Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

Original Hospitality

May 22, 2018

As I’ve noted several times over the past few months, it’s been a challenging year.  It continues to be challenging, but either I’m getting used to that or they’re becoming easier to deal with.  Much is still yet unknown, but then that’s life for you.

One of the outcomes of these five months is  a very good reconnecting with my wife about the visions we once held for ministry and life together.  Visions that have never gone away completely, but in the starting and raising of a family and vocational changes and moving hither and yon across the country are easy to put on the back burner.  Visions that we have lived out in some ways all along, but that are larger than what we’ve been able to do so far.

Those visions center around a singular aspect of the Christian life, one that I argue is easily the most overlooked and neglected, and that is the gift/discipline/tradition of hospitality.  I still remember one of  my seminary professors, while explicating 1 Timothy 3:1-7 explained the requirement of being hospitable to mean basically being open and friendly.  While friendliness is certainly helpful in being hospitable, it showed me just how little – or how little valued – this aspect of Christian faith has become in our culture.

So I’m beginning some theological reading on the topic.  My wife beat me to the punch in starting the book I’m most curious about, Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes with a House Key.  We were both very impressed with her earlier book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.  This book demonstrated the powerful role Christian hospitality can have.

So while she reads, I’m working on Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl.  So far I’m not overly impressed with her treatment of Biblical or early Christian sources on the topic, but I’ll wait till the end of the book for a final review.  She comes at it from the idea of hospitality having to do with providing for the needs of the less fortunate, ie. the poor, refugees, etc.  I dislike the way this frames hospitality in terms of the haves and the have nots.  Certainly in Butterfield’s case, she would not have considered herself marginalized or needy in any way when she accepted a pastor’s hospitality.  I don’t plan on coming at hospitality from Pohl’s angle (at least as I understand or see her angle thus far), but of course it is one aspect or facet of hospitality.

The Biblical text that gets the ball rolling in terms of hospitality for many scholars is Abraham’s hospitality to three strangers in Genesis 18.  But it strikes me that really, hospitality begins literally at the beginning in Genesis 1 & 2.  In creating the universe and humankind, God instantiates the first instance of hospitality known to us.  He provides us with food and lodging in terms of creation itself, with himself as the host and Adam and Eve as the honored and beloved guests.  The entire parameter of existence in the Biblical tradition is one in which we extend hospitality to others because of this primal hospitality that we exist in, as well as the later formulations and witnesses to God’s graciousness in human history.

We can see an instance of hospitality gone awry in Genesis 3, as Eve extends to Adam what ought to be the hospitable gift of food, but which instead is the essence of disobedience.  Eve as host here, and Adam in his willing complicity to disobedience, demonstrate failed hospitality as they seek to mimic God’s hospitality to them, as well as the primal example of the bad and ungracious guest who seeks to take advantage of the host’s generosity and openness.

How do we model hospitality in a culture where it is no longer valued other than as a means for demonstrating one’s abilities or material wealth, or as a means of providing for the needy?  How do we not only model hospitality but teach it to others as a means of creating relationships wherein the Gospel can be shared and the Holy Spirit at work?  How do we engage in hospitality as a means of honoring the command to love our neighbor as ourselves?  How  do we learn to love and honor others even if they don’t think or act like us?

These are all themes that my family has been working with in various ways ever since my wife and I got married.  Some episodes were more memorable than others, but I can honestly say that this is one area we’ve been dealing with consistently all our lives together.  It’s the area we want to continue dealing with for however long God grants us together.  And it’s the area we want to continue to draw others into for experience, discussion, and the celebration of God’s great hospitality to all of us.  I look forward to seeing what that will look like!

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It’s Not You, It’s Me

May 14, 2018

At some point in trying to think through change, I would hope that any rationale person would struggle for some amount of time with the simple dilemma – Am I the problem?  Is my seeing the need for change really the problem, rather than the inability or unwillingness of others to change being the problem? 

This has to be a reasonable part of the equation.  We all look at things a certain way, conditioned by our experiences and knowledge and a myriad of other criteria that psychologists (social and otherwise) build careers off of pinpointing.  What if there really isn’t a need to change, and I’m just creating turmoil where none needs to exist?

Important, but confusing.

 

One and One is One

May 12, 2018

Tomorrow is the Sunday after Ascension Day, the last Sunday of the liturgical season of Easter.  The readings center on Jesus’ preparation of his disciples for his departure and his departure.  The Gospel lesson is from the Last Supper, and is known as the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus’ prayer for his disciples before they leave the room and before his ordeal plays out.  In a few last moments of peace together – even the peace of collective ignorance and confusion! – Jesus prays for his disciples.  At the center of this passage is verse 11 – Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 

That unity has proven to be elusive, to say the least.  Judas has already shattered it in his heart and soon the evidence of this will be revealed to everyone.  From early on there have been those who sought to portray a different Jesus than the one the disciples and eye-witnesses proclaimed.  Those who sought to foist their own ideas about Jesus backwards onto him.  There have been theological differences of opinion, some of them heated and violent.  The history of the Church is fraught with internal violence as Jesus’ prayer for unity often becomes the pretext for enforcing unity.

Our polity makes a big deal about unity even as the unity we seek seems to crumble into smaller and smaller bastions of like-minded individuals.  And so congregations as well can struggle for unity.  We’re easily misled into thinking that our way is not only the right way, it should be the only way, and if others won’t see it then we are tempted to remove ourselves from the community or struggle for power or dominance over others.

Unity is hard when you have real freedom.  It would have been simpler for Jesus to draw up a complicated legal documentation to govern belief and practice so there could be no doubt about what unity should look like.  It’s another example of where I’d prefer a lot more detail from him but don’t receive it.  Joseph Smith sought to fill in some of those pesky missing blanks under the claim of further divine revelations.  Not much different than Mohammed in that respect 1200 years earlier.  In ways large and small we seek to not only identify or claim the proper rallying point for unity but to force it upon others.

But the Gospel is frustratingly free and it will not be pinned down and resists our efforts to pin others down with it.  Perhaps the essence of that freedom is in the relatively broad latitude within which we disagree with one another yet still consider one another more or less a brother or sister in the faith.  I may disagree with some Roman Catholic or Baptist theology but I’m pretty sure we’ll be in heaven together regardless of our disagreements.  And if the Gospel can provide for such a broad spectrum of unity, how much more should the smaller-scale decisions of individual congregations be governed first and foremost by a desire for unity, a refusal to allow Satan to sow seeds of discord or disparagement?   We are free, it would seem, to make bad decisions as well as good ones.  Paul picks up on this theme in some of his writings, and Romans 14 is particular instructive (as well as  challenging!) in this regard.

Perhaps if we set unity as our primary goal, it makes things easier.  Perhaps if we insist that we will bear with the weaker brother  or that we will not force our understanding of what is best on another brother or sister we come closer  to the essence of unity.  Perhaps this is where humility and a charitable spirit really develop.

Our unity is to reflect the unity of Jesus and the Father.  That’s a tough act to follow.  It implies a willingness to suffer in obedience to Jesus’ prayer for unity rather than to seek to impose  our will as a means of soothing our own consciences.  Of course there must be limits to all things.  There are aspects of our faith and our life of faith that cannot be altered or eliminated.  There are places where we need to stand firm against erroneous notions.  But in my experience, these are rarely the issues that divide congregations.  Denominations, sure.  But in congregations the divisions are more often over what we do or don’t do.  How do we spend the money we have?  How do we use the property we have?  It’s amazing how often these blessings can turn into curses and causes for separation and division rather than unity.  It’s frightening how strongly our insistence on what is right in these very fluid realms can destroy relationships and peace of mind, can shatter unity both between brothers and sisters in the faith as well as the peace of an individual heart or mind.

Isn’t it better to be wronged?  This is Paul’s’ argument in 1 Corinthians 6.  Isn’t it better to be wronged than admit to the world that two followers of Jesus Christ can’t agree on something?  That they aren’t willing to allow other brothers & sisters in the faith to arbitrate and render judgment?  Paul will use the very real possibility of personal damage and still insist that our goal should be the unity that Jesus prays for his followers in John 17.  A unity that insists that what is most important is not what we do but how we do it, that insists that we should do what we do together rather than allowing decisions to separate and divide us.  A unity that prizes the brother or sister in faith more than ensuring that a particular course of action is followed.  A unity that would rather stand with hands joined while the consequences of a bad decision bring down the church building around us, rather than push one another away in order to cling to what we think is the best course of action.

May we be one, Father, even as you and the Son are one.  May your Son’s prayer for unity echo in our hearts and minds and reverberate through what we do and say.  May our insistence on unity – made possible by your Holy Spirit within and between us – bear witness to your love for not just us but all of creation and give others pause to wonder at what power beyond ourselves could make such unity possible.

Death and Comfy Chairs

May 9, 2018

Today I got to sit down with Chuck.

Every Wednesday I’m privileged to sit down with Chuck for about an hour.  We meet in his study, where I sit on a lovely leather love seat and he in his office chair, his dog oftentimes expectantly moving back and forth between us as we talk without rush.  We are comfortable as we sit, remembering and laughing and talking about past, present and the future.  Especially the future.

Chuck is dying.  He knows this better than anyone, and I think it affords him in the midst of this process a clarity of thought which is breathtaking at times even as it is heartbreaking and jubilant.  As a follower of Jesus Christ death is an unpleasant visitor but neither completely unexpected nor totally to be feared.  He won’t, after all, be the final visitor.  He comes and we go  and then we part company with him again, never to have to share his cold congeniality ever again.  Chuck trusts this.  And as he sits in his comfy chair he is comfortable thinking about the future both individually and on a larger scale, and taking the stance of one who is curious, not cowardly.

Comfy chairs have not been a major part of Chuck’s life until recently.  More often pick up trucks and chain saws.  Shuffling ordnance off the coast of Vietnam during heavy shelling.  Chuck and death have crossed paths on more than one occasion, as he’s happy to admit with a twinkle in his eye that defies the ravages of illness in his body.  He has time and need of comfy chairs now, at the last.

We talked about the future, about the decisions that congregations are sometimes called to make about the future and how to approach it, and I know such conversations are no stranger to Chuck either.  He’s spent his life trying to help people make decisions about life and death, individually and on a larger scale.  He knows firsthand the difficulty of such a decision, and all the amazing blessings that can flow from it.

We talked about drug and alcohol recovery.  How hard it is to start.  How much harder it can be to maintain it.  The statistics are sobering (pun intended).  Chuck ran a special program for inmates at the county jail to help put them on the path to real recovery.  That program won all sorts of accolades from people local and statewide for the impressive statistics racked up, particularly the percentage of graduates who were still clean and sober five years later.  The interesting aspect of today’s conversation was that long-term recovery is harder for women than for men, when I would have thought it just the opposite.  Even in his prestigious program, only 39-41% of the men were still clean and sober five years later.  But only 31-32% of the women were.

One of the reasons for that is  that women often have children.  Children, who were taken away by the courts at some point because of Mom’s addiction and related issues.  Once Mom has completed a requisite or voluntary treatment program, she wants to get her kids back, and the courts are eager to give them to her.  The problem is now she has left the program (often times a residential program) and now has her kids with her.  How is she as a single mom (which the majority are effectively, if not actually) going to get a job as well as a place to live while watching her kids or ensuring that they are getting to and from school?  Is she going to make enough to feed all of them and pay rent?  The pressures mount.  It’s easy to slide from an apartment after not making rent into a pay by the week or day hotel which is even more expensive.  Maybe you start selling dope again to help pay the bills.  Maybe you have a few drinks to try and sleep at night because you’re so worried about all of this.  Maybe you prostitute yourself.  In any event you’re back in environments that foster addiction and substance abuse.

The only real option for people entering recovery is half-way houses or sober living houses.  But these are often not much cheaper than other housing options, and kids aren’t allowed to live on site so that makes it undesirable for a woman trying to reunite with her kids.

We talked about how wonderful it would be if there was a place that a woman could go to after completing residential rehab.  Rent would be free for a period of time to help give her time to lock in a job and start earning money.  She would  be able to have her kids come and live with her.  And in exchange for the free rent, there would be requirements – attending regular recovery meetings, regular drug/alcohol checks, curfews, limitations on who can be on site.  But also required classes on parenting and other life skills.  Bible studies and required church attendance.  And ideally a strong Christian on site not simply keeping watch on everyone but also building relationships with the ladies and helping to connect them to their church family.  After a period of time fractional rent would be paid each month, incrementing gradually to full rent, and perhaps to a decision to move out into fully independent living.  He spoke with amazement, and I could see lists of organizations flitting through his mind, all the people who understand what needs to be done and could be done and the many beautiful things that could come out of it, but don’t have anyone to share that vision with and no way to bring it to fruition themselves.  All the people who would gladly lend a hand or even a few dollars to make it real.

In the span of 20 minutes or so, this beautiful vision sprang into being.  It started with a need as well as a desire, and sprouted out as we tried to think of how not simply to meet a need, but to meet the ultimate need that all people have, which is to be anchored in relationship with the God who created them and died for them and offers them hope and strength and comfort not just temporarily but eternally.  A beautiful vision of what could be rather than fearful worry about what might be.  A looking forward to something different rather than an obsessing about the past or the familiar, but which grounds itself both in the past and the familiar as the only means of making something new and different possible.  Within short order we had a rough, verbal sketch of what this all could look like and incorporate.

Of course a sketch isn’t a finished product, but it’s something that you can hang up on the refrigerator, or pass between friends in comfy chairs to help start sharing a dream or a vision, to help see areas that need a bit more thought or other options that could be included.  Eventually it requires getting up out of comfy chairs to start working with pencils and calculators.  It requires the hard work of determining what it would take to reach this dream, and further, determining what each person is willing to contribute towards realizing it.

Dreams and visions often start in easy chairs, in quiet contemplation.  Some start from the perspicuity of a life drawing to an end; new vistas opening up and familiar terrain suddenly transformed and illuminated in their light.  Visions can start in easy chairs but will eventually require the dreamers to stand up and stand together to determine if this is a way forward they’re willing to pursue and encourage and support others in as well, or if it’s a good idea but not the right idea for this particular time and place.  But by that point we’re up out of our chairs and on the back patio or in the office and we might as well look around to see what other visions are being discussed and find out if perhaps one of them is right.

Because comfy chairs, like death itself, should never be permanent.

Looking for Angles

April 19, 2018

A curious read, this.

Noting the publication, it’s not surprising that the piece is critical of gun ownership and a congregation or pastor’s attempts to make sense of Second Amendment rights in a contemporary context.  And I believe I at least understand and can perhaps even sympathize with those who think that banning some or all guns will fix the problems in our culture that more and more regularly express themselves in violence.  And I can further understand an uneasiness with this particular congregation’s advertisement of guns on site.  The conversation about guns and the risks that gathering groups of Christians seem to increasingly face in our society is one being had in many congregations and gatherings of church leaders and workers.

I wouldn’t personally advocate for such a sign on site, even if I lived in a place where such a sign wouldn’t likely be legally challenged.  It reads too much like a challenge, a dare of sorts.  I could understand better an article that wanted to deal with the tone and the repercussions a sign like that might generate.

But the  article wants to be theological.  It wants to imply that this congregation, this pastor, is a lesser form of Christianity.  Unfaithful, even.  Specifically because of their stance on guns.  I think it would be more interesting if the author cast a wider net, addressing some of the other pastoral statements that the author refers to with a not-very-veiled derogatory perspective.

But the attempt to focus simply on gun control falls flat, theologically and otherwise.  The author wants to talk about Jesus and speculate on how He might have dealt with the issue, personally.  Without referring or offering an interpretation of Luke 22:36 (perhaps understandably, it is a very confusing statement!).  But also without referencing parables and other sayings of Jesus that seem to at least tacitly acknowledge the understanding of self defense (Luke 11:14-21, for instance).  Further, the author disregards passages in Scripture (such as Exodus 22:2-3) that do deal specifically with the issue of reasonable self-defense.  Not gun control per se, but what many opponents to revising or eliminating the Second Amendment point to – the right to protect themselves.

I often hear opponents to the Second Amendment claim that you can’t be Christian and support the Second Amendment.  I don’t often hear opponents of gun control arguing that it is unChristian to argue for gun control. But I do hear them arguing – along with non-Christian opponents of gun control – that gun controls or banning gun ownership is not wise.

As the author notes, things were already scary.  I don’t see a division between Christians and non-Christians as to whether things are scary these days.  I don’t see a division between gun control advocates and Second Amendment supporters as to whether things are scary today or not.  I’m pretty positive that most people would admit that there are some seriously scary things going on in our culture.

What we disagree on is firstly what those things are, and secondly how to deal with them.  I’d rather see pastors and theologians talking about that, rather than trying to vet another person’s faith through a political or social filter.  In the long run, changing our approaches is going to be a blessing to everyone.

Easter Hit-Pieces

April 4, 2018

It’s that time of year again, when the smell of lily’s is in the air and a barrage of articles attacking the Christian faith or the Bible or the Church emerge just in time for Easter.  This is the one I was directed to this year.

I’ve had a lot of conversations recently with people about authority.  What is the authority in your life?  In mine, it’s the Bible.  Which means that to the best of my ability and despite my frequent failures, I acknowledge that what it has to say to me about my life trumps whatever ideas I might have about my life.  Whatever Scripture has to say about the world around me and my place and function in it gets priority over whatever the world says or whatever I come up with.  Every assertion, every idea has to run through the filter of Scripture first.

There are places where personal interpretation is necessary, of course.  And Christians have, of course, disagreed over a those areas over time.  But that’s different than discarding something the Bible says wholesale simply because you’d rather think about things or act on things or speak about things differently.

And that’s ultimately what’s at play here in the article.  It sounds sympathetic but it’s anything but.  This person who refuses to grant her fellow worshipers forgiveness, and would rather remove herself than have to deal with their obvious (by her definition) sinfulness.   A sinfulness she doesn’t apparently share and therefore can hold herself aloof and separate.  Despite Jesus’ rather pointed directive in Matthew 18:35, after an entire chapter devoted to radically reorienting our ideas about forgiveness.  I wonder if this author has read Matthew 18.

Perhaps not, as she admits that her issues with the Church have been long-standing.  And again, on issues that at least to some degree or spoken to be Scripture, and therefore need to be addressed in that light if you’re going to claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ, the ostensible Lord of your life.  And how do you get to enlarge your idea of God beyond what God himself has told you?  How can you do so reliably?  On what basis?  I’d argue that the Church is indeed necessary, but in a culture of plenty where you find others willing to agree with you it’s easy to forego worship and the Church – along with (God-willing) the teaching and training and study that helps to inform your understanding of God’s Word and ultimately your lived out life of faith.  But then if you don’t really want to listen to what the Bible says, then I can see how going to Church would get a bit frustrating.

I find the third paragraph from the end to be very interesting.  First off, she quotes Emily Dickinson as a way of defending her idea about not going to Church (interestingly, she doesn’t quote Hebrews 10:24-25 on the topic).  While I’m not an expert on Dickinson, I’d argue that despite human tradition (which may or may not be on target), observing the Sabbath and gathering for corporate Christian worship are two different (though historically related) things.  Frankly, I’m  all for worshiping the Sabbath at home or in the woods.  But that means going to church on a different day, since God’s original statements about the Sabbath don’t mention anything about mandatory church attendance.  I can agree with Dickinson and still say the author is misguided in avoiding worship.

Secondly, is Church primarily intended to summon awe and gratitude?  Is that the function of Church?  Since when?  Is that what Acts 4:32-37 is describing?  I don’t think so.  Certainly I personally find the Tetons a better source of awe, and time spent with my family a better source of gratitude.  I don’t assume the Church is trying to compete with those.  It isn’t.  Rather, Church and worship is an opportunity to inform me about how to receive these gifts of God and interact with them responsibly and appreciate them faithfully.  It’s there to teach and act as a resource to my life of faith, a place where I am mentored in the faith as I mentor others.  A place that challenges the ideas I’ve come up with at work or in college or in grad school and demands that I place those up against the Word of God to ensure that I’m not being led astray with allegedly good intentions.  Church is necessary to teach me that the proper response to God’s creation is not only awe, but awe to  the God who created them and who has placed his Word and his Spirit and, very specifically, his Son into creation in order that I might learn and live both now and forever.

No mention in the article is made of what Easter is.  The idea that Jesus was willing to die for a bunch of people who vehemently disagreed with him and were willing to utilize hate and violence to try and silence him.  That He was willing to die so that they might be forgiven.  That He could even say as they raised his cross into place, Father forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).  No mention is made of what God has done for the author, or that the author is in very real need of the same forgiveness from God that all those people at Church she disagrees with are.  No mention is made of the possibility that repentance, not arrogance, is the center of the Christian life, and that as we realize our own sins and shortcomings (instead of obsessing over the sins and shortcomings of other people) that we are changed in the process into people who are certainly willing to stand for what is right, but who are (ideally) also full of humility and grace and the willingness to admit that they might be wrong, but that the one place where that can best be sorted out is in Christian community gathered first and foremost in and around and obedient to the Word of God.

Authority matters.  And what (or who) our authority is ultimately is lived out and demonstrated in our lives and our decisions and the way we are with those around us. I’m glad the author was going to be at Mass on Easter morning.  And I pray that what she heard there reminded her of her own need for forgiveness and humility, as well as her duty to engage her voice in wrestling with Scripture as well as the ideas of the world to see how they work together or not.  I pray that she’ll be back again this week as well.  And the week after.  Forever and ever Amen.

Important Words

February 26, 2018

This is an excellent essay reminding us of the important function of community, both towards families as well as the state.  In the ultimate discussions of solutions to the hopelessness engulfing our youth, we need to remember that it isn’t laws or tools that should be the focus, but neighbors and community.

Acting for Life

February 5, 2018

Each year there is a massive rally in Washington DC and all around the United States on or near the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in this country 45 years ago.  And every year, despite thousands and thousands of protestors nationwide, the national press is by and large silent on it.  Certainly far more silent than it was about the Women’s March last year, despite that march having very little cohesive purpose.  And despite presidential and vice-presidential statements of support to pro-lifers, the news media saw fit once again to by and large ignore the event.

One of the typical responses against these marches is to criticize Christians for wanting to force women to have their babies but not wanting to help these women in that process, implying that Christians don’t really care about the women, only about the baby.  Which is somehow less sensitive than caring about the woman by killing the baby.

Riiiiiggghhhtt.

But it struck me that one of the problems with this attack on the Christian response to helping women in pregnancy is that it is increasingly difficult for the Church to do this, and the source of this increasing difficulty is the very State that seems determined to maintain the status quo on abortions.  Adoptions, for instance, are a highly regulated issue it turns out.  This is good in some respects – the potential abuse of women and babies by selling babies to the highest bidder or other such exploitation demands there be some rules on what constitutes a legal adoption.  Other regulations are not helpful – demanding that adoption agencies provide adoption opportunities to any potential couple including same-sex couples – something which violates the faith basis of many Christian organizations and has resulted in actually shutting down Christian (mostly Catholic) adoption agencies that refuse to comply with such regulation.

In other words, adoption is a political issue just as much or more so than abortion.  People who want to criticize Christians for not being helpful to young mothers also want to demand Christians violate their religious beliefs to help young mothers.  Problematic at best.

The other aspect to this critique is that as church participation declines in America in favor of some vague, inactive spirituality (even Christian spirituality), many young women have no church community and are therefore lacking in resources to assist them in dealing not only with their sexual development but with unexpected pregnancy.  I’d like to think that a congregation would try to help a member who found themselves in such a situation, though I’m sure many congregations have been guilty rather of ostracizing and casting out the person.

I pray that Roe v. Wade is overturned.  Sooner rather than later.  I pray that everyone will come to understand that freedom which requires the death of the most vulnerable can hardly be thought of as a freedom.  But discussion also needs to focus on how much State regulation actually prevents Christians from doing what their critics chastise them for not doing.

 

Good Listening

January 15, 2018

Sunday Evening Happy Hour continues to grow into an eclectic gathering of people.  In addition to 20-something college graduates planning the next phase of their lives we have other people from the community.  One such category is people we know through the home school community.  Another is colleagues and work-mates of the people who have come to call Sunday nights at our house home.

A few weeks ago we had a co-worker of one of our regulars come.   She was surprised that it was mostly people younger than her, and while she seemed a bit awkward about this initially, I was able to sit with her and have an extended discussion that covered a lot of ground about her life.  And last night we had a young woman who works at the local hospital and is pursuing a career as a doctor come after many months of invitations by another of our regulars.  By the end of the night she told her friend I want to come back here every week!  She met some new people, played games around the table with the group that includes our kids, undoubtedly got drawn into some conversations, and of course marveled at the wonder that is our oldest son’s popcorn.  Mostly I hope she found a place where she didn’t need to prove anything, she could just be.

I guess I can understand the appeal.

Over the past two years we’ve also regularly had the international students who live with us participate in these events, and my family is always excited when they do.  Some of course have robust social lives of their own during their stay in our town, but others are on the quieter side and are often home on Sunday nights.  The Japanese girl who lived with us since September was a regular attender.  She got to experience American food and drinks, listened in on a wide-ranging spectrum of conversations and had the opportunity to ask questions as well as share about how things work in her country.  She also witnessed a very emotionally-charged theological discussion, and hopefully got a glimpse of how Christians try to make sense of the Bible in their lives and communities.  Coming from Japan she described herself as a nominal Buddhist, but like many young Japanese we’ve met, she really doesn’t know or understand much about Buddhism beyond the ritual level.  She goes to the temples or shrines on certain occasions, reflexively engages in motions of gratitude, but doesn’t have any real connection to the why of these things.  But as she lived with us and experienced larger community on Sundays, she at least saw that Christians her age are looking for ways to truly connect what they believe with how they live.  Not always perfectly, and certainly not always in harmony, but still searching.

But she’s no longer living with us.  And last night we had a new student with us – a 68-year old woman from Brazil.  She’s never been to the United States before.  Or Europe.  Or even anywhere outside of her home country.  She lives in a small town (8000 people if we understand her correctly) deep in the heart of the country and teaches English there.  Her accent is thick and it requires careful listening to understand her at times.

So in the swirl of people and laughter, eating and music and games, she sat on our couch with my wife, and they talked.  One of our regulars stopped me at one point and pointed.  She’s really good at that! I smiled and nodded.  She meant how my wife could sit and patiently listen and seek to understand and be understood with another person despite significant language and cultural hurdles.

Another regular told my wife later I don’t see how you can do that.  I don’t have the patience for that.  I used to, but I don’t any more.  It’s an honest statement.  While most people would like to believe that they are good listeners who are willing to take the time to successfully hear and be heard, the reality is that most  people aren’t.  It’s hard work.  It takes time.  It can be painstakingly slow progress at times.

But there is also the issue that many people come to conversation primarily for what they can say, and less so for what they might hear.  It’s not as though they have a pre-formulated agenda of topics they want to discuss (although some people definitely do that!).  But once a conversation begins to circle around a particular topic, they organize their thoughts, opinions, experiences, sift through them for the ones they think are most pertinent, and then wait for the first opportunity to insert them into the conversation.  These are not bad or rude people, but I think it’s how we’re culturally formed – particularly these days when we’re used to just shouting out our ideas at random people on bumper stickers, tweets and status updates.  We listen more selectively, and unfortunately I think more shallow-ly.  When we have time or inclination.  And even then we don’t necessarily listen (and are not necessarily required to listen based on the types of pronouncements people make), but scroll through rapidly.  Perhaps looking for something interesting that we can respond to.

These dynamics become clearer when dealing inter-culturally and through language barriers.  If the goal is to say what I want to say, such conversations rapidly lose appeal because the odds of me being able to say what I want to say and have it be understood quickly are pretty slim.  The emphasis is more heavily on the listening component because I can’t assume that I will or have heard the other person correctly.  And then I have to listen again to ensure that they’ve heard and understood me.  I have to study facial expressions and body language to help clue me in, since nobody (regardless of culture!) likes to look foolish or stupid and so we tend to nod our heads as though we understand even when we don’t.

But I think the same dynamics are often at play conversationally with people who speak the same language.  Some people like to talk.  Other people prefer to listen.  Relationship happens when these dynamics balance out, and that can take a long time – months or even years – to happen.  One of our regulars said to me the other day (after attending regularly for the past year or more) I don’t think I’ve ever really talked with you.  I don’t really know you at all.  But I’d like to.  I nodded and smiled.  They’re a talker and I’m a listener.  But given the proper time and space and motivation, our natural bents can be moderated.  Talkers can (and do want to!) listen.  And yes, listeners can (and do want to!) talk.  It might take a long time for those variations in personality to be identified and then consciously altered to accommodate the other, but they can be.  Deeper relationship can form.

But it takes patience on everyone’s part, and part of Christian community’s purpose is to be a place where patience as well as intentionality is modeled.  Where people can see when someone is really good at something, and then recognize that perhaps it’s an area they can work on in their lives, or at least praise and encourage other people in.  Listening is hard for some people.  Just like talking is very hard for me.  But together, each can learn and better appreciate the other and what they have to offer.  That’s part of the heart of Christian community, and an important witness to a world around us.

Advent Lessons

December 12, 2017

Advent.  Adventus.  Coming.

These words are my stock and trade this time of year.  This is the Christian life in general, but in Advent we focus on this reality.  We are a people who are waiting and anticipating  a coming, an arrival, a return.  We all nod in agreement.  We’ve been through this before.  Sometimes for years and years and decades and decades.  This is who we are, yes.  This is what we do, yes.  Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

But sometimes – perhaps oftentimes – this feels perfunctory to me.

Yes, come Lord Jesus come.  But in the meantime, I have presents to order and bills to juggle during the Christmas season.  I have obligations at work and the additional obligations of social functions and other activities after work.  I have children who want to hang Christmas lights outside and a tree to purchase for inside.  I wait but I forget that I’m waiting because there is so much to be done.  And while the reality of my waiting does impact not just what I do but how I do it, at times the anticipation factor seems very, very muted.

But I’ve learned a lot about waiting this Advent.  More perhaps than ever before.  In the last week and a half our part of the country has been ravaged by fires.  They seemed to erupt all at once, in multiple places throughout the southern and central portion of our state.  Power outages and fast moving flames created an uneasy tension and fear.  How far would the fire spread?  While other fires around the state were quickly contained, the one nearest us raged on, growing to the fifth-largest in state history and threatening multiple communities, including our own.

For the last week and a half I’ve fumed in frustration trying to find reliable and updated information to keep my family informed as well as my congregation.  There have been discussions with my wife and family about what-if scenarios.  Every night and morning I’m scanning multiple sites to try and cobble together a picture of the situation.  I want to ensure that my parishioners and my family are as safe and informed as possible.  It’s easy to get lost in an emergency and panic.

I know what waiting feels like.  Waiting for news updates.  Waiting for reliable information.  Waiting to hear if someone in the affected areas is safe.  Every day is shaped by the reality of wanting to know the best information and make the best choices possible.  Every day is marked by wanting to be prepared.  I don’t know if the fire will come, but I know it might and I want to be ready for it.

Advent.  Adventus.  Coming.

How much I have to learn still about waiting for my Lord.  Craving his Word each day as the guiding power that sustains and centers me, allowing me to make wise decisions and good choices.  How gracious He is in leading and teaching me, calling me day by day always back to his promises and his Word, always waiting for me to remember what I am waiting for.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.