Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Un-Moneybags

Question: What is your honest response when people ask something of you? Before you get defensive, let me confess to you that I have become a certified expert in dodging solicitors, religious survey-givers, activists, and yes, beggars. I'm not interested, I'm already saved, I don't want to sign your petition, and I don't have any money. Good day. And on I walk in my carefully planned and executed route around all such offenders. If it's not readily clear, I have become quite calloused over the last four years ducking all the many people who have requests, even when they are perfectly reasonable. 

The last category is the hardest for me to wrestle with though: beggars. It's complicated. Half the time, I honestly have nothing to give, but because of this, I feel cheap or like they'll think I'm lying if I tell that to them. So rather than disappoint, I ignore. Or, and I'm not sure if this is better or worse, I give a little half smile as I walk by, gazing anywhere but the elephant in the room that is the obvious difference in our socioeconomic status. If they address me, I'll tell them the truth - or if I do have something to give I'll give it. I'll be kind, smile, shake a hand, ask a name. But the truth is, most of the time I avoid this predicament. There may be the slightest tint of "love" in my action, but to be honest, my heart is lacking.

But I don't really want to get at the heart in this issue. This blog entry is not about the heart. I love the heart, I love talking about heart issues, the heart of issues, and could journal for pages about our hearts. No, I'm going to write about something that's harder for me, and depending on who you are, may be harder for you: the practical, topical, action-oriented side of this issue. Because, the truth is, the reason I don't have money for the homeless I see - and consequently ignore them - is not because I'm such a helpless starving student. It's because I don't see my finances in the correct light such that I plan to have the kind of margin that allows for open generosity. It's not necessarily, I just can't afford that, it's more poignantly stated as I have not planned to afford that

So where does that put us? Is that a provocative statement? It's true, Paul tells us to give to others according to what we have, not according to what we don't have. It doesn't make sense for me to go deeper into debt to appease my guilt - that doesn't glorify God with my finances (or with my heart). What glorifies God is the daily diligence, planning, frugality, proper perspective about what I need and what I can do without, and yes, generosity. I guess I can't avoid the heart, because financial issues are ultimately heart issues. I don't plan with my finances because I value my own whims more, bluntly stated. And I'm using a lot of "I's" in this narrative because I'm illustrating this point from my own experience. But please understand that when I say I do something, I am also implicitly questioning whether you do too. Think about it. 

To condense the idea: God calls us to be generous. In fact, Jesus talks a lot about money, rumor has it about 25% of the time. We can't tithe, and then be irresponsible with the other 90% and say we are still glorifying God with our money. We just can't. At the heart of it, do you recognize what you need and do you live sacrificially, planning to have margin for spontaneous generosity? Do you legitimately recognize the needs of others as valid? Valid enough to change the way you organize the books? 

I am just as challenged in this, rest assured. With graduation sprinting closer, and a tighter financial situation than anticipated, I have done some serious number crunching and unprecedented planning about how my money needs to be spent (and how it doesn't need to be spent) in order to have integrity with my finances. In my case, that includes paying off credit card debt, generating a savings, and creating a margin so that there is ample room to give to needs that arise in community or elsewhere. It quite honestly means sucking it up and not endeavoring to live beyond my means. If my budget is modest, then I must too be modest. It means making the money stretch, getting over my momentary superfluous desires, and learning some very real discipline. It means eating beans and rice (and maybe some quinoa :). It means not getting something every time friends want to eat out. It means inviting people over instead of inviting them to coffee. It means buying (gasp!) generic. It means Goodwill hunting (no pun intended). It means being creative and being consistent. All of this with Jesus and with others in mind. I, as a Christian - We as Christians - cannot afford to treat our finances as if they are ours to play with. 

More on this to come I think. 

p.s. This song was on when I very first started typing this blog entry...and I like it for this.

Monday, November 21, 2011

What We Don't Like to Think About Love

I walk to class and work, and especially now that it's cooler outside, I quite enjoy it. Today's walk, for whatever reason, sent quite the thought process tick tocking through my brain, though: what is love? What is love?  Or rather, what is the purpose of it? (Let's define love for a moment: I'm not talking about a feeling.) Love is selfless first and foremost. In fact, I think love is actively dying to self for the sake of another person. Love in the sense I am thinking is not automatically pleasing to the lover, but is entirely for the sake of the loved. The loved: that is the purpose. Sometimes it generates really positive feelings and emotions within us as we pursue and come closer to our beloved, but ultimately, love is sacrifice. But if, for example, husbands and wives come together for the purpose of understanding this sacrifice, for loving and serving one another their whole lives as they themselves become less self-centered, then what about God? Is that tension the same in how God "loves" us? We love to say "God loves you!" and intend for it to be a highly mushy and ooey-gooey sort of statement. But what if the love of God is hard, service oriented, selfless and willed? That we are hard to "love", yet God in his character remains steadfast and true? Is it all just semantics? I am thinking out loud. (Or "out loud" as it were.)

If loving people from God's end is the same as loving people from the people's end, my first thought is Ugh. What a chore would that be? Wouldn't it be so much easier if it were all just a fluffball ordeal? If love always smiled? But maybe that's the very heart of the issue. If God is love and love is selfless, and God asks his people to love each other the way he has loved us…maybe the entire point of existence is Christlike selflessness. Rather, the entire point of existence is Christ, but it is love that peels, rubs, scrubs, polishes away our selfishness so that Christ may be evident. And maybe it is hard, because true love is hard. But it's also worth it, because true love is worth it. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Rebel's Guide to Joy - a sermon from Mark Driscoll

I know I just blogged yesterday, but this is an incredible sermon by Mark Driscoll that I stumbled upon today. In keeping with Mark's style, it's culturally relevant, full of laughs, and also full of truth. If you have an hour to spare (or even 20 minutes), listen in.

The Rebel's Guide to Joy: Joy in Loneliness

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Follow

Yes, the title is grammatically correct. A "follow" is perhaps ballroom slang for the partner who is following as opposed to the one who is leading (sensibly enough). So for someone who was really good at taking the cues of her dance partner, you might say, "She's a great follow." What may be a surprise: following is not something that comes naturally. Most followers have to put a lot of time into developing it, because it is indeed a skill.

It goes something like this:

First and most arduously, you have to break down the almost unanimous reflex to back-lead. This is a surprisingly long and tedious process. Back-leading is when the follow fights the direction of the lead, either by just not taking direction or by anticipating steps that weren't being cued. It creates for very choppy and awkward dancing, and also can cause the couple to trip when they're trying to go in two different directions. It's immensely frustrating to the lead, who is the only of the two who knows where both of them are going, and moreover, the follower is often traveling backward and can't see obstacles (such as other couples) the way the lead can. Even the best leader can hardly dance with a follower who refuses to follow.

Once the follow manages to master following in the sense that they no longer try to defy where the leader is taking them, there is a sort of equilibrium that can be reached. Theoretically, a follower could coast here, and some do. But not if they really want to be a good dancer. The follow's next aspiration is to learn how to make following look good. This is where the grain really begins to get sifted between good dancers and great dancers. Because for both lead and follow, it can be a "nice" uneventful dance, or it can be a lot of fun, and a lot of that has to do with the follow. Not to mention, by the very nature of ballroom dance, most eyes are usually on her. This is what distinguishes a decent follower from a great follower. A great follower can make even a very poor leader look like he knows what he's doing, and she can do it by following his lead, not creating her own. She takes what she's given on a second by second basis and works with it. She has to think quickly, she has to know her footwork and the framework of the music that she can work within, she has to be able to respond to the cues she knows and improvise the ones she doesn't. She has to be quite astute. Don't knock following.

To those who may not know, I used to do ballroom dance. Small detail, I suppose. But when I speak of following, I'm speaking as someone who was the most contemptible back-leader ever! It took me a good year just to learn not to back-lead my partner, much less ever follow with grace. I've seen all the reactions too, from the slightly (snobbish and) annoyed look by exasperated leaders to being straight up told by strangers and acquaintances alike, "You need to follow my lead." It took time, guidance, and west coast swing (which has almost no rules, and thus necessitates a good follower) to slowly teach me how to let my partner do the leading, and to make it a fun and beautiful experience. And thankfully it's been a success story, and a venue for not just growth in dance but in life. There are many keen observations to be made in the dynamics between lead and follow.

You've likely narrowed down where I'm going with all of this to one of two directions: men and women or God and humanity. While the former is a rather enlightening and fresh discussion, I think the latter has even more to offer for the moment. I was reflecting nostalgically about dance the other day, and laughing a little at how aggravating it was for my then-partner to put up with my back-leading. But it occurred to me in that moment that all of my entire trouble with back-leading was never because I directly wanted to have control. You'd think that would be the root, wouldn't you? No,  the trouble was that I thought I knew what was coming. I got used to dancing with my partner, so I would anticipate the kind of step I thought he was about to lead. I would start to take steps in one direction when my poor partner was actually about to lead me elsewhere.

And oh, how many more times I've done this with God.

But the beauty of following, and in fact the entire art of ballroom, is that the follow doesn't get to know what's coming. They take exactly what they're given in a moment, a millisecond, and make the greatest artwork they can out of it. In traveling dances like waltz or foxtrot, they don't even get to see their surroundings much before they go by. Theoretically, a follower should be able to close their eyes and dance perfectly with a good lead. A good follower is also light in the hands, meaning they are neither clasping and heavy handed, nor are they too slack so as to necessitate being yanked along. There is balance, healthy tension, and sensitivity to slight cues. So what about life? The sticky trouble I sometimes get into with God is the same trouble I used to have following my dance partner: I start bothering about where I think he's leading me and I start trying to "help" him get there. And then I trip.

My favorite part of this example is that it's one of those tangible allegories. Certainly I have so much more to learn, but I feel that in the context of dance, I better understand what it is to follow God by having learned how to follow in ballroom. I have in my muscle memory what it feels like to awkwardly jolt around the floor trying to do it my way (and try as I might I also haven't been able to forget what it looked like.) :) But I also have it in my muscle memory that exhilaration that comes from having no idea what's coming and having a blast figuring it out as it's given to me. In dance, each second is its own canvas. And in our relationships with God, it might not be so different. Often times, it's irrelevant for our purposes where He will lead us. What's relevant is where He is leading us, and we can either jolt around trying to figure out what's next, or we can make this particular moment the artwork and positive challenge it was intended to be.

Just for fun, watch the following short video. It's really hard to believe, but this is 100% unchoreographed. A random lead and random follow were selected and this competition, and this is the dance they did. Incredible! (And doesn't that just look like a great time?)