The Refugee Ban & Jesus' Commands

unnamed

Headlines have been dominated by the recent executive order made by President Trump, and our little corner of the world has definitely been caught up in the fray. We are routinely asked by friends here for an explanation, and it has been challenging trying to try and give them one. The day after Trump’s decision, I was teaching my English class in a nearby neighborhood composed fully of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. I was brought to tears by their questions, fears, and uncertainties regarding the current situation; many tears would follow in secret prayer as I wrestled through my own confusion.

I am always hesitant to add the commentary on this stuff, largely because at some point it all begins to run together as noise. Yet at the same time, I know we currently have a unique vantage point on this particular situation, given the place we live and the work we are giving ourselves to. It’s not that we have any brilliant authority to talk about international immigration or American politics, but we have spent a lot of time listening to and learning about the stories of those most directly affected by Trump’s decision. They are not just headlines or statistics. They are innocent victims of unthinkable atrocities, and everywhere they turn, they are turned away. While we passionately toss out our various arguments or contend with the media’s interpretation of events, these refugees continue to quietly battle their daily realities: Where will I get food? Is my brother still alive? How do I keep my children warm another wintery night in this tent?

In light of all this, I’d like to offer a few points of consideration (everybody loves a good list). Feel free to take them or leave them or – absolutely – to challenge them. If you’re reading this right now, there’s a good chance it is because we ultimately want the same conclusion to this Grand Story.

1) Make Jesus Central
In moments like this, when I see people I respect passionately saying very different things from one another, I find it helpful to remember that no one has a corner on the kingdom of God. In my own journey with Jesus, I aim to always find the sweet spot of growing in knowledge, conviction, and authority while remaining childlike, teachable, and humble. When the opinions fly freely and bury a sense of clarity, I return to the core of Jesus’ life and message, which he said summarizes the whole of the Story: Love God… and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22.40).

2) Don’t contribute to the inhumane categorization of people
This is so hard. We need categories in order to talk about issues on a large scale, but in the process it becomes very easy for those generalizations to minimize actual human lives. Compassion must be core to our conversations, not tossed in as an afterthought. There is nothing that builds more divisive momentum than employing an “us” versus “them” approach. Be very wary of talking about “Muslims” or “Conservatives” or “Evangelicals” or “Liberal Elites” on the whole without spending more time listening – actually listening – to their individual hearts and stories.

3) Embrace tension as a creative force, not something to be afraid of. (Props to Joe Steinke)

You can disagree with someone and still treat them with respect. You don’t have to choose between caring about yourself and caring about others. Protecting borders and protecting oppressed people are not mutually exclusive ideas. Jesus called his disciples to anything but a safe life… this could mean stepping out onto the water, or standing between the accusers and the accused, or laying down your life for your friends. Places of tension are usually uncomfortable, but they are also usually the places where Jesus calls us to be.

4) Get involved in solution-oriented ways

  • There are organization all over America and all over the world that serve refugees. Long before we worked primarily with refugees here in Lebanon, we volunteered at centers in Kansas City and Boston (here’s a great description of one in Anchorage too, for you Alaskan folk). It is incredibly easy and unbelievably fulfilling to serve the most vulnerable of people who are living around us, wherever we currently call home.
  • If you don’t know a Muslim or someone from an Arab country, now would be a great time to try and get to know one. I promise they will legitimately compete with America’s famous Southern hospitality, although their interpretation of sweet tea is slightly different. Make it personal.
  • Pray. Drown out the news you have been reading with the perspective of heaven. Silence your fears by pressing into the love of God. Ask Him to show you how you can represent His heart and be a part of the solution wherever you are.

Adding to the Noise

It’s been some 24 hours since we’ve elected a new president to lead and guide the U.S. of A. Looking in on the decision from across the world has me feeling particularly reflective in my current insider/outsider status. I am actually encouraged to see my Facebook feed full of such contradictory opinions, because it gives me hope that the grand American experiment, which has long-held opposing ideologies in successful tension, will continue to do so. (After all, my FB feed is a great place to draw assurances about historical events…)

I grew up in a conservative Christian family, and I am very thankful for my foundations. Although I have had to unlearn a lot of empty religion associated with those years, I still count it my greatest honor in life to be identified with the likes of Jesus. Foundational to this identification is learning to love my neighbor as myself. Since leaving Alaska, my neighbors have ranged from African-Americans across the racial divide in Kansas City, Latin-American immigrants in East Boston, and most recently, scores of Syrian refugees here in Lebanon. These neighbors have all taught me to listen. They’ve taught me that issues are complicated. They’ve taught me the dangers of categorizing and stereotyping people groups, and the joys of getting to know individual, amazing, made-in-the-image-of-God people.

I like to follow MLK in the way he followed Jesus, and one of the wonderful encouragements he held regarding politics was this: “Look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both – not the servant or master of either.” So this morning, as the sun rises across Beirut and sets over Los Angeles, I feel the need to speak my conscience and remind us all that we are people, not peoples.

If you’re having trouble understanding why people are hopeful about this new chapter in the American experiment…

This outcome is exciting because many have disagreed greatly with Obama’s policies for eight years, and for the first time in almost a decade, they feel like they have a chance to make their voices heard. I genuinely believe these people did not vote in agreement with the divisive language that marked much of President-Elect-Trump’s campaign. No, their vote was about their desires for policies that more clearly reflect their own values. They wanted someone who was the opposite of a professional-politician, someone with business experience and insight, someone who came into the game from a completely new viewpoint. They see a health care system that is unhealthy. An economy that is broken. Many of them voted with a desperate desire to defend the rights of the unborn.

Not all of the people celebrating the outcome of this election feel like this, but perhaps some, with all their nuances and unique reasoning from their own life experience, do. You may disagree with their politics or their interpretation of the Constitution, but you cannot judge their motives. They voted with genuine concern and conviction… they want the best for their country, their community, and their kids, even if their way of showing it looks strange to you.

If you’re having trouble understanding why people are upset about this new chapter in the American experiment…

This outcome is painful because their president elect ran a campaign that made them feel marginalized or afraid based on something that is core to their existence. It got very personal. There are women who still shiver with memories of sexual assault, and they fear their incumbent president minimizes their pain. There are Muslim-Americans who are afraid of being forced back to the countries they fled for their own safety. There are Hispanic children coming home from school in tears because their friends are telling them that their parents are not allowed to live in the country. Watching a black man rise to the position that Obama did gave many people of color assurance that times were changing for the better – that there was hope for them despite the color of their skin, but now they fear that times are reverting. There are many who worry for America’s relationship with countries across the earth, not to mention the earth itself.

You may disagree with their politics or their interpretation of the Constitution, but you cannot judge their motives. They voted with genuine concern and conviction… they want the best for their country, their community, and their kids, even if their way of showing it looks strange to you.

The Jesus I read about in the gospels confounded the wisdom of the elites of his day. He saw and spoke to people’s hearts. He skirted around the political drama of the Roman empire and operated according to a different framework. At the core of his life and teaching: love your neighbor (including your enemy) as yourself.

As a teacher, I worked hard to give my students core values like empathy and respect for the opinions of others. I have interacted with a wide variety of kids from a wide variety of backgrounds. Sometimes their parents seem engaged and encouraging, and sometimes they seem checked out and clueless. But as I learned to take the time to listen and consider their own journey, especially now that I’m a dad myself, I began to realize that they are all trying as best they know how.

You may disagree with their approach or their interpretation of morality, but you cannot judge their motives. They parent with genuine concern and conviction… they want the best for their kids, even if their way of showing it looks strange to you.

May we have eyes today to see those who don’t see like us. May we love our neighbors (and our enemies!) like we love ourselves.

“We are a contemplative order. First we meditate on Jesus, and then we go out and look for him in disguise.” – Mother Teresa

Blessed or Blessing or Both

unnamed

Last week I visited a friend of mine named Mhanna in a refugee camp where he lives with his family. There were two new young faces in the tent that night, and so I asked Mhanna who they were. He introduced them as his younger brothers, aged 10 and 12, and explained how they had come from Syria two nights earlier. The bombs had been increasing in their village and they were forced to flee, but since the border to Lebanon has been closed due to the massive number of refugees already here, Mhanna used all his money to have them smuggled over the mountains in the night and into his camp.

I looked thoughtfully at each of the boys, exchanging pleasantries in basic Arabic and laughing with them as they laughed at my poor pronunciation. I reflected on what I was doing the summer I turned 11.

…I had played on my first competitive soccer team. Spent the night at my friend Garon’s house on a regular basis, where he taught me the art of adding chocolate sauce on my pancakes. I anticipated the thrill of starting my first year at Colony Middle School…

I looked again at the boys across the tent and was struck with the chasm of difference between their childhood and mine. And I wondered why.

Why was I born to such privilege and them to such destitution?
Why was I born (in the misguided opinion of many) to a nation of “good guys” and them to a nation of “bad guys”?
Why was I born into such opportunity and them into such tragedy?

I don’t reflect on these questions to make myself (or you) feel guilty. We don’t get a whole lot of say in how or when we’re born. However, I do reflect on them with genuine conviction, compassion, and a deep sense of responsibility: what is my “ability” to “respond?”

Though we can’t know why we were born into such blessing, we can ask the natural questions that follow: how do we steward the blessing we have received? How do we seek the best for those who have the worst, while also enjoying what we’ve been given?

I often think of Jesus savoring a long meal and – I imagine – laughing with his best friends after an even longer day of “work” and “ministry.” I like to imagine the Apostle Paul enjoying the view of the wine dark Mediterranean Sea in between shipwrecks and stonings and visiting young communities of friends learning how to follow the Way. I know Marisa and I were grateful to wake up one recent morning after we’d been in the camps and relax over a couple of cappuccinos from a popular modern cafe (yes, these people have an ancient and severe love of caffeine).

We tend to swing to one side of the equation, as most of us do with most things in life. There are those who see a need in the world and spend every ounce of their life and energy to becoming the solution; sadly, such people often lose sight of their own dignity and sanity along the way. On the other side are those who can’t or don’t want to cope with the gravity of extreme poverty or illness or depravity, and they respond with equal extremism of indifference or self-preservation.

As I read in a recent article about the influx of refugees in Europe, “…the fact is, we can’t care all the time. Our survival instinct compartmentalizes that stuff in a clever way that means we can keep functioning despite being aware of horrible suffering. But nor can we stop caring completely.”

unnamed (1)There is a balance. There must be! I just still haven’t comfortably settled into it myself (tips much appreciated). Yet perhaps that is the very point. Maybe the tension, the wrestle, the “striving to enter rest,” and the ache to see all things made new is the very place we’re meant to live from. One of my fathers in the faith taught us long ago that running away from tensions like the one I felt in that refugee camp last week means we actually miss the plot.

What if we didn’t rush past the questions and onto the simple answers?
What if we didn’t pretend everything is perfectly black and white and void of mystery?
What if we embraced tension as a creative force to actually effectively build the world we want to see?

The older I get, the less comfortable God seems to be inside my boxes and the more comfortable I get in letting Him outside of them (He must find it entertaining that I offer Him this permission).

I dream of those 11 year old boys, who have recently joined millions of other children as refugees, knowing the God that I know: one that is not distant but near; mournful but always in a perfectly good mood; one that holds in His heart and his authorship a story that brings my personal drama and those boys’ lives together in glorious tension.

I don’t know why, but I’ve been blessed something fierce. And in the spirit of my father Abraham, I like to think I’ve been blessed so that I can be a blessing.

Live Love Look Like Jesus

unnamed

These days there seems to be a great division between two camps of thinkers, particularly in the Western world. Side one argues that Islam is a religion of peace, and we should welcome oppressed foreigners in our midst regardless of religion. The other side claims that many Muslims are terrorists and we need to protect ourselves from their overbearing influence and potential danger to our way of life. I take issue with both of these perspectives for different reasons, but let me take a slightly more personal detour to make a central point:

I love being associated with Christ. Jesus is, to me, the most fascinating, wonderful, brilliant, person to ever walk the earth. Everything in me wants to be as much like him as possible. Unfortunately, all too often, my life does not look like His. In fact, in many ways, the entire religion of Christianity has ventured from His likeness. Some of that is out of willful disobedience and some is due to the simple fact that it’s hard to sustain a movement like the one Jesus started without eventually boxing it into one particular form or size or structure. We often fail to accurately represent Jesus to the world.

.
Gandhi said “I like Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
 …
John Lennon said, “Jesus was alright, but His disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
.

All this to say, while there are many things about the organization of Christianity that make me proud to be found among its ranks, there are also a lot of things “our people” say and do that make me want to separate myself from the institution. I know there are many people who reach a similar conclusion, although they may journey there in a very different way than I do.What I’m getting at is that I don’t want to be judged by my association with a religion. I want to be judged by my likeness to Jesus. (And I’ll be the first to admit, as I already have, that I have a long way to go in reaching that reality.)Today, all across the world, Islam is on the rise. A couple weeks ago I read an article that said if current trends continue, by 2050 the number of Muslims will equal the number of Christians on the planet. All of us, and particularly those of us who are followers of Jesus, need to determine how we are going to approach the topic. Here is my genius suggestion: stop approaching it like a topic and start treating Muslims like people.

In the same way that I don’t care to be lumped into whatever stereotypes people hold about Christianity, I don’t think it’s fair to talk about Muslims as one complete, uniformed entity. We can evaluate Islam as a religion, just as we can evaluate Christianity as a religion. But in the same way that there are many Christians who do not look like Christ (I’m on the journey myself), there are many Muslims who do not hold to the fundamental tenants of Islam.

Many of the Muslims we currently live amongst are, like all of us, products of their cultural environment, and their ties to Islam are about as close as many American country singers’ ties are to Christianity. My neighbors are peace loving, generous, hospitable people. I feel safer walking the streets of downtown Beirut at night than I did in any of the American cities we have previously lived in. I had never been asked by the owner of a convenience store to come inside and sit down for a cup of coffee until I moved to the Arab world.So how do we respond to Muslims? The same way we respond to any human being made in the image of God: with love. With sincerity. With concern for their physical and spiritual needs. Not just with words to speak, but also with ears to hear. I’d say the Pope did a good job upholding these ideals in his recent exchange with a group of migrants in Europe.

Nabell Qureshi was born in Pakistan to Muslim parents, but as he grew up he explored the claims of Christ and ultimately became His follower. He currently works with author and apologist Ravi Zacharias. In one recent article,he says this:

If we want to know how to respond, if we want to understand what the security risk is, both internal and external in the United States… we need to understand what Islam is versus who Muslims are, otherwise we’ll just get caught up in this rhetoric.

Let’s not get caught up in the rhetoric. Let’s not add to the noise. Let’s love like Jesus.

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 13 – Leave

In the spring of 2006 some dear childhood friends of ours, Casey & Shayle DenBleyker, were moving from Kansas City and heading toward the pacific northwest to chase a vague dream associated with better views
and finer coffee. (Or so I like to think.) Their journey was prefacing our own relocation to Boston, causing us all to collide with joint sobriety and excitement. Leaving will do that to you.

donA few days before their departure, we drove together up to Parkville, just north of the city, and sat along the banks of the Missouri River, a winding, muddy body of water that has long served as a metaphor of desire for myself, Mark Twain, Lewis & Clark, and many others along the way. I opened to the first pages of a book by Donald Miller called Through Painted Deserts, which wonderfully chronicles his road trip from “old” home in Dallas, Texas to “new” home in Portland, Oregon. Miller’s words captured me enough that I think it’s worth including a longer portion of them here.

“And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it?

It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.

I want to repeat one word for you: Leave.

Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry.
Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.”

― Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road

Tonight I write on the eve of our departure to Beirut, Lebanon. Marisa and I have been carrying the dream of this move for almost 15 years, so tomorrow is a true fulfillment. However, a few hours ago, as I was hugging my niece and nephew who were crying the type of tears you would quite literally do anything to stop, the cost came into full view. Not just Marisa’s cost, or Lincoln’s cost, but the cost for the family that remains – grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings… As we drove out, I remembered what Jesus said about these type of moments: “Anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields, whatever – because of me will get it all back a hundred times over.” There is some true consolation in that, but it doesn’t in any way lift the weight of what it means to go.

Leaving is exciting and full of possibility, but it’s also risky. More than that, it can be downright hard, particularly if you genuinely like the place you are setting off from. I sat on the couch across from my brother-in-law tonight who was confessing how normal our closing moments were feeling even though it seems they should be so much more epic. That seems to often be the case in monumental chapters of life (I recall being particularly let down by the normalcy of my high school graduation). But that’s no reason to stop chasing those dreams that only exist out there in the cloudy, foggy, grey unknown. After all, who wants to be boring or predictable?

It doesn’t have to be a geographical move, though it could be. It’s often simply a repositioning of your heart and soul.

There is a quote by Victor Hugo that stares down from the south side of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. It reads, “The soul has greater need of the ideal than the real. For by the real we exist; by the ideal we (truly) live.” I will spend my life clinging to the ideal while enjoying the way it shows up in the real. I will keep leaving, whatever that looks like, however near or far, however slight of an adjustment or major an upheaval. I really do believe that the best is yet to come, and while contentment in the present is a wonderful, necessary grounding place, maybe the most orderly, normal existence, as exemplified by the God-created universe itself, is to risk. To change. To expand.

Perhaps it’s time for you too… to “lose all the life (you’ve) been storing…”

…and leave.

09122015 N&M 021

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 12 – Everyone's Waiting

I feel inclined to leave this song open to a freer interpretation, as several conversations I’ve had about it have gone various directions, and I’d like to keep it that way. Thus, I’ll keep the commentary simple.

Manage-Stress-Get-Creative-C1I read a highly recommended book last year called The War of Art, and in it author Steven Pressfield challenges artists and creatives of all kinds to face the “Resistence” between who they are and who they could be… and to overcome it without excuse. He explains, “We are not born with unlimited choices… Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal that we imagine we ought to be, but to find
out who we already are and become it.” That process reads very romantically but lives out very sacrificially, doesn’t it?

I hesitate to call myself an artist.

Maybe it’s because of the stereotypes that come with it. Maybe it’s because I don’t give myself to that artistic expression on a full-time vocational basis, and somewhere inside me I think I should. Most likely, it’s simply because if I call myself an artist, I embrace the inherent pressure to create and be creative… and that accountability is some high pressure stuff (that’s right, I said “stuff,” lay off me).

Maybe it’s just to fuel my momentum against Resistance, but I like to imagine everyone in the world waiting for some of the songs and stories inside of me to emerge. We spend so much effort trying to perfect our voice before we make it heard, but perhaps instead we should raise our voice and find it in the process. There is a war to making art of any kind, and I would argue that if you are holding back on the creative expression inside of yourself, you’re limiting God’s own creative expression in the earth. What if He deposited the next “Blowing In the Wind” or To Kill A Mockingbird or poverty-eliminating business idea inside of you, but your own insecurity – your constant complicating – your self-imposed distraction –  is keeping it buried inside?

2w3zurm

Everyone’s here, and they’re waiting… Start acting like a son and sing.

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 11 – The (un)Examined Life

I have a tendency to overthink things. (I explain the idea slightly more eloquently in another song I wrote, called “Validation” from the album Moratorium.)

The view from 185 Webster St. Boston, MA

The view from 185 Webster St. Boston, MA

The final year we were in Boston, we lived in a small apartment that was part of a brownstone building dating back another century or so. It overlooked the harbor and gave us quite the view of the sun setting over the manmade mountains downtown. You know, the kind of scene that brings life into perspective.

“The (un)Examined Life” was inspired by that perspective, found with unusual clarity on the third story of 185 Webster St. as I battled another evening of mind games with myself. The hammer smashing the magnifying glass is my attempt to get rid of those complications and lay hold of the simple thankfulness that makes powerful people.

Portrait Herm of 36adfa0b81aba24d46d5d18017fa94e8

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I love this quote and the way it convicts people out of mediocrity and thoughtlessness. It’s a good foundation for philosophical thinking.

Cornel West, a modern American philosopher and professor, added his own spin, saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined life is painful.” When you actually choose to fight your own apathy and engage in tough questions, you simultaneously open yourself up to disappointment and despair. To question is to revolt, and typically that involves some sacrifices to your comfort. That’s why a lot of people would rather just keep from examining things… which leads us to a conclusion of sorts.

Samuel Clemons, better known as Mark Twain, did his fair share of examining life; often making comical observations that demonstrated a philosophical insight and social commentary that few (next to Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame) have been able to replicate. Twain said, “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all.”

Leave it to Sam Clemons to remind us to examine life, but not to the extent that we fail to actually live it. That’s the kind of life I want.

aa_twain_name_1_e

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 10 – Facing East

After Marisa graduated from law school in Boston, along with a good portion of her family, we headed a few hours further northeast to a little cottage on the ocean. In fact, Lubec, the town we were staying in, marks the eastern most point of the contiguous United States. We looked forward to being the first people in America to see the sunrise, but we encountered a majority of rain instead. No worries, it was still quite beautiful.

traveling to the maine coast

traveling to the maine coast

We arrived late in the afternoon, and I woke up early the next day to take a walk along the water. I saw a small peninsula off in the distance, and determined that I would reach the end of it before turning around. As I walked, I started singing about the eastern ocean meeting the land, reflecting on four challenging and inspiring years in Boston that was about to end with our impending move back home to Alaska in another month. I was grasping for words to encapsulate the ways that I had changed and grown over our time in the northeast, hoping that it looked something like a shift from “servant boy” to “dreaming man.”

As I walked along the beach and toward the start of the peninsula, the rain started coming down a little harder, and the wind picked up with a slight threat. I ducked my head and pressed on, raising my voice a little louder and allowing the weather patterns to provide the lyrical content: “Heaven’s rain is pouring down, more is lost and less is found, there’s still a storm I’m ready to confound.”

By the time I reached the peak of the peninsula, the tide was rushing in and I knew I had my work cut out for me in getting back to the cottage in one piece. But I felt untamed and ready to take on the wind (perhaps with the slight inspiration of Lieutenant Dan). I stared defiantly at the Atlantic Ocean and cranked out the bridge: “Your eyes as wide as the sea, no fear that you have to flee, your purpose: possibility.”

Long story short, I made the return journey (evidenced by my writing today). I closed the back door of the cottage and rushed to the bedroom, quickly transcribing the lyrics before I lost them, the paper smudged with the remnants of the rain and ocean water on my clothes.

The song was complete, and so was our time where the eastern ocean meets the land.

West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec, Maine

West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec, Maine