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

2016 is Dead. Long Live 2017.

2017Well, friends, it’s finally come. 2016 is finally reaching its bitter and welcomed conclusion, and while 2017 may be blanketed in fog and uncertainty, there is still something inherently hopeful about the turn of a new year. There’s still something radically reassuring about opening a new year’s journal and flipping through its fresh, un-inked pages with nothing but wonder pressing you onward.

Of course, looking back upon this past year, I can see that it was not all bad. No year–no event–is complete without a bit of good, bad, and ugly all claiming a seat at the vast, simultaneously-abundant-and-impoverished table. And this year in particular was among the most polarizing years I have ever personally experienced, where the moments of triumph and accomplishment bellowed with much of the same vigor as the moments of frustration, guilt, and disappointment.

Among the highlights of my year, one would be hard-pressed to find a reason to complain. I graduated from college and began pursuing my Master’s Degree. I was invited to eight weddings and attended all but two. Several other people I’m close to, most notably my brother, got engaged, and come May 13 I’ll get to see myself donning the Best Man’s outfit for the first time. One of my best and oldest friends announced her pregnancy. My family was graced with a fifteen-pound bundle of bark and bounce named Lily. I’ve started to pick up learning Spanish (again) with the free(!) Duolingo app and the Spanish translation of the Harry Potter books. And–while I’m not the healthiest person on the planet–I’ve also started drinking homemade smoothies roughly five times a week.

On the other hand, this year has not been free of its struggles. While I certainly take pride in my commitment to stay informed and keep up with current events this year, the products have, needless to say, been harrowing. I watched as two flawed presidential candidates brought themselves center-stage in front of the eyes of the world, the entire election season leaving a bitter taste in my mouth, and mourned as our nation’s Christians and Electoral College put one of the most hateful, arrogant, and un-Christlike persons alive into the Oval Office. Not only that, but I felt helpless as I heard reports of yet another shooting, another bombing, another Syrian neighborhood being driven out. And what is worse: I began to feel numb in response to all these things.

Personally, I felt as low as I’d pretty much ever felt at several different points this year, in particular when I was turned down from my “ideal job” in September, and when I was let go from the job I’d previously maintained up until this month, and when I faced non-responses from what felt like hundreds of other potential jobs throughout the year. I had to say goodbye to my college friends and am now forced to settle for conversations through text and the occasional weekend visit every couple of months (the frequency of which will likely only decrease as time goes on). I witnessed firsthand what distance and disconnect can do for relationships, and I spent the entirety of my summer [and beyond] learning that healing cannot exist without pain and suffering first coming into play, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or any combination of the three.

All that being said, I’m doing my best to greet 2017 with the same sense of hope I used to always pride myself in. While it’ll be beginning with a whole bunch of cliffhangers, I refuse to see these things as an excuse to mope about or especially give up.

Among the many lessons I learned this year (yes, I know this entire post of made up of cliche’s–what New Year’s reflection isn’t?), perhaps the most prominent one of all is the fact that life is not meant to be experienced alone, apart from everyone else. We must find value in the things our friends and family provide for our well-being, and we must, in turn, learn how to better be there for them.

As far as resolutions go, I don’t really have anything specific. I hope to keep learning Spanish and to keep drinking smoothies (and possibly do a few more things to try to live a healthier life). I obviously want to find another job–if not one with a church then at least one that will help me pay for grad school–and I hope to keep moving forward in my pursuit of my Master’s Degree. I want to continually learn what it means to live as a follower of Christ–submitting to peace, but refusing to be silent on matters of injustice, loving my enemies, and abiding by the Spirit by emanating love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in every situation.

While most of 2017 is still a completely empty slate, I’m kicking the new year off by going to an interfaith retreat this first week, and through it I hope to do something I’ve never really done before: try to friends with people who aren’t exactly like me. It’s gearing up to be a refreshing and educational first few days of the year, and you can bet your bottom that I hope to produce at least one good blog post out of this event.

Thank you for reading. Until next time, may we reflect on this passage from 1 John 4, a passage that I’ve been asked to read at my brother’s wedding and one that’s been on my heart and mind quite a bit these past few months in particular.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8 ESV)

May we learn to love, and may we learn that love begets love and that hate begets hate. The God I strive to know calls me to love my neighbor and my enemy, and this oh-so-divisive world we live in loves to make enemies of one another. But may we love one another instead. May we strive to make peace instead. May we seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God instead as we start this new year.

Grace and peace be with you until we meet again.

Present Day Justice Issues: Charity Over Complacency

These past two weeks, I have been mostly silent (on my blog and Facebook, at least) in regards to the midweek election results. But on Wednesday morning, I posted a lament that I wrote as a knee-jerk response to hearing about the large number of Christians that, in my mind, chose not to vote “principle over party” on November 8. I was pained both by the irony and by the way other human beings had already felt the affect of our next President. What I said might have been harsh, but I stand by it regardless. Christians on all sides (myself included) have forgotten that our kingdom is not of this world and that we should make it our goal to bring heaven down to earth with each passing day.

As I always try to do, I spent a lot of time this week reflecting on the situation, and tried my best to listen to both sides of the spectrum. I’ve heard some incredible truths, whether it was at the church I’ve recently started attending or spoken by a shocked and dismayed Stephen Colbert during his show’s live election coverage or a sober and professional Michel Martin from NPR’s All Things Considered the Sunday night afterward (which, in my opinion, should be required listening/reading for all).

I’ve thought long and hard about what I should say and do in response to all that’s going on. I’ve been pained by the stories I’ve seen on social media–of black and/or LGBTQ+ inclusive churches being burned and vandalized with spray-painted swastikas, slurs, and disturbing praise for the President-elect; of a protester holding a sign that says “Rape [future First Lady] Melania [Trump]” in response to the election results (read the full story here); and of students from my own university posting an implicitly racist and ill-advised (to say the veryleast) video onto Snapchat a couple days ago (the students involved were promptly expelled from ACU–read President Phil Schubert’s statement here and an article from the school newspaper on different students’ reactions here)–and I’ve been brought close to tears a countless number of times.

What bothers me even more, however, is the defensiveness I have seen from those who voted for our next president. They say, “Not all of his supporters are doing this” and “He said himself that they should stop it”. They excuse and normalize actual hatred, actual hate crimes, actual bigotry. And if we–if I–in response to the hurting and violation of human rights, choose complacency, silence, no response at all, then I become part of the problem. Silence over injustice cannot make things better, but rather, only perpetuates it.

My heart breaks for those who now fear for their and their family/friends’ lives in light of the election, and I want to say that regardless of whether or not you think their fear is justified, I want to urge you not to shut them up. I beg you not to dismiss the protests, the Facebook posts, and the increased number of calls to suicide hotlines following the election as whiny overreactions (especially when many prominent names on the “winning” side threatened to react in the same way). Rather, I want to encourage you to listen to them. Their fear is real, and there are real reasons why they exist.

It is more likely than not that you are, at the very least, Facebook friends with some of these people. Human beings that no longer feel safe in this country. And my request for you is, if you really want to prove that you are not like others who voted for the same candidate you voted for, or if you, like me, consider yourself to be a Christian, a moral person, or a compassionate person, I want to urge you to take action. Donate to charities that serve human beings in our nation and around the world who are oppressed and under-privileged (and have been to some extent or another for a very long time anyway). Look past your political leanings and see the children of God whom your complacency is hurting.

Below are several charities who are in need of continued support and who constantly strive to seek justice in light of a world who often overlooks them.

 

NATIONAL COALITION FOR THE HOMELESS:
national-coalition-for-the-homeless-logo
Growing up, I had always been taught to be cautious about those on the street who claim to be homeless, because sometimes, people pose as beggars just to get some extra money. However, that does not mean at all that homeless people do not exist. Furthermore, while the homeless population has been steadily decreasing over the past several years (due in large part to federal funding), this does not mean that there are not low-income people at risk of losing a roof over their heads, nor does it mean that there is really any good way to genuinely help bring people out of homelessness, unemployment, homeless shelters, etc. (for a full and recent report, you can click on this link here, and if you do not have time to read all 83 pages, don’t worry, they offer a two page summary at the beginning). If you are cautious about giving money to people you see on the street, you can still help out by giving to charities such as this one who work with homeless people directly. What is more, you can kill two birds with one stone. Conservatives tend to place more emphasis on serving homeless veterans, while a lot of liberals have focused on serving homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Both parties are in desperate need of relief (it is also worth noting that the article above mentions a decrease(!) in the number of homeless veterans, but gives no mention to homeless LGBTQ+ teens, which comprise of roughly half of the homeless youth population). Furthermore, homeless shelters (plenty of which can be found in Houston) are always looking for more people to volunteer. By volunteering, you get to see directly how people are affected both by contributions and by complacency. You really can make a difference. The NCH’s website is a haven for resources, including fact sheets and ways you can help, so I encourage you to get involved in whatever way you can.

You can also look for churches in your area that work to serve the homeless in some way (such as the church I’m now attending, Impact Church of Christ in Houston). While I am unable to work with many of their ministries directly due to distance and my late work hours, I have still decided to commit to donating to the congregation (and, if I can, their homeless ministry) weekly.

 

TEACH FOR AMERICA:
teach-for-america-logo
Teach for America is a non-profit organization that helps both recent college graduates and underprivileged children. Most of the teachers that are a part of this organization are sent to low income schools throughout the country while the organization pays off their student debt, either in part or in full, depending on how long they choose to commit to the organization. Education is one of the most important factors needed for the advancement of society, and it helps kids grow up to become a person of value and benefit both for themselves and their communities. Unfortunately, public education immensely underfunded in our country today, and it is even worse in our inner cities, which is populated mostly by ethnic minorities. Furthermore, our President-elect seeks to greater privatize education and leave decisions regarding free public education–all that people in the inner cities are able to afford (and, I would argue, a matter of human rights)–to state governments. To learn more about problems with our [segregated] education system, John Oliver (yes, really) gives a fantastic lecture on it here (warning: explicit language). And to learn more about Teach for America, you can find a link to their website right here.

 

INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE:
international_rescue_committee_logo
These past few years have seen a rise both in the number of refugees needing a home and in fear surrounding these refugees. I cannot stress enough how irrational these fears are, though I’m also painfully aware that simply saying, “Do not fear” is not a sufficient way to change anyone’s minds. Fear that is rational, however, is the fear that the refugees themselves face: governments that threw them out, other governments that shut them out, and an unknown future ahead of them with little to no way to provide for their families. These people–literally, over 99% of these people–have no ill intents. They are victims, not terrorists, and they simply want to be safe. They simply want to be home. And the International Rescue Committee works to help refugees from all countries and in all countries. You can find a link to their website here and you can learn more about displaced refugees on the UN website here and “meet” some of the refugees yourself through this video by actress (who you very likely know from the AT&T commercials) Milana Vayntrub, who is, herself, a former refugee.

 

This list is only a handful of organizations that do wonderful things for those who are oppressed. I’ve not even scratched the surface, and perhaps one day I’ll compile a whole list of summaries about organizations that help to serve others in need. But for now, I want to offer a challenge to all Americans, regardless of who they voted for, to not be complacent about things that matter. We all must do a better job of listening to others, looking past our own needs, and seeking compassion and empathy for those less fortunate than us. I will be the first to admit my own shortcomings on this matter. Even so, I hope to press on and continue (start?) to do my part in serving others, and I believe that this blog is one of the best ways that I, myself, can help. I would love for you to join me, as well. We can keep each other accountable for our actions (or lack thereof).

For now, I would like to, as I often do, close with one of my favorite prayers, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

Thank you for reading. May we all seek to become better people and greater lights to the world that point to the mercy, love, and grace that can only be found in God through Christ Jesus. Until next time.

Hear, O America

Hear, O America.

And behold your God, a god who is but a drug.
A god who you use as a shot of adrenaline
To boost your self-esteem and make you feel
as though you have worth.

But this god is not God,
For all this god requires is that
your faith begins with him
and simply ends at you.

This god you claim
fits snuggly in a picture frame
and hangs on your mantle
with all the other idols.

It says it knows the plans for you
and that you can do all things through it
because it gives you strength.
But this god is not God.

Hear, O whitewashed Christian America
And woe to you,
For on the outside you are spotless,
but on the inside you are covered with filth.

Your savior is not one who hangs on a cross,
but one that drapes over the pole
outside your work, outside your home,
outside your church.

This god encourages you
to celebrate the values
that belong to you,
but then it simply ends at you.

Your gods are a set of values
that have no worth
because you are the only one
who reaps the benefit and privilege.

Here, O Religious Right.
You can have your gods.
You can have all this world.
But the cost will surely be your soul.

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.

Utopia

“But want to go on the computer now!

This was shouted at me by five-year-old Cecelia after I’d told her time and again that day that she had lost her computer privileges for the rest of the day at the preschool I work at.

This wasn’t a new dance for the two of us–or any other kid there, for that matter–but the accumulation of repeated offenses and my own selfish desires to be heard eventually led to a picked-up-carried-out-tear-filled visit to the Dreaded Principal’s Office.

Now, I don’t want dear Cecelia to come across your head as some sort of Veruca Salt incarnate. She’s really quite sweet, and I hate to send anyone, almost especially her (crossed arms, pouty lips, huge watery eyes–the works), to the Dreaded Principal’s Office.

This little encounter, however, among other things, has gotten me thinking a lot about the concept of utopia. Like Cecelia–who just wanted to have her way by being allowed to use the computer–and like myself–who just wanted a chill and fun Friday without any trouble from the kids–we all have our own desires that we wish could be achieved, regardless of whether they will actually happen or not. In light of an election year, we have one presidential candidate that speaks to voters whose ideal utopia is the past–he resonates well with people who long to return to, let’s say, the “great” ol’ days–and even the candidate himself lives in a mental utopia in which he can do or say whatever he wants to whomever he wants without consequence just because he, allegedly, has a lot money. But we have another candidate whose supporters hope to move this nation forward in ways that are quite, well, optimistic. And we have third-party candidates who are so delusional as to think that their very presence in the ballots is enough for them to win, and yet still another (recently dropped out) candidate who was able to convince millions of Americans that his perfect world ideas were possible and not, in fact, outlandish.

This is why we cling to ambitions that we know will never take on any sort of tangible form. This is why we plan for vacations that we will never be able to afford, and why we apply to jobs we will never be qualified for. This is why we (or I, at least) resonate with movies like Fiddler on the Roof, where the beloved protagonist’s life is pe

the-good-place-promo-photo
Not an ad. I just had trouble finding a good photo for this post, and this new show I’m watching about a woman who accidentally gets sent to heaven is kind of related.

rfect until it isn’t, and where the new guy’s crazy ideas sound wonderful on paper but also fail miserably to come into fruition (I actually wrote a paper about this very topic last semester, just in case you were doubting my credibility to be discussing a subject such as this).

Oftentimes I find myself succumbed to my own utopian visions. I lie awake at night envisioning what my own “perfect world” would look like: I’d be living on my own; all my friends would be close by and I’d see them every day (which, come to think of it, might actually mean that my Utopia is in Abilene, Texas…); I’d be making enough money to pay off all my loans, sustain myself, and then some; I’d be taking my graduate school classes in person instead of online (again, Abilene…); I’d have a job either at a church or in the inner city helping to end poverty and racism and all those other things (with the help of all the amazing books I’d be writing); and oh, yeah, I’d also have a girlfriend. Like, the greatest, smartest, most caring, and most beautiful girlfriend ever.

To go along with that, I had recently found myself interviewing for my “ideal job” at a church in Richmond, Texas this past week. I’d invested so much into the idea of this job, even going so far as to telling my boss at the preschool that there was a chance I was going to be leaving soon (word to the wise: don’t ever do that). I was planning out my uncertain future–one that went past even my time with the church because, in my mind, I was already in the works of creating a life full of meaning and, though I’d never say it in person, success.

But if you haven’t guessed by now: I didn’t get the job. Despite all my ridiculous ambition, I still managed to fall flat on my face. I had practically put my entire identity into this job, and it hadn’t even been offered to me yet.

Of course, it always sucks to get rejected when you invest yourself into those kinds of things. But I also know that I did not apply and interview for this job with the purest heart and the best intentions in mind.

Now, you might say that even that is utopian in nature, and, honestly, I would, too. And you don’t have to be a psychologist to say that no one’s intentions will ever be completely pure, even if they’re wanting to work for the sake of others.

(I could also go on and on about how awful the job market is for millennials these days–low wages, living at home, needing an expensive education and applying for jobs that require experience that you don’t have because not a single job will hire you unless you  have experience–but 1) I’ll leave that to all the other millennials struggling to find a job, and 2) my particular case with this job is just a part of life.)

The truth is, if we set any sort of genuinely optimistic standards for our lives, we are bound to get disappointed eventually.

But at the same time, I can’t help but cling to another addicting idea: hope. I feel like it’s easy to get caught in the utopian trap when we dare to put our hope in anything. And it’s certainly healthy, to an extent, to challenge oneself and to constantly strive for something better than what exists in the world today.

But as a Christian, I want to also do my best to put my hope in something that lasts, something that is eternal. Our world, our jobs, our successes and achievements–and yes, even our presidential elections–are temporary and earthly. I don’t say this to denounce everything in this world, but what I am saying is that if we put our hope in our jobs, we are wrong. If we put our hopes in our political parties or political candidates, we are wrong. If we put our hope in our own selfish desires, we are wrong.

So my hope from this experience is that I would better learn to hope in the things that matter. That regardless of what my occupation is, I might strive to advance the Kingdom of God in everything I do, even if that means tying a four-year-old’s shoe for the thousandth time in a week or telling twenty elementary-aged after school students to be kind and not hurt each other for the thousandth time in a week, or having the audacity to send adorable little Cecelia to the Dreaded Principal’s Office again rather than letting her just have her way.

I hope to be reminded of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in which he says not to store up treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-21).

I hope to strive for Eden and for the New Jerusalem, and to work toward these goals every day of my life, seeking justice where there is injustice, peace where there is violence, and love where there is hatred.

And maybe it’s a utopian desire, but I hope that we all can strive for these things, as well.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

Powerless and Ineffective

*A continuation of my summer series reflecting on my ongoing twelve-week internship with Lifeline Chaplaincy, in which I, along with three other college-aged interns, visit different patients at various hospitals in and around the Fort Worth area and offer them prayer and spiritual counsel. You can read my first post on the internship here.*

* * *

As she shared her story with me, she went on to mention that her pastor would be out of town the day of her surgery. But as a stroke of luck—or perhaps, in her eyes, a stroke of the pen in God’s hand—I was actually going to be back again the day of her surgery.

“You’re a life saver,” she said. “I was so worried that I wouldn’t have anyone to come and pray with me before my surgery, but now that you’re going to be there, I can feel better about the surgery and about my relationship with God.”

It was then that one of my greatest insecurities regarding this internship (aside from having to deal with people’s poor and misinformed theologies) was brought to the center stage of my mind.

I hate praying. Especially in front of people.

As each passing day goes by, I internally hope that no one asks me to pray before the meal, or that when I do inevitably pray with a patient I’m able to at least think of a good Bible verse or hymn lyric to go along with my feeble attempt at an original and impactful prayer handsmessage. At least then I won’t end up stumbling so drastically around my words—around my desire to please the patient without compromising my own personal beliefs or to provide comfort without accidentally saying something that might end up hurting the patient.

But now here, this woman was doing more than just accepting my [oftentimes reluctant] offer for prayer that I give during most of my visits, she was putting her trust in me and in the prayers I had told her I would give her later on in the week for the sake of her own spiritual life. And I was horrified.

Those who know me know I tend to overthink everything. They know that my self-consciousness often overrides my self-confidence and that that can end up leading to my own self-destruction.

Often alongside that fear lie my own insecurities about prayer itself. Prayer is meant to be a sacred act, a form of opening oneself up to one’s Creator in a humble and steadfast manner. And I always hesitate when it comes to even the simplest of prayers–even in the hospital–out of fear that my prayer is not humble enough or worthy enough or “right” enough.

While we can certainly pray for healing, or really anything else, what if it never comes? How does that affect the way we see God, or ourselves, or our pastors?

What happens when we learn that the God to whom we are praying does not work in the way our prayers often perceive him to?

This is not a new issue for me. For those who followed me on my journey in New York two summers ago, you might have read a post that offered similar laments from a younger and less experienced me based on a prayer walk I did two years ago today. In my subsequent blog post from a few days later, I wrote,

Prayer is difficult. It oftentimes doesn’t seem logical. I might even go so far as to say that it never seems logical…. [Rather,] it seems [more than anything else that prayer is] much more of an act of faith and trust [rather than a way to try to get God to work in one’s favor]. And that’s what I’ve been hearing all my life, but I’m starting to further realize how true that is.

Even after coming to that “conclusion”, however, I still don’t feel like I’ve made all that much progress regarding my own understanding of prayer. If anything, I feel like my understanding of prayer has gotten worse in these last two years. And that bothers me a lot.

That being said, I still want to believe that prayer is powerful and effective (as James 5:16 roughly states), and I want to believe that it is essential in maintaining a healthy relationship with God. Though I frequently struggle in recognizing it, I know that prayer is such an important element of the Christian’s life that I simply cannot allow myself to discount it as much as I often end up doing in my own life.

That is why I [eventually] brought myself to this ministry called Lifeline Chaplaincy that I was so reluctantly drawn to. That is why I made myself go to this woman’s room on the day of her surgery with an open heart and an open mind. I was ready to experience the true power of prayer.

Of course, when I made my way into her room, I found her asleep with her daughter sitting by her side. We caught each other up with the situation at hand, and she gladly allowed me to stumble across a prayer that, in my mind, had somehow lost most of its meaning. And I walked out of the room feeling disconnected and unresolved.