What I’m Missing Even When I Have It All

photo by Alexander Lam

…contentment.

I find contentment to be so elusive. It’s been that way nearly all my life. You know what? Since I flew to South America in 2014 for ten weeks in Ecuador and Peru, I have not lived in the same place for more than a year (until now).

my story

In 2014, despite my goal to teach ESL overseas (I was planning on moving to South Korea and had even begun the paperwork), I got cold feet and moved to Boston. I quickly got a job managing a cafe in Harvard Square. Even so, I could barely keep my head above water financially due to the astronomical cost of living in Boston. I had some really great memories in Boston, but I also struggled some. I was discontent, and I moved (that’s a little oversimplified; there were some other deeper reasons to my move too).

Back in St. Louis, wrestling with my purpose and the direction of my life, I thought that God was calling me back into pastoral ministry. I probably applied to thirty different church positions. To this day I believe I was well-qualified for the jobs I was applying to, but I got zero bites. I didn’t even get a call back. Again, I was discontent.

Thankfully, some doors were opened to me, and I spent the next year managing The Cup‘s Chesterfield location (that location has since closed), working with the youth at a church, and even preaching some as the interim pastor of another church for four months. In fact, when I was presented with the opportunity to take a teaching job in El Salvador, I can honestly look back and say that I accepted the position out of contentment rather than discontentment. I was happy back in St. Louis and not looking to move. However, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

In El Salvador I fell in love, and even though I had planned to teach there longer, I returned to the United States after one year because of the immigration process. I teach now in Kansas City, and I am getting married in a little over two weeks! However, try as I did, I had many moments of discontentment over the past year. I missed my fiancee, I missed El Salvador, I missed opportunities being immersed in another language. As much as I love my new home and teaching here, I still allowed discontentment to creep in.

Now, I’m sure you’re giving me grace for the discontent I may have experienced over the past year while being separated from my fiancee. Still, the Bible doesn’t give qualifiers, and the apostle Paul challenges us today just as he did in his letter to the church in Philippi.

it’s in the Bible

…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.           

-Philippians 4:11b-13 NIV (italics added)

The secret of being content. Contentment feels like a secret sometimes, doesn’t it? Like the top secret files of the government tucked away in some secret vault in Washington DC (think National Treasure), contentment seems like a top secret file buried deep in the throne room of heaven. The truth: contentment isn’t hidden.

the garden of contentment

You and I have access to the apostle Paul’s secret. It is through Jesus that we are opened up to the garden of contentment. Jesus said things like “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) and goes on in the same passage to say, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11).

Why a garden?

The image of a garden goes all the way back to the beginning of the Bible. We were made to live forever with God in paradise. Thus, the goal of salvation and being united to Christ is so that we have renewed access to the garden (actually, it will be a new Jerusalem). Furthermore, Jesus brought in that kingdom when he came to earth. No, we’re not living in a literal kingdom with a stone-walled fortress and palaces. But through the Spirit (that lesser remembered part of the Trinity), we live as kingdom subjects now and have access to the hope and peace of Jesus and his garden of contentment.

how to live with contentment

If Paul could live contentedly despite persecution, surely we (this is a big finger pointed at me primarily) can learn to be content in our comparatively easier lives (I’m not saying our lives are easy, but most of us aren’t being tortured, and most of us know where our next meal is coming from).

I chose this topic to write on because lately I’ve been struggling to live in the moment. I’m an innovative guy (I always have a million ideas and little projects in my mind) who often fails to just settle down and enjoy what’s in front of him. Often these are for good reasons–I want to live a life of meaning and purpose, and I’m processing how to serve God best. However, many times I’m just being selfish and distracted. Or, in my present case, I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of my bride-to-be. So, how do we fix this?

Caveat: on this side of eternity, we will never live perfectly content lives. I’m paraphrasing Steinbeck here, but once we stop worrying about being perfect, we can be good.

The solution to living with contentment is also found in the same passage of Philippians.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God….

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

-Philippians 4:4-6, 8

Be thankful.

Out loud or in writing, be intentionally grateful.

Be present.

In good times and bad, be present in life. It’s good to think about the future or difficult situations, but we can’t be consumed by them. Remember to take a breath, step back, and be present in your immediate situation with the people around you and your reality. Lean in to Jesus when things are hard.

Little by little you and I will learn the secret, and hopefully we can pass it on to others.

Worship: The Flame of Life

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photo: Hakan Erenler

[This post was featured on The Avenue Church’s blog and podcast, For the City.]

The word worship elicits all kinds of images. One person may think of pew on pew on pew leading up to a large Gospel choir in the front of the sanctuary. Another person may recall the used and careworn pages of an old hymnal–maybe even the smell of those pages. Or perhaps one imagines hands raised in the concert hall of a mood-lit mega conference, singing alongside hundreds if not thousands of other believers. One may also remember the emotions: joy, elation, penitence.

When we think of worship, we almost always envision a form of singing. Even for those who know that worship is more, we still, upon instinct, normally associate the word with singing. This is natural. Worship through song has a rich and beautiful tradition in the Church, and it is probably the easiest way to confess love and honor to God. However, just because it is the easiest, that doesn’t mean singing is the only or even the best form of worship. True worship, of course, encompasses the whole individual and the whole church assembly.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1

Paul writes this to the Romans, urging them to submit their lives to the rule of God, and he defines worship as a presentation of one’s body as a living sacrifice.

At my church, The Avenue, we’ve begun a series entitled Valley of Vision, drawing its name and inspiration from the well known Christian devotional compiled and published in 1975 by Arthur Bennett. The Valley of Vision is a collection of Puritan prayers meant to provide form and inspiration to each believer’s personal prayer life. It has also become a simple liturgy used in some churches like The Avenue.

One of the prayers in The Valley Vision is “Worship” (read the whole prayer here), and in the opening lines, the writer promulgates the importance of worship and its significance.

“Glorious God, It is the flame of my life to worship thee, the crown and glory of my soul to adore thee, heavenly pleasure to approach thee.”

It is the flame of my life… Yes, adoration can come in the form of singing. However, notice how much more poignant is the message of this Puritan prayer. Worship is not a flame for the singing time of the service. It is not the flame of Sundays. True worship is the flame of life. Therefore, if this Christian practice is bound to the whole life, it makes sense that worship must consume more than a thirty minute segment of one’s week!

Worship is the offering of all of one’s self to the object (or objects) of one’s allegiance, and by offering one’s self in all areas of life, that becomes the act of praise. As an aside, notice that I mentioned objects, plural, can receive worship. That was intentional. We are always worshipping something; if it’s not God, it’s whatever consumes our devotion, and sometimes that consists of lots of little distracting somethings that steal our attention from God.

Thus, if worship is an offering of all of life, you are worshipping as a parent, caring for your child and pointing her to Jesus. You are worshipping on your hands and knees (prayer-like!) in your garden, pruning God’s good earth for His glory. You are worshipping as you serve your city. And, I believe, you are even worshipping in your failures when that failure becomes an offering of confession and a recognition of your need for grace. God is other in His greatness and power.

This leads me to another aspect of this important prayer. One of the reasons we worship God is because He has given us a mediator, a go-between between man and the Almighty.

“Give me knowledge of thy goodness that I might not be over-awed by thy greatness; Give me Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, that I might not be terrified, but be drawn near with filial love, with holy boldness; He is my Mediator, Brother, Interpreter, Branch, Daysman, Lamb…”

In the Old Testament, Moses asked to see God’s glory (what an audacious request!), and God acquiesced to his request with the caveat that Moses would not be allowed to see God’s face: “for man shall not see me and live.” In the Old Testament, God was personal but not exactly approachable. However, in Jesus Christ every believer has access to God through Jesus Christ.

Therefore, we also worship with the humbling knowledge that, without Jesus, we would be left to worship from afar, unable to comprehend or survive the absolute holiness of the Divine. In Jesus, however, we have a brother and mediator. He is the high priest who gives us access to the throne of God.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15

So let us fan the flame of our lives, let us worship without ceasing by bringing our adoration of God into every area of our lives, and let us praise Jesus all the more because we know that He makes a way for us to enter the eternal kingdom of the most high and eternal God.

What Is Your Sacred Pathway?

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La Iglesia de San Francisco in Lima, Peru 2014

 

The other day I was tasked with leading a faculty devotional at my school. I decided to put together a small presentation based on Gary Thomas’s book Sacred Pathways, a book I read several years ago.

Here’s the premise of the book, one of Thomas’s thoughts in the opening pages:

“Expecting all Christians to have a certain type of quiet time can wreak havoc in a church or small group. Excited about meaningful (to us) approaches to the Christian life, we sometimes assume that if others do not experience the same thing, something must be wrong with their faith. Please don’t be intimidated by others’ expectations. God wants to know the real you, not a caricature of what somebody else wants you to be. He created you with a certain personality and a certain spiritual temperament. God wants your worship, according to the way he made you. Your worship may differ somewhat from the worship of the person who brought you to Christ or the person who leads your Bible study or church.

Basically, if God created all of us uniquely, it makes sense that each of us best connect with Him in unique ways. Now, Thomas makes clear that these spiritual pathways that he suggests are not to be replaced with every Christian’s mandate: talk to God (prayer) and listen to Him (Scripture reading). And many of the pathways are commands for all true believers. Nevertheless, many of us are wired more strongly towards certain paths than others. So, which pathway is yours?

Naturalists: Loving God Outdoors

“Naturalists would prefer to leave any building, however beautiful or austere, to pray to God beside a river… just let them take a walk through the woods, mountains, or open meadows.”

Sensates: Loving God with the Senses

“Sensate Christians want to be lost in the awe, beauty, and splendor of God. They are drawn particularly to the liturgical, the majestic, the grand. When these Christians worship, they want to be filled with sights, sounds, and smells that overwhelm them. Incense, architecture, classical music, and formal language send their hearts soaring.”

Traditionalists: Loving God through Ritual and Symbol

“Traditionalists are fed by what are often termed the historic dimensions of faith: rituals, symbols, sacraments, and sacrifice. These Christians tend to have a disciplined life of faith.”

Ascetics: Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity

“Ascetics want nothing more than to be left alone in prayer. Take away the liturgy, the trappings of religion, the noise of the outside world. Let there be nothing to distract them–no pictures, no loud music–and leave them alone to pray in silence and simplicity…. Ascetics live a fundamentally internal existence.”

Activists: Loving God through Confrontation

“Activists serve a God of justice… They define worship as standing against evil and calling sinners to repentance. These Christians often view the church as a place to recharge their batteries so they can go back into the world to wage war against injustice.”

Caregivers: Loving God by Loving Others

“[Caregivers] often claim to see Christ in the poor and needy, and their faith is built up by interacting with other people…. Whereas caring for others might wear many of us down, this activity recharges a caregiver’s batteries.”

Enthusiasts: Loving God with Mystery and Celebration

“Excitement and mystery in worship is the spiritual lifeblood of enthusiasts…. enthusiasts are inspired by joyful celebration. These Christians are cheerleaders for God and the Christian life. Let them clap their hands, shout “Amen!” and dance in their excitement–that’s all they ask.”

Contemplatives: Loving God through Adoration

“Contemplatives refer to God as their lover, and the images of a loving Father and Bridegroom best capture their view of God. Their favorite Bible passages may come from the Song of Songs, as they enter the ‘divine romance’…. these Christians seek to love God with the purest, deepest, and brightest love imaginable.”

Intellectuals: Loving God with the Mind

“Intellectuals need their minds to be stirred before their hearts come truly alive…. These Christians live in the world of concepts…. ‘Faith’ is something to be understood as much as experienced. They may feel closest to God when they first understand something new about him.”

So which one are you? Take the survey here.

I scored highest as a Naturalist and Sensate (also pretty high as Intellectual and Contemplative). I love connecting to God outdoors, especially where there is less white noise–no buzz of cars and infrequent planes flying overhead (unfortunately, it’s difficult to find spaces like that). I also experience the greatest sublime when I’m utilizing my imagination and senses through art and literature. Thus, understanding myself better helps me to thrive in my own devotional life, and I hope it might help you too.

Finally, if you have a chance, I would encourage you to order the book (save the planet…buy a pre-owned copy). It gives sage wisdom to help avoid pitfalls for certain spiritual pathways. For example, my temperaments might cause me to remain isolated in nature or books, but I am still biblically commanded to serve others. We need to watch out for these natural tendencies to ignore the universal calling of the Christian.

I hope you are blessed and can better connect with God according to how he designed you.

Macbeth, the anti-David

 

Just the other day, my class was performing skits of various scenes in the life of David before becoming king of Israel (and the king of Israel’s brief Golden Age). As I was sharing a few personal thoughts to the end of one performance, I suddenly realized just how closely it paralleled the story of Macbeth. In 1 Samuel 24 we read that Saul is in pursuit of David. Taking a break to relieve himself, Saul goes into a cave where, unbeknownst to Saul, David is hiding with his own men. David creeps up to Saul probably to kill him (the text never says that was his original intent but can be surmised from the context of the situation), his enemy, and gain the throne of Israel. However, instead of killing Saul, David secretly cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe. Even that act, though, causes David deep remorse for touching “the Lord’s anointed,” and he orders his men not to attack Saul.

So what are the parallels with Shakespeare’s famous Macbeth? First, in Macbeth the titular character begins as a brave warrior and Thane (nobleman) of Glamis. However, he receives two prophecies by a group of three witches. First, he would be Thane of Cawdor; this takes place later that scene. Second, Macbeth would become king of Scotland. However, Macbeth toils over the conundrum of his own role in the fulfillment of the second prophecy. “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir” (Act I, Scene 3). Can he trust the prophecy that what had been foretold will come to pass without his direct intervention? Or must Macbeth act on his own behalf? Well, SPOILER ALERT (for those of you who somehow are unfamiliar with the story of Macbeth), Macbeth takes matters into his own hands: He kills the king and, to secure his throne, kills many others besides. Before he knows it, he declares, “I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Act III, Scene 4).

Image result for stepped in blood

David, the antithesis of Macbeth, also receives a prophecy that he will become king, foretold by the prophet Samuel. Not only must David decide if he will wait for the efficacy of the prophecy (and God’s dictation), he must submit himself to the temptation of seizing control when fate seems to have favored him with the opportunity to kill Saul in the cave at En Gedi. David, however, remains true to his own humanity (and God’s law), and passes through the test having only gone so far as to cut a piece of the king’s robe. God, true to his word, later allows Saul to be killed in combat, and David, integrity intact, ascends to Israel’s throne.

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Do you believe that Macbeth would have eventually become king even without his own violent intervention?

Can you think of other examples of leaders (fictional or real) passing inner tests of integrity before ascending to their position?

Till We Have Faces: My Blog’s New Look

image by Nicole Mason

 

About a year and a half ago I began this blog primarily as a literary resource for students when I was teaching in El Salvador. I posted on the blog, but it was usually in a literary or educational capacity: a creative attempt to engage with my students. When I moved back to the U.S. because of visa application requirements (read here), I took a job as a sixth grade teacher in the Kansas City area (I teach three sections of language and one section each of Bible, history, and reading). However, I struggled with the purpose of my blog. That, coupled with busyness, allowed the blog to atrophy. Nevertheless, I grew to miss the writing and posting, and therefore, I’ve decided to re-tool/re-brand the look and purpose.

I guess if I had to define it, this would be a life blog of sorts. I want to write about things that matter, things that affect and move me, things to think about, and, hopefully, things that challenge and encourage others. Topics will be relevant to my own life:

  • Education
  • Literature and writing
  • Travel
  • Culture
  • Faith

FAITH

The Christian perspective has come under a lot of fire these days. The reasons are, of course, myriad, and I don’t want to dive into all of them here. What saddens me, though, is when people treat faith and religion of any type flippantly. Religion essentially answers the big worldview questions:

  • How did the world come to be?
  • What’s wrong with the world (if anything)?
  • What’s the fix?
  • Who am I?
  • Is there life beyond the grave? What kind of life?

Christianity, of course, centers around Jesus. The teachings of Jesus and the doctrines of the Church are both simple and complex, easily grasped and infinitely profound. It’s filled with paradoxes (e.g. Incarnation), and I love that.

At the core of what attracts me about Christianity, though, is its message of hope. We call this Good News or Gospel (the word in Greek is eu-angelion which literally means “good news”). The Good News from the Christian perspective is that, through Jesus, wrong is made rightThe Bible teaches that both humans and creation are messed up. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you and I and all people were made to be more than we are. God is trying to make us all fully human again. Additionally, creation itself is to be perfected someday. So this reality that we live in now is not the final answer. There’s more. And through Jesus, we have access to that more. He is the fulfillment of all of our deepest longings.

The title for this blog, “a great, real place,” comes from a quote from Till We Have Faces, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, CS Lewis. Let me share a few quotes that tie in to what I’ve been saying and that really lay the foundation for this blog.

“Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

The milky way galaxy and a person's silhouette at nighttime in Kôprovský štít
image by Štefan Štefančík

 

8 Books about Faith and Art

The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by [Nouwen, Henri]

 

For many years (decades, centuries), there has been debate as to what should be the relationship between art and religion. From a Christian perspective, should art have any prominent role in the church? What do we do about art made by those who believe differently than us? This might be visual art, literary art, music, or some other form of creativity. Is there a proper response to these things?

Here are eight books that I have either read in full or I am currently reading (currently reading Beauty Will Save the World and Echoes of Eden) about the relationship between art and faith (from a Christian perspective) which will encourage your engagement with the arts while maintaining a thoughtful attitude. You can check out more resources on my page “Faith and the Arts.” 

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams a biographical sketch of the memorable Christian literary group, the Inklings. More than individual profiles, this work also traces the interchange between these literary greats.

For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts a call for the local church to embrace the importance of the arts and their artists.

Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling Andy Crouch’s thoughtful approach to cultural engagement for Christians–being involved in the creative process rather than merely reactionary.

Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture a collection of post 9/11 essays regarding the intersection of faith, art, and culture by Japanese American Makoto Fujimura.

Liberal Arts for the Christian Life a defense of more traditional academic subjects (the humanities) during a cultural crisis in which STEM subjects are often promoted at the expense of a broader education.

The Return of the Prodigal Son Catholic priest Henri Nouwen’s examination of faith and grace (drawn from personal experience) through the lens of Rembrandt’s famous painting.

Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological AgeGregory Wolfe’s defense of Christian humanism, reflectively discussing the faith elements present in less discussed authors such as Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Conner, Shusaku Endo, Wendell Berry, and more.

Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts more accessible than Wolfe’s work (above), it highlights the proper Christian stance towards art and literature and the discusses the specific faith evident in the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

 

So here is a primer for anyone interested. Are there any other good ones to add to the list?

Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Sub-creation

I was first introduced to Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was a pre-teen. At that point I was not familiar with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the movies had not yet premiered). I had the joy and privilege to experience this story with a blank slate, knowing nothing about the book besides the cover image. Image result for the hobbit coversThus I was immediately whisked away into the magic of the Shire, Mirkwood, the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo’s adventures with his “Unexpected Party” of dwarves. To my great relief upon completing the book, I discovered that The Hobbit was only the prequel (though it was not originally written with the intention of being a prequel) to the much grander and epic The Lord of the Rings, and soon after I dived right on in to that as well.

Few worlds have captured my imagination and inner longings like Middle Earth. Perhaps I could add Narnia (I have probably read that whole series ten times or more), Hogwarts, and the Fairy Land of Phantastes. I am being very serious when I describe my experiences in these worlds as mystical. It was not merely a matter of entering a great story–I entered into a new reality of wonder. It was not merely escapism–I began to see the magic of my world in new ways (what Tolkien would call “Recovery,” discussed below). Great imaginative writers have written detailed apologias defending the power of fairy literature. Stories and worlds such as those I’ve already mentioned have unfortunately been quickly dismissed into genre fiction: fantasy. It is almost never critically viewed as serious literature. But its importance is far greater than just another pop-novel category.

Tolkien’s mythopoeia is best detailed in his famous Andrew Lang Lecture, “On Fairy-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland on March 8, 1939. In it he describes the importance of the Faerie realm equal to and even beyond the narrative itself. Tolkien goes on to explain that writers become “sub-creators,” drawing upon the Christian doctrine of the imago dei. Humans are made in the image of a Creator-God and are endowed with similar (though not equal) abilities to create: “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien went on to dispel the myth that fairy stories are only for children (similar to my statement about the dismissal of the “fantasy” genre):

At least it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them: naturally, because children are human and fairy-stories are a natural human taste (though not necessarily a universal one); accidentally, because fairy-stories are a large part of the literary lumber that in latter-day Europe has been stuffed away in attics; unnaturally, because of erroneous sentiment about children, a sentiment that seems to increase with the decline in children.

Tolkien concluded his lecture by listing three important functions of fairy stories: recovery, escape, and consolation. First, fairy stories help readers recover the magic of their “Primary world,” which is often lost in our overly scientific, overly explained universe. Escape, in Tolkien’s view, is not a bad thing. Instead, he likens escape to the noble desire of the prisoner rather than the ignoble flight of a deserter. Escape in this sense is one who imagines a better world. Thus, in many ways fantasy begins overlapping with the real world to help heal it. Finally, consolation is Tolkien’s and the fairy tale’s highlight. Tolkien names this the “Eucatastrophe”: “the good
catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)…” I’m reminded of Gandalf’s eucatastrophic appearance at Helm’s Deep when it seemed that all would be lost. Tolkien, however, goes further, and here his Catholic Christianity is very evident. Consolation envisions the fulfillment of the Christian’s longing: paradise, the new heavens and new earth provided only by the eucatastrophic death and resurrection of the Christ.

Thus, I hope it is evident that fantasy, true and good fantasy, is something much deeper than a superficial pop-novel. By creating a secondary world of imagination and magic (if you will), it plays out consistently the deepest human and universal themes of the primary world.

An Open Letter to My Graduating Seniors

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It’s here. You’ve finally made it to the end. I’m proud of you.

And I’m not saying I’m proud of you because every single moment of every class period you acted like perfect little angels (we all know that’s not the truth). I’m saying it because…well…it’s easy to say now that you’re gone. Ha! Just kidding. No, really I’m saying it because all of you have so much potential and so much passion for life. I have had the privilege of learning so much from you; thank you for sharing your lives and culture with me. All of you have immense value, and you just completed a major milestone. You have finished high school, and you begin a new, profound journey to university, to your career, to the mysterious (and often scary) beyond. It’s amazing to me the impact and influence you might have as you take your passions literally all around the world. Some of you will continue to impact your home country, El Salvador; some of you will study in other Latin American countries; some in the United States; some in Canada; and one all the way in Korea!

I’m not sure if I ever shared this with you guys, but I was the student commencement speaker at my first undergraduate graduation. There are a million directions to take a graduation speech (I worked at a book store for a year in Boston, and we sold so many copies of Dr. Suess’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! during graduation season), but I shared and briefly expounded upon two ideas. First, I read a few lines from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me…” (in fact, I wrote a longer post about this very poem here). I hope you feel that, that sense of adventure, that carpe diem, that grabbing the world by it’s tail. But I also hope that life is more than that. In my graduation speech I also shared the latter part of Hebrews 11 from the Bible. Of course Hebrews 11 is remarkable, the “Hall of Faith” it has been called, recounting the deeds of faithful men and women. But the last few verses  about the faithful are sensational indeed!

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Hebrews 11:35b-40 (ESV)

Rather a sobering passage to share in light of graduation, huh? But I say this because throughout history, the most influential men and women have understood that there is a greater law than individual success, money, power, and fame. Always a life worth living involves self-sacrifice (though I hope you never need to experience the physical torture and death that some throughout the world experience). From a Christian perspective, there is the hope of greater reward than what the world can offer. This creates the freedom to serve selflessly. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” So what definition of success will you live by? What cause are you willing to die for in order to truly live?

Be workers. Be leaders. Be husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. But don’t let popular, vain opinion dictate your definition of success and accomplishment. Some of the greatest servants and saints have been relatively unknown.

I’m proud of you. I’m excited for you. Now go and change the world.