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.

 

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.

The Kingdom of God, Part II: Here, There, and Everywhere

This is Part II of my 4-part blog series on The Kingdom of God, to go along with the lessons I’m giving for my class at church on the same topic. You can find Part I here.

* * *

Off the banks of the murky Jordan River, on an equally murky day, a man stood casting a wishful eye upon the horizon. Cloaked in camel’s hide and stuffed with locust and honey, the only thing that distinguished this man more than his quirks were perhaps his words.

This man, now commonly known as John the Baptist, spoke with the tongue of the Prophets from a world before him, declaring with his life the coming of the “Day of the Lord.” Echoing profusely the prophet Isaiah, he said to anyone who’d listen:

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley  shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”*

What had first been talked about as a far-off fantasy in the Hebrew Scriptures is now beginning to come into fruition here with the arrival of Jesus. More than a prophet and a rabbi, Jesus is the bodily incarnation of the God that the Jews had come to be so familiarly complacent with these past few thousand years.

But like his cousin and counterpart, John, Jesus also had a way with words. And his words also focused on the Day of the Lord. Except that now, it was referred to as the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.

We see a glimpse of this early on when reading about Jesus, as his most famous sermon (read: Matthew 5-7) spends a lot of time both distinguishing earth from heaven, and bringing heaven down to earth. He states,

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

However, this same Jesus, in Luke 17, muddies the water a bit with this statement,

The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you (Luke 20b-21, emphasis mine).

So here we encounter a sort of theological paradox of sorts. Is this place some sort of far-off utopia, or is it a place that can be built and developed and sought after here on earth?

The short answer: Yes.

In his book Surprised by Hope, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright attempts to dismiss the common notion that heaven is some sort of distant realm that has no immediate connection to earth. Rather, the Kingdom of God/Heaven is something that has been in development since the beginning of time. It is here, but its presence and impact are still continually being realized with each passing day.

He uses Philippians 3:20 as an example, in which the apostle Paul states that the Christian’s citizenship is in heaven, rather than on earth. If our citizenship is in heaven, then, and if heaven is something that is being brought down to earth through Jesus, then that means it is our goal as Christians to work toward advancing the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven (see pages 100-101, 207-232 for more specific descriptions on what I’m referring to here).

What does that look like, then?

Dr. Wright writes,

God builds God’s kingdom. But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within that world within that world takes place not least through one of his creatures in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image…. God intends his wise, creative, loving presence and power to be reflected–imagined, if you like–into his world through his human creatures. He has enlisted us to act as his stewards in the project of creation (page 207).

Simply put: Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection served as a call to action for all Christians. Not just a call to worship and evangelism, as most Christians seem to focus on, but a call also to pursue justice and seek the beauty and value of all that which God has given us, to value God’s creatures and creation over and beyond the things produced and perpetuated by this world that is rooted in Sin and Self.

Jesus himself was the ultimate Example off which his followers are called to live. Jesus, as we see time and time again, was an emulation of love. Of compassion toward the vulnerable. Of anger towards the oppressors and the self-centered, many of whom were religious leaders, themselves. Of humility. Of peace and turning the other cheek.

Therefore, my friends, so, then, should we be.

Just as God had pursued true communion with Israel throughout the Old Testament through the harmony of the four core relationships (Individual with God, Individual with Self, Individual with others, Individual with earth–see last week’s blog), so, here, does Jesus seek that same communion with us. As in, all of us. This is what the Quaker theologian James Bryan Smith describes as the “grand invitation” in his book The Good and Beautiful Life, which, along with Wright’s book, was probably my greatest tangible influence in discussing this this concept.

There is plenty more that can be said here, and I would love to discuss this stuff more with you. But I also want to save some room for these next two weeks, as well. And really, anything else I might want to write here would likely end up exceeding even my standards for how long a blog post should be (if anyone is wondering, most of my blog posts average out to being about as long as a four-page college paper, or 1200 words. But who’s counting?).

Until then, my friends, I want to close with a quote from one of my favorite writers and theologians, Henri Nouwen, because 1) why not? and 2) he was the only author who got an explicit shout out from a Facebook friend (a rabbi, no less) when I posted a picture of the books I was hoping to use for research on this post. Nouwen, who was a Catholic priest, professor, and all-around stellar human being, writes in his book In the Name of Jesus,

Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life…. The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.

May we seek to love with the love of God and Jesus, may we seek to be instruments of peace and justice, and may we surrender to grace when we realize that we will always fall short of perfection. But may that realization never, ever, stop us from persisting onward, anyway.

Thank you for reading. Until next week.

(By the way, this post was 1304 words long, counting also this paragraph and the footnote below this.)

*This quote is actually a conglomeration of what’s said in Mark, Luke, and John’s books, formed as though it was one large quote rather than three, as well as formed as though it was John alone who said it and not John and a random Isaiah quote.

The Kingdom of God, Part I: The Rift from Eden

A week ago today, Paul, an elder at Impact Church of Christ–a diverse inner-city church in Houston that I started attending a few months ago–walked up to me after church and said, “You have things to say. I want you to teach class for the next four weeks.”  Cornered by the lack of choice and flattered by the upfront consideration, I unhesitatingly conceded.

But also, being me, I decided to supplement my lessons with blog posts. I have always felt like I am better at writing than I am at speaking, and I had been wanting to cover this topic anyway, so it just seemed to make sense to me. 

As I told the class (most of whom are close to my age–in college and/or in their twenties) this morning, today’s lesson was going to be taking a drastically brief view of the Old Testament. Not just a bird’s-eye view, but rather more like an astronaut’s-eye view. I will be acknowledging, but glossing over, some important elements of the more well-known events and ideas of the Old Testament in order to make space for some of the lesser-known events and ideas. In other words, lack of coverage does not necessarily equate to lack of relevance. But at the same time, I hope to be writing this in such a way that anyone can read and understand this regardless of their knowledge of the Bible.

So now, without any further ado: Part I of my Four Part series on the Kingdom of God, “The Rift from Eden,” or the Kingdom of God as seen in the Old Testament.

* * *

Let us start at the beginning, though we shan’t stay there long.

Eden.

Plenty can be said about Eden, and plenty is understood about Eden, even if most of it is misunderstood. But I don’t want to change your view of it–whether it’s a painting or a parody, a truth or a myth, or something in between–I just want you to see it for what it is to all of us right now: a far-off utopia-like paradise. An idea. A bliss that, at the moment, is too ridiculous to think about realistically.

In Eden, we see the closest our world has ever gotten to Perfection. Vulnerability. Authenticity. Life in its truest fulfillment.

My Old Testament professor at ACU described four core relationships that take place in Eden:

  1. Individual with God
  2. Individual with self
  3. Individual with others
  4. Individual with earth

Even before then, “the heavens and the earth” are created by some sort of plural Being… One who’s described as an individual but whose self-referential pronouns are words like “us” and “our” (Genesis 1:26).

In Eden, for the most part, all is “right” with the world. But then things plummet into something unimaginable: reality. These core relationships that had been so essential to a quality life in Eden have all taken a turn for the worse, and history now has a plot.

Fast forward a few centuries, and at least one party has decided not to give up on mending these relationships. In Genesis 12 and 15, God uses Abra[ha]m to start a nation that was meant to help bring the world back to God. This nation, which would soon be known as Israel, comes to encounter national secession together, slavery together, homelessness together, failed theocratic monarchy together, and exile together.

All the while, we see attempts to mend the four core relationships.

Laws are established in Israel’s toddler years to help hold the nation accountable. In Leviticus 19, we see a glimpse of laws that aim work into all four relationships:

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy… Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and alien: I am the Lord your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another… I am the Lord….

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Additionally, a bit later on in chapter 25, God establishes a law–a law–created for cancelling all debts and loosing the burdens created by human shortcomings.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see God time and again reaching out to the people of Israel.

As for Israel, though, at their high points, we can say that, at least, they tried? Maybe? As for the particulars such as where and when, I’ll let you know when I find something.

But at their low points, and even their regular points, the rift between Israel and Eden cannot be more thick. Where God is in relentless pursuit of their hearts, Israel is turning to the idols of ego and self-service. As Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam displays so poignantly, one party is reaching, ever reaching for a deeper connection, while the other gives up even right on the brink of Authentic, Vulnerable, Perfection.

michelangelo-creation-of-adam-index

You my have noticed that nothing I have yet discussed actually uses the term “The Kingdom of God.” If we’re being honest, there is a sense of anachronism here, as the kingdom of God isn’t really brought up until the ministry of Jesus (spoiler alert for next week). But as I will argue throughout these four posts, hindsight helps us see that which was made so explicit all those millennia ago.

God desires Eden. God desires a relationship with us that puts Adam and Eve to shame. God desires that we strive for a world in which everyone is treated as though they were truly made in the image of God.

But as the Old Testament shows us time and time again, humanity is utterly broken. Humanity constantly fails at seeing the humanity in others, at seeing the beauty of the earth, at rejoicing in the glory of God. Israel is defined in these books by their idolatry and, even more explicit, their adultery against God (read: Hosea). While Israel has always seen the love that God has shown them, they failed to show it back. They failed to love God and love their neighbors. And so evil prevailed because they did not allow love to break through.

Thus is the tragedy of the story of Israel, of the story of humanity. We were loved by the One who created us, yet we refused to love anywhere past our own selves. As it was with Israel, so it is with us.

And yet, even in the midst of Israel’s darkest hour, a sign of hope breaks through. The Day of the Lord, in which peace and justice reign, is about to cause a rift even deeper than the one between God and humanity: one that separates us from all of our flaws. The prophet Isaiah writes,

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
[the father of King David],
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…

[On that day,]
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them…

They will not hurt or destroy,
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.”

Despite all the ways in which Israel failed, all the times in which Israel turned away, God did not stop pursuing them.

The catch, however, is that it is not up to God alone to bring justice in the world. Yes, it is, ultimately, God who brings peace and justice to earth. But we are God’s instruments. We are the conduits. We are God’s tools. It is through our work that we can be brought closer to God, closer to each other, closer to ourselves, and closer to Eden.

My friends, may we allow Eden to be our goal. May we see the love God has for us, and may this love push us to love, as well.

Thank you for reading. Until next week.

Reflections on my Experiences at an Interfaith Retreat (Or “Christians, Muslims, and Jews Met Together for a Week at Camp. What Happens Next Will SHOCK You!!!”)

interfaith-retreat-2017-attendeesThis week, I had the privilege of attending an interfaith retreat in Pottsboro, TX, in which members from the world’s three major monotheistic or “Abrahamic” religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) spent roughly 67 hours breaking bread together and discussing these visions and versions of faith that made us all distinct, yet simultaneously converged.

The event was catered to seminary students (those pursuing a Master’s Degree or higher in studies concerning their respective religions) and there were students and faculty representing schools such as ACU, TCU, SMU, Austin Presbyterian, and Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary, among others, with at least six Christian denominations offering a voice; as well as four students and a faculty member from Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and three students and a faculty member from Al-Rahmah Qur’an Academy in Baltimore, providing voices for the Conservative Jewish perspective and the Sunni Muslim perspective.

Now this week was not, as some might expect, the start of the next round of the Crusades. Nor was it political correctness run amok (though we did seek to be polite and respectful in our conversations, because that’s how grownups interact with each other). Nor was it, I would say, a naïve pursuit of a long lost cause.

Rather, it was a beautiful gathering of strangers united by a common goal, a common God, and a common devotion for this God that digs so deeply into our souls that it brought us here to what [too] many of us considered to be the Great Unknown.

Here, the playing field was leveled. The line between professor and student was skewed, and lifelong scholars found themselves asking questions with the same self-consciousness as a college freshman (I mean, maybe).

Throughout the week, we all gathered for lectures on the things that both divided and united us. And then in our small groups, we fearlessly, yet cautiously, discussed some of our own unique experiences with our faith–being sure to use “I” instead of “we” when we spoke to avoid generalizations, as the only thing any of us are truly experts on are our own individual stories–and we, of course, also uncovered some uncomfortable truths along the way. But come dinnertime, we were all laughing together like old, reunited friends over a plate of vegetarian lasagna. Each tradition got the opportunity to express their faiths individually for the rest of the group, complete with beautiful chanted prayers and solemn, devoted acts of surrender to the God we all knew to be good.

(Below is a little faux-word cloud I made throughout the week concerning some of our major topics of discussion. Extra points to whoever finds the word I accidentally put in twice.)

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My group leader, a professor at SMU, made an important point to the group the first night we met. He said, “A lot of people outside of particular groups of people often have rather misconstrued ideas about what it means to be a part of these groups. The perception that a lot of Christians have about Islam, for example, is based off what they see in the news concerning a small sect of a much bigger and more complex religion. But on the other hand, many of us also encounter the logical fallacy that says everyone here is exactly the same. ‘Oh, a Muslim is just a Methodist who prays 5 times a day and has a different idea about Jesus.’ We shouldn’t try to dismiss our differences, but neither should we necessarily demonize them. Our diverse group of people here is constantly walking a tight rope, because we are all, very intentionally and often unapologetically, Jew, Muslim, and Christian. But the best way we can grow, both in understanding and appreciating not only someone else’s faith, but also our own, is by acknowledging our differences and seeking understanding through our dialogue.

A couple years ago, while I was in undergrad, one of my professors introduced the concept of the Methodist or Wesleyan Quadrilateral to my class. Roughly attributed to the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is more or less a model that helps determine one’s view of God and faith, using Scripture, Reasoning, Experience, and Tradition as factors (my professor wanted to amend it by adding Prayer to the equation, as well). This week, I realized how deeply those things can be embedded into any person of faith. So much of a person’s future identity is determined just by when and where they’re born, and there is nothing we can do to change these fixed factors. I am where I am right now in large part because I was born in the Bible Belt to a family of devoted church-goers. (I’m not sure how different of a person I would be had I been born in, say, Saudi Arabia or Israel, but I truly hope I would be seeking to love God and love others with the same kind of fervor I try to have right now.)

The people I encountered this week were all some of the best people I’d ever met, and, like me, they were all doing the best that they could to be devoted servants of God. My hope for myself, for my fellow Christians, and for anyone else who’s reading this post, is that we all seek to love and understand one another before we produce labels or build up walls against each other, be they metaphorical or physical.

Of course, that is much easier said than done. This week was beautiful and more valuable than anything I could have read about in a book or heard about in classroom or in the news, but our world–our nation, our hearts–still have a long way to go before we encounter any sort of sense of peace between our world’s nations and faiths.

In the evaluation I filled out at the end of the retreat, I wrote about this very thing (believe it or not). As wonderful as this past week was, it’s going to be hard to leave this Bubble (like the one in this SNL sketch) and encounter not only people who disagree with us, but people whose intentions are hostile and harmful for the sake of humanity. I said,

It’s one thing to read about different religions and discuss them with other people who know about as much as you do on the matter. It’s another thing still to talk to someone different from an academic perspective to put a face to what you’re reading about. But it’s a whole other thing entirely to break bread with, play games with, and share a bedroom with, someone totally different from you. It’s like The Odd Couple in the realest form. It’s beautiful, even if it isn’t always pretty. Conflict is seemingly eventually inevitable, even if we all come in with pure intentions (or think we do).

Is it possible for diversity to exist without some real tension? I don’t think so, because otherwise there would a lot of inner repression built up from failed attempts to “unify”. But if we refuse to branch out past our own little bubble, division becomes more inhibited and growth (be it among the group or the individual) is stunted. So I think we should continue to pursue unity so that a sense of mutual understanding can be ensued.

I know that I learned a lot and hope to continue to do so, but it’s also sobering knowing that it won’t be an easy task moving forward. It requires community, it requires accountability, it requires honesty, and those are rarely things that come easily when other human beings are involved.

I was humbled this week by the ways people of different faiths and denominations seek to serve God with their lives. But one of the greatest commonalities here was that we were all living our lives as a direct response to God. God, we all believe, is so much better than we can ever deserve, and because of that, we want to give back in whatever ways we can: through worship, through prayer, through writing, through service, through religion, through scholarship, through scripture. But no matter what, all of efforts come up impotent when compared to the goodness of God. Yet we pursue him still, because that’s all we know to do.

My friends, old and new, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and anything else, may we learn to love better. And may we never cease in this pursuit.

Thank you for reading. Until next time. Below is a picture of a sunset from the first night.

interfaith-retreat-sunset

Dona Nobis Pacem: A Brief Review of Hacksaw Ridge

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I don’t know about you, but I love a good action film. GladiatorDie Hard, the Bourne movies, any of the billion superhero flicks from the past 30 years or so. Really, one of the best formulas for a good movie is to create something with a lot of explosions.

That being said, though, I sometimes can’t help but feel at least a slight sense of self-contradiction whenever I watch these sorts of movies.

Hopefully it does not come as too much of a shock for me to openly reveal here that I consider myself to be a pacifist. I am against war and am ultimately not too fond of guns (though I will still admit that they are plenty fun to shoot). Like most people, I am opposed to both police brutality as well as violence against the police, and I unapologetically oppose the death penalty.

These beliefs are rooted in my Christian faith and how I interpret the Bible. The sixth commandment given to Moses and the Israelites in Exodus 20 states not to murder, and Jesus takes this commandment even further in his Sermon on the Mount when he proclaims that one shall not murder another person even in one’s heart. Among other things. As a practicing Christian and aspiring pastor, these are commandments I want to do my best to take seriously in my life. And to go along with that, just from what I’ve seen in attempts to take a sober look at our world today and throughout history, violence has frequently been used to try to end violence, and, so far, it has never worked.

But I digress.

When I first heard about the movie Hacksaw Ridge, I was excited, albeit a little nervous, to see how it would turn out. For those who might not have heard about it yet, Hacksaw Ridge (the trailer for which you can see here) is a movie based on the true story of World War II medic Desmond Doss, a devout Seventh-Day Adventist who enlisted in the army but stirred up some controversy when he said he refused to fight on the front because of his beliefs. “I will still be proud to wear the uniform and salute the flag, but I cannot carry a gun.” Doss, portrayed by Andrew Garfield, stated in the movie (quoted from memory, so it is probably not exact).

Without wanting to go too in depth into the plot line, Doss goes on to win a Medal of Honor after having saved hundreds of soldiers on both sides of the war, becoming the first “conscientious objector” in American history to be given such an award. All without firing a single bullet.

So you can probably guess why I was so interested in seeing this movie. It is, essentially, an anti-war war movie (complete with all the explosions and gore you’d expect to see in a movie directed by Mel Gibson, the same man behind Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ). I also decided after finishing the movie that I would discuss its significance here in my blog, so that’s what I’m going to do now.

This movie is important simply because of what it is. Having a mainstream movie that focuses on nonviolence in the literal middle of a war zone is, needless to say, rare, and Hacksaw Ridge addresses this complex topic in a compelling and thought-provoking manner.

It is most certainly not perfect, however, but it is still, in my opinion, a fantastic representation of the story it seeks to tell. Yet it is, “unfortunately,” also realistic in that all of Doss’s comrades continue to fight and kill in the midst of his active passivity.

Even so, the impact that Doss creates in the movie is evident. His presence sticks out like a sore thumb, and the hostility that his actions initially received eventually turned into respect and awe at his upstanding, if not troubled, character.

What’s more, it is continually relevant in a climate such as ours that is war-weary (or, more accurately, war-complacent) and is sometimes hostile toward particular races of people. Honestly, I don’t imagine a hefty portion of Americans reacting all that kindly to a story about one of our soldiers who offers aid to, say, an Iraqi soldier, as Desmond Doss did for a Japanese soldier in the movie.

In regards to genre, it is interesting to note that, in a lot of ways, the movie addresses conflict in a manner much like how a lot of stereotypical Christian movies–most of which I utterly despise–would address it. In the movie, Doss is a lone wolf. He’s the only Christian in his unit, and he’s essentially “persecuted” for standing up for what he believes in. It is as though non-Christians are all incredibly awful sinners who want to kill each other, and it’s the one devout man from the Bible Belt who shows everyone else the “right way” to live.

However, it goes without saying that a large number of our country’s veterans and supporters of our military are Christians. While I felt like I could relate to Doss easily because we are both faith-driven pacifists, I’m also quite aware that I’m likely in the minority among other Bible Belt-area Christians. The potential reaction that someone whose opinions differ from my own might have to this movie or this topic goes beyond my realm of understanding. But at the same time, one of the greatest legacies this movie already has to offer is a platform for conversation among those from all different sides of the spectrum: the Christian pacifist, the Christian veteran, the moral atheist, the Japanese Americans and even the Muslim Americans. Each of us, and then some, has our own unique perspectives to provide in light of the issues brought about by this film. And, really, what more can a filmmaker ask for (aside from money and job offers)?

Ultimately, I hope that the story of Desmond Doss helps further pave the way to peace in our world today, and I don’t believe that is too ridiculous a goal to maintain. Most of us would agree that we don’t like war, but we’re also not so naive as to think that complicated and dangerous situations can always be solved with simple, civil discussion (but on the other hand, why do we think that they can be solved with members of the military killing each other?). Even so, I hope that we, as a human race, can one day successfully get to that point.

And until then, I hope to be an active member in the fight against violence. I pray that I can be a light in this dark and chaotic world. And I pray to be an instrument of the peace of Christ. Dona Nobis Pacem: Grant Us Peace, O Lord.

And right now, I want to encourage anyone reading this to take the time out to watch this movie. If you attend a church, I want you bring some of your church friends with you. Invite that relative you always fight with at Thanksgiving to watch it with you while y’all are both in town together later this month. And get a conversation started. Come in with an open mind, but come in critical, as well. This is something bigger than any one person, and yet it is something that affects each and every one of us. The smallest wars are the ones that impact us as individuals the most: the wars fought within our own hearts.

 

*Warning: Rated R. For a reason. Violence and gore and racial slurs and naked man butt. Not for the faint of heart. But I would still encourage you to go see it, if you can.

Catching Up and Moving Forward (Graduation and Urination)

It’s been a long time time since I’ve last posted in this blog, and it’s a shame because I’d been hoping to post relatively frequently, especially for the summer. A lot of exciting things have been going on recently and even more exciting things are surely on their way.

TO CATCH EVERYONE UP

The most notable event that’s occurred, of course, has been my earning my bachelor’s degree in Biblical Text and Missions at ACU twelve days ago. It’s a surreal sensation knowing that I will not be returning to Abilene in August for another season of adventure and friends [and learning], but will instead be moving on to the next stage of my life. What all that entails still has yet to be determined.

I still haven’t fully been able to grasp or accept the reality of this situation, though; in fact, the only time I ever truly felt the exhilaration of being an actual college graduate was when they called my name to walk across the stage and receive my “diploma” (or purple tube with a paper from the Alumni Association asking me for money). That excitement was short lived, however, as three seconds later, the same guy called up the next person in line  with the same monotonous affliction he’d used for my name, and the rush of emotion I had once contained was now gone forever and never to be seen again like the dodo or the mom from That’s So Raven.

WHAT LIES AHEAD

While my post-graduation life is still mostly TBD, for this first summer I will actually be working as an intern for Lifeline Chaplaincy in Fort Worth, in which my three co-interns and I will be meeting with patients at four different nearby hospitals in hopes of talking with them, praying for them, and validating them in the midst of their struggles and sicknesses. One can only imagine for themselves all that lies within this premise. It’s bound to be a summer full of reality checks, growth, emotional roller coaster rides, broken down walls, and, perhaps especially at the beginning…

awkward moments.

We live in a society that has an “It’s Complicated” relationship with awkward situations. While we love watching them unfold with other people or with fictional characters–such as Buster Bluth shattering a pterodactyl skull on Arrested Development, Kevin Malone “bringing” his famous chili to The Office (a scene I still can’t handle watching to this day), or Greg Focker desperately trying to impress his future father-in-law with his made up story about milking a cat on Meet the Parents–we often have trouble confronting ourselves when it comes to our own awkward moments (unless, of course, we’re using a pseudonym and Jimmy Fallon is presenting them). Our natural inclination is to present our perfect selves to one another, to make ourselves presentable and save ourselves of any shame that might come about from revealing any of our flaws to other people.

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Scenes from the upcoming movie Awkwaaaaard starring Luke Schumann as Awkwardous Prime.

However, any amateur realitologist (one who studies reality) will be able to tell you that every single one of us experiences awkward moments, whether it’s brought about by someone else, or ourselves, or whatever. It’s actually the first thing they teach you in Realitology School.

And this summer will be no different for me. You could even say that the first 22 1/2 years of my life have led me to this summer of awkwardness. Here, I will be encountering people in their lowest or one of their lowest states as I sit with them on their hospital bed. All the time they’d spent hiding their flaws with cunning or excuses or privilege will be swept under the bed and covered only by a thin blanket, a half-open hospital robe, and their own self-consciousness. And my job as a chaplain will be to help try and reveal the struggles that these patients are experiencing in order that they might offer them to God. Offering not only their sickness or injuries to God, but their whole selves to God. Offering their humanity to God. It is through this vulnerability that healing can occur, not in the body, but in the soul.

This is a skill that is greatly foreign to many Christians. We are afraid to reveal our struggles to one another–even to God. And it is tearing us apart.

So my co-interns and I were able to experience a bit of our own humanity here in this first week on the job. While we have not yet been able to visit any patients yet (we still need go through a bit more training first), on our very first day as a group we had to take some blood and urine tests to make sure that we were healthy enough to be spending half our days around sick people.

The scene here is set with your humble hospital hallway in a side office section with chairs lining the wall, a small room for individual testing, and a family bathroom that lies opposite the chairs. As we went one-by-one, all four of us–who had only met each other as recently as earlier that morning–stood and waited toward the end of each of our tests with a cup of our own urine for everyone else to see while we waited to give it to the doctor (or whoever) to process it. Even if we’d tried to avoid eye contact, it was almost impossible to avoid the fact that within 10 feet of us, a near perfect stranger who we were to end up spending the next three months with was holding a cup of their own pee in front of us. And we would all have to end up doing the exact same thing in front of them.

While this was certainly not the worst thing that could have happened to us, it still brought our group to a certain level of intimacy that is rarely achieved so quickly among really anyone. Most of us do not want to acknowledge particular qualities about each other–such as the fact that everyone pees, even the one female intern!–because we do not want ourselves to be vulnerable to one another. Ever since the first bite was taken from the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3:7), humans have been afraid to expose themselves to one another, and even to God. We avoid with everything we have making our lives an episode of Naked and Afraid. But when we do that, we end up neglecting an essential part of our very selves. And the thing about God is that he’s a very all-or-nothing kind of God, so we must bring our darkest and most awkward moments to him if we want our relationship with him to be authentic.

In his book This is Awkward: How Life’s Uncomfortable Moments Open the Door to Intimacy and Connection, Sammy Rhodes says,

Awkwardness is an invitation to vulnerability, and vulnerability is where intimacy and connection are born….  The moment [Adam and Eve] began to tell God what they had done [Gen 3:10] was the same moment God began to cover their shame [3:21]. This seems to be something like a principle in the Bible. The more you get to know God, the more you get to know yourself in all your awkwardness; and the more you get to know yourself, the more you get to know God in all his grace and mercy (pg. 11).

Humans have been historically awful at admitting their weaknesses to anyone else; and this summer, I want to do my best to allow vulnerability and awkwardness to reign. Whether I’m talking with patients in a hospital or hanging out with close friends, I do not want to live a life in which I’m continually trying to hide who I am around people. I want to live my life a with a #NoFilter mindset. I want to “embrace my awkwardness” as Sammy Rhodes says (you can read his story in tweet form here) and let people know that I am unashamed of my flaws, because I will have no other choice when my flaws are the only things people can see. And I think it would be best for all of us if we chose to live the same way.

I hope to have a new post on my internship up every week, but until then, thanks for reading.