Communion Thoughts at Impact Church of Christ: August 20, 2017

 

Communion Stock Photo
Stock photo. Found online.

I had the chance to offer the communion thoughts at my church this morning, and I wanted to share the transcript with you.

Movement I: The Bread and Cup

Good morning.

I am very glad to be here this morning with y’all. And I would like to take this opportunity to help everyone here recognize the gravity of this moment, this event in which we are now taking part, as the very root of the Church’s theology and ecclesiology centers around this moment.

Since the Beginning, our God has been in communion—Father, Son, and Spirit—and has celebrated that fact ever since. This is evident every time we witness God’s creation first hand: every time we step into a forest, or an ocean, or an inner-city church. The communion of God and God’s creation is present in the diversity that’s displayed. In the many becoming the one.

And because we are created in the image of God, it is imperative that we insist on making community—and communion—the heart of our focus as a Church. In the midst of all the turmoil taking place in our nation and in our world, it is essential that the Church stand as the contrast to the division we witness every time we catch wind of the latest headline.

God’s greatest act of communion came 2,000 years ago, when God became flesh and blood and Jesus the Son came to live in communion with human beings like us. But it was not the pious, the perfect, and the religious that he came to be with; rather, it was the poor, the oppressed, the heartbroken, and the ostracized—those who had historically been denied the opportunity for communion.

And so the case should be with us, God’s followers. In the same way that God came to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and captivity in Babylon, so should we seek to free those held captive by the sins of injustice, pride, racism, greed, and privilege of all sorts—be they the victims or the perpetrators, be it subtle or systemic. Likewise, in the same way that Jesus cast out demons and healed those who were sick, may we seek to heal those possessed by the demonizing mindsets that dare to put themselves on a pedestal above anyone else. In the same way that Jesus broke bread with those that society hated, may we choose to do the same.

This moment we are taking part in right now is revolutionary, because love is being shared indiscriminately. The body and blood of Jesus are being broken into enough pieces to fill the emptiness found in everybody in this room, and—like the five loaves and two fish—they will be able still to feed the thousands, the millions, the billions, even beyond this moment right now. And as we pass this bread and “wine” to our left and to our right, we may or may not know the person we’re passing it to. We may or may not know how this person stands on the latest news story. But God does. And he still chooses to offer love, grace, and mercy to each and every one of us, anyway. May we be brave enough to do the same. Please pray with me.

“Lord, God, You exist in communion, and You have made us in Your image. May we continually seek to learn what that means in our lives with each passing day. When you were on the cross, you said to Mary, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to John, ‘Son, behold your mother,’ because you knew that following you would require a bond that only blood could create. As we take part in communion this day, may we not forget those You broke for. We pray all this in Your name, Amen.”

 

Movement II: The Offering

I am proud to say that I attend a congregation as diverse as Impact is. In a lot of ways, I feel as though I experience a small sample of what heaven will look like whenever I’m here. It’s incredible, because the Kingdom of God seems so much bigger, in that we can witness the diversity of the Kingdom, but at the same time, it also seems to get smaller (in the best way possible), because the people we interact with are so immediate. They’re right here in front of us.

Which brings me to the offering. When we give to the Church, when we offer a part of ourselves for the cause of Christ, the Kingdom gets bigger, and our impact (no pun intended) becomes something more immediate. We realize that the cause of Christ requires self-sacrifice and self-service. God becomes greater in our eyes and in our hearts, while we become less.

And it doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary. You don’t need money to give to the cause of Christ—though we encourage you to give that if you have any! But just as Christ gave himself for the cause of the Kingdom, we too can do the same in our offering, as well as in the way we live our lives. My prayer for the offering is short and simple, but at the same time, I hope that is serves as a challenge to us all. Let’s pray.

“Lord, God, help us learn humility and sacrifice, not just now, but with every time we take a breath. May our giving bring us closer to You. We ask this in Your name, Amen.”

I Attended my First Rally Last Night

Charlottesville Photo
Not intentionally fuzzy, but that’s okay. Not my photo.

I showed up at the bar at around 7:15, though the event I found online said that they were going to be meeting at 7. My shift ended at 7, however, and I didn’t know anyone that was going to be there in the first place, so I figured that didn’t really matter that much. I wasn’t even sure who I was supposed to be looking for. I stuttered a little when telling the bartenders who I was looking for. “A group of people, but they wanted this to remain a private event, so they’re probably not going to be very showy.” Two different bartenders pointed me to the party in the back, but that did not look right at all.

I planted myself at one of the tall tables, and a third bartender convinced me to get a beer while I waited. I was eyeing the group outside who I thought was them.

My sister had shared a link earlier in the day on Facebook containing the locations of all the rallies and vigils throughout the country going on this weekend for people who wanted to stand in solidarity with the victims of the recent events that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. I clicked on it and put in my ZIP code, about 96% sure nothing near me would pop up. But to my surprise…

I took another sip–I was making sure to finish the drink fast enough to be ready to move by 8 (it was only a beer, after all). 8:00 was when the group was going to be meeting in Town Square, mere steps away from the bar I was in. The bartender who’d convinced me to get the beer said he was looking for the group for me, and wished me support in my efforts, because he appreciated my going out looking for strangers for a cause such as this.

At 8:00, I left a $5 tip for my $6 drink and followed the group I’d been watching as they all stood up and made their way to Town Square. I straightened up my polo shirt that had never de-wrinkled from when I stuck it in the dryer in the morning and joined the circle they’d created. Someone had handed me one of the small, battery-powered candles they’d brought in bulk, and I was greeted casually by some of the members who saw me “sneak” in.

Several people spoke about who they were, what they were doing, or why they were there, and others, myself included, took quick photos and videos to share on social media. Some bystanders took photos, some stood behind the circle for a moment, some joined in spontaneously, some didn’t. They asked for volunteers to read a page of 10 ways to peacefully and effectively speak out against injustice, and I read number 7, though had I seen the options beforehand, I would have preferred to read number 10.

At 8:34, the event ended, and the people who’d organized the event encouraged everyone to get to know their neighbors standing next to them. The woman next to me shook my hand, and eventually gave her card, as she’s running for a seat in the Fort Bend County Office.

Throughout the “rally” (I’m really not quite sure what to call it), participants were adamant in making calls for unity and love. Occasionally a small chant of “Stronger Together” were made, but those never carried on because while the event was certainly political, it was never supposed to be partisan.

I left at around 8:50, feeling relieved that I’d sucked up my reservations and just went. It helped that the initial meeting place was a bar, where I could calm some nerves before doing something I’d never really done before.

* * *

Internally, there was a lot more going on than what was presented above.

When I had first found out about the event going on just 5 miles from where I lived, my initial reaction was actually to look for something else. ‘Surely there is a church nearby doing something tonight,’ I thought, ‘A place where there will be prayer. A place indoors, and not public.’

During my breaks at work, I Googled and Facebooked every church and denomination I could think of, in hopes of finding some church somewhere nearby that would be hosting something.

But I found nothing.

In the past, I had attended prayer vigils for refugees and human trafficking. In the past, I’d spent hours in conversation with church groups talking about race relations. In the past, many of these events still had a sense of distance and/or control to them, as well. But that does not appear to be the case anymore.

While I will never be opposed to prayer vigils–in fact, I believe they’re necessary elements for building a stronger Christian and a stronger Church–I am starting to believe that more needs to be done. The Church must be active in matters of injustice. I understand many of the reservations many mostly-white, mostly-conservative, mostly-evangelical Christians possess today (because I, myself still have most of those reservations), but we cannot let that be a part of our identity. We cannot stand idol-ly by in our awkward comfort zones while the oppressed and marginalized–the very people Jesus came to love–are left abandoned by Jesus’s followers. I do not know if that always necessarily entails going out and protesting–though I believe that that is also an important element for building a stronger Church–but it allows no room whatsoever for complacency.

Complacency to injustice is incompatible with people who are called to mourn with those who mourn.
Complacency to injustice is a repellent to the magnetic force of the love that Jesus expects of all Christians.
Complacency to injustice is not and cannot be an ingredient in the recipe for the Peaceful Kingdom of God. It is a poison.

So where is the Church when people–many of whom claim to be fellow followers of Christ–hold rallies promoting racism? And murder innocent bystanders? And deface the image of God that had been embedded in their victims’ genes since the beginning of time?

These situations will always be complicated. But the Church should not be afraid of standing up for the Condemned (see John 8:1-11). Public acts of solidarity are amazing at making the world much smaller than it often seems. Those we are supporting become our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. They become something tangible. They become human (in our minds, at least. They’d always been human). They become Beloved.

The pursuit of peace and justice is long, trying, and harrowing. But it is always a goal worth pursuing.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

Below: “All is Not Lost” by The Brilliance.

 

Together Strong: A Brief Review of the Planet of the Apes Reboot Franchise

War for the Planet of the Apes Poster
(C) 2017 20th Century Fox
Most people who know me know that I love movies and that I also love writing reviews for movies. So far: I’ve written one for Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, both starring Andrew Garfield. I very much hope to write even more reviews on a variety of different movies as time goes on.

My most recent movie kick has been the new Planet of the Apes movies (2011-2017), starring Andy Serkis (also of Lord of the Rings franchise fame) and directed by Rupert Wyatt (the first film) and Matt Reeves (the second two). I saw the first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, for the first time last summer, and was completely blown away. The film had far exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations. While I had initially expected just another CGI and action-driven blockbuster full of explosions–essentially, another Transformers franchise–I instead saw depth, symbolism, traditional senses of ethics being put into question, quality acting (for the most part–sorry, Tom Felton), and genuine and believable character development. And a bunch of CGI and explosions, which, hey, is still pretty enjoyable.

In light of the third film being released this past weekend, I decided to re-watch Rise (2011) and purchase Dawn (2014), and ultimately, ended up watching all three films in three consecutive days. And I just had to try and digest all that went on in these three movies as best as I could, which led me to writing this. So, in breaking from writing a review about a movie starring Andrew Garfield, but easing into the transition by still writing a review about a movie starring a white British guy named Andrew, here’s my attempt to adequately capture the symbolism, philosophy, ethics, and even theology of the Planet of the Apes reboot series in 2068 words.

 

BASIC PREMISE (MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)

To start off, it seems necessary to cover some of the general plot points of the first film in particular, hopefully without giving too much away to those interested, in order to help understand some of the themes and symbols discussed later on.

The first film begins at a biotechnology company in which several different species of apes are being tested for a drug that seeks to cure Alzheimer’s. Initially, it works incredibly well; the test subjects are displaying the ability to learn and grow even beyond normal capabilities. However, one day the most exemplary subject rampages the laboratory and is put to death, along with all the other apes in the building. The company is not only shattered physically, but also emotionally and financially; their (mostly) good intentions had all gone awry and their investors had all pulled out almost immediately. When the damage is being examined, one of the leading scientists in the lab, Will Rodman (played by James Franco), discovers a newborn ape in the room once occupied by the one who wrecked the building. He realized that she wasn’t being aggressive; rather, she was just being a protective mother. Not being able to bring himself to kill the newborn, he decides to take him in, and, eventually, raise him.

Rodman quickly sees that the young ape, who was given the name Caesar, had inherited his mother’s abilities. He became rapidly and dramatically smarter and was almost human-like in his mannerisms, from his ability to eat with a knife and fork to his desire to wear human clothes. However, the son ends up becoming a parallel to his mother: he brings harm to others in a misunderstood fit of rage, and is placed into an ape “sanctuary” that feels about as much like a prison as the laboratory had felt. After being held captive and mistreated for too long, Caesar leads the other apes to revolt, inducing the same drug he’d been given into their systems to help make them smarter, as well. When one of his new caretakers, Dodge Landon (played by Tom Felton), incites violence against him yet again, Caesar, understandably, fights back. Then one of the most horrifying moments in cinematic history takes place. Caesar grabs hold of Dodge, and, echoing a line from the original movie (1968), Dodge yells, “Take your stinking paw off me, you damn dirty ape!” to which Caesar puffs his chest and yells as heartily as he can, “No!”

Clearly, Caesar’s intelligence has reached levels no one could have ever imagined, and everyone, human and ape alike, is left dumbfounded.

From there, Caesar and the apes begin a continual struggle to build a healthy relationship both with humans and with each other. Each species contains characters whose lack of trust for outsiders end up only making things worse for everyone. And throughout the series, we witness several layers of character studies, symbols, and themes, which are discussed (albeit briefly) below.

 

SYMBOLS AND THEMES

  • Good intentions gone awry: I’d touched on this earlier when humans hoping to find a cure for Alzheimer’s ended up killing a mother trying to protect her young. At its core, this theme is found throughout the entire series. Pursuits of peace end up getting thwarted, either due to a misunderstanding or because someone else intentionally addressed the situation with, well, bad intentions. In all three movies, Caesar encounters at least one human who holds no malicious intent against him or any of the other apes, but apparently, they seem to be a rare breed. Instead, most of the characters are driven by fear. The main difference is: whereas the apes’ fear is mostly based off their history as an oppressed and inferior species, the humans’ fear is mostly irrational and based off their desire to remain the dominant species, the oppressors.
  • Humans and animals: This leads to a rather obvious theme exploring the dynamics between what constitutes human action and human nature vs. what constitutes animal action and animal nature (another word that can perhaps be used in place of animal is “beastly”). Where we tend to rely on extremes–humans having morals and thinking about others vs. animals being tribalistic and survivalistic–we see those lines blurred in this franchise. Humans murder ruthlessly. Apes show compassion and mercy to those who’d wronged them. And of course, all of our perceptions are constantly being challenged. One of the most fascinating lines comes in the second movie, where Caesar admits, in broken English, “I always think… ape better than human. I see now… how much like them we are.” How’s that for a turnaround? Theologically speaking, this a reflection of the Fall of humankind. Knowing the difference between good and evil is part of what makes us “like” God (Genesis 3:22a), but so often we err toward our human tendencies, our animal tendencies. Humans are still animals; humans are still not God (more on that later).
  • Shakespearean/Literary References: No, a human and ape do not fall in love with each other in this franchise. But we know that any work of art whose main character is named Caesar is bound to be aptly named. We know that that name foreshadows future plot points and emphasizes certain themes. We know that because there’s a character named Caesar, there’s also bound to be another character who’s just an absolute brute. I know this, et tu. Now, I wanted to find an article that really, really expands on these references, which are especially prominent in the second movie. The best article I was able to find, though, was this one, which still wasn’t terrible.
  • “Apes Together Strong”: This phrase was uttered first by Caesar in Rise, and was repeated several times throughout the next two movies for some reason. As is displayed below, Caesar was explaining to his friend, the Orangutan, Maurice, that his ambitions for apekind cannot be achieved by himself. He breaks the stick in his hand a couple times, saying that like the stick, he is weak when he is one. But then he bunches the now four sticks together and tries to break them, saying that when he’s with others, the overall unit becomes something strong and valuable.Apes Together Strong.gifThis simple phrase showed its own flexibilities and fallibilities as the series progressed. At its best interpretation, it’s a call for unity and harmony. At its worst, it’s something detrimental. Referring to all apes as a collective, it automatically implies a sense of exclusivity against everything not-ape. But what happens when an ape betrays the group? And what happens when a non-ape seeks to build a bridge between them? All these challenges and more and thrown into the mix throughout the series, and it’s quite honestly incredible to observe.
  • Emotion: This seems like something odd to point out, but I’d say it’s actually especially true in a franchise such as this. A large portion of the communication in all three movies is done nonverbally, either through sign language or facial expression. And a whole lot is to be said about the intentional decision by the producers and directors to maintain that concept throughout the series, not to mention Andy Serkis’s performance (watch this) and the work of the animators. It made these movies all the more a work of art, saying (by not saying anything) that you don’t need to know a lot of words in order to be articulate.
  • Playing God: The PotA franchise doesn’t appear to display any explicitly religious themes until the third movie (the one in theaters right now), so I won’t expand too much on that for those who would still like to see it. But it is worth noting the series’ intentional commentary on human attempts to claim superiority over creation. In a lot of ways, it echoes the Tower of Babel story. Every time we try to overpower others by means of force, oppression, or power, it eventually comes back and bites us in the butt. On the surface, it seems like a pessimistic view of human progression, but I would argue it’s more a testament to community and seeing others as equals rather than as superiors or inferiors. This doesn’t necessarily have to imply a literal interpretation against the notion of humans being superior to animals, but it could certainly be seen as an allegory to oppression brought about by racism, sexism, classism, and anything else that sees a self or a group as something greater or more valuable than another person or group. (Though it should also be kept in mind that anyone who wants to make commentary on matters such as this should do so cautiously, especially during tense political times like today’s. For example, this Buzzfeed article, of all things, touched on a pretty interesting detail concerning the most recent movie and one of today’s more prominent Black Lives Matter activists.)

 

IT SHOULD BE NOTED

Some of you reading this may have noticed that in my last post, I talked about being a self-proclaimed pacifist and a wannabe “peacemaker.” It seems like an odd turnaround to be speaking so highly about such violent movies immediately afterward. However, I feel that anyone who automatically writes off the PotA franchise as just being violent or mindless movies is clearly not paying attention to them. Caesar himself admits continually that he does not want war with humankind, but that he fights to protect his own–and sees no better alternative. Similarly, the third movie in particular is a character study of extremism, in which Caesar is constantly pushing himself not to fall into the same trap some of his old companions had fallen into, the same trap many of his enemies had fallen into, the same trap he himself had fallen victim to in the past to some extent or another. Our animal side is inherently violent and driven on survival (ahem, survival of the fittest), and one of the greatest strengths of this franchise is its ability to portray an animal that is oftentimes more human-like than real-life, actual humans.

 

CONCLUSION

Real humans, at their best, are filled with inner-conflict, contradiction, regret, and growth. We don’t always know how to address the situations life throws at us. However, one of the best steps forward is to acknowledge that we are all this way. Thus we arrive back to the central theme: when we are together, we are strong. Saying that can provoke a wide array of followup questions, but we know what happens when someone goes rogue, when someone exerts power over others, when someone decides they don’t need community. We become a planet full of apes.

Blessed are the Peacemakers: What Does Christian “Resistance” Look Like?

It should be no secret that a common theme found in this blog involves the pursuit of justice in my life (and, eventually, my ministry). It makes up the first part of this site’s odd, yet question-provoking name; and among the many reasons why I choose to place such an emphasis on it, one of the main ones is because I feel that the pursuit of justice is one of the most important and fundamental elements of Christianity, and yet it seems to also be incredibly under-looked, misunderstood, and even condemned in Western Christian culture today. That is a pure shame, and it’s a stigma I hope to continually work to put an end to.

We can go over some of the reasons behind this backlash perhaps in a later post (or two or three or more), but for now, I want to delve deeper into a concept that goes hand-in-hand with justice, as it is simultaneously the means to the end goal of the pursuit of justice, as well as, I’d say, the end goal itself. And that is the pursuit of peace.

I’ve discussed in this blog as well that I consider myself to be a pacifist, but a lot of the reasoning behind that is because I don’t quite know what else to call myself. “Pacifist,” like any other label (i.e., conservative, liberal, vegan, feminist, Muslim, Christian, American) is a loaded word, and can mean any number of things to any number of people. Very rarely, however, does it mean just one thing to everyone.

I think many people consider pacifists to be hippie leftist activists who attend weekly protests, smoke weed daily, don’t shave any of their body hair, and are also probably Wiccan or something. While about one-and-three-quarters of those seven descriptions ring true for me, much of how I came to accepting this philosophy and lifestyle has been influenced by my study of scripture and theology (for those keeping score at home, theology is another prong of this weirdly-named blog. I mentioned the second one earlier, too, meaning they all seem to be “intersecting,” or something).

Lately, I’ve found myself attracted even moreso than usual to the theme of peace. Many of the books I’ve read recently revolve around the topic, and much of the music I’ve listened to orients itself in that direction, as well. While I’ve been tempted to write on this topic more in depth since even before the inception of this blog, I finally decided to act on that temptation after having read the first part of The Road to Peace by Henri Nouwen. This book was published posthumously (he died in 1996 and the book was first published in 1998), and it is a compilation of a lot of previously-archived writings on the matter, and so I suppose it is not considered to be one of his “classics.” I didn’t even know it existed until I found it in the Religion section at the Half Price Books in Rice Village (aka my favorite Half Price Books store) a couple weeks ago.

The Road To Peace Cover

I was hooked from the very beginning, however, and I was struck most of all by the third chapter of the book, which was initially going to be a part, along with chapters one and two, of an actual, fuller book on peace. He builds it all up in chapter one by stating that peace is achieved first and foremost through prayer and contemplation. Before we can attempt to seek peace in the world, we must first seek peace within our own hearts. Next, in chapter two, Nouwen writes that peaceful prayer must then lead to action: to active resistance against the forces of death such as violence and systemic oppression. I very intentionally used a certain word in that description, as it’s both a word that he used frequently and a word that’s thrown around a lot in the political world today. You know what word it is. It’s in the title of this post. But more on that later.

Finally, in chapter three, Nouwen’s writings end up coming full circle (funny how that works). More than just being a rejection of the forces of death–a “no” to all the human-made killers in the world–the pursuit of peace is a loud, bold, affirmation of life itself. This idea requires the most attention, I believe, and so it will be the focus of the rest of this post. Even though it seems like such an anti-climactic epiphany, it becomes much more difficult once we begin to actually put it into practice.

Nouwen writes,

When all my attention goes to protesting death, death itself may end up receiving more attention than it deserves. Thus my struggle against the dark forces of death becomes the arena of my own seduction…. As a peacemaker, my temptation is to underestimate the power of the forces of death and thus attack them directly. Precisely because I am such a sinful, broken person, these forces have many handles on me and can easily pull me into their network. Only the sinless Christ was able to overcome death. It is naive to think that we have the strength to face death alone and survive (pgs. 40-41).

Nouwen wrote this, like almost everything else he’d written, during a very tense political era: the Cold War. Fear had become habitual and perpetual, like a breath or a blink. While the Vietnam War had ended over a decade before this particular piece had been written, he was still well-acquainted with plenty of people protesting nuclear warfare, poverty in South America, and other forms of injustice. And he himself often felt like a hypocrite when he didn’t join in on these protests. Of course he was opposed to the Trident submarine being built just a few miles away from him in Groton, Connecticut. Of course he thought more needed to be done to combat homelessness both foreign and domestic. But he still couldn’t help but push back against public acts of resistance and protest. He continues on:

One of the reasons why so many people have developed strong reservations about the peace movement is precisely that they do not see the peace they seek in the peacemakers themselves. Often what they see are fearful and angry people trying to convince others of the urgency of their protest. The tragedy is that peacemakers often reveal more of the demons they are fighting than of the peace they want to bring about (pg. 41).

It is a bitter and cruel irony that life often can’t really be broken down into separate, distinct poles. People who claim to be pro-peace have trouble hiding their own anger, their own sense of fear, their own prejudices. They cannot claim a sense of self-righteousness if they themselves are flawed and imperfect human beings. Even protesting something that is inherently and inarguably wrong doesn’t automatically turn them into a superior, or even “good” person.

But herein lies the other side of the same coin. I am against war. I am against police shootings (both by police and toward police). I am against the death penalty. I am against the destruction of the environment for the sake of corporate gain (or for any sake, really). But what am I doing to combat these injustices? How can I bring about change if I do nothing? If I do not seek to be a part of the solution, does that not make me a part of the problem?

I’ve wanted to go to more protests and do more activist-type stuff. I had hoped to attend the Women’s March in Houston this year, but didn’t. And had I known about the Black Lives Matter rally that was going on the night of July 7, 2016 in Dallas (you know which one I’m talking about), I can assure you that I would have done a lot to try to attend. Instead, I’ve attended prayer vigils and safe, on-campus, geographically distant awareness rallies for sex trafficking (neither of which are bad things by any means, but still).

This brings me back to the Nouwen writing. To paraphrase his second chapter: challenging Death is just another challenge to Death. Death is sneaky, manipulative, competitive, and always prevails. Death will reveal your flaws, and Death will, over time, make you look like an ass in front of your friends and, especially, your enemies. And this is why it is imperative that we make the conscious effort to focus on Life instead. When we do that, Nouwen says, we are stating that “for us life is stronger than death, love is stronger than fear, and hope is stronger than despair” (pg. 43).

Nouwen offers three tools to help us achieve this goal, which he describes as “aspects of life that are in stark contrast to the powers of death” (pg. 44). These tools are humility, compassion, and joy. When we express humility, we are acknowledging the interconnectedness of all living beings. The word humility comes from the Latin humus, meaning soil, so when we are being humble, we are embodying the very root of the word, so to speak, as we are seeking to protect, support, and nourish the life that surrounds us. Secondly, when we seek to be compassionate, we choose to focus on other people outside of ourselves. Embodying the mindset of Christ himself, compassion makes matters of injustice people-oriented rather than issue-oriented. Nouwen writes, “We cannot love issues, but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal with issues” (pg. 46). Finally, if we want to seek peace, we must make it our goal to pursue joy, as well. Joy can be difficult to find and define, but as Nouwen points out, it seems to always run parallel to peace when used in relation to Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace (pgs. 47-49).

Like Nouwen, we are living in turbulent and divisive times today. His writings seemed almost prophetic when I read them for the first time, as though they had been written today rather than 33 years ago.

I feel like I spend much of my life on the sidelines, observing carefully, waiting for my chance to do… something. I am not (usually) the person who posts regularly about everything wrong with the world, nor am I the person who naively thinks everything is fine and dandy. I do not wish to contribute to the divisive rhetoric of today, but I also do not wish to remain silent or complacent about my convictions. So I hope to be slow to speak, slow to judge, but also, even moreso, quick to love. I hope to resist matters of injustice wherever I see it, but not without claiming my own shortcomings. I will admit that I am often too slow to speak and too slow to act, and too slow to love, but it is something I am continually working towards in order to better myself and my community. I hope to never cease writing about the matters I care about–and especially the people that I care about–and I very much wish the same for you.

You might not be a fan of the words “resistance” or “pacifist” in the contexts in which they’re often used today. But my hope here is that we all, regardless of where we stand on the issues of today, seek to learn how to be peacemakers. Jesus refers to those who pursue peace as “blessed” and as “children of God” (Matthew 5:9). May we make that our goal. May we be instruments of peace. May we resist injustice wherever it is found. May we pray, may we act, may we write, may we speak, may we listen, and may we love.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

Personal Stories: Four-Day Week[fri]end

It was Thursday night at 10:00, and my shift had finally ended. I grabbed my phone, wallet, and book from the filing cabinet beneath my desk, and sped out of the building before even checking to make sure my computer had been turned off correctly. As I buckled my seat belt and turned on the ignition of my Ford Focus, I recalled the conversation I’d had with my supervisor earlier that week, making sure that he knew I was going to be off for four days this weekend, and thinking to myself the whole time I was talking to him, ‘Please tell me I can go. I need this.’

The next morning, after I’d unsuccessfully tried to convince myself to wake up early, I quickly packed, showered, fed the dog, and took her to Doggy Day Camp, leaving for my weekend road trip promptly at 10:00 a.m., and arriving at my first stop in Temple, TX three hours later. I grabbed lunch with one of my old college housemates, Kyle, at his favorite Mexican restaurant (keeping with our old tradition of trying a new Mexican restaurant in Abilene every Sunday after church), and then we endured I-35 construction on the way to the park to play a round of disc golf. It was humid, the holes were oddly numbered, and I was even worse than usual after having not played the game in almost a year. Even so, after the game was done and I was driving to my next stop in Bertram, Sonic slush in hand (keeping with another tradition of grabbing Sonic after disc golf), I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘I needed this.’

In Bertram, I was greeted by my friends Kaitlin and Mason (and their dog, Biggio), who lived in the parsonage next door to the church Mason recently started working at. They made me breakfast for dinner, and we watched the new Wolverine movie (even though Mason and I both love comic book movies, neither of us had gotten to see Logan yet). They gave me a tour of their church building, and we talked about life, old Abilene friends and mentors, and, of course, theology and movies. As I lay in their guest bed for the night, smelling of the Star Wars-themed body wash they keep for their nephews in the shower, I smiled real wide and thought to myself, ‘I needed this.’

The next morning, I headed out again for my last major stop of the weekend. Andrew, my roommate throughout all four years of college, was in Canyon Lake with his girlfriend, Jill, and her parents, known affectionately as Howie and Bunda. After maneuvering the maze of the surrounding streets and driving slowly past the deer that didn’t even flinch at my presence, I was greeted at the door by two nubby, bark-y dachshunds and my second consecutive meal of bacon and eggs. We would go on that day to claim a mostly-secluded spot in the Guadalupe River where rushing water flowed down our backs and Lone Star was of a seemingly endless supply. As I surrendered to the streaming water, without a care in the world for the first time in recent memory, I thought contently to myself, ‘I so needed this.’

And finally, on Monday, my four-day weekend ended with me grabbing some coffee in San Antonio with my good friend, Amanda, who happened to also be on vacation while in between semesters pursuing her Masters degree at Duke Divinity school. The visit was short, but all the while afterward, even while driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-10 with all the other weekenders heading home, I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘Wow, I needed that.’

* * *

When I graduated a little over a year ago, I didn’t know where I was going to be, but I certainly did not plan on being back at home with a job that has nothing to do with my degree. Yes, it pays well, and I’m saving a lot of money, and I’m getting to read a lot, and my parents are more than encouraging in this season of my life, but I still often can’t help but think that I’ve had to put everything on hold while I’m here.

My closest friends are on the other side of Texas (and some are even farther than that), my pursuit of a Master’s Degree has been put on an indefinite hiatus, and–even though I don’t hate my job and, in fact, even enjoy it sometimes–I arrive to work almost every day wishing I was somewhere else.

On Monday morning, I remember speaking with Jill about these woes, and she told me she often feels exactly the same way. Both of our parents had been married by the time they were our age, and we each have friends from school who seem to actually be moving forward in their lives while we find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Though as the great poet Matthew Thiessen (yes, the lead singer of Relient K) once said, “Perspective is a lovely hand to hold.” I know that I’m still in my early twenties, and that I still have a whole lot of life in front of me, even though counting the days sounds like, “seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, routine–and here at twenty-three, it’s the same old me” (Okay, I listened to a lot of Relient K during my road trip).

Something that I found myself saying a lot while driving in Houston traffic has been “Learn patience,” first to other drivers, and then to myself. Then it started to become a prayer: “God, help me to learn patience.” While that had initially been something for small moments when I found myself annoyed with other people, I soon learned that I’m taking the biggest test of patience I’ve ever experienced. God is answering my prayer right now. True, holistic patience is obtained in both the little things and in the bigger things.

So while I’m still frequently frustrated with where I am (or, rather, where I am not) in life right now, I’m trying to remind myself to find value in what I have: a steady job with good pay, ample time to read the books I hadn’t been able to read while I was in school, and quality time with friends and family when such opportunities are presented.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

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About to watch Pirates of the Caribbean with Andrew and Jill (pretty much the only actual picture I took during the weekend–whoops).

Make it Mean Something: “‘How did I get Here?'”

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He glanced at the open meadow, capturing the surrounding scenery as though he had reached the closing scene of a heartwarming family film. He could almost hear the orchestra waltzing in the breeze.

‘How did I get here?’ he wondered. None of this seemed real. Baseless, even.

Suddenly, a jovial lark twisted itself into his line of vision. Its flight pattern was sporadic; it was as though this creature had no vertebrae.

“Come, and join me,” it said, treading the air temporarily before it continued on its hectic journey.

Just like that, it had gone. The boy was unsure how he could follow this brown bird when it had hardly even given him a chance to catch his bearings.

He sat down in the tall grasses of the meadow, being careful to bend as few stems as possible. His arms were wrapped around his knees as he pondered this present scene.

‘I know this is not a dream, because I know it’s not a dream,’ he thought, realizing the confusion presented by this conclusion. He has an imagination, but his logical side was fully functional at this moment.

Far in the back left corner of his eye, a herd of deer marched out from the trees in a uniform manner. They carried on as usual.

* * *

This is the [potential] start of a short story series I’m calling “Make it Mean Something.” It was essentially improvised and influenced by the classical music we had playing for the dog in the other room. As the music changed, so did the “plot” progression. But of course, writing like that can be sporadic, and it can lead to… well, not really knowing what’s being said.

But maybe we can still get something from what’s presented. Maybe we, as individuals, can grab something from what we read and find a moral, a theme, a lesson from something that, at the surface, seems to be pure chaos–much like the content of this particular story.

Because this story had no meaning when I wrote it, I will maintain the notion that it does not and will never have any official meaning. But after reading it over again, I started to see some themes, perhaps indicative of subconscious responses to our society today, in the content of this short story.

I see a distorted reality in this story (well, duh). The scene is set with a sense of daze. Our protagonist, an ageless child, is conscious, but knows that the situation he’s in is not normal. The scene is populated by this boy, a talking bird (and–I didn’t realize this until I looked this up just now: apparently larks live almost exclusively in dry climates, not meadows); marching deer; and, well, I guess that’s about it.

But throughout the [very] short story, our friend is kind of just taking it in. Not necessarily accepting it, but also not necessarily rejecting it.

Is this indicative of complacency to a changing world? Or shock and confusion in response to it? Is our world normal right now, or has it always been filled with paradoxes?

Really, I think the exciting thing about this general premise (that is, of a meaningless and improvised story) gives us all the opportunity to find a meaning. It doesn’t have to mean what I say it means. But we can still take what is presented to us as it is and use it to create something unique. Maybe something sticks out to other readers than what stuck out to me (even though I wrote it). But I cannot explain the scene, the setting, the character, or the plot anywhere past what we see above. Why is the resolution kind of vague? Why don’t we know how this boy ended up in the meadow, and why doesn’t he even seem to know?

I have intentionally decided to leave the story untouched from the point I decided I’d finished, lest I taint the improvisational and open-ended feel it contains. Of course, being my own worst critic, I am having a hard time not noticing some things about what I’ve written that I wish I could change.

So how about you? What do you find out from this story once you make it mean something?

 

Photo found from: http://paradisefoundsantabarbara.com/articles/power-animal-for-may-lark-by-backyard-shaman-amy-katz-m-a/

The Kingdom of God, Part III: A Many-Splintered Thing

This is Part III of a 4-part blog series I am writing on the theological concept of the Kingdom of God, to correspond with the classes I had been leading at my church. You can read Part I by clicking here, and Part II by clicking here.

* * *

We are at the heart of the first century in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ, and a new culture is being developed. Contrary to the culture of the Roman empire and even many of the traditions of old, this new society is built upon communities that seek to live out the message of the Messiah–of Jesus Christ who lived as the ultimate human example and died as a source of redemption for all the times in which we would end up succumbing to all that ran counter to that example.

Leading the charge in this new experiment are Jesus’s former disciples and a new recruit named Paul, who had previously been an adversarial figure to these people he now refers to as brothers and sisters.

Their goal: advancing the Kingdom of God about which Jesus spoke so frequently and passionately.

The means: not through overpowering the Powers That Be (much to the dismay of many), but by instead forming communities built on love for God and others, compassion towards the outcasts, and the pursuit to choose this better way of life both through radical outreach and inclusiveness, and through fermenting the homegrown communities that are present today so as to be brought down and continued for generations to come.

But, as is the case with every human effort, this cause does not come without its fair share of struggles, confusion, and conflict both from the outside as well as from within.

This becomes evident through even a surface-level study into the latter books of the New Testament, most of which are letters written to the early Christian communities by the first major leaders regarding how best to advance the Kingdom of God within their own respective contexts.

For the church in Corinth, Paul was adamant about ensuring that access to the Kingdom of God was not hindered by people’s skills; rather, their goal instead was to define their communities by the ways in which they loved one another. For the church in Galatia, Paul was outraged when they were causing unnecessary divisions because of poor interpretations of ancient laws. And in so many other places, Paul and the early churches found themselves constantly struggling to figure out how to handle everything from slavery, to gender roles, to diversity, to those who tried to lead the people astray.

James got mad when people did not serve others.

Peter focused a lot on laziness and still being active in light of the second coming of Jesus that had been foretold.

John focused a lot on seeking unity in the midst of those who kept trying to create divisions within the communities.

With the advent of the Church comes the start of a pursuit that is still being realized today: how to advance the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in Heaven. With each passing day comes a new element, a new layer of what it looks like to be a follower of Christ in a world that has always been against his teachings. How to respond to cultural movements and social mores, how we are influenced by our society, and how can we determine our role today in the midst of all that is presented to us.

But the Kingdom of God is not defined by any one culture; rather, it is a conglomeration of many elements of many cultures, influenced most, hopefully, by the message of love and compassion taught and lived out by Jesus Christ with each passing day.

The direction my lessons for my class ended up turning towards the most in these past few weeks (including the weeks I ended up having to work instead of going to church), is the conclusion that the greatest key to advancing the kingdom of God–i.e., the ultimate template for Christian belief and practice–is rooted in what Jesus labeled as being the two greatest commandments. These two commandments are instructions for us to love God, and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40).

Rarely was Jesus ever so explicit as he was with that designation. Even after someone acknowledged these commandments and went on to ask, understandably, who exactly qualified as a “neighbor,” Jesus went on to tell a story rather than just give a simple, straightforward response (Luke 10:25-37, I promise you that you know this story). This, as well as my own study of the Bible and other Christian texts, leads me to believe that love is the hinge upon which every single element of life should be supported. Regardless of our context, our culture, and whoever may support us or tear us down, love is our tool for bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. Love is the light that seeps through the cracks of Babel’s infrastructure. Love is the counter–the twist–to this hyper-Shakespearean tragedy that humanity has written.

If you are Christian, you most likely believe that Jesus is coming back again, and that it is our job to prepare for that arrival in whatever way possible. Christian conservatives tend to see this as a call for evangelism and ‘right belief’–or orthodoxy. Christian liberals tend to see this as a call for action, justice, and service–or orthopraxy (literally, ‘right practice’). But love for God and love for others seems, to me, to be the two main requisites of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

When we read the two best-known biblical passages for what Christian love should look like (1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4:7-21), these seem to support my theory further. Likewise, love for God and love for others seem go hand-in-hand. Love separates us from the legalism found in extreme orthodoxy, and the self-dependence found in extreme orthopraxy. Instead, love for God is right belief; and love for our neighbors is right practice.

Now, what we ended up discussing in class after looking at these verses were, of course, things like:
“Okay, but what exactly is love, beyond what we hear in songs and see in movies [e.g., the beautifully-arranged and performed but ridiculously delusional Elephant Love Medley in Moulin Rouge]?”
“What does it mean to love ____________?”
“Does love for God occur before love for our neighbors, or vice versa? Can we learn to love God more through the way we love our neighbors, or vice versa? Can we love our neighbors without loving God, or vice versa?”

None of these questions are particularly new, and neither is my so-called “theory.” But to think that this concept is any less relevant or groundbreaking today than it was 2,000 years ago is to also think that the earth is flat, or that waterfalls aren’t super majestic and awesome.

The pursuit for love in our world today is no harder now than it was for the first century Church, nor is it really any easier. It’s hard to say, honestly.

But I maintain the idea that at the heart of the Christian lifestyle remains the same today, 2,000 years ago, and 2,000 years from now. Our goal is, has always been, and will always be, to advance the Kingdom of God in our world by loving the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and by loving our neighbors as ourselves. This is a very simple and absolute idea, but beyond this point lies layers upon layers of questions, implications, dead ends, contexts, and, most of all: God. Eden. The New Jerusalem. Peace. Joy. Grace. Truth. Justice. Authenticity. Vulnerability. Perfection.

Andy Williams sang, “Love is a many-splendored thing [referring to romantic love, but still].” That doesn’t mean that love is an easy pursuit. But when we do choose to love above all else, surely that is when we can see how incredible the world can really be when it strives to function as God had always intended.

My friends, may we choose to love and learn what it means to love. May we not avoid vulnerability, and may we strive to look past ourselves. May we tread the hard path of love so that we can prepare the way of the Lord.

Thank you for reading. Stay tuned for my final post in this series, coming… soon.