Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Folded Cloth

Culture influences everything we say, everything we think, and everything we read. We often make the mistake of equating something that is cultural as part of Christianity. We read Scripture with our Western eyes and autonomous mindset and think we understand what the writer was trying to say. However, the writer, although divinely inspired, was also crafting his words through the lens of Hebrew or Greek culture.

Simon Peter, Jesus' disciple, saw the strips of linen lying in an empty tomb and the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen (John 20:6,7). One of the lies about Jesus is that he never really rose but that his body was stolen in the night. It was a fabrication created then that continues today (Matthew 27:64, 28:13). I have always understood the piece about the folded cloth as proof and evidence that thieves did not take Jesus' body. Why would thieves take the time to fold the cloth that was wrapped around Jesus? After all, they would be in a hurry to do the deed and leave the scene quickly. The need for proof and evidence is a part of our culture. We are always trying to make a case for Christ; always trying to defend the fantastic, supernatural essence of Christianity.

My refugee friend from a Middle Eastern country spoke about the folded cloth from a different perspective. As part of Middle Eastern hospitality, guests would be given a cloth and water in order to clean themselves. If guests felt like they were treated poorly, they would toss the towel as a sign that they were never coming back again. However, if they neatly folded the cloth, the message was, "I will come back again."

For my friend, the folded cloth was not proof but rather a promise that Jesus is coming back. He was pierced, crushed, and assigned a grave with the wicked and rich even though he had done nothing wrong (Isaiah 53), but still he is coming back. Sometimes we need someone from a different culture to point out our blind spots or to show us a new, beautiful way of understanding things.

As a Canadian, I listen and read about the Connecticut massacre of children and adults with absolute horror. My dear friends in the USA, as someone on the "outside", I plead with you to beat your guns into plowshares and crucify your "right" to bear arms. This tragedy is not your new tactic to tear down your President's views on abortion nor is it a time for mean-spirited talk about gun control. Rather, it is a time to turn to Jesus, a king who ruled with a towel not an automatic, rode a donkey not a tank, and chose the cross instead of self-defense.

This season of comfort and joy has been twisted into a season of horror and sadness for masses of families. We weep and mourn with them. I barely know how to write this note for fear that my expression sounds trite. Still, this Christmas, I will remember that Jesus came. He came and he will come back again. The folded cloth tells me so.

(Thanks to my refugee friend, Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo, and Chris Haw for their insight and inspiration)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

I am a Middle-class, Caucasian, Christian, Heterosexual Female.

I have identified who I am countless times over the last ten months of school. The real estate of social work is all about "self-location, self-location, self-location". The purpose is to increase one's awareness of everything they represent as they work with and among people. If I know who I am and the baggage that comes with my identity, I can be more sensitive to the perceived power that comes with my position in society. I can consciously behave in a way that shortens the distance between other people and me. I saw and see the value in this but the more I locate myself, the more I lose myself. The more I identify who I am only for the purpose of social work, the less I know who I am.

It was only four years ago that I felt God nudging me to leave Bolivia along with the initial hints to leave full-time ministry in its traditionally understood form. I try not to doubt that pursuing my Master of Social Work was the next step for me, but it has been a difficult and confusing transition at times. In my social work circles, I am seen as a fundamentalist, conservative Christian. In my home and church circles, I am seen as a progressive, liberal Christian. I feel reactions in the air and see judgement flash over faces during conversations. As a social worker, I feel like I have to apologize for what I represent as Christian: oppression, persecution, homophobia. As a Christian, I feel like I need to apologize for what I represent as a social worker: humanism, rage, secularism. Neither representation is the whole story.

My independent nature that tends to not ask for help was called "arrogant", "disrespectful", and "rooted in my religion" by my supervisor at my student placement. He told me that I thought I was more accountable to Jesus than to him. A week later, a friend who follows Christ told me that he thought I had become a "socialist women's libber". He didn't mean it as a compliment. My heart has felt so conflicted. Where do I fit? Where do I belong?

Thank goodness for moms. When I told her what I was struggling with she simply wrote, "At least you are a women's libber who loves Jesus." Those were the only words she wrote but truer, wiser words have never been written at just the right moment. My friends, I love Jesus. He is my joy. My hope. My life. The more I locate myself in him, the more I find myself. The more I identify myself only for his purposes, the more I know who I am. I am his.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

I Take the Bus

I take the bus. It's not a first time experience. I took the bus a lot in Bolivia. That was a novel experience...until it became normal. Normal to swivel sideways and slide my body into the scant space left on the step inside and have my back exposed to the elements because the door wouldn't close. Normal to have a seat inside but find a campesino's butt in my face and his wife's child on my lap. It was normal to not have a seat and to bend my knees or my neck in order to accomodate the short ceiling created for Asians but shipped second-hand to South America. Normal to strike up conversations with complete strangers and purchase from the merchants vending their pop, peanuts, sugar cane, bolo, and even lunch in a bag outside my window. It was normal for someone to light up a smoke in the bus or cart their small livestock into the aisle. When it was time to get off, I would yell, "Stop, please" and the driver would let me exit anywhere at anytime. All this was my bus experience once upon a lifetime in Bolivia.

These days, I board the bus for a mere 10 minutes to get to the downtown. Instead of yelling, "Stop, please!", I pull a wire and a ding lets the driver know that I need to get off at the next regulated stop. I flash my student card and go anywhere for free but not at anytime. Only at set times and with less times and less buses on holidays. On some buses, there is an automated, androgynous voice that informs me, "Next stop, SPUD-ina" (Spadina) or "Next stop, Hahn" (that merely sounds like someone exhaling). People rarely say anything to another person and almost everyone has their eyes trained to little screens with their fingers flying to send flurries of texts about topics that nobody should care about. In fact, the scope of the personal bubble spans so that some people prefer to sit their rears on the steel separation of the seats rather than have their arm touch the arm of someone else. It is a surreal and strange sensation that settles upon me as I sway my way back and forth from home, Monday to Friday every week.

Several weeks ago, after observing my fellow passengers in the terminal and on the bus, I started to think that it was all just a petri-dish of the kind of people that I will be working with as a social worker. On one of my first trips, a large young lady with really bad acne sat beside me and then turned her head to stare at me, unflinchingly, for the entire journey. Another time, a man across from me was eating those little bags of chips that you only find at Halloween. With his head tilted backward, he kept pulling the small sacs out of his bag, one after another, tearing them open, and dumping the contents into his open mouth. There are also the mumblers, the fighters, and those who should rent a room instead of take the bus.

I could continue to view these people as fields for social work, but I've come to realize that when I look at them, I am looking at me. I'm not observing specimens through a narrow, microscopic lens but rather I am seeing my reflection in a mirror. I have the same urges to stare at others or eat an entire bag of chips by myself. At home, I mutter to myself constantly and even though I don't fight or make out with others, it's not like I don't want to.

I take the bus. It's not the same as taking the bus in Bolivia, but the novelty and surrealism has turned into a solidarity with strangers that makes me see myself for who I really am. A lot like you.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Absence Effect

What effect does absence have on our relationships? Is it ruinous or does it enhance them? There's the familiar saying, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" and although I retch at its triteness, I do believe that being absent from someone increases our affection for that person.

I enjoy the presence of someone so much more than being away from him or her, but without absence, would it be as sweet? Extended absence has had a negative effect on some of my past relationships. It made me or the other person forget one another as we called or emailed each other with less and less frequency. Perhaps the nature of these experiences hinges on the heart. A heart that is secure and grounded in the assurance of another person's commitment and love can endure time apart; the body may be absent but the heart remains intimately present.

During those absences, I became nostalgic about these people and I missed them. My memory of him or her became inflated and the person became someone more grandiose and wonderful than what he or she really was; my affection increased for them because they were no longer present in my day to day life. My heart bloomed with wistfulness in such a way that the next time I saw the person, I felt somewhat let-down; reminded of the fact that he or she was merely human like me and not the unduly esteemed version in my head. Henri Nouwen describes these encounters by writing: "(It's) as if we sensed that we were more for each other than we could express." In other words, separation can create a hyper-sense of closeness and longing that cannot be conveyed in togetherness. There are amazing times when deep reaches out to deep and actually meet but it doesn't happen with every encounter.

This absence/presence dynamic that we experience with other people comes with the realization that no person can meet our needs and fill our hearts perfectly. In fact, we should never expect a friend, sibling, parent, or spouse to occupy this role. It's not a possible or fair expectation. The longing we experience for others in their absence isn't always satisfied in their presence because it was created to carry us to our Creator. We crave community and a sense of belonging but find ourselves half-starved until we discover intimacy with God.

To be with God in his glorious presence is better than life. It is life. Paul says in Philippians 1:21, "For me to live is Christ but to die is gain." Jesus told us that it was better that he leave us because he was going to send us his Spirit instead (John 16:7). Even our own departures from God's presence eventual propel us back into his arms because nothing compares to him once we know him. Jesus is completely present with us but absent at the same time. Until he returns, we wait in eager expectation and our affection for him should swell with every day that we seize. With his return, there will be no let-down or sense of disillusionment. For those who call on his name, he will be the joy of our desiring and deep will meet deep and be satisfied. To be absent from this body is to be present with the Lord; absence makes the heart grow fonder but presence is always sweeter.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Table

What is the nature of a table? One day, you could use it as a station to hold papers or cutlery but the next day, you could take it to a snow-covered hill and use it as a toboggan. Is the table's nature determined by the wiles of the user or is its nature inherent? Where did the table come from and who created it? Why was the table created and does the creator's intent have any bearing on how it should be used? After it was created, did its purpose become subjective or does it retain the original design of the maker?

We could use the table as a toboggan and it might make a passable sled but could it withstand the rigorous terrain of some slopes and how easy would it be to tow it back to the top? In fact, how long would it take for the tabloggon to splinter and come apart rendering it neither a table nor a toboggan but rather fuel for a fire?

An object is subject to the will of the user and yes, a table could be used as a toboggan but it is best used as a station to hold papers and cups or papercups. That's what it was made for. Deviations from the table's purpose are possible but it doesn't change the original intent of its creation.

Welcome to SK504. Today's class: Research Paradigms and the Worldviews that Shape Them. Loved it. Now, to apply it to practice.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Perfect Love

A strong positive or negative reaction is a sure sign that the impetus has tapped into a sensitive area and thus merits further reflection. After posting Shane Claiborne's "Letter to Non-believers"* on Facebook, the nature and number of comments and shares reminded me that the presentation of God by the church is a hot topic.

Many people on FB embraced the article and applauded its message. Shane apologizes to non-believers, quasi-believers, and used-to-believe believers for the way that Christians have portrayed God and Jesus. In his words, "God is not a monster." Amen.

The comment of one of my friends made me pause and think twice about the words of Shane that I had eagerly posted on my FB profile. I'm glad she challenged my post because I never want to spout only what "itching ears" want to hear. She wrote, "It's amazing that an article like this was in Esquire... however he sounds just like Rob Bell. Just love, and a big loving God - no talk of sin, grace or salvation. Just picking part of God's character to dwell on is like making an idol isn't it?"

God is love, but is he only love? Yes. Without doing a major exegesis of the Bible, I believe that love is not a part of God's character but it is who he is. God is Love. Love is God.

By dwelling on Love, can we make it an idol? An idol is any object that represents a deity and receives worship. There is no better representation of God than love but does that mean that we worship Love? I need to think about that a little longer.

Perhaps we need to acknowledge that Love as God and God as Love are unfathomable, infinite, and beyond human understanding. Love as God means that it is the purest, most perfect, and passionate love that exists. Human hearts and minds cannot contain or comprehend the fullness of Love but we can bask in portions of it through out our lives.

When we bask in Love, it is a full sensory experience that makes us acutely aware of how small our love is and how finite we are. When Love envelopes me, I see that I am a person who sins. My sin makes me want to curl up as a tight ball in a corner and shield myself from pure, perfect, and passionate Love, but Love beckons me and won't let me go. Every backward and wrong thing inside and outside of me threatens to cut me off, but Love extends his hand and speaks, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness."

When Love reaches out to me, how can I reach back? Impurity, imperfection, and weakness cannot abide with Perfect Love. Perfect Love is awesome and terrifying. In a divine demonstration of grace and sacrifice, Love curls up in the corner with me and whispers, "I forgive you." Love's name was and is Jesus. Perfect Love drives out my fear and I am able to reach out to his extended hand. This is what I believe. Grace, sin, and salvation are facets of faith that are vital and relevant for an earthly lifetime, but Love remains forever.

"Love so amazing, so divine. Demands my soul, my life, my all." - Isaac Watts


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Getting to Know You

Who did you try to avoid this Christmas? Everybody has somebody who they would rather not see, rather not talk to, and rather not be close to. Sometimes, it's inevitable and you have to interact with the person that you would rather avoid. Hopefully, in those moments, you were able to show love and kindness and control the inner cringing that could turn mean or hurtful.

I think the person that you avoided the most this festive season was probably yourself. In fact, through-out the entire year and perhaps our whole lives, we avoid ourselves more than we avoid any other person.

The average person doesn't spend much time by his or her self. When time opens up for us to be alone, we quickly distract ourselves with TV, a book, cleaning, Facebook, baking, or anything else that will prevent us from facing the reality of our aloneness.

In solitude and quietness, the questions start to rise from within us: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? Where is God? Is there a God? What are my dreams? Do I really matter? Why do I feel so alone? In busyness and noise, these questions can be avoided and left undealt with. We stuff them into the closets of our souls where they become skeletons that rattle and unnerve us.

Our determination to occupy our space and fill our time make it very difficult to be silent and spend time getting to know ourselves. Henri Nouwen says that most people would find it near impossible to bear the silence of a monastery. In fact, he says the first months of being there are usually quite tortuous. No one needs you or wants your advice. The absence of music, books, TV, newspapers, iPhones, Internet, and other distractions stir up a restlessness that make people want to run away from the solitude that unveils how alone they really are.

Strip away the trappings of this world and confront your existence. Grapple with the unsettling questions that lurk within you and seek the answers with all your heart. Open the closet doors and turn those skeletons into strengths. Stop avoiding the void inside of you and know that the fullness of God can dwell within you. He can reshape your loneliness into fellowship and infuse your life with purpose and confidence.