Beauty for Ashes

Hawaiian fire hydrants are different.  The birds are too.

On the island of Oahu, there is a place called Hanauma Bay.  The sea, long ago, wore away one slice of a volcanic crater, birthing a tranquil bay of bright blue water, scattered coral, and sandy beaches igneously pockmarked.  Here, hundreds - thousands - of fish swim, in every shape and size and color combination imaginable.

It's entirely unnecessary.

Everything could be concrete.  Everyone's eyes could be a dull lifeless color.  Birds could, instead of singing, simply make grumpy sounds and complain about the city's fire services.

I spent the first part of May in Hawaii with my friends Jim and Jess, who have been on staff with YWAM Honolulu the past several years and are soon transitioning to a new context where they'll continue to follow Jesus and equip people to know - to deeply know - the story of scripture.

The last months, for various reasons, had worn me down.  There was little point in getting excited for anything, it seemed, as a variety of hopes had been dashed several times in quick succession.  Indeed, as I packed my gear, I noticed that I was hardly excited to go to Hawaii.  For this statement, there are hundreds of people who would gladly punch me in the face while incredulously asking, "what the crap is wrong with you?"

So I spent a week with Jim, joined by Jess as she was able.  We traveled the island, went camping, visited coffee shops, wandered a half-dozen beaches, and talked about all sorts of things.  I took a five mile hike through the jungle, tried local delicacies (I, quite understandably to most readers, discovered that I like Mochi better than Spam), yelled in the car just for the sake of doing so, visited Pearl Harbor, met wonderful people, and went snorkeling with all those fish in Hanauma Bay.  

Perhaps more detailed anecdotes will come in later posts, but a notable takeaway point is this: in resting, in talking through recent hurts with Jim, in meeting amazing new people, in reading Scripture, in spending time listening, my heart began to find restoration.  I began to simply enjoy the day without anxiety, began to see what structural changes I need to make at home so that I may not fall into a listless frustration that has often characterized my outlook as of late.

Has not God made a wondrously beautiful world?  What has happened to our hearts when we lose sight of that?  There's hundreds of thousands of neon rainbow fish flitting through the reefs of Hawaii that wish to remind you: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
— Jesus, in Luke 4:18-19

Jesus' promise is for all people, in all its fullness - whether rescuing an addict, a slave, a mobster, or simply one whose heart has been hardened by pain.

God will make beautiful things out of dust - a tranquil bay out of volcanic ash, or perhaps a triumphant son our daughter out of a broken soul.

Sure, I'll fly to Boston for Easter

Clam Chowder at a pub whose namesake is that where Patrick Henry and Sam Adams planned the revolution?  Yes please.

I woke early and headed to BWI courtesy of another early-rising friend, breezing through security with enough time to wander the terminal, browse the books, and do some reading.  We boarded, the girl next to me giving advice on where to eat and what to see while in Boston.  Up and back down nearly as quickly, flying over suburbs which, from high above, betrayed lingering signs of the ten feet of snow that had buried the city a few weeks before.

Walk, bus, subway, and up the stairs and out to the streets of Boston, oddly quiet for a Saturday.  To the right stood the towering Celtics stadium; to the left, city streets of eating establishments and apartments.  I wandered around the block and settled on a coffee shop.  I purchased a small black coffee from a barista who seemed miffed at my choice and sat down to read as people came and went, conversations flowing past until early afternoon.

Marcus arrived, having won the battle against traffic, and we headed down the street to the Grand Canal, a wonderfully Irish pub.  We caught up on life, discussing the various pains and joys we’ve both endured and celebrated over the past months, wondering about the journey we are on and where it might lead.  He, studying at seminary; I, designing ductwork and plumbing - both of us earnestly concerned about what we might do with our lives, how we might impact this world for good.

“Cheers, thanks a million,” said the waitress in true Irish fashion, and we headed onwards.  A drive, a prayer for God’s continued grace in our lives, and back on the streets I went, now at Park Street - bustling with lives in the midst of a bright and blustery day.  I wandered the paths, wondering about this city and how it got that way and what the passers-by were pondering.  The Steinway Piano store beckoned and I entered, sitting down at a $124,000 to play a simple song about a God who sees us, knows us, and loves us - through and through.  Shall I not express my thankfulness on one of the very best pianos, the culmination of decades of thought and innovation?  I shall, and a small part of my soul will grow lighter.

More wandering and finally Isaac’s arrival, later than expected due to a roommate’s clogged shower drain, which had required immediate attention.  We caught up as well, discussing his graduate studies and my work as we wandered the Freedom Trail, taking in all the buildings and streets which once knew the names of men like Patrick Henry and Sam Adams.  Cannoli from Mike’s Pastry, a delightfully crowded counter of all sorts of folks clamoring for dessert, and clam chowder at the Green Dragon, which bills itself as the Birthplace of the Revolution.  The original building, sadly, is no more, but an enthralling idea nonetheless to eat in the same pub where the Sons of Liberty talked and planned and dreamed and birthed a nation.

Again on the T - another prayer and another goodbye - and then on a bench, waiting.  Yunhe then appeared from a hotel, through which we doubled back to see his office building.  Our walk became a meandering tour of MIT as dusk turned to nighttime, and the campus streets around the engineering department’s wind tunnel turned into a scene from a film noir.  Finished now with walking, we left the city and headed to his apartment in the suburbs.  Yunhe made dinner - shrimp and broccoli - quite delighted to host a guest.  We ate and talked and finished the day.

Up the next morning, a large breakfast, and a long ride on the T from one end of the Red line to the other.  Conversation about life and what matters, really?  A girl sits next to me and I ask, "where are you headed?"  She seems surprised by the question (who speaks to strangers on the subway?) and yet delighted, and shares that she’s on her way to church.  The train stops, “happy Easter,” says she, and out she goes.  A few more stops and we leave the train as well, up to a waiting car driven by Nola, a friend.  To church we go to celebrate Easter - indeed, the original reason why I found myself in Boston was due to Yunhe’s request.  Some text messages, confirmations, and a plane ticket later and the plans were set.

We enjoyed the service, a typical American protestant/non-denominational service as far as I understand, and afterward had many conversations with Yunhe’s friends.  After meeting twenty people, many of whom were characters and wonderfully so, we were off.  Down to the Red Line, nearly punched in the face by a man jealously guarding his backpack as he washed his face in the restroom, through the gates, and back on the train.  We paused to wander Harvard, pondering the question of whether Jesus really raised a girl from the dead and what it says about who He may be.  Can we believe that story?  What about Jesus would give him the authority to call a dead person back to life?  Can a person be spiritually or emotionally dead?  Could Jesus raise that person to life?

We pass a gate with the Harvard logo, veritas emblazoned thereon.  Veritas.  Truth.

What is true?  Does it matter?

Onwards we go, back to the airport.  Another goodbye with much gratitude on my part - both of us, really.  Another flight, another landing - back to Baltimore.

And I am thankful - for soul-conversations, for Steinway pianos, for Patrick Henry, for people, for life, for grace, for resurrection. 

How shall we then live?

Viaduct from the original Old Main Line, a half mile or so behind the house in which I grew up.

Two books, of late, have me asking many questions.  These are Steven Garber's Visions of Vocation and Wendell Berry's The Art of the Commonplace.

The first is a discussion of our life's work and purpose - knowing what I know about this world, how do I love it?  Knowing what I know, am I responsible?  How do I live out that responsibility?

The second is a collection of essays in which Berry probes the meaning of community, of place, of relationship.

I look at the prevailing culture here in my part of Maryland - where it seems we are busy with a great many things, many of which do a great deal of good.  Work, volunteering, community groups, gym memberships, churches, and on.  However, I grow more and more interested in the idea of focused integration.  How can I live, work, and worship in one place, in one greater community - so that I, knowing the hurts and hopes of this place and the people I have chosen to love, may maximize my contribution to its healing and redemption?

What if I exchange breadth for depth?  What parts of my lifestyle will need to shift or change?  I have the ability - the opportunity - to do a great many things with little focus on any of them.  Is it possible to do a few things with great focus?

Answers come as life streams forward, always changing.  The questions will remain, often requiring re-answering. I suppose it boils down to this: Seek first the Kingdom of God. (From the Bible, Matthew 6:33)