A day with photographers

For once my hands weren’t cold. Snow lay everywhere I looked: on the ground, on the trees, on the rocks, even on the edges of the river which carried it swiftly downstream. The mountains and foothills all around proudly displayed their gleaming white peaks and jagged rock faces, shining in the cold but clear sunlight.

For once my hands weren’t cold. Usually they were the first to freeze. But for once they weren’t; my feet were. Snow had found its way to my soles, falling into my boots a little at a time with each step I took onto the powdered ground.

In spite of the cold, I was enjoying myself. Indeed, I was enjoying myself in spite of many things, one of which was what my friends were doing.

When I’m honest with myself, I have to confess I am a jealous person. It doesn’t take much for the I-wish-I-could-do-that-too spark in my head to ignite into a bonfire. I hate this, but I can’t deny it exists: it is always burning, sometimes an imperceptible ember, other times a forest fire consuming all my conscious thoughts.

Yet that day something seemed to have weakened it to a smolder: I could hardly feel it burning at all. Whether it was the cold or a gift to my soul, I don’t know. I had joined two friends in a venture to the mountain pass to capture photos of the glory of Washington’s winter. They are photographers, and have a passion and eyes to see the visible wonder and beauty all around them.

I enjoy learning about photography, but I do not consider myself a photographer. I know very little about cameras, exposures and “getting the right light.” As such, I was along for the ride, but my ignorance felt almost tangible next to my friends’ knowledge and experience.

And for once I didn’t mind.

When they first invited me to join them, I hesitated to accept, thinking I’d feel out of place without a camera. As soon as I got into the car with them, however, I knew I had nothing to fear. Simply being with them made it a good day. After driving to a valley nestled in the mountains, I spent all of a few seconds wondering what to do. Though I didn’t have a camera, I did have my love of adventuring, so I let this side of me take over. While my friends were watching every step they took to ensure their cameras weren’t damaged, I ran, hopped and leapt like a mountain goat (albeit a clumsy one) over snow-covered rocks and frozen edges of the river. I allowed myself to act like myself and didn’t worry about doing what my friends were doing. Each of us had our passions and let ourselves enjoy them. Indeed, I found out after not a little time passed that one of them had been taking photos of me as I stood in various precarious areas and gazed at the magnificence of the mountains all around. We all had fun letting loose our passions.

One of my friend Andrew Mainville’s breathtaking photos

As we were returning to the car to go back to the city, I was struck by a thought: maybe this was a taste of humility. In years past I have tried to pick up my friends’ hobbies in order to gain their acceptance, but it never worked: the feeling of being an outsider remained. This time, however, I didn’t try so hard to belong, and this time I felt truly welcome and accepted.

This time I didn’t try to be someone I wasn’t; I didn’t try to be, as I have so long thought, better than the real me. I simply let show my true self, the man God has made me to be. This time I was honest, and this time I was free.

As C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” And on that day, I gave scarcely any thought to whom I should be and let show who I am. That left pride (in who I want to be) and fear (of who I wish I wasn’t) no thought to attack. I simply enjoyed the time with my friends in the mountains, and I’m sure that brought a smile to God’s face. He made us to live fully present in each moment, and that takes humility.

For years I have lived in fear, not letting my true character show. But that day changed my life. On that day, I befriended humility.

And when truly embraced, how wonderful and liberating this humility is.

“Imitate Christ”

For most of my life I have failed to understand the command I sometimes hear from Christians to “imitate Christ.” I know this comes from Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 11:1, where he says, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” It also makes sense from a Jewish perspective: disciples’ main goal is to become like their rabbi. But the way the command is implied in modern conversations and messages has long frustrated me.

Nowadays when most other Christians say we should imitate Christ, I’ve understood them to mean we should act, speak and think exactly like him. I hear them say we should be factory-manufactured copies of Christ. In short, I hear them say, “Be Christ.” While I agree we should imitate Jesus, I disagree with many people’s meaning behind the words.

I hear this underlying message often. I hear it in the words, “Be Christ to the poor.” I hear it when people urge, “Be Christ to the unbelievers.” And I hear it when they say, “Be Christ to your enemies.” While I can help each of these groups of people by God’s grace and power, I cannot “be Christ” to them.

I am a sinner whom Christ redeemed and freed from the bonds of slavery to sin. I was “dead in [my] transgressions and sins, in which [I] used to live when [I] followed the ways of this world,” but now God has made me “alive with Christ” and He has “raised [me] up with Christ and seated [me] with him in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 2:1-2, 5-6). I have been redeemed. I cannot be the redeemer.

I am also a recipient of our heavenly Father’s grace. And like Abraham, I receive His grace in order to give it to other people. I am a conduit of God’s grace. I cannot be the source of grace.

I am part of Christ’s body. There are many parts to his body and I am but one. I am unique and I am following his lead. I cannot be the head and control the whole body.

I cannot be Christ. But I can follow Christ and learn to “imitate him” more in time.

I said all that to say this:

For so long I have heard a rebuke in the church saying, “Difference is bad!” I have been urged to follow a certain lifestyle, spend my time with certain people and only do certain activities and tasks. I must stay in the boundaries of tradition “because Jesus commanded us to be holy.” “Holy” in this argument means “perfect,” which in turn means “the same as other Christians.” Or, more accurately, “wear the same mask that other Christians wear.”

I have tried to live this way. But it only restricted my freedom to be myself, while Jesus teaches, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In spite of all my efforts to fit my thoughts, appearance, words and actions into the stencil crafted by the American church, I could never succeed.

I’m learning this is because I am different from other people.

I am intellectual. I think deeply and constantly–indeed, I think too much. I over-analyze people and situations, and I tend to ponder a decision too long to ever make one. I also tend to say awkward sentences in failed attempts to sound poetic.

I am sentimental. I keep objects because they remind me of people I cherish. I cry often when I hang up the phone after talking with my father, mother or brother because I wish to see them again. And I care too much how other people feel.

I am knowledgeable. I enjoy nothing more than learning information I deem beneficial. I carefully observe my surroundings wherever I am. And I often choose to read a book instead of spend time with people.

God has made me unique. Fighting my personality and peculiarities has accomplished nothing but exhaustion, frustration and anxiety.

God has given me gifts. He has made me different to help other people grow and worship Him more. He has empowered me to show His glory and majesty in ways without which other people would not see Him as clearly.

God has shown me specific love. He has given me grace and forgiveness in each of my specific failures and has comforted me in ways I specifically need and crave. He does this so I can forgive and comfort other people, who will always look and act differently than I will.

Instead of grace and forgiveness, I have learned judgment from many people in the church. Difference isn’t tolerated and yet it isn’t punished outright because punishment is taboo in the church. As a result, the only remaining response to difference is judgment. People in general have long responded in contempt when I said or did something they did not understand. And tragically, misunderstanding in the church tends to lead to judgment. Instead of inviting me into their midst with love, mercy and acceptance, they rejected me because I had failed to adhere to their standards, and this resulted in painful exclusion.

Having said all that, I must admit I am a culprit of it all. As much as I despise being the one on the outside, I have been the one to keep other people outside innumerable times. We all, myself included, need our Father in heaven to guide us and empower us to show impossible grace to the people around us. Each of us is different from everyone else; the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can use our differences to better love and encourage one another.

When I submit to God’s endless love and grace, I shine in my differences with His glory and reveal the gospel of Jesus to the world. The same goes for other people, so I need my Father in heaven to help me give grace to them. No lifestyle, passion, personality nor past can stand between any person and God. God has redeemed us in our differences–let us pray He will help us use our differences to encourage, empower and embrace the people we meet.

Let Your kingdom come, Father, and Your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from condemnation.

Holding my breath

When I speak with people, I hold my breath.

Well, I don’t always hold my breath. I think it started recently, after I moved to Wenatchee. I noticed it a couple days ago in one of those forgettable moments. After parking my car I was walking back to the office where I work, and on my way I passed a guy on the sidewalk walking the other direction. I nodded at him, drew in breath and held it, and muttered “Hi.”

“How’s it going?” he said in response, then kept walking before I could answer his question.

As we walked away from each other, I let out my breath.

To be honest, I don’t know why I held my breath in that moment. And from what I recall, I held my breath when I spoke with other people this morning as well. In fact, I feel as though I have not drawn in a breath for the past two weeks, which is when I first arrived in this city.

I hold my breath in those moments because I want to be acknowledged. I’m afraid the other person won’t respond. Many times I feel sad when people don’t respond to me. It seems like they are ignoring me, and I don’t enjoy being ignored. I know what I have to say is worth hearing. It must be. After all, I’m saying it. (I hate myself a little for being so haughty.)

But that isn’t the main reason I ignore my need to breathe–it’s merely what I like to tell myself so I feel like I’m valued.

The reason–or at least a deeper reason–is discomfort. I don’t know many people here and I don’t like that. It’s uncomfortable. Wherever I go, I feel like I don’t belong. And I know it’s true: I don’t belong. There is no way I could since this is only my second week in the city. Comfort comes from familiarity, and I must endure this discomfort to get past it. There is no other way for me to gain comfort while I live here.

I say “gain” deliberately. Comfort, I’m finding, is something added to my mindset. Comfort isn’t a default setting: it grows like a tree in a backyard. Most thoughts and feelings I cultivate, but comfort isn’t in my care. I don’t control comfort. It simply grows; and like all times I’ve felt out-of-place, it won’t seem like long before I can’t remember the last time I felt uncomfortable here.

Comfort comes from trust. It comes when I trust I know the area around me and the people around me. But there is a deep comfort which I can have even as I sit in my as-yet-ungrown garden of discomfort. This deep comfort comes when I trust God to take care of me where I am. It comes when I remember He is with me in all I do. He is always leading me and helping me grow in faith, humility and wisdom. Sometimes God places me where I feel I belong, while at other times (like now) He gives me just enough peace of mind to allow me to keep moving forward. Deep comfort is available when I choose to trust Him, and circumstantial comfort grows in His time and through His work, not mine.

For now, comfort hasn’t pushed past the top layer of soil. So I’ll keep holding my breath, trusting my good Father to give me a chance to breathe again precisely when I need it.

Vagabond Christian

The song “Misty Mountains” from The Hobbit soundtrack is stuck in my head, and its haunting my thoughts. Though I’m a big fan of the Lord of the Rings, this isn’t the reason I’m thinking so much about it.

Like Bilbo in The Hobbit, tomorrow I’ll be going on an adventure. It won’t be a quest to reclaim a homeland and slay a dragon (I could include so many more quotes from the movies), but it will be an adventure nonetheless. I will move to Wenatchee, WA, tomorrow, a city of which a week ago I knew nothing. After losing my last job in August, I have now moved on to another job in the center of the state. And if you know much about Washington, you know the center of the state has little in common with the green, urban, ocean-hugged west side. This will be a new experience for me. A new chapter has begun in my life.

Yet I cannot claim this accomplishment myself. God has done all the work. He has provided for me yet again. In February I told Him I was desperate to get a job, so He answered with a job in an architecture firm near Seattle. That required moving north, but I was still near many friends and my family, not to mention several large cities. Then I lost my job at summer’s close, and prayed the same plea to my Father in heaven. Again He answered, but now He is pushing me further away from comfort: this time, He is leading me to a city where I can think of only one person in a fifty-mile radius whom I know, where there is much more land taken by mountains than by skyscrapers, and indeed where I couldn’t point out on a map six months ago.

My biggest concern isn’t any of those things, though. My biggest concern is what I will do to connect with the body of Christ, his Church.

When I moved to Redmond in February, a dear friend from college who lived nearby introduced me to a church of which he seemed very fond. I quickly grew to enjoy the group of people also, and made plans to become more involved in the community. However, when I lost my job, I had a hunch my time with those people would not last much longer–and when I received the offer for the job in Wenatchee, my hunch was confirmed.

Now that I will move to a city where I had never been before last week, what do I do? And what do I do with the people I met and befriended in Redmond? For that matter, what do I do with the people in all the churches in which I have been part?

This is the reason the constant relocating is causing me to feel weary. I moved to college. I moved away from college. I moved for a job. I moved away after losing the job. And now I am moving for another job.

That is quite a bit of moving, and I am losing energy to establish myself. My resolve to plant roots is wearing out.

I don’t think the moving itself is causing this fatigue. If I planned to wander from area to area, I am certain the travel would invigorate me. But I haven’t planned these moves. Each time I relocated, I expected to stay in the location for a long time. Yet never yet has that been the case. Each time I hope to stay somewhere, the hope uses some of my vitality. And with so much vitality gone, I don’t know if I will retain the ability to feel like anywhere is home.

When I feel this discomfort and disillusionment, Jesus’ honesty about his life comforts me: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Even now, as I prepare for the long drive tomorrow, I plan to bring blankets and a pillow in case I need to sleep in my car. As of now, I haven’t signed a lease on a place to live, since Wenatchee is experiencing a miniature modern-day exodus: masses of people from the northern regions of the state are seeking shelter after their homes burnt down earlier this year. This is making places to live hard to find. I will stay with the one person I know in the area for a little while, but I fear overstaying my welcome and as such am prepared to rest my head on my steering wheel.

Even as I think about it, though, my fear is losing space in my thoughts to the excitement. This is an adventure–a real-life adventure! Uncertainties, dangers, constant travel, a dragon: all of it comes with being on an adventure (though the dragon might not be in this one). My future looks dark, yet I am eager to follow God as He guides me through the darkness. He has always provided for me before, and I know He will continue to provide. His provision will at times come in unusual forms, but it is provision all the same.

Soon, for a while, I may have no place to lay my head. But this is a worthless loss compared to the joy of following my Lord. He is the Suffering Servant, and he has called me to follow in his stead, even to follow him to death. I will learn more what it means to suffer as I follow him, and I will also learn more what it means to live in his Kingdom, a kingdom where shalom–peace–comforts and satisfies all.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In this world you will tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

// John 16:33

What my running shoes taught me about life

This morning, for the first time in six long mornings, I was able to go for a run. I love to run, so going almost a week without doing so felt like torture.

I hadn’t been running for two reasons: first, a couple months ago I injured my knee while lifting weights. I have heard many stories of people running on slight injuries only to cause permanent damage, so I wanted to take plenty of time to heal. Second, on Monday I washed my shoes. Not because I want them to look immaculate, but because they were caked with enough mud to make fitting my feet in them impossible. The mud came from my participation in the Highland Games this past Saturday. No, I didn’t go to Scotland, though I would have loved that (and probably would have fit in well, too, with my red hair and pasty white skin). These Highland Games were in Pullman, Washington, where I went to college.

Maybe if I didn’t live in Washington state my shoes would have dried faster after I washed them. As it is, they took six days to fully dry, and each day I checked them I was disappointed–until this morning. They were finally dry, and without hesitating I put on my running clothes, strapped on my watch, tied my shoes and ran out the door.

I did a quick run, only two miles, because I am just beginning to run again since I injured my knee. After finishing running, I looked down at my shoes and saw some dried mud still wedged into the pattern etched into the soles. At first I was frustrated because I had spent half an hour scrubbing at the shoes almost a week ago, determined to remove all the dirt. In spite of my efforts, some mud still clung to the shoes.

Then I realized that my shoes and my life have much in common.

Running shoes

I have owned these shoes for over a year. They are not new, especially not in a runner’s mind (I’ve heard I should buy new shoes every 300-500 miles; I’m close to reaching that bottom limit with this pair), and they certainly don’t look new. They have been through mud many more times than just this past weekend; the soles are worn down significantly; and the holes in the outer material are becoming prolific.

Yet they are still holding up. They still hold my feet well and provide plenty of cushion and support, as well as prevent me from feeling the rough surfaces beneath my feet. The colors on them have dulled a bit, but they still clearly show off the patterns sewn on them. And they have been broken in, but they are not at all broken.

I can relate to that. I am not new to this world: my twenty-third birthday passed this year, and though I don’t consider myself old, I have learned much in my two decades. Nor have those two decades left me in pristine condition, as innocent and vibrant as a newborn: I have endured pain, sorrow and loss, and have known confusion about what I should do in hard times. I have built people up and I have let people down, gaining and losing friendships as a result. I have even lost a job which I obtained almost immediately after graduating from college, and struggled to understand if I should stay in the industry or find work in another field entirely.

Yet I still feel the joy of life pulsing through me. I find reasons to smile and laugh every day. My family gives me support and helps me along as I figure out how to live this first year outside of school. And my friends help me go on adventures, have fun shooting guns, and patiently listen to me complain about painful, difficult weeks.

Like my shoes, I have mud caked on me.

Like my shoes, some of that mud will never come off.

Like my shoes, it’s OK that the mud remains.

The mud is my memories. It shows me where I have been: the tragedies I have endured, the pain I have felt, and the regrets which haunt me. But it shows me the good in where I have been as well: the adventures I have been on, the thrills I have had with friends, and the lessons I have learned to help me become a better person.

I also realized that, like my shoes, I have a limited amount of time. One day soon I will discard my shoes, and another day not long after that, I will discard my well-used and worn-out body. And in both cases, what comes next is better than what I had previously.

In my two decades I have had plenty of wear-and-tear. And I know this is only the beginning: the mud will continue to pile up, the holes will grow larger and multiply, and the colors which shone at first will continue to dim.

But there is one vital difference between my shoes and my life: my shoes will continue to decline, while I will continue to improve. And I know that improvement is only possible by the grace of God.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

// Matthew 6:19-21

The little one

Remind me, Lord,
that I am the little one.
I can see a great big world,
Yet have little power to change it.
All around are people like me,
Yet they are not the same as me.

Remind me, Lord,
that I am the little one.
Choices come unexpectedly
And I cannot see their full results.
Once I choose a path to take
I cannot return the way I came.

Remind me, Lord,
that I am the little one.
Friends show themselves some days
But are absent for most.
Company is all around
Yet is also inaccessible.

Remind me, Lord,
that I am the little one.
I plan for decades in advance
Yet cannot predict what will come in one day.
Prosperity stays for a time
Then leaves unexpectedly.

Remind me, Lord,
that I am the little one.
I struggle with what to do in the present
And forget to recall my past.
The responsibilities of now
Overshadow Your provision in the past.

Remind me, Lord,
that I am the little one.
Impossible challenges for me
Are puny pebbles in your hands.
When I cannot make my efforts work,
You provide a way unforeseen.

Remind me, Lord,
that I am the little one.
Trials and questions bring me to my knees
Yet in them you make me grow.
Though misery may seem to have no end,
Your love is a promise and is never vain.

Remind me, Lord,
that I am the little one.

Sabbath rest in post-grad life

This summer, my schedule drowned.

Having lived by a lake for most of my life and being a competent swimmer, I rarely use the verb “drowned” in any sense. Yet it seems an appropriate word for the past few months.

My schedule this summer was packed. Most days I didn’t know what I was going to do outside of work, eat and sleep. I wasn’t procrastinating on making a schedule: I made two spreadsheets for how I would spend each day, half-hour by half-hour, and tried to follow both. No joke. Yet I couldn’t accomplish everything I desired to do. Not even most of the things. For a while I was stuck in the whirlwind of living day-by-day, following the whims of a busy life.

Early last month I realized what was most likely causing the storm: I was trying to do too much. Yes, I had a plan, but that plan was packed, even overflowing with things to do. There was a limit to the time I had while my to-do list seemed endless.

In the midst of my two-spreadsheet life I realized something:

We’re better at hustling than we think and worse at resting than we realize.

This is a problem for me. Throughout my life I have been given goals: get good grades; win on sports teams; go to college; excel in college; don’t get fat in college; take classes that are important to my future career in college. (Now that I write them down, I can see most of my past goals included the word “college”.) And when I wasn’t given goals, I made my own: keep a strict, healthy diet; run a marathon before I turn twenty-five; move as far away as I can while staying in-state for college (there it is again).

These goals have been a large part of my motivation to move forward in life, to have accomplished so much. Yet they are only part of a balance which I only recently realize exists, which is this: goals set in motion while rest is crucial to maintaining that motion. In other words, the desire to accomplish something long-term is begun by setting a goal, yet that accomplishment will require regular rest in order to reach it in good shape and able to continue toward new goals.

While I was on the high school cross country team I began learning this lesson. For all my life until my freshman year, I had avoided running like I had avoided wearing striped pants: I didn’t do it except when I had to as part of a baseball team. A friend convinced me to join the track team in my first year of high school, however, and that turned into joining the cross country team that fall. Having despised running even after being on the track team, I had never cared to learn how to run well; but my interest in the subject necessarily changed, as did my attitude about running, once the cross country season began.

Nowadays I can’t recall most of what my coaches taught me then, but I can recall the simplest lesson: Run. Run every day during practice. Run when you don’t want to run. And then run some more.

That lesson became a goal: I would run every day of the week. After school every day I would run. And it didn’t take long for me to run before school as well.

Yet “run all the time” was not what my coaches taught. In the midst of setting the goal of running every day, I ignored another lesson which had also been taught: rest. Run six days every week and rest on the seventh. Don’t run on the seventh day. This lesson greatly improved my ability to run the following year once I paid attention to it. My muscles weren’t always stressed and tired. I wasn’t always stressed and tired. And largely because of this I was able to achieve race times I had only dreamed of in my sophomore year.

Last month, after having found my schedule washed ashore and lifeless, I realized this lesson applies to more than running. Rest is important to all parts of life. To work toward an end in a sustainable manner, a person must make time to not work.

This is hard for me to accept because I am an overachiever. For most of my life I believed this trait was a superpower, but now I know it has a negative side. I used to think I had to solve all of my life’s problems each day. The problem was that time didn’t allow me to accomplish such a feat. So I hated time. I would mourn the passing of each week, seeing in my to-do lists so many items left unchecked. Yet now I no longer despise time, but cherish it: I see it as a way to be free from my self-imposed shackles of accomplishment and productivity. Instead of needing to solve all of my life’s problems, I am free to pick the ones I care the most about and do what I can–and no more–to work toward solutions for them.

What do I do about the remainder of the problems? I trust my loving Father in heaven to take care of them as He will.

Trusting God is not easy for me to do. Yet it is imperative to living the life of freedom, forgiveness and faith to which God has called me.

I take comfort in remembering Jesus’ life: He didn’t solve every problem of every person He met, yet He accomplished salvation for the entire world.

This helps me come to terms with the mess that is my life. Life is messy, and we don’t have to clean it all up; indeed, we never will. Within this messy life, though, we have the opportunity to nurture our faith in the God who loves us endlessly as well as the ability to help other people deal with their messes.

Photo Credit: Bill Dickinson via Compfight cc

My schedule will never look the same as it did in the golden years of college. It has drowned; now I must replace it with a different schedule, one which includes times of rest. I am still struggling with living a life of working forty hours every week (often more). Yet I know I don’t have to accomplish everything I dreamed of as a teen to feel satisfied with my life. The creation account in Genesis 1 says God created the entire world in six days, and then decided to stop creating more. On the seventh day He rested. He said, “That’s enough.” Since God rests, I suppose I can too.

Will I have to give up some dreams? Yes. Will I have a copious amount of time to do everything I wish? No. But can I live a meaningful and fulfilling life while I work hard full-time and make time to rest? You better believe it.

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

|| Psalm 27:13-14