Wednesday, May 5, 2010

DC Diaries Part I: The Idolatry of our Fathers

When most people envision the D.C. skyline they think one thing: monuments. From the Washington Monument to Arlington National Cemetery, our Nation’s Capital is filled with statues, buildings, walls, and the like dedicated to men we deem virtuous enough to enshrine. One of my classes in D.C. explored the cross between history and monuments for much of the semester. Before we even had our first lecture we were instructed to take the two-mile walk from Arlington National Cemetery to the Washington Monument, documenting what we saw, and what we didn’t see, along the way. There are a few things that stand out when you take a closer look at the monuments and memorials: 1- most are paying homage to a war, 2-virtually none pay homage to women, 3- all the individuals represented (Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, etc.) are laced with some controversy regarding their personal “moral” fiber in light of more recent historical claims.

So what does this say about our culture? I’m not here to unveil a senior thesis on the subject, but I do think that in lieu of our celebrity culture and 24-hour news cycles, our fascination with monuments erected to dead guys (because there aren’t any for women to even pick on) is tied in to how we continue to elevate public figures to “God-like” status. We continue to build men up, only to watch them fall. There’s no need to list the names, turn on the nightly news or SportsCenter and you’ll get at least a few examples. Back in Thomas Jefferson’s day, there was no CNN or E! News to cover a scandalous affair with Sally Hemmings, no Politico to pick apart every political theory he published. While I was attempting to explain to our class during a lecture at the Jefferson Memorial why I didn’t think it was right to worship the Founding Father the way that we do, one of my classmates asked me how, if we could only build monuments for those who were morally “perfect,” would we have any monuments at all? His rhetorical question summed up my thoughts exactly. Thanks Andrew.

These days, we’re happy to practically begin erecting monuments to our favorite public figures before they’ve even hit mid-life status. Then, when they begin to fall, we gawk with horror at how such men could let us down. All the while never placing any responsibility on ourselves for demanding access to their “private” lives through tabloids, reality T.V. shows and entertainment news. We don’t have this luxury with monuments; the men we’ve put on display as tourist attractions are literally set in stone. It’s up to the history books to decide what to write in, or leave out (the Texas legislature apparently understands this one). Perhaps Jefferson was a blatant racist, so we’ll just leave those quotes off his monument walls and claim one need understand the “historical context” of the time to rationalize his actions. While these monuments do represent some great moral achievements, I don’t think they should be worshipped for the man on display. Elevating the man makes them a constant torment for society, leaving us to clamor for the next great man to build an alter for and then sulk in defeat when we continue to find out he’s as imperfect as the rest of us.

Watching people flock to the monuments shows how desperately our society is striving for worship. Unfortunately, we settle for mere mortals.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

DC Diaries

The last four and a half months has been the most unique time of my life. I spent my last semester in college living in a giant row house with 15 “strangers” a block away from the Supreme Court and literally in the shadow of our Nation’s Capital. I left DC on Monday, and have been reflecting a lot on what that time has meant in my life, how it has already changed me in some ways, and how it will continue to shape my life from here on out. If DC has taught me anything, it’s that reflections are best experienced in conversation with others, so that’s exactly what I plan to do. Over the next few weeks, I hope to share a few vignettes of my experience, revealing more questions I have in lieu of my time in DC rather than answers. Here’s a preview of some of the topics I’ve been dwelling/dreaming about and hope to invite anyone else into:

The Idolatry of our Fathers: What does a city filled with monuments for dead guys say about our culture?

City of Power: It is commonly said what money is to New York, and looks are to LA, power is to DC. You don’t have to live in DC long to realize people don’t come here for good looks, nor to make money. So why does this notion of power (often times disguised as wanting to “make a difference”) draw so many to the nation’s capital?

Men Without Chests: Many will agree that our society’s desire for materialism and comfort in part got us into this financial mess. Our head sees the flaw that our appetite desires yet we refuse to go through the heart to fix it, why?

Somewhere in the Middle: Can a moderate/centrist have an impact in DC without having to choose a side?

“16 Strangers, picked to live in a house…”: How living with 15 other people redefined my notion of community.

Look for the first post to come in the next day or so.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A DC Day in the Life

It's officially my half-way point in DC. And I have done a terrible job of blogging. To compensate for this failed attempt at blogging regularly for friends and family, I'm trying to redeem myself for the second half of my stay in DC.

I thought I'd start by giving everyone a little "day in the life of" my DC experience. The days here, like most places in a fast-paced city, are far too short. It really does feel like a time warp to realize my time is already half-up. So here's a little taste of what my typical days look like:

-Wake up by 6:00am and leave by 6:45. Being in a house with 16 people, I find this time of day incredibly peaceful because I'm usually the first one up, and typically out the door before the majority of my house is awake yet.
-Commute to work- 45 minutes...usually get to office by 7:30. Our offices are in Arlington, near the Pentagon so it's a longer commute than most. I also usually stop for Dunkin Donuts coffee has fast become my favorite.
-From 8:30-9am in our office is "Stillness" time. It truly is a peaceful start to the day...the calm before the storm where we all prepare ourselves spiritually for the day. I really praise Jesus for this.
-11am is staff prayer everyday. Also something I praise Jesus for. I will eventually write a blog about all these things because it has truly influenced me in more ways than I could have ever imagined.
-On Mondays and Wednesdays I leave the office by about 4/4:30 to make it to class at the Archer Center. Class typically runs until about 8/8:30 on those nights, making for pretty long days.
-Weekends are a mix of things...this past weekend I took a day trip with some friends to Baltimore. One weekend a month we have Dr. Daly's class. Other times we'll have things for Dr. Swerdlow's class. The rest are really free and up to us. I usually like to spend my Saturday's at Eastern Market...which is one of the most fabulous parts of living in a city. I also like to go for runs around the Main Mall. Every time I make it to the stairs in front of the Lincoln Memorial (my half-way point), I just stop and look out on the never gets old. I'm hoping to do a much better job of exploring museums this last half of my stay, particularly the National Portrait and Art Galleries.

That pretty much sums up my daily "schedule." It is quite the busy city and I think people in DC really have a hard time with the concept of "rest." One of our class guest speakers was telling us a story about a Catholic nun he met on a bus one time. As they were talking, she would mention at every person she saw running past "look at all these people running...look at all these people running." He finally stopped and asked her why she kept saying that, and she said she always noticed how many people exercise their bodies in this city, but wondered how often they exercised their souls. Looking over my own daily schedule, it is incredible how lost we get in the business of life...the materialism of time. Grateful for the ways in which I do get to exercise my soul here amidst the clutter...and that is for another post :).

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Theology of Snow Days

If you haven't heard, DC has been under a "snowpocalypse" since last Friday. In about 24 hours we got over 2 feet of snow (close to, if not surpassing the record). It literally shut down the entire city through the weekend and into the work week. I awoke to a blanket of white outside our home on Saturday morning, with people skiing past my front door to get around. Mind you I live next to the Supreme Court. As I write this on Monday night, four days after the snow first hit, the Federal Government has closed their offices for the second day in a row. Everyday that the Fed has to close is estimated to cost $100 million. Expensive "grown-up snow days" as I like to call them.

What has struck me most about these past few days is the reminder they serve to the feebleness of man. One of the women in my office used to work for the OPM office that decides on the Fed's office closings. It is no doubt a big decision to take on, especially with that price tag. She sent us a verse out of Job that they would be reminded of as they debated whether to close or not. I think it speaks for itself:

Job 37
1 "At this my heart pounds
and leaps from its place.
2 Listen! Listen to the roar of his voice,
to the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
3 He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven
and sends it to the ends of the earth.
4 After that comes the sound of his roar;
he thunders with his majestic voice.
When his voice resounds,
he holds nothing back.
5 God's voice thunders in marvelous ways;
he does great things beyond our understanding.
6 He says to the snow, 'Fall on the earth,'
and to the rain shower, 'Be a mighty downpour.'
7 So that all men he has made may know his work,
he stops every man from his labor.

DC is a power-driven town. They say what money is to New York, and looks are to LA, power is to DC. Even one of the most powerful cities in the world cannot withstand the power of nature. With all of the technology, progress, and influence this town exerts, it was stopped by a more powerful hand, one that turns Capital Hill into a playground for children and adults for a few days rather than the political powerhouse it is known as. But even the "wind and the waves" obeyed Christ. Now that is something to dwell on in when you're sitting in a house with two-feet of snow piled up in front of your door.

As I walked around the Capital building on Saturday afternoon when the snow finally let up, I felt as though I was living in a dream world, or the set of some expensive post-apocalyptic movie where the Capital is reverted to a place for children, not grown men and women. The snow storm also had this way of fostering community in this normally recluse city. The streets were no longer normal streets for two days, but rather one big snow route where feet actually ruled over tires. People were out all over the place joining in snow fights, offering a hand to shovel sidewalks, offering up one another's sleds so people could have a chance to "play" too. It was beautiful. Something transformed in this city for two days, and it all happened when the most type-A population of people were reminded to sit down for a bit. I smile just thinking about it.

"I fancy the beauties of nature are a secret God has shared with us alone. That may be one of the reasons why we were made- and why the resurrection of the body is an important doctrine." - C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What I'm Reading for Washington, D.C.

Part of the Archer Fellows Program I’ll be doing in DC (starting next Tuesday the 5th!) is the classes that we take over the course of the semester. I’ll still be considered a full time student at UT and work a full-time internship with IJM. The Archer Fellows Program consists of 4 classes, one of which is technically my internship. We’ll have class two nights a week from professors that have worked in DC for many years, and then Dr. John Daly will fly in from UT-Austin three weekends over the course of the semester to teach our final class. I’ve had to do some pre-reading for my classes, and have given myself a “personal” reading list to supplement those as well. Here’s what I’ve been reading the last few weeks to prepare:

For my internship at International Justice Mission:
-“Good News About Injustice” by Gary Haugen, IJM founder

Advocacy in Applied Settings – Dr. John Daly
-“The Prince” by Machiavelli
-“Life’s a Campaign” by Chris Matthews

Beyond Congress and the White House – Dr. Joel Swerdlow
-“Being There” by Jerzy Kosinski
- watch “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Policy Making Process – Dr. Julie Donnelly
-Two articles: “Four Amendments & a Funeral” by Matt Taibbi and “What I Wish Political Scientists Would Teach about Congress” by Lee Hamilton

My “personal” reading list for DC:
- “The Reason for God” by Tim Keller
- “The Abolition of Man” by C.S. Lewis
-“Counterfit Gods” by Tim Keller
-“Bobos in Paradise” by David Books
- Most of the articles David Brooks cited in his “Sydney” awards

The books I had to read for class are all pretty interesting. I disagree with just about every premise from “The Prince,” as it is essentially the antithesis of Tim Keller’s “Counterfeit Gods.” I finally finished “Reason for God,” and really enjoyed it. If you can’t tell, I’m a big Keller fan, and going into an intense intellectual environment for the next few years (DC and then TFA), it was refreshing to hear such a strong academic engagement about faith. I haven’t finished “The Abolition of Man,” but chose it because it’s meant to argue for the importance and relevance of universal values in contemporary society. My time in Quincy has been a perfect break to be able to accomplish all of this, as Middle America doesn’t provide many physical “distractions” to waste my time on. I’m really looking forward to pulling in some of my personal readings into our class discussions over the required readings, I think they compliment (probably more like counteract) popular thought well. The nerd in me is giddy to start discussing these issues with my peers, who also happen to be my housemates for the next five months.

If you have any suggestions for readings that might compliment these, feel free to shoot them my way!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lessons in Leaving Part II: Coming Full Circle

My last semester in Austin was by far the best one. It was a season of rest, a season of healing, a season of celebration, and all around a season of delight for me. Most of all, it was a season to come full circle.

I say full circle because I had a lot to learn in my short time in Austin over the last four years. I came into UT with one foot in the world, and one foot trying to figure out this “faith” thing. My freshmen year is nothing short of a bad reality TV show for me to look back on, as I think most of ours tend to be. Then there was the spring semester where my world got rocked by Jesus, the book of Acts, and Shane Claiborne. Sophomore year was definitely my “feisty” phase, where I felt like I had brought back to Austin some spiritual golden ticket. I laugh when I look back on that time, how blunt I was in trying to talk to anyone who would listen to me about this idea of putting college students in East Austin. I laugh because I don’t like being that forthcoming about anything, but somehow I was talking off anyone’s ear that would lend it to me. What I had in that time, and for pretty much the next two years, was a lot of passion, vigor, and fight…but not a foundation. I always tell people I’m not sure how I got hired by the Austin Stone my sophomore year because I still didn’t like “mega” churches at the time, nor did I ever care to pick up a theology book. I was just flat out immature, and thought because I knew all the newest Christian lingo, I never really needed the gospel.

See that’s where this circle started coming around, but it was rough in the middle. I put way too much on my plate for two years. I wouldn’t let anyone help me for two years. I wanted to do things my way for two years. I only took seriously the parts of scripture that I wanted to hear. And yet God still granted me worthy to save me from myself. One night at an intern dinner this past fall, Stew made this statement about our time as interns that pretty much summed up my sanctification over the last two years. He said that the way God molds leaders at our age is never a matter of what he does through us, that is rare, and it will take 10-15 years before most of us get to see much fruit in ministry. But what He does do in this time, and what is most important, is what He does IN us. God is a carpenter, and rather than see us for the big block of wood that we are in the stupidity of our youth and flesh, he sees us exactly the way he made us. And to get to that piece of perfection, he just starts hammering away, sanding down our rough edges and stripping away everything that is keeping us from being the way he intended for us to be. Last spring was complete hell for me. I was absolutely miserable in just about every area of my life. And God brought me physically down with a medical condition all semester just to show me how much he cared about me. It may sound silly, but I truly believe that entire ordeal, going to a doctor everyday for three months, was purely a physical manifestation of my spiritual condition. I was bitter, I was frustrated, I was angry…and I was finding every outlet, person, and thing to attribute those feelings to. Everything but my own flesh, which was where the problem lay.

God healed me of that illness right before I left to study abroad in Ghana. He did it by opening up the wound in my body all the way, so that all the fluid building up would come out whole…”my sin not in part, but in whole.” I went to Ghana for four weeks, fell in love with Jesus all over again, and then spent two weeks traveling around Europe by myself (who ever let me do that?!?) to just enjoy Jesus. I came back to Austin as myself, and everyone around me noticed. It carried into this fall as I got to spend a semester truly enjoying the gospel, enjoying community, enjoying my time at Stone, enjoying the simplicities in life. All of the frustrations I had vented about for most of college seemed to just dissipate this semester. The things that felt like thorns in my side became small joys to me. I learned that compassion is not reserved for the “least of these,” it is meant for everyone, rich and poor, young and old, seen and unseen. I learned I pass judgment on a lot of people, and none of it is holy. I learned that rest is not laziness, it is a gracious gift from the Lord. I learned that busyness just another form of materialism. I learned that sometimes, you just have to turn on Beyonce and dance in the living room with your roommates…

Most of all in this season, I learned how the gospel is what brings things full circle. The passion and fight I had when I was a reckless 19-year old trying to “change the world” is still very much alive in me. But I realize that the end I was seeking the entire time was not a radical lifestyle, it was the gospel, and that is about as radical as it gets in this world. What I learned in coming full circle is what C.S. Lewis calls the “intolerable compliment” that

“We are bidden to "put on Christ," to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more, we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little.”

I cannot express the gratitude I have in my heart for this last semester in Austin. Why God allowed me to heal wounds only I had made for myself, I can only describe as a love for his daughter that is too much for me to understand.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lessons in Leaving Part I: The Places I'll Miss Most

It’s officially happened, I can no longer call Austin, TX “home.” This past Saturday my parents packed me up and moved me up to their house in Quincy, IL for the next three weeks. I’ll fly to Washington, DC on January 5th, but until then I’m stuck in the epitome of “Middle America.” The final week in Austin was bittersweet; actually, the entire fall semester was bittersweet. It was a week filled with many memories, laughs, good food, good friends, and goodbyes. By the time my going away party at the Stewart’s came on Friday night, I was almost too exhausted from having to say “goodbye” all week. The night was beautiful though, and I'll go into more detail on that in another post.

Although I may never be able to call Austin my physical “home” again, it will forever be where my “family” resides. I’ve lived a lot of places in my life, moving throughout the Midwest my entire childhood, but no place has treated me quite like Austin, TX. Here are a few parts of the city I will miss most:

-Driving down I-35 (as long as there isn’t any traffic!) and seeing the skyline, particularly the UT Tower
-Hearing ice cream trucks drive by my house in St. John’s late at night, and even in cold weather
-Running at Town Lake
-Hyde Park eateries (particularly Quack’s Bakery and Dolce Vita)
-Whole Foods
-The UT campus
-“Treasure hunting” at all the Goodwills around town
-Half Price Books
-The Gingerman (more for the people I shared a drink with there)

There are, of course, many people I will miss way more than these landmarks. But that is for another entry. If you’re reading this and still in Austin, please enjoy a few of these places for me. I know I’ll find my favorite spots in DC, and even Mississippi, but for now, these are the places I’ll daydream about when I want to feel “home” again…