“…Show me love”- Thoughts on Leadership and Love

I don’t understand the game
Or who I meant to be
It’s driving me insane
The way you’re playing me

Help me to see
Who I can be
Help me to know
Where I can go

(Take me)
Take me out of myself again
(Help me)
Help me lose control
(Show me)
Show me love, show me happiness
(Love me)
I can’t do this on my own

-Michael Kiwanuka, “Rule the World”

I’ve been struggling with this for years, but thinking about it again throughout my sabbatical and as I begin to work again- What does it look like to serve God with increasing organizational power? How do I navigate the organizational “ladder” and the “game” without losing my soul?

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I’ve been asking that question to myself for years… and I can’t say I have found new answers; only to remember my identity in God and to surrender the subtly similar identities that are actually hubris and pride… and sometimes it’s so hard to discern that I just want to come down from the place of leadership…

But here’s what I know, and am still figuring out how to live out- The key to living well on the “ladder” is acknowledging my beloved identity in God, and to surrender my thirst for love from others… so that I can reverse the flow that my flesh desires in freely giving love to others. It’s also ironic- one’s (alright… my.) false self desires status in the eyes of others for more love- but it’s actually quite lonely there. It requires a deeper connection to the eternal supply of God’s love, especially in ministry. It’s only there that the reality of “status” and “position” feel advantageous- not to gain anything from those I lead, but to give freely to those I love… but with greater ability to give, I have to come to the realization that I myself don’t have enough to give, and I must once again dig deeper wells into the limitless supply of His love.

God… Show me real love, show me real happiness.

 

Camino Reflections of Sabbatical

This is a copy of a long-format reflection I wrote as I prepared to transition back to work after my 6 month sabbatical as I sorted out what I wanted to take from my time away, especially on the Camino. If you’ve got a good chunk of time, take a read!


Introduction

  • “What was your favorite part?”
  • “Was it hard?”
  • “Did you receive any revelations about God?”
  • “Did it change you?”
  • “What was it like?”

These are the questions I received upon return. As I struggled to give answers, internally, my head was filled with many more questions than answers:

  • How does one describe 500 miles?
  • How does one choose a “favorite part” of a 40-day journey?
  • How do you explain physically working so hard in a 6-month rest?
  • How do you describe “change” when you find yourself closer to your true self?
  • What if what I have to say doesn’t sound spiritual enough?
  • What if what I have to say sounds way too spiritual?

Much like a shell-shocked missionary struggling with reverse culture shock, I struggled to re-translate what I had experienced. Perhaps it was because one can’t simply put into words what a pilgrimage like the Camino de Santiago de Compestella is. Worse, unlike a missions trip where you’re there to help someone, I had no story of selfless charity to hide behind. But a pilgrimage is something different; it is a paradox. One goes on a pilgrimage to journey to a foreign place that represents a historical location of God’s work, with hopes that as a pilgrim walks upon a path where God had met others in history, the pilgrim might personally experience God him or herself as well. Much like the physical path of a prayer labyrinth, it is paradoxically both a journey inwards and outwards. Perhaps this is why it is hard to share with others- because there is no shallow answer to describe a journey that has taken me so far outside of my context, yet has dug so deep into my soul.

The Camino de Santiago is a journey following the footsteps of St. James’s missionary journey from Jerusalem to the very ends of the earth- which at that time was the tip of the Iberian Peninsula at Fisterra.  For all accounts, it was actually a failed journey. James took Jesus’ command seriously and went to “the ends of the earth,” only to make a few converts before having to head back to Jerusalem to help lead the church (which was also a failure, since very soon after that, he was executed). According to legend, the body of St. James was carried back to Spain, where he was buried in Santiago (the name itself is derived from St. Iago, the Spanish name for James). In fact, it was not a well-used pilgrimage until a king had “discovered” the remains in Santiago and the pilgrimage was used as a political excuse to send soldiers along the Iberian Peninsula to protect the pilgrims- when in reality, it was to prepare for the reconquistadora and to retake the peninsula from the Moors. However, when one strips the political undercurrents, this pilgrimage was not about conquest, but this pilgrimage is along a path of obedience even towards failure and half-met expectations.

A fellow pilgrim once shared that the first part of the Camino breaks your body. Then in the Meseta, the immense stretch of flatland, it breaks your spirit. Finally, in Celtic Galicia, one begins to see things clearly in enlightenment. The description is a little new-agey, but is roughly accurate, though not as linear. For my own personal Camino, however, I had my own three stages in which God invited me into three shifts within different paradoxes: in my own awareness of my body and soul, in the way I navigated the shifts between community and aloneness and finally in my relationship with Him.

Paradox 1: Stopping to keep moving vs. Constant moving to paralysis

The first part of the journey took me from the border of France through the Pyrenees to Pamplona, and then through the wine country of Rioja to Burgos. It was along this stretch where I encountered the limits of my physical abilities. Martin Sheen’s movie, The Way, which had popularized the Camino for English speakers, made the journey seem like a nice pleasant walk through warm pleasant Spanish summers. Once one gets going on the Camino, the pilgrim discovers that it is actually a grueling journey through heat, rain, hail, snow and sleet. By the second day, on top of catching a cold from a Canadian pilgrim the first night, I could barely walk because I had gotten shin splints so bad that I could hear the swollen muscle creaking as I flexed my foot. Once that healed, I had several waves of blisters- the first three I named (Jerry, Larry and Jim), but then I stopped naming them because there were too many. I made a lot of friends on the Camino, but Ibuprofen (400mg) was my best friend. There was a South African pilgrim, Yano, who said out loud what we were all thinking internally about the physical pain, “Daniel- I feel like there is a hammer striking my foot every time I take a step!” to which I responded, “That’s not a hammer hitting your foot, it’s the Camino.” The rain had become a regularity in April (usually not as rainy as it was this year- the locals apologetically blamed El Niño for this). At one point during one of the worse stretches of rain from Najera to Santo Domingo, I took a break at a café along the way, marveling that there was not one part of me or my backpack that was dry. Pilgrims came in silently, grabbed coffee and watched wearily and solemnly the puddles forming from the water that dripped off of us, and then suddenly laughing hysterically at how wet we all were.  All of a sudden Yano burst into the café, in a panic because her phone had gotten so wet that the light would not turn off and she could not make calls from the water damage. “This rain is shit. This poncho is shit,” she whimpered, “My phone is shit,” she continued, looking like she was about to cry, “But oh well, we only have 15 more kilometers!” And Yano’s face changed all of a sudden as she burst out the door into the pouring rain.

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That encapsulates the paradox of the physical experience of the Camino- you must pay attention to your weakness, but in the end, you must keep walking, one way or the other. I learned the hard way what happens when one ignores a little tiny discomfort in the foot for just 2 more kilometers- it becomes a blister. A pilgrim learns to stop no matter what at the first sign of discomfort or feeling physically “funny” to adjust and to attend to the problem at hand. Sick? Get a room for a night and sleep it off early, before it gets serious and it spreads to other pilgrims. But at the same time, you deal with it and you keep walking. I realized that my real-life engagement with pain and difficulty in ministry was nothing like this. Instead of immediate attention to my physical and spiritual needs when I am tired, I keep pressing on until nobody is watching- I must maintain a self-image of control, of strength and endurance. Weakness and vulnerability don’t look so hot when you’re a spiritual leader. Then, when I finally collapse in exhaustion, I no longer want to get back up. I am afraid of stopping because I fear stopping is the first step towards giving up. But what if stopping is the first step to making it to the end, of actually finishing the full path God has before me? The Camino taught me to embrace my weakness and surrender the hubris of “being okay.” The pilgrim community- while not as outspoken about it as Yano- had a common understanding and grace for one another: we are all walking the same path. We all have experienced the same pain, or will experience soon… and together, we will laugh at it and press on. Ultreïa! (trans: Keep your head up, press on!)

Paradox 2: Solitude and Community vs. Isolation and Audience

The second paradox I experienced on the Camino was the push and pull between community and solitude. It was community that pushed me forward in those times of pain- from the singing Canadian and Swiss women I met that made 10 wet kilometers feel like 2, to the German Lutheran priest who walked with me as far as I could go with two large blisters, to the countless other walking buddies I had met along the way… we walked together, we sat in misery together, we laughed together. But there were other times I felt overcrowded- I would feel drained by the company I was around, I would feel insecurity and comparison creep into my head. I would feel slowed down by some and overshadowed by others. Sometimes I felt like I was more tired from talking to people than I was from walking all day. My times alone also had the same double sided nature.  There were dreadful times alone. I remember one night, when I had to stop before all my current group of pilgrims had chosen to stop due to some painful blisters. I ate alone that night because I was the only one who came to that albergue, and laid down in pain alone on the bed after popping my blisters. It was cold, silent and lonely. I felt isolated and didn’t sleep well. However, it was in those places of loneliness where I finally stopped my frantic need to impress others and found myself in places of peace and solitude.  I started most of my mornings alone- and it was those morning walks as I watched the sun rise and the birds began to chirp in the cool morning air where I would have amazing moments of serenity and amazement at the beauty around me. It was in those moments alone that I had the most profound and authentic conversations with God. I remember the day after the rains and I took off before everyone else in the albergue. The clouds were clearing and racing eastward and the most spectacular sunrise pierced through the fleeing thunderclouds. I remember not being able to stop turning around, my eyes drawn to the magnetic beauty, and my mouth uncontrollably sighing, “…wow.”

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I once was reflecting on this paradox to a fellow pilgrim over dinner, and said, “Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, a good day on the Camino is when you want to be alone, you are alone, and when you want to be with people you are with people.” The concept of loneliness versus solitude is a topic explored extensively by Henri Nouwen, and later on expanded upon by Ronald Rolheiser. On the Camino, I learned that times alone would happen no matter what along the Camino- I could not control when that would happen. However, I could control how I chose to interpret those times: times of loneliness or times of solitude. Would I choose to let the longing in my heart for others drive me into despair or would I tap into the consolation of the ever-present, rich presence of God? This, while a difficult practice, had been a well-explored concept for myself after years of serving without much community in North County. However, because of this, I had not explored the concept of community. As an extrovert, I learned the difference between healthy togetherness- community- and unhealthy togetherness- an audience. Spending my first several years of ministry without a solid community, I had often thought that it was simply good to be with other people. However, because I didn’t experience it often, I would often find myself drained when I finally encountered other people. Upon my move to the Bay Area, I was within easy access to people who knew me and understood me to a level… but felt drained and overwhelmed over these last two years, feeling the constant pressure to perform and maintain a certain image. I was like a man who had lived on stale crumbs for years and was thrown into an extravagant Las Vegas buffet. After reflecting on the flip sides of being with other people on the Camino, I have begun to distinguish between my unhealthy approaches towards others as an audience and my healthy approach towards others as community. The unhealthy side of me views others as an audience that I must perform in front of in order to gain their approval. I approach others as a source of approval, as people to laugh at my jokes, listen to my stories and marvel at my uniqueness. In the end this approach is draining and never quite matches the true approval my soul needs and can only get from the unconditional love of God. Being with other people is healthy when my source of approval is from God and not others. As I experience the incarnational togetherness that Christ demonstrated for us, I am able to step into the same stream of selfless love; I step into the rhythms of compassionate community instead of competition where I walk with others and share the path, I suffer with others and share our pain and I rejoice with others and share our joy. As I learned to break out of the patterns of loneliness and performance for an audience into solitude and community, it was in that place where God met me and revealed His love.

“As a community of faith we work hard, but we are not destroyed by the lack of results. And as a community of faith we remind one another constantly that we form a fellowship of the weak, transparent to him who speaks to us in the lonely places of our existence and says: Do not be afraid, you are accepted”[1] 

“When you are able to create a lonely place in the middle of your actions and concerns, your successes and failures slowly can lose some of their power over you. For then your love for this world can merge with a compassionate understanding of its illusions. Then your serious engagement can merge with an unmasking smile. Then your concern for others can be motivated more by their needs than your own. In short: then you can care. Let us therefore live our lives to the fullest but let us not forget to once in a while get up long before dawn to leave the house and go to a lonely place.”[2]

Paradox 3: The Cost of Love vs. Business Debts

Peter Scazzero writes that the reason why most ministers preach Sabbath but don’t actually do it is because they are scared of what they may find beneath their busy selves. This fear of being exposed as a fraud, as unsuccessful, and below expectations can be summed up in one word: shame.[3] Even before I started my sabbatical, a hidden and violent emotion was growing within my soul that was becoming harder and harder to hide: I was angry. I kept trying to keep it under control…

…but anger was simmering beneath my thin veneer of good rockstar-Christian leadership. On the surface, I would snap at little things- at my supervisor’s potential disappointment in me at failures (there were many more in the transition than I was used to), at my failure to meet a staff’s expectations, at my family’s unchanging brokenness, at tech culture, at someone’s bad driving on 101 or even at the occasional bad sermon by my pastor. But beneath these were deeper angers…

It became clear at a retreat in Northumbria before I began the Camino, that although there were many things I was angry at, beneath it all, I was angry at God- and I was not just angry, but passive aggressively angry. I had stopped talking to God. A nun at my retreat described these times away with God as the unveiling of a curtain where we get a glimpse into what God is doing in our lives… later, I realized I was afraid of the curtain opening- not because I was afraid of what God was doing, but because I knew that in order for me to see God, I had to allow Him to see me- and I was ashamed.  It was at that retreat, God began to invite me out of my passive aggressive silence… to fight with Him again, to bicker with Him again… and in the midst of that, to experience grace afresh, learn to pray again, to worship again, to be with Him again in truth and authenticity.

In those times of solitude, I realized that I had stopped treating God as a lover, but as a business partner… and I felt cheated. Why suffer if I never get rewarded? And none of this ethereal, abstract bullshit about my “reward is in crowns in heaven”- I had suffered all these years fighting for just causes as an Asian American in a very white space, and what did I have to show for it? Not much- just bitter, alone and scarred, and students that just keep coming and going (and worse, I constantly struggled with a feeling of being white-washed in comparison with others in the Bay Area). I felt God was a business partner who had cheated me, and I wanted Him to repay His debts. But in the midst of this all, I didn’t want to fight with God… because unfortunately, although He can handle our complaints, our hurt, our bitterness… He usually still wins. And I didn’t want God to win this argument. It took hundreds of kilometers for me to finally surrender this losing fight… and wait for His response.

He answered. From a blog entry at the time:

“Daniel, you refuse to give up these debts you hold against me because you believe that your covenant with me as a Christian and as a minister is a business deal… I AM NOT YOUR BUSINESS PARTNER. I am your Father. I am your lover, My covenant with you is not a business deal, but a marriage covenant… to be with you. I would do anything, and have done everything to be with you- not to guilt you into doing shit for me, but asking you to go with me to where I am… and sometimes that’s in the shitty storms of life, and sometimes it is in the places of peace. You have forgotten the point of suffering is not just to suffer… but it is to be with Me. I didn’t suffer solely out of empty duty like it was a job or a contract… I did it to be with you, out of my love for you… All I want is for you to love me back. You once knew how to do this… But these days you have forgotten how to love Me. You have made fake contracts with Me, putting prices on My grace, and I’m calling them out for the bullshit that they are- I tore those unjust contracts as nail pierced flesh; as curtain tore from heaven downward; as last traces of breath left my chest; as immoveable gravestone was moved… I freed you to love me freely as I love You freely; a choice I made not out of binding legal agreement but out of the wild yet resolute passion of One who is so in love with you. You are free to say ‘no’ to this offer, but I am so tired of this halfway relationship built on duty and not love… Enough of this slavery. Come back, learn to love again… I ask not for your service, but for loving reciprocation out of freedom.”[4]

I realized I needed to learn a new way of obedience, and that the cost of love is not an economic cost, but a cost of love.

“And yet that demand is innate in love itself. Love costs, costs everything. To love beyond daydreams means to ‘sweat blood’ and ‘to be obedient unto death.’ Love invites us to look at the pain that is involved in real commitment and say, as Jesus said: ‘Not my will, but yours, be done.’ The path from alienation to intimacy with others requires that we learn to say those words.”[5]

This was the most important experience of my Camino: an invitation from the God who loves me-not the God who owes me- to release the debts I held against God and to learn to follow out of love again; to continue to pay the cost of love that is not based on a business deal but out of sacrificial desire to be with Him, reciprocating His sacrificial desire. I had a recommitment experience on the Camino in that I surrendered my identity as God’s business partner to begin to rediscover my relationship with my Father and my Lover.

Walking Forward

As I conclude my sabbatical, I am left with questions instead of answers; I find myself within tensions instead of cut-and-dry mandates. How do I live in a way in that I stop so that I can keep walking, instead of never stopping to the point of paralysis? What does it look like to choose solitude and community instead of isolation and audience? What does it look like to follow God sacrificially from a place of love instead of a place of obligation and duty?

“And suddenly in my despair that I should now be so slow and awkward I longed more fiercely than ever for my new life. The longing had no words but I knew I was praying for a strength which had to be granted from without, not dredged up from within where my resources were so enfeebled”[6]

While I have a few plans made to help me make these shifts, I am left more importantly with a desire to live my life differently; with a new resolve to do ministry in a renewed way that can only be done with God’s continued grace on my weakness. The work God had begun in me during my sabbatical is not complete, but I am excited for the continued journey towards learning to live within His hesed (covenantal loving-kindness) and ministering out of that to those around me.

[1] Nouwen, “Out of Solitude,” P. 24

[2] Nouwen, p. 26

[3] Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader, p. 151

[4] For a fuller account of this interaction with God: https://daniellui.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/to-be-with-you/

[5] Ronald Rolheiser, The Restless Heart

[6] Susan Howatch, Glittering Images

Learning to Walk without a Camino

Earlier last weekend, I was driving back the 400 miles from San Diego to the Bay Area… and I realized as I drove through deserts, through mountains, through forests and plains… something about the California landscape began to transform, and for a magical 30 minutes of my 8 hour drive, it felt as if I was back in Spain, back on the 500 mile Camino… but a truck veered into the fast lane, I had to tap on the brakes and my daze was interrupted. Again, I became aware that I was not walking, but in a car; I was not in Spain, but in the drought stricken San Joaquin Valley, and my 400 mile trek was not a 40 day adventure, but that there was but 3 hours left to this journey. Rocked back into reality, I finally came to terms with something that I knew would happen… I’m having a hard time readjusting to life post-camino.

I miss the regularity of the days- Get up, pack, start walking, eat breakfast, walk some more, eat some lunch, walk until you can’t anymore, check into hostel, debate if you will take a shower or nap first, fall asleep while deciding, shower, eat dinner sleep… and repeat. But then again, I miss the spontaneity of the days- Anything could happen any day; there is a sense of “…what’s there really to stop you from stopping and looking?” Instead of regularity, I find monotony; instead of spontaneity, I find myself languishing in purposelessness- waking up, finding it very easy not to leave my room.

I suppose my honest confession is this- ever since returning home, I’ve been feeling lost- I feel lost without the wonder of discovering what’s over the next ridge; I feel overcrowded and suffocated without the warmth of the pilgrim community at each stop; I feel lonely without the hours of solitude where God would patiently coax me out of my bitter shell…

But this morning, as I whined about this to myself, I realized God was still there, and heard it (I had that guilty feeling you get from talking shit about someone and suddenly realizing they are in the room)… and was willing to speak if I would just listen to Him- “I’m still here, I’m still waiting for you… what you have left behind in Spain is not inaccessible here. I’m waiting for you; are you ready to keep walking?”

…on the Camino, you stop for a lot of reasons- for food, for injury, because you want to stick with a walking buddy (especially if she is a… uh… an intriguing person. ha.)- but there always comes a point, where you realize you’ve paid for an expensive ticket to get to Europe, and you only have so many days to get to your goal- Santiago. You have to get up at some point and just keep going, no matter how pretty the city is, no matter how much your feet hurt like hell, no matter how cool the person is that you found at this stop- you have to keep walking. And yeah, it sucks on the first few kilometers out the door, especially if you have healing blisters on your feet… but you remember- My goal is Santiago.

And so, I hear His voice to get up… Ultreia!– Keep your head up, press on!

With my personality, I have a propensity to whine and moan before doing a big thing… I procrastinate out of anxiety- which is ironic because the anxiety gets expressed as apathy and lethargy. Before I run, I have to work through my anxiety for about 30 minutes before I actually get my shoes on and head out the door- I feel that kind of inertia and paralysis at this point. Even after being convicted of it this morning, I spent this whole day running away by not moving… disengaging with the conviction to re-engage and just watch TV…

Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. 

He invites me to be washed of the shame of being a minister and disengaged… He frees me of the pressure to manufacture a revolutionarily radical spirituality for others to see, He gives me grace for falling short so quickly, making Him relentlessly pursue me and find me over and over again… but He won’t do it alone. Healing, freedom, forgiveness, new life… these come from walking with Him, not from sitting back passively. And I am trying to remember- my camino is not over. In order to see His glory at work in my life, I have to take the risk of getting up first, taking my mat and walking… so here I go.

Santiago is not my stopping point; my destination is heaven, and I have to keep walking. The Camino is not over… Ultreia!

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Just to be with you…

It was a rainy day the previous day, and although we had only gone 18km, my group had to stop before hitting our goal of Astorga because of injury and failing waterproofing in our equipment.

That day, though, something in me told me I had to keep walking. I was two days away from Cruz Ferro, and for some reason, I could feel my soul being drawn to the place… Cruz Ferro is the highest point of the whole Camino, where there is a tall pole with an iron cross on top of it. The pilgrim tradition as of late is to carry a stone with you from wherever you begin representing something you want to let go of, and leaving it at the iron cross. On the whole walk to Astorga, I felt tension- the plan of the group was to stop at Astorga, but the magnetic pull was strong in me to keep walking. We sat for lunch Astorga and I was silent the whole time- strange for this extroverted American- and I told them, “Folks, I’m going to keep walking.”

The Camino is a push and pull between the discipline of community and individual discipline, and often, they are like opposing forces that battle fiercely in a tug of war within my heart and soul.

Accounting for elevation, I walked 22 more km after that. On that 22km… He began to speak to me again. Like he had begun to speak to me at the beginning of this trip in the mists of Northumbria, inviting me to open the curtains and stop hiding, where he replaced the voice “You should…, You didn’t…, Who are you…?” with “You are. You will be. I AM”.

He spoke to me as he had repetitively starting in Northumbria, and throughout the beginning of the Camino, and almost bellowing it over me during my first rainstorm walking from Najera, as lightning flashed and thunder rumbled in the darkness of the early morning, He shook my soul, “I AM in the storm, I AM in the shelter”…

He began to speak to me as he spoke to me earlier in the Meseta, where He challenged me, “Stop this passive agressive act. You’re not angry at the world, yourself, your situations… You’re angry at me. COME AT ME. FIGHT ME.” I tried to resist starting this fight… because I knew it was a fight I would lose… but as I fought Him, I felt His embrace, and the whisper… “I walk this camino with you…”

I didn’t hear you enter
But I know you have been circling my room
I listen for your footsteps
Close my eyes and wait for you to move

You’re hiding like a memory
Teasing like a girl I used to know
Tumbling and gamboling
Calling to the weakness in my soul

Telling me to speak

In one reckless moment
You move a little too close to my ears
I grab a hold with both hands
And scramble to make sense of what I hear

I try to tie you down
With synonyms and sad piano sounds
For a moment you surrender
One moment we both stand on the same ground

And I begin to speak
I begin to say something

And all at once you pull away
I’m lost within your atmosphere
As quickly as you found me
I panic as you try to disappear

I reach out with my fingers
And try to pull the letters back in line
But your words spin out of order
And the pounding in my chest is out of time

But I just want to speak
I just want to say something
I just want to speak
I just want to say something
Can anybody hear me?

-“Speak” by Ben Abraham

And as the calm following the storm of my anger came and I limped through the Meseta, He asked, “Are you ready to let go of the debts you are holding against me?”… that was the last time I talked with Him, I didn’t answer Him… What’s funny is that I had been carrying a rock the whole trip not knowing what it actually was- And I think it was the first time I realized what I needed to leave at the cross…

This time, I was pondering- why would James have made this trip? The original legend of James’ pilgrimage to Spain was actually a story of utter failure- He heard Jesus’ last words to go to the ends of the earth, so he went to the place that was literally called by the locals “Finisterra”- the end of the world- and got there and had almost no success with very few converts. He then had to leave without many results to take over a leadership vacuum in the church in Jerusalem… only to be killed there. I had been wrestling with this story- it’s a story of failure, of unfulfilled dreams, and not glamorous at all. It felt a little defeatist to visit this man’s burial place… “God, it doesn’t seem very fair for James- He obeyed You. Shouldn’t You have come through for him? Why the hell would he do something like this?” It reminded me so much of the fleeting success of community college ministry- sometimes it feels like sand castles that keep on washing away and that nothing I do has lasted… It wears on the soul.

“…James didn’t do it for the mission. He did it to be with Me.”

“Huh? What do You mean?”

“James knew it wasn’t about success… He saw that my camino was not about success, as my camino on this earth was cut short, in a bloody, ugly fashion, humiliated on a cross with my followers scattered in fear. But although it was worldly failure… I did not fail. My goal was not a path of power and success of the world… but it was the goal of a stricken lover; a parent looking for his child: I wanted to show that I- God, the I AM- desired with the passionate love of a father, a lover… to be with him, His people, his creation. And I wanted to be at the ends of the earth… so that is where James followed me out of love… And I desire to be with you…”

I pondered this at the end of the day, and went to sleep, tired from walking 34 km… But secretly I just didn’t want to keep going down this line…

…I woke up at 5am. God wasn’t done talking with me, and wasn’t going to let me sleep it off…

“Daniel, you refuse to give up these debts you hold against me because you believe that your covenant with me as a Christian and as a minister is a business deal… I AM NOT YOUR BUSINESS PARTNER. I am your Father. I am your lover, My covenant with you is not a business deal, but a marriage covenant… to be with you. I would do anything, and have done everything to be with you- not to guilt you into doing shit for me, but asking you to go with me to where I am… and sometimes that’s in the shitty storms of life, and sometimes it is in the places of peace. You have forgotten the point of suffering is not just to suffer… but it is to be with Me. I didn’t suffer solely out of empty duty like it was a job or a contract… I did it to be with you, out of my love for you… All I want is for you to love me back. You once knew how to do this… But these days you have forgotten how to love Me. You have made fake contracts with Me, putting prices on My grace, and I’m calling them out for the bullshit that they are- I tore those unjust contracts as nail pierced flesh; as curtain tore from heaven downward; as last traces of breath left my chest; as immoveable gravestone was moved… I freed you to love me freely as I love You freely; a choice I made not out of binding legal agreement but out of the wild yet resolute passion of One who is so in love with you. You are free to say “no” to this offer, but I am so tired of this halfway relationship built on duty and not love… Enough of this slavery. Come back, learn to love again… I ask not for your service, but for loving reciprocation out of freedom.”

…I found myself weeping in the cold albergue with the gentle sound of snoring from tired pilgrims. The love songs I had grown tired of that were the trend in worship music during the ’90’s began to play incessantly in my head, realizing how long it had been since I prayed:

“…I want to fall in love with You,
I want to fall in love with You…”

My walk up to Cruz Ferro was shrouded in mysterious fog, as it hid the striking contours of the mountains until the very last minute, as if the clouds and the mountains were in an intricate dramatic dance of concealment and revelation…

Usually you can see the cross for kilometers away, but the fog shrouded it well… Until I turned the corner, and there it was- a mountain of small rocks; of memories and mementos; of pictures tied to the pole of lost ones… It was a moving representation of the pilgrimage; people realizing, “Solvitur ambulando“- ” it is solved by walking”. The physical representation of surrender in this place created a sense of spiritual thickness I could almost feel like the thick fog around us.

“Are you ready to let go of those debts?”

I sat on the pile of surrendered rocks, and found myself weeping again.

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My fingers clenched tightly to my stone; I had been used to holding the weight of this stone for so long… The weight of every student I knew who had fallen off the grid that I couldn’t save, the weight of having to bear the brunt of every racist comment and stupid Asian joke while living in North County, the weight of Alfred’s death, the weight of Anthony’s death, the weight of feeling so much responsibility for grandma before she passed, the weight of the limbo of transition in a place that was once home but so foreign, the weight of losing her in the midst of that transition because our callings diverged… The weight of feeling I was owed for all of this.

In Hollywood-dramatic fashion, as I sat there, it began to rain. “I am, and have always been with you in those storms. I am the lover of your soul…” Jurgen Moltmann´s theological response to the paradox of the existence of injustice in the world and an all powerful God is sometimes so unsatisfying- that God does not solve the injustice in our worldly timeline, but joins us in suffering in the midst of it all… but that day, sitting on the pile of surrendered stones, I understood it.

I’ve heard it said that a man would climb a mountain
Just to be with the one he loves
How many times has he broken that promise
It has never been done.
I’ve never climbed the highest mountain
But I walked the hill of calvary

Just to be with you, I’d do anything
There’s no price I would not pay
Just to be with you, I’d give anything
I would give my life away.

-Love Song by Third Day

“Teach me to love again, Lord…” And the rock fell from my hand.

…it has been as if I followed the wrong trailmarker somewhere back there from the path of love and have wandered into a path of obligated service and work… The paths aren’t actually that different- the only difference is that one of these paths is much more lonely than the other. Although this pilgrimage has been about me finding that loving path again… It was really God who sought me out, walked towards me in singular purpose and passion and found me. I entered into sabbatical with the prayer of Moses, “If You don’t go with me, I can’t keep doing ministry like this!” But really, it was God saying it to me, pleading with me, “If you don’t let Me come with you, You can’t keep going on like this!” Now, I find myself awkwardly re-learning the rhythms of love, like someone who has been paralyzed and is re-learning how to walk. I am learning again that the mission is not success, but to be with Him.

…if I have to walk with a limp in the path of love, it’s still better than being paralyzed, unable to even speak…

“And suddenly in my despair that I should now be so slow and awkward I longed more fiercely than ever for my new life. The longing had no words but I knew I was praying for a strength which had to be granted from without, not dredged up from within where my resources were so enfeebled”

-“Glittering Images” by Susan Howatch

…teach me again, oh Lord, to love You again…

I see the world
Breaking and falling apart
And I don’t know what to do with it
What to do with it
I see hate
Building up all of the walls
Turns family into enemy
What to do to do with it

I see love rising like a hurricane
Rising like a dead man coming up out of the grave
I feel love rising in my chest again
Rising like the burning sun into the day

-“Hurricane” by Gungor

Meseta Lessons

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I’m here in Leon on a rest day. It’s just about the end of the meseta… and I’ve learned much already. The Meseta is a region of flat land in the middle of the Camino. They say the first section through the pyrenees and the rolling vineyards and fields of Navarre and Rioja test your physical strength. The Meseta is the second part of the Camino- and they say it tests your mental resolve.

The beginning of the Meseta, I was feeling wonderful. I did 4 days worth of walking in 3 days. I felt invincible. 30 km? No problem! This long legged person is walking 6km/hour? Heck, i can do that! This whole thing is flat, what could it hurt?

…Well, it could hurt a lot haha. By the halfway point of the Meseta (and the Camino), I was hobbling with 2 new blisters (named Jim and Larry), had to stop in an albergue early and was all alone there that night- horrifying for an extrovert. I had to learn how to slow down, to accept that I could only do at most the average amount of walking, and that I am bad at listening to my body. It’s funny how the least physically challenging part of the Camino seemed to take the most out of me. I got to the last town yesterday night feeling broken as I had been ambushed by a horizontal hailstorm that made my unprotected legs (ha. i was wearing shorts) numb with cold and pain.

I’ve had to accept that I am amazing at conquering mountains… I can handle long climbs uphill and steep downhills- but I am horrible at figuring out what to do in the calm flatness of the terrain- and life. It really is an analogy of my life- I shine the most when faced with adversity in ministry- but when things get flat or calm, I am unsure what to do with all that energy. I have burnt myself out trying to have fun. I have fallen into depression on those calm days of rest, and swing the pendulum towards extreme lethargy.

But on the second half of the Meseta, I had to learn to slow down. I had to learn to stop trying to compare, and to let go of my F.O.M.O. of those who go faster and ahead of me. I have to learn to listen to my own mortality and surrender my pursuit of being invincible. At the same time, I have learned determination- not just to sit down in despair because of a painful blister and give up the whole endeavor- but to stop, rest, eat a meal, sleep, and try again the next day, even if it is just a few kilometers. Finally, I’m learning to forgive myself for taking it easy- and allowing myself to take the bus if I need to once or twice :)- to rest in the short term so that I can keep going for the next two weeks.

Honestly, it’s really simple and straight-forward… but sometimes, simple and straight-forward are the hardest things to learn🙂.

Camino de Santiago: Thoughts at 36% of the Way There

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"Stop to think. Start to feel -found outside Santo Domingo"

Hard to imagine I’ve completed about 281 km (close to 175 miles). I’m taking a break in the beautiful city of burgos. From here, the gentle fields of wheat and vineyards transform into a lengthy flatland called the meseta.

Health-wise, I actually feel the best I have during the whole Camino. The little Camino cold I caught in the beginning is all but gone, and my shin splints are no longer bothering me. Not to say I’m not tired- there are new aches now that have come with 2 weeks straight of walking- the joint in my right big toe is tired from bending so much, my back a little sore… Yesterday upon arriving in Burgos, I just collapsed on my hotel bed and didn’t get up for 2.5-3 hours haha.

This is a jubilee year, so the Camino has a record number of pilgrims this year. It’s got me thinking about my conversations with God lately- before the Camino, at a retreat, I had a powerful conviction that I have stopped fighting with God. “But God, I’ve become more mature than the angry daniel that bickered with You. I don’t stick middle fingers at You anymore. I trust You…”

“…Daniel, if you really did trust me, You would remember that I can handle it… Plus, don’t you remember that it was that angry Daniel that I pursued all those college years? So let’s do it, Daniel. Let’s fight. Come at me, bro.”

Ha. “Come at me bro.” I never knew God could be a brodouche.

So me and God have been having some healthy bickering as I have been walking long distances by myself.

It’s been great- but today, reflecting on the nature of debt-releasing in the spirit of jubilee, His voice whispered to me as I watched the rain in Burgos, “Are you ready to release some of the debts you’ve held against Me?”

My stomach turned, and I felt a mental wall in front of me.

I have followed God and obeyed Him in crazy ways in the last 9 years of ministry, and maybe before my time in ministry. And after moving to the edges of society to obey His call, of having to walk students through the shit of life, of having to attend too many fucking funerals, of having to feel alone in all those moments… I realized boiling beneath the surface was a resentment and a feeling that God owed me something- an easier path, a life partner, a stable group of friends…

…I had begun to operate out of deals and debts with God- “I’m not going to move or take another risk until You provide me these things in life”.

…And the verse from the end of the parable of the prodigal son of the father speaking to the older son echoed in my head, as it has been since I began my sabbatical, “Everything I have is your’s…”

It’s an offer that isn’t with strings attached, with debt in mind or entitlement of work… It is simply the free gift of grace. And I have turned grace into burden, into a debt owed to me.

As I start on the meseta tomorrow, there is an invitation from God for me to start releasing those debts off of Him. In all honesty, I don’t know if I can do it, it feels more impossible than walking the remaining 500 km. But maybe it’s not a matter of ending my bargaining with God, it’s more that He thinks I should be bargaining for more- not a spouse, not a community, not an easier ministry and not a stable life or a house… But to take a page from Moses’s book and demand that His Glory go with me.

God, restore in me a hunger and thirst for Your presence, Your face, Your Glory.

Walk On…

As I’m in Pamplona resting and nursing some physical ailments, I get to spend good Friday here.

I’ve been trying to do the daily offices from the Northumbria Community, who I’ve spent some time with on a silent retreat before starting the Camino.

On this good friday, there was a meditation in the offices today that really struck me:

“A Christian is one who points at Christ and says, ‘I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about His eyes and His voice. There’s something about the way He carries His head, His hands, the way He carries His cross – the way He carries me.’”

Frederick Buechner

It sucks to be hurting right now, I feel close to my mortality… But I was thinking about it- a fair amount of pilgrims are on the road because they have either encountered their own mortality with a near death experience or retirement… or they have experienced the mortality of someone dear to them. And for those of us young guns on the trail, we at some point encounter our own mortality with an injury of some sort…

The pilgrimage Jesus took though… He has indeed encountered mortality… Experiencing the pain and brokenness of human experience with the hope of revealing the deeper joy that God implanted in our being before the corruption of sin… But mortality hurts.   “Father, if there is a way, take this cup from me…”. He could have given up. But he pressed on, for the joy set before Him.

I am on this pilgrimage… In hope that God would un-bury some of the hidden treasures within my soul that have been so hard to see because of my busy-ness and burnt out living… But a different kind of work lies in front of me to get to that place, and it’s damn painful to let God unearth the created goodness in me. Just as there is a long road ahead of me to Santiago… There is a long way to go on my heart. …And all I can do is to ask for mercy to take the next step, to do the next stage.

…because He didn’t give up in that garden. He pressed on. He faced death, and didn’t run from it and marched forward unto death, carrying my sin and it’s consequences, even if it tore at every fiber of his being; physically and spiritually. Because he kept walking forward… I will continue to walk. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Thank you for carrying me, even if it cost you everything.

…and yes. That’s part of the “something” that keeps me clinging to Him, the look in His eyes, the way He calls me child, the way He carries me… Something grabbed hold of me, and continues to grip my heart no matter how angry or burnt out I have become. I keep holding on… But really, it isn’t me- it is He who took hold of me, even if it killed Him… And didn’t let go. It was He who, even if I keep running away- walks forward in love towards me, and won’t give up the pursuit, even if it is towards the cross.

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Departures are just the beginning of a long journey home

I’m leaving today to the UK… This morning as I reflect, it’s hard to believe I’ll be on the other side of the world after this flight.

For most of this last week, many of my anxieties have sprung from me not knowing what to expect in Europe… today, seeing news of a shutdown Trump rally and beautiful stories of protest,  my mind has started to wander further into the future. Technically, the destination for my camino is Santiago (or Muxia if I want to follow in Martin Sheen’s steps haha)- but this morning, I’m thinking about how, really, every journey’s real destination is home.

I’ve been so dialed into the happenings around us; into the political scene; into the the polarizations of politics and race… It will be strange to be unplugged from that.. I wonder what America will look like when I return. I’ve actually not thought of this much. In fact, most of my motives for this trip are quite introspective (I had a friend look at me inquisitively with a raised eyebrow, and asked if it was safe to be so introspective)- so I just haven’t really thought in those grand scales of the state of society… But things are changing, shifting and moving in the US. I wonder if the America’s conscience will finally awaken… or if our generations-old structures of brokenness will weight us down.

…but as I write that, I realize I have the same questions for myself in my life- will my deep, created goodness formed in me by my Creator awaken? Or will I be forever weighed down by the sin and brokenness I have inherited?

In ways, I’m looking for my Steinbeck East of Eden “timshel” (translation: Thou mayest)- in which the characters negotiate the expectations of others in their roles as protagonists and antagonists on account of their family line… and finally, in the end, they finally hear the underlying, freeing timshel of their true Creator. The true gospel frees us to emerge out of the bonds of our inescapable sin and brokenness… and choose the good life God intended for us. If I want to see that freedom for my country, my church, my family, my staff team, my students… I guess I’ll need to experience some of that myself.

The Camino Beckons

The Camino is beckoning me, I’m two days away. I’m excited. I’m nervous.

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No, not the Camino. Rancho San Antonio in Los Altos. I got stuck here after sunset a couple weeks ago doing a practice hike… scary hiking at night through woods without a flashlight!

People ask if I feel ready… I’ve bought my tickets, most of my lodging is figured out in UK and Paris, and I have my train tickets, I’ve been assembling my pack and weighing my load, and I feel like I alternate between going to REI and Sports Basement each day.

…But no, I really don’t feel ready. In some ways, I would ironically feel more at peace going to China- it’s actually the only country I’ve gone to outside of North America, and even with all the weird T.I.C. (This is China) idiosyncrasies of China… Europe is a foreign place to me in comparison. There is so much unknown, it’s hard to tell if I’m ready or not logistically… and then my soul- …yeah my soul.

If you haven’t been able to tell from my last post… I’ve been feeling just a tad… angsty lately. In a way, I knew this would happen, but at the same time, I didn’t really anticipate so much underneath the surface. Just boiling angst about everything from white supremacy to too many people having assumptions, opinions and expectations of me to somebody coming 10 minutes late because of traffic… I didn’t realize how much anger there was under the surface.

So my solution has been to take “practice hikes”. In fact, right after angrily typing out my last post in a huff, I slammed my laptop closed, got in my car to Rancho San Antonio and started hiking- for what I had planned as an 1 hour 3 mile hike at 4:30pm. But as I climbed up that hill, seeing ridge after ridge, with each bend revealing a new vista… I just kept walking. There was something cathartic about walking… stride after angry stride, I kept stomping up the hill, until I forgot I was taking steps and just kept going forward.

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Before I knew it, I had walked over 4 miles and was looking out at the clouds rolling down over the coastal ranges into the San Francisco Bay during the sunset… It was such a moment of peace, only to be interrupted by the realization that I would have to hike over 4 miles after sunset.

And there was something peculiar as I trudged through the woods in the dark, trying to make out the slightly brighter coloration of the path, and thinking every dark tree stump was a mountain lion- I just felt lighter. In fact, as I got to the car to find a ticket on my windshield because I had stayed in the park after the closing time… I laughed.

Vulnerable confession- I’ve had a deep fear during this sabbatical. I know that it’s common for one’s ugliness, sin and brokenness to be revealed during a time of rest- but eventually revealing the deeper currents of the Father’s grace for even those ugly parts of oneself, and to be reminded of that we were indeed created in His image, to find the true human being who can only be revealed by Grace …My fear has been that I would go through this sabbatical and just find how deeply sinful I am and that I wouldn’t find that deeper current of Grace within me. I’ve been afraid of peeling back the layers only to find rotting trash underneath, and as I’ve engaged with the stench of how broken I can be, I’ve started to not be sure if His Grace is strong enough to make me whole, especially to those deep layers…

…But the choice I make is to hope. I choose to hope that my angry trudging up the paths will be transformed into joyful laughter.

Jesus, God who incarnated Himself to walk among us… as I walk on this path ahead of me, remind me that You have not left my side, you continue to walk alongside me as brother, even as I feel my path is lonely and I prove to be sometimes a miserable and angsty companion- You’ve already walked this path, you are not afraid. 

If you want to follow me during these next 7 weeks, because I won’t have my laptop, I’ll be updating on my instagram (https://www.instagram.com/daniel_looks/) and my tumblr (http://daniellooks.tumblr.com) because of the shorter format. All posts will be cross posted onto the tumblr.

Simmering Below, Unpredictable Eruptions

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I am an angry person.

After 2 months of sabbatical, this was my new (but not so new) revelation from my introspection.

People who don’t know me so well often raise an eyebrow. I’m such a gregarious personality on the outside, always ready with a cheesy joke said at the most inappropriate time.

But simmering below is a cauldron of frustration and unquenchable rage… and people who know me have seen it- whether it was my childhood tantrums, my high school mopiness, or the slamming down of the beer glass at the bar while yelling obscenities about a situation- people have seen it and sometimes it shocks people… and somehow- although it has happened repeatedly in my life- it has always shocked myself as well, along with a hangover of shame for the next few days that I had lost control.

During these 2 months of sabbatical, there have been moments of peace. There have been opportunities to unwind, to read things I haven’t been able to read without a deadline, to reconnect with friends whom I value- but throughout it all, there has been an underlying buzz of anger in me that bursts out of me at the smallest things… whether it be an assumption someone makes about me, or someone cutting me off on the freeway, or hearing a Sunday message I don’t agree with- the underlying buzz has come much closer to the surface in these last couple months, and has erupted out of me much more than I’d like to admit.

And I have to come to terms that this is not just some alternative Hyde to my Jekyll… This is me, and I am not ignoring an insane element in me, but I have tried to silence this part of me for so long and have never been successful at it.

I am an angry person, I am angry about so many things- some things true, some things not- but I am so damn angry.

  • I am angry at the media shit-storm I experienced last year over a stupid yelp review
  • I am angry at the isolation I felt in North County as an Asian American for 7 years.
  • I am angry that I had to sit through so many stupid racist assumptions and jokes about me those years.
  • I am angry at that feeling that I have had to fight for people to pay attention to community colleges for so many years, while watching students actually physically die…
  • …I am so angry that I got left having to take care of Anthony the week before he died.
  • …I am angry that I couldn’t tell something was wrong with Alfred’s health when I drove him home a few days before he passed.
  • I am angry at the cluelessness and generalizations people have made of my ministry.
  • I am angry that people assume that I am just a bunch of loud jokes like I can’t handle “real things”.
  • I am angry at the trauma I’ve experienced through watching my home church fracture and split so many times over the years
  • I am angry at the religious manipulation I have experienced in my years as a Christian, that has driven so many of my friends from church
  • I am angry at whoever taught me that to be a leader is to pretend that I am invincible, that nothing bothers me, I am angry that I am taught to bottle it all up, I am angry at people calling me “dramatic” when I finally decide to voice my anger
  • I am angry that I feel so incompetent these days at my job

… the list goes on. And the thing is- this anger can be so righteous. In fact, it’s one of my strongest drivers in ministry, it’s what makes me want to protect people, it’s what makes me want to take risks, it’s what spurs me to prophetically call out the fake counterfeits and to challenge people to hope for something truer and more real…

…but there have been times during these last two months (and throughout my years in ministry) when I just feel like I’ve been oozing  bitterness… It feels gross. It feels un-cleanable and unloveable. There are times my anger is holy fire, but there are other times my anger is thick tar that covers and chokes my being.

And I have been like the bitter elder son outside of the house, full of resentment…

“Everything I have is your’s…” says the Father.

My fists clench. I want to celebrate. I want to have joy. But I just feel too toxic to receive it.

I am like the disciples, feeling alone and desperate in a sea of 5000 hungry people and not knowing how to feed them all. I am angry with the Father telling me to feed all these people when I barely have enough to feed myself. I feel bitter, toxic cynicism as the little boy brings 5 tiny loaves and 2 fish to Jesus…

…but as I watch him break the bread, and see the pieces of bread multiply abundantly, more than even the 5000 need… I realize that in the deepest part of my being, I want to be a part of this- but I feel so ashamed of my anger, my bitterness, of my cynicism. He looks intently at me until I look back into His eyes.  He repeats, “Everything I have is your’s…”

I look away. And He is so angry at these vendors in the temple court of my heart, that I have built, cheating myself out of receiving His love, putting imaginary fees on the gift of His grace that He has already paid so dearly for. Rage flickers in his eyes and his chest heaves in exasperating gasps as He throws the tables aside, yelling at the top of His lungs, “This place is to be a house of prayer, of communion with me, but you have made it a den of robbers!”

And in the midst of that underlying buzz of anger in my being- at myself, at everyone else, at God… within His being is an underlying song of grace, building up, ready to burst forth in the holy fire of that deep violent compassionate twisting of His stomach that I am starving because I am cheating myself from experiencing His love, constantly beckoning me to come back in, ready to give me more than I could ever imagine instead of always exiling myself outside the house with resentment and imaginary rules, showing me it is safe to give all of myself to Him because He has already given me all of Himself, and it is more than I could have ever imagined receiving…

God, overturner of tables and gentle Father who beckons me in- teach me that angry gentleness, that violent compassion, that grace that rips veils… and I know- first, before I can imitate it, I have to allow my heart to be engulfed in that same Grace.