Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Status Quo Is Unacceptable

The last couple of weeks I've been pondering puns and crafting urgently uplifting stories to pepper the year end email blasts and appeal letters for the organization I work for. Which has had me thinking a lot about what it is that motivates people to give. To break out of their daily routine. Their normal spending habits. To give to someone they'll never meet and never would have heard of, if it weren't for me. It's a pretty weighty responsibility.

Everyone past the age of five knows that life isn't always fair. Brother gets a bigger portion of chocolate cake. Deal with it. Your favorite sweater with the blue stripes is still in the hamper the morning you want to wear it. Deal with it. You get passed up for the job interview by someone from within. Deal with it. You're underqualified. Deal with it. You're overqualified. Deal with it.

There's a lot to say for adaptability and resilience and perseverance in the face of unfairness. Life would come to a standstill without it. But when should we say enough? When does the status quo become unacceptable? How do you convince someone with a nice house and nice car and a nice family with 2.5 nice children and a nice dog in a nice U.S. city that the status quo is unacceptable? That third world poverty is not okay. That racism and prejudice in our own country is not okay. That the disparity between the wealthy and the woefully penniless is not okay.

What would convince someone? Short of immersion in a third world reality for three months in an unfamiliar language. I don't know.

For me it happened as a 19-year-old in Central America.

Guatemala City, Guatemala, April 2006

Is it so awful to say that after awhile all third world countries start to look the same? The littered highways, the graffiti-covered concrete buildings, the bars and spikes and security guards with guns. I wish I could say that I instantly connected with Guatemalans, that it mattered to me that they had been in a civil war for the past fifty years. But I didn’t care about the indigenous, specifically Mayan, influence on the culture or that hundreds of thousands of women had mysteriously lost their husbands and sons, fathers and brothers to midnight kidnappings and mass murders during the war. I feared there was nothing in me that cared anymore.

As a group, we visited an organization committed to helping people who had lost friends and relatives in the war. Not an organization so much as a support group, un apoyo mutuo. Hundreds of portraits lined the walls. There were young men, old men, fat men, some merely boys. All were missing. Gone.

Desaparecidos.

As the leader, an indigenous woman wearing a crumpled grey skirt as crinkled as her wrinkled, weary eyes, described the group’s brave and somber purpose, I snuck back to the bathroom. I returned during the question and answer segment. I had just slid into my cold, metal chair when one of my classmates asked the question we’d all wanted to know.

“How many men have you found?” “Cuantos han encontrado?” The group was devoted to searching for the missing family members, los desaparecidos. Surely, some must have been reunited with their loved ones.

Cero,” the woman stated matter-of-factly. “Zero.”

The room suddenly felt very small. I felt very small. All these years and they still hadn’t found anyone? Where did they go? How could they be gone?

Outrage knotted in my stomach, reminding me that the reason I felt so lost and numb was because I had cared. I cared an awful lot. I wanted to thrash and scream right there in that chair. If I screamed loud enough or shut my eyes hard enough, maybe it wouldn’t be true. I could will the world into fairness and justice and peace. “What shouldn’t be” circled round and round in my head, a waterwheel of indignation. I didn’t find any answers to these deep social and economic problems, but for the first time, at least I wasn’t ignoring them.

***

I knew then that the world is not okay. And since then. Since that fateful semester. (Stealing from the words of a best friend) I have been (trying) to figure out a way to "fight both first world apathy and third world poverty."

What is it that breaks you out of apathy? What motivates you to give to causes you can't taste, touch, see, or feel? What tells you that the status quo is unacceptable?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dissing My Disqualifications

This week I had to prepare a Bible study on a selected passage for my “leaders-in-training-group.” My passage: Titus 1: 5-9.

“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. 6 An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it."

Pretty intense, right?

In this passage, Paul is writing to Titus, a leader in Crete. He has left Titus responsible for carrying out the work of the gospel in Crete, with his greatest task being the selection and overseeing of church elders, or leaders. Paul continues on to divulge a lengthy list of criteria for church leaders, which may as well end with “ad infinitum.”

I must admit, I found this off-putting.

My first reaction was to disqualify myself as a leader. As I prepared the study, I sensed that the “right” Sunday school question to center my study around was, “How do we as leaders measure up to this standard?”

But I found that question answered itself for me in the form of an excuse. A disqualification. I couldn't possibly lead because I am not blameless. In the face of this legalistic list of musts, I cringed and cowered and wanted to go back into hiding. I was tempted even to stop my planning right then and there and instead prepare to tell the group that I couldn’t lead the study because the material itself told me I wasn’t qualified.

But then I thought, I may be missing the point.

Perhaps I am too quick to disqualify myself.

Does this passage really suggest that we must have all of our ducks in a row before we can begin to lead others to Jesus?

My first thought was obviously, no. God can use any of us in any state to lead others to himself.

But where does our responsibility fit in?

Why would Paul impose such strict guidelines on the church leaders?

What was Paul’s heart for the church? What is the purpose of leaders?

I believe the purpose of leaders is to lead others to Christ, to minister to others, to share the doctrine and the stories and the truth of Jesus' life and death and resurrection.

Do you have to be blameless to do that?

This passage suggested so.

Who or what makes us blameless? Is it our own effort? Our own strength? If this is really what is required to lead, how then do we get there?

According to Paul (and corroborated in my own life), it is the Holy Spirit that makes us holy, not our own striving. The Holy Spirit in us. Holy spirit re-creation. We have new life in Christ. Do our lives show evidence of that? How do we get there?

Yes, it requires effort and intentionality, but it also requires trust. Trust in the goodness of the One who has called us to lead. Trust in the work of the Holy Spirit. Trust in a redeeming, renewing relationship with Christ.

And in that mindset, we can ask ourselves how we’re measuring up as leaders without shame or guilt. We can receive forgiveness for the ways we've fallen short. We can move toward this ideal, this standard.

When I actually led the Bible study, my wonderful friends and co-leaders reminded me that, even more important than the list of requirements, is the fact that we have all been called to lead.

One of my best friends is quick to tell me, “God does not call the equipped; he equips the called.”

And over the last week, I have heard God speak to me:

“I will be here with you as you ask these questions. You will not unravel. I will hold you together. Do not fear me. Do not fear the truth. I will equip you to love others better. To show my face. To serve and heal."

In this knowledge, I have found that I can begin to take my leadership role seriously. I am given the strength to begin the journey to becoming a healthy and spirit-led leader who is learning to daily die to my own desires and pride in exchange for love, generosity, hospitality, and all of the other attributes Paul mentions.

I am learning to trust in God’s calling and dismiss my disqualifications.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

T.S. Tuesday: The "Examen"ed Life

“Only by acceptance of the past, can you alter it.” T.S. Eliot

To alter the past, you must accept it. To accept the past, you must acknowledge it. The good parts and the bad parts. The big, blaring mistakes, and the small shifts in thought and attitude that moved you away from love and connection and God's will throughout the day.

A couple of years ago, I took a spiritual disciplines class at my church that transformed my view of self-examination from a fixation on of all my failings to a deeply meaningful and redemptive conversation with the One who knows me best. It was at this class that I learned about the prayer of examen—a practice started by St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, which is still transformative today.

Through the prayer of examen, I learn to pay attention to my day. I become more aware of where God is already moving and where God is leading. What he is leading me toward. Areas that he is pressing in and challenging my selfishness.

Someone once asked me, “How can you give God your heart, soul, mind, and strength if you don't know your heart, mind, soul, and strength?”

This is an invitation for God (the one who knows and loves me best) to help me know me.

Here are the basics of the Prayer of Examen taken from IgnatianSpirituality.com. This website has a lot of helpful resources on prayer, self-reflection, and learning to pay attention to the powerful presence of God throughout your day. I also recommend the book, Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton, if you want to dive deeper into the spiritual disciplines.

I hope you learn something about yourself and how God is moving today.

How Can I Pray?

1. Become aware of God’s presence. Look back on the events of the day in the company of the Holy Spirit. The day may seem confusing to you—a blur, a jumble, a muddle. Ask God to bring clarity and understanding.

2. Review the day with gratitude. Gratitude is the foundation of our relationship with God. Walk through your day in the presence of God and note its joys and delights. Focus on the day’s gifts. Look at the work you did, the people you interacted with. What did you receive from these people? What did you give them? Pay attention to small things—the food you ate, the sights you saw, and other seemingly small pleasures. God is in the details.

3. Pay attention to your emotions. One of St. Ignatius’s great insights was that we detect the presence of the Spirit of God in the movements of our emotions. Reflect on the feelings you experienced during the day. Boredom? Elation? Resentment? Compassion? Anger? Confidence? What is God saying through these feelings?

God will most likely show you some ways that you fell short. Make note of these sins and faults. But look deeply for other implications. Does a feeling of frustration perhaps mean that God wants you consider a new direction in some area of your work? Are you concerned about a friend? Perhaps you should reach out to her in some way.

4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. Ask the Holy Spirit to direct you to something during the day that God thinks is particularly important. It may involve a feeling—positive or negative. It may be a significant encounter with another person or a vivid moment of pleasure or peace. Or it may be something that seems rather insignificant. Look at it. Pray about it. Allow the prayer to arise spontaneously from your heart—whether intercession, praise, repentance, or gratitude.

5. Look toward tomorrow. Ask God to give you light for tomorrow’s challenges. Pay attention to the feelings that surface as you survey what’s coming up. Are you doubtful? Cheerful? Apprehensive? Full of delighted anticipation? Allow these feelings to turn into prayer. Seek God’s guidance. Ask him for help and understanding. Pray for hope.

St. Ignatius encouraged people to talk to Jesus like a friend. End the Daily Examen with a conversation with Jesus. Ask forgiveness for your sins. Ask for his protection and help. Ask for his wisdom about the questions you have and the problems you face. Do all this in the spirit of gratitude. Your life is a gift, and it is adorned with gifts from God. End the Daily Examen with the Our Father.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Purpose of Freedom

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." Galatians 5:1

Not to tell God our standards are higher. Not to put the chains back on. Not to congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments, but to live in freedom, to love in freedom, and bring others to freedom.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

T.S. Tuesday: Moving and Shaking

So I'm definitely a little obsessed with T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets', and I will continue to mine these poems for T.S. Tuesday content.

Today's excerpt comes from East Coker, No. 2 of 'Four Quartets.'

"In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth"

The poem begins with "In the beginning is my end" and ends with "In my end is my beginning."

What happens in between? In between the beginning and the ending and the beginning again?

Here, Eliot speaks of the building and destroying and restoring of houses. Movement happens. Progress happens in this in-between, this meanwhile, this space between the now and the not yet.

Movements from building to destroying, from knowledge to ignorance, from life to death, which breeds more life.

Our lives are a series of progressions, of movements. We move from children to parents. From students to teachers. From singled to married. From coupled to heartbroken. From employed to laid off and back again to be promoted.

These movements are constant: sometimes they're life-giving; sometimes they stink of death. Sometimes the moving feels more like shaking, a quivering between growth and retreat.

My spiritual life has followed a series of movements: from unerring confidence to despondent doubts. From running from God's presence to basking in God's love. From tearing down dogma to stacking up truths.

Where are you moving? What's more, where is God moving? Are you moving toward life or are you ushering in death? How is God leading you to give life and grieve death in all of the movements of your life?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Day Without an Elephant

Lately there’s been a little too much elephant in my life. (See this post)

Too much fear and self-doubt and guilt that has invaded my life like an unwelcome elephant.

As soon as I wrote that the question, “What if I am worth hating?” no longer dominates my life because I know the reality is that I am loved, the gnawing fear began to creep back in. Suddenly I’m aware of my every failing and my every selfish thought. How I will never be good enough.

I’m acing legalism 101, but failing life. I’m coming unraveled.

Where has this unwelcome elephant come from? Who let in him the door to my heart, my mind, my relationships, and my sanity?

I’ve heard it said that sometimes persecution is a sign that God is on the move.

As much as I’d like to think these ambushes of opposition are a sign of God’s great work through me, I can’t help but wonder if it’s not also a sign of my own neuroticism.

Neuroticism—yes it’s a real word (although we still have dibs on “neurotica,” Emily)—is “the enduring tendency to experience negative emotional states…such as anxiety, anger, guilt, and depressed mood” and explains a lot about my life.

I’ve always found a way to doubt my strengths, to fear the future, and guilt away my joy. But the thing is, I had gotten better. A lot better. I was experiencing freedom and I thought the elephant was gone for good. That is, until I started writing about it getting better.

So in this recent bout of guilt and anxiety and grace stealing, I ask myself the question: why now? Is it because God is moving more powerfully, so the opposition comes on stronger, or am I simply slipping back into my naturally neurotic ways?

The only answer I can come up with is that it’s both.

I think it’s a sign that God is moving because I think that God is always moving. And I think it’s a sign of my own neuroticism because, quite frankly, I’m always neurotic.

The greater question is “what is my response?”

Like I said before, the only antidote to this fear, this self-doubt and self-hatred that can sneak in and poison our lives like unwelcome elephants, is compassion. For ourselves. A surrender to God’s grace when we really just want to be the ones controlling our need for grace.

Whether the anxiety comes from the accuser inside or out, I can choose to love myself. I can choose to accept God’s grace and relinquish my pride.

Today at church, my pastor encouraged us to ask the Holy Spirit to show us evidence of God’s love.

I echo that request. Holy Spirit, please help me to taste touch see hear feel know that I know that I know God’s love.

Love, please give me hope for a day without an elephant.