People and buildings

Market in Union Square
After 3 days in Manhattan it's hard to process the time. As a teacher I'm leading a group of students in an educational experience of urban culture that's been exciting, inspiring and challenging in all sorts of ways. Yet much of the time I find I'm the student right alongside them.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected to encounter. We have a pretty tight itinerary of planned activities ranging from visiting landmarks to museums to hurricane relief to to churches to wandering streets, squares, and parks. So in some ways, there haven't been many surprises. But two things have stood out to me. 

First, it's the people. One could come to New York just to watch and interact with people. The constant motion of of everyone all telling a different story, but stories that combine to present the story of that is New York. It's fascinating to observe, and being here, to add our stories to this bigger tale of the Big Apple. 

And then there is the buildings. Initially, the heights themselves were actually not as immense as I expected. But the density! And the vast expanse of concrete, brick and steel goes on and on and on. When I'm not watching people I'm looking up or around.

Anyway, this is just an initial thought from our first days engaging New York with Praxis. We have much more to see and do and hear!

New York City

Well, you may have wondered about the quiet here lately - it hasn't been for a lack of things on my mind! In fact, tonight I'm departing with my group of Praxis students to spend 10 days in New York City.

As group we'll be engage in a variety of activities that extend what we’ve been studying and experiencing related to faith in urban culture. In particular, we are partnering with Mennonite Disaster Services (MDS) to help with hurricane relief work ongoing after Sandy in 2012. We are touring church parishes with the fine folks at Trinity Grace Church. We also have the chance to visit the Mennonite Central Committee office at the United Nations. Along the way we’ll also be learning more about New York City and its complex culture, from social issues such as homelessness to its thriving arts scene (yes, we get to see a Broadway show!). All this to say, it's an exciting time to be embarking on this inaugural Praxis trip and I can’t wait to share stories of the experience.

Hopeful Work

Much of my time is spent with college students in the midst of discerning their future jobs and careers. In this process, it can sometimes be difficult to discern how following Jesus and finding the perfect job relate, if at all.
A helpful resource I’ve found is Ben Witherington III’s book Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. He traces a couple of different approaches to faith and work that are commonly accepted.

First, he cites one of my favorite quotes from Frederick Buechner in which work is described as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” This approach seeks to line up our personal desires with the needs of those around us. Personal fulfillment is only found in serving others. One challenge, according to Witherington, is such a view can overemphasize our own satisfaction in serving others. The emphasis, in the end, is only personal.

An alternative, then, is to take a more social approach to determining the relationship between faith and work. Working off of David Jenson, Witherington defines work from this perspective as “any activity with an obligation towards self, others, community, and God.” Service itself - “obligation” - is the grid for worthy work. Positively, this view validates many different activities as worthy callings. Yet it is so broad, Witherington points out, that it doesn’t give much room to assess the negative aspects of certain jobs. How do we factor in or assess unhealthy obligation?

In light of these two approaches, Witherington offers his perspective, a “kingdom” approach to faith and work. “[Work is] any necessary and meaningful task that God calls and gifts a person to do and which can be undertaken to the glory of God and for the edification and aid of human being, being inspired by the Spirit and foreshadowing the realities of the new creation.”

This proposal values both personal and social aspects to work - calling, giftedness, help and encouragement are all key to meaningful work “inspired by the Spirit.” I find this balance helpful in avoiding the extremes of personal satisfaction and social obligation. But it’s Witherington’s last point on “foreshadowing” that is often missing when we think of vocation and calling - how does our work anticipate and reflect a future hope? As Christians, our hope is placed in the reconciliation of all things (Col. 1:19-20) - a return to the wholeness and peace (shalom) that characterizes God’s deepest intent for all of creation, humanity included. This means that work isn’t just about “putting in our time” until our ultimate desires are fulfilled in the future. Rather, as Witherington suggests, our work can offer a foretaste of such fulfillment. Witherington suggests these crucial questions to help in discerning a job or career:
  • Is this work that foreshadows the Kingdom and its ends and aims and character?
  • Does this work help or hinder the kingdom?

In this sense, kingdom work is hopeful work. Hope for ourselves, yes. But also hope for the whole world. This, as I tell my students, is work worth striving for.


What’s your attitude towards drug addicts? Or towards people who suffer with one or more of the many other addictions prevalent in our culture (e.g. sex, food, $$, etc…)?

I recently finished reading Gabor Maté’s book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. What I thought was to be an informative book on the many facets of drug addiction from one of the leading experts (and it was!), ended up also being a challenging commentary on all humans and our shared propensity to find solace from many of life’s pains and sorrows. It is in the search for such solace that addiction is found - a search we are all on in one way or another. Using his experience as a doctor working with drug addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Maté traces the complexity of addictions, examining the dynamic social, personal, spiritual, and biological factors that lead to various forms of addiction.

A major implication of Maté’s work is that addiction is not just about about “them” (“them” being drug addicts or those marginalized in places like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside). Society too often dehumanizes drug addicts, marginalizing them without recognizing the common humanity we all share, but which drug addicts so visibly express. Maté describes “a culture that projects its darkest features onto the addict and makes addicted people into scapegoats for its shortcomings.” The result is a culture of exclusion, to which Maté offers a pointed challenge: “The fundamental question is whether or not we recognize those people as human beings who are legitimately part of the social fabric deserving compassion and respect.”

Oftentimes a response to drug addiction focuses only on the behavior of the addicts themselves. How do you overcome addiction? Stop doing drugs! Such a simplistic approach ignores the need for social support so crucial to overcoming harmful addictions. As Maté summarizes, “we keep trying to change people’s behaviours without a full understanding of how and why those behaviors arise.” Any attempt at such understanding requires an engaged relationship, actually knowing “them” not as problems, but friends. Addressing addiction means addressing ourselves.

"If we want to help people seek the possibility of transformation within themselves, we first have to transform our own view of our relationship to them."

fear and belonging - homelessness in Abbotsford
Photo courtesy of the Abbotsford News
This week I participated in an important public meeting in my community. I've mentioned it before, but Abbotsford is decided on whether or not to approve the zoning of part of our downtown core for a supportive housing project based on a housing-first model. The public hearing started at 7pm and the last speaker left the podium at 1am. To say the issue got the community's attention (and participation) is a huge understatement! Unfortunately, the issue has been quite polarazing, filled with unhelpful rhetoric from all angles, making consensus and collaboration far from a reality. A decision will be made on February 17.

There were two main issues I noticed and felt like I needed to address to our city's leaders. First, a common response to such projects is fear. Fear for business. Fear for families and neighbourhoods. Fear, quite plainly, of "them" (this wasn't the case for all the opposition, but for many it was). Here's what I urged council to consider regarding the fears:

Much of the opposition I’ve heard is based on fears, both economic and social. We can’t ignore the presence of these fear, lest we’re naive. Yet we also can’t let ourselves make decisions based on fears. As no doubt we’ve all experienced personally, fear can be crippling. The greatest progress, personally and socially, is in addressing and overcoming fear, not merely accepting it. I urge us as a community, and you as leaders, to decide on this project based on courage in the face of fear.

Additionally, many of the fears around homelessness and addiction are based on stereotypes that just aren’t true. For example, a genuine fear is that homeless and addicted people are a direct danger to our businesses and families. That statement creates fear. But is it true? Since moving back to Abbotsford last year, myself and my 5-year-old son have met several “dangerous” people here in Abbotsford, building relationships and sharing stories about life in this community As a family, there are times when we’ve received more focused attention and care in these “dangerous” situations than when we’re visiting many of the “safe” places we spend time as family. As a parent, I’ve had fears about projects like this. But when I’ve faced my fear, I’ve found relationship and openness. I’m not afraid of this supportive housing project because when I’ve felt fear, I’ve only experienced belonging and relationship. There are cases in Abbotsford (George Schmidt Center and Christine Lamb Center) as well many other places in the Lower Mainland where the common fears are never realized. 

And the other dynamic at play is a broader issue of how we function as communities and who in fact we consider is worthy of belonging through our many structures, be those economic, social, or otherwise. I urged our mayor and council to make a decision that reflected belonging, not exclusion:

Homelessness, addiction, and crime are most often symptoms of exclusion, personally and socially. If we continue to exclude the most vulnerable people in our community, we only perpetuate the symptoms of their exclusion. Belonging and community is hard work, no doubt. But like anyone who has experienced the joys of honest friendship, belonging and vulnerability trumps fear every time.

As city leaders, I implore you, legislate belonging by approving this project. As citizens, let’s support belonging by facing our fears and overcoming them in support of this project. After all, we don’t just live in Abbotsford, we belong here.

I'm hoping our community, despite differing opinions, can rally around a shared compassion and make the courageous decision for belonging.

Measure for Measure - “Complexity of the human psyche”
Last week I had a chance to see Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at Vancouver's Pacific Theatre (a guest production by theatre company the Honest Fishmongers).

The play gives a glimpse a into the struggle of morality, personally and socially, illustrating the tensions of mercy and justice on the context of community, leadership and the search for morality.

As one of the actors described, the play switches from low comedy to a darker tone, reflecting the volatile reality of life moment to moment - “the complexity of the human psyche.” This play speaks wonderfully to the unpredictability of the human experience, and how we can find meaning and hope in the midst of that complexity.

It runs for another week, so if you get the chance, see it!