Germany, Gospel and Last Samurai

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There are some trips you take that help you to recharge, perhaps to break away from normal routine if nothing more. Then there are others that exist to merely entertain and indulge your senses. Still there are a few that seem to mark your life in a significant way, trips from which you take away lessons or impressions that will stay with you long and true for the next leg of your journey.

When I initially flew out to Germany, I didn’t think it would be that kind of trip. After all, the primary reason for the visit was business, and I was spending only a week in town. I figured, if anything, I’d book an extra weekend so that I might actually explore Germany beyond the view from my office window. To be quite frank(furt), I wasn’t expecting much other than to say I did my 40 hours and stuffed myself with brats and bier. But sometimes these things hit you when you least expect it.

I guess it starts with the country terrain. The land alone is beautiful. Lots of trees, mountains, rivers. (I say this knowing fully that I only explored one region [and a half, I suppose, if you count my day in Heidelberg] and that there is so much more to see.) But as Friedrich would show you, the Germans are inseparable from mother nature. Germany is a biker and hiker’s dream. In addition, there is a lot of history contained in the country, as evidenced by several castles, cathedrals, and government buildings. Not to mention, the people are friendly–most of them speak decent English–and the food was wonderful. If the trip consisted only of this, I’d have been plenty satisfied.

Yet what stood out most was the people. The Germans are a very direct people. They will be upfront with you when pressed with something, and when they say something they mean it. My roommate Matt told me not to greet Germans with “How are you?” because over there it is not a trite greeting. “If you ask, expect an answer that is anything but good.” Because they will tell you how they are doing, really. It was refreshing because I didn’t have to second guess their intentions or what they were really trying to say. Their words are measured carefully. (Which reflects heavily upon me as a man. Do I measure my words carefully? Do I mean what I say, do I follow through on my commitments, is my word my bond?)

So, the few people I met there who considered themselves “Christians” really meant it. They lived out their faith. Their words and actions validated their claims. It was none of this going-to-Sunday-church-but-living-godless-Monday-to-Saturday business. When they say they are committed to being a disciple of Christ, they show what it means to have a definitive break from the world. It means they will say yes to doing some hard things, no to some others, and that persecution from family and friends is expected. They understand they will look weird to the world. They have counted the costs and determined that he is worth it.

Throughout my week, outside of work, I felt like I was on a missions trip, with the main difference being that the mission was me. I felt a bit like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, where I was coming into contact with a new culture and people that reflected a way of living I had not known before. I experienced sincere kindness from people who consistently sacrificed time and energy to share their lives with me. On a pizza & movie night, I witnessed how a man devoted himself to loving his wife and four kids. I thought to myself, He’s got it right. I want to be like that one day. The German believers made me reconsider how I was living and approaching life, and the beauty in their lives inevitably led me to rediscover the beauty in mine.

What’s more, I think it made me reconsider my bearings on the gospel. Do I truly believe in what Christ has done for me? Do I believe in his power to change my life? How am I reorienting my life–how does it look different–if I claim to be a disciple? I say I believe in God’s all-sufficient grace, but I’m afraid I still live most days with an identity wrapped around what I achieve and what others think of me.

There is still much to process, but I’m thankful for trips like this. God not only gave me what I wanted, but what I needed. It’s like a kid who expected action figures for Christmas and got a shiny bike instead. He went the extra mile to surprise me. Thanks, God.

Only time will tell where this bike will take me.

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Big Sur: Thanks for the Memories

“The saddest thing about life is you don’t remember half of it. You don’t even remember half of half of it. Not even a tiny percentage, if you want to know the truth. I have this friend Bob who writes down everything he remembers. If he remembers dropping an ice cream cone on his lap when he was seven, he’ll write it down. The last time I talked to Bob, he had written more than five hundred pages of memories. He’s the only guy I know who remembers his life. He said he captures memories, because if he forgets them, it’s as though they didn’t happen; it’s as though he hadn’t lived the parts he doesn’t remember.” – Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Lately I’ve been fortunate enough to be living life in the active sense of the word. Not just alive, but living. I’ve been traveling to new places, seeing different sights, meeting new friends, and learning from various wonderful men and women. Not a day goes by in which I am not aware of this wondrous privilege, and I am thankful for the Maker who has generously allowed for this rich period of my life. Lord willing, I intend to make more of these experiences in my days ahead.

Yet in the midst of it all I realize there must be a necessary time to pause and reflect. How tragic and disheartening it would be to simply take an experience as sensory and not allow it to marinate deeper within us. To record our memories, then, is to acknowledge their power not only to speak in the moment but to nurse and minister to our souls in ways that we can appreciate only with the passing of time.

Big Sur will live as one of those memories. It speaks to me now, and I entrust it will speak to me again (perhaps in new ways) as I return to take from this jar in the future. Some trips are made because of the people, others because of the place. Yet the few that become sacred are the trips forged by both. I have not experienced another trip in recent memory that made me appreciate the beauty found in nature and friendship as much as I did walking through those majestic hills and sharing laughs around the campfire.

One of my biggest fears is that one day I’ll forget it all. In the event that I am ever stricken with amnesia or dementia or what have you, I pray that I will be led to this page and recall a part of me that experienced something I would dare call divine.

There is something about moving through a mountain enveloped in fog that will not allow you to settle. What I mean is, fog creates this sort of tension that has potential to lead to either a subtle disappointment or wonderful crescendo. You are walking through a seeming mystery, the sight of rocks and ocean veiled by an atmospheric curtain, and there is no promise it will be lifted. Yet the day assumes the sun (as does the weather forecast), and so you walk on through the Wordsworth-like scene and take in the sublime awe of dirt, grass and trees in the fog with the ever slightest sliver of hope that the mighty sun will awaken.

At some point along our trail we come across this plot of forest, and though slightly off the beaten path, we enter. With all the imagination our minds could muster we dream our own Narnia, pretend we are our very own adventurers and queens. Meg transforms into a french hostess of the woods and we, her delighted guests. We assume an impromptu game of hide n’ seek and Murray darts through the thin redwoods with vulpine aplomb. In this moment, I–I am transported back to my innocent days as a young and wide-eyed explorer–and my mind is filled with wonder.

Through thin and tortuous trails, we make our way through the leafy maze. Rays of sunlight begin to shoot through the uncovered forest; tension builds. We are eager to make our way out of the forest, to see what might greet us on the other side. So I stepped over the ivy, ducked my head under the low-hanging branches, and kept trekking (though I stopped to chuckle at Shelley when her shoe caught in a branch’s knot). Though the track was steep, we eventually find our way out.

What greeted me at trail’s end was a masterpiece presentable only by God Almighty. Our group of seven was struck breathless in the sight of radiant glory–there were no words. Quietly, easily, we laid our bags on the ground and took our time in silence to share this uniquely communal-yet-personal experience with our Maker. The moment had transcended into the sacred.

Around the campfire later that night, we sat around on full stomachs looking to entertain one another with old tales of horror. What we got instead was a “popcorn-style”, group ad-libbed story initiated by Brittany that was unraveled and expanded on for the next half hour. It all began as a “Once upon a time in land far away, a land like Ireland…” but included Stevo-sponsored “Meanwhiles…” and led to crazy twists and turns involving dogs with injured legs, magical leprechauns, a love-sick spinster, and a tough New York priest named Brooklyn Dave (along with his friend Crocodile Marty in Australia).

We all laughed heartily at the accents (and at the people who attempted them) and the intricate yet nonsensical machinations of the story, while appreciating the inner-workings of the people who delivered them. I sat there marveling at someone like Feibes who possesses such a God-given ability to entertain others with his humor and charm. I was equally amused by Murray whose attention to details (not to mention, his failed attempts to keep a nonsensical story straight) exposed his practical, engineer-like hardwiring. It is a great joy when you are able to see a glimpse of God through His people.

The story abruptly ended. As each person filtered out to clean up and tie up loose ends, I stood there alone before the fire, full of life and cheer. The adventure was ending, the trip rounding near to its close. Yet it was not lost unto me the subtle narrative that was being told by the Grand Storyteller. “I am glad you get to enjoy Me and enjoy My people. This is the better part of life, and I give this privilege of life to you.”

In a world of cruise-controls and autopilots, it is easy to default into our work days and family lives without much thought. But listen with your heart, learn to look for the subtle graces you’ve been granted, and never lose that divine wonder. May we stake our life at seeking and sharing the greater story.

Cyber Insanity

I know this might be somewhat hypocritical, if not ironic, when I write on a cyberspace forum that we should stop spending so much time on the web. Nevertheless, let my point be made: STOP fooling around on the Internet! In fact, if these are the only three sentences that you read and they somehow compel you to get up from the couch that has been impressed from your well-invested butt and actually do something more worthy of your time, then my task in writing this entry is accomplished. If not, then more ranting from yours truly.

Internet has benefited us in so many ways. Quick information, easy access and communication, and a plethora of knowledge right at your fingertips. And I’d be the first to say that most of us, myself included, all need it to perform some of our daily tasks. But it is a little more than disconcerting when I sit and consider this: that more than half my time is spent roaming this database for some of the most frivolous of things, that wikipedia has all but made obsolete the once wondrous trip to the library, that Facebook has supplanted real, live interaction and communication with a person who is breathing and sitting right before you, and that I am sitting here blogging when there is not a single cloud in the sky outside and the sun is smiling down on the very one who hasn’t bothered to look up.

[I just took a 30 minute break in my backyard. As I was writing this, I looked out my windows and was convicted by my own words. “What in the world am I doing inside? Get out now!” I just dribbled a basketball for 30 minutes—pure, unadulterated, childlike fun. Okay, now back to my entry…]

Unfortunately, many of us have taken something that was intended merely for ancillary purposes and made it our lives. We have effectively created (or recreated) ourselves in cyberspace and invested so much into that person that we have in some ways become socially fragmented and confused (if not antisocial). Am I really what my profile—“my activities, interests, favorite quotes”—says I am? Do I feel cooler about myself because I have more than 800 “friends” on Facebook? Or do I feel less cool if I haven’t seen the latest clip on YouTube or haven’t twitted about how I should be taking a dump at this very minute? Subtly, I have replaced true life with this virtual reality in which I can make me out to be whatever I want to be. I can’t help but feel like for every little AIM chime or red Facebook bubble on the bottom corner, I might be missing out on something greater.

The beauty of nature. But don't take my word for it.

Nature sure is pretty. But don't take my word for it.

This argument also, perhaps even more so, goes against TV, but I won’t get into that here. I’m just simply reasoning with you to consider the greater ways of those who’ve walked before us—our parents. Most of our parents didn’t grow up on cell phones and computers, and yet they have gotten along just fine. They are more versed in philosophy, better-read, and more adept in practical skills (fixing things, cooking, etc.). Not to mention, they carry a far greater attention span than our iPod/crackberry junkies who can’t sit still in the very silence of their souls for more than a minute.

Personally, I took two days last weekend to head up to Lake Arrowhead, as it was a retreat to get away from the normal concerns of daily living. I can’t tell you what it is like to sit outside in the cool breeze of a radiant afternoon and simply take in life. To see the piercing blue water of the lake that sparkled like diamonds thrown across a giant blue canvas. To be one with the life around, trees in harmony with the birds and the snow; to see the world revolve without you and understand that you are just simply a pawn to mother nature’s queen. To be an observer of nature, and realize that it isn’t as much a matter of doing as it is of being. It is funny, but you realize a sort of paradox in this moment when you experience this sort of beauty: the most significant moments in our lives occur when they make us feel the most insignificant. In light of God’s beautiful creation, I felt very small—I almost forgot my own existence but I never felt more alive!

This isn’t a treatise for the abolition of Internet usage. What I’m saying is that there are so many things we can do that need not involve .coms or iAnythings. Let’s not lose ourselves in the insanity of this virtual world.

So it is time. Go out. Observe the trees and skies and mountains and oceans. Meet people—talk to them and really take an interest in them. Play, laugh, read, write. And stop settling for the fake.

Do not crave the substitute when you can have the real thing—life just simply won’t taste as good.