Challenging American Individualism

We evaluate people on how independent they are. Do they take charge of their own life? Do they care what others think about them?

Whatever problem you face or life situation you’re in, you will be recommended to “Take charge–it’s your life.” “Be the hero of your own story.” “Stop caring what other people think, just be yourself.” And being yourself often means leaving any expectation that anyone else has of you and going off to “find your true self.”

But what if your true self is some how entangled in the expectations of others? We tend to value teamwork when eventually it leads to choosing a hero, when it benefits us, for some, certain, few goals. But the fact is when we work in teams we all know everyone has their own agenda, everyone is still trying to live their own personal version of the American Dream.

That in, and of itself has formed you and I as mainstream Americans in the way we view ourselves, the way we find ourselves, and the way that we think. It is the framework by which we live our individual, set-apart, independent lives.

I want to challenge this way of thinking. Bare with me, you have striven your whole life to live this way, and the fact is that most of us end up feeling lonely, disconnected, and unfulfilled… so you might as well hear me out.

As Americans we are trying to fit life into a certain kind of mold that life doesn’t fit into. The Western world has become increasingly more independent and individualistic, but if you travel very far outside that you’ll find that most people don’t think  about themselves the way we think about ourselves. I don’t think that it is totally unique to the United States of America, but in a way, it does set us apart. Our history as a nation has made us somewhat special in the way that we view independence.

We want something with no strings attached. Jobs without commitment, relationships that begin and end when we decide, families without expectations. Somehow this all leads us to decide that living your own life, regardless of how it affects other people is not only okay, but it marks you as an adult, it makes you an independent thinker, and gives you some amount of happiness. I don’t think this is a good thing.

Life has strings attached. 

The choices we make affect other people and we should consider those effects. We want to all be the star of our own movie. But life doesn’t work like a movie and if it did there are simply a lot more supporting roles than there are lead parts. And when you quit being a supporter you end up in a movie like Cast-Away. It’s you as Tom Hanks and your own personal Wilson Volleyball as the supporting role. When everyone wants to be their own movie star in their own life movie we are literally making the same movie over and over again. Divorce is high. Familial satisfaction is low.

We want God without strings attached. We want love when we can walk away at anytime. We want lives where we dream our own dreams regardless of the cost.

That may be all well and good for a while, but think about where it’s gotten us. As a nation we are not united. Our families are broken. Our government shuts down. We have no harmony. We haven’t worked for the good of everyone, we’ve only worked for our own personal dreams… something we’ve given ourselves right to.

Yes, you have the right to be your own person. But it will cost you very, very dearly. Independence doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness… or our people would be exuberant with life. We are rich in wealth as a country, but we are lonely.

In America, we want a winner. In China, they value compromises that benefit everyone. What if instead of everyone living their own life with their own plot and being their own hero, people decided we could all make a movie together, with a plot that benefited everyone?

Love and life never are “no strings attached.” There is no such thing as a free lunch, as the sayings go. If you want to make the most out of your life and your relationships you need to acknowledge the strands of other’s lives. Not only do our lives intersect like roads, but they are like a pile of spaghetti or when all the necklaces or little chains and strings in your jewelry all become entangled with one another.

Perhaps the tapestry is the best analogy. You aren’t a picture alone. Yes you’re loved and wanted as an individual. But as an individual you are just a string. Together we make a picture.

If you’re a Christian, and even if you aren’t, I think that God wants us to realize that we are so much better as a collective. God wants us to lose our me-first attitude.

Friends, American Christians, God loves us unconditionally, but I really don’t think that if you accept the gospel with no strings attached that you will ever live the life God is calling you to. Accepting Christ means accepting a covenant. You accept his mission. You accept his way. You accept that you are no longer a lead in your own movie. You play a role in a movie that everyone can be part of. In a plot that will result in Heaven.

And remember Heaven has nothing to do with your personal paradise. Revelation says that all of the nations will be present. And Heaven won’t be about you.

Life isn’t about you. It’s not about your personal story. And when we live like it is when end up lonely, exiled, hurt, bitter, victimized and divided.

Life is about that complicated web of situations and people around you. And I don’t think that accepting a desire for group harmony, group goals, and togetherness means ignoring who you are. But maybe who you are is a part of a bigger picture and a person who truly cares about supporting the other people in your life.

Life isn’t about leaving expectations of others to find our true selves, life is more about finding out how to love despite disappointment, accepting a supporting role, and journeying together as people.

There’s my brainstorm, hopefully something less vague to come.

 

What my favorite Christmas song & Dreamworks “The Prince of Egypt” have to do with why our battle is so much bigger than “keeping Christ in Christmas”

Christmas is a season that holds a lot of emotions for many of us. Not so recently, it’s politically charged. Still  some how it’s all wrapped in this desire to finally feel childlike faith again. We watch ELF for the millionth time, It’s a Wonderful Life (actually… I’ve never seen it), a Charlie Brown Christmas, pick your cup of hot chocolate.  Honestly, I could stand to watch “The Prince of Egypt.” If you’re unfamiliar with the movie it’s the some what hollywoodified animated cartoon of the Biblical account of Moses and the Exodus. This doesn’t sound very much like Christmas at all. But on a tribute to the comment made last night about my favorite Christmas song “O Come Emmanuel” I just have to tie everything back to freeing the slaves. And in the beginning the slaves sing “Deliver us! Remember us!” Very similar to my favorite Christmas song:

“O come, o come Emmanuel,

Ransom captive Israel,

Who mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appears.”

The word Emmanuel is commonly translated as God be with us. I think it means “the God who is near.” In this song and the Bible there are parallels between the story of the Exodus and the story of Jesus.

So the first line cries out to the God who is near. Saying “where is the God who was once near to us?” “Where is the God who came close and was with us?”

For 400 years the Israelites were seemingly abandoned by God. The song is so perfectly written about the gap period, a period of silence from God. This gap is shown in that single page in your Bible between the last chapter the Old Testament book of Malachi and the first Gospel book of Matthew.  But this isn’t the first mention of nearly 400 years of silence. The first book of the Bible (Genesis) ends with the clan of Israel (whose name was Jacob) settled fruitfully in Egypt. Some years later we’re told that a new pharaoh came to reign and did not like the Israelites, they were forced into slavery and their labor was made difficult. The 12 tribes of the nation Israel were held captive in slavery for nearly 400 years. Until something happened. Until God spoke. And he spoke to one man–one man to change the course of history.

In Exodus 3:7 the Lord says to Moses: “I have indeed seen the misery o my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.”

This becomes the first great rescue of God’s people. God rescues his people time and time again. And after another 400 years of silence God sends another rescuer–Jesus Christ.

The magnitude of God in the flesh, a God we can see, a God that we longed for coming and rescuing his people once again has become trivialized. Yet Christianity in America seems to fight this battle in a very simple, yet ineffective way.  We do it by refusing to say “Happy Holidays.” We do it by forcefully and stubbornly ignoring political correctness. But we’ve made a mistake. We seem to think this is a battle of the church fighting political correctness, that somehow political correctness is a threat to our way of life. Let me tell you something:

Someone saying Happy Holidays to you does not mean you are being persecuted… I have a lot to say on the persecuted church as a woman who has been to illegal churches in South China.

We have chosen the wrong battle to fight. And we’ve chosen to fight it in the wrong way.

People all over the world are asking “Where is the God who should be near?” And people are saying “If God is real, why isn’t he doing anything to stop this.”

But God has done something. God has left it up to us. In the ancient Bible priest came after priest, prophet after prophet… and our last account of this was Jesus Christ. God sent us his son. And then what happened? What was foreshadowed to us in the Exodus, in God freeing his people from slavery, was given as a commission. And the Commission was this: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Surely, I am with you always, even unto the very end of the age” (Matthew 28: 19-20, NIV).

What did Jesus command? What did he teach? He taught the disciples to love, he taught them to heal, he showed them to be humble, taught them to trust, told them to visit prisoners, to care for the orphans and the widows. He taught them to look after the vulnerable, no matter how tough their situations, no matter how sinful the circumstances. He even said that those who did this did it for God, as if Jesus himself was in prison, or hungry, or cold. When we fail to do this for others, we fail to have done it for Christ… and the Bible says those of us who stood to “His left,” those who followed an agenda that failed to reach out past themselves, past their church walls, into the broken, sometimes heartless world, would never see Heaven (Matthew 25).

When we miss out on reaching out, we miss out on Heaven. For the mean time I’m going to leave out opinions of what happens when we die… Heaven is even more real than that. When sin entered the world it took physical form. Sin isn’t just what we call the bad things we do, but it’s the bad things in the world. It takes the form of physical chains that hold people in bondage, it takes the form of disease, it takes the form of the physical earth deteriorating. There’s garbage. Garbage that we say. Garbage that we do. Literal physical garbage that people live in.

I took a trip down to visit my Compassion daughter in Bolivia this May with my Fiance, Stephen. Santa Cruz, Bolivia is not a city of riches, and the more we ventured out into the outskirts of the town, the more the roads became dirt, and the buildings became shacks. We entered the barrio, assembled on top of a landfill. In that landfill there were children living. But there was also a church living there. The church didn’t even come in and then leave every night. But the church is there in permanent form. That church, in partnership with Compassion International breaks poverty cycles. Every time a cycle is broken for a child, a little more Heaven is there.

The Gospel of Jesus is deep, it’s challenging. It’s more challenging than being called out for saying “Merry Christmas” when it’s not politically correct. Our battle is so much bigger than that. If you believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then you, with me are charged with doing something. We are called to care for orphans. We’re called to fight for real justice. We’re called to take care of the earth.

I recently watched this commercial for giving: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrgcrnraUnM. I’d say it’s controversial, I’m sure you have an opinion on it. But I think it has to do with the real battle that the modern day Western Church faces: we’re too comfortable. We’ve reduced giving to clicking a button. But that isn’t a sacrifice. Honestly, we’ve not given anything. We have reduced persecution to mild discomfort of not agreeing with people on politics. We are as much a culprit in missing the purpose of Christmas as anyone else. We’re in danger of missing out on Heaven.

God set an entire nation of people free over and over again. And he sets us free too. But he’s also called us, to help in the mission of setting people free. As a whole we need to stop arguing theology and start seeking God in practical ways. As a nation we need to stop copping out by calling clicking a button sacrificing. Our generations, Christian and non-Christian are searching for meaning in the comfortable lives that we live. We fight small battles, battles with little mission, battles with little purpose. We have ducked out of relationships for individualism. We’ve ducked out of commitment. We’ve ducked out of companionship. We are divided over trivial things. Our world is divided by color, by money, by citizenship, by language, by popularity. We miss out on Heaven.

You won’t see Heaven by clicking a button. You have to get out in the world and love people. You have to get out there and fight for something bigger than yourself. Don’t fight with words that fall on deaf ears. But I believe God is calling us as a nation, as a generation, as his Moseses.

I have no doubt, God has heard the cry of the people in bondage. He has looked to us and said “Go. Go to all nations, make disciples, break chains, teach them there’s a new way to live.”

Myself, I feel I’ve been caught in comfortable. And there’s a reason our lives feel unsettling. We have been called to something much greater and we sit in our little worlds and we don’t reach out to co-workers, we don’t stand up for orphans and widows, we have done nothing to welcome the hundreds and thousands of people who come from all over the world to our city looking for a new start. We get comfortable and we miss out on Heaven, sitting in church, saying “merry Christmas.” We hide behind Nativity Scenes, we band together behind politics and TV shows, and an agenda. But God’s agenda was much more straight forward, “Give it all up,  come follow me.”

To you in bondage of comfortable, or meaninglessness, addiction, whatever, follow God out. There’s a way out. He has made for you an escape from your slavery.

For those of you who are free, in any sense of the word. Be like Moses, be like Harriet Tubman. They fled the darkness of slavery. Harriet was a slave herself, with physical chains and physical beatings. Moses saw the darkness of what people like her faced, he made his move against the status quo… Killed a slave master and fled his fate. But God called them both back. Not to slavery but to the slaves.

We don’t have to be the heroes of the world. God is the hero. But we have been given the power and the authority to change the status quo, to fight for justice, to love the broken and the needy no matter the circumstance. If God has saved you, then go into the world and connect with people. As the prophet Isaiah, who wrote of the coming of Christ, said:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).

Proclaim freedom.

God came down in the flesh. We celebrate Christmas because He got down on our level. He made himself human, approachable, even homeless. Meet people right where they are. Speak their language. Love them where they are. Let yourself be approachably human. Open yourself to a celebration that includes outcasts, enemies, the broken, the needy, the labeled. So when you give, give of yourself. Proclaim Christmas by meeting people where they are. Proclaim the Gospel and stop playing games that divide us. Start uniting yourself with friendships, the kind that cross boundaries of lonliness, of darkness, of war. Giving money will never amount to real world change. To change the world we have to change the way we think and the way we act, and then the kingdom of Heaven will be near. Jesus said in Mark 1:15 “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is near. Change the way you think and act, and believe the Good News.” And then he started calling people from their ordinary lives to live in extraordinary ways.

And the world is singing “My deliverer is coming, my deliverer is standing by.”

A Mid-afternoon Cup of Tea

(I found this blog post unpublished from July 17, 2013)

To the few, the sparse, the beloved readers I have, I have neglected you. I also feel I have neglected myself. You may have noted my travelings, ponderings, and overall life adventure has lead me back to China (of course). I’m about 3/4 through this journey. A few months ago I was selected for the U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship. Which has lead me to be back in China, this time in the tropical, island city of Xiamen located just across from Taiwan.

The program is an intensive study of Chinese which is a language considered ‘critical’ by the American government. Needless to say it’s a little intense and between that and my spotty access to normal webpages like wordpress I have not written much. This is actually mostly due to a constant state of brain-friedness and an increasing inability to speak English like a native. I’m not sure this is due to my increasing Chinese fluency, but more due to the fact that I simply have not spoken pure English in quite some time. Directly before coming to China my fiance and I spent a week in Bolivia speaking Spanglish. Now I’ve always been known to speak Chinspanglish. To elaborate, to say I speak Chinese, Spanish, and English would be a gross misinterpretation. It generally just means I am unintelligible in three languages as I often blend them together to say things such as “Gracias, Zaijian!” I now make zero sense in three languages. It’s lovely.

I am happy to say my Chinese has improved. My English has… deteriorated, and I’m surprised I was able to conjure up a specific word like that. And I still throw in “Esta bien” in English or Chinese conversation. You’ll just have to get over it.

Xiamen is lovely. It’s an island, it’s always warm, there’s always a beach within a few miles, and the university I study at is a tourist destination. Only a couple hundreds tourists are allowed into the campus per day, it’s still fairly disruptive to regular life. I often have to tell tourists I don’t really have time to take a picture with all of them. I feel a little rude…. at the same time, it’s a little strange that they want a picture with me. And it’s never just one. Chinese people travel in large groups and often every person in the group wants a picture.

I did have another student as myself and my room mate to help her friends get into the campus. Tourists have to wait in a long line to come in. Lauren and I went out the gate found her friends and I shout “hey! Ni hao! Long time no see!” The two girls look really confused. I just keep talking in Chinese as we walk past the guards and show our cards no stopping chattering. He asks if we’re friends, I reply “of course! they’re going to help me with my Chinese! We haven’t known each other long because I’m new to Xiamen etc. etc. Then he questions whether or not we know their names and of course we don’t. So we tell him “oh this is so embarrassing their Chinese names are too hard to remember. We only know their English names Katherine and Sarah.” Eventually he lets us in.

That was an adrenaline rush. Probably shouldn’t have done that. The girls talked to us for a few minutes and offered to take us to lunch but I think we had to do homework. We probably should have had lunch. It’s better practice and more fun.

Personal space? There’s really not any here in China. It’s also perfectly fine to push people. And lines mean very little. If you were the kid who got really justicey when people cut line for snacks in kindergarten I really don’t recommend coming to China.

People always make inferences about you based on how you look, this is just life. It’s a little odd for me as a white person to realize that people are making decisions to talk to me or not talk to me based completely on my foreign status. I’ve had my picture taken hundreds of times just because I’m white, and lots of people want to be my friend because I’m a Westerner. It’s a great way to make new friends. And it’s great to have friends that are different than you. Sometimes I wish the US was more outgoing and welcoming to those who are new. But I’ve not seen a “foreigner” discount on anything in America.

Chinese people are very friendly and usually incredibly helpful. But being foreign has a dark side. First of all, you need a lot of friends and a lot of help to do anything. Maybe you’ve witnessed it or maybe you’ve been on one side of a confusing conversation with a person who isn’t a native speaker. It’s hard to be the person who isn’t the native speaker. People lose patience with you pretty quickly. Sometimes they just don’t listen to what you’re telling them. Sometimes you tell the person at 麦等老 McD’s that you want icecream (bingqiling) and they give you a bucket of fried chicken. Sometimes it takes 30 minutes to get the order right. Other times, people just refuse to talk to you so you can order your train ticket. Sometimes you’re too much trouble.

It’s tough to be a non-native speaker. It’s really tough  to learn how to do everything in a new way. Hopefully you’ll keep that in mind the next time you meet a non-native speaker. But I’ve had a strange experience abroad. I’ve done many “firsts” abroad. Like my first time being hospitalized, my first time living in a dorm, my first time living alone, the first trip I took on a train, and a boat load of other things. All stories in an of themselves.

I think that’s all I have for now.