Archive for February 2016

Why It’s More Fun to Be a Maker

Why It's More Fun to Be a Maker

All my life, I’ve been curious. My mother tells a story from my early childhood, when she had just put me to bed – a major feat, since I didn’t sleep through the night until I was six years old! She was sneaking out of the room, when suddenly I bolted straight up in bed and asked: “Why do our eyeballs need to be wet?”

I’ve always asked a lot of questions, and I’ve learned a ton. Yet I’ve often allowed my own impatience to keep me from putting my knowledge to concrete use. At times, it’s seemed easier to theorize than to dig into the tedious details of application. In the face of complexity and frustration, it’s tempting to retreat to the activities that I find most natural. A life of continual growth and improvement can be exhausting.

But this challenging way of discovery is worth it. My life exists to show love to others. God has placed me on this earth to serve the people around me. That means blazing some trails, taking risks, and moving outside of my comfort zone. It means taking a long, hard look at my own low tolerance for frustration. If I’m going to be the kind of change-maker this world needs, I’d better get used to tension and ambiguity.

My friend Justin Jacoby Smith recently said that it’s “oddly liberating when you realize that you don’t have the things you need because it’s your job to create them.” While I know that he was speaking specifically in the context of the work he’s doing with Democracy Spring, Justin’s experience applies to so many areas where we’re being invited to grow. One way that we can show love for others is by forging a path. We create space so that those around us can explore their dreams and fulfill their God-given purpose.

As a leader with Democracy Spring, Justin is building the tools to help spark a mass-movement for democracy in the United States. As part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, I’m helping to create space where a fresh spiritual awakening can take place, powering a radical community that defies the logic of empire. We are each creating according to the call and gifts that God has given us. And together we are establishing an environment where everyone can share their gifts and create a new order of compassion and justice.

This beats the superficial contentment of an easy life, any day. When our focus is love for others, why would we ever want to sit on the couch and just coast? It’s so much more fun to be a maker!

What are you making? What are the gifts and sense of calling that God has placed in your life? What are the weaknesses, frustrations, and doubts that you’ll need to face in order to unlock your contribution? What is missing from the world that you’re called to create?

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The Secret to Unpredictable Growth

What Does Solidarity Mean?

The Secret to Unpredictable Growth

The Secret to Unpredictable Growth

I used to think I could never learn another language. I studied Spanish in school, and it was always a struggle. I almost gave up.

Then, in my second year of college, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Mexico, and everything changed. For seven months, I renounced English and spent all of my time listening, speaking, and thinking in Spanish. I left home barely able to carry on a conversation; I came back with a confident command of the language.

I learned so much during my time studying abroad, and not just about Spanish. I discovered the amazing wealth of Mexican history and culture, and what it means for me to be an American living abroad. My whole perspective on the world shifted.

Most of all, I discovered myself. In this total-immersion experience, I encountered parts of my mind I had never noticed before. I learned how to learn, how to open myself to new ideas, experiences, and skills in a way that serves me well to this day.

I noticed that, for weeks, I would be plodding along at a certain level of language ability. It seemed like I wasn’t making any progress at all, and I felt very discouraged. But then, all of a sudden, I would “level up”. One day, I would wake up and find myself speaking Spanish with much greater ease and confidence. It was like magic!

Eventually, I learned that this was a natural part of the growth trajectory. It turns out that growth is not linear. Progress comes in bursts, after long periods of apparently fruitless effort.

I’ve recently begun studying web development. This process has been reminding me a lot of my experience studying another language. Most of the time it’s fun – challenging, but fun and mind-expanding. But then there are those days I spend banging my head up against a particularly challenging riddle. To go for a few minutes, or even a few hours without progress is frustrating. But days? I’m often tempted to give up, to tell myself that “I’m no good at coding” and retreat into activities that I find more comfortable.

In times like these, I try to remember the lessons that Mexico taught me. It would have been easy for me to give up on ever learning Spanish. I could have told myself, “I’m just no good at languages” and let that be my excuse for sticking to things that came more easily. I’m so thankful I didn’t, because otherwise I might still not know that the limits of my growth have more to do with my willingness to endure frustration and keep going.

The secret to growth isn’t about doing hard things; it’s about continuing to do the impossible things until – suddenly! – they are no longer impossible. It’s about having faith that, if I choose to persevere, doors will open in ways that I can’t even imagine yet.

Have you experienced this kind of unexpected growth? When have you been surprised by success after a long struggle?

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What Does Solidarity Mean?

What Does Solidarity Mean?

I grew up with a weird mix of influences. My parents were pastors of an Evangelical Friends Church in Wichita, Kansas. They were also radical social justice activists who were getting into all sorts of trouble with mainstream Christian culture. In the early 90s, they were taking me along to gay pride rallies. They trespassed at the local Air Force Base and stood on railroad tracks to block the transport of nuclear weapons. They involved me in creative protests at stores selling violent toys. My parents taught me that it was the duty of Christians to disobey unjust laws and reject violence – whether by individuals or the state.

My family straddled two worlds that are often kept apart: Biblically-based Christian discipleship, and radical movements for social transformation. It wasn’t until later that I would understand just how unusual, and amazing, this early training was. I got exposed to the nonviolent principles of Gandhi and King, as well as to a variety of other radical ideologies not explicitly based in the gospel. I absorbed all of this side by side with a reading of the Bible that emphasized God’s love for the poor and Jesus’ invitation to participate in a new social, political, and economic order.

Growing up in this milieu, I heard the word “solidarity” a lot. To be honest, I never quite figured out what it meant. It was a nice word to throw into an email to make myself sound a little more radical, but my understanding never went much beyond that. “Solidarity” was an insider word that helped signal that I was part of the movement.

The first time I truly began to grasp the meaning of the word “solidarity” was during the Occupy movement. Thousands of like-hearted people were coming together to make immediate, concrete change in our society. This was a new experience for me, on a whole new order of magnitude from the what I had seen before. It opened my eyes to what solidarity could mean in practice.

Suddenly, I was part of a community so much bigger than myself, a movement whose total focus was the transformation of the world, now. We made decisions together, we prepared food and tried to stay warm. When the police attacked, we all felt it. We were so identified with one another than an assault on another occupier felt like a personal slap in the face. “Solidarity” wasn’t just some convenient movement word anymore; it had taken on flesh and bone. We were ready to suffer and sacrifice for one another. We believed we could change the world through our endurance. And we did.

I find it striking how this experience of solidarity parallels with the story of the early church and other movements of the Holy Spirit. Solidarity corresponds to that sense of being “one body” that Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians. Communities gathered together by the Holy Spirit experience this kind of organic unity: a readiness to prioritize love for one another over personal fear and ambition.

For the thousands of us forever changed by our experiences in the Occupy movement, we know that solidarity is a key ingredient. It’s like salt, without which our lives have very little flavor. Yet solidarity is such a rare thing for many of us. It’s a reality that is lacking almost completely from middle-class American culture. We’re individuals. We don’t rely on one another. We’re not knit together as one fabric.

And why should we be? We don’t share one mission. Each of us looks out for our own interests – our careers and families, dreams for the future conceived of in personal rather than collective terms. At times it seems that there is nothing uniting us but shared consumption. But in the words of Charles Eisenstein: “Joint consumption doesn’t create intimacy. Only joint creativity and gifts create intimacy and connection.”

It’s time to break out of this middle class trap of fear and consumptive materialism. We’re invited to experience solidarity, which breaks down the barriers between us and creates genuine community. When we become friends of Jesus, we discover the true meaning of unity. Based in shared mission, gifts, and care for one another, we are drawn together as one body in his Spirit. Living as members of one another, we can discover a life that goes beyond the hungry selfishness of consumerism.

Are you ready to open yourself to this journey of discipleship together with me? The Holy Spirit is present to break your shackles and fill you with life. You have nothing to lose but your fear.

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Making Room for Others to Dream

Making Room for Others to Dream

I’m a future-oriented person. At any given time, I’m probably using half my energy thinking, dreaming, preparing for what’s coming next.

But this year for Lent, I’m trying to give up dreaming for a little while. As much as I’m able, for the next month or so I’ll avoid pondering any possible future, no matter how wonderful. Instead, I want to focus on the life that I am living right now – and to be grateful for it.

It’s hard to tell where visionary thinking ends and escapism begins. I suspect that I cross the line more often than I’d like to think. That’s one reason for this fast: To spend some time being truly present with what is, instead of being in such a rush to create what will be.

There must be other reasons, too. The truth is, I don’t really know why I’m feeling compelled to undertake this odd little period of renunciation. You might say it’s a leading of the Spirit. Or maybe I’m just a little bit burnt out. But whatever it is, it feels bigger than my conscious mind. Something deeper.

One of these hidden reasons became a little clearer to me today. I had a flash of inspiration, realizing how much of an impact my dreaming has on those around me. Mostly positive, I hope. I invite the people around me into my dreams, and to discover dreams of their own. At best, my out-of-control vision can help spark creativity in others. 

I’m realizing it can also do the opposite. Sometimes, the sheer volume and intensity of my waking dreams can suck up all the oxygen in the room, making it difficult for others to breathe their own unique forms of imagination.

I want to leave space for every flower to bloom. I want to see joy come alive. I want to make room for others to dream, even if it means that my own dreaming needs to learn some limits. 

What’s your experience? Are you a dreamer, or would you benefit from a little more space to imagine a more beautiful future?

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Is It Time to Turn Off the News?

Is It Time to Turn Off the News?

One of my favorite morning rituals is sitting down with breakfast and opening up the newspaper. I understand there aren’t many in my generation that still read the news in print, but for me it’s a comforting ritual. Or, at least, it used to be. 

For years, I’ve had a rocky relationship with the news. I love to know what’s going on in the world, but I can’t help but notice that the news sources I read all present the story from a definite slant. More and more over the last couple years, I’ve felt like I’m doing battle with the newspaper every morning. Each day, the media machine is telling me who I should vote for, what to buy, what new disease to fear, and who my country should kill.

The further I go in my journey of discipleship to Jesus, the more I realize that I am in a battle – an ideological or spiritual warfare – with the media I consume. Especially at this time in American politics, as we head into what may be the most contentious and vitriolic election in a generation, I’m wondering to what extent I should be engaging with the news at all.

Here’s one decision I’ve come to for myself: I’m not going to spend any more time consuming media that makes me feel powerless, furious, or inadequate. For me, that has meant making the choice to avoid the paper’s A section and go straight for local news. I’m not saying there isn’t propaganda and distortion on the local level; on the contrary, local DC politics is a bit of a mess! Yet it’s a mess that I have a real stake in. I have a voice, however small, in the life of my city. I can take concrete action to drive tangible change.

The choice to shift my gaze locally has been a powerful one for me. I’m still frequently discouraged by the news I read, but I rarely experience the radical alienation that has become so normal when I focus on national and international affairs. I can choose to be an actor rather than a spectator. Reading my local news serves as a preparation for engagement, rather than a temptation to despair.

I think temptation is the right word. Especially now that we are entering into the thick of the American presidential campaign season, I am increasingly convinced that the mainstream media narratives are toxic – damaging to body, mind, and spirit. I’m through ingesting toxins and calling it “entertainment”. I refuse to allow myself to be distracted from the joy and challenge of real life, in favor of the three-ring circus that American politics has become.

It’s time to take control of the media I consume. If that means throwing away the A section of the newspaper without reading it, I will. If it means shutting off social media until November 9th, then I’ll learn to live without it. Because I can’t let the seed of life get choked out by the weeds. God put me on this earth for a purpose, and it wasn’t for live-tweeting the Republican debates. 

How about you? What’s your relationship like with the news these days? Is there a healthy balance you’re able to strike? What does simplicity and faithfulness look like when it comes to what we put into our minds?

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What If This Is All There Is?

What If This Is All There Is?

What If This Is All There Is?

I was one of those kids who was raised to believe I could do anything I set my mind to. I was encouraged to dream big; the only limit was my imagination. When I watched movies or read books, I saw the heroes as people who I could aspire to be.

I’ve lived my whole life in a culture that has told me that I should want more for myself. From better grades in school and a higher salary at work, my milestones have always been “more and better.”

I’ve incorporated this mentality of achievement into my relationship with God. I’ve assumed that to be a successful follower of Jesus, I’d need to take on more spiritual disciplines, become a better practitioner of prayer, and demonstrate outstanding moral purity. The bar is high, and I’ve tried to meet it at every step along the way.

As we enter into Lent this year, I’m reminded that this spirituality of “better, faster, stronger” is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t about being more and doing more, but rather about having the courage to become less. He must increase, but I must decrease.

That’s a big change in perspective. As someone who is used to imagining the world from on top, Jesus invites me to place myself at the bottom of the pyramid. I’m someone who has been trained to prioritize my own thoughts and feelings, my needs and desires; but this gospel life offers me the exact opposite: I’m to put the needs of others first, and to value love more than fear. I’m hard-wired to pursue pleasure and flee pain,  but Jesus offers a path that embraces suffering as a path to healing the world. If that’s not supernatural, I don’t know what is.

As the Christian world enters into a season of prayer, repentance, and self-examination, I’m asking myself: What if this is all there is? What if life never gets any easier? What if it gets even harder? Am I ready to walk with Jesus down this path that he’s showing me?

I hear that some people give up chocolate, or alcohol, or meat for Lent. That’s always seemed a little silly to me. But this year, I do want to give something up for Lent. I want to give up hope. I want to surrender my aspirations for something bigger, grander, and more exciting. This year for Lent, I want to live this life as if it’s all I’ll ever have – with all its frustrations, doubts, and incompleteness.

During this Lenten season, I want to give up being the hero of the story and embrace what it feels like to be nobody. Instead, I want to focus on how I can bring happiness to the people around me. Especially those who make my life most difficult. Rather than thinking about what’s missing from my wish list, I want to focus on how blessed I am to share this wonderful, beautiful existence with you. I want to be say with joy, “Yes, this is all there is – thank God!”

What are you giving up for Lent?

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Which Way Should I Go?

Which Way Should I Go?

Which Way Should I Go?

Life isn’t simple. Despite all of the ways in which we try to control our path – all the academic, work, and social hoops we jump through to provide order to our lives – the world we live in is fundamentally disorderly. How do you distinguish between the good and the bad? Or, even more challenging, how do you choose between two apparently desirable alternatives?

This is where I often find myself: Surrounded by ambiguously good options – none of them perfect, each appealing in its own way. Which should I pick? How do I resolve the inner conflict that comes when considering these good, but incomplete, choices? 

The first step may be simply to recognize that neither option is the right one for me. Author Nassim Nicolas Taleb says, “When conflicted between two choices, take neither.” In order to find the way forward, I’ll need to release my grip on what I think I know and open myself to guidance. There is a better, more life-filled path for me to walk, but finding it requires that I surrender my limited vision and wait for clarity.

Early Quaker leader James Nayler speaks of this process of discernment, allowing God to move us from frustrated problem-solving into the freedom of spiritual surrender. He writes, “Art thou in the darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till light arises out of darkness to lead thee.”

I don’t know what comes next; none of my good options seem like the right one. But I have faith that there is a power and spirit who is greater than my heart and knows all things. This inward light of Jesus will make a way where there seems to be no way, charting a course through the Red Sea of my conundrum. All I have to do is wait, and stay awake.

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