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

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I'm Still Here

Hello, visitors, intentional or accidental. The chaotic end of the spring semester and a busy summer stifled the regularity of my posts, but I do intend to re-appropriate this space soon. Until then...don't forget to be kind to others.

Also, this:

Friday, April 5, 2013

My Daughter and My Lord

Easter week has come and gone. Easter is arguably the height of Christian remembrance and practice of the essence of our faith. It’s also a reminder of how mysterious this all is—that in which we put our faith. There’s so much I understand, but don’t really understand.

I don’t really understand the incarnation. The significance of the birth of Jesus and presence of God on earth. God became a human? God became someone that appeared to be a human but was really much more than a human because that man was actually God? God sent someone on God’s behalf, an ambassador of sorts?

Or maybe in Jesus, a person was born who would later become “adopted” by God? A person was born who would later grow to embody everything that God is and stands for? Was this incarnation profoundly unique, or very unique but not that unique?

I don’t really understand the life and teachings and acts of Jesus. Was he a pacifist? Did he expect us to successfully follow his teachings? Was he doing away with Judaism or just offering a corrective to it? Did he believe the end of the world was coming soon?

What’s the “Kingdom of God/heaven” and the best way to express the character and import of this Kingdom? Did he preach a future judgment based on our good actions or lack thereof? Did he fully understand his mission and the significance of what he was doing and saying?

I don’t really understand the death of Jesus. What happened in/on the cross? What changed? Must Jesus have died? Or was his death not necessary but simply the inevitable conclusion of the life he lived? Is the cross the centerpiece of our faith, the element on which everything depends?

Does his death reveal a defeat of the devil? Or, a kind of substitution, as if Jesus suffered what we would have suffered? Did God kill Jesus? Did Jesus die to inspire us? Did God die on the cross? Did we die on the cross?

I don’t really understand the resurrection. Was the corpse of Jesus literally resuscitated and found wandering around for a time? Was he more like a spiritual, ghost-y figure that could walk through walls? Was it more of an existential resurrection, a resurrection in the hearts of the first Christians? Is the Holy Spirit the resurrected form of Christ?

Was it a literal resurrection but not in a sense we can understand, given our mental limitations and the reality that scientific study increasingly reveals more complexity to what we call “matter” but is really so much more than matter? Is “Jesus is alive” a trite Christian phrase whose meaning we can’t articulate very well or can we not articulate it well because it points to something we know but can’t really put into better words? And, what does the resurrection—whatever its nature—mean for us? Is it about our potentialities here and now, or does it point to something in an undefined future moment?


I’ve heard the explanations for these things, and like all Christians, I make choices. You might not think you’ve made a choice from among various ways to articulate the doctrines and events of Christian faith, as if you simply believe the right thing, or what “actually happened” or “is.” If so, I don’t know what to say to that.

As for myself, I make choices and, with faith and not certainty, lean toward various understandings of the four above components of the person and work of Jesus, and try to trust God on the rest. God is trustworthy, I think; human ability to articulate mystery and the divine in concise, timeless, easily-digestible formulas is not as trustworthy.

I don’t understand these mysteries very well. But I think maybe I understand my daughter a bit better. My daughter, through her actions and simple existence teaches me so much. Clara is a symbol of mysteries beyond herself. Clara is a glimpse of life in all its glory.

Life was incarnated, several months ago, in my wife’s womb. Life came to dwell inside her. I don’t really understand how it happened, though I’ve read the books and seen the instructional videos (and probably giggled watching them) and get it.

But I don’t get it. How friendship could lead to courtship could lead to lifelong commitment could lead to intimate but kind of primal actions that could lead to a sperm’s quest for "the holy grail" that could lead to the simple beginnings of a person, tiny but packed with the ingredients for something much more.

Life lived and in a sense, taught. Life was very much alive inside Joann, making its presence known. Life, for whatever reason, didn’t get along flawlessly with Joann’s body, which caused us a lot of problems that we didn’t take as seriously as we should because, as the now-obnoxious (to me) saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Life grew, developed, became. Life helped us grow, develop, and become as well, as individuals and as a married couple. Life was inextricably linked to Joann, one with her, their bodies influencing each other, part of an interdependent reality.

Life died. At least it seemed like that was the direction things were headed. My tears of confusion and horrific fear flowed that night, the night that it all happened so fast. I was told my wife might die. I was told my daughter might die. I’m optimistic, and tend to hope for the best.

But my personality bent could not defeat the looming possibility that threatened to destroy my world, and so I broke. I feel anxiety this very moment as I think back to that night. We really didn’t know what the outcome would be. Things were dark.
Life endured. Life was born early the next morning. Healthy. Screaming. Kicking. Covered in baby goop (I haven’t read all of the books I probably should have). Joann’s body was rocked by it all, but she gradually recovered; once Life was born, Joann’s body began to heal itself, with proper medical “nudges” from doctors. Life was beautiful. Life was mine. And I was Life’s. Together we’d both grow, one playing the role of Father, one the role of Daughter.
Life, or Clara we call her now, laying there in her little hospital bed or on my chest, looked at me. I looked in her eyes, and saw so much potential for goodness, beauty, creativity, for life in abundance. Since that day I have enjoyed the benefits of my profound experience of Life in Clara, and our story is only beginning…there’s so much more Life to come.
There is a lot I don’t understand about God and the meaning of life. But when I look at Clara, these things make a little more sense.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Can You Buy Me a Hot Dog? I’m Homeless.

Being asked for small amounts of money by people on the street is a bit bewildering for me. I don’t think I am the only one who struggles with discerning a right response in these cases, but I’ll try to speak for myself here and not generalize.

Three recent episodes (recreated as precisely as I can recall) to explain where I’m coming from:


At a Chevron, while pumping gas:

Man, carrying gas can, walking toward me: Hey, I’m not going to ask you for money.
Me: Ok. Hi.
Man: I just need $5 to get some gas, we’re all out.
Me: No, sorry.
Man walks around, asking several people for gas, all obviously denying him. To me: Hey, I just need some gas, could you buy me some?
Me: No, sorry.
Man stands behind and uncomfortably close to me while I pump gas, looking around for other people to ask. He eventually finds someone to put some gas in his tank.


At a drive-in Dairy Queen:

Man: Hey, man how you doing tonight?
Me: Good.
Man (closer): Hey, how you doing man?
Me: Good.
Man, to DQ attendant: Yeah, let’s see, I’ll get (looks in wallet)…oh man, I thought I had a five (opening wallet wide so I can see he’s only got two ones)…oh that’s right, I spent it on a haircut. Hey man (to me), do you have a dollar?
Me: No, sorry.
Man: Alright (to attendant), I’ll be back in a while. What time do you close?
Attendant: 9pm.
Man: Alright.
Me, playfully: Don’t come back at 9:03, they’ll be closed. I learned that the hard way. They take their schedules seriously.
Man: Oh, alright. Hey, can you buy me a hot dog? I’m homeless.
Me: No, sorry.
Man: Alright (walks off).


In Santa Cruz on Pacific Ave:

Man: Hey, do you have some spare change?
Me: No, sorry.
Man: Ha!


“No, sorry.” I don’t think I invented that line. I feel like it’s the polite way of saying “I do not intend (nor want) to give you money at this juncture.” Right? And people asking are intelligent; I would guess they know the euphemism. Though, I’ve never verified that with someone asking for money. I should. I will say that most people asking if I can give them money, when I say “no, sorry,” are very polite and don’t pester or challenge the veracity of my response.

There is so much involved in this; I'm not sure where to start. The topic on one hand provokes righteous anger and, on the other hand, guilt.

I’m doing some research on Dorothy Day and exploring her obsessive use of the “works of mercy”—a Catholic teaching based on Scripture (notably Matthew 25) that includes fourteen corporal (bodily) and spiritual practices that all have an element of social concern: feed the hungry, visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, forgive all injuries, among others.

Day is very serious about the centrality of these practices—this is the heart of the Christian life for her. She at one point even says “our salvation is at stake” in the successful practice of these merciful acts. Whether she’s being literal, semi-literal or rhetorical, she persistently calls people to practice these works and practices them herself. She calls readers (of her Catholic Worker editorials) to practice them, at a personal cost. She calls readers to sacrifice. She calls readers to recognize the humanity of the poor, to dignify them, to recognize their personhood.

Joann and I tried to meet the needs of others with a short-lived “project” when we lived in Olympia. We didn’t like giving away money to people on the street for philosophical and practical reasons, but we wanted to offer something. So we bought a bunch of bottled water and bulk food and made “snack packs” to distribute when asked (mainly while in the car at intersections). But I think we (at least I) just became undisciplined and would forget to add new packs to the car and so our project faltered.

We also used to budget a small amount of money each month to have on hand, available to distribute in person to whomever and to be given away by the end of each month. This was a good practice for us. Though I guess both these practices got lost in the birth of Clara and subsequent move to California (as well our very different financial situation now that I'm a student again).

But so many thoughts race through my head in (and shortly after) these kinds of interactions.

One is “make sure you dignify the person. Don’t ignore him/her.” So even when I do not give out money but I drive past someone at an intersection or walk past someone sitting on the street, I make a point to smile and say hello. They are already ignored in so many ways. They make us uncomfortable. Sometimes it even feels silly to say hello, but I do it. They probably think I’m weird because of how overly friendly I am, at least in terms of saying hello. Though maybe when I subsequently deny them a donation they think I’m less friendly.

Another is, “I don’t have money to give.” I might literally have money in my wallet. I might not. The point is more an overall feeling of “I really, especially as a husband and father with dependents who is already taking out student loans, do not have the money to spare.” But even a dollar? I can afford to buy that new shirt, even though I have plenty of old shirts that still fit fine.

Another is, “Pressure, confrontation, ah!” It’s an awkward thing to be asked for money. Sometimes I wonder if maybe my response is really just an immediate reaction to the situation, as if “no, sorry” really means, “I don’t like this conversation, make it stop.”

Another is, “well, I give in other ways.” I don’t know how true that is. Maybe if you define “giving” broadly. I pay for friends’ lunches occasionally but I don’t give to charitable organizations. I give love, time, prayer, healthy meals, encouragement, and work hard now so I’ll be in a better place to financially give later. But…I don’t know. Seems like self-placation.

Another is, “this potential donation will bring about no systemic change, and this person will continue in this course of life. I’m not helping them.” I think there’s truth to this; while charitable giving in isolated incidents might be effective in making a giver feel good about themselves, may be a good spiritual practice, and may meet an immediate need, it likely doesn’t make much of a dent in the larger social and structural problems causing this person to be in such need that are not being addressed (or are being addressed but the powerful aren’t listening).

Another is, “forget the previous justification…what about the simple joy of human contact, of giving, of connecting with someone by buying them a hot dog, or gas, or a cigarette, or whatever they think they need (not what I patronizingly determine are their actual needs.) What about the simple grace of giving someone something when they ask, without hesitation? Jesus spoke to this.

I don’t have a good answer. I don’t think a consistent “method” would work for me; I think discernment in the situation is appropriate. I think remembering that they are people with names and stories and not just nuisances interrupting my flow/trajectory/expectations is important. Perhaps I’m lacking compassion. Being selfish. Being disrespectful. Perhaps I need to go back to snack bags. Perhaps I need to think more about what it means to give, to be generous, to have a proper relationship to money...what it means to call something "mine."

No easy answer.


An addendum: since I wrote the above, the following conversation happened, while we were sitting in our car, windows down, Clara asleep on Joann:

Man: Hey, do you have any spare change? I need something to eat.
Me: Can I give you an apple?
Man: I don’t have any teeth.
Me: Oh.
Man: It’s okay, never mind (walks away).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Farewell, Twenties

I’m now thirty years old (and one+ week). I haven’t yet really taken the time to decide whether or not that means anything to me. I don’t feel much different. Maybe I do feel a small degree of pressure to “be” something or to have “accomplished” something, as if there’s a universal expectation of what a thirty-year-old should look like. But, not surprisingly, I did not feel any kind of ontological shift on the day of transition to my thirties. Nor did anyone give me a jacket and a cigar signifying admission to an exclusive club. So far, thirty just feels like one more than twenty-nine.

But the change in not one but two digits has caused me to reflect back on my twenties and consider all that transpired in those years. For example, I...
  • Went skydiving (thanks to Joann’s prodding).
  • Taught English in Xiaogan (near Wuhan), China for a year.
  • Got married. Still married.
  • Had a daughter. Still have her.
  • Tried to co-pastor a church plant and was eventually asked to leave for not being theologically conservative enough.
  • Tried to win the hearts of several girls and failed. (Even picked flowers for one girl from five different European countries, pressed and dried them in a picture frame and gave them to her. She was “flattered” and that was about it. Should have just bought her coffee. Wouldn’t mind getting the flowers back, actually.)
  • Had four (that I'm aware of) seizures in my sleep over a two-year period. Been free of them since 2008, thanks to chiropractic (who knew?) and God knows what else.
  • Remained obsessively and fanatically loyal to a baseball team that missed the playoffs every year of my twenties.
  • Stayed in a tiny hostel room in Prague with two gorgeous Argentinean blonds in their skimpy pajamas. And talked religion. I have ambivalent feelings about whether or not I made the most of that experience.
  • Completed a BA, started and finished an MDiv, and began a PhD.
  • Did two months of grant-funded research on the Latin American “emerging” church, traveling to four countries and learning a ton. Also, while there, visited Machu Piccu and talked a drug dealer out of shooting me.
  • Took two trips to Europe—study trip in Western Europe, backpacking in Central Europe.
  • Buried my childhood dog after 18 (exclamation point) years.
  • Jogged on the Great Wall of China.
  • Spent a month in Africa in service and safari.
  • Watched my Grandpa—heavily involved in my childhood—decline with Alzheimer’s and eventually pass away.
  • Became a cult legend at Tumwater High School for my masterful chaperoning and for wearing a stuffed lion on my head.
  • Bought an engagement ring from my then-unofficial-fiancĂ©e (in hundreds) that she had bought on her parents’ credit card earlier that day. Gave it back to her three days later. I mean, "proposed."
  • Cried three times (all in the last ten months…damn, almost made it the whole decade...I'm breaking).
  • “True, honorable, unsurpassed nobility, duly (dually?) existential as we realiiiizzeee…” (Inside joke, forgive me).
  • Had my first kiss. Didn’t happen as a teenager…probably due to some combination of being prudish, awkward,  "religious", shy, a pansy, or being unattractive to the girls I was attracted to.
  • Worked a short stint at Starbucks right after college (as every good northwest college grad should).
  • Ran a marathon.
  • Started wearing vests, V-necks, and converse (Joann’s influence). Wore “Boswell shirts” (last inside reference) with great frequency.
  • Two Disneyland visits. It gets better the older I get.
  • Wrote timeless classics such as “Flee-ber” and “I Want All of Your Clothes to Be Off of Your Body.” One for children and for my wife. Please correctly discern which for whom.
  • Had a profound work experience as a direct care worker for three developmentally disabled men. Had a less profound work experience installing outdoor lighting systems (well…digging trenches for a guy who installed outdoor lighting systems).
  • Worked for EF International with a team of fabulous teachers. Taught English to a community of Venezuelans, Germans, Saudis, Libyans, Vietnamese, Koreans, Russians, among many others. Occasionally learned English from fellow teacher and word artist Dave.
  • Participated in the weddings of Chris, Ron, Brad, Mark, Pat, Vic, Trevor, Dan, Ian, and Matt. And my own wedding, of course.
  • Remained thoroughly Jesus-centered but experienced a gradual shift in theology and values. As a 20-year old I felt pity for all those people who didn’t know the Truth. As a 29-year old I felt pity that I knew so little of it. As a 20 year old I thought men should be out rescuing “the beauty” wherever she might be (John Eldridge terminology/thought). As a 29-year-old I thought those same men should be allowed to rescue beautiful men too.
  • Faced the scariest moment of my life as I nearly lost my wife to HELLP syndrome (would have had we lived a century earlier).
  • Played alto saxophone as a guest artist on a jazz album.
  • Moved to the Bay Area. Began referring to our home with the more inclusive term "Bay Area" because San Francisco isn't quite accurate, Berkeley is where our academic and social life are, and no one really knows where Vallejo is, and the part of Vallejo we live in is really not all that Vallejo-ish.
  • Tweeted. Once. On July 22, 2012. I wrote: “Clara grunted.”
It was a good decade. And my thirties are off to a good start: turns out I left my car door open all night! Nothing missing, car started fine. No indication that anyone or anything (our neighborhood is known as “Skunk Hill”) slept there last night.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Who Are Your Spiritual Models?

I have a question for all who pass by this blog. I welcome any responses you might have, either in the comments section of this post or in response to the Facebook link that may have brought you here. I will likely learn something from you and your response, so…feel free to take a moment and be my teacher. Or you can just ponder the question for a few moments without responding...that might be valuable, too.

My question is this: is there someone whose spirituality—a term I’ll purposefully leave open and undefined—you deeply admire? Is there one particular person, maybe a mentor, maybe a friend, who comes to mind when you think of a really “spiritual” person, someone who has some quality, attribute, way of life, philosophy, pattern of behavior, formal or informal commitments, whatever—who you look to and say something like: “that’s the kind of person I’d like to be.”

I’d love to hear from you. Whether you are spiritual but not religious, religious but not spiritual, spiritual and religious both, or neither. Whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or one of the many other religions or spiritualities with which one might identify. Is there someone, other than a particular “founder” or “centerpiece” of a tradition (so not Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, Nietzsche, Elmo, etc) who possesses a spirituality that you find inspiring or impressive or worthy of emulation? Someone you’d call a “model”? Someone who makes you think, “if more people were like (this person), the world would be a better place!”

If you don’t want to share their name, that’s fine…I’m more curious as to the why. What is it about this person that makes them a spiritual guide, an exemplar, an ideal? For example, maybe they possess astounding generosity. Maybe they sing songs in church with an inspiring level of passion and abandon. Maybe they live an extraordinarily simple life, free of attachments, material goods, etc. Maybe their prayers inspire you. Maybe they are in touch with beauty in a way you could only hope to be. Maybe they spent countless hours helping people with some kind of need. The list could go on.

They could be someone you’ve never met but only read about. But they might be someone you know personally, someone you brush shoulders with, someone whose life, values, actions, etc. you can vividly draw to your mind because you've seen them in action. What is it about them that makes them a spiritual exemplar, that is to say, a model of what it means to be truly spiritual? Is there something you can point to and say, “that’s it—I want more of that in my life?”

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Shocking Goof

As a first-year doctoral student, I’ve had a few slip-ups. I recognize that to succeed in the path I’m on—becoming a scholar—I have to push myself and be pushed. This compulsion to be excellent creates pressure. Some of which is probably unreasonable pressure, me being too hard on myself.

And no matter how much (admittedly) unfair pressure I put on myself to be perfect/awesome/successful, I’m going to make mistakes along the way. Mistakes are inevitable. Being able to both take them seriously and lightly is important to me—seriously considering what can be learned from them, while laughing at myself where appropriate. I’m good at making jokes, responses seems to indicate. I mean, my responses. I laugh at my jokes, so therefore I’m good at making jokes. That was a joke. Sort of.

But I’m also “good” at taking myself too seriously, which can cause myself (and others) unneeded stress. So I’m kind of relieved that my most recent and current favorite doctoral “goof” was an amusing mistake, the kind that makes me cringe, but then laugh… as opposed to cringe, followed by weeping in my closet with a bottle of red wine.

I recently received my grade and professor’s commentary on a paper I submitted in December. The grade and review were solid; nothing to complain about. And, as is customary and invaluable, I received some critique/pushback/suggestions to help me continue to improve as a student and scholar.

My paper was about Thomas Merton, a Catholic (Trappist) monk and writer known for his insights on spirituality and contemplation, his social activism, his poetry, and—the focus of my paper—his interest in comparative spirituality, especially dialogue between Christianity and Eastern religions like Taoism and, most notably, Zen Buddhism. Merton was a genuine student of the East, eager to receive spiritual wisdom and have his own Christian faith enhanced and deepened by the encounter with the religious "other." He is an exemplar, a fabulous guide for how to "do" this kind of dialogue well.

Many know of Merton’s life and work, but not as many know of his death. Actually, there are some conspiracy theories surrounding his death, the mainstream explanation being commonly held in suspicion.

Merton eventually went to Asia and traveled about, seeking dialogue with the monks of these other traditions. He had spoken at an interfaith conference in Thailand, exhorting monks toward spiritual renewal: “I believe that our renewal consists precisely in deepening this understanding and this grasp of that which is most real. And I believe that by openness to…these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions, because they have gone from the natural point of view, so much deeper into this than we have.” (from The Asian Journal, 342)

Later that night, it is reported, he was electrocuted by an electric fan while stepping out of his bathtub.

That’s the commonly-held view at least, though as I said, other theories abound. Now, one could insensitively make an awful pun here about Merton’s shocking death. His shocking death. Though one would certainly not want to make such a pun in an academic, doctoral-level paper. That would be ridiculous.

I have since decided it would have been worse to have intentionally made such a pun. So, that’s something. At least I can claim lack of intentionality due to not poor but obviously not exquisite editing, something which, should I seek to publish my paper (or some form of it), would certainly be caught by an editor. You don’t always catch your own mistakes, right? I was genuinely shocked by the manner in which he died! So I used the adjective “shocking” without thinking that I could have said surprising, disturbing, horrific, ghastly, stupefying (or even no adjective to let the awful reality of the situation speak for itself without help from me) and been simultaneously more creative and less offensive.

But intentionally making this pun…that seems like it would have been more problematic. I’d have some serious concerns about me if I were that professor. Graciously giving me the benefit of the doubt, he assumed it to be accidental. I don’t know if he laughed or just groaned. I haven’t talked to him yet. I hope he laughed.

Since I’ve started the doctoral program at the GTU, I’ve made a few mistakes. I’ve been unaware of an impending deadline and had to scramble. I've formatted documents wrongly. I've been inarticulate and incoherent in verbally making a point in class. I've pronounced “papacy” like “tap” rather than “tape." I've lost objectivity in a paper when making an argument because I’ve predetermined how I want the results to come out and so done injustice to significant historical figures. All bad or silly things to grow and learn from.

And now a new one to add to the list, a new lesson learned: make sure you avoid puns in scholarly work. Puns are a bad idea. Had this pun not been in the conclusion of my paper (thank God!), I might have lost my professor at the outset of his read, losing any chance of having my paper taken seriously. Maybe not. But lesson learned. Don’t make puns in papers.

But, it’s pretty funny, right? Merton’s “shocking death”? I mean, it’s not funny that he died that way, just that I chose to…(trails off with unintelligible mumbling)…

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Don’t Shoot the Messenger; Deconstruct the Delivery System

My downstairs neighbors seem noisy. But I have a suspicion that they aren’t really all that noisy. The problem may be the design of the building that simply amplifies their very normal amount of noise. We’re likely noisy too. I know Clara’s noisy.

I’ve become a true California driver. Californians really do drive differently than PacNW folk. There’s less room for timidity as a driver here; you decide to change lanes, and you do it boldly, and people make way for you, because that’s just how it works. When I was in the northwest for Christmas break, I made a few people angry with my aggressive driving; they acted offended that I’d “invaded their space.” But I was just doing what I’d been conditioned to do after several months in the bay area.

People at Safeway seem to have constant troubles with my sandwich and coffee orders from the deli and the in-store Starbucks, respectively. They do not seem to listen well, either making me incessantly repeat myself or just botching the order. It’s possible these people are incapable of a better job performance, but I doubt it; I suspect the problem is not in them, but in their training. The problem may not be the individuals, who are probably really nice people with a variety of talents and competencies; the store itself may not be setting them up for success, perhaps not due to cold indifference toward their quality of customer service but, rather, due to lack of resources.

We recently had a doctor’s appointment for Clara (routine) at a clinic we’d been to before. We were on a tight schedule as I had to get to class that evening, and were really counting on our appointment starting when it was supposed to, or at least shortly thereafter. We had to wait an hour for our last appointment. Whatever, that happens, I guess. But we arrived extra early this time and specifically asked about their level of busyness. We were told by a well-meaning receptionist that it would be “soon.” It wasn’t soon. Later, a different receptionist reassured us we’d be right in. Someone went to check on our appointment, and seemingly forgot about us. We finally clarified to the staff that we would have to cancel and reschedule (not happily, as this appointment concerned the well-being of our daughter), and we were told we’d “be right up,” that the assistant was “coming to get us now” to take us to the doctor. A minute later, yet another receptionist told us it would be 15-20 minutes longer. So we left. I was annoyed at the inaccuracy of all these time assessments, especially because we so specifically made a point to be aware of this. I was annoyed at the staff, the messengers. But I don’t think it was really their fault; perhaps they’ve been trained to placate in this manner and told this is good customer service. Perhaps they are understaffed and underfunded. (Perhaps we shouldn’t have so tightly scheduled our day, but then again, there weren’t many other available times, indicative of another dimension of this problem)

I present these four anecdotes because I believe they share something in common: they are all problems that seemingly lie in structures, not individuals. I’m helping teach a class on contemplative social justice this term in which one of our goals is to uncover the ways in which many of the problems we encounter do not lie in the personalities of specific individuals but in the nature of systems and structures of which we are a part.

This could be a workplace, classroom, church, committee, or a city. Or could be a broader, more normative pattern of “rules” like a church culture, or an –ism, like racism, sexism, etc. You can probably think of other examples of this kind of phenomenon.

The problem in a system could be the people in it; get rid of the people, replace them with new ones, and problem solved. But perhaps you’ve been a part of an organization where the boss/pastor/leader who everybody thought was the cause of all ills is removed, and yet, the problem endures. Often times a culture or normal pattern of operation is so established that even after a specific individual has left the system, the dysfunction remains.

Thinking more "structurally" about the world has increased my sensitivity to the way this kind of thing happens...to the way systems function and are capable of both great good and great harm. For example, how often do we deal with problems with some kind of an action that amounts to putting a band-aid on a wound rather than taking the necessary steps to actually expedite the healing of the wound? There may be a place for isolated actions that don’t necessarily in themselves effect systemic change (e.g., maybe you think abortion is a bad practice and so you speak boldly and publicly against it); but in some cases real change might only come about if the system itself is fixed (e.g., what social/economic/cultural conditions lead people to consider abortion in the first place)?

Maybe on a more basic level, thinking structurally is challenging me to be much more gracious and forgiving. Sure, people are, to an extent, responsible for their actions and should be held accountable; but often times it’s really not simply their fault. It’s not just that the individuals are flawed; they exist in a flawed structure that shapes and influences the way they act. Forces beyond them, surrounding them, and preceding them are at work; the problem often lies in these forces, not just in the individuals.

And so I've begun to ask myself and hope to continue to do so the next time someone gets under my skin, or someone is marginalized or treated poorly, or the next time I feel restricted, oppressed, pinched, constrained, bound: does the problem lie in a specific individual (it might), or is the problem systemic?

There are many forces at work, and things aren’t usually black and white. Maybe it is that person’s fault at Safeway for messing up my order again. But maybe the problem goes way beyond them (and as Joann has pointed out, sometimes people operating in a bad system know it's bad but work hard to be "good cogs"). I may not know who to blame or what to do in response. But at the very least, people who "wrong me" deserve some grace, some understanding.

I think it's easy to villainize people, to objectify an individual person as "the problem" and place full blame on them. I often do this in the moment, when I'm annoyed or "thwarted" in some way. But often the problem is much bigger than any one individual. Again, people deserve a little grace.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Call Me "Da"

Watching now-eight-month-old Clara develop has brought joy and awe. More specifically, watching her discover. It’s not just about height and weight or common developmental milestones. It’s Clara’s own experience of discovering something new about herself, about others, about the world.

I’m relatively weak on child development and psychology and hope to take a course at UC Berkeley in the next couple of years to enhance my understanding of child (and adult) development, in connection with my research interests in the area of Christian Spirituality. So I’m a little sheepish about speaking too firmly of Clara’s self-awareness and potentially misinterpreting what’s happening to and in her. But I don’t think it takes a comprehensive knowledge of the matter to discern her journey of discovery.

I mention this because last night, while holding her on my lap, Clara looked me in the eye, gently brushed my nose with her right hand, and said “Da.”

Now that I’ve reconstructed my heart into one unified whole after gathering its shattered remains last night, scattered about the living room due to explosion from an incapacity to contain the sweetness of that moment, I feel I can think clearly enough to reflect on this tender experience.

I am deeply involved in Clara’s life but also a spectator, observing a steady stream of basic discoveries. I recall her discovery of the P-sound, which sounds more like farting and is continuously funny, because, I’m twelve years old. The discovery that we still exist even when she can’t see us (object permanence). The discovery of new preferred foods, some initially met with reticence but eventually embraced and enjoyed. The discovery of her toes. The discovery of laughter and the way such laughter has evolved and multiplied. 

The discovery of my face and glasses (and that these glasses can be removed). The discovery that she can be interested in two objects at once but not look at them at the same time if placed in opposite directions, causing much back and forth turning of the head. And the discovery that I, the one with the deeper voice, the one who doesn’t produce milk, the one with grab-able chest hair, the one who sings “Clara, Clara was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine...” to her when I change her diaper, the one who has been second-most present with her in her eight months out of the womb…the discovery that I am “Da” (for my old English students, “Da” is short for “Daddy”).

I find Clara’s journey of discovery not only beautiful in itself but also a reminder and a challenge. A reminder that I too, despite being an adult, am still on my own journey of discovery, the character of which obviously looks different from my daughter’s; and a challenge to be open to such discovery and not become closed or static but, rather, perpetually open and exploring.

Discovery—and its implication that I’ve not yet fully arrived or mastered all—is a constant in my life. I discover new foods. New stretches. New routes. New personality quirks, some fun and some harmful. New theologians and perspectives. New people. New questions. New answers. New likes, new dislikes. New longings, preferences, desires. New fears (or new understanding of old fears). New doubts, and new hopes. Like Clara, I continue to discover what it means to be specifically me, Matt, and what it means to be more generally a human person in community with people, with creation.

A theological suspicion I have: God enjoys our human process of discovery. I suspect that God, who I don't wish to simply anthropomorphize yet who I believe to be deeply personal, responsive to and affected by humankind, is pleased with the journey of self-discovery of the human community, at least where such discovery is good and beautiful or where it leads to the bringing of goodness and beauty to where these are lacking.

I don’t think human ignorance is our primary predicament, an evil to be overcome; I think the human journey of discovery is the way God wants it, probably the best way. A journey perhaps not best understood as one from perfection to sin to salvation, as it’s often been framed, but rather, from child to adult, from seed to fruitful tree, from seeing partially to seeing more and more fully. I suspect my experience of Clara's discovery, to some extent, echoes God's experience of creation.

Clara has already discovered much but will discover more; “Da” will soon be superseded by “Dada” and “good morning” and “get the hell out of my room, I hate you.” But for now, I will savor “Da” and this particular moment in our shared journey.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reboot (A Belated New Year's Post)

Nearly two months have passed since my last post. Two months composed of a wild, exhausting rush of paper writing as the Fall term concluded, followed by the physical and emotional relief of a Christmas break of road tripping, family and friends, familiar northwest comforts, and even a three-movie day in there at some point.

This was followed by January, a month in which, other than a week and a half long class I attended at one of the GTU schools, I’ve tried as much as possible to take an intellectual and creative break, spending my time watching The Office and Downton Abbey on Netflix, exercising every day (truly), cooking a lot, spending quality time with Joann and Clara, and taking day trips around the bay area. All while occasionally sneaking in a bit of Greek study and work on other miscellaneous school-related projects as I gear up for a new semester. It was a much needed break; last semester was enriching but demanding, and the next will likely be more of the same.

I am energized by beginnings, partly because of a personality type bent toward a love of possibility and hope. I recognize I can “begin” on April 7th or July 18th or any day; every moment holds the possibility for change and renewal. But the calendar turnover seems a natural moment to consider hopes, goals, priorities...to self-assess.

My friends and I have a running joke about the new year, inspired by words from a middle-school classmate: “I’m going to get soooo ripped (i.e., strong, chiseled) this year!” I always joke that this is the year I get my six-pack abs. I’d probably be better off aiming to drink a six-pack; that’s probably a more attainable goal. Genetics and ingrained habits are greater foes than the path from my desk to the fridge.

Goal setting, resolutions, ambitions...these can be dangerous for me...a way of setting myself up for failure and remorse given a below average performance record of meeting the demands I place on myself. But demand I must, lest I become overly permissive and neglect my responsibility for my own betterment and thriving. The same applies to the (I believe) essential Christian pursuit of character and compassionate action: I don’t want a spirituality that is permissive, that doesn’t challenge me, that is merely self-congratulatory rather than stretching and demanding. The positive and perhaps well-intended message of “God loves you just the way you are” at its best seems to affirm the worth and beauty and unique gifting of all and at its worst seems a license for moral apathy, negligence, and arrogant inflexibility. I think "journey" must always be emphasized over "arrival"; maybe no one should assume to have "arrived" anywhere.

I hope to journey down the road a little further in many areas in 2013. I hope to exercise frequently and with variety. I hope to continue the diminishing of sugar and white flour from my diet, while also attending to portion size. I hope to have better posture while sitting at my desk (I just sat up straight as I began that sentence).  I hope to improve my email and phone correspondence with those for whom I care most. I hope to be a better listener—talking less, understanding more.

I hope to accept my inability to "fix" people who don’t welcome my fixing (this usually doesn’t end well, trying to fix those who haven’t given me permission to fix them). I hope to gain reading competency in two languages (simultaneously close to and far from this goal). I hope to inch a little closer to clarity about my scholarly focus, while taking in a wealth of insight from the massive amounts of reading expected of me this year (still in the broad, exploratory stage of my doctoral program).

I hope to make the necessary repairs to my alto saxophone and pick that back up (perhaps develop an alter ego a la Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec). I hope to learn more quinoa-centric dishes. I hope to love now nearly eight-month-old Clara and accept her as she is, not pushing her beyond what she’s ready for while attentively guiding her development where it’s appropriate. I hope to better understand how to positively influence (and endure, if necessary) those social/institutional structures that might be good in theory but are in actuality broken, impersonal, harmful, and deeply in need of reform.

I hope to less often leave my sweatshirts and water glasses strewn around the house so that Joann doesn’t have to pick up after me like I’m her child. I hope to be a more courageous person, not bound by egocentric fears and doubts and free to act boldly and rightly. I hope I have a slightly better grasp of what God is like and what God cares about and where God can be found. I hope it snows in the bay area this year.

And I hope I quickly get over my hope that it will snow in the bay this year so that I don’t cling to obviously doomed hopes, because, that’s silly.