) Wilson McCoy’s laugh

Praise be to God for all that He has done for us and all that He will continue to do.

We’d taken a road trip to Memphis to hear Guster play at the New Daisy Theater. Rebecca‘s parents offered to let us crash at their house. Driving back to Nashville on Sunday afternoon, I tried to catch up on some homework. My Faith & Fiction class with Dr. Matt Hearn and Dr. Gary Holloway was reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal.

The book is Nouwen’s long mediation on Rembrandt’s painting by the same name. The painting changed Nouwen’s life, and his meditation changed mine.

I’ve spent the better part of my life believing that I am a constant disappointment to God.

He gave his only son to save us, and I repay him by cheating on him, fooling around with other gods. I always imagined him sighing like the parent of a college flunkie:

“Son, your mother and I have made sacrifices so that you could get the best education possible. This is the third semester in a row that you have failed your classes, and frankly, I’m disappointed in you. I’ve about had enough. We’re going to give you one more shot, but if you let us down again, you’re on your own. We’re pulling the plug. Do you understand?”

I felt like I was letting God down on the time. I tried and tried to do better, be more disciplined, keep a tight rein on my sins, but as Paul so eloquently explains sin at work within us in Romans 7: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Put simply, the Spirit used Nouwen’s warm, generous words to help me understand and experience my belovedness in God’s sight. He welcomes me into his heart. He tells me that I am worth the blood of Jesus. He calls me by name. He has been watching for me for months, and when he sees my familiar figure in the distance, He lays aside his dignity, picks up his robes like a skirt, and sprints for me. He embraces me, showers me with kisses. He pours out his extravagant love, and I am overwhelmed.

How can YHWH, the Creator God, the Alpha and the Omega, invite me to dine next to him at the wedding feast of the Lamb? When I slip through the door, believing that I am unclean and unwanted, He shouts, “Austin, come over here. I’ve saved you a seat.” He runs over, locks an arm around my shoulders, and introduces me to all the guests, “This is my adopted son, Austin. He is like no one else you will ever meet. He is one of a kind. I am so proud of him.”

The romantic poet William Blake, who is himself one of a kind, talked about bearing up under the ray’s of God’s love for us.

We will spend the rest of our lives learning to receive God’s love.

Nouwen sharing his heart was a turning point on that journey for me.

Riding in the back of that car on the way back to Nashville, I cried tears of joy, for God’s love is true. His love is Reality.

The parable in Luke 15 is really a story about a loving father. The gospel story of our loving father. Jesus is the way home. A phrase from the book put words to a vague ache I’ve felt for as long as I can remember: “the yearning for a final return, an unambiguous sense of safety, a lasting home.” We are all haunted by an existential homesickness. Whether we know it or not, we long to rest in God. He is our true home.

Nouwen understood this, and for that, I am thankful. I look forward to meeting him one day.

Bratislava

March 7, 2009

I wanted to spend the last of my Slovakian korunas before we left Bratislava, so I bought some pipe tobacco I didn’t want. Who knew when I’d be back. We found a restaurant called the Blue Moon Café and ate dinner outside underneath a striped awning. Dusk fell on the street. Still fresh to new to the art of being respectful in other culture, we were too loud and attracted attention. People looked right through us as though pretending we didn’t exist, or they stared openly with smugness or disdain. We were noisy primates at the zoo, rattling our cages. Their unsmiling mouths and sharp eyes communicated no curiosity. I guess they thought that they already knew all about us—ugly Americans. We carried cameras. We ordered too much food. We spent money just to get rid of it.

We rarely encountered open hostility. Most of the time, we could slide through the open spaces without feeling eyes on us, without feeling self-conscious. I got the feeling that to the Viennese, the Parisians, and the Romans American tourists, especially college students, are a necessary evil, helping the economy while spoiling the local flavor.  

We were young and green, as far as traveling graciously and inconspicuously goes, and we wanted to enjoy ourselves, to savor our Wiener Schnitzel and knödel, to smell the zinnias in Salzburg and the roses at Schönbrunn.

However, while I was developing an appreciation for tapas in Madrid and Bernini’s sculptures at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, I was also developing a taste for anonymity. If Herr Ober wanted to pretend that this flock of caffeinated college students abroad had not just seated themselves and ordered cheese pizzas and tap water, then we could pretend his long absences were a very professional austerity and respect for our privacy. Being ignored is a sort of freedom. Even more, what if after awhile we just blended in? What if we spoke in German?

We finished dinner at the Blue Moon Café, and I walked with Josh Elmore and Brandon Lokey back to the train station. People were waiting for their buses in the sheltered stops. His back to the road, a homeless man had pulled himself into the fetal position to fit on the bench. His pants had come down, and his dirty butt crack frowned at us.

A few benches closer to the station, a woman sat with her knees far apart bracing herself with her arms on the bench. She had a look of concentration fixed on her face, but she was gazing at nothing. Another moment, a few more steps, and I understood why. I heard a sound that did not fit in—water hitting a hard surface. The woman was urinating—in public, in plain view.

She sticks in my mind like a splinter. I cannot say I thought much about it then. I’ve seen plenty of homeless men relieving themselves behind dumpsters, in parking garages, and against the nearest wall. So, we passed by the woman, made sure not to stare, and found the bus that took us to the other train station across town where we could catch a late train back to Vienna. I was happy to hear German again.

I did journal about that woman later:

Another, a woman, fastened her eyes somewhere far away until they glazed. She sat with her hands propped on either side as if she would fall without the support. Her rigid form would not have attracted our attention had she not been urinating. Liquid splashed to the ground through the slats in the bench, spreading a dark puddle on the concrete. She wore a sweater and skirt. My heart sought to help her somehow, but I could not, for I was intimidated by something I had never witnessed and never wanted to witness again.

We told the story to the other students, and they, of course, responded with disgust. I cannot remember where we were, if we were eating dinner or walking and smoking pipes or having dessert in a room with centuries-old frescoes and vaulted ceilings. We probably finished our coffee and torte at Hotel Sacher or Hotel Imperial and went outside to breathe the magic of the opera house, Jugendstil architecture, and Stephansdom. Pistachio gelato and Gustav Klimt, Red Bull and Kinderpunsch, shopping at the Rathaus Christmas market—we were too busy making memories.

Now, I wonder where the woman slept the night we told our story about her.

I was alive. I was awakening to see my childlike curiosity fallen asleep beside me. I nudged it awake, and together, with my friends and their curiosities, we rode the Eurail across our years of textbooks, through the history of our collective way of thinking. After sitting through two years of Latin in high school, I was standing three and a half years later in front of the Colosseum. Outside, vendors hawked beaded skull caps and postcards, and inside, tourists stroked the feral cats lounging in the Italian sun. I thought of tigers and mock naval battles and Christian martyrs. A spring semester of art history my freshman year of college then four months later, I saw, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the sliver of atmosphere between Adam’s finger and God’s. God’s breath jumped the lacuna and gave life to us all. The breath of life.

I was thinking recently about a phrase I have heard more times than I can remember, especially in prayers: the less fortunate. Please, God, be with the less fortunate. The least of these. “Please, God, be with those who have less fortune or no fortune.”

God gives and He takes away, but to some does He even give? “I need to refill the honeypot of blessings,” he says to the unborn soul, “but I’ve got to enflesh you before I can go out back. Too bad. Sorry. You were at the wrong place at the wrong time.” And these are the people, these children of God, who end up wetting themselves on a bench in Bratislava. They get the breath of life, but they do not get good fortune. The lucky souls hurry past to their hot meals and warm beds, to their glorious memories still so new that they cannot shake them or the colors will run.

Good thing I bought the Old Dublin pipe tobacco and Danneman Sweets. Did I really need the venison kebabs, rice pilaf, and orange Fanta I ate for lunch? The caviar and sour cream on crepes for an appetizer? The beef filet in herb butter with potatoes, ketchup, and fried champignons for dinner? A Coke? And for dessert blackberry jam wrapped in crepes and drizzled with blackberry syrup and topped with whipped cream?

Who is responsible for the man curled up on the park bench? Me or God? What about the woman urinating on herself in public?

I cannot shake the image out of my mind. I will never see her again, but I will see someone like her. I will do something about it this time. I think God gave himself to us in Christ so that we can give ourselves to the least of these.

Introduction

While I was teaching at David Lipscomb High School, a close friend of mine from college was working as a barista in a Nashville coffeeshop.  Justin is good-looking, intelligent, and creative.  He made mostly As majoring in Communications, minoring in German, and earning quite a few credits in Missions classes.  Why would he be working a job with no potential for advancement?  Why would he be working in, ahem, the food industry? 

Well, because his gentleness, kindness, and true concern for others gave him special clothing of light in a dark corner of a dark industry. 

Yet, when people asked him what he was doing, what he’d been up to, his mention of Fido, the coffeeshop, was a conversation stopper.  Because he wasn’t embarking upon an illustrious career or going to graduate school, his education was somehow a waste.  He had missed the boat to a meaningful, respectable life.  Surely, he was lazy or immature; otherwise, why would he stay on at a dead-end job?  I don’t remember his feelings much pressure from his parents to “get a life”; they are extraordinarily supportive and open-minded, which is probably one of the reasons why Justin was contented to work somewhere he was needed, regardless of his job’s lack of prestige. 

I remember one conversation we had in which Justin expressed his frustration with people who, with a frown or dismissive, mouth-only smile, made him feel like a failure for earning a small income at a place he loved with co-workers who needed his love.  A light bulb went off in my brain:  We really don’t have to live up to other people’s expectations.  I wrote a short reflective piece called “Letting Go of the Desire to be Impressive.” I hope you enjoy it. 

Letting Go of the Desire to Be Impressive

Yesterday afternoon, which was a Sunday, I was buzzing on a double latte from the Frothy Monkey when I decided to shave my head.  We are in the middle of Lent right now.  I like the idea of a season that should be characterized by major changes and major sacrifices in our lives.  Do the people who have everything and do everything they want enjoy greater happiness than other people whose lives are more restricted by jobs and families and even bad health?  My good friend Aron Wright sings a song with a chorus that goes, “I guess some people get to do what they want…I guess some people get to do what they want…while we pay…while we pay.”  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I lead a pretty cushy life.  If I can afford to pay $1.65 for a small cup of coffee on Monday morning during my planning period, then I can’t have too much to complain about.

I was thinking about how I need a haircut.  I was also thinking about how I get tired of trying to look good or presentable or attractive, really just pouring energy into maintaining appearance.  Physical appearance.  Girls have it worse, I know, but that doesn’t mean guys don’t get sick of the expectations placed on them to be charming or smooth or powerful, any variety of stereotypical masculine characteristics we choose to build our facades.  I can’t speak for all the men I know, but I can speak for myself.  I say “facades” because most of the time my braggadocio, sarcasm, and striving to be funny are a cover-up. 

Most of the time, I feel like a wreck. I’m not saying I’m about to hyperventilate and have a nervous break-down. Guys get tired of jockeying for attention from girls.  Of dreading work and longing for vacations only to have them tainted by the dread of going home to the daily grind.  Of cultivating some degree of physical strength while knowing that our bodies will eventually weaken and finally fail.

I think we all get tired of looking like we have it all together.  Adjust your tie, fix your cuffs, put on your most convincing, fakest smile, and shake everybody’s hand.  “Oh yes, Bill, the golf game’s great.  Family’s great.  Business is great.”  But, Bill, let’s not talk about my daughter’s anorexia.  Or my wife’s depression.  My own struggle with pornography.  Let’s not talk about how tired you are because the burden of caring for your parents fell to you.  Let’s not talk about the rumors: you’re having an affair and your son has a drinking problem.”

I get so tired of having to be “impressive.”  Maybe I put this pressure on myself:  to make something of myself, to choose a career, to fulfill my potential.  Yes, God gave me certain talents and abilities.  People tell me they enjoy reading what I have written.  In the past, I have taken the compliment as a firebrand. 

It’s as if I am riding a horse at a comfortable trot, and somebody comes along and says I have a natural ability.  I am a good rider.  What do I do?  I put that firebrand to the flank of the horse, and off we go at a helter-skelter gallop.  I work so hard at trying to be brilliant at what I’m doing that the horse starts frothing at the mouth.  I’m killing the horse, I don’t notice the flowers’ perfume or the magnificent old trees on the edges of the pasture.  I don’t appreciate the sweetness of the breeze, the touch of the sun on my skin, or the immense power of the animal underneath me. 

I stop enjoying myself because I strive to earn a compliment that was given as a gift. 

Last night at a Spirituality Practice Group at Bongo Java, I realized how much I strive to earn grace.  Scott Owings, the Minister of Spiritual Formation at Otter Creek Church, has been leading us in some Ignatian Contemplation exercises, that is, St. Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuit order in the Roman Catholic Church.  St. Ignatius believed in the importance of “imagination” in the Christian disciplines.

This particular exercise involved imagining that an artist had sculpted my likeness for public exhibition.  The artist gave me a key and as much time as I wanted to examine the statue.  I imagined an old fashioned key with two teeth on it and a trefoil handle.  It let me into a room with hardwood floors.  Each step echoed in the dark.  In the middle, illuminated by light coming through the windows, was my statue.  I tugged the sheet, and it slipped to the floor.  I looked at the statue.  Exaggerated cheekbones; prominent, blade-like nose; deep eye sockets; a mouth opened and hard with effort.  I was naked above the waist and flinging a spear. I talked to the statue.  The statue talked to me.  Jesus came into the room and asked me why I was filled with so much rage, why I felt the need to take power for myself and use it.  “Why won’t you sit at my feet?”  

Why won’t we just sit at his feet? We can no more earn or lose his love than we can stop the sun from shining or change the tides. I’m learning to sit still and receive God’s love for me as the extravagant gift that it is.