Tuesday, December 20, 2011

An Advent Advertisement

Hey there, weary Christian! Are you a retail employee disillusioned by the singleminded zeal of shoppers determined to spread the spirit of giving, come hell or high water? Are you a stressed out churchgoer searching for that perfect donation to foist upon your local nonprofit, because poor little Timmy’s Christmas will be ruined if you can’t personally deliver him the right teddy bear and see his face light up? Give that season of giving a rest! I present you with Advent: the Christian alternative to the Christmas season.

Dare to leave American civil religion’s one and only liturgical season off your calendar! After all, the cultural trappings of the Christmas season do not date back to the birth of Christ. In fact, many of them do not date past the fifties. If more authentic celebration is what you’re after, give the season of non-celebration a try!

Family get-togethers and office parties stressing you out? Advent has no holiday cheer required! So go ahead and respond to that party invitation by saying, “Sorry, I need to sit alone.” Feel liberated to act out that instinct to respond to the question “What do you want for Christmas?” by running away, shutting yourself in your room, and pondering the question’s deep existential ramifications. Just stay in there awhile. Don’t let incessant carolers break your Advent spirit!

Ever stare into the deep darkness of lengthening winter nights and just feel like staring some more, instead of declaring war on winter and fortifying your house with blue glowing icicles and a lit-up Santa Claus? Advent is the season for you! Let that darkness symbolize your pain and strife, then sit with it awhile. Ponder what needs illuminating. As the interim associate pastor at my home church put it, Advent is the moment you strike a match and wait to see if it lit. Revel in the fragility of that hope! It doesn’t have to be the most wonderful time of the year!

And if you like Advent, try Christmas, the week and a half set aside for celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior conveniently timed to coincide with the end of the stressful holiday season. Run through the streets with your children singing “O Holy Night” to your heart’s content while society rests from the holiday frenzy.

And later, in August, when the non-profits are really strapped for donations in civil religion’s off-season, then you can take up that spirit of giving and cut your local homeless shelter a hefty check.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Live Your Story

For months, I had been dreading attending the Mission to Mission reentry retreat. Leaving Nicaragua had been a long grieving process for a place, for a community, and for friends who changed me so thoroughly. My soul was slowly starting to catch up with me in the US. I was afraid going to the retreat would make me feel the loss anew. Over the course of the weekend, however, I became aware of how much I had grown since returning to the US, and how much Nicaragua had continued to grow inside me.
The retreat helped me recognize that I had been living in a precarious position between wanting to put distance on the intense emotional rawness of volunteer experience while wanting to dwell on that experience for fear of losing its effect on me. As the facilitator explained it, it sometimes feels like you have to introduce yourself as “Hi, my name is Kathryn I-was-in-Nicaragua,” as if it was your middle name. The goal of reentry, she explained, is getting to the point where you live the story of your volunteer experience, so you don’t feel like you have to tell it all the time. I had to find a balance between holding on and letting go, between embracing how I had been transformed while giving my grief permission to pass.
To this end, we spent time identifying the specific ways our international service had changed us, as well as the individuals who had participated in that change. I recognized the sacred gift of all those who had reached out to me in my loneliness, who had taught me to be patient and to trust God even when there seemed like there was no apparent reason to do so. At the end of this exercise, I realized that one of the greatest skills I had was the ability to do just what we were doing then. I had learned how to receive wisdom from people around me at unexpected moments, and in unexpected ways. I learned how to be open and attentive, to recognize gifts others are always offering that can make me a better person. Even now, when I attend my divinity school classes, I am much more able to gain insight from the comments of my fellow classmates than I ever was as an undergraduate.
By recognizing this and all of the other ways I grew during my time in Nicaragua, I now understand what it means to live my story. Every time I discern prophetic words in the mouths of my peers, whenever I go out of my normal routine to practice hospitality, when I surrender illusions of being able to control others or achieve optimal efficiency, then I am living the story of my international mission. The mission did not end when I returned home. The work continues, and the international segment of my mission lives on and adapts to new circumstances. That is why organization calls itself “Mission to Mission.”

Friday, September 16, 2011

If Only Thomas Aquinas had known Rogers & Hammerstein

I wrote this in response to Rebecca Levi's post Oh The Clergyperson and the Scientist Should Be Friends, which I think would have been more aptly titled "Science Takes the Fun out of Pantheism."

The scientists and clergy should be friends.
Oh, the scientists and clergy should be friends.
One reports to the AMA,
The other answers to Yahweh,
But that’s no reason why they can’t be friends.

Professional folks should stick together,
Professional folks should all be pals.
Science makes clergy’s medications,
Pastors tend the researcher’ souls.

The scientists and clergy should be friends.
Oh, the scientists and clergy should be friends.
One preaches hearts be filled with love,
One dissects hearts with latex gloves
But that’s no reason why they can’t be friends.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

2011 Campy Awards

I'm pleased to announce the winners of the 2011 Summer Campies in the following categories:

Best Accident Report goes to Anna,* age 5, for getting her laminated name card caught firmly between her teeth.

Honorable mention to Mike, age 8, for shoving a bean so far up his ear that our removing it was prohibited as a form of minor surgery.

James, age 6, takes home Best Behavior Report for slapping his friend upside the head because "he farted."

Perpetual Optimist Award granted to his friend, who was so excited to tell his mom about another friend he made at camp that he forgot to tell her he'd been slapped.

The Campy for Best Reason for a Tantrum goes to Betsy, age 7, for "That kid said I was as cute as a teddy bear and gave me a hug."

Winner of the award for Best Explanation of a Tantrum is Thomas, 7, for "I think I have The Hulk inside me."

"I Have No Sympathy for You" Campy goes to Oscar, age 10. During a game of Jeopardy, the kids were presented with the question "Name 3 languages spoken in Africa." Anya, whose parents immigrated from Africa, easily rattled off three indigenous languages, two of which I hadn't even heard of. Oscar rhetorted, "That's not fair...she's from Africa!"

Campy for Best Debut Original Song is taken home by Katie, 6, for her one-hit wonder "I Have a Thousand Kinds of Rats."

In the technical category, we have a Campy for Captain Planet, which provided the best check-in ever when you only have four kids in your group. Also a nod, to Parker, who knew where "Earth, fire, wind, water, heart...Go Planet!" comes from. Also the only one in the K-1 group who knew who Mr. Rogers was.

Finally, the I Wish I'd Known You Sooner Campy goes to Alex, age 10:

I met Alex on the very last day of camp. She is often mistaken for a boy (including at first, by me) because she prefers looser athletic clothing and wears her hair short. Part of me kicked myself for lapsing into normal gender stereotyping, but then I reminded myself that I'm always judging kids based on gender stereotypes and was bound to get it wrong one of these days. After we talked for a little while, she blurted out, "I hate it when girls stare at me in the locker room because they think I'm a boy...It makes me feel embarrassed and angry." I asked her what she wished they would do instead. She said, "I don't know. Talk to my friends or to a teacher and ask them. Or just be nice about it and say, 'Hey, it's cool that you wear your hair short like that, but it kind of makes me wonder if you're a girl or a boy, instead of asking 'ARE YOU A BOY OR A GIRL?' " I told her I had friends who had female bodies but felt like they were actually boys on the inside, so they identified as boys, and they liked it best when people ask them if they use boy words like "he" or girl words like "she". Alex's face lit up. "That's how I feel!" She thought for a moment. "But I still like using 'she.'" "And that's totally fine," I replied. We talked for quite a while about gender stereotypes (not in exactly those words) and the difficulties of learning math.

All in all, an excellent field for the 2011 Campy Awards. Congratulations to all the winners. Keep rockin' the camp!

*Kids' names are pseudonymous.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Passing Through Vipassana

It was over a year ago that I first read about S.N. Goenka's secularized movement of Vipassana meditation and the 10-day introductory courses for the practice, offered at centers around the world. It was perhaps eight months ago that I decided I was interested in trying it, and last week that I finally took the course. The decision came after speaking with one of the directors of Cap Corps about how easy it is to get addicted to extreme emotions, because they're clear, free of ambiguity, and give one a sense of truly "living," whatever that means. Swinging from extreme emotion to extreme emotion, however, is also extremely stressful. The director had found that Vipassana helped her stay more in control, and I thought I could get in on that. After spending a week in silence at the Taize monastery in France, I had learned to embrace rather than fear 10 days of silence. I was a little worried about waking up at 4:00 in the morning, though it turns out it's easier to wake up at 4:00 to meditate than it is to wake up at 6:30 to go to work.

The idea behind Vipassana is this: people are driven miserable by constantly reacting to things with pleasure or aversion. We yearn for what we want yet don't have, and long to be rid of that which we have yet don't want. It may be a fleeting craving for ice cream or a burning desire to fall in love, a brief pang of hunger or chronic back pain. These reactions drive us, and drive us crazy.

This idea was not news to me particularly, and it's not news to most people seeking spiritual balance, via religion or otherwise. It has provoked such wisdom as the theology of abundance, which is the belief that God has given enough for everyone and we don't need to be constantly trying to compete with others for happiness and wealth.

What Vipassana contributes to the effort to avoid madness is a meditative practice. The theory goes that when I interpret an outside stimulation as good or bad, I'm not actually reacting directly to the stimulation. At a deeper level, my body reacts first, with tension or relaxation, pain or tingly chills. My brain then interprets my body's reaction with craving (Give me more of that) or aversion (Stop this). This interpretive process is what makes me miserable.

So during meditation, I just sit there. I may feel pain, or tingly, relaxed or tense. I observe my body's sensations with equanimity and remind myself that they'll go away. And then they do. And something else equally temporary replaces it.

The first day was the hardest for me. My eyes wanted to be active. They disliked being closed for so long when my mind was awake. I also really disliked not knowing how much longer I had to meditate. I gained a new appreciation for the kids at Hope House who were always asking, "Is my reading time over YET? How much longer?" We meditated for about ten hours every day: 4:30-6:30, 8:00-11:00, 1:00-5:00, and 6:00-7:00. Since we couldn't read, write, or exercise during the break time, it wasn't too hard to go back into meditation, because there was nothing else to do.

During the first few days, as much as I tried to focus on my breathing, I also took stock of the impressive array of thoughts that parade through my mind on a daily basis. None of it particularly shocked me, though I was surprised that I went through a couple days of nearly exclusive imagined interactions with fictional characters from TV and books before I started reliving memories. And always there were the show tunes. No matter how many different kinds of music I may listen to, Broadway seems to be the music of choice for my subconscious mind.

It took me until the eighth day to have the epiphany that none of this mattered. I didn't have to be aware of what was passing through my head, much less resolve or extract insight from it. All that mattered was my observation with my body and what it was feeling. It was like realizing I don't have to solve all any of the math problems in the textbook. I just have to look at the pictures very intently.

Day nine was the wonkiest, because that was the day we started scanning inside our bodies. I hit a whole bunch of spots where my body had stored its reactions to painful memories. It didn't hurt, it was just really uncomfortable. I hit one point in my stomach, like a knee-jerk reaction, started weeping. I didn't feel sad or angry, nor did I recall any specific memory. It was downright bizarre. And then, like all feelings, it passed. I didn't feel the spot again. And sure enough, when the course was over, I didn't feel such a strong physical reaction to various memories as they came up.

I was skeptical about Goenka's insistence on the universality of the Vipassana practice, mostly because I'm skeptical of any claim of a universal solution to suffering. Like all universal truths, suffering is understood, is explained, only in the cultural and the specific context. I found many aspects of his evening discourses problematic. But I accept his premise that Vipassana meditation can be useful even for those who are not followers of any of the Buddhist traditions. I especially love the bottom line: it's about the practice, not the belief. Christianity can get so caught up in orthodoxy, right belief, as opposed to orthopraxy, right practice. Both have their place. Yet, as Goenka taught in his discourses, there are levels at which one can have wisdom. There is th e level of being taught, like reading a menu and thinking, this looks like it could taste good. Then there's the observation level, which is looking at other people who are eating the food and seeing that they are enjoying the food. The only level that really counts is the experiential level, where you actually taste the food for yourself. Vipassana is about taking those precepts of not acting out in anger or pain, which I've always had in mind, and trying to let them permeate to a deeper, physical level.

As Goenka pointed out, it's so easy to believe the importance of things like "Be angry, but do not sin," or "Do not look on your neighbor with hatred," but it's so hard to find an exercise that allows you to cultivate these Christian precepts so that you can implement them in your daily life. Modern Christianity, which as I have said before is too frequently estranged from its contemplative traditions, is often unhelpful in providing these exercises. This is where Vipassana can help.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 22, 2011

The ancient world turned
The modern world scoffed

A few in between watched
For heaven ripping open.

The numbers added up
Jesus was coming down.

“We know not the hour,”
Said the preacher.

I said, “Amen.”

Then lit a candle
To guide the way.

Secretly I had hoped
I’d meet Jesus


Friday, May 6, 2011

The Practice of Resurrection, OCD, and a little bit of glee

I am a Glee devotee for various reasons, not the least of which being that it's so different than anything else on TV (read: reality shows and medical examiners or other non-federal agents partnering with police in a man-woman pairing fraught with sexual tension that they deny). It may be more preaching than plot development, but often the sermons aren't half-bad. Watching the episode "Born This Way" (I think the producers tore their hair out when Lady Gaga came out with this song after they'd already done their Gaga episode), I teared up a little watching Emma seeing a counselor for her OCD, and hearing there that OCD was not who she was; it was keeping her from being who she was. I came to this distinction after much internal struggle in college; Emma's "OCD"-blazoned T-shirt is mine as well.

OCD is a fiendish little boggart; it disguises itself as valid concerns, then runs amok through the brain. I thought I had conquered it in high school after I was able to name my obsessions for what they were: a mental disorder. But then it took on other forms. I had been brooding and losing sleep, thinking about how I'd screwed up various relationships in my living community and elsewhere. I went to a counselor to see if I could resolve the feelings of hurt and anger that kept plaguing me. When I told him I had OCD, he was all on top of it and recommended a book called Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior. It was wonderful, because every time I saw a counselor in the past they always gravitated towards my depressive symptoms rather than the OCD, which in my case is actually far more pernicious. I felt so relieved to finally find someone who had the training and inclination for doing OCD therapy, which apparently is rather rare. I would recommend this book to anyone dealing with OCD or living with someone who has OCD. Because I started reading this book a week before Easter, I discovered to my delight that I had found a new, concrete way to "practice resurrection," as Wendell Berry puts it, by literally transforming my mind. I do mean literally; behavior therapy physically alters the brain.

The book occasioned the shocking epiphany that there would be no resolving my emotional turmoil. I could not think my way out of it, or air some unresolved feeling that would make it better. I had to stop thinking about it. I had to tell myself that rehashing the past was not making me more adept for the future, but rather crippling me. I needed to let go. But when I think about the disagreements we had in our community, the moments I shut up when I should have spoken up, I can't convince myself that I shouldn't be thinking about it. It seems too important. What I can do is focus on how it feels to be ambushed by terrorist thoughts and emotions armed with fear, guilt, anger, and self-doubt. I have learned to recognize the feeling of "brain lock," as the book puts it, the rising of tension, the feeling that the CD in my head suddenly got scratched and is going on repeat. I focus on that, rather than the thought content, and remind myself that this a mental disorder, not reality. As Schwartz puts it, reality is my ally.

As I practice this mindful vigilance, it helps me to know that this is what it means to embody resurrection; to strive inwardly to create peace, focus, and the renewal of my mind and body. OCD's a bitch, but at least it's occasioned a practice that is at once behavioral, mental, and spiritual; the practice of resurrection.

Friday, April 29, 2011

International Networking: Professional and Personal

The other day, I was talking on Skype with the pastor at the Moravian Church in Puerto Cabezas, and she mentioned in passing that Carol Forbes, one of the women who attended the Creole Moravian young adult meetings with me, would be in Chicago for a workshop on grassroots organizing around issues of domestic violence. I said, "Wait, back up. Someone I know from Puerto will be a mere two and a half hour drive from my home and conveniently located near some of the best theatre in the Midwest?" Count me in.

I met up with Carol last weekend, and I think the feeling of relief was mutual. She'd been in the US for a week and didn't have anyone to talk to who knew her family and her community. I remember that feeling all too well; you are forever on square one and explaining what your home is like to people who, as well meaning as they are, really have no point of reference for understanding. To some extent, even the women who were there from Belize and other parts of Nicaragua come from different realities. They had told her that her Creole didn't sound like Creole, but like "normal" English, and they were going to send her a dictionary so that porteno Creoles could keep from losing their language. We agreed they could go screw themselves.

For my part, it was nice to talk to someone who had also bridged both worlds; who knew Puerto, and was now experiencing this part of the US for the first time. I felt a new surge of connection and relevance. She talked about her sisters, and people that we both knew, and local communities, and the struggles they were facing. In Puerto, I felt like I really could transform the world through my relationships. People in need were not living in other parts of town or the world; they were my friends and neighbors. Love, compassion, and justice never felt so intimately related. When I act out my values by donating to charity or even by volunteering my time in controlled, defined amounts, it feels much more distanced. Not that these acts aren't important and wonderful. It just isn't the same, and it doesn't appeal as much to my more relationship-oriented way of being.

Our conversation also brought back to my mind the conflicted feelings I have about international ministries and outreach. She was talking about how she needed to encourage her sisters and other women to get educated and get jobs and then give part of their money to helping women in situations of domestic abuse construct their own homes so they could had another option. These women have valuable skills and know how to run a household; they just don't have the capital to actually start their own. I was inspired by her passion; I believe it is local visionaries and organizers in Nicaragua, most often found among professional and educated women, who will ultimately transform the country. My interest is purely selfish; I love the organizers that I met there, and the community in general. I want to support their struggle because they are my friends and I am inspired by their work, but ultimately the struggle is theirs. Even if they are poor, it is better if they gather their own funds to support members of their community, because they have the relationships, knowledge, and trust to make it work. Well-meaning, international non-profits' interventions can mess up that dynamic of local agency and accountability and create dependence, even while providing the capital local people need to create the changes they wish to see.

The workshop that she was attending provided me with hope for possible avenues of productive international relationships. It brought women together from several regions of Central America to discuss their situations, see how domestic violence plays out in the Chicago area and meet with speakers on gender issues in other areas of the world, such as Egypt. Carol said she'd gotten a lot of different strategy ideas to take back to Puerto Cabezas, and she'd have to wait and see what worked and what didn't. This type of gathering and discussion allows for give and take, which is what any relationship, international or otherwise, ought to look like. I'd like to think that was what my Cap Corps time was about; giving and taking knowledge of one another, that we might all be enriched. As the Qur'an says, "O humankind, we have created you male and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another." (Surah 49:13)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Sweaty God: Another translation from the Misa Campesina

Here is my translation of the Canto de Entrada from the Nicaraguan liberation theology misa campesina. You can listen to the song at


You are the God of the worker,
God of the poor and the humble,
The God who sweats as he labors,
Your face the color of leather.

And that’s why I talk to you
The way I talk to my people.
With words that are plain and simple,
Because you’re a worker, too.

You walk hand in hand beside my people,
Struggling in the field at hot midday.
Then you line up with the farm hands,
Waiting until you collect your daily pay.
You snack on raspado on the park bench,
With Eusebio, Pancho ‘n’ Arnulfo,
And you even protest over syrup
When you think they should have poured you more.

I have seen you sitting in the market,
Selling watermelon from your stall.
And I’ve even seen you on the highway,
Patrolling in gloves and overalls.
I have seen you in the gasolinera
Checking out the tire pressure gauge.
And I’ve seen you selling lott’ry tickets,
But the job does not make you ashamed.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Adulthood: The Game

Because maturity may be something you become, but adulthood is something you do.

Point Values for Each "Adultivity"

Go to the bank 5
Eight hours of work 20
Check bank account 3
Send business e-mail 2
Send business letter 3
Pay a bill on time 20
Pay a bill late 10
Cook a meal 8
Buy groceries 5
Other errand 5
Wash dishes 3
Cleaning chore 3
Balance checkbook 10
Possess a filing system 10
Organize filing system 5
Take out a mortgage 50
Have a child 50

I'm still waiting to see what you win.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Asking Questions: The Witness of Curiosity

This is the sermon I preached today in First Baptist-Madison. The texts were Acts 8:28-40 and John 5:2-9a.

I chose these two Scripture readings because they are both examples of the under-practiced ministry of asking questions. In the Acts reading, Philip is directed by the Holy Spirit to a road, to a specific man in a chariot. Yet he does not begin the conversation with the assertive statement one might expect from someone who has been given a mission from an angel of God and led by the Spirit to this place. He does not open with “Hey there, I’ve been called by God to explain to you what you have been reading. You may think you understand, but from what this angel tells me you clearly don’t.” This statement comes with an implicit judgment, an assumption. Instead of going the judgment route, he opens with an expression of curiosity. “Do you understand what that means?”
The set-up in the gospel reading invites an assumption that is so commonplace in reading Scripture we may not even be aware we make it. There’s a lame man by the pool. Jesus comes along. We’ve all heard this story before. Lame man wants to be healed, Jesus will heal him. I would think Jesus, who lives this reality every day, would be the first to assume that the lame man seeks to be healed. But he doesn’t simply heal him. He asks first: “Do you want to be healed?”
Perhaps more surprising than the question is the answer, which shows that the lame man also assumes he wants to be healed, but doesn’t stop to actually think about it. He complains that he can never get to the pool that can heal him. This statement is based on the underlying assumption that he wants to be cured, but he doesn’t actually come out and say, “I want to be healed.” The difference between that statement and “I can’t be healed” is one of agency. He is unwilling to take responsibility for his own healing; he blames his situation. He says, in effect, that it doesn’t matter if he wants to or not; he can’t be healed because of his place in life. This learned helplessness is even more debilitating than his physical impairment. In asking what may seem like an obvious question, Jesus brings the lame man to reveal that his true affliction resides in his mind, not his legs. Jesus then tells the man to stand and take up his mat. The command makes me wonder. What if, in lying there for heaven knows how long, the man’s body had healed by itself, but he had become so used to being a cripple, he hadn’t realized it? In any case, the real miracle here is as much the man actually taking action for the first time, at Jesus’ command. He is no longer helpless. The story goes on to prove that this affliction is much more difficult to heal than his physical disability had been.
This kind of learned helplessness is a pernicious affliction of those who suffer financially, emotionally, and physically. It would be an excellent sermon topic, but that’s not what I want to focus on today. I want to focus on Jesus’ approach to ministry that begins with a question rather than an assertion or a command. He opens the scene with an expression of curiosity, rather than judgment. This allows the truth of the scene to be revealed. Curiosity affords a deeper understanding of others, allowing them to define themselves rather than be defined by the inquirers, which sets the scene for conversations to happen at a deeper level, beneath the normal back and forth conditioned by assumption and habituated response. This kind of conversation leads to true relationship and mutual understanding. It’s more than just an attitude. It’s a Christian witness. I am going to talk about how this witness applies to civil discourse, which includes not only government, but also business, professional, church meeting-ish relationships and to personal relationships.
When I went to Nicaragua for a year and a half, I was constantly presented with new and challenging situations that left me with nothing but questions. It is easy in such situations to fall into a judgmental or complaining mentality. Why can’t anyone arrive on time? Why aren’t school resources used more efficiently? Why can’t you just do things my way? It would be the equivalent of Philip coming up to the chariot, hopping in uninvited and saying, “here, let me explain this to you.” For this reason, perhaps, Americans have developed a bit of a reputation for being insufferably bossy. This kind of complaining mentality is a bottomless pit, because there are always things in every culture that are silly and can be complained about. We simply get inured to a certain degree to the ridiculousness of our own culture. In any case, if you fall in, you will never be content.
While it is especially easy to be judgmental and miserable in another country, there is still no better place to cultivate an attitude of curiosity. This is precisely because everything is new and foreign. When I constantly find myself confronted with difference, I can more easily make the shift in thinking from “Ugh!” to “Huh!”
When presented with the unknown, you have a greater power to decide how to react because you haven’t developed a habitual pattern of reaction yet. I had never had to wait two hours for a practice that may or may not happen. I had never had school cancelled last minute because of rain. My year and a half in Nicaragua was a great opportunity for me to cultivate more flexible, even-keeled response patterns based on suspending judgment and seeking more information because it was so far from all the things I know that I hadn’t realized that I knew, which Hunter Forrester says is the very definition of “culture.”
It is much more difficult to approach situations and people we see every day with curiosity rather than judgment, because we are so thoroughly habituated to the response patterns we already have. In Nicaragua, if I saw a political sign supporting one of the local political parties, I always wondered why they supported that party. In the US, if I see a political sign supporting a candidate, I respond with positive emotion or negative emotion. All these ideas start to form in my head of what this person must be like and why they would support this candidate. I can hear what Daniel Ortega does, and I take it into consideration, I may or may not believe it. I hear what Walker does, and I respond emotionally. I don’t take the same time to question is this true, why do I feel this way, what are this person’s motives. Emotions aren’t bad. Habituated responses, left unquestioned, are bad.
Cultural familiarity leads to habituated responses and impedes a witness of curiosity. It is much harder to practice new ways of being in a set of circumstances we are utterly and completely used to. For this reason, it was actually harder for me to live in community with two fellow American ex-pats than it was to interact with the people of Nicaragua. In community, I would get so used to being angered and irritated that I wouldn’t ask the questions I needed to ask to interrogate and perhaps transform the situation. For example, I got really sick of one of my housemate’s frequent complaints about various elements of life in Nicaragua. I would become silent and sullen whenever she launched into some critique of something she had encountered there, and it was a major impediment to our relationship. Yet it wasn’t until we were in a mediated, intentional conversation that I was actually able to look at her and say, “Do you like being here?” To which she answered yes, I do. And we just left at that. She later told me that asking her that had been really helpful for her, because it made her think, “Huh, why don’t I talk about the stuff I like more?” So the question had allowed us both to shift the focus from what was being said to what was not being said, which was what I had needed. But in our daily conversations, my irritation dominated me and I couldn’t bring myself to shift the conversation in the way I needed it to shift.
Asking questions can be a way to challenge or overcome habitual ways of acting and reacting. It can also be a way to challenge habitual ways of non-acting and reacting. When I think I know a person well, I more freely assume I understand their motivations for acting the way they do. Then it turns out the other person doesn’t share my assumptions, and conflict and hard feelings ensue. An example would be a couple weeks after I got back from Nicaragua, I mentioned to Twink that I was surprised that no one had asked me to preach or share or anything about my experience there. I harbor the belief that the church which nurtures and encourages the development of spiritual gifts has a right and a duty to almost obligate its members to share those gifts with the community. She explained to me that people tended to assume that I was busy with my, you know, like, life or something, and that if I wanted to share I had to come forward. “So you wanted to preach then?” “Well, yeah, I guess so.” I assumed that I would be asked if my gifts were wanted, and others had assumed that I would come forward if I wanted to share. As a result, no communication happened, and I like to think we were all the worse off for it. I remember I think it was Claire Rider who told me I should sing in the choir, and then said, “And now you feel guilty about it.” I thought somewhat self-consciously, like she shouldn’t have said it. I wanted to respond, “No. That’s perfect. Obligate me!” That’s the church’s job.
There was a line from the song “Iowa” by Dar Williams that kept repeating in my head while I was in Nicaragua. “Way back where I come from, we never mean to bother. We don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern. We walk in a world of safe people, and at night we walk into our houses and burn.” She’s talking about the Midwestern American cultural phenomenon of the “polite but aloof,” in which people make the assumption that others want to keep their passions, their fears and their inner struggles to themselves. We don’t ask questions. The Nicaraguans do not share this predilection for privacy. Your passions are everybody’s concerns. I was once stopped by an acquaintance on the street, a woman who sold snacks outside of the school grounds where I worked, and she looked at me and said, “You look sad today. What’s wrong? Did something happen at home?” Another time I was walking beside a woman I didn’t know on the street. We exchanged greetings, and then she began to tell me about how her son was alcoholic and obnoxious and she wanted to kick him out.
This cultural practice of sharing everything has its downsides. The gossip, for example, can be vicious and out of control. On the other hand, it made me feel cared about. I felt like I had an obligation to be part of community, to share of myself and to share in the struggles of others. Both a Norwegian and Nicaraguan friends mentioned to me on separate occasions something to the effect of, “With Americans, you can have a conversation for an hour, but you’ll never really talk about anything important. You never really know who they are.” That may work for the supermarket and cocktail parties, but it’s not good enough for a church. We are the body of Christ, that suffers with the pain and rejoices in the strength of every stomach, foot, and shoulder. In order to do that, we have to ask the questions. We have to provoke with our curiosity, and not default on the assumption that others don’t want to share their deepest insecurities. When I went to visit my little church in Milwaukee, a Baptist gathering called the Broken Walls Christian Community, we got into a discussion of which divinity school or seminary I should attend. The pastor looked at me thoughtfully for a moment and then he asked me, “What are you hungry for?” This gave me pause. I realized I wasn’t sure. It was actually somewhat maddening. I was frustrated because I didn’t have a ready response, which is such a fundamental part of American conversations. But that was the beauty of the question. It gave me something to think about that I really needed to think about. He said, “when you know that, you’ll know where to go.”
“What are you hungry for?” “What’s most difficult in life for you right now?” “Where are you on your faith journey?” “What are you learning about yourself these days?” What if these questions replaced “How are you dealing with the cold spell?” “What are doing these days?” ? It would be obnoxious and intrusive, just like the mustard weeds of the kingdom of God. It might bring responses of “I’m not sure” and that would be okay. It might mean risking overstepping one’s bounds and getting “I don’t really want to talk about that right now.” Which would be a beautiful amalgam of Latin American and American culture, with both a dogged interest in the lives and wellbeing of others, while allowing the other person to put up boundaries without the need for anyone being hurt or defensive.
Church is a place of tradition, which means it’s also a place of deeply held belief and habit. Nowhere will it be harder to ask tough questions of one another, to challenge ourselves and each other to see the community and each individual in new ways. But church is also a safe space to grow in frightening new directions, to learn, to be wrong. This is the kind of transformation Christ calls us to. Jesus’ question to the lame man is still before us: “Do you want to be healed?”

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I May be Getting the Jump on Lent, But...

I was studying music that I brought back with me from the misa campesina at the Batahola Norte Cultural Center in Managua, and I discovered one with a familiar tune. I wrote a translation for the lyrics, posted below.

"Cuando un niño"
To the tune of "Were You There When They Crucified my Lord"

When the little hungry children ask for bread
When they weep because no one answers their plea.

Oh oh oh, I tremble for you, my Lord, you're suff'ring, crying, dying
With the starving children you are dying, too.

You are dying when poor people become slaves,
When they shout out to demand their freedom.
Oh oh oh....
When the poor become slaves, you are dying, too.

When I feel the world is torn apart by war,
When a brother his own brother seeks to kill,
Oh oh oh....
With those who are dying, you are dying too.

When you are sick and dying at my side,
When I forget your hunger and your pain,
Oh oh oh...
When I'm stupid and I'm selfish you die, too.

And for all you who speak Spanish, here's the original:

Cuando un niño con hambre pide pan,
Cuando llora pues nunca se lo dan,
Oh oh oh, tiemblo por ti, Jesús, sufres, lloras, mueres,
Con los niños de hambre mueres tú.

Mueres tú cuando un pobre esclavo está,
Cuando grita pidiendo libertad,
Oh oh oh....
Con los pobres esclavos mueres tú.

Cuando siento que el mundo en guerra está,
Que el hermano al hermano matará,
Oh oh oh...
Con las gentes que mueren mueres tú.

Cuando pasas enfermo junto a mí,
Cuando olvido tu hambre y tu sufrir,
Oh oh oh...
Por mi absurdo egoísmo mueres tú.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Deep Questions

Do you have trouble thinking of meaningful questions to ask people who have recently come out of a life-changing experience like international travel or service? I know I do! Instead of resorting to safe but inane queries about adjusting to the weather and even future plans, try some riskier inquiries that make both of you take pause. In our meeting last week, the returned volunteers came up with a list of questions we'd like people to ask of us, even if it might seem overly personal or annoying because we actually have to think. I know this list was extremely helpful for me in engaging my fellow volunteers, so I thought I'd share it with the wider community. In time, perhaps I will dare to extend its use beyond people returning from profound experiences into my everyday inane conversations.

How did you experience God?
Where did you find your nourishment?
What was the hardest part?
What has changed you?
What did you learn about yourself?
What do you miss?
What were the normal things that made up your days?
How are you incorporating your experience into your life now?
What do you need now?
Who were the people that were important to you?
How are you going to use your experience to give back?
What feelings are still with you?

Note that for many of these questions, a simple tense change from past to present can make it apply to everyday living. Here's to taking our conversations to a deeper, more intrusive, and more meaningful level!

Also: shout out to the protests at the State Capitol. Today I led the Rotunda in a rousing rendition of the "Solidarity Forever" chorus. It's really an exciting demonstration of political will.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Community Practice

After living in intentional communities of three people for the past two and a half years, I can honestly say that no other experience has me more convinced of the fallen nature of humankind. I can never love other people the way God loves them. I'm not even talking about the destructive, self-denying "love" that is so often associated with divinity. I may know to speak up when I get angry, when I shouldn't take things personally, or when to listen to someone else speak up because they took something personally. I may know that community member A sees things differently than I do, and I may understand perfectly how both I see them and how A sees them. But it won't matter. I will still fail to be honest, to be patient, to be understanding.

In all of the myriad ways I can fail and on occasion succeed in community, I have found it best to center my awareness on just a few at a time. Or even like just one. Lately, I have been reflecting on one practice in particular: curiosity.

Marcia Lee, the assistant director of Cap Corps who has done graduate study on conflict resolution, often speaks of learning to approach others from a place of curiosity rather than judgment. This practice is actually easier to cultivate with people I hardly know and in unfamiliar cultural settings. For that reason, traveling abroad is an excellent exercise in developing curiosity, because so much of what I encounter falls outside the beaten tracks on which my thoughts normally travel. When I think I know a person well, I more freely assume I understand their motivations for acting the way they do. This assumption impedes vital communication. For example, someone says to me that they think Miskito people are ignorant, or that Muslims can't be trusted to hold public office in the US. Or even something less extreme like, "I think I'd prefer if you let me know before bringing guests over." Instead of being outraged or indignant, as enjoyable as those reactions may be, it tends to work better to think, "Wow, I would never ever have even thought to think about that the way you do. Can you explain to me why you feel that way?" I'm trying to program this as a default response, even when I think I understand where a person is coming from. It facilitates better communication, and it's much easier on my nervous system. While it's still a work in progress, my preliminary findings suggest that curiosity can be a gateway practice that opens up towards other practices that have deeper spiritual significance, like compassion, patience, and serenity.

It never gets easier. Living in community, or in authentic relationship more generally, entails a ridiculous amount of work that often feels like it's not going anywhere. I have to believe that the very practice of intentional relationship, like meditation, is inherently worthwhile, rather than a means to attain affection, worth, or stability. I do it because I'm called to it, not because it will bring me some revelation of God. Maybe in accepting that, and accepting that I will sometimes fail to be fully curious about the people that surround me, I will stumble into that serenity.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Keeping the Faiths

Today in church I participated in a discussion about the book The Faith Club, in which a Muslim, Christian, and Jew discuss their faith. One woman pointed out how great she thought it was that children can go to school with people from all different religious background, and that this might circumvent some of the prejudice and ignorance held by previous generations.

The comment reminded me of a conversation I had with my Christian Formation co-teacher at Colegio del Nino Jesus, Cornelia Lackwood. I was explaining to her how the volunteer corps that sent me was a Catholic organization, even though I myself was not Catholic. (On a sidebar, I was really impressed by how this was taken in stride by the local nuns and the Catholic religion teachers I worked with. When asked if it would be okay for me to work with them even though I was Baptist, they all simply said, "Oh, it's all the same God." This is not a view I encountered so much in the western part of the country.) I told her that I had learned to value various elements of Catholic tradition, and particularly the spiritual teachings and mysticism of various saints. Baptists don't do mysticism well, and I think our spirituality suffers for it. She asked me if at any point I had felt a draw towards converting to Catholicism (she herself had converted from the Moravian church). I explained to her I hadn't, because my heart still lay firmly with my own tradition. It's a very important part of my identity, because it connects me with my extended family, generations that came before me, and the faith community that nourished me when I was growing up. She then asked me a question that gave me pause: "Do you ever feel like you're riding two horses at once?"

I didn't bother telling her that I was attending a Moravian church and had previously taken various courses on Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, all of which influenced my religious thinking. So if I am riding more than one horse, I must be mounted on at least a half-dozen. I struggled a bit with my answer, which is that I don't. I guess at the end of the day, I know where I belong, which church I'll be going back to. But I feel like no religion can fully capture God. Some religions elucidate certain elements of God very well. Catholics are good with forgiveness of sins and the usefulness of meditation, Lutherans nail the grace thing, and Quakers have the absolute egalitarianism of human souls before God. Jews have this awesome idea that God made a covenant with people, and people have a right to hold God accountable. I recognize that and appreciate it, but I feel like it's important to belong to one community in which I can know and be known, where I share all of these thoughts and reflections, and feel like I'm participating in a tradition that reaches back generations and will continue on for generations.

I'm probably writing it a bit more eloquently than I explained it, but I said something to that effect. I was a little self-conscious, because I thought her point had validity. Even setting aside debates about cultural appropriation, cherry-picking religious concepts has only limited value. Most elements of religion really work the best in the context of their whole tradition. I can practice yoga as a spiritual aid, but I know that I will never experience its full power because I will never fully embrace the spirituality and worldview behind it. Her response, however, was quite touching: "How different would the world be if more of us thought like that!" I appreciated the vote of confidence.

For a community of people with very strongly held and often conflicting religious beliefs, the overall spirit of ecumenism in Puerto's mainline churches always moved me. According to Susan, even Mormon missionaries preferred Puerto Cabezas to other Nicaraguan sites they visited, because the people there were generally more open and willing to hear them out than they were in other places. Maybe this is because of the long history of two dominant churches, the Catholics and the Moravians, rather than just one. Or maybe it's because Puerto is just a pretty cool place.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Crossing Border(')s

At our final Cap Corps retreat, we spent some time reflecting on the things we were looking forward to in the US and the things we wanted to take back with us. My response to the "looking forward to" question was always books, a culture of reading, and intellectual conversation. Nicaraguan culture is very oral-based. People hang out on their porches and talk to each other; they don't read. If I cracked open a book in a public place, people thought I must be reading the Bible. I missed talking to people about books and the ideas inside them.

During my layover in Miami, I was immediately drawn to the bookstore, like a moth to the laptop screen when the power is out. The top-selling book covers featured the handsome faces of Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, and Glenn Beck (was he this popular when I left?), as well as Barack Obama. There were titles telling me all about what was wrong with the current government. Why the economy failed. How to make money really fast. I suddenly remembered the feeling of despair I often had before going to Nicaragua, that feeling that I would never be able to read everything I needed to read in order to be the well-informed, effective, and sensitive person I liked to imagine myself to be. My ready defenses against the barrage of visual media telling me what to do and think had atrophied living in a city that no sales agency cared to market. My chest suddenly felt like a balloon slowly inflating with the stale air of inadequacy, and I felt the overwhelming urge to cover up my ears and run out of the bookstore screaming"LEAVE ME ALONE!!"

I realized that analysis is nice. But sometimes it's nicer to just take life as it goes without picking it apart to try to make it better all the time.

And then I ate some Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Deep chocolate with peanut butter chunks. Marketing can be so delicious.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


I have now been repatriated for one week. My sleeping habits have been thrown off by the drastic reduction of natural light. My eating habits are all higgledy-piggledy because suddenly there's all this food around all the time that I can just eat without hardly any preparation. Now that I'm not walking or dancing so much, I need to find new ways to exercise. The main theme of my life right now, therefore, is reestablishing biorhythms.

I have not unintentionally restricted my interpersonal contact almost entirely to my immediate family, because that's about all I've been able to deal with. My mom has told me I seem to be adjusting well on an emotional level, and on the whole I think she is correct. Nonetheless, I feel like part of my heart got ripped out and left behind. In part, of course, this is because I said good-bye to the first person I ever fell in love with in the airport, and I don't know when I'll see him again. But it is also because I fell in love with a whole bunch of people, a natural environment, and a way of living that I can't carry back with me, no matter how many pictures I upload to Facebook, songs I cram onto flash drives, and entries I post on my blog. I stay fairly even-keel, but there are moments, before I fall asleep at night or while I'm washing the dishes, that I feel completely overwhelmed by a sense of loss and I start to cry. And then, mere minutes later, the feeling passes. It's like the isolated rainclouds that would come in off the ocean, showering Puerto in a fierce downpour. The only thing to do was stop under an overhang and wait patiently, taking the time to admire the rain and the moment, because both would soon pass.