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

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Do You See Me? Three Vignettes

I think one of my deepest needs is to be acknowledged. Not just the acknowledgement of my physical presence, which is important and sometimes sufficient acknowledgement. But also my mind, my heart, my opinions, my efforts. I think a lot of who I am goes unnoticed, every day. That’s almost a bit depressing but, ultimately, not really all that depressing.


On Monday I took my usual route home from work, exiting 101 onto Black Lake Blvd. As I coasted down the off-ramp and slowed to a stop, there he was perched at his usual spot, sign in hand, hoping to bum a cigarette or maybe some spare change.

But it’s really not a “he”—it’s a “them.” There are a number of different people who man that spot, though there are a few regulars who I recognize. I didn’t know this man. One side of his sign said something about money, the other side the mantra “Go Green.” Okay; I guess he was on double duty: seeking money and saving the planet.

I don’t ever give out money at this spot. I think I once gave out a bottle of water there. I usually make eye contact, and smile, then permanently look away. I guess it’s my way of communicating that I acknowledge you, recognize you are human and have dignity, and don’t consider you a nuisance, but I won’t be donating anything.

It was a gorgeous day and my window was down, so I anticipated some kind of interaction this time. He didn’t ask me for money; he just said “go green” pointing to his sign. I think I gave him a thumbs up and said something like “right on.”

He said something like, “people never look at the sign, man.” I told him that I always read the signs. Actually, I’m not sure he’s right; I tend to think everyone reads the signs. They just look away quickly after reading.

Then he said to me, “some people say I need counseling.” Without hesitation, I responded with a smile, “I could use a little counseling myself.” He seemed to hear both my spoken and implicit message, responding: “don’t we all.”

I didn’t give him any money. The light turned green and I drove on.

Special Needs

A diverse community of people cross my path every weekday. In class and walking to and from class, I encounter the EF International community, of course. I also encounter Evergreen students, about whom it’s become a bit cliché to call “odd.”

And then are the "special needs" kids who I don't know much about but who appear to work on campus in various roles, jobs I assume need to be done but which most people don’t want. As I felt in my past experience working with special needs people, I sometimes find it odd that they’re considered to have "special needs."

I mean, I do get it, obviously. But sometimes they don’t seem like they need all that much. This particular group of students, based on limited encounters in the lobby, around campus, and in the bathroom, don’t seem to feel a lot of stress or worry.

Actually, now that I think about it, these people might be some of that happiest people I know. Care-free, at peace with the world, it seems. I may be wrongly assessing them, but that’s how they seem to me. I think those not labeled “special needs”—myself included—have in their own way a whole host of needs that they feel must be met, many of these needs perhaps stemming from angst, discontent, fear. These young men and women seem need-free, in this respect.

Yes, they need guidance and direction and supervision and support. I suppose there are different ways of being needy. I’m not sure they need to be noticed, like I do. I need attention, and praise, and validation, or my insecurities can emerge and thwart my efforts to be whole and good, to be a light to others. They don’t seem to need that, though they might appreciate it.

A lot of people don’t really feel that comfortable around special needs people; they’re not sure what to say, how to talk to them; it can be unsettling, uncomfortable. But they are settled, they’re comfortable. We should notice them, because they have a lot to teach us. But I can’t tell if they care that much whether they’re noticed or not.

Some of my shy EF students prefer not to be noticed and are terrified of speaking in class. They'd rather not be acknowledged; it's easier...no pressure. Some love the attention, love working the crowd. Some of the Evergreeners that come out on sunny days to juggle, dance with tribal drums, do yoga in the center of campus, or hold up protest signs, they want to be noticed, I think, or they wouldn’t do what they’re doing in the most visible spot on campus when there are other, more secluded places they could go.

I think that this special needs community does want to be noticed, because…they’re human. But their easygoing nature is enviable, and if they crave attention and acknowledgement from others, it seems to take a different form.

Flo and Wilhelm

Several months ago, maybe last summer, I decided to feed some bread crumbs to the ducks at my apartment complex. I’m not sure that this is ultimately the smartest or kindest thing to do, but it’s hard to resist them and the way these creatures, normally fearful of me, slowly gravitate toward me, definitely a bit suspicious of me and reactive to any sudden movements on my part, yet becoming progressively bolder in their proximity to me the more food I give them.

I don’t think these ducks have forgotten me. Actually, there are two ducks in particular that I’m pretty sure are my guardian angels. Flo and Wilhelm. I see them everywhere. I mean, I think they follow me. I’m sure it’s the same pair. Wilhelm with his green head, Flo with her gray colors.

Sure, maybe all mallard duck couples look like this. But I’m sure it’s the same ducks, following me around Olympia. I see them at my apartment complex of course. I don’t honestly remember if these are the same ones from my feeding months ago, but Joann’s pretty sure they are. I like believing they’re the same ones. It’s a convenient belief.

A couple weeks ago, I saw them downtown, a few miles from my apartment. And then I saw them this morning in yet another place. I’ve been ambitiously waking up at 5:40 every day this week to exercise. This morning I was in the woods near my apartment doing sprints, jumping jacks, dance aerobics, and pushups. During one of my sprints/jaunts, I saw them, behind a large mound of dirt, just sitting, motionless. I might have woken them.

Flo and Wilhelm. I’m sure they’re my guardian angels. They probably want me to notice them. Maybe they want me to notice them noticing me...to feel reassured that I’m not alone, I’m never alone, that my life is a shared enterprise. They might want some more bread too. I only feed them 100% whole wheat bread. And only the heels.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dragon Boat Racing: A Metaphor, Probably

Along with several fellow teachers and students from EF International, I have joined a dragon boat racing competition, hosted by Saint Martin’s College in Lacey.

(Don’t know what I’m talking about or need a visual? Link: Dragon Boat Images)

We are very much a “rag-tag bunch” of participants, all ages and sizes (and English-speaking abilities). I don’t think we have any illusions of winning, for the most part, but probably staying afloat and moving in the right direction would be signs of victory.

The event isn’t until the 28th, though we had our first practice this past weekend. It was…interesting. A lot of things struck me. I’m not sure how much of the following is actually about dragon boat racing, and how much of it is not about dragon boat racing.
  • You must keep your eyes on the lead rowers. If you takes your eyes off of the lead rowers, you, and the team will falter. It’s tempting to look at the water, to focus on your own paddling. You must stay focused on the lead rower.
  • Success is about harmony. If one person gets out of sync, out of rhythm, there can be a ripple (no pun intended) effect that causes other team members to become out of sync, threatening the success of the team.
  • If one person is out of sync, you can’t began to mimic their rowing, their actions, because then you too will contribute to the problem. You cannot be dragged down by those around you, but must remain focused on the leader.
  • It’s not about strength. When padding, if individuals are exerting too much force, not only might they get hurt, but it can ruin the group performance. The goal is togetherness, not individual performance. The group’s success depends not on might but on focus, on feeling the rhythm of the team.
  • Not only does the poor performance of an individual—usually meaning someone who is out of sync—affect the team as a unit; it can harm individuals too. I got whacked a couple times in the elbow by the paddler behind me. It may have been his fault, or it may have been mine. Being out of harmony can bring harm to yourself, and harm to others.
  • It’s tempting to blame others when you are at fault. Many were quick to point the finger at others when problems arose, convinced they were not themselves in error. In the moment, that can be instinctive—to protect your image, the perception others have of you, and pass blame on to others. Sometimes you just don’t realize it was your fault, in which case—humility and openness to criticism and guidance is important.
  • There are many rules and commands given—but they are not without meaning. The caller/captain/head honcho shouts orders—boat-speak—that must be exactly followed. It’s not a lenient, free-for-all type of atmosphere, where we’re told, “okay, just start going now guys, however you feel like that should happen.” Commands are to be met with precision, not just for their own sake, but for the safety of the group and success in the race. In fact, these commands and our responses are rehearsed and rehearsed. Because, getting somewhere close to perfection does not just give us a good chance to win, but also makes the experience more satisfying. And, as I said, it is an issue of safety. Rules, order—these things are imperative to success, to a positive experience.
  • Our commander is intense, shouting, calling you out if you’re in the wrong. There is no place for egos, for defensiveness, for insecurity. You must respond with humility and obedience, knowing this is not about you, it’s not personal—it’s about the guide trying to form you into the best “rower” you can be. And it’s not even totally about you, as if you were the centerpiece of the team. You are a part of a team, and your identity is wrapped up with others. It’s a communal, not an individual activity—though the individual is of immense importance.
  • Laughter is important. Being able to laugh at ourselves, to laugh at others, and to receive the laughter of others at our own foibles in the boat (paddling mistakes, balance mistakes, missing commands, et al) is important. It does not mean not taking everything seriously, as if the commands weren’t meant to be followed. It just means…not taking things too seriously.
Such is dragon boat race training. Among other things.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Easter Inspires Hope...and Hellfire

Despite the rainy weather these past couple days, Monday—the day after Easter, a tremendously significant event in human history, according to Christians—was gorgeous in Olympia. And at The Evergreen State College, that meant one thing: out came the crazies. The Christian crazies.

Usually nice weather brings out a slew of people doing a potpourri of unique activities—tightrope walking, juggling, drumming, dancing, hula hooping, lounging in the grass. On this sunny day, the only thing that stood out was two young Christian men, seemingly not Evergreen students but maybe locals, maybe traveling evangelists. I’m not sure.

And their message was loud and clear and, not surprisingly, not well received. One day after Easter, a celebration that represents the essence of Christianity, these Christians chose to boldly proclaim that “essence”, as they understood it, to one the most liberal campuses in the U.S.

I don’t share this because I think it’s so incredibly novel, as if these are the first sign-holding evangelists the world has ever known. I guess, I just found the whole scene—and the timing of it—interesting.

Their signs read as follows:

Jesus said, "Not all who say 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Warning to all drunkards, murderers, sex addicts, thieves, liars, homosexuals (and a few other “sinners” I can’t recall): judgment cometh!

Hell is…(I don’t remember this one exactly either…something like “fiery” or “no fun”.)

I first heard about this because one of my co-workers passed me while walking across campus. When I asked her how her day was going, she said that it was going well, until she was yelled at by these preachers and told to repent. It ruined her day, she said. Because, you know, it’s not exactly a “boost” to be told you’re on the path to hell.

When I got to the quad I just watched for a few minutes. There were a few Greeners arguing with them, clearly impassioned and likely unhappy with their message and/or approach. I imagine some were Christians, as I eventually saw a girl sit down in front of them with a sign that read:

I apologize for these Christians.

Later, when I passed back by, another sign had appeared, evidently not from a Christian but someone (maybe) interested in validating his peers:

You don’t need approval from a god.

There were a plethora of students seated on benches and grass, observing the whole scene, some just amused, some clearly upset. Maybe because it’s not PC to be told you’re going to hell. Or because they hate all forms of religion. Or because they don’t like a religion being pushed on them. Or maybe because they don’t like “homosexual” being lumped in the same category as "murder," for some reason. Or maybe they just don’t like King James English.

One might praise their boldness. What courage they have to just “say it like it is!” How brave to not “dumb down the message.” And so on. Okay. I guess if you believe others around you are in real danger, you have to do something, you have to warn them...right?

Courage is a virtue. But courage in isolation might not be. Part of a living a virtuous, godly life includes a harmony among virtues. You can be courageous, but fail to be wise, compassionate, and attentive. You can be courageous and be very foolish. You can be bold and do a lot of harm. Boldness in itself is nothing. Bravery in isolation can be downright stupid and destructive—even evil.

I had mixed feelings about these two men. But I also had mixed feelings about the Christians who were uncomfortable with them, including those protesting the display. I have mixed feelings about a lot of things, it seems.

I felt amused, a little bit, because it was comical, in a way. But I also felt a little embarrassed, like my faith and theirs were implicitly being lumped into one...like they represented me.

But, people are smart right? People know that this is just one way to be religious, to be Christian, right? I don’t really need to worry about people getting the wrong idea, because people have the intelligence to discern this kind of thing.

On the other hand, something like this could also be fuel for those who already want nothing to do with religion, with God, with a community of character and faith…it could just be confirmation of what they “know.” It might inhibit their finding God and the peace, joy, and purpose that might accompany such a discovery.

Maybe these "evangelists" are/were wrong, but still…for all who so well model the character of Christ in a very compelling, attractive way, this doesn’t really endear people to the God of Jesus, if this in fact is an accurate picture of that God—a Being who may have a lot of love to give, but is mostly just pissed off with everyone and throwing a hissy fit about it because his ego is wounded and his project of creation didn’t go the way he wanted it to.

And then there are the Christians who seemed to be pleading with these bringers of “good news” to stop, to see that this isn’t the way. I guess I’m ambivalent toward them too. Because, what really bothered them? What were they protesting? Were they protesting the content? That many will go to hell because they are sinners?

Or were they protesting the delivery? Like, we agree with you, but your strategy for telling people about how wrathful God is is all wrong. I don’t know that I mind the strategy all that much, as if a more “secret, relational evangelism” would be better, where you befriend people, and then when the moment is right, you strike!

As someone more and more compelled by the possibility of universal reconciliation—that God, through Jesus, has saved all and will save all, even if it takes a long time, because God is just that loving, persistent, and committed to fixing and healing the human family—I’m not sure they are really capturing God as I understand God to be. Judgment? Sure. But I expect to face judgment, too, just like the murderers. I just think judgment precedes a happy ending.

Actually, come to think of it, I’m not really sure what their goal was: for people to have a conversion experience to Christ, or to just stop lying and stop being gay...as if their goal was to make the world a little less “evil” rather than “save” more. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The point is that I don’t feel like they gave the clearest picture of who God is, according to my view of who God is. That’s the point, I guess.

Free speech is a good thing, and they had a right to be there. And you know, they might be very good people and be just a bit misguided. I respect their right to preach their message, even if their message pisses me off. I don’t want them silenced. Well, part of me does. But part of me doesn’t.

But the day after Easter. That’s the other point. That’s the part that really gets me, I guess. It’s almost as if, inspired by the message of Easter, they came and proclaimed their Easter message. But it didn’t feel like the message of Easter. So what is the message of Easter? I suppose there are several ways to answer that.

Hope. Expectancy that Jesus' resurrection was a foretaste of what is to come for humankind, that even though we suffer and die, we will thrive and live forever.

New life. That just as Jesus died and came back to life, so we can find a new experience of life, a new freedom from the bondage of sinful, harmful, destructive habits and the opportunity to be healed and made whole, made more fully alive.

Love. A sign that God adores us, advocates for us, believes in us, and is willing to do anything for the world out of sheer appreciation for humankind and out of an unfathomable capacity to pour out love to others.

Fidelity. A sign that Godwho called the nation of Israel to be a sign of his presence in the world, who then became incarnate in Jesus and started a “church”, only to have most of them flee in fear and weakness at his crucifixionhas not and will not abandon us. God does not pout, nor give up; God perseveres.

Non-violence. A sign that Jesus’ methods—marked by a refusal to use violent means to achieve his aims—were legitimate, right, and good; a validation of the way of peace and a condemnation of the way of violence.

Protein. Because, eggs...right?

However you want to frame it, the message of Easter should comfort, inspire, and empower. I guess these two young men’s version of the Easter message inspired something in people and maybe empowered a few, thought probably comforted even fewer.

In church on Palm Sunday, I, as part of a very moving segment of the liturgy, repeatedly shouted along with the congregation: “crucify him!” I assumed it to be and experienced it as a means of identifying with those who violently wished for the demise of goodness that day, an admission of my own potential for evil, and a call to humility.

We all get it wrong at times. We are often on the wrong side of an issue. Our methods are often flawed. Just as I may have the insight to perceive these flaws in others, I hope I can recognize my own flawed perspective and methods.

But some messages are more flawed (and potentially more harmful) than others...right?