April 27, 2007

How a Christian Found Jesus [naomi]

It was just a communion service, as simple as they come. It was a breaking point, a milestone, a point of no return. I remember it like it was one of those movie shots where they slow way down to notice that my tears were politely making their way down my face and falling onto my hands that were knit loosely together in my lap. It wasn’t that I was repenting from some heinous crime or that I had just met with God in some ultra-heavenly way that the mystics speak of… it was simply that I realized—in a very profound way—that I was a pretty big screw up and that there was no getting out of it. That’s what everything was about: The polite tears, the loose hands, the emotionless eyes. I was not perfect, and I needed to be.

I’ve always been a big proponent of works + faith. You know, the show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do [Jam. 2:18 NIV] stuff. It seemed so obvious: Loving God invokes, even requires, a response that comes out in the form of loving your neighbor as yourself. But what I found was that no matter how much I wanted to live up to that “simple” command, I always always messed it up—even in retrospect—and I see this often in the Christian life. It is a too much or too little predicament: One is either too arrogant, too patronizing, too dogmatic, or is inconsiderate, and childish. You can’t win.

As I sat there, silently letting my soul cry, staring at the back of people’s knees as they went to take communion, I had the unmistakable sense of drowning. For twenty some odd years I had been trying to win and it was only within the last year or so that I had stopped (praying, reading my Bible, etc.). I was just tired—of the game, of the trying, of the inevitable self-hatred—and now I was tired of feeling like crap every day… I was drowning in my own shit.

There is no way to win. What’s this ‘more than conquerors’ stuff? No, there is no winning in Christianity. There is only one more way that someone would like to fix me. I’ve heard it said before that we are told every day by some form of advertisement that we are incomplete without a certain product. Well, I would like to offer that every Sunday I find out from an authoritative figure in the pulpit more of how I am screwing things up. But that’s the rub: We need people who challenge us, and we need the disciplines just like we need grace. We win by losing, we live by dying, we are made whole by being broken. The whole of Christianity is a paradox and heck if I know how it’s all supposed to work out (and heck if you do either).

I sat there like this for what seemed like a very long time, my only movement being that I hunched lower in my chair and cradled my face in my hands. I felt a brush against my arm and looked to see my friend bearing two pieces of bread and two cups of juice in her hands. I couldn’t even meet her eyes as she placed half of the elements in my mascara stained hand and left me to my Lord.

I don’t remember exactly what was said or thought after that point, I only know that it was the beginning of a multi-year long journey of understanding that Jesus wasn’t on a timeline when he said that he loved us even while we were sinners. I always had the feeling that that was just the starting point, that he couldn’t love me while I’m sinning now that I’m a Christian. Good heavens, no. And, since I was gung ho for the gospel from the time I was a young pup, that grace was long past: No time for grace, only time for spiritual discipline and “growth”.

Now, I had been warned about the doctrine of works and all those crazy Catholics who think that they can say enough “Hail Mary’s” to get them into heaven (please read that with the naivety with which it was spoken to me) and yet I was also surrounded by people knocking themselves out under the guise of spirituality, encouraging others to do the same. There are still a lot of questions in my mind about the proper relationship between works and grace, but this I know: No one is worthy to eat at the table. That’s what makes it grace. My grace is sufficient for you. Thanks be to God.

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Gluttony - My Unspoken Sin [shaina]

It's pretty amazing what 3 months of cognitive therapy will do to you. It's a little like the Truman show-- when Truman realizes that his whole life is recorded and millions of people have been watching at his expense. All the self delusions fall apart and you become aware of what everybody else always knew, but perhaps were too "kind" to tell you.

I have always over-eaten, but had a "quick metabolism" and a "healthy appetite" and a "sprinters build". Well via the help of self-realization I've come to discover that I over-ate at school because dinner at home was scant. Being raised by a single father meant we made the food, and having nobody to teach you how to cook, and minimal groceries in the house to eat anyway, my way of coping was to eat when I had a chance, I ate everything while it was present, twice as much as my peers. This habit of gorging and starving went deep into my way of dealing with food and other things which will come to the surface in time (the redemptive kind of time) I'm sure. . .

This mentality of gorging and starving is very different than feasting and fasting.

Feasting and Fasting is a healthy way of giving our bodies to God, they are disciplines based on confidence in God's provision, in awareness of the season, and to enter into the season while it's here. The Easter Octave (which we just celebrated) is an 8 day feast in which Christians, but especially monks and nuns are eating like kings and queens.

As a child I ate like a child, I responded like a child would, if I'm not going to eat properly tonight then I'm going to eat up now! This is a self preservation technique that many use. What resulted is that I always felt empty, even when I was full of food, I was empty because of the fear that ruled me.

Sometimes I wonder what I would have done if somebody would have had the perception to realize this and had actually said something. I wonder if I would have been angry with them and refused to listen because they didn't know how "athletic" I was, or maybe I would have cried and made an honest self assessment, perhaps I would have made a disciplined eating plan. . . while not ever getting to the CORE of the issue.

What I believe is the core is a fear of being without, a fear of not having what I need, of being stranded alone and starving. These fears are beginning to fall as I confront them with logic and truth, but I'm realizing that it's a war for my soul as much as it is for my body. Now that I am aware of how I dealt with being without, and as an adult I can perceive what I was doing, if I choose to continue the habits of overeating, I am doing so in a culpable state.

In the last 2 months I have lost 10 pounds. Some people would say, oh you're FINE the way you are, what do you mean 10 pounds!?! Did you cut off a limb or something?

Excuses like these are common in our culture: You're only smoking a pack a day, your Internet addiction is not a real problem, if you love each other what's the problem, if your woman isn't giving it to you it's only fair that you have a chance to release yourself, you're not too busy-look at her schedule, stop thinking like that you don't have the capacity for greed- look at all the nice things you do.

These are generally well meaning people who are unfortunately very wrong. A deadly sin is deadly because it will kill you. The way I was eating was damaging my body AND my soul! It was damaging my soul because it was laced with a lack of trust in God. If I'm not trusting God, then who am I trusting?

I'm not an advocate of scrupulosity-- however, looking in the mirror of my soul has helped me to become more free.

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April 23, 2007

Confessions of a (wannabe) Luddite [matt]

In early 19th century Britain the story of a semi-mythical hero named Ned Ludd began to spread through the countryside. According to the story, Ludd destroyed two textile machines, which were blamed for taking away the livelihood of English textile makers like him. The power of this story soon brought out residents from throughout the English countryside who were experiencing the horrible side-effects of the industrial revolution. These people were Luddites, the men and women who suffered as machines took away their livelihood. During the years of 1811 and 1812 they destroyed factories and machines and even took on the British army. Eventually the Luddites backed down, no doubt due to the continuous death sentences issued to their members and the thought of continuously fighting against one of the world’s fiercest military powers. But in many ways, Luddite beliefs and practices live on to this day.

Modern day Luddites are now referred to as New or Neo Luddites. The militarism is mostly gone (although some say the WTO riots in Seattle were brought about by a form of Luddism, these were not really as violent as the news wanted them to appear), but the skepticism towards new technologies remains. And I consider myself in their ranks. Or at least I would like to. Or maybe I’m just a sympathizer. Actually, I would say I am experiencing a slow conversion process.

My conversion process began with philosophers like Baudrillard, Heidegger, and Harvey. With their help I’ve begun to see that there are moral implications to the technologies that consume our lives. As a Christian I have begun to see that Jesus has a lot to say about my television itself, regardless of what I might be watching on it. The brilliant writer/thinker Neil Postman describes all of this better than I ever could in his book Technopoly. He borrows the word “ecological” from environmental scientists for his working metaphor. Imagine, he says, wiping out a species of caterpillar from a certain habitat. You cannot say it is the same habitat, minus caterpillars. It is now an entirely different habitat, since the loss of caterpillars will quickly influence and change the entire ecological system (18). In the same way, a new technology changes our society in larger ways than we seldom wish to admit. Television did not turn America into America plus television, but changed our entire country! It changed fashions, education, politics, religion, exercise habits, the way we talk, and eating habits, to name but a few.

What I am now learning is that I have accepted too much for too long without processing the stuff that surrounds me in my day-to-day life. What does it really mean that my wife and I have two cars? What is it saying about me that I get frustrated because my dial-up computer takes too long to open a website? Why do I need this mp3 player again? Why do I need to watch television at all?

My big conversion experience happened one day at work this past winter (I am a youth pastor, if you didn’t know). The wind was howling outside and suddenly the Bellingham weather found victory and the power went out. No lights. No computers. No phones. So we closed down and everybody went home. Now, to be honest, I was happy to go home. But all of this raised a question for me: when did the church become so dependent on technology that we just go home when the technology stops working? I then remembered Y2K and wondered why the whole Western world was so panicked because all of our computers might stop. What happened to us? And when did it happen? It felt like we were already living in a science fiction book where the computers have taken over, only we still don’t realize that we gave everything up to them willingly.

In a world of global warming and air pollution, children raised on television and microwave dinners, obesity epidemics and mass marketing, online stalking, pornography, and gambling, I wonder if maybe we have lost our way. As we continue to plug ourselves in to more gadgets and gizmos, I wonder if we are losing our humanity. As we move faster and faster, I long to just slow down. As more and more products come out to “simplify” our lives, I long for a simplified life where there are just less products. In all the noise of our Western world I forget who I am and what it means to have any sort of life, let alone life to the fullest.

Beyond being a neo-(wannabe)-Luddite, I am an Anabaptist. Specifically, I align my beliefs and attitudes with the Mennonite branch of the church. The joke with Mennonites, I’ve discovered, is that they believe what the Amish believe but don’t have the guts to follow through with it. The Amish are not in fact against all technology, but they recognize that there are moral implications to our technologies. Just because something will be easier with a new technology, does not mean it will be better for the community or the individual. The Amish make these choices and the rest of the world look on in silent amusement. “They’re so weird and countercultural.” Of course, this is like the church once was…

Maybe it’s time to start asking ourselves which technologies are good for us as a community. I mean this for families, for churches (and the Church), as well as for society as a whole. This means having less and consuming less. But it also means having more. This neo-(wannabe)-Luddite is coming to believe that if you want to find your life you must lose it. My life has been warped and owned by technology. And now I’m trying to find it again.

Oh, and if you notice the irony that I typed this on my laptop, e-mailed it to Justin, and it is now posted online, I’m with you. Like I said, I’m a wannabe. But I’m trying.

If you are interested in what I’ve written, check out any of Wendell Berry’s essays, Neil Postman’s Technopoly, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity or Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Also, if you are into philosophy, you can check out Plato’s Phaedrus or anything by Baudrillard.

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April 20, 2007

War and Peace and Art [jana]

I’m currently 793 pages into Tolstoy’s War and Peace. That’s right, just a little over half-way through the 9th longest novel in the world. What has struck me about reading the book is less the fact that I have been able to maintain the attention span for it, and more the way that it provokes a desire to write again in me. For the past few months, I have written very little, though perhaps there has been more drama during this time than at any other in my life. During a time of upheaval one would think that someone who journals for processing, release, and understanding on a regular basis would have burned through quite a few journals, but in fact the opposite has happened. From where I stand now, 793 pages into Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I can see that what happened to me is something like what befell Peter, Jesus’ friend, when he took his first step onto the stormy surface of the water. Jesus had told him to come, and so I can picture him, climbing over the edge of the boat, aiming one fierce look full of all the bravado he could muster back into the boat at his companions, and then letting go the boat. For a moment, I imagine, he might have heard nothing but the stillness of a calm sea…a second later, he blinked, and saw and heard the thundering “reality” of his actual circumstances. He became overwhelmed, throwing every bit of attention into his immediate circumstances. I’m sure you’ve heard the sermons with the punch-point about how Peter’s taking his eyes off Jesus caused him to stumble.Anyway, what happened when I threw my attention into my circumstances is that I found I had lost the ability to observe. Suddenly, I was no longer able to observe the face of Jesus in people around me, in creation, or in my own heart. Almost immediately, according to the dates (or lack thereof) in my journals, I stopped writing or participating in any creative acts which were a large part of my normal life. I surmise that this may have been related to a refusal to accept the changes which were taking place.

In any case, it was deciding to read War and Peace that broke through this pattern. After a period of generally purposeless reading and tv-watching after I had quit my job and moved back home to my parents’ house to look for work, that for some aimless reason I decided to delve into the paperback copy I’d purchased to adorn my bookshelves. After all, I had dragged this brick-sized manuscript 1200 miles in a rented minivan. I was immediately caught up by the language and descriptions. The characters are often interesting, a lot of the dialogue and cultural references are unfortunately lost on me, but it was the bell-like quality of some of the actual text that really caught my attention. It made me want to begin writing. I’ve heard this idea before, most recently from writer and publisher J. Mark Bertrand, who said on his blog,

In a sense, the things I want to publish viscerally are the ones that awe and intimidate me, the ones that inspire me. The ones, as I said, that I wish I'd written.

Not that I wish I’d written War and Peace. However, it is one of those books that inspires me to write more, to write better, to continue growing in creative activity.

I would like to tell you that I am now ¾ of the way through the process of publishing a fabulously written little novel or volume of poetry, but I can’t. My intent here is simply to observe that truly creative work, work that mirrors truth and beauty, work that embodies some reflection of God’s character, work that is art, must draw an active response from us, spurring on our gifts in the service of Christ. The “other kind” of books--the kind written for general entertainment--may be interesting, may be a good distraction from reality, but they don’t generally provoke us to thought or action.

In closing (which is exactly how I used to teach my 9th grade students never to begin their final paragraphs), I wanted to include the list below of a very few contemporary books that have encouraged me in creative action at times. These books are more in the line of creative non-fiction, but I am including them for their purpose in encouraging artists to action. I would love to hear more suggestions for books that discuss the gift of creativity in your comments.

Art and Fear - David Bayles and Ted Orland-
Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art -Madeleine L’Engle-
Bird by Bird -Anne Lamott-
The Crime of Being Cautious -Luci Shaw-

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“I’m fine. You?” [james]

Fingers on the chalkboard: Ugh. Biting in to an apple and seeing half a worm: Eww. Bill O’Reilly: Cough, Gurgle, Barf.

Worse than those, the following conversation might possibly send me in to a coma so deep that even Dr. House couldn’t revive me:

Person A: How are you?
Person B: I am fine. You?
Person A: Good, good.
Person B: Cool. See ya.
Person A: Have a good day.
Person B: Thanks! You, too.

Here’s another one that isn’t so far from reality:

Cashier: Did you find everything ok?
Customer: Well, no. I couldn’t find
peppercorns in brine.
Cashier: Oh, sorry about that.
Customer: Yeah, I was going to make a...
Cashier: Will that be cash or credit?

Both of these conversations left a funny taste in my mouth. (The second one more so than the first because I used capers instead of peppercorns. But that’s another post.) These exchanges have something in common: one or both of the parties involved didn’t care what the answer to their question was.

And that stinks. Pretending to care is worse than not caring at all. It’s fake, it’s rude, and it’s not how you yourself would like to be treated.

I traverse a flowchart in my head when someone asks, “How are you?”

[click to enlarge]

I admit it. I’m a sinner. I, on purpose and all too regularly, enter in to conversations like this one without regard for the other person. My intentions are often simple as much as selfish: show someone that I care, score a few social points, and then escape before he can call my bluff.

Perception determines reality, right? Bollocks. We can do better than that.

Do we really know people? Do we want to know people?

Back in the day, we had a family friend, Jim. He was more than a friend; he was who we wished our uncles would be. He owned a farm and reared horses. He was classically trained in music, and he would play cello for special music at our small country church. He encouraged us kids musically and came to our band concerts. (He seemed mildly offended once that I didn’t invite him to drive 3 hours(!) to attend a college Christmas concert.) He genuinely cared about us as a family and about us kids. He brought a surplus computer from his office to our home one week, and I was hooked (first programming experience: Word Perfect 5.1 macros). Jim played no small part in influencing my career.

I was home from college on Christmas break when we received a package that Jim sent. It contained some Christmas gifts, including checks for all of us kids. Classic Jim: always generous; always thinking about us.

The next day I took a call that tore a hole in our family’s heart: Jim died. He killed himself.

Even though we no longer lived in the same town as Jim, we still thought we knew him well. But, wow... we didn’t see that one coming. That was one of the saddest days.

Just because we love or are loved by someone doesn't mean that we know them. Knowing people takes time and dedication. It requires an emptying of ourselves that we’re usually not prepared for. It takes practice to care without being consumed. It requires diligence to guard ourselves so we can love the sinner without falling in to the sin. It’s hard work that doesn’t always have an immediate reward. And sometimes it really hurts.

Knowing people requires more of us than a flippant “How are you” as you pass them on the sidewalk. If we care, we should be constantly prepared to handle the honest response no matter if it’s dark, if it’s heavy, or if it requires emotional effort on our part.

The fun part of this is that our friends can just as easily be joyful and cheery, and it’s our joy to join them in that. It’s all the more genuine to share the good stuff when you’ve been there lugging the burden through the rough parts.

Could I have helped Jim? Who can know. The best I can do now is to learn from that sad episode in our family’s life: I can’t take people for granted; I must make myself available if they are in need. In this way, I might be God’s instrument of healing or joy or help.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

And for goodness’ sake, mean it.

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April 12, 2007

Finding My Religion [jenna]

Recent experiences with things like palm fronds, kneeler-fitted pews, and little leather-bound prayer books made up mostly of psalms have given me clear lessons in a concept much too vaguely taught nowadays: the importance of religious life to Christianity.

Religion has become something of a dirty word in evangelical circles. “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship” gets preached from many a pulpit, certainly with a great deal of truth; after all, religious acts not based on love, belief and trust toward Christ will hardly make anyone a Christian. Because of this, and because often the very people preaching the above words practice the outward signs of their faith with a devotion rivaling a Pharisee’s (and without the pride), I see no reason to criticize the root of this idea. The central concept, good in itself, comes with the best of intentions from wise people.

That said, the lengths to which this thought gets carried nowadays does leave me with a couple of concerns, based on a premise which I firmly believe: that religion and relationship are so far from being mutually exclusive that one is actually necessary to the other.

My first problem is with the modern idea of relationship, which doesn’t come remotely close to anything resembling devoted or faithful. While human desires have their importance, the sacrifice of fidelity in their stead has left most of us with little understanding of how to be a parent or a child, a lover or a friend. When relationship comes to us merely as the illegitimate offspring of passion and freedom, it’s difficult to picture an intimacy in which virtue and loyalty might be demanded of us; and I hardly need add that such a shattered idea could never set us up for what it means to follow Christ.

The other concern I have is that religion—specifically ritual—is thoroughly important to any relationship, not to mention life in general. Life and love flourish in order, not chaos. The world regularly hands us chaos, and our little devoted moments of order may be our last hold on sanity at times.

Religion, I believe, does several things for us. And here I refer strictly to traditional Judeo-Christian practices; anything brought in from outside influences will not necessarily have the same effects:

First, religious ritual reminds us that the God we serve is indeed a God—something that is too easy to forget among the “Jesus as my lover” mentality that is rampant today. In a good-hearted effort to win more souls to Christ, we’ve forgotten to balance our “God is love” with “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Second, physical ritual—even simple things such as kneeling or praying before a cross or crucifix, etc., brings home the incarnation to us—the understanding that God became man in Christ. The sacraments especially, whether you accept two or seven by tradition, are meant to drive this very fact home. The divine took on flesh, and as the Jewish rites pointed forward to that event, the Christian sacraments point back and carry it on.

Thirdly, the directing of our bodies serves as an assistant in directing our hearts. Focus, let alone passion, will not always follow, but the regular submission of our bodies with the intent of submitting heart and soul and mind pays off. We are, after all, human; our hearts, which too easily lose interest even with some tangible reminder, will rarely maintain affection for long without it.

Finally, because participation in ritual is submission to custom and to a higher authority, it has a unifying effect among believers around the world and throughout history. Physical religious act, in my opinion, does not negate the unity of “worship in spirit and in truth”; rather, I feel that where the spirit and truth are in agreement, the physical accentuates and fixes it.

Kneeling at the bedside to pray every night went out with top hats and gramophones; at least, I thought so, till I found myself not only doing it, but enjoying it. The simple little articles of faith—Bible, crucifix, etc.—that I use have become very precious to me in my attempts to turn my mind heavenward. And the old reusable prayers of saints through the ages, which I like to include, have taught me to pray in contemplation of the greatness of God.

Ritual without the love and trust of relationship is ultimately empty; relationship, however, without the tradition and faithful dedication of ritual is unstable at best and imaginary at worst. Together, though, the two add up to glory.

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April 8, 2007

Scrabble, Coffee, and Randomness [justin]

Primal instincts kick in when you’re walking into a situation where you would be considered the prey. I had to think quick. I swung open the door to the coffee shop with one hand and clenched the game board tightly with my other. The problem at hand was that my friends, wife included, had a twinge of English nerd in them and the game of the evening (Scrabble) wasn’t going to fall in my favor. The playing field needed to be leveled. So what was lacking in dictionary enlightenment was made up for in creative randomness that night. We called it Les Bbarc.

The rules were simple: create a word that wasn't real but still real-word-like and sell the definition to the other players. Usually, as long as you didn’t have a string of all consonants and the definition was either clever or funny, you were in. Words like deefor, slaist, and dinle appeared without much effort. Then some classics arose such as agoipe and dreslix; the former being when you slightly vomit in your mouth then swallow it, the latter having to do with accidentally putting on your wife’s jeans (accidentally mind you). It was entertaining to say the least. It felt good to be arbitrary. It felt good to play off the cuff.

It’s safe to say that a good portion of us are slackers. But it is also easy to see that many of us are overweight when it comes to our schedules. There is a saying that comes up time and again at church; “If the Devil can’t make you sin, he’ll make you busy.” We equate busy-ness with worth and popularity. It’s a tool that enables us to hide our loneliness, even in a crowd, and even to ourselves.

I catch myself filling up my calendar for second-hand reasons at times. There is a hidden desire to do things, not to simply enjoy and experience them, but to boast and tell others what I did hoping they’ll catch the hint that I’m important and filled with life. That’s not to say that sharing experiences with others is not good and healthy, just that our prime motivator shouldn’t be trying to prove how hip we are to a jury of peers. In fact, one of the most beneficial things for our community of friends could be to use a random Friday night and partake in nothing, get some silence and solitude into our diet. While that might not gain you any points on the unspoken social totem pole (condemned to silence as Foster would say), it will probably help in appreciating the people around you for more than just a validation tool for your own agenda. “The one who wants fellowship without solitude,” Bonhoeffer comments, “plunges into the void of words and feelings.” Without some time away and quietness of spirit, our words tend to fall out of our mouths as empty chatter rather than thoughtful conversation complemented by meaningful silence. T.S. Elliot writes, “Where shall the world be found, where will the word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.”

Having some free time to allow life to happen to you isn’t the easiest thing though. A friend of mine, for instance, suddenly had a free night off after weeks full of small groups, photography class, reading groups, etc. He said that it was like a mule with a spinning wheel; no one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it.

Still, maybe it’s time to pull an oxymoron and schedule some randomness into our week. A day of rest is great, now how about an evening just to see what comes our way. We hold our lives so tightly as our own without regard to others and to the Divine. Perhaps a time of randomness will help us with our control issues. Or maybe nothing will happen. That could allow our insecurities to come to the surface where we can see and start to deal with them. No matter what, an evening unplanned will bring about something we weren't expecting, even if that something is doing the laundry.

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