Wanderlust

Won’t you come, and walk these rugged roads with me?

We can drive that beat-up van through stretches of golden cornfield, dappled with dying sunlight, listening to the tired hum of the engine and wondering breathlessly when it will sputter and give out. Dusk descends and the crickets come alive with their calls—a song to the last embers of summer, a mournful goodbye to a lover.

A crack and sizzle snap the rhythm of the nighttime harmonies and the engine is gone. But this is where the real adventure begins. This is the part, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where they sail past the Lone Islands, and there are no more maps, no more plans, only dreams. This is the part where the thrill of uncertainty sets into our bones the way deep crimsons and oranges have inked themselves into autumn leaves.

We’ll wade through the knee-high grass and weeds, run until we collapse, and sing old songs under the unfurled scroll of stars. And miles and miles later, we’ll find an airport and buy two one-way tickets to see the mountains of the world.

Thousands of feet off the ground, we’ll find another sort of sea, lost in the white tumble of clouds blending with snow. Sweating and bleeding from cuts, shivering from icy gales. Lightheaded with euphoria. Barely breathing from the thinness of the air. The taste of Death and Heaven both suddenly too close, but not the taste of fear—we threw it off the steep slopes on the way up, listened to its shrill shriek swallowed by the winds.

Won’t you come, and walk these rugged roads with me?

We can cut across red deserts and ancient pyramids and the city of kings. Press the soles of our shoes against the hot sands and stones that once touched the feet of a God. Fishermen may still be casting their nets. Beneath hails of gunfire and the terror of modern warfare, men may still be teaching about a kingdom that does not fade. Souls passing from death into life.

Snaking through the knot of bodies, we’ll watch a foreign city come alive with night-lights and signs we don’t understand. Voices fly past us in strange languages and bands play on the street corner with makeshift instruments. Dancers step to the beat, and the bloom of bright dresses decorate the evening.

When we grow weary of the people scenes, we’ll find our way back into the solitude of nature. We can pitch tents under the northern lights and stay up waiting for the skies to sweep us into their performance of color and ecstasy. Then we’ll bravely whisper our secrets into the silence because we remember once again how small are even our greatest regrets and heartbreaks.

And at the end of it all, we’ll find ourselves sitting in a familiar, favorite café, speaking once again of the inconsequential—the office joke and the latte art. But I’ll have seen some of your soul, and you mine. For away from Home, we lose and find ourselves.

Come, and walk these rugged roads with me.

 

Featured in Germ Magazine August 2015.

The Match Beneath our Hearts

“Find your passion.” I’ve been hearing those words for years on end, ever since I began the journey into Making Big Life Decisions—what to study in school, what career to pursue, what activities to get involved with. But I can hardly remember someone defining what that vague, nebulous word meant. Passion. Find it, and then dedicate your life to it, they say, implying we are each created for some unique purpose that must be discovered, pursued, and perfected. Some lifestyles and careers are immediately associated with the concept: social workers, missionaries, artists, doctors. If passion colored a circle around a set of occupations, these would be dead center, bright orange. Floating in the white space outside we might find janitors, fast food workers, and 9-to-5 office people. And so many of us are taught that chasing what we love is a prerequisite to a full life.

Yet, pragmatism finds a voice in our world too. Perhaps echoing in the concerned tone of a parent, or dropping on us like a hammer when the reality of jobless, penniless living sinks in like claws. When painting flowers and philosophy can’t attract any cash flow, the scales slide from passion to pragmatism. In one sense, it’s almost a rite of passage for entering adulthood. We see the few friends who defy that norm, traveling the world or starting a business and generally living the good life. But for most, it’s a passage into tiresome day jobs, driven by a need to make a living and put some semblance of food on the table. The first paycheck inspires a heady thrill of excitement and independence. A couple more, and we’re asking, Is this all? Is this the rest of life?

And passion begins to speak again. “Don’t spend your life just getting by.”

“We are all called to find and do our life’s work.”

But passion is a privilege, simply put. Few can afford to drop a steady job, an income to pay the bills, to undertake a risky venture for the sake of “doing what they love.” (Certainly, some can, and succeed, and some should. But by and large, it’s implausible for most, and often irresponsible.) Someone has to do the job you don’t want—someone has to drill the fences and scrub the toilets. Most of the world is living for survival, not for dreams. It is those who are blessed with abundance and don’t fear for providing the next meal that grow agitated and begin thinking of doing something greater, more impactful, and more transformative.

The desire is not wrong; in fact, I think it’s a good and beautiful thing. But we often channel it into the wrong objects and seek fulfillment in the wrong places. And we run up against the troubling tension between passion and pragmatism, the core of which stems from brokenness. The brokenness of our world, and the brokenness of the human race. Imagine work in a sinless world. For one, entire industries would collapse out of superfluity—law enforcement, security, and the like. There is our own, personal brokenness to contend with too. We are naturally lovers of self-glory, and the unglamorous, unseen jobs are found wanting. Even the pursuit of service to others can be a veil for selfish ambition and recognition.

How then, do we channel our thirst for chasing that undefined, glint of a dream on the horizon? The thing that we can’t put into clear words, and yet strikes a match beneath our hearts?

Passion is inconstant, because we are fickle and lazy people. One day it sets us on fire, and another, it’s been snuffed out by gray skies or a minor headache. Can we set our eyes and life on such a capricious concept? It seems a dangerous thing. This is not to throw my hat in the ring for fatalism, passively awaiting whatever comes down the pipe. Yet neither do I believe we should chase every whim, captained by our emotions. Again, it is a tension we must hold: to pursue, and to accept; to speak up, and to submit; to fight, and to surrender. There is a time for everything. But I think it is wisdom, not passion, who will speak best in how to do that.

We are made for a life of chasing loftier things, but that may be packaged in either prosperous or humble appearances.

Let us not chase mere passion, but bring it with us in higher pursuits.

The Real in the Surreal

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis

surreal

I’m not sure how one defines growing up, but from an unschooled eye, I see it in the small, insignificant things—trading in sneakers for the next size, dismissing mom as the personal chauffeur to sports games and parties—and I always see it in retrospect. The quiet evolution in interests, tastes, personality. The sometimes subtle, sometimes sudden, shedding of youthful naiveté. Childhood shifts into adulthood in a slow whirlwind of changing landscapes, foreign city lights blurred by rainfall, abandoned bookshelves and silent studios. A world marked simultaneously by noise and loneliness.

We leave behind the children’s stories and fairy tales. There are broken hearts strewn across our streets and suburbs, stomped over by a world in a rush to the subway and office, never pausing for a second glance. Sometimes, those are our hearts. Sometimes, we are the ones trampling them underfoot. Finally, we see—victims and oppressors all—happily-ever-after are for the idiots. We read survival guides for life and watch shows about messy people with frayed relationships and aimless days because it’s like looking in a mirror and laughing. Life doesn’t make cynics out of all of us, but we are hard-pressed to find the same lively spark of wonder and hope in the eyes of the aging.

Perhaps there is another shift from adulthood into old age, when we return to the past tales. When we grow weary of the world and the next new thing, and find there is really nothing new under the sun. That psychology, technology, governments, wars, treaties, prisons, corporations and social movements will never fix our brokenness. When we come to the end of ourselves and stand on the brink of our last heartbeats, perhaps the light will break into the crevasses and we will find that ancient wisdom speaks with new authority.

Perhaps we will pick up the old fairy tales, and we will see them like never before—not with scoffing condescension or childlike wonder. The scales will fall off our eyes and we will see the truth in the myth, the real in the surreal, and discover a magic that all the world cannot suppress—

—sunlight piercing the morning dew—

—fierce, untamable love —

—glory beyond the frailness of words—

Are these not the truest tales of all?

Between Mercy and Justice

Mercy and justice are not opposites, but they often find themselves at odds, particularly in the justice system. The tension between the two, between gracious love and rigid law, is a core conflict in so many stories. Recently, I’ve developed a penchant for legal dramas (by which, I mean Suits and The Good Wife) and I can’t help but notice this theme replaying itself. Suits has a spectacular ensemble cast, and I’ve grown to love each of the characters: their quirks, wit, heroics and vulnerabilities. I cheer when they win, when they beat their enemies, when they have their moments of glory. I ache when they ache. (And yes, I realize I may be overly emotionally invested.) But let’s be honest – all of my favorite characters are basically crooks. By the law, they deserve to be thrown into prison.

Good storytellers know how to play on our sympathies. Call it manipulative, but you have to admit, it takes skill to do. A well-executed emotional appeal strikes our heartstrings harder than impartial justice. Storytellers know that. The justice system knows that: attorneys would not be so bent on picking impartial jurors if most people could not be swayed by compassion, personal experiences, or anything other than cold, hard facts. We find ourselves rooting for “good” protagonists even if they aren’t completely by the book, even if they’re rule-breakers, because of something redeeming in their motives or heart. We empathize because we’ve been in their shoes, or simply because we understand their dilemma as fellow humans. We’re not robots, we don’t see the world in binary, and there’s no algorithm to our emotions.

But there you find the tension. The other day, I was watching an episode of The Good Wife where Alicia defends a middle-aged Indian woman facing deportation. She entered the U.S. illegally 27 years ago, but built her entire life in the States: two children, a job, and a home. In desperation, she tells Alicia, “I have nothing in India.” Her situation and her plea tugged at my feelings. I was totally rooting for Alicia to kick the opposing counsel’s behind on the case and save the poor woman. But as the other side put it, the truth is, she entered the country illegally. In the eyes of the law, she should be deported. It is mercy that cries for an alternative. So, what’s the right thing to do? The courts weren’t created for charity, and if every case like that was granted an exception, all sorts of chaos would break out. And yet … I felt compassion, and out of pity, I wanted an exception for her case. (I promise, I haven’t forgotten this is all fiction. I just get this way about stories.)

Where is the perfect meeting place of mercy and justice? Where is the sweet spot? Sorry. I don’t know. Sometimes, the two seem to be in direct opposition to one another, and we can all empathize with both sides at different times, depending on our natural bent and personal experiences. The only good answer I have isn’t my own: the cross of Christ is the only place I see the two come together in perfect, agonizing union. A picture of perfect justice and a picture of perfect love. The fair and full punishment for the wickedness of sin, and a love so unfathomable it embraces the worst of us unconditionally. It is something we cannot hope to emulate as broken sinners in a broken world, with our imperfect love and laws.

Personally, I love stories that deal with the tension well. Not in a cookie-cutter approach, where everything gets simplified and squared away. We are messy and complicated, tarnished by sin. Yet at the same time, we see a reflection of the image of God, the Imago Dei, imprinted on our souls – a God who is holy and just, yet also compassionate and slow to anger. One day, He will set all things right.

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Resolved to Read

I don’t go about New Year resolutions in any orthodox way, and I write them more to inspire than to formulate a checklist. I ignore all the advice to make resolutions that are “achievable” and “measurable”. Psh. But to each his own, and there’s certainly wisdom in being realistic. I may be neither wise nor realistic – which would explain a lot.

For the first time in (I think) ever, I put together a reading list for 2015 as an addendum to one of my resolutions. Every reader says their book list is far too long to finish in a lifetime. I concur, though I’ve never actually had any sort of list. I picked up books to read haphazardly, often on impulse, and occasionally on recommendation, since everyone’s taste is so distinct. In December, I started thinking of ways I could live more intentionally in the coming year, and since books are a significant part of my life, it struck me that I could read more intentionally too.

So I wrote down a rather rough and vague resolution.

Read widely. Read all the works of one author. Read classics. Read Christian books that deepen my understanding of God and help me live for His glory. Read for the thrill of it.

And I put together a list of books to go along with this. Looking at it holistically, it’s actually a very random mix. Oh well. Variety is the spice of life.

 

C.S. Lewis

The Four Loves
The Abolition of Man
A Grief Observed
The Great Divorce
Surprised by Joy

* Yes, I’m trying to read all his (major) books. He’s written bucket loads, so the plus is that I’ve already read a good number. But I also picked him because the blend of his life journey, profession, faith and storytelling make for a fascinating thinker. I’ve already seen bits and pieces of how his theology and worldview weave in and out of his fiction and nonfiction alike, and how the trajectory of his perspective morphs over his lifetime.

 

Classics

The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky)
Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)

 

Christian

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Burroughs)
Assurance of Our Salvation (Lloyd-Jones)
The Promises of God (R.C. Sproul)
Jesus the Evangelist (Richard Phillips)
Surprised by Suffering (R.C. Sproul)
Orthodoxy (Chesterton)
One Perfect Life (MacArthur)
Alone with God (MacArthur)

* Confession: I snagged a lot of these from free Kindle book deals and they’ve been collecting digital dust. In case you were wondering how I decided on this list.

 

Fiction Fun

The Way of Kings (Brandon Sanderson)
Dune (Herbert)
Scarlet / Cress; Lunar Chronicles (Meyer)
The Sign of the Beaver (Speare)
Calico Captive (Speare)
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Konigsburg)
Flipped (Draanen)
I Am the Messenger (Zusak)
Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)

As many new year resolutions go, they begin petering out towards the end of January. I admit, I’m slogging through Dostoyevsky right now. At my current rate, I may not get to a single other book in 2015. But now that I’ve posted this … I hope the public accountability kicks me into powering through. After all, murder and the meaning of life and all that good stuff – shouldn’t this be the sort of book that keeps you up at night?

(I know, who am I kidding?)

[photo cred]

Our Hearts Are Restless

How I wish the heavens would thunder for you. But I wait, as the world spins on and years peel away, for God to melt the heart of stone. I can wait a lifetime; God knows I will not see a better day than that one, when the Light, slowly bleeding in now, tears across your skies like a scorched gold sunrise. Yet I live between the teeth of fear and hope. Fear that sovereign goodness and justice will cross my poor, imperfect love for you. Though I have no standing before Righteousness, no counsel to give Wisdom, no sorrow that outdoes the hell of the cross and divine desertion, I fear His glorious design will shatter me. But I hope. Hope that His Kingdom will storm into yours and raise the blood-colored Gospel flag. Hope is a small, fragile thing but we are black holes without it. When will you tear this veil, O God? As long as He gives me breath, I will plead before His gates. Like the Psalmists of old, I will hammer the halls of heaven with every appeal my weak heart can muster. Then I will sit, and wait upon the Lord. And pray. That God may splinter the shadows before your eyes. That His words—I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life—which have prodded against the steel ramparts of your mind for so long may charge through spirit and soul with holy conviction.

We are dust, yet eternity presses on our hearts. We are feeble, yet our stories glisten with splendor. They say there is no meaning, or we cannot know it, or the pervasiveness of evil denies it—but why, why, why do our very bones tremble at grace and our blood thrum for glory?

Surely, surely, there is a God whose love is better than life.

“You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” – Augustine

40,000 feet High: Countdown to Landing

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…for lists. I was on a particularly long flight last week, and some of my musings in the air just happened to fit with the Weekly Writing Challenge. Thoughts?

5. Mortality

The odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million, but mortality thunders a little louder when you’re hurtling over the Pacific. It’s in the sloshing water glass beside me, rattling in the teeth of air turbulence. It’s in the engine roaring, the constant hum of a tin can tearing through the clouds. Perhaps the odds are for us, but I remember again my frailty.

4. Sovereignty

Martin Luther said, “Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.” This is peace: knowing He holds life and death, same as the stars bound up in the heavens.

3. Scars

Far from shore, in the quiet space between heartbeats, old scars resurface. Between dusk and sunrise, dead dreams and ghosts whisper, tauntingly.

2. Grace

Forgetting what is behind, and straining toward what is ahead.

1. Home

Where I’m from? Where my family is? Where I live? There are outposts, places of belonging, scattered across the globe. But Home—

Well, I’m not there yet.

 

A Bucket List for One

Travel, AustraliaWe don’t get a lot of time to shut out the world completely these days, do we? We stumble, bleary-eyed, to work or school after scarfing down a questionable breakfast, spend the day sitting with or talking to people, and often enough, social plans run a road straight through our evenings. We all crave social contact but we need personal time to recharge and rejuvenate. Yet, there are all these things we are averse to doing alone, because they seem socially and culturally awkward. Or we fear it makes us look pathetic. But I think there are a few things that are worth doing alone once, for the experience and for the unexpected ways we learn and grow from them. I wouldn’t call any of these profound – but perhaps they are not effortless.

Go see a movie alone. I know some people do this, but most tend to rally up at least one other person to go with. Admittedly, I’ve loved going to the movie for years, but I’ve only ever gone alone once. I don’t think it’s an opportunity you have to look particularly hard for: you’re bound to want to see some flick one day that no one around you does. So just go. Theaters aren’t great for socializing anyway, and watching a film is a perfect solitary activity. (We all do it at home; are we just afraid to look lame in public?) When I went by myself, I loved it. I felt oddly independent, and it forced me to get over wondering what the strangers nearby thought of me (which was probably nothing).

Spend a birthday alone. Not like hide-in-a-mountain-cave sort of alone, but don’t throw any kind of celebration. Try to free up your evening and just spend time reflecting on your year. I think it’s a humbling experience, because even if we don’t like to puff it up, we’re used to a culture of big cakes and party hats, and getting a pass on selfishness for one day. Spending your “special day” alone can be a bit of a jarring but necessary reminder that the Earth will keep spinning even without your big bash. No red alerts will go off.

Travel alone. I think this one, more than the others, can give us a dose of real loneliness. Not necessarily in a bad way. Maybe in a semi-scary but thrilling way, when you step onto a plane alone and step off in an unfamiliar city where no one is waiting for you. It magnifies your senses. When we travel with others, we’re usually wrapped up in each other’s conversations and concerns. But by ourselves, we perceive so much more. We get snatches of conversations, pieces of other people’s lives. The smell of Auntie Anne’s. The flickering lights of planes in descent, mingling with the stars. The world is suddenly so big, and we are so small.

Being alone, doing things alone, humbles us. It reminds us that the world will go on just fine without us, and in these few hours (or days or weeks), no one really needs us. It’s good for our souls.

Oh, and one more thought. Dance to Taylor Swift alone. Around your kitchen in the refrigerator light. But I bet you all do that already.

Technology: Our Slave or Tyrant?

technology, future

Wearable technology is slowly but surely becoming the next Big Thing. We’ve got smart watches now, and smart clothes are making their debut, so we’ll probably all be buying smart underwear in a year or so. What a time to be alive. But it doesn’t end there – many predict that after wearables, implantables will follow. Technologies that will live inside of you. I was reading this article, which should give you a fascinating, or terrifying, view of the potential future tech landscape.

I studied Computer Science, but when it comes to technology, I’m less interested in banging out code than considering some of the more abstract issues the rapidly advancing field raises. Philosophy, morality, humanity – how does technology mold and shape our understanding of people and society? However fascinating technology gets, it doesn’t beat the startling intricacies of human nature. No surprise: God’s creations are infinitely better.

In literature, technology inspires all sorts of stories and bizarre futuristic worlds. It very well may be part of the reason dystopia has seen such a resurgence, in addition to the foolproof, mass market ploy of incorporating The Love Triangle. But the very best technology-inspired stories (I don’t want to slap on the science fiction label, because they don’t necessarily have to be) ask the hard questions. How do we hold security and freedom in proper tension when we have the ability to know and control too much through 360 cameras and chip implants? What, at the very raw core of our being, makes us human, when there are clones and emotionally intelligent robots walking the streets? And perhaps at the center of it all:

Is technology our slave or tyrant?

If you dig deeper, the question is really about the condition of our souls. Technology is a neutral thing, and it can be used for good or evil, just like nuclear energy or money. From a biblical perspective, it ought to be our slave. Our vocation as human beings is to subdue the earth and everything in it, and technology is a means to do that: to help us water the fields, keep the lights on, erect buildings, increase efficiency. It can absolutely be used and stewarded well (something I’m interested in exploring in my career, Lord willing). Yes, technology is improving the convenience and comfort of many aspects of life. I don’t need to leave the house for groceries? And here we were just thinking what a brilliant concept the supermarket was! 

But from the Fall and the corruption of the human heart, it will inevitably be abused. For every good use of tech, there will be unspeakably terrible ones. The issue is not that technology makes us better or worse, but that it exposes us, perhaps in new ways. How we approach it and how we use it reveals and magnifies our brokenness. These are 2 things we cannot halt: the advance of technology, and the decay of morality. It makes for some very good storytelling, yet some very sobering realities. Is technology our slave or tyrant?

I’m afraid many people think it’s our salvation.

Maranatha.

 

Thoughts? I have plans to write something of a follow-up to this on the interplay between technology and characters in literature. Stay tuned!

[image cred]

Twenty Seconds of Courage

the swing at the end of the world

How long is twenty seconds? In a conversation, a twenty second pause is ridiculously long, palm-sweating silence. When you’re counting down to a deadline, twenty seconds run away from you faster than a man hustling a mistress out the back door when his wife returns (sorry, I think I stole this reference from an obscure line in Suits).

My roommate and I watched We Bought a Zoo last night, and it was better than I expected. Nothing shockingly original or profound, but it was a sweet story. While most of it wasn’t terribly memorable, one line in particular caught my attention and flipped a switch in my head.

“Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” – Benjamin Mee

I bet we can all think of those moments—those times we mustered up that courage and did something outrageous. Or profoundly stupid. Those stories that still make us turn as red as a plum if they happened less than two years ago, but are the best stories we have to retell ten years down the road. And we can all think of the other moments—when we let the twenty seconds slip away, replacing them with a haunting what if that hangs over our heads.

Those are the big things. But it also got me to thinking: sometimes, it takes an insane amount of courage to do something small too. Because I don’t think anyone lives in a perpetual state of bravery. We’re all cowards sometimes. Or most the time. So I thought I’d come up with a brief list of things I—and you—could do with twenty seconds of courage. They’re not all big things, and something great may not always come of it, but I think they’re worthwhile.

  1. Make someone new feel welcome. Whether it’s at church or a party, there are always these huddles of people that stick together. Step outside your comfort zone and talk to someone new, or just someone who might be left out. Lay aside convenience and comfort. You might turn someone’s day around. You might make a lifelong friend.
  1. Hang out with someone very different from you. Maybe it’s background, beliefs, age, personality—someone you typically wouldn’t be friends with. Take the initiative and ask them to lunch or coffee. If they ask you, say yes. Learn something, and give them something to think about too.
  1. Share the Gospel with someone. You can go cold turkey, or you can finally open up with the friend you’ve never told. You probably can’t get it all in in twenty seconds, but it’s enough of a start that it would be more awkward to run away than just finish after that.
  1. Tell someone how much he or she means to you. You don’t have to wait until you’re writing Christmas cards, or until their birthday rolls around. Sometimes I think we do that because it feels safer. You and I are not promised tomorrow or our next breath. So go knock on their door or pick up the phone now. Or on October 12. Or on the most random date you can think of.
  1. Show genuine kindness to someone who hurt you. I guess I subconsciously ordered these by how close someone is to you—and it’s those who are closest who can hurt you the most. So swallow the perfect insult that’s poised on your tongue. Being nasty is easy, but you will regret cruelty. You won’t regret being too kind.

These aren’t things that will make headlines. They’re more in the vein of storing up treasures in heaven than here on earth. I realized all of the five points contain the word “someone.” Doing any of these things makes you more vulnerable for the benefit of someone else. Because courage and selflessness are two sides of the same coin: it is turning away from self and focusing on others.

How long is twenty seconds? Long enough to do something brave.