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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Benedictine Nun’s Version of John Lennon’s Dream

I thought I’d share a few words from an inspiring book I’m reading for the second time. It’s called Wisdom Distilled from the Daily by Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister. The book is about spiritual formation, using the rule of St. Benedict as a guide for encouraging spiritual and character growth.

The book was written twenty years ago and preceded books like The Divine Conspiracy (Willard) and After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (Wright) which also speak to what seems a growing conviction among many Christians, as Wright captures in his subtitle: why Christian character matters.

I don’t think a focus on character—or, how we live or the kind of people we are—is necessarily a new thing in the Church. I certainly remember from childhood and now know a lot of really nice, good, warm Christians, and I’m sure my parents and grandparents and so on could say the same. The conviction that God wants us to be good people is not new.

But the kind of disciplined focus on character growth I find in Chittister (and others) seems different. It feels like a slightly different brand of Christianity than the message of “grace alone” that, for me at least, encourages deep reverence for God and great humility in me but doesn’t necessarily offer a guide for becoming more like Jesus.

A version of “being Christian” that doesn’t emphasize trying to better yourself falls short for me, leaving me feeling like I’m not holding up my end of the bargain or “covenant” with God…like I’m missing out on a fuller, freer, richer experience of life…like God’s asked me to be something—an ambassador to use St. Paul’s language—and I’m not doing it.

Or like I haven’t really been captured by a vision of Heaven that I’m eager to point people to now…not just by telling them about it but by choices and gestures and habits and acts that might give people hope of what life could be now in part and what (I believe) it will be one day.

I guess that’s why I’m so drawn to works like this one that focus on our character and actions. I think of the Church as a sort of gift that God has given to the world. And to be a gift to the world feels to me like it demands more than personal convictions about who God is; beliefs alone don’t help the people around me very much, I don’t think.

I think to be a gift means giving something, contributing something—giving people a taste of the love of God and the reality of the-world-as-it-could-be-and-will-be (can I get away with using that many hyphens to make a single word like that?)

One of the ways the Church can do this is through living peacefully with one another. Here are some excerpts (from pp 188-190) from Chittister's book in which she encourages gentleness in our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the earth, painting a vision of nonviolent ways of living that rival John Lennon’s vision years ago.

She of course doesn’t encourage the absence of religion, though I’d imagine (sorry) Lennon might feel differently about Chittister’s brand of religion than the kind he was questioning. Perhaps not. But I think it’s evident that, for her, Christianity is not simply about right belief but about right action.

I think whether you are Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or atheist or whatever, this beautiful vision can speak to all of us:

“Imagine a world where children are not jerked down the supermarket aisle in the name of discipline.

“Imagine a world where young people are able to find good jobs without having to be a part of a war machine designed to destroy the earth in the name of defense.

“Imagine a world where other races and nations and peoples are not demonized to justify our militarism.

“Imagine a world where differences are resolved by force of character than by force of arms.

“Imagine a world where the peace of Christ with its prophetic honesty and reckless compassion and nonviolent resistance to evil is the rule of the country.

“Imagine a home where the members of the family do not shout at one another or steal one another’s possession or restrict one another’s movements or slap one another into subjection or bully one another into compliance or intimidate one another into domestic slavery.

“Imagine a home where being a little girl did not make a child a less promising being or giver her any less to hope for.

“Imagine a home where being a little boy did not mean having to prove himself with his fists or his muscles or his willingness to give and take pain.

“Imagine a home where both its women and its men could cry.

“Imagine a home that taught its children to evaluate the laws and actions of the country according to the laws of God: thou shalt not lie…steal…kill…covet…make false gods.

“Imagine a home where all these Benedictine values began to ooze out into the neighborhood and nation around it, and nonviolent resistance became a way of life. Imagine a nation where we would help one another to struggle for truth and justice but never, never with murder in our hearts or blood on our hands.

Also, I like this wrap-up comment: “nonviolence is not passive; nonviolence is simply nondestructive.”

If you are an optimistic, idealistic, romantic, lover of would could be (like me), maybe this moves you and causes you to wonder how you could be a part of making the world at least a little more like this.

And if you'd describe yourself as pessimistic, realistic, practical, or resigned to what is…maybe you too can find this vision compelling in some way, attainable in some part.

--

An addendum: out my open window I just heard my elderly neighbor get violently and vulgarly chewed out by some young adults over something to do with their dogs, calling him nearly every name in the book to the point that the insults were kind of laughably contracting each other. Except that it wasn’t funny, just sad and confusing. I don’t know the situation, but man…there’s got to be a better way. The vision above seems particularly relevant to me this morning...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Evergreen is Not George Fox

Before I explain the “why”, I should be clear that I’m not talking about the international school at which I teach English, which shares the campus with official Evergreen students. These two groups are different entities, and my international students are often a bit perplexed by some of the characteristics and activities of Evergreen students.

There are a few less Evergreen students around right now, being summer break and all, and lots of construction is happening, thwarting many of my regular routes. I do miss a bit of the normal chaos of Evergreen culture, though I’m sure with the Fall rapidly approaching that this culture will soon return.

And in being here for nearly eleven months now, I’ve been reminded often how very different of an experience I had as an undergraduate compared to the life of an undergraduate here at Evergreen. Here are just a few snapshots:

  • The primary non-cafeteria dining option at GFU was the “Bruin’s Den.” The primary non-cafeteria dining option at Evergreen is “The Flaming Eggplant."
  • Some GFU students would scandalously scan their student ID card at chapel and walk away, getting chapel credit without actually attending. Some Evergreen students smoke weed.
  • Apparently a transgender Evergreen student was protesting the way the hippie, eco-conscious students on campus use the term “Mother Earth,” I assume because of the exclusive femininity of the name (talk about out-liberaling liberals). At George Fox University, I can’t quite remember what we protested—that every day wasn’t omelet day in the school cafeteria? Being required to attend morning chapel services? Floor hours that prevented us from hanging out in the girls dorms beyond 10pm?
  • Greeners, on sunny days, get out their tribal drums and jam in the main square on campus; I’ve also seen jugglers and hula hoopers. GFU students, on similar days, got out their guitars and “did” worship.
  • I recently saw a Greener raising funds for a sort of Christian mission/humanitarian trip to Africa; her sign read “4 the Clit.” Her goal in going is to give aid to women affected by genital mutilation. At GFU our mission trip signs were much less provocative.
  • The GFU mascot was a big bear (can’t remember if he/she was more cuddly or more angry). The Evergreen mascot is a geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck). Do you know what a geoduck is? Or more importantly, do you know what it looks like? Click on this link for a page of images: Geoducks
  • At Evergreen, students grade themselves; there are no set grades. I’m not familiar enough with this system and its success to know if it is a good motivator for students or not. Maybe for a certain type of individual. But man that would have been nice, to have chosen my grades. I had to work hard to get an A in Dr. Jolliff’s literature classes…and such A’s were rare.
  • Evergreen has several designated smoking spots, where smokers congregate together. GFU had designated DTR spots, where you told each other you thought God wanted you and your romantic interest to fool around a bit.
  • When I think of smells associated with Evergreen, I think of trees and of body odor; there are a lot of people who don’t believe in deodorant, for well-thought out reasons. When I think of smells associated with GFU, I think of fresh cut grass, Grandpa Roy’s roses, and I think of my hair gel, which I only quit using about a year ago. I don’t really enjoy looking at old college pictures of my hair. I guess hair styles often look dated in old pictures, don’t they?

In the end, I wouldn’t trade my GFU experience for anything. But I do enjoy getting a taste of a much different kind of college experience, if only as an observer.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Highway 101 Musings

Joann and I just enjoyed a fabulous extended weekend at the Oregon Coast to celebrate our one-year anniversary. We enjoyed a night of camping in Pacific City, two nights at a hotel in Lincoln City, amazing, sunny (but not too hot nor cold) weather, good food, and lots of relaxation on the beach while reading or watching sunsets.

During the drive home, we had kind of a meandering discussion about various facets of Christian culture that prompted some good reflection in both of us. I don’t know that we reached many solid conclusions about anything, but it was a good reminder of the concern we share for our corporate Christian witness as well as our own capacity to emulate and represent well “the way” of Jesus and the historical, ancient community of which we are a part.

I share some of our discussion, assuming some of you have wrestled with similar matters (and maybe come to more solid conclusions than we did.)

Distinct language. A lot of Christian communities seem to have a unique vernacular. Some people talk about “the Lord” all the time. Certain denominations pray with incessant repeating of “Lord God” and some with “Jesus.” Some take every opportunity to attribute any pleasant occurrences to God: “The weather is gorgeous…God is so good to us!” Is this a good thing?

Joann and I thought there was something nice about continual mention of the person and work of Jesus or of God’s presence and activity in our lives—almost like it has a way of centering us, keeping us accountable, reminding us of who we are.

On the other hand, we worry about such language becoming meaningless with overuse. Does one need to attribute every fortune circumstance or every thing of natural beauty to God? Can’t a rose be beautiful, or must God be beautiful upon our seeing the rose? We want to enjoy the richness and depth of God’s creation…but must we verbally declare everything to “be God?”

Maybe the gift can be enjoyed without constant credit to the giver. On the other hand, maybe the gift is not nearly important as the giver.

Does God bless YOU? And, do we pray for the right things? We talked about the way people ask for specific things from God, as well as assume, when they feel a prayer has been answered or that something fortunate has occurred, that God has “blessed them.”

I’ll admit I don’t ask God to give me specific things that often, for what I think are well thought-out reasons connected to my understanding of the purpose of prayer, the character of God, and my own personal significance. Regarding that last point, I think my holdup is that sometimes I feel like I’m assuming I’m more important than I really am, that the events of my life carry greater significance than those of others.

For example, what about those prayers where, if we are being blessed, others are being cursed? If I pray for financial gain, does someone else experience financial loss? I don’t necessarily think of economics as a zero-sum enterprise where some must lose if others gain (mostly I don’t understand economics), but it seems like there are times when our being blessed or getting what we want would mean indirectly asking God to “curse” or “reverse bless” someone else.

It’s one thing to pray that God would help foster your ability to show compassion for people, especially if you believe that God or specifically the Holy Spirit is actively trying to transform your character. Such prayer has a way of centering us, focusing us, sensitizing us to the presence of God in us and in others. But to pray for sunny weather might be an unfortunate outcome for another person hoping for rain for whatever valid reasons.

I guess that’s what discourages me from those specifics in prayer. Plus the fact that, as I said to Joann yesterday, I’m not always sure I know what’s best for me, what path is most right, what kind of occurrence would really be beneficial for me. Being wrong often has probably shaken my confidence in telling God what God should probably do for me.

Correcting Christians. Is it okay to correct another Christians? I strive to be respectful of other points of view and to be tolerant of those whose lifestyle and beliefs differ from my own. But what role do I have in offering correction, rebuke, guidance, teaching, whatever you want to call it, to fellow Christians?

One could say no one ever has any right to offer guidance to another, unless they ask you for it. I see some validity in that; I think I receive guidance from others better when I ask them for it, because of the state my heart is in when I ask versus when I don’t ask.

I also don’t think I’d offer moral or lifestyle correction to, say, a Muslim, for example. If they asked my opinion, I’d kindly give it, sharing everything from my beliefs about who God is to the status of women to alcohol to whatever. But I think I’d feel it wasn’t my place to call them out, nor would I call out an atheist for their behavior. I don’t really think it’s fair to hold them to the same standards, since our beliefs about spirituality and morality differ significantly.

But what about other Christians who express their Christianity different? We’re all claiming to be a part of a community that is associated with Jesus and, unless you’re very liberal, believes Jesus is unique among other “messengers” of God.

Isn’t this part of what makes us cringe when a pastor intends to burn the holy books of other religions…or when Christian leaders are caught in affairs and deemed hypocrites…or when Christians use very harsh language and images to judge and tear down certain kinds of people?

I think I, though not claiming to be perfect, want to distance myself from such people. But I wonder if it is okay to call people out when I think they are in error, at least according to my own perspective. To say to another Christian any number of things: your views are misguided; your actions are harmful; you are in danger of some serious judgment from God; you’re making the Christian life less appealing to others; you look silly. Is that okay?

Maybe it’s easy to say yes to the obvious errors; if someone is physically abusing their spouse, it’s probably okay to say something to them, right? (Or at least report them to the authorities). But what about some of those more subtle differences? That’s what’s hard for me.

If someone has a very strong view of the authority of men and submissiveness of women in a marriage, and I think that despite their best intentions to “love” their submissive wives they are actually oppressing them, should I say something to them, or simply respect their divergent views on men and women? I’m not as sure about my views on men’s and women’s “roles” as I am about the matter of full-on domestic, physical abuse that I would want to treat my opinion like fact and boldly express it in all cases.

Or what if someone says “the Lord” all the time around non-Christians, and I think that their unique way of speaking is turning people off...or coming across as pushy...or revealing an inability to be aware of other people...or making them seem crazy...or misrepresenting what it is (not simply language or emotions) that should make a Christian different from others...maybe these are just my own biases? Should I encourage such people to be less cavalier or gung-ho or to express themselves differently?

Or should I see their way of speaking as valid, even a sign of someone so filled with devotion and faith that they can’t contain themselves? Maybe I’m the one who needs to mention God’s name in my speech more often so as to reveal the importance of God in my life to others.

Happy Christians? We were talking about a particular denomination of Christians that seem to be perpetually happy. They have strong faith, and while their theology may or may not have depth, we wonder: does it matter, in light of how happy they are?

One can easily (and often unfairly) critique certain segments of our faith for being intellectually shallow or use terms like “na├»ve” or “surfacy” or “sheltered” or “deluded” to describe certain followers of Christ.

But I wonder, for those that aren’t Christians—is this a negative thing? I would imagine it’s the angry, politically outspoken, vocally condemning segments of Christianity that are more problematic to those outside of Christianity. Or at least compared to them, happy Christians are maybe more, as Joann put it, “endearing” to non-Christians than anything.

It seems there’s a subculture in Christianity that is more laid-back and cool but critical and serious, rather than cheery and upbeat. But what’s wrong with being happy? Don’t you know some of these people who you know are Christian and just seem to never be angry or down or stressed about anything? Aren’t they kind of inspiring?

I guess some might call me a “happy Christian,” though I’m not sure I’d agree, based on the kind of person I think I'm describing. But I am happy quite often. And I’m a Christian. So…

Just some thoughts from our coastal trip up 101 yesterday. It wasn’t all serious conversation. Plenty of enjoying the scenery and laughing at suggestive restaurant names.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jumping Out of a Plane and Other Things I Didn’t Expect to Have Done This Early in My Life

A little over a week ago I jumped out of an airplane. My wife, about half an hour later, did the same. This was the redeeming of a nearly year-old wedding gift from Joann’s cousin Heather, a frequent skydiver who does jumps for a company in Toledo, WA.

Joann was the one pushing it all along, with me acting a bit reticent every time the topic came up. But we finally decided to go for it, as you can see from the picture in a previous post below (7/24/11).

What you can’t see from the picture but can probably intuit from other clues is that we both lived. J In reality, I had gathered beforehand and can in retrospect testify that the perceived risk is much greater than the actual risk. It’s a relatively safe experience.

Maybe not as safe as sitting on your couch (unless that’s all you do), though perhaps safer than driving to the grocery store, buying a bag of potato chips, and driving home. Not sure how to quantify the level of danger, though the perceived risk involved is probably an important part of what makes skydiving so thrilling and exhilarating.

Only two things really made me nervous. One was the impending departure from the plane, as I was a little concerned I’d do something wrong, put my foot in the wrong place, bonk my head on the wing as we exited, something like that. I did fine, though my tandem partner kind of manipulated my body when necessary and gave very clear directions, so he helped me do “fine.”

The other was when I was following Joann’s plane on its ascent (we took separate flights…was more practical for different reasons), and lost it in the clouds for two minutes or so. It was irrational to be worried yes, but those were a long two minutes, ended with a sigh of relief upon seeing the plane again, knowing it hadn’t crashed somewhere or gone through a portal into another dimension.

The flight up—packet tightly with three others into a tiny plane—was gorgeous. The view of the significant peaks of the Cascades. Watching evergreens look increasingly less like trees and more like a large bed of moss on the distant ground. Round hay bails looking like marshmallows or organized pimples on the ground. The square patches of land distinguishing property lines or differing crops. All so picturesque.

I think I am a very trusting person, sometimes too much so (i.e., gullible, or sometimes overly optimistic about people and their intentions). So it was easy to trust my instructor and tandem partner; I never really felt in danger while falling. And I guess it felt like falling. I have never fallen like that for such a sustained amount of time (30-40 seconds), so I don’t really know what to compare it to.

So many fascinating aspects of the experience. The feeling of air pounding against me. The novelty of what was happening. The rapidity at which my mouth kept drying out and needed re-salivating. Trying to scream with delight (I was smiling the whole time, I think) and being unable to hear myself under such circumstances. The view. Feeling like I better understood the life of a bird.

The rush of moving so quickly and not really concretely knowing, without the aid of a time machine or fortune-teller, whether or not my parachute would open and the falling would end...this was exhilarating, especially combined with the feeling accompanying that moment when the chute finally did open and all the jerking around ceased.

The slow glide down to the ground—in which I was able to steer the chute myself for a while—was also kind of a rush in its calming nature, after the perceived danger of the fall had passed.

I believe the moment I touched down and was removing my jumping equipment I told Joann that I was ready to do it again. About an hour later I had lost a little interest, as I thought more about what I’d just done. A few days later I was interested again. Now I don’t know.

But I did it once, and can cross skydiving off my non-existent bucket list. I wouldn’t have thought a year ago that this would have happened, at least so soon in my life. Actually, in the last twelve months, I’ve experienced many things that, two or three years ago, I don’t think I really anticipated. I didn’t expect to have…

1) Run a marathon.

2) Become something like a “fringe Evangelical” and be unwelcomed in a Christian ministry role because of my beliefs.

3) Gotten married. I knew it would happen, especially after I found a gal so lovely in so many ways and also a fabulous fit for me. But I had a run there of going after girls who weren’t really interested for whatever reasons. I may be remembering wrongly (or guessing wrongly), but I think some of the reasons were that they…

  • Didn’t have “a peace”
  • Wanted to save the world before getting in a serious relationship
  • Were disappointed my love for the Matrix Trilogy did not match their own
  • Felt they were too old for me
  • Were interested in someone more awesome than me
  • Were interested in someone less un-awesome than me
  • Were disappointed my love for the TV show Friends did not match their own
  • Wanted someone with more piercings and a better beard and a stronger love of bands only “hip” people have heard of

Thanks for leading me to Joann through your rejections, ladies.

4) Started preparing for a PhD program. I’m early in the process of studying, researching, networking, but it’s in motion.

5) Watched more than 80% of the Twilight, Harry Potter, and X-men movies combined.

6) (Censored, inappropriate for younger readers)

7) Shared experiences and conversations with as many cultures as I have. I didn’t know ESL teaching would be such an enriching season for me, and the opportunity to daily rub shoulders with the entire world has definitely made me a better human being.

The past year—also my first year of marriage—has been a year of surprises. Looking forward to more in year two!