Monday, April 29, 2013

Community and Value

My wife shared a story with me last night about a conversation she overheard. A student being asked about things not working well in the school and how they could be changed. The student mentioned the awards ceremony, where they give out recognition for academic achievement. Some people are not good students, some don't even try hard or care much at all about academics. This student thought they still should be recognized - that everyone has something of value that they do.

That student is crying out for community.

A school is a place of learning - that's the whole point - giving out academic awards makes sense. A community is a place where each member is significant, knows it, and is both recognized for and expected to contribute their gifts and talents. Our most basic community should be our family; sadly, it's often not the case.

The more reading I do the more I'm convinced that the counter-cultural, radical call of the gospel is to supersede that family structure and replace it with another - the family of God.

In a world where we're so intimately connected in just about every time and place, we lack that final layer of intimacy. Facebook allows me to be better friends with people than I would otherwise. I know more about people and have more interactions with people who, in a previous generation, I'd likely never see or hear from again. I think that's a positive.

The negative is how easily this connectivity masks our need for real community. As an introvert and someone better at writing than talking, it's a tough lesson to remember. I could literally spend all day online, just reading and consuming information. I suspect this is because I have a strong wife and daughter; I feel valued and appreciated enough to keep the need at bay.

Every so often, however, it sneaks out. I just feel incomplete - and it's usually because I've been missing community.

Our society would have us believe that we meet that need by going out with friends or taking a vacation. Recharge, refuel and back to normal. I've come to believe we need normal to be community - interactive, loving, supportive. That should be normal, not the exception.

We used to have this - not in a false nostalgia, 1950's fantasy kind of way - we used to be tribal. People lived, worked, ate, relied on and with each other. We were individuals and we had individual responsibility, but only in the context of community.*

Ultimately, I think it's the necessary connections that come with true community that make it difficult today. We are so imbued with the notion of self-sufficiency and independence, that we shy away from really connecting ourselves to others.

This is where we end up lonely and hurting and self-destructive. We are free of encumberances, but for what? How's that working for you? I am, after all, a pragmatist at heart.

It comes down to trust. Community requires it - and we shy away from it, run from it often. Because we've been hurt. When someone breaks trust, it's tough to trust again. I don't know the answer - other than to walk in with your eyes open. Trust someone you deem worth trusting (don't be naive), but in the same way, walk in with the expectation you'll be hurt and hurt others, that you'll need to forgive and be forgiven.

We need this. We know it.

The analogy doesn't work all the way through, but the way we do community now is sort of like relational dialysis. I can be my own person, except when I run low on intimate human interaction, then I hook myself up, get back to health and go about my business. I don't think there's a way to win that game. We need something completely different.

In the end, we're all just a kid who feels left out and unappreciated. The answer is simple - get to know the people around you well enough to value them.

*I don't think this has to be a Christian community, that is one based on Christ. I do think centering community life on Christ makes it work better and keeps it sustainable. I'll offer our move away from such community in the western world as proof of this.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Injustice Machine

I took quite a bit of flack last week for insinuating (or poorly attempting to insinuate) that tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing help to isolate us from larger, more prevalent tragedies in our world.

One of the more poignant responses I saw came from a Watertown resident - this shouldn't happen here; this shouldn't happen anywhere.

There are great tragedies daily around the world - not just terrorist bombings, but starvation, poverty, slavery, rape, murder, war, and abuse. People are routinely taken advantage of, used, misused, killed or otherwise injured. It happens on epidemic levels.

What makes something like the Boston tragedy so shocking for us is that it's unusual given the time and place. If it happened in Syria it may not have made news anywhere, let along garnered coverage around the clock for days. More poor children and minority children go missing every year, but rich white girls tend to make the news. Urban murders often go unreported when suburban deaths are sensationalized.

Why? Because there are certain places where we expect tragedies to occur. That doesn't make things any more or less tragic; it's not about comparison. No one should have to fear an explosion outside their place of business. No one should have to go to bed cold or hungry. No one should have to sell a child in order to feed the rest of the family. Children should not die from preventable diseases.

All of these things would be outrageous if they happened next door to us in the US. We wouldn't stand for slums - not rundown urban neighborhoods, but giant, stinking trash heaps housing millions of people - that are just part of life in many major cities around the world.

I'm just uncomfortable being more outraged about a tragedy in my backyard than the same tragedy across the globe. I've long ago accepted that we live in a tragic world and the only way I can address such tragedies is to live differently where I am.

I mourn those who lost lives and limbs in Boston. I also mourn two young men who felt that inflicting such hurt was necessary.

As much as we like to put up walls and separate "us" from "them" we are all the same. Political and geographic boundaries are arbitrary and deceptive. We have the world we make. Human society works like a machine. When we don't like the product of the machine, we tend to try and fix the product instead of trying to fix the machine.

I'm unwilling to accept "that's just the way the world works" or "it could be worse" as excuses simply because things work out well for most of us most of the time.

I don't want more bombs. I didn't want the ones we got. I don't want to let bombers off the hook or make excuses. I wouldn't accept "but he did it first" from a five year old; I won't accept it from adults.

At the same time, I'm troubled by our response. We seem to rid ourselves of anomalies by killing them or hiding them or ignoring them. To me, it comes off as denial. It's us trying to reassure ourselves that our world, our system works right - it's just these few defectives who can't play by the rules, they're the problem.

It doesn't mean we're the problem either. The problem is likely bigger than us, bigger than them. The problem is something in which we all participate; it's the machine.

I don't think the point is whether or not we should kill some stupid, hacked-off kid. That question gets most of the press, sure, but it's peripheral. The question is really how do we keep people from being left out and angry in the first place.

The answer, I think, is suffering. Whether perceived or real, the Boston bombers felt slighted, wronged, and refused to suffer. We regularly ignore suffering in other neighborhoods that we'd refuse to suffer in our own. 90% of the real fights I see (physical or otherwise) result from an insult that just can't be ignored.

I'm not sure how the math or the logic work, but if we'd be more willing to suffer so that others might suffer less will ultimately drive down the overall suffering in the world. I can't prove it (maybe someone smarter can), but I'm convinced that our refusal to suffer forces that suffering on someone else somewhere. With a terrorist bomb, that connection is obvious and immediate; with my careless wasting of water, it's likely more difficult to trace.

The first step, I think, is to suffer with. We spend a lot of time and effort arranging our lives to avoid suffering - our own and others. I think we need to stop. We need to consider others no better than ourselves and be willing to endure what they endure until no one has to endure it. I'm not sure there's any other way. I'm not always sure where to start or what to do next. But I am sure, more sure than ever, that it needs to be here and soon.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Don't Think Big

On the heels of my recent post, Searching for What Comes Next, I've had a lot of conversations with people about what exactly that might be. They've ranged quite broadly, but they've all been flush with uncertainty. It's difficult for people to imagine something different while still immersed in a stable, tangible world.

We took a bit of a leap - stepping out from our known structure to one less known. What's it's done for me, is force me to spend most of my time actively imagining and learning about what comes next. Not to dash your hopes completely, but I haven't found much. That is to say the process thus far has been more about unlearning things than learning.

When it comes to ministry, we're generally trained to be active, engaged, focused, goal-oriented, and pushing forward. As one who grew up in a pastor's home, I've never (until now) lived some place I didn't expect to leave. Delaware is my 10th state in 30 years of life. But even when I was just a kid and not a "minister," this reality still led to forced relationships. I had to make friends, find common interests, use the time wisely because there was no telling how much time existed.

This is even more pronounced as a pastor. You enter into a new environment, a family, essentially, where everyone knows each other, shares a history and deep relationships with everyone, but you. On top of that, you're the one they look to for guidance and wisdom. You have to work hard to fully immerse yourself in relationship; you have to push. There is no other option. It's sink or swim.

Well, I've been unlearning that lifelong training.

Patience has been the most important skill thus far. I don't have to rush any relationships because I don't expect to be going anywhere. If I meet a neighbor and then don't see them again for two weeks I have to tell myself, "don't worry, going out of your way to see people you just met three times a week pegs you as a wierdo." It's only in the Church that people feel obligated to be best friends immediately. Maybe we're afraid they'll never come back? I don't know, but most of my neighbors aren't moving anywhere in the near future.

The other lesson, really the larger lesson encompassing patience, is, as the title indicates, Don't Think Big. In ministerial training, probably any sort of management or life training, you're taught to set goals and work to strategically meet those goal, early if possible. Everything you do should be geared towards making progress on your goals.

My father-in-law passed along a biography of Mother Teresa a few years ago. I knew Mother Teresa as an old nun who battled poverty in India. I knew her as a famous person who death I may or may not be responsible for.* She was an archetype of a famous saint, but I knew nothing of her life.

That biography floored me. I expected to hear about cutting edge medical clinics and unique fundraising plans. That's the sort of thing we'd call a success in our culture (both American and Evangelical). The reality is, to the end of her life, Mother Teresa just wanted to provide a place for poor people to die in peace, with loving caregivers. The Sisters of Charity wash dirty bodies, provide cold water, pray, and love. There are more things they do in other places around the world, but they are similarly linked to small things in context.

In fact, Mother Teresa's most famous quote is that she did "small things, with great love." She didn't say, "we're going to end poverty in India by 2050," or "we're going to provide access to medicine for the poor of Calcutta." She simply went out her front door, found people literally dying in the street, and brought them home.

I've become more and more convinced that our focus should not be on the future of what could be, but on the present reality of what is. We can be intimidated by big goals, paralyzed even - or we can be so consumed by the goal that we miss the people right in front of us. It's not that we don't live unintentionally (yes, it's a triple negative, but I couldn't figure out how to word it differently and mean the same thing) or that we're not purposeful.  It's not even that we avoid setting goals.  We just have to make sure our goals are focused on being in the moment, living each day with love, and worrying more about the people we meet face to face than the potential future multitudes that may or may not exist.

I'm not sure how this jibes with the reality of an interconnected, global world.  I certainly don't want to take away from our unique and important ability to make a difference around the globe.  I do think, however, that if our primary focus is not immediately in front of us, we're missing out on something important.

We claim that God is bigger and more capable than anything we could ever dream. It's often used as motivation to dream big; I wonder if it shouldn't be the reason we do small things with great love.

*If you recall, she died shortly after Princess Diana was killed. We were driving in a van on the way to a Cross-Country meet and I was complaining about how much attention Diana was receiving, mostly for being famous (in retrospect, given the low bar for celebrity these days, that seems like a silly arguments, but context is everything - who could have predicted the Real Housewives of Buttfart, Wisconsin anyway?). My next line was, "Now, if Mother Theresa died..." but before I could even finish the sentence the radio broke in with news of her death. It became deadly quiet in the van and I've felt somehow guilty ever since.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Life, Death, Fear, and Violence

Terror is a synonym for fear. We understand that, right? A terrorist is a fear-monger by definition. Their weapon is not a gun or a bomb, but fear. The goal of the Boston Marathon bombers was not to blow up runners at the marathon, but to flood the city and the nation with fear. I know it's unpopular, incredibly unpopular to say so, but it sickens me that our government and media continue to play into this notion of fear. They are as much fear-mongers as any terrorist.

Yes, they aim to save lives not take them, which makes them different. I'm just not sure life and death are the terms by which we should live our lives.

I have a different perspective, I know. My faith affirms resurrection, that no matter how or when we die, it is not the end. Our bodies will be raised from the ground and remade. Our lives will go on forever, albeit with a little speed bump of death in the middle. Because of this belief, life and death are less important as motivators. I'm not claiming anyone should agree with me or should be forced to risk their lives against their will - what I am saying is that the response to this tragedy and the attempts to catch the bombers is not monolithic.

I'm merely stating a very unpopular opinion I happen to believe in deeply. I'm not attempting to influence anyone or represent anyone - I'm not even making a claim to a "Christian" position, although my thoughts are formed entirely from my Christian faith.

There are a lot of things to fear in life. There are lots of things we have we don't want to lose. There is pain and loss and those things make us feel terrible. We don't like feeling terrible. It makes sense to avoid them - we are evolutionarily hard-wired to avoid them. If I ran into a deranged terrorist on the street, I'd probably run like hell.

That doesn't mean I think it's the right thing to do.

I'd much rather ignore fear than protect my own life. The idea of sitting at home, disrupting my life while the city cowers in fear sickens me. If I were in Boston today, I'd be out walking the streets simply as a refusal to live in fear.

I'm happy the Boston PD announcement said, "if you value your own life" before listing the requests they made on residents. I just don't think my life is worth more than my integrity. I don't know how I could preach and believe what I do and still act out of fear. I suppose that's what grace is all about, because Lord knows I couldn't live up to my beliefs.

I'm not really afraid of death, but I'm terrified of pain, intense pain anyway. I've always chocked that up to being a rich, lazy, spoiled American - and there may be some truth there. Of course it could also be because I've never really experienced intense pain (maybe those are the same thing). Special Ops forces in the military go through training in such things. They endure pain to prove to themselves they can withstand it.

As a Christian, I should be engaging in something similar. Enduring difficult situations to better prepare yourself for them in the future. Practicing non-violence in routine situations, so it's easier to react without violence when things get hectic. Athletes exercise muscles to make them stronger and more capable in difficult situations. We fast from food and other things we don't believe we can live without to prove our resilience and our frailty.

I have to believe facing and ignoring fear is part of that process. As a parent, I'm terrified that my daughter will get hurt, physically and emotionally. But that's going to happen anyway - and I'm just doing her a disservice if I become so protective she never has the opportunity to face pain and learn from it.

Just as there is a fine line between being protective and negligent that parents have to negotiate - I imagine there's a fine line between facing fear and just being stupid.

You always have to ask the question - what is worth dying for? Some people are lauded for defending their home against intruders. The things we own are worth the fight and, sometimes, the life of a criminal. Someone else's life is worth my own - that's more than honorable. Should we also consider than refusing to let someone hold fear over us might be worth our lives, at the very least?

I'm certainly in a minority position - and I'm ok with that - but I object to the people who are supposed to protect us operating on the same fear as those they intend to stop. I'd love to hear things framed not so much in terms of "what you should do," but "if you value your life." It gives people a chance to decide.

We just have to remember that some people put less value on their lives than others.

I'm not willing to kill for anything, but I am willing (I hope) to die for what I believe. "There is no fear in love. A perfect love drives out all fear." 1 John 4:18. I'm not sure I'll ever mine the depths of that truth, but I do believe it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Daughter Doesn't Hug

My daughter doesn't hug... and that's ok. She's only 11 months old; she'll learn. Sure, it would be nice to feel embraced and loved (I wonder why hugging makes us feel good in the first place? It's a strange practice when you take a step back and think about it) by this little person in my life, but at the same time, I think I like it this way.

We're in a stage right now where she's very clingy. If we walk out of her field of vision, the tears well up. The wife had a rough experience trying to leave her in the nursery for worship last Sunday. She went all out waterworks when I walked into the other room yesterday, even though I was in full view.

These are times I'd expect a hug - some reassurance of closeness and protection. She'll often reach up her arms or tug on our pant legs, but as soon as she's being held, she's reaching and pointing for other things.

I do like it this way. She just needs presence. She trusts our love and protection enough that she doesn't need the full force of physical closeness. Once she's secure in our arms, she's ready to face the world. At this point, at eleven months, she literally believes she can do anything if she starts in my arms (including flying, I think, if I'd let her try).

As she grows older, she's not going to need or want to spend so much time being held (which will be wonderful for my lower back). She's going to venture out on her own and create her own independent confidence. At some point I will fail her and she'll realize my arms aren't always the safe harbor they seem to be. (I sometimes wonder if that moment happened Tuesday, when she launched herself off our bed and I didn't notice 'til she hit the floor.)

Perhaps that's when a hug will mean more - when we're not so necessarily connected. I hope she'll be able to know and remember the kind of support and confidence we instill in her now - that she'll be able to pursue the call on her life, to venture out and explore and try and fail and know our arms will always be waiting, even if she's too big to pick up anymore.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Searching for What Comes Next

I had a good talk with a friend of mine the other day. As much as the conversation was a sharing of similar struggles, it was encouraging to know other people struggle with similar things.

There's a sense among some Christians (particularly, but not exclusively younger evangelicals) that what we're doing now isn't exactly right, but that what comes next is frustratingly elusive. It's even more frustrating as a pastor - someone who's supposed to know what to do when it comes to this God stuff.

We're trying lots of different things - house churches, pub churches, communal living, aimless wandering - just trying to hit on exactly what it is that we should be doing.

Obviously the easy answer is being present and loving wherever you are - but that's vague and unsatisfying when you're trying to figure out what exactly it means to represent the Kingdom of God in your world.

I'm fantastic with abstractions. I can talk you to death about ideal situations and faceless concepts. I'm all about the "shoulds" and the "oughts." I just struggle with how to translate those into action, especially when things are broken or mangled or less than ideal (read: always).

My perseverance is lacking. I want to see progress, growth - and almost always it's defined by my preferences.

I'm learning patience more and more. Patience seems to be the key. You can't force anything in life. Training for ministry is getting better, but there's still this underlying (if gratefully unspoken) notion that the pastor should be pushing people in a certain direction. We should have specific, measurable goals so we can prove our success and spiritual stewardship of the divine call.

There's a lot of truth there; it's tough to say any of it's wrong. But it just doesn't sit right. I know I've said it too often, but goals become quite futile if you're planning to live forever.

Peter Rollins takes a lot of crap for telling people that their pursuit of God and participation in religion is distracting them from reality, but I think in this sense he's exactly right. We focus so much on what we should be doing and whatever definition of "good" or "holy" we happen to embrace at a given moment, when we'd be better off focused on the people around us.

When my grandfather died I wrote a short memorial. I talked about how my cousin Angela had clearly been grandma's favorite - but that my grandfather's favorite person was always the one standing in front of him. He had that ability to make you feel like you were the most important person in the world at that moment - because you were.

I wonder if the solution for what comes next is, like much of faith, oxymoronic. Could perhaps our way forward be simply to stop worrying about a way forward. Now that's darn tricky in a congregation with bills to pay and a service to perform every Sunday, I'll give you that - but difficulty is rarely a sign of error; it's often exactly the opposite.

I've spent my life taking the easy way out, even if it meant a lot more work for me. Doing a group project entirely by myself was way better than actually meeting, negotiating, and trusting the others assigned to my group. Leading a congregation would be easy - sure it comes with headaches and heartbreaks, but anyone with half a brain can go through the motions satisfactorily. Doing it well is the real challenge.

Now I find myself in the midst of something much bigger than myself and completely foreign. I suspect that describes the situation for many people of faith, many pastors - lots of my friends. It doesn't seem to fit the patterns of my youth or the categories of my culture(s). What it does contain is people.

I'm not sure if the dying dream will lead to something recognizable. The religious structure I've come to expect may not have an equivalent future. We're all searching for what comes next and we're terrified it might not exist. At least we're searching together... and that alone gives me hope.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Old School Banking

I received an email from our "online" bank. We have a savings account (and a checking account for that matter) with banks that don't have local branches - we do banking there mostly online. In the last two places we've lived, we've opened accounts at local banks (or credit unions, as the case may be) to have access to cash and a way to deposit checks. This email I received detailed the new (free) process for depositing checks electronically - just take a picture and upload it!

At first I was very excited - this would save time and simplify life a bit. Then I began to realize what I'd lose. My daughter and I walk to the credit union when we need to deposit checks - it's a little more than a mile round trip. All six employees there know her by name and they never ask to see my ID. One moonlights at a local retailer and we get to see her there as well; she's part of the neighborhood. Another teller noticed my name in the paper one day and asked about it (when I didn't even think she knew my name to begin with). A third gave me advice on where to get a decent haircut.

One of the big reasons we moved to Middletown was to be in a community - to live and work and bank, I guess, in and around the same people. There's a community here for sure and we discover more of it each and every day.

I deleted that exciting email from the bank. It would cost too much to use that free service. I'm also seriously thinking about what it will take to move our checking account and all of the direct deposits and payments that entail to the credit union.

Maybe we need to be spending more time there after all.