Aug 4, 2016

Being Vulnerable, Part 2

Beauty at a Threshold
Uncertainty has a way of haunting the mind, doesn’t it?

It can paralyze courage, entangle and drown joy like seaweed.

It is not that harboring questions is unhealthy; it is just that I must be wary of letting them wrap themselves around me too tightly.

Thinking of our earlier conversation (Read Part 1), I ask my friend, “What is the threshold at which being open or vulnerable is actually becoming whiny or overly needy?”

Note that whiny can be defined as “complaining, fretful, cranky” while needy can be defined as “impoverished; in need of practical or emotional support; distressed.” To need is not unhealthy, but there seems to be a point at which need becomes desperate, ungrateful, even fearful. There is a difference between being needy, which we all are at some level, and being overly needy.

“Vulnerability is not whiny or needy,” she replied. “It is only that way when you do not love yourself.”

I felt a lot of depth in that statement—truth. Her words align with something Bréne Brown said: “When you lose your capacity to care what other people think, you’ve lost your ability to connect. But when you’re defined by it, you’ve lost your ability to be vulnerable” (Q&A, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TED Talk 2010).

I needed to explore this truth further. For while my heart feels deeply—welcoming inspiration directly from the Holy Spirit or most often through another person—I also want to know it personally, tangibly: to embrace it while at the same time never fooling myself to think that all has been discovered or understood. There is always more to learn. Moreover, through reflection and study—seeking to know and understand—I aim to help cultivate that connection in a way that allows it to take root, grow, and blossom. I want to understand such truth because in deepening understanding there is not only a deepening internal love, including wisdom, but an overflowing expressive love: given, shared. Call it compassion in community, or passion in intimacy.

Overall, I have found that in seeking understanding—when my mind (or intellect) and heart converse, when they step closer and try to gaze unblinkingly into each other’s eyes, sometimes speaking with words, but more often sharing a momentary dance of light—love finds the strongest will. Call it resolve. Know it as meaning.

Yet, as with most ways worth following, or souls worth knowing, it can be uncomfortable, awkward, difficult—especially at first. That is often the nature of unfamiliarity. Vulnerability.

To my friend, I replied, “I know a fair amount of people who may be confused about vulnerability: who when encountering it in another, particularly when demonstrated by a male, basically dismiss it as weakness. ‘Man up’ they say, quick to call it ‘whiny.’ I wonder if such people cannot receive vulnerability from another because they do not love themselves, as you suggest, or because they are confused about what it means to be strong; or lack compassion . . . like grace, like mercy—or a mixture of that, or all of that. When offered to someone else, vulnerability is a gift, isn’t it? . . . If only it was more often received and shared as such.”

Maybe I am confused about what it means to be strong relationally. A lot of grace is needed—will be needed if love is to take root. That is certain. It must be the companion of courage, for fear prowls in the shadows of uncertainty. Too often, I am at risk of being chased by that uncertainty toward judgment and exclusion, especially directed at myself.

“What do you fear?” Another friend recently asked.

Such a simple, yet profound question.

In general terms, I realized that I fear being stuck in a cycle of receiving gracelessness, exuding foolish vigor, unchecked hope, of “falling in love alone.” I recognize that this is bound by both personal history and lies. Only, which of the two is meant to be overcome and which do I need to surrender?

Thus the way winds onward.

Surrender or Overcome?
Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.
—Miriam Beard

Scarred by what too often looks like failures, I sometimes find myself along the way of growth wanting to skip ahead to the next point of “failure” or resolution to get it over with. In other words, I am tired of enduring relived heartache. It is like I subconsciously want to avoid the pain of growth, of removing each layer protecting my heart. But as I have been encouraged (see Part 1), I need to surrender to it, to therein find beauty to let love grow.

Why is that so hard to do?

Almost contradictorily, whether as a defense or retaliation—or simply a manifestation of insecurity—the desires of my heart too often gaze and press ahead with an overly aggressive impulse. As they are too often at war with each another, the risk for overcompensation is ever present. To overcome pain is a necessary trait in many circumstances (e.g. distance running, certain leadership roles), but overcoming is not the same as surrendering, is it? There are aspects of life to overcome, but there are also places to surrender.

For me, the heart and mind must continue to explore this together. In the meantime, I know that I need more internal calm: to be reminded of simple truth—shown it tangibly. I need a burgeoning faith. Hallelujah, through the power of friendship, love—God—there can be peace, there will be peace, there is peace.

Beauty in Intimacy
There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness but of power. They are messengers of overwhelming grief and unspeakable love.
—Washington Irving

Layer by layer, defenses—weapons, shields, armor, cloth—are removed. This is the heart ultimately revealed, exposed to Love. Touched by it, affirmed, encouraged, it is enlivened to share love—unite with it. Intimacy. At least, that is possible (though tragically rare by most accounts). Still, God begins the good work: the removal of my bloody, dusty, dented and broken protection. As a person, in the flesh, Jesus Christ, He defines it in Word and deed (physical sacrifice), gives his Holy Spirit as the ever-present potential for understanding and intimacy. This is the foundational gift of love on which I choose to stand. It lifts my compassion and my passion.

I further nurture such love with those few trusted people who affirm and awaken it while also gently helping keep it exposed in vulnerability (friendship). While this can be uncomfortable, painful even, it is the caress of love as well—like massaging the knots from shoulders that have carried a burden for far too long. It is never easy. But it is calming and beautiful. It is real.

There can be no shortcuts to intimacy. The road is hard: it winds, climbs, falls, and crosses dangerous spaces of the soul. Fear beckons me to retreat, or to stop and be satisfied with a shadow or echo of the truth. To share love, however, to expand the scope of my life to include another requires some sacrifice. I have to surrender some of my will, my control—to share it, inside and outside. There is freedom in this kind of surrendering. There is wholeness in selflessness, empowerment in service, gifts in giving. In my weakness, I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Bréne Brown said that vulnerability is the willingness to let go of who you should be to allow yourself to be who you are. It is about the willingness to say “I love you” first, to do something when there are no guarantees, to invest in a relationship when it may not work out (“The Power of Vulnerability,” TED Talk 2010). I believe that it begins with God, deepening when I personally accept His love. I understand that to be complimented by a community of friends. That it is ultimately an intimacy to be shared in mysterious commitment with one other. That is my faith, at least, an upward spiral of growth and meaning: again and again, surrendering so that love may deepen that infinite well of goodness in my heart.

May it be so for you as well. Share it. Celebrate it. Stand in awe of the wondrous beauty that the eyes will begin to see more clearly when light is allowed to shine on them. That is a gift. Hallelujah.

I conclude with a quote that a friend recently shared with me, author unremembered:

“My idea of Love is that it is all-consuming. It is, quite simply, two people basking in each other’s glow for the other. Contrary to the common mentality of replaceable indifference in all things, Love is incredible, rare, and undeniably has no equal. It is not a commodity, a bargaining chip, a weapon, or D5 in the vending machine. You can’t steal it, buy it, manufacture it, use it up, replace it, or beg for it … however, if you have it, all you want to do is desperately give it. Falling in Love—that is, wholly subscribing to the belief that someone else loves you—is scary. Love already makes you a fool because you now see a part of world that nobody else sees, but the precipice that you find yourself on as this person calls to you makes you vulnerable to such pain that you would have otherwise not known.

“Falling in Love is one of the most maddening experiences a person can go through—where you truly doubt your own sanity at times. Previous experience has taught you that there is great danger in the mirage of Love. Of hallucinations created by the chemical synaptic misfiring in your brain. Of self-induced fabrications that you’re only seeing what you want to see. Of the possibility that this person, who you have already determined that you Love, is offering their Love for motives that are other than genuine. It is a rabbit hole unlike any other that transforms the reality you know into a world of uncertainty and dire confusion. Even the mere concept of Time bends away from its linear course as you fall in Love: a day can easily pass in the blink of an eye… and a single second can stretch into hours. Truly, the only thing more frightening than falling in Love is… feeling like you’re falling in Love alone.

“The world continues to convince us of its harsh realities. Society encourages self-sufficiency—independence is seen as a sign of strength and Power is in the grip of the person who cares the least. Commonly, the weak are seen as those who willingly allow others to cause damage… to be trampled and discarded as trash. To stand there and be mocked… laughed at… publicly humiliated for baring the most private, softest underbelly of their soul for something as antiquated and childish as Love. The world wants blood. Society cheers for the last person standing… not the lifeless corpse lying in the dust. The fool who walked into the arena without armor or a shield… who chose to not run away… who willingly sacrificed themselves for nothing but an abstract, intangible idea. At most, they’re pitied. Granted clemency for holding to an ideal. But never heralded as champions. To the victor go the spoils… the chance to walk away unscathed, and live to fight another day.

“In my perspective of Love: the world is fucked and Society is wrong. The weak are those who don the heaviest armor and wield the largest weapon. Who invest in tactics and strategies of war. The peddlers who maliciously attempt to buy Love in exchange for their goods and services. The corrupt who manipulate and willfully deceive in effort of gaining leverage. The false friends who pour poison in your ear under the guise of support. These are the ones who have already lost and given up—too weak and too scared to let go of their mediocre Life where they have control. These are the ones who will convince you that Love is not worth it. That there are easier ways to get it and it is plentiful in supply. D5 in the vending machine. They show no mercy because mercy has never been shown to them. It is they who I pity. Fearful cowards. Love is reserved for those who know Fear intimately—they know what’s coming, have tended to old wounds, picked themselves up and will defiantly face Fear again. Love is reserved for the Strong. The courageous. The ones who will continue to give Love at the risk of abuse. Who show no regret, no cowardice, no flinching. Because they know Love. They know mercy. They know that the reward is far greater than the pain and they are willing to have their heart destroyed in hopes to experience this silly, childish, antiquated ideal. They are the champions. They are the truly Strong.”

Jul 22, 2016

Being Vulnerable, Part 1

It began with a common question: “How are you feeling today?”

“Really good,” she replied. “And you?”

Throughout the week, my heart had felt tossed about by an agitated sea. I was tired from struggling to stay afloat in uncertain waters, to draw air of hope—of confidence. Should I reply honestly about that, vulnerably?

I hesitated, compelled by the notion that I must exude an indomitable will to secure a friend’s trust. After all, such resolve demonstrates stability of character, garners respect. Being hardcore is attractive. Right?

Or does such a demeanor sacrifice approachability?

My compass has long been defined by perfection[1], even though I know that it cannot be attained. For only God is perfect.[2] Therefore, remembering one friend’s recent words that “beauty must be flawed, [that human] perfection is the idealism of the devil who aspires to be God,” I decided to stop fighting the emotional current for a moment, and see where it might carry me. After all, I live for adventure, which pertains to the heart, faith or inward truth as much as it does to action or outward truth.

Beauty in Imperfection
"My heart has too often felt heavy this week,” I began, but then faltered again, unable to let go of the idea that I needed to exhibit control, strength. Therefore, I added, “But I am trying to let go of the burden—the distraction or confusion, maybe—to be fully present.”

I thought the conversation might end there, for it seemed I had said enough: identifying the problem and promptly addressing it. Besides, entering the waters of my doubts would require endurance—a courage and compassion that is rare, even among friends. I did not want to pull her into the depths with me. Moreover, my uncertainty felt trite. It would be better, simpler, to move the conversation along. Yet at the same time, I knew that I no longer wanted to feel alone in the struggle. I desired an extension of grace—to be allowed to be weak.[3] It was risky. Still, at the same time another voice told me that such longing was selfish.

“What burdens lay on your heart?” she asked.

Was compassion possible in this instance? I treaded carefully, skeptical that she really wanted to know my answer. So I wrote about my discouragement from searching for a third job, which I suspected would lead to a predictable outcome for our conversation. That was safer.

Yet I was also curious. There was courage in me yet: a willingness to prove that my jaded attitude was misguided. Thus I dared to reveal the heart of the matter—well, at least introduce it. I eventually shared that I was realizing how many sensitive relational scars I still had, how many had not healed as much as I thought or would like to convey—how utterly humbling that was. “The vulnerability can feel overwhelming at times, though I feel as though I am supposed to fight hard to overcome it because . . . I don’t know, for some series of reasons that I have long doubted, but struggle to shake off because they persist in trying to frame new experiences.”

Vague, I know. But it was a beginning.

“When it comes to healing, you do not have to fight hard to shake it off because it then makes it harder to shake it off. The more you acknowledge your scars and accept them, love them even, the more they will heal. And those vulnerabilities rise to the surface because they want to heal and be acknowledged, they’ve been bottled up for far too long. Healing is the most loving and gentle experience we can have for ourselves. And just being with it, crying, laughing, whatever it is, allows the heart to mend. It’s ok to feel vulnerable. Surrender to it.”

She was right, of course. I knew that, and know that. I am just not entirely sure how to surrender—beyond the idea of surrendering to God, which is certainly a journey of mystery.[4]

She continued, “Just know that only growth and beauty can come from the pain we feel in our heart. Our soul purposefully lets us have these experiences so that we choose love again. It may even change whatever limiting belief we had held so dearly in our heart.”

I think I understood, but reached a bit further. “Do you believe that relational scars can only be fully mended alone in the company of oneself or that there is also a need for another person or people’s influence to help provide the final healing touch(es)?”

“I believe both.”

As do I.

“Yet even in healing,” I admitted, “I am conscious of the presence of fear or insecurity that tells me my love is trapped in a cycle; that it will be pounded down again and again by wave after wave, slowly exhausted to either drown or become numbed to the point of not feeling anything. The heart is resilient, but the mind is skeptical.” I thanked her for caring, for encouraging, for welcoming me to share a part of my rawer self. I confessed that I was unsure of the appropriate time to open up more in a friendship.

“It’s hard to let your heart open, especially if you have had heartache and pain. But the love is worth it, trust me; well, you don’t have to trust me, but trust love. You can always talk to me about these things. We are friends and that is what friends are for. We all go through this and people need one another. We need to connect. We are human and also beings of love. So don’t feel like it’s ever too soon. A good friend recently reminded me that time does not exist in the heart.”

Trust in Love
I was left wondering what “trust love” really meant. Are any of us sure?  

I mean, I can begin to unpack the idea based on the love of Jesus Christ, of a personal relationship with God, the “I am” of love. I already know love intimately because it dwells in my heart as God’s love, His Holy Spirit, the Spirit or Word of Jesus. It is indeed about trust. I believe that God desires good for me; that He daily offers to fill the infinite well of goodness in my heart. Yet I do not think that I struggle with trusting God so much as I struggle with trusting people. This is the result of numerous relational wounds. Most are now scars, but some are still tender to touch.

So what are my real burdens? What am I afraid of, unsure of? If confusion conflicts the flow of goodness to and from my heart, if therein waits or prowls the devil, what needs to be exposed to the light—cleansed by living water?[5]

These are questions that each of us must try to answer, first alone, I think—with God—before they can be adequately addressed with another person.

Gazing into the mirror of one’s heart with eyes unaverted is intimidating. It requires honesty, which needs courage. But the result of facing that reflection can be such a centering sense of freedom. What is more, it can ease the soul into a place of rest, of peace. Vulnerability can be a posture of the body, mind, or heart separately examined. It can be all of them together, holistically—a unity of self: the soul.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines vulnerable as “capable of being physically wounded; open to attack or damage.” Vulnerability. For a few years now, again and again, most palpably starting with my journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, God has directed me to meditate on and explore the idea of frailty:

Frailty, thy name is Man 
Filled with wonder and heartache,
Bright bonds that stir passion on
Shattered past spirit drowned;
Wash memory devour remorse,
Color each blessing and curse
To deny, embrace, let go?

As a word, frailty connotes struggle in weakness, particularly moral weakness in the face of temptation. I have examined my fallibility as holding the potential for distraction, even suffering. Perhaps I am meant to now take some time to mediate upon its potential for tenderness.

Exposing the scars of my heart, the imperfections, to another person is being vulnerable. Any relationship with another person makes me vulnerable to being wounded further. But is that not an aspect of what love is? No matter how scarred, how calloused, how accustomed to pain I am, the path toward lasting love will get no easier. Love has the power to swell within each of us. It is gorgeous, captivating. But it is also dangerous. That is the nature of adventure.

Beauty in Healing
“Beauty is fundamental,” writes Eugene Peterson in The Jesus Way.

“It is evidence of and witness to the inherent wholeness and goodness of who God is and the way God works. It is life in excess of what we can manage or control. It arrives through a sustained and adorational attentiveness to all that we encounter on the way . . . Beauty does not impose anything that makes either God or us, God’s world or our circumstances, look better or seem better. The beauty is already there: by means of prayer or love or worship (all mysteries) we perceive truth, reality, goodness, salvation—God. . . . It doesn’t explain anything. It reveals what is implicit in every detail of creation and salvation, what has been there all along . . . We recognize it as organic to who God is and the way God works—not an intrusion, not a violation . . . [but reveals] what is right there before us, the inside and outside, the there and the here so that we can be participants in it. Beauty. . . . Salvation is not escape from what is wrong but a deep, reconciling embrace of all that is wrong. . . . Sin is not rejected, it is borne, carried in an act of intercession. . . .

“There is far more to seeing than a functioning iris and retina. Imagination is required to see all that is involved in what is right before our eyes, to see the surface but also to penetrate beneath the surface. Appearances both conceal and reveal: imagination is our means of discerning one from the other so that we get the whole picture. . . . Memory is required to make sense of even the simplest sentence. Language is vast and intricate and living. Memory is our means of keeping the complexities of syllables and syntax coherent, of bringing together the voices of the entire membership, of getting the whole story, of hearing the voice across the room but also the voices from across miles and centuries. . . .

“Without imagination and memory we are reduced to surface and immediacy, we live in a cramped prison cell of the five senses and of the immediate moment. But when imagination and memory are healthily active, the prison door springs open and we walk out into a large, multi-dimensional world that continues to expand exponentially. ‘Beauty’ is the word of witness that we use to identify this world, this world that is both outer and inner, both present and other.” (181-187)

God, empower me to be patient. Guide me. I need discernment to navigate my doubts, my history. I need to be reminded that you do not expect me to be perfect; that perfection is only you, Jesus. Thank you for beauty. Help me to see it further, to have eyes to see and ears to hear. Help me to remember that it is foundationally you who I trust, you who I worship and follow. Help me to stand.

Cleanse my thoughts. Heal my wounds that I might revel in the scars[6]: a map of where I have been. I surrender. Show me what that means. Help me build the stamina to swim past the breakers; and once there, to ride the waves in grateful celebration.

May your love overflow from my heart. Soli deo gloria. Amen.

[1] This vision being influenced by Jesus’ words as recorded in Scripture like Matthew 5:48: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Curiously, the Greek word, teleios, which is often translated as “perfect”, really means “mature (full grown), complete in all its parts” (, accessed 22 July, 2016). So for the Christ-follower, perfection has more to do with maturation or growth than flawlessness.
[2] For example, “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). “This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (2 Samuel 22:31). “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). It is important to note that the Hebrew root word for “perfect” here is tamim, which essentially means blameless or without defect (, accessed 22 July, 2016).
[3] “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
[4] I begin to address the idea of surrendering to God in “Is God Patient (Part 3)” and “We Will Overcome
[5] “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Or as Jesus answered the woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10), latter adding, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38). Finally, the hope of Christ: “For the Lamb [who is Jesus] in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
[6] “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10b).

Jul 15, 2016

On Cohabitation

You can be physically naked, but emotionally you hold back, fearful of losing someone whose only real tie to you is mutual affection.
Drew Griffin

The following is in response to the article, “The Majority of Americans Recommend Cohabitation.

From the outside, it seems straightforward: marriage is motivated by faith—in God, in the other person, in the tradition of community—while cohabitation is motivated or justified by more isolated practicality and uncertainty, even fear—a lack of willingness, even courage, to risk commitment without first trying to determine or control its outcome.

Based on various personal conversations, however, this is such fragile, humbling subject because—regardless of what authors like Drew Griffin may attest (and there are many like him in the Church)—the reality is that marriages collapse under the weight of insecurity about as much as cohabited relationships. That intimacy is not a guaranteed end for either path. That it is purely a gift.

Yet can that gift be acquired through our human effort or can it only be received from a source beyond us?

Regardless of whether you believe in God or not, I am not sure that intimacy can be acquired purely through human will. At least it does not seem to be so from what I have observed. That does not mean, however, that the two people do not share a very tangible responsibility to foster the space in their minds, hearts and lifestyles to receive that gift; and, after receiving it, to work daringly to cultivate and grow it for the rest of their lives.

No path toward intimacy is easy.

So where does the frail nature of this conversation leave one who still wants to believe in the power of marriage?

It is a power that I believe was orchestrated and affirmed in the beginning of time as “very good” by God, Yahweh, the “I am.” Despite my questions and uncertainty, Yahweh asks that I trust His promise to me—His Word. The Bible is foundationally the story of the covenant between Yahweh and Mankind, between Yahweh and you, me, each individual in the world. To trust in Him, in His love—the intimacy promised by committing to a relationship with Jesus Christ by the mysterious and active affection of the Holy Spirit—is to ground myself on faith. That faith is rooted in what He proclaimed as good. It is gratitude demonstrated through obedience to His guidance: that marriage is the path to the deepest and most stirring kind of intimacy.

That is probably not enough to convince the skeptics, but for me it is enough to nurture an inspiration that is both meaningful and purposeful. More so, I feel it deepening my capacity for love while also filling it with an overwhelming sense of passion.

May you discover that wellspring of love within your own heart, and may its goodness inspire your passion to new breadths of holistic expression. Soli deo gloria.

Jul 11, 2016

That Infinite Well of Goodness

Even though I lived four years in Santa Barbara, California, as well as six years of childhood and five of my most recent years in San Jose—a short drive away from Santa Cruz—I had never surfed. Having snowboarded half my life, being drawn to the exhilaration of gliding across a snowy mountainside; for some reason I hesitated to introduce such passion to glimmering ocean waves. The lack of initiative was mostly rooted in fear, I think—in uncertainty. Fear so often stalks the unknown. The shadowed depths of the ocean, the wildlife dwelling within, and my sense of helplessness in it—that Mankind was created for land—had perhaps dampened my ambition.

It was time to face such a fear, to become familiar with the unfamiliar—to broaden the potential for adventure.

It would begin on the shore of Pacifica, a leisurely town nestled on the western coast of the San Francisco Peninsula. I would not be venturing out alone.

* * *

Sometimes I pretend to be an academic.

For example, a week ago I spent five hours studying the word goodness, which was only an introduction, really. Illuminated by many colors, it is a difficult word to concisely define. Still, I was determined to at least peek beneath the surface.

Disclaimer: I was and still am wary of letting the beautiful and somewhat subjective gift of a word drown in objectivity. Therefore, more than any technical definition I can offer, I hope the heart of the pursuit recounted here brightens a way toward fuller understanding.

A Definition
Aside from connecting it to the root word, good, the New Oxford American Dictionary identifies the synonyms of goodness as “decency, excellence, friendliness, generosity, good will, grace, honesty, integrity, kindness, mercy . . .” Used as an adjective, noun, and adverb, good is defined as moral virtue, especially in helping others; giving pleasure (enjoyable or satisfying); attractive (pleasant to look at); a restoration from damage; or fulfillment of a promise.

Thank you for a kaleidoscope of a definition, New Oxford American Dictionary.

As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am interested in noting how a word is used in the Bible. There are as many variations in the Hebrew and Greek lexicons of the Old and New Testaments as there are with the English translations. The Hebrew term, tôwb, the one most commonly translated as good, connotes beauty in the widest sense, but also suggests “better, bountiful, cheerful, at ease; graciously joyful, kindly, loving, merry; pleasure, precious, prosperous, ready, sweet, wealth, welfare . . .” For example,

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31a). “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8)! “The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble” (Nahum 1:7a).

Intrinsic & Extrinsic
In the Greek New Testament, two root words are most often translated as good. The first, agathǒs, essentially means intrinsically good (good in nature). For example,

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good” (Luke 6:45a), the thought of which is expanded in Galatians 5:22-23a: “But the fruit of the [Holy] Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” “[God] who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6), which can be connected to Paul’s letter to the early church in Rome: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (8:28); “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2); and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21).

The second Greek root word, kalǒs, is also often used, which principally refers to an outward sign of an inward good (e.g. beautiful by appearance). For example, Jesus said,

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27b-28). “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Or as Paul wrote, “But as for you, O man of God . . . Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith” (I Timothy 6:11-12a).

In a way, goodness is all that is inherently beautiful, whether tangible or intangible. And according to my Faith, its prime mover is God.

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.
—William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice)

* * *

One can only learn so much about surfing on dry land, even with a friend or surf instructor (a.k.a. “Smurf Sensei”) as a guide. Therefore, snug in a wetsuit with a foam board grasped more confidently than I felt, it was time to step into the waves to practice what had been taught on shore.

The waves of Pacifica State Beach are relatively tender tutors. To help me focus on the most difficult aspect of surfing—the stand—Smurf Sensei held the back of my board while I crawled onto it amidst churning waist-deep surf. The most exhausting aspect of the process would not be falling off the board in failed attempts to stand so much as rising from the water only to be slammed under and off balance again and again right after. I felt as graceful as a turkey, surprised at how awkward it was to just center my ribs while lying on the board.

It was not long, however, before I managed to stand and ride my first small wave. And then another.

Conscious of my limits, however, I eventually surrendered to the need for a break on the unmoving sun-warmed beach. Meanwhile, Smurf Sensei took her short board out to model what is possible with happy years of experience.

The learning process often draws the most energy from a person. In kinesthetic learning, for example, there is usually an overabundance of body tension with each movement as muscle memory and balance are sharpened for the specific action. I was tired, and knew I would be sore later, but was also filled with the vigor of having entered a new sea of possibilities. So I soon retrieved the foam board and paddled solo toward the larger waves.

* * *

An Infinite Well
Goodness is transcendent, an extravagant aspect or gift of growing in the Truth. “You can never have too much goodness,” a friend texted in a conversation. “That’s the stuff that also inspires creative work.” It helps light the journey. Martin Luther wrote,

“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” (“Defense of All the Articles”)

It was the aforementioned text conversation that first nurtured this focused meditation on goodness. I had recommended a particular musician to my friend as a way to “add to that infinite well of goodness at the center of our hearts.” Thinking about it further, I later wrote, “I think by ‘infinite well’ I mean ‘infinite capacity to receive and ultimately draw from goodness.’”

I appreciate how she responded: “I like ‘infinite well’ it’s hearty, like a direct streamline. . . . we as souls have infinite access to our well but it’s common in our humanness to constrict the flow. . . . and even ‘evil’ or acts of ‘evil’ stem from the root of confusion, not knowing what is real . . . Truth.”

Later that night, as I considered the common tension felt between worshiping and being intimate with God who is both good (e.g. loving, merciful) and just (e.g. a holy judge)[1], I wondered if justice is necessary because we are all at some point collaborators with evil, willfully or not. The term evil is a somewhat complex term, which I will not delve into here. For now, I suggest that it is confusion contaminated with malice. Or that evil is that which distracts or disrupts a person or people from receiving, drawing from, and therefore extending goodness. That fear may be one of the most entrenching symptoms of confusion.

Hallelujah, such fear can be overcome:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21agathǒs, intrinsically good). “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came . . . Jesus Christ . . . And the [Holy] Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (I John 5:4-6). “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

J.R.R. Tolkien writes, “In the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (The Return of the King).

* * *

The ocean is a wonderful element we get the opportunity to play with. It’s pretty magical when you allow yourself to just be with it. It has a way of awakening one’s soul.
—Smurf Sensei

I did not catch any of the larger waves that first day, but I did realize that the well of my heart was deepening. Even just sitting on the foam board, swaying with the waves as they rolled faithfully by, I finally understood the allure—how much goodness could be shared through something as uncomplicated as surfing.

I seized the opportunity to return the next morning.

This time Smurf Sensei and I would head out together. There would be no more lessons on the beach, only that which can be gained from actually going out and trying.

Fear had not departed entirely, however.

Insulated by our wetsuits, boards at hand, Smurf Sensei and I were about to step into the water when two other surfers stopped us. “Hey, we just saw a great white shark jump out of the water down that way,” one said, pointing northward about a quarter mile to where the cove curved westward.

After a brief interchange, Smurf Sensei thanked them and looked at me with brows raised questioningly. 

“What do you think?” I asked.

Gazing out to the cluster of other surfers in the water perpendicular to our position, and considering the relatively shallow depths where the waves were breaking, she thought we would be fine. I trusted her experience over my uncertainty.

This was it: another opportunity to face the unknown—to swim with fear.

Reinforced by a shark presentation at Monterey Bay Aquarium the Sunday before[2]—that sharks are productive members of the oceanic ecosystem—and the knowledge that many surfers have been in the vicinity of great white sharks without problem, I was resolved to not let a mild apprehension prevent me from drawing further from the well of goodness. That is not to say, however, that I did not occasionally scan the water for a sinister shadow or dorsal fin.

Paddling past the breakers, sitting restfully on the board, and even managing to ride a couple waves that day, I was reminded of the delicate balance of nature: that while it is dangerous, not to be underestimated with haughtiness, it is also immensely good. It reflects God’s order, His beauty.

Like in my relationship with God, I have spent years progressively reorienting false perspectives—such as the uncertainty elicited by a desert, forest, or mountain wilderness. I am grateful to have at last begun to do so with the ocean. I still have much to learn and overcome, and believe it will always be so; but am excited to keep pursuing the healing, courage, and inspiration that can nourish the soul when fears are overcome, when beauty is allowed to pour in. Perspective is widened from it. The heart is deepened, enlarging its capacity to hold and share the infinite divine love that desires to overflow to every heart in the world. Soli deo gloria.

May we all learn to live with more joyful resolve; and may we laugh with anticipation for other example of goodness yet to be revealed and celebrated.

If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don't bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he's a good man.
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

[1] For more on that tension between good and just, note: “The Damage of ‘Trust God’”.
[2] There are curious statistics about shark attacks. For example, I am more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by a shark. Or to die by the flu. Or to be injured by a toilet. ( Accessed 7/6/2016).

Jun 22, 2016

What is Adventure?

Adventure is costly.

In adventure, the self is both surrendered and gained. Like love.

Adventure is about intimacy. It demands vulnerability. It demands risk. There are no long-term guarantees. It would not be adventure if all was guaranteed.

There are a few things that seem necessary to have and to hold the hope of success. There must be faith—in the potential and adaptability and even limits of the human mind and body—but more so there must be faith in something beyond myself. There is a power beyond myself that inspires me, that helps me to stand time and time again, and to take another step. I can overcome challenges because God overcame far more as a man, as Jesus Christ. He overcame for a reason. He overcame to provide a promise of purpose that transcends mortality. He offers me meaning. He offers me life. I am just asked to trust his word. I am called to be courageous, to face each day with action. For without action, there can be no intimacy. Without action, there can be no adventure.

Adventure does not mean comfort, though comfort can surely be found. Those with eyes to see the glory of God will never want for deep joy and peace. Yet the surface will suffer a barrage of resistance. At times, joy will seem distant. Peace may feel illusive.

Adventure does not mean perfection. There will be failures.

But there will also be triumphs. There will be mountaintops blessing you with cleared perspective and unfathomable beauty. Would such gifts be as profoundly moving had it not been for the long road leading through and up from the valley? The road that strains the body and will, the road that empties the heart, is the same road that fills you with wonder.

Adventure is about being emptied to be filled. It goes well beyond backpacking and outdoor adventure. It takes many forms. Yet at the heart of it is the richest of lives. At the heart of it is the richest of loves.

May it be so for you.

*This is an excerpt adapted from "Feet of a Runner, Part III" (2014).

Feb 25, 2016

The Future of the United States of America

A Petition to Fellow Citizens and Leaders

A greater level of concord is needed in this nation. Needed and possible. To step further toward such an ambitious ideal, we the people would do well to first remember the legacy of our country: foremost that we comprise the United States of America. That such a name represents immense privilege. That such a name offers hope to those who desire life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Something must change, however. More is needed. To counter the threat of gradual collapse, to dampen the haunting whispers of the Third Reich’s rise or the Roman Empire’s fall, we the people of the United States of America need a vision that aims to mend the fractures currently debilitating our society. We need a vision that humbly engages the challenging questions of tomorrow with the wisdom of yesterday and a willingness to learn today—to seek first to understand before being understood. We need action: the courage to strategically initiate solutions and adapt them for the benefit of the common good. Thus we need an active vision deeper than security and economics, than the power of arms and the wealth of consumerism. We need an active vision that looks into the eyes of greed’s corruption and does not waver; that observes oppression with the audacity to say “No more.” That counters ignorance with careful personal and collective study and conversation, remembering “I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading” (John Adams, Diary, August 1, 1761).

We need a president to call for, model, and inspire this vision. But we need more. One leader is not enough, no matter how grand the title or how experienced the team. We need countless servant leaders characterized by integrity and discipline in every corner of our society: from cities to rural homes. We as leaders need to actively champion needs and values rooted in the hearts of all, and to do so in the conviction of reasonable belief. United in that kind of purpose, our community will be as strong as it can ever be in this frail world.

Citizens and leaders of the United States of America, are we free from the blame so readily cast upon our government, the so-called “establishment”? Have too many of us become apathetic and self-indulgent; all the while angry because life is not perfect, casting blame on those elected to steward the Constitution because that is easier to do than address our own inner failings? Is it not more productive to direct the anger first toward ourselves, the questions toward our own motives? “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone . . .” (Jesus Christ, The Gospel of John 8:7).

To be sure, all people must be held accountable for their actions or inactions. From presidents to students, leaders are entrusted with a profound responsibility that must be scrutinized. The freedom and means to do so in the United States of America is a blessing that must not be overlooked. It is healthy to acknowledge anger, especially at injustice, and to channel it in certain productive ways. But let us not forget our many gifts as Americans. Let us not drown gratitude in the fervor of indignation.

Elect to Build Bridges
As the tide of the presidential election is swelling with citizens more engaged than ever before, which is heartening, the heightening emotional currents threaten to partition this country like never before. I pray that my misgivings are ungrounded, that the environment painted by the media is colored by what will prove to be melodramatic exceptions. Yet George Washington’s words linger:

“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” (Farewell Address, September 17, 1796)

Thus I petition for our next president to be one who fosters bridges not barriers. More so, I petition the beautifully diverse people—our strength—of the United States of America to not forget the vision that our nation was built upon. Without that foundation, what are we but another short chapter in history testifying to democratic entropy? On the eve of our Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote, “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it” (Letter to Abigail Adams, 26 April 1777).

So here is to remembering that foundation, to honoring those who fought hard for what we now enjoy and too often take for granted. While freedom can be defined in many ways, let us review the pillars our forefathers bled for that have long held this nation together:

“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political. . . . Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none. . . . A jealous care of the right of election by the people. . . . Absolute acquiescence in the civil over the military authority. . . . The diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason. . . . Freedom of religion . . . Freedom of the press . . .

“These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.” (Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801)

Elect to Resist Bitterness
Almost prophetically, John Adams wrote,

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” (Letter to Jonathan Jackson, Oct. 2, 1789)

Or as a sober reminder to be attentively proactive:

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.” (John Adams, Letter to John Taylor, 1814)

Let us not succumb to such a harrowing prediction. I think of so many peoples’ heightening prejudices stirring such dissension, too often rooted in groundless fear. We must ask ourselves, How many Muslims do you truly know? Or wartime refugees, illegal immigrants, journalists, politicians, Republicans, or Democrats? Have you listened to their stories before casting judgment? Let us, therefore, work toward understanding, to begin with asking questions and listening to the answers—even if we ultimately disagree with them. For example,

“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated.” (George Washington, Letter to Sir Edward Newenham, Oct. 20, 1792)
Elect to Heal Wounds
The road toward peace has never been, nor is, nor ever will be straightforward. It is complex in its assemblage of differing perspectives and motivations. That is the great experiment of democracy. I resonate with Abraham Lincoln’s conclusion as voiced in his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865—almost 151 years ago to the day, at a time clouded with some of the greatest strife this country has ever known:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Pray for United States of America. Pray for the presidential elections. And let us facilitate informed and productive conversations toward a vision of true good for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, both domestically and abroad. “Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains taken to bring it to light” (George Washington, Letter to Charles M. Thruston, Aug. 10, 1794).