Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Body of Christ: Rethunk?

After a week absolutely deluged in work, I've hardly had enough time to eat, let alone think and reflect. But I managed to take the time to read this article over lunch today and it blew my mind: What Shane Claiborne (and Mother Teresa) Got Wrong About the Body of Christ. In it, Ellen Painter Dollar suggests that a rigorous practice of self-sacrifice might not be the best way to live out our faith in Christ. What a concept. Till next week, I encourage you to check it out.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Wheels on the Bus

I ride the bus to work. I take the 8:27 to Watertown each weekday morning. The 70 route is one of the busier commuter routes, and it's usually crowded. All manner of random, chaotic happenings slow the bus down, like construction, bad weather, and crazy pedestrians who do don't use crosswalks. And the people on the bus range from friends and coworkers to loudmouths yakking on their cell phones in other languages, people with stinky food or stinky clothes, people whose profane music is far too loud, disabled people, and even homeless people. It's a pre-coffee menagerie. From time to time, I have been known to feel annoyed at teenagers and senior citizens, who don't have to get to work on time. They can just take the bus in another 20 or 30 minutes and be out of the way of suit-wearers. Sometimes I think, "I just want to get to work, people."

One day last spring was particularly crazy. It was raining, and the bus windows were steamy so that I couldn't see in, and the people inside couldn't see me. I got on and sank down into the last seat left. The bus is always late when it's raining, and that day was no exception. I tried to breathe and read from my devotional book on the way. When the bus reached the first large intersection after my stop, one of the people boarding the bus tried to load his bike into the front bike rack. The bus driver began to yell at the man, saying, "You're not getting on my bus!" She got off and tried to make him take his bike off the rack. He yelled back. She stormed back into the bus, closed the door, and put on the parking brake. Then she called the transit police, telling the person on the other end of the radio that she felt threatened by him, and that he had provoked her before. The whole thing took 15 minutes, and the 8:37 bus had just passed us. After a week of construction and bad weather, that was the icing on the cake. I muttered, "This bus route is bull." The bus driver heard me, disengaged the parking brake with a clang, and screeched through the intersection. I watched the man, standing in the rain, become a smaller and smaller dark spot as we roared away.

Since then, I've seen that man on the bus many times. He always has his bike. He has curly hair and paint-stained clothes. He speaks Spanish as well as English. He's outgoing and sometimes has an attitude. But he's polite and always offers me a seat if one opens up. More recently, I went into work on Labor Day. It was crowded again- the bus only comes once an hour on Federal holidays. I sat in one of the seats along the side of the bus that faces inward. The man boarded the bus at his usual stop. He stood directly in front of me and held onto the bar over my head. There were his paint-stained clothes, the baggy jeans and the old t-shirt. Around his neck, he wore the Ecclesia cross. It, too, was spattered with paint.

As I've mentioned before, the Ecclesia cross is a gift that can only be received by a member of  Ecclesia Ministries or the Cambridge Outdoor Church. Members of the community are homeless, have been homeless, or pastors to those who are homeless. It's the same cross I wear when I give out sandwiches once a month in Central Square. My sleepy-headed thoughts were arrested.

I had been so angry at him for disturbing my commute and filling the bus with his loud Spanish, with tiny syllables that flew out of his mouth like bullets from a machine gun. I had narrowed my eyes more than once when he entered the bus. And now I realized: he and I are connected. We are part of an extended community. If he is not homeless now, he used to be homeless, and Ecclesia Ministries has probably been a powerful part of his life. In that moment, it dawned on me that his clothes were not dirty and covered in paint because he's a sloppy bum. It's probably because he's a house painter, trying to earn a living on low-wage work.

I wanted to introduce myself. I wanted to tell him that I am part of the web of relationships that is Ecclesia and the Outdoor Church, and to express goodwill. But I couldn't, not after I had quietly resented him for almost six months. Sure, this man had inconvenienced me multiple times on my commute. Being annoyed is one thing, though, and sitting there glowering is quite another. I quickly realized that I had been un-Christian. I took the side of the bus driver on that rainy day, despite the fact that I do not know his name and I've never spoken to him. He has no idea that I resented him for six months and he has no idea who I am. But God knows how I felt. God knows that I sinned in my heart against a man who's probably had more than a few hard knocks in his life. I ought to be ashamed of myself, and I am. The person I hurt when I committed the sin of resentment was myself.

Our God is a God of second chances, however, and God has given me the chance to turn all of this around. I've actively tried to be more patient with the crazy menagerie with whom I ride the bus each morning and evening. That's about all I can do. The damage that was done was to my heart. I can only pray for mercy, try to love others more, and ask the Holy Spirit to heal me. So I do.

Friday, September 14, 2012

White Knuckles

Recently, I have experienced some upheaval in my life. Type-A person that I am, I respond by writing lists, making new goals, charting tasks, and the like. But during this time, my spouse has started talking to me about meditation more and more. He tells me that my hyperactive brain needs to do less, not more, if I am going to stop stressing out. I have heard him saying such things before, so I filed that under "things to put on the backburner" in my mental filing cabinet. Then I stumbled across some articles that brought me back to some of the same ideas.

Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest, posted an article on the Sojourners blog, "It's Time for Baby Boomers to Cede Control." A Boomer himself, he writes about how Boomers' failure to share power with younger generations may be tied to a fear of aging. Behind the fear of aging is fear of loss of control, loss of independence and self-sufficiency, and ultimately fear of death. As a young person living in a church full of folks who are older than I am, I have sometimes felt resentful of those who would not share responsibilities and decision-making with me. Now I see that some of this behavior is motivated by existential fear. I can give a lot more grace to others, because I know that I share the same fears, even if I don't know it yet.

Another article caught my eye this week. It's by Star Foster, a pagan blogger featured on the well-known religion blog central, I was surprised by the title, "Reducing Stress, Increasing Joy: The Stoicism of Epictetus." Stoicism isn't known for being the security of philosophies. But she boils down this ancient Greek philosopher in a way that really put things in perspective:
"There are things you can control, and things you cannot. Happiness comes from recognizing this, and from letting go of that which you cannot control while taking charge of the things you can control. Do well, expect the best, do not worry about what you cannot change, and master yourself."
Wow. Most of this is what my spouse, the sage in basketball shorts, has been telling me the entire time. If I want to transcend my stress and find happiness in the midst of the storm, the solution is not white-knuckling life. Clinging desperately to a few details that are insignificant in the long run only creates the illusion of control. The best thing I can do is let go: of other people's actions and attitudes, of realities I don't like, and I especially must let go of the future.

Letting go of control- or really the illusion of control- feels a lot like the first time I let go of the trapeze mid-swing as a child. But in reality, it's less like a shock of complete terror and more of a gentle release, like letting up on the final note of a piano piece into perfect silence. Perhaps there's something to this meditation exhortation after all. If I gradually let go of my thoughts, especially the ruminating ones, I may be able to release myself from the psychological prison of stress and worry.

Perhaps this insight can be generalized for those living in the grip of existential fear, facing aging and death, moving and upheaval, and even just the chaos of life in this entropic universe. It is not only important to learn to stop white-knuckling the details and sweating the small stuff in life. It is also important to stop white-knuckling life itself. If we cling to life, and by extension to illusions of youth, self-sufficiency, and control, we never fully live. Trying so hard to avoid death, and everything that symbolizes death to us, prevents from truly enjoying the beauty of life in the present.

Our American culture, unfortunately, makes it difficult to release our fears. It conflates busyness with personal importance, values an extreme version of self-sufficiency, and idolizes youth. All of those attitudes and values make it difficult to see our fears what what they really are and release them. Learning to see those values as false and to critique those attitudes is the first step to resisting them. Then we can start to set priorities, including spiritual practices that help us to release our death-grip  on life. God made life for us to enjoy it. It's time we got off the hamster wheel and did just that.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The SNAP Challenge, Part 2

“One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it- and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.” -John Wesley 1786

Two weeks ago, I was taking the SNAP Challenge: a charge from the Sojourners blog to live as if we were on food stamps. I did quite well on sticking to my 54ish dollars' worth of groceries. But I ended up eating out quite a bit, and it could be said that I did not keep to a SNAP-worthy budget. I attended a birthday party for a friend at a favorite local restaurant and ended up spending $25 on dinner. The next day, my husband insisted we go to the home of our friend, Calvin, for a barbeque. When I arrived, bunch of my friends from different parts of my life were assembled in the living room. In response to my look of confusion, they shouted, "Surprise!" It was a surprise birthday party for me! We had a feast, topped off with ice cream cake and much merrymaking. Technically, I'm supposed to count the cost of my share of the meal into the weekly total, even though it was given to me.

On Sunday, I headed out with the Harvard-Epworth UMC Young Adult Brunch Bunch. A generous donor from our congregation has given funds so that we can all go our to eat after church. We each put in $5, and the church covers the rest. It is so gracious and a hugely important social time for the grad students and young professionals of our church. $5 is definitely a more reasonable amount to pay when going out, but it was not the true cost of my meal. All in all, I spent nearly as much eating out in 3 days as I spent for the rest of the week's groceries.

One the one hand, I could feel guilty about spending so much on eating out, and chastise myself for not sticking to my own monthly budget, let along a SNAP-worthy budget. But on the other hand, I had had two downright rotten weeks at work and needed more than a little cheering up. Friends and food often go hand-in-hand, and I needed my friends more than ever that weekend. I can't allow myself to feel bad about going out, because I would have come out of that week much more demoralized without them. Our emotions and perceptions affect our qualify of life as much as the food we ingest.

Yet again, reflecting on my life circumstances reminds me that the features of socio-economic status and class-based privilege unfold like lettuce leaves, slices of privilege and lack thereof interlocking continuously. I qualify for food stamps and live on a shoestring budget, but I live in Cambridge, in proximity to friends my age and free arts programs. I have access to nutritious food, even if it costs a lot. I come from a genuinely middle-class background and live a mainly middle-class life here... barely.

I'm also reminded that while the privilege of wealth separates people of different classes and backgrounds, our needs are the same. Everyone goes out (or stays in) with friends when they need a little cheering up. Income simply dictates the venue. Perhaps if I were not from a middle-class background, I might have gone to a lower-priced bar and eaten cheaper food that Friday night.  If I had been at a dive bar or a neighborhood bar, instead of a popular restaurant, my meal would almost certainly not have been as nutritious. We need relationships and good food as much as we need clothing and shelter.  I have seen this on the street with Cambridge Outdoor Ministries. A social network exists on the street just as it does among housed people. We need one another, and God provides for us through one another. The gift of a birthday barbeque was a powerful one for me.

What does it mean to be a Christian and walk this economic tightrope? I'm still figuring it out. But I am reminded that I am not the only one. So many in this country need help to buy food for themselves, and the number of those receiving SNAP has grown steadily since the recession started. They are in our churches, in our workplaces, on our city buses, and they may even be us. God especially cares for those who need help to meet their basic need (theologians call this care God's "preferential option for the poor"). Likewise, we ought to care for their well-being and see that their needs are met. "They", "the poor", might just be us.