Writing, Autumn, and Nostalgia

Today I took a long drive in the first rain of autumn. The air had been heavy with its coming, and as I flew down the interstate through columns of yellow-orange trees the enlivening smell of wet earth wormed its way through my air vents. It’s not that this was our first rain of the month, and I couldn’t tell you if the First Day of Fall is behind or before us, but today I knew that the seasons had changed. The transition felt different this year somehow. All at once I found myself on the other side of Labor Day and September had come with an arresting suddenness. I scrambled to fill any sunny afternoon over the last few weeks. But as the days shrunk before me and the nights grew crisper, it was harder and harder to deny the coming change. Today, I was ready for something new.

Fall has been my favorite season for a long time. I often tell the students I work with that Seattle in the sun is incomparably beautiful, but I think I have always known that the heart and soul of the Pacific Northwest is in the autumn. Soothing rain showers, soggy leaves in orange and red, crisp morning walks to the office, a warm mug of coffee by a rain-soaked window, these things are for me a homecoming each year, a reminder of who I am and where I am from.

And embedded deep in the spirit of fall itself is a quiet nostalgia. It may, in fact, be just this that draws me to the season. The short days of fall feed my introspection, and I find myself churning things over, reliving memories and trying to find each thought its proper place. Perhaps fall itself is a nostalgic season, the slow winding down and settling into routines at home, in school, and in the natural world. Winter will bring its slow slumber, spring the hope of a world awakening, and summer its frenetic burst of life lived with abandon, but fall is when everything settles and the everyday begins again.

I owe to the nostalgia and introspection of fall much of my productivity as a writer. My most prolific time on this blog occurred not while I was abroad, but the following autumn. I’d like to think that the season itself somehow added to my other muses.. And each year, the cool air and the life-giving rain awaken my desire to write. Bare threads of thought coalesce into words and phrases, and are corralled into paragraphs. So here we are, and here we shall happily return many times again. Happy autumn, friends.

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OMH Memorial 1A week and a half ago, the impossible happened. The shooting at SPU totally blindsided our campus community, thousands of alumni, and our neighbors in Queen Anne, Seattle, and the whole region. It wasn’t that we hadn’t been prepared for such a possibility. On the contrary, SPU was praised for its quick response to the situation as it unfolded and its preparedness. But we never really thought this would happen. Even as I sit here writing this in the comfort of my home, I can see the horror of the situation unfolding when I let my thoughts wander down to campus, the memorial, and the slate gray sides of Otto Miller Hall, now seeming to rise ominously toward the sky. Much has been written about the events that unfolded, and many have written more eloquently than I will. However, there are a few persistent thoughts that keep running through my head about how grief has unfolded, and I need to write them down.

First, grief is unpredictable. It is only in the last few days that my emotions seem to have truly stabilized, but even then, grief can sneak back in when I least expect it. It comes back in waves, thought they are less frequent now, and can be triggered by a concentration of sirens near campus, or the dull thud of helicopter blades hovering overhead. And perhaps the grief will never fully go away. But in any case, healing has begun. It is also hard to predict who grief will affect. Since the shooting, I have run in to many friends, alumni from the past 2-5 years, and have noted how deeply this tragedy affected all of us. We don’t know the victims or most of those who were in the building. We many know a few professors, but some of those I spoke with hadn’t been back to campus since graduation. What made the feelings so acute? Perhaps it was that it is hard (impossible?) to go four years at SPU without a class in Otto Miller, even if it’s a gen ed class. When I read the news reports, I could see the scene unfolding in my mind. I know that lobby, those chairs, the lines of brick and carpet and white walls now stained with blood. Or perhaps it was the formative legacy of an SPU education. College changes you, and SPU is especially interested in fomenting change in its graduates. It becomes like home, and our identity gets tied up with the professors, those students taking classes we once took, and maybe even the buildings, sidewalks, trees, and lawns. In any case I soon discovered trying to predict where grief would arise in myself or others was unproductive. Much better to react with grace and compassion once it did arise.

Second, grief can seem to lack a sense of scale. This can certainly be seen in the reactions of my friends to the shooting. Many seemed to question if they even had a right to feel so shaken, given what in some cases was a few years of distance from their time as a student at SPU. But everything in me pushed me to affirm their grief. Why should they not have a claim? Additionally, the number of lives lost doesn’t necessarily correspond to the grief we feel. The same day as the shooting, June 5, the radical Islamist group Boko Haram killed at least 200 people in villages of north-east Nigeria. Days later, they kidnapped an additional 20 women. And yet I lacked emotional capacity to feel the loss. It seemed distant, isolated. Then last week, I learned of another shooting in Troutdale, OR. That one weighed heavily on my heart, but I still was able to bounce back more quickly. Why, when the death of one student and injury of two others here had rocked me so deeply? There was something deep-seated that was personally troubling about the shooting. Even seeing friends going back to normal on Facebook felt like another violation. I wanted to scream, “don’t you remember what happened? That was just a few days ago! How can you forget so quickly?” And yet my own reaction to the actions of Boko Haram and quick recovery after the shooting at Reynolds High would seem callous to one closely affected by those tragedies.

Jamie offered wise words when I voiced this problem to him. He suggested that there are two mistakes we can make here. One is to ignore the crises in Nigeria and elsewhere in favor of attending solely to those needs that seem to directly affect us. The second is almost its opposite, to deny our feelings about SPU because more people were killed elsewhere, or to feel shame for the way we feel. Instead, there might be a middle way, or multiple middle ways, that affirm our feelings about the tragedy close at hand while also spurring us on to action, or at least feelings of concern, for the tragedies abroad. I think this is exactly right. Scale cannot be crudely labeled by the tally of lives lost. It is necessarily personal and subjective, and we can affirm that. However, we can also affirm the desire to care and make sense of the pain around the world. It cannot all be personal – that would be paralyzing. But we can at least move forward and be compelled to act.

OHM Memorial 2Finally, grief is often mixed with many other emotions. I don’t think I know a single person whose reaction to the incident could be solely labeled as grief. Many of us felt the things you might imagine: anger, fear, horror, and even despair. On the other hand, there were the much lauded response of the campus community coming together to pray, lament, and remind one another of our hope in Christ. It felt natural and right, the mix of feelings as we worshiped and prayed together, and it was beautiful. And again two or three days after the shooting, I found myself able to think about other things without the tragedy hovering overhead, and soon laughter could be seen around campus again. It wasn’t that the grief was disingenuous, simply that one cannot go on grieving indefinitely or without respite. And of course, there was numbness. Numbness often feels wrong, like it is a betrayal of what happened, but it is real, and even expected after expending so much emotional energy. The first week felt like a roller coaster for me and for many others I talked to. However, there was comfort in riding it together.

I have the good fortune to have experienced personal losses precious few times in my life, so even though the shooting at SPU was not the first time I’ve experienced a longer period of grieving, everything still feels very fresh. For that reason, these observations all felt very new to me, even if they might seem like tired old cliches to some.  I am grateful that I was on campus during and after the tragedy, for I was able to mourn with the community, learning from and supporting one another. My hope is that these experiences are carried forward for all those of us affected so that when crisis next strikes – and it surely will for each of us – we are better prepared to weather the storm.

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(Re)Entering the Digital Social Age

In the three months since I last updated this blog, I have continued to mull over the ideas from my last post, and bit by bit some things have changed. I finally created a LinkedIn profile, I created a Google+ account (unintentionally, actually… I must have missed a box to uncheck when merging my Gmail and YouTube accounts, but it’s out there now), and I got a smartphone. Additionally, and perhaps most significantly, I am deciding to get back on Facebook. At the time of this writing I am still Facebook-free, but in the coming hours/days/weeks I plan to get the ball rolling.

This decision does require some explaining, however, since I was very open with my carefully thought-through decision to leave Facebook nearly four years ago. Coming back to this point has required a few realizations and has come after no small amount of change in my personal life. Here are a few of the key factors:

  1. Facebook has become a shockingly integral part of social and even professional life in America. It is by no means essential to have a Facebook account in order to function in our society, but it certainly enables access to a whole separate realm of communication and connection that can be beneficial. In this context, the question becomes less “should I or should I not use social media” (which was what I asked before) and perhaps closer to “how can I use social media well, intentionally, and with integrity?” (see my last post).
  2. A major factor in my decision to delete Facebook was the push toward superficiality in relationships. I still think this is a major concern, and believe that Facebook can foster this tendency. It can be easy to maintain a surface-level, essentially meaningless relationship with an acquaintance (“friend”) or to present a nice looking version of ourselves through our carefully edited profile while ignoring the true complicated nature of real relationships. Despite all this, however, even a large amount of superficial communication is a normal and perfectly healthy part of even our deepest relationships, such as conversations about the weather, our dinner, or a sporting event (how about those Ducks, by the way?). Is it necessarily bad that this happens through Facebook? I think not, though awareness of the extent of one’s time online versus in-person interactions is certainly healthy. On this subject, thanks to the article I mentioned at the end of my last post.
  3. Another important reason behind my deleting my account was the fact that I had ceased regularly checking Facebook. The novelty was mostly gone. This could easily happen again, but I think two things will help: one, Facebook has become an important place for planning social events and other festivities and is therefore worth keeping an eye on, and, two, I now have a smartphone that will make updates easy to access.
  4. People have started using Becky Jo’s Facebook to get in touch with me, tag me in pictures, or invite me to events. I may as well have my own account so she doesn’t have to do all the online communication for the two of us.
  5. While in school and living on campus, I already saw the vast majority of the people I communicated regularly with on Facebook on campus each day or at least each week. In this context, Facebook seemed especially unnecessary. This is no longer the case, and is accentuated during my travel seasons for my current job when I don’t see friends for weeks on end.
  6. Becky Jo and I have been working on developing some Sabbath practices in our lives over the last ten months or so, and a Sunday Facebook fast could help us stay aware of our use of social media and find some balance.

In sum, I have come to believe that I can navigate the world of social media well without compromising things that are important to me. Perhaps it is better to have a Facebook, use it intentionally, and also be aware of the ways in which it is shaping me than to attempt to remain aloof and separate from what seems to be a major cultural shift. So, here we go.

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Following Jesus Amidst the Haze of Social Media

JesusThe pervasive force of the early twenty-teens seems to have made itself known. Social media–as well as the accompanying ubiquitous access to the internet on tablets, smart phones, and now even glasses–is the new dominant communication platform, and our society is changing as a result. I am reminded of this nearly every day at work as I engage with and attempt to reach juniors and seniors in high school. These students, though a mere six or seven years younger than I am, are profoundly shaped by their new communications tools, and I find myself already feeling out of touch. Like I and my peers before them, they search for and judge colleges online, but now they have a multitude of other resources before them. Facebook (only opened to high school students during my junior year), Twitter, Instagram, blogs, YouTube, and a plethora of (mostly bad) websites promising the “inside scoop” on various colleges and universities.

I need to stop here before I inadvertently make a value judgement. Perhaps I’m too late, given my post title and intentional lack of a Facebook profile. But I have begun to suspect that this is a system that is changing our society as firmly as radio, television, and the internet itself before it, so moral judgements seem to be counter productive. This is the culture we live in, and consequently a discussion of how to navigate within the world of social media and smartphones–instead of whether to engage it at all–promises to bear more fruit. Unfortunately, I am a social media novice, just beginning to unravel the systems before me. I don’t have a Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or Google+. My YouTube account boasts two rather poor offerings. My promises to get a smartphone–for work of course–are still just talk. And so I’d like to pose some questions to get us thinking in the right direction, and hopefully propel my consciousness into the new decade. I hope you will join me on the journey, and please weigh in.

  1. How can we maintain proper/healthy relationships in a world of Facebook and twitter? A primary driver behind my deleting my Facebook account in 2009 was my fear that it was encouraging superficial relationships, and most often ended up being a way to connect with those I saw every week. But I’m beginning to question if there might be a middle way… [editor’s note: see the article linked in the postscript]
  2. Is there potential for some sort of shared governing ethic online? That is, how can civility, truth, and compassion reign in a world of anonymity, constructed identity (think of a Facebook profile), and selective input where we only hear what we want to hear?
  3. How do I remain present in my surroundings when a new distraction offers itself at every moment?
  4. Connected to the last question, how do we remain able to focus amidst constant demands for our attention? A well-researched article in the New York Times a few years ago pointed out some cognitive downsides to the omnipresent stimulation of the modern world–text messages, email, Facebook notifications, all available 24/7 thanks to the many ways to access the internet–including less ability to sort our irrelevant information and difficulty focusing on one task.
  5. What does rest look like, how much is needed, and what practices will permit rest from constant stimulation? What does it look like to take a Sabbath in this context?
  6. When do these new technologies empower me as a disciple of Christ, and when do they distract or hinder me?
  7. In what ways do the technologies empower the church in its life and work, and in what ways do they pose a new challenge?

I am nowhere near having all these answers. I welcome your input.


P.S. After having finished this post, I discovered an excellent article on the topic by a professor at Santa Clara University that really shook up some of the assumptions that I have held for the last four plus years. Check back in with me in a few days, because for now I need to go to bed…

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Waking up again

Discovery Lighthouse 7/5/13Something about being left alone this weekend set my introspective gears in motion. I found myself lost in thoughts of things that had gradually slipped away in the shuffle over the last weeks, seeking to ask big questions. I needed to write, to break my four month silence and stretch my mental muscles. So off I went, over hill after hill chasing the dying sun, until the hubbub of passing cars and the dull thud of my shoes on pavement gave way to the songs of birds in the trees and the crunch of gravel underfoot. I was headed back to a dear place.

There is nothing quite so soul-cleansing as sitting on a rocky point after a long, tiring walk, watching the fading glow of the sun sink over the mountains while the gentle lap of the waves and the pungent salt air fill your senses. My reverie was interrupted only by the cries of gulls, laughs of stray passers-by, the splash of a jumping fish, or the distant, gentle roar of passing boats and planes. An idyllic spot to write until the light had faded and my words disappeared before my eyes, to be sure. There is more, but bed beckons and I can only leave you with the promise to post again soon, and to post something with substance from my trip to Discovery. Good night.

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In Search of Christian Civility

The Embrace - Diego RiveraToday an email was sent to my office that sought to take a swing at SPU’s Christian credentials, widely condemning anything that didn’t appear to line up with the sender’s particular views. Aside from the fact that I found the comments to be misguided, inaccurate, and caustic, the email was initially received by a coworker whose particular church tradition was directly condemned, and this coworker was hurt and angered by the sender’s words. I was left with a mix of bemusement, shock, and frustration. This was, to me, one more in a series of narrow-minded ideologically arrogant attempts to catch other people off guard perpetuated by Christians who are too opinionated for our own good. What of Jesus, praying for the very people than hung him on the cross? What of Paul, overcoming his captivity with love for and charity toward his fellow inmates and the ones who imprisoned him? What of Ruth, steadfastly devoting herself to a woman whose culture demanded Ruth be rejected as an outsider?

It seems to me that we sometimes have a dangerous tendency to vehemently decry those with whom we disagree in the church in ways that are both hurtful and refuse to see any truth or value in the other. This can be done somewhat innocently (perhaps naively would be more accurate) out of a desire to perpetuate accurate and edifying theological truths. But the method can be more influential than the message. I am very grateful for parents who were more interested in whether those Christian colleges I was interested in were truly concerned with encountering Jesus rather than vetting the specifics of the schools’ theological positions. I am grateful for a university that taught me to teach others charitably and learn from those who disagree even while teaching me the fundamentals of the faith, and for equipping me to live with uncertainty when the truth is unclear. When the justified airing of differences in theological opinion becomes confrontational bickering that can no longer hear the other side’s argument, we have lost something, and I am humbly thankful for the forces that have made it harder for me to go that way.

I also do not mean that it is wrong to take a firm theological position. Just as it may be wrong to be so certain of every position one holds that there is no room or dialogue or charity toward other believers, it is also wrong to be so concerned with guarding others’ opinions/feelings that the community loses its distinctness and sense of identity. Both trends can be seen in the church, with very conservative churches shutting down to outside opinions and very liberal churches becoming so obliging that they lose their focus on the living God and doctrinal distinctions that makes them who they are. It is important to find a middle ground. For example, I happen to have no problem with the fact that I cannot receive communion in a Catholic or Orthodox church. Rather, I admire these churches’ ability to know what they believe and keep the integrity of their communal identity while also permitting difference of opinion on non-essentials (because anyone who thinks either of those churches is a wholly unified block isn’t paying attention). Furthermore, these two churches are increasingly charitable in their willingness to recognize the shared faith of believers outside these traditions, and connect over similarities while also maintaining a distinct communion. This is what we should strive for. It is truly heart-breaking that there are so many factions within the church and I hope and pray for unity in the body of Christ, but I can’t help but think that this “closed” communion gets it right.

Finally, all this is not to say that a lack of civility in disagreement is unique to the church. On the contrary, violence, defamation, and general rudeness have been a hallmark of human disagreement in some form or another throughout our history. Rather, I think that the church is certainly called to something greater as we seek to follow the God who became flesh, dwelt among us, and challenged our very notions of what it means to live alongside one another.

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Why I Can’t Write Quick Emails

My job is very communication-centric. It involves all sorts of communication: phone calls, interviews, presentations in front of large and small groups, Outlook calendar requests, voicemail, texting (sometimes) and, of course, email. I have enjoyed this for the most part. Learning how to communicate well is an invaluable skill in the modern workplace, and learning how to present oneself accurately and efficiently feels good too. Despite this, though, I have found that I just can’t reach the speed many of my peers have when sending emails. And I think I know why.

Writing is a powerful medium. Language is powerful in general, but when it is written down it gains a permanence that can otherwise be overcome by the power of forgetfulness. Email is especially tricky because it has that permanence but is exceptionally easy to transmit, and on top of it all is an acceptable form of communication for all matters private and public, casual and professional. Thus finding the balance between firing off responses to the pile of messages in my inbox each day and deliberately crafting emails that send the right message is a bit of a tricky enterprise. Some might put my more deliberate pace down to the slower rate I move in other areas (eating, for example), but I think I simply care too much for form. When I write well, I express myself well, and that is worth taking time for.

This emphasis on the power of self-expression is nothing new, either, though its contrast with the ease of transmission may be somewhat novel. We have only to look to the Greek rhetoricians and their rich inheritance in Western thought, or to the cultural weight behind the storytellers in some of the world’s pre-literate societies. Words matter. Moses knew this, although it wasn’t enough of an excuse to get him out of a divine call. But he was given Aaron to speak for him, because the speaking was still important. And our words can define us. Isaiah’s guilty proclamation during his own call, “but I am a man of unclean lips!” recognizes the damage words can do, though neither is this enough to keep him from serving God. Words have power.

We can also see the power of communication in the stories we tell about ourselves and others. These narratives become focal points for our thought about individuals and groups. This was certainly a lesson quickly learned while studying Rwanda. The stories told about Rwandan history, about what it meant to be Hutu or Tutsi, changed over time until they were molded into a narrative that could be used to spark genocide. But new narratives also permit reconciliation, as stories are reexamined and recreated. Words strung together into stories have the power to take life and also the power to heal.

I have no illusions about my emails drastically altering the course of someone’s life for good or ill, but I like to think all the same that I’m not as crazy as my emphasis on well-phrase messages may suggest. Instead it appears that the challenge for me is weighing when the words I write will truly have the most impact and balancing my desire for meaningful communication with the rapid demands of our modern society. With a bit of luck and practice I hope to figure it out eventually.

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