The distance between home and home

[Warning: this is a blog post that doesn’t resolve itself. It comes with no tidy ending or wrapped up in a witty conclusion, it is just documenting experience and that’s just fine because I’m only a twenty-something, after all.]

There is a petty dissonance down the middle of my mind, about 2000 miles wide, roughly the distance between home and home. And I know I’m not alone in this.

On my 1.5 mile bike commute to work, I see two Subarus. First, a Forester, with an Oregon license plate. Second, an Outback, that while its owner has traded the Doug Fir plate for an Abe Lincoln, the rear window still prominently features a “Heart-in-Oregon” sticker.

I have not met the owners of these Subarus, as much as I want to. I want to ask them if they have also noticed that, from a road-side perspective, our state (2) has beat out the more likely contenders by a function of population and osmosis: New York (0), Texas (0) and California (0). I want to ask them why they too have decided to play the Oregon Trail in reverse.

Nobody truly knows what makes an Oregonian an Oregonian, but like these Subarus I have through little ways resisted assimilation to the city I have found myself in. I still have my Oregon’s Driver’s License. My shipping address, which changes from lease to lease, is different from my billing address, thanks to parents who have stayed put. Even though I walk by Alderman Ameya Pawar’s office on the way to picking up groceries at Jewel Osco, I still am registered to vote in Oregon’s 1st congressional district. I have a sticker on my laptop that proudly proclaims my tribal, er, state identity to the whole coffee shop.

Not that Chicago is a bad place. I really do like Chicago actually, or at least the neighborhoods I have spent time in. I like that just about everything I need is walking distance, I like the fact that there is always something going on, I like having centrally located train stations and airports that make the nation and world readily accessible.

If I had to, I could settle down and live here and be happy.

I could start buying things, like furniture, that do not fit into checked luggage.

So what’s holding me back?

Do I think Oregon just simply scores as the better place? — No. Places are not meant to be quantified.

Do I miss going on runs through forests with elevation changes? — No. Because I’d just as easily miss run-by-witnessing the quirkiness of people made possible by Chicago’s density of population.

Do I just like being different? — Maybe. But even so, that is probably less a weird psychological-ego thing than it is an Oregon cultural artifact.

What I think it comes down to is this: Oregon simply has shaped me in more ways than Chicago has. From the way I think to the way I dress to the way I spend my time and money. If tomorrow I were go and spend a year in New Orleans, or in Tanzania, or on the moon, I would tell people that I am from Oregon. Not Chicago.

I am not complaining about my current situation. I am here by choice, as opposed to the refugees and exiles who are here as a last resort. Nevermind that the “who am I/where am I” question is much easier than the “who are we/where are we” question: a surprising number of my friends have fallen in love not just across state lines but over international borders, and are having to figure out these questions not only in tandem with another but through concrete decisions.

So, as disorientating as it may be, the incongruence between home and home may actually be a normal part of the human experience. A formative part, even.

Maybe there is not supposed to be a right answer. If there is, however, I suspect it is not found by asking “which place should I call home” but rather “did I show up today, or did I run away?” At the very least, we are more likely to know how to answer the latter question.

That all said: my Oregon driver’s license, my state-issued identification card, expires this August. Under ORS 803.355 (and yes, I did look this up), I can only renew if I intend “to remain in the state or, if absent, to return to it.”

Not that the DMV employee is going to ask. Besides, I am confident I could make a legal case for my intention to return to Oregon in the eight-year period I would extend my domicileship, mostly revolving around the fact I see myself going to grad school sometime in the next eight years and that decision is probably going to shut the door on Chicago and there will be a transition period in which Oregon is the only place I could call home.

The more important question is this: am I going to continue resisting assimilation? If growing up in Oregon taught me anything, it taught me the importance of celebrating the places we find ourself in, whether the mountains or the valleys or the coast or the city. I am thankful for this lesson, but how shall I best thank the teacher?

By snubbing the Illinois driver’s license, am I showing up or am I running away?

I have no clue.

I am curious to see what I decide.

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The distance between home and home

I work at a church and this is what I do

I came back to Chicago this fall on a hunch, not knowing exactly what it was I would be doing but that whatever it was, this was the city to be doing it in. For those of you who have connected with me solely through watching social media feeds,you might have caught onto the fact that I have become involved, both as contributor and steering committee member to Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. And while that all is plenty fun, the “day job” I have found myself in is no less interesting.

Since September, I have been serving Ravenswood Covenant Church as their student ministries coordinator, aka “the youth guy.” It dawned on me the other day that, beyond conversations with close friends, I have not been doing much blog-sharing on this experience and that there is really no good reason for that. With that said, consider this the first of many reflexive-reflective posts during my time at Ravenswood Covenant, getting the curious up to speed on what exactly it is I am doing, the lessons I am learning, and perhaps how you can participate.

To start, however, I know no better way to get people up to speed than a set of frequently asked questions.

The last time Ravenswood Covenant had an established youth program, I was in high school myself. So, when I entered the youth room for the first time this September, with MXPX and WOW 2005 CDs strewn on the floor, it was pretty much like stepping into a time capsule. A time capsule whose walls I wanted to paint a different color.
The last time Ravenswood Covenant had an established youth program, I was in high school myself. So, when I entered the youth room for the first time this September, with MXPX and WOW 2005 CDs strewn on the floor, it was pretty much like stepping into a time capsule. A time capsule whose walls I wanted to paint a different color.

How did you hear about this gig?

Last spring, actually, when one of my college housemates had been offered the job but turned it down to more appropriately focus his energies on rebooting the North Side Youth Collision project, a high-energy monthly gathering of area youth groups (including Ravenswood). Somehow the Ravenswood position piqued my interest, but I quickly dismissed it as impractical.

Simultaneously, I was in the process of signing a lease with some friends for a place that was only walking distance away from the church. I sublet-ed my share of the rent out while I did a summer in Portland, but not before at least checking out this church. It was confirmation Sunday, and when I came back I told my new housemate [different guy then the one who had turned down the job] that I could conceivably see myself volunteering with their youth ministry.

So, during the summer, when that housemate saw a fresh job posting for the position placed online, he forwarded me a link. By that point, I had grown more interested in part-time work (“it opens one door without closing all others,” I thought) and sent in a resume.

What was on that resume?

Three years of summer camp and a mouthful-of-a-degree called “Conflict Transformation: Concentration in Religion Studies.” (To clarify, I had a double major; the other was Global Studies.)

Year-round youth work in an urban setting has been dramatically different from summer camp in the outdoors. And while most 23-year-olds in positions similar to mine have just finished a “youth ministry” degree or have an eye towards a seminary internship, my degree was in the abstract underpinnings of how religion interacts with society. None of the methods or know-how or other wisdom on how to do this the right way.

Whether from camp to the city, or from the theoretical to the technical, there have been times I have felt woefully under-qualified or at least mis-qualified. I am consistently having to remind myself while I have gone to the opposite end of the spectrum, it is still the same spectrum.

I am by nature very conservative in claiming something as God’s providence. There are things I simply do not want to pretend to know. But for whatever reason, I feel like I am in the right place at the right time, as much as it surprised me that I am now working directly in a church context.

What is the church like?

Ravenswood Covenant is a 125-year-old congregation, the outgrowth of a care facility for widows and orphans and immigrants in what was once a Scandinavian neighborhood. Instead of being a ritualized reenactment of the way church was done in the past, as older congregations are liable to do, it feels more like the rings of a tree that show every year of it’s history, as the church has soaked up the neighborhood like a sponge. There is Swedish deep in the archives and Spanglish scattered throughout the pews.

I really do like the church. It does church well. Besides having a rich and interesting history, Ravenswood Covenant comforts the needy and convicts the comfortable. God is glorified by our gatherings.

I am usually pretty busy on Sunday mornings, chasing down students and all, but if you ever want to come for a visit, just let me know.

100+ years ago, this was the youth group. Things have changed.
100+ years ago, this was the youth group. Things have changed.

What is the youth group like?

The first thing people notice is that it is majority female. I have had a couple guys show up to our youth programming, but never more than one at a time. For the sake of gender equality I would love to see this number be more like, say, 50/50 but in the meanwhile I thank my lucky stars for growing up with sisters and then mutter something about opposite ends of the same spectrum.

Most of the youth are also deeply Chicagoan. Furthermore, a number of the students, many of whom have come through neighborhood outreach programs, are first-generation church go-ers – they are not steeped in sheltered church culture. Through hearing the student’s stories each week, I feel like I have already gotten closer to the city than I did during four years of school.

How long will you be there?

Good question. It is a transition period for both me and the church. I still have some residual wanderlust that comes with being a global studies major, and we will see if that desire dies out or asks to be paid back with interest. Nonetheless, I am certainly closer to the beginning of my time with Ravenswood than to the end.

Look forward to more updates.

I work at a church and this is what I do

Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World”

I hardly pride myself on having good taste, but I am very fortunate to have friends who do or at least should. So when one of those friends, particularly my tall Dutch friend, recommended Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, I felt like the responsible thing to do was read it. And I’m glad I did.

Taylor, an Episcopal priest who left 20 years of parish leadership for a life that is now split between farming and academia in Georgia, wrote this book as someone who had grasped “religion” but was now trying to understand “spirituality.” Could the presence of God be experienced outside church walls?

She cites the biblical story of Jacob’s dream in where he thought was the middle of nowhere, and what actually could have been just an ordinary dream without supernatural intervention led Jacob to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place — and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!” Jacob proceeded to take the stone that he used as a pillow and planted it into the ground, poured oil on it, and called that middle-of-nowhere place “the house of God.”  Jacob’s “altar in the world”, significant for many reasons, becomes the foundation of Taylor’s book.

Although Brown talks about this-worldly spirituality using Christian language, it is completely accessible to non-Christians. Instead of taking the preacher’s role of how Scripture informs our worldview, Taylor uses the book of the world to uncover what can we all can know about experiencing the divine. This puts her book in the same genre as the Indian thinkers Buddha and Kabir, both of whom she cites at least once. This is why some of the spiritual practices she describes, like the labyrinth or prayer or the sabbath, will be familiar to Christians; while others, like “paying attention” or “carrying water” might catch us by surprise.

One of those chapters, “The Practice of Getting Lost” more than resonated with me. It was eerily like the short mediation I wrote in June on “The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost“, down to the tirade against GPSes we both made. Although Taylor is much more eloquent than myself, I took some surprising joy in knowing that somehow the 21st century has affected me and a Southern Episcopalian priest, now in her sixties, in much the same way. (Perhaps I’m not all that crazy, or at least I have a worthy companion in the crazy-den.)

That said, there were some things in the book that made me flinch. For example,

“I use paper, and I know it has to come from somewhere. I just hate thinking that a whole forest came down for one run of a mail-order catalog, especially since I saw so many copies of that catalog in the trash at the post office. From there, they will go to the landfill, where wastepaper is the number one problem. The sacrament of the catalog creates more than reverence in me; it creates painful awareness of my part in the felling of the forest. It weaves me into the web of cause and effect, reminding me of my place in the overall scheme of things.” -p.31-2

There actually is nothing wrong with this (well-worded) quote itself. The problem is that Taylor didn’t go where I expected. I found myself wondering: “Where is the call to action? Where is the prophetic fury against the powers that be, which are causing this literal mess?” Taylor was content to feel the “pain” of brokenness, and I could not help but wonder why this “pain” did not directly result in some sort of burning desire to change the world.

But now, after journeying through Taylor’s book, I realize I was trying to impose political fury on a list of personal practices. My own tendency towards problem-solving was getting in the way of problem-feeling. Similarly, whereas I wanted to know how to make the broken world beautiful, Taylor was teaching me how to pause to the beauty in the world, stubbornly shining through brokenness.

Granted, as far as books written from the Christian perspective go, this hardly gets to the meat of the gospel. The gospel is not romantic but radical. Living life well is quite different from losing one’s life.

But these aren’t contradictions. One example from Christian scripture: Song of Solomon, a book that is undeniably about proper orientation to a particular aspect of our physical existence, and Isaiah, a book undeniably about proper orientation to the divine and divine justice, sit right next to each other in the biblical canon. In that tradition, then, An Altar in the World can coexist with, say, the missional-minded The King Jesus Gospel of Scot McKnight, my former professor (who, it just so happens also wrote a book on living life well, One.Life.)

There was a moment, back during this late summer, when I was about half-way through Taylor’s book, and I had just spent the afternoon trying to figure out my working situation come autumn, on websites like craiglist and idealist and npo.net and indeed.com. And while I told myself I was being productive, I realized that all I was doing was browsing career porn, doing more fantasizing about vocation than actually applying to anything.

It was high-season for blueberries back in the Pacific Northwest, and we had a number of them ripe for the picking in the backyard. Frustrated from looking for a job in Chicago while in Portland, I went outside with a large bowl and just started adding berries to it. The sun was just beginning to set, creating the brilliant orange and purples of the summer sky. About twenty minutes later I had to go back inside for a second bowl.

There was something cathartic about picking berries, about grasping by the hand the potential productivity that lay in the immediate moment, in the immediate vicinity. There were no paychecks involved, but there were blueberries. It was neither perfect nor ideal – some berries were still a touch green while others were so ripe with juice they had exploded all over themselves – but it was real and fulfilling.

It was at this time that I began taking Taylor’s book seriously. Not just as a recommendation from a friend, or a somewhat sophisticated version of a self-help book, but exactly as what Taylor said she set out to explore.

No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are. – p.xvi-xcii

Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World”

Portlandia in Christian Conversion

Before I get to Portland, I need to start in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There is a theologian there by the name of Kä Mana, who tells the story of a traditional African priest meeting with the head of the Catholic mission. The traditional priest had seen not only the truth in this “gospel of Jesus Christ” but witnessed how it had grabbed a hold of  and brought a new energy onto his entire village. One day, after communion had been served at the mission, the traditional priest looked his Catholic counterpart in the eye and said, “I know that one day or the other, your ‘sacrifice’ will replace mine, the word of Jesus Christ will replace my ancestral and ancient word without destroying it. I am going to die a happy man because I know there will always be a sacrifice made in our village. That is very important. I hand over to you. Continue with what our ancestors started, and of which I was the high priest.”

This “gifting of culture” is what could be called a conversion story. I was at a seminar on contextual theologies last year, where Andrew Walls (a wise old guy with a British accent) gave the opening lecture. According to Walls, conversion is less about content (some would call dogma) and more about direction. Conversion is turning what is already there, in terms of culture and tradition, towards Christ, instead of starting from scratch.

“Thanks to Christ,” Kä Mana says, “we can look at ourselves as we are in the founding myths of our destiny, to discover that we are neither angels nor demons, but human beings in search of the meaning of our existence, building our society by promoting the positive values of life, and by fighting against the negative values of death that are permanently interwoven with them.”

This all has to do with Portland, at least in my perspective. I am wrapping up a summer of living in a hub of the Rose City’s network of intentional Christian communities, doing some Sunday morning church hopping, and coming back from runs with a free (and sweaty) copy of the Portland Tribune in hand only because the front page read “Black ministers lead push against city’s gang violence” or (more relevant to this piece) “Will churches survive in land of vegans, nature lovers?”. My hunch is that these same ideas about “conversion of culture” work just as well in the post-Christian Portland, Oregon context as they do in the pre-Christian African village.

Yes, a statue like this can be found in “post-Christian” Portland.

I do want to be careful however, as Portland is a quite heterogeneous city. Even if my Chicago friends assail Portland for its supposed lack of diversity, there are still many local subplots that represent real, alive and breathing, human beings. For the sake of simplicity (this is a blog post, nothing more), I am going to focus on one dominant strand of local narrative; the quirky, youthful, thoughtful vision of a deliberately different lifestyle that has been captured and defined by the TV series Portlandia.

From the state that brought the nation bottle recycling, I think it makes sense to talk about “redemption value” when speaking of what the American church has to gain by being present in Portlandia. This essentially post-Christian culture is a space to explore, not a vacuum to (re)fill. Kä Mana thinks the church in Africa can become the “theatre for the globalisation of love and humanness”, similarly, I think the Portlandian church has something positive to spread throughout the larger American church. The surface was scratched when Donald Miller wrote Blue Like Jazz, reflecting on his experiences at Reed College, but there is much more to go.

To be clear to my non-Christian friends happening to read this, I am not talking about proselytization or weird strategies on how to effectively save souls. This is a conversation addressed towards the church about how engagement with the Portlandia ethos can help the American church be a better church. I don’t know why you would be interested, but feel free to eavesdrop.

Let me get started with some eavesdropping of my own. Someone who (by outlook if not presently by geography) qualifies as Portlandian, stated “Life is absurd. God is love. We are free.” This simple statement struck me as a near-perfect statement of Portlandian spirituality. It is this mantra that I want to explore further (and if you happen to be the one who wrote this mantra, you are totally welcome to claim it. I would apologize for not asking, but I think you’re cool with it.)

Life is absurd.

For some, this is the existential statement par excellence, the motto of the stereotypical Portland State philosophy student with Camus in one hand and a cigarette (or not, but whatever it is it rhymes with not) in the the other.

The Christian apologist would contend that the observation of absurdity implies some sort of yardstick on which to measure such a statement. Can’t see shadows without sunshine, can’t see absurdity without order. Rightfully so, but the clever Portlandian (and she is clever) does not automatically assume God’s name is on this yardstick. Instead, she will point to the mountains as her measure, those glacial rocky spires mocking our downtown skyscrapers of Babel. Skyscrapers which, by the way, may be revealed as mere sandcastles when the big one hits.

Continue reading “Portlandia in Christian Conversion”

Portlandia in Christian Conversion

The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost

I detest driving with a GPS. Lump me in with those stick-shift-in-the-city manual-transmission-pain-in-the-necks whose car you can never borrow, but automatic navigation does not represent technological progress. That is, if automatic navigation can be called navigation at all.

If I ever get a smart phone, I will delete the app that gives direction to whatever typed-in destination. Once I figure out how to do that I would probably proceed to delete that same app from the smart phones of all my friends. If I ever get a car, and for some misguided reason you bring your Global Personal Security system inside, I will throw it out the window and proceed to run it — and your desperate fetching hand of retrieval — over.

Fortunately for my reputation as a non-disgruntled, productive member of society, I have neither a smart phone nor a car.

No, it is not those tinny computer voices that are the problem. I am no robophobe, in fact, I am quite secure enough in my humanity that I am okay having a machine talk to me.

Rather, my problem has to do with that red line being beamed in from the sky, tethering my car to the open road like a railroad track. The issue underlying it all, the implicit philosophy of GPS navigation? The unjust sacrifice of the journey for the destination.

It is not as if I go blind. Before heading out the door, there is usually at least a cursory glance at a map to at least get a basic sense of whether I am going north or southeast or up a mountain or whatever. I scribble down notes on how to get there on the back of a receipt or something.

But I try, as much as possible, to leave some room for going off track.

Some of my longest solo drives are up and down the southern Washington portion of Interstate 5. I often take a stop or two along the way. A few years ago on a northbound trip, I stopped in the town of Castle Rock to get a bite to eat. I was about to eat at Burger King because it was on my internal “map” of safe and predictable eating establishments, but then my eyes caught that over and beyond the Whopper billboard was a local burger joint. Fifteen minutes later I was enjoying a tasty elk burger at C & L Burger.

About a year or two later I was driving southbound on Interstate 5 and just wanted to get out of the car for a while. So I followed a hunch and returned to Castle Rock for a short walk. In what was no more than a fifteen minute adventure, I found an obnoxiously misspelled traffic signa neat forested trail which surprisingly led to walking on top of a giant mound of ash which I suppose came from when Mount St. Helens erupted. I wanted to keep looking around, but I had a place to be by a certain time and so my meanderings were cut short.

Sometimes it seems as if I want to get lost.

Today, lost is a mild four-letter word. She lost her keys, he lost a game, we lost our minds. Those who do not believe in the truth, they are lost. People lost in the wilderness have a tendency to die. Our postmodern culture is so obsessed with context that if we do not have a relative idea of where we are, we might as well not exist (What’s that thing on the internet called? Foursquare?).

Yet, I persistently find myself wanting to escape the latitudinal-longitudinal cage and being able to say “Hey, I don’t know where I am right now, and that’s okay.”

I began teasing the possibility of being lost during daily runs while studying abroad in Sweden. I had a map of the city of Jönköping in my room, and when I came back from a run I would use a permanent marker to trace where I had gone. Always coming back with something to trace, I can say that over those four months I explored a new part of the city at least every time I laced up my running shoes.

But Jönköping is not an easy city to navigate. Most of the planned streets are the motorvägar that are not a whole lot of fun to run on. Everything else is a byproduct of centuries of history trying to fit onto the expansive rolling topography.

If I was going to keep up my mission of going somewhere new on every run, it was inevitable that I was going to get lost on just about every run. Even if I wrote down directions, I would either make a mistake along the way or see some deer trail that looked more interesting than the way I had planned on going.

I grew to embrace the thrill of moving forward while not knowing where I was. One of my favorite – and longest – runs in Jönköping was when, after quite a number of miles along the coastline of Vättern, I turned landward and ran through the neighborhood of Österängen. Once I knew that I no longer knew where I was, I oriented myself westward and starting running an unknown route across the valley back to Mariebo with one simple rule — no backtracking. Hope I get there before the sun sets.

Without knowing where this place may be, it becomes easier to notice what this place is. When the way back is uncertain, marked only by hunches, the human attention turns outward. Every rooftop, treetop, cloud, street sign and lamppost becomes a hint for finding the way back. The details that did not matter suddenly do. The faces and dress of people give a hint of the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and there has been at least one time in my running career that I have found my back not by cartography but by demography.

And, of course, once familiar ground has once again been found, the sigh of relief is tinged with bitter disappointment that the adventure could have gone another mile or two longer and everything would have still been alright.

What would it look like if we trusted our hunches more often? Sure, we might end up going the wrong direction a couple more times, but that just means we turn around or (with a lump of courage) press forward and take the scenic route. How bad can it be to sometimes lose our way when we have a whole world to gain?

Perhaps I should be careful. With an attitude like that, it is quite possible that one of these days I will actually end up lost somewhere. So, if you ever are charged with the task of looking for me, especially if I was supposed to be coming from some direction on I-5, I would recommend first checking out the Castle Rock area. After you find me sitting on top of some random place in the area, we can go and get elk burgers from C & L together.

The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost