Is it Loving?

Continuing from my earlier thoughts, it strikes me as vitally important to get some idea of what “loving” is. I remember being told some variation of this concept awhile ago:

When people had wood-burning stoves, parents would tell their young children, “Don’t touch the stove, you’ll get burned.” The parent knew the danger the stove represented and wanted to spare the beloved child from the pain of being burned.  The child, having no concept of “burned”, thinks that everything the parent says “no” to must be fun – so he or she reaches up and touches the stove – instantly, he or she fully comprehends what a burn feels like having painfully received one.  Not only that, he or she realizes that the commandment to not do something was based in love and a desire for his or her well-being.  It would not be loving for that parent to not warn their child of the danger of the fact that they would get burned or shocked from sticking things into an outlet. That’s why Christians are commanded to warn sinners of the dangers that Hell represents, it would not be loving to let them remain in sin and get burned.

One thing I had always hated about that logic is that in that parallel, Christians see themselves as the loving parent and all sinners of all ages as the toddler or disobedient young child. It doesn’t matter that the “sinner” in question is actually older than the Christian; it doesn’t matter that they’re total strangers. It’s the same thinking that allows a Christian to go to that “sinner”, push him or her over, and shout something like: “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, I cast you out demon! Leave! Begone!” This is, the Christian thinks, an expression of God’s love. This is, the “sinner” thinks, a crazy person who for no apparent reason has knocked him or her over and began shouting something bizarre (that’s not an exaggeration, by the way – but something that has actually happened in the name of Christian love). The Christian gives him or herself the power to decide that as the mature one, as the one who defines what is loving, then he or she must act, or else do the “unloving” thing by not warning the “sinner” of his or her fate. This, of course, a judgement call, as they don’t know that this “sinner” came to faith as a child and is just as much a Christian as they are in God’s eyes. The Christian can only see an instance of sin being committed and decides that anyone who sins must be a sinner as Christians don’t sin and it’s impossible for sinners to be Christians.

Christians do have 1 Corinthians 13 as a guideline – a basic Christian definition of love. But not everyone lives by the book and wouldn’t consider being bossed about or pushed over by total strangers as loving by any definition they know. Perhaps one of the best secular concepts of love is to “do no harm.” The same flaw extend even here, though – so it would seem the problem isn’t in the message, but in the transmission. It gets caught up, jumbled, and received in a way different than what was intended. The Christian after all, has been taught that being warned of the consequences of sin – and going to just about any lengths to do so is loving, and that’s why some of them do just that. It’s not the same message that other Christians get though, and those who aren’t Christians don’t see it that way either. In this, humility seems to be a vital ingredient, one that takes the Christian out of the position of power. He or she will need to consider that others might not have the same definition of “loving” – after all, it’s probably the most difficult concept to define in a way that everyone agrees with exactly. It’s difficult to define what loving is, but being unloving is something that’s easier to define – it’s what loving is not. It’s being judgmental, it’s pushing people over, it’s shouting bizarre statements, it’s all these things and more that make that other person feel as if they’re despised or shameful.

Why I Do and Don’t Speak Spanish

I don’t look like I speak Spanish. My ancestry is predominantly Irish, with some French, German, English, and Scottish thrown in there somewhere. As a result, I’m on the paler spectrum of skin types, with sort-of blonde hair and blue eyes. A number of my customers are obviously Latino – mostly hailing from Mexico. They look like they speak Spanish – and so far, they all seem to. But I know that statistically, that’s not always the case. For some reason or another, many second-generation Latinos don’t always know their parent’s language. I don’t want to make them uncomfortable or a situation awkward by speaking Spanish to them assuming that just because they look like they should speak Spanish that they will. So for the first while, I tend not to speak in Spanish until I hear my customers speaking Spanish to each other.

Then I speak Spanish to them. Usually, they’re quite surprised – asking some variation of: “Since when do you speak Spanish?” “Have you spoken Spanish long?” “Do you know a lot of Spanish?” It’s true, I’m quite familiar with Spanish, I’ve studied it off and on for years – and through DuoLingo – I know that pretty much everyday for the last two years I’ve managed to review a lot of it – but I still find myself unprepared to speak a lot of it. The only way to really fix that is to actually speak it, stumble over making glorious mistakes, and learning as I go to develop an ear for hearing it spoken quite rapidly.

I’m getting better, I can tell – though it’s not as quickly as I’d like. My main goal is to get better at understanding others and communicating clearly enough that I’m understood – even if it’s not grammatically perfect. I still try my best to be respectful – Latinos may be a working class, and often taken advantage of – it doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be treated with dignity – we all do, but they’re also deeply committed to their families and we could learn a lot from them if only we’d learn a little humility first.

America’s actually on track to have just as many (if not more) Spanish speakers than Spain, in the years to come, it might be more and more common to see mainstream t.v. shows featuring Spanish-language programming rather than just on Univision and Telemundo. The time to learn a language isn’t when you need it, it’s long before you need it but know you’ll use it down the line.

¿Ustedes hablan español? Es difícil saber cuándo hablar español? (Do y’all speak Spanish? Is it difficult to know when to speak Spanish?) If not, can you speak other languages other than English and do you have the same difficulties?

Signs

I could feel a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see an older gentleman. He pulled out a pen and a notepad and wrote “Plain M&Ms?” I looked at the candy aisle and could see that the spot where they should be was vacant. The thing is, I wasn’t quite sure how to communicate that to him. I opted to write it down as well, “We’re out, sorry.” It seemed only fair. I think that’s when I decided to start learning American Sign Language. As it turns out, he wouldn’t be the only deaf customers to frequent the store. Now generally, the best time to learn a language is before you actually need to use it, so when you need it you already know it. But better late than never.

My fascination with ASL started with the clubs that my school offered, there was one called Sunsign Club – all the students did was learn and converse in ASL, which would have been great, but we can only be in one club at a time and I had a passion for Spanish (and I still do -hablo español muy bien!) Still, I had always wanted to learn it, it’s just that I didn’t have a framework or any idea where to start. Fortunately, the internet is a game changer and I found out that lifeprint.com offers free ASL lessons.

Learning to sign has begun to make me more aware of people, watching these lessons without audio has given me a glimpse into a world without hearing, and helped me to appreciate the simple joys of communication. Have you noticed how signers are so much more expressive? To convey how something makes them feel or describe how something is, they have to use facial expressions and exaggerated gestures. When we use words alone to describe something, it just feels a little lazy. “His house is big.” and “His house is huge.” Are just two statements with no real punch to them. I’m so used to hearing, listening for cues and definitions and explanations that it’s pretty easy to miss what’s going on and being said in the videos. Turns out, that’s what Daphne felt as she tried to keep up with the Kennishes on Switched at Birth when they first met. I know it’s a fictional t.v. show, but it’s the first one to feature the Deaf community for mainstream audiences to this degree. Sue Thomas F.B. Eye also gets an honorable mention for it’s use of ASL. It can only be a good thing – and I hope there’s more of it. Consider this, the only reason why so many of us know what “hasta la vista” is is because it’s from Terminator 2 and we got used to it. We picked up “mi casa, su casa” and “que sera sera” along the way. Once you get started learning a little bit, it gets easier to learn more. So, I hope, it will be with ASL, something we will see more and more of and maybe one day be bilingual in so that we can communicate with everyone. Communication is connection, it’s being understood and understanding others, it’s something so many of us take for granted until there’s a hic-cup and we suddenly don’t have it.

I think learning ASL has also helped me to see something I would have missed otherwise. I was watching the Pursuit of Happyness the other day. When I first saw the movie a few years ago, I didn’t notice that in the worship scene there was a man signing the lyrics of the song the choir was singing, I saw him this time. I thought back and no church I had ever attended had sign language interpreters. We also never had deaf people either. Most people, me included, don’t see needs until a need needs to be filled. We don’t see the need to learn ASL until we need to use it. But say a deaf man or woman walks into a church without interpreters – will they see the need to stay if nobody knows how to talk to them? Would you like to know how to strike up a conversation with them? One of my favorite stories is that of Martha’s Vineyard from a hundred or so years ago. Deafness was such a common occurence, that even hearing islanders would learn sign language. Men would sign to one another as they were working the fields, women would learn sign language to buy and sell things at shops, even children would use sign language at church to communicate, nobody was disadvantaged or excluded from having a normal life. I think we can learn from their example.

One other thing, ASL just isn’t limited to the states, it’s widely recognized among Deaf communities throughout Africa, Hong Kong, the Phillipines, Sinagpore – it’s considered a bridge language that helps bring people of different cultures together. I know it’s not easy to just learn a language, it takes time and practice – but if you do choose to learn it, at least you’ll know it for when (not if) you will need it.

Sight

We always see things from the same angle … It’s much less trouble that way. Besides, it makes more sense to grow down and not up.

Something that recently happened reminded me of one of my favorite books: The Phantom Tollbooth. Apparently it’s a great read for people who are having spiritual issues and need to develop a framework of re-thinking by challenging what they believe in a non-threatening way. Anyway, the character that I was reminded of was Alec Bings. You see, Alec was born in the air. His head is at his adult height. All his life he will grow down until he is capable of walking on the ground. Milo wasn’t so certain it was a good thing to always see things from the same angle. As he grows, the angle from which he sees things will change.

I remember this massive red slide in the park that I used to play in as a kid – it was the biggest slide I had seen anywhere. I used to climb up forever just to reach the top so that I could slide down – this slide was spiral shaped, so it sent me around, and around, and around. A few years later, we decided to see what the old park was like. Nothing had changed but the slide seemed smaller. It wasn’t so much of a climb and it didn’t seem to go around as much. It wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.

But of course, as we grow more than our height changes – our perspective alters with each and every experience that we have. We don’t see things the exact same way. Vegetables that we thought we hated turn out to be delicious. Songs we thought we liked turn out to be horrible. And yet, some things we love don’t change. But we do change.

Alec’s family had another quirk … Alec could see through things, but never what was directly ahead of him. Everyone else saw everything differently – one relative saw to things, another under things, and still another saw the other side of every question. All of them had a different point of view.

So I suppose you could say that I’m well versed in this idea that all of us have a different perspective when we try to answer the same question. I know that my background shapes and informs my understanding. For me, my thoughts are something like stars in the sky – they line up to form a constellation and it results in rather stellar post; at least, from my point of view. Someone who thinks more like branches on a tree might misunderstand me as I might misunderstand them. But all that matters is that we both learn something, right?

What scares me though is that the way that Christianity is taught, it can create a narrow understanding from which to draw one’s perspective. In theory, if you train ten people with the one right and true understanding of Scripture, then they’ll all see the same things in the same way and believe the same things, right?

But that’s not a picture that the Bible gives us. One metaphor that is heavily used is that of a human body. Different parts, different functions, different gifts – and yet united. By training people to be the exact same way, it doesn’t take into account how the Holy Spirit might move one to be a foot, another a hand, another a knee, another an elbow, and the rest to all be something different. Feet and hands and knees and elbows should not be identical or indistinguishable. They should all allow their own perspective to manifest so that they can provide the church with a more complete sense of vision.

It does not bode well for the body to war against itself, branding other parts to be heretics or demanding them to reform – to change to their point of view and forsake their own. No two people can see things the same way. I just wish that other people saw it that way.

Refocus

Refocus is not a word that has a positive connotation for me. At some point in Middle School, it was decided that the best way to improve an errant child’s behavior was to ‘issue a refocus’. It was a red folder with a simple form:
What I did wrong:
What I ought to have done:
Why I didn’t do the right thing:
What I will do the next time:
Students who completed one was supposed to sign it and it would end up in their permanent folders. Once three refocuses had been issued, the parents would be brought in and shown the file to talk about appropriate courses of action to correct chronic misbehavior.

I still remembered the lesson I learned the first and only time I was issued one … It was lunchtime for the students in my grade, one of the few times that students could interact with other classes which was usually a good thing for friends who could sit by each other. Not so much for me. I had just gotten my tray and sat down in my usual spot at my usual table with my back turned to the two trouble-makers so I had no way of seeing the grapes that they were throwing at me coming but I felt them hit me and I turned around to see the two guilty-looking trouble-makers who didn’t have any grapes left on their trays because they had thrown them all at me. Being a devout Christian who had just learned about the Golden Rule at church, I reciprocated – throwing the grapes right back at them. The two trouble-makers had the good fortune of initiating the grape-throwing when the lunch monitor’s back was turned; I, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky and was immediately caught.
“You mustn’t be hungry if you’re throwing food around like that. I’m taking away your tray and issuing you a Refocus.” The lunch monitor said, handing me a red folder. I opened it and took out a form, in the other pocket was a red pencil.

“What I did wrong.” The first line read. I was a little puzzled. The Golden Rule was pretty clear – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. They threw grapes at me, which was not nice, so they must have wanted me to throw grapes back at them and not be nice about it. There really wasn’t a lot of room on the form to explain the whole story, so I wrote ‘threw grapes’.

“What I ought to have done.” Now I was confused. What ought one to do when somebody throws something at them? Usually if somebody sees it coming they can duck or get out of the way of the thing that is being thrown at them. But what ought somebody to do if they were hit by something they didn’t see coming? Just let people throw things at me all day long? I could just imagine walking down the hallway and these two trouble-makers stopping to say, ‘hey isn’t that the kid that doesn’t mind if you throw stuff? Let’s throw a book – ten points if you hit the stomach and fifty points for the head.’ A stand-by option was to tell the teacher or lunch monitor, but this was B.C. – before Columbine – so the only thing that results from that is a ‘tattle-tale’ reputation which I really didn’t need at the time, so I wrote ‘not throw grapes’.

“Why I didn’t do the right thing.” That was an easy one; I wrote ‘I don’t know’. I just hoped that the lunch monitor didn’t ask for clarification.
“What I will do the next time.” I didn’t relish that though, that this would happen again. If it did, all I could say is that I would not throw grapes again – so that’s what I wrote. I made no promises about not throwing food or anything else in general; it’s best not to volunteer information or make a promise that can’t be kept.

Now that I was done with the Refocus Form, had thought about what I did wrong and what the right thing to do was, why I didn’t do the right thing and what I would do next time, there wasn’t anything left to do but to wait for my fifteen minutes of detention to be up so that I could go to recess. Once my time was up the lunch monitor collected the Red Folder and said, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson. You may go now.” On my way to the playground I stopped by my locker and took a snack out of my bag to tide me over until I got home.

The lesson I had learned was not to not throw grapes, it was not to count on adults to tell the difference between two bullies and a kid who was tired of being bullied. It was that it was pointless to stand up for myself because I’d get in trouble for it. It was that the safest course of action was avoidance. Which is probably why I was a mite sensitive about objects being thrown at me. The next time it happened it was also in a cafeteria and it was a carrot. I froze – not knowing what course of action to take other than to not throw it back. I was older, so I was able to bottle up my emotions for the next few hours until I got home where it was safe to be upset that it had happened again. This time it was A.C. – after Columbine – but schools really hadn’t figured out how deal with the micro-aggressions of everyday bullying but they had finally begun to take it seriously. Better late than never, I guess.

Make the Effort to Listen

There’s an elderly woman (mid to upper 70s, I think) that usually sits on the far side of the same pew that I do. One Sunday, she just wanted to talk. I wondered if loneliness played a role in that – she’s always been by herself. I listened to what she had to say. It wasn’t long before the Sanctuary began to fill with other families who were all having other conversations – soon this woman’s voice was indistinguishable from the rest. No matter how much I tried, she was just speaking too quietly for me to understand the last words she was saying.

Sometimes I think Christianity loses so many voices because there’s an emphasis on not listening to people. We’re supposed to listen to music and the sermon but we get only a few minutes to carry on a conversation during the meet-and-greet which is constantly interrupted and then there’s prayer requests, but you can really talk to people before the service or after and there’s so many overlapping conversations that one quiet voice doesn’t stand a chance. Many people who have left the church often felt that they weren’t being listened to. Their concerns weren’t being heard. Their doubts weren’t being taken seriously.

I remember quite a few times where I knew that I wasn’t being listened to. The first time was when I was doing a study on Proverbs. I was the youngest in attendance, I had only just graduated high school. The oldest in attendance was a man in his upper eighties. Whenever there was a discussion time, he was allowed to monopolize the conversation – in his slow, mumbled, and occasionally incomprehensible manner he would deliver his time-worn wisdom with anecdotes that seemed to go on and on. By the time everyone else was allowed to make their comment, there was hardly any time left for me; and on occasion I wasn’t allowed to complete a thought because everybody had somewhere else to be and something else to do. I got tired of it and quit the study part way through. I guess it was silly of me to think that I could have wisdom at that young of an age – but I remember Paul telling Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because he was young. I don’t think Paul meant to create a church that revered the elderly so much so that it frightened off the youth, but that’s what seems to have happened.

Later, at another church I was volunteered to lead the youth group and presented a book to study. The next week I gave her my honest assessment – this bible study is nothing but the autobiography of it’s author describing God with really weak ocean metaphors like “God is like a starfish, as long as it stays in the water it has an amazing ability to heal. As long as we stay in God we will be able to heal.” But I had just read that the starfish population has been weakened severely because a devastating disease has shut off their healing ability in the news and I knew that diseased starfish aren’t a great metaphor for God particularly when we live in land-locked state. It’s also not a good idea to be handing out starfish, shells, charms, as tokens of participation because it’s more like buying the participants off than actually teaching them things like salvation, sanctification, or justification. I asked to see the other book so that I might read it and compare the two. She said “No, it’s just too deep for them.” She wouldn’t listen to my concerns that teaching teenagers shallow theology wouldn’t inspire them to learn more.

She was a lot like Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping of Appearances, no matter what you tell her – she wouldn’t listen. If she had a vision, she knew exactly how she wanted you to make it happen. There was no telling her “no” and there was no way to make a suggestion that she didn’t already think of – in her world, if she didn’t think of it, then it wasn’t a good idea. I’m afraid that there a lot of people with a similar outlook – people who have a vacant spot in an existing ministry that’s perfect for you if you do the tasks you’re given exactly like they tell you to. But it’s hard to feel like there’s room to be listened to when the age-based ministries at your church look like this: “newborns to pre-kindergarten” “kindergarten to third grade” “fourth through sixth grades” seventh and eighth grades” “ninth through twelfth grades” “college and career (up to 25)” “adult (35-49)” “elders (50+)” When you’re in that missing 26-34 year old age range, it’s hard to imagine that anyone’s listening to you – you don’t have a representative to voice your concerns. You don’t have enough of you to form a class and the ones that are there are from all walks of life, some married, some not, some parents, and some not – it’s incredibly difficult to present materials that are useful to everyone without excluding someone.

That elderly woman probably felt the same way. I hope that being listened to brightened that day up for her; I hope that Christianity begins to find and value lost voices and perspectives such as hers. I hope we find a way to make people feel that they matter – because we certainly won’t go on if we keep on doing and keep on losing generations of people because we don’t listen to them.

Native American Heritage Day

Today is Native American Heritage Day – it always falls on the day after Thanksgiving. It’s one of the newer holidays – created in 2008. It’s page on Wikipedia says it’s significance is that it is a day in honor of Native Americans. I think that’s something all of us can do, even if our ancestors immigrated to America centuries ago. That’s where I’m proud of my former state. When I was little, every year they would team up members of the local tribes to hold a cultural fair. Everyone was invited to come learn about Native American culture, the history of each tribe, their songs, their dances, their food, their stories, their crafts, their language. To be honest, I always thought it was brilliant and it always was a lot of fun.

You see, there was a time when Christians believed that it was their duty to convert their heathen neighbors. They created boarding schools where children from Native American tribes were given Christian names and their own names were forbidden, they were given new clothing and their own clothing was forbidden, they were given new hairstyles and haircuts and their own hairstyles and natural hair lengths were forbidden, they were given a new language and their own was forbidden, they were given a new education and the education from their own culture was forbidden, and they were given a Bible and all of their own beliefs were strongly discouraged. Now the festival that my old town put on did just the opposite – it gave everyone a Native American name, clothing, education, and shared with us their culture for a day without taking away anything that made us, well, us.

I really wish that it was something that was much more widespread, sadly it’s not. It’s unfortunate to know that every year, speakers of Native American languages are fewer and fewer. That their songs aren’t being sung and their stories aren’t being told. We can either wait for somebody to teach us, to try to reach out to the cultural centers and try to educate ourselves so we can educate others. Let’s not let Christianity destroy culture, but make a concerted effort to save it because it’s the right thing to do.