Four things I love about international travel

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling to join my wife who has spent the last week in Oxford, UK. She’s been participating in the Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford program at Wycliffe Hall. I’ll spend the last three days of her program exploring book shops, pubs, and the town. Then, we’ll spend three days together touring C S Lewis’s home, The Kilns, punting the Cherwell, taking high tea, and having as much fun as we can handle.

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I love international travel. I was fortunate to have spent the most formative years of my life outside of the United States. I was born in Cyprus. Spent four years in Germany (Berlin) and then ten years in Great Britain. I’ve lived in the Western, Southern, and Northeastern United States. Additionally, I’ve visited several other countries like France, the Netherlands, Brazil, Greece, and Turkey. By globe-trotter standard, not particularly impressive. However, many people never have the chance to leave their state let alone their country. International travel is a privilege, something accompanies sufficient affluence to be able to afford it and sufficient education so as to value it.

There are five things that I especially love about international travel:

  • 1. The chance to leave my “home” culture behind.
  • 2. The chance to absorb another culture.
  • 3. The chance to observe Christianity in that other culture.
  • 4. The chance to observe views about the USA in that other culture.
  • Don’t get me wrong, I love taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of other cultures. More than that, I always find myself observing, studying, probing the culture I’m in looking for connection between things that I’m familiar with and things that I am experiencing for the first time. That’s why I love international travel.

    Who is my neighbor?

    ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’

    And then the King will tell them, ‘I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

    On Saturday I experienced a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. After spending the morning doing various things to serve our downtown community, members of our church went out and invited everyone they met to have lunch with us. Many came.

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    It was a powerful experience that taught me several lessons about myself, humanity, the gospel, and the church:

    1. Myself: My fear of being patronizing often causes me to hold back. I deeply desire to encounter those with  fewer resources, less cultural power, and (perhaps) greater physical need as equals. This can be difficult to do, and so the fear of perceiving myself as a savior often causes me to miss out on deeper relationships with those who are different than myself.
    2. Humanity: All of us are united both in our dignity and our degradation. The photo above is linked to a collection of portraits of homeless people. As I clicked through the gallery, I was struck by the juxtaposition of dignity and degradation. Stare into the piercing gazes of these people and you will see their dignity. Eyeball don’t age, do they? Yet, those same eyes are set in a deteriorating and unwashed body. It’s no different for me. The form may be different, but I too combine dignity and degradation.
    3. The Gospel: The invitation to the banquet only deeply resonates with those who recognize their need. Those who respond to the message of the gospel are those who see their need. Those who joined us for a simply lunch of sloppy joe’s and potato salad where those who recognized and admitted their need for a free meal.
    4. The Church: The church is a parable of Jesus and so together our story has to mirror Jesus’ story in the gospels. It’s quite difficult for anyone to encounter Jesus in abstraction. Most of us will encounter Jesus through a message-bearer. As the church, we are the bearers of the message that there is free grace offered to us by God through Christ.

    Let’s be clear, I’m no Mother Theresa. I am, at best, an apprentice at loving my neighbor. However, God met even me in the simple act of sharing a meal with those in our downtown neighborhood.

     

    Where is God in the world?

    The denial and dissimulation of grace, though always a human temptation, became especially pronounced and systemic in the modern world. While it is common to refer to this development as the ‘desanctification’ or ‘disenchantment’ of the world, the key element in this process is the emptying out of the world’s divine referent. What begins to emerge is the idea of pure ‘nature,’ a conception that reduces material reality to a mathematical and mechanical core that operates according to ‘natural laws’ and can be appropriated by us as a resource for our own ends. As natural, the world does not find its origin or end in God. It does not bear witness to a divine intention. If it has any purpose at all, it is of a wholly immanent sort that can be understood–and exploited–through scientific and technological effort.

    Norman Wirzba, “Agrarianism after Modernity” in J. K. A. Smith, ed., After Modernity (2008), p. 249.

    The Gospel in Vigilante Film

    Harry Brown (2009) is a remarkable film. It powerfully captures the sad conjunction of individual and societal sin that creates the dark reality of life in many urban centers around the globe. What’s missing from the movie are the twin themes central to Christian belief–grace and redemption.

    Harry Brown is an aging pensioner who lives in a central London housing estate. At the start of the film, his aging and infirm wife dies. She is buried next to their daughter who predeceased them. Every day Harry walks to the hospital to visit his wife. Every day he chooses, for his own safety, to avoid a pedestrian passageway that leads beneath a major London road. The reason: it is a hanging out place for part of London’s drug-dealing underclass.

    The film is well-made with long shots and minimal dialogue, both of which highlight a major point of commentary in the plot. The England described in Harry Brown is one marked by the breakdown of social relationships. Harry Brown, a former Royal Marine who served in Northern Ireland, lives an isolated and lonely existence shared with two people–his unconscious wife and he best mate Len.

    Similarly, the “hoodies” are not only marginalized from mainstream British society but are alienated from one another by their wickedness. As Augustine noted, evil is individualistic and precludes any real relationship–to the evil man all life, save his own, is expendable. Authentic relationships are based on mutuality–mutual self-giving–something  of which evil is incapable.

    After Harry’s wife’s funeral Len confides that the delinquent youth of the estate have been bullying him. At the breaking point, he has started to carry a bayonet with him for self-defense and possibly for a last-ditch attempt to vindicate himself by doing violence. The police, claims Len, have ignored his complaints and left him vulnerable.

    To make a long story short, Len is brutally assaulted and murdered. Harry’s life has been made devoid of its last meaningful relationship. This unleashes a Harry Brown unknown since the streets of Ulster at the heights of The Troubles. This Harry attempts to avenge his friend by rescuing the estate from the influence of the “yobbos” by tracking down and cold-bloodedly murdering them.

    Where, you ask, is the Gospel in a vigilante movie? Vigilante movies communicate the Gospel in at least three ways:

    1. They bring us into a world we otherwise might not experience. For many success in life is defined in physical and economic distance from housing estates. It is, however, often that we see ourselves and our situations most clearly when we see ourselves in a foreign context. A movie like Harry Brown reminds us of our common humanity with all manner of people.
    2. They honestly portray the ugliness of sin. Sin in the suburbs is often “respectable sin” or “white collar sin.” In the eyes of a righteous God, sin is sin. Contemporary Christianity has lost much of a sense of the ways in which the holiness of God is offended by the ugliness of sin, yet the heart of the Gospel requires that we confront our own weakness and wickedness in order to see the beauty and the glorify of the new way of life offered to us in the Gospel of the KIngdom.
    3. They show the futility of the Law. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth (lex talionis-the law of retaliation) stands at the heart of the vigilante genre. Every wrong exacts a price–the life of the wrongdoer. There is no forgiveness. There is no grace. Mercy never makes an appearance. As we watch, we realize that there’s much appealing about such a system–when we’re not a part of it. In reality come to know once again how deeply and frequently we need the forgiving love of God in Christ and the forgiving love of others.

    So while other vigilante heroes (think Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino) aren’t types of Christ, ironically they do help us see the Gospel more clearly for the miracle it is.

    Fulfillment through forgoing

    One of the presuppositions of our culture is that more is, well, more–that with greater material affluence comes greater happiness or fulfillment, a better life. This runs counter to the principle of askesis (Gk, “exercise” or “training”). The word is the root of our word asceticism–the forgoing of material comfort for the purpose of focus or spiritual benefit.

    It turns out that in limiting ourselves (or in embracing our human limitations) we actually open ourselves up to the thing that ultimately make us happy–shared experience with people we love:

    We are familiar with the frequently beneficial consequences of involuntary askesis. How many times have we heard as we have visited a parishioner in the days following a heart attack, ‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to me–I’ll never be the same again. It woke me up to the reality of my life, to God, to what is important.’ Suddenly instead of of mindlessly and compulsively pursuing an abstraction–success, or money, or happiness–the person is reduced to what is actually there, to the immediately personal–family, geography, body–and begins to live freshly in love and appreciation. The change is a direct consequence of a force realization of human limits. Pulled out of the fantasy of a god condition and confined to the reality of the human condition, the person is surprised to be living not a diminished life but a deepened life, not a crippled life but a zestful life. -Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant

    Ayn Rand or Simone de Beauvoir?

    Tom Stork at the Distributist Review outlines the internal contradictions that exist within the two main political groupings in our society: conservatives and liberals.

    In short, liberals are aware of the danger of the unrestrained pursuit of wealth and are willing to employ the power of the state to ensure that wealth benefits the common good. However, when it comes to sexual ethics, the left advocates a laissez-faire attitude that totally ignores the harm to the common good that arises from unrestrained sexual appetite.

    In similar fashion, the right is very aware of the detrimental effects of unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure but almost oblivious to the same danger that arises from the unrestrained pursuit of wealth.

    Conservatives quite rightly point to the stabilizing influence of intact families and to the many benefits such families bring to the whole social fabric. They rightly are concerned that the selfish pursuit of individual pleasure harms others, such as children and abandoned spouses, as well as society as a whole. They likewise realize that when society allows free play to the passion for unrestrained sexual pleasure, people in general will begin to look at every relationship and transaction with solely an eye for their own personal pleasure. The desire for erotic satisfaction tends to color the whole of the life of society.

    When it comes to the acquisition of wealth, an entirely different view exists:

    Individuals want to get rich, only envious liberals and socialists want to prevent this. No matter how much the unrestrained pursuit of wealth may harm the common good, none of this matters. The effects of wage stagnation on marriages and families, the devastation of neighborhoods and cities by companies moving abroad simply in order to get the highest return on their investment with no regard for society—none of this matters. From being zealous for the common good and ready to place all manner of restraints on human conduct in the sexual realm, conservatives run to the other extreme and embrace a policy of laissez-faire when it comes to money. They even invent an ideology that pretends that the pursuit of private wealth somehow redounds to the benefit of all, despite much experience showing the falsity of this. It is hard to understand how conservatives do not see, or profess not to see, that the unrestrained and anti-social pursuit of money can do as much harm to the social fabric as the unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure. But conservatives do not see this. A disordered notion of freedom constitutes almost their entire approach to economic morality.

    This contradiction is one of the reasons that I find it incredibly difficult to give my vote to either party. In reality, both of these political groupings represent values that I find to be profoundly at odds with both the teachings of Christ, the testimony of Scripture, and the reflections of the Church on ethical matters.

    It is possible that, for the first time since I have been eligible to vote, I may this year refrain from doing so as a form of protest. It is difficult to cast a ballot and thereby affirm either the twisted machinations of a party obsessed with the devilish teaching of Ayn Rand or to a party so committed to sexual libertinism that it is willing to harm the very most vulnerable of those among us. What will it be? Will you choose Ayn Rand or Simone de Beauvoir?

    What do you think? How do you reconcile the inherent tension in voting?

    The charity conundrum

    co·nun·drum/kəˈnəndrəm/

    Noun:
    1. A confusing and difficult problem or question.
    2. A question asked for amusement, typically one with a pun in its answer; a riddle.
    It was dark, not particularly cold, but drizzling with rain as the four of us walked across the   parking lot last night headed for the relative comfort of a fast-food restaurant. Then it happened: “Sir, can you spare some money for gas?” I responded, in truth, that I did not have any cash in my wallet or change in my pocket. I rarely do. Like most middle class Americans I rarely use cash for my regular purchases.
    My new friend responded, “could you charge me some gas?” at the gas station across the street. What to do? Frankly, I wanted to say: “Forget it pal. I don’t have any cash and I’m not about to leave my wife with the kids to cross the street in the rain to get you some gas.”
    For some reason I relented and walked across the street while he drove. I prepaid for some gas and rejoined my family.
    I had just ordered my food when another gentleman (who looked homeless) approached me inquiring what the former gentleman had asked me about. I told him. He responded: “Just so you know, he has an apartment and is a meth addict.”
    Okay–something of a conundrum here. I was beginning to have my doubts about my first friend when he pushed me to throw in a couple of extra bucks for “me and my lady.” Uh, I was thinking, this gas *is* for you and your lady!
    So what do you do when confronted with an opportunity to give to someone who claims to be in need? I don’t have any great answers to this because it is something of a riddle–you’re rarely in a position to have enough information to make a wise decision about the merits of the person’s claim.
    In the end the issue may not really be the merits of the person’s claim. The issue may just be the disposition of our hearts.
    • Am I willing to acknowledge the humanity and the dignity (yes, the dignity even present in asking for help) of another?
    • Am I willing to help?
    • Am I willing to give an honest answer about why I won’t or can’t help?
    • Am I willing to help in ways other than that requested by the asker?
    I have to believe that God’s providence is at work in encounters like this. God may be using experiences like the one above to bring me into contact with places in my own heart that I don’t often explore. He may be using my gift to an undeserving person as an illustration of His own supreme generosity to me in Christ.
    It’s a conundrum, right? And conundrums often have to be approached by faith.

    Are we too comfortable?

    Michael Hyatt recently wrote about Dean Karnazes, an ultra marathoner who once ran fifty marathons in fifty states in fifty days–for the record, I have no desire to do that. He’s also author of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.

    Karnazes challenges an central assumption of our culture: comfort is good. In a published interview Karnazes remarked:

    Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we’d be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure. We get in a car, we get in an elevator, it all comes easy. What I’ve found is that I’m never more alive than when I’m pushing and I’m in pain, and I’m struggling for high achievement, and in that struggle I think there’s a magic.

    As we move from advent into Christmastide, let’s consider the ways in which God might be calling us to move from comfort into discomfort and how that transition may well enrich our life more than ever thought possible.

    Shane Claiborne and Me

    I was over at Sojo.net just now and read a short article by Tom Sine talking about Shane Claiborne. Shane is part of what is being described as The New Monasticism. It is a post-Protestant re-conceptualizing of a common religious life informed by the writings of the great Monastic leaders of the Medieval Church. Since writes:  

    Over the past two decades, a new Protestant movement very much like the Franciscan order has emerged. Like many in the traditional Franciscan order, they have moved into the poorest urban communities in our world, live in community as families and singles, and care for the poor, often living at the same lifestyle level of the poor around them. A number of them have even developed a rule of life.

    This is a compelling way of life and one that is counter-intuitive to our prevailing notions of the good life. I have not always been as interested in this movement as I now am. Once upon a time, in 1998, Shane and I were in seminary together at Princeton. I did not know him personally, but remember him asking a question in OT (I think it was OT) and prefacing it by saying that he lived in intentional community. I had no idea what “intentional community” was and I certainly thought he was something of an odd bird (as the English say) since he wore apparently home-made clothes. Ten years later, I am a little more enlightened. The one thing that does concern me about this movement is its inability to capitalize a community. It seems to be a charity movement in the sense that it is dependent upon money from others in order to be sustaining. I am not sure that it creates wealth for a community. However, I am willing to admit that this is not the only (or perhaps not even the most) important thing for a Christian group to do. Thanks Shane, and others, for creating an interesting alternative to traditional evangelical and post-evangelical Christian living.