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.