Thursday, February 25, 2010

Steadfast Love

Do not think the love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. -Mother Theresa

Suck dick, Ian! - Omar

This week has been testing. I don't feel angry or vengeful, which surprises me. My main feeling is helplessness.

Some of the behavior going on in our apartment would probably justify some rage. A kid who we have poured a lot of time, food, and energy into, has been bullying other kids. He belittles them, pushes them around, and sets a poor example for all the younger guys. After about eighteen warnings, I kicked him out on Tuesday for first berating another guy then talking back to me when I addressed it.

On Wednesday, in his unmistakable handwriting, the words "Suck dick, Ian!" were written on the wall in permanent marker. Then when some of the girls we work with started putting up posters for a club they've started, this guy and his posse of friends went around tearing them down and writing obscenities on them.

I went out to have a talk with him, and it was totally unfruitful. Any idiot could have predicted that, I guess, but I found it unsettling.

So my knee-jerk reaction is just to keep him out of our program, since he does damage to the other kids and shows nothing but disrespect to the the volunteers, Ruthie, and me.

But yesterday I was thinking about all the testimonies I hear from friends and acquaintances how the deciding factor in turning their life around was one or two people who stuck it out through the rough times.

I think we're called by our Lord's example to have an inexplicable love. I don't think that excludes discipline, but it certainly excludes dismissal. Or even if the afterschool program does not prove to be doable for Omar, at least I can still be a neighbor to him, which is the advantage of living where we live.

Anyway, I'm mostly writing this thing in the blissful morning hours, sitting next to a steaming cup of coffee, in order to brace myself for whatever comes next. Patient love is something I wish I had in greater measure, and I preach about it in order to hold myself accountable for its practice.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Iguana Love

This has little or nothing to do with our ministry work, which is the supposed focus of this blog, but two nights ago, as I was wading through James Joyce's monsterpiece Ulysses, my iguana, Rockette (formerly named Rocket until we realized he was in fact a she), climbed up on my shoulder and started licking my cheek.

A little uncomfortable, I closed my eyes until the kisses were over:

Rockette then turned away, embarrassed after Ruthie, my jealous wife, caught this display of affection on camera.

Finally, the affectionate reptile fell asleep on my shoulder as I resumed reading:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Few More Things about Preaching

Over lunch at Wan Lai, my favorite Chinese restaurant (side note: their slogan is "where gastronomy and good times come together." awesome), my friend David Park and I got to talking about preaching. He has passed a few opportunities my way, and while I was able to make a few of them work, I generally bowed out.

I recently asked David, somewhat aggressively, why anyone would want to preach. After my time in Florida, my opinion is softening somewhat, but I still have a few hangups with the whole system:
  • It's impersonal - In what other setting would relative strangers sit down and listen to 20-45 minutes of another person's opinions without interrupting? When I hear the more "relevant" speakers like Rob Bell or Louie Giglio, they tend to create a good illusion of intimacy with their delivery, but who are we kidding here? This is mass media, a shotgun blast of Christian opinion.
  • It's top-down stuff - preaching reinforces the trickle-down, leader-reliant mode of Church that allows some Christians to be mere spectators. If I go into a church and talk about working in a community, people can tell me "good message" and they've fulfilled their role. But if I sit down with someone and we start talking about each of our lives, then we've got something to work with.
  • It's ironic - Ruthie and I are very focused on being good neighbors. We believe that's how the gospel works itself out. So dressing up and getting behind a podium to say that what's most important is not how we look or where we stand on Sunday seems a little silly.
However, there are some upsides to preaching as well, which are:
  • It's a gateway - what you say from the front can open doors for further conversation.
  • You can break rules once you're up there - I've seen preachers stop early to create opportunities for reconciliation and conversation among the congregants. Every time I see that happen, the results are stunning.
  • The audience is diverse - If you write or make music or make movies, your message will only reach the type of person who probably already thinks the same as you on whatever topic. When you speak in a Church, you connect with people from different walks of life, different frameworks of belief, and across socioeconomic lines. It's a unique opportunity.
For now, my response to speaking opportunities will be to accept them if they don't interfere too much with my other, more important work, which is caring for the people in my neighborhood. I'd way rather show the gospel in deed than get behind a pulpit and discuss it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Preacher Man

I am an admittedly incapable preacher. I bristle at notes, fumble through stories, and drive myself crazy trying to discern how the message is being received. When the message is over, I fall into a self-conscious spiral. It's almost enough to keep me from doing it.

Ruthie and I drove down to the On Mission Celebration in Sebring, Florida filled with anxiety. To start off, I made a directional mistake and had to speed from Atlanta to Sebring to make it to my first speaking engagement. I slipped into the church two minutes before Ruthie and I were to go up and give a brief overview of our ministry.

After the whirlwind service, we were greeted by our host church, Sparta Road Baptist Church. Ellen, our main contact there, showed us where we would be staying. To my delight, it was a home for retired missionaries who worked in Africa. Later on in the week, we got to join several of these missionaries at Ellen's house for an evening of conversation and some amazing food:

When speaking, I focused on the narrative of my journey to dwelling and working with internationals. I found that people at each of the seven churches we spoke at (notice the Revelation connection, anyone?) responded to different parts of the story.

Some responded to my battle with depression. Others grew excited about the possibility of reaching their own communities. Many responded to the fact that we were young, part of a generation lost to the church, and we were able to talk about why people our age have such a hard time digging Christianity, and some things we can do about it.

Here's a shot taken after one particularly rich time:

I met a beautiful Filipino couple in one of the churches. This couple was so encouraging to me, and we talked about places where I had grown up. They had been to Tarlac and Cainta, two significant cities in my life.

While we were there, Ruthie got to drive over to Ft. Myers, where her sister lives, and check out some of the local manatees:

It was a full, rewarding time, but the terror of speaking left me totally exhausted. After our last engagement on Wednesday, we had to drive through the night to get back up to Atlanta so I could work the next day. Today (Monday) feels like the first day where things slowed down a bit. Hence the blog entry. And now I'm off to bed.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sing Silently

Ruthie and I spent the weekend up in the mountains with a group of friends. My friend Josh Feit played a new song that he had written. Knowing the subject of the piece, I had tears in my eyes at the end.

The song was called "Sing Silently." The lyrics went like this:

Sing silently
Sing silently
'Till the bluebird mama can make it home
'Till the bluebird mama can make it home

Tread tenderly
Tread tenderly
'Till the blackbird papa can make it home
'Till the blackbird papa can make it home

Sing la la la
To the shadows in the room
Keep singing la la la
To the shadows in the room

He wrote it about a girl at a local apartment complex, who witnessed violence in her home and can't sleep well anymore. I think that, as we dive into the pain of the lives around us, art like this becomes more and more essential, both in ministering to that pain and in keeping our sanity.

Songs like this do a beautiful job of telling stories, of releasing pain, and searching for hope. I believe that Josh's example is one that more of us should follow. He makes art that relates to the overwhelming mysteries he faces, and the resulting song is such a powerful call to compassion, to hope, to love.

There's much more that I could say on this, but I'd encourage my readers to hop over to Josh's site and check out the song for themselves. A recording of the song is available at The Redline Project.