The forest as a dark, scary, haunting place is a metaphor carried through the centuries inside the human psyche, found in our collective storytelling.
The forest is a tool shading us from the sun. Dimming the power of light. As beautiful as the forest is, crossing from forest edge into a clearing can surprise our eyes as we adjust to the intense light of the approaching meadow, as if someone flipped a switch on.
As much as we are able to see while walking inside the forest, it is the tree canopy screening the full amount of light possible to us. The forest is ‘dark’ to us during peak daytime.
Forests are screening out the most light available to us. The light is there. But we are lost inside the forest which is always providing a diminished version of the light.
Perhaps, the forest needs to be removed if we can’t find our way out.
There is also the metaphor of a seemingly insignificant small spark, be it fire or a passing thought, having an enormous, disproportional affect on it’s surroundings.
One small careless incident, and the whole forest burns down.
One small careless word, and a kingdom crumbles.
One small thoughtful daily act, and darkness itself begins to fade.
When I consider the warning how a small spark can burn a forest down, I find it as a warning of thoughtful discernment. The message isn’t “don’t be careless and screw everything up.” What if the message is “a small spark can take on a great forest.”
We should decide with care which forests to burn down. There are forests preventing us from full access to the Light.
There are forests of oppression, shielding the Light of all we can be if not for unjust systems.
There are forests of depression, shielding the Light that is telling us we are tremendously valued as we are.
There are forests of bitterness, shielding the Light trying to tell us to let go, move on, and walk forward humbly motivated.
There are forests of lies, shielding the Light of Truth by using Light itself in a very diminished, altered state.
A small spark, the smallest amount of hope you could possibly imagine, is enough. It’s always just enough. It will light a new light as it burns the forest down. What is left is more Light. The Light which was diminished. A Light we only saw a burst here and there of through the forest’s thick tree canopy.
We had no idea how bright it was outside the forest.
But liberated from the dark forest we lived in, are we not tasked to carefully burn down forests of lies, oppression, worthlessness, shame, anger, or bitterness we see others are wandering in? Setting a small spark in our forest takes resolve, but it only has to be a small spark.
Burn down the forest of shame, bitterness, hopelessness, all which shields Light.
When we place the entirety of our value on how well we can store and recite information from our minds, we miss out entirely on who we are. We miss out on how we are actually constructed. There is an entire part of ourselves found within our hearts we, and others, end up discrediting because of the lack of interaction with our own inner-heart.
We are lovers. As in, we are beings worthy of love.
My natural tendency is to construct logical arguments based on volumes of facts and ideas I have circulating in my mind. What’s great about the culture I grew up in is how it applauds and rewards thinking. School reinforces my value as a thinker for 25 years, because I can remember facts for a test and can construct a term paper by creatively combining ideas I lodged in my brain over the course of a semester.
I’m a thinker, and I’ve been rewarded as a thinker. Even in church.
Within the confines of Western society’s tendency to favor memorization and regurgitation over experiential and relational, the church is rewarding thinkers as well. The mediums we engage in clearly favor an earnest note taker like me who records volumes of sermon notes from the lecturer who stands on the pulpits speaking to the class. My N.T. Wright and C.S. Lewis books sit highlighted on my shelves. My blogroll continually feeds me daily on things currently happening in church culture.
But if instead I am primarily constructed as a lover, if I am worthy of love, where do I experience this? In very personal one-on-one times with God? In a prayer closet tucked away inside my home? At an awkward social-media-length distance from friends?
Silent Planet is quickly rising to the level of my favorite band. Ironically, they are named after a C.S. Lewis book. And the lead singer Garrett Russell is no ordinary metal-head screaming lyricist. Garrett is a deep thinker who is extremely well read and profoundly poetic.
In the following interview, Garrett starts off by describing why he refers to his fans as lovers:
We call our fans lovers because we believe that human beings are not so much primarily thinkers as we’ve been taught to believe in Western society . . . but instead that we are not thinking beings but relational beings and that our true identity is found in our relationships that we have.
Garrett is speaking profound wisdom. We are not thinkers only. There of course is tremendous value in being good at thinking. There is true worthiness of learning as much as we can with the abilities we have been given.
But at some point…at some point we can’t just hang our hats on what we think we know. We have to place everything on the line with Who we know.
If we know Jesus within the context of relationship then the dynamics begin shifting. We realize our volumes of books can only go so far. We realize our notes can only be studied over so many times. We even realize our bibles can only be underlined to the point of breaking through the pages.
As primarily relational beings we need to be willing to get real with ourselves and with each other. As images of God, either broken or restored, we have to be willing to plumb the depths of our relational selves. It is how we will connect with each other. It is how we will heal with each other. It is how God created someone right next to you, in community with you, to show you how they overcame a terrible situation you thought only you went through.
How beautiful it is Silent Planet calls their fans lovers. It allows me to take that little step more towards realizing I am loved.
It helps redefine my true self as primarily someone to be loved rather than someone to be thought about. It gives me permission to enter further into relational community with others knowing my words will only go so far. My thoughts can only carry our relationship to a point. But it will be seeing us all as lovers, all broken and scared images of God, which will strip away mere thoughts.
The chorus from the song Cardiff Giant by mewithoutYou contains a sentiment which has played through my mind a lot.
“I often wonder if I’ve already died.“
I keep looking back to my late twenties and wonder if I died back then. I wonder if I squandered freedom.
Subliminally, I think I died.
Superficially, I obtained multiple degrees (family cheers), I got the start of a technically skilled career (society cheers), and I even materialistically helped stimulate the economy by buying a car with said start of career (auto-makers cheer).
Prepared during my late teens and early 20’s with my arsenal of bibles, books and blogs, I knew I was entering my late 20’s (and the rest of my life?) with Jesus centered ways pinned to my chest.
I had my worn down Blue Like Jazz book. I had my copy of Irresistible Revolution. My NIV bible had my notes in the margins and underlined verses. My blog roll was a who’s who of Christian blogging at it’s finest (and worst) of the mid-2000’s. Blogging’s golden years.
I put in the work I needed to position myself to be in the world but not of it.
Vocation would eventually line up, I kept telling myself. My degrees could be justified in several ways once I started doing the tough, missional like work in my field. And I was certain I would be volunteering for key places doing incredible community development work.
But I wonder if I died somewhere before.
Which death had I died?
A death for freedom? Or a death for fear?
Death is cunning because it just sort of slinks in and sits back. It really doesn’t have to do much after a nudge.
I didn’t account for cubicle sitting. Sitting and sitting and sitting. I realize in college and for the previous 25 years in my life there were things like recess or the end of the 45 minute class. Or even the class of physical activity in and of itself. The desk job life was nothing I prepared for.
Sitting at work all day and doing a job would lead me to medicate at the fast food line carousel. Enabled, ironically, by the payment received for sitting at the desk and doing work.
An additional 60lbs later, the outward manifestation of my death was showing.
I also didn’t account for brain drain and video game indulgence. I played countless hours of video games after coming home from work. The last thing I wanted to do was think more, so why not mindlessly button mash? Quick dopamine surges to the brain in the form of taking the imaginary hockey team you manage to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third year in a row. Besides, healthier more put together people my age play way more video games than I do.
Another outward expression I had died at some point, pacified by a fake digital world.
I hardly needed to be coached about not buying a new car. Used will always be the best bet, if I even need a car at all. Financially it would make sense. But by the time I was done test driving the newest model car it wasn’t even logic anymore. New car it was.
More outward expressions I had died along the way. Shane Claiborne would be mad.
And there were the denials.
When leaving work early on a Wednesday a co-worker asked where I was heading off to. Instead of answering plainly “I’m heading off to worship band practice at the church I attend,” I would say “oh, off to something I got to do.”
Not only did ‘something’ satisfy the curiosity of my colleague, but it satisfied my dying state.
When writing up a meet the staff blog post about me, one of the interview questions was “Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us?” I said that I have been playing the guitar since the age of seven.
But why, over two years into this job, would something so central to my core be a surprise to my co-workers? Why would this be something I need to hide from people?
What a weird surprise. I had slowly killed the musician in me the more I justified the pursuit of a career.
I don’t think I have to wonder too much if I had died.
Right now death is pissed off.
I came alive again. I woke up slowly inside safe, small community talking about several of the above items, while they were happening.
Only when you are alive do you know how dead you were.
All that preparation ahead of time in my life prior to my late 20’s didn’t go for not. All that digging into who Jesus really is and how I am to navigate this world was deeply embedded in me.
The problem was I didn’t allow any of it to release. I was letting death deal blows while life suffocated inside.
But now I am alive.
I am alive because the fast food line doesn’t control me anymore. The 60lbs put on is now 80lbs I’ve lost over the past two years.
The guitar isn’t just back in my hands, it never left, but it is truly a mark of worship to the God who gave me the ability to play in the first place.
My down time isn’t spent playing video games to decompress, but to continue self educating myself with books I’ve always wanted to read.
And death hates this so much.
I often wonder if I’ve already died.
Well, I did die.
But now. Now. I am alive.
I leave you with what the singer of mewithoutYou has to say about this song, not only what I took from it. It’s a song off an album about a circus train derailing in 1878. Hence why he mentions the animals in the following interview responding to Cardiff Giant:
“That song is a dialogue between the tiger and the peacock, both of whom stayed in captivity for different reasons. The tiger was very deliberate in remaining because of his sense of internal freedom regardless of external circumstances, but the peacock just feels kind of stuck. And the first time it’s the peacock saying “I often wonder if I’ve already died,” meaning a sense of having squandered her freedom—she missed the opportunity to escape and she’s stuck in this life that has no purpose or growth. And then the tiger responds in the second chorus saying the same thing, but it means almost the exact opposite—the tiger is wondering if the ego has been annihilated, if the self has been totally surrendered, and the tiger has been taken to some new, higher level of consciousness or reality. So it’s taking the same exact sentence and flipping it on its head.“
I was the peacock certainly. Death had me trapped and was convincing me I squandered my freedom. Give up. You’re dead.
But I’m the tiger now. Death got me for sure. But it never got me internally. Death can’t trap me anymore. I am surrounded by too much life, life abundant.
This song is an absolute highlight on Thrice’s album To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere. Drawn from J.R.R. Tolkien letters and concepts that he wrote about, ‘the long defeat’ is the belief that history is a slow march towards defeat, just when you think you are ahead you go two steps back, or really that all attempts at making progress seem to come up short. The lead singer’s use of this concept throughout the song is haunted by a hope though, “I believe there’s a joy that blooms beyond these walls.”
This is the weighty perspective carrying me towards any real hope in doing anything worthwhile, because even though madness and death are all around, and even though a great victory has already been claimed but is seldom witnessed, all current signs of defeat will be turned around. Perhaps it’s the long part then, the time factor that weighs heavily on all of us.