Sunday, May 27, 2007

Wicker Park Grace

Tonight I visited a new church. It had been referred to me by Mike over at Emerging Pensees since I'm not about to drive all the way out to Yorkville to attend his church, even though I really like his descriptions of it in addition to my positive impressions of him.

I liked it.

It was held in an art gallery just about a mile and a half away. I walked there on this beautiful spring day. Tonight was their jazz vespers event. Apparently, they spend two Sundays each month in contemplative worship (jazz or Taize vespers) and two Sundays each month having potluck dinner and discussion.

There were about ten people there: Scott, Nick, Miradi, Nai, Jhonathan, his girlfriend, a reporter, myself, Tim, the two musicians, and the pastor, Nanette. Did you catch that? The pastor is a woman.

There was a bulletin for the liturgy with the poems and scripture that would be read while the jazz waas played and the images were projected. Did you catch that? There was liturgy. River City didn't even mention that it was Pentecost, the birthday of "the church." We sat in a circle in an assortment of somewhat comfortable chairs. A lovely journal was passed around for people to write in their prayers to be prayed aloud later in the service.

Before the service started, Jhonathan had a quiet discussion with Nanette and then went over to the projector to change the timing from 40 seconds per image to 33 seconds per image, despite their casual disagreement on the matter. A couple of people asked Nanette what they were reading. It reminded me very much of my Lutheran church on Orcas in its informality. During the service, after Tim had crossed out one of the prayers and written in something different (it's possible he was writing over last week's request), he took the book over to Nanette and whispered something to her. I'm impressed that everyone seems to have a personal relationship with the pastor. I feel like I can't get either of my pastors' attention even if I jump up and down waving my arms while naked.

When I walked into the gallery, Scott asked, "Are you here for the hanging?" which made me laugh and also made me feel welcome, which was good because I was a little nervous, not really knowing what to expect, except for what I had read at their website. He gave me some freshly brewed iced tea and then took me into the other room and introduced me to some folks.

What struck me most about a lot of these people is that most of them seemed a little socially awkward. I spend so mch time with high-capacity, uber-intelligent folks who have become successful because they also had a fair amount of wit, charisma and social smoothness. Several of these folks stuttered a little, made odd jokes to break the ice and stopped the social flow with non-sequiturs. But they were super-friendly and seemed very comfortabe with themselves. I have no doubt that many of them are high-capacity and uber-intelligent. Again, they reminded me of folks from the island. I was struck with this feeling that as I got to know them, I would learn a lot from them because they seem different from me but accessible. I was very comfortable. No Beautiful People here. Most were white, most were young, but it felt diverse. Two people were some sort of Latino non-natives, one man had African American heritage, and another man had a physical deformity. In a group of 11, that's diverse. I know from the website that some folks in this community are gay and some aren't even Christian.

It looks like what I think the Kingdom of God should look like.

Their identification statement says this:

Wicker Park Grace is a welcoming community which seeks to grow in spirit, mind, and heart. Our community is centered in a generous and dynamic Christianity.

Not everyone who participates in Wicker Park Grace events is a Christian, or considers themselves a follower of Jesus, and that's okay with us. We want to be a community that is actively engaged in this diverse and beautiful world.

At the same time, some of us are on a journey of deepening our spiritual practices rooted in Christian tradition and following the teachings of Jesus. You'll see signs of this quest in most of our events, and some activities will be more deeply grounded in Christian practices.

Please feel welcome to participate in which ever events feel most comfortable and which resonate most deeply with you.

I was able to worship at this gathering, as well as being able to put myself in front of God in prayer. The latter is easy for me; the former not so much. I spoke with the pastor a little bit about my frustrations at my current church and she seemed to really care. Plus, the big news folks: she's an ordained Presbyterian minister. That means that she has training (that I trust) in how to lead a church. Her bio on the website is interesting and worth taking a look. She got a Masters of Theological Studies at Harvard before she identiified herself as a Christian. Then, she went to seminary to become a pastor. That's pretty cool, in my book. I'm always a fan of a little book learnin'.

I'm tryng not to get too excited here. I'm going to try them out for awhile before I make any big decisions. The meet on Sunday evenings so I can keep attending River City while I get to know this group of people. But that's what excites me most. The fact that twice a month they get together and just talk with one another? I might actually be known by other Christians, with all my heresies ad uncertainties and desires not to be the kind of person who thinks it's important to know who's in and who's out. Only Jess, Leah and maybe Kim actually knows me at River City. With everyone else, I have kept what I really think to myself because I don't know whether they'll still like me once I've opened my mouth.

As this church says, "grace happens." I'm hoping it happens for me here.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Rules of Engagement

One of the first things that has to be learned by white folks who are engaging in racial reconciliation is that they can walk away from the process at any point and never be bothered by it again. They can leave the diverse situation with all of its flare-ups and discomforts and messiness and envelop themselves in the culture and comfort of other white folks.

African americans and other people of color can't do that. They are always surrounded by culture and power structures that are not their own. They must always feel that tension. They must always decided whether they will assimilate, resist or reconcile.

Pastor Daniel jokes fairly regularly about a Chicago church full of earnest, mostly young white people. He says that every once in awhile some of them or a couple will get the racial reconciliation bug and want to start attending our church. They sit down with their pastor to talk about it and when they leave his office, their pastor calls Pastor Daniel and they make bets on how long it will take those folks to go back to their original church, where things aren't so uncomfortable.

When I was up at the CCDA seminar at Mars Hill a few weekends ago, a young woman named Faith asked a question of Noel Castellanos. It turns out that she had earlier asked the same question of Pastor Daniel. She asked how one keeps from being one of those white people who flees from the messiness of racial reconciliation.

Mars Hill is a white church full of eager, mostly young people. I noticed a disconnect throughout the seminar because our speakers spoke from the perspective of relocation. It is one of the 3 keys tenets of CCDA that you cannot achieve true restoration of people in need unless you become their physical neighbor and make their problems your own. The disconnect throughout the seminar took two forms.

One was that most folks didn't want to hear that message. They kept asking amongst themselves and through their pastor in the follow-up Q&A, "What can we do if we're not able to leave the suburbs? What can we do if the security risk is too great to invite homeless people into our homes?" The only answer to that question is "Give money," but that's an unsatisfying answer. What CCDA folks say is that you will find joy you never expected when you move into the city. You will find community that you never had in your drive-through suburban life. You will find yourself closer to God in your confusion and fear and discomfort than you ever felt in your ergonomic plastic chairs, singing songs while looking up to the jumbo-tron with your right hand raised in witness. Interestingly, in a recent Sunday service that included an interview session with Rob Bell, he revealed very emotionally that his family has relocated to the city for just this reason. This might make for a very different session if CCDA ever goes back.

The second disconnect is that the CCDA presenters only heard questions through the filter of being folks that live in the city. They couldn't put themselves in the shoes of these suburban folks to answer the questions below the actual questions being asked. They have been in the city too long, away from the consumer-driven American Dream. It like they don't really believe that people actually live that way anymore. They're not dismissive or insulting; they're just thinking about other things.

So, when Faith asked about stamina for racial reconciliation, Noel gave her information about a side topic. We all do this: answer the question that we would have asked in the same situation. He talked about the reconciliation fatigue that people of color feel. Ed Gilbreath reminds us that for people of color to be bridge-builders means that they will get stepped on. They have to reach out to us and forgive our insensitivities and careless remarks and total lack of experience or knowledge about them again and again and again. We white folks are an offensive people in our solipsism.

What Noel had to say was important and interesting, especially to those of us that are in the middle of racial reconciliation. However, for someone just thinking about sticking her toes into the water to see if it was cold, it wasn't particularly helpful. I went to speak to her after the session. This is when I learned that she had asked the same question earlier of Pastor Daniel.

So, I thought I'd share with you what advice Pastor Daniel and I gave her about how to tough it out when the going gets tough as a white person engaged in racial reconciliation.

1. Pray. Normally, I do not like this answer to tough questions about how to do things because it's such a Sunday School cop-out. But I told Faith that you have to be able to sit cross-legged with your eyes closed and your face pointing upwards and just bask in God's presence feeling the thoughts, "God, I'm not doing this right." The anguish of being wrong dissolves each time and clears the heart to take the next step. You have to lather-rinse-repeat this one a lot.

2. You must detach your identity from race and attach it to Christ. In other words, be a Christian first and a white person second. It is so much easier to take correction when you view it as bringing you closer to God's plan for the world rather than as an attack on who you have been so far. Then, you won't get quite so offended and want to take your toys and go home. (This is Daniel's response.)

3. Find one safe relationship to focus on. (This is one of Noel's responses.) I would add that this means you have to be where people of color are. You might not have friend chemistry with the first black person to start talking to at church. You must treat each other first as friends and not simply as a means to a spiritual formation end. Like all social interactions, the odds make finding someone compatible somewhat tricky. Increasing your casual exposure to people of color makes hitting those odds more likely.

4. Be part of a community of people that are all doing racial reconciliation. You can all support each other. Be cautious of factions, though.

5. Find joy in the culture of your friend. When you are on the outs with one another, the over-arcing delight that you have in pinatas or dim sum or the dynamic of women braiding each other's hair on the front stoop will help pull you through.

6. Research the experience of your friend in literature, magazine articles, documentaries. (This is Noel's other response.) Research will provide all sorts of options to fulfill #5.

People of color have every right to distrust white folks wanting to be friends. Like any person that has been burned by love, they will be tentative in allowing us into their lives, waiting to be sure that we aren't just looking to exploit them further to relieve our white guilt. Lots of promises have been made and broken about reconciliation. The only solution for this is to build up trust and affection over time. Only when everyone is fairly certain that the lighter half of the pair will suffer just as much at the loss of the friendship if she bails and runs home to homogeny can either of you really accomplish reconciliation. But this world needs that reconciliation - two people at a time - if we're ever going to live "on earth as it is in Heaven." It's worth the time you put into it.

Is there anyone else out there who has advice to add or disagreements with what I've said? I'd love to hear it in the comments.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Last night I dreamed about a giant human foosball game where people were strapped into harnesses with their legs dangling and tried to kick the soccer ball into each other's goals. It was so much fun! Do you think that exists for real? Like the velcro wall or the sumo wrestler suits or whirlyball? I mean, seriously, think of the team-building benefits. Each team of 6 has two rows of three people strapped into an ergonomically safe upper body harness that are all attached to one another horizontally with lots of space between each person. They have to communicate verbally to move their "rod" back and forth horizontally so that they are accurately lined up to intercept the ball the other side has kicked. No front and back movement. Legs dangling probably wouldn't work so well. So much fun!

I think there is money to be made here. I want a cut from whomever executes this thing.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

On Wednesday, all of the staff at work were required to meet in our teleconferencing room to participate in an all-staff strategy meeting with HQ on the west coast and the other sites like us around the country. As usual, “all-staff” turned out to be 6 or 7 of the 30 or so staff, all of whom are in their mid-twenties. Apparently, once you get old, you must just be too busy to attend these kinds of things.

I was cranked up in full-on cynical mode from some of the frustrating work I was doing plus I had missed lunch and was trying to eat my warmed-up pizza as the meeting started. This meant that I did not sit in the rows of chairs directly in front of the teleconferencing station, but sat to the side at one of the conference tables. I sat quietly for a little while, but because I work for an Evangelical organization, there was a little worship time before the meeting actually got started. We had the lyrics to several songs stapled to the top of our agenda packets. A man and a guitar stood on the stage on our TV. Next to him was a folk-singer-looking woman, obviously there to sing the harmonies.

So, here we are, 6-7 people from the generation that come after Generation X, watching TV. The TV tells us that we’re supposed to stand up and sing along with the group of adults that we can see from the TV are beginning to stand up to join the man, the guitar and the long-haired woman with glasses and no make-up.

My colleagues were visibly perplexed about what the cool thing to do was. I think that most of us thought it would be nice to sing some of the songs but without a big group around us that we could feel anonymous within, no one wanted to be the person who actually drew attention to himself by singing out loud.

I thought it would be nice, too. The first two songs were traditional hymns and I’m a sucker for those. However, I was feeling particularly tetchy and would have to stop eating my lunch and then the man with the guitar said, “Let’s worship the Lord!” just like a camp counselor might say, “Let’s make some lanyards!” Perfect iambic enthusiasm, with the emphasis on “wor” and “Lord.” Duh DAH duh duh DAH.

At moments like these, my mother cringes on my behalf because I lose any filter on my mouth that I might once have had.

I said, “That’s my nightmare of worship.” Then I mimicked and mocked the poor man a little.

Then, I turned back to my pizza, tucked into its deep Tupperware cradle.

When I looked up from my pizza again several moments later, I realized that the earlier discomfort of my peers had resolved itself into a fully tense quiet, with no one looking at anyone else and each person escaping into watching the TV. As I paid a little more attention, I realized that a few of them were singing along under their breath. It was barely audible and I couldn’t even pinpoint who it was. Their lips weren’t moving.

I felt terrible.

You see, I forget that I'm a leader. I spent so much of my life being bossy that my internal identity of myself is as someone who doesn't have that much influence because she's annoying. I have spent the last 10 years attempting to temper the neediness that caused me to be so controlling and bitchy and to develop skills that allow me to actually communicate and persuade people. I've done a fairly good job in that transformation, but that doesn't counteract a childhood self-image of being ignored, taunted and ineffectual.

But the reality is that at work, I guess I'm a little bit like Arthur Fonzerelli. When I communicated with my joke that singing along wasn't cool, no one wanted to disagree with me. However, since my co-workers are more intelligent and complicated than Potsy and Ralph Malph, they didn't agree with me blindly, just altered their execution of their own wishes.

I felt terrible.

So, when I realized what was going on, I pushed aside my pizza, and as the first song was concluding, announced loudly, "I don't know the third song, but I really like this next one. I'm going to sing it loudly." I was hoping they would question and mock my rediculous statement about the third song to help break some of the tension and that's what happened.

And then we sang. I sing soprano melody. The people on TV both sang harmony, which made it a little tricky to find the key but we managed. One or two folks in our room also sang melody, which was really fun to combine with.

I felt better.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Great is Thy faithfulness
Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Unexpected Tears

”Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.”

Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, Harper SanFrancisco, 2004, p. 383.

Erika at The Margins posted this quote a few weeks ago and I liked it because it is Buechner and I always like Buechner, but I mostly glossed over it because it didn't seem relevent.

It seems relevent now.

When I taught high school, only one kid ever made me cry in front of the class. It was my first year. I’ll call him Peter. My first impulse is to tell you, “He was a good kid.” But that’s a lie by anyone’s standards. Peter was always in trouble: with me, with the deans, with the law. He was disrespectful and disobedient. We fought often. I always won. I’d yell or take him out in the hallway or ask nicely or send him to the dean or tease him or use a stern voice make him stand facing the corner or offer him bribes or reason with him. He wanted me to win but he wanted me to earn it. He wanted me to win because that meant that for 50 minutes, he didn’t have to be the strongest person in his life. For 50 minutes, he could relax and let me be in charge. For 50 minutes, he could feel safe. He could feel safe because I did the exact same thing with the other 29 kids in the class. I always won, which means that in his eyes, I was trustworthy. I promised to maintain order and I did. So, as the year progressed, Peter and I fought less. His emotions didn’t need me to prove that I was strong enough to protect him quite so often. We became much more friendly with each other. Both of us cracked more jokes. We relaxed our guard.

What I didn’t realize when I was a 21-year-old white female teacher was that a 15-year-old black male teenager never trusts completely. He never forgets the defense mechanisms that he’s dropped temporarily. He might be friendly but he is never a friend.

He can’t.

The world screws black men from a very early age. The statistics are revealing. Arloa summarizes some of them this way:
African American men are in deep trouble. In the city of Chicago only 35% of them graduate from high school. Of the few who enter college, only 22% of them actually graduate. A recent study indicates that most of those who do graduate from college are from countries outside of the US. Among those who have dropped out of high school, in 2004, 72% were unemployed and 21% were incarcerated. By their mid-thirties six out of ten high school dropouts have a prison record. This cradle to prison to death pipeline is a disaster that must be stopped.

No one chooses that life. He can only defend himself from it.

So when something traumatic happened in the part of Peter’s life that was outside the 50 safe minutes in my classroom, I would have been terribly naïve to believe that it would stay outside of my classroom. It turns out that I was terribly naïve.

When Johnny redirects the feelings he has about Carla over to Elizabeth, this is called transference. There are a variety of reason that this happens. Often, it is because Elizabeth reminds Johnny of Carla. Additionally, usually Johnny can’t express the feelings he has to Carla and so it is safer to express them to Elizabeth.

Black men can easily build up anger at the way the world treats them. But who can they be angry at? All of us know how much better we feel once we’ve finally blown up and yelled at someone who hurt us. There is a sweet release of all those fight-or-flight chemicals and tension in our bodies. So, who does a black man get to yell at? As teenagers, they face all sorts of repercussions for expressing their anger to their parents, grandparents, deans, police officers, bosses. The get punished, they get hit, they get suspended, they get insulted, they get arrested, they get suspended, they get fired. So, they learn to keep quiet. To keep it in. Not to trust because to trust is to create holes in the walls of their defenses. It lets other people in but also creates the potential to let their anger out.

When Peter transferred his anger at whatever injustice (and I’m certain his anger was valid) had been dealt to him over to me, it caught me by surprise. My position of authority was enough to make me represent all authority to Peter. Maybe his persecutor was also white or female. However it happened, I became Elizabeth in place of Ricky’s Carla. This happened because the 50 minutes that Peter spent in my classroom were safe, not because I had really hurt him in any way. If I had not been safe, he would not have struck out at me. He would have feared the repercussions too much.

I cannot remember the dispute; it was probably minor. But because we had built up trust for each other over time, his personal attack against me felt like a betrayal of that trust. And I cried there in front of all those other kids for whom I needed to be strong. He was disgusted with me for crying and accused me of trying to manipulate him. He was so hurt that there was no room in him for empathy. Only self-defense.

What strikes me the most about this memory is how out-of-control Peter seemed as he yelled at me and ultimately walked out of class. His eyes looked panicked as he said terrible things to me, as if his mouth and his body were communicating without his permission. His body was tense to the point of shuddering. Do you remember feeling like this when you were a teenager? Knowing while you were overreacting that it was a bad idea but being unable to stop? Extrapolate on that experience of dread and sorrow and anxiety to try to imagine being a black teenager yelling at his white teacher.

I’m telling you about Peter because twice now, a man that I interact with has made me cry because the similar betrayal of our trust and friendliness took me by surprise. Seemingly out of nowhere, he has lost his temper with me, which is unusual for him. Each time he has accused, “You and everybody else . . .”

Learning from my experience with Peter and from research into the stories of others, I never fancied that we were friends. That kind of racial reconcilitaion takes years. He is African American and working class. He grew up and lived much of his early adult life on both the west side and the south side of Chicago. His formal education is minimal. He lives a clean life now but has not always done so. Therefore, his survival education is maximum. He works a job in manual labor. We are not as different as two Americans can get, but we're definitely starting from opposite ends of the friendship ballroom as we walk toward one another. Certain experiences did cause me to believe that we were at least walking toward one another, though.

On Wednesday, after his initial outbreak, I tried to have a conversation with him about the change in our relationship. His hurt, transference of anger and lack of control in that conversation felt exactly like Peter’s. I kept trying to assure him that I would never do the things he named, that I never had, that I was concerned because he was a good man and doesn’t normally behave this way. He did not let me finish one conciliatory sentence in the entire conversation, angrily protesting things that he thought I was going to say. He never actually heard that I wasn’t saying the things he was protesting against. He was so hurt that there was no room in him for empathy. Only self-defense.

It was unexpected, it hurt and I cried. But I tried desperately to communicate that whatever I had done wrong, I was willing to try to fix, sometime in the future, whenever he was ready.

I know that I didn’t do anything terrible to my co-worker. My appeals to be allowed to fix what was wrong were not necessarily for myself. I believe that when Christ commands me to love and to heal, he is commanding me to do whatever is necessary when someone else is hurting. “Whatever is necessary” can mean taking responsibility for the actions of someone else and apologizing on their behalf.

There is an internal sense of protest that goes up in white folks at this idea. It is the debate about reparations paid for slavery translated into my life. Examine yourself and your response to my last paragraph. It true, isn’t it? You want to say to me, “Rebecca, you didn’t do anything wrong. He’s just mad about something else. There’s nothing you can do.” Maybe it’s because you know me and love me and don’t want me to be hurt. Maybe it’s a deeper sense of fair and unfair that it offended. Maybe it’s residual sense of racial dominance that objects. I think all three of those motivations are at force inside of me.

But people don’t heal until their hurts have been soothed. Until the boo-boo is kissed, regardless of what caused the boo-boo, the child remains upset. If I am to take the commandment to love others as I have been loved seriously, I have to offer to take someone’s anger at someone else and say, “I’m sorry that I hurt you that much,” even when I didn’t. Because isn’t that what Christ did? Isn’t that the “as I have been loved” part of the commandment?

It has almost become a meaningless phrase in racial reconciliation: “It’s messy.” What does that mean?

Peter was never the same after the day he exploded at me in class. I stood at the door and welcomed each kid fresh every morning, regardless of what happened the day before and I did this for Peter whever he showed up for the rest of the year. But he showed up less frequently after that and he failed the class, dropping out of school the next year. There was no Michelle Pfeiffer/Hillary Swank moment when that dual vulnerability caused him to turn around and suddenly decide to be successful.

That’s messy.

I don’t know what will happen with my acquaintance. I don’t know how much I can push to remain part of his life without being paternalistic and making him feel burdened with my white guilt. I don’t know that my own brokenness hasn’t already caused irreparable damage. Our relationship may go Peter’s way, where I can only hope that my behavior my part of a string of experiences that God is using to pull him closer wholeness. It may not.

That’s messy.

But Buechner says that my tears are telling me secrets about who I am and where I should go next. I think they are telling me to keep going toward racial reconciliation. Situations like what happened on Wednesday will never stopp occurring if I don't.

I do not think that this world will be made any better if I pretend like this isn’t my problem. My tears tell me that it is. As Jerry Garcia says, “Someone has to do something and it’s just terribly pathetic that it has to be us.”

I have begun to believe that even if people can’t believe that Christ was divine, they can at least find meaning and purpose and redemption in believing that anyone would be capable of sacrificing himself or herself for others like Christ did. If someone like Jesus could do it, so can any of us. The stories are all around us, like Liviu Librescu, a profefssor at Virginia Tech, who wasn’t Christian. And if we are capable of that kind of love for others, we must be worth the love of others.

Ain’t that good news? Lord, ain’t that news?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


The website told me mine one one of only 1800 or so chimpanzee daemons out of 80,000 or so but interestingly, a woman whose blog I read and followed the link from has one too. Mine has a better name.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Math Blaster

I think it's possible that I just rocked my calculus final exam. Nothing stumped me. I felt utterly prepared. I finished quickly but could find no stupid mistakes to fix when I went back over my anwers. Before the class started I surprised myself by answering the questions of my peers to their grateful relief.

This is really weird.

My mother pointed out that this could be like when you're feeling really confident about typing and it turns out when you look at the screen that your fingers were on the wrong keys the whole time.

But for two whole days, I get to feel like I rocked it!


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Old Dead Leaves

Yesterday, I went into TJ MAXX because my sunglasses that I've had for four years or so have finally gotten too scratched to wear anymore. I went to TJ MAXX because I wanted brand name sunglasses. Don't ask me why. I just do. I think they flatter my face better and are of a better quality than those you get at Walgreens or Old Navy.

When I moved to Orcas Island 3 years ago, I gave up shopping. Before that, I had been a huge recreational shopper. I stopped at a store on my way home from work 3 days out of every five and probably spent time on one of the weekend days in a Nordstrom's Rack, TJ MAXX, Marshall's, Target, Hobby Lobby or any other store where I could hunt for a good deal. I was so good at shopping that when a friend's role-playing game required us to create statistics for ourselves (because we were the characters) he let me choose shopping as one of my specialized skills and even let me choose high stats for it from the very beginning, which was a big deal because he was usually pretty adamant that we are much more average than we think we are.

But when I moved to Orcas, a world of other things to do opened up to me. Also, I had easy access to The Exchange to soothe what Jeffrey called the human need to acquire. This was combined with my growing awareness of sweatshops and the role they play in the good deals that I was getting. Giving away 2/3 of the stuff that I had bought while recreationally shopping when I sold my house before I moved to Orcas was also a nail in the coffin. Seeing all that stuff that I didn't need gathered in my backyard was alarming. Plus, I felt so free once it was all gone.

I was a little afraid that when I moved back to the mainland, I would revive my old habits. However, I seem to have done pretty well for myself. I've let my mom buy me a few staples for urban and Midwestern situations that my Pacific Northwest wardrobe couldn't handle. Also, I've found some pretty good local thrift stores, although to be honest, I've only been out "shopping" twice since I've been here.

So, while I was in TJ MAXX yesterday, I thought I'd test the waters. I gave myself permission to buy whatever good deals I could find. I began the spree with looking for some things that I knew I needed but wouldn't buy at a thrift store: a bra and flip flops. After that, I wandered around a little and flipped through some things but found that even with the permission to buy, I couldn't get excited. It was like stopping on sports or soap operas while flipping through the TV: I'm not even remotely interested.

I'm trying to figure out what could create such a marked change, not just in my behavior but in my desires. Anyone can change most behaviors - that just takes will power and a little help from friends. But my alcoholic friends all agree that even though they don't drink anymore, they would definitely like to.

John Perkins says in Let Justice Roll Down, "I didn’t drop gambling because anybody preached against it. That kind of push never works over the long haul. True Christian change works more like an old oak tree in the spring, when the new life inside pushes the old dead leaves that still hang on." I wonder if my loss of desire for shopping is the result of getting my life more in alignment with God's plan for me. As far as I can tell, that plan is leading me toward vows poverty and I have been taking one reluctant step at a time down that path for several years now. (My only hope is that God will let me keep gong so slowly that I never actually have to take those vows and can remain at least somewhat comfortable. Oh, I know that true peace will come of them but man, do I like the freedom of a little disposable income.) What if my attempts to follow this path are actually creating new life that is pushing the old dead leaves out?

What would that new life be? Deeper relationships with people. Reconnected relationships with people I thought I'd lost. Peace about my divorce and a new stability to meet new challenges with. A church where people speak my language even if they don't say the same things. A job that gives me a chance to practice my book knowledge and observe theories in action all around me. A schedule with a pace that allows me time for leisure and spontaneous interaction with other people.

I floated this idea by Pastor Daniel at our lunch today and he acted a little bit like he'd never heard the premise before: that we begin to want the things God wants for us once we begin being obedient. I had credited "they" with the theory and he wanted me to get specific about who "they" were. I was slightly flustered because I'm so self-centered that I forget that other people don't have the same idea vocabulary as I do. I fished around in my head and pulled out that John Perkins quote. It was a good save since Daniel has much reverence for JP. However, on the El on the way home after class tonight, I read this in Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz:
Ultimately, we do what we love to do. I lik to think that I do things for the right reasons, but I don't. I do things because I do or don't like doing them. Because of sin, because I am self-addicted, living in the wreckage of the fall, my body, my heart and my affections are prone to love things that kill me. Tony says that Jesus gives us the ability to love the things we should love, the things of Heaven. Tony says that when people who follow Jesus love the right things, they help create God's kingdom on earth, and that is something beautiful.

When I read the book for the first time, I wrote this in the margin, "Christ persuades us to love doing good things or as I align myself with God's will I begin to love doing good things."

Woohoo! Let's hear it for consistency! Let's also give a great big huzzah for the potential that I might actually have been right about something, anything, two years ago and that I might be reaping the benefits of it now. Pretty cool, huh.


Yesterday, I went to the chirpractor and she said that I got a mild concussion when the taxi cab knocked me down and that I wasn't healed of it yet. I guess she could tell by looking in my eyes with a bright light.

That explains a lot about this past week.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"Follow me" vs. "Sign here"

Sunday morning was not a good one at church. Lately, I have been arriving at 11:45, which is when the music is generally over and Pastor Daniel is about to start preaching. However, this Sunday I had spent the morning with Jess, reconciling a fight that we had. We sat by the lagoon at Humboldt Park and watched a beautiful variety of people walk by us on the path. By the end of our conversation, I felt a completely irrational hugeness in my heart for Jess, that park, the gorgeous Spring day, my neighborhood, the people in my neighborhood and my church for trying to encompass all of those things. Then, of course, I actually got into the church and all that bright beautiful hope fled.

It was fine for a little while. I sat with Jess while she worshipped and thought about things that needed thinking about. I also talked a lot with God. Mostly, we sort of thought back and forth at each other little snippets of ideas about music and the worship leader and what some of my options are. I know God is right in these conversations, but it's like a fun intellectual exercise to try to out-smart him or out-stubborn him. For now, the solution has been to skip worship time because I just cannot achieve any sense of reverence when the worship leader is up there. I remember too much hurt and anger about the way he has treated me. Also, the things he says are extremely hypocritical when compared to my experience with him.

For instance, he began berating the congregation for not wanting to be a part of the music team. He referenced how in January, 10 people had raised their hands to say they were interested but only two showed up at auditions. (Let's not mention that auditions were not held until 2 months after those 10 folks indicated interest.) When only two people indicated that they would show up for new auditions, he began to chastise, saying that the congregation had two options: to take ownership of the worship team or to let him continue to outsource to professionals. How offensive. I wanted nothing but to take ownership in the worship team when I was on it, but he absolutely refused any and all suggestions that I made. He admitted that members of the worship team had to do it "his way" but continued to use the word ownership to describe their potential participation. This is one of the key problems I see with this church. There is a lot of talk about leadership development, yet in most meaningful ways, the pastoral staff just wants volunteers to do the work they are directed to do. This is not "ownership." This is employment. And we're not getting paid.

The other contradictory thing the worship leader said that outraged me was that he demanded perfection. He said this in the context of admitting that he was hard to work with. However, my experience was that he didn't even demand perfection of himself. I never minded when he pushed actually practicing harmonies and performance. I've had plenty of tough music directors; I welcome the challenge. I didn't even mind when he made rules about what we would wear, even when I disagreed with it; submitting to authority means choosing your battles. Instead, I minded when he would spend most of rehearsal time figuring out harmonies instead of being prepared before rehearsal started. I minded when he wouldn't know before rehearsal started which songs we would sing on Sunday. I minded when he wouldn't start rehearsal until 30-45 minutes after the announced starting time or when he would cancel it altogether because there weren't enough people there. I minded when he would reprimand me for not following rules he never stated, like not wearing sneakers, always having a Bible with me in service or being sure to have offering every Sunday as a model to the rest of the congregation. Those behaviors are not indicative of a man who demands perfection, especially of himself. They are indicative of a man who expects obedience to his whims and calls that perfection.

So, needless to say, I spent much of the first half of the service angry. This feeling of defensiveness was not soothed when Pastor Daniel got up and spoke about membership. Now, I have already come to terms with the fact that I will never be a member at River City. I don't agree with numbers 1, 3 and 5 of the 12 doctrinal statements that one must agree to to be considered "in" at the church. However, as Daniel was welcoming the new members into the congregation, he discussed these twelve statements briefly. In doing so, he said that not only do members have to agree to these twelve statements but he thinks that one needs to agree with these in order to be a Christian. Now, it's possible that I was already tetchy from the worship time and so I mis-heard him. However, I said something to Jess about it and she didn't disagree with me about what he had said.

I thought that all you had to do to be considered a Christian was accept Jesus into your heart and make a covenant with Jesus to follow his teachings.

Apparently, you also have to agree to submit to the pastoral staff as spiritual authorities in order to be a Christian.

Apparently, you also have to believe that God doesn't speak in any other authoritative way than the Bible in order to be Christian.

Apparently, other people have to mediate the relationship that I thought was pretty mutually exclusive between God and myself. That silly Luther and his 95 theses.

I'm a little pissed.

I know that I have said before in calm and zen-like tones that I will accept the Evangelical assumptions that my church makes about how church should be done and seek out the good things that the church has to offer. But when the pastor doubts my actual status as a Christian from the pulpit because I don't agree with all of his doctrinal statements?

This past Sunday, Rob Bell described membership this way:
It is our goal that everybody who comes here on [Sundays] for one of the three services we do here would become a member . . . It's the idea of entering a relationship. It's not signing up for some sort of giant institution but it's being in relationship with a group of people who are headed somewhere. Our fundamental understanding of our faith is a journey that God has each of us on and then we agree to go on this journey together.

My church's view of membership is that before you can be considered "one of us," you must have already come a certain distance on a defined path. It is not about finding the path together. It is like a country club. You have to be like them before you can join. It is exclusive.

But Jesus is the epitome of inclusive. He ate dinner with everyone: tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers. Zacchaeus did not have to agree to any doctrinal beliefs before Jesus included him in the group. Nor did any of the disciples, for that matter. Jesus simply said, "Follow me," and they did. They didn't know what they were signing up for. In fact, up until the very last day that they spent with Jesus and well into the time that they were starting the early church, they still didn't fully understand what he was teaching. I don't think that many of the disciples would have qualified for membership at River City.

I am meeting with Pastor Daniel for lunch tomorrow to talk about some of this. I think I return to my zen-like acceptance that I'll never be a member while still staying committed to the church. I hope that I can talk him down from believing that I'm not a Christian because of that.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

High School Flashback

On Friday and Saturday, I was up at Mars Hill Church with a bunch of CCDA folks who were giving a seminar there in conjunction with Mars' XYZ initiative. I was basically a groupie, hanging out with Noel Castellanos, his assistant, Erin, Bob Lupton and Phil Jackson, while they spoke to the very white folks of Mars Hill Church. The trip was an ideal one for me because I learn lots of new things every time I get to experience these "big dogs" of Christian community development plus I've been wanting to get a sense for Mars Hill since I've been listening to the sermons since the new year began. I've read a couple of magazine articles about the church and their descriptions were dead-on, describing the physical church property as unassuming but bright and welcoming. The fact that the stall door popped open on me at a delicate moment is highly illustrative of the fact that their core values lie in people, not property. They could have invested money in high-end bathroom stalls of heavy plastic or some shiny stone that swung smoothly-balanced on brass hinges but instead they bought stalls that any public school or shopping mall would have. I like that choice.

I have lots of other thoughts from the seminar that I will hopefully be able to post throughout the week. However, for this post, the purpose of telling you about the seminar was simply background.

At the conclusion of the seminar, Noel, Bob and Phil sat down on a panel discussion with the international development guy and one of the pastors, Denise Van Something. Almost the entire population of Mars Hill is suburban and they asked several questions about how suburbans can do community development work. It was interesting to hear the responses of the men because one of the three "R's" of CCDA is relocation. Without moving into the community, you are the Great White Hope and that's not good for anyone. The belief is that without being in real relationship with people, you can only change the type of control that is held over their lives. And, it's very hard to be in real relationships with people if you can't see them in all of their different faces, which is hard to accomplish if you don't live in the same conditions that they do. So, in this time as the seminar closed, I heard several people refer to N, B and P's urban experience with repeated references to the "sacrifices" they've made. I scoffed a little because I was feeling particularly enlightened, having left the suburbs behind. I looked at the obvious joy that these three men are wrapped in and thought, "There's no sacrifice involved in living in the ghetto! There is only the gift God gives us of freedom from greed and selfishness and the blessing we receive by engaging in relationships that go deeper than the superficial ones we have when we are self-sufficient, like the suburbans are."

On one level, most of the Christian community development literature and interviews and conversations will uphold this judgmental thought bubble of mine. Some might even agree with the first sentence.

But that's wrong. There IS sacrifice involved in living in the ghetto. Living in community is hard. Giving up control sucks. This point was driven home on Saturday night, when I was preparing to go to another match of Ring of Honor wrestling.

I did not make a successful decision all last week. I didn't make bad decisions, but nothing felt quite right. Lots of awkward interactions and slightly inconvenient consequences for small mistakes. I think I lost my center when I got knocked down by the taxi cab and it was keeping me from operating at peak performance levels like I usually do. (By the way, weeks like that make me all the more aware of people who are so busy surviving that they do not have time to find their center for years. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I mourn more for those folks than for any other type of sufferers because it is the experience I can relate most to. I know in my head that other things are worse, like hunger and death of close relatives, but I've never really experienced that so I can only imagine it, whereas I can extrapolate from the lost feeling I have when I lose my center for a couple of weeks to what years must feel like.)

One of these flawed decisions involved the timing of getting up to Grand Rapids, MI. Somehow, I f***ed up the schedule something royal and got the time change all reversed in my head. So, I was late showing up and early getting back.

I rejoiced in getting back early because in my original plan I was going to have to drive directly to the fieldhouse in the southwest suburbs on my way back from Grand Rapids and I had forgotten to leave room in the equation to take Erin, my passenger back to her house, which was going to make me late. Getting back early meant not only that I wouldn't be late but also that I could catch a ride with the rest of the group that was going.

I called my brother to tell him this good news to find that he was riding his motorcycle and that he was dropping his girlfriend off at her mom's house on the way so I couldn't sit on the back. He told me to call JB, the other coordinator of the trip. So, I did and asked JB if I could get a ride. He said I could. I asked if I should meet him at his house (directly south 1 mile on a beautiful day) or if it was easy for him to pick me up. The show started at 7:30. He didn't even address the idea of me walking down to him and immediately said that he had to pick up his friend Dante at 6:30 and would pick me up on the way there.

At this point, what would you assume about what would happen after we picked up Dante? I didn't even consider that we would do anything other than head from Dante's house to the fieldhouse in the southwest suburbs. I knew it wouldn't take less than 45 minutes to get there. I just assumed. Obviously.

So, I got home at 6:08 and raced around the house, changing clothes and trying to put some food in my body that wasn't pure junk. I hustled down the stairs and got in JB's truck at 6:17, hitting my head hard on the door on my way in and nearly dropping the toast, orange juice and avocado that I brought out with me. So, in this somewhat flustered and painful state, we head over to Dante's house and it turns out that he is a 9-year-old boy with a cape (later, he corrected me that it was a cloak) and a fancy vest. I hate 9-year-old boys. It's not their fault. Developmentally, they have to be entirely self-centered and believe that everyone wants to hear what they have to say. However, developmentally, I'm thoroughly disgusted by the ignorance that is evident every time they open their mouths. Maybe it embarrasses me because it reminds me of my own childhood precociousness. Who knows. The fact remains that kids from age 3 to age 12 drive me crazy. I try my hardest not to engage them (without being rude) beyond feeding them when they ask for it and reading them books or putting my arm around them when they're tired. So, I tried to put on a good face to Dante because I do actually like that he's retained enough creativity and innocence to still be wearing a costume in public. Very island style, to me. We stop and get coffee and cookies and then . . . head to the fieldhouse?

Nope, we head back to JB's house. JB actually lives in a garage that he keeps construction supplies in along with an RV, his dog and a bunny. It's kind of gross. Normally, though, I find it charming and very honestly reflective of JB's personality. He opens up the big garage door and pulls out some lawn chairs. The dog goes on a leash and is handed to Dante. Neighbors converge with their dogs. Another woman shows up and doesn't really say anything, even when I speak to her and stays in that sort of crouching dynamic all evening. At 7:11, I catch JB's eye and look him dead in the face and say quietly, slowly and firmly, "Let's. Go." He's says, "We're waiting for Alex to get gas." A few minutes earlier, Alex, his partner Stephanie, and two 6-year-old girls had joined the fray. I hadn't realized that Alex had left again immediately afterwards.

Finally, at 7:16, the crowd dispersed; the people that we were waiting for (Alex and company) got back into their vehicle; JB, Dante, Trish (I found out that was her name) and I all got into JB's truck; and we left for the southwest suburbs. Let me just point out at this moment that we had apparently been waiting for someone so that we could drive in a caravan, not so we could give them a ride. We did not get to the fieldhouse until after 8:00. I was not pleased. JB and I had civil but terse words in the car. I expressed that if I had been made aware of several salient details about the plans, I would have made different choices. He was defensive and slightly sarcastic.

This is community. This is the sacrifice that gets talked about. For those of us that are more comfortable when plans go according to plan, we must give up that pleasure. This is a much larger sacrifice than green lawns and close shopping malls. Like a diabetic giving up sugar, those of us that like to be on time to events must find substitute satisfaction. I can and possibly will drive separately next time. But that won't be living in community. That won't be seeing the different levels of JB and letting him and his friends see the different faces I have. Without that kind of relationship with other people, we cannot fulfill God's commandment to love one another. I believe that ultimately I will be able to live in the joy that Noel, Bob and Phil are wrapped in because they are known by people. Until then, I'm stuck in this mess of living in community, frustrated as I try to dive into this mess without feeling like I'm back in high school, powerless to affect my own situation, which is how I felt, sitting in that lawn chair.

Of course, as I type those words, I realize that I am powerless to affect my own situation. Any control I think I have is a delusion I've made up to explain the mystery that is God's omnipotence. I suppose that if I let go and simply enjoy the chaos, which I am often able to do, I will be happier. That just wasn't possible when I wasn't centered. The acknowledgement of helplessness did not give me strength when I was viewing myself askance. I want to get back to my center because I know that there, I will remember the comfort of a child being held by her mother that is only possible when one is weak and runs for the protection of God, who is strong.