Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Graduation and Saying Goodbye

For this blog entry I’m going to write about graduation and saying goodbye. Many of you are before or after that threshold so your perspectives may be keener and wiser than my own. The future works on my brain like a highway sign works on my eyes. As it draws closer my eyes fuzz over and zone out. When the sign is directly next to my car window there is not a good chance I’ll see that the speed limit is 70 (while I’ve likely been pushing 90). Now I can imagine what it would be like for a road sign to come closer and closer and then actually hit me in eye. I don’t think I would be able to focus on the sign or any other aspect of my worldly surroundings. Likely I would have closed my eyes and tensed up my muscles the moments before initial contact. Right now graduation is coming closer and closer and it’s about to hit me square in the eyes. Both of them. And it’s going to hurt a little bit. So naturally I have my eyes closed and my muscles tensed up. In other words, bear with my impaired sense of vision on my own future happenings.

I’ve been wondering, while considering how to go about saying goodbye to my dearest friends and colleagues, notably the ones in the S-LC, whether goodbye is actually a word. By this I mean, what does the abstraction actually imply? To me it sounds like “have a good bye”. A bye must mean something significant, but on Wikipedia it’s defined as a special kind of point one can score in the game of Cricket. That doesn’t make sense (maybe it does, but to say “have a good cricket point” is a bit too flippant a phrase for what a serious graduation ceremony requires). Whenever I say goodbye to someone I think, oh that was a formality—something to fill in the silence. So maybe it’s just a value-empty human grunt meant for little more than its utility in breaking silences. But in the context of a ceremonious and poignant departing (like leaving friends after graduation), something needs to be said that has meaning, not just a grunt. And for people to have used the word “goodbye” for so many generations, the term must hold some significance sufficient for such a circumstance.

All of this internal conversation, though, is getting old. I would rather spend time telling my revision of the Biblical parable, the Good Samaritan, as it takes place at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI. The story begins on an early fall evening, sometime in September, when college bound Jane Smith walks onto Calvin’s campus for the first time. She is beginning her first semester at Calvin. All alone and with high anxiety levels, Jane Smith finds herself in a void of healthy social interaction, a ditch of sorts. As she sits in her room, a local resident walks in her room to say hi. This person is very kind and outgoing, a modern “priest” of sorts. She is clearly high on some social ladder Jane isn’t aware of. “Hello” she says, and as Jane starts to talk, the priestly girl zones out and cuts off the conversation early. Later the resident Barnabas for Jane’s floor comes up to her. The Barnabas was clearly put into the position because of some great personal qualification, which she undoubtedly possesses. She is a modern “Levite” of sorts. This Levitical resident says hi, asks if Jane would like to become involved (a very kind gesture), then leaves with Jane’s appropriate response (“yeah, sure I’d love to. Let me know when you’re doing stuff”). Lastly, another girl walks in. Her name is Liz, and she’s not from around here. In fact, her situation is quite similar to Jane’s—lonely and alienated. After a brief introduction, the new girl walks into her room, sits on an unmade bed, and quietly the two go on biding their boredom together. >> FAST FORWARD >> It is now three and three fourths (?) years later and Jane is graduating. Jane recollects her first interaction with the priestly girl. Still very appreciative of that first encounter, Jane goes up and gives the priestly girl a big hug. The priestly girl, says, “Wow, it was great to know you. I hope you have a great future! Never change! Goodbye.” Then they hug and part ways. Jane makes her way over to the Levitical girl and taps her on the shoulder. The girl says, in a very spiritually tempered manner, “Thanks for everything Jane. God will bless you in your future.” They shake hands, say goodbye, and part ways. However, Jane doesn’t see Liz anywhere that day. No worry, Liz is her best friend. Goodbye isn’t necessary at this point.

Why do I relate to this story? Because I rarely say goodbye to my best friends. I say goodbye to the people for whom the formality of our relationship requires closure. But to say goodbye to a friend isn’t fitting. And then, why do I compare a friend to the subtly alluded Samaritan in the narrative above? Because the story of the Good Samaritan ends like this: “The next day [the Samaritan] took out two denarii [money I think] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have’.” It is important to note that the Samaritan left when the main character was not fully conscious and able to respond. But the Samaritan promised a return. And further, upon his return the Samaritan promised to pay off his debts. What is the content of their relationship? It is the closest friendship, one that is bound by service. The Samaritan left with the promise of a future where he would continue to serve, continue to care, and never really be gone from the side of his friend. When I leave my friends and colleagues after this year, I will not say goodbye and mean it (if I say it that’s because our conversation got to that awkward silence—sorry). Instead I’m leaving my friends with the promise of a future with them. And in this future I’m going to be there serving them, in whatever form service will present itself. I’m looking forward to that. And like Jeff Bouman playing whirly-ball, I say, bring it on!

Friday, April 8, 2011


One of my cousins is currently working in Maputo, Mozambique. I try to check her blog once in awhile, and the other day as I was skimming through the blog I ran across an interesting topic: hope.

I was particularly drawn to this because at one of our staff meetings at the S-LC this semester the idea of hope was brought to light. In that instance we were all a little shaken by the fact that there are just some things in this world that we don’t have control over and can do very little to change. As much as we want so badly to bring hope, life, and success to others sometimes there is nothing more we can do. With the more recent events involving Libya and Japan, I think this idea of lost hope hits home even more now than when our original conversation took place.

After reading this aforementioned blog from my cousin’s experience in Mozambique, I think I have a slightly better grasp on this difficult topic of hope and Christian longing for change in our suffering world. My cousin’s words are hard to summarize because she says them so well, so I’ll let you read a portion of these powerful words for yourself.

Upon reflection of the many cases of children struggling with HIV and the constant state of death surrounding this African community, my cousin wrote these words:

“But this death doesn’t mean that people stop living. In fact, it’s quite the opposite in these parts. I have found more community, more love, more beauty and more friendships here than in any other part of the country I’ve visited. One night, a few weeks ago, I was dwelling on this agape kind of love I was feeling God draping over us while sitting outside admiring the stars, conversations and food of the evening."

Yet, talking to a co-worker, Ruth, brought a different sense. Ruth gives medicine and check-ups at a local orphanage of HIV+ children. Ruth began to break down as she explained the story of one girl with stage four AIDS who still had not received treatment. When Ruth called the local government to demand distribution of the free medication to the orphanage, the officials on the other end of the line lackadaisically said they would be there by the end of the month. She knows these kids don’t have that long.

So there we sat. The joy, the tears, the heartbrokenness and the love all hovered there in the air around us, mixing together and getting hazy. But the weirdest thing was that it was totally okay. Pain held hands with beauty, and joy pulled up a chair next to sorrow. And there we all dwelled. I didn’t feel guilty for the laughter we had a few moments before her story, and the breaking of Ruth’s heart in no way diminished the love it still contained. I still knew that I was exactly where I should be, and despite all of the death around me, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Around this same time, a dear friend from home shared with me a quote from a pastor of the church we used to attend:

‘Ultimately our gift to the world around us is hope. Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refuses to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refusing to believe that this is all there is. It is what we need—hope that comes not from going around suffering but from going through it...It is in the flow of real life, in the places we live and move with the people we're on the journey with, that we are reminded it is God’s world and we’re going to be okay.’

This is what hope means. Sure, babies still cry, funerals still occur and the water still inexplicably goes out in the middle of a dinner party. BUT the sun still rises every morning and joy is still available in the presence of utter destruction. And I think God stands in the messy middle between suffering and bliss and says ‘It’s alright. I got this.’ “

Wow. Powerful stuff, right? Every time I read this I have to sit back for a second because still don’t know exactly how to respond to such a deep thought other than to feel completely awed and amazed that we serve a God that holds this broken, struggling, damaged, hurt world in the palms of his comforting hands and offers not only hope, but love in abundance as he takes all our pain – every single ounce of it no matter how small or how insurmountably painful – and says He’s got it under control. I have realized that I must everyday dwell in this reassurance.

Peace and Blessings,

Friday, April 1, 2011

Living in the Tension

ten·sion noun \ten(t)-shən:
1. the act or action of stretching or the condition or degree of being stretched to stiffness
2. either of two balancing forces causing or tending to cause extension
3. inner striving, unrest, or imbalance often with physiological indication of emotion

What is it about human nature that craves simplicity? We categorize our world by race, class, nationality, gender, religion and countless others until our lives are so black and white that we forget what the color grey looks like. When this delicate world of dichotomy is disturbed, we riot, lynch, segregate, debate, and condemn in an effort to scratch and claw our way back to equilibrium. What about tension do we so dread that we are willing to avoid it even at the cost of community, genuine relationship, justice, and equality?
Last week, over 130 Calvin students chose to embrace tension. On Friday, March 18 the Service-Learning Center commissioned 136 students, staff members, and faculty to travel to 10 communities across the U.S. to seek out and embrace ambiguity and complexity. Students traveled to Kermit, West Virginia and learned that mountaintop removal gets complicated when they meet people whose livelihoods depend on it. Students went to Knoxville, Tennessee and learned that not all at-risk women are strung-out crack addicts; victims of their own self-destructive lifestyles. Students visited Boston, MA and discovered that the roots of urban poverty are far too complex and interconnected to be boiled down to a sweeping condemnation of personal irresponsibility. For one week, these groups lived firmly in the tension. They did not seek perfect answers or even tangible solutions. They simply experienced and participated in the lives of those that we all too often try so hard to avoid and, believe it or not, they lived to tell about it! More than simply living through it, however, these students were challenged in ways they never had been, grew in ways they never imagined, and learned more than they ever anticipated. Can it be that tension and ambiguity aren’t all that terrifying after all? Are there lessons to be learned from embracing the grey- from asking the tough questions without seeking the absolute answers?

All this point, the cynics cry, “How much good can a week of ‘living in the tension’ possibly do? There’s a distinct possibility that your week of grey only made the lives of those you came into contact with worse. A week is not enough time to do anything of consequence in a community”. My response: You’re absolutely right…sort of. Certainly, the dangers of short-term missions are in play when we send groups of college students to communities for only 7 days. A week of tension-living is undoubtedly unsatisfactory in a world so desperate for engagement and relationship. My critique of the cynic’s critique is this: Cynicism is easy; hope is hard. Cynicism gives in; hope rebels. In the face of a broken world that, at every turn, reminds us that our efforts are futile, hope perseveres. Last week, 130 plus students witnessed the stubborn hope of faithful Christians throughout the United States who are refusing to believe the cynics. Faithful Christians who have made a commitment to the grey and are resting in the hope that somehow their work is making a difference. In fact, isn’t that the call of every Christian? To be faithful, no matter how persistently the world tells them to give up, trusting that God is powerful enough to take their broken, imperfect efforts and do the rest. After all, “This is what we are about. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise…We are prophets of a future not our own.” (Ken Untener)

-Kyle Schaap