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.
Most of my waking hours I am speechless, and I know some friends of mine won’t understand what I just wrote there. But most of the time I’m not saying much.
Or just saying surface level canned statements. You know:
The weather is bad,
Wow was the traffic a mess today,
How ’bout them Cowboys?
However, much closer to the forefront of my mind are deep analytical, historical, emotional and socio-political ramifications of you asking me “so how’s it going?”
How’s it going?! Well, considering both of us just heard a little about maintaining good personal finances, here are my thoughts on the history of the Christian Monastic Community and the distribution of possessions, successful and failed attempts at communal living, and the complete horror of the pervasiveness of the American Dream within our culture.
That’s what I want to respond to “how’s it going.”
Because I mean let’s just get frank and cut the small talk.
In mewithoutYou’s song Bethlehem, WVthere is a line right in the beginning which caught my attention and gave me pause of everything I was probably thinking about at the time:
A stranger’s face appeared—
They say he lost his mind
(Or too much found his mind?)
I hear it all the time
The metaphor of Nietzche’s Madman is about someone who is deeply perceiving a lot, too much, or perhaps all which needs to be perceived, in contrast to the masses asleep at their own wheels. I sense it is more about the person making connections with all which is finding their mind.
It speaks to a kind of ‘awareness’ of things. Awareness provides the opportunity to make pathways between seemingly unrelated items, a connection process of information more than a lack of perception of said items in isolation.
For example, John The Baptist was witness to the same information as anyone else of his time: socio-political movements, imperial occupations, and sacred scriptural promises of a coming liberating savior who will tidy everything up when the time is right. It’s just while others are giving their attention to individual portions, only a few pieces, or woefully unaware of anything not involving only themselves, John was preaching the way he was preaching because he was putting a few pieces together.
When I am looking to add to a conversation I often find myself wanting to take someone straight to the implications of what we are really talking about. How does this connect to events of the past? In what ways is our discussion more about selfish ambition versus growing yourself and challenging your own thoughts? How did you feel when that happened or this news came to you?
I began sharing a little more here and there to others in the above manner. Instead of maintaining surface level, I’d go where I am residing presently. Speaking directly of the things which I was constantly connecting and what I found worthy of actually sharing.
As if I had forgot or discredited what my grade school teachers would always say of me, a few individuals paused me in recent years because they saw the 10,000 foot view of what I was doing. In the middle of conversation they would say “wait, you’re reading all these books right now and connecting what’s in them?” Or “not everyone is still enough in a moment to capture the thought you’re expressing.”
These were long lost encouragements I had stuffed away or discarded entirely a long time ago. I was hearing them afresh from encouraging people.
Perhaps I was sharing more readily again because two things finally started kicking in.
One was leaning completely into what happens to me within certain environments. So much finds my mind just sitting at a coffee shop, looking out at the sunny day outside, wondering about the old man in the corner of the shop and his long contemplative look. I guess at his hopes and dreams, the life he has lived, and the regrets he has faced head on or is still running from. The next thing I know I have jotted down some lines of poetry without anticipation. Poetry helps condense volumes of things finding my mind into digestible portions. And it comes when I am surprisingly at rest.
The other helpful practice for me is discerning what continually rests on my mind. Daily journal practices of writing anything and everything that comes to mind is an excellent sifting exercise. Once on paper or on computer screen, we see what is taking up unneeded space.
We don’t ask for some of the things which find their way to our minds, but we can do a fantastic job of filtering down what matters most.
Too much on our minds can be made into a blessing.
Wage War has the song that defines my last two years. It’s going to be my anthem, my marker of these years.
The chorus says it all. But I’ll get there.
First a walk up to the chorus with a verse punching me in the gut:
Let’s get this straight A lot has changed in the last year Thought I had everything together But watched it all disappear
It is remarkable what has disappeared from me. Previous to 2 years ago, I thought I was at least on the trajectory of putting it all together. I knew I didn’t have it all together. But I was on the correct path.
I watched a lot of ‘stuff’ disappear. What’s remaining in the process? I’m finding the Person I always identified as the core behind everything.
This is where every biblical metaphor of pruning, burning away, and seeing what’s left over applies to my last two years.
Thought I had everything together takes on a unique meaning for me. I didn’t arrogantly believe I had it all together. In fact swaying heavily in the other direction, I was already well on the way of holistic improvements a year, two years, really a few years in the making because of an acknowledgment of not having things together. Improvements made because of the humble identification of desperately needed change.
So when the hits started coming one after another over the past two years, all my personal improvements felt for not.
These personal improvements ironically had no challenging places to test themselves out in (or at least not in the arenas I figured I would apply my personal improvements in).
In other words, if I could establish habitual changes when times were ‘good,’ without realizing it, I was being prepared to keep it up when times became ‘bad.’
It’s kinda like the stakes were raised so change wouldn’t be on my terms anymore.
So here I am putting my past two years into perspective, and with everything that is burned up and gone, it is what remains which brings me to my knees.
This chorus. It stuns me:
Now I see, I was broken to be made a better me.
There are so many defeats I’ve had to deal with. There are many incredibly significant moments of pruning. What’s astonishing within this reflection is how I have become a better me in the process. This is the best version of myself ever. I have never been ‘clearer.’
A career stall actually turned into a time period of incredible learning through massive amounts of reading and writing, all combining to solidify my why.
An empathy I possessed intellectually a decade ago as a believer has now manifested itself personally through intense breaking and healing. Frankly put, as I reflect back on the idealistic 22 year old Jesus follower, having consumed massive volumes of early 2000’s Christian blogosphere material, and beginning their graduate studies with the aim of ‘getting into’ a field based on helping people, I see a person only scratching the surface of servant-hood.
The ‘better me‘ standing now embraces hardship completely different. I had somehow avoided major pains in my life and figured I could serve others out of a timid, shy, intellectual point of view.
But I was finally broken so that I can look into someone’s eyes and see their pain better.
I was assuredly empathetic before. But pain? Obstacles? Losing it all? Terror?
I’ve come into contact with pain I’d wish on no one. And yet here I am on the other side of it. I have learned the art and practice of taking the obstacle as a learning tool, as a data point.
Am I still here? Is it morning? Is it a new day?
Then be grateful.
Is Jesus still standing with me? He sure is.
Then be faithful.
And now I….
‘Had to learn to let it go and let it be.’
This is the clear marking of ‘forward.’ There are things I simply must let go. Even the process of breaking must be let go at some point.
There are burdens too heavy to carry on my own. They were never meant to be my burdens.
Now I can start fresh over again changing things I am actually tasked to change. Not things I have no control over. Only the pieces I have been given to put together.
The serenity prayer is on my heart like never before.
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.
Show Me your sorrow My love
This burden is the milestone ’round your neck
Convalesce and I will bear, bear your shame
Jesus bears our burdens. He bears mine. My shame feels exactly like a milestone tied around my neck.
It’s the beauty of this chorus’ melody and structure. The music is nearly perfect to me. It’s the message too that packs the punch where I need it.
It’s Jesus saying: Recover gradually son, you were sick, but I got you. Show Me your sorrow, I really love you. I’ll even take your shame with Me. But this milestone, this burden, this weight, this torment, it has to go. And I’ll take it. Recover gradually son. I love you.
It’s day one. Not just day 366. In fact, it doesn’t matter what length of time it’s been for me or for you.
The only thing I know for certain is the thing I’ve known since a child. Jesus has me, He has my burdens, He has my shame.
As I was laying out the concept of this blog I asked myself the following questions: Who am I writing to? Who am I talking to in this vast digital ocean? Whose heart am I really trying to stir with this central message of purpose and love and self worth?
A couple weeks ago I had an aha moment.
I realized I needed to talk with the person I am very familiar with. Someone like me. The person who needed this message of value the most:
The metal-head, the goth, the emo kid, the scene kid, the speech therapy kid, the misunderstood, the mistreated, the reject, the unloved, the ignored, the beaten down, the emotionless, the awkward, the pimple faced kid, the made fun of in church youth group kid.
This space is really for anyone and everyone. But I am hopefully reaching you. The Misfit.
The Misfit? I was going with outcast and baggy pants person from the 90’s. Who are the Misfits? I mean really, I wasn’t using that term just a week ago.
But then my friend starts bumping this rap group I’ve never heard of called Social Club Misfits. Their mantra jolts me because they are basically talking about how much they are geeks, weird, boring, rejects, misunderstood, etc etc. Stuff rappers shouldn’t be saying out loud. And they are comfortable with this identity.
This short sermon song pops up. I’m tearing up a bit hearing it. He’s talking to me. I’ve never heard the embracing of being a Misfit as he defines it with such confidence. With such assurance of self.
A Misfit is one who’s uncomfortable with his or her surroundings. Oh yeah, that’s me. Raises my hand slowly out of discomfort.
and is seen to be disturbingly different than others. Always have. And if you’ve experienced this too, you can rest assured you are not different. You’ve got me at least. And all of us Misfits.
And as Misfits one of our greatest discomforts is inconsistency amongst our peers. The dare is to be comfortably, consistently yourself. Be authentic. Be who you are. Wear socks with sandals if that’s your thing. You’re a Misfit.
There is a humble confidence, if I can use that phrasing, throughout this definition of a Misfit. They have put to words and music what my aha moment was trying to grasp at.
Trying, because I was only just beginning to become (finally) as confident as they are about being Misfits. It’s kinda amazing it all happens within a couple weeks of each other.
Social Club Misfits could not clarify any better in my mind what is pressed deeply into my identity and calling:
We are Misfits here if we are taking on Christ daily. And we are further Misfit (rejects, goody-two-shoes, freaks, geeks) if we are the kid who got picked last, the only non-swearing kid at bible camp, the person painting your nails black, the parent who is in prison, or the constantly laughed at.
I knew exactly what to do when my band came to an unexpected end while I was halfway through my undergraduate degree:
Triple down on getting a degree so you can start a career, so you can join the middle to upper-middle class the rest of your life, so you can do the responsible thing since you are already this far along.
No doubt back then. No more should I or shouldn’t I. It became clear as the view through the 28th floor office tower windows I could now picture myself looking through.
I wish it were as straightforward as that. But it wasn’t.
There are opposite forces at play in every interaction we have.
It’s very true when you apply this to inaction. Wise people constantly point out that lurking inside of inaction is, oddly enough, action. At the least a choice.
No action at all, playing it safe, actually leads to an opposite force’s favorite opportunity of all. The opportunity to seduce us into surrender through the distraction of a noble pursuit.
The moment we lay our guard down or simply stop acting we are not merely at rest. Resting is action and a signal to the opposite force to fill the vacuum with something else others will approve of.
And this opposite force at play strikes with great joy. You can hear the joy in it’s tone:
You want to give up on what you’ve always wanted because of a minor hiccup? That would be sad. Oh, but here, look over here! I found a noble distraction for you. Get a degree (which you would get regardless of anything you do on the side), but certainly don’t spend energy on a band again.
Twelve years later and I saw a 28th floor view once. I also have a clear, up front view of someone who swapped out their deeply ingrained identity for convenient pursuits.
We must pay attention to what makes our hearts leap and do more of it. We must value who we are at all times in order to do what we are. Otherwise, convenient fall back pursuits will fill in the void if we choose to abandon ourselves.
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.