The In-Between

In Celtic spirituality, there is a idea known as thin places. These places are believed to be liminal spaces, or thresholds, between the spiritual and material worlds. When you enter into them, you recognize being further from everyday life, but not to the point of crossing into a new plane of being. Supposedly the Garden of Gethsemane is one of these places where the presence of God can be more easily felt. Still, these spaces are precarious. The moment you set name to them as liminal, their allure and power seem to disappear. Yet, this is the space I find myself and my students currently in. We are on the threshold.

The semester ends on Monday and students will be starting finals, graduating, moving home, and beginning internships, jobs, and summer studies. Their anxiousness seems to be filling the air. They are ready to be on to the next thing, yet utterly stuck in the between. They are waiting to enter that new space of freedom and opportunity and experiences that come through summer, but they recognize that they are not quite there.

Last Worship Service of the Semester

The same seems to be true of me. I am anxious to wrap up this first year at Wesley. I am ready to neatly tie up all of the loose-ends of the semester and move on to the next challenges and experiences of summer in campus ministry. Still, I am not quite there. I am trying simultaneously to look forward and plan what lies ahead and look back to reflect on the beauty of what has happened here in the last nine months. I am trying to figure out possible next steps for the ministry, while relishing the precious moments with students. It’s a thin space. More accurately, it may be a thin time. A brief glimpse to what lies ahead and moment of pause for what has passed.

All I know is that if liminal spaces are places where we can feel the divine more presently among us, then liminal time must be moments when we can feel closer to God. These endings and beginnings challenge me to pay attention. God is in the in-between. Filling the spaces and times where we wait at the threshold.

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The Illusion of Control

If there is one thing I have learned this year, it is that I am not in control of much. What I mean is that I am responsible the outcome of very, very little. Yes, I decided what shoes I put on today. I control what foods I eat (or don’t eat). Aside from what I wear and what I eat, there really isn’t a lot else that I am in control over. Oftentimes, I strive to be in control of those other things though, which is why I made this list of things over which I have no control.

Things I do not Control

1. When I wake up (Anyone who has lived with a cat can attest that your sleep is only allowed when the cat’s stomach is completely full and food dish is not empty in the least.)

Beijo, His royal highness

Beijo, His royal highness

2. When I get to work (Traffic and the garbage truck that decided to block the drive sometimes inhibit my prompt arrival)

3. My work hours (Students text at all hours. People show up in my office when they need me, not by appointment. I am learning how to find ways to drop what I’m doing when someone steps into my office.)

4. Ideas that fail. (As a student I was under the impression that if I put a lot of effort into something, it would succeed. That’s not always the case though. Sometimes ideas or ministries fail, not because I didn’t give my all, but because the outcome is beyond my control.)

5. Other people’s decisions (This is a hard one for me. Even if said decisions impact me, I don’t get a say in the decisions other people make. However, I guess that I do get a say in how I respond to them.)

6. Other people’s perception of me. (How others see me is something I regret to say that I spend a lot of time and energy dwelling on. However, other’s perception is impacted in many ways by things beyond my control. I’ve got to understand that not everyone wants to be my friend or finds me a pleasant person to be around. It’s just the truth.)

7. Other people in general. (I like to think that I can control how other people are involved or invested in my ministry setting, but that is just not true. I like to think I can control how people will respond to me, my words, or my actions. Again, it’s a lie. When I release the illusion of control I think I have over other people, I can respond to them with grace and love.)

As a math major, I spent a lot of time learning equations and how to formulate them to take into account every possible variable. I would spend time in applied mathematics courses and physics courses trying to determine every little thing that impacted a particular observed or theoretical solution. For instance, I would try to determine the amount of force needed to create a certain acceleration based on the mass of a given object. Well, F=ma, but how do you account for friction? How about directionality? These little things add up. And yes, it is possible to figure out very accurately the exact amount. Fhsst_forces12Physics might work like that, but life doesn’t. I can’t factor in every little variable and determine how someone will react. Or gauge my decisions based upon the decisions another person might make and the amount of sleep I could get tonight. You see, it is more complicated. I need to be able to release control and to quit thinking I am in control. Control is an illusion.

So, I’m letting go of needing to be in control because I’m not. I choose instead to respond to whatever life throws at me with love, grace, and hope…. or at least try.

The Age of Wikipedia

Last week my discipleship group was having a conversation about beavers of all things. One of my students said beavers were rodents, but I wasn’t so sure. Of course, everyone at the table pulled out their cell phones to look up the order classification of these mammals. Sure enough, he was right, as much as I hated that fact. Wikipedia, the all knowing authority on all things told us so. Encounters like this beg the question: who has authority? I thought nothing of my student pulling out his phone to check our accuracy. Theoretically, I have authority in the room simply because I’m the pastor or possibly because I’m the oldest person, with two degrees (although neither is in biology). However, without Wikipedia, which one of us would have been “right?” The student? (Who was actually correct about beavers being rodents by the way). Or me, the leader? (Who obviously needs to go back to a basic bio course.)IMG_4519

Authority in the past has been based on tradition, but today is authority commanded through knowledge? Or is it based in something else?

Looking at the locus of authority is by no means a new idea. Classes and addresses given by Iliff alum, author, and pastor of the coolest church in Denver, Nadia Bolz Weber, piqued my interest about authority in the age of Wikipedia. Authority, in case you were wondering, is the power or right to give orders, make decisions, or enforce obedience. See also, dominance, rule, command, and supremacy.  Authority can be related to institutions like the church or a government. Yet more often than not, people are skeptical that institutions have authority simply based on their longevity. After all, institutions including the church are simply made up of human beings. Authority is also commanded from individuals. Doctors have credibility over medical matters. Plumbers have authority over the leaking faucet. Even then, these individuals cannot escape scrutiny from the overwhelming access to information available through Web MD or even a second opinion from another doctor or plumber. It seems that you can get anyone to agree with your opinion if you only search long and hard enough. Whether that is for a diagnosis, a cost estimate, or perhaps a certain belief. So again, I ask, who has authority and what is it based upon?

Though we don’t like to think about it, authority is about relationship. People and institutions cannot have authority without first having relationship. If you think about what makes for good relationships, the same tends to hold true for authority. Relationships are fostered by honesty, and brought down by lies. Relationships are kept thriving by asking and offering forgiveness. Relationships continue because of mutual love and support. When we think about the authority of the church today (specifically the UMC), are we basing that authority upon our relationships with people? Or is the church’s authority based upon its longstanding traditions, polity, or policies? Honestly, I think as an organization, the church has long felt the shift toward new understandings of authority, yet instead of trying to garner authority in other ways, we have continued to cling to what authority we have left because we are old, bureaucratic, and political.

In order to gain authority over a new generation where information is at their fingertips, the church and its pastors need to be relational. We cannot rely on our theology or connection, but instead we have to be honest, ask for forgiveness, admit mistakes, and love people. I learned this lesson the hard way, last semester.

I sat around a table with our students during a leadership team meeting and asked them for a minute of silence to think about the highs and lows of the semester. The students revolted… refusing to sit for a single minute in silence. Instead, they marched off to other rooms and other tasks, while I sat down visibly frustrated and not even slightly amused. When they returned, I kept stewing and went off about how frustrated I was. The students began recalling their highs and lows and when the question came back around to me, I surprised even myself by apologizing. I admitted that I should not have been mad at them and that I would try to take their distaste for silence into account next time. Immediately the dynamic shifted. I no longer was trying to have authority based on the nature of my position, but I had authority based on my relationship with them. I wasn’t above making mistakes or asking for forgiveness.

To answer my own question: everyone has the opportunity to have authority. Authority is ultimately based on authenticity. It means being true to you while being in a relationship with another person. It is this kind of authority our world so desperately needs. It is this kind of authority that Jesus embodied.

The Power of Silly

Most days I am content with thinking surface level thoughts. If thoughts were an ocean, I like to spend the majority of my time in the tidal pools, splashing about, but never really getting too deep. I think this is part of my recovery mode from 3 years at Iliff where I was forced into the deep to think about such vast things as creation, theological anthropology, and the effect of Christianity on colonialism. Now-a-days, I only find myself in those spaces every so often. This week, I have found myself swimming in the deep more than I like.

On Sunday a young man from my high school class passed away in an automobile accident. The response of my hometown and the community he was serving as a fireman have been overwhelming. Yet in light of such tragedy, I find myself wandering in the deep. Questioning my beliefs and my choices. What is the purpose of our time on earth? Am I doing all I can with what I have in order to make a lasting impact on my community? I catch myself wondering why I am not always happy, much less content.  I question whether I have misinterpreted my calling, whether I have missed my lucky break, or whether I have not fought hard enough for what I believe to be true. As I think all of these thoughts, I find myself sinking into a painful self-evaluation that I don’t know that I can handle.

Pantyhose tug-o- war at Gillett UMC

Pantyhose tug-o- war at Gillett UMC

So, my solution was to be silly. Being silly is underrated in our society. It tends to be limited to children and youth, but is frowned upon as adults. Being silly is often treated as being irreverent. Silliness shows a lack of respect for adulthood, or school, or church.

One meaning of silly states that it means something that is ridiculously trivial or frivolous. In times and places when seriousness is the default tone, when depth and pain seem rampant, isn’t there a need for silly? If we dare to talk about the deep questions of life, as we do in churches, why can’t we also endeavor to talk about inconsequential things and embrace the frivolity of life?

I can guarantee that I have made more friends being silly than I have ever made being serious. Yesterday as my students gathered around to taste test Reese’s cups and their Easter variation, I forgot about the questions that had been plaguing me since Monday morning.

Taste tester

Taste tester

They laughed as we blindfolded one another and performed “accurate measurements.” Little did they know, I needed their silliness. So, here’s to the underrated virtue of silly and to accepting the seriousness of life by recognizing its polar opposite.

Belong

On a scale of 1-10, my brain is functioning at a -3 today. It’s something about the stormy weather and the fact that my contacts refused to go in my eyes this morning that is keeping me from working at my best. In light of that, I am going to talk about the thing that I think is the biggest “selling point” of campus ministry: belonging. 

As I sat in the union this week, tabling (literally sitting at a table giving out information) for our biking mission trip, Tour de Faith, I was admittedly people watching. As you can imagine, you get to see some very interesting fashion choices at a college campus. I was struck by the fact that I was mentally categorizing people based on their appearance. I could tell those who were in a sorority based on their shirts with their letters. I saw people involved with sports teams based on their jerseys or athletic apparel. With Relay for Life approaching, I could guess those who were involved based on their choice to wear purple in support. Yet there were others who I could not discern an iota about their involvement on campus based on their appearance, like the girl in the black sundress and floral combat boots, or the young man dressed to the nines wearing a navy blazer and salmon pants. I could only ask myself, “Where do you belong?” 

One of the challenges of young adulthood is finding a place to belong. Moreover, it’s finding a place to belong on more than a superficial level. Some choose sororities, fraternities, ROTC, athletic teams, or academic clubs to call home. Far fewer, it seems, turn to religious organizations or campus ministries. As I examine these two types of groups, a difference I hadn’t noticed previously arises. In the case of the former, in order to belong you are invited to create a new identity that looks roughly like the identity of others in the group. In the case of the latter, you are invited to “come as you are,” to change and to create a new identity that looks roughly like Jesus, but mostly like yourself. It’s an interesting idea and one that I don’t have enough brain power to dig further into at this time. 

As a young adult trying to belong in a new city during seminary, I joined a church. The way I found to belong was through a Sunday School class filled with young people like me who were new to the city and looking for a place to connect. The best thing that happened to me was that no one judged me as the new kid. Nor did they go out of their way to get to know me quickly. They were used to new kids. They were used to people coming and leaving. When I stuck around, that’s when they invited me into deeper relationship. It took time, but they invited me in and gave me a place to be and a community who cared. So often in churches I encounter the two extremes either extreme apathy or extreme interest. Both are off-putting. Belonging is a choice of both the community and the member. Like friendship it takes time and encouragement to grow.