My first semester at PLTS ended in mid-December, and I’ve been soaking up as much “home time” as possible. Today, though, my soaking time ended as I stepped onto a plane to head to Los Angeles. No, Los Angeles is not the location of PLTS, but it is the location of the class I am taking during our January-term (J-term). It is also where I lived back in the late 90’s, and so I planned to arrive 2 days before class starts so that I can visit with friends. I have been here now for an entire 5 hours, and I am experiencing quite a mixture of feelings.
First was the joy of seeing the sun. Yes, most of you non-Pacific Northwest people take the sun for granted, but those of us who live in the top left corner of the US typically struggle during the winter. There has actually been some nice weather since I’ve been home, but the past week especially has included a lot of clouds and rain. (When I say “rain,” I mean “drizzle,” ie “Seattle rain.”) As I stepped out of the airport to the shuttle stop to wait for my rental car shuttle, I found a spot with sun, and just basked in the warmth and light. It really is amazing what a difference the sun makes. However, as I stood there, enjoying the heat, another feeling came over me; a familiar feeling from when I lived in LA.
When I lived in LA, I was a computer consultant who traveled every week to go to my client sites. I would get on the plane at LAX on Sunday evenings, and return to LAX on Friday evenings, spending most weekends at my home in Pasadena or Marina del Rey. Those places, though, despite being where my apartment and things were located, never did feel like home. I remember flying into LA, and always having this odd feeling that I was beginning a short, mini-vacation. It was the weather, the proximity to the beach, and, as I am only realizing now, also the feeling of luxury and comfort, that contributed to this sense of being on vacation instead of coming home. As I stood at that shuttle stop this morning, although I couldn’t name it, I began to discern that old feeling of luxury and comfort.
One would think this would be a good feeling but, to be honest, it was unsettling. I didn’t really understand why, though. I got my rental car and headed to Pasadena, where I would meet up with a good friend later in the afternoon. My plan was to walk around Pasadena, my old stomping grounds, and see how things have changed. First, I headed to my old apartment. I wanted to see if it was still there, and if it had changed. For most of my drive to the old apartment, I really didn’t recognize much of anything. But then, as I passed the old Vons grocery store, I realized I was only a block away. When I pulled up in front of the old apartment, that past feeling of luxury and comfort crept up on me again. Now, my old apartment is not an apartment of luxury. So, why would this feeling come to me at this time?
As I sat there, taking in the setting from my car, I began to discern this feeling; why I was having it, and what it was telling me. My discernment continued throughout the day, and now, as I sit here to write this blog, I feel as though I am only beginning to understand it. When I lived in Pasadena, I was in a very different stage of my life. I remember telling college friends that I was living the “good life.” What I meant by “good life” was a life where I was making plenty of money, doing and buying whatever I wanted, and living in sun and comfort. My goal at the time, if one would even say I had any goals, was to live life to the fullest. In a sense, I was living the Ecclesiastes life, following the advice of Ecclesiastes from the bible who tells us that life is short and should be enjoyed as much as possible. I was focused on buying nice things for my apartment, drinking good wine, and taking fabulous vacations. I can remember, back in those days, telling people I was fiscally conservative and socially liberal (a phrase I often still hear today). I wanted to protect my money (after all, I had worked hard for it), and allow people to live their lives as they see fit. Makes sense, right? So… why would this feeling bother me today?
Today, I am in a very different place. Today, I am much more aware of how the very laws and systems that support and allow me to live such a life of luxury and comfort are the same laws and systems that make it incredibly difficult for people who have been born into poverty to find a way out. Today, I am more aware of my own privileges, gained from my race and “class.” Today, I realize that the reason I have had the opportunity to “work hard” for my money is because I have parents who loved, nurtured, and taught me qualities that many of us take for granted: financial sense, strong initiative, competitive spirit. I have parents who were financially comfortable enough to live in neighborhoods free of violence where I would go to good schools, and have friends with goals of college and academic success. Because of this financial status, I was always told that I would go to college – there was no doubt to that, nor any alternative even considered. Because of my race, I was never questioned by police, I did not have to feel second-class by another person looking at me with fear. I was always given the benefit of the doubt in all my interpersonal relationships, both casual and significant. I never felt as though I had to prove anything to anyone, and I was not worried about how my actions would impact how others viewed my race. Today, although I still enjoy these privileges, I am aware of them, and I feel a responsibility to do something to change the way our world works. I no longer call myself fiscally conservative. I believe that we who have some financial means have a responsibility to those who are struggling to make a life for themselves. I suppose I have moved from Ecclesiastes to Luke.
That feeling I was and am discerning was a feeling that made clear how I have changed since those days; how my goals and priorities have changed. Yet, it also made clear that I am still not doing enough. Yes, I have quit my lucrative job at Microsoft to dedicate myself to a career of service. Yes, I am politically active in efforts to spread the privilege I enjoy to those of other races and income levels. Yes, I now enjoy a deep spiritual foundation from which I draw to keep me motivated and working for others. But I still live in a beautiful house. I still enjoy buying nice clothes. I still eat out at nice restaurants. Maybe I don’t do these things quite as much as I used to, but I still do them.
So what do I do? Do I feel called to do as the bible tells us, and sell (donate) all of my possessions in order to follow Jesus? Should I completely let go of my life, which still has many pieces of luxury and comfort, in order to truly devote myself to others?
I don’t know if this is what I am supposed to do, but I am pretty sure I’m not going to do it. I fall short of much better people than me such as Mother Theresa and other unnamed people who have totally dedicated themselves to the betterment of people different from themselves. This is a weakness I see in myself. Perhaps this is why the feeling that I am and have been discerning was and is bothering me so much. It shows me that yes, I have changed, but I am still the selfish person I used to be. I still hold onto things for myself, while knowing that others are suffering. And I wonder… is this any better than I was back then? Back then, I could argue ignorance. Now, I know… but I still don’t let go.
It makes me think of Matthew 19:24, and I become more aware of my failings and weaknesses… and even more grateful for what Jesus gave up for me, and for those I mean to serve. And it gives me motivation to keep trying. Keep discerning. Keep loving. Maybe… just maybe… one day, I’ll look back on today, and realize how much I continued to change…
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.