Unity with Schism, a Mea Culpa

I have made abundantly clear in social media – sometimes to people’s frustration and often too harshly – that I am in favor of schism for the United Methodist Church. I’ve held that view in part because I believe the church to have been hijacked by lobbyists who have pushed political agendas of the far right into a mainline denomination. I’ve held that view in part because even the progressives I usually agree with seem more interested in maintaining dying structures under the guise of ‘unity’ than they do in pursuing a justice that’s as swift as I’d like for it to be. And I’ve held that view in part because I, like many of you, am tired of being hurt by church and am tired of seeing those I care for be hurt by it – and that extends beyond social issues and as much into everyday brokenness and bureaucracy of the Church. It’s something every institution does to us; I’m just burnt out with this one.

This morning, however, I was challenged by an email from, strangely enough, a priest – a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement – who is the former Vatican Representative to the World Council of Churches and has been a part of the envoy for the UN’s peace process between Israel and Palestine. These are his words, and I found them worth sharing:

“Hi Philip, I see the United Methodist Church is going through the inevitable east-west, north-south tensions that so many churches have been experiencing recently. You are not alone. When the Catholic Church had the recent synod of the family, the Africans were opposed to any changes while the Europeans were in favor of them. Sometimes I wonder if we might have a too restrictive notion of what church unity means, something derived from the European experience of kings and emperors, where everything -and I do mean everything – gets “standardized.” The church(es) of the New Testament and post-Apostolic times were far more diverse, often experiencing conflicts between one church and another. Yet it wasn’t until quite later that a juridical notion of unity – as opposed to the more organic notion of communion – began to take over. Unfortunately we live in a world of zero sum everything where compromise is a forgotten art and virtue.”

The good padres’ email forced me to raise important questions about what unity really is, and as someone who can break bread with Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Atheists and who longs for the unity of one world, it seems bizarre that I’d no longer wish to break bread with parts of my own spiritual ‘family.’ It’s more complicated, I guess, when we are tasked to do more than merely break bread together but also live under the same roof. Especially when our time under that roof has involved intense emotional and sometimes physical harm.

I know I’ve contributed to that harm, and for that I’m sorry. I know I’ve played into the zero sum game at times and that doing so is, quite literally, asking an entire continent, if not hemisphere, in places the West once colonized to adhere again to our values. We don’t acknowledge this enough when we get on our social media, social issues high horses; we don’t acknowledge just how complicated these “east-west, north-south tensions” are, but if we wish to remain united in earnest, cultural sacrifices become inevitable. And while I’m inclined to say as a Westerner that equality as a moral good and human right should trump culture and tradition, I’m not sure I’m in a position to say that; I’m not sure any of us privileged Westerners are in a position to tell Africans, for example, once more what they should do. But I’m also not willing to sacrifice my values, either. And therein lies the problem.

So, we may find ourselves sometimes needing to part ways, temporarily. We may find that sacrificing our cultural values is something we just can’t do. But perhaps we can “part ways” and yet still be united? That is, the unity I hope for may indeed be schismatic – but less like warring schism and more like brothers and sisters who throw temper tantrums all day long yet still love one another when it comes to it. Can we act differently, function under different rules and still seriously call ourselves one institution? What rules are so sacred to us that they are uncompromising? And what rules can we allow certain conferences or churches to fudge on? In the past, I’ve claimed that this kind of unity renders our faith meaningless, that to stand in solidarity with all viewpoints is to have none of our own. But the good friar’s email reminded me that, maybe, it’s okay to differentiate between the rules sacred to our unified identity and the rules sacred to our diversity.

The good friar’s email reminded me that on some level, unity is a lie. Anyone who doubts this should attend a United Methodist Church in Tennessee and another in New York. Geographical differences govern us more than our holy texts do, because the way we interpret them will always be influenced by our social location. Perhaps it shouldn’t work that way, but our cultural and experiential differences will always run much deeper than disciplines and dogmas no one reads. And yet, those geographical differences, as well as the dogmas, can be honored so long as we can decide what essence of our identity must be retained. That is what the United Methodist General Conference must decide now: what is non-negotiable to call ourselves one entity. And then, the hard question this church is facing won’t be whether or not we should split but whether, if we really believe in unity, we should not also reunite with the Episcopal Church, and from there, the Catholics? After all, if, indeed, this church splits, that is not the end, and to believe as much with such intense fervor is to deny everything Christians claim to believe about resurrection and reconciliation. But reconciliation should scare you if you’re committed to unity: it might make us all Roman Catholic again.

As for me, for now, I will continue attending a United Methodist church in New Jersey where I live. I am not member of the United Methodist Church, having forgone my membership in 2012. I don’t at this point intend to rejoin. Nor will I continue to attend this church simply because it’s United Methodist. Instead, I attend because of its harmony as a church with over 20 countries represented, one of the few exciting aspects of attending a church ten miles from New York City. I’ll attend because it’s where I’m building meaningful relationship here at the moment. And I’ll attend because in a church so diverse, I might just learn something about how to live together when we disagree as much as we do.

Some Thoughts about the Upcoming United Methodist General Conference 2016, or Why This Church Should Just Give In and Die Already

Not all that long ago, a band of conservatives within the United Methodist Church were floating around the idea of an “amicable separation” over the issue of ordaining or marrying LGBTQ+ individuals. The majority response among moderate and liberal Methodists was a resounding ‘no’ favoring unity above all else and citing that Methodists should agree to disagree but remain in communion with one another. Since then, a few silly ideas have popped up. Chief among them included a suggested change in polity which would have allowed Conferences or even churches to determine for themselves what stance they would take on social issues rather than a larger body making that determination for everyone. Therefore, instead of an “amicable separation” of just two theological factions within the church, this silly idea would result in hundreds of new churches leaving nothing “united” to what it means to be a “United Methodist.”

In the meantime, the New York Annual Conference, among other northern conferences, have forged ahead in an effort to uphold equality. Many pastors, as well as a Bishop, are actively marrying gay couples against the current doctrine of the church. While I applaud their efforts and think they are doing the right thing personally, I also find it incredibly disingenuous to willfully disregard church doctrine while simultaneously claiming that you favor “unity.” In that sense, I think the liberal end of the church is a bit two-faced; at least have the dignity to acknowledge that you favor a schism and are moving ahead with the new direction the church should be and will ultimately take. Don’t cower behind the lie of “unity” while acting in discord.

Personally, I’m not in favor of unity at all. If the issue at stake was merely equal rights for gay couples or ordaining gay pastors, then I might still be arguing that this is something Methodists could, prayerfully, work through. But the issue is an entire worldview whereby, too often, those who stand against gay rights, are spouting the same conservative one-liners that – in addition to being homophobic – are also harmful to just about any minority position or person you can imagine. This is often referred to as “intersectionality,” or the notion that all forms of oppression are interconnected. That is, systems of injustice often stem from the same roots and can’t be discussed singularly. I’ve always considered it a shame that gay rights, for example, became the singular issue that nearly split the Methodist church, when it could easily be argued that the church should have split years ago over the conservative position that “poor people are lazy,” a position that’s as racist as it is a slap in the face to those facing financial hardship in a country that rewards the rich and punishes the poor. Of course, no legislative position claiming a disdain for the poor was part of the Discipline, which explains why it never became a major church issue, but certainly, such a degrading attitude remains deeply ingrained into the Methodist system, especially in the Southern states where bigotry is more blatant (though not necessarily more prevalent) than the North.

Suffice to say, I do not understand the disdain for schism. Jesus himself talks about not wasting our time on people who won’t see eye-to-eye. The Methodist Church came into existence solely because of multiple schisms. Good can, then, come from “amicable separation” (though I think referring to it as “amicable” is also disingenuous when the division is as heated as it is currently). So, too, reconciliation can be a beautiful thing when the time is right. If you claim to uphold the good news that Christ is risen but forget or ignore circumstances of the broken body that lead to his resurrection, why bother calling yourself a Christian? Work through the inevitable of our brokenness rather than constantly shunning it. Fear of schism hinges on fears that a resurrected church can’t come to fruition, and as I’ve said elsewhere, it hinges on structural and financial fears that a church schism would make it impossible for the Methodist system to continue. Frankly, though, financial collapse may be good for a church that’s busy building or renovating unnecessary structures and housing bishops in million-dollar mansions rather than doing the work of God. Perhaps a broken Methodist Church is precisely what could birth a new spiritual awakening in America. Think of the Methodists who, in the wake of their understandable frustration with the pitiful state of this feckless church, have returned to either Anglican or Episcopal churches. The Wesley brothers, the founders of Methodism, would be pleased. After all, they never wanted a Methodist church to exist in the first place. Perhaps being reconciled to our Mother Church is but one step in the right direction of leaving behind what’s already dead and rotten. At least, that’s my ultimate hope for this Church and for this year’s General Conference.

Stories from Hershey, Pennsylvania, or Why the Church Needs Camp

On the way to Hershey, Pennsylvania, there was a light mist just gracing everything. It was probably remnants of Joaquin, the hurricane that teetered and tottered over whether or not it was really going to make landfall, but out here, in God’s country, hurricanes are not on anybody’s mind. There’s something simple to life here, and I mean that in every positive connotation the word “simple” can offer. Grass that grows the way it did when this was still a “frontier,” cows grazing like the mist was a good bath, barns and silos that are actually painted red like barns you see in paintings. The whole landscape is just that, an American painting, really. Which is, I should say, not what I was expecting out of Hershey, Pennsylvania. I think I was picturing something more industrial, like what I imagine Scranton to be. I had expected dull, white factories against a backdrop of rusted train tracks and trash blowing on the street. Instead, the factory here is a magical place where little girls turn into exploding blueberries, bubbles can make you fly, and everybody has a golden ticket. Okay, maybe it’s not that glamorous. But I won’t lie: there was a faint smell as I drove into town of smoking chocolate. Maybe I just imagined it, but I will always claim that’s what I smelled.

I got roped into (which I also use in the most positive way possible) a “transformational leadership conference” of United Methodist clergy and lay leaders from ten conferences across the Northeast Jurisdiction of the church. About 700 people in sum. There’s something about a group of church leaders coming together that makes it feel a bit like a synod or council with major decisions being made, but really, the general consensus of the gathering seemed to be this: the system is broken, the church is dying, what do we do?

Why is it dying? Why is Methodism dying? Everybody had a different, good reason! To name a few I heard while there: churches want to be nurtured rather than reach out and do good work in the world; the lack of prophetic voices (i.e. voices speaking out about injustices) renders the church irrelevant; dysfunctional conferences that make [financial] decisions that benefit the few rather than the many; an unwillingness or inability on the part of leadership (or the congregation) to be vulnerable and honest within their respective ministries; too many selfish decisions that lacked empathy or the reminder that the church is communal. I’m not sure people left the conference empowered or not? They certainly left with more clarity about how much is broken. And every once in a while, someone offered a tidbit, a “morsel” might be a better word given our location, of advice, but there was deep grieving shadowing over it.

In some ways, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I am not United Methodist, though I work for the church as a camping professional. I do not serve a dying congregation. Or any congregation. And the people I do serve are a relatively transient population (though I would argue that the impact we have on their lives is anything but transient!). In a weekend of lamentations, what I heard out of these conversations left me thinking that what everybody yearns for is that their church would be more like camp. And is that any surprise, really? All weekend, as I met people and mentioned off-hand that I worked at a camp, the response was almost always: “That’s how I got into ministry – when I was working as a camp counselor, etc.” Ah, yes, the good old days. So what went wrong?

Church Camp offers a sacred space where kids and staff, alike, are invited to be vulnerable, to be themselves, because the very basics are that God loves you for who you are. The Church encourages secrecy and shame in an environment of judgment and distrust. Church camp brings strangers to the same space and in only one short week forges them together as a trusting family. The Church brings strangers together each week and keeps them, for the most part, as strangers in what is a very Americanized, individualistic experience. Church camp calls kids and staff to be better, even in their disagreement and discord, than they might be anywhere else: to live honestly and speak truth to power if necessary – but in a way that seeks unity within the community. The Church fails to be a prophetic voice in the world, and when the church is living righteously (or thinks it is), it does so in a way that creates deep division built mostly on a false sense of moral superiority.

Of course, speaking of moral superiority, I’m not being entirely fair: church camp is the church, which should not be forgotten (and too often is by people like me). And for my very general statements that “church camp is x” or “the church is y,” I’m sure there are plenty of failing camps out there and plenty of successful churches, too. But when the United Methodist system, generally-speaking, has high hopes that our camps will produce future Methodists, it shouldn’t feel so much like “church” and “church camp” are two separate entities. And it seems backwards to me to expect our camps, many of which offer thriving experiences for unchurched youth, to prepare kids for the very mundane, awful world of a Sunday morning, dry church experience when they and we know that something better is out there. Why should they waste their time on a place where they will not be connected – to people or to God? As I said in an email to a seminary president I met this weekend, “And so it is: millennials have this amazing experience at camp, then return to their dead churches filled with fake ostentation, and they make the right decision to leave.” Who can blame them?

In the course of Christian history, you’ll find mostly campers. Jacob camping at the Ford of Jabbok and wrestling with God. The Tent of Meeting housing the Ark at Shiloh (i.e. the first “temple” where God resided, indeed, was a kind of camp). Moses and God’s people wandering in the wilderness and given manna from heaven. While they camped. Jesus, the peripatetic Jew, camping during the transfiguration or resting and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, a place apart from the city. And it wasn’t just the ancient world. Fast-forward to the dawn of Methodism and you guessed it: more camping. The Wesley brothers camped at St. Simon’s in Georgia. The circuit riders and early revivals of American Christianity: campsites. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to this camping thing – this simpler way of life the way the endless stretch of grassy fields near Hershey, Pennsylvania feels simple and welcoming. Maybe, just maybe, what the church needs is not for camps to produce churchgoing Christians but for churches to produce camping Christians. Maybe, just maybe, if Christianity – or at least Methodism – is to survive beyond the next fifty or so years, things better start looking a whole lot more like camp than they do in their current state.

Driving back to New York, I left at the crack of dawn to avoid city traffic and hugged the Hudson River on the Jersey side just as the sunrise glimmered off the skyscrapers. It was like I’d figured out exactly when New York City sleeps, but it was also surreal seeing the empty street the closer I got to the George Washington Bridge. I thought about how busy this place would soon be, ghost-town though it was in this brief moment. The people from the NEJ conference would soon be returning to their cities, their charges and ministries, likely still filled with lamentations and worries and asking, “What am I going to do?” As for me, I headed back to camp, where I live and work. And I hope they’ll join me there.

On the Road to Racial [and other types of] Reconciliation, or What I Wish the Churches I’d seen in the South Looked More Like

On my ride aboard the Long Island Rail Road returning from a trip to New Jersey this weekend, I thought a lot about a course I took at Vanderbilt Divinity where we were discussing racial reconciliation, and on the table was a really tough question about whether black congregations and white congregations should be worshiping together. That may seem like it deserves an obvious answer in 2015. Of course they should, right? But we arrived at that question by first asking why our churches – unlike our schools, unlike most of society since the 1960s – had remained mostly segregated. Was that evidence of our inherent prejudices? The ones we seem still so stubborn to admit we have? Was it simply the reality that different experiences had created different cultures? One black student remarked that she feared if she were to worship in a white church, her cultural history would be washed away. Would a white church with a white pastor focus as much on the story of the Exodus where Moses leads God’s people out of Egypt like those slaves seeking freedom along the underground railroad? Would that sense of liberation – still so crucial to black churches – be as important to white churches? Moreover, what does it mean for a white church to have been “free” for so many generations that we can no longer conceive of the need for liberation for others? Have we lost the ability to relate? Must we experience oppression to see the need for calling the oppressors into question? If we think we have no need of this, do we lack empathy for those who still very much relate to the need to be liberated? That day in that classroom opened my eyes in a way I don’t think I’ve realized until recent events, really, that whether or not black churches and white churches should worship together is a deeply complicated question with a deeply complicated past, present, and future. What I came to terms with at the time was this: maybe we need to be segregated in our worship, but we still have to find some way to work together for the betterment of everyone. Separate in worship, together in mission could be a solution. But I’m not so sure I’m as satisfied with that answer anymore.

This morning, I attended my first church service north of the Mason-Dixon, and it drew an incredibly incriminating picture on the almost insular way of the church in the South. Sure, up here, the church may be dying in numbers, but what I saw this morning drew a picture of a church that is, in my mind, thriving. On the wooden pews in an ark-shaped sanctuary in Bloomfield, New Jersey, there are members from four continents and twenty countries. Every color. Gay. Straight. Female. Male. Transgender. Hurting. Joyful. Family. The lot of them: family. And you could feel it. Something that was in the air, like a kind of earnestness that the people there wanted to be there. No – that the people there were there because they needed to be. That they were honest about their brokenness and joyful to be made whole together. Outside of camp, I’m not sure I’ve seen so many different people made into one family in a church. And for most of the service, I was just overcome with sadness for my home state, for the South, for the reality not that it’s broken but that it’s so gosh-darn unaware of just how broken and pathetic it is. No, more than that: that down south it’s in-your-face adamant about how it carries the one-and-only capital “T” truth when the church in the South as I experienced was driven too-often instead by staged ostentation and a smug need to grab and maintain control and power in a world where people of privilege fear losing it.

Eh, I should come down off my high-horse long enough to say that my own disdain for those kinds of churches or even for the South at times isn’t lacking its own arrogance. Nor am I naive enough to imagine that every church up here is like the one I went to today. Or that this particular church isn’t without its own members who are there for the wrong reasons: to gossip and grasp power when and where they can. That’s just all too human to be confined solely to one region of the country. And yet, having seen what church could be is to know what so many congregations are lacking, and frankly, I’d take a small church with a healthy soul over a large soulless church any day. But I can’t seem to shake the question over what’s the difference between here and there, between this church or that one? Maybe it’s tied to the urban nature of a church that’s only a twenty-minute train ride to New York City. More exposure to diversity is bound to breed world-centric behaviors as opposed to the more insular, isolated rural communities of the South. Or maybe it has something to do with southern culture’s tie to social traditions. If you were born into a world where people go to church because “that’s just what you’re supposed to do,” you’re bound to find people who are there to maintain “polite social behaviors,” or niceties rather than to claim with honest self-awareness their own struggles in an effort to find sacred wholeness like that preached about in our holy texts, or y’know, to do church.

Of course, the deeper question underlying much of this is to ask, “What is church?” It’s become trite to say it’s when “two or three are gathered” in God’s name. I’m not sure I really know what that means anymore. Plenty of awful people gather themselves invoking the name of God or Jesus or Allah, after all. But I’d be willing to bet that, even if we remain segregated in the here-and-now, what church – what all of religion – is meant to be is to provide a space where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28), nor gay nor straight nor conservative nor liberal nor rural nor urban. If religion can’t be what breaks down the barriers that are the sources of our strife and violence, what good is it doing us? I, for one, want to seek out and hold up those places where that’s actually happening, where those boundaries fall away, because it is happening. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It may happen in a place where the church is dying, but on this road, we are well on our way to something good, to something better, and we will keep moving forward as best we can.

Concerning the Apparent Pending Schism of the United Methodist Church

I don’t really understand why progressive United Methodists (also known as “United Methodists,” as the term “progressive” is redundant) feel the need to cater to remaining “united” with those Methodists whose professed beliefs are more in line with, say, the Southern Baptist or other Evangelical churches. Pastors and congregations who are pushing Biblical literalism of any form are only United Methodist in name, and if they were to read their own Book of Discipline, they’d already know the shoe doesn’t fit. It never has. The Wesleyan movement was always one that employed not merely sola scriptura but reason, tradition, and experience, as well (the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral“).

If the goal is to remain “united” with people whose theology essentially resembles more conservative churches than it does the direction the United Methodist church has historically moved in (i.e. a progressive one), why not reach out to other denominations entirely in an ecumenical move that undoes the Reformation? Why not return to the fold of the Anglican church? Or better, to the Roman Catholics if they’d take Methodists back? With all respect to Adam Hamilton, this whole notion that local churches should decide on an individual basis what they think about sexuality or the authority of scripture (and whatever else the slippery slope might offer) suggests that Methodists should extend a hand to all Congregationalist churches, as well, if the polity is going to be no different, really, from those church movements.

To me, the United Methodist church appears to be clamoring to avoid losing members, which is a financial issue (and admittedly a disturbing one), but to kowtow to the extreme right-wing of the church to avoid financial disaster is to miss the mark on why the church makes theological statements to begin with. It’s not a business; it’s a family, and family’s break up sometimes. And then, sometimes, they get back together, too. The story doesn’t end with a split even though sometimes a split is inevitable. To worry so much over the dreadful disaster a schism might bring is to forget the whole message of resurrection. It’s to forget the church’s own history of how it became the Methodist Church to begin with.

If, indeed, the church does “split,” it won’t be a matter of there suddenly forming two separate churches, and there won’t be the need for the United Methodist church to lose the term “united.” It’ll just be that a group of pastors and congregants came to the unfortunate realization that the doctrine they apparently hadn’t been reading over the years was never quite in line with what they’d been preaching in those churches all along. Granted, if this is solely an argument about homosexuality, I can see how you could make the case that the Discipline, for a long time, has been on their side, but this conversation is much bigger than issues of sexuality; it’s about how the church approaches its holy writ at large. And the beauty of those texts is that every generation since they were first composed gained something different from them, just as future generations will continue to glean new metaphors and messages from the same ancient documents.

I’m not saying the church has to split. In a sense, I’m saying it already has. The argument concerning homosexuality is over. While the current leadership within the church hasn’t yet claimed that in General Conference, youth and young adults – the future of the church – have already claimed where they stand. Period. So, if that gang of 80 or any gangs decide to rip the church apart, maybe it isn’t the end of the world. And letting them have their way to keep the church financially out of the red is letting money guide the conversation. The way forward isn’t to run around the issue; it’s to work through it with, at the least, a little honesty about why schism scares people – and whether it should or not.

Ten Ways the Peace Corps Changed Me, or Another Top Ten List of Sorts

It would probably be better to title this, “The Ten Ways I’ve Changed in the Last Two Years,” because I doubt that it’s fair to say what role Peace Corps did or didn’t have in the ways my life has drastically shifted.  But those changes took place here, in Morocco, within the context of hearing the call-to-prayer five times a day being constantly reminded by what I eat or how I speak or what I see that this isn’t America.  So while some of these changes were the result of outside forces, they were only understood within this very specific context.  I’ll try to speak to that a little.

Anyhow.

Why a top ten list on the ways I’ve changed, you might ask?  Maybe it’s just that I’ve changed that much.  Or maybe it’s just my need to reflect on the impact of this experience.  Every once in a while during my service, I’d come across a volunteer who would say something to the effect of, “Oh, well, this isn’t really your life; I mean, this is just two years; it’s so temporary, so it’s not who you really are.”  I disagree wholeheartedly.  The fact that there was a time-limit on this experience didn’t negate the impact of the experience.  Morocco will go with me wherever I go for the rest of my life.  I’ll carry it with me secretly at times.  Other times, I’ll share stories out loud, to the annoyance of everyone in the room.  But the experience is mine, and it’s carved the direction my life seems to be taking these days.  All the more reason I need to understand it the best I can.

Finally, a word about the words below.  It’s a top-ten list, so it’s kind of like a countdown, but I wouldn’t say any of these changes outweigh the others (except maybe the last few).  They all sort of flow together instead, which brings me to my next point:  I don’t mean to imply that you’re going to see me back in America and suddenly be like, “Wow, Philip’s changed so much.”  Most of these changes are related to the way I reflect on life and understand it.  So, it’s all interpersonal brooding.  In fact, I’d be willing to bet a ten-minute conversation with me would have you saying, “Geesh, Philip Eubanks hasn’t changed at all.”  My sometimes sardonic wit still shines.  I’m still very much socially awkward, and if anything, now I’m both socially awkward and lacking any hygienic sensibilities.  But I think the people who spend real time with me will see something different (not just smell it).  And I don’t know what that looks like exactly or just how different it will be or feel once I’m through the reverse culture shock that is quickly approaching.  But I think the people who really get to know me, if they knew me before, will see that I’ve changed, and that it’s been a good change.

But enough on all that.  Without further ado, here’s just a few ways I currently feel different.

10. I’m a cook.  I love cooking.  And I’m not too bad at it, either.  Peace Corps gives you all kinds of time on your hands, and very few processed foods.  I suppose if I had wanted to, I could’ve spent two years jumping from house to house eating with Moroccan families, and in fact, I think most families would’ve absolutely loved having me over that often.  But with all that time and all the vegetables you have to figure out how to manage from scratch, it’s inevitable that you’ll learn how to cook.  So, I’ve got a few favorite recipes.  I love doing soups, especially a tomato soup, and I usually mix in carrots.  I’ve gotten incredibly good at whipping up a French roux, or making curry dishes.  Then, of course, there’s always “Outat Tacos” or ravioli with the pasta and the cheese and the sauce all from scratch (this one takes a while).  And Avery, before he left, got me into making lentils on a regular basis, and I’m tellin’ you, I can cook up a mean set of lentils like nobody’s business.  So, yeah, there’s something kind of awesome about picking up cooking skills in two years.  You could say that the Peace Corps Recipe Guide might be the single-most important document I will bring home to America aside from my passport.  No joke.  But sadly, I won’t be returning with the knowledge on how to cook many Moroccan foods.  I mean, most of them, I could easily figure out, especially with the recipe book, but it’s just hard getting an in with a Moroccan woman who is comfortable letting a boy hang out in the kitchen.  I might try to finagle my way into the kitchen at my landlord’s house.  We’ll see.

The one Moroccan dish I did learn how to cook (and even helped to cook with a friend named Abdelcreme) was the tajine.  I uploaded this video a while back, but here it is again if you’d like to know how to cook a tajine:

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9. No fear of failure. Peace Corps is really a lesson in failure.  I mean, you have all these twenty-somethings show up right out of college gung-ho about changing the world, and then they get into the thick of it and realize, “Oh, I don’t have the language to navigate this country’s insane bureaucracy, so I guess I’ll just stay in my house and read books.”  I don’t mean that to be a critical statement against volunteers who give up and do that.  The bureaucracy almost killed me on more than one occasion, so I have complete respect for anyone who tries even once to battle this ministry or that just to do one ounce of good in their community.  I also don’t mean to suggest that Peace Corps is just some joke of an organization.  To the contrary, I think in my two years, I saw a lot of volunteers doing a lot of good things, and despite all my efforts not to become one of the technical assistance do-gooders, I guess I had a bit of an impact myself.  But it wasn’t an impact without its obstacles.  I can’t name you the number of hours that all I did was sit and wait for someone’s stamp just so I could hand out glasses.  I can’t name you the number of times I was told “inchallah” when it meant “no.”

You know, we came here not to just do what we wanted to do but to help our community do what it wanted.  That was part of why it  became so frustrating at times when you had people voicing, “We want this,” or, “We want that,” but there was always one official or another in the way of making it happen.  And usually, that official gave you some menial task sending you out of his office, only to be shocked later when you showed back up in his office with, “Okay, I did what you asked; what’s next?”  And sometimes, no matter what you did, it was still met with a “no” in the end.

I feel a little like I’ve been rejected and told “inchallah” and “no” so many times that they’re just the norm.  Life here wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t having to jump through those hoops.  And all the failure made the few successes we had all the more exciting.  So, yeah – I’m not afraid of getting turned down anymore.  It just means I get to try a different angle.  It’s like approaching life through the goggles of a mad scientist.  Everything you do is “trial-and-error” with the hope of perfecting the trial.  You come to expect your experiments will go wrong with a kind of curiosity that asks, “I wonder how big the explosion will be this time,” and when you do stumble upon an amazing scientific discovery, you realize the best ones happened by accident.  That, my friends, is working with Peace Corps in the developing world… in a nutshell.

8. A patience with sadness rather than a rush to anger.  Along with failures comes patience.  If you don’t learn patience in the Peace Corps, you’re doing it wrong.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re on hour five of sitting in a room during a baby-naming ceremony (isboura) doing absolutely nothing; it doesn’t matter if it’s hour three of sitting on a sidewalk curve waiting for a taxi to fill.  Life moves little-by-little, and you will learn patience, even if you thought you were already the most patient person in the world.  You’ll have it all tested over again here.

I think when I showed up two years ago, I had already undergone this shift toward recognizing that I had some serious anger issues.  Maybe it was that one email I fired off to a former boss comparing their new hire with Hitler (that one came back to haunt me for a while).  Whatever it was, I had a knack at opening my mouth and saying really cutting things and immediately regretting it.

That patience I mentioned, though, has slowed my anger significantly.  Sure, like anyone, I still get angry, but I’m quick to warn people ahead of time, and I’m quick to apologize afterward.  I’m also less likely to fire off an angry email or explode in your face unless I earnestly feel I’ve been wronged.  I think for far too long, I carried around this mentality that made me think of myself as some sort of modern-day prophet telling too many folks why they were wrong.  Such is the nature of an opinionated person, I suppose, but – and maybe this has more to do with getting older and, well, giving up – nowadays, I just sort of shrug my shoulders, recognize that I ain’t gonna change the system, and then I huff-and-puff and resign with a sense of sadness.

And I think that’s actually a good thing, you know, being sad instead of being angry.  There’s more humility in it.  It leaves open a door that recognizes how wrong I could be, even if I don’t feel wrong.  So, maybe what’s changed in me isn’t so much my temper but my willingness to try to look at every situation from the standpoint of as many perspectives as possible.  And that breeds a humility that holds my temper at bay, too.

7. How I understand Relationships.  I used to say – and I think this is true still – that college and graduate school is a really selfish time in our lives.  I mean, you go to school specifically to better yourself.  You major in something specific to what you want to do for how much money you want to make.  You’re learning to be independent for the first time, which requires a lot of you-time.  It’s a time for dreaming and following your dreams, and that doesn’t always leave open lots of doors for sustainable relationships, and I’m sort of talking here about the so-called “significant other,” but I think that statement is somewhat true for friendships and family, too.

I started to feel during my Peace Corps service a little like all my friends had chosen this settled down lifestyle, watching all of them get married or have children or get into serious relationships, and meanwhile, I was off gallivanting across the Moroccan desert doing my own thing with little time for anyone but myself.  None of my relationships, even friendships on some level, seemed lasting, largely because I was focused on following dreams and traveling and not on, well, people other than myself.

That’s not to say that I would’ve been less selfish had I married and settled down.  I sometimes wonder how many people have kids just so they can live vicariously through their own little mini-me they created just for the purpose of some giant show-and-tell.  Anything can be selfish.

But I can’t say I want to stop living this life of always being on the go with few commitments. Let’s face it, I’m a bit of a nomad, even if that is selfish.  I think what I am trying to figure out these days is how to have my cake and eat it too – how to follow my dreams and travel and whatever else while remaining mindful of how selfish that is and trying to find a place that says, “Let’s not be quite so selfish this time.”

I used to either want all the doors open or all the doors closed on relationships of any kind.  Nowadays, it’s as if I’m not really closing or opening any doors.  I’m just walking.  I just want to take a walk.

I’m a-okay if that metaphor makes absolutely no sense.

6. A stronger sense of Impermanence.  Along with that thinking, I’ve sort of stepped into this fully Buddhist notion of impermanence.  I no longer have any expectations that any relationship of any kind can be lasting.  People die.  People change.  People hurt each other.  Even our notions of God over the past few millennia paint a rather impermanent picture.  If the sacred is lasting, we’re incapable of capturing any immutable understanding of whatever is divine.  We cannot place our hopes that anything lasts, and you might think that sounds sad, but I’ve come to think of it as very freeing.  Rather than looking hard to find or make something permanent out of this life, we can more simply carry a gratitude for the fleeting moments we do have with the people who shortly grace our lives.

That is, I don’t mean for that sense of impermanence to carry with it the kind of fatalism that I encounter here all the time, and I think that’s an important distinction, because I think the fatalism of Islam certainly informed my thinking on all the ways life isn’t very lasting.  There’s just something about getting into a taxi with no seat-belts, driving 140 kilometers per hour through a sandstorm with zero visibility and trusting that God will either keep you alive (or God won’t), and either way, it’ll be just fine.  There were times when I sort of took that attitude on and figured, “Well, if I die in this country, so be it.”

But I don’t think impermanence, at least not in the Buddhist sense of the word, should evoke that kind of fatalism.  Living carpe diem cannot mean living destructive lives.  To the contrary, our willingness to recognize the preciousness of life should give us pause and help us grow thankful for the time we get.  It should demand we move with care and ease through every walk of life.  Or, to restate that, you don’t seize the day so there’s no tomorrow.  You seize the day so when tomorrow comes, you can be proud of what passed the day before.  It’s like when Gandalf tells Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil.”  Impermanence is something we can trust.  It is a kind of permanent state itself.

5. The Maghrebi in Me.  I’ll never be Moroccan, but some part of me will always carry Morocco in my heart.  I hate how cliché that sounds, but it’s true.  During our Close-of-Service (COS) Conference last week, I read over an aspiration statement I’d written two years ago filled with goals I’d set for myself, and the very first thing I said was that I wanted to build a kind of kinship with this country.  I think I have.  I think I’ll go home to America and my heart will still be with my brothers and sisters in Morocco.  I’ll ache for this Kingdom for a long time.  I’ll miss its language and it’s food.  I’ve got two blogs coming up all about that in the next few weeks, so I’ll just leave this one nice and short.  Next.

4. The truth about legacies and our need to carve our own path. When I sat out on this journey, it was very much – and still is – about my grandfather, Jewell Francis, who lived in Casablanca for nineteen months during World War II.  I admired him and wanted to follow in his footsteps, but somewhere along the way, I figured out that you have to carve your own path.  We can’t just mimic the exact same moves of those who came before us.  We inevitably find our own way.  It’s as if I was thinking of a legacy as a kind of inherited obligation to live like the people you admire.  But the problem with that is that we do a disservice to the people we admire when we make them out to be something they weren’t in our admiration for them.  I think I adored my grandfather so much that I was remembering the idea of him and not the actual person.  I mean, by the way I used to talk about him on the blog, you would’ve thought he was some All-American G.I. Joe movie star riding a camel with a cigar in his mouth or something… I dunno… maybe that’s a bit much.  But the point is, he was human.  He made mistakes.  He carried huge regrets with him throughout his life for some of those mistakes.  There were times in my service where I got disappointed in myself specifically because I thought he would’ve been disappointed in me, as if he would’ve been let down by how I’d handled this or that situation, but I think I was holding him on a pedestal and trying to live up to some impossible standard when I did that.  In hindsight, he would probably be eager to hear my stories about Morocco, would probably listen intently with an occasional nervous laugh, and he would be deeply, deeply embarrassed to know how much I admired him and how much I wanted to follow in his footsteps.  And he would be proud.  No matter what.  Because that’s what grandfathers do, and he was especially good at that.

At one point, I had thought that I would join the military as a Chaplain after Peace Corps.  It was one more way to follow in his footsteps.  But somewhere in my service, I realized that I needed to make my own path, and while I think I could handle the toils of boot camp (I know who you are, doubters), let’s face it, that’s not who I am.  It’s not the path I need to take, and I can still admire my grandfather and “live a legacy” without having to follow some strict path based on my assumptions of a man so complex I couldn’t have begun to understand why he did all the things he himself did.  Maybe he, too, had moments where he was trying to follow his own legacies.  Hard to say.

3. Religion.  I’m a theist.  I’ll always be a theist.  I think it’s absolutely essential that we concern ourselves with questions that are connected to what’s sacred – “the intuition of the universe,” as Schleiermacher called it.  But what I regard as sacred has expanded in some ways and contracted in others.  Since coming here, for example, I left the United Methodist Church, because I felt the way I saw that Church treating the people I loved was completely opposite to its mission, and I’ll just say rather bluntly that I do have an absolute disdain for much of modern Christianity, if not all of organized religion.  I can hear you younger folks snickering to yourself, “Oh look, Philip is just like everyone else in his generation.”  Maybe.  But I’d like to think that I held out a little longer and tried to fight the good fight, the fight worth fighting until I just reached this point where I had to separate myself from it.  It doesn’t mean I don’t still regard it with respect or even love.  It doesn’t mean I’ll never go back.  But somewhere in there, I got tired of watching hurt people hurt people.  I got tired of being one of them.  Of course, I know removing myself from what the average Joe calls “Church” doesn’t remove me from what I believe is “Church.”  It sickens me, in fact – and always will – how many other people out there got to hijack the definition of Christianity.  Contrary to that, I know that hate and bigotry and manipulation are just as bad and just as prevalent in all institutions, not just the Church.  I know that, despite its hypocrisy, most religion exists for the sole purpose of welcoming hypocrites and giving them a place they can dwell on something more positive than their brokenness.  I know that there is good happening in the Church, because so many people I do care about are involved in making it happen.  But I just need my time, need my space.

Maybe that’s weird to say when I haven’t really been involved in Christianity in over two years, but religion has been at the forefront of this experience.  It’s been even more a part of my life here than it was at home, and while Islam is quite different from Christianity, you’d be surprised how similar the two felt at times.  Whether it was watching Mohamed tell stories about Adam and Eve, or having some seven-year old girl warn you that your prophet is a liar and that you’re going to burn, we’ve sure done a good job the whole world over focusing religion on the exact opposite of what its prophets – liars or not – intended.  I think it would be nice, in a way, to go about living life a little like the prophets intended without getting together with other people once a week to have them judge whether or not you’ve lived up to the standards or ideals they had nothing to do with creating, the standards and ideals they still rarely consider on any deep, moral level.  If I ever am a part of some form of organized religion again, it will be a place that breeds humility in a way that questions are welcome and even expected.  Faith will need to be something engaged, not merely some black-and-white rule book and not merely some social setting where people fight each other for power over the kind of music or the color of the friggin’ carpet.

I don’t think I’ve lost something, though, by setting myself apart from the UMC.  I think I’ve gained more than I ever had before in being even more open to acknowledge the sacred in every aspect of human life.  I hope – and pray – that I can remain committed to fighting that fight, one that hopes for a day when all our petty differences are set aside for something better.

2. My Calling as a Writer.  When I gave up on Chaplaincy (and a little later on Ph.D. programs in Religion), I really had to sit down and figure out what it was I wanted to do – at least for now.  Come this fall, I’ll be applying to MFA programs in Creative Writing.  The MFA is a terminal degree, so I could use it the same way I would a Ph.D. (i.e. to teach in the university) without all the ridiculous “dissertating” my poor (literally, they are broke) Ph.D. friends are always doing.  More importantly, it gives me a chance to accomplish another personal dream of mine that’s growing into a calling almost – to publish fiction.  Now, I don’t know if I can pull any of this off, but I know I’d like to try, and while publishing a book that actually sells would be exciting, I don’t think of it as sustainable.  That’s why the MFA gives me an opportunity to do something else I regard as a “dream,” which is to teach abroad.  Get me into Al-Akhawayan University as a professor.  Or any American-run university.  I would eat that up.  And I’d be great at it.

So, what changed?  After all, I’ve always liked writing.  Well, basically, Peace Corps gave me the time to write for the first time ever, and last Ramadan I wrote a 55,000 word novel, and this Ramadan, I made it halfway through a second one.  Somewhere in the process of actually finding time to plan out a book, I discovered that it wasn’t just an enjoyable pastime; it was something I needed to do.  In fact, I don’t even always enjoy the process of writing each chapter, largely because I’m too eager to get to the next chapter, and it’s just this incredibly burdensome process, but it’s this insatiable desire to get all of my thoughts onto the screen.  And I’m not happy with myself until it’s done… and done right.

But it’s not as simple as just doing it and doing it right.  There are problems.  I’m a writer, so naturally, I don’t really think I’m a very good writer.  In fact, I’m pretty concerned I’m not good enough to get into any programs.  Case in point, for those of you who have read this far, props to you for battling through my dangling modifiers and my wordiness for, let’s see, we’re up to 4077 words now – wow, you made it this far reading what I’ve written; pat yourself on the back!  Was that last mumbo-jumbo even a sentence?!  Seriously, though, I know I can throw together a few verbs with some nouns every so often (maybe even with an occasional adjective), but then I read John Steinbeck or listen to David Sedaris and, my God, I’m a terrible, wordy writer.

But, maybe an MFA program can help me with that.  Maybe some of it isn’t just talent but skills we can actually learn.  Time will tell.

1. Origins.  Eight years ago, I was studying abroad in Scotland, and every Scotsman I met always asked one or two questions into our first conversation, “So, where ya from?”  And every time I answered “Tennessee” or “America,” I was always met with the same response, “No, no – where are you originally from?  Where does your family hail from?”  As an adoptee, I didn’t have an answer to that question.  And that semester was spent piling on question after question about my beginnings and where I came from and how I ended up there.  I searched and searched to understand “home” and family.  While I was in Liverpool, I remember walking upon Strawberry Field, an orphanage John Lennon wrote about in his famous song.  I felt deeply connected to that place.  Later that semester, I remember that Garden State came out, and there was a scene in the movie that really clicked with me:

“Maybe that’s all family really is,” Andrew Largemann says, “A group of people who miss the same imaginary place.”   I loved that image.  I latched onto it, and the next few years were spent thinking of family in terms similar to that.   By the time I was at Vanderbilt, I was writing about family and kinship in nearly every class.  I spent my time as a youth director reminding my youth group that we were a “family.”  And even when I was writing my aspiration statement for Morocco, I was still writing about kinship.

Morocco has gave me an answer to those questions about family, an answer that I already knew, but it solidified it for me.  I’m a Eubanks.  I grew up with Gordon and Frances and Beth and Beau and later Gibson and Abner.  My home is Jackson, and I’m an American.  And that answer always was good enough.

So, there you have it.  Ten ways I’m different.  Ten ways I think differently about who I am or who I was.  More to come next week.