Who is My Neighbor? The Importance of Asking Questions

“Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  – Rainer Maria Rilke

“To love one’s neighbor is a tough command. It works better for people who live far away.” -C. J. Langenhoven

 
I’ve been going through a bit of a weird time in my life.  By that I mean that I’ve been questioning a lot of my previous beliefs and assumptions about the world and how I make decisions.  I’ve been joking about having a quarter-life crisis for a while now, and now that I am actually almost 25 I’m admitting that it’s not really a joke.  I’ve been having an underlying crisis/transformation of faith and identity, and I’m questioning pretty much everything.

But I’m not saying this as a negative thing.  In fact, I think it has only been positive so far.  Because how else am I to really, truly learn if I don’t ask questions and really think about who am I am and what I believe?  Sure, I could just blindly accept everything people tell me, but now that I’m an adult and out of school, I’ve realized that there are more ways of  looking at the world than just what my teachers, parents, doctors, pastors, and other authority figures told me.  Although I guess most people realize this while they are adolescents, but I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer.

I think something that I was afraid of in the beginning of my significant question-asking was that I would lose my faith.  But that means that for some reason I either thought that questions would lead me further away from the truth instead of closer to it, or that my faith wasn’t really true but that it was an important façade to maintain.  What I’ve realized instead that the more I ask hard questions, I am more fascinated by God and the person of Yeshua/Jesus, not less (although a lot of my opinions and theology has changed).

In taking a new look at the Gospels after having taken a break from the whole read-your-Bible every-day-but-don’t-actually-think-about-it mentality that I had fallen into, I’m realizing that Yeshua seemed to really like it when people asked questions. Some questions that were trying to entrap him or that were purely fear based he seemed to like less, but at least they still revealed where the person was at so that he could address their fear or hatred towards him.  But with most questions, he was really ready to engage with whatever it was that people were wondering, and usually answered either with another question or with a story, which then invited more questions.

One of the most famous questions that someone asked Yeshua is the one I’ve been thinking about in light of the recent shooting in Orlando.  It fits with most of what’s been going on in the world for the last 2,000 years, really, just as it fit with what was going on when Yeshua was walking the earth.

The story goes: There was this man who was trying to figure out how to live right, and he asked Yeshua how to do so.  Yeshua answered his question with another: he asked the man what he thought the answer was.  The man responded by saying that he thought he should love God and love his neighbor, which Yeshua said was, indeed, the case.  But then, after the man asked his first question and was asked a second question, we get to the heart of the matter.  The man asks Yeshua yet another question, the one that had really been troubling him (and one that’s been troubling me): Who is my neighbor?

I’m not going to rehash the rest of this story or Yeshua’s response, because it’s a story that’s been rehashed a lot in various Christian circles.  (If the story is new to you, you can look up Luke 10 in a Bible or online).  What I want instead is to sit with the question for a minute, and think about how the question might be framed in light of current ethnic, political, and social divisions.

I think it’s safe to say that all of us have people that we wouldn’t particularly want to be our next-door neighbors.  Most of us don’t want someone to be our neighbor if they are violent to us or our families. Most of us wouldn’t want neighbors who take our stuff without asking.  Most of us don’t want neighbors who get frequent visits by the mob.  Most of us don’t want neighbors who let trash pile up around there house until the rats and cockroaches start crawling over to ours.  And on a lighter (but still annoying) note: most of us don’t want neighbors who play our least favorite kinds of music loudly enough for us to hear while we were trying to sleep, and keep doing it after we nicely ask them to stop.

But what does it mean when we don’t want neighbors who remind us that not everyone has the same culture as us?

Or to ask more pointedly, what does it mean when we don’t want neighbors who come from a different country or speak a different language?  What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors whose sexual orientation, gender identity, or sexual expression is different than our own?  What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors whose faith system is one with which we are not very familiar, and who might want to worship in our neighborhood?  What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors whose families look different than ours?  What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors whose socioeconomic status is unlike ours or whose skin tone is dissimilar to ours?  What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors whose political affiliations or stances are different than ours?  What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors for whom cop surveillance is normal, even if they are completely law-abiding?  What does it mean to not want neighbors who came to our neighborhood to escape violence?  I could go on, but I think you get the point.

I think if we really ask ourselves those questions, we will come to some self-reveling answers.  Hypothetically speaking, I might discover that I don’t want a Muslim person in my neighborhood because I really know very little about what Islam stands for or is about outside of what the news channel of my choice says, and the news says that Muslim people are inherently violent.  Or I might discover that I don’t want someone who is gay in my neighborhood, because I really have no idea how to talk to my children about sexual orientation.   Or I might discover that I don’t want people of certain ethnicities or lower socioeconomic statuses moving into my neighborhood because I don’t want my property value to go down. Or, on the other hand, I might discover that I don’t want someone who I identify as wealthy in my neighborhood, because I just assume that they are unkind to the poor and selfish.  And, if we let them, these realizations can all be opportunities for growth.  We could use them to learn about other cultures and faiths, learn to have conversations about challenging topics, learn to value marginalized people over personal gain, and learn not to judge someone before we actually know them (or learn not to judge at all).

And in saying this, and in sitting with this question of “who is my neighbor?”, I want to learn to love my neighbors better.  I want to learn to love my Muslim neighbors, my atheist neighbors, my queer neighbors, my refugee neighbors, my right-wing neighbors, my homeless neighbors, my wealthy neighbors, my gang member neighbors, and  my police officer neighbors (to name a few) better.

I’m not sure exactly what that looks like yet, though, to be honest.  So, I’ve compiled a list of what I would consider to be modern-day good Samaritan stories, i.e. stories that feature an unexpected (at least to some) protagonist showing what it means to love their neighbors.  First are stories featuring protagonists that it seems like many people in our society don’t want to be their neighbors, and then are stories featuring protagonists that I often have a hard time with when they are my neighbors.  If you don’t have time to read them all, I encourage you to find a story of someone you would have a hard time having as your neighbor, and let them be the Good Samaritan in your story.

A Muslim teenager risks her life in order to stand up for her fellow female students

A gay man  adopts a son from foster care, becoming a single dad

An Iraqi immigrant fights for the residents of Flint to have clean water

A recovered crack addict becomes the Nashvillian of the year

A black teenager chases a kidnapper on his bike and saves a little girl

Undocumented workers volunteer to help victims of Hurricane Sandy

A former welfare mom becomes a teacher, then a principal and an author

Afghani villagers their risk lives to save the life of a Navy Seal

A homeless man returns a purse with hundreds of dollars to a mom struggling with cancer

A Catholic priest founds an organization to empower former gang members

 A transgender person works as the executive director of a ministry to the chronically homeless, directed a community garden for those in poverty, and shares the love of God as a pastor

 A senator donates his salary to a food bank during shutdown

A doctor risks safety to provide abortions out of a sense of calling to women in need

 A Megachurch pastor gives away money, leaves church to learn from house churches in China

 A lawyer leaves her home to be a guardian for refugee kids

A wealthy businessman gives away all of his money to charities

 A Wall street analyst quits job to open a pizzeria and feeds the homeless

A US Soldier gives his life in saving Afghani girl

A single police officer teaches inner city kids boxing, and adopts two of his students from foster care

A professional baseball player lives in a van under the poverty line and cares for environment

I encourage you to ask questions.  Of your neighbors (when you do it respectfully), of God, and of yourself.  It’s been a good process for me thus far, and I hope to write more about it soon.

Grace, peace, & shalom,

Rebecca
love-your-neighbor-sign-god

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An Open Letter to American Evangelicals

An Open Letter to American Evangelicals

Dear American Evangelicals,

I grew up here in America in evangelicalism.  I am a pastor’s daughter, chose to attend an evangelical university, and am currently living in an intentional Christian community affiliated with an evangelical denomination.  So I’m writing this  not as an outsider, but very much as one familiar with your movement and its ideals and as a participant in many ways.

“Evangelical” = About Good News

As I observe societal trends amidst evangelicals these days, I wonder if many evangelicals have long since forgotten why they are called “evangelical”.  The meaning of the word evangelical is rooted in the concept of “Good News.”

Good News.  During this advent season, it is a time for us as Christians to reflect on the Good News of Jesus’ incarnation.  The miraculous, incredible news that God himself, the Word made Flesh was birthed into the world and walked among us in order to communicate love and truth, demonstrate a way of living that was consistent with justice and righteousness, and liberate us from our sin.

When Mary, Jesus’ mother (who was, by the way, a poor young single mother from a people group who was oppressed at the time), was given the news of the incarnation, she responded thus (Luke 1:46b-55):

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

Did you notice the specific themes of what Mary took the incarnation to mean for both the oppressed and the oppressor, both the rich and the poor?  Now, evangelicals, ask yourselves, is the message you’ve been preaching Good News to the oppressed and the poor?

Maybe you don’t want to take it from Mary, maybe you’d rather take it from Jesus.  These are Jesus’ words at the beginning of his public ministry, where he quotes from the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19):

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

How do these words strike you, evangelicals?  If these were Jesus’ words to usher in his time  of spreading his Good News,  shouldn’t they be central to the Good News that Christians are spreading?

Taking the Bible Seriously

As well as meaning “Good News,” there are other things that are pretty central to what it means to be an evangelical.  Such as: the emphasis on the importance/centrality of the Bible, the belief in the necessity of being “born again,” the emphasis on the importance of Christ’s atonement, and the belief in the necessity of sharing the Good News of Christ.

So.  If the Bible is very important to you, evangelicals, I would like to recommend some passages to meditate on for the next season (besides the two already listed):

Leviticus 19:15, 33-34
Isaiah 58:6-12
Matthew 6:19-34
Matthew 13
Matthew 23:11-15
Matthew 25:31-46
Matthew 26:52
Luke 6:20-49
Luke 10:25-37
John 17:16-24
Colossians 3:10-15, 22-23
Galatians 5:13-15
James 1:22-27
James 2:14-18
1 John 3:16-19
Revelation 3:1b-3, 15-22

There’s many other Scripture passages on which I think American evangelicals could use some reflection, too; that’s just a recommended place to start.

There is also the question of examining your relationship with the Bible and what it means to be “Bible believing.”  Does it mean that you insist on creationism being taught in schools, but ignore the way your lifestyle is negatively impacting creation?  Does it mean that you insist on same-sex marriage not being okay, but think that widespread divorce is perfectly acceptable in today’s world?  Do you make sure that “wives submit to your husbands” but ignore the part about all of us submitting to one another?  Does it mean that you think that the Bible is completely and wholly true and perfect, but fail to wrestle with the ways it has been very harmfully used historically in contexts of slave ownership, fascism, and other oppressive contexts?

I know it’s a hard book (or really collection of books) to understand.  Trust me, I know.  But what would it mean to really engage with the parts of it that were challenging to us, and use it inspire ourselves to empower rather than disempower the poor and oppressed?

Rebirth is about Transformation

Now to the concept of being “born again.”  What does it mean to be reborn, evangelicals?  Does it mean that you prayed a prayer at an altar call, a church camp, or during a Billy Graham crusade, and now you go to church, read your Bible sometimes, and vote “pro-life” and “pro-family”?  Sorry if this sounds a bit harsh, but that doesn’t really sound like rebirth to me.

If actual birth is any indication, in order to be re-born, we need to be surrounded and nourished by the life and strength of our Creator just as an embryo is surrounded and nourished by the life and strength of its mother.  We need to grow astronomically just an embryo grows from a single cell to a miraculously complex human being.  And then we need to experience the painful, transformative process of emerging into the world to love and be loved, to continue to grow, and to begin to serve.

Here’s another Scripture for you: the apostle Peter has some things to say about what a post-rebirth faith should look like in 1 Peter 1:13-25.

Atonement isn’t Just Get out of Jail Free

If one attends an evangelical church service (as I have many, many times), one will probably hear songs or words about the blood of Jesus or the cross or participate in communion/the Eucharist.  In other words, one will likely be reminded of the concept of atonement.  But do you often think about what those words, songs, and symbols mean?

Often, I think that the evangelical emphasis of atonement is a get-out-of-jail free notion, in which Jesus is the nice guy that gets us of the hook with God (who’s kind of like the universe’s police officer).  The technical theological name for this is the penal substitution theory of atonement.  This concept didn’t manifest out of thin air; there are certainly sections of Scripture that would seem to support this viewpoint.  But this isn’t the only viewpoint, nor is it for me (or many others) a satisfying understanding of atonement.

For instance, there is the moral influence theory of atonement which was one of the earliest of the views held by the Christian church.  From Wiki: “The moral influence view of the atonement holds that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity.. This moral change came through [his] teachings and example…and  the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection.”

There is also the Christus Victor theory, another early model.  Also  from Wiki: “Under the Christus Victor theory of the Atonement… Christ’s death defeated the powers of evil, which had held humankind in their dominion.”

I think many evangelicals have taken for granted the get-out-of-jail free understanding of atonement without considering a lot of its implications or the alternatives to this understanding.  So, evangelicals, what exactly do you believe about atonement, and how does that shape your walk of faith?  Could it be that faith would be more about transformation, growth, love, and service if we reexamined our understandings of atonement?

Regardless of what one believes exactly went down when Jesus died on the cross, it would seem obvious that continuing to live in ways that are contrary to the teachings of Christ is not consistent with a profession of faith in Christ.

Spreading the News

If evangelicals believe in spreading the “Good News” of Christ, then how are you doing so?  Maybe you’re following the advice of some celebrities somehow popular with evangelicals by making sure that Starbucks has santas on their cups and that Target continues to have pink and blue labeled children’s toys.  Or maybe you have a concealed carry permit so you can shoot suspected Muslim terrorists.  Or maybe you like to attack abortion clinics, or just make judgemental statements about the mom ahead of you in line with food stamps.  Or perhaps you like to make sure that refugees aren’t welcome in your neighborhood, or a gay person isn’t welcome in your church.  Maybe you make as much money as you possibly can and make sure neither you nor your government gives away much money to the poor, who you think really just need to work harder.

I’m not saying that’s all of you, evangelicals.  But these are actual things people do in the name of an evangelical understanding of Christianity.  And I think that if this your way of spreading the Good News, you have completely and utterly missed the point of Jesus.

But you don’t have  to keep missing the point.  You could spread the Good News of Jesus by opening up your churches, homes, and communities to refugees, foster children, single moms, the homeless, and others in need.   You could spread the Good News of Jesus by loving your Muslim neighbors and yes, even your Muslim enemies.  You could spread the Good News of Jesus by being good stewards of the earth God created.  You could spread the Good News of Jesus by living on less so you could give away more.  You could spread the Good News of Jesus by being gracious and welcoming to a gay person or someone who’s different than you.  You could spread the Good News of Jesus by not purchasing products based on their packaging with santas or the right colors, but rather on their ethical sourcing, sustainability, and whether or not you actually need it or just want it.  You could spread the Good News of Jesus by letting people know how much God loves them and wants a relationship with them.

St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary, use words.”  The Apostle James said, “Faith without works is dead.”  And Jesus himself said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”  So how are you spreading the Good News, evangelicals?

The Discontents

I am one of quite a number of people who have been part of evangelicalism but are no longer wishing to identify as a part of this group, or if we do, qualify as to how we identify with it. In some ways I identify with the evangelical left, but in many ways I identify with post-evangelicals.  I have a hard time continuing to identify with a group that seems to have wandered so far from its roots in spreading the Good News of Jesus and is instead known for its right-wing political agenda.  You’re losing my generation and losing the interest of a nation who is tired of overblown partisanship, capitalism, and discrimination in the name of God.

Like I said before, this isn’t all of you.  I personally know as well as know of many people who still identify with evangelicalism who truly are spreading the Good News of Jesus in some pretty radical ways: by living with, identifying with and serving the poor; by working to end some of the chief evils of our day (such as human trafficking); by living in intentional community; by advocating for and working for the care of creation; by working for peace and accompanying those most affected by violence; by fostering and/or adopting children or supporting single mothers; by working to welcome and resettle refugees; by being intentionally multiethnic and multiracial in faith community; by challenging the norms that need to be challenged.  For those of you who are doing so, keep it up!  You inspire me everyday to live more into the Way of Jesus and encourage me immensely.

But until these are the things that the phrase “evangelical Christian” brings to mind (and while it instead brings to mind Trump-supporting, gun-slinging, gay-hating, refugee-unwelcoming, or poor-bashing), I’m going to continue to have a hard time calling myself one.

The Bottom Line

So why do I write this?  I write this not as a person who has it all figured out, or one that knows exactly how we should live, or one that’s perfect in any stretch of the imagination.  I write this as one sojourner, one pilgrim, one follower of Jesus to another.  Because I think that we can do better.  I think that if we allow ourselves to be filled and transformed by the Holy Spirit, we could be the hands and feet of Jesus.  What do you think?  Are you up for it?

John Wesley is known for praying, “Bring revival and start with me.”  I join in with that prayer and hope that you will too.

With hope of shalom,

Rebecca Ann

P. S. Recommended Reading:

Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw (where the image is from)
Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God by Todd Wynward
This Beautiful Mess: Practicing the Presence of the Kingdom of God by Rick McKinley
Zealous Love: A Practical Guide to Social Justice by Danae and Mike Yankoski
Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt
Sojourner’s Magazine http://sojo.net

 

 

Going to Rainbow

Today, as I write this, I look out of the sixth floor of our community building at snowflakes floating down slowly against the background of the Chicago cityscape.  It is cold in Chicago: cold enough for the beach at Lake Michigan to have extended many yards out into the water as the liquid surface turns solid, cold enough for me to regularly complain about the air hurting my face, and cold enough to have fun intentionally sliding on the icy sidewalks.

Soon, I will have a reprieve from the cold as I go with a dozen or so of my fellow community members to a national forest near Ocala, Florida.  However, it is not a mere camping trip to escape the Midwest winter.  Rather, we will be attending a particular version of an event known as a Rainbow Gathering.

It’s difficult for me to describe exactly what a Rainbow Gathering entails, as I have never been to one or really even anything remotely similar.  But here in the community many of my friends have been to it, and they have told me a bit of what to expect: a collective of travelers, homeless youth, and those with radical/alternative lifestyles gathering for a week of primitive camping, music, trading/sharing, and celebrating life, albeit in some potentially destructive ways.

Our community’s intention in going is to serve food to those present and provide a safe place in the middle of this environment.  We also hope to have many significant conversations about Jesus around the campfire.

I’m very, very certain that this experience will be out of my comfort zone.  This isn’t a world that I have grown up in or inhabited.  But I’m also very, very certain that this trip is going to be filled with moments in which I am made more aware of the presence of God and I am challenged to grow.  I hope to continue to learn about how to be a shalomist in this world, and I think that this trip will continue to help me learn more of how to live out this mission.  I am praying I also will be enabled to be a bearer of shalom to those around me on this trip.

If you’d like to be involved in our trip, I would much appreciate your thoughts and prayers for us as we journey.  We are also still trying to raise money for travel expenses and food to give to others while we are there.  If you are interested in contributing, there is a webpage where you can contribute here.  Or you can write out a check to Jesus People USA (memo: Rainbow Trip) and mail it to 920 W Wilson Chicago, IL 60640.

I’m excited to see what God has in store as we go to Rainbow.

Grace, peace, and shalom,

Rebecca

Rainbow_Gathering_Bosnia_2007

The Incarnation: Part Three

Two days ago I promised another installment of ways God showed up in my year.  I was postponed in posted it due to the influx of extended family that visited this weekend, which was a delightful delay.  So, without further adieu, here it is…five more ways I felt God’s presence in 2014.

6. Desire.

I re-read John Eldredge’s book The Journey of Desire for third time this year, which is to say that the subject of desire is a huge one in my mind and heart.  Many kinds of desire are included in this: desire for intimacy (more HERE), desire for clarity (more HERE), desire for romantic love (more HERE), desire for change (more HERE), desire for shalom to be restored to the earth (more HERE), and desire for God (more HERE).  Some of these desires at least partially met this year, but others were not.

Desire hurts.  It’s painful to live in a state of longing.  I have spent long nights crying out to God for Him to satiate my desire and then woken up to the exact same situation: single, lonely, and a little bit lost in a broken world with an intangible God.  All of that hurts, sometimes excruciatingly.   So much so that sometimes this year I have wanted to stop desiring altogether.

But, Eldredge says, “We are desire. It is the essence of the human soul, the secret of our existence…Desire fuels our search for the life we prize.”  Desire fuels my search for the life God has for me, and it also fuels my search for God Himself.   And as I have found out this year, that search often leads to God encounters in unexpected places.

7. Love Languages.

If you’ve talked with me much, you’ll have probably heard me bring up the concept of love languages.  This idea is based in the book by Gary Chapman that people often communicate their love in one or more of five ways: words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, gifts, and physical touch.

I love giving and receiving love in all of those ways, but my top two are words of affirmation and physical touch.  When I feel afraid or lonely, either a hug or an encouraging word is usually what I crave the most.  I was incredibly blessed to be born into a biological family where I received these frequently, but now that I’m not at home, it can be hard for me to go to a new context where I don’t have those loving support networks built in.

This year, though, I was blown away by the depth of friendships with which I was blessed.  I received so many hugs and backrubs, as well as so many sincere compliments and affirmations.   I remember one walk to the beach early this past fall where I started thinking about all of the ways the people in my life had been showing me love, and I felt this rather overwhelming sense of the gigantic amount of love that God has for me.  And that sense has only grown since then.

8. Serendipity and Significance.

Serendipity, according to the dictionary, is a fortunate or pleasant happenstance.  But that’s not quite the way that I mean this term.  I want to use this term to refer to instances where God orchestrates “coincidences” that point to His love for me.  Like when a stranger gave me an amethyst ring on a significant day (more HERE) and told me the Holy Spirit told her to give it to me.  Or when a new friend gave me a pair of sunglasses that said “seen” on them on a day when I was wondering if God saw me.  Those connections are easy to draw.

But there have been more significant events, ones that are less noticeable at the time but come into focus now that I’m looking back.   One is that, since I’ve been meeting a lot of new people, several people have had a hard time remembering my name.  I often have been called Sarah, Rachel, and occasionally Elizabeth.  I realized recently that these names have a lot of Biblical significance: they are women who are barren until God fulfills His promises to them.  Likewise, I am a woman waiting on the fulfillment of my desire for shalom, which God has promised to fulfill.

There is significance all around me: in my dreams, in the nature around me, and in the relationships I share with others.  And in as much as I’ve had eyes to see and ears to hear this year, all of it has given me a deeper sense of God’s presence.

9. Letting Go.

This ties in with several of the other categories, like desire and discomfort.  But it deserves a separate mention, because this year has been about this concept quite a bit.  I’ve had to let go of some of my own perfectionist tendencies and needs to make the “right decision.”  I’ve had to let go of my five-year-plan.  I’ve had to let go of a couple potential romantic relationships, as well as the concept of finding “the one.”  I’ve had to let go of some of my misconceptions of what my life was going to be.  I had to (and still have to everyday) let go of control.

And, I’ve found when I relax my fistfuls of my own plans, my hands are then free to receive what God has in store for me.  When I stop hanging on to the dock for dear life, God wants to teach me to swim.  “Let go and let God:” words by which I’m learning to live.

10. Community.

So. I saved this one for last, because it is the way that I most experienced the presence and love of God this year.  This is how I most experienced the light and hope of the Incarnation.  This is how I most clearly heard God’s voice and most tangibly experienced Him.  Community is by far and away the best thing that happened to me this year.

And before I even came to live in an intentional community, God placed me in an incredible community of fellow students my senior year of college.  Supportive, caring roommates provided a safe haven, and then a group of friends formed out of a desire for God to move.  We became so close so fast: worshiping, praying, and hanging out all the time. When some of my closest friends through me a graduation party (complete with veggie food, an Andie’s mint cake, and a box full of affirmations), and then some of my long-time best friends and family came to celebrate with me, I legitimately could not fathom how I was so loved.

And then.  Then I came to JPUSA, an intentional Christian community in Chicago (more HERE). Where I am constantly learning from the people around me.  Where I am constantly getting to push the edges of my comfort zone.  Where significant things are constantly happening.  Where I am constantly being affirmed and loved.  I really truly wish I had the time to tell you about all of the thousands of ways that I have experienced God here in the past seven months: making incredible new friends, introducing some old friends to this new incredible place, and seeing God in the diversity of it all.  But since I don’t have time to tell you everything, suffice it to say that community is where I constantly feel the presence and love of God and the hope of the incarnation.  For those of you who have been a part of these communities, I am so eternally grateful.

Thank you also for reading these blog posts.  You, my blog readers, are another form of community for which I’ve been grateful this year.  I’ve been inconsistent about posting, but you all have been faithful in reading and in voicing your encouragement.  In the New Year, I hope to continue to write about what God is teaching me and how He is loving me and showing the light of the incarnation.  I have absolutely no doubt that God will continue to astound all of us with His love.  May we all have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Grace, peace, and shalom,

Rebecca

GodWithUs

The Incarnation: Part Two

Yesterday, on Christmas, I posted about the Incarnation.  Specifically, I talked about how much it often feels like God is not incarnate in the way I want Him to be.  But then I said that instead of being flesh and blood on this earth, He is present in the form of the Holy Spirit, and I feel that presence daily.  There are times and places where I have felt that presence incredibly strongly in 2014, and I’d like to share those times both to thank those of you who were apart of them and to testify to the fact that God shows up.  I arranged some of these experiences into ten categories.  So here’s the first five of those, and tomorrow will be the second five.

1. Freak-outs.

If you’re familiar with my journey, you’ll know that the past couple of years have not exactly been easy for me.  Being diagnosed with bipolar and having to delay my last year of college in 2012 and breaking off an almost engagement in 2013 were not fun experiences, and there were multitudes of times when I was completely undone: anxious and crying.  But if I’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s been that God is often the most present in my freak-outs.

Although this year was remarkably less difficult, I still managed to freak out sometimes.   Like when I came face-to-face with some of my lingering fears and doubts during the Spiritual Emphasis week at the beginning of my last semester.  Or when I became overwhelmed with the darkness I saw in the streets of LA when I visited on Spring Break.  Or when I was graduating college and felt so many emotions that I couldn’t process them fast enough.  Or when I realized that in spite of being in an awesome community, I was still lonely (which I wrote more about HERE).  Different causes, but same sense of panic, same amount of crying, same conflicting thoughts in my mind.

But in each and every one of my freak-outs this year, I found myself face to face with the love of God.  Often, this was found in the arms and prayers of family and friends who care deeply about me.  But since this was a year of a lot of change, a few times I freaked out in front of people who didn’t really even know me.  And still they demonstrated amazing amounts of empathy and support.  I gradually come to realize through the flood of love I receive that God’s got it under control, and He is present.

2. Discomfort.

This category sounds pretty similar to the last one, I realize, but it’s worth a separate mention.  Because I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t freak out a lot anymore, thanks be to God.  That doesn’t mean I’m not often uncomfortable.  I pick up on a lot of peoples’ emotions and I feel the pain of others deeply, so being around hurting people can make me uncomfortable.  Also I haven’t had many of the negative and/or unusual experiences that others have, so I can feel uncomfortably out of place where I’m at now, living and working with those with very different pasts.  I feel uncomfortably privileged (which I wrote about more HERE).

Some of the most memorable outside-of-my-comfort-zone times this year have included talking with former gang members in LA, listening to 11-year-old girls at the church I volunteered at in Indiana talk about their classmate’s pregnancy and abortion, wearing an “I’m Sorry” shirt at Chicago’s Gay Pride parade, hanging out with “crusty” punks as they played songs about drugs and chain smoked, trying to have deeper conversations with my only-Spanish-speaking roommate, going to talks and demonstrations on police brutality, and listening to moms at the homeless shelter I work at tell me how they got there.  I could list many more stories and conversations this year where I was definitely outside of my comfort zone.

But I’m continuing to learn that as I work past that discomfort, I find that outside of my comfort zone is where I can learn the most.  This year, I was able to receive encouragement and love from people I would never had encountered if I hadn’t had the courage to get uncomfortable.  And people with painful pasts are often the best at pointing me towards God and ushering in His presence.

3. Vulnerability and Dependency.

As the first two categories suggest, this has been a year where I’ve been able to share my struggles.  I haven’t hidden my diagnosis, my failed relationship, or really any of my hurts, struggles, and longings.  In fact, I’ve done the complete opposite of that and been completely open and vulnerable (which I wrote more about HERE). And what I’ve found is that not only do people often give balm for my unhealed wounds, they also then feel that they have the freedom to share their hurts and struggles with me.  We are able to find grace, healing, and the presence of God together.

Likewise, I was at times this year forced to become completely dependent.  This was most obvious when I came down with viral meningitis this past August (which I wrote about more HERE).  In the pain and immobility that that illness caused, I was astounded by the love and care of my new friends and community and also re-astounded at the love and care of my immediate family.  I realized anew just how interdependent we all are as humans, and how completely dependent I am on God’s grace.

4. Sanctuaries.

My thesaurus on my computer says that synonyms for sanctuary are refuge, shelter, and safe haven.  And I found those all over this year.  I found them in actual buildings designed for that purpose, such as the prayer chapel on my college campus and the sanctuary of the church we stayed at in LA.  I also found a sanctuary for myself in a bird and butterfly sanctuary close to where I live in Chicago.

But sanctuaries are to be found everywhere, I discovered: on beaches where I took long walks (which I wrote more about HERE), in classrooms where I learned about the Scriptures, in counseling offices where I learned to give myself more grace, in gardens where I found solitude, in kitchens where I stayed up too late talking about everything with my best friends, in city streets where I joined in protesting injustice (more HERE).  A sense of peace and the presence of God are to be found everywhere.

5. Listening.

Prayer has been a constant part of my life, as I grew up with an understanding that it was important.  But this year marked an increased understanding of what prayer could entail, and an increased focus on listening prayer.    I did it in communities of faith, both my own and in a Quaker church (more HERE).   This provided me with space to reflect and meditate on God’s love for me.

Additionally, in my current job at the shelter, my co-worker placed a quote on my desk that I read everyday.  It’s by Frederick Buechner and states: “Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery it is.  In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

I have come to realize the deep truth of this concept more and more this year.  God can be found in all of my experiences, if only I am willing to listen.

Thank you to each and every one of you who were instrumental in bringing the presence of God to more fullness in my life this year.  I will be writing about five other categories of the ways I realized the meaning of the incarnation tomorrow, so be looking for it!

Grace, peace, and shalom,
Rebecca

hand holding

The Incarnation: Part One

“So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.” John 1:14(NLT)

Christmas holds different meaning for diverse people.  For some, Christmas denotes visiting family and consuming good food. Christmas can evoke happy memories of childhood or it can hold painful memories of loss.  But for me, and for many Christians, Christmas is rooted in remembering the meaning of the Incarnation.

Incarnation is a theological term that refers to the Trinue God entering the world in the form of a human.  John sums it up in the 14th verse of the first chapter of his account of the Gospel.  A more literal translation (ESV) says “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  Incarnation literally means to be made into flesh.

The incarnation is one of the central points of Christianity.  Obviously, though, Jesus is no longer in the flesh as he once was.  I have struggled with that immensely at times.  I have felt desperate to see Him, to touch Him, to know Him tangibly.  Wrapped up in that at times overwhelming desire is a lot of doubt and fear…does Jesus really exist?  Does He really care about me?  Is He really going to restore the whole of creation?  Often I feel like the Psalmist who wrote “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”  (Psalm 63:1 ESV)  This land far too often feels like a desert.  I feel like I need Christ to be incarnate in the way He once was, and He is not.

But instead of being present as He was in first-century Judea, He’s present in a new and different way.  Jesus said in John 14:16-18 “ I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth… you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you.  No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you.”He’s present through His Holy Spirit empowering those who believe in Him.   And that is a presence I have experienced innumerable times this year.

Stay tuned for part two of the blog post, in which I recount some of those many ways God has demonstrated His incarnational presence to me in 2014.

Grace, peace, and shalom,
Rebecca

word-became-flesh

Commune and Communion

“The deepest of level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless … beyond speech … beyond concept.” – Thomas Merton

This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to visit a progressive/liberal Quaker meeting with my fantastic Quaker friend David.  At the meeting, the first hour was spent largely in silent worship.  A social time allowed for the meeting of new people and the making of new connections, and then in the second hour we had a group discussion talking about the meaning and nature of the word worship.

It was fascinating hearing the thoughts that liberal Quakerism holds around the concept of worship.  While other religious and spiritual traditions often focus on external expression of worship (ie: music, dance, drama, art, etc), Quakers focus on internal expressions of worship in silence.  And perhaps even the term “expression” is not the best term, as more of their understanding of worship has to do with receiving than expressing.

It was in that conversation that I suggested that a term that perhaps summarized the Quaker understanding of worship was the term communion.  Immediately a few others jumped in and said that was a term that was largely confusing or distasteful to them, as it had to do with the bread and wine that many Christian churches had in their services that has little meaning to Quakers.  I explained that the term communion can also mean something very similar to the term “commune.”  Here’s the Webster definitions:

Communion

  1. Noun- a Christian symbol in which consecrated bread and wine are consumed as symbols for the realization of a spiritual union between Christ and  Synonyms: Eucharist, sacrament
  2. Noun- an intimate fellowship or rapport. Synonyms: unity, oneness, symbiosis, amity

Commune

  1. Noun- a group of people who live together and share space, responsibilities, possessions, etc. Synonyms: community, cooperative, collective, kibbutz
  2. Verb- To form a close personal relationship/communicate intimately. Synonyms: connect, be in touch, to feel one with

In looking and thinking about these definitions and the way these words overlap, I’m struck by the fact that really what many of us are seeking is that second definition of communion.  We all wish to cultivate intimacy with each other, with the earth, and with God.

Here, living in a commune/intentional community, I am learning so much about what true communion means : a sharing of space, a oneness of purpose, an expansion of joy, a mutual benefit.  And that is precisely what I believe the God wants to offer us.

That is one of the main reasons I have always found hope in bread and wine Communion.  To me, it represents a willingness of God to metaphorically and mysteriously enter into my space, give me purpose and joy, and both benefit me and enable me to benefit others.

But much more important than bread and wine is the rest of my relationship to God and how that plays out on a minute-by-minute basis.  A true intimate communion cannot rest solely on set-aside times of worship, important as those may be.  A true communion is based on a continual communication, a genuine connection, an authentic unity.  I want to live into that more fully.  I want to find communion and to commune in fuller ways.  Do you?

Grace, peace, and shalom,

Rebecca

communion

Weeping and Hoping

Today I participated in my church’s protest as we joined with different communities of faith in Chicago showing our stance against racial injustice.  All of our hearts have been broken lately upon seeing the violence directed at unarmed black men by the police.  We sang, chanted, blocked traffic, and prayed.  I marched side by side with others holding signs that said “we can’t breathe” and “hands up don’t shoot.”  And what did my sign say?  Well, in addition to the tagline “black lives matter,” it said “a time to weep.” There is so much to morn in this situation: lost lives, perpetuated injustice, a feeling of powerlessness in changing anything.

In contrast to my sign, however, my state throughout the several hours and miles of protesting was pretty upbeat.  I was with some of my best friends, the police were giving us respect, and passerby were expressing appreciation.  We even met up with other churches and had a mini service in the middle of a couple of intersections.  It felt good to be doing something to support a cause about which we all cared so much.

This evening, our community came together for our evening advent service.  Our advent series has been beautiful and has featured Scripture out of Isaiah.  I was honored that I had been asked to memorize and recite the scripture passage.  I had done similar things before well, so I wasn’t expecting trouble with this.

However, in the middle of reciting it on stage, I completely blanked.  Everyone was gracious about it, but after I pretty much ran off the stage I couldn’t stop crying.  I felt like I let everyone down.  It was such a beautiful passage and I had wanted to present it well.

As I sat there trying to collect myself, I thought back to the sign I had carried earlier in the day: “a time to weep.” Sometimes, I reminded myself, it’s actually appropriate to grieve. It’s appropriate for me to grieve the disappointment of not being able to communicate what’s on my heart.  It’s appropriate for me to grieve the injustices in our society.   It’s appropriate for all of us to grieve our own lack of ability to find healing and restoration.

What’s not appropriate, however, is for me to grieve as one without hope.  Regardless of my ability to articulate it, my favorite verse in that passage in Isaiah holds true. “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as waters cover the sea.”

I long for that.  I long for there to be a day with no more mourning or crying or pain.  I long for there to be an end of guns and violence and racial divisions.  I long for a day where we sing in the streets not to protest injustice but rather to celebrate grace.  And I believe that day is coming.  I get a taste of it sometimes, like when my friend Stuart, a cognitively disabled African American man was the one helping serve communion tonight.

So I will weep, but what is more, I will hope.

Grace, peace, and shalom,

Rebecca

weep

The First Step

Here’s something we can all agree on: the world is not as it should be.  Or, at the very least, the world is not perfect.  Everybody can agree that there is some form of injustice, evil, or suffering in the world.  What we don’t all agree on is what is the cause of our messed-up-ness.

Christians would say that it is sin.  Atheists would say that it is religious wars and prejudice.  Conservatives would say it is corrupting what is good about society.  Progressives would say it is stubbornly clinging to what is bad in society.  Capitalists would say it is poor people being lazy.  Socialists would say it is wealthy people being greedy.

And it goes on.  Corporations would say it is under-consumption of products.  Environmentalists would say it is overconsumption of resources.  LGBTQ folk and allies would say it is homophobia.  Fundamentalists would say it is the attack on God’s views on gender and family.  The military would say it is the attack on nationalistic interests.  Pacifists would say it is the brutal effects of war.  Civil rights activists and minorities would say it is systemic racism and injustice.  Tea partiers and patriot defenders would say it is illegal immigrants and falling away from the constitution. Ad nauseam.

We tend to focus on the things we don’t agree on.  I admit that I tend to fall on one of the sides of all of those divisions of thought just listed and I often find myself at odds with others over these differences.  A lot of the time I can simply not understand how others can think that the poor being lazy is the problem, or under-consumption of products is the problem, or the attack on nationalistic interests is the problem.  But I have been encouraged by thinking of this: the first step in solving a problem is admitting that there is one.

So.  There is a problem.  We just can’t agree on what it is. I think, though, there are certain things inside of all of us that we could maybe agree are part of the problem.  Things like letting our hurt motivate us to hurt others.  Things like letting our own fear or anger strangle us from the inside out and turn us into monsters.  Things like valuing profit, power, and pleasure over people.  Things like not learning from our mistakes and the mistakes of our ancestors.  Things like never thinking through the consequences of our words and our actions or taking responsibility for them.  Things like not perusing life, truth, beauty and transformation but instead wallowing in death, deception, brokenness, and apathy.

Maybe, if we can recognize that we all agree that there is a problem, and that we are all a part of that problem, we can see each other’s humanity across all of those divisions and labels and fights on social media.  Maybe we can find common  ground and healing and change.

At least, that’s my prayer and my hope.  Is it yours?

Grace, peace, and shalom,

Rebecca

problem

Our Story

God.
In the beginning, God.
Before time, there was Existence.
Before matter, there was Spirit.
Before biology, there was Life.
Before humanity, there was Community.
Before birth, there was Love.

Before the universe, there was God.
God who is and was and will be.
God, both merciful and just,
both omnipotent and full of grace,
both one and three.

 Creation.
God speaks,
and light breaks from darkness,
Matter forms from nothing.
Love overflows from the
self-giving community that is God
And births everything else.

Fire, earth, wind, water
Combine to create the cosmos.
Then, God turns to create
a nest called earth
Filled with ecosystems
teaming with life
Into which he places
his masterpiece:
Dust filled with breath.

Humanity.
Images of the divine,
both female and male.
God grants the capacity
to create life,
form community,
steward creation,
love and be loved.
Humanity is created
with the ability to choose.

Fall.
And choose we did,
but we chose wrong.
We chose to break apart
our intimacy, and our sanctity.
We chose doubt instead of trust,
Pride instead of humility,
Lies instead of trust,
Fear instead of love.
Death instead of life.

Redemption.
But God could not possibly
leave us to our own
rotting souls and bodies.
God chose to save us from ourselves,
Our own choice to self destruct.
First with symbols and signs
Of a sacrificial atonement
And a life lived in a community,
Governed by the divine.

But even  that was not
enough to save us.
So then, inconceivably,
with His own divinity
birthed into humanity.
A teacher, prophet, priest, and king
Of an upside-down kingdom.
His life, death, and life again
heralded our redemption.
A new era had begun.

Consummation.
Now is the already and not yet
of that Kingdom.
Now is our dust
newly filled with His breath.
Now is the re-creation
of our connection
To our nest, to our Creator,
to each other.

There is still fear, and doubt,
Pride, and death,
But now is the promise
of a full recreation
A full consummation.
Ultimately, all will be restored.

 our story