Pizza, Music and Other Cups of Tea

Has this ever happened to you? You are hanging out with a group of people and everyone is getting hungry. The group collectively decides to order pizza because, of course, it is economical and delicious. One unsuspecting member of the group naively throws out the question: “What kind should we get?” After twenty-five minutes of deliberation to figure out how to divide a pizza into 5 equal parts with 3 different crusts so that everyone gets exactly what they want, everyone gives up and orders sandwiches.

I can think of a time or two in college that followed this scenario. We each have our own likes and dislikes and, especially in the US, we are accustomed to being able to customize everything from our cars to our coffees to be exactly what we want. So when we are faced with a simple exercise in reaching consensus, such as ordering food with friends, it can quickly spiral out of control. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with having different preferences, on pizza and in life. In fact, it’s a great thing that can bring diversity into our world. The question is whether we are going to regard those preferences higher than our friends and neighbors.

During Lent this year my church participated in an event that brought together five churches in Peoria to each play their style of worship music for each other. When I first heard about the event I was really excited. As you may have guessed, I have a particular passion around people coming together in spite of their differences. I turned down invitations to other activities because I could not miss this opportunity. Secretly I hoped that this would be a step toward unifying the churches in our city!

It is safe to say that the event didn’t exactly deliver on these high hopes. The band from my church was the first to play. They did quite well. In spite of the fact that the sound mix wasn’t ideal, the performance of all original songs written by musicians in our church was certainly impressive. I have always been proud of my church’s musical creativity, but apparently I took it for granted. The other churches’ groups consisted of a guitar ensemble and several choirs (or chorales or choruses, I never can tell the difference), some with and some without accompaniment. One of the choirs was really good. The others were interesting to listen to, but mostly not my cup of tea. Certainly none of them did I prefer over my own church’s music.

Not sure what exactly I was expecting. Judging by my level of disappointment I must have been expecting the closing scene of The Grinch where all of the Whos join hands around the towering Christmas tree and sing together. You know, a happily ever after kind of a moment. Looking back on it, I realize that I missed the point. The point was not for everyone to be converted to the single most holy style of music. The point was to be in the same room with others who worship the same God and experience their way of worshiping him.

I don’t want everyone to sing the same worship songs any more than I want everyone to eat the same kind of pizza. God created us to be diverse beings and that is a beautiful thing that we should celebrate. But if you happen to be planning a party to celebrate our differences, I’m not coming unless there is pecan pie.


Rewriting Our Labels

I have heard people say “I don’t like labels.” They claim not to label people because the label doesn’t define the person. I get it. I’m the first to admit that the labels we use fall dreadfully short of giving a complete description of anyone. Here’s the thing though: even if you stop labeling others, they are still labeling you. We can’t magically erase these words from the English language, but we can affect what meaning they have.

Take the terms liberal and conservative, for example. These get thrown around often and come with lots of baggage. When it comes to describing a person, these terms are honestly more like caricatures than portraits. Still, chances are you associate more with one than the other. Regardless of which label that is, that doesn’t encompass all of your views or beliefs. Lately I have been getting more comfortable calling myself liberal. Likewise, that doesn’t completely define me, but more often than not my views and beliefs align more with the left. This has been the case for years, but at times I was worried to make it known. I actually believed that appearing more moderate would be less divisive because it would stir up less confrontation. Now I feel that was a little misguided.

A few weeks ago, a co-worker and I were being trained to use a new program. We hadn’t worked together that closely before. The second or third day when we were eating lunch together, we began to talk more about our lives outside of work. I learned that he attends an Apostolic Christian Church where the men and women sit on different sides. They sing hymns a cappella in four-part harmony. He asked me about my church and what I like about it. I told him that I like how my church focuses on helping others. He proceeded to tell me how members of his church are doing ministry in Haiti in a very progressive way that my church would honestly be jealous of. He even asked about the church in which I grew up and we talked about the practice of speaking in tongues and what we thought about it.

He didn’t say it, but I think it is fair to call him a conservative Christian. I didn’t say it, but I would guess he would call me a liberal Christian. Clearly we disagree about how we choose to practice our faith. Whether we use certain labels or not, that fact remains. But we also learned that we agree on many points of our faith and created an opportunity to respect our differences. If we never had that conversation, our friendship would not have grown in that way. Obviously we weren’t malicious or judgmental but we listened and respected one another. If we had played it safe and steered the conversation toward sports or the weather for fear of being “divisive”, this would in fact be keeping us further apart.

It’s not only our differences in views or beliefs that divide us. It’s also the way we hide behind the labels rather than trying to understand each other. We can’t just throw these terms in the trash and start fresh. Unfortunately it’s not that easy. But if we bare our true selves and listen to others do the same, we will see through the label to the person behind it.

The Gift of Receiving

It is better to give than to receive.

We have all heard this at one point or another. To me it sounds rather trite and cliché. I suppose that’s why I don’t always believe it.

Oftentimes I’m thinking about the things that I can receive, especially at this time of year with the over-hyped Christmas list. During the rest of year, if I can keep myself out of the stores and off of the email lists then I keep myself from craving nice stuff. Out of site, out of mind. It generally works for me. But then at Christmas season I can’t avoid it anymore. People in my life are expecting to give me gifts, and they want to know what I want. So I sit down and give it some thought. And it goes something like this…

I don’t really need anything new. I have a lot of stuff. Maybe I can ask everyone to give to a charity on my behalf. But I suppose that’s not fun for them. Well, then I’ll ask for something practical. Except that feels like I’m having someone else run an errand for me. So I’ll just ask for something small. Wait, all the small things that I wanted, I already bought for myself. There was that thing that I was saving up for… It’s kind of expensive, but I’ll just put it on the list. It’s not like they are required to buy it for me, it’s just an option, right?

 So sneaks greed into a season about giving.

Though I struggle with wanting to receive, I truly do enjoy giving. When I find that gift that can communicate that I notice and care for someone that is really important to me, or when I am able to give to someone in need, I remember that it truly is better to give than to receive. This is a time of year when many people consider giving to those who have less. I know at my workplace there at least a couple campaigns going on to support local charities. No doubt it’s a beautiful thing that so many people will stop their normal routine during this season and consider someone in need. But when it comes to the poor why don’t we realize that it is better to give than to receive?

The first few months that I lived in Philly during my Mission Year, I was hungry. My team was required to live on a grocery budget that amounted to $17 per person per week. We had no idea how to do this well. Eating healthy was pretty much out of the question. Just getting enough calories to get us through our daily activities was a struggle.  One of those activities was going to sit on our neighbor Mike’s stoop. Mike was around sixty and not very mobile at all. He would spend his days sitting on a five-gallon bucket on his stoop, and his evenings watching TV in his bedroom that he rented in a rowhouse-turned-apartment.  One Saturday when we were sitting with Mike, we were complaining about how hungry we were. He reached under his bed and pulled out a grocery bag with 8-10 cans of beans, corn and other things and offered it to us. He said he had received it from his church but he had plenty.

It was a small gesture for him, but it was fairly groundbreaking for me. It may have been the first time in my life that I was in a position to receive from someone whom I considered poor. It made me realize how much more dignity there is for both parties when gifts can be mutual rather than one-sided charity. Being in a position to receive allowed Mike to be a friend to me, rather an object of my charity. It brought the two of us closer together.

Oddly enough, charity can at times be something that divides people. It draws very clear boundaries between the “have” and the “have not.” It sets up patterns that convince people they are either a giver or a receiver, not both. Subliminally the “givers” are told that they shouldn’t have needs and the “receivers” are told that they have nothing to offer. If we are not careful, all of this can contribute to an ugly system which actually keeps the poor in their place rather than giving them a way out.

I believe charities do good work and I don’t want to see them stop. But their success is dependent on all parties connecting on a human level; no one is left feeling subhuman or inflated to superhuman status. The most human thing to do is to have needs of your own but to choose to give anyway. Since its better to give than to receive, I believe that in addition to our giving, we should also be looking for ways to receive from the poor so that they also can take part in the giving.

I’m Pro-optimism

Optimism is a political act.

Entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we do can matter, that the issue is too complex to present even the opportunity for change.… Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is: it creates the opportunity for us to love one another, and love is an explosive force in politics.

Great movements for social change always begin with statements of great optimism.

-Alex Steffen



In this election season, I am reminded that there is no corner of our lives in which we are as blatantly divided as in our politics. We all hear and see the attack ads from every level of government. It seems that no politician believes that they can get elected without making the other candidate look incompetent or corrupt or downright evil. Truthfully, I don’t fully blame them; it’s built right into the system. Our political leaders have to appear as if they have only strengths and no weaknesses. Because if they appear weak, they lose votes or approval ratings. The other guy has weaknesses, but not me. The problem is that the other guy has to say the same things if he wants a chance at getting elected. No one is able to admit that he or she as the leader simply doesn’t know that right answer. The result is that issues that are quite complicated with a substantial gray area get reduced down to simple black or white, “pro” or “anti” positions. The pastor at my church, Imago Dei, once said, “We divide over our strengths, but we come together in our weaknesses.” When dealing with a system that can’t admit weakness, it’s no wonder that we can never come together.

Seeing and hearing all this negativity day after day affects us as voters as well. We get pessimistic about the whole system. We assume that the candidates are corrupt because the ad on TV told us so. We lose hope that things can change for the better. Those who are currently benefitting from the status quo are like the little devil on your shoulder saying, “It’s hopeless. Don’t even bother.” That is why someone who comes along saying something optimistic about our future, giving us a genuine taste of hope, can generate such a following. We all want to believe in something.

I’m sure I sound rather cynical myself. It’s true. At times I have a hard time believing that casting a vote for a particular candidate will make any difference at all. But I force myself to do it anyway. The thing that is so easy to forget though is that my political engagement doesn’t need to stop at the ballot box. I can speak up about what I believe in and at the same time listen to someone else and try to understand her point of view. If somewhere in that conversation we can find a shared belief in a better future, then the change for the better already happened.

Fearguson, MO

If you lived in the US through the month August, I am sure that you heard something about the events in Ferguson, Missouri. On August 9th, Michael Brown, a black teenager, was approached by white police officer, Darren Wilson, while he was walking unarmed down the middle of the street in Ferguson. A few minutes later, Brown had been shot six times by Officer Wilson and lay dead in the street.

We don’t know exactly what happened between the moment that Wilson approached Brown and the moment he fired the final shot. But the events that followed can not be ignored. If you feel like you might have missed some of the story, here are a couple links from the NY Times to get you up to speed:

Tracking the Events in the Wake of Michael Brown’s Shooting

What Happened in Ferguson?

The question on the minds of many on-lookers: Why? Why would so many of the citizens of Ferguson and others take to the streets, peacefully or otherwise? Why would the police bring in military grade weapons to counteract the molotov cocktails and lootings of a few troublemakers? Why is it “us” versus “them” when we should all be on the same team? What led to the scuffle between Brown and Wilson in the first place and what happened during that scuffle that led to Wilson feeling the need to take Brown’s life?

One answer is Fear.

Fear of being next caused many people of color to hit the streets in droves to protest police brutality. Fear of retaliation caused the authorities to respond to protests with excessive force. And my suspicion is that fear played a large role in the minds of Michael Brown and Officer Wilson in their brief encounter with each other. Each was afraid of the other.

We are all afraid of those who are other. Which is why fear divides us so neatly into cliques and categories. We are afraid of what is different, and we are afraid of being confronted with our own differences because we may have to change.

A couple years ago, I lived in North Philadelphia in a predominantly black neighborhood. I didn’t have a car so I biked often. One day I was biking along by myself. I don’t remember where I was headed. The street was fairly narrow and parked cars lined both sides with two tires up on the sidewalk: a common occurrence in Philly. I checked my mirror to see a white SUV coming up behind me. He didn’t have much room to go around me, and I couldn’t get over without coming to a complete stop and squeezing between parked cars. We rode like that for at least two blocks before there was an opening where I could pull to the side, which happenen to be right before a stop sign. The SUV pulled up beside me. Now I could see the huge chrome rims and tinted windows. Unexpectedly, the tinted window on the passenger side began to roll down. The SUV’s driver emerged. He was a thick black man with moderate beard and flat billed cap. My heart rate spiked. Is he angry at me for not allowing him to pass? What is he going to do? Should I just stand here or keep moving? Before I could gather myself enough to do anything he yelled out something to the effect of, “Great day for a bike ride.” He then smiled, pulled through the intersection and drove off.

I remember that brief encounter two years later because I was horrified by the racial profiling and prejudice that happened in my mind in those few moments. My first reaction was to be afraid when all this man intended to do was exchange pleasantries. If you could pause that moment in time and ask me what I thought could happen next, I’m embarrassed to think about how I may have responded.

That kind of fear can keep us from getting to the point where we can understand each other. That kind of fear has kept the officers of Ferguson behind riot shields and the citizens behind picket signs. And as long as we stay entrenched in those positions, the fear will remain. Franklin Roosevelt said it right when he said that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And what a scary existence that is.