Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Love Over Fear, Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, and Healing Our Polarized World by Dan White Jr., A Review

Dan White, Jr./@danwhitejr
“We need a movement of love,” writes Dan White, Jr. in his book Love Over Fear, Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, And Healing Our Polarized World. “As our culture is locked in a war between the conservative right that wants the power to legislate morality (among other things) and the progressive left that wants the power to legislate social justice (among other things), we need another way.”

A few paragraphs down the same page from this call for a new way, White clarifies the challenge that Jesus gave to his followers to ‘be perfect.’ I would guess that most Christians would define ‘perfect’ as being without blemish, or untarnished. But White makes an interesting observation.

“…the Hebrew word (Tamim) does not carry the same meaning of ‘without error’ in an absolute sense as does the term ‘perfect’ in English. Tamim means complete or whole. White offers a few examples of this more accurate meaning: “whole love casts out fear,” or “be whole as your Father God is whole.”

After offering a more holistic view of Biblical love, White makes the point about God’s image. “Since humanity is created in the image of God, a human being is a microcosm of the divine. Sadly, we often reverse things, and instead of understanding that we are made in the image of God, we imagine God in our image… we look for a God who fears what we fear, who hates what we hate, who likes what we like, who affirms what we affirm.”

Of course, such a narrow view of God naturally would result in a gathering of like-minded folk, who would tend to be polarized against anyone who did not happen to hold their view of God. I love White’s definition of polarization: “Polarization takes people that have something in common, emphasizes their differences, hardens their differences into disgust, and slowly turns disgust into blatant hatred for each other.”

Unfortunately, organized religion isn’t exempt from this awful dynamic.

White points out that sometimes polarization is based upon a two-choice view of the world.

“Certainly, seeing the world through only two choices is convenient and makes our life easier. But life is more of a spectrum of possible alternatives rather than an option between two extremes. Human nature, and subsequently Christianity and our cultural politics, consistently presents false choices. Like saying, ‘You are either with God or against God.’ Is this true? This type of speech offers no room for the spectrum of journeying, exploring, and discerning. It certainly offers us security to think like this, but it is fundamentally not true to human experience nor does it echo the primary way Jesus related with humans… The very nature of Christ Himself is beyond either/or.”

There’s also the element of knowledge itself that can lead to pride, which can, in turn, lead to polarization and hatred.

White reminds us, “you don’t see all there is to see from the spot you are standing in. Paradoxically, the more you see, the more you know, but also the more humbled you become. The wiser we become, the less wise we feel. This is the wellspring of intellectual humility – the more you know, the less you realize you know.”

To further drive home the point that Jesus was the epitome of someone who lived an unpolarized life, White offers the example of how Jesus chose his disciples. “Jesus gathered three Zealots who were militant nationalists, a tax collector who favored the Sadducee party, six fishermen who lived hand-to-mouth and were exploited by Roman taxation, one member of the Sicarii party, and a wealthy nobleman who was linked to the Pharisees. This is scandalous!... It’s an understatement to say that these men would have loathed being in the same room with each other. If it were not for Jesus holding this space, they’d all naturally slide into the cultural ditch of mutual hatred for one another… As the disciples faced each other day after day, ideological and relational differences emerged. Jesus lives and moves and breathes beyond fear – He invites us to do the same.”

Another ingredient in the mix that results in fear and polarization is the social media information (or misinformation) glut we live in. “Expert Delusion is the misguided belief that you can be an expert because you have access to information… The direct impact of this information-binging is that it erodes our ability to enter into the experience of another. It tricks our egos into believing that we already know because are informed – it gives us bloated brains.”

White goes on to observe that "[W]e think we can know things about people without dwelling with people. Being right, without loving well, is not right.”

And this can lead to a lack of empathy, further fueling the political, religious and racial gulfs among us. “Without empathy,” White writes, “we are forced to cluster and huddle with people who are just like us. The moment we interact with someone we are sniffing out, like bloodhounds, what our differences might be.”

Then White describes the differences between a culture based on law and one based on relationships. For the most part, White culture, derived from Western European nations, is one that places a high value on contracts and laws. Native American culture, by contrast, existed on oral tradition, storytelling and the value of relationships.

At this point in Love Over Fear, White begins to suggest some alternative ways of relating to those individuals who don’t look, think or worship like us. He calls up the example of Jesus who always made room at the table for people of all stripes.

“We need renewed faith that God still wants to heal the world this way [bringing strangers together at the same table] not because of our ultra-competence, but through our humble presence.”

He makes the point that “Christians do not need to seek control in order to make things come out right. Instead, we are invited to identify the kingdom of God in the midst of our cracked earthen encounters.”

“Bearing witness to the kingdom is not about controlling outcomes but awakening imaginations. This is perhaps the exceptional brilliance of Jesus’ political strategy. He doesn’t grab you by the shirt and shout in your face; He doesn’t pay for a commercial that slanders the opposition. He stays at the table and begins to fashion a world where we no longer see each other as foes. The table stands for a place of divine availability in the wilderness of isolating, fragmenting, polarizing American life.”

Finally, White writes about the ‘aikido of forgiveness.’ Which he describes thusly: “Aikido embodies this idea that when we stop meeting something with like-force, we can stop giving it power. We neutralize it, we disrupt it. In aikido, an uke (the person who receives an attack) absorbs and transforms the incoming aggressive energy… The goal in aikido is to frustrate the violence of your attacker, eventually exhausting them, neutralizing them. Forgiveness is not giving yourself over to the attacker; it’s giving yourself over to another way of being. A way that disempowers the threat.”

White recognizes that, viewed from a Western European culture, this could seem like an imminent disaster. But White’s view is that “to forgive could feel like surrender, a retreat in the context of a battle. But Jesus offers us forgiveness not as a white flag but as a weapon… It is not God’s judgment but kindness that leads to repentance, a change of heart (Rom. 2:4).”

In the conclusion of Love Over Fear, White states, “The future of the church needs a revolution of love, a love so scandalous it relaxes in the face of fear to move towards enemies with affection.”

Of course, this is no small order, but the stakes are too high to keep on giving in to fear.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Joyfully Seizing the Day

Photo Credit/unsplash

Webster's secondary definition of joy is "something that gives pleasure..." And a Biblical definition goes on to note that joy is based on who God is, rather than who we are or what is happening around us. Webster's secondary definition of happiness is a pleasurable or satisfying experience. I think it's important, especially in modern times, to differentiate between joy and happiness. To sum it up, joy is not dependent upon circumstances, especially a Biblical definition. It's based on a relationship to a higher being (God). Happiness is momentary. 

While a circumstance can contribute to joy, it isn't the basis of it. And joy can, at times, result in a feeling of happiness. Joy is a state of being, happiness is an emotion.

Sometimes, even when things don't appear to be great, it's a good thing to remember what joy looks like. 

For one thing, joy isn't dependent upon circumstances. And it can show up in the smallest, seemingly insignificant ways.

For instance, earlier this week I was scheduled to have routine lab work done. Not a big deal, at all. But I had to choose which day of the week to go to the lab. 

So, I initially picked this Friday.

I took this option because one of the lab tests involved fasting, so I wanted to get to the lab early - and the weather forecast called for a relatively clear morning that day. I had even scrawled "don't eat breakfast Friday," on a post-it note, and stuck it to my kitchen cabinet as a reminder.

But then, on Wednesday, I woke to a very clear street outside. The winter weather that was predicted to happen overnight hadn't hit. The short commute to the lab would be easy-peasy.

As soon as I peeked through the front-window curtains to discover this, a huge grin came to my face and I actually shouted "thank you!" to God. (I could do this because I live alone and I wasn't going to wake anyone up.)

I walked out of the lab smiling! The blood draw was uneventful. The lab reception person and the technician were extremely pleasant. 

But it didn't stop there.

On the way home, I decided to fill up my car at the gas station that was practically across the street. And I saved five cents per gallon because I used a special credit card that has this benefit. 

Within a half-hour, I had gone to the lab, had blood drawn, filled up my car's gas tank, and was home.

Photo Credit/richmondfumc.org
Once home I had a wonderful breakfast (full disclosure: including coffee, bagel, cheese omelet, and grated potatoes).

All of these things were stuff-of-life situations. Very small occurrences that would normally go unnoticed. But that day, they led to such gratefulness I could hardly contain it!

And the joy continued!

Later that same day, a good friend of mine texted me to say she had contracted Covid. I texted back to see if she wanted to pray. She did. So, we spent a few minutes on the phone praying for her recovery. To be clear, I'm not at all joyful that my friend has Covid, But I'm joyful we had a chance to pray. 

Is joy always appropriate in all tough situations? Probably not. But it is a lot easier to offer a listening ear, or be empathetic with joy nurturing a wellspring of thankfulness.

And as I'm writing these words, I'm looking out the same living room window and seeing lots of snow falling. It is about 15 degrees outside and the roads are slick. If I had kept to my original plan of going to the lab this morning it would have been a completely different situation.

Of course, the icing on the cake is that none of this joyfulness was planned. It just spontaneously happened because of looking out the window and seizing the day - a carpe deim moment in action.

So, what's my point?

Very simply: Joy is all around us. Oftentimes in very small ways. It's up to us to focus on it and take the opportunity to be thankful.

While a circumstance can contribute to joy, it isn't the basis of it. And joy can, at times, result in a feeling of happiness. Joy is a state of being, happiness is an emotion. 

Why not take a moment, sit down, gently relax your muscles, and begin to answer the question: What gives me joy? (Remembering, joy isn't a feeling, it's a state of being, not dependent upon circumstances).

Friday, December 31, 2021

The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister, A Review

Joan Chittister/Benedictine Sisters of Erie
Every once in a while a book comes along that is overflowing with wisdom; such a book is Joan Chittister’s The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. She tackles the ‘final chapter’ of living with uncommon grace, wit, clarity, insight, and warmth.

Here’s an example: “The problem is that preparation for aging in our modern society seems to be concentrated almost entirely on buying anti-wrinkle creams and joining a health club – when the truth is that what must be transformed now is not so much the way we look to other people, as it is the way we look at life.”

Chittister writes about the underlying issue when dealing with aging. “Life changes… Change is obvious. It will come whether we like it or not… The real issue is far more subtle than that… It is not the change that will destroy us. It is the attitude we take to it that will make all the difference. The frame of mind we bring to it gives meaning to the end of one phase of life, of course. But more than that, it also determines the spiritual depth with which we start this new phase.”

Chittister observes, “Who hasn’t gone through a period in life when they wished they could simply disappear and start all over again? What most of us do not realize is that today old age is that new life. And most of us deal with it, in one way or another. The gift is recognizing the potential of it, both spiritual and social, and knowing what to do with it.”

Relationships are key to a full life, and for Chittister, that especially includes older age. “The fact is that relationships are the alchemy of life. They turn the dross of dailiness into gold. They make human community real. They provide what we need and wait in turn for us to give back. They are a sign of the presence of a loving God in life. There is no such thing at any stage of human development as life without relationships.”

Within The Gift of Years, Chittister offers two choices to aging – passive or active aging. “Passive aging gives way to the creeping paralysis of the soul that goes with the natural changes of the body. This kind of aging sees this last stage of life as a time in the throes of slow death rather than a time to live differently – and dauntlessly. Active aging cooperates with the physical effects of age by adjusting to a change of pace. The person who is aging actively compensates for a loss of hearing by reading more compensates for changes in eyesight by listening to tapes, and stays physically active, however limited that activity may be… Active aging requires us to go on living life to the full no matter how differently.”

And Chittister has some sharp criticism for the all-too-common view of aging in industrialized societies. “The tendency to talk down to older people comes from stereotypes of incompetence that have been so much the caricatures we’ve drawn of older people once they have left the workforce. Instead of honoring the wisdom and experience of the generations before us… industrial/technological society infantilizes anyone whose life is no longer caught up in the skills and languages of that world.”

For Chittister, this time of life is one that affords immense beauty in the pondering of relationships. “I have the quiet time, to think it all through – everywhere I’ve been, everyone I’ve known, everything I’ve done in life with all the glories and all the sad mistakes, all the successes and all the personal failures – and to be glad for all of it. There is not one of them that did not teach me something about life. There is not one of them that did not make me stronger. And they are all me. They are everything I bring to this time now – when the only question yet to answer in life is what I have become.”

In The Gift of Years, Chittister makes a connection between American culture’s life-long lack of the ability to reflect, and its effect on how we view older age. “Americans, researchers tell us, have much less reflection time than almost any other culture in the modern world.”

Americans vacation less, work more, and are paying a steep price for it.


On the other hand, even if society seems to shy away from the discussion on aging, it doesn’t have to stop individuals from growing into it gracefully. “Aging well is the real goal of life. To allow ourselves to age without vitality, without energy, without purpose, without growth is simply to get old rather than to age well as we go.”

Chittister makes a direct connection between the ability to reflect and the ability to handle the inevitable loss of friends as we grow older. The solution, she says, is in how we handle solitude.


“It’s not the rare elderly person who lives alone nowadays. It’s almost all of them. Everywhere. Aloneness is the new monastery of the elderly.” She continues, “The problem with solitude is that we often confuse it with aloneness or isolation. Isolation means that we are cut off from the rest of the world by circumstances over which we have no control… Isolation, in other words, is either separation or alienation from the world around us. Solitude is something quite different. Solitude is chosen. It is the act of being alone in order to be with ourselves. We seek solitude for the sake of the soul… Solitude opens us to the wonders of a world without noise, a world without clutter…”

Since we have a soul, Chittister weaves in this reality throughout her book. “What we too often fail to realize is that living fully depends a great deal more on our frame of mind, on our fundamental spirituality, than it does on our physical condition. If we see God as good, we see life as good. If we see God as a kind of sly and insidious Judge, tempting us with good things in order to see if we can be seduced into some sort of moral depravity by them, then life is a trap to be feared.”

It’s Chittister’s contention that the choices we make, in large part, determine what sort of life we live, including how we live the last years of it.

“[P]art of the problem is also that, too often, the older we get, the less we ourselves keep contact with the world around us. We call no one, write to no one, socialize with no one. As if there were no place for us in life, no one who needs us, no one who waits for our calls as much as we wait for theirs. There is then another reality to be reckoned with when we bemoan the isolation that so often comes as we get older. It is ourselves. Outreach is at the kernel of getting older. The fact is that we don’t have to be isolated if we don’t want to isolate ourselves. We need to go out to meet the rest of the world, rather than wait for the world to come to us.”

Another helpful hint in viewing the aging process, and seeing it in a positive way is generativity, which Chittister defines as “the act of giving ourselves to the needs of the rest of the world.” It is, she says, “the single most important function of old age.” She points to a Harvard study that concluded that it was the characteristic of generativity that was the key factor in determining successful aging “not money, not education, not family.”

In conclusion, Chittister writes about the wealth of meaning and fullness that awaits us in old age! “The present of old age, the age we bring to the present, unveils to us the invisibility of meaning. Everything in life is meaningful – once we come to see it, to experience it, to look for it. Once we really come into the fullness of the present. Then we cease to take life for granted. Life is now. Only now. But who of us has ever much stopped to notice it?... The task of life now [in old age] is simply, life. What we haven’t lived till now is waiting for us still. Behind every moment the spirit of life, the God of life, waits. Every small thing we do is meant to take us deeper into its substance.”

Joan Chittister’s The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully is an encouragement and a call to live such a life.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Jesus, Lincoln and the Common Good

Photo Credit: University of CA., Berkeley
In this week's Interfaith Insight, Douglas Kindschi, director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University writes: Morality is no longer the expectation as long as my side wins. We are drifting further apart into polarization and the so-called "echo chambers" which put the blame on the 'other.' Instead of finding ways to work together, everything is put in terms of "us and them"

Kindschi's observation got me to thinking of a walk I took, earlier this week, with a friend who holds very different political and religious views than me.

We attended the same church for more than two decades, before I left, shortly after the election of 2016. But we remain friends and I highly value his friendship.

Close to the end of our walk, he asked a question about global warming. He wanted to know what was the "end game," of those advocating for action to address this issue. He mentioned that there is a deep divide between the political "right," which, in general, is pro-business and the "left" which is much more interested in societal issues, including what happens to the earth.

My response was that I didn't know what the "end game" was. But I felt the environment shouldn't be a political issue - meaning it shouldn't be framed within 'right' versus 'left' sides. I told my friend that it's a matter of the common good. We all live on the same earth. We are all going to be affected by global warming.

I wasn't interested in casting blame. But I was motivated towards focusing on solutions. And I certainly don't feel that I'm morally superior to someone who isn't as concerned about the environment as I am. 

I find Kindschi's point, that "morality is no longer the expectation as long as my side wins," to be an excellent starting place to looking at the current state of affairs in the US, and the world.

My friend agreed that something needs to be done. He acknowledged that the earth is in trouble. I acknowledged that I didn't have an immediate answer to such a complex challenge. And that is a wonderful entrance into another conversation.

Photo Credit: Kadampa Meditation Center
Finding the common good is the common denominator that is fundamental to a society's functioning. A government within a democratic republic functions effectively with a focus on the common good. 

Finding the common good doesn't mean glossing over our differences. The Braver Angels group comes to mind. Its leaders have created a safe forum within which 'hot-button' issues are discussed without rounds of blaming. The goal is to understand differences, not amplify them. 

In 1861, on the verge of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln urged: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

We are about to enter the Christmas season - when Christians across the world celebrate the birth of Jesus. Among other things, Jesus was noted for compassion, grace, and love. Three things our world could use more of!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Meet Christina Khim, Assisting Burmese With Citizenship Process

Christina Khim
Christina Khim has a heart for the Burmese community in her adopted hometown.

She joined the Burma Center of Battle Creek’s board in 2020. Before that Christina was a staff member for almost two years where she “was a jack of all trades,” including teaching the English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.

“I actually taught ESL courses before the Burma Center became the Burma Center.”

Since 2016 Christina has worked for DENSO, one of the biggest employers in Battle Creek, most recently as human resources specialist. But she is also involved in helping Burmese residents of the Cereal City study for their Citizenship Exam, so they can become U.S. citizens.

“You have to learn the history of the United States,” she explains. “There are 100 questions [on the exam] and you have to learn and know the answers, by heart.”

Christina has been teaching the Citizenship Class for eight years on and off, sometimes teaching groups on Sundays at church on a volunteer basis.

The focus of the class “is on explaining the 100 questions. Word for word.”

The test includes questions covering the U.S. Constitution and U.S. History, including slavery.

“I tell [the students] the stories behind each question. It helps them with better understanding and retention.”

But the exam is only one part of the citizenship process, which includes a 20-page application form. The form asks for personal information on family, employment history and a lot of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions – like if you have committed a crime.

“The vocabulary of the questions is very complicated,” Christina says. “The terminology can be difficult [for a non-native English-speaking person] to understand. And the individuals taking the exam most often can’t do research on the questions on their own.”

The citizenship process involves a face-to-face interview where individuals are questioned about U.S history, tested for their writing and reading skill, and asked many of the terms mentioned within their 20-page application form – like what does ‘totalitarian’ mean?

Because of the complexity of the language issue, “some people take the test two or three times due to the difficulty of answering the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.”

Another layer of difficulty is that, oftentimes, the person filling out the application for citizenship isn’t the person who is applying – because the person applying is not yet proficient enough in English.

“Burmese are very good at memorization,” says Christina, “but understanding [what they are memorizing] is the harder part.”

The class that Christina teaches focuses on the interview questions and the form itself. Another volunteer at the Burma Center trains others who do mock interviews in an effort to help with that part of the citizenship process. Afterwards Christina reviews the results of their interview. A review of citizenship applications with an attorney is also done to make sure each application is complete before actual submission.

All of this process may seem a little intimidating, but when you consider that the application fee to become a U.S. citizen is $725, per person, it’s well worth the time spent prepping!

Not surprisingly, Christina says that the majority of the people she works with are adults, between 40-55 years of age, who tend to have lower-levels of English comprehension.

While Battle Creek has a long history of welcoming Burmese to the community, Christina says that “the reasons why people [from Burma] come to Battle Creek have changed over the years.”

Initially, “In terms of employment, the main focus has moved from slaughterhouses, to manufacturing, to starting their own businesses. There are now three Burmese grocery stores and two restaurants in Battle Creek owned by Burmese families. And having stable income, they start buying houses.”

Most recently, Christina says, Burmese who initially settled in Battle Creek are now looking beyond Michigan, with a significant population living in Indianapolis. According to the Burmese American Community Institute 35,000 Burmese live in Indiana, with 24,000 of them in Indianapolis.

“If the Biden administration welcomes refugees, I can see an increase in the Burmese population happening,” says Christina.

Just as it’s the older Burmese who have difficulty navigating the application process for the U.S. Citizenship, Christina points out that it’s also the older adults who initially struggle with the language barrier at the workplace.

It isn’t difficult for Christina to have empathy for older Burmese adults who have struggled with the English language.

“I was already an adult when I came here,” she explains. “I was praying to God that I wouldn’t embarrass myself [with the difficulties of learning a new language].”

For Christina, attending college, “was a huge learning curve.” She has earned a bachelor’s degree from Albion College and a master’s degree from Western Michigan University.

What about the issue of culture shock?

“In Burma, the America we know is only [what we see] through the movies,” she says. “It’s not exactly the same.”

Another difference is the way learning happens in the U.S. “Here it’s based on student participation. Not in Burma. There you don’t talk during class. I had to challenge myself to ask questions. Raising my hand was a huge thing.”

Overall, Christina says that “Burmese people are strong, resilient, good people.”

Politically, since the 1960s, she says that Burma has been shut off from the rest of the world because of government crackdowns. “The eyes and ears of the Burmese were closed.”

Since 1988 people have been steadily leaving Burma. But the current rebellion against the military government, since February of this year, has been the biggest Christina has known in her lifetime.

Christina sums up: “The Burmese people have gone through a lot. But they are good, kind, generous people. They are leaving Burma because they have no choice, for the safety of their kids and families. Give them a chance. You won’t regret it!”

For more information on the Burma Center of Battle Creek, or to make a donation, click here.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Advent Meditations by Gena Thomas & Marlena Graves

Gena Ruocco Thomas has written for several Christian publications, and published her first book, A Smoldering Wick: Igniting Missions Work with Sustainable Practices, in 2016. Her book, Separated by the Border: A Birth Mother, a Foster Mother, and a Migrant Child’s 3,000-mile Journey, unpacks the story of reuniting her Honduran foster daughter with her family after separation at the US border. Gena’s most recent book, Alisa and The Coronavirus, is a self-published interactive children’s book, based on conversations she and her family had, especially those with her four-year-old on how to deal with emotions surrounding life changes affected by the virus. She is currently working on another book about God’s great abundance.

Advent holds so much for me. It is a season of waiting. It is a gift. It is a poem and a song; it is a mindset. Advent is hope, it is space to hope. It is a reframing of what capitalism has wrought from us. It is so very much.

Isaiah 45:2-3 says:

‘I will go before you
And make the crooked places straight;
I will break in pieces the gates of bronze
And cut the bars of iron.
I will give you the treasures of darkness
And hidden riches of secret places,
That you may know that I, the Lord,
Who calls you by name,
Am the God of Israel.’

I’m waiting for the crooked places to be made straight. I am waiting for wars to be no more, both those fought regionally and those fought theologically. For those in power to see how their greedy actions often infect others’ lives, livelihoods, and quality of life. I’m waiting for healing to come in all its fullness, both in the lives of my family members and close friends who are suffering physically, and in the lives of those who do not think they need healing, yet harm so many around them. I am waiting for a healthcare system that does not require exorbitant amounts of money from those already suffering from sickness, while insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical companies make so much profit.

I am waiting for the gates of bronze to be broken in pieces. I’m waiting for the self-appointed gatekeepers of Christianity to repent and realize they do not need to defend Emmanuel, and that violently defending our Prince of Peace actually makes them an enemy of the Good News. I am waiting for my LGBTQIA+ siblings to no longer be unwelcome or only welcome if fill-in-the-blank at Church. I am waiting for so many of us to see how much we can learn about Christ from those we say cannot bear His name. When the gates of bronze are broken, we begin to realize the castle is as much beyond the gate as it was behind it.

I am waiting for the iron bars to be cut. I am waiting for the criminalization of those seeking a better life to no longer be a present reality. I am waiting for the borders of our nation and the borders of other nations to no longer serve as walls of privilege, keeping human beings out and separating families. I am waiting for our nation to no longer hold the highest incarceration rate in the world. I’m waiting for Black families to no longer be separated because of – nor raise their children in fear of – our modern Jim Crow laws. I am waiting for gun control laws. For the awakening of so many of us who call ourselves Christians, that our own self-serving ideas of violently protecting ourselves are actually quite criminal, and Christ has much yet to show us on being nonviolent.

I am waiting for the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places. I am waiting for Advent and how it reminds us that darkness can bring much-needed silence, resilient hope, and utter goodness to replace a season of busyness, commercialism, and productivity that currently ushers in the remembrance of the birth of Christ – who came to trample empires and place the government on his own shoulders. I am waiting for the American Church, and American Christians, to mirror Advent more than we mirror empire itself.

I wait to hear my name on God’s lips. Advent is the song that reminds me Light is come on its own, but also in me and Light is on its way, both separately distinct from me and simultaneously within me.

 

Marlena Graves received her M.Div. from Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, N.Y., and is pursuing her Ph.D. in American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, OH., where she is researching the influence American culture has on Evangelicals’ view of immigration, race, and poverty.

Marlena has written for a wide variety of venues like Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics Blog (now CT Women), Womenleaders.com, and Our Daily Bread. She has also written for Think Christian, Faith Street, Relevant and other publications. Marlena is a former member and board member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Currently, she is a board member of Evangelicals 4 Justice, works in partnership with Freedom Road, and belongs to INK: A Creative Collective. As a Puerto Rican influenced by many streams of the faith, she feels as if she dwells on the borderlands of Evangelicalism.

Her book, A Beautiful Disaster, was published in June of 2014, and The Way Up is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself, was published in July 2020.

 

I suppose I am waiting for the world to be made right again. For Christians to behave like Jesus. For the U.S. to make reparations to Native Americans and African Americans; for all the evil and violence committed against them, especially through murder, rape, bloodshed, and theft. We committed similar atrocities against the Chinese and Japanese and others. Now we are targeting Mexicans and others south of the American border while still rendering African Americans second-class citizens.

I am also waiting to see my mami again – but not just yet, because I have more life to live. She died on May 27, 2021 from metastatic breast cancer.

I see that I have much hope deferred.

I will not see any of the above-mentioned come to fruition in my lifetime on this planet.

This Advent, I am realizing more and more there is very little I can do. I cannot change the world, make grand pronouncements, or render definitive judgments against people and nations to make things right the way in which I think they should be made right. I am not an impartial or completely righteous judge. But God is.

Corruption in the American Church and in the United States is persistent. I study these things in my Ph.D. program. What I do not know is if they are at an all-time high. We have made progress in technological developments but not in integrity, morality, ethics, or godliness. Our nation’s soul corruption is not new, the U.S. was corrupt back in the olden days when there was prayer in school and when segregation was legal.

This Advent, I realize again just how little I am. My life is a drop in the sea of humanity. But this reality does not mean that my life is insignificant or meaningless.

I am human.

This is the one life I have. The people or experiences that have been a part of me have shaped me, made me who I am. None of them are insignificant. With the earth, I groan as I wait for God to make all things new (Revelation 21:5). And yet remember that I am participating right now in making all things new in my own spheres in ways in which I am seldom, if at all, aware.

This Advent 2021, I wait on God to reorient me amid loss. I have lost my mother and several friends – young and old. And so, I am impoverished. I wait for reconciliations and reparations that are unlikely to happen in my lifetime. But I wait with an enlarged perspective, a more realistic perspective of who God is and who I am. I await to see what will come from this new perspective, this new reality in which I live.

I wait for Christ to suddenly appear. I know He will not disappoint. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

A Conversation With Russ Eanes, Author of The Walk of a Lifetime

Russ Eanes is a writer, walker and cyclist from Harrisonburg, Virginia.

He has several decades of experience in the publishing business, most recently as the Executive Director of MennoMedia and Publisher at Herald Press, the publisher for the Mennonite Church in the U.S. and Canada. He now works full-time as a freelance writer, editor, publishing consultant and coach. He grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Hartford and Chicago, where he spent as much of his time as he could in the outdoors.

From an early age, he had ambitions to become a writer and to travel the world. He graduated from Indiana University with a degree in English in 1979 and from Boise State University with a Masters in Public Administration. He also studied theology and pastoral ministry at Southern Seminary. In addition to his work in publishing, he has worked for several decades in ministry, including work as a pastor and a coordinator of local services for people living in impoverished communities.

He has also been a university administrator. Even as a book publisher, he never dreamed of writing his own book. Writing The Walk of a Lifetime: 500 Miles on the Camino De Santiago, was a project which he says was as much of an adventure as walking the Camino de Santiago itself. Besides walking and cycling, he enjoys reading, gardening, photography, making music and spending time with his family, and continues to have a passion for the outdoors and for the environment. He lives in Harrisonburg, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with his wife, Jane, several of his adult children and his five grandchildren. Russ enjoys speaking to groups, both locally and far away, about the Camino de Santiago, trekking as a way of touring for older adults, about the importance of pursuing dreams as one grows older and about writing his first book at age 62.


Your book, The Walk of a Lifetime, describes your 500-mile pilgrimage along the Camino De Santiago. You mention that you had been a life-long walker and cyclist before taking on this challenge. How important was all that physical exercise in getting you ready to take on the Camino De Santiago?

On the one hand, it was important to me. I wanted to be sure that I could do this pilgrimage without injury. I was, after all, 61 years old. While I went on the walk for spiritual reasons, I also proved to myself that I was still physically capable of doing something challenging, after age 60. It gave me confidence.

I had heard and read about far too many people who had their dream of walking to Santiago cut short because of an injury. While we can never be completely sure how it will go, training beforehand is a good way of conditioning your mind and body for this journey and to make sure that you can succeed.

When I talk to older people about walking the Camino, I stress that anyone in decent shape—you don’t have to be an athlete—can do this.

 

If you had to offer one piece of advice to anyone contemplating such an endeavor, what would you say to them?

I would say that if you are contemplating it, then you are likely feeling its call, its pull. I recommend that the best way to do it is to take off at least 6 weeks and do the whole thing in one go. Being cut free from “ordinary life” for that long will have life-changing effects. You will NEVER regret it.

You were 61 years of age when walking the Camino. How much of an impact did that have to do with your experience? And looking back on it, what were its benefits?

I really wanted to prove to myself that inner change was possible after age 60. Decades before I had been told that our personalities are “set in stone” once we reach that age and that we are not capable of change anymore, neither mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. I wasn’t trying to prove something to anyone other than myself, that I could still change.

I learned that it was possible to slow down and simply live for the day, for the moment. I learned that it was possible to live quite happily with no more possessions than what fit into a 16-pound pack. I learned that it was marvelous to wake up, strap on the pack and head off into the dawn with nothing more to concern me than what I might encounter around the next bend. I discovered that after having lived a life of non-conformity, as a bit of a misfit, I found a place—or a road—where I “fit.” I made “sense.”

I had hours and hours with nothing to do but walk, watch, and wonder. No meetings, no place I had to be except eventually in the next town or village. No one to meet except the pilgrim up ahead or trudging behind me. Some months after returning I wrote, “And suddenly I was wide open. Open to the next turn in the road. Open to the next village or town, the next mountain or river. Open to the next person. No strict plan, just an idea of where I was to go. When you are open, then the magic happens. Or better yet, you discover the magic, the magic that was always waiting there, always around the corner, but you were too busy, too scheduled, too much in a hurry to stop, to notice, to appreciate it.”

Towards the end of your journey, your wife joined you for the final week of your trek. In your book, you write:

“It was a gorgeous day for picture taking. I stopped to take a particular shot of sheep pastures and hills to the south. Every few feet the angle got better, or the light got better, so I stopped, re-framed and focused it, and took another shot. Then I just stopped – it hit me that there was no way that I was going to get the ultimate shot. The calculating, the thinking, were distracting me from the moment. I already had over 2,000 photos from the Camino. I decided that I would commit this time, this place, to memory and recall forever that it was beautiful. No need to record it, except in my memory; no need for another picture. I put the camera away for the time being, along with the guidebook. Thoreau said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” I was rich in scenery, I would be rich in memory; I could “let it alone;” I could do without another picture. I just wanted to drink it all in, let the moment saturate me. And it did.

I dug into my pocket and pulled out my sheet of prayers – I had them memorized, so I really didn’t need it – and as I prayed my morning office, I stopped when I got to this verse in Psalm 37:

‘Let the dawn bring news of your faithful love,

For I place my trust in you.

Show me the road I must travel

for you to relieve my heart.’

I repeated the sentence, ‘show me the way to relieve my heart,’ several times. This had been in my prayers for a long time: five years? Ten years? I had prayed it through difficult times of work, through the many pressures of family life, through my many moves, through my inner dis-comfort and mis-fit in society. Who was I? Why was I so different? Where did I fit? What road, what path through life was the way I was supposed to follow? Up until then, I wasn’t certain.

Yet at that moment, in prayer, it hit me: this was the road. This was the road, the Way, but more than the physical road, this was Life itself. Not just the walking, the outdoors, not just the culture: it was all of it wrapped together, having all the time I needed, not being in a hurry, not having any agenda. It was a day to be fully alive, a day I return to over and over in my memory. I knew right then that I should never forget this moment, this answer to prayer.

It was a gift of grace.”

 

I’m curious, in the two years since you walked the Camino De Santiago, how do you see that adventure still influencing your life?

The Camino upended my life, gave me a hunger for adventure that I’d always had, but been too constrained by responsibility, to explore.

I’m itching now for an adventure, for a life of adventure. I had thought—two years ago—that by now I would have embarked on quite a few already. I could not have imagined that I would spend most of the past 18 months at home, or at the very least near home. Stuck. I took a full-time job, much to my surprise, but as soon as it feels “safe” I’m heading out again, with my pack. First stop is Italy, where my wife and I hope to walk from Florence to Assisi on the Way of St. Francis. I want to avoid too much planning, after that.

I made a goal last year that I would write five more books in the next five years. The books are an adventure in themselves, but they are also based upon adventure. I’m trying to live my life—in my sixties—as if I’m still in my twenties.

When I’m discouraged by everything going on with the pandemic, I come back to those words, to that day, on my way to Sarria. I remember that I could experience grace, but only if I could allow it to come to me.

 

Related to the previous question, I’m interested in knowing what were the two biggest takeaways you had from walking the Camino De Santiago?

It’s hard to limit it to two, but I’d say the most important lesson has to do with slowing down. I was uncoupled for six weeks from schedules, demands, etc.  Life was stripped to its essentials and when that happened, my mind cleared, my attention got wider and simpler at the same time. I noticed small things, like birds’ songs, or people who needed someone to lend an ear. In that unlimited space creativity also emerged from me, like the creativity that it took to write my book.

A second big lesson is “you can do it.” For me, the very first day, when I climbed over the Pyrenees and arrived in Spain, was a huge boost to my confidence. I set caution aside and went for it. From then on, I felt I could do anything. I come back to that again and again.

How has your overall philosophy of life been changed?

I see a need to disconnect and go on a long walk or bike ride every year, multiple times per year. I see my 60s as a decade of learning and growth, exploration, and adventure. I don’t want to waste a day of it. I’m curious about people, about the world and I want to learn everything that I can. I want to write, to learn to write better, to share my insights and experiences with the world.

 

On a strictly professional level, you’ve had over twenty years of experience in the publishing industry. To what extent was that a benefit to writing your book. To what extent might it have been a hindrance?

Being a publisher was mostly an advantage. I knew that I would have to do lots of marketing myself, build a brand. I knew that I would need to work with good editors and good designers. I kept my expectations modest and considered the greatest success to be in being in contact with readers, which I still do. But I have sold nearly 3,500 copies. I understood that I was going to have to do the sales work, built on my marketing work. I knew that I was going to have to promote. All of these expectations came out of my experience. Working with a good editor, by the way, made the book much better.

The only disadvantage in being a publisher was that I wasn’t sure I really wanted to write it. I knew how much work a book was and was unclear if I wanted to put in that kind of sustained work. But now that I’ve done it, I love it and want to do more.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I want to say that it’s possible, even in your 60s, to realize important dreams and to that end, I come back to something I saw painted on a rock, along the Camino. “Better to die with your memories, than your dreams.” Keep dreaming. You can do it.

For more on Russ Eanes, click here

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