Archive for March, 2012

Kony 2012, Clicktivism, and the Question of ‘We’

Okay, let’s get a few things out of the way first.  I don’t know much about Invisible Children.  Or Uganda.  And before the “Kony 2012” video, I also did not know a ton about Kony besides what I gleaned from the book Outcasts United, reviews of Machine Gun Preacher, and misinformation from Rush Limbaugh.  So, admittedly, my exposure has been limited.  Furthermore, I’ve never even been to Africa, and most of my recent knowledge of the current situation in Uganda comes from a book called Kisses from Katie.  In other words, I don’t know what is best for Uganda, I haven’t done a thing to stop Kony, and I pretty much don’t know what I’m talking about.  You probably shouldn’t even be reading this.

That said, let’s begin.

Last week, the internet world was rocked by a thirty minute video about child abductor, mass murderer, and all around bad guy, Joseph Kony.  For decades, Kony has been kidnapping children in Uganda and beyond, and forcing them to fight for him in what he calls the “Lord’s Resistance Army.”  He is responsible for lots and lots of horrible things.  The video was made by a non-profit group called Invisible Children, which apparently was founded in 2003 with the express purpose of stopping this madman.  They appear in their video to connect their advocacy to President Obama’s decision to send…advisory military people?…into Uganda to serve as aid to the Ugandan government, who are trying to catch Kony and deliver him to the International Criminal Court.  Kony is the ICC’s #1 most wanted bad guy, and…well…they want him.  Invisible Children is worried, though, that without continued public support, the U.S. government will cancel the mission, and Kony will continue to wreak havoc.  Thus, their goal is to get enough Americans fired up about Kony so that we will continue pressuring our government to intervene, and that they will continue to help the Ugandan government, who in turn will catch Kony.  This plan was all laid out in the video in a nifty series of photographic dominoes.

To be honest, it doesn’t exactly seem like a fool-proof plan to me, but again, I’m not an expert.  We’ll get to all that later, though.  First, here is the video:

Frankly, I’m just impressed that teens watched all thirty minutes.  That’s a long time for the younger generation!  Also, I have to say that it was really cool to see kids excited about something beyond their own, immediate world.  I’ll take awareness of greater human suffering over status updates about the burrito they had at Moe’s any day of the the week!  So yeah…my first reaction to this whole phenomenon was that I was pumped!

And I guess that’s why the groundswell of invalid criticism rubbed me the wrong way.

Now, don’t get me wrong:  I do believe that there is some very valid criticism–or at least valid questions–about the efforts of Invisible Children here.  But in the midst of those good conversation starters came a lot of cynicism and snark.  Here are two examples of what I believe is completely invalid criticism:

Invalid Critique #1:  “Liking” a Facebook status is “not enough,” and the kids who participate on this level are shallow.

This is a two-parter.  The first critique to the movement comes in the form of a not-so-gentle reminder that it takes more than internet activism to make actual change.  To the people who pose such an objection, I have a few things to say.  First, at the risk of sounding obvious, didn’t you watch the video?  “Liking” the Facebook status is part of the first step:  Spreading awareness.  That leads to government pressure, which leads to American intervention, which leads to Ugandan military success, which leads to capturing Kony.  Remember the dominoes, people!

But really, this criticism is not about the dominoes, but about disdain for “clicktivism” as a whole.  “Clicktivism” is online activism.  It includes such “surface” actions as tweeting a few lines or “liking” a status about some social cause.  The objection to clicktivism is that such actions are pretty lame, ultimately meaningless, and that they give a false sense of satisfaction to their participants. I understand these objections because I used to feel the same way.  My mind was enlightened, however, by these wise words from a friend, Ryan Dement.  I read them in a note he wrote on Facebook in October, 2010.  The whole note was great, but in the following paragraph, Ryan addressed the criticism that clicktivism is too easy.  Here is what he had to say:

 The biggest critique of clicktivism is that it’s way too easy to ‘like’ a facebook page and do nothing else. That real activism is strangled by the useless gesture of a click that assuages guilty consciences just enough to prevent them from enacting real change. This argument always sounds great when I hear it. but the more I think about it, the less it makes sense. 1.) The person who does this, the person who clicks and walks away, is not the person who would drive to D.C. for a modern day march on Washington. People do however much they feel that they should. Or can. The person who cares enough to retweet one link or news story cares exactly that much…There are good arguments for whether or not they should or can do more. But despite that: they decide to click, to tweet, and stop. The clicking didn’t keep them from greater activism. in fact, the ease of social media probably incited them to do that little bit, more than they would have otherwise. 2.) This least amount of effort isn’t useless. The internet works in trends and memes, and adding that one tweet-drop of exposure to a social issue has a positive effect.  Even if someone glances over it, makes a programmed decision not to read, care, or think about it, and moves on, that decision to dismiss occurred, where it would not have otherwise. Thus increasing the frequency in which people are consciously thinking about the issue. Certainly not glamorous, but not useless either.

I completely agree.  What gets me is that the people who criticize the “small” actions of “liking” a Facebook status are probably not tweeting their objections while on their plane ride to Uganda.  In fact, there is a good chance that the objectors to the smallness of Facebook “likes” are doing even less.  I’m not hatin’, and I definitely think there is a call for circumspection here.  But why must our first reaction to do-gooder idealism be to try to cynically stamp it out?  There are so many better reactions to have.

This is the second part of Invalid Critique #1, and to me, it is even more ridiculous.  Yeah, maybe most of the people with Kony 2012 pictures all over their Facebook page didn’t care about Ugandan kids yesterday.  That’s probably true.  But…that’s because they didn’t know about Ugandan kids yesterday.  That’s how information works.  You don’t know something, and then you learn about it, and then you know it.  It’s called a starting point.  I wasn’t born caring about poor kids in Nashville.  But when I got to Youth Encouragement Services in college, I learned about them and started caring about them.  I can’t imagine what my response would have been if, while I was all fired up about Y.E.S. kids, someone came up to me and said, ‘Tell me more about how you’ve always cared about poor kids in Nashville?”  As if my new-found compassion didn’t count because it was new.  Seriously?  That makes no sense.  Yes, the cynic in me would acknowledge that most of these “activists” are going to move on from this cause in a couple of weeks.  But who cares?  Isn’t it good that they are being introduced to issues beyond their own little worlds?  And even if 5% or less actually continue to fight for the poor and oppressed, that’s 5% who might not be doing so otherwise.  Everyone has to start somewhere.

The Nashville example brings me the second invalid criticism of this movement.

Invalid Critique #2:  “We” should not worry about Africa because “we” have too many problems here.

Ah, yes, the question of “we.”  In Lee Camp’s brilliantly frustrating book, Mere Discipleship, he gives a little litmus test in order to determine the American Christian’s ultimate loyalty.  The test is simply a question of “we”:  when you speak generally of “we,” who are you talking about?  Is “we” the church, the kingdom of God?  Or is “we” America?  Whichever “we” is, that’s the group with which you most identify.  It’s the group that claims your ultimate loyalty.  I’m not sure that the test is entirely fair, but it definitely made me think.

The “we” in this second critique is America.  I know that because the kingdom of God is in Africa, too.  So “we,” the kingdom of God, have some problems in Africa, and over there, “our” people are suffering.  And thus, “we” should do something about it.  See, you can use the Bible to justify putting the weak and oppressed first, and you can use it to justify putting Christians first, but you cannot use it to justify putting a particular nation first.  That last one is not a Biblical argument.

Now, perhaps it is valid to point out that loving your neighbor should not be an either/or scenario.  Perhaps we should remember that we are also called to love our next-door neighbor, as well as our African neighbor.  Perhaps we need the reminder that it is often easier to love the people whom you can’t see than it is to love the people who are actually a part of your life.  And perhaps we could use the pragmatic counsel that God might want us to work where we could do the most good, and that there is a greater chance that we could do good in our own surroundings.  I agree with all of those points.  But I certainly don’t think that we have to choose one or the other, local or foreign, as worthy of our time.  And I certainly don’t believe that everything in America has to be perfect before we care about anyone outside of America.

In the midst of the cynicism and invalid objections, however, I think that some really good questions have been raised. I have a few myself:

  • Who, exactly, are the group, Invisible Children, and are they the best people to handle this Kony thing?
  • If for me, “we” is the church, then why should I want “we” the American government to handle this?
  • Is military intervention the best solution?
  • Is the Ugandan government as corrupt as I’ve been hearing?
  • What important information about this situation do I not know?
  • Could Invisible Children’s plan do more harm than good?
  • What does God want me to do in this situation?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do think that they are the right questions.  I think Kony is a madman, and I can’t imagine that Africa would be anything but better without his presence.  But I also don’t want to ignorantly forge ahead, riding a wave of self-righteous idealism and make the situation worse.  So for now, I’m educating myself and praying.  I did a fair amount of googling, until I found Rachel Held Evans’ very helpful post, “Some Resources on the Invisible Children Controversy.”  It has tons of links to different perspectives and thoughts from people way more informed on the matter than I.  I would definitely recommend perusing through the links in this post if you are interested in learning more about the situation with Joseph Kony.

I’ve thought a lot, though, about what I would tell my kids, if they were teenagers who were caught up in this surge of internet righteousness.  How would I direct their passion without stamping it out?

I think I would start by rejoicing over their concern for others.  Then I would assure them that their compassion was pleasing to God and confirm that all children are equally precious in His sight, no matter what nation they are from.  Next, I would show them how to educate themselves in order to be equipped to do the greatest good.  And then we would talk about it.  And pray about it.

And then we would do something about it. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________So what is your opinion of Kony 2012?

Top 3 on Tuesday: Missionary Edition

In keeping with this week’s “small world” theme, I wanted to share with you the blogs of some of my missionary friends.  I love reading missionaries’ blogs because the differences between our worlds virtually guarantees that their blogs will be interesting.  Also, they (obviously) tend to be strong Christians, and so I enjoy reading about their thoughts on God.

The first blog I want to share is that of my friends, Tommy and Becky Brown.  We met them back at our church in South Carolina, and they now form part of a three-family team that is serving in Nicaragua for five years.  They just went over there this past fall, and by all accounts from Facebook and their blog, they are doing well.  Their blog is simply called, “Brown Blog.”  And it is brown.  Here is a post to give you a feel for the blog.  I particularly love this line from Tommy:  “It feels like God has taken the fabric of my life and unwoven it back down to the individual fibers so that He can craft it again into something new.”

Another good missionary blog is “Aliens and Strangers,” written by Brett Harrison.  I met Brett at Lipscomb, although we didn’t know each other very well.  I did know him well enough, however, to recognize him out in the internet world when I stumbled onto his blog from another missionary blog.  I would search through his blog to find a good sample, but I actually think his most recent post is pretty riveting.  I don’t know about you, but I find that a story about a drunk and heavily armed cop looking for a bribe is something that holds my attention well.  And now that I’m thinking about it, I also found this post, in which he shares openly about the stresses of the missionary life, to be quite enlightening, also.

Lastly, I will officially share with you a blog to which I have alluded in a couple of other posts:  Jamie the Very Worst Missionary.   I feel like I need to warn you that her language is rough, and sometimes that can be offensive to people.  Also, her blog seems to be slowing down some, but she has a unique and original voice that–to me–is worth reading.  I found her series on the (dubious) value of short-term mission trips to be thought provoking.  And posts such “You’d Be Surprised” or “I Have a Heart for You” are really moving.  And for Becky, here is a bonus one about Nicaragua.

Okay, those are all the missionary blogs I have.  Luckily, there are three of them, so I am keeping up some semblance of “Top 3 on Tuesday.”

Do you know of any other good missionary blogs?

It’s a Small World at Aldi and Citgo

One of the highlights of living in Nashville is our local Aldi.  For one thing, I have long heard the legend of Aldi from my fellow couponers and couponing websites.  I knew from them that Aldi was a super-cheap grocery store that kept prices low in a variety of creative ways:  their aisles are formed by the food products themselves, not shelves; the use of a cart cost $.25 (but you get it back when you return it); they don’t take credit cards; and they don’t have bags.  It’s definitely a unique grocery store, and the prices are very low.

That’s not the only reason I love it, however.  I love our local Aldi because it is an absolute melting pot of so many cultures of the world.  Nashville has a large refugee population, and apparently the one thing that all these unique and diverse cultures have in common is that they all love them some Aldi.  Thus, on any given trip to Aldi, I find myself absolutely surrounded by the rainbow of God’s creation.  I love walking through and observing all the different people.  And as someone who loves words, I especially love hearing all of the various languages.  I only know English, but I know enough of other languages to know that most of the languages spoken in Aldi are not European.  Yet, for all the obvious differences in the clientele, it’s funny how we often have more in common than we think.  On my first trip to Aldi, a young Indian woman started a conversation with me about motherhood while our two children eyed each other from our carts.  Her little boy was named Arjun, he was sixteen months old, and she was struggling with being a stay-at-home mom.  She had her college degree in business administration and thought of herself as a career woman.  We talked about the struggles of motherhood for awhile, and I tried to encourage her.  What struck me most about the conversation, though, was how similar it was to so many conversations I’ve had with my friends.  In fact, were I still apart of my old Mommy and Me group in South Carolina, I would have totally invited her to join us.  The commute is a little far, though.

The other night, Greg had a similar “small world” experience at Aldi.  He found himself in line behind a large African man who had just let a Middle Eastern guy go in front of him.  While Greg waited for his turn, he set his two gallons of milk on a shelf beside the conveyor. Once room was made on the conveyor belt, the African man turned and transferred the milk onto the belt for Greg.  Greg thanked him, and a few minutes later, the man gave an unsolicited explanation for his actions.  In a very thick accent, he told Greg, “We have to take care of each other.  That’s what God wants.  He wants us to love each other.  If we did, we wouldn’t have so much war and violence and hatred.”  Greg agreed, of course, and thanked him again.  Then Greg paid for his groceries and went out.  As he got into his car, he noticed that the people in the car next to him were having some trouble getting it started.  He looked over, and saw a Hispanic man and a white woman trying to get the engine to turn over.  With the African man’s words still ringing in his ears, Greg made eye contact with the people and asked if they needed any help.  They said they thought they were out of gas and asked Greg if they had a gas can they could borrow.  He said he didn’t, but that he would run and get them some gas since he needed some himself.  They gratefully accepted the offer, and he drove off to the nearby Citgo.

This particular Citgo is quite dear to me because this summer, I had my own “small world” experience there.  I had just gotten into town after spending a few days at my parents’ house.  I was in Nashville to meet the mission team from my church, who were currently en route from Oklahoma.  They were still a few hours away, and while I waited for them to arrive, I was going to meet an old friend for dinner.  But first, I had to gas up.  I pulled into the Citgo and up to a pump.  Immediately, the gas station attendant came out to help me, as I had apparently chosen a full service pump.  I explained to him that I had made a mistake and moved to a self-service pump instead.  I got the gas pumping and then went to the back of the van to get out some makeup to freshen up before dinner.  It was locked.  Oops.  I went around to the front of the van to hit the unlock button…but it was locked, too.  Everything was inside my car:  my wallet, my cell phone, and most dismayingly, my keys.

So there I was, alone in a city with no one’s contact numbers, no money, and no transportation.  Even my AAA card was in the car!  Sheepishly, I walked into the gas station and explained my plight to the middle Eastern man behind the counter, the same man who had come out earlier to pump my gas.  I asked if I could use a phone book and his telephone to call AAA.  He was very sympathetic and let me make the call.  I had another problem, though:  I was supposed to meet my friend for dinner in ten minutes, and I had no way to contact her to let her know I would be late.  I knew I was near the restaurant, but I couldn’t remember how far down the road it was.  I asked the gas station worker and briefly explained my plight.  I was absolutely shocked when he volunteered to let me take his car.

A few minutes later, I was driving down Nolensville Road listening to the strange, Eastern melodies floating from this stranger’s radio.  I had learned in my brief interaction with the man that he was from the nation of Jordan, and I had to marvel at the cultural situation I was in:  I was driving a Jordanian man’s car to meet a Mexican woman at a Chinese restaurant.  It occurred to me that nothing in my behavior so far should have indicated to this man that I was even qualified to operate a vehicle, and I also knew that some middle Easterners don’t even think that women should drive cars (there is a law against it in Saudi Arabia, right?).  And yet here I was, having just interacted with one of the first Muslims I had ever met, and I was driving his car.  Weird.

I left a message at the restaurant for my friend, and then headed back to the gas station to wait for AAA.  During my wait, I had very little else to do besides chat with the Jordanian, and he had little else to do in the empty store besides chat with me.  So we talked.  Turns out, the man was in this country temporarily.  He came over here to go to college, but he had trouble affording it and didn’t really seem to know what he wanted to do.  Thus, instead of getting his degree, he had moved down from New York to Nashville, married a Native American woman, and was now working in this gas station.  We talked about his impressions of America, his life in the middle East, and our religions.  I asked him about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (yes, yes I did), and I listened as he passionately explained the differences in the interpretation of Islam and how he was glad bin Laden was dead.  He told me about how there are 27 (or something like that) countries in the middle East and how they are all different, and how Jordan is not crazy like some of the others.  He told me about his views of Islam, and his wife’s thoughts on the matter.  He told me that we both pray to God, and it is God who will judge between us.  And I told him about my beliefs, as well.  In short, we both tried to be good witnesses to each other.  We talked back and forth in that empty gas station, surrounded by Twinkies and beef jerky and the smell of oil, until the very nice AAA guy came to help me back into my car.  Then I thanked him, and I left, and I never saw him again.

But that conversation stayed with me for awhile.  It reminded me that it really is small world these days.  And where my family lives, we can meet Arabs and Indians and Africans on a normal trip to the grocery store or gas station.  I love that.  I love getting to talk to people who are different from me, people who look different, who think differently, who live differently.  And I love that my children are going to grow up in this environment.  This week on the blog, I’m going to explore that idea, that concept of our small world.  I’m going to share some cool missionary blogs, as well as some ways Greg and I have learned to teach our kids about our small world.  I’m also going to weigh in on the Kony 2012 phenomenon.  Paul’s words in Acts 17:27 tell me that God has put us all here, in 2012, for a reason.  And here, in 2012, we live in a small world that is more globally connected than ever before.  How are we to live in such a world?  Who is our neighbor in this world?  

Those are two questions worth asking, in my opinion.  Perhaps this week, you can help me answer them.

The Amazing Thing

I first wrote this post a little over two years ago, in February 2010.  I remember so clearly the experience of writing it, and the depths to which I believed it.  As my posts from this week demonstrate, these ideas are still very present in my thinking, and they probably always will be.  For me, one of the great mysteries of the Christian life has been figuring out how to obey verses like Colossians 3:17, which tell us to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God.  Such verses find their way into my soul and ignite my imagination.  And every once in awhile, I get a little glimpse at how they are possible.  This article from 2010 records one of those glimpses:

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“My eyes are small, but they have seen
The beauty of enormous things.”

Today, I was walking across the church parking lot to mop the bathrooms in the gym. I was wearing jeans with big holes in the knees, a solid gray t-shirt, and a navy blue hoodie. My hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and I had very little make-up on. I had just come from my weekly grocery trip, which involved a lot of clipping coupons and pre-planning. And after I mopped, I was going to return home to feed my daughter lunch, pick up my son from preschool, and spend the afternoon working on potty training Anna, getting some cleaning and laundry done, and preparing to teach my Wednesday night lesson at church.

As I crossed the parking lot, I was listening to the David Crowder Band on my ipod, and a song came on that said,

“You make everything glorious.
You make everything glorious.
You make everything glorious.
And I am yours…
So what does that make me?’

This song put into words perfectly what I was feeling already. As I walked to mop floors in my holey jeans and little makeup, I felt glorious. Glorious in my “average life.” Glorious in my menial labor. Glorious without having had a shower that day. Glorious in the knowledge that the rest of the day would center largely around cleaning up pee-pee from carpets and hardwood floors as I tried to coerce a toddler into using the potty.

I see all these people around me who are looking for what I call the Amazing Thing. The longing for it is present in all walks of life, but it is especially evident in adolescents and college students. People just have this nagging feeling that life is supposed to be amazing, and that something is going to come along to make it so. Perhaps that something is a great work that they are going to do. Perhaps that something is a person. Perhaps it is a family. Or a place. Or a job. Or something. And as they are waiting for the Amazing Thing that is going to bring them ultimate fulfillment, they pass their time by living an ordinary life. They do schoolwork. They hang out with friends. They have relationships. They get married and have kids. They find jobs. They go on vacations. And many of them slowly become disillusioned b/c the Amazing Thing never comes. Of, if they don’t become disillusioned, they decide that the Amazing Thing was a fantasy, a dream, and they give up the quest for ultimate fulfillment.

The truly sad part is that many of these people are Christians, are members of churches, and as such, are surrounded by the Amazing Thing the whole time but don’t recognize it. The Amazing Thing has been tamed, has been domesticated, has been relegated to certain hours of the week. The Amazing Thing has been reduced to a list of rules. It has been reduced to practical irrelevance. And so these Christians long for something Amazing that will make their life Amazing. In their mind, if they aren’t doing something truly mind-blowing, if they aren’t preaching the Gospel to 1,000’s of people or writing best-selling books or starting churches on the African savanna, then their lives are not Amazing.

And all of those things are good things. But they aren’t, in and of themselves, the Amazing Thing. The Amazing Thing is God, and He is everywhere, not just in mega-church pulpits, or top 10 bestseller lists, or on the African savanna. The Amazing Thing is that we can commune with our All-Powerful Creator every second of every day. The Amazing Thing is that we can be both priests of the Most High (1 Pet. 2:9) and the sacrifice on the altar simultaneously (Rom. 12:1-2). And when that starts to sink in, just a little bit, it makes our lives amazing. It makes them glorious.

I wish I could share with everyone what this life is like. I wish I could help them see how mopping the floor can be a mountain-top experience, how changing a diaper or covering a small face with kisses could be a sacred offering to Yahweh, how folding laundry and making meals for people can be full of meaning, and joy, and profound love. I feel like if people truly understood that planting the kingdom of God in the heart of a child is, in and of itself, more miraculous than preaching a sermon before 1,000’s, that truly dying to yourself in your perfectly ordinary day is a miraculous work of God, that deeply loving the person who gets on your last nerve is the powerful work of God’s Holy Spirit in you…I think if people realized those things, then they would understand that the Amazing Thing could permeate every part of their life right now. They would realize that truly miraculous things like that happen everyday to those who believe and who serve God.

Like I said, I wish I could make people see what that life is like. But ultimately, words won’t do it. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of words, but there are some places that only God can take a person. And so I pray for the teens at our church, for the college students, for myself, and for all my brothers and sisters, that we would all continue to seek God’s face, and that He would teach us all more and more how to die to ourselves and how to trulylive amazing lives, finding our fulfillment in the Amazing Thing that has been all around us the whole time.

Enjoying the Presence of God

This year marks the first time that I have ever tried to observe Lent.  I come from a church background that generally eschews tradition, and while I very much agree with my church’s desire not to bind the people of God with the laws of men, I also enjoy my freedom to partake in spiritual traditions which I personally find helpful.  Thus, I decided to use Lent as a time to deliberately focus on my relationship with God.  The thing I really wanted to work on was my prayer life.  My morning prayers have gotten somewhat rote and shallow, and they leave me spiritually thirsty afterward.  I told God all this, and then reread the chapter on prayer in one of my favorite books, Celebration of Discipline.  I thought that was a good start.

Then, on the morning of Ash Wednesday, I got up early, sat curled up on my love seat, where I usually have my quiet time, and prepared myself for some renewed prayer.  Only…no words came.

I decided not to force it.  So I just sat there and watched the sunrise.

A few minutes later, Anna came wandering sleepily into the room.  I greeted her brightly, and she came to snuggle with me.  The way we were sitting, she perfectly mirrored me:  we faced the same direction as she rested against my chest.  I absently played with her hair, and in that moment, I was reminded that my love for my daughter was just a pale reflection of God’s love for His children.  I also saw that what Anna was doing to me, I was doing to God while sitting in the love seat watching the sunrise:

We were both resting in the presence of our parent.

It was very nice.  And peaceful.  I enjoyed it immensely.

And then, a funny thing started happening:

Anna started to talk.

She was jabbering really, about nothing.  About the designs on her pajamas and things like that.  It didn’t even feel like she was talking to me (indeed, she probably wasn’t), but rather talking to herself.

And it was funny, because I love my daughter very much, and I love to hear her sweet voice, and to know what is on her mind…but in that moment, I thought, “I do wish she would stop prattling on and just enjoy the silence.”  I wasn’t even annoyed, really–more like amused.

And then I smiled…

because it seemed like God was trying to tell me something.

And I realized that maybe to improve my prayer life, I should stop twittering on about whatever is in my head each morning, and start listening more to God.  Maybe I read the wrong chapter of Celebration of Discipline; maybe I should have read the chapter on silence instead.

During the next few days, I became aware of how little I let silence into my life.  In the morning, I start writing my prayers to God with little thought or meditation.  When I eat alone, I read a magazine.  If I’m in the car alone, I listen to music.  If I have a spare second in the day, I am on my phone reading a blog.  I realized that I had literally gotten to the point where I could not just sit still.

Why was that?

The more I thought about it, I realized that, at the heart of it, my need for distraction reflected dissatisfaction.  Sometimes I would use distraction to avoid some unpleasant chore.  Sometimes I used it because I didn’t have anything else to do in the moment, like when I was waiting the last few minutes of my planning time before walking down the hall to teach class.  Sometimes it was because I was really tired or wasn’t feeling well, and I wanted to distract myself from my fatigue or my sickness.  But whether I was trying to escape a chore, boredom, or unpleasant feelings, the bottom line was that I found reality dissatisfying and thus, I sought to distract my brain.

The desire for distraction is understandable, I guess, but there were a few side effects that I hadn’t noticed.  For one thing, my brain never had time to rest.  Any spare moment was spent reading something or listening to something, and the lack of downtime slowly exhausted my brain throughout the day.  One result was that there was much less space in my day for creative thought.  Once I started to remove so many of my distractions, I was able to spend more of those spare moments just resting in God’s presence.  And then a funny thing happened:  when I started resting my mind during the day, I found that afterward, it was teeming with thoughts and observations and ideas–and a seemingly unending supply of blog posts!

Even more importantly, I realized that all the noise around me kept me from appreciating the little blessings of this God-given life.  My desire to distract myself had robbed me of all the little, exquisite details of this life that I so easily ignore:  a morning chill, a light breeze, the curve of a lampshade, the miracle of my daughter’s hands.  When I quiet my mind and take time to look at my world, I notice the beauty in the ordinary…and often, beautiful thoughts come from those observations.  Letting quiet back into my life has, perhaps paradoxically, improved my communication with God.

The picture at the top of this post is of the squashed handfuls of wildflowers my children brought to me a couple days ago.  Those flowers are so evocative of the little blessings that I receive when my eyes are opened and my mind is focused to receive them.  When I silently enjoy the presence of God, I find that my life is full of these little flowers.

Kingdom Voices: Thomas Merton

Knowing my interest in Thomas Merton, my dear friend, Molly, sent me this book of Lenten reflections, and I have enjoyed reading it each day.  I read these thoughts last week, and I loved how Merton’s ideas corresponded to my own current line of thinking regarding my one job:

“True sanctity does not mean living without creatures.  It consists in using the goods of life in order to do the will of God.  It consists of using God’s creation in such a way that everything we touch and see and use and love gives new glory to God.  To be a saint means to pass through the world gathering fruits for heaven from every tree and reaping God’s glory from every field.  The saint is one who is in contact with God in every possible way, in every possible direction.  He is united to God by the depths of his own being.  He sees and touches God in everything and everyone around him.  Everywhere he goes, the world rings and resounds (though silently) with the deep harmonies of God’s glory.”

–Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration, 137.

I assume that, as a Catholic, Merton is speaking of saints in a different way than I think of them.  When I think of saints, I don’t think of a special class of Christians whose virtue elevates them above the rest; instead, I just think of…well, Christians.  All of us.  At least, that is how Paul refers to us in so many of his letters.  And as a Christian, I do long to be “in contact with God in every possible way, in every possible direction.”  That is one of the reasons why I try to view all my tasks as ultimately accomplishing one purpose:  the glorification of God.  Because of this, Merton’s words resonate deeply with me.  He reminds me that, in all that I say and do, I should seek to live as God’s saint, a citizen in His kingdom.

Guest Post: The Congresswoman and the General


I’m excited to have another guest post by Tim Fall, especially one that marks the day that he joins The Radical Journey as a regular blogger.  All I have to say is, “It’s about time!”  I’m excited to be able to hear what Tim has to say on a regular basis.  For now, here are some great words on love, respect, and the peace of God:

            Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords didn’t make it to last year’s State of the Union Address. She was in an Arizona hospital, having been rushed there just a few days before when a gunman shot her in the head at a public appearance. Her colleagues left her seat empty that night in her honor.

She made it to the State of the Union Address this year, and those same colleagues stood in applause as she slowly, haltingly and with a limp, made her way to her seat. In what is usually a well-orchestrated event, where everyone is told by their party leaders when they will stand and cheer, when to sit quietly and how they should respond to all that goes on, her appearance broke down the carefully constructed walls of pomp and protocol as cheers of “Gabby, Gabby!” roared through the house chamber in greeting.

Congresswoman Giffords is in the same party as the President, so (as is usual) she was given instructions on when to stand and applaud certain points in the speech. But she’s still recovering and, in fact, had announced already that she would be resigning from Congress the next day in order to concentrate on getting well. Constant standing and sitting, repeatedly moving from one position to another, would tax her strength that night almost beyond its limits. She needed help.

Congressman Jeff Flake, a fellow Arizonan, stood at the ready by her side. When she needed to stand, he took her arm, helped her to her feet. When it was time to sit, he gently lowered her back down. Time after time he stood with her and then sat again when she took her seat. Nothing too remarkable about this, you might say? But there is.

Flake and Giffords are in opposite political parties. His leadership had given instructions too, and they did not include standing whenever the President hit one of the applause lines in the speech. Quite the opposite, they were to sit mute while the President’s party clapped and cheered. Only occasionally would they be instructed to give modest approval to something in the Address. But Jeff Flake stood anyway. Every time his friend and colleague Gabby needed him, he was right there at her side helping her to her feet so she could cheer. And every time she needed to resume her seat, she knew that her friend Jeff would see her safely back into it.

I thought about this the day after the Address and at first it was just another nice moment of setting aside party differences for a friend. But then I started thinking about another time someone stood and bowed, even if it was not in his own interests to do so. And, as sometimes happens, that very night I read about the man I was thinking of, a 9th c. BCE Aramean general named Naaman. (2 Kings 5.)

Naaman was commander of the army of the King of Aram, and he had a horrible and incurable skin disorder. He learned that Elisha, the prophet of God, could help him, so he asked his king for permission to go to Israel. On meeting Elisha, Naaman was sure the prophet would call upon the name of the Lord and cure him right there. Instead, Elisha told the mighty general to wash himself seven times in the nearby Jordan River. Naaman is disappointed and ready to return home in disgust, but his companions convince him to give it a try. He does, and he is cured. There is not a blemish left to show he was ever sick.

On returning to Elisha’s house Naaman said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel,” and offers the prophet a rich reward. Elisha refuses, giving the glory to God alone. So Naaman asks for a blessing for himself instead

“Please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”

Here’s the part that blows me away: this seems to me like it would be a tough request for a prophet of God to stomach, forgiveness for bowing down in the presence of false idols (see Lev. 26:1, for example), yet Elisha responded, “Go in peace.” What?

Go in peace. What glorious words to receive from God’s prophet. Naaman received the blessing to carry out his duties to his king because God knew what was in Naaman’s heart: total devotion to God. And this is more than just forgiveness for carrying out his duty; it is the promise that Naaman already enjoys God’s peace and that he will continue in it as he returns home.

All of this reminds me that the peace of God is something that he gives to everyone who belongs to him. We might not be able to understand how (Phil. 4:7), but we experience a peace that transcends any we could hope to achieve on our own (John 14:27). And it comes to us through God himself, who will never again condemn us for anything we do ever (Rom. 8:1). We are at peace with God the Father through the work of Jesus, God the Son.

So I say to all God’s people: Go in peace.

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Tim is a California native who changed his major three times, colleges four times, and took six years to get a Bachelor’s degree in a subject he’s never been called on to use professionally. Married for over 24 years with two kids now in college, his family is constant evidence of God’s abundant blessings in his life. He and his wife live in Northern California.
Besides guest posts here and there, Tim blogs with the team at The Radical Journey.

Top 3 on Tuesday: Momastery

I discovered Momastery at the beginning of this year, when her post, “Don’t Carpe Diem,” went viral.  Overnight, the blog’s readership exploded, and the author, Glennon Melton, has subsequently been swamped with book deals, reality television pitches, advertising offers, and the sixth biggest blog readership in the country.  I can see why.  Even though Glennon’s religious beliefs are extremely unique, she is also hilarious, insightful, spiritual, and almost painfully authentic.  I like reading her posts for all of those reasons, even though our beliefs do not always overlap.  Glennon named the blog “Momastery” because, in her words,  “Motherhood is like a monastery … it’s a sacred place, apart from the world, where a seeker can figure out what matters and catch glimpses of God.”  She even has a name for the participants in her Momastery community:  Monkees.  I wouldn’t call myself a monkee, in that I have never commented on her blog, much less participated in her Monkee projects (you can read more about those in that last link).  However, thus far, I have enjoyed reading each new post that she had added.  When her blog went viral, she started running a “Best of Momastery” series, so even though I’ve only been reading for a couple months, I feel like I have a good grasp of the highlights.

One of the reasons I like this blog the most is because Glennon gives the reader an amazing window into the thought processes of an addict and a mentally-ill person.  Until about eight years ago (it corresponds with the birth of her son), she struggled with eating disorders, alcoholism, and drug addiction–even though she came from a great, supportive family.  Those people are often the most mysterious to me, and in her posts that talk about her past, I gain a lot of insight into her mindset during that times.  There are many such posts, and I highlighted one below (#2).

Here are my Top 3:

1.  Telling Secrets

“But then the Tess thing happened. And I thought, maybe I could do THAT. Maybe my public service could just be to tell people the truth about my insides. Because it seemed to make people feel better, for whatever reason. It struck me that for this particular “ministry,” my criminal record was a PLUS. It gave me street cred. And I considered that maybe the gifts God gave me were storytelling and shamelessness. Because you guys, I’m shameless. I’m almost ashamed at how little shame I have. Almost, but not really, at all. So I decided that’s what God wanted me to do. He wanted me to walk around telling people the truth. No mask, no hiding, no pretending. That was going to be my thing. I was going to make people feel better about their insides by showing them mine. By being my real self. But I was keeping my trendy jeans. I decided they were part of my real self.”

2.  Fifteen

“There are some who can sit through a movie that makes them uncomfortable. And there are some who can’t. Or won’t. Those people actually have to get up and leave the room.
We addicts, we mentally ill are the Leavers.
We just can’t stand the movie that is showing for some reason. And we are unable to fake it or tolerate it. We have to get up and walk out.
We don’t leave to hurt you. We leave because we believe that it is right to leave. And just as you wonder how we could possibly leave, we wonder how on Earth you can stay.
But please don’t blame yourself. Often, we were just watching the movie together. You didn’t make the movie. The movie is the whole world.”

3.  Lowering the Bar

“Plus, I feel like such a responsible grown up at the kids’ dentist. What kind of mom remembers to bring all three of her kids to the dentist? An amazing one, that’s what kind.And so I walk around that office feeling very fancy and efficient. I always wear a cardigan to the kids’ dental appointments. I only own one cardigan, because I’m not really the cardigan type. But on dentist day I sure am. Nothing says responsible and OBVIOUSLY I’VE NEVER SPENT TIME IN JAIL DON’T BE RIDICULOUS  like a cardigan does.”

That last one is an example of one of her funny ones.  The excerpt is not: really the funny part, but it sets the tone well.

So…what have you guys been reading this week?

Blessed are the Single-Minded

I find normal life to be quite difficult sometimes.

Which is weird, because I generally like my life.  I enjoy the people in it, and I tend to like what I do each day.

I think the difficulty has to do with the sheer variety of my tasks.  I’m not a good multi-tasker, and I’m not very nimble sometimes when it comes to switching back and forth between so many roles.  Thus, I often struggle to keep the balance between teaching college kids and my kindergartner, between cleaning the house and playing with my children, between budgeting and grocery shopping, between cooking and laundry, between church responsibilities and school responsibilities.  Those are a lot of balls to keep in the air, and I’m not a great juggler.  Furthermore, I think that my skill sets are…um…highly specialized.  It is infinitely easier (and enjoyable) for me to hold forth my views on epistemology than to make dinner on time…but which one of those do think my family would prefer?  Exactly.  And when you understand that my skill set does not include anything manual, anything to do with math, or anything that requires extroversion, you can begin to see just how many of my basic tasks require skills that don’t come naturally to me.

Furthermore, when you factor in the really easy tasks that I find to be comically hard, such as parking my beloved land boat van in between the lines, not losing my cell phone, and moving clothes from the washer to the dryer in a timely fashion…well, you can see how normal life can be a little overwhelming for me at times!

Usually, that’s all okay, though.  Usually, that’s just life, and I enjoy stretching myself and doing things that I’m not naturally that good at.  What gets me is when two or more of those 87 areas are causing me particular stress.  For example, in January, there was a period of time when I was stressed about teaching and stressed about Luke’s educational situation.  I felt completely unqualified to be back in the classroom after a six-year absence, and I was also worried that Luke’s school wasn’t meeting his educational needs.  Plus, I didn’t know how to fix either situation.  Furthermore, on any given day during that period, I was probably also stressed about when I was going to make it to the grocery store, what we were having for dinner, or when I was ever going to get caught up with laundry.

Those are the times when normal life is hard for me.

Nothing catastrophic or horrible had happened; it just suddenly seemed that all of my tasks were too much for me to handle.

In those times, I tend to feel very fragmented, like I am being pulled in lots of different directions at the same time.  I feel harried, like I don’t have enough time to catch my breath.  And I feel helpless, like my circumstances are controlling me.

Thankfully, I have found a sure-fire way to relieve my stress in those moments.  I have found a sentence, a single line, that totally dissipates my feelings of inadequacy.  This line makes everything so much better.

Do you want to know what it is?

It’s this:

You have one job to do.

That’s what I tell myself.  I say, “Kim, I know that it feels like you are being pulled in 87 different directions right now, and I know it feels like it is all just too hard.  But you are forgetting that your job on this earth is not to get groceries on time.  Your job is not be an amazing professor, or even to be the parent who always knows what to do for her kids.  Your job is to bring glory to God.  That’s it.  When you get to heaven, God is not going to ask if you kept up with the laundry, or if you were an awesome professor, or even if you made the best educational decision for your child.  What will matter then is that, through all those things, your actions brought glory to God.  What will matter is that you showed Christ’s love to all those around you.  None of the rest of it will matter.”

One job.

I can do one job.  I find 87 jobs a little difficult, but one I can do.

That single-mindedness helps me.  When I feel fragmented, the idea of having one job makes me whole again.  When I am harried, having one job gives me peace.  And when I feel helpless, having one job empowers me.

I find my one, God-given job to be very unifying in my life–which is how it should be.  It reminds me the observation that Paul makes about Christ when writing to the Colossians: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  When Christ comes first in my life, He does, indeed, hold it all together.  Similarly, I think of Paul’s statement to the Athenians: “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  When I am living for God, I am constantly aware that my whole world, with all of its many tasks, is all part of the bigger picture of my life in Christ.  It is all part of one glorious whole.

The funny thing is that after remembering my one job, my life kind of looks the same as it did before.  I still try my best at teaching; I still work to ensure that my child gets a good education; I still make it to the grocery store.  But I no longer see those things as ends in themselves, nor do I see my success of failure in those areas as indicators of my worth as a person.  Instead, I see all those little demands as opportunities to reflect the glory of my Creator and thus, to be a light to the world.  And I remember that I glorify God by the way  that I do those things, by the love that I show through my efforts, instead of through success or achievement.

When I have that single-mindedness that comes from remembering my one job, I am very blessed.  I am blessed with peaceful days, with feelings of purpose and meaning, and with a unity of being that sets my soul at rest.

When I remember my one big job, it makes the 87 little ones so much easier to handle!

_____________________________________________________________________

When do you have the most trouble remembering your one job?

For Mike, Three Years Later

“Sandcastles Between the Tides of Sorrow and Time”

–by Richard Beck (shared with permission)

This is the end of theology.
The end of speaking
words into the air,
pretending that these syllables
gave us traction
and marked our progress.
Looking back,
we never moved.
There was only a babel filling
the intervals between our suffering.
Hastily constructed sandcastles
between the tides of sorrow and time.

Our sentences will continue
adding to the chorus of life
of crickets, wolves, and the birds of springtime.
The sounds and calls we make
to know we are not alone.
But this place will remind
with the deep ache of memory
that all doctrine has been reduced
to the singularities and wreckage of faith–
Only silence.
Only tears.
Only love.

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