to know you belong

On December 23 I received a $10 Starbucks gift card. It was handed to me nonchalantly by one of the long-term missionary staff here at the orphanage as I was leaving the house to play some soccer. “It’s just a Christmas present from Rachel and I,” he said, “so… Merry Christmas!”

He was right, of course, it was just a Christmas present. But with it he and his wife had unknowingly given me something greater: they had surprised me with community.

My love of chatting over espresso is no secret – within the first week I had asked/begged/drugged/jedi-mind-tricked this guy into driving me to the nearby Starbucks – but I was blown away by the simple fact that he and his wife would have even thought, “Hey, let’s get Jordan something for Christmas even though he’s only been here for two weeks and we barely know him and he hasn’t really done anything except mess up easy spanish phrases and we have no obligation to get any of the volunteers anything because we’ve been here for almost a decade and have seen thousands of them come and go and he’s no different.” I mean, seriously!

Then, later, they invited me to an impromptu worship session of music and prayer. Five of us sat in a circle, enjoying the acoustic simplicity, the apple-cinnamon scented candles, and each other’s company. We left knowing it wouldn’t be long before we met again.

These are just two examples of a larger phenomenon. As I’ve thought about it, as I’ve marveled at a month devoid of anxiety and loneliness in a context in which I should almost certainly feel both, three things seemed to stand out as essential to the joy of my experiences here:

1) The first and perhaps most obvious observation is that it has taken the efforts of many people for me to feel that I am being included in the community. Yes, one young couple in particular is responsible for a majority of the warm-fuzzy feelings, but almost everyone here has said or done something that has made me know I am welcome. From offering to drive me places to telling me that I had permission to knock on their door at any hour of the night if I needed something, people have gone out of their way to demonstrate an easy self-giving that has been definitive of most of my relationships. Nothing like this is required behavior.

I totally didn’t see it coming, at least not to such an alarmingly generous degree.

But it’s not a unilateral accomplishment. I, too, have had to make an effort to include myself. Even on days when I’m feeling sick or tired (which have been frequent) I have tried to be involved. This is especially important, I think, in the early stages of entering a new context. Granted, if I’m utterly exhausted or dangerously ill, I’m not going to go play soccer or spoons or anything that doesn’t involve sleeping or vomiting as its main activity, but by this point people know that if I turn down an invitation it isn’t because I don’t want to be with them.

2) I’ve needed to grow up. A lot. I have generally suffered from a deep hypocrisy that usually compels me, in my feverish desire to be included, to distance myself from the people I don’t see helping me in my quest for social mobility. Even if I can tell that someone is lonely, if I think they are “weird” or “awkward” it becomes difficult to ever want to include them. They threaten my social stability, and when you are as desperate as I can sometimes be such people easily become burdens and competition rather than brothers and sisters. Such behavior is, honestly, one of the ugliest things about myself.

But I’ve realized it’s impossible to feel fully included in a community, fully rooted in the life-giving grace of belonging, if I am not willing to go out of my way to become the kind of person I so passionately hope everyone else will be to me. It’s simple, biblical logic. My own inhospitality, my haunting hypocrisy, corroded my ability to find peace. I was always worried other people resented my presence, my idiosyncracies and social failures, my struggles, because I knew myself all too well; I knew that if everyone else were like me, all my fears would be realized.

There are, in fact, people here who my sinful selfishness would want me to avoid. I am not. In fact, I spend more time with one of them than anyone else. And you know what? We have fun. I increasingly enjoy his company, and he has taught me some things that, well, I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. I am still in many ways an inhospitable person, but by the grace of God and the patience of others I hope to daily put such toxic hypocrisy to death.

3) I am confident that, should it somehow be discovered that I’m gay, there are numerous people who would stand by my side and advocate on my behalf. Latin America is not always the friendliest place to be attracted to the same-sex, and I’ve encountered some astonishingly aggressive homophobia among the teenagers I work with. But even so, I’ve had numerous conversations about homosexuality with some staff members and other volunteers and I’ve been amazed at the kindness and passion that has been displayed, even without anyone knowing I’m gay. These are safe people. I am safe.

Sure, it would be nice to have an hour where I didn’t need to creatively explain why I wasn’t dating one of the numerous single women in the orphanage, but I’ve matured enough to the point where it doesn’t really bother me all that much. And sure, sometimes it’s frustrating to work with an older woman who has a strange and magical ability to materialize whenever romance comes up in conversations, with a twinkle in her eye and a list of eligible women in her hand, but arguing with her (in spanish) has become more of a cheerful game than anything else.

I’ve learned that one community doesn’t have to fulfill all of my needs in order for it to be profoundly good.

I’ve learned that shifting my focus from “How can this community meet my needs” to “How can I meet the needs of this community” allows for surprising manifestations of care and love to flow more freely from myself and those I live with as we seek to encourage and strengthen each other.

***

These are not comprehensive observations, but rather just some small points that have been rattling around my dopamine-flooded skull for the past few weeks.

It isn’t a perfect community by any stretch of the imagination; there are some very serious problems that need to be addressed, some very real failures that vitiate the witness of this place. But my, our, passion for this place and these kids is greater than those troubles, and I consider it a privilege to be both aware of and fighting against those things which threaten the growth of this community. It means I really am a part of this place, that my life is in some serious way bound up with the future of the orphanage. It fills me with a fiery sense of purpose that is usually reserved for when I’m engaged in social peacemaking, studying theology, or eating pizza, and I am in awe of it all.

For what little reflection I’ve done on the subject, the blessed occurrence of community remains, like so much of what makes the world beautiful, a mystery.

And that $10 Starbucks giftcard? It bought a couple of mochas for some of the other volunteers before we saw The Hobbit. It just seemed like the only right thing to do.

Jordan

link: “To Come First for Someone”

I’m a little late to the party on this one, but a dear friend’s tumblr alerted me to a recent post I had missed by the incomparable Eve Tushnet on the subject of the common desire to be the most important person in someone else’s life (which I’ve written about here and here). If you haven’t read much of Eve’s stuff (she’s a lesbian Catholic), I would highly recommend you do. She’s a phenomenal writer and thinker with a profound gift for expressing ideas that are surprising and thought-provoking and resonantly human.

You can find her post here.

At the risk of you deciding not to expend the herculean effort to depress your mouse button or track-pad, here’s an excerpt:

“There are a lot of pieces to this emotion [of wanting to come first]. To be always the one who watches the love between spouses or parents and children, supporting that intense your-needs-first love but never receiving it yourself… Feeling like you’re burdening people when you need them–like you’re asking them to do something outrageously above and beyond the call of duty when you ask them to sacrifice time, effort, or their own priorities to care for you, even when you’re really seriously in need…

This is an area where our refusal to honor or even imagine important vocations other than marriage causes a huge amount of pain, loneliness, and sense of worthlessness. If we took friendship seriously as a potential site of devotion and sacrifice, far fewer people would feel neglected and unwanted. If we considered lay community life (“intentional communities”) more seriously, and if we expanded our concept of family and welcomed single people into familial homes (for a season or for life), many more people could have the experience of living in a realistic familial love in which we all come first at times, and nobody is just there as support personnel…

And finally, maybe the most important thing to say about this desire to ‘come first’ is simply that I’ve felt it too. It’s been really hard for me sometimes. Other times, like now, I don’t feel it as strongly. But maybe the most important thing I can offer in response to this painful and pretty humbling cry isn’t advice or theology but just solidarity. I feel it too.”

There’s plenty more to read, and you simply must clink the link. Here it is again. Click it. Then click all her other links, because they’re great too.

Peace,

Jordan

presence, pt. 2

I strained to hear God’s voice as I walked along the quiet coast of eastern South Africa, the star-flecked darkness unbroken except for the rhythmic intrusion of a distant lighthouse signal. Waves, wind, and footsteps, that was all. No divine whisper met me in the night.

I wondered why I kept doing that, kept trying to experience God in a way entirely divorced from material reality, kept trying to collect some kind of paranormal “proof” of his presence. I thought back to that night in the prayer chapel almost two years ago, remembering all the pain, the anxiety, the confusion… Why am I not like that anymore? Is it that I’m free of the depression, or have I simply stopped asking the hard questions and succumbed to an unreflective materialism? Or, somewhere along the line, was I given an answer?

I hadn’t totally overcome the feelings of abandonment and absence that were burnt into my heart when I threw my journal at the painting, and I occasionally battled against that brand of cynicism reserved for only the most tortured kind of jealousy. And yet, somehow, as I looked out over the ocean, I knew I was loved, I knew God was near, and I knew I had nothing to fear from the future.

But what about all the complaints I had? My experience of God still seemed precariously dependent on material things. And what about the hellish scenario of being trapped in solitary confinement, stripped of Bible, friends, music, nature, and, God forbid, soy lattes?

I think I was standing on a barnacle and mollusk encrusted boulder when Matthew 6 came to mind. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (I use the NRSV; Not Really Scripture Version [evangelical humor…slay me, please]).

The verse kept crashing into my mind, in sync with the rising tide. Why on earth am I worrying about solitary confinement?! Why have I let blind speculation about the future dictate my present? But, really, why did the particular details of my current experience have to supply assurance for every possible permutation of my imagination? Isn’t it enough that I can look at my life now, and, if I’m seeing clearly, recognize a million little affirmations of God’s loving presence and trustworthiness?

On days when I’m sane, I think the answer is, “I don’t know, I don’t know, but yes!”

I’ve been perceiving all the physical things that God has used to communicate his grace to me as inadequate or less desirable just because I don’t think God should speak to me so mundanely. And yet wasn’t the most stunning manifestation of God’s love for humanity a physical, tangible, mundane reality? My discontent doesn’t seem to make me much different from those first century Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah and cheered for his crucifixion because he wasn’t the revelation of God that they wanted, because he didn’t arrive with military fanfare and drive out the Romans with a supernatural display of power. He wasn’t obviously glorious enough for them, and, I guess at times, for me.

But what could be more glorious than the hazy swath of the Milky Way as it holds together the night sky, the warm embrace of a loved one, the bubbling laugh of a child, or the humble and holy blood of God congealing into black rivulets outside the city walls for the salvation of the world? Truly they are enough for me. I still have questions, and maybe none of this will be of much comfort the next time my devotion seems more like farce than faith, but for now, praise God, it is more than enough.

And solitary confinement? Who cares. I’d love to know how I would land myself in that predicament, but I suspect that, even there, the hard, stone floor would remind me of Christ’s unfailing power upon which all things are founded, and the urgent cries of my stomach would proclaim the sustaining providence of his word.

I started smiling, enjoying the cold sand as it squished between my toes. Unexpectedly, that slightly trite poem about Jesus’ footprints intruded into my thoughts, and in a last gasp of self-pity I looked back to observe my lonely path. But instead I saw three trails; I’d forgotten about my friends, whose footprints kept good company with mine on the right and left. I was surrounded by two brothers who, in their own unique and beautiful ways, preached Christ to me. I wasn’t alone. I turned into the friendly wind and laughed, content.

Jordan

presence, pt. 1

I hate disclaimers, but I feel one is necessary here. I wanted to write about God’s presence, but the post felt hollow without a little explanation as to why it’s such an important/conflicted topic for me. So I wrote about one of the darker moments of my college career in which the “presence of God” felt like a cruel yet tantalizing pipe dream. In trying to convey the emotions and immediate thoughts of that night, I decided to leave the ideas half finished and flawed (unlike, you know, all my other perfect and flawless thoughts), unedited by future reflection. I’m assuming I’m not the only one who has had thoughts like these. I’ll publish a followup post to work through the issues raised in better detail.

******

Wheaton has a small prayer chapel in the student center that was a kind of second home to me. I spent so much time in that dim-lit, stifling, little room that, by my senior year, the hushed quiet that greeted me as the door closed had become a kind of sacred encounter – drawing out a long, deep sigh as I waited for the ringing in my ears to dull before pulling out my Bible and journal. Rarely would a day go by without a visit to the sound-proof haven; which is why my inability to enter it for the month of October during my Junior year was so difficult.

But I couldn’t, or at least I didn’t want to, so long as that painting was still hanging on the wall.

I had found my desperate way to the chapel around 11pm on a warm, September night, my mind beginning that familiar process of implosion that was characteristic of Saturdays. (Like most fun-loving young adults, I spent my weekends contemplating the agony of existence). The self-loathing that wouldn’t lift until the end of that year was boasting over me – I had just been the recipient of a fairly caustic remark that seemed to confirm one of my greatest insecurities. My breathing had become shallow before I even grabbed the door handle with my frustratingly shaky hand. I needed… I needed to know, somehow, that God was still there, still full of love and willing to embrace me when I felt utterly alone.

I sat there, not really sure what I wanted except, in that moment, not to feel as if I were distant from God. I wanted to catch a glimpse of that beautiful mystery where my voice really does reach him and his arms really do reach me, a mystery that so many people seemed to understand in a visceral way that was entirely foreign to me.

So I sat, I prayed, I pleaded, I fell silent, I claimed promises, I repented, I begged, I yelled, and I tried as hard as I could not to doubt. I even cried – which was something I hadn’t done for six years – and yet the room remained a mundane vacuum, as if the “supernatural” encounter I desired couldn’t cohere within a twenty foot radius of my heart. I had never heard a comforting whisper before, never had my anxiety miraculously melt away as a warm peace took its place, and it looked like that night would be no different.

And then I saw it. (Well, saw it again, as it had been hanging there since I first set foot in the chapel as a Freshman). It was one of those earnestly saccharine paintings in which Jesus, face contorted in sympathetic compassion, held a sobbing man to his chest. The man was clearly grief-stricken, and yet all was well because, when he collapsed, the body of his Savior was there to surround him. It was everything I wanted: to be held, to be consoled, to be told I wasn’t worthless, to find rest, to know I wasn’t hated, disgusting, or being kept at an arm’s length. A bitter hatred for that painting overtook me – I grabbed my journal and threw it across the room, clipping the cheap frame and knocking it askew.

Two things happened in that moment: I was confronted by a host of things that made me feel loved and alive, and I decided they weren’t enough. They weren’t God, and that was all I wanted. The joy of digging into the Bible, the thrill of learning, the hug of a friend, the wisdom of a mentor, the beauty of a golden horizon, or the evocative power of an expertly crafted musical refrain – all good things, things that pointed me to God, that made me aware of his love for me and drew me out of myself… all things that could be taken away from me.

Was the entirety of my experience of the presence of God propped up by such vulnerable crutches? My hazy, anxious mind couldn’t seem to recall any evidence to the contrary. What would happen if I were thrown into solitary confinement, removed from everything that I had known? Would God be there? Here I was, barely starting to come to grips with what a life of chaste singleness may look like, settling into convictions that seemed to require a future of “aloneness,” struggling against an overwhelming fear of future abandonment, and all of a sudden I didn’t even know if I could trust God to show up in the present.

It was too much. Everything went dead. I remember calmly telling God, I’m going to get up, read some Psalms, convince myself that I just need a better theology of your presence, and go to bed. You don’t have to do anything, don’t worry. And that’s what happened. I walked out of that room still convinced, as always, that God was good, that he loved me, and that he was near, but it was with a tortured resignation that I left, barely clinging to the dimming hope that, someday, I might understand how God was present in all of this.

I wasn’t sure if my prayers were breaching the stratosphere, so I settled for a satellite and called my mentor. By the grace of God he picked up, and lovingly consoled my breaking heart as I sat in the quiet darkness.

Jordan