And the Word Became Kid

I have always found the doctrine of election to be rather . . . unhappy.  “You—in.”  “You—out.”  “Saved.” “Damned.”  I can just picture God the Father up there on His throne, forehead wrinkled, eyebrows ablaze, making two lines out of all of us.  A stairway going up, a stairway going down.  Before time began, He picked some of us for one end . . . and some of us for another.  So the story goes.  Personally, I don’t like it.  It’s so severe.  This is grace?

My girlfriend, Rebekah, is amazing with children.  When she talks about kids, she throws open the windows to her soul with abandon, and the light inside bursts out like fireworks, like the Fourth of July.  I soak it in when this happens.  It’s my favorite thing.  Coincidentally, Bekah got babysitting gig this year with two kids only two doors down from my apartment beneath Dr. Walhout’s house.  Their names are Abby and Alex.  Second grade and kindergarten.  Their parents are both lawyers, so between school’s end and their parents’ return they play with Bekah.  Lucky kids.  I get texts randomly from her while I’m reading political blogs or microwaving hot dogs: “I’m sitting under a fort we just made in the living room!”  “We’ve played with nothing but pipe cleaners for three hours straight!”  “We’re at the park on the merry-go-round!  Miss you!”

OK, I’m pretty lucky too.

Recently my housemates and I got a dog, Meatloaf, and he constantly has to piss.  I’m almost embarrassed for him, because it seems like every thirty minutes he scratches at the door, runs up to me or Brent, and runs back to the door, again and again, looking at us: “Look, I know I have to do this a lot, but really, I’m as ashamed are you are annoyed, so if we could just go on a quick walk I really really really have to go.  Now.  Please?  Oh, and maybe I could score a treat when we get back?”  Damn dog, anyway.  I’ve never felt more manipulated.

All that to say, by chance once Brent and I took Meatloaf on a walk to pee, and caught Bekah, Abby, and Alex at the park.  After Meatloaf jumped five feet from the top of the playset, he was officially declared their favorite creature in the whole world.  Bekah tells me that Meatloaf is now one of their favorite topics of discussion.  A couple weeks ago one of my favorite events of the year happened: the kids requested that Meatloaf come out and play.  Bekah sent Brent a text and not too long afterward we were outside and had even picked up a couple extra girls from the neighborhood gang, Anna and Emily, to join us.

And we were off.  Soon we were talking about what Meatloaf should be for Halloween next year.

“What if Meatloaf was a prince for Halloween?”  Abby suggested.

“Oh!”—Alex bursted, getting ready to rocket off into space—“What if Meatloaf was a . . . a toilet!!”

Suddenly I was giddy.  “Yeah, a toilet!” I exuberated, goading him on.  “And then we could flush him!”

He burst out laughing.  We were officially buds.  Poop is the funniest thing in the world when you are five.  And twenty-two.  Pooping is hilarious.  Five-year-olds know this, and revel in the absurdity of the whole process.

Even great theologians too often forget that God used to be five.  God used to get so excited about dogs that His little feet could hardly stay on the ground.  God probably giggled at potty jokes, too.  God decided to spend a year being five; I hope He enjoyed it while it lasted.

We arrived at the park, but the main playground was taken so we set off downhill toward the swingset.  Bekah, Brent and I were the sun to these kids’ comets.  They harnessed our gravitational pull to rocket out into the park, lingering under bushes—“Look, this should be Meatloaf’s toilet!”—or behind trees before slowly, faithfully swinging back in, coming inevitably back within arms’ reach—“Rebekah, can I have a piggy back ride!?”—before shooting back out again.  And we slowly made our way through the grass.

Someone suggested a game of hide-and-seek, and right away the kids claimed their side.  “I’m gonna be a hider!” sung Anna, and she and Emilie were off into the trees.  Abby took off too.  My new friend Alex stood in suspension, considering his options.

“Alex,” Bekah cooed, “Do you want to be a hider or a seeker?”

He walked up to me and pointed to my nose.  “I want to do whatever you’re doing.”

My heart swelled and gushed, and a smile flooded my face.  It was a torrent of rain after seven years of drought.  It was the taste of fresh strawberries from the local farm.  It was undeserved, unasked-for grace, and it felt like—and it was—heaven.

A very strange and wonderful thing happened in that moment.  See, I haven’t played outside in ages.  It isn’t like me to play hide-and-go-seek in a park; it’s not something I would choose to do on my own.  And even when I was a child, I found myself to be reluctant to just play.  Reading was more my thing.

But in Alex’s innocent, trusting act of election, I found myself transformed.  In his trust I began to trust myself, and I became a world-class playmate.  We chased.  We tagged.  We laughed.  We had fun.  And soon Alex was following me all over the place, and I found myself climbing trees and balancing on logs just to entertain him, just to hear him giggle and try to do it himself.  His innocence became my innocence, and his joy became mine.

The Lord is like this boy.  I am convinced.  We are an insecure, broken, oft-mistaken people, we humans.  Yet the Creator looked down at what his hands had formed, saw what a mess it had all become, saw how scared and insecure and awkward we felt, and He came to us and chose to be with us not in power and judgment and authority, but in vulnerability, in humility, in trust.  He arrived among us in a crib, among animals and peasants—a child, puking and mewling in his mother’s arms.  In and through this decision, he made it forever clear to us that He looks to us and says, “Yes.  I am on your team.  I am with you.”

“I want to do whatever you’re doing.”

May we be forever transformed by that choice.

 

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2010: A Year in Review

Wow.  This has probably been one of the most dramatic, adventuresome, and life-changing years I will ever have.  This little exercise is mostly for me, but I wanted to take a minute to look back at everything that happened this year.  I need some perspective, anyway.

1.  On Ash Wednesday, I broke up with my girlfriend of over 2 1/2 years.  I posted many a post about this back then, and to be honest, it’s still rough.  It’s still a source of pain, and I still mourn the loss, from time to time.  Ultimately it was a good thing, a really good thing.  But man, did it hurt.  I am so thankful for all the things I learned about relationships, romance, and the nature of love from this exhausting and emotional experience.  Experience is a harsh teacher, but you learn.  By God, do you learn.

2.  I put in over 100 hours of volunteer time at the Union Gospel Mission downtown and gained not only a sympathy, but a respect, for the poor and powerless.  Even paranoid schizophrenics, I learned, have something to teach us about Jesus.

3.  I graduated from SPU with a Bachelor’s in Theology, with minors in Global & Urban Ministry, Christian Scripture, History, and Philosophy.  Why I needed four minors is beyond me, but hey.  I am so glad that I decided to switch to SPU after my freshman year.  I can’t imagine how different my life would be without this place, and I am so thankful for the way my professors and peers sparked my imagination and supported me in a time of intellectual struggle and exploration.

4.  I planned, raised funds for, and went on a 5-week trip through Europe and the Middle East.  From the 21st of June to the 2nd of August, I visited Berlin, Krakow, Budapest, Istanbul, Cairo, and the Holy Land to study and experience the history of the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, Arab culture and Christianity, Islam, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a host of other tangentially related topics.  It was a huge thrill.  I came back with $40 to my name, but with loads of memories and many new friends.

5.  I read the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation, in order.  It’s actually quite the story, when you get the wide angle on it.  Sometimes we get so busy with the details that we miss the bigger picture.

6.  I spent a lot of time underemployed.  This is a bigger deal than you might think; working 7 hours a week is a drag.  I’ve learned a lot from it, though, on just how much self-worth I find in what I do, rather than who I am.  This is no good.

7.  I worked 80 hours at a book binding warehouse in south Seattle.  This was a fascinating and grueling experience in its own right.  I gained an even deeper respect for the working poor, a better understanding of their day-to-day struggles, and received a renewed since of calling to live among them and for them.

8.  I started dating one of my best friends I made in college, someone whom I admire and respect so much, and have been blessed repeatedly by our relationship.  My hope and prayer is that this will continue throughout 2011, and that we would grow closer together and learn to love each other fully, truly, and freely this coming year.

Here’s to another year, whatever it may bring.  May we learn to graciously accept the gifts that God offers us in this coming year.

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Encounters with Coffee Culture

(Alternatively titled, “My Very Cute and Persuasive Girlfriend Says I Should Blog More”.)

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Seattle is known for its coffee culture.  A little company called Starbucks started here (duh), but there’s jazillions of other independent shops and small chains around too, as any self-respecting Seattleite will be sure to inform you.

Upon returning from my trip I got a job at Top Pot, a place known for its donuts but which also serves up a fair amount of espresso each day, too.  I had to do three days of coffee training once I got hired.  Three days.  And I’m still getting corrected on my form.  Making a latte, much like falling in love, is a lot about chemistry.  It’s pretty complicated shit.

All that aside, my job is boring.  Most days are fairly slow and uneventful.  But I do have some interesting and/or funny encounters with customers from time to time, so I thought I’d relay some of those here.  Those of you who don’t live here (or who are mostly stuck in the SPU bubble—you know who you are) will get a little window onto the Seattle scene.  In fact, I might even use these posts as a springboard for some comments on Seattle culture generally . . . hm . . .

So.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and the place is empty.  We close at seven and most people want doughnuts in the morning, not in the afternoon, so weekdays are usually pretty sleepy after around 1 PM.  I read the paper while I wait for the dishwasher to finish.

A couple of young guys come in around 5.  One of them is in a button-down and jeans.  The other is sunglasses and all denim, baby.  Lookin’ sharp.

“Hey guys, how’s it goin’ today,” I say.  It’s a statement more than a question.

“Good, good,” says the less fashionable of the two.  He must have left his denim jacket at his girlfriend’s house or something.  “Hey, I was wondering, what kind of coffee do you carry?  Like, do you know what it’s called?”

“Well, we roast our own beans,” I say, somewhat proudly.  That gives you a bit of cred in the culture, I think.  “But I don’t know that much more about it.  It’s called Diplomat.”  I know this because the bins they come in say, “Diplomat”.  This is coffee for important government officials.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be soon be negotiated over a cup of Diplomat coffee.  It’s a very dignified brew.

He looks down his nose at the doughnut case.  “Yyyyeah . . . do you know where it’s from?”

Zero idea.  “You wanna try a sip?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

I pull out an 8-ounce paper cup and pour him a sample.  He swirls it around like it’s a glass of Merlot and gives it a whiff, finally tipping the cup to his lips for a taste.  He pauses.

“You know what this is?”

Yes, I do.  It’s drip coffee, you wiener.

“This is like diner coffee.  This is like, like, a coffee you would drink with donuts.”

Yes, that’s exactly what it is.  Because this, my friend, is a donut shop.

“You want a donut?”  I smile all friendly-like, so he doesn’t know I think he’s a wiener.

“No, no, that’s OK.”  He pauses again.  “It’s just that—and really, I don’t mean to tell you my whole story—but I grew up in New York City, you know.”

Oh, Lord.

“And in New York City, and in the midwest too, really, coffee is just a vehicle, really, for cream and sugar.  It’s not even coffee. But, when I moved to Seattle, my friend here really taught me the nuances of the craft, you know, how to tell the difference between how the beans are roasted, where they’re from . . . that kind of thing.”

At this, Denim Dan perked up. “Well, I didn’t teach you, I was more of a portal, really . . .”

“Exactly, a portal.  And I just think, you know . . . if I don’t want a cup of Sumatran coffee . . . I don’t have to have a cup of Sumatran coffee.”  The sneer in his voice finally got to me.  He needed to leave.

“So, do you want to buy a cup?”

“You know what man, I think I’ll pass today.  Thanks.”  He walked out the door, with Denim Dan firmly in tow.

This, my dear friends, is the coffee snob par excellence.

Welcome to Seattle.  Snobbery is the new gluttony.

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Meet Bob

Meet my friend Bob.  He is, to use one of his favorite phrases, totally bitchin’.

Another byproduct of engagement is that all of the canned answers to complex questions seem to melt away. I think that’s because we see ourselves in the context of something larger that is unfolding; and the details aren’t distractions, they are ladder rungs that we can pull ourselves up on.  We remember because we are no longer observers.  I think that Jesus had in mind that we would not just be “believers”, but “participants”.  Not because it’s hip, but because it’s accurate.  He wanted people that got to the “do” part of faith; not because He wanted activity, but because He wanted our faith to matter to us.

A couple years ago I was part of a small ministry team of about fifteen people at SPU.  We were blessed (I don’t use that word lightly) to have Bob come and talk with us at one of our staff meetings, and I guess I’ll just say that he knocked our socks off with his boundless enthusiasm and words of encouragement.  I was impressed enough that he spent 2 hours late on a Monday night hanging out with a bunch of college kids, but then a couple weeks later I got a handwritten postcard from him in my campus mailbox.  He took time out of his very busy schedule (Bob is, among other things, a member of the Ugandan consulate, or something like that) to write me a personal word of encouragement, for which I was incredibly grateful.  You should check out his stuff.

He’s going on the blogroll for sure.

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On Being at Home

I want to be a homemaker.  Here’s what I mean.

I am really comfortable on the move.  This summer I spent a month travelling in the Middle East, mostly by myself.  I took only a backpack with me.  The whole thing weighed maybe twenty-five pounds.  I know now that I can put twenty-five pounds of my possessions in a bag, walk out the door, and do just fine.  I was lonely, and I was homesick.  But I was OK.

I am much less comfortable at home.  For a long time I couldn’t even say “where” home was, and that, for me, was a problem.  I had places where I stored my shit.  But I didn’t really have a home, I felt.  “I’m going back to my house” just doesn’t have the same comforting effect as “I’m going home.”

I have this friend (I’m blessed with lots of them) who is a wonderful homemaker.  By that I don’t mean that she knows how to cook (she doesn’t) or is a whiz with a vacuum cleaner or anything like that.  I just mean that she seems to know how to be at home, wherever she is in life.  She carries all of her stuff in boxes, moving twice a year just like I do, but the difference is that while I never feel at home in any of those places, she seems to feel at home in all of them.  I used to wonder why, but then I saw the pictures on her wall.  They were of her family and of her friends from home and at school and summer camp, all in one place, in her room.  Every time she looked up, they were there to remind her of all of those people and places.  She had stitched all these parts of her identity together so well, you could hardly spot the seams.

The other thing I noticed about my friend’s room is that there were always people milling in and out of it.  It was kind of weird because people would just come in and say whatever was on their minds at the moment; they didn’t really need a reason to be there.  They just wanted to be.  It wasn’t a place where people came to borrow stuff or ask a question; it was a place they came to be themselves.  And I can’t help but think that those two things are connected, that her room giving such a strong sense of who she was gave others permission to be who they were.

I learned a lot from that.

Last year I lived in a house with seven other guys, and it was OK.   In my room upstairs, most of the stuff on the walls was my roommate’s, not mine.  I had a bed there, and a couch.  And I stored some boxes in the closet and some clothes in the dresser.  I had piles of papers and lots of books.  But I didn’t have any pictures up.  I didn’t have any of the notes my friends have written me.  Nothing with my name on it, that really identified the room as mine.  No dead giveaways: “Oh, this is definitely Mike’s room.”  More like, “Some college kid lives here.  But we hardly ever see him.”  And if you saw me in my room that year, it would have been either just after I got up or just before I went to bed, because that was the only time I was there.  I would wake up, pull the sheets off me, go through my whole day, come back, pull the sheets back on, and fall asleep.  That was what my room was for.  Storing my shit, and storing my body, whenever I wasn’t using it.

That says a lot about how I lived my life last year.  I was slightly disoriented.  I knew my role in the world outside, but inside, I struggled to understand who I was as the world shifted and surged dramatically around me, often much faster than I felt I could adapt.  This was because I had no place to come back to, I think.  No place to be at home and remember who I was.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a lot of people hanging out in my room that year, either.  With my housemates, conversations would happen a lot in the kitchen or the living room, but my room was pretty quiet.  And if I wanted to have a good conversation with a friend, I’d rarely invite them in, to my room.  We’d always go out, for coffee.

I am good at being out and about.  I am not good at being home.

So I’m trying to change that, because I’d like to be good at both.

Today I started unpacking.  There are a bunch of boxes waiting for me at my new apartment, and I opened them up today and found a bunch of pictures and notes from friends.  These are the kinds of things that my friend would put on her walls and in notebooks almost instinctively, without even thinking about it, but that I, for whatever reason, preferred to stuff in a box last year and forget about.

Tonight, they’re coming out of the box.  It isn’t much, but it’s a start, and although I’ll probably never be as good at homemaking as my friend is, I still want to try.  I think it’s important.

I used to worry a lot about the fact that I didn’t feel at “home” in life.  I’d wonder whether my home was in Vancouver, or Seattle, and whether I’d ever feel at home again like I did when I was younger.  Now I see that home is not so much a location, but a way of being in the world.  It isn’t how often you pack that matters; it’s how well you unpack.

That’s what I mean when I say that I want to be a homemaker.  I want to learn not where, but how to do it, how to create a space for myself and for others where I can be “at home”, a space that I can invite and welcome others into, so that both of us can stop pretending, and just be.

Someday I will say this with a confidence so true it will seem (no, it will be) effortless:

“Hi, come on in.  Welcome to my home.”

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The Conference, Day 1

I wish that I had the time and energy to cobble together all of these experiences into some kind of narrative or argument, but for now all I’ve got for you is more or less a recording of what happened today. That should suffice for now, and I’ll work on something more substantial. Things are still cooking upstairs, but here’s a list of the ingredients!

Today it was rise-and-shine at 7:30 AM, which, as many of you know, is way before my preferred wakeup time. Breakfast was corn flakes (no sugar . . .), lukewarm milk, and pastries with butter and jam. And pita bread. Pita bread is everywhere here.

Shortly afterward we head to the Garden of Gethsemane for worship. We cut through the Old City, leave from St. Stephen’s Gate—where Stephen was martyred in the Book of Acts—and head down the hill toward the Mount of Olives. Luckily we don’t have to go all the way to the top, as it is very steep.

When Jesus was in Jerusalem he made the trip all the way from the Mount of Olives to the Temple every day. Maybe he used a donkey?

We had worship in the Garden of Gethsemane, which still exists and has trees that are more than 3,000 years old. These are the same trees that Jesus walked among just before he was arrested. It was here that he prayed alone while his disciples slept, and here that Judas Iscariot showed up with the Romans soldiers some 2,000 years ago. These trees have seen some action.

The sermon is by Rev. Naim Ateek, who founded Sabeel—the group putting on this conference—20 years ago. Sabeel, if you’re wondering, means “the Way” in Arabic. Ateek is the Palestinian Liberation Theologian. I’ve read his work, and while I may disagree with some of his methodology, I can tell you from meeting him that Dr. Ateek is a kind, kind man. His sermon was entitled “From the Belly of the Whale”, about, naturally, enough, the book of Jonah. Really solid interpretation, in my opinion—not that I’m any position to judge! Jonah is a story that challenges tribal and nationalistic conceptions of who God is and the boundaries of God’s people.

Next, a tour of the Old City. First stop is at the church in the garden which commemorates where Jesus was comforted by the angels in his distress. Then we walk back up toward St. Stephen’s Gate and walk the Via Dolorosa all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, visiting each of the fourteen stations of the cross. Some of them may or may not have been made up by the Crusaders. Also, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is incredible.

For lunch we go to a Palestinian cultural center. One of the myths that Israelis and the British advanced as a justification for the establishment of the State of Israel is that there is (or was) no real “Palestinian” identity—that the Palestinians did not think of themselves as a distinct people group. By this logic, relocation to Jordan or Lebanon was perfectly logical, as this could still be “Palestine”. The cultural center is quite new, but it has many photos of life in Jerusalem before WWII, among other things. Lunch is incredible: chicken, rice, salad, all Palestinian-style. I’ve had food in other Arab countries, and there is definitely a distinct Palestinian flavor . . . not sure what they do, but it’s good.

Afterwards we have a few hours to ourselves in the city, so I head out with a group of fifteen or so, which quickly becomes more like 6 as people peel off or get stuck talking to shopkeepers. We visit the Western Wall. I go into the synagogue in the corner, which is all men, and watch the Hasidim there pray for the reconstruction of the Temple. Later I write my own prayer and stick it in the cracks of the Wall, as is tradition.

Then, it’s back to the Casa Nova Hotel for a movie entitled, “Occupation 101”. I am going to get a copy of this so you folks can watch it. It’s basically an hour-and-a-half introduction to the conflict in all of its history and current dimensions. Essential vocab: 1948, 1967, occupation, separation wall, intifada, the Oslo Accords, and so on. You learn the basics, like how much money America gives to Israel every day (6 to 7 million dollars . . . that’s per day), the amount of land Palestinians have lost, the casualties on both sides, media coverage, home demolitions . . . it’s pretty incredible.

One image that will stick with me: a video clip from one of the intifadas, the Palestinian uprisings. The Israeli response to the Intifada was, self-admittedly, disproportionately violent. This is an intentional policy of the Israeli government toward both Palestinians and any external threats to the country. During the Intifada, this became known as the “break the bone policy”. The clip? Two Israeli soldiers holding down a Palestinian man, pulling his arms behind his head, grabbing a big rock, and breaking his arms. They have to hammer at his upper arm four or five times before the bone actually breaks.

After the film we have time for questions. I was prepared for the film but some had less knowledge of the issue and were, rightfully, emotionally outraged. Some angry discussion and a lot of hard questions.

Time for dinner.

I am eating so well here, I love it. After dinner it’s back downstairs for more icebreakers. We were asked to bring a personal item from our luggage and explain it to the group. I bring a picture of my SMCs from two years ago that a dear friend of mine let me borrow for the trip. So glad she did. Finally, we get into small groups for an end-of-the-day discussion, which I guess we’ll be having every night. We tell our stories about how we got to this conference. Then, finally, bed.

I am exhausted.

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I’m Not Alone

The Romantic knocks it out of the park:

Perhaps God can shape my destiny despite my stubbornness and stupidity and insistence on immediacy. Maybe it’s not too late for me and my dreams which have lately seemed to lie dormant for fear of failure. Maybe all this waiting is meant to teach me to find the perfect balance between waiting and trusting and using the gifts God has given me, despite the risks.

The whole blessed thing is here.

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