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

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Drawing: Why Pa Pham Wasn’t Paying Attention in Class

I had to share this bittersweet piece of art with a wider audience. Sam (Pa Pham), a Vietnamese student, was evidently not all that engaged in the lesson during her last day in class. Though, she seemed like it, so maybe it’s more generous to assume she is just an excellent multi-tasker. I can’t relate, I guess; when I try to multi-task I do stupid stuff like slice open my finger.

The drawing below (the second picture is a zoomed-in version of part of the larger) contains the faces of the Fall C-1 (Pre-Advanced) English class. There’s really no such thing as a “Fall C-1” class, given the way the system works at EF Olympia. Students arrive and depart frequently, creating a substantial amount of turnover in class organization. Teachers are generally not with a specific group for long.

But this particular group was intact for several weeks, until one-by-one they started leaving, perhaps heading off to an American university or back to their home country to study or work. Of the twelve students portrayed here, only four remain at our school today.

Isn't this the sweetest? No, probably not…many of you probably have baby pictures you think are sweeter. Everybody things pictures of their baby are the sweetest. Well these students—and I don’t mean to patronize any of you EF students who visit this blog, many of whom are my age or maybe older—are my “babies.” In my classes I feel responsible not only to offer a better grasp of what verbs most commonly pair with infinitives and which are better suited to gerunds; I feel responsible for their well-being and so attempt to be attentive, supportive, respectful, and compassionate.

Goodbyes are hard. Their coming often feels abrupt, without warning, and their happening often feels a bit lacking, unsatisfying, like they should be more cinematic or complete.

Life at EF involves a great deal of change, of coming and going, and demands flexibility from teachers and students. From my time here and from previous goodbyes from the many countries I’ve visited, I think I'm improving in my ability to accept the reality of this flux...while also gaining an ever-greater gratitude for the gift of remembering.

My dear, sweet C-1 students, from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Turkey, Norway, Germany, Columbia, and Brazil: I hope you seek, as I have been seeking, to cultivate the virtue of remembrance. To a certain extent, I suspect that my memories are as real and present as those very real and present things which can be touched.

In my own faith tradition, remembering is essential. Remembering grounds me in what I believe to be the great narrative of God and humankind. It is in remembering that I am centered, empowered, given direction and given hope.

And through remembering the people and communities with whom my life has intersected, I am given an extraordinary sense of joy. In the end, it is these people and my experiences with these people that clarify for me whether or not I'm enjoying life to the full, more than any personal ambitions and interests I may have. To open oneself to others in love may be to open oneself to suffering; but suffering, too, has meaning.

May all of you, and myself, while recognizing the necessity of letting go and the inevitability of losing the immediacy of physical presence...may we nonetheless make the effort to bring to consciousness from time to time the people whose paths have crossed our own, people who may have shaped our identity in some small way and perhaps enhanced our enjoyment of life in some small way as well.

And may you not hesitate to spy on one another through facebook. J

Thanks, Sam, for capturing so wonderfully the special community that formed through several weeks together. There are many such communities at EF Olympia, I'm sure. But I’m honored to have been a part of this particular one.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

When Sweet Potatoes Force You to Slow Down

Sometimes I move too quickly, I think. I enter into on-a-mission mode, trying to be as efficient with my time as possible, cramming a lot into a little. It comes from a good place, maybe—I do want to manage my time well, after all.

But sometimes tunnel vision takes over, and my current pace becomes the last word, and any person or persons who would deter me from fulfilling my task at my current pace become enemies. The driver who’s clearly talking on her phone and thus less aware of the traffic situation; the guy crossing the street at a snail’s pace; the person with poor line or crowd etiquette who is clearly disrupting the flow; even my wife, who just wants to get the milk out of the fridge and intends no malice by entering into the path I’ve apparently determined is my own.

So when God slash the universe slash needless haste slash inevitability decided to slash open my middle finger last week, I guess I should have seen it coming. The rapidly moving vehicle that is me probably needed a flat.

I was cutting sweet potatoes last Tuesday night…we’re on a bit of a SP kick lately. Those suckers are hard to cut! And I still can’t figure out how it happened, but somehow because of an inadequate knife or because I was slicing too quickly, the serrated knife must have slipped...and sliced right into the inner portion of my middle finger.

I ran to the bathroom, trying to both cleanse and bandage the wound before I had to sit down, as I nearly passed out. Shortly after that, I became extremely cold. Several people have since asked me if I have difficulty with blood (assuming my symptoms indicated shock), to which I responded that if I do have a problem with blood, I’m not conscious of it.

Besides the pain and a little bit of fear (is a bandage sufficient, should I be going to the hospital in case stitches are needed, etc.), there was some upside. I had a lot to do that night, or so I felt. I always have something I need to be doing; at least that’s how I tend to operate. I need to be working toward some future goal, need to be preparing for my morning classes well ahead of time, need to be doing something purposeful. But I spent the rest of the evening curled up in a blanket on the couch, my wife attending to me, both of us knowing that remaining still and relaxed was probably the best thing for me. I did nothing; it was lovely.

It has been a bit of a wake-up call. That sounds a bit hyperbolic, so maybe I can soften that by saying it at least got me thinking, made me aware of a very basic, much-needed discipline that I often neglect—slowness. It’s not a Richard Foster/Dallas Willard type of discipline, I don’t believe, though I’m sure there are elements of “slowness” in those other spiritual disciplines.

The wound appears to be healing, though I imagine it will leave a scar. Which is fine with me; scars seem a humbling, clarifying reminder that we’re fragile, delicate, capable of being hurt, limited, and finite.

I have a scar on my lower right leg from falling off wooden stilts in the first grade. I love it; it’s like a tattoo, but a permanent mark that reminds me not simply of a personal value (as a tattoo might) but of the fact that there’s more to my life than the present moment, that I have a whole history, and that I have a future; it keeps me connected to my life narrative, which is important. It’s easy to get shortsighted and assume that things won’t get better or change; or, oppositely, that they haven’t gotten better or changed.

I’ve bandaged my finger in a way that keeps the knuckle from bending (to maximize healing speed…is it contrary to my goal here to want the wound to heal as rapidly as possible?). It’s necessitated a much slower pace; I have to be more deliberate about things I’m doing, like cooking, doing dishes, packing bags, opening doors, etc. I cannot say without grossly exaggerating that it’s opened my eyes to the depths of beauty in every facet of life; but I guess I at least have faith that’s it’s in some way making my life richer, deeper, better.

And it hasn’t been without humor. I tried to give a co-worker a thumbs-up with my left hand earlier this week, but couldn’t bend my bandaged finger correctly and so flipped her off. That story got told and retold a few times that day.

I don’t think moving at a high speed is sinful, evil, ungodly. But I do find that when I get fixated on one thing, other things can get tuned out, including people. When my plans get thwarted, I sometimes suspect that those plans or momentary goals had become a bit of an idol, to put it strongly—something demanding way more of my focus and attention and time than it should.

That can be anything from cutting sweet potatoes in an arbitrarily chosen short amount of time, to how quickly I expect to get through the grocery line, to larger, career-like ambitions that can be quite consuming. My "great" character doesn’t shine as much as I’d like it to when my trajectory is interrupted.

Here’s a fun experiment that you might join me in. Try to catch yourself moving quickly at something and then…deliberately slow down, paying attention to everything that is happening in you, around you, every little detail, every step…everything.

Or if speediness is not your vice…pick up the pace and see how that feels. J For me it’s the “doing” that needs to be restrained; I could use a little more of what Taoists call “wu wei”—literally “not doing.” Or maybe still “doing” it…just in a lower gear. (And surfing the internet in a comfy chair does not qualify as wu wei for me.)

Oh, and we didn’t end up having sweet potatoes that night. We ordered a pizza.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Forming New Traditions

I’m presently sitting in the red chair, which is not where it has been for nearly the entirety of our life in Olympia; it has been relocated to accommodate our Christmas tree.

Rearranging furniture is a pastime developed in my childhood, one that has been somewhat stifled in my marriage, except for the office/second bedroom, where my other half permits me to do pretty much anything I want with the furniture. It’s a nice compromise. But with the acquisition of our second (third?) annual Christmas tree, I was given free rein in the living room.

The red chair sits next to the Christmas tree, facing the fireplace. I’m thinking back to last night and the multisensory satisfaction experienced. I sat reading James Wm. McClendon’s Ethics, roaring fire warming my bare feet, rum and coke to my left and Christmas tree to my right, from which I’d occasionally pick needles and stick them partially in my nostrils, breathing in the evergreen-y goodness. Comprehensively satisfied.

The advent of the Christmas season and the obtaining of our tree has left me thinking again about the meaning of traditions, as I’m sure it does for many. I shared nearly a year ago some of my favorite traditions over the years: “Top Ten Favorite Christmas Traditions." But I’ve also been thinking about the significance of those new traditions being formed.

Theologically speaking, “tradition” is a concept whose depths and importance I did not really understand as a younger Christian. Tradition mostly had negative connotations for me, probably associated with the stubbornness of some who held too tightly to rituals that became idols in themselves, not means of leading one to something deeper...be that connectedness to God, more excellent moral character, fuller enjoyment of life, or deeper unity with others.

But despite what I judge as its misuse, I know how much tradition and/or ritual can be centering, life-giving, life-shaping. The Christian tradition is that—a tradition. At its best, it is a history of individuals and communities attempting to carry on the tradition of Jesus. It’s like a story we retell, but not simply with words but with what we prioritize and value, how we spend our time, the things we do.

And despite the value of spontaneity, creativity, fresh expression, individuality, and attempts at cultural relevancy, there’s a significance to simply doing what’s been done before: looking to “saints” who’ve best embodied what our tradition values, singing songs we know, practicing ancient disciplines, etc.

Perhaps some traditions need to be abandoned over time, either because they’ve lost their usefulness (e.g., a particular way that tithes/offerings are taken on Sunday) or because our understanding has evolved (e.g., women’s capacity for Christian leadership). But other traditions continue to endure, perhaps for their ability to comfort, center, connect, unite, or connect us with the mystery and sublimity of life, with God. They are profound, and also, maybe more simply, are just plain fun.

For Joann and I, depending on your reckoning, this is either our tenth, fourth, third, or second Christmas. She was my “backup date” (I humbly accept your "boo's" here) to a dorm event at George Fox our freshman year, joining me at Zoolights in Portland after my original date bailed (neither of us can still remember who that was…if you’re out there, confess). That event, ten years ago, was in a way our first Christmas together.

Fast forward eight years to 2009 when my then-girlfriend Joann flew to China to spend 2 ½ weeks with me during the Christmas season. Some things were different then—we didn’t share a bed, for one. And I sense some discontinuity between Christmas in a foreign country with my girlfriend and Christmas in the US with my wife. But we did have a small albeit fake tree; we did exchange gifts, and we did watch Charlie Brown and LOTR.

Creating new traditions with Joann has been fun, and I think this year, our second married Christmas together, I’ve begun to sense how tradition is slowly replacing (though not wholly eradicating) novelty—a change I enthusiastically welcome.

I once again, mid-November, permitting the unrestrained playing of Christmas music in the house...a monumental event, mind you. We again went to a Christmas tree farm and thoughtfully chose our Christmas tree, Joann being much more strategic and thoughtful than I (me: "How's this one, it's fine right, good, let's go.") We’ve been surprising each other with holiday Starbucks drinks. Joann again did most of the tree decorating while I only marginally helped, because everybody wins that way.

Like last year, we’ll be spending a couple days around Christmas at the Oregon coast, sandwiched by stays with our respective families. We again found “Candy Cane” tea, a seasonal drink we’ve missed all year, and purchased an ample amount. We again visited the tree lighting ceremony last Friday in Portland, which was fortunately not interrupted this year by a terrorist plot (read “The Few Who Give the Many a Bad Name”). We’ve even added our newest, yearly ornament (obtained in Disneyland this past September) to our tree, adopting the tradition of both our families.

It is a wonderful and unique place I’m at as a still-relatively-newlywed, where I still value and relive my family- and self-created traditions but am also in the process of forming new ones with Joann.

But I do hope that I keep these and any traditions in perspective; I’m not sure I view traditions as ends as much as means. There is comfort in rehearsing again a cherished tradition, like the comfort of crashing onto your favorite chair or couch spot after an exhausting day at work, or the comfort of indulging in a dinner in which cheese is the prominently featured source of nutrition.

Some traditions unite us and focus us, reminding us of our connection to narratives greater than our individual lives: the narrative of our family, our community, our religious tradition, or of the history of humankind. But some traditions inevitably die or must necessarily die, either because they’re no longer helpful or because in the interest of loving our partners or communities, we must sacrifice what we’ve held dear for the sake of something new that will bring life and joy and direction to others. Traditions are not the goal, but they can lead us there, I’d say.

Must return now to the fragrant bliss of needle-picking; maybe I’ll count this as my workout for the day.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


One of the vocabulary words that came up in my English class today was “embody” or “embodiment.” Embodiment, as my fellow native English speakers know, involves making tangible and visible something that is invisible, something which perhaps exists only in the realm of ideas. When something is embodied, it is given a “body”—something which can be touched and seen.

I put a couple students on the spot. I suggested that (student) was a very sweet girl, and gathered support on this point from other students. I told them that if one wanted a concrete picture of what “sweetness” meant, they should simply look at (student). “She is the embodiment of sweetness,” I suggested.

I also suggested that (other student) was a person filled with love—admitting to his classmates in jest that I could be wrong but to just go with it and give him the benefit of the doubt. J “Let’s say (other student) is kind, compassionate, thoughtful, generous, self-sacrificing; if we really wanted to praise him, we might say he is the embodiment of love.” I told them that to understand what love looks like, we should look no further than (other student) for a glimpse of such love.

Now I was being a little overdramatic to make a point. But the concept I was driving at while glorifying two of my students is actually a key concept and reality of my religious faith and thus a very natural thing for me to talk about.

First, I understand Christ to be an embodiment. Jesus is for me the clearest picture of Love that human history has known. I know many of my non-Christian but spiritual and/or religious brothers and sisters would probably not agree with me. But essential to my choice to be a Christian—other than that it’s all I’ve ever known, thanks to my mother raising me in the church and to a religious experience that just sort of “stuck” and has always made sense as the most meaningful way to orient my life—is the fact that when I look at Jesus I see the embodiment of Love.

Love takes on human form, and is made relatable, clear, tangible, and even to an extent imitable in the person of Jesus. If you want to know what real love looks like, from a Christian perspective, you look at the Jesus narrative—birth, life, death, and resurrection, as well as all of his words, inclinations, actions, and promises.

I also think of Jesus as the embodiment of God. Jesus made and makes clearer than any other source what God is really like. I read the Old Testament and can’t help but think that there were some major misconceptions about God. I know many don’t resolve the tension of Old and New Testaments in this manner, preferring to let the Old Testament God be a sort of "God of Wrath" as a way of keeping a sort of "ying and yang" feel to the holistic, Biblical view of God (we’re more Taoist than we realized!).

But I tend to assume, without intending to take anything way from the sacredness of the Old Testament witness to God's relationship with the people of Israel, a bit of human error in their understanding of God, especially considering how violent God seems to be portrayed at times. I’m intrigued with the God of “process theology” (based on Whitehead’s philosophy), a God who changes over time; but I’m not sure God dramatically changed from violent to peace-loving in the span of a few hundred years.

I think perhaps Jesus was a way of God shouting more clearly than ever: “I am first and foremost love, a love that is peaceful and gracious! This is the real me!” Jesus embodies God.

I also think of Jesus as an embodiment of the Kingdom of God. Jesus shared through teaching and demonstration a vision of a world marked by peace, harmony, love, unity, and inclusion, among other things…which has been called "heaven" by some, the "new, coming, future creation" by others, and the “Kingdom” or “reign” of God by still others. It’s something invisible—at least at this point in the human story—that God, through Jesus, made visible.

There are two final, less Jesus-centric ways I think of embodiment in connection with religion—both connected to the ways people embody the person of God, Love, and the Kingdom of God. It seems like “embodiment” is more often used with the most ultimate, supreme, most accurate demonstrations of ideas. McDonald’s is the embodiment of fast-food culture, we might say, more than “Ned’s Burgers” down the street from our house. Ned’s just doesn’t capture the fullness of the concept like McDonald’s does.

Nonetheless, I tend to find embodiment of “the way of God” everywhere around me, even if it's not embodied to the extent it is in Jesus. The more I discover the richness of the spiritual practices and the devoutness of the saints of other religious faiths, the more evident to me that the Christ I’ve come to follow is somehow present in these faiths, even if he is not named as such.

When I think of a devout Hindu’s deep sense of tolerance for all living things or sense of selfless service to all, I see the embodiment of the way of God. When I think of a godly Muslim’s sense of submission to God’s will or sense of humility, I see the way of God. When I think of a serious Buddhist’s mindfulness and attentiveness or desire for right speech, right action, right effort, and so on, I see the way of God. When I see an atheist spill herself for the hungry, poor, or dejected because she instinctively knows this is right and good, I see the way of God.

I also—and here’s the hardest for me to express and not feel a bit sheepish and misguided—look at myself and fellow Christians and see, in theory at least, the embodiment of the way of God. At least that’s how I understand our call, our purpose.

I believe Christ, in recruiting men and women to follow him, was setting up a community that would embody the way of God, would make tangible and visible to people the character of God. Ideally, one should be able to look at the Church and say “wow—what a spectacular glimpse of Love, of God (or however they might name it).”

I feel a bit uncomfortable putting it that way. I worry those who aren't Christians will accuse such claims as self-aggrandizing, insane, or maybe just insensitive. On the other hand, I worry some Christians will accuse such claims as an overestimation of our capabilities and a dismissal of God’s grace to our wretched selves, no matter how much we credit the Spirit of God for helping us more fully embody this “way of God.”

But, despite the inherent challenges in such a view of our Christian identity, I believe it to be true. I want the way of God to be made visible, tangible—embodied—through the way we live, the way we love. Any lesser goal feels a bit like what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace."

I also believe that I’m ready for dessert. I’m going to go grab some of my wife’s chocolate chip cookies, and then go hug her. Both—the sweets and the sweetheart—are the embodiment of wonderfulness. J

A Response to a Response to "Embodiment"

Note: I would have just posted this in the comment section of the above post, but my response wouldn't fit, as anyone who reads on shall soon see. J Here's a link to the original post, with comments: "Embodiment."

Here's my response to an anonymous commenter, whose invitation to dialogue I accepted with some reservation (his/her comments in bold):

To "Scared of Ducks"...I guess, anonymous ye shall remain. J As you probably know, if you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you and I fundamentally disagree about a number of matters. Your opinion is not unique; if I understand your meaning right, your perspective generally aligns with much of conservative evangelicalism, one way of “being Christian.” Though many such Christians might disagree with your conclusions and methods, you for the most part don’t stand alone. J

Because I don’t know you, I don’t know if you are open and searching, or generally settled on what you believe. But if I may push back on a few things you said...

Your open-mindedness is to be commended, for it most certainly comes from a heart that seeks to accept people. And while I agree with your eventual motive, I can’t seem to rectify the fact that God is present in many different faiths. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am The Way, The Truth, and The Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” For me, it seems to stress that Jesus, God, or Christianity is the only way that one can get into Heaven.

When you suggest that God is not present in non-Christian faiths, I hope you recognize that you are going against a long tradition of Christians who acknowledge God’s activity in other religions, such as missionaries who “found God” when they assumed they were bringing God to the “receiving culture.”

Your exclusivism, not surprisingly, makes me uncomfortable. It’s one thing to say people are wrong about God; I’ve been wrong about God. I used to think God made women for my benefit; now I’m absolutely sure that’s not God’s intention. It’s one thing to be particular about Christ as the one who saves; it’s another to discredit the religious experience of millions and say they are not in fact worshipping or being changed by the One, the Creator God, but by figments of their imagination. It just seems irresponsible to say that.

Regarding John 14:6. Forgive me for putting words in your mouth, but, to me, your interpretation suggests you understand the human predicament as being this: all humans are destined toward eternal hell because we are deserving of it for how horrible we are; by consciously articulating the reality that Jesus satisfied God’s need to punish someone for our wrongdoing, we avoid this awful fate. Should one fail to “get it” and say "yes, that's how it is" in this lifetime, one is eternally “screwed.” Because this is your perspective it forms a starting point for how you interpret passages, and thus you assume that John’s version of Jesus’ lengthy sermon suggests that one needs to be aware of Jesus’ significance (aka, confess him as Lord, accept him into your heart) to “go to heaven when you die.”

Ok, but do you know that there are other ways to understand this passage? Here’s a sampling:

1) Jesus is a responding to a specific question, as Thomas densely (in my opinion) asks Jesus about the way to what appears to be God’s future Kingdom, the new creation (not necessarily “heaven” as a place where souls go the minute one dies), to which Jesus essentially responds: “Thomas! It’s me! Look at me! I’m the way!” Jesus is not necessarily making universal pronouncements so that people in the year 2011 will have “a Bible” of theological lessons. He was answering a question, one which he might have answered differently in a different context.

2) In light of Jesus’ preaching on judgment and end times, and the possibility that everyone will one day recognize Jesus as Lord (Phil 2:10-12), I suspect that if one is to really “get” who God is, one will have to admit, even if they were wrong in this life, that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is thus the way to the Father. Some theologians give space for the possibility that this recognition could take place postmortem.

3) Christ, John’s preexistent “logos,” is present in all people, and his way is especially noticeable where the kind of character and actions evident in Jesus are demonstrated. So people who don’t know who Jesus is or have rejected the “Jesus” of preachers and missionaries are actually connected to this Christ. This one especially doesn’t jive with your theology as I understand it, as Jesus acts as more of a ticket to be punched than a means of more fully being united with God right now in this life, not just in the next…am I right?

This brings me to my next topic. God is love, yes, it is also said in the Bible that if one does not know love, they do not know God, because He is love. But I also find that He is so much more than that. He is just, He is grace, and He is holy. Love and justice are not mutually exclusive- as we have experienced from our parents.

God is more than love: I agree. God is both just and loving; I'm fine with that. I’m not sure what you’ve heard me saying here and in other posts about what justice is—you seem to understand God’s justice as punishment for ignorance about God; you might call it punishment for sin or rebellion or whatever, but I don’t think that’s really what you mean.

You would probably say that I’m “going to heaven” because I know Jesus, no matter how wretched of a person I am, whereas Ghandi (or pick your non-Christian saint) is not going to heaven because he wasn’t a Christian. So Ghandi will be punished for not realizing he should have spent more time reading a Bible than fighting injustice. Maybe you wouldn’t say this, but your words, as best as I understand them, point that direction.

Also, what kind of justice did you experience from your parents? My parents were just and used punishment as a means to help me grow, fix me, help me mature; it served a greater, constructive end, not to give me unrelenting consequences for being bad. That kind of restorative justice doesn’t sound like your version of justice.

And in His inherent justness, I can’t believe that He would put everyone in heaven.

So, first I think you should consider other ways of thinking about life in God’s Kingdom and the new creation (or heaven) than a place you "get put.” I might be nitpicking your language choice, but language reveals a lot about our assumptions. First, a thought experiment: what if God did “put” all in heaven? If you get to heaven and realize everyone is in heaven, would that annoy you? Would you think, “wow, I’m not so sure about this God…this doesn’t seem fair!” And why would that feel unfair or unjust, if it did? An innate sense of how justice works? Maybe a sense of entitlement?

If He was to send everyone to heaven, whether they had accepted His Sacrifice or not, that would be unjust and contradictory to the entire reason why Jesus was on the cross. Jesus died to set us free from sin, so that God, in His holiness, could stand to be with us. Because He is so holy, His very nature repulses Him from anything evil. With the Lamb’s death, all wrong-doing ever done and that would ever be done was wiped out—no other method would have accomplished this.

All wrong-doing was wiped out?” Okay, fine, but what does that even mean to you in light of your whole argument? I think what you actually mean is not “with the Lamb’s death” but with your personal acknowledgement of that death, exclusively your sin is overlooked as an obstacle to heaven. Right? You're using a lot of Christian language that I too heard growing up, but in what seems a slightly inconsistent manner. There’s room for paradox and contradiction in the life of faith—there’s plenty of that in Scripture—but I wonder if you've considered all the implications of what you're saying here.

“…contradictory to the entire reason Jesus was on the cross?” Really? Is this the only conclusion to be reached? Maybe coercion is not consistent with God, forcing people to do what they don’t want (though maybe coercion is an act of mercy?); but a Muslim woman who has been faithful with what has been revealed to her, who at the day of judgment sees God and—like the experience many Christians may have, perhaps—has her illusions and misunderstandings about God removed, as the scales fall from her eyes and she experiences the love and greatness of the God she’d experienced all her life, but in a richer and more profound way because now she sees “in full” and no longer “in part” which includes seeing Jesus…would this scenario contradict the reason Jesus was on the cross?

I think Jesus was on the cross partly because powerful people hated him and wanted him dead, but also as a means of reconciling the world to God, as a demonstration of the relentless love of God for people who may want nothing to do with God, as a sign that the way of peace trumps the way of violence, and as a mysterious cosmic defeat of death as the final victor. I also think the cross is incomplete without a focus on the birth, life, and resurrection.

Also, I think I understand the traditional line of argument about God’s holiness and its incompatibility with evil…but…it this really a helpful way to think about God? To me, God, in Jesus and his engagement with “sinners,” was saying that he can stand to be with the worst of people, that he is not repulsed by things that are evil. I don’t think God is repulsed by me, though I’m pretty evil at times; nor do I think Jesus was repulsed by the prostitutes he spent time with. Maybe I’m coming at this from a more pragmatic than philosophical angle like you, but I hope you aren't telling people who aren’t Christian that God is repulsed by them and can’t stand to be with them until they change their minds about God.

It would also be unjust in that those who hadn’t accepted His gift might not have wanted to be with Him, and it would be torture to be in His presence for eternity. Additionally, it would also be unjust if He sent everyone to hell, especially after Jesus died for everyone. So there has to be some sort of middle ground- and that would be acceptance of His Sacrifice.

I don’t really follow you here, I’ll admit…maybe I’m tired and need more coffee. J I get “The Great Divorce” idea of heaven being unpleasant for some…but I don’t really know why your logical conclusion is that a “middle ground” of “acceptance” must be reached.

I do agree that the Church should be the embodiment of love—like Christian couples, or any other Christian. So that when others look at us, they think, “Wow, they seem to me what Jesus might have been like.” But I think that there is a way to be loving, without making excuses and embodying the culture as well.

I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Does “making excuses” and “embodying the culture” mean being less exclusive about where God can be found, or about how exclusive salvation is? I’ve reread your sentence a few times and can’t figure it out…sorry…unless you’re just expressing angst over Christians who are afraid to stand up and say that God hates sin. In which, case, yes, I agree! But let’s call out sins like greed and exclusion and hatred and fear of “the other” as well as the sin of “ignorance about Jesus' significance.”

Also, I believe that our purpose is more than to just embody Christ—as He says in 1 Corinthians 4:16—it’s also to glorify Him through anything and everything we do.

I agree…and our purpose is more than Corinthians 4:16 too…we’ve got lots of ways (and verses) to express our purpose, which is great as articulating our purpose in different ways helps different people think creatively and practically about how to love God or be faithful to God or however you want to put it. I assume 1 Corinthians 4:16 is a helpful verse for you…and good! It’s a great verse and applicable to many aspects of life.

Just my thoughts. :)

Feel free to respond or not respond. I have a feeling some of what I’ve said may sound odd, because I think we’re just coming at things from two very different angles. And sometimes I'm not as clear as I could be. :)

Also, here is some Scripture that might be helpful in thinking further about some of the concerns you’ve raised. Of course, don’t consider them as “nuggets” to be understood on their own…read them in the whole scope of the Scriptural witness: Matthew 25:31-46; John 1:9, 12:31-32; Acts 10:1-25; Phil 2:10-12; 2 Cor 5:19; 2 Peter 3:7-9

And pay attention to experience. I read Scripture, which helps me understand my world, my experience. I also “read” experience, which helps me understand Scripture. It’s a dialectical relationship, a two-way street, two books that inform one another. Biology, psychology, sociology, literary criticism, and conversations with real people—these are not things to be feared but embraced as ways God reveals Truth. They can be used when reading Scripture and don't need to be seen as enemies.

Hope this helps…I write not “to win” but to encourage creative thinking about theology and the search for Truth. Sometimes such a search can be painful; my choice of quote under the heading of my blog (Volf) is intentional.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's the Goal? Um, uh, well, I, um...

Working with non-native English speakers has many perks, one of which is being in a quotable misspeak factory. You can't blame students for slips; that’s part of the learning process. I emphasize to students that, in the interest of language learning, it’s more important to be outspoken and make mistakes than to remain silent.

My recent favorite was actually a written comment from a student, expressing his gratitude to me: “You are the kind of person who I would love to do.” The mistake is of course one of do versus be; he wasn’t actually coming on to me, but trying to show his admiration for my character, lifestyle, job, and family, which I gathered. It was very sweet. But now his comment is forever etched in my mind, both for its sincerity and its comedy.

But not all resonating comments are light. I recently was approached after one of my lower-level classes by a student who didn’t seem all that engaged in the lesson that day. With limited English, he asked me, “what was the goal?” He went on to express confusion about the purpose of the lesson, what objectives I had in designing it the way I did. He felt like he just spent over an hour doing an activity for which there was no discernable goal, and was clearly disappointed (though kind about it).

Now, to be fair, one can’t always please every student. Some students are more vocal about their displeasure than others. And not all students appreciate the same kinds of activities, emphases, lessons, etc. But students rarely challenge me in this way. My first response was to explain what value the lesson possessed, the ways I observed learning happening in the classroom, what my method for teaching was.

But—he was absolutely right. He caught me. I had no real thought-out goal. Typically my lessons involve one or several goals, helpful in ensuring that students are getting the most out of the lesson. Sometimes my goals are less structured and more general, such as in a more organic lesson where I spend more time responding to student questions and curiosities that arise from the topic than presenting detailed requirements or expectations.

But I believe even in these more fluid classes that at least knowing why I’m doing what I’m doing is important. But I failed that day, and he rightly called me on it. I felt the defensiveness stir in me, which I may have successfully hidden from him (though language learners can be pretty intuitive and can often see through my words). In the end, I felt at peace with my response to him. But the fact that the question lingered in my mind the rest of the day and week tells me that both the shock and sincerity of the challenge as well as the truth of his words carried some weight.

This student was sensitive to the necessity of goal-setting. And I am too, I think, generally. This particular lesson was prepared fairly haphazardly. Learning did take place, I’m sure. But that’s not the point. Even if I was successful in some ways, I failed to embody an important personal value—knowing my goal, my telos, my purpose, my end—in a very particular situation. This is of course a key element in virtue ethics, on which I’ve shared a bit in recent posts: possessing a clear vision of where one is headed or what one is aiming for that gives direction to how one should live and be and function now.

My mind goes to the Church as well, notably how our Christian goal is understood—by Christians and non-Christians alike. Part of our denominational plurality—as well as diversity in worship style, doctrine, ministries of the church, and “feel” or “culture” of various churches that aren’t necessarily linked to denominational differences—arguably means a plurality of goals as well.

That is, if I asked several Christians what the goal of the Church is, as well as their personal Christian goal, I’m sure that despite some overlap there would be differences in the way these corporate and individual goals are expressed. Some would probably give a concise phrase that they feel warrants no further explanation. Others might give me a multifaceted verbal outline.

Some would state their goal, but acknowledge that this is just one way of saying it; others might recite a Bible verse with confidence that there’s no better way to think about the matter. Still others might dismiss this “goal talk” altogether, feeling it sounds too business-minded, too restrictive, too focused on bottom lines, too "purpose-driven."

I guess I’m curious to hear from anyone stopping by: what do you think about the Church’s goal, or goals? What one central aim, or set of priorities, should direct how we speak, act, prioritize, or determine our values? Or, what ultimate goal should or does compel a Christian to act “Christianly?”

For Christians, how do you articulate the Church’s goal? I guess that could be answered regarding “little c” church (e.g., the church located at 2nd and Main) or “big C” (all who identify as Christians). What is your goal as a Christian? Does having a goal help you? Does it shape you? Is your goal kind of vague and general, or more clear and specific? Is the language of “goals” even helpful for you in living your Christian life, or unnecessary?

For those who aren’t Christian, what do you think the Church’s goal is? What do Christians seem to say their goal is? What appears to be their goal in practice, as in, what can be inferred about the goal of Christians based on what you see them doing and hear them saying? Do you admire the goals of the Christian Church? Do they bother you? Would you consider becoming a Christian if their goal (or goals) was different?

Thoughts welcome…

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Being Good Can Be Fun (or, Virtue Project Update #1)

I recently shared my desire to experiment with the virtues of the various world religions (Link: “A Bumbling Pursuit of Virtue”). I recommend reading that post before proceeding; I think what follows will then make more sense.

The short version of the above-linked post is this: it’s worth it as a Christian to try to be good. I’m not saying it’s easy. But I am disinterested in embracing as my own any religion which encourages purposeless obedience to rules as well as any religion which belittles and misconstrues any effort to “be good" as an attempt to “win salvation.” I think both these notions miss the point of what God is trying to do within the human community and the story God is trying to tell.

I’m also interested in acknowledging the virtues of other traditions, which I believe can be helpful in my own personal goal of becoming who I could be and living the full, abundant life which John identified as central to Jesus’ mission (John 10:10). My motivation in this interfaith approach is partially formational; I need all the help I can get! Part of it is reconciliatory; I try not to polarize faith traditions, preferring to recognizing our commonalities and identifying where God’s Spirit is at work in all traditions, whatever they might call (or not call) that Spirit.

Here’s a sample from recent weeks of some of the virtues I’ve been attempting to live out each day, through simple choices and constant awareness of that day’s particular goal or virtue. I acknowledge and name the faith/ethical tradition partly because where virtues are shared they are usually nuanced by differing traditions, and partly to emphasize the shared human struggle for wholeness, for goodness, for God.

10/12: Temperance (Classical). It’s difficult at times to take criticism without defense or to bite my tongue when I want to show someone why they’re wrong. But restraint, like giving in, can be rewarding.

10/13: Altruism (Hinduism). I’m noticing how much routine can blind me to the needs of others, who often seem like obstacles rather than people to serve.

10/14: Sacrifice (Islam). If everyone is scratching each other's backs, then no one's back itches. But it's much harder to scratch without guarantee of reciprocity. I like to think that in Heaven our itches don't last all that long.

10/15: Mindfulness (Buddhism). I “see” much more when I stroll than when I scurry.

10/16: Joy (Christian). I don’t remember what happened that day, but I’m sure I smiled a lot.

10/17: Peace (Hinduism). I like the Hindu focus on peace as something not just sought for your own sake but to be cultivated for the benefit of those around you. A violent, restless spirit can do a lot of harm to others.

10/18: Justice (Classical). Didn’t punish any killers that day. But I did seek to be equitable in my classes, including all and favoring none.

10/19: Submission to God (Islam). My desire to control my life—which brings much anxiety—was challenged that day.

10/20: Right Effort (Buddhism). No half-assing anything this day; I tried to seek quality in my work performance.

10/21: Honesty (Hinduism). Honesty with others comes a little too naturally for me at times; honesty with myself is another matter.

10/22: Peace (Christian). Christian peace is multifaceted; I believe I primarily considered my relationships on this day. Unfortunately, some kinds of peace can’t be attained by one person alone. My un-reconciled relationships haunt me.

10/23: Humility (Islam). There’s a time for self-confidence, but also a time for self-forgetfulness.

10/24: Sense of Shame/conscious of actions (Taoism). A bit objectionable to the Western mind perhaps, and a bit overly emphasized in the East, in my opinion and experience. But there’s something to be said for owning up to your mistakes and feeling great sorrow for them.

10/25: Hope (Christian). It’s hope, in ways, that motivates this whole pursuit; I have hope that my efforts have eternal importance and are pleasing to God.

10/26: Right Speech (Buddhism). I sought that day to speak highly of others and criticize no one. Criticism, especially in a group, can be alluring.

10/27: Courage (Classical). I don’t know how well I did on this one. I did dance with a Saudi young man in front of everyone at the school Halloween party, play "air bass" as part of a rap ensemble for my recently-resigned boss, and give a slightly-influenced-by-wine, brief speech to my fellow teachers at our boss’s going-away party about how much I enjoy being with them. But I think I would have done these things anyway, regardless of the attempted practice of “courage.”

10/28: Universality/Tolerance (Hinduism). I find that trying to respect and tolerate those who don’t initially seem like they deserve it can lead one to see a truer version of the person behind the unpleasantness.

10/29: Faithfulness (Christian). I had a good, prayerful walk this evening in contemplation of my goals and priorities in this season of life and the importance of fidelity to such goals.

10/30: Oops. Forgot to pick a virtue this day. So much for faithfulness. How ironic.

10/31: Compassion (Christian). So important as a teacher, I find. Students will inevitably thwart my attempts to facilitate learning from time to time, maybe by lack of study, lack of trying, laziness, interrupting each other or myself, or some other reason. But often there's more going on than is obvious; a sense of compassion is a handy tool in the teacher tool belt.

11/1: Right livelihood (Buddhism). While I didn’t really consider the harmful consequences of my vocation or country on others (perhaps the full application of this virtue), I have been seeking a sensitivity and attentiveness today that might diminish the amount of harm I do in anyone’s life.

In the spirit of today: I hope this post did no harm but only helped. J

Friday, October 28, 2011

Leave These Poor Sick Monkeys Alone

“Is good news bad news?” My English students recently debated this question, some arguing that the only interesting (and lucrative) news was that which tended toward the tragic and shocking, with others making a case for the value of more positive, uplifting, hopeful news.

But it sure does seem like there’s an overwhelming amount of bad news, doesn’t it? From the bullying of gay teens, to corruption and scandal, to oppressive regimes and violent death, to job loss, the bad news just keeps coming.

And, sometimes I don’t want to be hopeful, optimistic, or eager to emphasize what beautiful, creative, good, compassionate things are being done by people and communities everywhere. Sometimes, I just want to lament. Sometimes I need to lament. The Psalms of the Old Testament contain much celebration but also many cries of mourning, angst, and confusion.

When I want to mourn the the seemingly sorrowful state of the world, I often turn to one of my favorite modern day songs of lament. Here’s a link to the video: "Think About it"; I encourage all to watch. The lyrics are below. Come and mourn with me awhile.


There's children on the streets using guns and knives
They're taking drugs and each other's lives
Killing each other with knives and forks
And calling each other names like dork

There's people on the street
Getting diseases from monkeys
Yeah that's what I said
They're getting diseases from monkeys

Now there's junkies with monkey disease
Who's touching these monkeys?
Please leave these poor sick monkeys alone
They've got problems enough as it is

A man is lying on the street
Some punk's chopped off his head
I'm the only one who stops to see if he's dead…
…Turns out he's dead

And that's why I'm singing
What, what is wrong with the world today?
What's wrong with the world today?
What, what is wrong with the world today?
You gotta think about it…think think about it

Good cops been framed and put into a can
All the money that we're making
It's going to the man

What man? Which man? Who’s the man?
When's a man a man? What makes a man a man?
Am I a man? Yes, technically I am

They're turning kids into slaves
Just to make cheaper sneakers
But what's the real cost?
'cause the sneakers don't seem that much cheaper

Why are we still paying so much for sneakers
When you got them made by little slaves kids?
What are your overheads?

At the end of your life you're lucky if you die
Sometimes I wonder why we would even try
I saw a man lying on the street half dead
With knives and forks sticking out of his leg

And he said "can somebody
Get the knife and fork out of my leg please?"
"Can somebody please remove
These cutleries from my knees?"

And then we break it down…

(Words and Music by Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Diversity Among Diversity

I read an excellent article yesterday morning that others of you may also have seen. Here’s the link: “Battling for Gay Rights, In Allah’s Name.” You may gather from the title the thrust of the article, though it’s worth reading. Most illuminating were the strikingly similar challenges Islam faces regarding diversity of belief to those challenges within the Christian Church.

I found the advocacy for and inclusion of the LGBTQ community from a Muslim voice to be quite novel (perhaps it shouldn’t have been). Among Christians you’ll find many passionate about LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation, and many passionately opposed; there are others who aren’t really “passionate” either way but feel conflicted and perhaps “lean” to one side of the spectrum.

But I guess I’d never considered this similar range of opinion to exist within Islam, though I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps the minority expressions in Islam—fundamentalist/extremist and progressive—are just outliers, much smaller than various minority opinions within the Christian Church.

Though at my English school, this range and diversity is visible in women's attire, from conservative to progressive: some women cover all but their eyes; some reveal their entire face; some women reveal their face and also wear form fitting clothes (as opposed to baggy robes); and I remember two women who very noticeably didn’t wear a head covering at all.

I do feel like anytime homosexuality has come up in my classes, most Muslims generally act extremely conservative in their response to the topic. But nonetheless, I probably should have realized that Islam, like Christianity, is diverse. I suppose this is a “sin” I often commit: I make assumptions about what I don’t know, or make generalizations based on my assumptions or on the actions of a few.

This happens to me sometimes within my own faith. People will assume, as a Christian, a similar level of interest in or excitement from me about something as their own. For example, I’ve had multiple people in the last year recommend Mark Driscoll’s (Mars Hill) church to me, because, well, I’m not totally sure why—young, “hip” people attend this church? He has a potty mouth? (Actually, I think the people who recommend him to me don’t know he has a potty mouth.) When this happens, I politely thank them for the suggestion.

I also found the reference to Muslim Scriptural interpretation in this article surprising because it’s markedly similar to the way Christians use Scripture to condemn homosexuality. They apparently, according to the article, use the same Sodom and Gommorah story that Christians use as a refutation of homosexual practice (among other verses, I’m sure). Also acknowledged in the article is a similar explanation from other scholars of that particular passage’s irrelevance to the matter of monogamous homosexual relationships.

Primarily, I appreciated the article for its reminder that, as in Christianity, not all Muslims are the same. Now I do assume (perhaps wrongly) there to be a much larger “norm” in Muslim belief and practice, as opposed to the multifariousness of the Christian faith seen in our seemingly endless denominations (and "non" denominations).

But is there such a thing as a "true" Islam, a way of being a Muslim that is most in line with true Islam? Is there such a thing as a "true" Christianity, in the same sense? It seems like there's too much diversity in our faith to conclude that any one denomination is the "truest." It seems as though we're stuck with plurality, even if we may hold convictions about what way of being, seeing, understanding, and acting is most correct or true.

I’d tentatively define true Christianity as religion in which Jesus is the centerpiece. Any more specific than that gets tricky. There are many Christians who probably wouldn’t ever talk about being “born again." Others would never speak of the “beauty of the liturgy.” Some are gay Christians; some believe "gay Christian" is an oxymoron. It seems like "true" Christianity must be defined broadly in a way that acknowledges its diversity, or else we have to admit we have no clue what constitutes "true" Christianity.

The article quotes several Islamic leaders who find being Muslim and gay inherently incompatible, while others like Zonneveld (focus of the article) are pushing for an alternative perspective that sees their coherence. As in Christianity, Islam seems to call for faith: making a choice about what to believe and how to live based on insufficient data or confirmation.

I’ll end with a couple standout quotes. First, an alternative (but more Scriptural) definition of “jihad,” from a song written by Zonneveld: “In the…song, she calls on the ‘Ummah’ — roughly ‘community’ in Arabic — to take up a jihad, which to her means an ‘internal struggle to be more godly, more merciful, more forgiving, more like God is.

Jihad means “struggle” or “striving,” despite its more negative connotations in the media with violent sects of Islam, and sounds a lot like the Christian pursuit of virtue, the fruits of the Spirit, or the way of Jesus.

And finally, also from Zonneveld: “Just because I’m critical of the Muslim community does not mean I’m interested in being anti-Islam. It’s easy to be critical of the Christian Church; we all have our different ideas about what the Church should be doing more of or what constitutes right doctrine or what elements a Sunday worship gathering should include. But criticism motivated by love is different than that motivated by judgment, I think.

I respect Zonneveld for her commitment to Islam, when it seems like it would be very easy to just disassociate with her religion, and experience God outside of religious institutions. Her fidelity is an inspiration to me and reminds me of how important it is to—in contrast to the common refrain—not just be spiritual but religious too, participating in religious traditions that can shape our character and purpose.

I believe the Church to be, as I suspect Zonneveld believes Islam to be, at its best a gift to the world. I have no intention of abandoning it, no matter how much fodder for criticism it may yield, nor how much I disagree with some of my spiritual brothers and sisters on various matters.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Beauty and Fall

When I could first sense the recent seasonal change, I was not initially acquiescent. The warm, outdoorsy life of summer passed too quickly. But now that I’ve embraced the season (and the fact that seasons aren’t all that concerned with my will), I’m enjoying the moment.

It might have been today in particular, as the cloudy sky and cool, crisp air made for a peaceful, sublime day. This perfect weather brings to mind a few of my favorite aspects of fall...

Pumpkin Wheat Ale. New discovery this fall. Thought it might be a good concept that didn’t work for me in practice (like Pumpkin Spice Lattes...maybe I just need to add another shot), but I love it.

World Series. I would care significantly more if my team was in it, but it’s still the last bit of baseball for several months.

Candy Pumpkins. No fat! But they are candy and feel slightly nutritionally naughty. Consequently, a ritual has developed in the Boswell household. Joann and I inform one another every time we eat a pumpkin, I guess partly as accountability, and partly because we like quirky rituals.

Fireplace use. Before work today I spent some time out in the small forest adjacent to our apartment complex, using my saw to cut up fallen limbs and trees (no living trees were harmed) into fireplace-sized logs. This process has a way of making me very aware, very mindful of nature, my needs, and of what I take for granted. Turning on the electric heat is effortless, costly, and abstract compared to entering nature, strenuously cutting and gathering wood, waiting days for the wood to dry, and lighting and tending a fire over the course of the evening. But I find the involved process rich, the natural warmth comforting, and the sweet, smoky smell fragrant. Totally worth it.

New episodes of favorite TV shows. Favorite standbys: Community, Parks and Rec, Modern Family, Office, Big Bang Theory. Favorite newbies: New Girl, Person of Interest. (Does this point seem odd, considering the previous?)

New students. Summer is a chaotic and exciting time at EF, with lots of student turnover due to shorter stays at the school. Many more of our current students will stay for much longer, which partly excites me for their sake; the community that develops among students during the regular school year is deeper with more time spent together, which is fun to watch. It’s also fun as a teacher to have more time with students, for the sake of classroom productivity and for relationships with students, in and out of class. (But I love and miss you, summer crowd!)

Fall scented candles! (said with Zoolander “Orange Mocha Frappuccinos!” enthusiasm). I’ve got “spiced pumpkin pie” burning next to me, with “cozy fire” and “warm cider” occupying two other rooms. SO good.

Colors. What a beautiful parallel the cycle of nature is to the human story, individual and collective. What a magnificent spectrum of color among the leaves—those fallen, falling, and still clinging to branches, not quite ready to accept that their time has come. It's a nice built-in reminder of several facets of the human experience: the inherent beauty of those on the backside of life; the beauty and rightness of death and the need to embrace and not fear or desperately try to avoid its inevitability; and the hope that our impending “sleep” is not the end but a predecessor to new life. The gift of fall is a gift not only of beauty but of hope.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Church (s)Hopping II: A Visit to a Non-denominational Church

As mentioned in a recent post, I’m trying to make a stronger effort to find a church I can at least temporarily treat as something like a “home.” I also see this as a good opportunity to get a feel for what is happening in Olympia-area churches. Today I visited an evangelical, non-denominational church near our apartment.

My goal in these assessments is to avoid criticism as much as possible and focus instead on the strengths and positives. I admit subjectivity, knowing that my own journey influences how I reflect on my experience, what I “see” and experience in a given worship service. It would be easy to point out such things from this morning as (deleted, inconsistent with goal of post); but I’d rather celebrate than disparage.

To the bullets:

  • The service was entertaining. The Episcopal church experience (which I loved) was not entertaining; I don’t believe this was its goal, nor my expectation. This service was definitely a production. I haven’t really been to a service like this in a while, so I think I’d kind of forgotten what it was like. It may sound like an implicit critique, but I was truly entertained. And maybe there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I go to the movies to be entertained; why can’t a gathering like this be similarly produced to captivate with sound and light, aimed to produce an emotional response from me, sitting in the pew? I enjoyed myself. If the church’s partial goal was to make Christianity seem exciting, then I imagine for many this “entertainment” factor is truly meeting a need.
  • I appreciated the outright “battle” visible among the church between worship styles. I only noticed this because I visited the website this morning. In what appears an obvious reply to the morning services, the evening service is billed as “more natural, raw, and organic” and that the music is “nothing you would hear in a typical, Top 40, Jesus-my-boyfriend church atmosphere.” That seems an obvious means of distancing itself from the morning crowd, and kind of a surprising statement to make on your own website. Still, I was more interested in the “uncool” morning service. At one point the worship leader, in his worship leader voice, said something like “we’re not a top 40, Jesus-my-boyfriend church here.” Fight! Fight!
  • The pastor took about ten minutes to interview two women involved in a non-profit that took the angle of “sustainable development,” helping people in Haiti and Liberia (among a couple other places I can’t remember) have both proper water and proper cooking equipment while also setting up local non-profits in these countries to continue the mission after they leave. It seemed like a very creative type of service/ministry, and I appreciated the way it was used in the service—seemingly to stimulate the imagination and inspire people to challenge themselves to find ways to help others. At least that’s the message I received; I don’t think one has to start a non-profit to do some good with what abilities and resources one has.
  • The highlight was probably when the worship band played “Gotta Serve Somebody” by Bob Dylan. It was meant to be a setup to the message. It was fabulous! The congregation sat and listened to the performance, complete with backup singers, very talented guitarist, and a tenor saxophone. People sort of clapped afterwards, I think a little unsure as to whether they were supposed to clap or say “amen.” I clapped.
  • Actually, I take it back. The real highlight may have been when a grandfather and granddaughter read the morning's scripture passage, which was from Matthew 24. It was hard to not laugh out loud when the gentleman, in a very warm, kind, grandfatherly voice, read “beating his servants,” followed by the girl in her sweet voice saying “cut him to pieces.” Oh Jesus, you and your confrontational, blunt language.
  • The pastor used an iPad for his Scripture and sermon notes. Steve Jobs' fingerprints can be seen not just in the wider culture but in the Church too. An iPad. I will probably get an iPad one day, but it will be when iPads are as relevant as audio cassettes and Tom Cruise are today. Which reminds me: While at the theater recently, a trailer was playing for some sort of action movie. For several moments, the plot wasn’t clear and the actors unrecognizable; then we saw a shot of Tom Cruise, saying something like “then I’ll have to catch him myself” or “looks like an…impossible mission!” The audience replied with a mix of laughter and groans, simply at the sight of Tom Cruise. I think we all forgot that Tom Cruise did movies.
  • This is more about me than the church, but...am I the only one who changes verb tenses of songs/hymns from time to time? I purposely changed an “am” to a “will be” at one point. Nobody looked at me funny; it was a large, loud congregation.
  • I appreciated the pastor's message. It may have, in brief moments, been (deleted, inconsistent with goal of post), but it had a centering effect for me, and I imagine it challenged and redirected and comforted many present. Also, the pastor had a mustache.

The church seems very good at what it does. Though, I really can’t see myself there. Other than when I want to listen to a little Sunday morning blues.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Bumbling Pursuit of Virtue

There are plenty of methods out there for those who want to better themselves. I’ve decided to tentatively pursue such betterment through engagement with the virtues. The reason? Simple: I desire to—as role-model-to-many Barney Stinson might say—be more awesome.

By this crude and facetious way of putting it—“awesome”—I mean a person of great character, the kind of person that strives to live something like the kind of life Jesus lived and called his hearers to seek.

By character, or virtue, I don’t mean someone who obeys rules well or is extremely religiously devout. I mean, rather, one who has learned, maybe through discipline, practice, and the aid and grace of God, how to live excellently. To do what is good and right, almost without thinking.

I want this because I believe it to be my responsibility as a Christian. I believe that if I’m going to identify as "Christian," I don’t want to do so simply based on past history and experience alone, nor on my doctrinal stances, nor on religious, church-y behavior.

For me, to be a Christ-follower means to have accepted Jesus’ invitation to—excuse the melodrama if you feel it in my word choice—join an adventure. I’ve long thought of the Christian life as adventure, fuelled by past encounters with the “epic life” portrayed in stories like LOTR or by authors like John Eldridge. (LOTR still inspires me today; Eldridge and his understanding of gender roles does not).

And I think adventure, then, meant something like “sucking the marrow” out of life, feeling my experiences deeply, refusing complacency, engaging with beauty, seeing the world, being caught up in something larger than myself, a sense of movement. It still does mean those things.

But while I think the virtuous life includes a certain attentiveness to and participation in this kind of rich, abundant, "epic" life, I think it also involves the painful work of making adjustments to my character, of being transformed. The adventure is also one of spiritual, character formation.

Does God love me as I am? I think yes. Does God want me to stay the way I am? I think no. I think there is a feeling of resistance among many of my fellow Christians toward anything that has hints of “effort” or “works.” And, frankly, I find it a bit tragic the way “grace” can be used as an excuse to do nothing, or at least very little, when grace (I believe) is meant to ignite a fire for holy and radical living in the lives of those who encounter it.

And by radical living, I don’t mean becoming “louder.” There’s a place for passionate expression of your belief, but that’s not my interest. I don’t want noisier faith, I want deeper faith, faith that trains me to become—with blood, sweat, and tears perhaps—a little more like Jesus.

This is my journey, my conviction. It’s not about earning salvation. If you know me, it’s definitely not about that, since I think “salvation” in the sense that we usually talk about it happened a long time ago, and extends far beyond the boundaries of the Church. But that’s another matter.

I believe I am free in part, but not in full. I’m bound to bad habits, bad inclinations, bad thought patterns, wrong understanding, poor motivations. These things limit my freedom. When I think of Jesus, I think of a free human being, one so right and good in thought and action that he was free to live excellently—to “be awesome.”

Aristotle saw “telos” as central to this conversation. How we understand our purpose, our end goal as humans, informs the kind of people we should be now. I think Jesus thought of it this way too, inviting people to demonstrate the future Kingdom of God now—to be “Kingdom people” whose lives anticipate what we hope and believe is our future destiny as God’s creation.

These are the philosophical and theological underpinnings of my desire to better myself. I think this is best done in community, be it face-to-face in a church or monastery or through “contact” with others throughout history or through the global community found online. And, of course, being a Trinitarian—with a little help from the Holy Spirit.

The great world religious have their own understandings and lists of virtues. Many of them overlap. As much as we at times want to polarize and differentiate, I think one finds a lot of similar goals and ideas of virtue among these various traditions. That’s not to say all religions are identical; but it is to say that they aren’t worlds apart.

As I told Joann last night, “a virtue a day keeps the devil away.”© J So I’m trying an experiment. My goal for the near future—which I may abandon if it becomes unhelpful or if I simply become lazy (I hope not)—is to pick one virtue a day. This could be virtue defined by Aristotle or Aquinas, or by Jesus or Paul, by Muslim, by Hindu, and Buddhists writers and leaders...whoever.

I hope to pay attention to when I’m tested. Hopefully, conscious of my “virtue-of-the-day,” I can make small choices to combat indulging in these vices and failing these tests. My hope is that such basic choices in various moments of testing will over time have an effect on my character, making such action more natural in the future and less of a choice.

I’m not advocating this as the best method, nor the only method. My approach may be nuanced in ways that differentiate it from other effective approaches, but it's nothing new to seek with discipline a more virtuous life.

Also, while I’m a Christian, I find in other faiths wonderful expressions of what it means to live life well, in a manner that can be illuminating as to how pursue and better live the kind of life I think my own faith demands of me.

But I also believe that the more we engage with other’s viewpoints, other faiths, the better off we’ll all be, and thus it’s worth the effort to understand how others are seeking holiness, betterment, or to more fully fulfill their purpose. (What strikes me as tragic is when any sense of overarching purpose is lost—all too common today in our world, I think.) Where others' pursuits intersect with or enhance my own, I’m eager to absorb their wisdom.

Today’s arbitrarily chosen virtue is temperance—or self-control, restraint, moderation. As I look back on the day, I’ve had some successes thanks to my intentionality, but also a few missteps; perhaps I will report more on this in the near future.

So I press on, “beating my body into submission,” as the Apostle Paul writes (1 Cor 9:27). I imagine, depending on the particular virtue and my quality of character (or lack thereof), some days will involve more self-flagellation than others. All part of the adventure, I suppose.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Occupy Sesame Street

From an anonymous source:

Participants in the ever-spreading Occupy Wall Street movement have yet again expanded the reach of their protests. Following their most recent demonstrations in Portland, OR, protestors have taken their movement to another famed street: Sesame Street.

Home to such beloved characters as Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and, unfortunately, Elmo, the renowned street was flooded yesterday with a slew of child demonstrators.

But in contrast to their adult counterparts, children were not directly critiquing the greed of Wall Street. Their concern is not the withholding of wealth from the majority of the nation, but with a crisis much more immediate to their situation: the withholding of dessert.

“My parents continue to refuse me dessert, just because I don’t finish my greens…I’m sick of it!” remarked an angry nine-year-old. “What right do they have to dictate my eating habits?” When asked the meaning of “dictate,” the child shrugged his shoulders.

Children marched down Sesame Street, expressing their frustration in relatively non-violent ways, save the occasional pinching of a Muppet’s nose.

“Too long have we been oppressed by parents interested in our ‘health’ as they say,” asserted a three-year-old girl, before quipping sarcastically, “‘yes, mom, that makes a lot of sense…I should definitely finish my pepperoni pizza…what good habits you’re teaching me, to eat more than I’d like of such healthy main courses. Gosh, mommy, I can’t figure out why the obesity rate in this country continues to rise.’ I mean, come on!”

Cookie Monster witnessed the procession. When asked for comment, Cookie Monster characteristically shouted: “COOKIES!!!”

His retort captured the sentiment of many participants, who, like Cookie Monster, want to believe in a world where anything really is possible—not merely the reality of a just economy that gives hope for every individual to pursue his or her dreams—but of a world where if one wants a cookie, one may have it, without all the preliminary hoops to jump through.

“I remember one time that I wept and wept because my parents didn’t let me have dessert,” an eight-year old girl somberly recalled. “They sat in the other room, feasting on strawberry shortcake, laughing, talking about the great taste, all while I sat in my room alone, sent there dessert-less because I wouldn’t eat my damn lima beans. They could have at least been quiet about it; they didn’t have to gloat.”

A five-year old boy, when asked what oppressive actions by his parents drove him to join the protests, remarked: “Oh, nothing really. When I want something I just throw a fit and usually get what I want. My parents are pretty accommodating. I’m just here because I heard there was free tiramisu.”

Free tiramisu. And with all the free dessert at the OSS rally, there is sure to be a significant amount of waste covering the streets. One local excited about this? Oscar the Grouch.

“Oh I don’t mind the kids,” Oscar told us. “They have a right to express themselves. I don’t care much for dessert myself, but I do love leftovers! And by leftovers, I do of course mean: TEEERRRAAASSSHHH!!!”

Elmo was also asked to comment on the protests, but rambled incoherently for about two minutes, the only intelligible words being “parfait” and, of course, “Elmo.”

Dr. Ping, professor of sociology at Boston College, was present, eager to observe the phenomenon of an organized child protest. When asked to what extent the demonstrations would impact parents’ attitudes toward dessert, Ping chuckled. “Um, not at all. This whole ordeal is a joke. I’m not sure why I came. I’m actually extremely confused.”

A joke to some, perhaps. But to children eager to make a statement, the protest was anything but funny. A child summed it up: “Parents, if you’re listening, we’re not going to take it anymore. We’ll get our dessert, and we’re not going to eat kale or asparagus to get it.”

But while their mission is very serious, they are children, and know how to laugh and have fun. “Cake and ice cream, get your cake and ice cream!” shouted Ernie at one point. “But only if you’ve eaten your dinner,” he said, deadpan. After a moment of silence, the entire street erupted in laughter. The children have gained a sense of purpose, without losing their sense of humor.

(Source: Me and my imagination, killing time between classes yesterday afternoon.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Church (s)Hopping: A Visit to an Episcopal Church

We’ve been in a season for several months now where we haven’t been connected with a particular church. We’ve occasionally attended churches in the area and have often returned to “home” churches in Portland and in Woodland for visits.

But since our church planting endeavors fell through last Fall, it’s been hard to find the motivation to find a new church to call home. I think the reasons are many.

Part of it is a tinge of disillusionment. Part of it is laziness. Part of it is what feels like the difficulty of breaking in to a church, assessing whether it’s a place we’d want to call home in a single visit. Part of it is my (our) being guilty of the vice of cynicism.

Part of it is uncertainty about where I “fit” denominationally and what elements of a church are essentials and what are secondary, non-essentials. Part of it is uncertainty about how long our Olympia season of life will last. Part of it is a lack of urgency, feeling like I’m living a rich life of faith without being connected to a church family, even if I don’t believe this is the healthiest long-term solution for a Christian.

This is just where we’ve been at, the season we're in. However, I’m hoping to do a bit of hopping around in the coming weeks, feeling like I might be ready to put more effort into finding at least a temporary home.

I here share only the positives. While I value criticism, I also know the allure and addictive nature of it. It can be energizing to critique those things I find imperfect and lacking, sometimes leading to deeper insight and right action but at other times simply leading to indulgence, pride, cynicism and negativity.

So...some bright moments from my visit to an Episcopal Church this morning:

  • There were dogs in church. Apparently, today is a day for honoring St. Francis of Assisi, partly known for his friendships with animals. Church members had been invited to bring pets into the sanctuary for the entire worship service, to receive a special “pet blessing” immediately after the service. I only saw dogs, and what I think might have been a pet spider. Awesome.
  • Loosely related, I appreciate the church’s posture toward children in the service. They seem to really emphasize that kids and their noisiness are a welcome presence and not to be seen as a distraction to the worship experience.
  • I’ve long appreciated liturgy. I cared less for it at one time, feeling like it stifled spontaneity and freedom or lacked freshness and relevance. Now I’ve come to appreciate the structure and tradition of it, feeling like within this pattern of prayers and songs and practices that I do find a certain freedom and connectedness. The Holy Spirit can work through structure and pattern and repetition just as much as through spontaneity.
  • I appreciated the boldness of the giver of the homily, who appeared to be a Franciscan monk. He talked a lot about peace and the inherent goodness of others. At one point he made a remark about Troy Davis—executed last week for a murder of which many claim he is innocent—being "probably innocent." Now I know the Episcopal church generally opposes the death penalty. But this was an assertion about a particular person's culpability, and I was shocked by his confidence. Yet I suspect part of the ethos of this church involves a freedom to disagree and that the speaker did not expect his opinion to be blindly accepted by his listeners as truth. I can appreciate that kind of provocation from a Christian preacher.
  • He told a great story about St Francis and his interaction with a sultan during the time of the Crusades and how the two came to discover their common love of and devotion to God—one using the term "Allah" and one "God." We have many ways to divide Christians into categories (most notably denominations). I sometimes think that there really are just two kinds of Christians—those who emphasize their differences from other religious expressions and those who emphasize the commonalities. I believe both are extremely important—identifying where we agree and where we differ. But it does seem like one is usually given precedent over the other, which I think can often tell you a lot about the whole of a person's theology.
  • The choir sang a couple songs, and it was beautiful. Absolutely sublime. It was very simple, not showy. But hauntingly gorgeous.
  • The quote of the morning, from the monk/speaker, went something like this: “When I’m driving, sometimes I get a peace sign from others; sometimes they give me half of a peace sign.” Picture it. I laughed. I wonder if the joke was original. Witty monks.