FATHERS AND NEPHEWS
What being in God's Presence kinda looks like
At times in Bakersfield, I would find myself wondering if everything I had experienced months before was even real. As my life became increasingly dictated by dinner plates and school bells, it felt even more unbelievable that just months before I had been staring down the drop of Victoria Falls.
It had been over a year since I told Matt my grand plans to travel as much as possible after graduation, and so far, I had accomplished that. I’d seen dozens of new countries, new states, and I felt like I had a few more adventures in me. But I was also starting to wonder about what would happen next. Deanna would get her Masters Degree in a year. Then what?
Presumably, I would start a graduate program. I started sending out applications to different schools around the country that had programs related to international human rights. It felt like a good fit for me and my interests and skills.
In a month’s time, I had filled out applications for schools in Washington DC, Monterey, Oregon, and Denver.
Working towards human rights at an international level had felt like a calling. A spiritual calling. Whether that meant working with kids and orphans again, or taking up another cause, I wasn’t sure. But my own spiritual life felt tied to this need to help some of the people who face the most suffering in the world.
I never had a supernatural epiphany like when Mother Teresa received her calling, but I did have a strong belief that this was a crucial part of my Christian faith which had grown so much during my time in South Africa. To me, it seemed pretty obvious that if you took the teachings of Jesus seriously at all, then fighting oppression, helping the poor, and caring for the sick was all part of it. Just about all of his teachings remind us that another world is possible.
In the version of Christianity I had been fed as a kid, I figured that this “other world” meant Heaven, and that we’d get there if we just hung on and put up with all the world’s mess until our lives were over. This started to turn me off as I got older, and I realized that many people believed in God as a form of escapism, disengaging themselves from the world.
That was just the beginning of a stretch of my life marked by skepticism and doubt, and along with that, a personal low point. I began to seek for answers to some of my hard questions, and ultimately, my journey took me back towards Jesus. This time, though, my faith meant much more to me, and looked different from how it used to.
While I still had my unanswered questions, my faith grew by seeing people like Pastor Mike live out faith not by turning away, but by engaging more deeply with the world. I started to realize that Jesus’ invitation wasn’t to ditch Earth and run off to Heaven, but to get our hands dirty in trying to bring Heaven to Earth, a slow and painful, but ultimately worthwhile process.
I felt like my role to play in that process had something to do with my international interests in human rights.
My new friend Ben had taken a very similar spiritual journey to myself, and he was interested in talking a little bit more about faith and our experiences. It isn’t everyday that I find somebody I can talk to so freely about these sorts of things, so I took him up on his offer. Plus, he mentioned fish tacos.
“Why don’t you come on over Tuesday night?” he suggested. “My roommate Sammy makes the best fish tacos.”
Of course I accepted.
Ben lived in a decent-sized house he shared with Sammy. The two of them both worked regular, 9-to-5 jobs in engineering, and reminded me of how different my life might have turned out if I chose a more traditional path of going right into the workforce. It worked really well for them, but also, I treasured my experiences of the past few years.
Another friend, D.J., was also over at the house that night. He attended church with Ben and I recognized his sandy blond hair. I remembered talking to him before about his job working for a local hockey team.
ESPN was on the T.V. Sammy emerged from the kitchen, his shaggy hair covering the sides of his forehead as he held a frying pan in front of him.
“Hey Philippe!” he called out as if we had known each other for ages.
“Hey Sammy, how’s it going?”
“Not too bad. These are almost done.” He held up the pan with a couple pieces of breaded cod sizzling. “We’ve got some beer in the fridge, so help yourself if you’d like.”
I pulled out a Corona as Ben walked into the kitchen.
“This smells really, really good,” Ben announced his presence. He was right. The kitchen smelled buttery and zesty– whatever was in that batter was magical.
Sammy finished up, and the fish tacos lived up to our high expectations. Sammy had mastered the art of battering and frying up meaty cuts of fish. They were so well done that in taco form, they called for little dressing up. Just a soft tortilla, some salsa and cole slaw, with a squirt of lime made for an incredible dinner.
We shared stories from work and our week before the conversation shifted more towards faith, as we intended.
Ben started talking about a book he’d been reading that argued that the most important thing when it comes to faith is simply to be with God, in a loving relationship.
“So, some people have a relationship with God where the main thing they do is ask him for their needs and wants. Then others do this thing where they try and learn as much as possible about God. Some try to be the best at following all of God’s rules. While it’s important to follow, know, and depend on God, all of these things can sometimes make us forget that the main thing is to just be with him,” he summarized.
I felt a surge of agreement. The childhood version of my faith was an intellectual practice, and I thought all I needed to do was to know all the right facts about God, as if that was something that could ever fit within a human understanding. Later in life, I started to relate to God by doing things for him, and so much of that was wrapped up in this newfound calling.
I started to wonder if that might have been some of the reason life was so slow in South Africa, and the biggest changes I witnessed while I was there was inside of me, rather than among the kids.
I asked Ben to tell us more about the book. What resonated with me was the idea that there was more to spirituality than being a guru of knowledge or the ultimate do-gooder. It was centered on the sweetness of experiencing God’s presence.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a high value that should be placed on knowing the facts about somebody we Love… in this case, God. At a certain point, it would be a shame not to know your friend’s biggest interests or something like that. But I think it’s possible to be so full of head knowledge about God, but to spend virtually no time with him intimately.”
“In a lot of other languages,” I offered, “there’s two words that they use instead of the word know. One is a knowledge of facts, and one is knowing people in a relational sort of way.”
“That’s a helpful distinction,” offered Ben. “There’s that piece of scripture that mentions how knowledge puffs up and love builds up. It kind of reminds me of that.”
“I agree,” mentioned D.J., “but do you think that if people were to just assume that God were too big to be understood, don’t you think people would just give up? Thinking something along the lines of, hey, if I’m never going to understand God, and no matter what, he controls my life, then what does that even leave for me to do?”
“To be honest, I’m not surprised that a lot of people find it difficult to believe in God, since a lot of those that do believe in God talk about him in ways that don’t make a lot of sense to what we experience as humans.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for example, a lot of people who try to make fun of a belief in God throw around the term ‘Sky Wizard,’ since the concept of somebody in the clouds granting wishes seems a bit absurd. But then, there are a lot of people who only pay God much attention when they really need something from him. I’m guilty of that sometimes, too.”
“Like a vending machine.”
“Exactly. I think the problems with that are kind of obvious.”
“One thing I have a hard time with is always worrying about whether or not what I’m doing is what God wants,” admitted D.J.
“You mean, like your calling?” I asked, thoughts about my own future still fresh on my mind.
“Sort of. Like I obviously want to do the right thing, but at what point am I more concerned with trying to accomplish good things rather than experiencing God’s presence?”
“That’s a good question.”
I was silent for a bit.
Images of South Africa started to come to mind.
I went there with such a high sense of calling. I knew that it was something that God wanted me to do, right at that moment in time. I figured I had something invaluable to offer the kids there and that I was the only one who could do it. When I arrived in South Africa and quickly discovered that I often didn’t know what I was doing, it turned out to be a humbling experience. I realized soon enough that God wasn’t dependent on me being in South Africa to take care of the kids I met. I started to realize that it was very likely that God wanted me to be in South Africa for my own growth as much as I needed to be there for the kids. I remembered my moments of stillness, of meditating in my room. In a sense, being there helped me shed some of an unhealthy savior complex that I had started to take on.
I also started to think a little bit about Deanna’s nephews.
Deanna’s sister gave birth to her second son a week before I moved to Bakersfield. I arrived just in time to join her family as they welcomed Luke into the world.
Luke’s older brother, Simon, was three and a half at the time. In the years I’d known Deanna, I knew she was absurdly fond of Simon, enamored by everything he did. I first grew familiar with Simon through stories, then through playing with him myself. I expected Luke to get similar doses of affection from his aunt.
It felt like I had moved to Bakersfield at a very fun time to be around these two boys. They were both at a really fun age.
Simon was in most ways advanced for his age, smart and able to express himself well. I loved the fact that he was not a picky eater, and had pretty sophisticated tastes for a four year old. He preferred sweet potato fries to their regular counterpart and loved sourdough bread. Once, after a camping trip with his grandpa, he started retelling us the story of them cooking out.
“We lit a fire and roasted fake marshmallows,” Simon stated excitedly.
“What are fake marshmallows?” I had to ask.
“Oh,” explained his mom. “He calls the packaged marshmallows fake since he’s used to the ones we make from scratch.”
Luke also had loads of personality for a newborn. He perfected cooing noises, and it was impossible not to have your day brightened by hearing him coo and laugh. It wasn’t all that difficult to get that out of him either. Simon stepped into his role as big brother quite well, and the two of them were a wonderful duo.
A common scene on Friday evenings included Deanna and her sister talking in either the kitchen or on the couch. Toys would be sprinkled around the living room carpet with the two boys in play. Andy, Deanna’s brother-in-law, would often be on the floor as well, entertaining one of the boys.
This time around, Andy was occupied with Luke. Simon, on the other hand, had set up a course of wooden railroad tracks and was organizing several action figures and toy cars around the circuit he had built.
“What’s going on over here?” I asked Simon.
“So, these guys are good guys and these are the bad guys,” he explained the division between his two sets of action figures.
“I see. What are the bad guys doing all the way over there?”
“They’re on vacation.”
“Oh, well, I guess they need a vacation sometimes, huh?”
“Yes. Uh-huh. They’re in Ventura.”
The things this kid came up with were always hilarious. He and his famiy had just vacationed in Ventura.
I looked over to see Andy dangling Luke over the edge of his arms. Luke thought it was the most fun thing in the world and kept giggling. I loved seeing Andy with his kids, being a dad.
My own dad died when I was young, and from the age of eight, I lived with a stepdad. It was a difficult adjustment, at times. I had such high expectations that must have been impossible for any human stepfather to meet. I think a result of losing my dad so young was growing up with a very idealistic image of what it means to be a dad. I have no doubts that this has influenced my ideas of what God is like.
Like any five year old, Simon would occasionally get a little too fired up about something and would need a little time out. Andy had noticed him playing a little too rough with Luke and after he failed to listen to a couple of warnings, Simon ended up serving an eight minute sentence.
When Simon’s time out had ended, I observed Andy doing something that truly stood out to me. He wrapped Simon in his arms and said to him, low and softly, “what you did hurt me because you weren’t listening to me, but I forgive you and I Love you. I’ll always Love you, you know?”
In no time, Simon was back to tend to the bad guys on vacation in Ventura.
I wondered about how much of that dialogue reflects God’s spirit of forgiveness, and the one he wants us to have with others. Hearing it put simply enough for a five year old to understand made me consider how much I need to understand that about God.
God is like a father in that the thing he treasures most about his kids is being with them… even more so than their obedience or skill.
And sometimes, there’s Hot Wheels involved.
Back at Ben and Sammy’s I offered the thoughts I just had. “You know an image that I’ve always found helpful? A dad playing with his kids. I think that helps me understand what God wants out of our relationship with us.”
“Well, I think that in my mental image, the thing that the dad treasures most out of his relationship with his kids is the relationship itself- just being with them. Sure, he’d probably be happy if they grew up to be smart and paid attention to details about him, and of course he wants them to be obedient and to grow up to be kind and compassionate. He’d also provide for them their needs and want them to trust him to provide. But even of those things don’t pan out, he’d still take joy in being with them.”
“I like that!” expressed Ben. “I like that image of playing with God in that way.”
“There’s a lot Jesus says about being like children, approaching God like children.”
“I think it’s important to value being in his presence above all things. Above being experts about God, above being perfectly obedient, above getting stuff from him, about changing the world for him. Oddly, I think by being in his presence, we end up better at all those things. Wiser, more pure, trusting him more, and making a bigger impact on the world than we’d ever be able to alone.”
“On that note, do we have time for Settlers of Catan?” asked Ben.