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

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...