Wrestling With Incredulity

Recently, despite my efforts to steer it elsewhere, the conversation I was having with a friend turned to the Presidential candidates. Typically, I don’t enjoy political conversations for their general, divisive nature. I was mentioning how often I hear people in San Francisco say how arrogant, prejudice and racist Donald Trump is; that people here hate him. My friend told me that conservatives hate Hillary Clinton as much as liberals hate Donald Trump and that the Republican Party will come together to vote for anyone in order to beat Hillary Clinton. I thought, “Is that what this has come to: I’ll vote for anyone just to see to it that the other person doesn’t get elected?

It goes without saying that the system in broken. But I will say it: the system is broken…and it’s broken because we are broken.

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In 2008 I said, tongue-in-cheek, that I was glad John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate because it made things interesting —like suddenly I wasn’t watching reality anymore but some sort of drama. It shook things up. Then, and now more than ever, politics are appealing to the masses with more and more dramatic flair. People who are normally politically indifferent have no choice but to get sucked in and feel strongly about the polarizing nature of the situation. Is it a tactic to rouse us from our apathetic slumber? Or is it an act of desperation from a broken system?

Speaking of desperation, here in San Francisco, most people (including most Christians) thought that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was a joke at first. Now, they are scared he might have a legitimate shot. That fear is turning to increasing desperation. And in desperation people do crazy things.

Christians are are closing themselves off to hearing other people’s perspective. The sides are polarizing. People are giving up the commitment to hear the other person’s side of the story; they are giving up the opportunity to empathize.

I started sharing with people my thoughts on how politics are polarizing Christians and causing us to close ourselves off to each other —driving us to disunity and even, sometimes, hate. Many of the people I spoke with responded with great insight and, together, I think they strike a balance to strive for.

Friend One: As Christians, I think we need to call out Trump’s hatred and fear-mongering. It seems like we need to do some examining when someone is intentionally acting unloving and building a following by it. That is Bullying 101. 

It’s not Donald Trump that bothers me. It’s that Donald Trump is popular. I would have never guessed that so many Americans, not to mention Christians, would get behind someone so brash and unkind. I hate the fact that his followers (even Christians) relish in that sort of meanness. Trump prides himself on being more shameless and inflammatory than any other candidate and it is his rudeness that people seem to like, since he “tells it like it is” and doesn’t “talk like a politician.” Many people are mad about the last eight years and Trump is exploiting their emotions. How can a demagogue like Trump build a platform on hate and fear (banning Muslims, making Mexico build a wall, misogyny, bullying, reintroducing torture, mass deportations, etc.) and attract followers of Jesus, the prince of peace?

My friend raises some excellent concerns and questions; namely, how can we, as Christians who follow the prince of peace support someone who bases most of his political values in fear and hate?

Friend two: In the American political economy if I think you are wrong it’s almost akin to thinking you shouldn’t exist. A lot of the negative talk is coming from Christians, and that’s depressing. I don’t want Trump to run for president. However, I don’t want to speak about him in a way that denies his humanity. I hope Donald Trump changes and grows as a person. I don’t want to see him stuck where he is. I don’t want to wish or hope bad things on him. However, it’s the reduction of any person to just their worst qualities, to subtracting their humanness, that is unChristian.

My second friend also reminds us of some excellent things; namely, that we should never define others by their worst qualities just as we would never want to be defined by our worst qualities. Did Jesus resign the woman caught in adultery to a life defined by her act? Does Jesus leave us abandoned to our sin? No, he reaches down to us at the foot of the cross, forgives us and frees us. He asks us to change and grow. He asks us to learn from our mistakes and help others overcome their mistakes and sins.

When we disagree with someone so strongly that we begin to think everyone would be better off if that person didn’t exist, we are refusing to see Christ in that person. We are giving ourselves to hate. Instead, we must intentionally seek out the voices of the people we disagree with. We must commit ourselves to open conversation. And we must leave hate behind.

Friend three: I need to understand how someone else thinks but I also want to hold onto the truth. I want to learn to love those I disagree with and still hold onto the truth as I see it. Can I still say with truth that Jesus came to save the world and with his death and resurrection set in motion the re-creation of the world? And can I call my Christian brothers and sisters to a new way of thinking? At what point do we sacrifice truth for unity? At what point do we sacrifice unity for truthAnd how do I continue to stay humble, knowing I don’t have all the answers but still knowing I need to learn from my brothers and sisters.

As Christians, must try to see things from another’s point of view and try to love them regardless. We need to be having serious, civil and spirit-filled conversations, not defaming, mud slinging antagonisms like we see modeled by those who seek our approval for leadership. 

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But, take heart Christian, we must not give up. We have work to do. And it doesn’t necessarily mean going to the ballot. Our political culture is overwhelmingly pushing us to incredulity. But a choice is staring us in the face.

Instead of disbelieving that a Christian could actually stand behind Trump/Clinton and still consider himself/herself a Christian, we must wrestle. We must wrestle with our preconceptions and understandings. We must wrestle with each other. We must wrestle with our feelings of anger, confusion, and self-righteousness. To be a Christian is not usually an either/or paradigm but a constant wrestling to figure out how the many paradoxes of living in love can possibly coincide.

If we do not choose to believe- if we are given to incredulity- we fail to imagine what life is like for another person and, in our lack of social imagination (empathy), we take the humanness out of them; we fail to see Christ in them. Without seeing Christ in everyone we can easily slip from disbelief to distrust to hate.

Instead, in believing, we choose to openly and humbly listen to each other. We choose to lovingly (but firmly) call out and question things we think are wrong. We choose to offer the truth as we see it and call our brothers and sisters to that truth while still remembering we are broken. We acknowledge there will be very different interpretations of scriptural truth but, in committing ourselves to the faithful act of spirit-filled conversation and to the work of empathy and love, we choose to look for common ground. Fortunately for us all, each of us stands at the most common of all ground: the foot of the cross. There we will find unity.

These Stones

On Palm Sunday we both cheer and we weep. What a mysterious Sunday to celebrate. We cheer like the followers laying down their garments and singing praise. We weep like Christ before Jerusalem. We cheer at knowing what follows death but we weep at the pain and suffering that must be traveled through to get there.

In Luke’s account of the triumphal entry, instead of palm branches, the followers lay down their meager outer garments- “not expensive garments but tattered shawls and dusty, sweat-stained rags. Jesus was the king of the oppressed and suffering.”* 

Most of the followers present were misinformed of the type of king Jesus was going to be. Regardless, everyone present was excited… everyone except the pharisees. In their final appearance with Jesus they, instead, foresee something foreboding and exclaim, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

But Jesus always seems to have a clever response, especially to the pharisees. He says “if [the people] keep quiet, the stones will cry out” -that, if the people don’t participate in the exaltation, then nature will. In essence, Jesus’ is saying that it is simply impossible for Him not to be praised and exulted. Even if a hush falls to the people, the stones will lift up and praise his name. If the people won’t do it, the inanimate objects will. The garments, swept up in the wind of the spirit, will take to dancing on the road before the lowly donkey and king. The trees of the field will clap their hands. Mustard seeds of faith and giant mountains will, out of sheer joy and celebration, hurl themselves into the sea, yelling out “cannonball” as a way of participating in Jesus’ arrival.

Or perhaps Jesus might have said  “the stones will cry out” as a prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. In the following verse Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, sees the city and weeps over it. He is lamenting Israel’s failure to see and know what God is up to. He says, “They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Jesus would have certainly been familiar with Habakkuk 2 which says,
““Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain,
    setting his nest on high
    to escape the clutches of ruin!
You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
    shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.
The stones of the wall will cry out,
    and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.
Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed
    and establishes a city by injustice!’”

Habakuk is warning people who build their wealth by unjust gain, who build their houses in high places in order to secure and make private their lives- warning them that the very stones and beams of their houses will speak out against them, against their injustice, corruption and evil. But not only their houses, their cities too.

In reference to Matthew 25:40 (“’Whatsoever you do to the least of these you do unto me.’”) Ronald Rolheiser points out that “this is not just true for how our private lives, our personal sin or virtue, touch the poor, but also for how the systems (all the social, economic, ecclesial things we take part in) touch the orphan, the widow [homeless, prisoners, those who are sick, hungry, thirsty, cold] and the alien as well. What we, or our systems, do to them, we do to Christ.”**

Too often the systems we create hide the suffering and oppression of others from our eyes which allows us to feel okay about living off unjust gain. The systems are our “nests on high.” As the systems we create together continue to get bigger and encapsulate more and more aspects of our lives we need to try harder and harder to ensure the system does not forget and leave out ‘the least of these.’ We, as Christians, need to remember them. We need to make sure the stones that compose our houses and the stones that compose our systems do not cry out of our injustices.

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(Photo by Jordan Butler)

Throughout this Passion week the days fall deeper and deeper to darkness. The suffering gets worse. Finally, at midday Friday, the very sun turns to darkness. Nature itself is mourning the death of the true King. We weep, mourning with nature. And finally, after all hope has bled away -after all the odds have stacked against us, the very impossible shall take place —the one in a million. The one stone –the stone- rolls away.

And so, we are possessed by a faith that anything is yet possible; that God can redeem anything. This is why we cheer. We are possessed by that hope, a hope stacked against the odds. That hope inspires us to move and, in moving, we do uncomfortable things in service of justice and peace and love. We stand when everyone else is sitting. We speak when everyone else is silent. We proclaim hope and help others to hold onto that hope. We work towards redemption while standing on and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why we cheer. He died for us all, including those we, and our society of systems tramples.

As true daughters and sons of the creator God, emulating him, we use stones to create houses, churches, schools, businesses, public buildings, and entire social, economic and ecclesial structures. May we create our structures justly and may we work to create just systems. If we don’t the stones will cry out against us.

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(Photo by Joeri Römer)

As we approach Easter this week, I wonder if Jesus was strong enough to move the stone that held him in his grave. Perhaps. Or perhaps the stone that contained the one true King in death cried out. Perhaps the stone that held back the resurrection could stand it no longer; the stone cried out at the injustice of the death of the world’s savior. And the stone, obedient to God, rolled away.

And so, this week and into the future, let us roll away the stones that cry of injustices in our lives and proclaim resurrection to those suffering, to those dead in sin, and to our sometimes misinformed selves.

(Cover photo by Armando Castillejos)
*R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke
** Ronald Rolheiser, Social Justice Essential to the Gospel

Cracked (Part 2)

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The second time I returned to Thailand (after volunteering in Cambodia), I was quite disappointed. I became sicker than I’ve ever been and managed to crawl into a dingy, dank hostel bedroom above the chaotic partying of a Saturday night in Bangkok. Speakers blared the bass of dance music through the walls as I felt knives stabbing me internally. I was in too much pain to sleep that night but I did fade in and out of fever dreams as my delirious and dramatic imagination wondered if I was going to die there, alone on some filthy mattress in some upstairs hostel along the Khao San Road. 

After a few days of relentless pain, I managed to get up and walk around. Still hunched over in pain, I hobbled out to a nearby park one evening and laid down on the grass. I looked up into the night sky and watched couples flying kites in the darkness. A boy, speaking no English, came and sat down next to me, offering me some of his cookies. Put off by his unexpected and eager hospitality, I politely declined. But he stayed. And as he sat with me, perhaps recognizing my deep pain, he gave me healing through his presence and, eventually, I decided it would be fine to eat some of his Oreos. A day or two later, I started to recognize changes for the better. 

After being lumped over in the fetal position and feeling deathly ill on my last few days in Thailand, I caught a bus out of Bangkok. Making it out alive and in one piece was one of the most joyous moments of my 3 months in South East Asia. In my mind, as the bus carried me away, Laos soon took on a heavenly glow of optimism and wondrous health. I welcomed it with open arms. I was going to live!


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When I finally finished traveling through SE Asia for 3 months I decided, since I was without a job, that now was the time to visit Taize, a ecumenical monastery in France. A couple days after arriving, I met a girl, Julia, from Germany —specifically, Bavaria. We were finishing mopping a bathroom floor together when, smirking in jest, I said, “Everyone I’ve met is from Bavaria. I just spent 3 months traveling in South East Asia and Bavarians were everywhere!” So I decided to ask her, “Why is everyone from Bavaria? I mean, why does everyone from Bavaria travel?”

Julia smiled amusedly, “Most people in Germany travel before university. I think everyone does it. If you don’t, people will ask you ‘why didn’t you go travel?’ They’ll look at you funny.”

I wrung my mop out for the last time as the water trickled down into the bucket. “What if you want to go straight to university? Doesn’t anyone do that?”

“Well, everyone expects you to travel because we have a gap year between [high] school and university. Everyone travels during that gap year. And if you don’t, you are missing out. That is what everyone believes. Some people go to university right away but very few.”

“So it’s kind of like a rite of passage and you’re ostracized if you don’t?”

Her face was pensive as she put her mop in the wringer and pushed. The tiny plastic wheels of the bucket rolled across the tile floor and out onto the concrete. When we stepped outside the bathroom, she looked to the sky, furrowed her brow and then smiled, “Yeah.”

“That’s funny. It’s the opposite in the U.S.. Hardly anyone travels before university and it kind of ostracizes you if you do. Then you’ll be a year behind everyone else.” I set my mop against the wall. “What about you? Did you travel?”

Her smiled lingered. “Yeah. I traveled. But then I came home. A lot of people are considered weird if they don’t travel for a long time. Some people thought it was weird that I didn’t travel very long.”

The June sun was reaching down now, late in the morning, and pounding off the concrete around us as our team diverged into smaller groups. They straddled benches in the shade of overhanging awnings as their conversations of languid English gave way to German.

I suddenly became aware that I had singled her out and only our conversation persisted in English. I searched her eyes for disinterest. “How long did you travel?”

“About a month. But I didn’t go far; I was mostly seeing different parts of Germany.”

“And then you went home?”

“Well, I realized I wanted to be near my family. My family is very close and I like being home. That’s where all my friends are. And my family. I decided I would rather be spending my time and making memories with them. And if I was traveling they would be going on with life without me. I want to make memories with the people I can spend my whole life with.” 

I swung my arm out theatrically and spoke confidently, “But you’re here.” Meanwhile, my eyes hung in an incredulous gaze.

“I’m taking a Religious Studies class at my university.” She looked down, blinked, and then looked back up. “We’re only here for a week as a class trip. A lot of my friends came along too. Then we’re going back home!”

Just then, the Queen of Point 5 (the cleaning team) approached and yelled, “Tea time!” 

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Julia and I wrapped up our conversation as we walked toward the tea. Soon, we went our separate ways but her answer stuck with me. There was something very simple yet prophetic to her views that resonated with me. It seemed to put words to many things I had been exploring over the previous 3 months traveling in SE Asia –mostly, how everything is a trade-off. If you want to travel, chances are you will need to leave your friends and family behind for a while. They will all be carrying on with life without you back home, making memories. Inadvertently, they will develop other friendships in place of the time they would have spent with you. However, you will, of course, make new friends and new memories while you travel. But in a world with endless opportunities, limitless choices, and global connectivity I don’t think it is crazy to ask “why do we need more friends?”

Maybe what we really need is to go deep.

Do we lack the vulnerability and commitment to invest deeply in a friendship? Do we value anonymity over the benefits of being known? Do we enjoy expanding our options as opposed to accepting our limits? Or are we simply addicted to the excitement of new?

As a typical Westerner, I am drawn to the great freedom that is offered when I do something by myself. Individualism sets me free (from other people) to do as I please: to go where I want, whenever I want. Having a strong history and propensity to do things on my own I have found that individualism is best described as “glorious yet terrifying isolation.”*

The freedom that individualism gives is so powerful that it allows us to do glorious things as individuals. But it usually leaves us in places of isolation. When I do adventurous things by myself I feel a profound- even glorious- sense of freedom but I often stop amid such mountaintops of freedom to recognize buried layers of longing. I long to share such an experience with other people. 

——–

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

——–

I made a lot of fantastic memories while traveling but, sadly, I’ve already forgotten many of those memories. I frequently traveled with new friends or by myself. I went fast. I fit in an incredible amount of experiences. It was glorious…yet panged by frequent isolation. As a culture composed of hyper-mobile, fast-moving individuals who are prone to isolation perhaps what we really need to do slow down and find ways we can dig deeper into the people and places around us. We need to actively look for ways to be present with those around us.

There is a motto used at Outward Bound that says, “If you can’t get out of it, get further into it.” Too often we try to get out of the difficulties of being known, of long-term friendships/relationships, of commitments, of facing our limits and living in the seeming monotony of stability when we should be getting further into these things. As part of a generation that persistently chooses to run from these things, I believe it is important to take a step back and think seriously about the long-term effects of traveling. It is certainly a wonderful opportunity but it is not always all it is cracked up to be. In fact, it could split a crack in your contentment, your stability, your friendships, and your life.

*Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah, et al

Cracked (Thailand)

After I had been in Cambodia for a week or so I kept having weird, inarticulate feelings. I started wondering: Are these feelings of discontent? Or sadness from missing someone or something? Or somewhere? Whatever was causing them, I could tell they were complex. However, the feelings slowly began to emerge predominantly as shame and guilt. I felt like I was cheating on someone; like I was being unfaithful. But why would I think that? I was not in a relationship.

I had spent the previous week on an island in Thailand but was now living with a family and helping an organization called InnerCHANGE in Cambodia. I felt shame because I had promised my devotion to Cambodia for the time being; I had given my word to help with photography and video for the organization but my heart was still in Thailand…

The beaches of Thailand are fantastic, the landscape is breath-taking, the people are friendly, the food is amazing, and the opportunities for adventure are endless. I rented a motorbike and explored every corner of the island where I stayed, grinning from ear to ear. I cozied myself up at the beach, under a coconut tree to read for hours on end sipping on Thai Iced Teas. At one point I snuck through the jungle undergrowth at night into a rave, made new friends and danced until 5 in the morning. To me, Thailand was the stuff of dreams. Even while I worked in Cambodia, I couldn’t help but think of Thailand. It was only a matter of time before I finished my time in Cambodia and decided to return to Thailand:

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So, you’ve heard it before: yes, it widen perspectives.

You’ll learn and grow.

You’ll see and participate in different cultures,

Make friends from different countries

And you’ll see how much of the rest of the world lives.

You’ll explore the paradox of how most people are in deep poverty, pain and suffering

While still finding peace and happiness in simple things.

It’s a chance to practice minimalism,

Expand your comfort zone

And grow your empathy.

It is exciting,

Adventurous

And thrilling.

You’ll have ample opportunity for spontaneity.

You’ll learn to have gratitude for little things.

You’ll learn simple contentment.

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Thailand has so much to offer that it is, inevitably, one of those places young people pick in order to experience the benefits of traveling. They come in droves and they come in search of themselves. But it is important not to perpetuate overly-romanticized ideas of traveling- like those I stated above.

You’ll fall into consumeristic tendencies:

consuming experiences instead of things.

You’ll come to idolize freedom,

mobility

and keeping your options open.

You’ll burn the candle at both ends while seizing the day,

running yourself ragged:

you’ll have no energy for creativity (because you’ll be too busy fulfilling the more primary needs of Maslow’s hierarchy).

You’ll find you have no personal space.

And things will, inevitably, go wrong.

You’ll get sick

squatting over filthy holes with diarrhea

vomiting on street-sides

longing for a quiet place to lay down

or longing for home.

Homesick for familiarity: your culture, your people and all you have known.

But you are not in control.

Things will slips between your fingers.

Friendships will suffer.

You’re fear of missing out will come true.

They’ll get married

and be hanging out, creating memories together while you are not there.

You’ll slowly give up financial stability and a stable career.

Perhaps you’ll become mad

Or jaded

Or disillusioned with the world.

Then you’ll come home.

Perhaps you will brag: “name-dropping” places instead of people

And brag of your altruistic motivations of service

Becoming slightly conceited and self-righteous.

And eventually your contentment will dissolve away

And you will want to travel all over again.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the effects of traveling. I acknowledge that traveling is a different experience for everyone and, certainly, it is a wonderful opportunity but traveling is not always all it is cracked up to be. In fact, it could split a crack in your contentment, your stability, your friendships, and your life. I don’t want to perpetuate an overly-romanticized view of traveling so- with some of my photos of Thailand- I am including thoughts on the less talked about effects of traveling.

Hijacked

This past Christmas break I flew to Wisconsin for a two week holiday with my family. I had visions of me trouncing on things I needed to catch up on like visions of sugar plums dancing in my head. But when my flight touched down I turned on my computer and it froze. I rebooted it and it failed. My computer was busted. My brother picked me up and we drove to my dad’s house in the Wisconsin countryside where I turned on my smart device to find there was no WiFi. Later, we went to my mom’s house and there wasn’t enough cell reception to make a phone call. I took out my backup laptop and found the modem for her WiFi was incompatible with my outdated laptop. It was official; I had been inadvertently placed in a detox program.  At that point, I would have gone for a drive to clear my head but I had no car. I was stranded in rural Wisconsin going through withdrawals.

“I’m going outdoors for a while.”

Outdoors.

Out. Of. Doors.

Have you ever said or heard a word and then thought, “What a funny word?”

Merriam-Webster defines outdoors as “outside a building :  in or into the open air”

“Outdoors” has come to encapsulate the vast world which exists outside of the physical walls we have constructed around ourselves. Outdoors or, if used positively, the outdoors often implies wilderness or anywhere in nature that is separated from urban society with both a certain deprivation of conveniences and amenities as well as a separated physical location for recreation and restoration of oneself.

Isn’t it kind of weird that the word we created to represent our original natural environment implies that our new natural environment is to be within a building? The very use of the word outdoors implies we start within and must go out from something (our self-constructed walls) in order to return to our original, natural environment. We don’t exist outside or outdoors. Instead, we exist inside or indoors.

I think it is unfortunate that the word we chose for our original, physical surroundings is commonly understood with the base of a negative word. The English word “out” comes from the Old English word “utian” that means “to expel or put out.” We must expel ourselves to make it back to our natural surroundings. We must expel ourselves from our own walls and then expel ourselves from our conveniences, amenities, comforts and addictions.

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Elizabeth Spelke, a psychologist at the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, did a study to find that kids perceive simple concepts like the color “blue” and the physical object “wall” separately and are unable to connect the concepts together in their head as a single, cohesive phrase/entity (i.e. a blue wall). Language development allows those separate words/ideas to come together in a cohesive phrase/unit. In other words, language is the key to connecting concepts internally. Language is such a powerful tool that it not only enables communication between two or more persons but is also key to communication inside one person. Without certain words we cannot think in certain ways or understand certain things.*

As we invent and use more words we are expanding our toolset to not only better communicate with others but to better understand everything around us. For instance, Shakespeare invented- or at least was the first to use in print- many words (unaware, uncomfortable, unhand, undress, unreal, uneducated, unclogged, unsolicited, unswayed, unchanging, unappeased, eyedrops, eyeball, eyesore) and phrases (what’s done is done, dead as a doornail, forever and a day, every dog has it’s day, fainthearted, forgone conclusion, mind’s eye, knock knock who’s there, love is blind, all is well that ends well) we still use today.* Can you imagine not having these words and phrases? Indeed it is hard to imagine the ineffableness we have freed ourselves from by cultivating these words and phrases. They have helped us to understand and communicate many things since then.

Currently, I have two friends who are in stalemate argument about language (or the lack of language). My friend Nate listens to audiobooks on his commute to and from work. He talks about the books he has finished as books he has read. My other friend Matt insists to Nate that he has never read those books. Strictly speaking, he has not read them (he has listened to them) but our concept of books has been so limited to visually reading that we have no adequate verb to describe what happens when we engage with an audiobook (something between listening and reading). Here we can see that a new word is needed (perhaps audilect). We need to invent new words to fill the new blank spaces that technologies provide.

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Ultimately, language is alive; it changes and grows, adapting over time. We are continually creating and shaping it. It reflects back to us what we consider important.

If I told you that you were worthless you would be insulted, right? Or how about useless? Or lazy? If I call you worthless I am telling you that you have no value. Value is an economic term that signifies importance. If I call you useless I am telling you that you cannot do anything; that your ability lacks everything. Useless is a term of productivity. If you are useless, you are not productive and, therefore, not needed by society. Or so we are told.

If you are annoying you are an inconvenience to someone. You are hindering them from worshipping convenience.

If you are slow you are causing someone to be inefficient. You are hindering them from worshipping efficiency. 

If you are hazardous you are causing someone to feel unsafe. You are hindering them from worshiping security.

If you are worthless you are without value. You are hindering society from worshiping profitability.

If you are useless you are completely unproductive. You are hindering society from worshipping productivity.

Maybe it was re-orchestration of chemicals in my brain going through detox or maybe fresh air and silence is just good for clear thinking. Either way, when I was going for a walk outside I thought it wouldn’t be so bad to hear someone say, “Lee, you are a worthless, useless, annoying, slow and hazardous human being.“

These insults are telling of what we view as culturally important. Western culture deems progress, productivity, efficiency, convenience, security and comfort as some of the most important virtues. A lot of these stem from our overall importance placed on economics.

Rebecca Solnit talks about how language is being developed around certain economic means: “When I drive from here to there, speed, privacy, control, and safety are easy to claim. When I walk, what happens is more vague, more ambiguous… I am out in the world. It’s exercise, though not so quantifiably as on a treadmill in a gym with a digital readout… Many more benefits are more subjective, more ethereal — and more wordy. You can’t describe them in a few familiar phrases; and if you’re not practiced at describing them, you may not be able to articulate them at all. It is difficult to value what cannot be named. The gains [of buying and driving a car] are simple and we know the adjectives: convenient, efficient, safe, fast, predictable, productive… Since someone makes money every time you buy a car or fill it up, there’s a whole commercial language built around getting us to drive; there’s little or no language promoting the free act of walking.”**

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Perhaps, as Christians, part of our calling is to invent and cultivate new words in order to counteract the co-opting of language that bends it forever toward consumeristic means. Perhaps we must bring into this world words that describe not only the things that are healthy and holistic for us but also the things we must do to orient ourselves towards Christ as our center instead of slowly being pulled off to the side by progress, productivity, efficiency, convenience, security and comfort. Ultimately, at least, we need to be aware of these cultural virtues and their ability to color our thinking and distract us from loving God and one another.

Are you a worthless, useless, annoying, slow and hazardous human being?

Maybe we shouldn’t take cultural insults so personally. Or maybe we should go out of our way to become useless once in a while. Or try being worthless for a day each week; isn’t this part of the purpose of Sabbath since, even if we are worthless by the world’s standards, we are still loved by God?

Maybe, to begin to think clearly, we simply need to spend some time outdoors- expelling ourselves from the environment we have constructed around ourselves that bears down on us from all directions with ulterior agendas for our lives.

* Radiolab, Wordshttp://www.radiolab.org/story/91725-words/

** Rebecca Solnit, Finding Time, Orion Magazine, https://orionmagazine.org/article/a-fistful-of-time/

Surrogates

Advent is marked by a time of arrival; specifically, the arrival of the savior. At least, that is how advent ends on Christmas day each year. Indeed, we live in a time and place of arrival of a savior- the other proclaimed savior. You will find this savior swaddled in entertainment and information, lying in a manger of convenience. The face of this savior baby is glowing. It sprouts friendly illuminated tendrils, growing quickly, expanding into our homes and even our pockets whispering sweetly to us we shouldn’t have to wait: that waiting is antiquated. This is the savior prophesied not only to save us but to save our time; to save us from waiting and to bring change and peace on earth.

Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, said, “My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions.”
Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, said, “[the machine gun] will make war impossible.”
Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, said the exact same thing: “The coming of radio will make war impossible.”*

All of these once new technologies did not bring peace or make war impossible, they made war more destructive. With hindsight on our side we easily say they are crazy to have thought such things. But they would have thought it crazy to imagine their inventions used for such evil; they couldn’t even have imagined it. If they were naïve, chances are, so are we.

I know it is currently quite popular to trash-talk the effects of technology. Wisdom and age teaches that life is never so simple; there is always grey mixed in with the black and white. Good with the bad. Sorrow mixed in with deep joy. So too technology both brings in new goodness and pushes out present forms of abundant goodness. But let’s not be naïve in our beliefs of technology. We will invent new saviors and, even though we can’t imagine it, many of them will be used for violence, injustice and death.

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Our Saviors?

I always find the time after Christmas to be more bleak than before. Hope seems to dissipate and monotony and dreary weather fill its fading place. All that remains are fuzzy warm memories of happiness growing distant. We are in danger of losing hope. We are in danger of letting our hope slide into something else. At the same time, we posses profound power in our pockets that spark our hearts with hope. Temptation is within reach at all time. We no longer need to sit in moments of boredom or silence. Smart phones give us the ability to opt out. And we do. We opt out of those small moments. We can’t help but justify “just checking this one thing” that comes to us with a Pavlovian ding.

This isn’t bad. But compounded over time it is catastrophic.

I grew up sharing a room with my brother. When he got his driver’s license and would hang out with friends late every night I used to fall asleep listening to the radio. The steady stream of human-produced sound assured me I was not in complete isolation. We, as humans, seem to need to be constantly reminded we are not alone and we often do so by pressing a buttom to have an unending flow of communication to ingest, assuring us we are not alone and not worthless. With new technologies and music apps we can listen to any music we want at any time. Increasingly we, as a society, have been surrounding ourselves with constant sound. This isn’t bad. But compounded over time it is catastrophic.

Radio broadcasters fear a break in communication leading to silence. They call it “dead air.” Dead air. I tend to think of a moment of silence not as dead but as the most alive moment because anything can grow into it; anything can spring forward and fill that moment. Even if we can’t see or hear it, there is something in moments of silence, boredom and struggle; they aren’t worthless. Those times of stillness when there is no movement towards progress or productivity there is something present, waiting, growing inside of us.

We are slowly losing our opportunities to practice waiting and silence. Practice makes perfect. Just like silent pauses that were pregnant with life have now become reduced to “dead air” so have our opportunities for practice begun to die. In fact, without our intentionality, times of silence and waiting face extinction.

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We must be intentional with incorporating the practice of waiting and silence into our daily lives. We have to intentionally practice it. We need these opportunities to practice or we begin to forget. The compounding of practice over time is what brings change. A married couple may not feel like going out one specific date night. And that is not bad. But compounded over time it is catastrophic. In order to continue learning more about one another and maintain a relationship, a couple must continually practice certain routines. They must form a liturgy of marriage, unique to who they are.

We shouldn’t move blindly forward into the future without thinking long and hard about the long term consequences of our choices. Therein lies the power of practice: when we slowly practice things, little by little, they compound over a long period of our lives and make a big change. If you lay one seed every week, eventually you will have a forest of trees.

Are your little practices bringing you to trust in something that will save you?

And so, as Christians, when we embrace technologies we must do so without blindly accepting the cultural expectations of what that technology will do for us. History teaches us that we shouldn’t accept the optimistic assumption that our new technologies will only act as a savior for us- our new technologies will certainly bring destruction as well.  We are not choosing technology to save us. We are choosing another, different savior. We practice the art of waiting. We practice waiting for this true Savior. We practice waiting for the King to return. We practice waiting through thick and thin, in times of hope and despair.

 

 

Our Constant Companion

I was cleaning our kitchen the other day. I wiped down the countertops, scrubbed the sink and got the stovetop so clean it sparkled. Heck, I even knocked down the cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling. I have laser focus but I tend to be a little oblivious, sometimes failing to notice obvious things. Anyway, I was putting the dried goods in neat little jars and arranging them happily on our quaint wooden shelves with some jazz music playing softly when I heard a voice down the hallway.

“Holy sh*t!”

I didn’t think much of it at the time and resumed my amiable arranging. Somehow, by the grace of God, my friend Malcolm walked in. “Lee, the upper half of your kitchen looks fantastically polished; it’s a thing of beauty. But I fear you may have overlooked something.” My gloating smile began to droop in suspicion. What did Malcolm mean? Overlooked something? I stared at him and waited for him to clarify. He continued in disbelief, “Really? You didn’t notice that?” He pointed to the far corner of the kitchen.

I looked down. Oh… I hadn’t noticed I was ankle-deep in sewage. There, on the floor was the sewer line- a rickety old clay pipe. Must’a sprung a leak. It was not only spewing a steady stream of murky fecal water but there were occasional sprays of liquid into in the air as if the pipe was a vein pumping blood from the heart. With each beat the pipe pulsed more sewage into the room. It was rising at a steady rate. “Huh, how silly of me to not notice. I’m practically swimming in this,” I said.

~~~

Our lives are changing rapidly. Suddenly, the world has arrived at our fingertips. Masters of design are partnering with bottom-line marketers to bring us an endless supply of discontent. They drop blankets across all media to make sure we don’t have to go without our sweet, tasty discontent. They slip it under our door while we are sleeping. They leak it into the air. Before we know it, we’ve let them build pipes of cultural filth to flow all around us. And it’s hard to keep it out. It comes to our gates. We can stuff it into our ears and inject it into our eyes pleasantly, effortlessly. And it happens instantly, seamlessly. We are told it will make us more productive and more efficient; it will save us time. It will save us. And we buy it. The savior has come.

This so-called savior too easily sweeps into our lives unsuspectingly and brings cultural crap straight into the veins of our identity. Sure, we can clean like never before but it is covering our kitchen floors with filth. Cultural turds are floating all around us, contaminating us. But it happily entertains us as we go about our days. We seem to not mind walking in poop. Or maybe we’re so distracted we don’t notice.

But for some there is a general resistance to this promised savior and its prophets. Perhaps we know it is as dangerous as an alcoholic trying to get sober with a flask of whiskey tucked away in their jacket- always whispering telepathically that one touch wouldn’t hurt- because whatever our downfall may be (social media, games, email, productivity, porn) our personalized temptation never leaves our side. Our downfall rides with us in our pocket wherever we go; it is our constant companion: always there, waiting, yearning sensually for our touch. It is there when no one else is; it is there in our time of need. We enter further into a progressively exclusive relationship with it until we- our thoughts, words and actions- all smell of the turds upon which we tread. Our spiritual, mental and emotional lives become disgusting, causing problems for our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with God. Instead, we need to widen our attention. Take a look around, down. We, amid communities, need to remind ourselves of the turds we’re stepping in. We need to call each other out of it. And most of all, we need a different savior.

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Cambodian Motorcycle Prayers

On my second day in Cambodia, I found myself on the back of a motorbike weaving through the flow of traffic. Lanes and lines disappear in a shifting sea across the streets of Phnom Penh. It’s a tight fit. But there’s always room to squeeze one more motorbike onto the road. People seemingly tap into a collective consciousness and traffic becomes one living organism. Most Cambodian motorcyclists are fairly streamlined to their bikes and can slip and slide into tight spaces between vehicles. However, being 6’4″ and tucked up against a stranger’s back, there is simply nowhere for my knees to go except out. Several times my legs were bowing out, causing drag and splitting inches past rushing traffic in both directions. It’s the type of situation where fear and apprehension are jumping up and down like rambunctious children trying to tear down any sense of calm composure in my mind. But it’s a good time to relearn how to pray.

 

It was nighttime in Phnom Penh and I was finishing up some work with InnerChange (see photos below). I had been in the city long enough now to make my way across it. I wore my rite of passage proudly (a muffler-burn/scar on my inner calf) and was getting used to contorting my body in order to secure my extremities on a couple rickety bars and pegs. The swelling stream of moving metal, rubber and fumes across the concrete was becoming an ordinary yet uncomfortable daily experience.

Besides my backpack and a motorcycle helmet, I had a plastic bag of clean laundry with me that night in Phnom Penh. I walked down a dimly lit residential road and as I came to the intersection I was greeted by several drivers, one of which who was forcefully enthusiastic and insisted that he drive me. I annunciated the local landmark near where I was staying and we negotiated a fair price. Previous times motorcycle drivers were so excited to drive me across town that they would insist they knew where I wanted to go even if they didn’t actually know… and we would arrive in some place I had never seen before. I would then start pointing brazenly in directions that might as well have been completely random hoping to spy someplace familiar. I assumed the driver this specific night was blinded by his enthusiasm and didn’t actually know where I wanted to go… but he would try and we would eventually make it. So I agreed, saddled up on the back of his bike and held my laundry on my lap.

His bike was particularly small and he accelerated rapidly. But, without momentum on our side, the bike immediately began to swivel. “Ok, he’ll get control in a sec.” After accelerating a few meters down the gravel road we were swerving uncontrollably. The bike leaned to tip over to the left so the driver swung his body to the right and leaned, steering and tipping the bike to the right. A second later the process was repeated. Again and again; each reactionary swerve growing closer to that fatal tipping point as we accelerated. Then, in a moment, my senses came into clarity. It was inevitable now; a matter of time: milliseconds. Waiting. Still swerving. I loosened my grip and relaxed my muscles as we were going down.

I sat up as it was happening and hovered my feet above the moving ground, leaning back, ready to jump ship at the perfect moment.  The front wheel caught, twisted underneath itself, and pointed 90 degrees right, causing a skidded stop that thrust us forward and slammed the bike into the ground. I managed to stay upright enough, holding a position of genuflection- as if bending one knee to the ground for prayer- behind the crashed bike. The driver was, somehow, still on the bike, tipped over on its side. My bag of clean laundry lay on the road, intact. The driver’s acquaintances were running down the street towards us. I assessed my health- finding nothing but a few scratches- and walked up to lift the bike and driver up off the ground. I grabbed the tail end and his friends lifted the front. It suddenly made sense when I saw him dazed and lethargic as he attempted getting off the bike. He was shaken up, yes, but his prior belligerent enthusiasm and inability to gain control of the bike… The pungent smell of dripping oil was like milk compared to the acrid stench of alcohol that cut through the air and into my nose. How had I not noticed it before?

The driver appeared to be mostly fine but, soon, panicked chattering arose and the driver started yelling. Considering the volatility of the situation and not knowing what the driver was yelling about I wanted to distance myself immediately. I gathered my things as I was not feeling responsible in any way for what just happened. An English speaking man motioned me over to the next road and flagged down an oncoming motorcycle driver. I slipped out of the streetlight. The new driver stopped. He and the English speaking man exchanged a few words in Khmer and then motioned me aboard. I did not hesitate. I did not look back at the scene of the crash but imagined a swirl of cacophony and chaos still raged. A moment later I was gone, turning back to yell thanks to the English speaking man.

The night air slipped into my helmet as I flipped the face shield to the sky. I stared up at the endless urban buildings and flashing neon lights as they went by. We rode on; my hands slightly shaking as I prayed. –  I’m not happy how things went down. But sometimes that is just how life goes. You make decisions in pivotal moments and you have to spend the rest of your life living with how they play out.

Prior to that (and especially afterwards) whosever bike I sat upon I always muttered prayers from the back of the bike; I took to referring to them as Cambodian Motorcycle Prayers. Some drivers rode like the devil and my prayers were more fervent than ever. Others possessed slow, garbled pieces of machinery that only allowed us to ride like snails.

 

A few weeks after the crash my friend Jody and I found ourselves half-stranded at Angkor Wat on Khmer New Years. The sun was baking the land into a cloud of clay dust. Our bodies turned to sweat. After asking around we came upon some reluctant motorcyclists who were willing to drive us back to town for a price. We took what we could get… And that didn’t include helmets. Instead we got two drivers that rode like demons on a flat open road with red dust billowing off the tires of vehicles whizzing by. I got reacquainted with fleeting pierces of fear. As the late sun began to sink into my eyes so did the salt, dust and sweat of an entire day’s worth of temple exploration. The motorcycles throttled into high gear and soon the sting of sweat and dust caused my eyes to seal shut. I fought it like someone fights the heavy lids of sleep. The speed at which we were driving caused bumps to launch one or both of my feet off the pegs and potentially onto the road which could flip me off balance and, consequently, off the bike. At speeds like this there would be no genuflection; only a freshly cracked skull and a torso of sizzling road rash.

So with tears streaming laterally across my cheeks and flapping off into the wind I pinched my eyes open to see bumps in the road. But the sting was too sharp. I had no choice but to smile and give way to the practice of Cambodian Motorcycle Prayers as I felt the road, unseen, strip itself of all fear.

 

 

~~~

 

 

 

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Above: Photos from Mark and Susan Smith’s neighborhood.

Below: Meeting with Susan Smith, local restaurants and local food (bananas and lotus)

 

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Below: Photos from Kampong Cham market and Sunrise Project

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Below: Wat Nakor, Kampang Cham prison, fried tarantulas

 

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Below: Daily life in Phnom Penh, families celebrating a wedding, children celebrating the New Year

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Practicing Presence

On multiple occasions in South East Asia, I could see a glint of curious playfulness in a child’s eye. It took me several weeks to move beyond my (Western) acculturated limits of restrained interaction with strangers- especially children. Once, I was standing outside a temple market, minding my own business, when I felt a pounding on my legs. Dear God, I’m being attacked! I looked down to see two siblings giggling and beating away on my legs as if to knock down this silly-looking, fluorescently-white giant who had been spotted and suspected as someone fun to play with. I immediately let out a roar and threatened to tickle them which led to eruptive squeals of joy and a great flailing diaspora of the children. A chase ensued. I tracked one down and snatched her, twirling her high in the air and motioning to throw her into the water. I looked over at the little brother who had escaped my faux-wrath, noticing he had sought asylum and solace with his family. They were all laughing and smiling boisterously. Since I was with a group of friends and didn’t care to purchase anything at the market I simply played with the small girl until everybody else was ready to leave.

In the United States, it is hardly appropriate to jump into such playfulness with strangers/children (I won’t go into the effects of overly-saturated media leading to paranoia) but I found that most parents were highly appreciative of me lovingly playing with their kids. I remember a few other occasions when Jody broke out his tea set to snap a few photos and enjoy some tea in a unique location only to accidentally steal the attention of roaming children who slowly made their inquisitive way over. Jody was always quick to invite them to sit down and have some tea with him. (In the photo above, Jody is having tea with a young girl named Pupu we met in Bagan, Myanmar.)

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Here is the small girl I was playing with at the temple market.

This past year I realized that my favorite part of traveling was getting out of currents. These currents are the routes between heavily touristed areas where modern, western accommodations exist in sufficiency in order to serve amenities, comforts and familiarities to tourists. Many tourists flow between these places and, eventually, a tourist-friendly economy and culture replaces the traditional culture and economy: globalization eroding diversity. In many ways, the currents are getting stronger. I was often sucked in and I can’t claim to have strayed too far from these currents but the times I did, I found myself in strange and intriguing situations with unique opportunities to interact with local people.

I was also able to join in the local culture and engage the youth who were spending their free time similarly to how I had spent mine: playing soccer. Fortunately, soccer is (nearly) a universal language and it is surprisingly disarming to join in the common cause of kicking a ball around together for enjoyment and camaraderie.

Sometimes my camera gave me a chance to approach groups and individuals with the understanding that I was curious about them and their life and cared enough to be with them. If I took their portrait it was always with their consent- albeit sometimes given in shyness and other times in eager self-promotion. Showing people their own beauty with portraits of themselves often made them beam with joy as, in their hearts, they felt privileged and worthy.

I’ve made it a regular practice to help farmers when I come across them- setting my camera down and picking up a shovel or an axe. Primarily, the intent is to spend time with people; practicing presence. Almost every single time I did this I was able to forge bonds with people despite having zero verbal communication. Sometimes presence is all it takes. The thought of a stranger with a different skin color from a different continent walking up to an unassuming group of farmers and motioning to help was always slightly suspicious but ultimately, always something that brought gleaming smiles of deep joy (not to mention many jokes about my naïveté and incompetence at doing their jobs).

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Helping farmers till the rice paddies in Northern Vietnam.

In being present, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps these instances have helped show that not all tourists are solely interested in seeing specific sights and consuming specifically marketed experiences. Perhaps they can find a glimmer of hope in the fact that some people deliberately leave the tourism-currents to get to know ordinary people amid their everyday lives. I can’t help but hope that perhaps we all have more in common than we imagined; that perhaps the kingdom does transcend and is breaking through with moments of shared presence.

Pondering Divine Obscurity

“Once language exists only to convey information, it is dying. …By understanding the words [of a news article] you seem to deaden them.”

– Richard Hugo, 20th century American Poet

I like to think that Hugo is onto something. Perhaps words are living entities holding a lifespan. If so, their lifespan seems to exist in the shadows and obscurity of mystery. As soon as that mystery dissolves into understanding (and that process of communication is complete) the life of those words begins to die. Words in a news article deaden after they are read because their purpose is only to transport information. Words in a poem, however, stay alive because they are ever-changing by the person who reads them, the context in which they are read and the obscurity of which they always hide away part of their full meaning. You never capture and take away the full meaning or experience of a poem. Therefore, each time we return to the words of a poem we find them still alive, still partly hidden in mystery. Only if elusive and partly uncapturable will our words live on.

Too often we try to possess knowledge of scripture like a news article. However, to boil Jesus down to information that we can read and process through in order to fully understand and comprehend denies the uncontainable nature of God. Jesus, as one of the persons of God, is so far beyond our complete comprehension (not to say that we cannot comprehend much of who He is) that to think the Word is merely a collection of information revolving around Jesus’ life which we can understand logically and possess is not only an insult to His greatness, vastness and majesty but is also an act of crucifixion because we are deadening the Word made flesh- which is Jesus, our Savior.

Instead, the Name of Jesus is a poem to be pondered, to be reopened and gazed at again and again as we move through life’s different contexts and stages. We find the light of His spirit illuminating Him differently at different times which keeps us returning- not only to find the historical collection of information on Jesus’ person but to search the partially obscured mystery of His immense, uncontainable beauty.

The first followers of Jesus were beaten within an inch of their lives but, bloodied and beaten, they walked away rejoicing. There is something indestructible within them- something the Sanhedrin cannot touch, something the whips cannot flog out of their tearing flesh, something deeper than blood, something deeper than bones: the confidence of Christ- the Word made flesh- still alive. The words in their hearts then pour out, alive and impassioned, fraught with conviction and deep-seated joy. The words the apostles speak are the very mystery of the living Christ spreading forth from suffering to rejoicing.

Like the first followers, heeding the Word leads us to a great worthiness- a worthiness to suffer for the name. Perhaps we, too, should rejoice. We come to scripture, not only for the knowledge of the life of Christ so as to be shaped and formed but, more importantly, to be in the very presence of God. He is alive. His Words are alive; He is writing them deeply on our hearts.