Presence is Greater than Productivity.

As a twenty-something preparing to be a thirty-something, I find that my reading lists have shifted. From the works of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky who question the reasons for my living to the more pragmatic works of how-to-stay-productive-in-a-world-of-distraction. I suppose this is fitting. I am, after all, matriculating from the questions of "Who am I?" to the "How Can I?" 

This shift has taught me a few things:

  • Identity, far from being unimportant, is recognized more by its expression than its nature.
  • "Who you are" is not as significant as "who you let others be" (I'll explain more below).
  • And lastly, "who I will become" is not a consequence of productivity, but rather presence.

These days, it's incredibly difficult to think about productivity without talking about leadership. Productivity is the concern over process, which inherently necessitates a governing structure for regulation and accountability. More than ever before, I believe in the need and desire for such structure. Boundaries and limits are important for a humanity that possesses primal impulse. Yet there is a danger here, too. Even within the positive desire for efficiency or the preemptive structuring toward responsibility, we too quickly get fixated on roles. 

Don't get me wrong. Focus is a great thing. It is a tremendous thing. 

But there is a deeper thing: Presence.

I found a common theme among business books (prepare for the sweeping generalization): they are radically rooted in managing the self, especially catering to the universal ambitions of upward mobility and success. There is nothing wrong with such thoughts, other than that they miss the point. They don't teach you how to lead people, rather they are transmitting techniques on managing people. Leadership, here, is of a different quality, isn't it?

Think about the truly great leaders. Think about those who have so greatly impacted your life, those that unleashed parts of you that you never even knew you desired. Think about those leaders who believed in the inevitable. I'm talking about the people that you'd go to war with, not those you simply want a paycheck from.

What was it about them that opened you up? What was it about them that struck your core, helping you see that what they had was also something you possessed?

This isn't the "everyone is a leader" spiel. I'm talking about that wavelength within. The heartstrings of the universe, kind of thing.

To me, that kind of person, that kind of leader, possesses an ability to see who you are, for who you are, and creates the space for you to be. And strangely enough, that room they help create with you, helps you focus on the "How Can I?" In other words, your productivity is directly correlated with their presence with you. They see you. You see them.

Perhaps what I am trying to say is this: Whereas "How Can I?" toward the self is a question of ambition, "How Can I?" in light of presence is a question of empowerment.

Presence, leadership, greatness... such are notions of platform. Success from the platform perspective admits to itself that the self is not enough. The self is not great enough as a vision.

Presence speaks from the vision, within and around. The "How Can I?" is already there.

Peacemaking: the Art of Listening

*an article I had the privilege of writing for INHERITANCE Magazine.

Peace is a strange word. It denotes a number of realities: a sense of place, an affirmation of identity, and a pivotal shift of reality. It expresses spiritual, social, and political manifestations, but it also unveils the smiles of young children. It is, in the fullest sense, a centering word.

Or perhaps it is beyond all these things: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Peace, here, rests outside our scope of knowledge, yet wholly within our most simplest, courageous acts of trust. That we trust in the vision of the Kingdom, that we trust in the promises of God.

For the past decade, I have been privileged to live and work in a number of urban centers around the world: Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, New York, Boston, London, Vladivostok, and Tijuana. Through inner-city church plants as well as community arts programs, I have been given a supreme gift — to encounter the beauty and extraordinary courage of everyday people. I have met peacemakers. Peacemakers who are bold, loving, and proactively creating peace in areas traditionally scarred by senseless violence and poverty.

Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I had been presented a scathing picture of the city. Cold, harsh, materialistic, sinful, and lustful were but some of the imaginative adjectives attributed to the space I have come to love — I have come to experiernce all of these descriptors. Yet, I have also experienced the kernels of joy exceeding out of them. This joy is that simple trust we can rightfully call “peace”.

At A Place Called Home, a non-profit community center daily serving over 400 of South Central Los Angeles’ children, I serve as the music department associate. I specifically create music curricula and execute outreach initiatives that work toward channeling the violence and aggression South LA’s children face into original, hopeful works of music.

These acts of transformation are our humble attempt to create alternative cultures: cultures that instill Kingdom values of peace, justice, love, patience, and goodness into the lives of noble children. Though not a faith-based program, I believe the Kingdom is advancing forward as our children create new tones, sounds, and atmospheres that uplift the community beyond the day-to-day struggle, and into the heavenly spheres of peace.

“ … music, prior to all commercial exchange, creates political order because it is a minor form of sacrifice. In the space of noise, it symbolically signifies the channeling of violence and the imaginary, the ritualization of a murder substituted for the general violence, the affirmation that a society is a possible if the imaginary of individuals is sublimated.” (Jacques Attali, Noise: the Political Economy of Music)

“I love it. That moment when you throw positive energy into the audience and they throw it back. There’s nothing else like it.” These grateful words, spoken by a young 17-year-old, is a testament of biblical proportions. So often in our faith journeys, we stand on the sidelines in wonder of the grand narratives read to us by pastors and faith leaders, yet unaware of their presence in our everyday lives. Miracles of hope, as I humbly call them, happen around us every moment. They are grace in its truest form, happening amidst and often against our limited perceptions.

My dear student Rudy spoke those words as he was preparing for his auditions for the University of California, Davis marching band. An unassuming child of South Central Los Angeles, Rudy fought against all odds to obtain his full academic scholarship. He is the youngest of five brothers, the only one to escape the confines of jail, drugs, and the ghetto that is inner-city education.

Every day, he would step into my office, citing his studies on breathing techniques and middle-eastern scales. These practices, as we would later discover, were the key disciplines that honed his focus, elevating other areas of his life (both academic and psychological) as he began to understand life itself as music.

He said to me something I’ll never forget: “Music saved my life. It kept me out of gangs, harmonizing my soul into dignity. It freed my imagination to dream beyond prison, and towards a better future. It even helped me inspire my brothers! It’s my dream to travel the world with my trumpet, then come back to South Central and teach the youth so we can play concerts for our families.”

This simple, yet profound vision has Zechariah-drenched prophecy. It is a vision of shalom, of peace for a community in struggle. Peacemaking, here, does not only address the absence of violence, but of the fruition of hope.

But this is not a new story, is it? We hear educators and artists alike touting the benefits of arts education, especially in keeping troubled youth out of the perils of urban life. But what if we, as followers of Jesus, took a step further and understood such creativity as signs of the Kingdom? Perhaps even as miracles?

“Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it’, declares the Lord, ‘and I will be its glory within.’” (Zechariah 2:4-5 NIV).

Peacemaking is a divine tenet of the Kingdom of God. For it is rooted in the gospel message of hope. It is a hope that transcends our own understanding, uplifting all its believers into a city of glory. Not an external glory, but a glory within our souls that ignites a movement of visionaries.

Music is merely a tool, a God-given vessel to impart seeds of the Kingdom into the hearts of people. Even in an area like South Central Los Angeles where 96 percent of its inhabitants experience violence and poverty, music can create peace. For within music rests stories of hope, perseverance, and harmony. These stories, if honed rightly, will create alternative cultures and thus communities that believe in more peaceful ways of being.

Our task, then, is simple: create the kind of music we long to hear in the “city without walls”. Such music will unveil the very voices of children yearning for a place of dignity, justice, and love.

Do we have the courage to create such stories? Or better yet, can we trust God to uplift such visions? Listen closely to Zechariah, listen intently to those “men and women of ripe old age” and to those “boys and girls playing there”. If we have the ears to hear, we will discover the sweet sounds and entrancing rhythms carrying us closer to the Kingdom.