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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Spain, Serge, and the love our culture needs

This week David Brooks wrote an editorial in the NYT responding to the bathroom uproar, which said our country has become addicted to sideshows that distract from the real struggle to develop a culture of character and care.  One paragraph caught my attention as we returned from our triennial Serge conference:

The larger culture itself needs to be revived in four distinct ways: We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.

For ten days, we were in Spain with about 500 people who are committed to these very things.  Most were Serge leaders and staff, plus board members, musicians, counselors, child-care volunteers.  We were there to encourage one another, to give thanks to God for where we have come, to strengthen our leadership structure with more training, to attend to the hurting, to forge closer relationships face to face, to lean into the future with prayer.  But the Brooks' analysis crystalized for me that we are very very privileged to have Serge as our lens for viewing not only our work but also our cultures of origin, and in fact we can bring some of our triennial sense of who we are as we move on.

 Communal:  The ethos of our organization rests in the local team, which functions as an extended family, a small mobile church, a bond of kinship and commitment.  As we gather, we realize the community extends beyond each small band to include our ties to each other all over the world.  We challenge each other, pray for each other, share our burdens and our humor.  There are hugs and sidebar conversations galore, so that it is difficult to get meetings started.  Meals are a chaotic cacophony.  Kids find each other and the three-year-gap melts in the face of shared experience as perpetual outsiders tasting the one spot where they are home.  The Kingdom is not an individual pursuit, and this reality is something we can bring back to our culture.  Bethany's catchy phrase from some training we did a couple of years ago on our field kept getting repeated:  comparison kills community.  Serge embraces the value of acknowledging our weaknesses, repenting of our sins, reminding ourselves that God's love is inclusive enough for each unique person's existence, and doing the work of living in true community with all its messiness and joy.

Morally Minded:  By this Brooks seems to mean basing decisions on a code of right and wrong rather than a short-sighted utilitarian metric of benefit and loss.  That shines through when you listen carefully.  We have teams in places which are beset by war or disease or poverty or extremism or isolation or a thousand other difficulties, not because that brings results but because IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO.  Our vision and mission call us to lay down our lives.  We are following a Person whose only metric is love.

Spiritually Literate:  Yes, we all struggle with this, the paradoxical reality of our embodied spirituality, the simultaneous truth of living in a material world that is spiritually alive.  We enjoyed Spain, the coast, the sun, the abundant fish and olives and cheeses and figs.  We enjoyed the bracing waves of the Mediterranean Sea and the quiet rest of a hotel room.  But those things alone would have left us empty.  Our time was also spiritually rich with teaching by Pastor Scotty Smith, exhortations from our Director of Ministries Josiah Bancroft, worship, and prayer.  Our seminars focus on things like sabbath and rhythm, not success.  We may not be completely literate yet, but we are putting that spiritual health front and center.

Emotional Intelligence:  I commend our leadership for bringing a bevy of counselors to acknowledge that we are beat up by the reality of living on the edge.  We had seminars on how a team can embrace and support members suffering from depression, because depression and anxiety are all-too-common facts of life everywhere but even more so on our fields.  Our kids' program had a theme (loosely connected to A Chameleon, A Boy, and A Quest) of finding out who you really are.  This is an organization that is not afraid to cry openly and laugh raucously.

So while we are working in places from rural South America to massive Asian cities and everywhere in between, I hope we can take the sense of inclusive community, of commitment to truth, of a rich spirituality, and of a merciful emotional kindness, everywhere we go.  And for those of us who returned to the USA (temporarily) in a week in which the nation was in an uproar over the light sentencing of a campus sexual offender at Stanford, and mourning the shocking mass shooting in Florida, we know that standing for these things is actually a matter of life and death.  If we are only individuals making utilitarian decisions based on a cognitive understanding of a material-only world, we will continue to pick up the pieces of the devastation that follow in the wake of greed, anger, self-centered actions.  Instead we need to quietly, boldly, consistently live an alternative lifestyle of love.  I'm thankful for the way a conference strengthens and reminds us to do just that.

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