The Architecture of Isolation

I designed houses, when I was in high school, and rooms that were hidden away within and only accessible through easily-overlooked, obscure corners. I made complex, maze-like houses with long hallways and corridors, rooms staggered and stacked unpredictably. I never wondered about my labyrinthine style but the way I imagined creating houses came deep out of my psyche. I was creating intimate, protected spaces, insulated by walls and hallways. On my computer and in my imagination I could craft new spaces; spaces where one was insulated from the difficulties of going through life with others. I wanted to be able to exist in a protected space where my identity was not infringed upon by the social pressures and skirmishes that inevitably took place in high school.

Naturally, we tend to find ourselves moving away from those who inconvenience us. To carry over the previous metaphor: if we are in open water, we are swimming away from those who impinge on our happiness. We want the waters between us as individuals to protect and separate -to insulate us from their inconveniences and from the cost it takes on us to be a part of their lives. We are trying to become protected islands unto ourselves. If we avoid people who inconvenience us altogether, we are not creating methods of insulation but we are swimming towards isolation.

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There is a subtle difference between insulation and isolation. Insulation keeps things like heat or sound in and cold/sound out. It is a boundary that separates and protects. Among people, individual insulation allows us to be differentiated -and less dominated by others- in order to be more fully ourselves. This is a good thing. In the same way, we’ve found that insulating our houses is a good thing. We don’t talk about our houses being isolated. The two key differences between insulation and isolation are the distance between and what that distance contains; insulation is a relatively small area of space that is filled with something whereas isolation is a larger area of space that is often devoid of anything.

Many people operate out of the assumption that we should not have to deal with the inconveniences of others. What starts out as a way to insulate our lives has evolved into over-insulating, even isolating, our lives. If you look close enough you can see the effects of this accelerating cultural trend to over-insulate as manifest in the way we construct our private worlds (our islands). Namely, how we construct our houses is a microcosm of how we culturally construct our society, our culture and our lives.

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This progression of over-insulation (towards isolation) can be seen, starting with the invention of the automobile. One of the chief, long term unfolding effects of an entire society commuting in automobiles is that they insulate us from the outside world and from others by taking away the opportunity to spontaneously interact with strangers and neighbors on the streets as we go about our daily activities. We no longer needed to walk down the sidewalks out of necessity; if we used sidewalks it was out of recreation (or a side-effect of poverty). 

Mostly, we chose to adopt the technology of automobiles because they saved us time (allowing us to increase our efficiency and productivity) and gave us individual control. With the automobile, we could go where we wanted, when we wanted, and fast. But another, less explicit, reason we chose automobiles is because we appreciated the insulation. We appreciated being insulated from most of the inconveniences people may ask of us.

With the automobile, we needed a place to park them which meant incorporating attached garages to our houses. We then could drive inside one insulated environment that brought us to our insulated home-base. Moving from insulated environment to insulated environment quickly over-insulates.

And this led to other isolating trends. Next, it was the urban sprawl of suburbia. With automobiles, people no longer needed to live in cities or villages to get access to the resources (or the jobs) they needed; they could live outside of the city where there was space between houses. Here, we see the first differentiated characteristic of isolation: a space between, devoid of anything. People wanted a certain amount of space of nothing between houses in order to insulate their own house from unpleasant noises, smells, people, etc. At the same time, the houses we built were being constructed further from the road. Even in cities and suburbs, houses moved further back into the lots, away from the streets.

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As people’s houses grew in distance from each other and distance from the road it was harder to walk anywhere from those houses. The creation of suburbs further denied people the regular opportunity to spontaneously interact with neighbors. As less and less interaction happened among neighbors, people did not know who their neighbors were. In the unknowing, our minds were filled with thoughts that were projected by the news and media (i.e. the more we see/hear about terrible things happening the more prone we are to become suspicious and distrustful of those we don’t know).

As general distrust grew amid the unknowing of our neighbors, we increased our insulation and isolation: we stopped using our front porches and began building back decks. Our front porches were places we used to interact with neighbors and people passing by on the streets/sidewalks. They fostered a sense of knowing -a sense of community. Backyards and decks, on the other hand, became private oasis that allowed us be insulated and isolated from our neighbors and, more importantly, out of sight and further isolated from strangers on the road.

All of these are manifestations of over-insulation as exemplified by the exterior of our homes. But changes have taken place within our houses in regards to the progression towards isolation. Consider the evolution of the word “hall.”

The original meaning of a hall was “a roofed space, located centrally, for the communal use of a tribal chief and his people.” Think about the architecture characterized in the Romantic period: halls were vast -often eloquent- gathering spaces where people came together to celebrate and enjoy each other’s company. Now we must clarify when we are speaking of such a space (by adding an additional word): a banquet hall (or function hall).

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We have added “banquet” to clarify that the space we are talking about is for meeting together with a lot of people because we understand the word “hall” to mean something far different. We currently take the word hall to mean an abbreviation of hallway: a narrow passage that intersects a house and leads to separate rooms. Previously, a “hall” was a large, open, unidirectional space. Then the word “hallway” came about in 1839 to clarify a space that led somewhere. Since then, hallway has come to be abbreviated as (and to replace the original meaning of) the word “hall.”

This is a massive cultural shift from the communal to the individual, exemplified in the evolution of our language over the last 200 years. The word “hall” encapsulates the vast cultural changes that have occurred: we used to be a people who created a space to insulate ourselves from the wilderness outside -a place where we could all exist and celebrate together in a common space. Now we are a people who create buildings that require hallways to guide us to separate, individually protected spaces. Halls have become means to an individual, isolated end. Our houses exemplify that we want insulation within (layers of) insulation; individual rooms inside of individual houses where each individuals can have his or her own protected place. I’m not trying to argue a moral judgement about every individual having an individual room but I am wanting to acknowledge the trajectory of over-insulation and isolation and observe the cultural repercussions of this when implemented on global scale.

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When thinking about this in regards to seeing glimpses of God’s kingdom here (tangibly on this earth) I can’t help but wonder: are we letting our cultural architecture define and shape us in a way that steers us further away from the way Jesus modeled us to live?

The truth is that our identity is not entirely cut free and untethered. In reality, we are all connected. The people we live with shape us greatly just as the act of living alone greatly shapes us. And, looking at the evolution of housing, we can see the very spaces we choose to live in shape us both collectively (as a people) and individually. Can we let our houses become halls (in the original sense) where communities of people gather together to celebrate instead of halls (in the more modern sense) that lead us to isolation?

I have never constructed a literal house according to my adolescent dreams. In truth, part of me would still love to do so, but I have, instead, chosen another way of living. As a Christian,  I believe it is important to live in a different space. Perhaps, for many of us Christians, the task we are called to is to be living in ways that allow us, as believers, to exist “together and [have] everything in common.” That may mean reviving the original definition of “hall” as a roofed space, located centrally, for the communal use of a tribal chief and his people. Many church buildings still function in this very manner. But perhaps we need to begin to draw this model further into our own lives -to let it manifest itself in our daily lives so that others may see the space in which we live as a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Cover photo by Vision Webagency

First photo of hallway by Dan Jewell

Photo of house through fence by Matt Jones 

Photo of house at sunset by Inspiration de

Second photo of hallway by Pat Loika

Photo of banquet hall by Joe DeSousa

Islands Unto Ourselves (4)

I remember when I first heard the term “islands unto ourselves” it was like a drug slamming into the pleasure receptors in my brain. I was hooked. Yes, I want to be an island unto myself. I want to protect the unique snowflake that is me. I want to be distinct from -but also respected and appreciated by- others. Basically, I want to be completely free to be the best version of who I am, unhindered by anyone else. Don’t we all?

In my desire for complete freedom, I often want to be swept far away to a private place; a place that is protected from the discomfort and inconveniences that being tethered to others inherently brings. I want to be completely free to be me, unencumbered, so I let myself be swept away to an island unto myself. But as Stanley Hauerwas poignantly says, we have “confused freedom with the isolation of the self.”*

I started wondering if I was confusing freedom with isolation. Does our desire to be free from people who inconvenience us also isolate us? If we think of ourselves as individual islands, could the very waters we let divide us and delineate the boundaries of our distinct identities actually isolate us?

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Don’t get me wrong, solitude and differentiation are important but, too often, in our desire to be free we let ourselves be swept away by imperceptible undercurrents. One powerful cultural undertow is the idea that, when it comes down to it, we are fundamentally disconnected from everyone else; we are islands unto ourselves. This can be a very dangerous idea.

Even as islands, we occasionally feel the loneliness of isolation. However, too often the discomfort of creeping loneliness leads us to distract ourselves. And, since there are so many things begging for our time and attention, it is easy to let ourselves be distracted. In distracting ourselves every time we feel lonely, we slowly let our imaginations atrophy. Let me explain:

If we feel a momentary twinge of loneliness, we can too easily turn to whatever is right beside us in order to escape the discomfort. Too often, what is right beside us is another experience, idea or thing ready to be consumed. Since we are subjected to many hundreds of (brain)washings in any given day that tell us how to live our lives we can easily lose the ability to imagine anything other than the projected imaginations of consumer culture.

The projected imaginations of consumer culture are what consumer culture co-opts us into imagining for ourselves: of the individual self obtaining permanent happiness, self-fulfillment, identity, security, comfort, mobility, convenience and freedom through the means of consuming experiences, information, goods and services. In fact, these projections are so pervasive and ubiquitous that we often lose the ability to imagine anything else for our lives. The American Dream is extremely uniform and not very imaginative; the fact that most of us Americans live such similar lives speaks to the failure to imagine and actually live in any alternative manner.

As we give into the projected imaginations of consumer culture we lose the ability to imagine for ourselves. Martin Luther King Jr., in a great speech, called Americans to be maladjusted to society. That is, we must not adjust ourselves to a society of discrimination and injustice; we cannot participate or be complicit when we know what is going on around us is wrong or immoral. **

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I’ve said before that our brains are always being washed and what starts out as a wash can easily become a wave. If we are not careful, the wave will wash us away. In reality, we may think we wish to be islands unto ourselves but that is a projected imagination of consumer culture. We must reclaim our ability to imagine. We must imagine a different (perhaps maladjusted) life for ourselves, realizing that being swept away in order to become “islands unto ourselves” is not actually good for us and, if we are honest with ourselves, it is not actually what we deeply desire as relational creatures. 

Perhaps what we truly desire is to stand on common ground where we can wash ourselves, be washed by those who truly know us and by the One who loves us instead of being washed away by projected imaginations of consumer culture. Perhaps what we deeply want is to give ourselves to a purpose bigger (and more important) than ourselves, and to live a simple life basking in a shared contentedness with those around us. Our prophetic task is to find the courage to imagine something alternative: a kingdom not of this world. We must imagine glimpses of God’s kingdom manifested here on earth in our daily lives. We do this, not by being swept away by cultural washings and waves, but by becoming aware and actively swimming against that cultural force, back to shore where we can find common ground together.

 

Stanley Hauerwas, Called to Community, pg xiii

** Martin Luther King Jr., Maladjusted 

Cover photo by Ivan Slade

2nd photo by Pablo Garcia Saldaña

3rd photo by Breno Machado

 

Waves, Away (3)

You know how your fingers get wrinkly if they’re in water for too long? They get soft and malleable. Our lives are steeping in a consumer-mediated experience and we’re getting a little pruney. 

Our bathtubs continue to fill up but it’s not just a washing of the brain that is happening culturally, it’s a complete immersion. We are reaching a saturation point. How often do you hear someone respond by saying “busy” when you ask “how are you?” People are drowning in their own lives -drowning in a culture washing over them. Amid the commotion of our busy lives we are so distracted that we don’t notice we are being washed, let alone washed away. What starts out as a wash can become a wave.

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Like in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as our more basic needs are met we focus on moving our energies up to more inessential areas. In other words, we move our perception of “needs” up the hierarchy. Suddenly, with all our basic needs being met, we feel we the need to satisfy our desires. As our desires are being met, we feel the need to define ourselves.

I’ve noticed how within social media (especially online dating) many people dominate their profiles with their likes and preferences. In other words, people have found that the best way to describe and present themselves as a desirable person is through listing the things they like -the movies, books, music, food and other things they like and choose to consume.

Consumer culture has become so influential that we have come to embody it; we believe we are what we consume: I am the bands I like. I am the style I wear. I am the tattoos I have. I am the books I read. I am the places I go. I am the money I spend (or earn). I am the job title I hold. Basically, I am what I choose.

Not only are we enamored and enthralled with the opportunity to choose our own, individual identity through our unique preferences but we are addicted to consuming those preferences and desires. The whole experience of defining ourselves through such self-gratifying means is dizzying. Like any power, this newfound self-defining of individual identity can be intoxicating.

Identity is no longer the tradition of which I am a part. Identity is no longer the family which I came from. Identity is no longer where I came from. We might even try to argue that identity is no longer the people which I surround myself. Identity is no longer tethered to anything; it is free to go where it pleases.

The ironic thing is that, when untethered, identity is very easily swept away.

We are reacting to the idea of a tethered-identity by throwing caution to the wind and wanting to be swept away. We want to be swept far away to a private place; to be protected from the discomfort and inconveniences that being tethered to others inherently bring. And so we let ourselves be swept away to islands…

 

Cover photo by Jeremy Bishop

Wave photo by Austin Schmid

Waters to Wash (2)

“Brainwash.” Is there a more ugly and off-putting word? These days, information is not only accessible but it is expected to be consumed and used. It is, literally, right at our fingertips. That information empowers us to be increasingly independent and it has become an unwritten rule that modern westerners are to be well-informed individuals, holding distinct opinions and a distinct identity. To be brainwashed is to be otherwise.

The mistake we all make is that brainwashing only happens to specific groups of people (like religious or political groups). However, it is not whether or not we are being brainwashed, the question is who or what is doing the brainwashing?

Personally, I think the term “brainwash” gets a bad rap. Brainwashing isn’t so bad if you take it literally (or semi-literally)— a washing of the brain. It is strictly hygienic. We wash our bodies on regular basis, so why not wash our brains more regularly?

In reality, our brains are constantly being washed -whether we know it or not. We need to ask ourselves, are we washing them or are they being washed by someone else? What kind of water are our brains being washed with?

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As humans, we’ve spent thousands/millions of years slowly adapting to our surroundings and now our surroundings have been changing so rapidly we cannot adapt fast enough. At first Capitalism was all based on need. With the help of Edward Bernays, need was slowly supplemented by desire in order to further expand and grow the hungry economic system. Over time, as the economic system and society flourished with growth, unlimited growth became the objective. *

If we buy for our desires as well as our needs, more things will be purchased and the economy will grow. Over the last century -during this progression- along came catalogs (advertisements), then radio (and radio ads), then magazines (and ads), and TV shows (and more ads). Entertainment was paired with advertisement in fairly obvious manners. As these patterns intensified, the lines between advertising and entertainment slowly blurred. A nearly imperceptible culture of consumerism began to emerge and we began to lose perception of what was needed and what was desired; both became reason enough for consumption.

Movies, tv shows, music, books, articles, apps, social media…all of these things are pouring over us like warm bathing waters. Our brains are washed with ideas from consumer culture and our screens have become faucets through which society sends its flowing ideas. We fill our eyes and ears like bathtubs with water that tells us what we need: what we need to survive, what we need to desire, who we need to be, how we need to define ourselves and where we need to go. These flowing waters are pouring over us, washing our brains.

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I don’t know about you but I don’t get into the shower with just anyone. I like to wash myself. Most people are quite selective of who they want to wash their bodies. Shouldn’t we be just as selective of who (and what) we let wash our minds and hearts?

Who we befriend and spend time with, as well as everything we choose to input and ingest: images, sounds and experiences- every time, our brains are being washed. And some of these things do a better job of scrubbing dirt and washing our brains than others. What are the things you actually want your brain to be washed with?

In the end, culture is always the water around us, washing us. Part of being a Christian is becoming aware of those waters. Another part is creating an alternative culture -a culture modeled after Christ- that shows glimpses of God’s kingdom here on earth. Perhaps I am unable to redeem the word “brainwash” from the depths of its negative connotations. But washing ourselves -our minds, our hearts- is something we are called to do. Isn’t that what immersing ourselves in scripture is, isn’t that what immersing ourselves in faith dialogue, prayer, worship, praise, fellowship, confession and liturgy is?

Every time we choose to input and ingest information, images, sounds and experiences our brains are being washed. Simply put, it is not a matter of whether or not you are being brainwashed but it’s a matter of who (or what) is doing the brainwashing (and with what). Are you brainwashing yourself or is someone else? What kind of water is your brain being washed with?

 

Century of the Self

Water photo by Yulia Sobol
Faucet photo by Dan Watson

Looking For a Fight (1)

“Why do we feel the need to tear everything apart and critique it?” I was riding in a car with a friend last year when I asked this question after lamenting the MO of millennials to deconstruct everything. Unexpectedly, my friend pulled the car over. He jumped out and threw up his fists, floating lightly from foot to foot and feigning a fight. Understandably, I was a bit thrown off and perplexed. I stepped out of the car cautiously. He was looking directly at me. What did I say? Why was my friend suddenly looking for a fight?

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Imagine a world-renown boxing coach, pinning their greatest boxers up against everyone who enters the ring. Now, imagine opponents are entering the ring unknowingly. Certainly they’re going to get punched if they’re caught off-guard. The best and fastest way they can learn to adapt is to recognize where they are and then dance around the boxer’s punches. They need to buy some time. There is no time to question why they are there. They first need fancy footwork to stay on their toes and study the opponent long enough to learn their weakness. Once they’ve done that, they must set to work, meticulously, with whatever methods they can use to wear the opponent down.

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As I stood there on the gravel and pine needles beside the car, I watched my friend come around to sock me. But when he juked at me, he threw a verbal punch instead of a physical one. It still knocked me over. My friend was standing up for the deconstructive tactics of millennials.

With supermarkets abounding with food, with a stable society and with a healthy economy all built up around us the difficult battle of modern time and culture is not usually whether we can survive with physical health but rather, whether we can survive and maintain our psychological and spiritual health.

Consumer Culture is the greatest boxing coach, coaching advertisers on how to make people discontent. We are the ones (unknowingly) being thrown into the ring. When we look up, we see the greatest advertising athletes barreling our way with intent to sock the sanity (and contentedness) out of us. And Consumer Culture isn’t afraid to play dirty, sending punches to the gut under the conscious radar, hitting our inherently human dissatisfaction: “You’ll be happy after you get this one last thing.” They know that dissatisfaction will ceaselessly drive us to desire and work for more, more, more.

Consumer Culture isn’t afraid to spend billions (592 billion to be exact) barraging future opponents to believe consumption is the only way to happiness and fulfillment. When we see the ubiquity of it – everyone we know and see- we easily (and often unknowingly) believe this is true. When nearly 600 billion dollars is fighting against you, you don’t have a huge chance of escaping unscathed. With so much money and power behind a force, the torrents of attacks are nearly equivalent to brainwashing. Let’s face it, we are highly susceptible.

It’s not a fair fight but we must stand up and fight back. Half the battle is played before we even realize we are in the ring. But it starts by recognizing where we are and who is throwing punches at us. We’re learning to fight the billions of dollars pouring into this mind game. It’s a tough battle and we’re certainly the underdog but we outnumber the champ; we can take them down. Millennials are dodging punches, studying their opponent’s moves and fighting back with feather touches: dodge and look, dodge and learn, dodge and deconstruct. Dodge, dodge, deconstruct. At least it’s a start…

(Photo by Paris on Ponce & Le Maison Rouge)  

Sharing the Opportunity to Serve

In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park there is a large population of homeless folk. My friend Claire Howard has been befriending and helping many people there for 10 years now with innerCHANGE. She is part of a great story. The story that is not often told, however, is the story of how the people she works with help her, help each other and help those in need.

Most news that we see/hear/read these days is saturated with pain, sadness, injustice and acts of hate. But every once in a while we get to hear stories which tell us of hope; stories that show us glimpses of God’s kingdom. Indeed, glimpses of the kingdom can be seen right here on this very earth.

I decided to interview Claire and compile a couple short videos focusing on the positive -often unexpected- stories of goodness that come out of the situations and people she works with. These are prophetic stories about receiving gifts from those we may least expect to give…

Sharing the Opportunity to Serve from Lee Kuiper on Vimeo.

Becoming Much That Was *

As we grow older, we become more familiar with loss. In fact, loss becomes a close friend; slowly, an old friend. We know the certain curves and scars, becoming familiar with the voice – it’s specific cadence- and we eventually even recognize the back of this old friend anywhere. Sometimes we can see loss coming our way. Sometimes it shows up unannounced and takes our hearts by storm.

When we are young, there is little we cannot do; our potential is great. We blossom into freedom and bloom into a world that yearns for us to display our own, distinct beauty. The world beckons us to come running. In our youthful eagerness, we cannot wait and we run as fast as we can into our lives. We run into the future with anticipation because, in fact, there is very little we cannot do. But time brings us choice. And therein lies the problem (or, rather, the path to loss). The more choices we make, the more we narrow down who we are  -who we can become- because every choice is a renunciation. A million other choices are forsaken for this one path on which we find ourselves walking.

After years of choices we find ourselves moving down a path. Some of us could see, with certain clarity, this path before we actually walked on it. Some of us move through the fog of night, seemingly guided by a force outside of ourselves. We move by trust. Flashes of light illumine the path in front of our steps.

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There comes a point in everyone’s life when they stop running. It is a crossroads where we learn to walk. Soon, we savor every step, even wishing we could retrace and relive our rushed steps. Growing into the people we are becoming is never easy. As we grow, loss takes away pieces of ourselves, pieces of who we used to be. And, so, we learn two things: we learn to fight and we learn to grieve.

Learning to grieve isn’t fun; it’s the act of letting go. We acknowledge what it is we want, what it is we expect, what it is we hope for…and then we acknowledge the lack and the loss. We stand before an uncrossable canyon where we find, down in that canyon, the discrepancy of who we could have been and who we are. We face our limits: our inabilities to make it across the canyon. We learn we are limited creatures -that we cannot do everything- and we learn we must let go.

When we look behind ourselves, we find we cannot go backward for the ground has crumbled. Behind, there is nothing for us except paralysis -pillars of salt- and a beacon of light shining forward from our failures. So, with our gazes set to the horizon, we fight to become the apparitions of our desire. We take ambitious steps. Yet, with our gazes set to the horizon, we look beyond and see the distant ghosts of who we could have been. We grieve, seeing on the other side of the chasm, the vibrancy of their accomplishments, relationships, and identities. They are the choices we did not choose. They require of us, only now, grieving.

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After some time, our human potential is noticeably depleted from when we had originally set out. We become less and less as much as we become more and more. Possibilities are exchanged for realities. The river of flowing potential crystalizes into actual. We have lived an actual life.

And that life becomes our familiar possession -an old stale hat, sun-soaked and sweaty (hopefully well-loved) -that we have worn for some time now. Bit by bit, death steals its little thefts from us: our actual liveliness (our what is) as well as our potential (our what will be). These thefts teach us we cannot control even our own life as much as we thought. These thefts, come to us under the guise of loss.

As obstinate creatures of persistence, we fight against loss. Afraid, we run. Disbelieving, we cling to life. But still, we find ourselves containing less and less: we contain what was and what used to be. We have sold (or been stolen from) our actual and our potential (what is and what will be) along the path we walk. 

As gracious creatures of acceptance, however, we embrace loss. Afraid, we grieve. Adjusting, we are gracious of what was given us and find ourselves thankful for more and more: we contain what was good and what used to be great. We have freely given our actual and our potential (what is and what will be) along the path we walk.

Perhaps grieving allows us to see the thefts of death and to let go, becoming potentially free to give. When you freely give what is and what will be you may find that those things soon belong to the strange figures you see walking in the city streets you used to own. Perhaps a baby rolls by in a stroller staring at you inquisitively, dubiously, and you wonder if this helpless, precocious infant will, some distant day, be the one to save you on your deathbed. You are thankful. But that day grows closer, faster than you think.

Even now, you are becoming something that exists “no more in time.” You are moving onward, outward from the center of the world bringing heat and light but becoming something coming to cool —coming to equilibrium. You are giving yourself away. Each day comes, passes through you and your only option is to move in disharmony or harmony with the day’s passing. Your only option is a gracious loosening or a frightful gripping. We all grow cold. But, do we give our heat away freely, letting our graciousness become a warmth? Or do we cling to our heat, fighting the inevitable theft?

The path forward is not fighting but an embracing of grief. It carries us down into the canyon. Beyond grief resides acceptance. Beyond grief resides resilience. Beyond grief resides grace. And, beyond grief is the path out of the canyon.

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“People can grow stronger and clearer in the absence of something, as when you chop down an old spruce and the vegetation around it receives more light and nutrition and a new chance to bloom.”

– Therese Boman

*Post inspired by Wendell Berry, No Going Back 

Slipping Through the Cracks

In arguments between two people there is always the wondering of who is going to get the last word. We desire the last word because it is powerful. More than just the symbol of victory, the last word literally reverberates through our ears as we walk away. It resonates over and again in the chambers of our hearts and replays again in our heads.

Luke, the author of Acts, seems to be aware of this: the ending of the book is not Paul’s release or his trip to Spain or his rearrest or eventual execution. The ending is actually surprisingly positive for the fact that Paul is left a prisoner in Rome. But Paul isn’t the point or even the main character of the book of Acts. The spreading of this movement (what the Jews call “a sect” and what Paul calls “the Way”) through the work of the Holy Spirit is this is the main point and the main character of the book. The optimistic ending comes from the fact that the door is opening to the Gentiles and the spreading of “The Way” is, despite subjugation of many key disciples and advocates, unhindered. 

“Unhindered.”  That is literally the last word of the book. *

But, let’s back up: after many seafaring adventures, mishaps, shipwrecks, snakebites, legal battles, healings, and countless speeches, Paul and company arrive in Rome. Many scholars believe Paul was eventually let go but Luke doesn’t end the story like that. Luke ends the book deliberately with Paul still on house arrest. The chapter closes with an open door: people can come to Paul but Paul’s not going out to them anymore. God can bring who He is going to bring but Paul is put in a place where he has to actively wait and receive.

Ronald Rolheiser, says in one of his books, “ – Life is what happens while you are planning your life. – I always resented interruptions to my work until I realized that those interruptions were my real work. – Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is the person who is actually in my life while I am plotting how to be in somebody else’s life.”**

Perhaps these are things Paul was realizing while a prisoner, waiting: that his life is the time he spends arrested, his work is the work he can do while arrested, and his neighbors are those whom he can reach via letter or those who come into his house.

Paul is chained to one place but this idea of restricted physical freedom is juxtaposed in the same verse with “complete freedom of speech.” This verbal freedom is enough for the Holy Spirit to work with: the gospel slips out of the cracked-open door of Paul’s house and into the cracks of the empire. For two years he is allowed to preach and is never shut down. Anyone who wished (or was curious) could come to Paul; the door was always cracked open.

But what exactly did Paul do with all of his time? Maybe he entertained visitors. Maybe he opened an impromptu and unofficial seminary for those who came to learn of the “The Way.” Or maybe he spent much of his time waiting and working on his trade: making tents.

Like Paul on house arrest, many faithful churches are sprinkled among the epitome of the civil world today. Inside those doors, followers open impromptu and unofficial seminaries: teaching, encouraging, walking with, challenging and pastoring those curious souls who walk through our unassuming doors. Some of the time we make tents, we entertain guests, and yes, we are often bored and wish to be free of our chains. We are Paul on house arrest.

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We, like Paul, are left in a place. Rooted. Perhaps even feeling trapped. What are the chains that bind us to this place? Are those chains bad? Or are they good? How is God at work in that? Who is God bringing into our lives through the cracked door? Do we hope, with the depths of our hearts, to be a member of the body of Christ in our location and, by that, bring hope and encouragement to those who enter through the cracked-open door and happen to find us here? Do we provide a space where the curious can come? Indeed, some may come, argue, disagree and leave -having not been persuaded- but some will be changed and, even though we may watch their backs as they walk away through the cracked door, they carry the light of Christ further into the world.

We don’t always get the privilege of knowing the good that God works through us but that is exactly why we must practice trust. We trust He is at work through us. In The Message translation of verse 20 Paul says, “I’m a hostage here for hope, not doom.” We trust and have faith -even yet, we hold a hope- that our house arrest is not in vain: Christ is at work.

We may, at times, feel chained and trapped by house arrest. But the verbal freedom we have is enough for the Holy Spirit to work with: the gospel will slip out our door and into the cracks of the empire. For 2000 years we’ve been allowed to preach and have not been shut down. In some sense, the book of Acts has not yet ever ended. This is the very same story of our spiritual ancestors. These are our grandparents, our parents, and yes, even us who are carrying on with the good news. We are living out the continuation of the book of Acts. The Spirit is still active. There is still work to do. We are being made further into faithful characters of this story as long as we allow, through Jesus’ spirit and through love for one another, the preaching of “The Way” to go forth from our lives, unhindered.

What we read in the 28th chapter is not the end. With the kingdom coming, a hole is broken in linear time. We can still go back and enter that cracked-open door; we can enter into the book of Acts as participants. We can join in the with the chosen people of God -join in with those gone before us and enter the communion of saints.

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The more I ponder the death of the Christ, the more I imagine the solemnity and finality of it. He was dead and no direness can capture the depth of his death. He was utterly gone. But, was He? Was there not a crack in that grave? Was there not a cracked-open slit of light- albeit ever so small that we could not notice- piercing through the stone that held our savior in death the morning of that third day?

Hope has a funny way of breaking through. Hope has a way of leaking through the cracks of this world that seek to contain it. It is the resilience of this hope that finds its way, carried on the wings and winds of the Holy Spirit, to our hearts when we need it most -and to those who happen to find a humble, unassuming door that is cracked open and stumble inside to find a group of people on house arrest, faithful to the path, “the Way,” God has endowed upon them.

Some of our time we are making tents. Some of our time we are entertaining guests. Some of our time we are teaching, encouraging, walking with, challenging and pastoring those curious souls who walk through our unassuming door. And yes, even some of the time we are bored and we wish to be free of our chains, but, my prayer is that we, as individuals and as churches- when we are feeling bound and trapped- we still allow the doors of our hearts and lives to be cracked open. May we allow the Holy Spirit to bring to us curious souls. May we allow ourselves to embrace the waiting. May we trust and have faith, holding to a hope that our house arrest is not in vain. May we remember, Christ is still at work, even after the last pen stroke of Luke.

Who gets the last word? What is the last word? Hear now the last word of Acts: Paul’s door is cracked open and the Spirit carries the word, unhindered. The Spirit has been carrying it through time, unhindered. Even as we find ourselves getting older each day and as our lives draw ever nearer to an end- yet, if we are faithful, even after we die, the gospel proclamation continues to the very end of the earth, by God’s grace, unhindered.

*  Acts 28:31, akōlytōs
** Against an Infinite Horizon, Ronald Rolheieser