Thursday, February 27, 2014

Self in Community

According to Strengths Quest, a popular personality test for college students, one of my top strengths is Adaptability. And it shows. Not only can I be strangely calm in the midst of uncontrollable chaos (a helpful trait as a college student), but I have also found that I will take on the traits of those around me. Suddenly I find myself stealing my roommates’ phrases, or mimicking the gestures and expressions of my friends and family. The more I think about it, the more I realize that nearly every little mannerism I do or say I have borrowed from someone at one point or another.

The more I’ve considered this topic of “self,” the more I have been overwhelmed by the questions that arise from such self-analysis. What aspect of myself is integral to my being, rather than being merely an adaptation to a particular situation? Most importantly, how do I remain true to my self while living and interacting within a community?

I keep thinking about the summer I went to South Africa. Amidst the hut-to-hut evangelism and missionary work, there was a day in which I found myself rolling around in the dirt with all of the refugee children. This was the same dirt I saw the kids peeing and bleeding in— a composite of questionable trash and unpleasant smells. But we were singing their favorite bible school song, and that meant dropping down and rolling on that ground. Somehow, by being a part of that community, I became more of myself. Overcoming my initial hesitations and misgivings, I embraced a shared joy and gladness that was more integral to my being than my learned etiquette on cleanliness. I was more than just a wealthy outsider infiltrating their village; I was, and am, a person who desired to share in the joy of others.

It was only through that shared experience as a community that I came to realize that I don’t care if I get dirty or act undignified. Through further reflection and experience I have concluded that personal comfort and preference are less integral to my being than is my desire to serve others. How could’ve I known that about myself except through community?

But that’s the paradox. It is through community that I am learning to find my true self, the self that looks ever more like Christ. The old self, the one that is self-absorbed, shallow, and manipulative, while easy to slip into, does not make me feel whole like when I am serving others— making dinner for my housemates or praying with my friends.

However, the people in our communities are not always so easy to love. Sometimes I need the encouragement and model of others to know how to reach those who seem unreachable.

Like the family of the young man who was killed by the cops in my hometown. There was uproar from the city upon his death, and a rehashing of the hatred between the poor neighborhoods and the local police. My brother took me to the grocery store where I picked out a single flower, clutching it in my hand as we drove into the inner city and parked across from the small house. I couldn’t help but stare at the bullet holes in the walls, at the expressionless faces, at the shrine of candles. I wanted to be anywhere but there. But my brother walked up to the young man’s mother and talked to her, so I did my part, giving her the flower and whispering the only words I could think to say: “I’m sorry.”

I would have preferred to ignore the fact that I was a member of this same city that is full of injustice, of murders and bribery and violence. Who wouldn’t want to escape back into the safe little communities of family or church or school, ignoring the other ones closer in proximity but more difficult and uncomfortable? But God did not call us to live in safe communities. In fact, it was only in those more “unsafe” ones that I grew, and came to understand the real Lauren Berg, the one that is less of me and more of Christ.

It is only with the presence of others that my adaptability becomes a strength. The qualities I strive to adopt, the ones that reflect Christ and his love, are the ones I am modeling off the people and communities in which I find myself. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Community: But Honestly

I've been meaning to write a blog post all month long, but every idea I considered did not seem good enough. And then this thought seemingly came out of nowhere, "But honestly, who even wants to read about my life?"
Now that is a whole other issue. Is my blog merely trying to cater to the appetite of my readers... whoever they may be? I have to admit, I tried that before, with disappointing results. Rather, I've found that the blogs that have received the most positive feedback were the times when I wrote passionately about matters for which I was genuinely concerned.

So let me be honest: there have been plenty of rough times this past semester, and year even. Of course, I experienced the typical college struggles of love interests and time consuming academic work, but by far the biggest hurdle I faced this past semester was my disillusionment with community.

As much as I love each one of my housemates and members of my Elijah Project cohort, this community has been hard work. Don't get me wrong, I was being honest when I wrote about the Dexter house back in September. The house offers a great opportunity for relationships to grow and develop into deep friendships, and I certainly have experienced many joyful, fun moments and good conversations in this community. But with growth comes growing pains. As this past semester started to pick up speed, my expectations of spontaneous dance parties and weekend outings were quickly replaced by the difficult realities of conflict, misunderstandings, and compromise. We have all experienced hurt and discomfort in this house. It's pretty easy to spot the reason: we are all broken and sinful people living under the same roof.

Yes, there are times when I wish it was easier. But the reality of a house of thirteen people with differing expectations, personalities and backgrounds is that creating a good community will take hard work. Personally, I find it rather humbling. Even the brightest, most attractive (well I'm a little biased) and most intentional group of people such as are in our house cannot attain perfect harmony through sheer might. We need the help of the Holy Spirit. No matter how hard I may try to be good, loving, considerate, and so many other virtues, I know how easy it is to say or do something hurtful. Often it is the ones we care about the most that we hurt the most. And to be perfect merely through my own efforts is a futile thing (not to mention emotionally draining) because it is impossible!

Yet Jesus calls us to do the impossible. Love and pray for your enemies? Love God over money? Wash and put away your dishes without complaining? Yes, yes, and [implied] yes. The struggles of creating a community that serves God and each other may seem impossible to overcome, but God promises that it is not impossible through Him.

I am hopeful. As we collectively humble ourselves and seek God and pray, I hope that we will see healing, restoration, and peace in our community.

"A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." Ecclesiastes 4:12

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Name the Ugly monster

I name you...Rejection.

It has been trying to creep back in my life. I found it in my church, among my friends, and even within the sanctity of my Dexter House.

Where did it come from? I remember why I felt it in high school, but when I resolved things with my friend, it seemingly went away. Yet when I finally recognized its presence in my life this past month, it did not seem to have gone far away. I tried to remember when I first felt rejected. Childhood held no traumatic memories, and high school seemed to be an isolated incident.

But then I remembered 8th grade.
I remember being uncomfortable and worried the days when I didn't order the hot lunch, but brought a boxed lunch to my tiny Christian private school. We would leave class and walk ten steps to the gymnasium where five round tables were set up, though my class of 16 could fit around two of them if we wanted. Everyone else would go through the hot line, and me and the few others, the "uncool" would walk in first and have to choose a table. I remember being antsy, not wanting to sit down at a table first.

Because no matter which table I chose, it was always the wrong one.

I would pull out a chair and sit, slowly unzipping my navy blue lunch box and emptying its contents with care and deliberateness as if I was dismantling a bomb. I would anxiously look up to see if any of my friends were coming out yet. Nope, not yet.

Inevitably, the guys would come out with their food first.

Eighth grade was that awkward time when the guys and girls wanted to sit together, but only the cool ones could take the initiative without being judged. I was not cool enough, so the boys would go sit at another table. Then the rest of my girl friends would come out with their food, and drawn to that intriguing opposite sex, would join the boys at their table. Eventually I would abandon my table to join them, or the girls would see me and say "Come join us at this table, Lauren!"

But one day I didn't. I was mad at this repeated embarrassment, even though my girl friends never really saw the boys do it. They could have thought that I had chosen to sit separately from the boys, though my boxed lunch made it evident who sat down first. So when my friends said, "Come over here and join us Lauren!" I said no. "Why don't you come over here?" I responded. My one friend left her lunch and walked over, asking if anything was wrong. "I sat down here first" I stubbornly responded. Eventually I may have moved, to keep the peace. Or I may have stayed with a few of my other lunch-box friends and held out. Either way, the rest of that lunch I was uncomfortably burning with anger, shame, and rejection.

How could such a silly memory hold such weight, and reflect such a burden on my life? How could this seed of a thought, that I am undesirable, or less desirable, have grown to such monstrosities as this monster, Rejection?

I reject you Rejection. What you felt, 8th grade Lauren, and sometimes still feel, is not what God thinks of you. God has not rejected you. God finds you desirable. And God calls you His, His child.
Rest in that.
The real reason why they might have
 not wanted to sit at my lunch table...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Dexter House

Convivial (kənˈvivyəl)
1.) (of an atmosphere or event) friendly, lively and enjoyable.
-from the Latin con (with) and vivere (living), literally meaning fit for a feast; festive.

I still remember my first morning in the Dexter House this past August. Despite an overwhelming and exhausting day of moving everything out of my apartment in Beverly, driving 15 minutes, and then moving everything again back into Dexter, I found myself waking that next morning to the 6 am sunshine shedding light through my bedroom window. I looked out at the tall pine trees lined against the blue summer sky, and was filled with joy and gratitude. For three months I felt like I had to fight for my happiness, to fight for my community. But within the course of 24 hours I transitioned into a house where I was now surrounded by a community of twelve people I loved, and quickly learned, loved me in return. It was so exciting and wonderful that I couldn't sleep.

It was three years ago when I first visited Gordon College. I went on a tour, where I heard of La Vida for the first time (which I was convinced I would not do), I admired the chapel's elegant steeple and many chandeliers, and met up with a Gordon student, who was also one of my friends from home, Melissa Sakow. Melissa was a junior English major in the Elijah Project at the time (sound familiar?). At the end of the day she brought me back to the Dexter House to hang out with other people from her group. We considered grabbing blankets with thermoses of hot cocoa and walking to the beach, but instead we gathered around in the living room and talked. The conversation ranged from our celebrity look-alikes to strange talents/things about ourselves (did you know that my one pinky finger is noticeably longer than the other?). As the night went on, we also discussed deep questions and topics, listening to each other's perspectives. I say "we," but mostly I sat back and observed, soaking in that convivial community.

That night I felt at home. The combination of being in a warm house full of good conversations and laughter, smelling the pine trees from the parking lot remind me of nostalgic camp days, and the extraordinary people I met all confirmed it: Gordon was where I wanted to go to college.
Now, here I am again. Melissa's room in which I spent my first night at Gordon became Theresa's room, then Sarah's, and now currently Monica's, as each new group, new legacy, has passed through. Now, here I am, gathering in the living room laughing and talking with my own convivial house of people. I am feasting on the good dialogue, community, and positive interactions I am having with a group that I whole heartedly love and call my family. The Dexter House is not merely fun or enjoyable; it is a place where I am thriving and growing as I spend more and more time here. My heart is full of gratitude, overwhelmed with the joyous idea that I have only been here one month, and that I have many more months left to enjoy the vibrant, life-giving community that makes the Dexter House so special.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Dexter House (Take 2)

(*Disclaimer: I lost my original blog post, and thus wrote this rewrite before I fortunately found out that someone had saved a copy of the original one. Writing is all about editing and rewriting, so I welcomed this unintentional chance to try and better my work, but I still might like the original better [simply titled "The Dexter House"])

(of an atmosphere or event) friendly, lively, and enjoyable.
-A combination of the Latin con (with) and vivere (live), meaning fit for a feast; festive

Friday, August 23rd, 2013. I was so overwhelmed with the prospect of packing up all my things and movin
g them down three flights of stairs that I poured juice into my cereal. Despite the craziness and confusion of packing everything up and then unpacking it later that same day (as well as making a couple trips back and forth between Beverly and Hamilton), already I felt a change. All summer long I had to fight to be happy, and struggled to surround myself with a caring community. Suddenly I was living in a house with 12 other people that I cared for and loved, and quickly found that they loved me in return.
            Unlike this summer, where most mornings involved me forcing myself to get out of bed, this first morning in the Dexter House I woke at 6:00 am as the early sun shone soft rays through my window. I looked out at the tall pine trees lining the blue summer sky, and was filled with immense gratitude. How had I gotten to this place in my life, to be so blessed to live in this beautiful house with beautiful people? That first morning of waking in the Dexter House I was too excited to sleep.
EPIX (Photo Credit: M. Wong)
            Except that wasn’t the first time I had slept in the house. Three years ago, as a senior in high school, I had visited Gordon College for the first time. I experienced the typical tour, in which I heard about La Vida for the first time (which I was convinced I would not do), sat in the beautiful chapel admiring its many chandeliers, and met up with my friend from home, Melissa Sakow. At the time, she was a junior English major in the Elijah Project (sound familiar?) At the end of the day Melissa took me back to the Dexter house to hang out with the rest of her group. We considered grabbing blankets and thermoses of hot coco and walking to the beach to see the stars. But instead we gathered around in the living room and spent hours talking. Conversation ranged from lighthearted topics like celebrity look-alikes and weird things about ourselves, to deeper dialogues. We discussed thoughtful, relevant questions. I say we, but I mostly sat back and feasted on the good dialogue, soaking in the community. In addition to the nostalgic smell of the pine trees reminding me of camp days, and the overall convivial community I had experienced, that night convinced me that I wanted to go to Gordon.
            Now, here I am. The community I so admired back then and longed to experience in college surrounds my everyday interactions. It is the deep conversations, the questions we raise and discuss, and the shared laughter that I thrive off. I am so thankful for being able to enjoy this convivial community for the rest of the year, and for the promise of many more moments of lively enjoyment with friends.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Winds of Change

I'm going to miss seeing the Salem bridge arch over the horizon as I turn onto Linden Avenue each day. Hearing the train rattle down the tracks, sometimes even getting to watch it roar underneath me as it speeds its way on towards Boston. I'll miss the way the sun sheds golden red rays across the apartment each evening before making its departure. No more runs to Lynch park, or walks to Dane St beach (I'll have to resort to driving).

I walked to the little park by the apartment last night to watch the sunset. I stood there watching, waiting, feeling the wind blow warm summer air across my face. Wind: there is going to be a change in the weather. A storm will come in the night and the next morning I will wake up and it will be different. Everything will be different, I thought.

Yesterday I finished my summer internship with the non-profit, Change is Simple. It really has been a great experience, and I am going to miss seeing the staff each day, and hearing daily updates on their lives. It was difficult not to be nostalgic all day: my last time uploading a blogpost, my last lunch at the office, my last time signing into the building's wireless network. It got a little ridiculous.

Luckily, as I walked back from my last sunset at the park, I began to feel a change. Even though I had experienced many lasts, tomorrow held the promise of many firsts. The first day living in the Dexter house, the first time seeing many of my friends in months, the first day of being a junior at Gordon college. So many good firsts. Even though transitions from one good to another can feel a little stormy trying to process everything, I know the change is good. And look! The many good firsts of tomorrow is now the good firsts of today.
Rainbow from the apartment

That stormy wind is comforting; I feel God's presence in the wind. I can't really explain it,
but it just feels familiar, like I am at home. I could stand for hours just letting the breeze wip around and blow my hair back, and listen to the rustling of branches and leaves tossed along the pavement. Maybe that is why I love storms, and love running outside to watch the clouds roll in before the rain comes pelting down. Storms bring change, and after the rain has poured and the thunder cracked, I usually find the sun comes out and tomorrow is a beautiful day. Sometimes the sun comes out before the rain has finished, and I am graced to see a rainbow-- the symbol of God's promise. "Trust me."

Friday, August 2, 2013

Upside-Down Kingdom: Strength

"...when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Corinthians 12:10.

That's soda.
This summer has been difficult. I've seen my family a grand total of 12 days, and have found myself more often alone than with people. Unfortunately, my roommate is hardly around, so it has been more like I am living by myself or house sitting than anything else. I've had my cat attacks, my near car crashes, my heat waves with broken A/C, and multiple times of breaking down and crying.

Recently I've worried that I'm becoming depressed. I remember all too clearly the period in high school when I cried every night, when I forgot what it was to be joyful. That was a time when I also felt extremely alone, due to my best friend finding a new best friend. I floundered around, socially lost. But God provided. For some reason, I sought community in my church and youth groups. As often as five nights a week I was driving to church, going to two different youth groups, helping out at another, and playing the violin for worship on the weekends. One honest conversation with my friend enabled me to recognize the lies I had bought into, and God freed me of the chains that had bound me to sadness and rejection all those months.

A good friend accepts you
for your ugly Snapchat faces.
It would be a lie to say that God has not provided for me this summer as well. My church community, though I still feel like a young outsider, is welcoming, and I am slowly getting to know more of that amazing group. The brief time each week spent at my internship is always rewarding and encouraging. My friends Anna and Elaine have been my surrogate sisters, welcoming me into their respective "homes" as well as coming to my apartment and bringing life there. I've had spontaneous visits and get-togethers, as well chance meetings that only could have been God-sends. I know as difficult as it has been, and as hard as I've worked to keep myself busy and in community, God has blessed me this

But rather than just getting by in my weakness, I find that I am growing stronger. In the time to myself I am able to do a Bible study, to process my La Vida trip and the past year at college, and to keep a slightly consistent blog! And I have come to realize that I need to rely on God, not on other relationships. So many times I have cried out to him asking him why I feel so alone, and again and again he reminds me, "I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20). I am having to practice thanksgiving and contentment, seeking God first, and dwelling on what is good, instead of on what I think my summer should have been like.

 Only through trials and difficult times can God work on us to mold us more and more into the image of Christ. So take heart-- we do not suffer in vain.