A Paradox of Being

December 6, 2016

“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.” – Meister Eckhart

ensoSometimes truth is found only in the uneasy holding of two contradictory statements.

For instance, here are two statements. Both are true. And also contradictory.

1.) Your life is immensely important. 

2.) Your life is nothing.

To think of them as a spectrum fails to grasp the importance of both. No doubt, we will sometimes vacillate to one side or the other – stumbling to exuberance or despair – but to know the paradox of our being, we must accept both statements as completely true and find peace amidst the dissonance. A dualistic “either, or” fails to grasp the truth of “both, and.”

The spiritual giants who have come before us testify similarly to this truth.

“We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.” ― Mother Teresa

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“Never let success hide its emptiness from  you, achievement its nothingness, toil its desolation. And so keep alive the incentive to push on further, that pain in the soul which drives us beyond ourselves.

Whither? That I don’t know. That I don’t ask to know.” – Dag Hammarskjöld

But if there’s a time to hold both truths in tension, it’s now.

Suicide rates in the US rose 24% between 1999 and 2014. And there are more suicides than homicides today (wikipedia). As US culture spirals further into radical individualism where we (almost always) have more emotional connection to the actors on our TV screens than those living next door, it becomes more and more obvious the ethos of our day fails to provide adequate meaning for human life. This individualism has led to a breakdown in community (for more, read this). We are the most social creatures on the planet and the general ordering of our species fails to meet our biological needs for social interaction and connection. So, for those struggling with lack of human connection and hope, I want to affirm the undeniable truth – You are important. You are beautiful. Your life is important. There is hope and meaning and joy to be found.

I loved the recent movie Cloud Atlas. In it they captured this truth in a profound way. Somni-451 revealed, “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” It is a fact: our choices and actions – whether good or bad – ripple out through eternity.

However, with hyper-individualism has also come a rise in narcissism. (See here)

What is narcissism? It is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes (wikipedia). It is:

  • an inflated sense of self.
  • feeling entitled, special, and unique
  • often someone who lacks empathy for others
  • witnessed through increased materialism
  • admiration of the self
  • self-absorption, egocentriciscm, and an over estimation of one’s own importance and abilities.

There is a wealth of evidence showing that the younger generation is growing more and more narcissistic, more focused on becoming rich and famous (See here). The plethora of social media outlets repeatedly scream, “I am special.” “Look at me.” And I recognize the irony of complaining about narcissism on my blog speaks also to the same tendency in myself. I too am shaped by the culture around us, which does not make it okay.

Why do Millennials hate being labeled? Because we want to be unique and special. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to recognize whatever we need to say has already been said more eloquently than we can. If you disagree, it just evidences your ignorance. (So, why write anything? See point #1.) Your opinions are of little consequence. Your life is nothing more than a speck of dust lost atop the ocean. You deserve less than you’ve been given in this life.

There is an emptiness at the essence of our beings that we must accept if we are to be completely human.

Jean Vanier has said it well:

“Loneliness is something essential to human nature; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away. Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.” Becoming Human, p.7

Time and again, I have found truth to be paradoxical, often contradictory. These two facts about human nature remain:

  1. Your life is important.
  2. Your life is nothing.

May we hold these in tension and find the courage to be.

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”

A Few Consequences of Hyper-Connectivity

June 4, 2016

As a quick note, I wanted to reflect on the hyper-connectivity we experience with the internet. Here are four consequences:

  1. Fear – it is widely assumed that the world is becoming more and more violent. With current news and the obsession with what goes wrong, we hear about every shooting, rape, murder, suicide bombing, etc. regardless of how far or near it is to us. Such hyper-connection leads to the assumption that these terrible things are likely to happen to me. However, when you look at the empirical research, we find the opposite – violence is less. (See here or here.) And (depending on the context) the likelihood of being shot or mugged are very low.
  2. Less tolerance for delayed gratification – probably the weakest point, but I’ll mention it nonetheless. Most people today have cell phones (About 75% of planet in fact). And we tend to be on our phone, even when we shouldn’t – whether that’s driving, in class, or a restaurant with friends. Generally, we expect to be able to connect with people immediately.
  3. Dissatisfaction with your place in life – how often do you find negative posts on facebook? Sometimes, sure, but the vast majority of facebook posts are positive. Who wants to read how your dog died? Or you have cancer? Or your parents got divorced? Positivity is king. So what happens when life isn’t so great? We are taught to suppress anything that isn’t positive. Second, we constantly have experiences vicariously that we will never have in real life, whether that’s Casey Neistat wakeboarding canals in Amsterdam or snowboarding the streets of Manhattan. Or maybe it’s your friends who have traveled to the Great Wall of China, Petra, and Machu Picchu. We are constantly bombarded with places, people, and experiences that are so cool! And when we compare our lives to those others, we are left wanting more. (Not to mention how materialism makes us unhappy.) Ultimately, this leads to fear of commitment. Taking a vow of stability then becomes radical.
  4. Higher expectations – through the internet we experience the best of the best continually. Musical genius is no longer the exception; it’s expected. The best photography and art is at our fingertips. We can see galaxies light years away. (And space photos are about to get even better!) Or the best speakers, thinkers, or writers. We also see only beautiful people. For better or worse, quality is ubiquitous. And daily life may suffer.

What to live for:

December 31, 2015

If you could give one thing to a thousand people, what would it be?

My first thought is “a good family.” My second is a job with fair pay. Third thought would be an affordable home.

But the more I think about that question, more answers come to mind. A teacher might say, “A solid education.” A doctor, “good health.” A lawyer, “justice.” A therapist, “emotional healing.” A pastor might say, “Peace of mind” or “a spiritual community.” The question is really: “What does it take for human life to flourish and how do you want to contribute?” What is kinda beautiful is that people all feel called to different things, and it’s only through that diversity that quality living is possible.

What do you live to accomplish? Why do you do what you do? What are you contributing to?

The Seduction of Power

December 29, 2015

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. – Abraham Lincoln 

A few Sundays ago, I was assigned Genesis chapters 47 to 50 for the adult Bible class. In this section Joseph has become the number 2 man in the kingdom, right behind Pharaoh, and he is in charge of vast amounts of wealth and resources in the midst of a famine. As the famine continues, money is depleted. They then traded all their livestock in exchange for food. And finally they gave their land and their very selves. It reads, “So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all sold their fields, because of the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude. (Gen. 47:20-21 TNIV)”

There are always a number of interpretations to any passage, but it seems to me that Joseph resorted to enslaving the people. How could someone ever justify such an inhumane practice? He cannot just give food away or else anarchy would reign. A price has to be paid. The accumulation of resources influenced Joseph to inflict slavery on others.

Regardless of your interpretation, the principle holds true – anytime resources are gathered into one place it becomes a power. Those resources can be food, water, oil, money, you name it. And regardless of the type of resource, power has the potential to corrupt us, to corrode our very souls. I would like to say we can have power and yet maintain our integrity. But I’m not sure. My feeling is that power can never be held for too long before it begins to wear down your character. It’s like a hot potato you must pass quickly or it will burn you.

So, how should we deal with accumulation of resources, whether it be your bank account, a growing business, or societal clout? Three things come to mind:

  1. First, you have to be brutally honest with yourself. What are your true, deepest motivations? Can you recognize your own duplicity and selfish desires even in acts of kindness? How well can you dissect your own heart?
  2. We can never fully see ourselves, at least not objectively. So, anytime power is attained, a group of people (with no access to the power) must be called in to call out times and places of corrosion. In other words, we need accountability. How many people know your annual salary? Your retirement account? If you’re like most, very few. We hide because we fear losing the power we’ve attained. Power seduces us. We fear jealousy from others because they too are drawn to that power.
  3. To protect yourself from this seduction, you must give power away. If you are a person of influence, you must take the back seat and let others drive. Learn how to empower others. If you have a growing business, creatively find ways to give business away. If you have money, find ways to pass it along. Power is dangerous. Hold it for too long and it may darken your soul.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth… but store up treasures in heaven…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve both God and Money.” – Jesus (Matt. 6:19-24)

 

Maturity

December 15, 2015
  • is taking responsibility for your actions.
  • forgives easily
  • is self-confident and lives authentically
  • overcomes discomforts.
  • is able to do hard things
  • embraces emotions, expresses them appropriately and isn’t controlled by them
  • knows when to speak and when to remain silent
  • is resilient in the face of trials
  • is self-aware, self-critical when needed, reflects regularly
  • is humble, able to admit wrong
  • looks to empathize with others before being understood
  • has convictions and strives to live them out
  • works to overcome biases and prejudice within
  • shows love and respect to all people, always
  • always tries to do their best
  • is able not only to take care of themselves but others as well.
  • is other-oriented
  • can take emotional risks and connect deeply
  • is wisdom

What would you add?

Time is okay.

December 2, 2015

In a recent conversation, me and a few other friends came to the conclusion that taking your time in a relationship is never a bad thing. When someone feels the need to slow down or wait on getting more serious, they have hesitations about the relationship. Time will reveal the soundness and validity of those hesitations. Either the doubts will dissipate. Or they will reveal that the relationship should not continue. Time is okay.

We have to be willing to trust and cultivate intuition – it is important to listen to the urgings of your gut. Brene Brown explains, “Psychologists believe that intuition is a rapid-fire, unconscious associating process – like a mental puzzle. The brain makes an observation, scans its files, and matches the observation with existing memories, knowledge, and experiences. Once it puts together a series of matches, we get a ‘gut’ on what we’ve observed.”  Maybe your gut will say, “Go for it!” Other times it may shout, “Wait, wait – you need more information!”

Have the faith to trust your intuition, and be patient as you hold space for uncertainty.

 

I was robbed yesterday

November 20, 2015

As I was waiting for the train yesterday, a man walked up and asked to borrow my phone to make a call. So, I gave it to him. He called someone, and long story short, ended up running off with it.

I’m left with the question of how to react to my phone being stolen. Should I feel dumb or naive for letting him borrow it? Should I be more wary and careful in the future?

In my reading this morning, the first sentence read, “No one is excused from rendering personal service to others. (McQuiston, Always We Begin Again),” which I can’t help but associate with serving that guy yesterday by letting him borrow my phone. But I’m also reminded of Jesus’ challenging call to “turn the cheek” when you are slapped. He goes on, “If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. (Lk 6:29-30)” What?!?! Honestly, that feels a little stupid, encouraging robbery even. But I think the idea behind it is the question: “how does one changes from a thief to a person of selfless generosity?” 

If I allow this situation to change me to be more suspicious and untrusting of strangers, then I am operating out of fear and not love. Jesus calls us to sacrificial love and putting the other above ourselves. The “thief” needs to move from a mental place of scarcity to one of abundance, recognizing that it is the Great Good above that sustains us, not our own efforts, whether they are condoned by society or not. So, how does that change occur? If I refuse the next person asking for my phone, is that loving? Or if I had responded differently yesterday – rather than repeatedly request my phone back, what if I had give him my wallet too? Would such radical generosity illuminate the brokenness of our interaction? Would such sacrificial love cause him to realize that stealing dehumanizes me and dehumanizes him? Maybe. Maybe not. It is also very possible that I could have just lost both. But I do think that’s what Jesus calls us to – to say, “Hey, I love you even though we just met. And these silly possessions should not divide us and dehumanize our interaction. I’m willing to just give them to you in the hope that love can grow.

And that I believe is the power and importance in non-violence training. If I had been deeply rooted in knowing and practicing love of the other, love of enemy, I might have been quick witted enough to offer up my wallet as well.

So — that’s the lesson I want to take from the interaction. I’ve got 5 thoughts that respond to it.

  1. First, I’m reminded of the passage in 1 John 4:18 – “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” To be honest, I was afraid yesterday. Fear is natural when we feel in danger. But as we grow in perfect in love, I believe that our love for others (or the other) can become so strong that we no longer fear them. Dr. King writes a similar idea: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
  2. Second, I recognize that most of the world (and increasingly the US) do not identify as Christians. So, to say, “Well, Jesus said it” doesn’t always carry much weight. And in fact, the name “Jesus” may sadly be an emotional trigger for some who have been traumatized by the church or Christian folks. So, despite the source of the idea, I think the question of our hope for society still begs the same ethical response. What kind of society do you want to live in? Do you want suspicion and distrust to be the predominant, primary means of interacting? Do you want people to be stuck in patterns of fear and dehumanization? Isn’t personal sacrifice worth the hope of a better future and world? I would say it is. We must expect good from each day and expect good from those around us. We must live out the change we wish to see in the world. (Gandhi)
  3. Third, getting my phone stolen is really just a mild inconvenience. I have been born with an incredible amount of privilege and opportunity. Within just a couple hours of getting it stolen, I had 4 people offer me old phones to use, 3 of which were iPhones. Christians (and anyone committed to peace and love) are called to see life through the eyes of their enemies. I do not know his story, but I can say with absolute confidence that life has been harder for him than it has for me. It is pure arrogance to assert you would not resort to stealing if you were him. You can never know. We must take  a necessary posture of humble empathy if we are to have any hope to love our enemies.
  4. There does seem to be some naivete in “turning the cheek.” At another place, Jesus also said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. (Matt. 10:16)” Does this paradoxical combination of shrewdness and innocence mean I just hand the guy my wallet when he wants my cell? Or do I give $10 to every person on the street who asks for a quarter? How does shrewdness factor into loving well? No doubt that answer varies to some degree for each person. But I think it involves some preparation and intentionally. One idea might be to carry a second wallet with maybe some cash and credit cards that you can lose with little consequence. Another might be to carry gift cards or actual food for people who ask for handouts. We need to prepare for surprise when violence may occur. Perpetrators of violence expect fight or flight – not shock or insanity or pleasantry. In the face of threat, some recommend asking the person their name (humanizing the situation) or the time (a mundane distracting question). Others have feigned insanity to prevent harm to others (and thereby diverting attention).
  5. Finally – and what I think may be the most important point (which I learned from my brilliant ex-wife) – “turning the cheek” brings with it a self-righteous martyrdom. We all love to be right, to in the right, and the other to be in the wrong. It feels to good to “kill them with your kindness,” to stand firm on the higher moral ground. This stokes our ego and makes us feel superior. We must critically examine and dissect our own hearts. And when we do, we always find selfish motivations and pride. Our sin and brokenness run deep – there is no such thing as a wholly pure motive. Every single thing we do has some tinge of serving ourselves, and “turning the cheek” as I’ve advocated above, is definitely no exception. We want to “love others” and help them see the error of their ways because we then can feel good about ourselves and how we are helping them. If I can help others, I can remain blind to my own problems. The truth is everyone poops. And everyone’s poop stinks. We must accept this broken state, recognizing that we are all sinful and selfish and prideful. I am no better than the guy who stole my phone. It is by only grace that anyone is saved.

Help us this day both to receive grace and to give it. Amen.

Some thoughts about marriage

October 31, 2015

If you have not heard, I recently went through the painful process of divorce. So I wanted to write up some reflections on marriage, and some things I wish I knew before taking the plunge.

  1. Don’t go into a marriage expecting to change the person. Everyone changes, but we cannot expect or hope to control the process. We must love and accept people around us as they are right now, not who they might become. It is not your job to try and change others, especially a spouse. Doing so will only lead to conflict, disagreement, and hurt. We must show others the same grace and freedom that God shows us. Don’t marry someone for their potential. Only marry if that person is who they need to be today.
  2. You cannot expect a spouse will complete you. We carry with us a brokenness or emptiness that will never be completely filled. We long for that which is beyond us and eternal, so nothing in this life will ever fully satisfy the deep loneliness inside. We must accept and embrace this in our marriages, relationships, and communities without thinking they will ever completely fill that void. A deep loneliness is at the core of what it means to be human. Failing to recognize this will lead to unmet expectations in your spouse.
  3. Your spouse will change. Despite not going into a marriage expecting to change your spouse, you both will change in dramatic ways, especially if you marry young. Therefore, it’s especially important for you to work at changing together. A certain amount of independence is important and even healthy, but with too much independence, you may head in different directions in life.
  4. Your spouse will change you. Who you become in life is greatly influenced by the person you marry. Often they will be the most influential person on your life. Therefore, marry someone you deeply respect – someone you would like to be like. For with enough time, you will resemble one another.
  5. You need more than love. The Beatles were wrong. No doubt love is incredibly important to sustain a lifelong partnership. But sometimes love is not enough. Shared values, beliefs, and convictions are also critically important for marriage. People often disagree on important issues – this is common and expected (though a challenge). Nevertheless, on the “deal-breaker” issues, it is critical there is agreement. Marry someone with whom you share values and convictions.

Being Other Oriented

September 18, 2015

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. – Philippians 2:3-4

Last Sunday my buddy Todd had a great sermon on the parable of the Samaritan from Luke 10. To quickly summarize, the expert in the law questioned Jesus by asking about how someone inherits eternal life. This idea of “eternal life” should be understood as life abundant here and now in the present moment rather than a future after death. Jesus’ answer – love God with all you got, and your neighbor as yourself – is followed with the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. So, one point Todd made was that the abundant life today is experienced by being other oriented. (He had a couple other points, but I want to focus on this one.)

When we think about experiencing abundant life, we often assume that it comes from achieving goals, having cool or unique experiences, or attaining desires – things that focus on ourselves – but those things are incomplete without a healthy other-orientation. Going back to the story, the priest and Levite asked the question: “If I help this person, how will it affect me?” The Samaritan asked a different question: “If I don’t help this person, what will happen to him?” By thinking of others above ourselves, we grasp for the divine, for eternal life – something akin to God’s love for us.

So my question is this – how do we get this other-orientation? What keeps us from it? Why are some people other oriented while others are absorbed in their own thoughts and lives? My first thought is that it’s a step in the maturity process. Babies and children think more of themselves; it’s inherent to survival. Parents have to think of others. The maturity process first requires we learn how to care for ourselves. Then and only after that point are we able (or we should try) to care for someone else. (But no doubt, having a kid also forces people to grow up some.) If your parents are immature, it makes your own maturity process more difficult. Traumatic childhood events also slow the maturity process. We must be shown and given the attention of others to not only model how one is other-oriented but to found us in a personal identity from which we can love and serve others. If we do not know who we are, we look to others to validate our identity and thereby are unable to focus our attention fully on the other. Further, survival generally forces us to turn inward. If I don’t have enough food, I must feed myself (usually) before I can feed others. So, if you don’t have the basic necessities of life, it makes thinking of others before yourself much more difficult.

Another question – how do we shape the cultures of our families / churches / communities to foster an other orientation? One example that comes to mind for me is the social norm of serving others at the dinner table rather than yourself. In China, for instance, it’s rude to serve yourself rice before everyone else at the table has rice. What other practices might be incorporate that can achieve a similar goal? (Seriously, I’d love it if you left comments with ideas.)

I’m curious what all you might add or push back on. Are there other obstacles to being other-oriented that I’ve overlooked? What can you do personally to move more toward being other oriented?

Seven Principles on Food Consumption

August 26, 2015

Lately, I’ve been thinking a good bit about how we eat, so I thought it would be helpful for me to summarize some of the general principles I’ve adopted. 🙂

So – to begin, I first want to recognize that everyone is a consumer of food. It is, of course, one of those basic needs for life. But that also means that consumerism and the massive system of food production affects us all whether we want it to or not. It’s important that we reflect on what we eat, how much we eat, where it comes from, and why.

Food is good. So good! 🙂 I love love love tasty food. It is one of the daily things in life that can bring immense joy and satisfaction. But any good thing can also be idolized and given an unholy status that distorts our humanity.

General Principles I try to live by:

  1. It’s better to be hungry than to be overly full. In Luke 6 Jesus includes the seemingly bizarre admonition and warning: “Blessed are you who hunger now,” and later, “Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.” To perhaps over simplify these puzzling statements, I believe Jesus is wanting to emphasize two things. First, he is calling his disciples to find solidarity with the poor and marginalized, to empathize with our hungry brothers and sisters. Second, he’s describing the blessings and goodness experienced in the “kingdom of God” – when his way of life is embodied. As we strive to align ourselves with the “have-nots” surely we ought to also experience their hunger. Plus, I like to say, “If you want the food to taste better, wait an hour.” 🙂 [As an aside, I also recognize that the poor in the US and Mexico in particular struggle more with quality of food, not quantity, which means that obesity runs rampant. In fact, obesity is more common globally than food scarcity.] The second reason hunger is better than fullness is health. Life insurance companies have known for years that being overweight is a major contributor to early death. In other words, it’s healthier (in general) to eat less, and in the developed world, being underweight is not a struggle for most people.
  2. Don’t waste food. We all know this, and I don’t know anyone who would argue otherwise. Yet, everyone wastes food from time to time. In fact, every year, consumers in industrialized countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (222 million vs. 230 million tons). I find that we most often waste food because we overfill our plates or we buy too much at the grocery store. So, one simple idea is to eat on smaller plates and to shop with a hand held cart at the store (which I know isn’t possible for everyone). But simply having smaller containers will keep us more moderate in food consumption.
  3. Eat less, better. Obviously this one is somewhat a summary of the first two. But if we are eating and wasting less food, we’ll have a little more money to spend on higher quality things, such as organic and fair trade items.
  4. Avoid meat. Few people enjoy bacon as much as I do. But if you’re honest, there is better rationale for being a vegetarian than not. From the way we treat animals, to the methane gases emitted from our factory farms (and contribute significantly to global warming), to the land required for animals verses not, to the possible health benefits, the logic is substantial and should not be flippantly ignored. I take the lax approach of being a “flexitarian,” which basically means I rarely buy meat at a grocery store or restaurant, but I won’t turn down filet mignon or chicken feet if at a friend’s house.
  5. Go raw, when possible. There is something innate to our humanity and wonderful about cooking food. It can be meditative or therapeutic even. But simply put, eating raw does save time and energy – both personally and gas / electric. Nevertheless, I admit this may be more of a personal preference.
  6. Grow your own as much as possible. Eat local when you can’t. Everyone seems to agree that our dependence on oil is not good. And shipping food across the country doesn’t help. So, local is better. But I’ll admit again, I follow this principle the least. Hopefully once I have a little land of my own I won’t be so hypocritical.
  7. Don’t eat fancy very often. As I’ve mentioned, food is good! It is a gift from God that ought to be enjoyed and celebrated. But it can also be expensive. So, I say, save money and eat simply most of the time. But also celebrate! Splurge and have good food at holidays, birthdays, etc. You’ll enjoy it more when you do anyways.

So, there you have it. As always I’m interested in your thoughts, push-backs, or general comments. Blessings.