The Process of Processing

hamster-wheel

In my car on the way to meet a friend for coffee, I wondered how I was going to get myself out of my own head, at least enough to have an intelligible conversation. My brain was functioning well enough, but it felt like the wheels were spinning too fast for anyone else to catch up. I am definitely a verbal processor, so this usually isn’t a problem. This particular morning, however, I had spent my time studying by myself in my little apartment. Just like my body was confined in space, my thoughts felt confined to my head.

I wonder how the process of self-reflection happens in different people. For me, I take in the world and all my experiences in it, and then think and process extensively. To be stuck at home in my own head for more than a few hours is difficult, because I need others to help me refine my thoughts. My wife is much more of an “in-the-moment” kind of gal, reflecting on things as they come and letting them go fairly shortly after the moment has past. For her, she enjoys the world she is experiencing right now and subconsciously adds it to her memory banks, while I hop on to a hamster wheel of processing, sometimes getting stuck running at a pace that I cannot sustain.

That morning on my drive to the coffee shop, I realized something: It is of utmost importance to have people to process your life with, no matter how you do it. For me, that might seem like a more obvious activity, because I process verbally and think critically about everything. If I didn’t process with my friends and loved ones, I’d get hopelessly stuck in thought, threatening my ability to socialize and hold conversations. But having friends to process life with is just as important for my wife, though it looks drastically different. She needs others around her to experience the events that make up her days, for in having those people near her, she knows that she is understood and related to. There is certainly more to her (and I) than these simple caricatures of our processing, but by and large I need others to know my thoughts in order to understand the events I experience, and she needs others to know the events that make up her days in order to understand her thoughts and collective experience of life.

I wonder how others process and, ultimately, feel known. Is it just one of these two? Either by thinking out loud together in concepts and themes based on the realities we encounter, or by experiencing the same life together and having mutual existence be the glue of understanding? I know there must be many nuances to these categories, but are there more than these? Either way, I know spending life with others is necessary in order to understand our individual worlds and ourselves as we exist within them.

When I arrived at the coffee shop, it took me a few minutes of conversation to feel like I had cleared the mental stoppage that was hindering my ability to socialize and process. I even told my friend that I was stuck in my brain and needed a few minutes to get out. I didn’t need my friend to yank me off the hamster wheel. I didn’t need them to help sort out all of my thoughts. I needed my friend to simply exist in that space with me, a reality that reassured me that my thoughts could be shared and my world could be known. And it is so sweet to know that, just as the people closest to me enjoy hearing about my world and helping me make sense of it, I am a necessary and enjoyed friend in their process of processing.

Why Habitacion?

Why did we just introduce this song at Harbor Mid-City? It’s not just because last month we introduced an English song, so this month is a new Spanish one. It’s not just because it’s an epic ballad that invokes worship by its builds and cuts. It’s not just because I liked it. All of these things are true, but they miss the point, and church, we’re going to miss the point if we don’t understand Spanish, or don’t try to figure out what this song is actually talking about, what it truly means, and how it changes everything.

The first verse talks about the greatness of God, how majestic he is, and how the earth is a footstool beneath him. It paints the beginnings of the unfinishable picture of God’s bigness and sovereignty. The second verse is much of the same. God dwells in unapproachable light and holds the universe in his hands. An impressive description of our Lord, akin to those found in the Psalms. This leads us into the first chorus.

It asks the question, “Who could build a dwelling place, a sanctuary for God?” With the picture of the greatness and infinitude of God painted in the verses, this is an obvious question. Who could physically do this? But it also speaks to the human desire to know and be near to the Creator of the universe by any means necessary. If only we could build a place for God to live, he might stay near to us, his goodness and faithfulness drawn near by our efforts. The longing it taps into is much like Peter’s at Jesus’ transfiguration. He wanted to put up tents to keep Moses and Elijah with him on the mountain, because he was in the midst of the miraculous and did not want the moment to end. Logical. But this fuels an unhealthy belief common in followers of Christ; the belief that we can do enough to keep God Almighty near to us, in favor of us, graceful to us. That’s not our job, but God’s decision. The bridge.

“You choose to inhabit living stones

In weak people you show your glory

You raise up the cornerstone

We are your church, your home”

The song has been asking the futile question, Who could build a place for the uncontainable, unending God to live? But the beauty of the gospel is found in the futility of the question, and the way God has fulfilled the answer. Our great God has chosen to live in us. How incredible is that?! The infinite God lives in us weak, broken, hurting people, and delights in doing so! He is our new beginning and enables us to have hope for tomorrow by his power. God is not far but near, having selected each one of us personally to be a place for him to live on this earth. If this is true, then when you look into the face of another follower of Jesus, you are looking at a person full of the living, creative, merciful, beautiful God! Think about that next time we ask you to greet someone new on a Sunday morning!

Church, let this reality transform us. Let it give us courage, hope, joy, and peace. You’re allowed those things and are lavished with them as a son or daughter of God; enter into them! And let the last chorus be our prayer as a church, our commitment to our God and to each other, to let ourselves be filled with our God and to share him with everyone around us in faith, hope, and love.

“We will be a dwelling place

A better space where your presence can rest

We will build a dwelling place

We will be a sanctuary for you”

Why I’m Going To Spend My Life Belly-Flopping

The other day my friends and I were dreaming up ways to creatively engage an audience in the subject matter of a talk being given in a week. Someone suggested we give people an opportunity to tangibly respond to the discussion, and my wheels started turning.

I felt myself start to get excited as I dreamed and spoke into existence the creative ideas I had swirling in my mind. My mind made connections between the the topic of discussion and ways to put them into tangible response pieces for people to engage in, and I felt an immense amount life and joy surge through me as I contributed good ideas to the conversation. “I am good at this,” I thought. And I froze.

I found myself immobilized by the thought that I was good at something. Why? I was loving the moment that I was in, energized by the creative process and proud of myself for what I was creating, and yet I couldn’t move forward. As a 23 year old, I’ve begun asking the question, “What am I good at?” with greater frequency than before. But much to my surprise, this question always seems to be followed by, “Am I allowed to be good at something?”

You see, Jesus always speaks about his kingdom requiring a certain level of humility, a servant lifestyle that seeks the good of others before selfish gain. I have grown to love this self-sacrificing characteristic of the faith, but I feel as though it has influenced the way I view myself and my talents in ways that I’m not so sure Jesus meant them, limiting the freedom with which I engage my creative mind and passionately pursue the things I’m good at.

I don’t completely blame the Christian ideal of humility I created, and know that it has mixed with my personality and upbringing to turn into a toxic “humility.” In reality, it is more of a self-deprecation, one that I have unfairly assigned the label of humility. So I have within me these warring desires: The desire to create incredible things that influence people in beautiful ways, and the desire to be humble, whatever that truly means.

In response, it is easy for the Christian to say, “God made you with specific gifts, and you’re made to do some things great! Do them for the glory of God and good of others!” But can that be done so purely that selfish ambition does not come into play? Isn’t there a small element of self-satisfaction in having created something amazing? And are we allowed to feel that?

The God of the Bible is one without limits, yet this seems to be one of the only ways that questions are asked of him. “Am I allowed to do this? Can God really do that?” There seems to be doubt built into this style of questioning, but Jesus encouraged us to faith. So how do we live life in faith when it comes to our passions and giftings?

My answer? Go for it. I don’t know if that’s really the answer, but that’s what I’m going to try for a while. I’d rather go hard after the things I’m great at and learn how to do them for God’s glory as I create with good intentions, than never try anything and hope that one day God will coax me out of my fear to do something with my talents. God is too good and our gifts are too needed (and fun) to spend our lives sitting on our hands.

It’s like learning how to high dive. If all you did was sit on the pool deck and read books and watch film and study the physics of diving in hopes of perfecting the sport, you’d never accomplish your goal if for no other reason than you never got wet. You have to climb the ladder, put your toes on the edge, and plunge 30 meters into the pool in order to know what it feels like to succeed in the most simple yet most necessary component of the sport of diving: falling. And as you fall over and over again, gaining confidence, watching film, looking into the physics, practicing moves, reading books, and falling, falling, falling, you will inevitably get better. And your coach will direct your focus to winning meets and getting better, but they will always force you into the pool rather than keep you out of it.

God is a lot bigger than a coach, but when it comes to the talents he’s given us, I’m pretty sure he’d encourage us to use them, get better at them, and always risk the belly flop in order to see them become amazing (Matthew 25:14-30). So here’s to belly-flopping.

The Art of Shutting Up

Have you ever noticed how intensely people try to fix you or your problems when you are suffering, and how that truly is the last thing you could want in that moment? I have begun to notice how much my friends speak as though they know how to fix my problems, and how abundant their words are when I reveal my struggles to them. Ok, I have begun to notice how much I try to fix problems and how abundant my words are when others are in need. And as I have reflected on my consoling techniques lately, I have begun to believe that shutting up in others’ times of need is a rare and desperately needed art form, and those who are best at it are those who have spent long journeys on earth, that is, the older people around me.

I had never noticed how much my grandma (Granny, as she is affectionately called) listened to me until I stopped talking so much. Over the years my grandparents have always been there for me, supporting and encouraging me with tough truth and generous grace at all the right times. But in the past couple of years I have gained an unquenchable interest in the lives they have lived, so I decided to talk less about myself and ask more questions. The strangest thing always seemed to happen though: the conversation was always directed back to me and my life, and I always ended up spilling my guts to my grandparents.

My Granny is an expert at avoiding the spotlight and turning it to you, not just because she is unassuming and doesn’t like the attention, but because she genuinely wants to know about you and your life. And I’ve noticed an expression on her face whenever she does this, and especially when I am speaking of the trials of life. Whether I am speaking of the chaos of my grad school/ministry/wedding planning life, or sharing about struggles with friends and family, my Granny always ends up with a wry smile creeping across her face and a chuckle in response to the struggles I share. Then a simple phrase of advise or a relevant story is shared, and another question is asked. It is easy for younger people to understand this as a communication of misunderstanding and dismissal, but I have come to see it as exactly the opposite. I think my Granny (and older generations in general) understand me more than my closest friends, and offer the best gift they can in times of need.

My experience is that, in general, older people give advice in smaller doses than do my younger companions. And I am growing more and more sure that older people speak less when giving advice not because they have less to say, but because they are convinced that any given person cannot truly learn something without experiencing it. They know that their words are limited in power, though not without worth, and that the experience of whatever you’re walking through will render infinitely more knowledge and perspective than any answers they can give. They should know, they’ve almost undoubtedly walked through the same struggle at some point in their lives.

I believe their vision is more focused as well, as a result of their time on earth and the experiences they have lived through. They usually don’t try to fix you or tell you the solution to the problem, but see past the situation, addressing how you handle or approach the struggle. After all their years of experience, they seem to be less concerned with fixing you or your problems, and are more concerned with the content of your character. Alongside this deeper concern about who you are, they also offer you the most beautiful strength they can in the middle of your hurt: their presence and love. They do not attempt to solve your problems for you (because they know they couldn’t with their words alone), but older generations seem to always be there as you walk through the toughest parts of life. They don’t pretend to know the answers, but they do know how to be present with you as you trip your way through your journey on earth.

My Granny’s smile is one that communicates a love that cannot be lost by my mistakes, and an understanding that compels her to avoid efforts to fix me, keeping her by my side, always. What if us yungins stopped trying to fix each other’s problems with long-winded advice, and instead learned the art of shutting up, walking together and experiencing life side by side, speaking only when necessary? You can tell someone what a skinned knee feels like, but until flesh is broken they will never truly know or understand that experience. And in those moments of pain, I know I don’t want to be on the other end of a phone call telling you what to do, but next to you, with you, near you. I want to learn from the most steadfast examples of human love in my life, my older family, and speak less, loving and laughing with my friends more.

The older people in your life understand you more than you think, and care more about you than you realized.

A Philosophy of Insufficiency

I had never heard the term Philosophy of Ministry until I was recently asked by a professor to do 400 pages of reading and then write one in 14-16 pages. I am studying Missional Leadership Development, so I was to write a Philosophy of Ministry that would lead me to successfully enable and equip others for a life on mission. I was surprised, because I had assumed that the way in which I would discover how I personally did ministry would be by trial and error, not by writing out my pillars for ministry in my first year of Seminary. But I was being asked to write Chris’ Philosophy of Ministry, so I drank two cups of coffee, put in my headphones, and attempted to oblige. I sat before an open laptop, ready to give my comprehensive, coherent, and undoubtedly correct philosophies on topics in missions ranging from planting missional churches to sustainable ministries for the poor, when a profoundly obvious thought occurred to me: I was totally incapable of completing this assignment.

As shocking as it is to believe, I am not an expert on missions, ministry, or philosophy (Well, I am not an expert in anything really). But before you read this as a self-deprecating-turned-inspiring article, hear me out. I have some experience, as I have spent time serving on short-term missions projects and am taking my first steps into the field of full-time vocational ministry. I am actively wrestling through what my personal beliefs and motivators in ministry are in this stage of life. But I am only a 23 year-old, first-year seminary student, and have much of life and ministry to experience. I have not spent any longer than a year overseas, I have not led a family into the mission field, I have not pastured a church, and I have not even finished my education! How was I to write an extensive Philosophy of Ministry with such little knowledge and experience?

I assumed, when I sat down to outline my personal philosophy, that I would not bring to the discussion anything that I expected to be earth shattering or groundbreaking. I did, however, expect to at least be able to complete the assignment! But as I attempted to will my fingers into typing 14-16 pages, nothing I had to say seemed to be worthy to share with my professor, or anyone else who might view my paper. A saddening thought, to say the least. As I moved beyond feelings of personal insufficiency and frustration, it occurred to me that I was completely incapable of writing a comprehensive Philosophy of Ministry. But that was the starting point of a formation of one.

You see, I have always been one to fight against the idea of being, or even appearing, flawed. Deep within me I cannot stand to not know an answer or be proven wrong, and I do all I can to make it appear as if I never experience those messy realities of life. I have spent my life walking on tightropes of personal expectations so high I was doomed to fail from the beginning, prompting me to set the next pinnacle even higher and try even harder. I would compare myself to others and berate myself for not being as impressive and capable as they were. I would read Scripture and criticize myself for not being able to achieve the commands of Scripture. When I found myself failing to love God with all of my being or falling short of loving my neighbors more than myself, I would crush myself under the immense weight of shame because I was incapable of accomplishing even the most basic commandments. So when I realized that this paper had bested me before I had even begun, I was angry. I have spent so much my life attempting to do everything right that when I am wrong or incapable, I become agitated. As I approached this paper assignment, however, my insufficiency was brought into the daylight, dragging behind it one of my greatest broken pieces: my aversion to being human, fundamentally marked by imperfection.

In the overwhelming reality that I could not write the best piece possible for a Philosophy of Ministry assignment, God invited me to stare face to face with the reality he had just beckoned out of hiding from the depths of my soul: that Chris Ward is imperfect. I do not do everything better than everyone else. I do not know more about any given topic than others. I am not more adept or capable than others. I am realizing in this moment that I cannot even confess well! I should not have used the past tense in the previous paragraph, as I am still prone to high expectations and brutal personal shaming. That paragraph is just another example of how desperately I want to appear like I have everything figured out and fixed! I tried to write a paper, but God asked me to stop in that moment. And that was all he asked. My initial reaction to the revelation of weakness in my life is to thank God, then proceed to figure out how I can fix myself, believing that I am partnering with him in sanctification. But that is not our job. That is not my job. So he asked me to sit.

And that is where I am at. I am sitting with God in a pool of my imperfection. My desire is to end this piece with some impressive turn of phrase or paradigm-shifting conclusion, reporting that all is now well in the world of Chris. But that would be my attempt at appearing perfect, and that is not what God has asked of me. Or of us really, his children. He has asked me to simply stop, and sit face to face with my imperfection and inadequacy.* That is all.

As I have sat, however, my vision has begun to change. I am now seeing, in light of my imperfection, God’s perfection. I am now seeing, in the light of my failure, God’s favor. And I believe that soon I will not see God’s goodness in the light of who I am, but will see who I am in the light of God’s goodness. This is not merely a cute use of rhetoric, but a revelation of the foundation of my personal Philosophy of Ministry, and further, my walk through this life with God: God’s perfection and favor as it covers my insufficiency.

Just so you know, I did end up writing that Philosophy of Ministry paper. But it included a prologue that looked much like everything you just read. I do not know if I am allowed to do that in a graduate program, but I did. Because I am still sitting, believing that my insufficiency is a beautiful display of God’s sufficiency and grace lavished over me. And if I fail the paper for it, well, I’ll sit with that for a while too.