Loving Our Neighbor

What is the role of sustainability, indigenous knowledge, and religion?
A Thousand Suns tells the story of the Gamo Highlands of the African Rift Valley and the unique worldview held by the people of the region. This isolated area has remained remarkably intact both biologically and culturally. It is one of the most densely populated rural regions of Africa yet its people have been farming sustainably for 10,000 years. Shot in Ethiopia, New York and Kenya, the film explores the modern world's untenable sense of separation from and superiority over nature and how the interconnected worldview of the Gamo people is fundamental in achieving long-term sustainability, both in the region and beyond.
One of the issues that the film raises (and it's not a long film, less than a half hour, so go check it out) is the importance of a holistic worldview. In most, if not all, indigenous cultures, a systemic understanding of the world around them and how they as a species fit into that larger picture is a critical component to their lifestyle. Through a deep connection with nature, these cultures have an ingrained understanding of sustainability - especially in relation to agriculture. One of the challenges is that with the rise of western religion, an emphasis (whether theologically correct or not) has been placed on the distinction between heaven and earth. One side effect from this distinction is that earth and its resources suddenly became viewed as things to be 'used' and set apart from holy - a realm that existed in heaven and the afterlife.

But is this consistent with a christian perspective? I guess it depends what kind of christian you talk to. Personally, I feel that it is largely written into the verses and books of the bible to be responsible stewards of the planet, but it really comes down to one key thing for me. As I wrote in the previous post, I believe there are two key lessons to take away from the bible: love god and love your neighbor.

Being wise stewards of the environment around us is a direct way of showing our love to both god and our neighbors - and this is where sustainability starts to come into the picture.

God is described as the creator of the universe and planet, and that all that we see around us was placed here as a gift to us. As with any gift we receive from a close friend, we tend to treasure it by taking care of it and perhaps displaying it prominently on a shelf in our bedroom. It doesn't matter if it's a standard off-the-shelf picture frame that you could easily replace, you tend to place higher importance on a gift from a loved one simply because of it's designation as a gift, and because you want to show love back to that person who gave it.

At the same time, all of god's creation, and all of our neighbors (both locally and globally) find themselves living on this great gift from God. And as we are all completely dependent on the land we live on, it's imperative that we seek sustainable solutions that responsibly care for our natural resources that so many around the world depend on. Loving our neighbors cannot stop at offering to babysit the neighbor's kids for an evening. It cannot stop at us taking time out of our busy schedules to share a meal with a community member going through a tough personal situation. And it can't even stop at donating money and resources towards humanitarian groups providing food to the hungry.

Loving our neighbors requires so much more - and it's not always the easy choice. Loving our neighbors requires us to deeply and sincerely look at our own lives and see how the actions we take and decisions we make impact those around the world. And it's sometimes difficult, uncomfortable, and messy to analyze those actions and decisions, but if we truly believe in loving our neighbors, then we would be willing to overcome any barrier, regardless how difficult.

Sometimes the hardest part is making the decision to simply start digging just a little bit deeper...

Building Bridges or Walls

Since returning back to the states, I've been greeted with numerous media clips, emails, and stories of people in the US afraid of islamic extremists and muslims slowly overtaking the rest of the country, I know, it's sad and I wish I could change it somehow. It's definitely not all, or even the majority, of the view in the US, but sadly there has been enough people to cause a stir and begin creating a panic in the rest of the country. Yet whether it be islamophobia, homophobia, or obama-phobia - the problem is still the same - our culture reacts and responds to fear. And unfortunately, there are certain people within our society that recognize that fact and use it to advance their personal agenda.

I have been extremely blessed and fortunate to have traveled around the world and meet people from every culture and walk of life, a gift that I cherish above anything else I own or have experienced. For every place I visit, I try to share with others - through my blog, pictures and stories - the way of life for the rest of the world - a group of people that the majority of us never get the chance to meet. But sadly, I find that it's never possible to fully pass on that message to others, it's simply impossible without meeting someone face-to-face, I don't see any alternative. I wish I could bring my friends around the globe home with me so that all of you could meet them (but I haven't found a financial solution to that yet). If there's one thing I could figure out in life, it would be to help others understand the beautiful interconnectedness of our global society and reveal the incredible similarities we share as a single, thriving, human family - regardless of country, culture, or religion.

Just two months ago, I found myself walking along the shores of the Bosphorous river and spending time praying in some of the most beautiful mosques I've ever visited. I shared the streets with kids and their ice cream cones and veiled women picking up groceries for that night's festivities and celebrations. We fasted together during Ramadan and talked about the way religion has caused so many ridiculous barriers between person to person and person to God. We ate wedding meals together and dreamed about ways to end extreme poverty. Turkey was more beautiful and hospitable than I could have ever imagined.

Since returning to the states, I try to keep in touch with that group as often as possible and share our life stories together. But then I quickly remember that it is so much harder to have those conversations with people when I return to the states - because we in the US live in a perpetual state of fear, a fear that silences so much meaningful conversation and discussion. When I travel away from home, it is so much easier to talk with people, it's as if an invisible fence is torn down around me.

When I hear stories of pastors who want to burn Korans, I get so upset because it feels as if everything I try to stand for and represent to others around the world is ripped to shreds. I try to convince others that the US isn't as bad as the media tends to illustrate it as, but I have to question if I'm really defending the right side?

When will we ever put our differences aside and grow out of our fright and distrust for those not exactly like ourselves? When will we learn that we are equally, if not more, responsible for the mess in the world, but are blind to that simple truth? When will we stop bickering and perpetuating the problems around us and actually start finding meaningful solutions - that benefit all of humankind? When will we learn to grow up?

I hesitate to share my thoughts at times because of my lack of experience - I realize I am only 23 and have an entire lifetime of learning ahead of me. But there are certain things that I will not remain mute on, and I will passionately defend any culture or religion who I feel is being victimized, especially when the victimizing is coming from my own culture.

The world is not a simple place. There is conflict and pain. There are those who look to use the system for their own gain. There are those who thrive on evil over truth. And I wish I could change a lot of that. But I would never change the complexity of the world around me, for it is what makes this life so worthwhile and fulfilling. God's beauty is etched into every church and mosque, carved into every riverbank and countryside, and placed within each of us his children, regardless of religion.

Who are we to steal that beauty from others...

I have tons of friends who are committed followers of Islam and true stewards of peace. They are saddened when they hear of bombings and wars happening around the world. They are like you and I and have dreams and fears and hopes and difficulties. Why are we so afraid of those we don't know - is it impossible to think that they may share the same feelings and thoughts as we do? For my muslim friends, it doesn't matter if we sit together in a mosque, a church, or a buddhist temple - we can always talk with God - and together! I believe the two most important messages in the bible are to love god and love your neighbors - it would be a sad and cruel world if we were to fear god and fear our neighbors (but unfortunately, I think that's how we prefer to live).

I sincerely pray and hope that we begin asking the question "Were we building bridges or walls in the world?" I hope that answer is bridges. All I can do is start reaching out to others to help build my small bridge - from Turkey to Jordan, and Tanzania to Australia. I just hope the rest of the US will follow...

Foundation of prayer

This past summer, by far one of the most important places I visited, and the one I miss most, is Taize in France. I made a bunch of posts about my experience in Taize (go check out July 2010) and since returning back to the states, I've been trying to figure out what it was that made Taize so special, why did it make such a difference on me?

Well this morning I was listening to a sermon and my pastor made the following point - Jesus didn't say my house will be called a house of music, or a house of worship. He didn't say that my house will be called a house of teaching or preaching. What Jesus did say, is that my house will be called a house of prayer.

It's not worship or preaching; prayer is what radically defines a place to be filled by a spiritual presence. It's not the walls of a beautiful church or the trickling water of a flowing stream - it's the prayer (our conversations with god) that fills those spaces which invites god into our presence.

While at Taize, I was struck by the simplicity and beauty of community in this small town hidden in the rolling french countryside. There was something that felt so 'magical' and 'holy' about this area, but what was it? I thought it was simplicity, but I think simplicity was simply a byproduct of the real reason - their focus on prayer.

Spending the majority of your day in prayer (we're talking multiple hours) inevitably creates a sense of simplicity. And I thought it was the simplicity that was missing from my home churches, but I don't think that that was the differentiating feature.

I've never really had a single church I call home - that's probably largely due to my tendency to travel the world and never be in one place for too long. So I tend to have different churches that have different strengths, and their combined efforts are what have a significant impact on me. I think the key aspects of church - prior to Taize - for me were teaching, worship, community, and service. And each church back home covered one of those areas quite well. But traveling to Taize - another church to add to my list (and I use the term church to refer to any community of believers together, whether it's in a traditional church building or not) - I realized that I was missing an important component - prayer. And it's funny that prayer is the one thing Jesus says will define his house - a house of prayer. I seemed to have missed that one in all my searching.

So it's not that the other components aren't still important, they are, it's just that prayer plays a significant difference in how I rely upon the other four areas. I'm slowly learning how to "raise the priority of prayer" in my own life, but I'm quickly realizing it's importance. I pray that I will never remain content or comfortable with my faith - that it will continue to expand and grow and uncover new truths - it's one of the most exciting journey's I've been on yet!

What's your motivating passion?

I should really track my frequency of blog post writing vs. time since my last international trip. It seems that every time I return back home after a trip abroad, I take at least a month break from writing. Maybe that's my way of dealing with culture shock back to the states, or perhaps I get swept so quickly back into this culture that I forget how much I enjoy writing. So, time to start this all back up again :)

First, for the personal side of things - since returning home I've been heavily involved with launching a nonprofit called New Leaf Initiative. It's an exciting platform for connecting individuals and organizations around the world to collaboratively tackle sustainability challenges together. Over the last few weeks, we've been building the community and reaching out to people who we know are committed to making the world a better place. It's been incredibly inspiring and encouraging to see the support of so many people who, when given the opportunity, jump at the chance to join others and make a difference. You can never have too many friends like that!! If you're interested in joining or working alongside New Leaf, check out our website and send us an email.

Now onto a few thoughts that have been tossing around in my head alongside New Leaf...

For those of you who know me, you probably realize that I like being busy. I like having my hands in a bunch of projects and helping impossible dreams turn into incredible realities. And as sincere as I can be, many of those projects come from a desire simply to make the world a better place - to do good.

But while I was up at State College this past week, my pastor posed a question that struck me and hasn't left my thoughts for quite some time. When it comes to leaving a mark in the world, what is your motivating passion?

And initially, my response was because I want to do good in the world. But then he went on, and began to tell this story.

In the days before his death, Jesus was hanging at home with all of his disciples and followers. While they were sitting around (presumably talking, maybe playing a bit of pool if they had it back then), Mary walks over to Jesus with a bottle of extremely expensive perfume, equivalent to about a year's wages. If that were nowadays, it would be equivalent to about $20,000 - clearly a very cherished possession of Mary's and something she had been saving for for quite awhile. As she neared Jesus, Mary opened the bottle of perfume and poured it over Jesus' body (maybe just his feet, perhaps his whole body, but the point being that she didn't just dab a bit on each wrist - she emptied the bottle). As she poured out her prized possession for Jesus, many of the disciples in the room became visibly upset and called Mary out, telling her that she was foolish in wasting the perfume. Rather, she should have sold the small jar of liquid and used the money to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, a direct response to Jesus' teachings over the past few days.

They were basically saying, "Mary, you could have done so much good in the world, why did you have to go and waste that opportunity?"

It's as if the disciples were responding to the question "When it comes to leaving a mark in the world, what is your motivating passion?" by saying - "to do good!"

I get it, I probably would have thought a very similar thing to those disciples.

But Jesus doesn't side with the disciples. He responds by telling them that the poor will always be with them, but he won't. What Mary had just done will be remembered throughout history when this story is told, and that she was doing what her heart led her to. What the disciples were overlooking was their motivating passion. Jesus wasn't looking for people simply to do good in the world; he was looking for people who love him. And out of those 'crazy love bursts,' people are led to extravagant generosity, and you find yourself pouring out $20,000 worth of liquid on someone's feet.

Sure, those love bursts will often lead to doing good in the world - because that seems to be one of the main purpose's of Jesus' time in this world - but it sometimes leads to more than that. It leads to irrational and seemingly absurd acts that aren't motivated by anything other than a crazy love for Christ, and subsequently, those around us. Sounds a bit radical, but I wouldn't expect much else.

So as those thoughts have been swirling around up in my head, I've been asking myself more frequently what is my motivating passion for doing good in the world? Is it for myself, is it for those around me, or is it out of a love for Christ.

I love the way that pastor dan explains how our hearts are transformed when we check our motivation - we find ourselves loving deeply, forgiving completely, serving sacrificially, and giving extravagantly. That's the kind of life I want to live. As I find myself caught up in the tornado of projects and exciting ventures over the next few months (which is inevitable), I hope that I can continue to remind myself of why I do the things I do, and who's behind it all.

If you're interested in listening more, check out Dan's sermon here, it's entitled 'Leave a Mark: Extravagant Generosity.' Thanks Dan for getting me thinking once again :)

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