Today Brian quoted the word, "numbness," to describe the coping reaction many of us develop to survive in American society each day. It is true, we get overcome by the passions of this world, the worries of a market economy, the insecurities of dependence on a global community, and the insatiable god of consumerism. We work as much as we can, spend as little as we can on as much as as we want and still feel like we are never getting ahead. And our endeavors toward, what I'd say is a myth, "getting ahead," dominates our efforts toward and our hope in "God's kingdom coming on earth."
We exhaust ourselves in striving for what we are told will provide lasting happiness, that we have little time or energy to think about the impracticalities of a radical call of Jesus to abandon all and take up our cross. No, we are so busy trying to protect ourselves from "crosses," that we end up bearing little resemblance to the carpenter who, in the face of accusations and suffering, sat in the homes of tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers and heathens, a Call we acknowledge on a Sunday morning but by Monday have no time for.
Yet the word, "numbness," gave me a new slant on this reality that I have struggled to describe since my return to the United States from overseas. It names an infirmity facing the North American church. Particularly, it is the deepest challenge of followers of Jesus, at this time in history, to live incarnationally and radically in our society.
When I first returned, I chalked up my struggle with the church to culture shock. I then started judging what I saw as apathy. I mourned it as a loss of zeal or fervency to missional living in everyday life as a Christian. But to diagnose it as a numbness makes it no less a challenge, but certainly more deserving of pity and understanding. It depicts a people who are burdened with something they can't control, at least at first look. They are captive to conformity . . . one could call it a form of mental subsistance living, a people bogged down, unable to think beyond their day to day cycles of making a livelihood and endeavors for personal comforts. It gets to the point that people have little or no imagination for what could be, for how we could live differently and for how our communities really could change to reflect the Kingdom of God in our day and age.
The shock of this reality for me, initially, was almost suffocating, a slowly encroaching lethargy that gets heavier and heavier, threatening any hope or happiness that one claims is possible through Christ. It was like fighting for fresh air, feeling heavy-hearted and not understanding why. When I tried to fight it, I got the feeling that people did not approve. To fight what is "normal" appears critical, foolish, immature and perhaps even rebellious. It makes the claims of freedom from worries sound irresponsible and naive. I wonder if the numbness people feel in life is something contagious, or maybe it is in the water, most certainly grows like a cancer that threatens to consume.
But what I heard today is that it is something we need to fight, to struggle against and proclaim freedom from. It is a matter of life or death, in my opinion. Not only a risk to our own vibrancy in our life in Christ, but also a matter of life for those around us who need to see a Christ that reaches out to them, that loves them as they are, where they are, in whatever state they are. The Body of Christ, in its brokenness and struggle, bears witness to a Christ that understands human suffering and still offers hope and freedom and joy. This in the face of a society that, conversely, proclaims fear, insecurity, judgment, gloom and doom when our independence is threatened and we may not get to live like we want.
The challenge is clear. We need to break free of this numbness. We need to break through the strongholds of a consumer and security dependent lifestyle. We need to throw off our inhibitions to following Christ's call to radical living in a society that demands conformity. We need to think critically about what we hear and who we listen to and what jargon we repeat. We need to submit ourselves to one another in humility and earnestness, seeking not the will of the majority, rather the will of the One who has sent us. We need to trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit and not our limited ability to figure it all out. Somehow we must break free of the numbness that binds us and keeps us from participating in ushering in the Kingdom. The Gospel is Good News and people want to hear it and see it. There is no time to waste! We need to re-spark the fervency to proclaim it and live it.
A Tribute to Alice Compain
An incredible woman. Knew Khmer fluently. Sat with the Cambodians in the refugee camps during Pol Pot time and listened to them sing their traditional songs. Played along on her violin and wrote both the Khmer words and music notes down. Eventually helped to put it all together to create the first Christian hymnal in Khmer. I was challenged and honored to have led singing during worship services at the ICF with her for many years.The OMF article:
Veteran OMF Missionary to Cambodia , Alice Compain, died soon after 3.00 am on Thursday 4th September ( UK time). She served in Laos before commencing her ministry here in the early 70’s. Alice was also a long term ICF member and was frequently seen playing her violin at the afternoon service. We have known for some time that she was growing weaker through the cancer she was diagnosed with two years ago. Despite her frail health, Alice ’s spirit has been as vibrant as ever these past two years, and many of us on the OMF team and in the Cambodian church have been so blessed by her continuing involvement with us through her prayer, counsel and advice from afar. Even last month she emailed the office to tell us which student should receive the violin strings she just posted from the UK ! I’m sure many of you have memories of Alice to share. She has been a godly and wise teacher, mother, sister, friend and example to several generations of people in Cambodia as well as in Laos and Thailand throughout her missionary life. She will be greatly missed. It was special to have had the opportunity to have held ‘farewells’ for Alice in 2007 both in Khmer church circles and in OMF when she visited Cambodia for the last time.
Let us be in prayer for Alice ’s family (sister and brother-in-law) and loved ones in the UK and her adopted country of Cambodia – Ling & Jean Luc Lebrun, Somalay and many others. Pray also for Naomi Sharp, also a former OMF missionary in Cambodia , who at Alice ’s request has a number of significant parts to play in the memorial service to be held soon.
We celebrate a life well lived in service of God. We may grieve but look forward with hope to the day of reunion that the Lord will give us.
Political Rhetoric and the Global Community
Karissa mentioned that she has continued to ponder the situation in the Middle East and ensuing questions regarding our role as the U.S. there in light of the current political season. I decided to post my observations.
I keep thinking to myself in this current political season how much I resonate with the philosophy that we NEED to be willing to humbly engage world leaders to find/nurture ways toward greater interdependence rather than continue our arrogant and fearful attempts to isolate ourselves from our global neighbors and persist in our attempts toward greater independence/self-sufficiency. I hear both views in the current political speeches. Some speak of hope for better global relationships, humble engagement with world leaders, attempts toward finding points of interdependence. Others continue the rhetoric of fear, our need to work toward greater self-sufficiency so that we can further isolate ourselves from our neighbors.
Part of my reflections on this has come out of my considerations of community vs. the society we have come to embody. I think part of the reason the U.S. is so fearful of the rest of the world (terrorism) and we pick/choose what parts of the world we pay attention to, is because we don't see other nations as friends or potential partners (in a sincere view of cooperation). Rather we see others as interests to maintain (and so we do so using heavy-handed diplomacy -- an oxymoron, if you ask me). As long as we nurture relationships based on interests, we will have enemies who have felt exploited, ignored or subservient. Thus the anger we see is not just because people of the world are jealous that we are rich and powerful, as I have heard good Christians reason, rather it is because of how we have used that wealth and power.
I also hear lots of Christians exclaim how generous we are as a society. And this is true. There are well meaning and loving people who have given of their excess to bless those less fortunate around the world. Yet the unfortunate backdrop to that is the precedent the U.S. has led. Giving from the U.S. is like asking a child to feel true love from an abusive father who gives a Christmas gift. Of course the child is happy, for the moment. But in the back of his/her mind is always the memory and experience of abuse and exploitation. Some may argue with this view, however, this is the sense I get as I piece together the feelings I hear from internationals.
I can't help but apply this philosophy and view toward what we see in the Middle East. The U.S. has been very strategic to guard its interests in that region at the expense of human relationships and respect. And, as Karissa, who traveled to that region, pointed out, much of the results of our "diplomacy" and sanctions has gone unnoticed by many Americans . . . because for the most part we don't take the time to care. We like being the "big brother" in the global family, and even handing out candy once in a while, yet we don't like the responsibility that comes with it, caring for our little brothers and sisters who need protection and looking for ways we can work together, depend on one another and respect one another.
We play favorites and then we wonder why people get offended.
Reflections on Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft
Back at the books . . . reflecting on readings from my Community Relations class . . . always a bit overwhelming when you first look at the syllabus . . . but this time a leadership class that speaks a lot to my personal style, thoughts on life and work experience.
Reading more of Sergiovanni who continues to challenge the accepted norms of relationships and interaction within society and organizations in his book, Building Community in Schools (1994). He applies the German metaphorical words noted by sociologist, Ferdinand Tonnies, gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, to explain two ideals of life or ways of thinking. These words are opposites on a continuum, but also symbolize the evolution of the conserving human institutions of family, community, and society. The closest English words to the German would be community and society, however, as is often the case, the extent of the meaning is hard to capture in just these two translations.
There are different forms of gemeinschaft, the sense that we see reflected in the concepts of community. The "we" identity is foundational to the sense of belonging from which community builds. Gemeinschaft can exist by kinship among families or extended family; of place, a common locale like a school or neighborhood; or gemeinschaft of mind, which can include people from different places who share common goals and a shared set of values. Unlike gesellschaft, in true community, relationships are not contractual, rather they are based on understandings about what is shared and on emerging webs of obligations that people follow to embody what is shared. "Communities are socially organized around relationships and the felt interdependencies that nuture them" (Blau and Scott, 1962). Communities are based on commitments, the sacred, the personal; society or organizations are more secular and relationships are contractual, more impersonal. Relationships in community or gemeinschaft thinking develop out of natural will, with no ulterior motive or tangible goal or benefit in mind.
Tonnies argues that as modern society evolves or advances, the world drifts further from the gemeinschaft end of the continuum toward the gesellschaft end. Connections between people are more contrived, artificially constructed. While in gemeinschaft, people can remain united despite separating factors, in the gesellschaft people are essentially separated in spite of all the uniting factors. Gesellschaft is the foundation for organizations and it is what promotes isolationism, independence and competition. Gesellschaft requires politeness as people exchange courtesies on the surface, promoting the good or all or equality. However, the underlying motive is self-interest; "what must I say or do to elevate my status or win a competition." People associate with each other for reasons; rational will examines the benefits of particular relationships. The hierarchy of corporations, organizations, and even schools run on this mentality.
There are many applications of this theory to the struggles we see in society and human relationships. Students who feel a lack of community within family or school will look for it in gangs. Organizations and schools are structured based on gesellschaft thinking, yet have the potential to embody some of gemeinschaft ideals. The reality is that human existance depends on some of both. Yet what struck me most is that, even in contexts that value community, how much we are taught to emulate the values of gesellschaft thinking. As professionals we are taught to act and evaluate organizationally, yet somehow embody community-mindedness.
One of my classmates and I were discussing how strange that, even in our leadership program, we are expected to create our vision as school leaders, yet this class re-emphasizes that vision is something that should come out of the members of the community. Our job is to mobilize people by helping them create their own vision and action plan based on felt needs and available resources within the community. If leaders create the vision for the community, there is less buy-in and it takes more effort from the leader to figure out all the details later. It is risky. The alternative is also tricky. Getting a community to create and develop its own vision takes lots of time and energy initially. It takes enormous effort from the leader to keep the momentum in the process as it begins. Yet it pays off later as more people are willing to help take the lead of various aspects of the action plan. The vision is more natural and fits the context. It, in itself, helps to build the sense of community, motivation and interconnectedness needed to nurture relationships.
I realize that my preferred style is the latter. Helping groups develop their own vision is what I did best in my work in Cambodia. But in that role, I saw myself as more of a consultant or an advisor. I merely facilitated the process. Even when I was a part of the leadership team, I acted more as a facilitator of the process. I see more and more that I am not so confident in coming up with a vision on my own and telling a group what they should be doing or even what "we" will be doing (though that is needed to a certain extent in most cases). My approach to any group or job or situation seems to be to try to assess the values or goals of the group to see how I can fit in or help the group process what they want to do. So even though my training has primarily focused on organizational thinking, I see more clearly that the values of community fit well with my personal style. This has been very helpful for me to identify as I continue in this program and consider what my vision really is as a leader in education.