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Assume the Worst

Mop and bucket: taking care of business since 1837.
This morning there was a knock on the door to our flat and, upon opening it, a woman I've never seen before began berating me for vomiting outside her doorway. Indeed, I looked down (our entryway is, essentially, the same as hers) and there was vomit and bile all through our hallway.

I can say with all honesty it was not my vom. In fact, a friend told us he found a man sleeping in the stairwell -- passed out -- as he left our place late last night and I'm fairly sure that guy was the one who was responsible.

I tried explaining this to the woman but she said, "No, I think it was you or one of your friends who did this to my door."

I reiterated it was not us, that I would be happy to clean it regardless, and that it was very rude for her to make such an accusation.

The whole thing got me thinking: We're really good at assuming the worst in those around us, aren't we? It may be difficult to notice when you are doing it to someone else but you certainly notice when it happens to you.

For instance, LGBT rights are very much in both the national spotlight as well as in that of Mennonite Church USA. And Facebook, being what it is, is ripe with opinions on the issue (usually) expressed in the least constructive ways possible.

Regardless of where you land on the issue, what assumptions are you making about those you disagree with?

From a Christian perspective, I can say I know people on all sides of the issue who care very much about what the Bible says are genuinely seeking to hear God's voice. But rather than love and even pray for those we are at odds with, we quickly cut them down. Those against are all "uneducated, hateful Conservatives" and those for are all "world-pleasing, heretical Liberals."

These assumptions are not constructive and they certainly do not capture the command to love our neighbors.

Instead or writing others off, ask yourself, "Who are the people in my life I naturally assume the worst about?" Get to know those people better. Put a name with the face. Try to understand the circumstances that made them who they are -- maybe you wouldn't be much different if you were in their shoes.

After all, we're all broken children of God in a gritty world trying to figure out what it means to be human. Let's assume at least that much about each other.

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Balance: Spiritual Life Fall Retreat

Tom Boone, chair of LCC's theology department, shares a personal account of experiencing ministry burnout with LCC students at the annual Spiritual Life Fall Retreat in early October. He led the first of three sessions about balancing the the call to radical faith without suffering spiritual burnout.
Josh provides instruction and leadership before lunch. The overnight
retreat took place during the final part of our Indian Summer, making for
a delightful time.
Numerous times in the gospel story, we observe Jesus retreat. In Luke 5, as it details Jesus' ministry growing and describes the way people were drawn to him, it even notes, "But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." (NIV, emphasis mine)

We can speculate why. Maybe Jesus was demonstrating a habit we should also observe. Or maybe Jesus was an introvert and being surrounded by crowds of people was exhausting for him.

I don't think the "why" is what's important in this instance. Rather, it's the rhythm: moving towards the world and engaging, then retreating and practicing self care. Breathing in and breathing out. The bass drum hits on counts 1 and 3, the snare on 2 and 4.

Balance is important. But not to the world.

Proof: the world doesn't celebrate people who have balanced lives. It's the ones who "produce numbers," "move product," and "get results" that we thrust into the spotlight.

Shared meals and common tables: building
community since FOREVER.
This should be a warning to those seeking to follow Christ, because it flies in the face of one of the greatest commandments: love your neighbor.

If you love your neighbor, then you learn to see and value them as more than what they produce. Let's be honest: if you only say you love someone because you get something out of the relationship, who are you actually loving?

The idea of experiencing shalom implies God desires for us to encounter a fullness of life here and now. That fullness doesn't happen when a life is out of balance.

Combine that with the idea that loving someone involves caring for their well being.

What message are we sending when we celebrate those who are not pursuing balanced lives?

Of course those who impact the world in a major way can have balance in their lives -- success and shalom are not mutually exclusive. The question at hand is, more or less, how do you define success?

Seeking balance in our own lives is an important, albeit difficult, task. Let us not make icons out of those in ministry whose lives may lack rhythmic balance.
The retreat took place a short walk from the beach. All photos courtesy of Alisha!



Swans, Drunks, and Bicycles

Sometimes when I sit down to update the blog, a very clear idea has formed in my mind and it's just a matter of articulating it.

This is not one of those posts. Instead, I will share three stories that have taken place over this past month in hopes their articulation will be both gratifying for you, the reader, and clarifying for me.

The Swan Kidnapping

First, here's about half a minute of awesome for your enjoyment:

I saw perhaps one of the most traumatic things I can recall last week. I was in a student kitchen on the second floor of the resident hall making french fries for my student leaders when one of the students shouted, "Look! That guy is taking one of the babies!"

To give some context, LCC has a pond on its campus and a beautiful swan couple have made it their home at least as long as we've been here. This summer, they had 10 cygnets (baby swans), which have become the subject of adoration for both those in and around the LCC campus.

They are really stinkin' cute.

I rushed to the window in time to see, on the other end of campus, one of the almost-full-sized cygnets thrashing about under a man's arm. The man was also kicking at the mama swan to keep her away as she tried to get to her baby. And there was a lady (with her own child in tow) from the surrounding community who seemed to be yelling at the man.

I watched helplessly as the man carried the cygnet out of view and my mind filled with the angriest, most condemning thoughts you can imagine.

For the next few days, people talked about this. Speculation half-jokingly led to the assumption this guy had been waiting for the swans to grow to full size because he fancied a tasty meal.

Riding bike to and from my office took me by the pond each day and I would catch myself counting the swans. Maybe I hoped the kidnapping was all just in my imagination. Or maybe I just couldn't believe someone would have audacity to do that to our community. It just felt so...evil.

Church at the Bar

A handful of times each year, a local church* has an event called "Church at the Bar," which Alisha and I eagerly participate in. As it takes place Sunday mornings, though, there often aren't actually many people from outside the church's community present.

This last Sunday was a very different experience.

The format of the service is simple: anyone who wants can sign up on a paper to share a song, story, scripture, reflection -- really anything you want -- that would speak to the morning's theme. Alisha and I usually sing a couple songs and people seem to appreciate that, even though it's a Lithuanian-speaking church.

The theme for the morning centered around Matthew 5:13-16 -- being salt and light in the world. So we sang "Light" by The Haymarket Squares and "You Are Salt for the Earth" by Marty Haugen. And then some bar patrons joined us (maybe it was our singing?). Even though it was late morning, they were already pretty sloppy...but they were also engaged and started responding to what people were saying.

As my Lithuanian skills are terrible, I did my best to read body language and I could tell there was some tension in what was being said. Eventually, they left.

Afterwards, I asked one of the church's English-speakers what was going on. She told me the "outsiders" wanted to know concrete examples of what those at the church were doing to be "Salt for the Earth." To the examples provided, such as, "I help old grandmothers cross the street," they would respond, "I also do those things. So does that make me Salt?"

What a piercing thing to say! It kind of reminds me of the prophetic voices in the Hebrew Bible.

Unfortunately, it seems the response from some of the church members was to dismiss the outsiders and become defensive. Perhaps this was because they were drunk.
* My intention is not to single out a specific community or point a finger of condemnation, so I am choosing to leave the church's name out. And, if we're honest with ourselves, this could happen at any church!

Scandalous Bicycles

One thing that's great about living in Klaipeda is how practical it is to own and ride a bicycle. Alisha and I go everywhere on two wheels as long as the weather allows us and I probably have a big goofy grin on my face the majority of the time. I love it!

Moving off campus has made our bicycles an even more prominent part of our lives. They're how we get to work. They're how we get to friends' houses. I understand what H. G. Wells meant when he said, "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."

So it came to a surprise to me when I learned our tools of righteous living were allegedly causing pain and hardship in the lives of our new neighbors.

We came home from work one day and I think we had taken the bus because it was raining. When we entered the stairwell that led to our flat, there were signs posted and tucked into the spokes of our bicycles. As they were in Lithuanian, I asked our flatmate what they were about.

"Oh. Those," she said. "Yeah, there was one on my bike, too. It seems someone doesn't like how we are storing them."

"What does it say?" I asked.

"I'm not going to translate the whole thing because it's pretty ridiculous," she said. "A passive-aggressive note is the same in every language."

What is and is not OK as far as storing one's bicycle seems to be a cultural gray-area in Lithuania. From what I've observed, bicycles are chained to anything that's fastened down everywhere you go and, as long as they don't impede foot traffic, nobody seems to mind.

The previous tenant had fastened her bike in the entryway and we had seen it done by others from the building, so we followed suit. It's much easier than hauling them up three flights of stairs to our apartment or putting them in the basement (imagine the opening sequence of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark). And we had always made sure we were keeping the walkway as open as possible.

The letter mentioned things like "the need to pass through them as if through an obstacle course" and our bikes "knocking their arms and legs and sides" and the "dirt on the wheels is vandalism to the building."

As new neighbors, these are actually things that I was very concerned about when we first moved in, so we waited until after we saw another tenant lock up her bike in the stairwell to do the same with ours.
The culprits (a.k.a. "Evil Incarnate")
Our landlord told us not to worry about it -- that there was a tenant in the building who is always unhappy about something -- and that we are not doing anything wrong.

But the letter continues to be posted in the hallway and folded neatly into the spokes of our bicycles. And the last time, it was Google Translated into English.


I've been training myself to see Missio Dei more clearly in my daily life -- asking, "Where is God moving?"

I stopped writing each of the above stories at the point where this became clear to me. And, reading the conclusions below, I think I can see some common themes.

The Swan Kidnapping (pt. 2)

When the man took the baby swan, a few students ran after him. It took several days for this to make it back to me and Alisha, but apparently a fisherman had caught his hook on the cygnet and the man was taking the injured baby to the vet's office.

Let that sink in: This man was probably saving the creature's life!

I know I'm not the only one who needs to work on viewing my brothers and sisters in the world with a light of hope rather than despair and condemnation.

Church at the Bar (pt. 2)

There was a voice from within the church that responded to the drunken "outsiders," but it was directed back at the congregation and, while the voice was young and shy, it was poignant.

"Who do you struggle to love?"

There was silence. Because, in an instance, everyone seemed to realize being Salt and Light in the world meant viewing each person as a beloved child of God. And maybe they hadn't done that.

Bob Marley asked, "How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?"

On that day, perhaps the "prophet's message" was spared. It's a start!

Scandalous Bicycles (pt. 2)

I wish I could put a bow on this story like the other two but, unfortunately, the world is much messier than that.

Jesus asks us to love our enemies and I love sharing that with others. But it's hard when you have to find ways of doing that yourself. It requires creativity and patience and energy and humility and time...all things I tend to squander for myself.

But we, Alisha and I, have resolved to take that route. Alisha already baked a delicious cinnamon nut bread that will be making its way to our neighbor's apartment soon and hopefully we'll be able to meet her in the next day or two.

Will everything end well? Who knows. But we aren't asked to see that everything ends well -- just to simply love everyone we meet -- even the difficult folks.



Ukraine and Russia and LCC

Josh and the residents from one of his floors sit down to feast on the pizzas they made together.
Alisha leads a panel of LCC student leaders as they share their experiences.
The situation in the region, at the political level, changes hourly. It could be a full-time job to keep up with the news media regarding Ukraine and its neighbors. In the news, it seemed just a few weeks ago to be a relatively peaceful protest movement in Independence Square in Kiev related to alignment with the EU or Russia (with the Winter Olympics the center of attention in Sochi). 

It then quickly changed with a government overthrow and almost 100 deaths, to now a situation related to the autonomy vs. foreign occupation of Crimea, and it bleeds into Lithuanian uncertainty with Russian naval exercises in the Baltic Sea and on and on...any description of the situation is rendered simplistic because of the layers of history and regional relations involved. The point here is not to describe the political context.

As a small university in Lithuania, LCC International University’s primary impact is not at the political level. But we believe we do play a very important role.

The LCC pond isn't frozen now, but broomball/hockey was a great
success this winter while it was.
We demonstrate community. We are an international university – and we happen to have 69 Ukrainian students, and 53 Russian students on campus. Each one of us has strong opinions about the current situation, opinions that are determined by life experience, or education, or the opinions of others. 

As a community, LCC states, “We celebrate diversity of cultures and traditions, personalities and opinions.” (Core Value #5) Living in community means that we work on what unites us, and not what divides us. We are people interacting with people, not representatives of a government interacting with representatives of a government. 

The orphanage is still a big part of our lives. And orphans still
love Josh's beard.
We serve a God of peace.  In John 14:27, Jesus says: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." 

Especially when it feels like peace is being threatened, we must continue to carry a message of peace and reconciliation.

Alisha is, at times, the mature mama bird the Study Abroad
students need, as the picture above illustrates.
We stand for justice. We must be Micah 6:8 people: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” 

When God models justice, it is never modest or polite or understated. Justice is bold. But it is accompanied by a love of mercy. We must live and speak accordingly and we teach from this perspective.

Viktorija, who attends the Klaipeda Vineyard Church with us,
shows off her painting after a community event that combined
art and faith.
We care for the needs of our students. Very practically, we are monitoring the fluctuation of currencies in the region. In the year ending on Feb. 28, the Ukrainian currency had devalued by 26 percent. Four other regional currencies had also devalued by 15+ percent. As always, we have emergency financial aid available should it be necessary. 

We are people of prayer.  Above all, we must demonstrate our faith in the One who holds the future. We pray for each other, for national leaders, for safety and security, for the church everywhere, for peace. We encourage each other by praying for each other. 

And we go on. We've just had mid-term exams, spring break, underground potlucks, and chapel. Our lives cannot be defined by politics. But sometimes political situations help us clarify our message and provide new opportunities for demonstrating who we are.


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Finding Rhythm (120 BPM)

Alisha and Amanda row with determination for their leg of LCC's 2012 Ugly Duckling Cup. Although victory was not in the cards for the faculty team, the event successfully brought the campus together in friendly competition.
Life has finally seemed to have found a rhythm for us here at LCC International University. Not sure if that's because we have become less busy or if we've just grown accustomed to the high-energy, always-accessible lifestyle of being resident directors.

Either way, the feeling is nice.

This weekend marks the official inauguration of LCCs sixth president, Dr. Marlene Wall. Such events are a big deal on university campuses (click here for details), so that means there will be extra events we are, in part, responsible for. That included a special chapel service today, Community Day on Friday, and the Inauguration Ceremony on Saturday.

Neighbor Fire Update

Last week, our post was about a neighboring group of homes that caught on fire. Here's a brief update. Josh has attempted to visit the homes a few times to find ways the students can help on the long road to recovery. However, the language barrier and busy schedules has made it difficult to follow up.

Of the two homes that were severely damaged, there has been no luck contacting the residents of one and the residents of the other have been in no rush as they had insurance on the home and did not want to interrupt that process.

It seems sometimes loving your neighbor is hard purely for logistical reasons. We are going to make a few more attempts to offer assistance and we'll post how that goes.

Garbers on Ice

On a lighter note, a group of students asked us to go ice skating at a local mall with them and we agreed. Here is our adventure, documented for your enjoyment!

Bonus Section

We like to play a game called "Eastern-European doppelganger." Occasionally we spot someone while out and about who reminds us of one of our friends from the U.S. Below is our second public installment. We present "Jess Simmons."

Jess is a long-time friend we met while she was a youth at Trinity Mennonite Church. We've since seen her grow up and even graduate from college. We think she's pretty great.

Although technically the girl who is Jess' doppelganger is not from Eastern Europe, she is someone we met here who is attending LCC, so we figure it still counts. Her name is Kate Metelak, she's a full-time student at LCC, her parents both work as faculty/staff, and Josh helped her brother lead music at the Summer Language Institute.

Jess, left, and Kate, right.

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