On Being a Seminarian: Sharing Stories…

This is part of a weekend series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Be sure to check out other posts by other blogs, especially if you’re interested in biblical studies.

In the last six months that I’ve lived in Portland, I’ve been to church three times. It’s not really because I’m busy, nor is it because I work on Sundays (I don’t). For the most part, I like having a lazy Sunday. Yet in such a populated area as Portland is (compared to Eugene, anyway), it’s difficult to find a small congregation. I highlight this because I’m terribly introverted and being in rooms of a 100 or more people is draining in and of itself. I don’t even have to talk to anyone to feel drained.

This is where my time at George Fox Seminary comes into play. In the absence of a fellowship on Sundays, hanging out at the seminary has been a great replacement. I’m not always going to encounter the same people from day to day, but I’m going to encounter just enough people to have a (somewhat) healthy social life – at least, for an introvert.

Most of the conversations don’t dive too deeply; “Hey, how’s your paper going?” or “What classes do you have today?” are some of the more generic things you might get asked on a regular day. Over time, though, the topics shift to “Hey, I liked what you said in class,” or “I heard about your grandpa’s cancer; how’s he doing? How are you doing?” Not long after those topics come up, even deeper ones arise: “So, where are you from? What’s your story?”

There’s something rather mystical about the act of sharing your story, being vulnerable, and giving someone else the opportunity to see life from your perspective. In an age of instant file-sharing, books being read through movies, and the (supposedly) fictional mind-melds, it seems we tend to grow accustomed to instant information. Yet when someone’s sharing their story, everything slows down. As memories arise – both painful and joyous – uncontrollable emotions may rise with them. When that happens, the story is now no longer about information-gathering; it’s about feeling what someone else feels – inasmuch as it is possible to do so.

In the past seven days I’ve shared my story with half a dozen different people. Most weeks are not like this at all. But with as busy as I’ve been with research, work, reading, and regular assignments, I needed it. And if my seminary wasn’t my place of fellowship, I may not have had it. And if I didn’t have the opportunity to recount my story, I wouldn’t have been reminded of why I do what I do.

Seminary has become my “every day” setting and has provided a fellowship of sorts that I didn’t have before and yet was in dire need of. It’s a place to hear others’ stories and to share my own. With as busy as all our lives are between work, school, and whichever form of social life we may have, having that space to share stories is crucial. Stories remind us of where we’ve been and simultaneously of where we’re going. Life becomes pretty dull when we lose sight of that – when we lose sight of our story.

In your “every day” setting, what’s the fellowship like? What are some of the conversations had or stories shared? If you’re in a seminary setting, what’s it like where you are?


Wait… Where am I?

After being in Tigard for a little over two weeks, I think I have finally been able to settle down. My roommate has moved in, my room is entirely organized, and I’m keeping up relatively well with each of my classes. What I think I am now able to do since things have become less chaotic is figure out exactly where I am.

No, my geographical location is not what I’m talking about. What I really mean is, throughout the last two-ish weeks, I’ve been focusing on things like where to put my reading chair, how to organize my mini-library, and which frozen pizzas to get. With all those things out of the way, I can finally address the city and the community in which I now live. Every time I go to work at the Duck Store at the Washington Square Mall, I find myself saying, “Back in Eugene, we…” Yet I’m no longer in Eugene. Where I identify myself with has changed. Quite naturally, I feel disoriented.

In Eugene, I knew a ton of different people in different parts of town and almost at any given point I could send them a text or call them (let’s be honest, I sent them a text) and in minutes we could be hanging out. It isn’t as easy here – at least, not at this stage of the game. And quite like my physical community changing, my spiritual community has as well.

I haven’t yet gone to a church here in Tigard, despite one being right across from my apartment complex. And no, it isn’t because I had some falling out with God; the next three years at seminary would be pretty long years if that were the case. It’s been because I wanted to do exactly what I’ve done: get settled.

Proverbs 24:27 says, “Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house.” In context, I have absolutely no idea what this might mean. But how I see it with where I am in my own context, it means to get settled with being in a completely different city than what I’m used to, and then get involved.

On Monday I got to sit down with A.J. Swoboda to talk about where I’ve come from and why I’m here. At the end of our discussion, he asked me what I needed prayer for and in that moment I realized I really miss the faith community in Eugene. Not to say that it was better than what it is here – I couldn’t even begin to suggest that since I haven’t gone to a church yet. But to say that I grew really close to plenty of really good people in Eugene and they aren’t physically as close as they once were.

What I can’t overlook, though, is the plethora of friends I already have here in the Portland area. They’re friends I made while in Eugene (or Lincoln City) and will most likely be the people I start to branch out with in regards to a faith community. Until all that begins, though, I think I’m supposed to embrace the disorientation. I think I’m supposed to spend some more time in solitude with God in order to get my bearings straight. I think I’m supposed to wrestle with who I am and how I associate and identify with my new surroundings. I think supposed to find out firsthand what Abraham went through.

What can often happen in a time of transition is intense moments of nostalgia – constantly longing for a time that was easier. But it wasn’t easier. It only seems easier because it was familiar. Knowing that is crucial to growing in a new place with new people.

Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and whatever you’re doing, soak it in.

God bless.

Meeting People at Their Well…

I’m relatively new to John Green. I think I knew of him for a while, but never actually listened to any of his vlogs or read any of his books. But when I moved in with my current roommate, I was practically forced to watch Green’s “Crash Course History” videos, which are pretty phenomenal and in no way do I regret watching any of them.

One video that I recently watched was Green’s commencement speech to the graduating class of 2013 at Butler University. If you have twenty minutes to spare, I highly recommend watching it. It is well worth the time. What I love about this particular speech, though, was how he described the college graduate life – or as he said, “the hero’s journey.”

“We are taught the hero’s journey is a journey from weakness to strength. [From having no money to having a lot of it, etc….] The real hero’s journey is a journey from strength to weakness.[…] You are about to be a rookie.”

The idea here is that the college graduates he was addressing are about to go from being the most informed at one of the best colleges in the country to being a nobody (to paraphrase his words) – someone who gets coffee for other people “if you’re lucky.” And even though he was talking to the 2013 Butler graduates, I couldn’t help but listen as a two-year graduate from Oregon. Much of what he said throughout that speech is still true to this day despite being out of school for two full years. But where he turns next, the advice that he bestowed upon the Butler grads, was where I listened as a follower of Christ.

“The gift and challenge of your … education is to see others as they see themselves.”

This morning at Emmaus Life we read from John 4:11-18, which is in the middle of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. I’ve written about this story before, but it is worth re-visiting. As Scott told us, it wasn’t common for someone to be drawing water from the well in the middle of the day. Because of the heat, people typically drew their water either in the morning or at night when it was cooler. So it was particularly strange that she was there at midday.

As Jesus converses with her, talking about living water and becoming a spring of water that wells up to eternal life, we come to find out this woman had been with five husbands and was then seeing someone who was not her husband. The text isn’t explicit; we don’t know exactly why she had all these men in her life, but we do know that she had them in her life. And it isn’t going too far to suggest that perhaps her “well” that constantly made her thirsty was relationships; perhaps she thought that if she just found the right husband, she’d be okay. She’d be happy. As it turned out, though, her pursuit of the right husband led her into a life of avoiding public ridicule – hence why she arrived to the well when she thought no one else was there.

How do we find out about this, though? How do we come to know that she had had five husbands? Jesus tells it to her. Because he saw her as she saw herself, Jesus was enabled to tell her what she needed to hear – that the well she kept drawing from was never going to satisfy. But she was also enabled to listen to what he had to say.

Of course there are several lessons within this passage of Scripture (e.g. What well are you drinking from?), but what has stood out to me today was how Jesus shared Himself with others; how there was no contract to sign, no belief statement to make, no ritual or sacrament to conduct, no strings attached. All she had to do was ask for the water which Jesus freely and richly supplies.

“Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water,” 4:15

Scott pointed this out; that Jesus doesn’t require this woman to prove her faith in Him like we might in our modern day with baptism, communion, belief statement, tithe offering or whatever. He gives it out freely. “Isn’t it interesting that Jesus is more liberal with salvation than we are?” as Scott asked.

Why is that? Why is it that Jesus, who we say we’re following, often ends up being more freely loving of others than we are? Why do we demand that people come to our church to be saved rather than us going out to them? Jesus met this woman on her level, in her weakness, where she sought escape from the realities of this world. And that’s where He turned her around. If He hadn’t done that, then it’s quite possible that none of the people with whom she shared the gospel would have ever heard of Jesus. Instead of being the strong man and seeing people from the outside, He took the weak approach and saw them how they saw themselves.

“The weakness of God is stronger than men,” – 1 Corinthians 1:25

As John Green described the hero’s journey, Jesus exemplifies as the Christian’s journey; that we’re supposed to empathize more than everyone else, to utilize our revelation in Christ to see others as they see themselves, and to make that journey from strength to weakness. In so doing, as Paul says, we become strong in the Lord.

John Green describes this whole process of becoming weaker as the college graduate’s journey (through a metaphorical use of “the hero,” of course). But Jesus shows us that if we wish to follow Him, this is the sort of thing we must do. We must cast aside our poster boards and signs telling others they’re going to hell and instead pick up our cross – willfully carrying that which makes us weak in the eyes of society – and share the living water, the abundant life of Jesus.

Maybe we’re not the judgmental type of follower. Maybe instead, we’re the ones continuing to come back to our particular well, despite never being satisfied by it. In that case, perhaps it’s time to step back, look around, and engage the people there with you – just like Jesus.

Meet people like Jesus did: At their well.

God bless.

Leaving Well…

Something occurred to me on my way to work this morning: Exactly two months from now, I will be living in Portland attending my first week at George Fox Seminary.

Okay, technically classes don’t start until September 5th, but by September 2nd I’ll have moved up there and (hopefully) gotten settled in. I’ll be meeting new people on a daily basis and learning my new surroundings. My day to day routine will be completely different from what it is now, except for coffee. I will never cut coffee.

What I’ve been thinking about all day is how I intend to live these final two-ish months in Eugene. No, it isn’t like I’ll never be back, but I am leaving for at least a couple of years maybe longer. And the fact that I’m leaving for an extended period of time makes me focus on how well or not well I’m interacting with the people around me now. Essentially, I’m wondering what my exit strategy is.

“Exit strategy” is a term used to describe the plan for closing out military operations. For example, if President Obama were to lay out a plan for 10,000 troops to come home from Afghanistan or Iraq every month – that is an exit strategy (I have no idea what Obama’s exit strategy is or if he even has one; just making an example).

But it’s also used for when CEO’s or GM’s retire. They have exit strategies as to what they’d like to do with their final few months of influence within the company; ideally, these things would assist in setting up that company for success. How I’m using the term in reference to my current situation is something like this.

Currently, I don’t have one. I mean, there are some obvious things that need to happen; finding a place to live in Portland, packing up things here, and taking some time off of work to get moved out of my current apartment and into my new one. But those are just things that I have to do; they aren’t components to an overall strategy of how I’d like to live the day to day here in Eugene.

What I think are components to an overall strategy are things like hanging out with friends more often, being as efficient as possible at work, or helping my soon-to-be-former roommate find someone to replace me or find a new place to live altogether. Essentially, components to an exit strategy are basically intentional things I do between now and September that are in the effort to leave well.

Of course, these types of things (spending more time with family and friends, working well at my job, and helping people) are things I should always be doing. But when seasons of life change, so do relationships. Sometimes they’re strengthened, but sometimes they’re weakened. Maybe there was an argument right before someone moved away or one person did a selfish thing that negatively effected the other and it left a bitter taste to their relationship that they never sought to mend. What I think of, when it comes to an exit strategy, is doing things that not only end things on good terms, but strengthens the relationship so that it lasts.

Simply because I’m moving to a new location to study at a new school and meet new people and make new friends doesn’t mean that my current friendships aren’t valuable to me. It is this fact that drives my desire to leave well; to spend as much time as I can with my church family, to care for the people I work with, and simply to let those who’ve known me know that I care about them, even though I’ll be living two hours north.

The Apostle Paul is a great example of what it means to have a presence in someone else’s life while not being physically present. What I hope to do in this time of transition is make it possible to have a presence in someone’s life while not being physically there. It means showing someone you actually care about them by listening to them and showing compassion and empathy. It means doing kind things even if they aren’t needed. And it means, while I have the ability to do so, showing up whenever I can – because I won’t have as many opportunities to do so later.

What I really hope for in carrying out this exit strategy is to get a phone call late at night from somebody here in Eugene who, for whatever reason, hasn’t been able to get a hold of anyone else and they just need to talk to somebody. I want to be that person they talk to despite however many miles are between us.

Leaving well, in essence, is a greater focus on loving well.

God bless.

Preparing the Way…

Waking up three hours before work was not what I had in mind to start this week. It did, however, give me the prime opportunity to start a morning reading routine. Morning reading routines have often been all-or-nothing for me; either I get up really early and read a ton or I sleep in, not read anything, and almost show up late to work. Got to make life suspenseful, right?

Anyhow, I started reading Luke’s Gospel. I wish I could say it’s my favorite Gospel, but they are all my favorites. Luke’s unique elements, though, begin with the first chapter. Matthew is the only other Gospel with a birth narrative, but Luke has two birth narratives; one for Jesus and one for John the Baptist. Where one might expect Luke to start with the birth of the Savior of the World, he starts with his fore-runner, John.

What hits me about this back story to John the Baptist is his role in God’s story. Every Gospel reveals John’s task, but Luke has Gabriel, one of God’s most prominent angels, delivering the news to Zechariah, John’s father. If you aren’t familiar with the story, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth believe they’ll never have children because it seemed to them that Elizabeth was barren. To their wonderful surprise, declares Gabriel, they’re going to have a son. Yet what is said about him is the most important thing:

“And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” (1:17).

Later in the same chapter, Zechariah regains his ability to speak and sings a song after John’s birth. He sings, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,” (1:76).

In Luke 3 Isaiah 40:3 is used to describe John, “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him,’” (3:4b). While all the Synoptic Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3, Luke emphasizes John the Baptist’s role in how God would rescue His people: He prepares the way. He gets things ready.

What I think God was asking me was what am I preparing? Or, to be more precise, how am I preparing?

Back in high school, I golfed a lot. I even skipped soccer during my junior year just so that I could play more golf. I wanted to do well for the upcoming season and the only way that would happen was if I practiced as much as possible. Back then, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, and Phil Mickelson were among the top five of the world’s best golfers. What did they all have in common besides a ridiculous ability to hit a golf ball? A ridiculous work ethic in preparing for each tournament.

It is no mystery that the best athletes in any sport are the ones who prepare the most. They’re like Vijay; the first on the driving range and the last to leave. Every swing, every shot, and every possible scenario is played out in practice so that when it comes time to compete, nothing will catch them off guard.

What would this look like spiritually? How do we prepare the way for God to work in our lives? Prayer, reading Scripture, meeting with fellow believers – all of those are helpful, but what else? Are we practicing what we preach? Are we actively seeking to share Jesus – not a pamphlet, business card, or tract about Him – with those around us?

It’s not a surprise that on the day I decide to start preparing for my day more effectively is the day God reminds me of the importance of preparation. Jesus needed John to prepare things for Him because maybe who He was and what He had to say was more than the people could bear. I think the same could be said for many today; they’re not ready to receive Him. So in essence, we’re the ones to warm people up for Christ; to get in a spot where they might be more ready, willing, and able to receive Him.

Yet this immediately raises another difficult task: Are we preparing ourselves for this task? Like I said above, are we practicing Jesus’ words, praying as often as possible, and sharing all we have with the church we’re a part of? In order to prepare others, we must be prepared already. In order to give Jesus to others, we must already have Him.

I’m not suggesting we all quit the day jobs and become missionaries; I’m simply saying we’re all missionaries wherever we are. So if that’s the case, how are we treating our coworkers? Are we loving the regular people in our lives – the baristas, bankers, and bosses? Are we already in the habit of embodying Jesus so that whether we’re aware of it or not we share Him with others? It is by no means an easy task, but it’s the task before each of us.

It might help to think through every aspect of your daily life and the people you come across. How are you treating them? Could you treat them better – showing more kindness, gentleness, patience, self control, etc.? When I consider how well or not well I’m preparing the way for God to work, I realize there is always room for improvement.

God bless.

Relational 401k’s…

Several things came together this morning at church.

As some of you may know, I’ve been going phone-calls-only for the whole month of January (possibly longer) whenever I need/want to talk to someone. No Facebook chat, no chatting via Twitter (although this one isn’t really an issue), and no chatting through texts. If I need to ask someone if dinner is still on for a particular night, I give them a call. If they don’t answer, I don’t hang up and text them; I leave a message.

The first few days were a bit challenging. Several times I would find myself mustering the courage to call someone when I’m not really ready to talk to anybody. With as uncomfortable as I may have been, however, that’s exactly the sort of thing I’m shooting for with this goal; get into the habit of communicating at a human level, especially when I’m inconvenienced. And yet God challenged things a bit deeper this morning. In a word, the message was “community.” But the particular aspect I found challenging was this thing called “investing.”

I recently started a Roth 401k through my job and talked to several different financial advisors about “investments” and percentages and profits and a whole bunch of other business words that gave me a headache. The idea is you put a certain percentage of your paycheck into an account and the company matches that percentage (up to a certain point – usually 3%). Incorporated into the whole mix are these things called mutual funds. You select which level of aggression of a plan you’d prefer (levels differentiated by how much you’d like to invest in stocks, savings, etc.) and the smart financial advisors put together all the right stock options that’ll make you a profit on your money. You pay a certain amount upfront with the intention of receiving more in return.

Scott talked a bit about investments this morning. Only, he talked about relational investing; paying time, money, or energy to invest into a relationship (either romantic or just as friends) that will reward us with additional happiness. He then talked about how, when such an investment falls through, people back out of those relationships almost completely. Or as Scott said, when someone gets hurt by another church member or has a personal struggle they don’t want to deal with, they leave for another church – or stop going altogether. In other words, they cut their losses and go.

This struck me today because what I’ve discovered throughout all the phone calls I’ve made is that I’m reinvesting into friendships I haven’t touched for a while. For instance, my friend Jeff sent me a message on Facebook asking about a missing camera. Instead of replying via Facebook, I called him. We ended up talking for a good twenty or thirty minutes catching up on how things were going. A similar thing happened when my friend Connor called asking me a specific question about the Bible. And again this afternoon when I called my roommate who was getting back from Arizona – and again tonight when I was called by an old friend scheduling a dinner for this week. 3% at a time with each person, I was reinvesting into each friendship.

What I find the stark difference between financial investments and relational investments is that you can back out of one and be perfectly fine, but to back out of the other every time they go wrong will actually ruin you. If you simply avoid friendships because you’ve been hurt by one or a particular friendship has gotten serious and extremely-personal things have to be shared, then you’re never actually going to grow as a person. It’s like reading a novel up to the point where things get dangerous for the characters, then moving on to an entirely new novel; you’ll never know how each story ends, let alone how they got through the dangerous stuff. And those are the parts of the story that you truly remember.

Proverbs 11:25 says, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” Contextually speaking, yeah, the author’s probably talking about money. But in light of what God’s been teaching me and what Scott talked about this morning, can you see how this might apply to the relational investments you’ve made? I’ve certainly been refreshed by the friends I’ve talked to over the past few days – just by talking to them. They did nothing more than pick up the phone when I called them and yet that somehow cheered me up. Can you imagine what would happen if I spent more time with my church outside of Sunday morning? Can you imagine if we got dinners or watched movies or simply hung out together? Relationships can hurt you, I know. But relationships can also heal you. Especially the Christ-based relationships.

Scott has talked a lot about our decision-making processes that revolve largely around some form of security: job, financial (sort of the same thing, but it can be different), social (only hanging out with people who make you feel comfortable), or even geographical. What I feel God has challenged me with this morning is to find the areas of my friendships where I’m relying on a safety net. And once I’ve found those various safety nets, just cut them. An example might be when I’m with a friend who’s proven himself trustworthy, but for some reason I haven’t talked about my worst struggles or fears; God would want me to talk about those things. God wants that safety net gone.

As I said earlier, with financial investments, cutting your losses and moving on is oftentimes needed. But it cannot be the default mode we have when things get tough with our friendships – especially with church friendships. Like Scott said this morning, the church should be the place people turn to in order to deal with whatever thing they have going on; not the place they run from. We can do our part by not running from our friends to ignore our problems; oftentimes, our friends are the very ones we need.

If 401ks are all about saving money for when you retire, then relational 401ks should be all about building friendships for when you need them most – and when they need you, too. But instead of 3%, invest 100%, even if you get nothing out of it – as loving your neighbor as yourself implies.

God bless.

Football, iPhones, and Other Distractions…

One week ago today I received an unexpected gift for my 25th birthday: an iPhone 4. I absolutely love it. In comparison to my BlackBerry – just kidding, there is no comparison between my old BlackBerry and my new iPhone. For instance, I can use an application without my phone freezing. And I’m free to explore the worlds of Words With Friends, Instagram, and use that weather application that I’ve seen pictures of on Facebook where my Oregon friends complain about the rain or my California friends brag about the sun. Being with the “in” crowd never felt so good.

Several days after acquiring this Godsend, I got sick. I woke early Saturday morning to a really bad sore throat and spent the rest of the day combating a runny nose, coughing sprees, and chills. Of course it was much easier since I was listening to the Ducks put up 70 points against Colorado. After work I cooked up a can of soup, played several games on my new phone, and then went to bed.

My cold got worse come Sunday morning, which prompted me to miss church and call in sick to work for the first time ever. I didn’t mind so much because I was in five intense games of Dice With Buddies and there were several NFL games on TV. It was nice to have so many distractions on a day where I felt so miserable that I didn’t even want to walk to the kitchen. What hadn’t happened all through the weekend, though, was a single moment with God.

I’m not blaming my iPhone or the NFL for getting in the way between God and me. I’m simply pointing out that things like iPhones and football are things that we can enjoy as a part of our walks with God. We don’t need these awesome games and cool pieces of technology to experience Him. We just need Him. These things, in various ways, can supplement our walks with Him (i.e. fellowship during the Super Bowl or having Bible apps on your iPhone), but by no means are they needed for a genuine walk with Him.

What was my real issue over the weekend? I was using these man-made things to find relaxation and comfort as I tried to recover from my cold. It’s not wrong to do this; it’s wrong to do this too much. I certainly could have written in my journal or read some Scripture or read a book by C.S. Lewis or N.T. Wright. I could have done something that would challenge me out of mental vegetation, but I chose to open new games of Words With Friends and Dice With Buddies. I chose to allow myself to be completely distracted from God.

Thinking back through the weekend and remembering how I felt through all the sickness, especially the sick day, it actually felt fairly manageable. In fact, both Saturday and Sunday felt more physically comfortable and healthy than Monday did. When Monday arrived, I decided not to call in sick, but instead go to work even though I was still feeling some heavy symptoms. On my drive there, I prayed that as I worked, the cold would get better and by the end of the day I’d feel as though I was back to normal. Not even an hour into my shift my asthma acted up and never stopped until three hours after I had gotten home. It was one of those moments when I realized that God is not an application on my phone meant to be used at my convenience. He’s a person. And He wants to be treated like one.

These past three days, despite being sick, were still good days. But they would have been way better had I allowed God to be in it all. Who knows, I might have finished off one of the 15 books I have on my desk that I’m “currently reading” or maybe I would have written several other blog posts. Heck, I might have even gotten some laundry done. Once again, it wasn’t because of the distractions that I didn’t do any of that; it was because I wasn’t seeking God. Instead, I sought comfort.

All things in life are good, but become bad things if used incorrectly. Football, money, clothes, books, iPhones, Facebook, laptops, blogs, TVs, etc. are all meant to be enjoyed and used for good. But if they get in the way of our walks with God, then we’ve misused them and made them bad things. To turn them around, though, is simple: Seek God.

Pray. Read Scripture. Mingle with fellow believers. Do whatever is needed to connect with God… And it usually means doing what you don’t want to do, like sacrificing comfort even though you’re sick.

God bless.