Stay Curious

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Photo by Fabian Grohs on Unsplash

“How do you fight cynicism? Stay curious.”

This is my third year teaching at a school in the Kansas City area. Each of the past two years we have begun back-to-school teacher training with a sermon from a local pastor, a message reminding us of our duty to mold the children and young men and women in our charge.

This year my attention was particularly piqued by an idea from the sermon. The pastor asked us, “How do you fight cynicism?”

“Stay curious,” he followed up.

As teachers it is easy to become cynical towards human nature, but this isn’t just a teacher issue; people in general become cynical to human nature, even our own! And these critical attitudes are often amplified in a Christian context.

“His dad is a deacon!”

“She sings on the worship team!”

“I saw her acting so righteous last summer at Christian camp!”

“I’m supposed to be a Christian!”

We find it difficult to see past the moment, and one “bad apple” becomes a bushel until we feel impelled to echo Paul’s words in Romans 3:10: “None is righteous, no, not one” (ESV).

However, this group of teachers gathered to be encouraged for the upcoming year, and we were challenged to fight cynicism by staying curious. Curious about what?

We must remain curious about the potential for good in each and every human being we encounter.

“For we are [God’s] workmanship,” Paul writes to the church at Ephesus (ESV, Ephesians 2:10). Another translation says we are His “masterpiece” (NLT). In fact, the apostle Paul was an ardent advocate of grace. Why was he able to stay curious? Because he saw the great odds God overcame in saving him, a religious extremist with hands stained by the blood of his mission to persecute the early followers of the Way. “I was the worst sinner!” he declares to his protege (1 Timothy 1:15). “If God can save me, I want to stay curious about what He will do in all the lives of other ‘lost causes.'”

One of my favorite bands is Anberlin whom I’ve had the incredible opportunity to see live a few times, and I’m reminded of the song with which they’d finish all their performances: “*Fin.”

We’re not questioning God.
Just those he chose to carry on His cross.
We’re no better, you’ll see.
Just all of us, the lost causes.

Aren’t we all to you just lost causes?
Are we all to you lost?
Lost causes
So all we are to you,
Is all we are, is all we are
All we are is all we are

I’ve always been drawn to the faith and lyrical depth and authenticity (and power of Stephen Christian’s voice) present in Anberlin’s work, and “Fin*” is an anthemic reminder of our own lostness but also a subtle nod to God’s grace. If you listen closely to the tone and context, you too might hear the unhinging of that all-too-familiar phrase “lost causes.” Here “lost causes” is not a moniker of our worthlessness but rather our immense value that is identified by Him amidst our wandering. We are causes who are lost, but we are causes nevertheless. There is One who still sees us and pursues us.

I hope to stay curious this year. I hope by God that I abandon no lost cause because who am I, chief of sinners, to turn my back on anyone?

What you don’t hear on the album version of “Fin*” but what is sung at the end of their live shows is the final refrain of ultimate Christian hope:

“We’ll live forever, forever, FOREVER!”

 

He Knew How to Keep Christmas Well

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…and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

Almost every year I try to set aside a little bit of time to read Charles Dickens’ famous holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. You can see in the pictures above my favorite copy, an edition of beautifully vibrant water-color illustrations done by P.J. Lynch and put out by Candlewick Press.

This classic story is filled with a powerful lesson; it is more than a warm-fuzzy Hallmark-esque display (though, to be fair, there’s some of that too). A man is forced to reckon with his own cold heart and the consequences thereof.

I need this reminder every year. I can easily become focused inwardly for the holidays, but the birth of Christ was always meant to be a Star for all.

My challenge for me this Christmas and for you is to keep Christmas in your heart all year: turn away from our cold hearts and seek the welfare of our neighbors January through December.

Will it be said of you, “She knew how to keep Christmas well?”

 

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Rooted, Unrooted: Can I Settle in without Settling for the American Dream?

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Ever since college, really, I have struggled with the tension of being rooted versus being unrooted (not uprooted per se).

In college I was in a serious relationship, and when that relationship ended, I realized, looking back, that I was in it for all the wrong reasons. I wanted the perfect, idyllic life (as I saw it). I was studying to be a pastor, and I thought that after college I would get married, study in seminary, become a suburban pastor, settle down, and build a family: a cute, domestic American dream. Terminating my serious relationship obviously slowed down my dream. However, that experience actually awakened a latent desire for travel, and I ended up swinging the pendulum in the far other direction.

Immediately (like, a few weeks ) after I graduated in December 2009, I hopped on a plane and backpacked around Europe for three and a half months by myself. A few years later I headed to Scotland for a month of hiking and exploring. Later I traveled around South America (Ecuador and Peru), moved to Boston for a year, went on another trip to Europe (Scotland and Italy), and moved back to St. Louis (during that year I went on short trips to England and Toronto). Eventually I took a job teaching in El Salvador hoping to teach there for several years, but I fell in love and moved back to the U.S. (this time to the Kansas City area) to apply for a visa for my fiancee. We recently married, and I’m about to begin my second year teaching here.

You can see that my life the last few years has been pretty unrooted. And though I now have a steady job that I love, and my wife whom I love with me, I know that there will still be many trips overseas in our future (my in-laws live in El Salvador, and my sister-in-law lives in Germany), and I’m definitely not complaining about that. Now, however, I have begun imagining domesticity once again: the settled life.

Imagining a rooted life can take many forms: a house with more space to grow a family in the future (and space to actually sit on the patio with our morning coffee which is less tenable in a second floor apartment), a second car, fun little home amenities like a second TV or decent furniture, and the list goes on. I start seeing things through new lenses: “Oooh, that would look nice in our home!” Let me tell you, this is in stark contrast from my modus operandi the past few years.

Some of you might think, “Aww, that’s cute. Caleb’s finally growing up.” But am I? What kind of life squares away better with a Christian worldview? Is it better to live rooted or unrooted? The Bible seems to make a case for both, so I’ll share a few critical passages.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ… -Philippians 3:20

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. -Hebrews 11:13-16

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. -1 Peter 2:11

Heavenly citizenship. Strangers, exiles, sojourners seeking a heavenly country. This is an important description of New Testament believers. For many years I have justified my nomadic life with descriptions such as these, and there is obvious, biblical truth here. So is there any room to justify a more stable, domestic, rooted life? Look at what God says to His people living in exile.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare….” -Jeremiah 29:4-7

We might not think of ourselves this way, but we are exiles. We are God’s chosen people (Gentiles grafted into the nation of Israel) living dispersed among the nations. However, a clear biblical strategy mandated to the scattered Jews that applies to us today is to become rooted into our local areas and seek the welfare of that place.

So, rooted or unrooted?

Both.

Trying to justify the type of nomadic, traveling life that is sexy today is fruitless from a biblical perspective. Inter-cultural experiences are amazing and should be sought after. Travel is a good thing. Living abroad is a good thing. But the Bible is clear that we are to seek community and fellowship, both with Christians and non-Christians. If the type of travel you envision is gallivanting around the globe endlessly (as a lifestyle versus a vacation) without ever rooting to one place, it’s hard to square that up with a kingdom mindset. Tuck in. Get to know your neighbors and your city. Serve your surroundings. In this way, domesticity is good!

Nevertheless, there is still a strong warning. Christians are, by definition, unrooted. This is not our home. America is not our home (nor is it a chosen, righteous nation). In both a figurative and literal sense, we are wanderers with eyes constantly on our true home, the kingdom come. Do not put your saving hope here (socio-political systems, education, wealth, etc.). We look ahead to the new heavens and the new earth and the new Jerusalem.

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. -1 Corinthians 51-53

Till We Have Faces: My Blog’s New Look

image by Nicole Mason

 

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

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

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

FAITH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

November 5th

Bare trees with branches, tentacle-like, grasp. Exposed bark. Leaves cling to a few oaks, green tinged with yellow, orange, brown.

There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. God has given us nature to surround us and wrap us like a garment, and I have had only a few moments of electrifying clarity in my life, always at the hands of an important book or nature. It seems no accident that mystics seek nature to sharpen their visions and their divine movements.

And perhaps there is a mystical connection with coffee.

#HappySunday

Thanks to my parents for the blessing of their house, their little hermitage, their house tucked away in the woods that has often been a retreat over the years. 

What to Read, Where to Go?

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Need ideas?

It’s the end of summer. Perhaps you’re back in the office daydreaming about next summer’s dream vacation rather than the work in front of you. You have Travelocity or Travelzoo bookmarked in your browser. You’re skimming travel photos, imagining the perfect adventure. You have the most epic travel playlist on Spotify. You’ve been watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty for inspiration. Perhaps you’re uncertain about where you want to go. Perhaps you’re working up the courage to do something extra daring, something really outside your comfort zone. Of course Travelocity only goes so far. In fact, sometimes travel sites can be even more discouraging as they can cater to a clientele with substantially deeper pockets than your own. But the itch remains. Maybe you have a little bit of the what but you need more of the why or how.

Over the last year this blog has been primarily concerned with documenting some of my life as a teacher in El Salvador as well as providing resources for students. As I transition back into the States—I accepted a language arts teaching position just outside Kansas City—I want to stay active on this blog, but I want to expand the purpose and vision. I’m not entirely sure what that means yet, but I want to connect readers with relevant information especially related to the world of travel, books, and even a little bit of teaching and faith. I want to answer more of the whats for travel—what’s out there? But I also want to engage with the whys and hows. Why is travel important? How do I travel in a meaningful (re: non-superficial, non-dehumanizing) way? How do I travel on a budget?

I also want to highlight the literary world more, connecting readers to great books, relevant literary news, and potentially some great literary causes.

Will you join me?

What would you like to see here?

Guatemala and Big (Personal) News

Last spring, during Semana Santa, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Antigua, Guatemala…

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…with my fiancee, Elena!

Yes, it has been difficult for me to post as frequently as I’d like because of some crazy (awesome) life events including proposing to my amazing fiancee and transitioning back to the United States to continue teaching (I’ll post more on that later), but I hope to resume somewhat frequent blog posts about life, literature, and travel.

So…back to Guatemala. Semana Santa literally translates as Holy Week, and it is an important Catholic holiday in Latin America (and important on the Christian calendar all over the world): the week before Easter. Many people are on holiday that week, if not for the whole week then usually Thursday and Friday at least. Trying to avoid the overwhelming crowds the weekend of Easter, Elena, her sister and parents, and I visited Antigua Sunday through Tuesday.

Sometimes, when traveling, one of the difficulties is that certain cities/countries/areas might be rather unsafe. Thus, one of the great treasures of Latin America is Antigua, Guatemala. The government has maintained stricter security there, it is very safe, and it allows one to experience the incredibly rich Latin American culture without some of the security issues in other places.

So imagine walking down rustic, stone streets, meandering through various side streets, surrounded by antiquarian, colonial architecture, breathing in the sights and sounds of artisan peddlers, food vendors, musicians, and various languages from diverse travelers all over the world. Old churches and cathedrals, literally hundreds of years old, look down on the people, inviting them to share in their history of piety and religion (and, unfortunately at times historically, exploitation). The plaza is a focal point which provides beautiful greenery nestled within the small city as well as plenty of park benches to sit and soak up the atmosphere. There are cafes with incredible coffee, restaurants, and bookstores. The air there is fresh and cool, the advantage of its somewhat higher altitudes. And though there really isn’t any one specific tourist attraction (e.g. the Eiffel Tower), it’s almost nicer because there’s no pressure to rush around to anything in particular. Instead, one simply walks the streets in good company and breathes the deep, satisfied breath of another cultural gem.

Enjoy some of the pictures.

 

Poetry Wednesday: Shel Silverstein

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Nearly everyone has been exposed to some of the fun, whimsical poetry of Shel Silverstein: The Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, and The Giving Tree are some of his most notable works. His writing–targeted primarily at children–shows itself to be both entertaining and often quite surprisingly deep. Today I wanted to share his poem “Invitation.” CHEERS! to fellow dreamers and creators. May your tales always find a welcome heart.

If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by the fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Sub-creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow New Instagram Account: A Little Literary Fun on the Side

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“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door…”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

“To be, or not to be…”

Some famous lines of literature. A good quote has the ability to boil down a profound idea into a single statement. Now, in this 144 character, bite-size Twitter culture, I’m not always impressed with our faddish, weightless phrases, and of course one must be careful not to rip things out of context. Nevertheless, I still believe in the power of a quotation, a nugget, a piece of gold from the classic, literary treasure chest.

Thus, here I am justifying a new little side venture. Follow this Instagram account for daily literary quotations. You can also see the account on this blog’s sidebar.

a big cup of books on Instagram

at the still point, there the dance is...