Monday, August 11, 2014

Dumbledore can't live forever.

In July 2005 three of my friends and I camped out on the floor of our local Barnes & Noble for the midnight release of the novel Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. When the clock struck 12:00AM, we got our copies of the book, my mom drove me home, I sat down on the couch, opened the book and did not move from that place until I'd finished it. Thankfully my friends and I were not one of the many disappointed fans who (like us) had waited hours in line in anticipation for The Half-Blood Prince, only to have a mean-spirited spoilsport run by them screaming "Dumbledore dies!" before they'd even gotten their hands on a copy!

I remember that many Harry Potter fans were distraught that Dumbledore did, in fact, die in The Half-Blood Prince, because the headmaster was a loved and respected character, and especially dear to the protagonist, Harry Potter. However, J.K. Rowling issued a statement more or less deeming Dumbledore's death as necessary, because in the absence of his go-to mentors (Sirius Black and Albus Dumbledore), Harry would have to learn to stand on his own.


I am currently in the process of losing my own Dumbledore, my grandpa Don. I've had a really special, dear connection to my grandpa since about high school when, seemingly out of the blue, he called me one summer to see if I'd be interested in doing Bible study with him once a week. Together we worked through the book of Matthew using questions he'd copy for me out of his study Bible. At first it was kind of awkward since up until that time me and my grandpa weren't especially "close." Yet I grew to love the one-on-one time with him and treasured hearing his thoughts and reflections on the ways God had been faithful to him in his life.

Grandpa seemed to really "get" me and became my go-to person in the event of crisis. I think because he shared so openly with me about his past pain and anguish, I felt safe telling him about mine. One year I asked my Grandpa to coffee to get his advice about a big decision regarding a romantic relationship. His younger brother, Ty, was visiting from San Mateo, CA, and remarked, "Gee, I wish my grandkids asked me out for coffee!" as we walked out the door.

I'd like to think that I "got" Grandpa pretty well, too. "You're able to put my thoughts into words," he said to me several times, when he would be stumbling to articulate his struggles with faith and doubt. Grandpa liked to grapple with hard questions (Who is Jesus? Are other religions valid? Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?). It was fun to talk to him about theological and political issues because he was never one to put-down your ideas or opinions, just dialogue about them so that everyone participating in the conversation might arrive a little closer to the truth by the end of it, including himself.

Grandpa had a brilliant mind. He was very sensitive to others and reached out when he could tell that people were in the midst of great turmoil. I remember that during one of the darkest seasons of my life he called me on the phone. "How are you doing?" he stated simply, and I began to sob because I knew that he really did want to know. He said, "You know, your grandma and I love you very much, and I think God does, too."

Lately Grandpa's mounting health issues have sapped him of his brilliant mind and sensitive heart. He has trouble staying awake, can't carry on a continuous conversation and sometimes says deluded or irrational things. I pray to God wondering how much of Grandpa is still in there, in that frail body.

I can't just sit with him and shoot the breeze about global politics, his past work at Boeing and the great unanswered cosmic questions of our time anymore. It's simply not an option. My grandpa is still alive but a huge part of who he was to me (sage, counselor and guide) has been lost.

How do I move forward when someone so important in my life has vacated that position? How do I pray for someone whose mind is clearly not all there anymore? And where is all of this headed?

Mostly, when I think about my grandpa as he is today I just get pretty sad. My whole family is grieving. I don't presume to claim that I've unlocked all the mysteries of life and death and mourning. I'm right in the thick of it, so I don't have easy answers to vacuum up the pain of losing who my grandpa once was to me.

I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know how to lose a best friend like this. I'm mostly feeling and praying my way along, trusting God to lead me and comfort me through this season of grief.

Dumbledore can't live forever.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Rethinking Utilitarianism

Something's been bugging me about the middle class Christian values taught to me growing up. You see, I was raised to make my life count, to "make a difference in the world." My Sunday school teachers in high school advised that since my classmates and I belonged to the richest 1% in the world, we should use our opportunities and privilege to create justice for the poor (Isaiah 58 was blowing up like no other back then). The gist of their teaching was, "If you're going to be a lawyer, be a lawyer for the marginalized. If you're going to be a doctor, work in public health with the uninsured." The implicit argument was use your influence for good.

That's all fine and dandy. I'm not saying that wanting to live a life of service to others is for dreamers and fools. Yes, if you have a burning passion to reach out to those that society has thrown away and forgotten, I think that's so cool!

My problem is with the Christians that think they know the *best* (subtext: only acceptable) way to engage in social justice. Utilitarian influences are pervasive if not unquestioned in Christian thought--post-modern, middle class, 'progressive,' American, Pacific Northwest Christian thought, especially. This is not good! Let's unpack this a little.

To put it roughly, utilitarianism values getting 'the best bang for your buck.' Jon Stuart Mill, the 'father' of utilitarianism, was interested in the question: How can we maximize happiness (on the societal leval) and minimize unhappiness? It's about creating the greatest total impact of happiness using the limited resources available--optimization and efficiency are key in Mill's take on 'best' social policy.

So what does this have to do with my Sunday school teachers telling me to 'make a difference' with my educational and career choices? Well, kind of everything.

There's no denying that injustice is rampant around us. What's unfair in the world today? Uhhh, a ton of things. That's a big "duh." (See: racism, sexism, class difference, physical/emotional abuse) It's not hard to see what's wrong. And for those already on the social justice bandwagon (I include myself in this!), it's pretty obvious that there's much to be done.

However, it seems to me that progressive American Christianity's answer to social injustice has been get as much worldly power as you can, and exert it to benefit the poor.

"What's wrong with that?" you may ask. "Why shouldn't we help the largest amount of people possible by attaining the largest amount of political/financial power possible?" Again, the implicit statement is I'm going to use my power for good!!!

Let me put it to you this way: would you consider Jesus' actions during his life to be utilitarian in nature? Did Jesus 'work his way up' in Jewish society so that he could 'change the system from within' from a position of power? NO! In fact, he was reviled and rejected by those in power, Jewish and Roman alike. Rather than rise up in the ranks and use political power to effect a cultural change, he preferred to go from village to village with "no place to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20). "[H]e made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant" (Philippians 2:7). He knew that the political systems of his time were corrupt (e.g. crooked tax collectors, hypocritical Pharisees), but rather than creating a complete institutional overhaul by force (i.e. taking up worldly power/kingship and exerting influence), he was in fact, victimized by the unjust justice system. Does this not blow your mind?!

Utilitarianism posits that top-down reform is (supposedly) the "best" because it affects the largest amount of people, therefore maximizing positive impact.

How does this manifest in the church? Have you ever met someone who's so well-versed in the ways of "correct" social justice that they "pooh-pooh" "handouts" and "band-aid solutions" such as soup kitchens and emergency shelters? A person like that might say, "Oh, meals for the homeless? You know that only addresses symptoms, not the cause, right? True structural change has to come before THAT can be fixed." To the well-meaning believer engaged in charity work, a social justice snob would deem said work utterly inadequate.

I do not mean to be ranting and rude--trust me, I used to be a social justice snob. I applied to get my MPA at UW, for goodness sake! I was convinced that I need to use my power for good.

However, this utilitarian "policy-level-change-or-bust" mentality is severely restricting. More important, though, is to question of how it agrees with or comes against the will of God. What does the Lord think about this?

On a personal level, I have been reflecting deeply and praying about how God desires to use my life to effect justice in the world, to bring his kingdom to earth. And he's been breaking down my utilitarian mindset.

I am "smart." I can talk to other "smart" people and excel in the world of politically powerful, "smart" people (i.e. when I worked for King County). I'm sure I could exert plenty of influence on behalf of the disenfranchised on the policy level if I wanted to go that route.

But the most important question is: Is that what God is calling me to?

In May I received a word from God that due to the immensity of my giftings (i.e. being "smart"), there was a pressure for me to achieve much. The Lord said, "That is not my way for you. I have shoes for you that fit just right." Well, I just started crying when I heard that. What a relief! God was releasing me from the pressure to 'make it big' in the world to 'make the biggest difference possible.' He was releasing me from utilitarian ways of thinking and inviting me into kingdom ways of thinking.

I am convinced that God is aware of social justice in an intimate, nuanced way that only an omniscient God can. I am thus also convinced that he knows exactly how he is going to address it--and more specifically, how he would like us as individual believers to address it.

Let's not confuse the world's ways of dealing with social injustice with God's specific call for us to engage it. One-size-fits-all approaches to social justice work is total malarkey. And for those who buy into and perpetuate the culture of Christian utilitarianism--be careful!

For God has said,
"[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways... As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9).
May God reveal his ways for you to address social injustice today!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thanks, God!!

"I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord" (Psalm 27:14).

A few months ago, I was sobbing due to the enormous pressure I felt from people at my church constantly asking me if I had found a job yet (I hadn't). After church service one Sunday, I went up to ask for prayer and explained my situation. "That pressure is not from God," my uncle assured me. I nodded, mopping up my falling tears.

I begged the Lord for instructions and direction--if I should go back to school or look for a specific kind of job, etc. I was so frustrated when I didn't receive a clear-cut response! "Lord, I will do anything for you," I would pray. "Just give me the word."

It was once said to me, "April, jobs don't just fall out of the sky." I think that may be the world's way of thinking, but for me, it's been a different story. I am a pretty hardcore and literal believer of "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33). So basically since I've been back from Mexico I've been spending a lot of time seeking the Lord, keeping my eyes open, and believing in his imminent provision.

I've been so hell-bent on taking the stronghold of fear lately (see my last post) that when out of the blue two friends contacted me with two different job opportunities, I had to laugh. Of course, it was God at work on my behalf. I received an offer to interview for one of the positions, and before going to bed one night I prayed, "Lord, is this job a gift from you that I am to receive?" The answer came strong and clear: "Yes." "Hm," I replied, smiling, "Okay." I prayed. "Okay."

So when I went in for the first interview on Thursday and the second interview on Friday, it was so easy and effortless. When you know God is giving you something and it's already yours, you can live with a lot of boldness, peace and rest. Yesterday when I was offered the job it was such a surreal moment of receiving that which the Lord had already promised to me. It was the icing on the cake. After I hung up the phone, all I could say was, "Thank you, Jesus! Wow."

Jobs really do fall out of the sky.

"Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth  through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created" (James 1:17-18). 

Followers