Saturday, March 24, 2007

[Love] Reign Over Me

Awesome movie, go see it.

When In Doubt, Trust Your Horse!

One of the most fun things we have done recently is go horseback riding in the Cascade Mountains just east of our house. One of my friends in Canada this summer said it's the best hiking area in the west, little did we know...

Right before the six of us took off, I went to the bathroom in a remodeled part of our friends' barn. Going in, I noticed a sign that said, "when in doubt, trust your horse." Hmmm, I thought, I wonder what that's all about? I soon found out.

We had been plodding up switchbacks on a fairly narrow trail for a couple of minutes, when we came to what felt like a 45-degree incline up a mountain on a 3-foot wide trail. Without warning, the six horses took off galloping up the tiny chute! I shrieked, out of fear, then my breath was taken away. I had no time for claustrophobia, I hung on to my reins for dear life. If I had fallen off, I would've tumbled down into a ravine 75 yards below, breaking all kinds of bones, if I made it out alive, that is...

After what seemed like an eternity (when in reality, it was maybe 8 seconds of galloping) we came to a much flatter and wider space. It took a while to catch my breath and leave my adrenalized state... We resumed walking, trotting and cantering along verdant paths that went into woods and along blackberry bushes, and occasional vistas. Soon I learned that the horses habits in narrow places were to get through them as quickly as possible, even if it meant scaring their riders to death. Once I could predict their behavior, I could at least prepare my heart for the terror to come, knowing it would be short lived.

It was awesome. I found myself in awe when we were all in a pristine Tolkien-esque forrest, untouched by humanity. The horses drank from the brook beneath their feet, and I took in all the smells, sights and sounds of nature's finest offering.

After about an hour more, we returned to the house, to brush/feed the horses, and down some beverages ourselves. When we drove home, I could not get the smile off my face. That was the most exhilirating experience I had had in a long time. Sheer fear (not being sure if I would be able to hang on to the horse/stay alive) combined with sheer joy (the beauty of the powerful animals and unadulterated nature), totally exhiliarting...

Most of our rides through life are the boring walking parts, unmemorable, one day from the next. But the galloping parts are always the defining moments, when we learn something about our mortality, or maybe that we are more brave than we'd previously thought. Maybe this is why Los and I love roller-coasters too, it evokes the thrill in our hearts as well. I never wanted to have a safe life, where everything was predictable. Those narrow chutes are the part I remember the most from that day. It's comforting to know that when we don't know what's going on in our lives, or if we can hang on, we can trust that "someone" else does. When in doubt, trust your horse.

Long-Haul Truckers and Seminary...

God works in funny ways. Over the past few years that I've been in seminary, many people have asked me why I am seeking a Theology degree. For people who aren't Christians, they just look at me like I'm an alien (it's a great way to immediately end a conversation with a stranger, let me tell you...) They think it's a waste of $50G and my time... For some that are Christians, I've gotten the responses ranging from, "But you're a woman, you can't be a pastor!" to, "If you love God, and want to serve him in ministry, why do you need a degree? Why can't you just use the Bible as your manual and trust the spirit will lead you?"

Usually I just let words fumble around in my mouth as I try to articulate the importance of the education I'm receiving. To learn about the history of the church is to learn about its present state and its future. To learn about the context in which Scripture is written, and the original languages in which its written, makes a huge difference in comprehension of the text. To learn about the variety of ways people interpret it, and experience God, around the world is eye-opening and humbling. E.g. God is not white, middle-class, American Republican, who knew?! Who said that, "if God has made us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated?" Voltaire, maybe, but that is so true... So seminary has been a great experience of growth of knowledge, reverence, and many other things for which I'm grateful.

However, I've never been as affirmed in my pursuit of education, as when I read a recent New York Times article regarding deregulation of long-haul trucking and its inherent dangers. The article featured the story of a 19-year old young man, who was on his first cross-country trip. Because of cuts made during the Bush administration to his "field of expertise", he'd scarcely been trained at all. His instructor was a mere 21, with one whole year of trucking under his belt... clearly qualified, right? So they spent a week or two, "learning the ropes" and took off from the west coast, heading east.

A couple of days later, after 12 hours of driving (while his instructor slept in the back of the cab most of the time), this tired young man plowed into the back of a Jeep, which had a 62 year old woman in it. The Jeep was pushed off an embankment and the woman died on impact.

As I sat there reading about this, I thought, THIS is why I'm in seminary. (No, not to become a long-haul truck driver) Because more education and training in his vocation, before hitting the road and being tested, could have saved that woman's life. Not everything can be learned in books, of course, much of the artistry of any vocation comes in the 'doing' of it. As my mom always says, she earned her Ph.D. and then learned how to be a psychologist... But the practice, the training that goes into earning the degree should set you up for later success in life.

As anyone who follows media stories surrounding people who've missed the mark in our vocation, Ted Haggard being one of the latest, can attest; more training, before investing in, and building up a ministry can not hurt. It can help you be aware of yourself, strengths, and more importantly, weaknesses. It can help you build a team of complementary gifting, and partner with a larger group of people with whom there is accountability, checks/balances. It can help you be sensitive/relevant to the particular dynamics of your congregation.

Anyway, enough of my soapbox, but now I have a parable to go along with my answer for the next time someone at a party, or on a plane, asks me that question. And as for that young man, pray for him... I'm not sure if he's in jail now; all I know is that he's being sued by the woman's family. He was just a guy, trying to make it in this world, and wasn't set up for success. It's a sad situation, but hopefully it won't be the defining experience in his life, there's so much more to live for...

On Christianity, Africa, and two books that changed my life...

"Better late than never," so the saying goes; but I am still sad, disappointed or some other undistinguishable emotion, that I didn't read either of these books until now. They were amazing to me, I found myself reacting viscerally at times, with different emotions they evoked. I read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart first, which took me through an unexpected journey.
Embarrassing as it is, to admit now, I started off with anger at the main character, Okonkwo. I thought he was barbaric and cruel, treating his wives abusively. Polygamy was a hard concept for me to swallow, let alone spousal abuse. I quickly diagnosed him, psychologically, and determined that "he needs help." At that point, I would've preferred to throw the book across the room and forget about it; but, gritting my teeth, I begrudgingly obliged my professor to finish it. I wasn't being prejudiced; Okonkwo was just awful, right? Maybe not...
In life, the longer I stay invested in a person, the larger propensity I have to turn my heart towards theirs, having compassion, showing understanding, and choosing to believe that they're doing the best they know how to do. My heart only stays hardened when I make a pre-mature judgment. Spending time in this book was like that, and though I dreaded continuing on, somewhere in the middle of it, I took inventory of my emotions, and realized that I no longer despised Okonkwo. That sneaky guy had snuck into my heart, mattering and making sense to me. Somewhere around when he traveled to be near his wife, Ekwefi, and their daughter Ezinma, I realized his heart for his family, and that changed everything.
When the missionaries entered into relationships with the natives, at first I had a neutral or semi-positive view of them, since I identify most with western culture. But it became increasingly disturbing towards the end of the book, to see the results of their actions. At first I thought Nwoye was brave for pursuing his curiosity in Christianity. I'd never considered how that might feel for a people group, as though they've "lost" a family member, one of their own, to new beliefs, ways and traditions. And I'd never thought of the convert in terms of being ostracized from family and community, seeing how high the stakes were opened my eyes and was grievous to me.
The missionaries could have been so much more graceful, as well, trying to get to know the tribes longer, and making connecting points with their culture and the gospel. Instead of just putting down their opinions, dismissing their concerns in a pejorative way, and imposing their governmental structure and trade stores, they could have worked at relationships and nonjudgmental sharing of their faiths.
It was a big slap in the face to realize that I've naively thought that we "help" cultures more "primitive" become more "advanced" in the past. I've been reshaping my perception of "missionary" work in the past five years. However, hearing that the District Commissioner was going to name his book "Pacification of the Primitive Tribes"... made me cringe and sick to my stomach, because that's something I probably thought in "mission" work I did overseas in high school and college.
Another thing the books made me think about is how I need to change when I am sharing the Gospel with my non-believing friends, neighbors, and family members. For some reason, I think people should try to be just like me, as they pursue personal growth. I hold them to an unfair (and unspoken) standard, which would never be attainable. I get irritated when they compromise (in my opinion) by being lazy spiritually, or doing things like sleeping with their boyfriends, smoking pot or drinking alcohol in excess, for example. How would they know any better? Yet my judgment clouds potential connections I could make between their lives and people in Scripture who were seeking avenues of self-fulfillment as well, and asking questions of ultimate value.
It is kind of embarrassing to have these books call to my attention ways I have ignored or missed opportunities for the gospel to be shared, yet simultaneously tried to fix outer habits (symptoms) of people. It seems laughable, in retrospect, that I would even assume such a thing was possible. With my misplaced zealousness, it must be a drag, at times, for people to be around me- a humbling realization.
I loved the how Vincent Donovan, in his book Christianity Rediscovered, tried to strip down all the Western baggage associated with Christianity, in his presentation of the gospel to the Masai tribe in East Africa. This book impacted me in a huge way. If I hadn't borrowed a library copy, which was already majorly underlined, I would've done some intensive writing in it myself. As it is, I dog-eared many a page in the book.
I found it fascinating to think through how being a white American with heritage from Greco-Roman Western Europe has colored my perception of the gospel. In the first few centuries after Christ, the Church became established there and "determined" what acceptable beliefs and practices were; so clearly that plays into how those of us who're descendents today react towards/against cultures that perceive things differently, due to a different frame of reference. As people figured out what the gospel meant in their Western context, it became the standard, rather than aiming for people elsewhere to figure out how the gospel could interplay with their respective cultures.
It was alarming to reflect on damage missionaries in the past century have done in the name of Christ; urging people to turn away from their tribal god, and turning toward our tribal god, instead of searching for the true God together. Though we can only "know in part," while on earth, how much more beneficial for both parties for us to search for God together, instead of us bringing God to Africa. God is already there, signs of God's love are already manifested in their communities; it is merely our task to point God out to people who might not realize that truth.
How far we have strayed from Paul's missionary journeys! We have changed from the centrifugal movement of Jesus' great commission, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations", to a centripetal, "Come be like us." Rather than a "finishable" task, training up natives, we have made these unending situations of Africans dependence upon us for their well being and guidance. I can certainly understand how European and American Christians thought they were helping the worldwide Church grow, planting schools and hospitals in Africa, and in a round-about way, coercing natives to accept their beliefs along with education, or health care. I probably would've done something similar, being shortsighted, and not thinking through the implications of imposing my own cultural assumptions of what is essential for their society.
These books have been invaluable to me, in causing me to reflect on all of these topics. I don't want to miss the mark, identifying the gospel "with any social, political, or economic system... accepting the limits of that system, [and in so doing] betraying the gospel," as Donovan says. I want to be aware of the cultural baggage and limitations I have, and able to identify them, in times where I question the validity of an opinion or experience different than what I adhere to, or have had. The gospel is inherently attractive and compelling, but I, along with many others, have done it an injustice by being unaware of what we add to it. May the reading of these two books just be the beginning of my journey towards, as Donovan puts it, rediscovering Christianity.

What is love?

A group of professional people posed this
question to a group of 4 to 8 year-olds,
"What does love mean?"
The answers they got were broader and deeper than anyone could have imagined.
See what you think:
"When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore.
So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That's love." Rebecca- age 8

When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different.
You just know that your name is safe in their mouth." Billy - age 4

"Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other." Karl - age 5

Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs." Chrissy - age 6

"Love is what makes you smile when you're tired." Terri - age 4

"Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK."
Danny - age 7

"Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more.
My Mommy and Daddy are like that. They look gross when they kiss"
Emily - age 8

"Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen." Bobby - age 7

"If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate,"
Nikka - age 6

"Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday." Noelle - age 7

"Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well." Tommy - age 6

"During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling.
He was the only one doing that.I wasn't scared anymore."
Cindy - age 8

"My mommy loves me more than anybody .
You don't see anyone else kissing me to sleep at night." Clare - age 6

"Love is when Mommy gives Daddy the best piece of chicken." Elaine-age 5

"Love is when Mommy sees Daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he is handsomer than Brad Pitt." Chris - age 7

"Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day." Mary Ann - age 4

"I know my older sister loves me because she gives me all her old clothes and has to go out and buy new ones." Lauren - age 4

"When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you." Karen - age 7

"You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget." Jessica - age 8

And the final one -- Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he was asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four year old child whose next door neighbor was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman's yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his Mother asked what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said, "Nothing, I just helped him cry"