"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Friday, December 24, 2010

Top Ten Favorite Christmas Traditions

Here are some of the things I meant to share in my last post—some of my most cherished traditions. Hopefully my nostalgia stirs some comforting and uplifting remembrance among others. I’ll list them in the form of a top ten list, because, well, I have a strong affinity for top ten lists. The order here doesn’t really mean much, I don’t think.

10) Christmas morning pancakes. My mom has long made me pancakes in the “shapes” of things I was most interested in for that particular Christmas morning breakfast. And it really doesn’t take much to make three round, connected blobs look like Mickey Mouse. Then it was T-Rex, then a basketball, then a skateboard, then Ken Griffey Jr.’s head, then a guitar. I think this year I’ll ask for “trickle-down economics” and see what she comes up with.

9) The Grotto. I love going to this outdoor Catholic sanctuary in NE Portland every Christmas, something I’ve done as far back as I can remember. They have live music in a large cathedral, puppet shows, Christmas carolers, llamas, some live actors, carnival-style treats, and colorful lights all around. Some of us went the other night, and I was grateful to sit in the sanctuary for a while, looking at the images and being reminded of the wondrous and profound significance of the Christmas story. The Grotto is also a great place to simply stand in the middle of the courtyard and enjoy the festive atmosphere all around. Standing closer to the hot cocoa and popcorn and farther from the llama area helps this atmosphere, too.

8) Singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with my now-wife Joann. This is actually only a two-year tradition. Last Christmas, when Joann flew to the other side of the world to see me, her not-so-sure-about-marriage-yet-boyfriend, we had the opportunity to perform for the mayor and city council of Xiaogan. I gave a speech about my appreciation of the city (which was so flattering to the mayor that my words made the next day’s newspaper) and Joann and I sang the abovementioned Christmas song. I love the song, and Joann and I seem to blend well when we sing it. Singing it this year (and in years to come, I imagine) brings back warm memories of my China experience and my wife who traveled so far to see me.

7) The Pomander. Before I was born, my mom acquired some sort of scented, wax “thing” in the shape of three Christmas carolers. Me and my sensitive nose grow weak in the knees for a good smell, and I was enamored with this particular smell—kind of a pine-spice scent—and have been ever since. The thing—or “pomander”—is at least thirty years old and still has retained its smell. I love walking by and catching a subtle whiff of its scent. Nobody else—friend or family—seems to quite enjoy the smell as much as me. That’s fine…this is one thing for which I truly need no outside validation to feel justified in how I feel.

6) Opening presents with Snickers, the family beagle. Sadly, Snickers is on his last legs. Actually we said that a few years ago…he’s now over 18 years old—about 130 in dog years (though I don’t really believe “dog years” are actually a thing). My mom always makes a point to buy him some treats/toys, wrapped for him to open. In his younger days, he got pretty excited and was able to mostly open them on his own. With age came a little less enthusiasm and the need for a bit more help from me. Fun tradition for me/us. He actually might just be humoring me, thoughtful old thing.

5) Uno and an inflatable reindeer. This tradition actually died long ago, though I remember it as a highlight from my younger days. Typically, after spending Christmas Eve with some extended family, we’d venture over to another, slightly more distant part of the family (great uncles, second cousins, etc) to visit. And I remember being six or so and playing Uno with “the guys”—an array of men who I am still not totally sure exactly how I’m related to them (I’d have to have my mother explain it to me again). I specifically made a point every year to sit next to “Norm,” an older guy (slightly larger man with a nice mustache, if I recall), who I could attack with a barrage of “Draw-Fours” and witty six-year-old jabs. That tradition seemed to die, as more of that side of the family became a bit more geographically scattered, I believe (and age caught up with a few too, I think). A dead tradition I still remember with fondness. Oh, and the inflatable reindeer. I actually don’t totally remember the deal with this—I think it was another thing Norm and I fought over.

4) Christmas Eve Service. My childhood church in Woodland—Woodland Presbyterian Church—closes their annual Christmas Eve service by passing out candles to everyone, which are then methodically lit and held while “Silent Night” is sung by the church body. We then blow out our candles in unison. It’s a very beautiful, sublime, peaceful moment I enjoy every year, one of the more sacred parts of the Christmas season for me. I also think the simplicity of candles and a cappella voices is a nice contrast to the busyness and chaos and consumerist spirit that can overwhelm us at Christmas and distract us from the more hope-filled message of Christmas.

3) Egg Nog Lattes. A semi-recent tradition discovered soon after I made the leap from “coffee-is-gross” to “I-need-coffee-to-avoid-headaches.” The Christmas season used to begin after Thanksgiving for me; now it begins when Starbucks starts putting out its holiday drinks. Amazing how this is likely not just true for me, and how much Starbucks has come to be a part of the Christmas experience for so many. Also, more recently, I discovered a late-night alternative to egg nog lattes—egg nog with rum. I think that’s probably more egg nog as egg nog was meant to be experienced.

2) Christmas presents. From the giving end of things, the only real steady giving tradition I still have is getting my Grandma an Egyptian-style perfume bottle…I believe this year marks the 13th year of this tradition. As for receiving presents, I am an only child, and my mom loves to give gifts. A good combination, if you like “stuff.” Thinking back to Christmas presents over the years from my mom is kind of a fun gauge of where I’m at in life and what’s important to me. Last year the best gifts were a number of theology/ethics/culture books that I quickly devoured over the next several weeks. In the years previous, highlights included a subscription to “Beckett Baseball Card Monthly,” a street hockey goal, Super Nintendo, and perhaps the prize—a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sewer/lair for my turtle (and villain) collection.

1) Christmas lights and “Ooooo.” My mom and I used to drive around looking at lights. The rule (don’t know who enacted it) was to point at lights, kind of waving your fingers, and saying “oooooooo!” One of my family-favorite “cute kid comments” (we all have them) from the Christmas season was shortly after Christmas, when most of the lights had been taken down. Apparently it dawned on three-year-old-me that the season was past, as I uttered at some point in the car: “Lights gone…pits.” I don’t remember saying it, but I don’t think my Dad is lying to me.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Christmas break! Joann and I both have two weeks off from teaching. How’d we celebrate last night? Netflix reruns of “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and rummy and screwdrivers. This has actually become a fairly regular thing for us (minus the screwdrivers), an early tradition or ritual in our marriage.

A couple times a week, we put on the old episodes, and play a few hands of rummy. We actually have an ongoing game, which we began on our honeymoon. I’ve currently been leading for several weeks now, currently 17,330 to 16,770. But she had a lead for most of September and October. As for "Lois and Clark," well…it’s much more cheeseball than I remember it as a kid. The writing isn’t great, Dean Cain is not much of an actor, really, and the Lois-almost-dies-nearly-every-episode-shtick is getting a bit tiresome…but it makes for some good entertainment and heckling.

On the note of “traditions,” I’ve been thinking in the past couple days about Christmas traditions. As I write, the fire is going, tree is lit, Christmas music is playing…making for a very cozy, nostalgic mood. Good time to remember a bit of my own cherished traditions.

I think it’s significant to even acknowledge that I have valued traditions. I say that because it seems many in my generation and young people in general don’t seem to have as good a grasp on traditions as older generations (maybe this itself is as traditional as anything throughout history...the disdain of the young for tradition). At least this seems the case when it comes to the Church (though I think many of us are getting better). A lot of arguments in church and theology seem to involve some element of over-appreciation or under-appreciation for tradition.

In the context of music wars and other church conflicts, it seems the older folks, if they are at fault, are at fault for being a bit unwilling to abandon what they hold dear, failing to see the need for the Christian experience, the language we use, the way we worship, the way we minister, all to be continually evolving and adjusting to remain relevant to an ever-changing culture.

On the other hand, people like me who are younger and pushing for new expressions of worship and ministry can fail to see the value of long-held and long-practiced traditions, thinking we possess the right way to do things, and thinking that what is old is irrelevant and no longer useful. We can forget the fact that we are a part of an historic tradition, passed down by Jesus himself two millennia ago and kept alive—to some extent—by a devotion to ritual and tradition.

And beyond that, we can just be plain rude to those older than us, writing off their opinions. Young and old always need to take care to really pay attention to what the other is saying, lest we choose argument and defeat of the other as our method and goal, rather than dialogue and consensus (or at least respectful concession).

The same is the case for those who do theology, I think, in terms of reactivity. With some of the authors I’ve been reading more lately, I’ve also been making a point to read critiques of those authors/books from the other side. For example, I’m currently reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History,” parts of which I read in college. And there are certainly some historians who think Zinn is unscholarly, misguided, insanely liberal, wrong, whatever. That’s fair.

Or reading critiques of leaders in the church today whose theology is at odds with some other prominent leaders on the other side of the spectrum. It’s fine to disagree. Though, one thing I've noticed in these critiques seems to be a bit of fear of those who seem to be diverging from “tradition.” Now, you can easily make a case that there’s nothing new under the sun. For example, a lot of evangelical leaders seem to be afraid of Rob Bell, who they’d claim is diverging from tradition.

But if you trace back Bell’s influence, he’s not really original, other than that he’s reframing some old theology to a new audience. He doesn’t seem all the different from people like Barth, or even further back, Origen, in many ways. It’s hard to get more traditional than Origen, one of the first (maybe the first?) theologians of the church (though our evangelical theology seems more in line with Augustine than Origen, from what I can tell).

But I wonder about the motivations of those who critique someone like Bell. Perhaps it’s a sincere desire to condemn “false teaching” and keep the Christian tradition pure and sacred and true. But I also wonder if some of these leaders feel threatened, and are critiquing from a place of feeling insecure. Perhaps they feel their ministry or livelihood is put at risk. I don’t know for sure.

Same with the critiques of Zinn. Zinn paints a portrait of American history that is very different from how it was framed and presented to me as a child in school. People like Columbus and, later, the Founding Fathers, are not exactly revealed to be heroes. Maybe such historians who would critique a perspective like Zinn's fear the demise of the "noble American tradition" and what the implications might be, for their own jobs as teachers/writers and for the health or "success" of our country. I don’t know—I’m not really a history buff (though I’d like to be), and am probably speaking out of my element here.

It's obvious to me that traditions are very important to us, not something we are easily willing to part with. That’s true in the sense of Christmas traditions; I know I’m always eager to do the same thing every year, reliving what I’ve been doing since I was a child, and even making new traditions, now that I’m married. And it seems true in the sense of traditions beyond the Christmas season.

And I think there are both valuable and dangerous aspects to those traditions. Traditions seem to show what we value, give us a sense of who we are as individuals and as a community, give us some stability, maybe, and hold for us a great deal of meaning in how they connect us to God, or each other, or beauty, or truth, or maybe something else I haven’t named.

But they can blind us as well, or be something we cling to out of fear, when we begin to realize that our traditions need to be questioned and tested. The long-held, traditional belief that the sun revolved around the earth eventually had to be thrown out in light of new insights and discovery and reflection (though I think it took the Church a while to concur with this one). But there are other traditions we are a bit more stubbornly unwilling to reconsider or give up when such abandonment might be called for.

I say all this simply to point out the tension and the need for discernment, and for young and old to be willing to discern together what aspects of tradition should be carried on and what should be reformulated for a new context and era. I have probably made more mistakes in line with the “young”—being too quick to disregard the old; though I think more recently in my life I’ve come to love and be eager to know what is traditional and ancient.

And look at that. I was going to share some of my own cherished Christmas traditions, and I didn’t make it there. Since it’s time to go make dinner, I’ll save that for another post in the near future.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Imagine" and Listening Well

It’s probably obvious to many who know me and who also read my blog that “listening” is an important theme and goal for me. Figuring out how to listen well and to help others listen well—for the sake of understanding, reconciliation, discovering beauty and truth and God, and learning—is a goal, probably one that will remain the focus of my studies and writing as I ultimately head toward a PhD in the not-too-distant future.

Driving to work this morning, I was listening to a discussion on NPR about the significance and influence of John Lennon, who died 30 years ago today (missed the event by a couple years). They were playing snippets of “Imagine” and discussing the profundity of the song and how accessible it has been for many, in that people seem to find some aspect or lyric of the song that touches them and their situation in some way.

They were also talking about how reactive the Church was when the song came out and in the years following. They talked primarily of the Catholic Church, but I think the points being made were applicable to a multitude of Christians and Christian denominations. Apparently many Christian leaders were outspoken back then (and likely in the years since) about their discomfort with the song, citing primarily its opening line (“imagine there’s no heaven”). One church considered playing the song on its bells the day of Lennon’s death, only to meet an outcry from churchgoers.

I think I groaned aloud in the car. My thoughts were something like: “Yet again, we’ve missed the point. Yet again, we’ve overreacted. Yet again, we’ve chosen the wrong things to throw a hissy-fit about.” I know it was thirty years ago, but my discovery of this reactivity was new, so it felt like a step backwards for my "tribe"—the Church—even if it happened long ago.

Yes, maybe Lennon saw religion as a problem (don’t really know). But I don’t think he was critiquing the kind of “true” and “pure” religion talked about in James’ Epistle. I’m guessing he was a critic of the kind of a religion that causes war, that is a barrier to peace, that makes entire people groups hate each other, that causes in-groups and out-groups. Or maybe he was just honestly expressing his questions about life and meaning and God, and in so doing, gave words to the questions of many.

And, to be fair, I imagine he wasn’t a saint—maybe he just didn’t like the inherent call in most religions to, in some form, “repent” and change your comfortable habits (though I kind of doubt this to be the root of his questioning of religion/heaven, if that's in fact what he was doing).

But instead of coming alongside Lennon, listening to the root of his concerns and questions and maybe even challenges, it sounds like many Christians just got scared. Asking questions about heaven and hell? Questioning the value of religion for the well-being of the human race? Yikes! We must resist! We must speak out violently against it, respond in ways that show we are 100% certain about everything we believe, eliminate dissenting voices among us that have the potential to deconstruct our belief system and leave us feeling out of control! I don’t think it’s too much of a caricature to say that this is often a general reaction among many.

So what does this have to do with listening? Good listening isn’t defensive and argumentative, I don’t think. Listening hears not just the words and the way those words threaten the hearer, but the humanity and truth behind the words being spoken.

Perhaps those who reacted to this famous song’s existential questions might have been better off to have heard the cry for peace, the desire for a more unified human community, the challenge to the way nations often default to violence in their conflicts with others, the portrait of hope painted, and—dare I say—a perhaps unintentional challenge to the Church to lessen its focus on the afterlife and more fully discover Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God on earth, a message that challenges us to “live for today” in many ways so that we can, by the way we live our lives, anticipate the day when God will restore all things and “the world will be as one,” as Lennon put it.

I’m not saying Lennon intended this interpretation. But depending on your attitude, “Imagine” could be taken either as a borderline credo and mission statement for the Church (with a couple of tricky lines), or could be taken as something to be condemned for the way it might lead people astray or rob the Church’s teaching of its credibility or diminish church attendance.

For me personally, I believe listening well means I should be open to receive from others. Be ready to hear the words beyond the words. Be ready to find common ground between myself and others rather than only identify differences. Be secure enough to not feel threatened by people and ideas that conflict with my views. Be led in conversation by the other without jumping to premature conclusions or making assumptions. Wow. I’m genuinely feeling a bit of remorse right now has I’m feeling a bit of the weight of all the instances where I’ve failed as a listener. I certainly haven’t mastered the art of listening.

I think being a good listener also means being ready to connect my understanding of something with another’s, only after having truly heard their message—such as the Church recognizing those goals and dreams in common with Lennon, or such as me listening to my friend well enough that when I give my opinion, it’s not on a completely different topic but is actually relevant to what he’s saying, shows that I haven’t completely missed the point. I’m smiling…too many great (or tragic?) moments from English class when a student and I will be talking about two completely different things and really just talking past each other.

But then again, I guess even in more common situations, when two people or two communities do actually speak the same language, we still often have this problem of not really having any idea what our conversation partner is saying, because we’re unable or unwilling—for whatever reason, be it pride, ignorance, naïveté, laziness, or fear—to really hear them.

Imagine the possible outcomes that would result from people becoming better listeners. Imagine also how much money Fox News would lose, how Middle East conflicts might change, how many Chinese youth (or others in similar situations) would feel more validated by their parents in their opinions and dreams for their lives, how the dialogue about environmental issues might benefit, how the gay community might feel more valued and understood, how American attitudes toward immigration might change, how the divorce rate might decrease, how internal church conflicts might lessen. And, more importantly, how a personal pet peeve might completely fade away for me…people wrongly guessing my point and incorrectly finishing my sentences. Am I right? :)

Meh. I probably do that to others too. Rats. We all have room for improvement...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Few Who Give the Many a Bad Name

This post might be an unnecessary plea, but I’m going to make it anyway.

Joann and I were in Portland last Friday evening for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. We arrived a little late, around 6pm or so (the ceremony began around 5:30pm), so we missed the lighting of the tree. It sounds like we also missed the makings of a future movie.

I’m sure everyone’s aware of the foiled Jihad attempt by a young Somalian Muslim student. I am still stunned by the whole thing; not necessarily the “holy” rage of the extremist (nothing new), but the elaborate workings of the FBI to seemingly allow this man to go forth with his plan (I'm trusting without coercion) believing he had a host of supporters were actually agents waiting to snatch him up at the coup de grace moment of his plan. It seems those downtown were never in any danger. Unless, of course, something had gone wrong or been misplaced, and the FBI’s attempted sting had gone awry. But, I’m trusting it was a flawless plan.

I wanted to use this space to remind everyone who reads my blog of what you probably already know. And that is this: we should take care to guard our hearts against the temptation to judge a community by its “exceptions.”

When I heard the news about the bomber, my heart immediately went to my Muslim students. Our school has several Saudi students, seven of whom are in my class. All are very kind, respectful, and I would even use the word “good” people. Granted I don’t know them intimately, and there’s a few who are a bit hard to figure out. But from those I’ve talked to the most, I have mostly experienced warmth, kindness, and gratitude.

I felt for them because I know that for many of us, seeing an Arab in America can often evoke a visceral response. We may even know in our heads that we shouldn’t judge, shouldn’t fear. But there is often an aura of mystery around those Muslims we encounter here, and I think where there is mystery there can often be fear. We sometimes fear what we don’t know, I believe, as I’ve recently said here.

I am trying to build bridges in my job, trying to be a reconciler in whatever way I can. During a class break on Monday, I approached four Muslim students, asking them if they’d heard the news. Two of them had, and were very sorry and clearly frustrated. I told them that I wanted them to know that I respect them and their faith, and that I refused to let one radical be a representative of the whole. They were very grateful.

I told them that I face the same challenge as a Christian. That is, there are radicals who do things in the name of Jesus that do more harm than good in the world and so dishonor the Author of our faith. They understand this, and do not judge me, just as I am seeking to avoid judgment of them.

It was a simple gesture, I suppose, but I felt it was worthwhile, as a means of making a connection as well as growing in my understanding of this religion, filled with very godly, devout people who respect and admire Jesus and even have a place for him in their faith (despite not understanding Jesus’ significance and centrality in the same way I do) and who are seeking as best as they know how to live a life honoring to God.

So take this as a reminder of what you most likely already know but could benefit from hearing again: don’t fear Muslims. Perhaps you can even join me on my new journey to gain a deeper understanding of Islam and the way its adherents express their faith. Fight that innate feeling of suspicion that arises when you encounter something foreign, unfamiliar. Don't shut out what seemingly opposes your views and way of life. Fight the temptation to generalize and stereotype. Try to remember that the news gives us the sensational, not the day-to-day goodness of the faithful and devout. And try to think of ways that common ground can be found, that respect can be shown, and that love can be shared through placing a high value on the kind of thoughts and words and actions that build relationships rather than destroy them.

I’m mostly speaking to myself, though perhaps in “overhearing” me here, there is something to be gained for you as well.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Err..."Wisdom" (or, Quotant Quotables, Part 5)

Last day of consecutive blog posts. Can’t keep this pace up.

It was a three-way tie for quotes for today. I’ll admit I’m pretty much straying from the theme and quoting not a book but those with whom I am in community. These words of, um, “wisdom,” aren’t necessarily about the what or how or why of community, as much as the sharing of my own joy at the experience of being in an international community. And, they’re funny quotes. I have funny students. And very sweet, sincere students…

On Being in an Intercultural Community—My Students:

“How much wife do you have?”—Saudi student

We were working on the grammatical difference between “how many” and “how much” during class. This student—the same who recently expressed interest in having four wives, some of which could very well be American girls if he gets lucky enough while here—meant to ask “how many wives do you have?” Funny on a couple levels.

“Hugo Chavez is crazy.” –Venezuelan student

During my very small class of three students, all Spanish-speaking, came something like the following:

Matt: “…the eighth of May.”
Students: “The eighth of May.”
Matt: "Right, ‘ocho de Mayo.’ Like ‘cinco de Mayo.’ Mexican holiday, right?"
Mexican students: “Yes.”
Matt: “Is that a holiday in Venezuela, too?”
Venezuelan student (shaking his head in frustration): “Hugo Chavez is crazy!”

Maybe you had to be there. The delivery was perfect, and the comment seemed so random (and perhaps a bit bold), though I think the point he couldn’t quite express was that there was a connection between Chavez’ leadership and a lack of celebrating. Sounds right, from what little I know of the current political climate of Venezuela. Anyway…the four of us must have laughed for about two minutes straight, with intermittent laughter for several minutes after.

“No more Evergreen. Everwhite.”—Mexican student

This wasn't necessarily amusing as much as “cute,” I guess. He and I were gazing out the window during a class break this past Monday as snow was rapidly coming down. He said it, in a tone that made me think he knew he was being funny, but also kind of serious, like he’d just spoken a legitimate word that he wanted validated by his English teacher. But hey, why not? Words can be made up, as long as you say/write them with a lot of confidence. When I use words around my Dad that are new to the Oxford English Dictionary within the last thirty years or so, he really gets on me about it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Very Recent Wisdom (or, Quotant Quotables, Part 4)

I believe a part of being capable of community myself means not only being willing to receive from others, but to give and impart as well. However, any "giving" that is done should be done with the greatest respect...

On Being Respectful—Brian McLaren (blog):

“It seems like neither Jesus nor Paul "succeeded" in challenging people to a bigger and fuller way of thinking without being considered blasphemous ... so I know it's impossible to please, help, instruct, challenge, or serve everyone. Some people just aren't willing or able to think new thoughts at any given moment. (That might sound condescending or demeaning ... but I think that socially, psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally, many people are - at any given moment - in such a bind that asking them to change their thinking is unrealistic, if not uncompassionate. The good news is that an hour, month, or year from now it might be different.)

Whether one finds McLaren’s theology, work, and question-evading (or redirecting, if you prefer) abilities inspiring or threatening, perhaps at least his insight on the human situation and our capacity for change (and the pace at which we change) is something we can rally around.

His words are a good reminder. When I, or maybe you, feel strongly about something, especially a way of thinking, believing, understanding, doing, that is different from others, it’s hard not to be a pit preachy and even pushy about urging others to “come around” and see it like we do. McLaren thoughtfully reminds me that, as a rule, people do not drastically change overnight. And to expect them to do so seems to show disregard for their context and situation, maybe a lack of compassion and sensitivity, or even a failure to understand some aspect of what it means to be human.

People may be wrong about something. A lot of people are wrong. But I think we are “bound” to our way of understanding to a great enough degree that it’s probably more often a delicate, slow process of transformation, and it’s probably going to be disrespectful to expect someone to change their views more quickly than they are ready for.

Even if we think we’re right about something, it probably took us months or years to get to the understanding we have now. You can try to persuade someone in a 15 minute conversation (as I’ve tried), but to try to do so can feel a bit violent, abrasive, and usually will not bear the immediate fruit we hope it will. The Holy Spirit works, yes, but I think that work is often very subtle and slow.

I’ve sensed that no matter how good and true and helpful our views seem to us, often people need more space than I often give, more appreciation and understanding of their views than I normally possess, and more willingness on my part to listen without sword in hand, less prepared to defend my territory, more prepared to love with gentleness, openness, compassion, patience, and respect.

But…that doesn’t mean others won’t eventually come around and see the light. It also doesn’t mean we won’t eventually come around and see the light.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ancient Wisdom (or, Quotant Quotables, Part 3)

Quotant is not a word.

Further thoughts on community from recent reading...

On Being a Holy Community—Paul (Romans):

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." (Romans 12:9-19)

Convicting and (I think) very demanding (but potentially liberating) words. I know I (and we) need to be reminded to value orthopraxy as much as (if not more than) orthodoxy. That is, I believe we ought to understand our identity to be found not solely in our doctrines and beliefs about God, Jesus, new identity, salvation, etc., but in our character and virtues and practices as a Christian community.

Let me articulate that differently. I don’t imagine a lot of people outside the Church, when they think about the Church, understand Christians to be an outstanding community of very ethical people who regularly make the love of God known. I would guess (maybe I should just start asking) that they think of the Church more as a people who engage in peculiar weekly practices who share common beliefs (please set me straight if I’m horribly mischaracterizing people’s perceptions of Christians here).

But I love the words of Paul from Romans here, because I think it’s a great glimpse of what Christians should be, the kind of life we should be striving for as a community.

However, I’m not so sure that churches are generally setup to “train” people into this kind of holy life together, the kind of life Paul calls the Romans to. I know we tell people to be good, patient, be hospitable, etc…but I’m not confident that the Christian community really “practices” these kinds of things together as well as we could. I think people like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard (Renovare) are doing a lot in this area, but we could surely use more. Churches do preach truth well; I haven't experienced as much training (with a few exceptions) about how to live that truth well.

The problem I see? It is work. It takes time and effort. We’re already really busy with so much in our lives. I wonder if this busyness and anxiety about doing any more than we’re already doing as Christians makes us use “grace” as a crutch. I’m not accusing anyone (or at least not exempting myself from the accusation) here, but do feel that sometimes our fear of “works” and “doing” in the church encourages us to understand the reality of God’s grace as an excuse to do nothing by way of becoming people of a higher ethical standard, a holy people, a people of radical love.

It’s this kind of thinking that assumes Jesus was too Divine to imitate, rather than embraces his humanity as a call to become like him in our lives. But to more deeply become the kind of people that are truly a foretaste of the Kingdom of God requires a willingness on our part to really be changed, transformed, shaped—not into people who are just “louder” and more sure about their beliefs, but people whose beliefs are obvious in the way they live and move and function in daily life.

Idealistic again? Yes. Realistic? I think part of Jesus’ mission was not simply to be our eternal salvation, but to form a community that could carry on the work he started and “do greater things” than himself, as He puts it. That’s a convicting call, one I hope we’re willing to not ignore as followers of this man.

Paul’s words here challenge me. I can’t necessarily make other people “become” the kind of people capable of the life Paul is describing here. But I can, with the help of a few others, allow myself to become one who is increasingly more filled with genuine love, persistent in prayer, willing to let God avenge while refusing to seek such vengeance myself, and able to be the kind of person that, because I’ve dealt with those inner demons—be they pride, sloth, apathy, whatever—is able to better live in harmony with others...to live as one capable of community.

I write these words not as one who thinks he has attained sainthood, but as one who feels a growing conviction that something like sainthood is what God is calling us to, if we are going to label ourselves Christians. Or maybe at least a genuine pursuit of it, empowered not by guilt or duty but because we increasingly more fully understand the extent of God’s goodness to us. That’s probably it—the path to becoming a more holy and good and ethical people comes through more clearly seeing/encountering God.

Maybe that resonates with you. It's also possible I'm projecting my own journey onto others here, or underestimating the holiness of others or the effectiveness of our churches in making disciples. Forgive me if so.

And if that little paragraph just sounded like a wimpy, self-doubting cop-out for what you think are convicting words of truth…then forgive me for that too. :)

Just forgive me, please, all of you...for what I have and haven't done. Thanks.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Wisdom (or, Quotant Quotables, Part 2)

More thoughts on community from recent readings...

On Encountering the Other—Hauerwas (The Peaceable Kingdom):

“We acquire character through the expectations of others. The “otherness” of another’s character not only invites me to an always imperfect imitation, but challenges me to recognize the way my vision is restricted by my own self-preoccupation. This kind of community in which we encounter another does not merely make some difference for our capacity for agency, it makes all the difference. From this perspective we are not the creators of our character; rather, our character is a gift from others which we learn to claim as our own by recognizing it as a gift. Our freedom is literally in the hands of others. I am free just to the extent that I can trust others to stand over against me and call my own “achievements” into question. It is from them that I learn the story that gives my life a purpose and direction.”

“This love that is characteristic of God’s Kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people—a people who have learned not to fear one another. For love is the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other. But to see the other as other is frightening, because to the extent others are others they challenge my way of being. Only when my self—my character—has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.”

One of the many aspects of my understanding of myself that I’ve had challenged in recent years is my individualism. I think many of us possess a kind of fervent individualistic spirit; it's partially cultural. One obvious (to me) danger of such a general life attitude is the tendency toward defensiveness and fear.

I find that I often fear what I don’t know, and my response tends to be to defend what I do know. If somebody possesses a lifestyle or a worldview that is different than mine, I more often respond with suspicion than receptivity. Rather than allowing another’s way of being or understanding to challenge me, push me, possibly even reveal the shortcomings of my own view, I tend to resist, fearing that what is really happening is not an invitation to more deeply discover Truth but a personal attack.

I’m not totally sure of the significance of this. It causes me to suspect I’m not as wired for community as I’d like, that my response to the diversity around me is not curiosity but resistance. I don’t want to realize I’m wrong about something, because than maybe I’ll overreact and assume I’m wrong about everything. And when I am threatened in this way, it is easy to react with violence, attacking others, pushing them away, belittling their way of life, disrespecting the work God has done in them, failing to see others as a gift to us and instead seeing them as enemies.

But the kind of love I think I’m after as a follower of Christ is a love where we welcome others, giving them the right and privilege of shaping us. We choose not to deceive ourselves into thinking we are “self-made persons" but recognize that who we are has been shaped by countless forces around us, be it genetics, culture, and most obviously the communities and families and friends who’ve been a part of our journey. We are free and responsible people, yes, but only to an extent. We haven’t become who we are in a vacuum, in isolation, but in a community of people whom God has used to shape us.

I don’t simply think of being a Christian as reflecting that I’ve chosen a particular worldview that I believe gives me a sense of hope, or salvation, or inner peace. I understand myself as being a part of a historic community that--at its best--lives at peace with one another, is willing to give and receive insight, critique, and guidance to and from one another, and possesses so deep a respect, compassion, and acceptance of others, within that community and without. A community that, by living in such a manner, shows the world what life could be and will be. The question of how well I (and we…I know I’ve waffled between “I” and “we” in my language here) actually do this is another matter.

But I know the vision I’m pursuing and where I believe God is taking me, shaping me into someone who is not afraid of what I don’t understand, what is foreign, someone who recognizes my life is a gift and not of my own making, and someone who knows how to function in community with others because I approach every person with gratitude, humility, and honor, knowing I’m not encountering a “mere mortal” (Lewis) but someone who God can and will likely use to further shape me if I receive the "other" with hospitality and curiosity and gratitude, rather than violent defensiveness or fear.

These are the ways in which Hauerwas’ insights push me and challenge me. Idealistic? Yes. Realistic? I hope so, because helping others become the kind of people through whom God can be encountered and enjoyed, and becoming myself such a person—this is what I’m devoting much of life and career to. That is, of course, in addition to my devotion (addiction?) to fresh coffee, fine wine (my palette really can’t yet differentiate between fine and poor wine, I'll confess), and dark chocolate (superior in taste and nutrition to milk chocolate). I suppose I have both lofty pursuits and simple ones; balance seems appropriate.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wisdom Distilled from the Wise (or, Quotant Quotables, Part 1)

Despite the challenges brought on by the events mentioned in my last post, these past couple weeks have been rich with study and contemplation. I think the freedom of both time and mental/emotional space has paved the way for a very life-giving season of considering identity-related questions: what do I believe, what do I value, what are some areas of needed growth, how do I want to live, what is the church, where am I headed, why does every barista have a different interpretation of what “light room” means, etc.

As I’ve turned to the wisdom of others, I’ve found guidance for the journey in all these areas, especially regarding the nature and demands of living in community. I share here, over the next few days, some of the wisdom gained recently regarding life in community, by people who are much more articulate and poignant in their words than I.

On Self-Awareness—Nouwen (The Genesee Diary):

“…I had just begun to realize how much my own life was motivated by self-glory: even going to monastery could be a form of self-indulgence. My problem with work is obviously related to my tendency to look at manual labor as a necessary job to earn a couple of free hours to do my own work. Even when this work seems very spiritual, such as reading about prayer, I often look at it more as an opportunity to make interesting notes for future lectures or books than as a way to praise the Lord.”

Reading Nouwen can be very liberating. I feel like he gives me the permission to be transparent, to not be shy about confessing my inadequacies, fears, self-doubts, and most importantly in all that—to not deceive myself. His words come from a published version of his journal from a short stint living at a monastery. The first quote reminds me of the continual struggle to look at all of my life as significant, rather than just a small part of my day or week.

I don’t tend to feel overwhelming excitement about the end of a weekend, but last Sunday evening, I found myself genuinely eager to get back to work. I don’t always feel that way, but because I love the community I’m a part of at Evergreen so much, I think I’m truly drawn to being there—with a community I value, and a role—teaching—I love.

I think this is one of many movements or journeys I’m continually on—living more and more in the present, cherishing even the simplest, mundane moments as a gift, not simply something to be endured. Or even further than that, as Nouwen recalls, I’d like to be able to enjoy a given moment not just for how it’s contributing to my own “kingdom” or glory or advancement, but simply because it’s an opportunity to find God and praise God.

I feel like this kind of presence in the moments we are in and with the people present to us maybe related to "how well" we do community. Just last night, I was babysitting three of my newly-acquired-through-marriage nephews--Aaron, Donny, and Beniah. For part of the time I was working on my computer, kind of monitoring them while also doing some writing. At some point, I felt funny about this. Sure, they didn't need my continual maintenance; they were fine as they were. But I felt like I was missing something. Even though they are only 4, 3, and 2 years old, I felt like something precious was to be gained from being more fully present to them. I shut the computer and embraced the moment...and had a blast! Donny actually said to me earlier in the evening "close it...close it...you got to close it" in reference to my computer...how's that for a genuine call to be present to him?!

“While (working this afternoon), I realized how difficult the control of thoughts…really is. My thoughts not only wandered in all directions, but started to brood on many negative feelings, feelings of hostility toward people who not given me the attention I wanted, feelings of jealously toward people who received more than I, feelings of self-pity in regard to people who had not written, and many feelings of regret and guilt toward people with whom I had strained relationships. While pulling and pushing with the crowbar, all these feelings kept pulling and pushing in me.”

The second quote, again, captures what I love about Nouwen—a courageousness in admitting his weaknesses, to others and to himself. I saw my own challenges in his. Most of the time my mind is moving too fast with other concerns to allow these negative thoughts to come up. But it can be shocking when they do arise. Hostility, jealousy, self-pity, regret, guilt—how easy for these to emerge when we’re not centered, not at peace, not sustained by the deeper truth about our beloved-ness and our call to love.

How easy to, out of some kind of lacking or emptiness, allow some very ugly emotions to rise to the surface, turning us against others, and against ourselves. I’m trying to learn to listen to these emotions; it seems like the path to wholeness and peace and freedom goes through them.

I believe a part of doing community well requires us to stop and wrestle with these kinds of feelings and thoughts, as painful as they may be. If we don't, then we will carry into our relationships a lot of hidden emotions like resentment and neediness and jealousy and pride that affect our ability to really bless and be blessed by others.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

TCC, we hardly knew ye.

Note: Some of you who’ve been in contact with me probably already received some variation of what follows.

These past few days, I’ve been recalling all the insights I’ve gathered from various sources throughout my life about the futility of plan-making. I’m not just speaking as an ENFP who’s very “P” and very biased against long-term planning and closed doors and dogmatism. I’m speaking as one who knows and has experienced how quickly something we thought was one way was actually another way, how quickly expectations can be thwarted, how random the universe seems at times. Make plans, but hold them with a loosened grip, I’d say. God, life, others—they have a way of kindly mocking any attempts we make to gain some sense of control of our lives. I think "control" can become an idol, if we allow it.

Please feel free to write me off as being a bit overdramatic, though I don’t feel I’m exaggerating my current sentiments.

As of late last week, I’m no longer a part of the church plant—Trinity Community Church—for which Joann and I moved to Olympia to begin our new married life together. It was unexpected, hard, frustrating, and hurtful. I’m disappointed by this outcome, the decision that led to it, and the philosophy that drove the decision.

Please extend me grace if I speak out-of-line here. I seek to share with objectivity, but am in reality a bit bound by my own subjectivity. That’s kind of the nature of things, I think.

Dan (my co-pastor) and I came to the realization of a significant divergence in our theology, and the conclusion he reached was that we could not minister together.

The issue at hand is salvation. Dan holds a very conservative stance on the matter, basically affirming that those who are Christians in this life will live eternally with God, those who aren't, won't. Eternal salvation is exclusively for those accept Christ.

I hold an inclusivist position on salvation. What this means in short is that I believe that we cannot know who will or won't be with God forever, and are unable to judge this. I believe the gates of heaven are much wider, and that while Jesus is the one who has made the salvation of humankind possible, there will be many people who for whatever reason do not affirm Christ as Lord in this life—people that God, who is a loving, merciful and just judge, will accept as God’s own. Part of the difference is that I believe we cannot know who will be saved, Dan believes we can (Dan is certainly not alone in this belief).

Also, the difference between inclusivism and universalism is essentially that inclusivism allows for people who adamantly reject Christ in this life and possibly the next to, on judgment day, when they truly encounter God, still resist God. Christian universalism or universal reconciliation affirms God's sovereignty and recognizes our corporate identity as humans and essentially says God has already justified all humankind and will eventually obliterate sin, healing all people and relationships and freeing everyone in the end—no matter how awful they were in this life or to what “god” or experience of the Divine they gave their allegiance. I would describe myself as an inclusivist who hopes universalism is true, though I'm not convinced. :)

My theology is certainly Biblical. I've come to my conclusions through my understanding of the God I encounter in God's word and the teaching of Jesus and others, in addition to reason and experience. Dan, however, has reached different conclusions. Both are justifiable positions, as evidenced by how many brilliant scholars and followers of Jesus throughout history have reached both conclusions. However, my view is not Dan's.

Now to be clear, I didn't want to leave the church plant, nor stop partnering with Dan. I knew for a long time, even when I was in China and we had our initial Skype conversations, that Dan was much more conservative than I. However, the issue never explicitly came up. I knew my views were likely different, though I did not realize they would be offensive to Dan and a barrier to serving in ministry together. What drew us together was not our identical theology. It was personality, and a common vision of ministry that had more to do with spiritual formation and empowering people for ministry and what Christian community looks like.

Also, Dan's vision of a plurality of leadership—multiple co-pastors—seemed to allow room for differences in theology, as long as we were all set on the fact that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, the author of our salvation, etc. I was drawn to this vision, believing a diversity of Christ-centered theologies is something that challenges and enriches a community of Christians, rather than harms them. However, I was mistaken. Plurality for Dan means different personalities and gifts, not diverse theology. In short, I wrongly assumed there was space for my views and for dialogue about such matters as a church.

Dan wants TCC to have a conservative theology, with a very outlined conservative doctrine. I do not. I wanted us to be very simple in our theology, affirming the historic creeds of the early church (rather than specifically Reformed theology, Catholic theology, Quaker theology, whatever) and focusing more on how we want our community to live and act and be, while giving room for disagreement among the leadership and the whole church body on matters like this one.

So unless I were willing to change my views dramatically, which I don't feel I could do simply for the sake of making this ministry partnership "work," we can't serve together. Unless Dan were to change his vision of leadership and church to allow for differing opinions among leadership—even about an important aspect of theology such as this—it won't work. And he will not budge.

We told our church community last week, and it was awful. People were stunned, and rightly so. We just had our other pastor, Jeff, leave the group several weeks ago for very different reasons. But most appeared supportive of both Dan’s theology and his belief that this disqualifies me from leadership of this church. I was a bit shocked and a little disappointed at how little discussion there was about the matter. I guess it confirms that I don’t belong with TCC, even if I feel they would benefit from someone like me being in their midst. I possess a deep love of dialogue, to explore the paradoxes and diversities of faith and those matters which aren’t necessarily black and white. But, as a friend recently pointed out to me, the nature of those with more conservative theology tends to be that they do not share this love.

So that's it. You can see the logic of the "split" in what I’ve said here, but on an emotional level, Joann (who shares my views) and I feel like we've been excluded, and are hurting right now. To be fair, I think Dan also is frustrated and hurt too, feeling burned by me for not being more explicit with him sooner, and hurt because his vision of leadership is, so far, not working out. I think just as I am disappointed in Dan for the way he's responded to this and what it’s revealed about him, I think he is disappointed in me, and in himself. And then there’s just the pain of disillusionment, thinking this whole enterprise was one thing and finding that it wasn’t. There is a small sort of death that has happened here that Joann and I are mourning.

I've certainly learned a lesson and will be very clear about such theological matters in the future. But whatever things I should have done different, we're here, where we are, and I don't regret that. But I'm deeply saddened by the conclusion that Dan has made, and disappointed that something I was so excited about will not come to fruition. Such is life at times...disappointment, but often disappointment that paves the way for unexpected blessings. I want to always be readying myself to receive whatever discoveries about God, people, the human condition, relationships, and myself might be made, regardless of whether or not something seems a success or a failure. Plans get thwarted. C’est la vie.

I do hope the best for TCC. I care deeply about Dan. He is a gifted communicator, encourager, leader, thinker, and filled with passion. And he is a friend. God is and will be honored by his ministry. I'm not confident about the rightness and goodness of what has transpired. But despite my disagreements and disappointments and critiques, I'm hopeful for his journey in ministry and the light and love and hope that will be brought to many through his efforts.

As for us, I'm not sure what's next ministry-wise...it's a bit too soon to speculate on that. Are we disappointed we came here? No. Olympia has been a great place for us to start our first year of marriage. Joann has a great job. I have a great job teaching English in a diverse, international community (which I've wondered lately if that's the real "reason" I'm in Olympia, not TCC). I think Dan and I both made mistakes in this process, but I certainly don't regret the friendships we've developed here, with Dan and others. Joann and I will be in Olympia until at least next July, and may stay longer. I'm not one to know what's going to happen more than a few months out. :)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Life at Evergreen, Part 2: My Students

I set out in my last post to share a bit about my students at EF Evergreen (the International School I began teaching at about six weeks ago). I got sidetracked and didn't. :)

The communities I’ve been a part of in my life thus far have been so enriching. I'm now in a church commmunity in which it at least feels like I’m playing a part in the creation of that community. It might be more truthful to say that a community is emerging that is unique based on the personalities and gifts and passions of the people. So I’m not really “creating” anything, I guess. Maybe it's better to say I’m just kind of there, nurturing a life that is growing mostly by its own ability and will.

But I’m also now a part of a community at Evergreen in which I’m far from a nurturer, though I certainly play a part in its nature and development, as I think every person adds some element to a community that changes it when they join. A community can define itself by its beliefs/values/goals/objectives, but I’d say in some sense the community is defined by the actual “beings and doings” of the people in that community. I guess I’m suggesting it might be inadequate for a community to describe itself by what it aims to be as much as what it is.

I do believe that to some extent we can define ourselves by our movement, our trajectory. I consider myself a learner, a person pursuing several various goals with my life, and this pursuit is defining. My point is not that we stop defining ourselves by goals, but that our organizations and communities understand themselves for who they really are, which is the sum of the diverse persons within the community—not the values of the CEO’s, bosses, pastors, etc. When a new person joins a church, the church should change, because they will have brought something to the group that didn’t exist before.

So the international school at Evergreen probably has changed in some way since I joined. And to be fair and hopefully not overly immodest, I think I have a personality that has influence, and I already feel like I’m experiencing—in subtle ways—the way I’ve added something to this community of teachers and students. It’s a blessing to be a part of such a group.

So who else shapes this community? I teach two classes—“Basic Studies,” a class of 17 students from all over—Saudi Arabia, Japan, Poland, Spain, France, Libya, Mexico, Columbia, and Venezuela—and more of a tutoring class to three Spanish-speaking students in which I actually get to teach partially in Spanish (it’s all coming back!) Let me share about a few of my friends…

• I have one student from Saudi Arabia, who recently asked me whether or not one of my female co-workers was single. I laughed and told him, “no she’s not. She’s married. She has a kid too.” He responded with very visible frustration, to which I again replied with a bit of laugher, “why, did you want to date her?” He very seriously clarified, “No, I wanted to marry her!” Well alright. We then had a discussion about his views on marriage as a Muslim, and he told me that he plans to have four wives, just like his father. (To avoid generalizing, it should be known that several other of my married Muslim students are one-woman men and very content with this fact).

• We had a school Halloween party last week, and I was impressed with the student participation. While some of them thought many elements of the party were a bit childish, they still appeared to enjoy themselves. Like anywhere, there are people who are comfortable enough to act silly for the sake of having a good time, and some who aren’t. Anyhow, pirates, vampires, and cats were the most popular costumes this year. But the most memorable costume? If we’re talking memorable in a bad way, it was one of my French students. At first, I couldn’t tell what he was. I thought banana, but then noticed the green T-shirt, and two somewhat round “sacks” hanging from around his knees, and I thought, “um…bottom-heavy pea pod???” Man am I slow. He was a giant penis. I was the MC for most of the party, and very begrudgingly announced his name and costume when he won 2nd place for “funniest costume," determined by student vote. While I didn’t care much for the costume, I’ll hand it to him—the guy’s got some balls.

• Caution: I’m trusting anyone who reads this to not make broad generalizations about a people group or to be overly harsh in your judgment. That said, I had to share this. Apparently a Saudi young woman at our school recently had her phone stolen. In talking with our school director (my boss), the young woman requested that the thief, when found, be killed. Such a punishment would apparently be appropriate in her culture, according to her at least (I’d have to look into that). How’s that for justice? Yikes.

• One of my male students is just completely in his own world. It’s actually fascinating…he has a bit of a hard time paying attention, which is a challenge for a teacher. But often his comments and his test answers just make him seem on a whole other planet. He recently had his apartment broken into, getting about $600 stolen in addition to his computer. And the whole time—he just maintained this lighthearted, carefree attitude, seemingly unfazed by the whole thing. I gotta give him credit for that—his ability to not be too down about anything. He just seems blissfully unfazed by a lot. And blissfully unaware at times that he is in this other world. On a recent test where I had students write out a dialogue between a waiter and a customer, he was the only one that diverged from the appropriate response to the question, writing instead about a customer at Gamestop buying a video game, ending with the store manager kicking the customer out because the customer wouldn’t pay what he thought was a high price. It was a hilarious response that I unfortunately gave him a very low score for because he missed the point of the question. A beautiful mind, indeed.

• I lived in China, which I guess makes me feel like I have more right than others to talk about Asian stereotypes (judge me if you want). Anyway, from my time in China and from observations at Evergreen, I’d confirm a well-known stereotype of the “shy Asian girl.” I experienced that. However, there is also something I noticed—at least in China—called the “no social boundaries young Asian person,” as many of my students in Xiaogan were very touchy, “hangy,” close-talkers, etc. Well, my female Japanese student is certainly very touchy, and actually seems to be attracting a following of guys from non-Asian cultures. It’s actually kind of sweet. I know better than to lump Asian cultures together, especially knowing the general distaste Japanese and Chinese have historically had for one another (it’s still there in China, I can testify, even if it’s not talked about a lot). But this girl sure reminds me of some of my Chinese students—very innocent and sweet, for sure…just a little bit ignorant of boundaries. But then again—maybe we Americans think too highly of boundaries. My good friends can testify that I certainly cross them from time to time.

• One of my female students quietly walked into class today and set her bag down, maybe 3-4 minutes before class actually began. Then, very suddenly, she jumped up and shouted, “Oh sh**!” I asked her what was the matter. She told me, “I have to go to the bathroom! I don’t really think she got the humor in her words, specifically her choice of expletive. And actually, I think she had forgotten her notebook in the bathroom, which was the real concern.

• A Saudi girl asked to take a picture of me at last week’s Halloween party, to which I of course said yes. We posed for the first picture, no physical contact. Then I gently put my hand on her shoulder, as I tend to do when I pose with others. She abruptly pulled away, and very politely said, “please, teacher!” Meaning, don’t touch me, that makes me uncomfortable. Oops. Guess I learned something about social boundaries myself this week.

• My Basic Studies students are moving up to a new level this week, and I wasn’t sure if I would be their teacher next week or not. When I told my students, several of them were noticeably concerned. “Teacher (they call me ‘teacher’), we need you…we know you, we need you to teach us,” they said repeatedly. Well, I found out this week that I will in fact be moving up with them. Which is great; I’ve developed rapport with them, and I know them. As a teacher it’s great to be able to push and challenge students and accommodate to their various levels and abilities—something that comes with relationship. They were thrilled and relieved when I told them I wasn’t leaving them. Now, to be fair, these students can be a bit like ducks, wanting to follow and stay with the familiar and scared of the unfamiliar. In that sense, it may not just be me they love as much they love what they know. But, I won’t lie…it still feels good to have your students cheer when they know they aren’t losing you.

• Finally, a picture…this is of my Basic Studies class (all but one person present):

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Life at Evergreen, Part 1 (and a lengthy tangent)

My job at Evergreen State College has been an unexpected gift of my new life in Olympia. I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d be working in addition to pastoring when I moved here, but doing the bi-vocational thing has opened up a lot more opportunities and contacts than would have otherwise been the case. I love helping lead and serve the community I do as a ministry leader, but being in this environment has opened me to a fascinating community of characters…

• There’s a semi-regular booth setup in the quad that is all Obama-merchandise. The election may have been nearly two years ago, but some students are really marketing his image. Not sure I’ve ever seen that before, such fervor and veneration of an American president (this also may be a college student thing, though the culture of my alma mater, George Fox, is clearly very different than Evergreen, so I missed this as an undergrad).

• I occasionally walk by Evergreen students and hear them discussing a host of highly intellectual topics…people are strolling through the campus talking about a certain author’s values being expressed through his characters, or discussing the meaning of “supporting” our troops and whether or not that means one supports war as a general policy or simply supports the individual, removed from his or her involvements. This is just in a casual stroll through campus. When I was a freshman at college, my out-of-class conversations were more about the latest Will Ferrell shtick or playing the I-love-Jesus-and-play-guitar card to woo young women (not claiming to have been successful at this…well, perhaps with one particular girl).

• I was handed a flyer for a “Young Socialists” Organization trying to recruit. It’s funny…I think I overheard a conversation of some kind of club meeting at Batdorf’s (my coffee shop) a couple weeks back. It sounded at first like some kind of Young Life meeting, with phrases like “reaching out” being thrown around. Nope. Socialist’s club. Interesting to hear the same language, obviously showing this group believes deeply in the goodness and helpfulness of its agenda, just as evangelistic-minded Christians do theirs. The flyer said capitalism was the cause of the world’s problems, and that socialism was the answer. Maybe a tentative, heavily-qualified, partial “yes” to the first assertion, but “no” to the second?

• Yesterday I listened for a few minutes to the beating of tribal drums in the center of campus. I don’t know who they were or all the details of why they were doing it, other than to guess it was probably some kind of shout-out to local First Nations peoples in the area, or possibly just a group of musicians. It reminded me of China a bit, where people, mostly older generations, would commonly have organized “jam sessions” in common areas.

• There were a couple students recently standing in the main square with a couple red-painted doors asking for people to write on these doors their thoughts about who Jesus is. I talked to them for a couple minutes, a bit curious of their agenda. Seemed like two guys just trying to creatively start/continue a conversation on campus about faith while appearing to be devoted Christians themselves.

One guy gave me very direct answers to my questions. The other guy was a bit more cryptic and evasive. For example, upon my asking how many Christians he thought were on campus, he responded by saying that “it’s hard to say…people are always either moving toward Christ or moving away from Christ.” Hmm. Okay…I think I know where he’s coming from and what he’s trying to accomplish in saying that—it’s reminiscent of the bounded sets vs. centered sets conversation (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWqk1o6bDxA)–but I’m a bit wary of this line of thinking.

One of the goals of this kind of language seems to be to avoid labeling/judging and to break down in-group/out-group classifications. If I had more time with this student, and he wanted my opinion, I’d probably encourage him toward four ends (and I’m not picking on him, just addressing the stream of thought that has evidently influenced him):

1. Be careful about labeling someone a pre-Christian, which seems to be the end result of this kind of thinking. If I were a passionate Muslim or an atheistic humanitarian, I think I might be offended or annoyed if someone told me I was moving toward Christ. So don’t disrespect a person of another faith by essentially calling them a pre-Christian. The message sent to another person seems to be: “your traditions, customs, experiences, culture, and opinions are inferior to mine, and you are really on the path toward (or away from) my Christian faith.” You can try to distinguish between Christ and Christianity, but I think others will link the two together. It just seems like such an approach does more damage than good, as much as we may believe in the goodness and legitimacy of our message.

2. When we talk about a “Christian,” I think we should be talking about someone who has consciously chosen to follow Jesus. A Christian believes Christ is Lord, King, Victor, Savior of the world and is attempting to redefine their thrust/life story/agenda/purpose/lifestyle in light of this reality. (I know Christians have varying degrees of success in staying true to and living out their beliefs, and I know some might define “Christian” differently than this…but I think this is the general gist). A Christian is not someone who reminds you of Jesus (Gandhi reminds me of Jesus). And I think it’s logically and theologically safe to assume not all people will become Christians, in this life at least. (Yes, loaded statement. Also, I differentiate between the term “Christian” and those who will ultimately be redeemed and restored by God—though I’m not commenting here on whether or not there’s a practical difference. I suppose if you want to talk about who God will ultimately “save,” then I think the moving toward vs. moving away, “centered sets vs. bounded sets” conversation has a place.)

3. Don’t be afraid of labels. I don’t think in-group and out-group classifications are necessarily an evil, unless they are used in way to declare one’s superiority or as a means of the in-group oppressing or unlovingly excluding the out-group. I think eliminating such classifications might be a path to uniformity and sameness, not unity. I think unity is better fostered not through conformity and the erasing of distinctives but by learning to value differences and the way that this plurality reveals the glory of God. It’s okay for you to be something I’m not as long as we can respect one another. Perhaps our common humanity is found not in our sameness but in the way we all “commonly” reveal the glory of God in our diversity. Labeling someone a Christian (or any religion for that matter) just strikes me as a reasonable way of understanding another person, clarifying to at least a minimal degree what they are and aren't. If someone says they are a Christian, I’ll take them at their word. If they say they aren’t, then they aren’t, I guess.

4. Perhaps apply this line of thinking to the spiritual formation and pastoring of Christians. It might be helpful to be able to discern how one’s particular habits or actions are helpful or harmful in their walk with Christ, pushing them away from living in obedience to and unity with God. If someone is moving away from or toward Christ in a particular area, knowing this can be helpful in discipling them, rather than assuming everyone is sufficiently “ministered to” because they have made the leap of faith to being Christian. Becoming a Christian is more like a beginning, not an end.

Okay, enough about that. :) Feel free to comment if you have an insight on the matter I may have missed. I feel like maybe I'm coming at the whole issue a little too narrowly.

• Evergreen is beautiful, especially right now. It’s surrounded by forest, and while the trees are mostly evergreen, closer to campus are a wide array of changing colors and falling leaves. One of the highlights of my day is walking from my car to my office…it’s so fresh and gorgeous.

• Evergreen people look about how you imagine they’d look…a high percentage of beards, dreads, piercings, and protest T-shirts. I love it!

I’ve been talking a lot about Evergreen, but haven’t yet mentioned the international students with whom I work. But I’ll save my ESL student snapshots for another post…

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Last Sunday

I’m celebrating something kind of small, but significant. Though since I’m celebrating, I guess I don’t actually believe it to be a small thing. I am encouraged to see that in a small way, and with what is at this point a very small church community, the philosophy that Dan and I share as co-pastors of TCC continues to take shape.

Last Sunday morning, instead of meeting for worship, twelve of us TCCers hosted a free pancake feed for the homeless who generally hang around downtown Olympia. We met early in the morning, made a bunch of pancakes and bacon, picked up coffee donated from a local coffee shop, and headed downtown. Reid, the originator of the idea, and I, drove around town handing out flyers. Later, Reid and I delivered pre-prepared plates of food to anyone we could see that looked like they might benefit from a hot meal.

Here’s a snippet of an email I sent out to our church community mid-week last week, in which I attempted to articulate the vision of ministry and Christian community that drove how we went about this ministry:

We believe that Christian ministry happens best when the entire body is serving out of their passions and giftings. God has wired us all differently, giving us gifts that can be used for his glory and for the good of the world. One resource we use for understanding such "gifts" are the spiritual gifts talked about in the New Testament. Though there are many great ways to understand and talk about our unique passions, interests, strengths, giftedness, what we're "good at," we believe identifying our spiritual gifts is essential in understanding how we should minister as individuals and a body.

Reid has come to recognize a gift of mercy within himself, and is manifesting this gift in his desire to serve the homeless of Olympia. But we are not simply a collection of individual ministers; rather, we are community, a unit, a whole. In other words, Reid needs us to assist us in his ministry. But we don't want to simply all volunteer to do whatever he needs us to do to assist him. We would much rather people were involved in a way that reflects their gifts.

One of the beauties of approaching ministry in this way is the creativity encouraged among all involved in the church. Anyone can throw out an idea for ministry, and as a community we can rally around you and support you and make your idea a reality. It should be said that we recognize there are a variety of needs in any one ministry, and we all tend to be willing to step in and fill a need. There will be times for that, probably even this Sunday. But our hope as leaders is that people would be moved to serve in the area of their gifting first; we can fill in the holes later.

A few things to add and clarify. First, I’ve long been a strong advocate of self-awareness and understanding your giftedness and areas of strength (and weakness). I think the individual who recognizes how he or she is wired and seeks opportunities and roles and experiences where those strengths or gifts or passions can be expressed and utilized will simply be more happy, more fulfilled. I also think others around you benefit when you are living true to your design. I have not historically tended to lean heavily on Paul’s (and Peter’s) understanding of spiritual gifts as a resource for this, though Dan has helped me come to appreciate the value and significance of this resource.

But I think one key, whether a person finds the New Testament’s list of gifts sufficient or lacking as a means of identifying how God has gifted us, is to recognize the emphasis on community. I have seen more and more in recent years the ways my Christian faith has been a bit more individualistic than it should be. While I will never discount the necessity of “personal” faith, I have found that a little too much of the faith experience has been about my faith, my salvation, my ministry, my relationship with God…as opposed to our faith, our salvation, our ministry, our relationship with God as a church (and as a world).

I have some opinions about why this matters in different aspects of our faith, but relevant to the topic: I saw this weekend the beauty of a person who recognized a call and a passion, was encouraged and prodded by his church community to pursue it, and was supported by a group of people who all chipped in, mostly in ways that were true to their own gifts and strengths as well.

I think that sadly, some churches have a system in place that doesn’t seem to encourage such creativity, spontaneity, and initiative among its church members. Rather, there are existing areas of ministry (greeters, worship team/choir, children’s ministry, stacking chairs, etc.) that people are then funneled into based on the needs of the church. I suppose when your church is large in size, it’s easier to use this approach, as there are many needs. A small church certainly has this luxury, and I’m trying to savor that while we are a “small” church.

But that said, it still seems a shame to me that a lot of people in larger churches are not involved in ministries that allow them to serve others by honoring the way God has designed them. There are certainly a lot of really, really good and gracious people who are willing to help out wherever there is a need. I admire these people. I think Paul even identifies a gift of “helps” in one of his letters, so some people might really be wired this way. But does everybody really have this gift? Should every Christian simply be doing what is needed by their church to keep the ministries of the church going, or should there be more room made for people who have a God-given ministry in their heart and mind that want to manifest this is in a practical way that really benefits others, whether inside or outside the church community?

I obviously believe in the latter, which is why Dan and I are trying to foster this kind of church culture where church members know that the primary ministry of the church does not rest on church staff but on the church community, who Christ has called to be salt and light and hope and love to the world. And when people are inspired to honor God with what God has given them, the impact of the community's ministry is enhanced. I believe the church's corporate witness is stronger when it's full of self-giving, inspired, collaborating, and supportive individuals, operating as a body rather than disconnected individual parts.

Anyway, to come back down from the philosophical and back to the practical—Sunday morning was beautiful. It was simple, which I want to stress. This was not a grand project, and we had no illusions that this endeavor to provide a meal was going to transform Olympia. What felt great about it was that we were doing our part, and doing it in a way that “fit” us. Being a presence right now in Olympia means being a small presence, being ambitious for living faithfully to God’s call, not ambitious for a flashy, far-reaching, impactful ministry. I’m not saying God can’t take us there as a church; I just don’t think that’s my/our concern.

There are several important things I observed on Sunday that I think are still stewing in me as I explore where to go from here, aside from the manifestation of the philosophy we are trying to foster as a community.

More obviously, I observed several hungry men and women get a good meal, no strings attached. I was touched by how generally warm and friendly most of these homeless people were, as opposed to cold and hardhearted. It was reinforced for me how “stuck” homeless people are in their lifestyle (Dan and I are trying to help a man get the proper ID so he can apply for jobs…apparently this is a common problem among homeless, one that can make changing one’s lifestyle a bit more of a challenge than we’d assume).

For our church, I was struck by the unique contribution of every individual. There was a moment where three of us from TCC were all listening to a homeless man talk about struggles with depression, and all of us seemed to be responding in different ways. I was pouring my efforts into being sympathetic, not trying to give advice as much as show compassion. Linda drew a picture for the man that emphasized his belovedness and worth. Jeff prayed a beautiful prayer for him. I don’t think I would have acted as Jeff or Linda did in that moment, because it didn’t really fit me. But while our styles were different, I think, in retrospect, that our efforts combined made at least a small impact on this man. He may not remember our words, but hopefully remembers the glimpse of Christ he caught in us, all showing this Christ to him in slightly different (hopefully) God-guided ways.

While I wouldn’t want to be homeless myself, I was struck by the freedom from a lot of the pursuits and “gods” those with wealth possess that homeless people are consequently forced to be a bit more detached from because they are, in ways, living very simply (there is also a lot of bondage in homelessness…I just hadn’t ever considered the potential freedom some may experience).

I was struck deeply by our obvious call to care for those with little and address the crisis of poverty in our nation and around the world. Capitalism, though I’m grateful for the life it’s enabled me to live, hurts a lot of people (I’m not a commie, I swear), and can maybe encourage a false sense of righteousness. After all—have I really created for myself the life I’m now living, or am I living this life simply because of when I was born, where I was born, who I was born to, what community I grew up in, the people who formed my thinking and interests, etc.?

Or more to the point, is it simply blind chance that I’m not homeless and that guy I passed on the street is? Is he responsible for his homelessness because we are all personally responsible for our choices and that’s part of liberty and being human, or is he the victim of a much longer, unfortunate history of circumstances that preceded him and brought him to where he is now?

I’m asking questions that are over my head, I think. And I’m not suggesting a course of political action that will fix this problem, nor do I think anyone should feel guilty because they have money. My point is really that homeless people deserve to be seen as humans, deserve respect, deserve compassion, deserve to not be judged, and deserve to let their condition force us to wrestle with the way things are, and what we as Christians can do to help. My other point is that life is a gift.

My theology doesn’t really lead me to believe that the Church will ever really eradicate such widespread evils and tragedies as poverty completely (feel free to disagree/push back…I’d love to dialogue). I think that will take a supra-historical act of God. But I do think we have a wonderful opportunity to at least make a “dent” in it, and in so doing bring the love and compassion and hope of God to people, reminding them that they are not alone, and that God will one day bring justice and peace to the world.

I pray that TCC might continue in these very simple, humble ministries and in so doing be a source of light, love, and hope. We won’t ever play the part of God, but we can certainly remind people that God is trustworthy and good by the causes for which we advocate, the action we take, and the holy lives we live.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Flavored Coffee: Smell > Taste

I love coffee and drink a lot of it. I very much like the taste of coffee. But what I love even more than the taste of coffee (and more than the pick-me up of coffee, and even more than the way it keeps me from getting mid-day headaches) is the smell of it. There's nothing like being in a coffee shop and catching a wave of fresh espresso in the air.

I recognize the slight superiority of the smell of coffee over the taste. But I'm not saddened by it. I accept it. What does disappoint me however, is how inferior the taste of flavored coffee is to the smell of it. When I walk down the bulk coffee section of Top Foods or Safeway and catch the scent of all the varieties of flavored coffee they have—hazelnut, chocolate, French vanilla, caramel, etc—I experience (if you’ll allow me some slight hyperbole) a little slice of heaven.

But I don't fall for the allure of the scent anymore, and usually don't bother buying flavored coffee, because I'm always disappointed by it. If you serve me flavored coffee, I'll drink it and enjoy it. I'm not completely rejecting it. I just lament the fact that it's such a great drop-off from smell to taste when it comes to flavored coffee.

I guess I've come to treat the coffee aisle much like I do the scented candle section of stores—a good source of free, momentary entertainment and pleasure, but not something I will invest more than a few moments in. Unless there's a sale on cheap candles, in which case I might buy one. But I won't consume it. Just burn it. And smell it whenever I desire, because it's in my home.

That's all I have to say at the moment. I'll likely a post a much less quirky, more lengthy and heartfelt blog in the coming days...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Some September Snapshots

I thought I’d give some snapshots of some of the standout moments of life of late. I’m in such an exciting season of so many beginnings. I’ve only been married for just under seven weeks, and I’ve moved into a bi-vocational situation, not only co-pastoring this church plant but now working part-time as an ESL teacher to international students at Evergreen State College.

The happenings of late and the way this season has taken shape for both Joann and I—both now involved in jobs that allow us to do what we love—have been a huge gift to me. I say a “gift” because I’m trying to receive the good things in my life as such.

Some snapshots…

• Trinity Community Church continues its “becoming.” We’ve met for Bible study three times and had our first Sunday gathering this past weekend, with fifteen of us gathered for worship, prayer, sharing, and lunch. As each week goes by, the vision the three of us pastors have continues to become reality. The Sunday experience felt very intimate, organic, relaxed, and holy, as I think we all savored and were moved by the beauty of people gathering to remember our identity and to celebrate and honor the One who has given us that identity. The gathering felt highly participatory and not leader-focused, which I hope and believe will continue.

• One of our hopes as leaders is that our church would be a continual presence of light and hope in Olympia, in simple ways that are within our reach. We’re still trying to find where those regular “outlets” will be for us, though we also want to honor the spontaneity and creativity and initiative of our members, who may have a specific way they want to do some good in our city. I’m excited that this church culture is already emerging, as we have a member leading our church’s second pancake feed for homeless in one of the downtown parks in a few days. It’s a desire he’s had for some time, and he seemed to just need an encouraging push from the church community. So he’s going for it. I feel like this captures the active- and mission-minded culture we hope to see emerge in our small community.

• I spent several hours the week before last watching the Twilight series. Joann loves the books and movies, and has been waiting for me to come around and watch them with her. Joann is getting good at not saying “points” instead of “runs” when referencing the score of a baseball game. Point: we’re learning how to be good spouses to one another.

• As I have to fight the depression that comes with watching a historically bad offense continue to show few signs of life, I simultaneously am thankful that I’m privileged to “watch” (MLB Gameday) one of the greatest pitchers in the game every five days. And I hope that Cy Young voters can look past mostly irrelevant stats like W-L record and give Felix his due credit this year.

• I’ve been in observations this week for the new ESL job I mentioned above, and have had my appetite whetted for the exciting and thoughtful interactions that I’m sure lie ahead with my students. Today I was in a classroom that had a mix of Taiwanese, Saudi, and Venezuelan students, and watched a Venezuelan girl and Saudi guy attempt to Salsa together as class was winding down. That’s the Kingdom of God right there—the Peaceable Kingdom, Paradise, a glimpse of what I believe to be life-as-it-could-be-and-ultimately-will-be.

• I got to mediate an interesting disagreement between two Muslims earlier this week while I was observing a class. The teacher was leading a discussion on horoscopes, the main point of which was to expand the students’ vocabulary of personality descriptors. One guy in the class refused to participate because he didn’t believe in the legitimacy of horoscopes and felt that as a Muslim he could not participate. Another Muslim girl didn’t see the big deal and told her classmate that she didn’t embrace them as truth but still could do the lesson. They seemed to be talking past each other, so I stepped in and tried to state back to each student what they were saying, trying to turn the conversation into more of a dialogue than an argument. The guy eventually decided he could participate, finding value in the language learning aspect of the exercise, and I think realizing he could discuss an ideology he didn’t embrace as his own without abandoning his loyalty to his own faith. I don’t know that there is a role I love to play to more in others’ lives than this—developing others’ ability to learn from, welcome, receive, and value what is “other” to them, be it a person or an idea. I’m working on that same challenge myself.

• I’ve really enjoyed my fellow faculty at the international school, and have been pleasantly surprised by the level of intrigue in our church plant. A couple conversations especially stand out where I’ve had the opportunity to not only affirm the importance of Christ in my life but also talk about TCC, to which some have responded with interest. The shared leadership of our church seems to be one thing that really intrigues people. I also find people are intrigued by the aspects of faith that seem to really excite me, such as being a source of reconciliation and healing between people and people groups who are in conflict. One woman in particular who seems to have a non-Christian spirituality and hasn’t been to a church (in a while or ever, not sure) has shown serious interest in being updated on our ministry and possibly visiting us some week, repeatedly affirming various aspects of what we’re attempting as a church.

• My Grandma, who is thrilled beyond belief that I’m now married, asked me yesterday if I wanted some advice on sex. I politely declined.

• I walked across Evergreen State College the other day with my lunch in a plastic Safeway bag. I felt embarrassed the entire time, fearful that everyone around me was either judging me or pitying me. Evergreen has a national reputation for being eco-friendly or “eco-cool” as I read somewhere. I made a point to not repeat this mistake the next day, bringing a reusable bag.

• I’ve been extending the distance of my runs lately, pushing myself a bit more, including a 12-mile run recently, and am most likely going to sign up for the Olympia marathon in May. I’ve been considering a marathon for a couple years now, and am ready to take the plunge. Training is extensive, but I think the endeavor will be a worthwhile disciplining of not only my physical life but also my emotional, mental, and spiritual life.

• I got to speak Chinese yesterday! I am a bit amused at how genuinely excited it made me feel and still feel. I really do miss being in China a lot—miss the lifestyle, the culture, and my dear, dear friends. It’s nice to feel like the experience continues through such encounters with my Chinese students here at Evergreen.

• Although, staying in touch via email with my student friends from Xiaogan does yield some great quotable lines. Here are some about Joann and I:
  • “You are definitely "A Doomed Couple"(i do not know whether i use it correctly, haha...) I admire you two so much.”
  • “Say ‘hi’ for me to your wife, please. Wish you have a baby tomorrow.... hehe.”
  • “Your honeymoon was very funny? You did what? :) Tell me something....Haha.”

• A Hauerwas thought that has challenged me this week in my own life and in how I understand some of the goals of church leadership: “Peacemaking as a virtue is an act of imagination built on long habits of the resolution of differences. The great problem in the world is that our imagination has been stilled, since it has not made a practice of confronting wrongs so that violence might be avoided. In truth, we must say that the church has too often failed the world by its failure to witness in our own life the kind of conflict necessary to be a community of peace. Without an example of a peacemaking community, the world has no alternative but to use violence as the means to settle disputes.”

• It’s amazing how long the smell of garlic smells with you. I overloaded some pasta sauce with chopped-up garlic on Tuesday evening, and I could still smell it today at work. I have a sensitive nose, so I doubt anyone else noticed it. I hope no one else noticed it. I’m new there, and don’t want to be unfairly branded “Garlic Guy” in the first week.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Am I violent?

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few days about violence and its subtle manifestations. When I begin to see something, have that “aha” moment and begin to gain clarity about something, it can be both energizing and convicting. “The truth will set you free.” Agreed…gaining a clearer understanding of “how things really are” and seeing my self-deceptions crumble can be a kind of freedom.

But encounters with truth usually come with a call—a call to change, to make adjustments, to repent, to humbly admit my picture of truth was inadequate and that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Discovery—of self and of truth—is like that for me at least: it kind of astonishes for a while, then makes me realize that if I’m to have integrity I must change in light of such an encounter.

We use metaphors to helps us articulate the human predicament and what can be done or needs to be done about it. We are broken, and need to be fixed. We are sick, and need to be healed. We are divided and need to be united. We are lost, and need to be found. We are dying, and need to be saved. All these are true and useful, and illuminate different aspects of our condition.

But I think the way of articulating our condition that has been at the forefront of my mind lately is violence. Humans are violent and have violence done on them, and need to find peace—as individuals and as a global community. I think this has traditionally been a less helpful metaphor for me, mainly because I’ve failed to identify with it. Broken yes, lost, yes…but violent? I don’t really think of myself as violent. Football didn’t work out so well for me as a teenager (though golf did).

But I’ve begun to reconsider this self-assessment. One aid in this have been writers like Stanley Hauerwas, who emphasizes in his writing the centrality of nonviolence to Jesus’ life and ministry—his nonviolent approach toward making the will of God known, his nonviolent political methods, and his nonviolent way of interacting with various kinds of people.

Another source was last week’s uproar surrounding pastor Terry Jones and his intentions to burn copies of the Quran. Thankfully and movingly, a great deal of interfaith conversation began to happen and pleas were made from Christians and Muslims (and I’m sure others) to cancel his plans. Jones changed his mind. But the situation underscored how naturally we respond to what we don’t understand and what is “other” with fear and violence rather than a hospitable, curious, and peaceful spirit.

While Jesus calls us to love our enemies, it seems different followers of Jesus, to different extents, qualify what love means. We define love in ways that allow us to feel like we’re being obedient to God while in practice doing things that don’t really resemble what we intuitively know to be loving.

Thus people like Jones make the mistake of assuming that dealing with others who are not like-minded should be done with a violent, confrontational spirit. (I do think Jones should be extended compassion and forgiveness, even if he only reluctantly changed his plans; rather than labeling him a villain, it’s probably more helpful for all to see him as misguided and in need of grace and an encounter with the truly radical love of God for all people.)

And I think this is the case—that we often deal with others with a bit of violent spirit, a spirit that perhaps comes from a place of fear. Hauerwas writes: “This love that is characteristic of God’s kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people—a people who have learned not to fear one another. For love is the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other. But to see the other as other is frightening, because to the extent others are other they challenge my way of being. Only when my self—my character—has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.” (The Hauerwas Reader, 137)

The Western world is increasingly aware of the foibles of the colonial attitudes that have generally marked the ways powerful nations have historically (and presently?) interacted with others. The colonial spirit looks out for its own interests, seeking to Jabez-ify itself (can I say that?) by advancing its own interests and values while paying far less attention to the interests and values of the advanced-upon. When a powerful nation wants something it often (always? need to read more history…) uses violent or coercive methods to obtain what it seeks. Peaceful and nonviolent methods are not usually our go-to, as other nations can be perceived as threats, either because they too are looking out for their own interests, or simply because they are not “us” and thus pose a threat to our own way of life.

Could it be said that individuals possess this same colonial spirit in our interactions with others? I think so. Others can pose a challenge to our “way of being,” as Hauerwas says. We fear others because they pose a challenge to our ideas and habits. I think this feeling of challenge happens in different ways. It can happen on an ideological level: if others hold fervently to their beliefs about what is true and good and right, and such beliefs differ from our own, we might be wrong. And the possibility of being wrong makes us feel anxious, out of control.

It does me, at least. Challenges to my understanding of God and life and ethics and people can be scary because it means I’m not as in control and in-the-know as I thought I was. Which I think can often lead people to (irrationally) assume they’re right about nothing, or right about everything.

So we fear others who seem convinced of their truth. We fear Muslims. We fear homosexuals. We fear atheists. We fear Mormons. We fear people whose very existence or beliefs pose a threat to our world, our views. And the result is that we often then shut down any possibility of real dialogue and partnership and relationship with these people because we won’t listen to them, won’t give any credit to their opinions. We argue, defending with all our might our point of view, not really respecting what others have to say but seeking only to advance our views that we’re convinced are 100% true and in no need of re-thinking and adjustment.

I think this spirit is violent. It does not create peace, nor unity, nor reflect the understanding and hospitable spirit of Jesus. Rather, it excludes, and reacts to others like a violent animal, protecting its territory. But it’s not just about the beliefs and ideas we share with the communities we are a part of. I think we act violently toward others in ways that are not always so overt.

This is what has really hit home with me. I recently watched the movie “To End All Wars,” which I’d never even heard of until very recently. Some of TCC (our fledgling church) gathered last weekend to watch and discuss the movie. It was a profound look at life in a POW camp during WWII, and the transformation of the men in this camp.

The movie gave several moving portraits of men choosing nonviolence, forgiveness, and sacrifice. And it revealed so clearly the ultimate ineffectiveness of violence, while also underscoring the epic challenge it had to have been for Jesus to be completely obedient to God and not harm those who were harming him.

As my friends and movie-watchers and I discussed, pacifism is an irrational viewpoint. To respond to violence and aggression by not repaying that violence with equivalent or greater violence, but by “turning the other cheek” and allowing our oppressors the opportunity to further harm us can sound foolish at times.

People who are much smarter and more articulate than I can find easy arguments to seemingly invalidate a general pacifist stance. There’s the classic: “If someone is about to harm your child, wouldn’t you use violence to prevent it?” I think I’ve walked pretty far down the pacifist road, but not because I think it’s easy. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t contradict a hard pacifist stance in a situation like this. I guess don’t really know what I’d do; I don’t have kids.

But I don’t think these unique situations discredit a general nonviolent response to violence. Jesus didn’t strike back against his oppressors. Is this because God gave Jesus a unique mission that involved letting people harm him to his death, a mission not intended to be replicated by his followers? Or do we have in Jesus a portrait of how to confront violence?

It would help I guess if the gospel writers had recorded an instance of someone striking Jesus’ mother, to see how he would have responded. Then again, he did find a solution to those who nearly stoned an adulterous woman, intervening with a creative, nonviolent solution, rather than throwing rocks himself at the violent accusers.

But I’ve digressed from the heart of my point. I do think using nonviolence as a general policy of dealing with other nations is legitimate, though I recognize the challenges and dilemmas this creates. But I don’t know how anything but nonviolence and non-retaliation can end the cycle of violence, in the world and in our more personal relationships.

I believe nonviolence is an act of trust and faith and obedience—it is a way of leaving judgment in God’s hands, and giving others a glimpse of God’s true Kingdom where peace and love reign instead of conflict and aggression. I’d also suggest it requires a strong eschatology that believes God will ultimately eradicate evil and its effects and that is not our job to use violence as a means of bringing about good in the world. In this way Christians should be people of hope—a hope that allows the future to sustain and empower us in the present.

But what has hit home for me is the ways I need to be more of a pacifist in my own mind and heart. For I think I too am a “colonizer”—threatened by others who challenge me, defensive and reactive when I feel I’ve been challenged or exposed in some way. If I’ve been shown to have made a mistake, or shown to be inadequate in some way, my instinctive response is often more violent than nonviolent. I can begin to resent others. Or if someone appears in the wrong or foolish, I will point out their fault to assert my own correctness or superiority.

This is violent. It pushes people away. It is not loving. It fails to appreciate the other. It reflects a fear that I’m the one who might need to change, that this illusion of my own goodness I believe in is crumbling and that I must act out with violence toward others to keep my world intact.

Sometimes this violence comes out in words. Sometimes it comes out in more passive-aggressive ways like silence. My opinions about someone can become negative, which ultimately affects how I treat them. My fear of finding that I’m human and being humbled and shown to be less than I want others to perceive me as prompts me to violently defend myself.

We have great power to harm others. Our violence can happen in such subtle ways. Choosing to respond nonviolently is hard. I think sometimes it means letting someone say something we think is “stupid” and just letting it sit. Sometimes it means not pointing out others' faults when we’re tempted to do so. Sometimes it means valuing someone’s critique of us rather than writing it off, and welcoming their feedback.

Sometimes it means patiently enduring mockery. Sometimes it means not holding someone’s past mistakes against them, choosing to essentially not remember what they’ve done (rather than “cautiously” remembering how someone has hurt us, which maybe is a protective instinct but can sour our attitude toward and treatment of another).

I think we need to consider the ways we need to be freed from violence. And it is bondage—we can be caught up in a vicious cycle of repaying evil for evil or of anxiously trying to protect the “territory” that is our selves, our views, our priorities, our values from those who would threaten to challenge us and possibly change us or require us to change, rather than living with a more humble, hospitable, non-anxious, and free spirit.

I desire to be so rooted in the love and forgiveness of God that I can deal with other people nonviolently—accepting them and the truth of their words rather than resisting, allowing myself to appreciate others as brother and sisters, as partners, rather than as enemies. And I desire to see people who act in violent ways—overt and subtle—as not simply bad people, but as people who are broken, lacking, hurting, missing something, and who only know fearful, protective, and harmful violence as a means of coping with their condition.

I desire to pray for my enemies. And I desire to deal with my own violent heart and find peace and forgiveness, that I might nonviolently extend the love that has been poured out on me to others, not with a coercive but a gentle spirit.