The Box of Norwood

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about faith and doubt. Rather than writing a typical blog, I decided to wrestle with this tension through a short story. I hope you enjoy it. 

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Jacob could not identify the origin of the wood. As a carpenter’s apprentice, he took pride in distinguishing the differences between pine, alder, oak and birch, but he had never encountered the dense grey timber that formed the exterior of the object.

The company of explorers gathered round the foreign cube-like construct. They silently stared at it as though it would soon shift, speak or do something to reveal its nature, but it sat still—appearing not to have moved from the mountain’s crevice for dozens if not hundreds of years. Jacob ran the palm of his hand along its smooth surface and studied the unfamiliar scriptures carved into its edges. Suddenly, as he reached his hand to feel the top surface of this wooden structure, which was exactly one cubit taller than him, his fingers found a short metal rod protruding from its center. He felt long cylinder clasps beneath it, as though this rod functioned as a lever. Without thinking, he pulled it downward.

The object’s top surface popped upward with a shrill creak. A slender opening had formed, revealing its mysterious interior.

“It’s a box!” one of the other explorers exclaimed.

Although little light passed into the mountain crevice at this early hour, Jacob could not restrain his curiosity to look inside. He hoisted himself upward and lifted the object’s top surface, peering inside. All was black at first, but as he began to focus, his eyes caught glimpse of something.

“What do you see?” shouted Thom, his first cousin.

“I… see…”

Mid-sentence, Jacob felt his foot slip. He collapsed hard, smashing his head against the stone floor of the mountain’s crevice. Consciousness faded.

Blackness.

Jacob’s eyes opened. He peered upward and knew he was not in his own bed. Shelves of metallic tools and vials of ointments surrounded him. He had been here before. This was the doctor’s quarters of his village. He sat upward and cringed from the shrill pain that shot through his forehead. He looked outside and noticed the glow of the setting sun reflecting off the shutters of a neighboring cabin— it was now late in the day. How much time had passed? What happened during the morning’s exploration?

The sound of shouting voices in the distance disrupted his train of thought. Jacob grabbed his coat and walked outside toward the center of the colony following the sound of an argument. He approached the meeting hall.

“This box has provided the prophecy we have been waiting for,” he could hear Mrs. Crawford say.

“Just because a few of our members hallucinate when looking inside the object does not mean some divine revelation has occurred,” Thom retorted.

“The object must have been delivered to Norwood for this purpose. We have been chosen to receive a message,” one of the explorers said.

The colonists had divided themselves into two groups in the meeting hall. On one side, a few dozen villagers described ornate visions of heavenly realms, fantastical creatures and apocalyptic symbols they had witnessed when peering inside of the box. One woman even fainted as she tried to recall the vast array of ineffable splendor she had seen.

“Glory! It was all glory!” she said, just before passing out.

On the other side of the hall, a number of colonists jeered these visions as ignorant foolery—a mere result of the colony’s desperation for meaning and direction in a time of need. Given the drought and the lack of shipment, they explained, some of the colonists had subconsciously projected these visions inside of the box to satisfy their desires for hope and purpose.

“Can we even trust our senses? We’ve been malnourished for months. All of this talk is mere fantasy,” one of the Ferrier brothers explained.

“Jacob, you were the first to look inside. What did you see?” a colonist asked when she saw him standing in the rear entrance of the hall.

Jacob stood speechless as he tried to recall that morning. He remembered waking up before sunrise for the day’s exploration. He also remembered descending into the mountain’s crevice and following what seemed to be a pathway for a few dozens steps until he spotted the foreign object, but beyond rubbing his hands over its surface, his memory was blank.

“I cannot recall,” Jacob confessed.

“Then you haven’t been brainwashed by the excitement of this object? Thom asked. “You must agree that this talk of prophecy is foolishness.”

“Oh, come now,” interjected Mrs. Crawford. “We have received an incomprehensible gift. This box could reveal all that we have ever desired to know. Why must you be so incredulous?”

“I have no qualms against studying this object, but these superstitions are ungrounded. I waited for the box to prove its power, but after five minutes of staring, I saw nothing.” Thom said.

“You mean you don’t know the order of things?” Mrs. Crawford asked.

“What order?”

“Belief has always come before perception. Not after,” she said.

“This is absurdity. I will end this madness before dark.” Thom said. “Jacob, you are the only one here without a bias. You must look into box again and tell us what you see.”

Understanding that this controversy could create enough conflict to divide the colony, Jacob agreed. He grabbed a staff and began marching toward the mountain path with a number of the colonists following behind him. Only an hour of sunlight remained in the day.

Jacob returned to the mountain’s crevice and hiked down the narrow path. He could see the box from more than one hundred cubits away.  He slowly walked toward the boulders it rested upon as though he were approaching a primitive alter. Just as he had earlier that day, he pulled the metal rod protruding from the box’s center. The top popped open with a familiar creak. Jacob looked inside. He widened his eyes with anticipation, but he saw no fanciful vision or luminous glow, nor did he hear whispers of truth or revelations of divinity. He simply saw an indecipherable scribble etched into the bottom of the box. As he peered closer, he could make out one short sentence.

He who has eyes to see, let him see. 

The Story of the Coolest Jacket Ever Made.

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I once found the coolest jacket ever made. With sleek-green lining, hidden pockets with silver zippers and military-grade durability, this coat screamed both style and rugged resilience. When I tried it on in the store, I instantly felt like Bear Grylls with an extra dose of swagger. Fearing the price of such a treasure, I flipped over the price tag and saw it was on sale for next-to-nothing. Score.

I quickly bought the jacket and walked out of the store wondering whether I should first go clubbing or fight a tiger in my new coat, but before I reached my car, my conscience shouted louder than ever before.

“Give this jacket to Good Will.”

What? You can’t be serious, I thought (I have debates with my conscience from time to time).

I kept the jacket for a few days, but every time I put it on an unrelenting conviction told me to give it away. I tried to ignore my conscience, but the nagging never stopped. One night while restlessly laying in bed at about 2 a.m., I opened my eyes and said, “Okay, fine.”  I drove to Good Will and lobbed the jacket into the donation bin before I could change my mind. A flood of relief filled my soul. The saga was over, or so I thought.

A few months later, I attended a community gathering to benefit the homeless with some members from my church. A crowd of people formed in the park and I began talking to a few new faces. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a familiar green material in the midst of the crowd. Slowly, it moved toward me.

 No. Way.

I began to recognize the silver zippers, the green-mesh lining and the unmistakable pop-collar of the coolest jacket ever made. I looked at the face of the man wearing it and realized he was the pastor of a local church that I knew had been living off of a limited salary. I knew he needed it more than I did. Given the oddity of the store where I purchased it, I knew he must have found the jacket at Good Will shortly after I donated it.

As the pastor walked by me, I simply said, “Hey… Cool jacket.”

“Thanks,” he said with a smile. “I love this thing.”

In that moment, I realized the inimitable value of living open-handedly. In giving the jacket away, it blessed another person and ultimately became more significant than if I had I kept it for myself.

Our culture teaches the lie that getting more equals having more.  In reality, giving more equals having more. 

Countless political philosophies and intellectual schools of thought have developed frameworks for socioeconomic prosperity, but these platforms continually disappoint. Survival-of-the-fittest capitalism results in rampant structural violence while top-down socialism inevitably produces inefficiency and corruption.

Ultimately, we need an economy of giving—a society of individuals that actively choose to give their time, talents and possessions. This system transcends politics and defies socioeconomic status. If we live open-handedly and willingly give to those in need, we simultaneously build community while leading lives of deep purpose and meaning.

Blessed Are The Middle-Class

While leaving my house to walk to the local grocery story the other night, I passed one of my roommates and asked if he needed anything.

Standing in the foyer of our glossy living room, he looked down at my tennis shoes and asked, “You’re walking there? Through that part of town?”

I crooked my eyebrows and thought for a second. “What do you mean, that part of town?”

He shook his head. “You know what I mean. You should really be careful. Why put yourself in danger?”

While I appreciated my roommate’s concern, his questions troubled me. I’ve lived in this particular neighborhood of Washington D.C. for more than a year, and although certain sections of the city have higher crime rates, I have never felt the slightest inclination of a threat the dozens of times I’ve walked through the streets my roommate fears.

Some might say his uneasiness is a form of racism. Yet I have many wonderful friends (including my roommate) who embrace people of all ethnic backgrounds but continue to distance themselves from certain sectors of society. I believe this fear is rooted in a less talked-about but highly pervasive bias that divides a vast portion of our world.

Classism.

Most of us think of India’s caste system or Europe’s feudal age when considering endemic class divisions. The reality is this form of prejudice continues to plague most U.S. cities and leads honorable men and women throughout the world to belittle entire social sectors based on economic status.Image

I find it interesting that most politicians now claim to work for the well-being of the “middle-class.” This tactic works effectively because the vast majority of American’s want to perceive themselves as above government-dependent poverty and below undeserving, astronomical wealth. We leverage our status as hard-working, upstanding citizens to feel superior to those on the fringe. Blessed are the middle-class.

The problem is economic status does not determine personal character, intelligence, morality or lifestyle. Sure, there may be trends regarding education, crime and addiction, but broad trends should never lead us to stereotype individuals we do not know.

I appreciate the way the Epistle of James describes this bias. “If you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” the author writes.

This passage alludes to a powerful truth: All people everywhere have value and dignity. We should therefore avoid distinctions based on material possession, and rather seek to honor those around us based on the merit of their God-given humanity.

Oddly, many social-justice minded individuals view the world in a sort of reverse classism that esteems the poor and condemns the rich. Of course we ought to strive to undue poverty and promote justice, but the same partiality described by James occurs when we attribute spiritual health to the poor and hardheartedness to the rich. Both prideful homeless people and generous wealthy people exist, thus we make dangerous assumptions by lumping all into single categories.

Rather than believing the lie of social division, let’s cross these imaginary borders with wisdom and form relationships on the other side.

Does classism affect your town or city? What’s a practical step you can take to stop it?

Motivations Matter

On my first day working with an anti-human trafficking organization in Washington D.C., I sat down at a long table surrounded by a diverse group of young activists. The passion in the air was almost breathable.

Although we had come from different backgrounds and experiences, we gathered in the office’s main conference room for a single purpose: To stop modern slavery.

We shared a bit about ourselves as an introduction.

“I’ve been studying theories of feminism and advocating for women’s rights for years,” one individual said.

“I’m a person of faith and spend a lot of time in prayer,” another said.

When I later asked another new guy what brought him to this organization, he confessed, “Oh, I was just job searching and randomly applied for this position.”

I quickly realized I was swimming in a melting pot of ideologies, philosophies and personal outlooks regarding life and social justice.

Since this particular organization has been regarded as one of the most professional, sustainable and influential groups fighting human trafficking, I couldn’t help but wonder—Do motivations matter? So long as we effectively collaborate to help people, what difference does it make whether we follow Jesus, feminism or the direction of a particular political party, right?

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While this line of thinking seems logical, I believe it’s shortsighted.

To preface, I strongly value diversity and love learning from the viewpoints of others, especially when they run contrary to my own. I think all of us should consistently befriend and engage in conversations with people of different religions, races and (God help D.C.) political alignments.

With that being said, I believe some motivations for helping people are better than others, namely those founded in wisdom, love and truth.

Many people enter the field of social justice or missions work with a savior complex, thinking they need to ‘save’ the poor souls trapped in hellish conditions. This rescue mentality leads to disempowerment of victims and often serves the ego of the helper more than those being helped.

Others join these types of movements for political motivations. This could be to directly boost the image a political party or candidate, or more indirectly, to assert the moral superiority of one group over another (whether that be Republicans vs. Democrats, Christians vs. Muslims, Americans vs. other nations). These motivations use altruistic actions as façades for power grabs.

Finally, some people may have genuine desires to help but simultaneously believe dangerous lies. This includes lines of thinking that support sexism, classicism and other oppressive -isms. Others buy into evolutionistic ideologies that glorify survival of the fittest, which runs contrary to the logic of helping marginalized people groups.

Our generation widely makes the mistake of thinking truth is irrelevant, but it has all the relevance in the world when considering how to change the world for good.

Ultimately, we all have to examine our personal motivations. I’ll be the first to admit I have used mission trips and nonprofit internships for my own selfish sense of personal purpose and advancement.

As we brush selfishness to the side and align our motivations with wisdom, love and truth, however, we help ourselves to sustainably help others.

What motivates you to help others? Should everyone engage social justice issues?  

Pimp Culture

In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, rapper Snoop Dogg (now Lion?) describes how he once worked as a pimp. In 2003, he grew tired of simply rapping about pimp life, so he rented a bus, hired 10 women and began running a side business. Allegedly, he sold women to numerous NBA superstars.

“It was never about the money. It was about the fascination of being a pimp,” he says.

Not long after Snoop gave this interview, popular TV-show host James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio publicly admitted that he worked as a “procurer” of sex in Paris in the 1950’s.

“I did a roaring business!” he says.

The most telling part of his interview is that he felt the need to say that he is “not ashamed” of his past pimping ways.

These two public confessions reveal a regrettable truth. Our society continually applauds pimp life as a representation of glamorous power, all the while ignoring the widespread exploitation that it causes. While this is seen most in hip-hop culture, the glorification has made its way into everyday language, where it’s not uncommon to hear phrases like, “That’s so pimp!” or “Did you pimp that?”

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By and large, our society rightly condemns human trafficking and child pornography as heinous injustices that must be stopped. But when it comes to forced prostitution and the image of pimp life, we laugh and cheer for these topics as novelties of pop culture.

Here’s the reality: Most pimps use force, fraud and coercion to pressure young girls below the age of 18 into prostitution.

While we’re at it, consider these facts:

-More than 93 percent of women and men working in prostitution were sexually abused as children.

-The average age for entering prostitution is 13-years old.

My point in writing this is to reveal the true nature of pimp culture as exploitative, unjust, abusive and detestable. As we grow to understand the issue for what it is, I believe its glorification in pop culture will come to an end.

At the turn of the 20th century, you probably would not have heard many public figures come out and say, “Oh sure, I used to own slaves. I’m not ashamed!” But why not?

Once the institution of slavery was overturned in 1865, society grew to understand that stripping people of their humanity for the sake of profit was a detestable act. After a few decades, it became shameful to support institutional slavery. Moreover, you would never here someone say, “Ohh, what a slave-owner!” in describing someone with wealth or prestige.

Although pimp culture doesn’t involve physical locks and chains, it often commodifies vulnerable people for profit in a way similar to slavery.

So how should you respond?

-Stop using trite phrases that glorify pimp culture.

-Don’t support musicians and entertainers who promote the injustice.

-Share the reality of this exploitation with others.

Vicarious Superman

My heart races as I dash across the dark corridor. I’ve only got two minutes left, and if I don’t make it… well, I don’t even want to think about not making it. As I reach into my jacket pocket to check my GPS, I feel an unfamiliar warmth. Blood.

I’m wounded.

I burst through the narrow door at the end of the hallway with an abrupt blow to my shoulder. I’ve reached the compound entrance, but the clock is quickly ticking. The next moments will decide the fate of countless lives.

Click-click

I press pause and slowly slide off the couch. I’ve been watching  re-runs of 24 for three hours and desperately need a snack and a bathroom break. As I take my eyes off of the TV, I can’t help but wonder: Why do most guys (and many girls) love watching Jack Bauer race through blood-pumping conflicts in near-identical plots lines over and over again?

I think the answer is we want to experience greatness without sacrifice. We want to live meaningful lives, but we don’t want to experience the hardship of risky endeavors, tough donations and gritted determination. In other words, we want to save the world without getting off the couch.

As a result, we’ve become vicarious Supermen.

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When we were children, few of us doubted whether we would live meaningful lives. Rather, we faced the dilemma of deciding whether to become space explorers, professional athletes or some variation of Indiana Jones. If you’re reading this though, chances are you now spend a large portion of your school/work life staring at a computer screen and turn to blockbuster films, TV shows and the occasional weekend road trip for your fix of adventure. I do the same. In this way, we’ve traded our daring aspirations for Hollywood productions.

Of course, popular narratives have their place. Storytelling in all forms (novels, movies, TV programs, magazine articles, podcasts) can inspire our minds, challenge our world views and trigger our passions, but the key resides in allowing these narratives to supplement our real lives, not replace them.

The moment when Iron Man saves a dozen Air Force One passengers with a Barrel-of-Monkeys strategy or when Katniss rescues Peeta with the perfect shot  should inspire us to worry less and sacrifice more. Unfortunately, we often settle for the imaginary and let these pretend acts of heroism quench our desires for the real.

We can’t all become FBI special agents and African aid workers, nor should we strive to. But rather than living vicariously through the sacrifices of fictional characters, we should find ways to live outwardly and intentionally within our own respective spheres on influence.

The Bombing You (Probably) Don’t Care About.

As dozens of runners crossed the finish line full of purpose and passion, horror exploded through the crowd and forever changed the lives of hundreds.

The Boston bombing shocked all of us.

Of course, this is the worst form of tragedy. Hatred manifested itself in the form of a physical weapon and wounded more than 170 people.Three people died, including an 8-year-old boy.

Shortly after, millions of people began praying for the victims and their families, the president made comments, press coverage ran wild and thousands of good citizens donated dollars and blood. The response has been monumental.

This type of catastrophe rightly merits a flood of tears and donations, and yet as another bombing occurred today (also horribly destructive) no one seems to notice.

Less than 24 hours after Boston’s tragedy, members of an anti-Taliban political party met to promote their hopes for freedom and reform.

During the meeting, a suicide bomber flipped a switch that killed at least 18 innocent people and wounded dozens.

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As Americans, we pride ourselves on defending innocence and despising evil, but since this happened in Peshawar, Pakistan, few of us care.

While we should naturally feel greater remorse for an attack within our borders, outrage for one tragedy and indifference toward another is a serious issue. Here’s why.

The reason many of us do not care about the bombing in Pakistan is rooted in the same reason someone insanely sought to terrorize Boston.

We stigmatize the ‘other side’ and deem those who are different from us as having less value. Obviously, indifference toward the Pakistani tragedy and an intentional terrorist attack are not comparable. Yet stigmas lead to racism and racism leads to hatred and hatred leads to extreme violence.

Life has the same value everywhere, and if we desire to strive for peace, we have to start by acknowledging God-given value in every person.