Learning to Listen

My senior year at Queens University of Charlotte, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Center is a resource center for folks who are homeless or suffering from extreme poverty. The first few months, I was stationed behind the front desk welcoming our neighbors, handing out mail, and directing them to the proper location for showers, a meal, and laundry. The second half of the year, I spent as a counselor helping to guide our city’s neighbors to helpful resources, to obtain birth certificates and social security cards.

I come from the typical middle income household raised in rural West Virginia. I am a white male and have never really known hard times. Although my family was affected by the recession, we always had food in the fridge and never experienced homelessness. In fact, I admire the perseverance of my parents through job loss and a drastic lifestyle change. Even while I was in college (in a private institution) during my poorest moments, I managed to have money for gas and beer. Entering into this opportunity at the Urban Ministry Center, I had a very narrow perspective of poverty and homelessness. I still asked myself, “why can’t people just get jobs?” and was very unaware of my white privilege. I’m from a state that is 93% white and from a country with a higher percentage.

During my time as a counselor I met with folks from all races and from all backgrounds. Each session, I would meet with a handful of people and heard all of their stories. Each week, I would leave the Center with a feeling of despair and exhaustion from hearing the struggles of others. At times, some would just want to see me for free bus passes and telling them that I’m not able to give out freely, they would become irritated. I saw fights and witnessed several moments when I didn’t understand why some were not appreciative of the work of the Center.

I believe I could’ve walked away from this experience feeling justified that most people just want to “take advantage of the system.” I could have walked away feeling like there is nothing good hearted people could do unless people decided to help themselves. To a certain extent, I certainly believe that as humans, we must be willing to help ourselves and with that comes sacrifices. However, with deeper reflection I walked away from this experience with one of the most important aspects of life-learning how to listen to others. I gained an understanding that my story and the story of others is not the only story. As a white male living in this country, I can’t inject my own experience into the stories of others. I can no longer claim easy responses for some of our society’s gravest problems. As a white man, I cannot just ride into the problems of the world on a white horse with all the answers.

I am thankful for this experience as well as so many that have led me on a journey where solutions are not always neat and clean; On a path that has ultimately landed me in seminary where listening is often times more needed than having answers.

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New days. New beginnings.

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Seventeen youth spent this past weekend being led in Bible study and worship by Dan and a former student at UNCC, Josh Crisp. I’m so appreciative of the folks who are willing to give their time to help our teenagers wrestle with scripture and faith. I’m thankful for Beth Heaton and Molly French, along with all the volunteer chaperones, for making time to spend with our youth. Teenagers need to see that practicing faith and living in community can be maintained after leaving the nest, and our volunteers model that so well for our youth.

The focus for the weekend was on the coming of God’s Kingdom and what might happen to us when this earthly body passes away. In our society, young people have so many worries: grades, tests, sports, college acceptance, discrimination, wars and rumors of wars, fear of the unknown. We all worry about mistakes we’ve made or people we’ve hurt. The list can go on and on.

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On Sunday morning, I, accompanied by Jackson Knight, awoke up to catch the sunrise . As we sat there watching the sun peak over the horizon of the Atlantic, I reflected on the lyrics of a song we sang, “and I don’t have time to maintain these regrets when I think about the way [God] loves us. Oh how he loves us.” I also thought about Dan’s message on the hope we must maintain in the coming Kingdom of God. We have hope of a new day and new beginnings. A hope that allows us to live life to the fullest even now.

As people, we mess up. But as followers of Jesus, we’re offered the opportunity to live as family. We exist in a community where we not only offer apologies when mistakes are made but open our hearts to forgive freely. We mustn’t linger in the darkness waiting for our lives and the world to worsen but uplift one another with a hopeful message.

Although the setting sun brings darkness, we are reminded that the sun will rise again to begin a new day and new moments for us to allow God’s kingdom to shine through our lives.

As a functional Aspergian adult, one thing troubles me deeply about those kids who end up behind the second door. Many descriptions of autism and Asperger’s describe people like me as “not wanting contact with others” or “preferring to play alone.” I can’t speak for other kids, but I’d like to be very clear about my own feelings: I did not ever want to be alone. And all those child psychologists who said “John prefers to play by himself” were dead wrong. I played by myself because I was a failure at playing with others. I was alone as a result of my own limitations, and being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life. The sting of those early failures followed me long into my adulthood, even after I learned about Asperger’s.

John Elder Robison                                                                                                                                                     Look me in the eye

Moments of Hope

It has become difficult for me to watch or read the news without getting a feeling of helplessness. I generally start my morning listening to NPR, sporadically update myself with news throughout the day, and finish with reading election news. I’m not 100% why I have continued to do this because I feel a drop in my mood when I read about another bomb exploding or death of a migrant. Even though I am intentional with taking in as much positive news as I can, it is still difficult to not be impacted with the self-destructive nature of humanity.

The other day, I joined Ben and his brothers at a local city lake to throw bread to the ducks. Being able to remove myself from the daily busyness of life, I was reminded of simple joys. We all were so excited to watch as the ducks, swans, carp, and even turtles gather to be fed. As I sat on the edge of the water, I took a second glance around me. I realized I heard Arabic to my right and Spanish to my left. Several mothers dressed in hijabs were laughing and couldn’t pass bread quick enough to their children. One little boy came over to discuss his game plan for throwing his pieces to the turtle. The kids on the left were jumping up and down cheering on the animals.

I realized it was these small moments that I’m reminded by the goodness in humanity. These moments when we’re reminded that regardless of language, color of skin, or religion that we can live together, in harmony. It is in these instances that I can forget about suicide bombers or immigration law to just enjoy humanity at its finest; knowing that we all just want to live peaceful lives. This is the hope I will continue to hold on to.

Thoughtful reflections on refugees and migrants

Abraham Journeyed to a New Country
  BUNESSAN 5.5.5.4 D   (“Morning Has Broken”)

Abraham journeyed to a new country;
Sarah went with him, journeying too.
Slaves down in Egypt fled Pharaoh’s army;
Ruth left the home and people she knew.

Mary and Joseph feared Herod’s order;
Soldiers were coming! They had to flee.
Taking young Jesus, they crossed the border;
So was our Lord a young refugee.

Some heard the promise—God’s hand would bless them!
Some fled from hunger, famine and pain.
Some left a place where others oppressed them;
All trusted God and started again.

Did they know hardship?  Did they know danger?
Who shared a home or gave them some bread?
Who reached a hand to welcome the stranger?
Who saw their fear and gave hope instead?

God, our own families came here from far lands;
We have been strangers, “aliens” too.
May we reach out and offer a welcome
As we have all been welcomed by you.

Biblical references:  Genesis 12, Ruth 1; Matthew 2:13-16, 25:31-46; Hebrews 13:2; Leviticus 19:18, 33-34
Tune:  Gaelic melody
Text:  Copyright © 2010 Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.  All rights reserved.

Why this millenial still chooses church.

What if the church ceased to exist? All the four walled buildings, the community, the Word, and the revelations were no longer part of our society?

In my years of doubt and hopelessness toward the church, I would have imagined that our world would get along much better without this man-made institution that clings to an understanding of the divine which continues to discriminate, judge, and condemn. Too often, the words, “I love my neighbor, but…” are spoken by professing church goers who claim to follow a Christ that loved, lived, and died without conditions. How is the church making a difference in our communities with these convictions? I will admit that I agreed with my unreligious and skeptical atheist brothers and sisters that if the “church” disappeared, it would have little effect except making the world a more peaceful place.

BUT, what if the church actually ceased to exist? Is faith an irrelevant and irrational practice used by our ancestors as a way to control the masses that meant nothing to anyone? This is where skeptics lose me. As much as I have tried, I cannot conclude that faith is irrelevant and irrational. For centuries, communities of faith have been a saving grace for so many. Although the church has and does allow power, envy, and control to be a destructive force, there is no doubt in my mind that hope, comfort, love, tolerance, and acceptance existed and still flourishes. There has been and still is meaning for faith. Our collective voice can be a driving force for social justice and change; to bring good news to the down trodden and marginalized.

When I hear those loud voices that attempt to speak for all believers, clinging tightly to their own understanding of God’s message to the world, I am reminded that my silence allows these voices to hold a monopoly on faith. If every person that does not believe in a mainstream God decide to leave the church, the only God that will be heard will be the one being told to us by Fox News and politicians seeking votes.

My faith and appreciation for things unknown are too important for my life to so easily allow humans to box in and make the divine one dimensional. I still believe in a God that is with us and for us; A God that flows through us and breathes new life into our bodies. We thirst for communities that accompanies us on this journey of life and personally, I yearn for the presence of others to not only share my joys, but to suffer with me through my darkest times. That is church to me.

As I reflect on the life of Christ, my conclusions always come back to the importance of being present in each other’s lives, living as light of hope for the world, and self-reflection in order to open our hearts to a deeper calling of humility, justice, and righteousness. The church, when I open myself up to it, gives me a place to help cultivate my mind and spirit. The church offers me with folks who encourage and love me while pushing me to think more critically and live a better life. The church has been a saving grace for my own life and I’m not convinced that saving grace is a thing of the past.

Until then, I thought people who had been born to these upscale white-collar jobs must be inherently superior to a high school dropout like me. But I was wrong.

John Elder Robison
Look me in the eye