Thoughts on Exporting a Culture War

I work at a school in Guatemala that sometimes hosts American missions teams.  Though I’ve only been here for a year and don’t claim to be an expert on everything that goes on here, my students have some thoughts they have shared with me over the past few months about the parade of well-meaning Evangelicals who have come and gone over the years.

First of all, they’ve dealt with a lot of crazy.  They’ve seen people come down here trying to cast out demons in the name of Christ.  They have learned to speak in tongues.  They have been told that if your physical ailment isn’t miraculously healed, then you don’t have enough faith.

Two years ago, a team came down who conducted a week long workshop for the middle and high school students on sexual purity.  They learned about the dangers of plunging necklines and tight jeans, and participated in an activity where they all had to demonstrate appropriate side-hugs, because you know girls, when guys hug you from the front they really just want to feel your boobs.  They told me how at the end of the week, the guys felt like they were mindless creatures who only think about sex, and the girls felt like they were promiscuous if they didn’t prevent it.  “It’s like they thought we were all bad, and the Americans were responsible for making us good,” one of my students said.

It reminded me of something I had heard when I traveled to Kenya a few years ago. The family who hosted us told us about how in their culture, they have come to  believe that black is bad, and white is good.  And even while praying for Jesus to make their sins “as white as snow”, there is this idea that they will never, truly be good because they can never, truly be white.

While I do recognize that missionaries have done a lot of good over the years, In many cases, the Gospel of Christ is brought to the rest of the world with a heaping dose of good, old-fashioned American legalism.

On my trip to Kenya, I remember being confronted by one of the leaders of our team for creating disunity.  I wouldn’t preach about moral values.  I wouldn’t say that drinking alcohol was sinful.  I brought it to their attention that a puppet skit we were doing included some truly horrific racial stereotypes. I only begrudgingly participated in a human video set to a Carman song from 1985.  While I probably could have tried a little harder to go with the program, in some ways, I felt like we were exporting the very worst of American Christianity to the other side of the world.   My friends in Kenya now read books by Joel Osteen and believe that if they could only have enough faith, they too will be able to buy a big house in Texas.

And what I’ve concluded from both the giving and the receiving end is that these sorts of short-term visits are more beneficial for the missions team than they are for anyone else.  The teams who visit us in Guatemala may not know our students—they may not know where they are at or what they really need to hear, but they can still walk away feeling like they made a difference.

I teach at a private Christian school, and while our students may not be technically underprivileged or particularly in need of evangelism, I promise you they will look cute in your Facebook photos.  And if you ask them to raise their hand if they accepted Jesus, I promise you they will all raise their hands.  (Or at least the ones who are seven and under, who are all looking around the room through squinted eyes to see if their friends are doing it too.)  I hear that will look really good in your church bulletin—”Because of your generous financial support, 98 little children in Guatemala accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.”

However, sometimes I wonder.  Would my students trust me more if they hadn’t come into contact with so many Christians who are just there to save their souls and then go home?  And when their eyes glaze over during our school’s weekly chapel meeting, would they be more receptive to what we have to say about the teachings of Jesus if they hadn’t previously associated them with so much legalism and bad theology?  Sometimes I really don’t blame them for throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  In a lot of ways, I have too.

Some people might read this and dismiss me as just another angry millennial who is stirring up the pot, criticizing White American Christianity and all that it stands for.  And if you want to dismiss me, go ahead.  You have my permission. But please don’t dismiss them.  Please don’t use my students as pawns in your culture war.  Because years later, they still remember you.

I don’t have the answers, but I know this isn’t working.  I know we can do better, for their sake as well as our own.

Timshel

I think everyone has an Uncle Leroy.

We all have that person in our family who is notoriously irresponsible.  Families talk about Uncle Leroy behind closed doors, telling their children stories about what not to do.  My dad talks about the wise career guidance he received from his parents, which was something like “Get a job.  Don’t be like Leroy.”

My Great-Uncle Leroy never graduated from college.  I’m sure he meant to when his parents paid for tuition, but somewhere along the way, he dropped out.  He worked for the family business for a while before leaving to start his own company, which was operational for less than a year.  He was married once for six months.  He gambled and drank away his money, he bought houses and cars, financed mostly by his family members who took it upon themselves to keep him out of debt.  Eventually, my grandfather grew tired of bailing him out, and left him to live with the consequences of his own decisions.  “You never loved me,” Leroy said right before he died.  “If you had loved me, you would have given me more.”  I think there were three people at his funeral.

It doesn’t take much research into my family history to see this woven through every generation.  Depression, alcoholism, suicide, domestic abuse—it’s all there.  This blood is in my veins.  This story is my story.

I read about the tendencies of my personality type, and learn I am rated “most likely to be depressed”, like it’s some sort of prize.  I am also likely to be idealistic, and must be burdened occasionally by the necessity of functioning in the real world.  I am likely to be overly emotional, to lash out in anger when things don’t go my way, and to base all of my decisions on feelings.  When I read about how I long for human connections, but don’t know how to get over myself long enough to really connect with anyone, I say yes.  That’s me.

I think about Uncle Leroy and say yesThat’s him.  I think about my great great grandmother whose death certificate says she killed herself in a bout of postpartum depression and say yes That’s her.  I think of the letter my great great grandmother in Ireland wrote about her angry and abusive husband, and say yesThat’s him.  I think of my many relatives who have turned to addictions rather than face reality and say yesThat’s them.  I have their blood in my veins.

And so when I’m torn apart by envy, when I shut out the world when I’m feeling depressed, when I react with anger, or when I’m too busy daydreaming to remember the mundane details of life, it would be easy to point up to heaven and shout “You made me this way!”  When I feel the weight of my nature overwhelm me, I could give into it and say “I have no choice, it’s just who I am.”

In the book East of Eden, John Steinbeck tells the long saga of a family history—a family history full of liars and thieves and failures.  The last portion of the book focuses on the story of two brothers, Caleb and Aron.  Cal can feel his history more than his brother.  He can feel the evil inside him, and knows he is not good.

In the story, one of the characters discovers the meaning of the Hebrew word timshel within the story of Cain and Abel.  As Cain begins to feel jealousy toward his brother Abel, God speaks to him in Genesis Chapter 4: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.  Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (ESV)

Most Bible translations say “you must rule over it”, but Steinbeck points out a slight difference int he original Hebrew.

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel–‘Thou mayest’–that gives a choice.  It might be the most important word in the world.  That says the way is open. That throws it right back on man.  For if ‘Thou mayest’–it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.”

Timshel.   

We have the ability to choose.  I can tell you story after story of family members who chose bitterness over forgiveness, who chose broken relationships over wholeness, who chose to squander their money and their opportunities and their life.  But even though it seems like an uphill battle when I’m living with their blood in my veins and a corrupt human nature that traces back to Adam, I can choose to overcome it.

This is my story, and I’m sure each one of us could tell the same story—the story of our shortcomings and those who gave them to us.  The story about the genetics we inherited without our consent, and all the events in our lives we cannot control.  We can all read the story of Cain and Abel and say “Their blood is in my veins.”

This is the part of the story we cannot choose, but there’s also a part we can choose.  There is a story waiting for each one of us that we can write ourselves—the story about how we overcame adversity and created something new, the story about how we brought goodness into the world despite the flaws within ourselves.

and you have your choices,
and these are what make man great
his ladder to the stars.
but you are not alone in this,
and you are not alone in this,
as brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand.

Timshel—Mumford and Sons

Love and Cynicism

Lent Week 4

A year ago on a Sunday afternoon, I tried out a new church.  Not necessarily because I was discontent with the one I was already attending, but because I was just looking for something more I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  I wanted to possibly meet some new people that weren’t the same five people I talked to every week at my own church.

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However, I am pretty cynical about churches.  This church was considered the “cool” church in town where all the 20-somethings go.  They had an official greeting team, because you know, saying hello to someone who is assigned to stand by the door and shake my hand feels so authentic and welcoming.  They had a coffee bar and a welcome center where I could get a free mug and coffee for being a first time visitor.

When I walked into the sanctuary (which rather resembles an underground bomb shelter), there was a count-down clock on the screen and some music with a nondescript techno beat.  I tried to sit in a corner where no one would notice me, and a guitar player wearing suspenders got on stage.  The room started to fill up with plaid button-up shirts and thick rimmed glasses and knit beanie hats, stylish couples, and girls who look much better in skinny jeans than I do.  I started to get a major “too cool for you” vibe, and moved over a few more seats, attempting to go unnoticed.

The band starts playing, and I see all these people enthusiastically clapping and lifting their hands and singing along to songs that I don’t know, and I just feel kind of dead inside.  I stand with my hands to my side, trying to sing along, and trying to feel something.

But 40 minutes later, I was trying to hide the tears in my eyes, because I heard exactly what I needed to hear.  The message was on finances and scarcity, which had been a huge struggle for me that week.  I felt like I would never have enough money to feel secure, and that all the decent men in the world were taken or interested in other women or seriously weird, and that there would never be enough for me.

The pastor asked us to take out our wallet, hand it to the person next to us, and then tell them how that felt.  Suddenly, I looked around me, and I wanted to get to know these people I was so quick to judge half an hour ago.  I wanted to share my story with them, and hear about their lives.  I’ve never been great a making small talk, but somehow, in the midst of my social awkwardness and cynicism and inability to feel any affection for an invisible deity, something broke through to me.

Even now, I’m trying to remember that no amount of cynicism or disappointment or walls that we put up can truly separate us from the love of Christ.

I remembered after I wrote this that one of this Friday’s lectionary readings was from Romans chapter 8.  Funny how that works out.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.—Romans 8:38-39 ESV

Have you ever experienced something like this?  How has God spoken to you despite your cynicism or unbelief?  

The Music of Imperfection

I was a music major in college, and in freshman music theory, we learned about an interval called a Tritone.  

A Tritone is an augmented fourth, or a combination of pitches that make a dissonant sound when played together.  We also learned that from the Renaissance until the Classical Era, Tritones were generally banned in church music.  A musician in the early 18th century even referred to the Tritone as diabolus in musica, or the Devil in music.  

Church music of this era was supposed to be beautiful and pleasing to God, full of predictable chord progressions and pretty major chords and final resolutions.  You could spend years learning all the rules of hymn writing, the rules about passing tones, chord structure, and bass lines.

Though many of these hymns were written for pipe organs and choirs and great cathedrals, in its essence, church music hasn’t changed much in 800 years.  We may go to church in repurposed warehouses and school gymnasiums and modern sanctuaries, but we still have a set of rules to follow.  We still write worship songs with the same predictable chord progressions and pretty major chords and final resolutions.

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Jupiter

I think I’ve written before about Jupiter, one of my favorite pieces of classical music by Gustav Holst.  But I would like to bring it up again, because there’s something about this music that I find so deeply healing.  Madeleine L’Engle writes in her book Walking on Water:  Reflections on Faith and Art about the cosmos and the chaos. “Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named.  And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos, we see despite all the chaos.”  We can create cosmos out of chaos, she says.

In the beginning of Jupiter, we hear chaos.  We hear the broken fragments of a melody, sped up and rearranged.  If you’re listening for the first time, you might be tempted to skip over the first three minutes, to fast forward to the “good part”.  You don’t know exactly when or how, but you have a the sense that something else is coming.

Then, everything becomes quiet and you hear the melody.  This is what everything was building to all along, and you begin to understand the broken pieces.  You might recognize now that the bits of chaos in the beginning were all parts of this melody in a less-recognizable form.  Holst created cosmos out of chaos.

But then, just when you’re expecting the very final note of this great recognizable melody, the chaos comes back again.  Even after you got to the place where you began to understand, the resolution is missing.  It’s not until the very end that you hear the tonic chord and the final resolution, but even then, it’s much more chaotic and exciting than you might like.

Music can teach us so much about life—about melodies and resolutions, and the way beauty can be created out of dissonance and chaos.  I always laugh when I hear about the way the early church used to ban certain dissonant chords and intervals from being used in church music because they believed the act of praising God should always be beautiful and full of pretty major chords and resolutions.  I think sometimes the church still holds on to this idea—the idea that we have to hide the dissonance.  However, when Jesus says “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden”, I always imagine him saying “Bring me your chaos. Bring me your imperfection, your broken pieces, your honesty.”  We don’t have to cover up the parts of our lives that aren’t resolved.

I just hope that one day we can get to the other side of whatever trouble we are facing and say “I understand now.”  

One Word 2015

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

This year, I am participating in One Word 365.

It was hard to think about what I want to be this year. I can make a big long list of the things I want to happen to me, but it was harder to think about what I want to do myself. It’s hard to envision a life for myself when so much of it is outside of my control.

Even if everything goes wrong, what do I want to be anyway?  

My life in 2014 was made up of moments.  Some of which I noticed, and some I missed.  Time has been going by so quickly this year that I’m afraid I’ll blink and miss this year completely.  This year, I want to be surprised.  I want to find a job. I want to be loved.  But even if it all turns to dust, I want to be awake.  

And so my One Word for 2015 is Awake.

I want to live with my eyes open. Not numbing myself with shallow joy or laughing to forget it all. I don’t want to spend my days being tired and bored. Being awake could mean taking better care of myself. Going to bed earlier, eating more than spaghetti and takeout, and being more active. It could mean capturing moments: photographing, writing, reflecting. I’m probably one of the only people in the world who made a New Year’s Resolution to post more on Instagram.

When we are awake, we can see more clearly.  2015 is here, and I don’t want to miss any of it.

awake

In case you missed this, you can subscribe to my blog to receive a free ebook, I will call this place home: Essays from Guatemala.  I’d love to stay in touch this year!  

A New Year, A New E-Book

Friends, it’s a new year.

I’ve always been thankful for a job that lets me take time off during this time of year to re-charge, to be with friends and family, to reflect.  This year, I only have a couple of weeks to spend in the USA, and they have been filled with holiday celebrations and road trips and some much-needed time off.

new year collate [Read more…]

A Spiritual Identity Crisis

I was that kid in high school.  

You know, the one who always took on leadership roles in youth group and memorized scripture in my spare time and brought my Bible to school and got into theological arguments at the lunch table over pizza slices and curly fries.  Needless to say, I wasn’t invited to many parties.  After graduation, I fell out of touch with most of my friends, and honestly, I don’t wonder why. Instead of inspiring me to love and accept others and form deeper relationships, my interpretation of Christianity pushed me away from authentic connection.

Later, I became angry.

I took issue with those Christians who see other humans simply as “outreach opportunities.”  I’ve distanced myself from the evangelism mentality to the point where I go out of my way not to bring up my beliefs in conversation.  Instead of singing “I once was lost, and now I’m found”, I sometimes joke that “I once was found, and now I’m lost.”

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What I’ve Learned Traveling Alone

This is coming from a girl who sometimes gets depressed staying in a hotel by myself when I’m traveling for an out-of-town wedding. For me, moving to another country was always on my after marriage list. But somehow, at the age of 25, I found myself getting on a plane, trying to overcome the tightness in my chest and fear of being stranded alone in Guatemala when I know exactly three phrases in Spanish.

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continue reading at single roots

Until the Son of God Appear

emmanuel

The season of Advent is one of my favorite times of the year, though for me it’s also one of the busiest. But it seems that all of the wishing and hoping and praying and waiting I do during the other eleven months of the year is more meaningful during this season. In more modern language, we could probably re-name this season as “The season of waiting”. [Read more…]