Yours. Mine. Ours?

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Recently I was boarding an airplane and I was amused by the silliness of the boarding procedure. Of course I understand the efficiency of boarding in groups and all that, but the thing where the first class passengers walk across the blue carpet, then they close that “lane” and have the rest of us schmucks walk in a different “lane.” Dumb.

And yesterday, I got a call from my primary care physician. He’s firing me as a patient. He only wants to be a doctor to rich people. Of course, I see all the benefits to him, and to his patients, but when it comes down to it, he only wants to serve the “haves.”

I have a good friend. We don’t see eye-to-eye on political stuff. He’s a solid right-wing guy and I’m solidly “undecided” in every presidential election. But on this one thing we agree; the growing gap  between the “have’s” and the “have-not’s” doesn’t bode well for the American future. I like to say, that the gap can only grow so far before you get a major rebellion by the “have nots” that leads to violence (e.g. The French Revolution).

And the reason I’m writing about these things is because it’s symptomatic of an American distinction between what’s yours and mine. My house is mine. It’s not yours. Your car is yours, not mine. This is the way we think, the way we act, the way we live. Even the most altruistic among us have limits. Even the most generous of us still has a sense of what’s ours and what’s yours.

That’s why as I was reading a book this morning, I was really struck by a comparison of African tribal culture to American culture. The book is called Poor Millionaires. (And btw, I LOVE this book. It’s a great story, hits on a lot of great ideas, and it’s really well-written!)

The two authors – one raised in suburban Minneapolis, the other in a nomadic, Kenyan tribe – met at a Christian college, and in their first encounter, the African (Michael) say to Nathan, “Can I drive our truck,” referring to Nathan’s truck. After Nathan corrects Michael, “Our truck?” Michael explains:

“Oh, sorry. I don’t mean to offend. In Africa, we have a saying, ‘I am,’ — he pointed at himself — ‘because we are’ — he pointed at me. ‘We are because I am.'”

He continues a little bit later,

“In my tribe it is impolite to say ‘this is my cow’ or this is my hut.’ Instead we say this is ‘our cow,’ or ‘our hut.’ We don’t own things in the same way people seem to here in America. In fact, if I were to drive this truck to the village and say, ‘This is my truck,’ the elders would get so furious and say something like, ‘No, Kimpur (his African name), this is our truck because you are one of us.'”

I know that changing American culture isn’t really going to happen. We aren’t going to ever think like nomadic Africans. And I don’t really even think that American Christians can change this about ourselves. It’s too deep, too ingrained, to much a part of us.

But maybe there our ways that I can live more with the mentality of “ours” than I currently do. What if it’s better to live this way? What if being part of something is more satisfying than having something?

This past winter was really bleak for Jennifer and I. And at Christmastime – knowing we were living in a small-for-six-people apartment that faced north and literally got no sunshine – some new friends offered us their house to use for Christmas as they were headed out-of-town for a week. “What’s ours is yours,” he said, as he handed me the key. “And I don’t want this back.”

And I believe him – to a point. I don’t think what’s really his is ours. I don’t think he’d approve if I showed up after completing a run on the Rock Island Trail, threw my sweaty clothes in his laundry basket and jumped in his shower. That level of “ours-ness” may be an African reality, but it’s surely not an American sensibility. But, as I’ve gotten to know this friend, I think that he’s really trying to live in as open-handed a way as he can.

Couldn’t we all create a bit more of a sense of ours? Couldn’t we all let go of our possessions, our time, our energy, our pursuits so that we could share more? I know that I sure could…

(Feel like I ought to hat tip Tony Jones here. I’ve been working through the books on his Books of Note post from early April and they’ve all been excellent so far – including his book)

When God Experienced Atheism

“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

I had another conversation recently with a person who currently has a front row seat to suffering and recounted to me the things Christians often say:

“God has a reason.”

“Everything happens for a purpose.”

“This will make you stronger.”

This conversation makes me so tired. Why can’t we just look someone in the eyes or wrap them up in an embrace and say “I’m sorry that life hurts right now.” Why do we think we have to somehow answer for God?

I just finished reading Tony Jones’ Did God Kill Jesus?, (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and in his explanation of his understanding of what happened in the crucifixion of Jesus he says this:

While I’m not necessarily saying that God did not understand what it felt like to get bitten by a mosquito before Jesus, I am saying that in Jesus, God fully experienced it. God went from sympathy to empathy with the human condition. And that changed God, for in that experience God became passionately connected with humankind in a way that God previously was not.

And then, a couple sentences later…

And when Jesus cried out from the cross in despair and anguish, God experienced something that God had never before experienced:

God experienced the absence of God.

     God experienced atheism.

Just think about this idea for a minute… that in the crucifixion God felt what it feels like when we wonder if God is out there. God experienced the feeling of life without God. Let that idea settle for just a minute.

Imagine if that was what we said to suffering. What if we simply reminded each other that God knows exactly what we feel. God knows what it feels like to hurt, to feel alone, to feel abandoned. God knows – empathetically, not just sympathetically – what it feels like to doubt everything.

Listen, some of us are suffering in obvious ways. We’re fighting cancer, facing the suffering of a child, staring down our own addictions. But some people – who otherwise seem happy, healthy and as if everything is awesome – even some of these people have deep, existential doubts and feel the absence of God.

So, let us remind each other – no matter how deeply you feel the absence of God – God knows what that feels like.

Canyon Life

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Last Thursday, I flew out of Peoria and went to the hill country of Texas to speak at the Laity Lodge Youth Camp to the summer staff. I didn’t know much about Laity Lodge or the HEB Foundation (which is pretty amazing) or the Frio River Canyon except that my friend Cary is the Director of one of the camps and asked me to come speak.

Driving into the canyon is really amazing. It’s an incredibly beautiful place – a river snakes through the canyon, dams hold back the water creating great swimming areas in some parts and shallow rapids in others. There are cliffs on either side and trails that lead you to beautiful vistas. I’m not a good enough writer to put into words the natural beauty of the place.

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Upon arriving I found out that there is no Verizon cell phone service in the canyon (or within about 30 miles, I think). There is some WiFi, but limited to very small areas (and the camp makes an effort to restrict use to staff). In other words, it’s all very beautiful and at the same time very isolating from the outside world.

And in that context I was free to pour myself into the experience. My second son travelled with me and we hiked, swam, played disc golf and jumped off a cliff together. I spoke 3 times in the evening roundup and did several break-out sessions on Saturday and in general just hung out and talked to people. I really do love meeting new people, it energizes me and makes me feel alive. And I didn’t make phone calls (I couldn’t), I barely got a text through once-in-a-while, and I ignored emails.

And because of that lack of connectivity to the outside world, I didn’t think about my life back home hardly at all. Of course I thought about Jennifer – and sent her a few texts when I could – but mostly the canyon was a space where I could leave behind the stuff that’s on my mind, the stuff that stresses me out, situations that cause angst or worry or fear or sadness. In other words, the remoteness of the canyon was an invitation to simply be present to the moment.

It was funny, at the end of our time there I asked Gavin, “are you ready to go back home?” And his answer summed up what I think both of us felt. “No, I’m ready for the rest of our family to join us down here,” he replied. As I’ve talked to other people about Laity Lodge, I think it’s a sentiment that many people feel – that something is special about that place – that if there is anything to the Celtic spirituality idea of “thin places,” where heaven and earth overlap just a little – then that place is one of them.

This fall I’ll be taking a sabbatical from ministry. For the first time in my 17 years in ministry there will be no emails to respond to, upcoming messages to prepare, counseling to do, relationships to navigate. My charge from the church is simply to do the things that will fill up my own soul, to ask “what do I need for me?” So, I’ll be trying to do a little travel as I can afford – to visit some people who fill me up. I’m trying to go backpacking with a friend for a couple days in Southern Illinois, but otherwise, I’ll be trying to establish rhythms of life that mimic this past weekend in the canyon. The canyon gave me a glimpse of what sabbatical might be like, when I try to disappear from my life for a time, and it felt good.