I’ve been involved in a renovation project over the past several months. Demolition stage was challenging and required some trust that the outcome would be worth the effort. Some of the demo was merely cosmetic. However, there were some loadbearing walls involved as well. These walls were substantial, and I’ve had some pushback from some who thought I went too far. But to this point of the project, I’ve not regretted any of those decisions. These were the changes that really opened up the space to be something I could never have imagined otherwise. Now that the demo stage is pretty much complete, and I’ve begun to add some framework to the foundations that were exposed. The intent is a very open space conducive to hospitality, conversation, and growing relationships. As the construction continues, I hope to be open to suggestions and input growing out of those conversations and relationships. I’m beginning to recognize that this project will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. I’m anticipating taking out and replacing some of the features added recently. Probably not rising to the level of a full demo, but being open to the likelihood of redecorating as the need arises. It’s very gratifying to know that the work that has been completed to this point has really produced the desired results! I’m loving this space! (Even as it’s still under construction and probably always will be.)
“A horizon is a phenomenon of vision. One cannot look at the horizon; it is simply the point beyond which we cannot see. There is nothing in the horizon itself, however, that limits vision, for the horizon opens onto all that lies beyond itself. What limits vision is rather the incompleteness of that vision. …What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.”— James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
I’ve officially been unemployed for several weeks. The difficulty of writing and ultimately posting that sentence online revolves around how much us dudes draw our identity from our places of employment. It’s an open admission of what very well might be our most significant vulnerability. In that time, I’ve been turned down by some potential employers as I’ve been through their process. I’ve turned down a potentially good gig as Senior Pastor of a good church. I’ve also sent out resumes and applications that received nothing but the standard rejection form letter. Those of you who have experienced such a process recognize the highs and lows, the hopes and the hopes dashed.
I’m continuing to look, searching for an opportunity worthy of investing my work, my life, and my talents…but also someone who will “pick me.” It’s an interesting place to find oneself. The lure of someone wanting you is strong and very appealing. And the desire for a comfortable place with a steady paycheck can sometimes have an undue influence on the decision, leaving more important criteria neglected or even ignored. I’m convinced that if at all possible, the best criteria are to ignore the ego as much as possible and get to know my soul a bit more intimately. The soul is that most pure expression of who we were created to be. So much of our everyday experience is crafting narratives that often begin to define our identity but mask our very souls. If there is anything I’m sure of, it’s that I want to invest my soul into this next season. I type that knowing that a “want” such as that is luxury that often none of us can afford. There are bills and house notes and other necessities of real life.
What exactly do I want to do in this next season? That’s a more difficult question to answer at this crossroad of career/job/vocation/calling/faith. The opportunity for self-reflection these past weeks have provided is a rare and precious gift. I recognize fully the luxury and my privilege to engage this sabbatical. There have been several books, numerous podcasts, many miles of running/walking/thinking, untold numbers of social media posts and articles that have provided the intellectual/spiritual backdrop for my journey.
The past few weeks have been a time to recognize and distinguish true friends and community from the superficial, very southern, and very “churchy” imitations. It’s interesting how clearly this can be seen. In fact, it is probably only times like this that this can honestly be seen. It is, at first, a punch in the gut, then a revelation, and finally an extreme blessing. Knowing who your real friends are, the ones that love you unconditionally and are a part of the family you choose and who return that blessing by choosing you is invaluable. I would suggest it as the only way to attempt to walk through this particular road that I’ve been walking these past few weeks. Speaking only from my experience, I wouldn’t want to travel this road without them.
Where I find myself today…here on my porch by the fire on a gorgeous fall morning with my MacBook in my lap…is a place of complete freedom. I can do whatever I want to do. And then it hits me…”Oh shit! What do I do?” Sometimes, no constraints are the heaviest and most oppressive of obstacles.
I’m not at all sure why I would publish such a vulnerable essay to the judgmental whims of a blog post or social media. There are many reasons not to click the “publish” button. Except, I’m almost certain that what I’m experiencing is a universal human condition that is often denied or at the very least, covered up.
James Carse’s book, Finite and Infinite Games provides a profound lens through which to view our world. This sabbatical of sorts that I’m walking through has offered an opportunity to expand my horizon so to speak. What I saw as boundaries we’re merely limits of vision. While my ego is still desperately seeking a label/title to place on its lost self, my soul has begun to reintroduce itself. I haven’t quite pried ego’s hands from the steering wheel and placed him in his comfortable back seat. My Soul is waiting patiently to assume the driver role.
I’m looking forward to seeing that horizon move.
impersonation | imˌpərsəˈnāSH(ə)n |noun — an act of pretending to be another person for the purpose of entertainment or fraud
I don’t regularly post pictures of myself. My take on just about every photograph of me is usually, “A face for radio!” However, this particular image is my favorite. My daughter and I are dancing at her wedding reception to Landslide by Stevie Nicks. I had just performed the ceremony, and here we are during the much anticipated “Daddy/Daughter Dance,” and my face says it all. I’ll even own up to the fact that I get a bit misty just thinking about that moment and looking at that picture. The very first people Hillary and I saw when we finished our dance were my wife and sons. The image that captures their reactions immediately following our dance leaves me even more emotional.
There are many reasons I treasure these photographs. One of those reasons is that I recognize in these images our true God-given selves. There is no pretending or posturing. It’s us. Really us. I was unaware of any other people in the room. Most profoundly, I was completely oblivious to the character I play in my everyday life. I was utterly un-selfconscious animated only by the person God created me to be.
Our ego creates and maintains a character that we impersonate as we move through our lives. The culture of career and image encourages us to only present to the outside world a self that feeds into this charade. So we move through our lives playing roles that are guarded and rarely resemble the human beings we were born to be. We’re afraid if we show our true, vulnerable selves—our God-created beautiful humanity—we will be shunned; that the other egos and self-impersonators with whom we share our days will take advantage of that vulnerable self.
But, what if we all actually showed up? Everyday? I know how idealistic and naive that question sounds. Completely unrealistic. But, what if? One thing I know without any doubt is that the self that shows up in the photogaphs above was utterly joyful and present. I’m not sure why THAT person needs to be put away only to be brought out of the closet for special occasions and only then at an unguarded moment.
I believe that the mess we find ourselves witnessing daily in our world is a direct result of the characters we self-impersonate each and every day. And these characters go thrashing around through life scaring the skittish wild human beings we were created to be back into hiding. And we are all the more impoverished because of that. It is precisely those skittish wild humans whom the world so desperately needs to show up.
Not every moment can be a beautiful father/daughter moment. I get that. But I also know that every moment in which I’ve dared to be vulneable and show up fully has the potential to be beautiful and life giving. More often than not, in my experience, those moments become cherished and sustaining memories. I hope you show up today. No impersonation. Just you. I also hope you create the space around you that coaxes those other selves around you to show up as well. Go get ‘um!
I began several times intending to write about God. Finding traction was difficult. There was the distraction of Rosie the Labrador. At 5:30, she came bursting from her night of quiet, eager to taste and smell and run and roll in her world. And she so wants me, you, everyone to experience it. She licks my leg, urging me out of my chair, bounding forward through the screen—through the screen—that could never be a barrier.
“Silly dog! You broke the screen! Ran right through!”
But who is the silly one? Rosie the Labrador challenges every supposed barrier. Runs through some, paws at others but tests them all. Not for any grand purpose other than to live the life of a Labrador with which she was blessed and has blessed us.
She bounds back up the stairs, tail beating a rhythm on my metal chair. She paws my legs inviting them to move. She sniffs my arm, tongue tasting my knee, eyes alert to all movement, nose to all smells-those I’ll never know.
She wins. We went on a walk. I left the phone and ear-buds at home. And I heard some things I would have otherwise missed.
Maybe we have our sights set too low. Maybe we’ve settled for merely “correct” as we have come to understand it rather than recognizing we might actually be capable of entertaining the profound. There is often enough logic to justify our small notions of correctness. But when we look further toward the mystery and the ambiguity, we lose the safety and security of our certitude. We might have to accept the existence of someone or something we don’t fully understand. We will probably lose the perception of control that we’ve always mistakenly assumed. Correct is fine for what it is. But the profound is a journey worthy of your soul.
I read an interesting story in the New York Times by Thomas Fuller, Anjali Singhvi and Josh Williams entitled “San Francisco’s Big Seismic Gamble.” What most captured my attention as I read it was the different interests described and how those interests could either conflict with each other or work together to provide a more unobstructed view of the whole. The synergy of a society/community/nation allows us to live much more fulfilled and secure lives than we might alone. As Aristotle first observed, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
If one subscribes to any singular “interest” described, they would be blinded to other significant points of view. For example, if everyone subscribed singularly to the “fear of The Big One,” San Francisco wouldn’t exist as the world-class city it has become. However, if we only subscribe to “unlimited economic/business/development” as the highest good, we see codes relaxed to promote such development without looking to the broader good.
I’ll admit from the outset that I’ve never lived in the Bay area and I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I’m not making a statement here about who should or shouldn’t live there and what they should or shouldn’t build. I’m not qualified. Being from Louisiana, it always frustrates me when people who know little about an area ask why anyone would rebuild where another hurricane is likely to occur. The answer is, “because it’s my home.” A quick response to that has often been, “then don’t ask me to pay for it (via taxes, government assistance, etc.).” The facts are, as citizens of an actual country with actual people from all points of an actual economic spectrum who live from actual sea to actual shining sea, we ALL pay for it. We are all in it together. Or at least we should be.
There are many interesting things about this Times story: The rebuilding of a city following a catastrophic natural disaster. The fading memory of history. The change from “low-rise” to “high-rise”. The science of earthquakes. The fact that the AVERAGE price of a home in San Francisco is $1.2 million. The hubris of “we saw that as a symbol of the new San Francisco and we wanted the building to be at least 1,000 feet tall.” The fact that the building across the street from this “symbol” has “sunk a foot and a half and is leaning 14 inches toward neighboring high-rises” in the 9 years since it was completed. Most of this “new San Francisco” is built on ground that has a “very high risk of acting like quicksand during an earthquake, a process known as liquefaction.” All interesting. Much of it terrifying.
Ultimately, NONE of us actually “picked ourselves up by our boot-straps”. Someone made the boots and the straps. We are all standing on someone’s shoulders. Usually, this is solid support and foundation on which to be and become the people we were created to be. But also likely, we are standing on shoulders of people whom we are simply holding down. If we fail to recognize the instability of such shoulders—if we fail to realize that ALL of us are in this together and we must pull our entire community up by all of our boot-straps— I’m afraid this great society might just find it is built on a foundation that is at a very high risk of liquefaction. That is a catastrophe that could actually be avoided.
I finally got around to reading Alex Ross’ piece in The New Yorker entitled, “Handel’s ‘Messiah’ On Skid Row.” I almost missed it. As is apt to happen with a relentless subscription to that weekly magazine, one day you set an issue by the reading chair with good intentions only to come home from work to find next week’s edition in the mailbox. This morning’s providence allowed me to pick up the January 1 edition rather than the January 15.
The article begins by telling the story of Brian Palmer, a formerly homeless man, who would sing “The People That Walked in Darkness” with the Street Symphony. The Street Symphony is a group of professional musicians who work with homeless, mentally ill and incarcerated people. They annually perform an abbreviated version of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah” at the Midnight Mission at 6th and San Pedro, on Skid Row, Los Angeles, CA.
“The People That Walked in Darkness” is a bass aria from “The Messiah” named from a line in Isaiah. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” —Isaiah 9:2 (KJV)
Several years ago I had an opportunity to attend Karaoke Night at Central City Community Church of the Nazarene which meets directly across 6th Street from the Midnight Mission (see the photo above). I’ll not write much specifically about that experience here. I will say that it remains one of the 5 or 6 spiritual touchstones in my life continually returning to mind to anchor my journey and focus my call. (Watch this video about Karaoke Night. It’ll be the best thing you see all day. It might as well have been filmed on the night we visited. The memories of that evening nearly a decade ago all come flooding back to me when I watch it. I recognized many of the people featured.
Ross observes something we should all recognize in ourselves: “Spiritual homilies, whether in the form of venerable religious texts or recovery literature, have a way of seeming corny until a crisis arrives, at which point they take on the force of breaking news. That explains why line after line of “Messiah” felt especially acute on Skid Row.” Our world and the ways we engage with it form us to be cynical. Often, it’s our only defense mechanism. So if we hear something that sounds too sweet or perfect or warm, we often write it off as “corny.” But there are times when the still small voice of actual truth finds its way through the noise of our self-centered and overly protective cynicism. Our hearts melt when exposed to the living and breathing presence of God in a stranger. Epiphany! And it is difficult to unsee what we just saw or un-experience what just changed our lives.
Ross’ entire article is an account of such an epiphany. But it closes with lines that point to what I think to be a common and critical mistake. The writer confesses that “The spell dissolves when you leave the Midnight Mission. The people that walked in darkness are still there. Hard stares greet you as you proceed to your car. This feeling is, if anything, even worse than the one that hits you going in. The entire experience is at once exalting and crushing, luminous and bleak.” What Ross fails to recognize is that the residents of Skid Row aren’t the only ones walking in darkness. Ross seems to assume a return to the vehicle and the real world is a return to the light.
What had actually happened was that Ross stepped out of the darkness of routine, selective attention, and pretensions of enlightenment into the light shining forth at Midnight Mission in the heart of Skid Row. Suddenly Handel’s “Messiah” was transformed from a mere seasonal cliche into a glorious proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom of God sung by a heavenly choir. It was a light that dismissed the shadows of class and racism and addictions for a moment allowing human beings to see other human beings. And when we see each other, our natural inclination is to lift each other up. We are all in it together. Common good. Common humanity. Love.
I am fully aware of the real and complex problems we must confront in our fallen world. Addictions are debilitating whether they be chemical, physical, material, or emotional. Racism deforms all human beings: the victims and the racists. Darkness blinds us all regardless of our address or lack thereof.
On this day we’ve set aside to remember the work of Martin Luther King, its good to recognize that we are celebrating just such a proclamation of the news of God’s intentions for God’s creation. All of us who walked in darkness saw that great light in Dr. King’s prophetic announcements of justice and peace. And on this day, we can recognize just how easily and quickly we return to the darkness of injustice and inequality. This is a day to remind us of the great light and how quickly we turn away from it.
Vijay Gupta is a violinist with the LA Philharmonic and the founder of Street Symphony. He commented on Ross’ observation about how leaving felt worse than arriving. “We get to leave,” Gupta said. “That’s the source of our shame. The only way to deal with it is to go back.” The reason we celebrate a day like Martin Luther King day is for us to go back and remember. But its more than mere remembering. Its opportunity to see that great light again. And once we see it, we can choose to live in that light. It illuminates everything. It is, in fact, the place we were created to live.