Monday, April 7, 2014

Changing the World: Not what you would expect

Recently, I had the opportunity to be the chapel speaker at my alma mater, Providence Christian College.  It was an amazing opportunity and I am so thankful that I was able to do it.  It was more than a little trippy to be back where I went to school for a while...a while ago...but it was still a blast.  =)

I had had a lot of topics on my heart to share but finally narrowed it down to one fairly cohesive topic.  It is content heavy but I have included a link to an audio recording of it here and will include the transcript afterwards for whoever may be interested.

I hope it encourages you as I was as I worked on it.  (Please note that this was written for a specific audience and does include specific references that may not be universally recognizable.)

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Aime.  I used to go here. Well not here, I went to the old campus that is now a flat piece of dirt.  We had the smell of cows every morning and the constant hum of traffic on the 60.  Now you have beautiful mountains and the smell of skunks.  Nine years ago, I walked into the doors of a brand new college that had no history or even a campus of its own (oh wait, we still don’t have our own campus).

Since I did that, I got my first credit card, got married, worked in management positions for a women’s accessory retailer, was an office manager, started two small businesses, and had two children.  And now all people hear is that I am married and have two children.  

Which isn’t horrible...except that...that isn’t all.  As Disney would say, “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.”  Or something like that.  

Marriage, family, motherhood, and generally things I have learned since leaving college.  That is what I was asked to talk about.  I have thought a lot about this chapel.  And not just because I have been thinking about this talk.  I always wondered what I would say if I had the chance to come back.  To come back to this place that shaped so much of who I am.  

So you can imagine that I was a little upset when they asked me to talk about marriage and motherhood.  

While these are good roles, as a college graduate, I have fought the perpetual cycle of people defining me only by those roles.  Yes, I am wife and relatively young mother but I am not only wife and mother.  I am also daughter, sister, friend, volunteer, writer, crafter, amateur wine enthusiast, video gamer, and small business owner.  

Why do I tell you this?  Because it is the same and will always be the same for everyone of you in this room.  We are all identified by many jobs, roles, and duties.  But one more than anything else should be what preoccupies us.

More than anything else, I would humbly submit, it is the Christian’s job to be smart, responsible, and beneficial.  

I mean that very literally.  You have a unique opportunity at knowledge here.  You have a unique opportunity to apply it - both in the community at large and the Providence body.  You will always be a force in the world - you are responsible for whether it is helpful or detrimental to this world we are living in.   

And because I can absolutely cover all of this in the few minutes we have together, let me talk about what I can.

As I thought about this speech, one possible topic was “why I don’t submit to my husband and why you shouldn’t either.”  Another was “no man is worth giving up your education for” or (my favorite) “women have a Biblical directive to be educated.”

And that probably tells you where my thoughts were originally going with this opportunity.  I could stand up here and tell you about how there is a very good place for feminism in the Christian community.  While I am not advocating or supporting the ordination of women, it is hard to ignore how subtly and consistently women are considered valuable only as far as they are able to have children or organize the church potluck.  But I realized that those things aren’t what I really wanted to talk about today.

What I really wanted to talk about was the education you are getting, how awesome Providence can be, and how you will change the world.  And I know that sounds like the beginning of a Providence pep talk which you get more than enough if things are at all like when I was here, so let me explain myself.  

When I bounced some of these ideas off of a friend, she observed that the phrase “change the world” is so pretentious and presumptive but also so true and underestimated.  Such trite and cliche quotes as Gandhi’s, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” or Babe Ruth’s, “Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game” come to mind.  As we continued talking, we realized both how real and how simple changing the world can be.  But I am getting ahead of myself.  

Let me start by talking about the education you are getting.  

Providence is a unique place with unique opportunities.  By now, you have all discovered how small the student body is, how great the professors, and how much more homework you have than any of your friends - and its true.  The work load here seemed to be about the same as my friends at Ivy League schools were getting.  Maybe that was a biased comparison but I was reading constantly and writing almost as much as Facebook told me they were.  

In this small place, you have the opportunity to not only learn but to engage with the knowledge you are being given.  Dr. Swanson not only tells you about Ecclesiastes existentially ambivalent passage about vanity of vanities but you truly grapple with what it means and how you get from vanity to the end of man being to fear God.  History classes require your full attention on the past will of God as it was unfolded and what those stories, battles, mean in a bigger picture - what we know is God’s picture.  Chances are that even your English and business classes have hit on how Christians see the hand of God in everything - from the formation of sentences to the rise and fall of economies and ethical business practices.

But you probably already know all this.  Or if you don’t, figure it out because all the alumni are here today wishing we could go back to those classes you are taking now and really try to soak it all in.  

So if you already know about the education you gained access to when you chose Providence, let’s talk about how awesome Providence can be.  

This college is a living breathing thing.  As the parts change, so does the whole.  And at the risk of belaboring this point too much, you are the parts.  So any institutional success or failure reflects on all of you.  The same thing goes for the local congregation, larger denominations, our country, any businesses you may work for, and a number of other affiliations.    

We have all heard the speck and plank sermons about dealing with your own plank before looking for other people’s specks.  And that is sort of applicable here but I also want to fully acknowledge that when you are a member of the group, it is easy to miss the larger reputation of an organization because of the difficulties you have in operating within it or as a part of it.  The squeaky wheel or bad apple tends to get all the attention and you are left in the shadows, desperately trying to keep it together as much as you can.  

So here at Providence, you are existing in a community that is predisposed to support you and uplift you.  The interests you express are not undermined.  Passions and causes are mutually encouraged and you can make things happen.  This ability to mobilize and make things happen can sometimes make other people look at you.  Unfortunately, when people look at Christians, they look for the worst.  We are supposed to be the “best” but when we fall short, it is easy to focus only on that.  And the cycle is now started.  No matter how good you try to appear, there is always a cinch in the armor.  And when that small darkness is the focus and attention of everything people see, persevering can be challenging.  

Regardless of how dark the shadows or how hopeless your situation looks, you are still doing a job.  A real job.  And one that is truly contributing to an overall reputation or appearance.  It is your resilience that will be your greatest display to the world.  Because more than any other identity - you are a member of the body of Christ.  And it is so easy to minimize how every other job and affiliation you have, contributes to the appearance of credit or discredit of that body - our Savior’s body.  

Which is what I really want to talk about the most today.  That changing of the world that you will inevitably do as you go through life.  

The line in the sand is always drawn between the elect and the non-elect and this side of heaven and the return of Christ, it is a constant battle.  An uneasy tension between the already and the not-yet.  Whatever metaphor you choose to use, the reality is that life is almost always hard.  As a college student, you struggle with time management and social situations and personal growth.  As a graduate, you struggle with time management and social situations and personal growth.  Depending on what the world is like in a few months or a few years, it will be easy or difficult to find employment when you graduate.  Regardless of the national or global economic situation, finding your vocation is always a bit tricky and often times stressful.  Relational status also adds a unique element to things, both strengthening, encouraging, and challenging you.  Specifics change but the battle does not.

So in the midst of struggle, how do you make choices?  No matter how you choose to live your life, as a hermit or a social butterfly, from this moment on, you will have an effect either on the planet, citizens of it, or both.  Your choices, your life, are how you change the world.  

One of my favorite illustrations of this effect is grocery shopping.  I have two kids and have to plan very carefully when I go out because it takes enough snacks to keep them going but not stuff them, toys that are able to be held onto while sitting in a grocery cart, train respectful public behavior, and I’m supposed to be gathering food for my family while doing all of this.  Anyway, almost every week, I pull into the parking lot and have to go and find a different spot because some kind soul left their shopping cart in the middle of the space.  Depending on how bad of a week it is, I only have to move once.  If it is a bad week, no matter where I go, I am haunted by these maliciously placed carts.  

Another joyous example is when I see people getting snippy with their foodservice and retail personnel.  I have worked in retail and food service and I guarantee you that 99% of the time, they are not trying to slow you down or get your order wrong.  The reality is that it takes time to make a sandwich, a latte, or check if they have your dress size in the store room.  

Or how many times have you made a joke, or mostly joke, about how women should be washing dishes, cooking food, or doing laundry?  Have you ever wondered if so-and-so is really a Christian because they mentioned that they like watching Game of Thrones?  Or because they didn’t like Chronicles of Narnia?  Or heaven forbid, Lord of the Rings.

The connection might be a bit tenuous in some examples but I hope you get the point.  The choices you make in the attitudes you express and behaviors you present to the world will affect someone or something.  It is like a ripple effect.  You drop the pebble in the water but the waves created cause waves to overflow its bounds.  You did not flood the banks but you are not blameless.  You may not break Providence’s reputation or make the school non-functioning but you are doing it no favors if you don’t pay attention to how you participate in the community and how it is benefitted or hurt by your presence.

As I have gotten older, I have begun to think that the passage in Hebrews 12.12-14, specifically verse 14, that is generally translated as strive for or pursue peace with all people does not mean anything so silly as political or even social peace.  It means a very tangible, physical, and immediate peace - that you do nothing to hinder the health and wellbeing of another human but rather seek to actively aid those who are hurting or struggling.

How carefully or carelessly you make life choices is your responsibility, ministry, and change to the world.   

And it gets better.  If you complain about the state of affairs in the local or greater community, you could very easily have someone tell you that it is your fault too.  No, you are not personally responsible for the invasion of Ukraine but have you stood up for the protection of another human being, large or small?  No, you do not have to feed every mouth on skid row.  But have you helped out a food bank recently, been responsible with what you do have?

Believe me, I know, it can get depressing fast.  Even if you were able to do something about the aggression in Ukraine or even the missing Malaysian airplane, it does not fix the world, does it?  There are still victims of genocide, terminal illnesses, poverty.  The Ecclesiastes reading that you heard earlier is one of the cheerier from the book.  If you read the whole book, it sometimes feels like a hesitant endorsement of not committing suicide.  In two verses, the Preacher says that wisdom is good, a well driven nail (verse 11), and in the next, says that much study is wearisome (Eccl. 12.12).  The Preacher sees so much as merely vanity but concludes the book by saying that we must fear God and keep His commandments for that is our all (Eccl. 12.13-14).  

Life can be hard to cope with in that way.  Even Scripture has moments that make this earth out to be as hard as it feels.  Even if the grocery cart was not placed maliciously, it was careless and lazy.  Perhaps you are having a rough day and it comes out when you are getting a bite for lunch - that is still on you.  Maybe, your job just doesn’t pay enough and you can’t figure out how to make the numbers work right to cover rent and insurance and food.  Life sucks.

The one thing that might get you through some of those moments - those vanity of vanities moments, days, and years.  You are not really the one changing the world.  And sometimes our struggles are, in themselves, the change we are making.

I know that we live in a fallen world that will never fully be well.  I also know that we are fully justified and are being sanctified.  I know that He who has begun a good work will complete it.  I know that this broken earth is part of His plan and purpose.  

Speaking from personal experience, reconciling these two ideas in real life is a bitch.  I love and hate the book of Ecclesiastes for that reason.  There is never any real resolution.  The disconnect, the discordance, is real.  And so hard to get through sometimes.  We are supposed to work and work hard but sometimes it is never enough.  Bills aren’t paid, missions aren’t funded, and people go hungry.  We are supposed to love people.  But feelings are still hurt, churches fall apart, and nations war.  

So what am I saying with all this?  Why do I keep talking about changing the world and making conscious choices and not wanting to be only a wife and mother?  I think it is partly because I still cherish a secret hope of being able to make some grand gesture to the world that I know the reason for living and the hope that is in me.  Partly because I am not only a reformed Christian feminist but also an idealist.   The divide between how things should be and how they are bothers me and I want to fix it - all of it.  

But I can’t fix everyone and everything.  Mostly because I am a finite being in a finite time frame.  Thank God I don’t have to, right?  Thank God that it is not up to Aime to solve the world’s problems.  But I can do my God-given task - giving my feeble all. I can cherish the eternity that God has placed in my heart, rejoice in what I have been given.  When I have opportunity, I will eat, drink, and enjoy the good of all my labors - it is the gift of God (Eccl. 3.12-13).

Your responsibility in this life, the choices you make, the way you conduct yourself, are all going to show a face to the world.  And you will screw up.  I thought I wouldn’t have to apologize as much when I grew up a little but I have had to apologize more.  To ask forgiveness more.  To realize my need for humility more.  

The only way you get through all of this?  Grace.  And more grace.  And still more.  

There is always more grace.  

Do you realize the significance of that?  We are called to live holy, as He is holy.  But we live in a world that is inherently vanity of vanities.  So how do we do it?  How do we point others to Him who is thrice holy when we are struggling through the muck and mire of this fallen world that we have created for ourselves?  

It is always grace.  

When we suffer for doing good, how do we endure?  How did the martyrs of time past and those of the present remain faithful through it all?

The God of all grace perfects, establishes, and strengthens you (1 Peter 5.10).  

How do you get through that class that just doesn’t make sense?  How do you reconcile with the roommate that you simply can’t stand?  How do you manage your time to sleep when you have to work and go to class and get homework done?  How do you maintain your relationships when all of that is going on?  How do you find the work God has called you to?

All grace.

How do I get through a day filled with poopy diapers, drool, and crumbs when I want to be doing something that will matter in the world?  Grace.  How do I juggle running my handmade jewelry business when my toddler needs time with me?  Grace.  How do I show my unsaved, drama queen soccer mom customer that life will continue, that she is valuable in God’s eyes, and that there is hope?  Grace.  

Grace in the decisions and choices that are required of me in every moment of every day.  I clean diapers and feed mouths because it is the choice that is put in front of me right now.  The family is mine and my husband’s choice.  The grocery cart that I put away when I am struggling to keep two little ones together is my choice.  The sincere smile I give my the cashier is my choice.  But not only my choice.  It is grace. Grace for strength that propels me to try and try again to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God.  

And lest you think I am a repressed semi-stay-at-home-mom, I assure that I love what I do.  My family means more to me than anything else in the world.  I choose to be in that role.  But that doesn’t stop me from looking at my political activist friend’s career and wondering if I might have been able to do the same.  Or my academically successful, newly hired professor, PhD friend who is doing what she loves.  Those people are doing so much in the world - I just wipe runny noses and read the same hedgehog band children’s book over and over and over again while trying to make jewelry and dinner at the same time while balancing a tight budget.  Discontent is a vicious monster.  So I plant my feet and own the choices I have made and prayerfully seek wisdom for the next ones that I will have to make.  I am not in this place in life alone.  God has done it that men may fear Him.  Because I may have a time for building up now but there is certainly going to be a time for tearing down.  I may have time to embrace right now but there will be a time to refrain from it too.  

But no matter the time.  There is always more grace.  

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