Thursday, December 31, 2009
The main lesson people should take away is the dire need for Christians to pursue excellence in every aspect of their art. If art really is being done for the glory of God, we should not be content to turn out half-baked, low quality, uncreative, cheap, imitations--even if they mention Jesus once or twice. This, I think, captures the root problem with much of Christian art today. Many artists are losing touch with reality and becoming so caught up with getting our "Christian" message across that the quality and originality of the means of communicating this truth is shoved in the backseat. Obviously it is okay, nay, vital to preach Jesus to people and share the gospel through art. What I take issue with is the fact that excellence in one's trade is part of the Christian's personal testimony. Implicit in the command for obedience (and the concept of letting one's "light shine before all men") in the midst of an unbelieving world is the pursuit of excellence. That's what doing all things for the glory of God is about. It's about employees serving their bosses like they were serving the Lord. It's about painters trying to create masterpieces fit for the halls of heaven. It's about musicians making music as if Jesus was in the front row of the audience.
The second question point someone might make arises from secular art. How are we to address masterpieces--brilliant musical compositions, timeless stories, etc.--created by godless heathens? How can we honestly call their art "good" if it was created for completely perverted reasons? The answer, as best I can reason for the time being, is threefold:
1. Art in and of itself is neutral, so we can appreciate when it is done well regardless of the motives, and we can do it whether or not the artist realizes that he is emulating his creator. A professional football player, for instance, may be a godless, selfish jerk. He might even score touchdowns purely for selfish reasons, but that shouldn't stop the Christian football player from appreciating his skill and seeking to emulate the talents he displays on the field.
2. Remember that art is, at its core, imitation. This means that good art will effectively capture reality in some way. Christians are realists--we want to understand things as they really are. Like a good teacher who is an atheist, it is possible to find benefit and appreciation for anything that helps us see the world more clearly for what it is. All truth is God's truth after all, and even though it can be perverted and misused, that doesn't make the claim itself inherently worse. I once heard an analogy comparing the unbelieving world to blind squirrels. Every once in a while, they stumble upon a nut of viable truth. No one is shut off from general revelation, so all men are exposed to and can see the truth to one degree or another.
3. Brilliance in art can give us a glimpse of man before the fall and hence better understand the original goodness of God's creation. Out of the three points, this one is probably the least helpful, but it worth consider nonetheless. Dr. Jack Simons has hypothesized that the fall of creation not only brought sin and suffering into the world, it also damaged our intellect. This means that Adam and Eve were geniuses before the fall, so every instance of genius that we see now--great works of art, people who can multiply huge numbers in their heads, and so on--are actually examples of people breaking through to a certain level of the mind that only existed before sin. In other words, works of genius in the arts are prime examples of my original point about art: man is able to mimic the creative work of God and show us even more vividly the mysterious process that is creating things.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
One quick disclaimer before I attempt to take off: this post represents a theory in progress; I don't think you can find many of these ideas explicitly in Scripture, but as far as I know they are born out of a Christian worldview; please feel free to question, compliment, and/or criticize.
Art. Perhaps in no other area do Christians have a wider spectrum of perspectives, opinions, and rules. You can paint this subject but not that one, you can watch this movie but not that one, you can listen to this band but not that one. It's worth doing, it isn't worth doing. There are cultural anorexics and cultural gluttons in the body of Christ, and it seems everyone is eager to either exercise freedom to do something or to condemn those who partake in certain types of art. Amid all the blurry lines and opinions, it is odd that no one seems to bother defining exactly what art is. What makes some art better than others? What makes it worth pursuing or shunning? I think the answer is quite simple in concept yet wonderfully complex and beautiful in practice. The chief goal of the artist is to "play God" by creating beautiful works of art reflecting His creativity and genius.
It sounds scary at first thought to think of the artist as "playing God." But I think that is the essence of human creativity. We are made in the image of God, meaning our goal is to serve as a mirror for His glory, and art, no matter how creative or original, is always imitation at its core. When the artist paints a picture, composes a song, or writes a story, he is reflecting the creative nature of God. It doesn't necessarily or definitively say exactly who God is, nor does it replace God. However, when a painter works on a painting, he should be able to say "look, this is what God is like when He creates."
Now obviously we humans are limited first by our mere human intellect and even further than that by our sin. It blinds, restricts, and hampers artistic prowess. Moreover, as created beings ourselves, man as an artist is bound within the medium of creation. All we have is what has already been made. God is the only Being capable of creating ex nihilo--out of nothing. Just like everything else, man is merely a tiny, finite, and blurry picture of God, and he is dependent on God's complete and ultimate sufficiency. Nothing can be made or created by man that is 100% new. "Nothing is new under the sun"Solomon observes. The "stuff" we have now is the same core "stuff" we had at Creation, nothing less and nothing more.
Therefore, the artist is presented with one of the grand tasks of man: to emulate Creator God in his craft. This is a sharp distinction, I think, from any other field or specific calling. The biblical scientist seeks to understand how creation works, the godly businessman is able to provide for the Lord's work via funding and influence in high places, the athlete seeks to maximize the body that God has made in His image and use it to achieve remarkable physical feats, and the pastor is charged with the sacred duty of accurately teaching God's word and giving people a true understanding of God and how to obey Him. Unlike all of these, the artist is something else entirely because he is called to powerfully and practically reflect the creative and sovereign brilliance of God. I say "creative brilliance" in that he should seek to create works of beauty and value. Writers, and perhaps composers to an extent, seem to be further charged with emulating God's "sovereign brilliance." That is, telling a story. This takes into account all of the intricacies of human nature, probability and necessity, morality, and perhaps even fantasy.
Let us consider the art of writing as an example, I may be stretching this just a little, but I think a legitimate argument could be made that there exists a parallel between story telling and God soverignly working his will. The correlation isn't exact, of course, but it seems that storytelling gives us as clear of a picture as any. Think about it. For one, there is a certain set of characters with certain distinct dispositions in a story. God has created a lot of people and knows each one of them perfectly, He knows exactly what they are prone to do, and He somehow intertwines His perfect direction and control with the free will of men. The skilled author, on the other hand, creates His own story with certain characters. He knows them perfectly, and is thus able to guide their actions to eventually lead up to a certain conclusion. If the story is a good one, it fits within the laws of probability and necessity, yet still remains under the author's all-powerful hand.
Now I'm not saying that God is bound by any "probability and necessity" laws, but surely He must remain, for one, consistent with His own character. He also tends to keep reality--the laws of nature in creation and the way we experience things--consistent throughout the unfolding of His grand story in creation. Even more intriguing, we find many examples in scripture of God working out His will through very natural, human, means. It is not as if He forcefully pushes everything right into places, but instead creates and (for lack of a better term) manipulates creation in a way that is consistent with itself and Himself.
Now for the upshot of all this. What does it look like in real life? What can artists everywhere take home and apply from this notion of "playing God." Perhaps there is not much specifically. Our cultural standards for beauty and artistic style change. It's also not necessarily wrong to involve and utilize sinful things in our art. Scripture is full of surprisingly explicit wickedness, so it certainly seems possible for a Christian author to include murder scenes or prostitutes in his book and have that be honoring to God. For the time being, let us distill it all down to two working principles of good art.
One, Scripture should be held as the ultimate example of prime literature in the arts. Dr. Jack Simons has made the observation that were the Bible not true, it would instantly become the greatest work of literature in human history. Everyone who has read the bible critically must recognize, to some degree or another, that it is a work surpassing human genius. When God gave us His word, He gave it in a beautiful form, and it is fair to say that Scripture is perfect even in its artistic aspect. One of the reasons the Bible is the world's bestselling book is probably due to its sheer artistic brilliance. As Christians, we can both accept it as truth and embrace it as good art.
Two, the Christian artist ought to be able to present his or her art to God as an act of worship with a clear conscience. Much of art is a conscience issue. Some artists are more free than others to portray certain things or use certain words, and it's okay because of the freedom we have in Christ. That said, I would challenge all Christian artists to consider this: if Jesus were to come back to earth and stand before you, would you honestly be able to present your painting, song, or story to Him and say without hesitation, "Look Lord, see what I have created for You with the gifts you've given me?"
Jerry Bridges defines doing all things for the glory of God as desiring that everything one does be pleasing to God and that it would honor God before other people. Christian artists must not lose focus of this. They need not worry about the specific content so much as what God thinks of it. Show me the piece that truly pleases God and exults him before men through it, and I will show you a piece of truly good art.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
It seems the end product of this is, at its core, humility.
Don't mistake this for the postmodern notion of relative truth or the inability to know any sort of ultimate or absolute truth. Rather, diving into the depths of God, reality, and the world we live in definitely brings a lot of hard and fast knowledge, but as you swim deeper and deeper into the sea of God's love, for instance, you start to see that there is whole lot more down there that you still haven't explored.
A wise man once said "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Later on, he wrote about how there is more hope for a fool than a man who is wise in his own eyes. Turns out that the older you get, especially in your relationship with God, the more and more true that becomes.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
That's so bogus. If this is your temptation too, don't buy into it. Throw yourself into the infinite pool of God's mercies this Thanksgiving Day. After all, if it's something so wonderful that the human mind can't grasp it, I'd say it's worth a try to at least start grasping some of it.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
From East of Nineveh
There’s nothing for me, a broken prophet
To whom death appears much better than life.
Heading to Tarshish or a desert tomb
Is where I’d rather be, instead of spared
To see this city repentant and free.
Perish the thought that I should run from God
That I should try to flee Your sovereign gaze
I knew that You would never turn away
A penitent people, if they sought You
Away at sea You sent a violent gale
My stick came up short, they tossed me over,
And it would have all ended back then
Sinking into the depths, light growing dim
Until your mercy found me in the sea
When the leviathan swallowed me whole
For three days I lay there, as in a grave
In the reeking darkness, weeds, and bones
From the belly I began to suspect
That I might live on. I prayed and confessed
“Your hand is mighty to pull me away
From the errant paths, far outside Your will,”
But these Assyrians, though on their knees
Should drink the bitter cup they themselves brewed.
I’ll freely warn them if they’re to be damned
See why I turned west? I cannot bear it.
How could this great blackened bastion of hate
And violence, greed, lust, stinking things
Find a welcome heart and forgotten crimes.
They, heartless, who would skin me alive,
Men, women, and children alike have died
At the hands of these fell barbarians.
You were supposed to stay with my people
Remember the covenant that you gave?
You once brought we Hebrews out of Egypt
Into fertile lands of milk and honey.
We who offered up sacrifices, true
To you year after year, and kept every
Perfect statute You gave. Can You, in truth,
Compare our worth with those uncircumcised?
So you see why I am angry; I have
All the right to pity this shriveled vine,
Small but beautiful tower of green life,
That once protected me as I waited
Waited for your mighty hand of judgment.
Fire and brimstone would have done the job,
Or the sword of an avenging angel.
There’s nothing for me, a broken prophet
To whom death appears much better than life.
Heading to Tarshish or a desert tomb
Is where I’d rather be, instead of spared
To see this city repentant and free.
I care naught for this senseless deliverance.
Maybe in Sheol I will forget this mess.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
But at times like these, when I sit down at my computer to type out whatever is on my mind--whatever I want to write about, there just might be one weakness to The Master's College (besides the pathetic lower-caf hours). It lacks a creative output and an emphasis on creativity in general. We all want to be orthodox. We want to be spot on theologically. We're trying to understand the church, to shun what is bad and emulate what is good. We get involved in activities and try to keep the tradition and truths continuing through the generations. We try to be like Christ, which is a radical self-denial that seeks to copy someone else.
All of these things are good, to be sure, and ought to be pursued. Obviously we should want to be like Christ and want to figure out what He has said in His word. However, I can't help but think that we should be little creators as well. I want to be a writer--an artist. I want to be original and brilliant in my writing for the glory of God. Sometimes, this whole cycle of taking tests, talking about classes, and reading scripture suffocates any thinking beyond a certain point. It doesn't take me to new places or new ideas like it probably should. I've had some great experiences, but praying with a bunch of guys on a whim outside your dorm room isn't exactly an event to build a story around. It's nice to write about theology and the things going on in my mind, but there are men here many times more godly and qualified than I who are already doing that...and doing it very well.
To be sure, there is a certain element of art that Christians (particularly those in charge of institutions, like John MacArthur) fear, and they are right to do so. Trace the arts back in time, and you arrive at the pagan theater of ancient Greece. There's no getting around this, the arts of western civilization may very well have their roots in demonic activities. Why? Because art is magic. It stirs something within our souls. Far from being a mere escape, it makes us feel things. Art possesses a great amount of power in this regard, power to influence people. Through it one is capable of working great evil, or great good. That's where the danger lies. That's why art can be risky.
I know why I'm not seeing a ton of true creativity happening here at TMC. Even though it's certainly not what it could be, it's better than an out-of-whack liberal dump of tolerance and free expression. I love the place, but there are few here that I would describe as genuinely creative. Either that, or perhaps it is a weakness I've created for myself. After all, the college certainly isn't keeping me from writing the next Chronicles of Narnia. It's my own idiocy and naivete.
Perhaps that's really what I need to work to overcome.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Namely, there's a reality about spiritual leadership that one must come to grips with. When you lead, there will be those "under" you who are lots more sanctified than you, in lots of ways. You can't fall into the trap of thinking you're godly, or things will get really frustrating, hard, or depressing...or a mix of those. When that horribly wonderful moment of realization comes, you have to be ready to fall back on Christ, 'cause your own strength sure isn't going to be enough. I mean, it's not like you can just will yourself to knock on a door to invite someone to church, or convince yourself by your own fleshly means that you need to show love to someone.
So it's not so much that I have regrets about my actions as it is regrets about my perspective and attitude over the whole thing. Christ certainly wasn't at the forefront of my thoughts like He should have been. Leading doesn't make you one iota better or worse than anyone else, you just have to be willing to be an example and take the blame.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Gods they could control. The more I thought about that, the more I realized the dangerous problem with almost every (if not all) false religion or philosophy out there. The pagans of the Ancient Near East had gods they could control. They were always pressed to manipulate or please their gods by manner of some ritual or sacrifice. When they did it, the god must inevitably respond in a certain way. They taught that the gods were powerful, but it was actually they who could turn the gods to and fro as they willed.
Kind of shoots down the health and wealth gospel, doesn't it? Send in a one-time gift and God will bless you ten-fold! How controlling and manipulative of God is that? It is just like man to fashion a god of his own making that he could control. In fact, it makes perfect sense why many beliefs have moved away from the God of scripture and towards faith in a being that we can have some control over. Sacrifice to make him do this, pray this prayer and he will do that, yadda yadda yadda.
And the more you think about it, the more it should really make you glad that God doesn't answer all of our prayers just as we pray them. Should we actually want God to submit Himself to any and every specific prayer that we pray "in faith?" He is so much bigger and better than that. The God of the bible has no need to subject Himself to our prayers or sacrifices. It goes against all of human nature to invent a God that humbles and works above human thinking like no other, yet that is what scripture presents us with. I see no reason why He can't be real, because no one would have wanted to create a God of infinite mystery, wisdom, and power that we could have no controlling effect over.
Praise God that He doesn't submit Himself in any ways to His creation unless He is working out a plan all of His own.
Friday, September 18, 2009
I thought my plans would change me for the good
But memories came soon to take their due
The graduation stages called, "Do not
Forget the days you lived and worked for fun!"
I see the sun come up and days grow long
A "little sleep" and "folding of the hands"
And I become a lesser man. Pick up
A friend and throw the disk. Another time
For work will do. So click and click, tick-tock
Tick-tock, and evenings free fade out. They're gone
My spirit longed for profit. Sloth has set
The tone for all my days at home. I dig
Through mediocre games. Can I relight
Their spark and fan the flames of former days?
Put off the hard and we'll relive the nights
Of chance and vic'try, cards and dice, and more.
Thus enter months of wasting, two or three.
But grace remains and calls me back to where
My heart caught fire. What can I say except
That apathy has torn away what could
Have been my finest hour--a time of truth
And beauty for my King.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
As of now, two simple pleasures of life that have stood the test of time without flaw thus far are ultimate frisbee and sweet tea. I cannot recall a time in life nor conceive of myself ever getting sick or bored with either of these. Ultimate, perhaps the most perfect "college-kid" sport that will ever be invented in this world. Sweet tea, a simple but wondrously delightful beverage that remains far from delicacy status but never wears down on the taste buds for some reason.
Ah yes, the simple pleasures in life...
Sunday, August 30, 2009
As cliche as it sounds, it really is a brief calm before the storm for me. I suspect that for the rest of the semester not a night will go by without leaving plenty of homework and stress in it's wake. Countless thoughts flurry about in my mind. WOW was only kid stuff, just some fun to get people acclimated to the college environment. Now it's game time--time for the rubber to meet the road. The wing looks fantastic. Lots of great guys, plenty of good times to look forward to, I've just finished a great talk with my friend and Resident Assistant. A substantial amount of pretty girls have joined the ranks of TMC students. Three Communication classes and a sweet bible class promise a good year in the classroom.
Doubt. Apprehension. Relationships. Encouragement. Conviction. Despair. The gospel.
Heavy issues, but we're made for them, right? The flesh wants hours of Facebook and mediocre friendships, but grace is always sufficient. Let us pray that continuing measures of it are on the horizon. I will candidly admit to anyone that I don't have this whole leadership thing down yet. It's hard to imagine that God would put me in a position like this. I hardly know the first thing about anything, but here I am on Slight Lower-Back with new converts, music majors, athletes, and more. All one can do is pray at this point: "God I'm a loser and a failure, I'm clueless, help. Honestly Lord, please help!"
A Switchfoot song reminded me today to keep a heavenly perspective. I do belong somewhere past this setting sun, finally free, finally strong. Still, that only increases the urgency of the situation. I'll only go through this process two more times at most. Before I know it I'll be graduating, the world before me, then hopefully family and work, and then the end--just like that.
So now is the time to "throw it down." I may only have one or two more years with these guys. Even in seemingly distant things like marriage, I need to start preparing my heart and lifestyle today, because if there's one thing I learned in church today, it's that I still have a long way to go before I become a true man in God's eyes. Titus 2:6 talks about young men being self-controlled. Not quite as simple to master as some might think.
Could I be a trendsetter? Could I be the guy that starts something or guides something in the right direction in Slight Hall this year? The guy that people come to with problems even if I've never had a girlfriend? That's not for me to decide, but I'm gonna try.
And knowing myself, I'm going to fail, and I'm going to lean on God's grace more and more as a result. I'll probably make a fool of myself, and end up in an awkward situation or two, and say stupid things to people. The quest has been set before me, and there's no turning back. Still, our swords are so sharp, and the gospel is so awesome. It's a pity I forget about them so often.
Maybe someone will enjoy reading this. I haven't proofread it yet so please forgive any typos and/or nonsensical rambling.
Friday, August 21, 2009
It's really an interesting phenomenon when you get several hundred people together who have never even seen each other before. There's the inevitable social animals who make themselves right at home. There's the one's who develop into a little clique and hang out with the same people all week. There's the loners who are off by themselves just being shy or selfish or hateful or something. And then there's the ones who don't really know how to start a conversation with anybody, but they hang around any person they know even somewhat well.
I was one of these last people, and it's really interesting to see, personally, how I've changed in the past year. The perspective from this side of WOW is much different than the receiving end because now, I understand that the key is to meet lots of people--to just turn around to some random person behind you in line and say "hi." It is not all that difficult either, as long as one approaches it with the proper perspective. I do suppose, after all, that the pressure to impress people and actually make new friends is significantly smaller as an student leader because of returning friends and staff members that you already know.
Then, of course, we have the WOW group, a mysterious conglomeration of random people who get to hang out for a week. This is perhaps the most hit and miss element of WOW. My groups last year and this year have been fantastic. The new students in my group this year hit it off on all cylinders as well, or better, than expected. The one "jock" isn't too cool for the rest of us, and the one really weird kid, you know, that really strange one, manages to fit in with everyone somehow, even adding some timely humor and funny discussions.
But even with all the fun times and new people that I met, the whole SLS experience managed to humble me significantly. Thinking you can serve and love people all the time is one thing. Living it out at 7:00 in the morning after having less than six hours of sleep per night for the past week is another matter entirely. Paul says that the spirit is willing and the flesh weak, but sometimes it feels like both of them are pathetic.
The fact of the matter is this: I'm still new at this whole "leadership" thing. Stepping up and providing direction and enjoyment for a group of seven people that I barely know doesn't come naturally to me. As much as I'd like to be that guy who knows how to smoothly and consistently interact with people while remaining organized and on top of the week's activities, I'm not, and I cannot be...
But that's where grace comes in. God never promises us as believers that we will not fail--else I'd fear the security of my salvation--but He does say that His grace is sufficient. That's the bottom line. I jack things up over and over again. I do irresponsible things. I act harshly or rudely to someone. Even after all of these stupid and selfish things, I still have Christ. The reality and importance of the gospel, even today, cannot, must not, be forgotten. So you messed up and shamed the name of Christ, you'll learn, you'll get better, God will be glorified one way or the other because He is bigger and stronger than a week of six hour nights and awkward situations. I'm reminded of the lyrics to one of the songs we sang this week:
You are stronger
You are stronger
Sin is broken
You have saved me
It is written
Christ is risen
Jesus You are Lord of all
Can I get an "amen?"
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Monday, July 13, 2009
Watch that film, and I don't think it's hard to tell that the main message has strong Calvinist and Reformed theological leanings.
"You can only plant the seeds, whether they grow or not is up to God." That's about as Reformed as it gets.
Yet, despite that fact that many Arminian folks have likely seen Seeds, no one seems to have a problem with that. No arguing that people should be free to accept or reject God. No problem with God having the choice to save some and not others. Nope. All I've heard is "great movie," "that was hilarious," and the occasional "good/great message, I really appreciated that."
Upon some thought, and given several months of hindsight, I'm starting to think that maybe most Christians are really more sympathetic to the Calvinist (and biblical) theology of salvation that they'd care to admit. Maybe the Calvinist tag is a turn off to some, but something tells me it's more than that. That deep down inside, the Holy Spirit is urging all Christians to acknowledge the all-powerful sovereignty of God and give all glory to Him. This urging is especially strong in the realm of salvation. We don't like the idea of man being dead in his sins, but it's even harder to reject the idea that God doesn't have (or at least doesn't exercise) the power to save sinners when and how He chooses. We really want to think that we have a say in our salvation, but the thought that our salvation might be insecure based on our will is terrifying.
In the end, of course, it all comes down to scripture, and therein lies the strongest aspect of the theology of Seeds. "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who waters or he who plants is anything, but God who gives the growth." You can't argue with the clear teaching of God's word, and this passage is pretty darn clear. I honestly can't see how the Arminian would respond to Seeds, even though it's quite simple and straightforward. Come on Christians, we don't choose to be saved. We are incapable of doing so, but God isn't. He is the one who made a way of salvation, the one who chose us before the foundation of the world, and the one who shapes and remakes our wills as He draws us to a relationship with Him.
Like it or not, that's the truth, and that's what I tried to capture in our screenplay.
Monday, June 15, 2009
Not any one specific beach or area of coastland, mind you. The beach. It is the beginning and ending of a thousand voyages. The subject of countless songs and legends. The ideal romantic getaway. Full of beauty, power, danger, and mystery. Men have bled and died for even a few hundred yards of this razor strip running all over the world, yet it is home to so much. Where would we be, where would our lives be, I wonder, without that crucial meeting point of the sea and land, that bridge between the two great worlds, that springboard from reality to fantasy?
As I was hiking along the bluffs of Carpenteria, I came across a tree. Now this tree possessed nothing tangibly outstanding. No leaves graced it's gnarled bows as it stretched it's few tired gray limbs to the sky. It looked scarred and beaten. Surely it had endured all manner of winds, rain, lightning strikes, and flames. Nevertheless, it was awesome. I wondered at the things it had seen--the gradual smoothing of the rocks below, the migration of whales and seals, the construction of the oil rigs which now dotted the horizon, perhaps the occasional couple or troubled soul who sought the privacy of the beach below. Standing alone for hundreds of yards in every direction, it stood like a lone sentinel watching over the rocks, sand, and sea creatures below. Only one green branch that sagged near the ground sustained this sage of the coast, and it did nothing to detract from the rickety crown adorned only by the nest of a lone black bird.
Years ago, when I took art classes, I would have spent weeks capturing a tree like this with my pastels. If I ever wrote a book about the sea, I would find no shame in gracing the cover with an image of this tree. There could be a treasure, or some secret message, the key to a life-changing discovery, under it for all I knew. In any half-decent story about this tree, there would have been. Should I grow up to be a filmmaker or writer, I may return to that tree to shoot a closing scene or seek inspiration. A fitting deed, I think. Something to immortalize this unsung wonder of nature. Surely its story is one worth remembering.
In hindsight as the bustle and distractions of summer sink over me, I find myself fighting the reality of the matter. It is no more than tree. One of thousands--perhaps millions--of it's kind, and a pathetic one at that.
Over the years, the beach has come to mean different things to me as I have gradually fallen in love with it. First it was the simple joys of the waves and sand. I would run out towards the ocean and then back to the higher ground as the last swell came in after my feet. The ocean was cold and always threatened to knock me off my feet. I could dig in the sand all day, a poor medium but one in infinite supply, and never grow disheartened or bored.
Later on, the waves became little more than afterthoughts as the local wildlife became of supreme interest. I recall a brief excursion on a medium-sized boat where a net was let down to drag up all manner of ocean dwelling life forms like flat fish with two eyes on the same side of their head, starfish, and even several stingrays. I was only too gland to handle the creatures, especially the pancake sized rays that fit even into my child's hands. On a different trip, I spent hours crawling over human-deposited rocks in search of crabs and starfish. It posed quite the challenge. The green-brown crabs, no bigger than my hand, sped across the rocks and managed to wedge themselves into crags of rock so think that even my fearless, prying fingers could no squeeze into. I eventually caught one of these foreign creatures, and recall once running back to my family, screaming at the top of my lungs, with a severed crab's pincer clamped on my finger.
Next came boogie boarding and ultimate frisbee. Back then, boogie boarding required skill, skill that I seemed to naturally possess. Suddenly, the waves were paramount. Long minutes would pass in waist-deep freezing salt-water before anything worth riding emerged from far offshore. If you finally caught a big one, relish it, ride it, take it all the way to the sand. Well done, now go do it again. Even Ultimate--a miserable sport to play given the wind and noticable slope of the beach--managed to produce more entertainment on the coast than anywhere else.
Today, I still enjoy being teased by the waves, searching for crabs, and throwing a frisbee through the fresh salt air, but the wonder has grown much greater. The endlessly crashing waters--blue-gray under the oft-cloudy sky--the giant stained rocks standing defiant against the elements, the rocky sand extending to my right and left for miles, and of course, the infinite horizon. They say the world is shrinking, but when I stand out on the wave-swept sands and stare out to sea, I feel smaller even though nothing has really changed. Maybe, just maybe, the coast has always been the same, and I'm the one growing.
That tree was small, yet huge, all at the same time. I've never been able to stop any of those waves, waves which contain an entirely new world of creatures underneath them. And even on my best day of frisbee, the wind still holds the final say. Indeed I could play the warrior in an ancient epic on these shores or sprout wings and fly inches above the white-topped crests, but I've never been a king of these lands. No man has.
And no man ever will.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
The statement is particularly relevant in today's context, especially the context of the 21st century American teenager. Credit Alex and Brett Harris--no surprise there--for making the observation. This statement is, in one very real sense, the very essence of my life. I meet the minimum specifications necessary to be considered "smart," "diligent," or "responsible," and stop there. This is particularly evident in the academic sphere. In a music and art class last semester, for instance, the instructor dropped one's lowest test score. After acing the first four exams, I didn't take the test or even study the material. In fact, I skipped the last two weeks of class because I had free misses that I could take without penalty. And guess what, everyone respected me for that and patted me on the back for "finishing" a class up a week early. This took place at a Christian college with fairly high academic standards.
Please don't get me wrong here. I'm not condemning my college or my friends at college. There's nothing wrong with rewarding hard work with a little slack at the end of the semester. The problem is this. The class was a piece of cake. It was not hard to meet the minimum expectations for the course, yet I still slacked off. Even after learning so little, I still slacked off on the end. . .probably so I could play more ultimate frisbee while maintaining a normal sleep pattern.
Do not dismiss me. This is no isolated incident. Our education system, our entire nation for that matter, is falling apart because we and our fathers have set low expectations for ourselves. I'm gearing up for a rant on this later, but we'll leave it at that for now.
This principle extends further, I believe, into the spiritual realm as well. The minimum standards for "holiness" (empahsis on those quotation marks) are pretty pitiful. Don't drink, don't smoke, go to church once or twice a week, and wait until marriage to have sex. Just like that, you stand out from the world and become a "good" Christian. Our society has become so depraved. It is not hard to be counter-cultural in some degree. Even gray contrasts with black.
But why are we content to be merely gray. Why are we Christians not shining white lights?
Could it be the low moral expectations we set for ourselves? Are our standards of holiness judged by the character of God or merely set a notch of two above the sinful world around us? We talk a lot about doing radical things for Jesus. Okay, so what does it mean to be "radical?"
"Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called." I have tried to meditate on that many times. The cross is the most radical, amazing, counter-human-nature thing ever to happen. How big, how pure, how beautiful, is the gospel--the message that saved us?
Pretty sinking huge, even infinite. That, my Christian friend, is our standard. Our calling goes beyond anything this world could produce, for we are servants of the living God. Are those standards high enough? Will that keep you working like no other to walk worthy?
It better, because no other standard will.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Sunday, May 31, 2009
One would have to be a cultural hermit to be unaware of the flurry of discussion, reviews, and hype generated by the recent release of Star Trek. J.J. Abrams’ new spin on a story that many feel has already been beaten to death—and then beaten to death again—certainly brings a new perspective to this popular saga, offering something for both old fans of the series and newcomers. He stays true to the original characters yet takes enough liberties to produce something for both diehard fans and new audiences.
At least, that’s what I hear.
I think it’s safe to say that I find myself in the minority of viewers, and perhaps even alone among reviewers, in that I know next to nothing about the science-fiction greatness that is Star Trek. Indeed, the question is a fair one to ask by those contemplating a trip to the theater to see this film: what about those who are not fans of the original series and do not know the Star Trek universe? What should they expect, and will they even enjoy a film like this?
Apart from a small amount of back-story that is rather easy to pick up on, Star Trek stands alone as its own film quite well if you can track with a time-traveling villain, understand his motives for destroying entire planets, and accept that two of the same person can exist at the same time. The plot, which borders on an overly complex series of events that could potentially be stretched into its own TV mini-series, is not too difficult to follow. As long as viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief enough to accept Abrams’ galaxy of the distant future, there is much here to like. Ironically, perhaps the greatest strength of this film in relation to the rest of the Star Trek story is that it is a prequel. As a result, every aspect of the film is intended to feel fresh and original, and it accomplishes this quite well. You do not need to meet the classic characters—Kirk, Spock, Bones, Ahura, and Scotty—in advance because the film picks up at their origins and creates their background for you. Better yet, the characters are strong and distinct, and we quickly find ourselves emotionally engaged in their struggles and goals. The academic and always logical Spock faces an identity crisis as he wrestles constantly with being half human and half Vulcan (an alien race), for underneath his unflinching visage and academic language run deep currents of raw emotion—emotion that he must decide to either suppress or embrace. Kirk, whose father sacrificed his life to save him, decides to channel his roguish talents of stealing cars and seducing women into becoming the captain of his own starship. Bones overcomes a recent divorce and fear of space to make a name for himself as a doctor with Starfleet. And when we first meet Scotty, he is a crazy theorist stranded at a frozen outpost, downcast and rejected even though he went on to discover a formula for beaming that makes him an invaluable crew member.
From a film standpoint, we find little that is groundbreaking in Star Trek. Fans of Star Wars have already seen the planet-destroying weapon, warp speed, and ice planet. The plot suffers occasionally from predictability; one scene in particular finds Kirk beaming up to his ship a split second before he would have hit the ground in a fatal fall. Nevertheless, the combination works by creating an understandable story in a foreign universe, unique characters whose complications are sufficiently resolved, and beautiful cinematography in a colorful outer space.
If there is anything groundbreaking in this film, it is the ill-timed glares that Abrams somehow saw fit to use. There is plenty of eye candy, including vast pan shots across the hull of the Enterprise, black holes devouring planets, and lasers and explosions galore. Sometimes, however, the audience only wants to clearly and simply see what is on the screen. Kirk looks out into space from the Enterprise, only to have his face washed out in the backlight. Spock glances at a control panel, about to make a “logical” observation, when suddenly a brightness from behind washes out his stolid face. No matter how you look at it, the glares are unwelcome. Abrams allegedly justifies this by trying to show that the future literally is looking bright for humanity. Would we like to think this after watching Star Trek? Perhaps, but the idea seems to be sufficiently conveyed in the images of a vast space station orbiting earth and a giant space ship under construction in the corn fields in Iowa.
In the end, Star Trek accomplishes what appears to be its only goal, and that is to entertain via characters, plot, and explosions. Fear not, you who know nothing of Scotty’s beaming skills or the Vulcan ways, and abandon your pre-conceived notions of geekiness and confusion. You just might find some genuine quality and art underneath this latest sci-fi flick.
P.S. Sorry it's been so long, but now that summer is here I'll try to be more active in my blogging.
Friday, April 3, 2009
In any case, I should have something up tomorrow or the day after, depending on how the critiquing session goes tomorrow.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Lately, my small group at college has been talking about prayer and about what real, heartfelt, caring prayer requests and prayers themselves should look like. One thing that immediately came to light is how you respond when someone asks how he can be praying for you. Often, it seems, we pause in thought for a moment, then respond, "pride."
Right, everyone struggles with pride. It's easy to say "yeah, I've been thinking I'm really something special. I haven't put God first as I should." No, of course you haven't, so where's the risk in that. Is pride really what keeps you up all night? Have you been going through a particularly prideful spell? Do you always pray that God would take away your pride? Maybe you do, and that's great, but the point we tried to make in small groups is that oftentimes "pride" goes up as a smokescreen, to disguise what we really are struggling with: things like sexual lust, gossip, hatred, or gluttony. I think that is a great point, everyone can say they're struggling with pride, there's no risk in saying that to anyone. It's much harder to say "Look, I'm having a hard time loving that guy," than, "Yeah I've been 'struggling' with pride."
The point of this post, though, is that pride is real, and it can be a dangerous issue because it manages to worm its way into almost everything. After all, it is ultimately from pride that all sin stems, from the desire to be in God's place and actually be worshiped ourselves. It never ceases to amaze me how, even at a Christian film festival where everyone will admit that these films really are for God's glory, pride is always there to sneak in. You're sitting there repeatedly saying to yourself, "This is all about God, this is all about God, I couldn't have made this film without Him." When in the back of your mind you start to wonder, "Hmmm, why didn't he or she give me a compliment on my film? I only made the best movie this festival's ever seen! Goodness, we better win that award."
In light of the film festival, pride will no longer be a smokescreen when I ask someone to pray for me. It's a horrible vice that clouds my thinking and grossly defames the Sovereign Creator of the universe. The thoughts that I actually generated something of worth on my own or that I actually deserve something are wicked absurdities, and when those thoughts pry their way to the forefront of my mind, I can only sigh, shake my head, and ask God's forgiveness. Praise Jesus Christ that he died not only for the big things, but all that pride as well.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
His image shown where we give our lives, our time, our own to feed, to clothe those in His image we have left alone. We all, we all wear dignity. God help the blind like me. Finding at last a voice we cry and see with clear, unblinking eyes.
The last organized activity of the week featured a walk to MacArthur Park. We started off midway through the morning, headed—thank goodness—in the opposite direction down Pico Street that Tony had driven us. I left my sleeping bag back on the church, betting on the chance that Jon would decided to end the poverty simulation before nightfall. I ran my hand through my greasy hair and patted my empty stomach, only partially satisfied by the bowl of Fruit Loops a few hours ago. He’d better end it soon.
When we arrived at the park, Jon sat everyone down and spoke of the city. In the bible, the city is portrayed as a place of refuge and safety. Clearly, this is how God intended people to live together. After all, heaven, God’s very dwelling place, is a city. I thought of all the news stories we hear about Los Angeles. Over on the sidewalk, a homeless man peddled his bike. This park used to be the drug capital of the city, so Jon had warned us to watch were we sat. How could things have gone so wrong in this place? Why are all the seminary grads going to small town churches in the Midwest? Why do we so quickly brush off the inner city? I shifted uncomfortably as Jon detailed our final task: to walk around the park and talk to people. Everyone divided into twos and threes, and we split up. Lee, my companion, was a heavyset freshman from Colorado. Neither of us spoke acceptable Spanish, and neither of us possessed exceptional social skills. We walked around the park silently, sizing up the various people seated around the dirty lake in the middle of the park. Other groups of students had started talking to people. My heart began pounding out of my chest and my mind went blank. I tried to quickly formulate a few conversation starters in my mind. “God, I don’t want to do this, I can’t. Please, help me.” A middle aged Hispanic woman—everyone was Hispanic—sat alone under a tree on our left. I nudged Lee, “What about her?”
“Okay,” he murmured. I tried to put on my most innocent and disarming face as we sat down next to the woman.
“Hi there, can we sit here and talk to you for a few minutes?”
“Oh,” I sat for several lengthy seconds, vainly attempting to recall something from my three years of high school Spanish.
“No hablo mucho espanol…Adios.” We stood up abruptly continued on, walking slowly along the edge of the pond for several minutes before I pointed out another person, this time a man who appeared to be in his twenties.
“May we sit here?” He nodded.
“So,” I began, “um, you from around here?”
“No speak English.”
“Hmm.” This time we waited for a minute or two, staring out across the park, before getting up and moving on. Three more times, Lee and I tried to engage people, but we faltered at the insurmountable language barrier before firing a proverbial shot. Did anyone speak English here?
Dejected, we eventually wandered back to the group’s meeting place. “God, I tried. I really did. Can You ask more than that? I accomplished nothing!” I tried to throw myself into His arms and rest in His sovereignty as the other students gradually strayed back, “No Lord, you don’t ask more, and you don’t need results. All you ask is that I show some love to these people.”
The walk back to the church took too long, and I pondered the day’s events as everyone around me talked about all the great experiences they had. “I want You to use me God. I won’t look at the poor the same way again.” The more I looked at the situation inside myself, the less room I found for depression and self-pity. “Somehow, someway, You used me this week, and You’ll use me again.” I had come face to face with reality today, and resolved not to forget it.
My mouth watered in anticipation as I surveyed the backyard of the Nehemiah House. Just a few minutes ago, Jon Freiberg had officially terminated the poverty simulation. Forty or so chairs sat around five or six tables in the middle of the lawn, enough to seat our entire group and the house’s residents. To my right, everyone had begun to line up behind a table crowded with carne asada, beans, rice, salsa, and tortillas. Some had already made it through the line and were crossing over to the drink table, where several sodas and an ice bucket rested in a beautiful array. Just a few feet away from this, Jon Freiburg stood behind the barbecue, flipping several pieces of thinly cut steak. The smell drifted over the lawn, teasing those who had not yet gotten their food. I could hardly stand it. Two solid meals over the past two days had taken their toll, and while not physically starving, I was hungry. I fumbled with my plate and utensils in my haste to pile on the delicious food. Beans splattered across my plate and rice fell down on to the table. I grabbed one of the pieces of meat from my steaming heap and shoved it my mouth, filled a cup nearly to the brim with orange soda, and sat down at a table across from Peter. I paused for a moment in reverence and thankfulness,
“A fitting exclamation point to the week!” I grasped a tortilla, carne asada, beans and rice spilling out both sides in torrents, and shoved it in my face. As the meal progressed, we tried vainly to capture the experience with words,
“Mmmmm…wow. I mean it’s just…wow.”
“Later generations will sing of this meal someday.”
Half an hour later, I leaned back in my chair and moaned. “Not only will I never look at the homeless the same again,” I thought, “but I’ll never look at food the same again. I guess it really is true that you never know what you have until it’s gone.” I glanced at the students seated around me—Peter, TJ, Marcus, Lee, and the others. A bond had been forged between us, something almost supernatural, perhaps the first strands of a cord that would be finished in heaven.
Despite the cold, my mind drifted over the past week, gradually returning to the present meal and moving on into the future. The normalcy that was The Master’s College stood as a banner of comfort, security, and good against the background of no showers, Hispanics, and empty stomachs. “Friends, warm dorm rooms, challenging classes, my ‘real’ life…it’ll be nice to get back to that…” I opened my eyes and stared at Jon as he closed the barbeque and started cleaning up. A solid education from Master’s, and he had come to spend the rest of his life here. Images of Ike and the fat little boy at 12th Place appeared in my mind. “No, Master’s isn’t real life for me. This is real life. The past three days was the world—all the brokenness, ugliness, oppression, and ungodliness that the United States had to offer.” I thought of the way people had looked at me on the street, of reading a book to an innocent little child, of tossing and turning on cardboard all night, of the young man on the park bench who spoke no English. I couldn’t just walk away from all that and get my degree. They needed love and grace every bit as much as I did, and that was the only difference between us. I sighed, searching for something appealing, for joy, for a steady stream of compassion and love. “God, please give me Your grace, I want to love these people…I…I do love these people, and I can’t go on living like this.” Several long days had passed, but I could finally see my world beginning to turn upside-down. No, there would be no going back now. The song I had listened to before the start of the trip began to play in the back of my mind. Yes, the very image of God shines in these people—however marred and clouded it may be—in even the last, the lost, the least.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Step into a spacious place where pride and right will give way to the least of these to know the face of who a man can be.
I woke to the sound of voices and footsteps. Someone had turned on the light in the sanctuary, but it still looked dark outside. Rubbing my eyes, I groped for my cell phone and flipped it open—four fifteen! I stood up and stumbled toward the middle of the building where several guys had gathered.
“Hey, what’s going on?”
John Freiburg, the assistant pastor at First EV Free, walked in the door.
“Come on guys, get up! We’re going on a little field trip.”
“Field trip?” I thought, “What? It’s four in the morning!” Gradually, people began to dress and make their way outside, so I changed my pants, donned a hat and sweater, and headed out to where cars had started to line up.
“You’re going to be driving around Los Angeles.” I heard John addressing several students on the sidewalk, “You won’t have to worry much about traffic. Just follow the instructions on your paper. Think about the situation there, and spend some time praying there.”
I groggily stumbled into the last car with an open seat, full of three girls as providence would have it. In a few moments, we were speeding down the 110, headed even deeper into the city.
I glanced out the window warily, a mix of fear, apprehension, and repulsion in my face. To our left and behind us stretched Skid Row—several blocks of downtown Lost Angeles set apart as a place for the homeless, insane, and outcasts. Here lived the dregs of society, and here came the regiments of The Master’s College First EV Free outreach team. The paper instructed us to get out, walk around, and pray and talk with people. Everyone in the car stared out the window at the dark and mysterious street, hesitant to get out. People trudged along the sidewalk in various directions, void of any urgency or purpose; others sat on the curb and smoked. Most were black, and dressed in a hodgepodge assortment of dirty clothing: sweatshirts, beanies, old tennis shoes, frayed pants, even a leather jacket once in a while. Their faces looked blank and empty, staring towards the ground or out into space.
“Do we really need to get out?” Kammy, the girl next to me, asked.
“I don’t know, why don’t we just pray?” Offered the girl driving, “Wait, look!” Kat’s group had parked near us and started crossing the street. We sprung out of the car and called out to them.
“Hey, can we join you guys?”
“Well, it’s better with smaller groups,” Kat replied, “but come on.” She led us to the curb opposite where we had parked. A black man with short hair and a scraggly goatee stood there, wringing his hands and staring out across the street.
“Hey there,” Kat said, “how are you doing sir?” The man turned as if seeing us for the first time, then broke into what I assumed was a smile.
“Well I’s doing just fine, thank you. You here to give me stuff or convert me or something?”
“No,” she answered, “We’re just here talking to people. I’m Kat.”
“Ike, nice to meet you.” he said simply, shaking her hand, and we all introduced ourselves to him.
“Do you sing?” The question caught us off guard. Kat looked around at us, smiling shyly.
“What do you guys think? We can certainly try. What should we sing?”
“Uh, amazing grace?” TJ, who had been in Kat’s car, offered hesitantly. Enough of us seemed to know it, so we circled around the man and started singing a cappella, quietly at first, but growing in confidence.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” Ike closed his eyes and raised his hands, swaying gently with our off-key voices. We made it through the first verse well enough, but started fading out after “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” No one could remember the exact lyrics. I thought I knew them, but had no intention of carrying on solo. As our voices stopped gracelessly, Ike took off his glasses and wiped his eyes.
“That was beautiful. You know these past weeks been difficult for me, being sick, no job.” I could only stand there like a statue, listening as he started to pour out his life to us, and trying to bring some form of comfort through my presence.
“Would you like to pray together?” Kat asked after several minutes,
“Yes please.” Ike raised his head up to heave and held his hands up. “Oh mighty father, we come before you now, humble, Lord. We come to ask for forgiveness, because of Jesus Christ…” I listened to his words as best as I could. The prayer was actually pretty solid, but I couldn’t help but question the legitimacy of his faith. Did God even hear and heed the prayers of a rebel like Ike? Was the Holy Spirit present in anyone here but our little group?
Eventually we left Ike with a blessing and moved on down the block towards a line of people waiting for some kind of medical assistance from a local rescue mission. Within minutes, Kat struck up another conversation, this time talking to a white man with a ponytail and baseball cap. A few feet away, TJ had also started speaking with a grizzled old man with glasses. I stood close to Kat, silently trying to take in my surroundings while keeping up with the conversation. The place reeked of urine, alcohol, body odor, and cigarettes, only narrowly failing to merit the adjective: “overpowering.”
“You should come to our church sometime,” Kat was saying.
“Eh, what kind of church is it? Methodist, catholic, protestant, Lutheran?”
“It’s, an evangelical free church, that’s a protestant domination.”
The man paused in thought, then started musing, “Catholic, evangelical, even mormon or Buddhist. I don’t know why people get so uptight and fight about it. They all lead to the same place. Yeah, I’ll try to check it out. Sunday at 9:00? Where did you say it was again?” I bit my lip and fumed in silence, resisting the urge to blurt out “You’re wrong!” and lay down a theological beating on him. Where’s the love in letting someone go on believing in that? The conversation meandered on, until finally Kat glanced at her watch. The church wanted us back by 7:30, so we bid farewell to the people in line, returned to our cars, and drove away—silenced and sobered by the morning.
“You are no longer students of The Master’s College,” Jon Freiberg’s voice shattered any further meditations I had about Skid Row, “as of now, until an undeclared time, you are all single mothers here in downtown LA.” I giggled at the thought of playing the role of a mother, but Jon was not joking. “You no longer have any of your possessions. We have ‘money’ for you with which to buy new clothes, housing, food, and transportation. Some of you will get more than others. I also need two people to be homeless.” Immediately TJ and Marcus raised their hands, and Jon laughed at them,
“Okay, you guys don’t have anything. Not even clothes, you’ll have to beg it off of other people.” He walked around the circle our group had formed in the church’s basement and handed out a small envelope of monopoly money to each “mother.”
“It will cost you twenty dollars a day for rent, three for transportation. Clothes are five dollars per article. Meals will cost you seven bucks. You get to keep two personal items from what you’ve really bought.” Blank faces appeared on everyone for a moment.
“Wait, you’re serious?”
Jon looked at the girl who had asked the question and smiled mischievously, “The goal is to get a taste of what it’s like to be poor. Welcome to the First EV Free Church Poverty Simulation.”
Four hours later, I found myself on the streets of Los Angeles, sporting tan khaki pants rolled up to the ankles, a brown and off-white striped collared shirt, and a sleeping bag slung over my shoulder. Peter walked at my side, studying the list for our scavenger hunt. A few feet behind us followed two girls named Ellie and Analisa. Our mission: to spend three hours traveling around the Pico Street area, engaging in activities normally associated with the poor or homeless. This included a bus ride, collecting cans and bottles, finding food, and acquiring money. We certainly looked the part, with our sleeping bags, plastic bags, unkempt hair, and plain clothes. I looked down the street, with its hole-in-the-wall shops, cracked sidewalks, and Hispanic population. Behind the shop, a homeless man dug through a dumpster. I couldn’t bring myself to ask these people for money or help, I just couldn’t.
“Okay, keep on the lookout for cans and bottles. Where should we go first?”
“How about we find out where we can get free food?” Peter said. That sounded good to me; even though I had no idea where to begin. Thankfully, Ellie had grown up as a missionary kid in Panama, and spoke fluent Spanish. We stopped the first Mexican woman we passed and—I assumed—asked her where we could find a place with free food. There was a soup kitchen on Pico and Alameda, the woman thought, and it was only a few blocks away. Ellie thanked her and we moved on, stopping at every trash can to see if we could find anything salvageable. In English class last year, I had read an essay about dumpster diving, and was determined to put the tips I had learned to go use. Nothing trustworthy emerged except for a few pieces of celery, one of which I ate only so that I could say I had eaten out of a dumpster. Occasionally, we tried to go into a bakery and beg for food, but to no avail. The owners of every store we entered glanced at us skeptically, and the people on the street shunned us, refusing even to make eye contact. I tried to put myself in their shoes looking at me; how would I have responded to the sight of myself like this on the street?
After several minutes of walking down Pico, a gray SUV drove by and stopped at a stoplight not far ahead.
“Hey! Need a ride?” The man driving shouted back at us.
“Yeah, we’re looking for Pico and Alameda.” Peter replied, pointing down the street. “I think it’s that way.” The man pulled off onto a side road, and we ran over to his car.
“Pico and Alameda?”
“Yeah, a lady told us we could find food there.”
“Uh, I’m not sure, I know there’s an Alameda that way. You guys out here on your own? Get in, we’ll see if we can find it.”
Peter and I shrugged, “Okay.” Throwing our bags in the space behind us, the four of us piled in the back seat. The man extended his hand,
“I’m Tony, nice to meet you.” He had short gray hair and a goatee, and his teeth were crooked and discolored. “Tobacco stains?” I wondered.
We drove under the freeway and passed the Staples Center. As soon as the stadium faded out of sight behind other buildings, the city quickly began to degenerate. Street vendors crowded the sidewalks, and one or two intimidating thugs leaned against the wall in nearly every alley; I saw no white people.
“I don’t know what exactly you’re looking for, but I hope it ain’t down here. White people come down here, and they don’t come back out. Yeah, you’d get f***ed up in a hurry here.” I winced, “Oh Lord, what have we gotten ourselves into? Is this were it all ends, on Outreach Week?”
“Alameda…does it even connect to Pico?” The man continued talking as we drove on, block after block, farther away from the church and what relative safety the opposite side of the highway afforded. He went on to explain—in colorful language—how he was on probation for drug use, but had been clean for a long time.
“You like hard rock?” We shrugged, so put in a mixed CD that was just out of my personal taste range, and continued talking. He had acquired the SUV thanks to clever use of the welfare system and genuine work. The farther we drove, the more he expressed his doubt that this food place at Pico and Alameda actually existed, and the more he tried to get to the root of our alleged predicament.
“Alright, you’ve been pretty quiet back there. What’s your story, come on, out with it.” I glanced at Peter. The poverty simulation worked far too well. This guy actually thought we were runaways.
“Well,” Peter began hesitantly (he would go on to assume the role of our spokesperson) “I turned eighteen, and decided to just leave. My dad had had enough of me.” I nodded in agreement. Yep, we had “left” home alright.
“We came down from Santa Clarita, and are just out here to find what we can. Kinda start afresh.”
“Just had enough with you pops, huh?” Tony appeared to believe us, “I don’t know about this Pico and Alameda sh**, but I can take you to another place a few miles from here. They’ll take you in, give you showers, lunch, but you have to be in before 4:00. If we go now, you can probably—” he stopped as a sign ahead read “dead end.” So much for Pico and Alameda.
“That’s it, I’m taking you guys there.”
“No, no! We’ve, uh, got some friends back where you picked us up. We said we’d meet back up with them. Can you just take us back?”
“You sure, I know what I’m talking about. They’ll do you up nice at this place.”
I leaned over to Peter, stomach churning, “Should we tell him?”
“No,” He spoke up in response to Tony, “Just take us back to where you found us. We really appreciate all you’ve told us though.”
“Okay, but be sure to check it out. Here’s the address, when you find your friends, be sure to go straight there.” He wheeled the SUV around, back through the ghetto. “And be sure to stay off drugs, kid. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but just don’t go there. Good luck.”
My heart beat did not begin to slow down until we were safely out of the car and watching Tony drive off. Later on, I would discover that our paper of instructions had specifically forbidden hitchhiking. I felt sick.
“Pete, I think that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
After a dinner that failed to compensate for the breakfast and lunch I had missed, the poverty simulation continued into the night. No one had the “money” to afford a room indoors, so we laid down what few blankets and sleeping bags we had in the front yard of the Nehemiah House. Throughout the trip, our group had often spent time hanging out, eating, and praying at the Nehemiah House, but we would find no such luxuries there tonight. Instead, I and a student named James decided to unzip our sleeping bags and share them with Marcus and TJ, who had nothing besides the clothes on their back to keep warm. Marcus fished several pieces of cardboard out of a nearby trash can, and we laid them out as bedding. I rubbed my hands together and shivered. The two days before were quite warm, but a cold front had hit the city just that afternoon. I laughed dryly—perfect timing. Curling up under and around a few meager feet of my sleeping bag, I tucked my shoes under my head and tried to find a comfortable position. For a few minutes, I tried to avoid contact with TJ, who was tightly packed within the four of us like cordwood, but eventually gave up and rested my body against his. Warmth ranked higher on my list of priorities than awkwardness.
Despite the long day that started at four in the morning and ended after midnight, sleep was slow in coming. I tossed and turned, trying to keep my toes warm and my head comfortable against my rough canvas slip-ons.
“TJ, I hope you don’t mind if I, uh, put my leg here.”
He twisted around and patted me affectionately, “It’s okay Andrew. We’re homeless, remember?”