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.)

interfaith-retreat-themes

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

hacksaw_ridge_poster

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.

image1.JPG
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.

To Understand and to be Understood (Or Polarize and Pulverize)

tumblr_inline_nboumj5ZO61qersu1A few months ago, President Obama spoke on free speech at a town hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, talking about how frustrating it was to him that people are getting more and more uncomfortable with encountering people who disagree with them (you can find the story with a video of his talk, which was specifically geared toward colleges and college students, here).

He said,

I don’t agree that… you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying… “I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not how we learn.

Apparently, people seemed surprised that he said that (and Janell Ross of the Washington Post seemed just as surprised as I was). I, personally, am actually more surprised that I found the story on a blatantly partisan news[-ish] site.

But I digress.

I bring this up because I cannot help but think about how true this statement is. In our present day, we are encountering a presidential race that might actually be the craziest one in recent memory (going far beyond the few that I’ve “experienced” in my 22 years here on earth), and tensions are running high in regards to issues of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. We live in a post-9/11, post-Ferguson, post-Obergefell v. Hodges, post-Caitlyn Jenner world.

We have become divided: society is calling us to take sides, to pitch tents around those whose ideas line up best with our own.

“Liberals are ruining our values and our way of life.”

“Conservatives are too caught up in a fantasy world where gay people and Muslims don’t exist and guns solve more problems than they create.”

Polarize and Pulverize. And then do it all again.

But in my experience (again, 22 years is practically an eternity and a half), no one can truly be broken down into a caricature. We are wrong if we assume that this black woman is a flame-throwing feminist, or this white man is a Donald Trump supporter, and seek to go no further. Even if they are, is that how they should be defined? Reduced down to? Dismissed as?

You can call me naive, and perhaps I am a little, but I like to believe that people generally have a purpose behind their perspectives. Maybe it’s ignorance, as their adversaries oftentimes suggest, but maybe it’s something else. The beautiful thing about our country and our world is that we do have different points of view. And if we continue to deny someone else’s understanding of the world, then our own ignorance is only perpetuated. Nothing changes, and nothing is improved.

This is not to say that we should accept someone’s opinions if they have a differing worldview; rather, we should share with them our own, and seek to understand each other. Maybe then we can learn from one another. Maybe then we can grow as a society and as individuals.

If all we do is categorize each other as “them” and “us,” soon the latter is bound to disappear forever.

So what I hope to do with this blog is offer a platform from which people can safely and intuitively seek to understand those who they don’t agree with. Through a common desire to understand and to be understood, I want you, the reader, to pose questions and offer your viewpoints on the topic in a manner that I can post on this blog (though, for the nature of this blog and my standing as its sole operator, I would prefer the topics be limited to cultural, theological, or social topics).

For example, someone could write a post entitled, “What I Don’t Understand about Christians Who are Pro-Choice,” or “5 Questions I Have for People Who Still Deny Climate Change,” and then talk about how you see the topic and why you believe what you believe. Then, hopefully, if all goes well, I will do my best to find someone who has a different perspective and have them offer their own point of view in an equally humble and graceful way, and then post their response here, as well. (Also, you can absolutely remain anonymous if you so choose.)

The goal is not to attack or to change one’s mind, but simply to expand our own perspectives through conversation and, dare I say, civility. It’s messy, it’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, and it might even be a little risky. But what I hope is that through this, we can see the true beauty found in the complexity and diversity in the world, and from that we can create bonds and connections with each other in spite of our differences, like liberal Leslie Knope and libertarian Ron Swanson from the TV show Parks and Recreation (an incredible video commentary on their relationship can be found in this video); or Charles Xavier and Magneto from The X-Men (again, a good video commentary on their relationship can be found here, and you can watch this chilling scene from the first X-Men movie played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, who are themselves best friends, right here); or Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in real life (sorry, you have to actually read their story).

So I invite you to join me on my quest to understand and be understood, to know and be known, to love and be loved in return (all the Moulin Rouge fans shouted together, with Nat King Cole fans singing along). May we have a conversation with our transgender neighbor instead of scrunching our face at the sight of them. May we approach our neighbor who hosts NRA meetings in his house with an open heart and an open mind. May we seek not to tear each other down but rather to build each other up. It is only then that true growth and change can occur.

Thanks for reading. Until next time.

* * *

P.S. Comedian duo Key and Peele offer a painfully hilarious example of misunderstanding and misinterpretation with text messages, so take a minute and bask in this brilliant satirical take on reality (warning: explicit).

Present Day Justice Issues: Privilege

I’ve been going back and forth in my head trying to decide if I was actually going to post about this or not. I’d been planning on talking about this lofty and touchy subject in some form or another “eventually”, thinking that Martin Luther King Day would have been a good, albeit cliche, opportunity; then I thought about posting the day after MLK Day in order to make a point about how MLK’s legacy should not be confined to a single day’s acknowledgement.

But now I realize that some things cannot be cleanly planned out or organized. And, more importantly, some things just simply need to be talked about. And this is one of those things.

 

(ASIDE–A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO THE “PRESENT DAY JUSTICE ISSUES” SERIES)

To start off, hopefully I’ll get back to trying to post on this blog semi-regularly (though I’ve obviously not been doing a very good job so far), and among the plethora of ideas I have for this blog, one of them is to write a series of posts on justice issues that are in effect in our world today. These could be anything from global issues to national ones. Ultimately, I understand that I am not the leading authority on any of these topics, but I still hope to provide a voice that matters and raises awareness for (and perhaps even offers some critiques on) these issues. Posts will be riddled with links to news articles, videos, and other blog posts, with the goal of being as well-rounded and factual as possible.

I will not promise to be unbiased, however, for two reasons:

  1. I am a blogger, and not a journalist. I firmly believe that journalism should be as unbiased as possible. It is not a journalist’s or a news source’s job to tell readers what or how to think, but rather to present readers with facts including all sides of the situation that is being reported in order to allow them to come to their own conclusions. In the blogging world, however, people are encouraged to share their own beliefs and opinions and can hopefully provide thought-provoking material based on their own words. I will certainly do my best to be well-rounded as well and look at all sides of the situation, and I also understand that the situations I discuss will rarely be black-and-white (no pun intended). What I hope to do is offer a platform for myself and others to voice our own opinions in respectful and non-hostile ways.
  2. As a Christian, I will a) often approach things from a “Christian” perspective (though I understand that that is a loaded statement) and b) do my best to lift up the voice of those who have no voice, because I believe that is what Jesus did in his own ministry and called his followers to do. Again, our world is full of issues with complex layers and sticky situations, and I will do my best to form my opinions only after I’ve looked at all the facts and have heard from both sides. But oftentimes, my biases will unapologetically be in favor of those not in power, those who are being oppressed, and those who are, well, under-privileged.

Now, back to your previously scheduled blog post.

 

PRESENT DAY JUSTICE ISSUES, PART I: WHAT IS PRIVILEGE?

privilege
Via http://www.truthrevolt.org/news/osu-dorm-provides-definitions-identity-privilege-social-justice

I cannot emphasize enough that I know how touchy of a subject this is today. “Privilege” is a word that has been thrown around so much this past year and a half and beyond that it often gets lost in translation, and many people have already decided their opinions on the matter. It’s a word that repels many and causes them to automatically form strong, negative feelings toward whomever is using the word, and yet for others it’s one of their go-to words: something handy that many protesters pull out of their back pockets (often succeeding the words “Check your”) whenever they feel like someone is being intentionally ignorant.

But what does it mean?

The most concise definition I can give of the word is this: Privilege is a position of power, be it great or small, that is automatically or subconsciously placed on a person or on a group of people despite the fact that they did nothing to deserve such power.

So, say you hear someone talking about another person having “white privilege” (as I’m sure most of us have heard before). When they use that term, they are saying that because of our society’s traditionally biased view in favor of people with fair skin, white people are more likely to obtain certain “gifts” that they might not have necessarily earned, while non-white people or people of color (POC) will be forced to work harder and even manipulate a part of who they are in order to show the privileged and powerful that they are worth something of equal value, as well.

One would be hard pressed to try to legitimately call white privilege a myth. Here in America, as well as in much of the rest of the Western world, we can see that our history has been created and formed by mostly fair-skinned folk. This is evident in everything from our history books (which many people would rightfully say are often biased themselves towards retelling history from the perspective of white people), to our line of presidents [up until 2008], to the movies and shows that garner the most attention, to our economic situation. And, of course, let us not forget the blatant oppression and racism behind slavery in the 18th and 19th century and the Jim Crow laws that were in force in America for almost 75 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

“White” has been the majority [power] in America for the past 300 years. White is what is normal. For many, white is what is comfortable. But the reality is that now there are almost as many non-white people in America as there are white people. And the even harsher reality is that many white people are reacting rather roughly to this change, despite the fact that America has been unashamedly becoming more and more racially diverse since the late 19th century, with little sign of slowing down.

Along with white privilege often comes the notion of “male privilege”, which has an even deeper history as it stretches back basically to the beginning of human existence. Throughout different ancient cultures we see a lot of things that are seemingly run almost exclusively by men. Men are the head gods, the philosophers, the warriors, the writers, the politicians, and the actors. Men are the ones making headlines and making history, while women are often seen on the sidelines (if they’re seen at all).

And the same is often still true in our society today. When we talk about doctors, lawyers, engineers, philanthropists, or politicians, more often than not we tend to think of men holding a place of power in these positions rather than women. While many of the so-called “lower” positions: the nurses, the paralegals, the secretaries, and so on, are often attributed almost exclusively to women.

But the shocking reality (hold on to your seats and tuck your kids in before you read any further) is this: women can do all these things as well. Unfortunately, much like the case with whiteness, the idea behind males holding the positions of power has been normalized in our society and we have kicked off our shoes, grabbed our favorite beer, and settled into this idea without giving it a second thought. So when a woman starts showing strength, intelligence, or power, the men who had once been the epitome of those characteristics start to push back. They retaliate and respond with arguments that tend to essentially always be a reiteration of the same idea that, “This is the way it has always been… I like things the way they are… I don’t want things to change… I don’t want anything to put my position of power at risk.”

While that may sound harmless enough, in reality this message is often communicated through violence and language that demeans and belittles women, and that is not okay.

This is a matter of justice because, simply put, things have been split in two between the party of the oppressors and the party of the oppressed. Yes, slavery and the Jim Crow laws are no longer mandated in our country today. Yes, women can vote and a lot of them can work anywhere they want. Yes, we see both women and people of color (and, of course, women of color) in positions of power. But while those major systems of power are thankfully behind us, this does not mean that racism and sexism no longer exist in our nation and in our world today. As I’ve said before, because people are being oppressed, we, as Christians, should care. We cannot remain complacent about matters of justice in the world.

ADDRESSING THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

As you could guess, this puts me in a bit of an awkward situation, as I am both white and male. For the longest time, I didn’t see any problem with the way things were in the world because I was never directly affected by it. And I am often still lukewarm about these things because of it.

But it cannot be this way. For those of us who are privileged, we need to look at the world around us. We need to be self-aware. We need to acknowledge our position of power and seek humility and justice, losing our life for the sake of others and, if we are Christian, for the sake of the gospel (Matthew 16:24-27).

Even so, I often have trouble trying to figure out my own role in this. I do not know what women go through every day; I do not know what people of color experience every day. How can I possibly understand? How can I possibly relate? How can I help stand for justice without further perpetuating injustice?

These are all tough questions that perhaps even deserve their own blog posts, but I will not address them just yet. I will, however, suggest that the next step is to talk to the people who are not like you. Reach out to them and ask about their experiences. And most importantly: listen to them. Listening leads to understanding and understanding leads to setting the foundation for real, genuine change to occur. You may not end up agreeing with everything they say, but at least you have placed a stepping stone on the path to reconciliation.

One more thing: I know again that this is a rough and controversial topic. It’s layered and complicated, like rock-paper-scissors[-lizard-Spock] on steroids. Believe it or not, I have only barely scratched the surface on this issue, and many of the sentences I’ve written in this post and be replaced with blog posts (or entire books) for themselves. But in the midst of it all, I want to urge everyone reading and everyone involved to love one another. Seek peace in all situations. And approach everything with patience and, if you’re a person of faith, prayer. Change starts in your heart.

Below are three videos pertaining to the subject, all revolving around the theme of white guys just trying to understand the complexity of privilege (specifically white privilege) and desiring to be understood themselves. I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

 

STEPHEN COLBERT INTERVIEWS/IS INTERVIEWED BY DERAY MCKESSON, A LEADER OF THE BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT (COPYRIGHT CBS 2016)

 

SONG: “WHITE PRIVILEGE II (WARNING: EXPLICIT)” BY MACKLEMORE (COPYRIGHT 2016)

 

SONG: “AMERICAN PRIVILEGE (WARNING: EXPLICIT)” BY ALLEN STONE (COPYRIGHT 2015)