I'm back in New York for April, and am experiencing the full throttle of "home" confusion. Familiar to any international student or diplomat children, I'm asking all the usual questions... Have I gone back home? Or do I have a new home? Where do I belong? But as my lovely friend Hannah Owens once said, I'm confused about my earthly home, but not my eternal one. But maybe my various earthly homes have something to say about the eternal one. In fact, I've been thinking a lot about why I love city-life, so here are some things that living in cities (both New York and London) have taught me about Heaven. In fear for making any specific theological claims about what Heaven physically (or spiritually is), I'll give you my basic thoughts and leave a lot open for interpretation.
One: Humans were created to live in community
As I get ready to leave my house for the day, I close the door behind me and am met with scenes from my childhood. I see me and my block friends, young and full of energy, running through the street to catch a baseball, riding our bicycles with one of the girls enforcing traffic, towering umbrellas over each other in the rain for a tent safe from the storm. Across the street from my house, a group of middle-aged men and women sit on one of the porches, drinking beer around a small barbecue. They’re loud, but we don’t mind. Their volume enables our own. The teenagers are walking down the block, on their way to practice for their Green Day cover band. My older brother walks to the end of the block to visit Angie and Rose, an elderly pair of sisters with whom he had become close.
I step out onto the sidewalk and walk to Metropolitan Avenue, the main street in this New York neighborhood that stretches across Brooklyn and Queens. I have my earbuds in (listening to some rockin' Chance the Rapper) but keep having to take them out when someone greets me with a hello. My friend Lisa’s dad Richard, he knows everyone in town. He’s surprised to see me, I guess Lisa didn’t tell him I was back for Easter. We have a short conversation, he updates me on the situation of the Queens’ drivers getting increasingly crazy, tells me to be careful on my way to the subway. I nod smiling, and continue my way. I barely have time to put back in my earbuds before I get a quick shout from the UPS driver. He pulls up next to me and drives slowly (annoying the other drivers on this busy road). Roland has been our UPS delivery guy for the longest time. He’s lived in New York for over a decade but still retains a strong German accent. He’s heard I went to Berlin while studying in England. He asks me how I liked it, asks me if I speak German now, and tells me to learn it if I can (will do Roland :) ). The drivers behind him are getting upset now, so he lets me along on my way. I’ll surely see him tomorrow when he delivers our amazon packages.
People have this picture of a busy New York. Surely it’s too busy and crowded to know anyone. People move here and leave with the impression that it’s a lonely place, but that’s mostly because they’re moving into a new place they didn’t grow up in. The real New York, or at least the one I grew up in, is basically a collection of real people in real neighbourhoods. People who are living densely on each other’s doorsteps. We know all of our neighbours for good or for worse. The walls are thin, if someone has a fight, we all know. This isn’t the hidden, private life of the suburbs, or even that perhaps of the Upper East Side. It’s real people living together, with access to people of all ages and backgrounds, living life together.
I live in a neighborhood, not a house. My room is where I sleep, but we play outside. Central Park is the backyard for everyone and the Greek diner down the road is the dining room. My life is not my own, and although I retain a lot of my own self and individuality, that individuality seeks ultimately to enhance the community around me. There’s a picture in a block party- all of our different interests and gifts coming together for something more. One family does a presentation in Mixed Martial Arts, another shows everyone how to salsa dance. The Green Day cover band does a live concert, the 5th graders show everyone how to do the East Coast Swing.
"In that way, the parts of the body will not takes sides. All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy. You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it." - 1 Corinthians 12:25-27
Two: Culture flows naturally out of creation
The first time recently 18-year old friend Katie ordered a beer, we went to Wetherspoons (of course we did). If you don't live in England, Wetherspoons (or just Spoons) is a chain of pubs throughout the country known for being relatively inexpensive. As we walked in, it was about 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon. I looked around. Gathered around tables were businessmen and construction worker alike; brokers on their break and students doing revision for exams. Everyone comes to the pub for a beer at the end of a hard day of work.
Art movements and ideological revolution alike all started in a similar place. This is where ideas flourish, this is where art is made. At the queue for the bar, everyone becomes equal in the fair exchange of ideas. It's where you can put forth your ideas, wait for someone to argue with them, and start cultural revolutions.
It doesn't matter where you live, humans were created to create. That creation will naturally come out no matter rural, suburb, or urban life. But there's something to be said for a group of densely populated individuals that creates an environment for the exchange of ideas and influence of people to become something greater than a Tuesday afternoon. In moments of communion, we realise what makes our minds different than the person next to us. We can build off each other and see what is missing from life. And we can create it, for the glory of something greater than our own selves.
"For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." - Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)
Three: The Good things of this life are only a small picture of the one to Come
But, I’m reminded that as much as I loved my childhood in New York and as much as I cherish my time in London, this life we live in and thus the cities we live in are inherently flawed. This isn't hard to see, so I'll keep the illustration short. Walking around New York or London can really feel like a Tale of Two Cities. Next to big buildings of enterprise, the homeless hope for enough for a place to stay for the night. You can walk from the Google Building to the Bowery Mission. On the streets of the Strand, the hungry line up for groceries near the embassy. If the idea of a perfect city is one where everyone is taken care of, we have failed, and I think we know this.
But in the good news of Christ is the knowledge and assurance that this life is only a small part of eternity. All of the good things of this life are merely shadows of the one to come; so we can look at Queens neighbourhoods and London pubs and rejoice in what they show about God and his Kingdom, but all of those earthly institutions are at least in part, corrupted by the greed and selfishness of man. The British broker may not listen to what the construction worker has to say, and as much as block parties are fun, the next day I still might hear neighbours fight through the thin walls of our home. Cities are great. But the Kingdom of God is a place the mind can only dream of.
Heaven is going to be awesome. There will be people living in wondrous community. There will be art being made and a continuation of perfect culture. But the most amazing thing about Heaven will be that we get to live in the presence of God himself, in his perfect loving kindness and grace.
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look, God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."" - Revelations 21:1-4
For further reading:
Sidewalks in the Kingdom (Eric Jacobsen)
Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Makoto Fujimura)
The Book of Revelation (The Bible LOL)
I imagined the Dalai Lama amidst the winds of a meadow, seated in an upright, lotus flower position as hummingbirds sing through the trees. But it’s possible he’s in the driver’s seat in front of me, taking me across Midtown Manhattan to Queens under surging Uber prices.
December 30: Over the winter break, I read “The Art Of Happiness,” a narrative-style book delving into the thoughts and meditations of the fourteenth Dalai Lama Lhamo Dondrub through interviews with Dr. Howard Cutler, MD. And although I can admit to not being fully on board with his array of pre-suppositions, evaluations, and conclusions, I found myself gleaming much from his insights into human nature, the meaning of life, and the causes of suffering. The Dalai Lama posited a life of pure compassion and reflection. By reflecting on one’s self and considering the backgrounds of the people around oneself, true compassion and therefore true happiness could be in store. True happiness was not about one’s situation in life, nor the big hinderances or accomplishments, but in the small moments, and the ways in which one deals with those small everyday moments. In fact, after my reading was complete, I could not help but sit in silence for a few minutes to consider the seeming wisdom of the man in his clearly explained methods for achieving a life of compassion, joy, and presence. But I hadn’t met Antonio yet.
January 1: As I hustled my way through the crowd of tuxes and fur coats leaving the Metropolitan Opera House, I glimpsed down at my phone. The car would arrive in 3 minutes on Columbus Avenue and 63rd St. I shivered in the cold, anxious to get into a warm car and arrive home to get some sleep before the early day I had the next morning. “Alexandra?” I nodded, shoving my bags into the car and sitting abruptly as I shut the door. I small-talked, remarking about the weather and my hopes for the cold to not be so cold. When he asked me what I did, I replied student, instantly fabricating a story slightly in order to avoid the fact of my minor/high school self and instead spoke of being on break from university, studying what I hope to study, philosophy and theology.
“Really?” He offered, excitedly. “I too am a philosopher!” I smiled. Everyone thinks they are a philosopher I guess. He continued. “Do you have a life philosophy?” I rambled for a bit, explaining my core beliefs and whatnot, and then allowed for a small gap of silence as he considered my speech.
“I have a life philosophy.” He replied, “Enjoy life.” Thoughts of that Bobby McFerrin song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” immediately came to mind as he explained in his rich, milk and honey Caribbean accent how happiness was found not in the big situations of life but in the small things of the present, and how one reacts to them. He said we must have an awareness of the self and be rooted in something in order to learn how to improve aspects of one’s life and relationships and be truly happy. Huh I thought to myself. This sounds remarkably familiar.
We give a lot of power to figureheads. Their words can sell millions of books and be quoted at weddings, funerals, and everything in between. My respect for the Dalai Lama and his words is great, but in some sense my Uber driver Antonio’s words spoke more powerfully. His evaluation life, as he explained to me, of work and reflection, music and art, rang true to me in a way that made the Dalai Lama, in his daily schedule of speaking events and meditation, just could not. On the half an hour ride back home, we discussed whether humans could really achieve this sort of happiness on their own, what God’s role should be in our life, the relationship between the intellectual side of humanity and the creative side; we remarked at the serendipity of us meeting and being able to discuss such things on a Monday night car ride. He questioned me and my beliefs and I always went back to God, using the CS Lewis quote about believing in God like the sun in order to see the world more clearly, claiming that I was not able to do this sort of thoughtful meditation and evaluation of myself by myself. “I like that you have an anchor,” he said to my answer. “Before I said I was a philosopher because I like diving into the dive, but sometimes if you dive too deeply you get lost without an anchor”. “And the ocean is deep,” I offered.
And when he pulled up to the middle of my block he left me with one thing. “There is a saying in my language, in Creole, ‘deye mon, gen mon,’ which means, ‘beyond mountains, there are more mountains.’” Indeed, I smiled. And probably more mountains behind those ones. I stepped out of the car. We think people like the Dalai Lama are in the heavens, on top of the mountain, looking down upon us in the Valleys. But maybe they’re also in the valleys, looking up at the stars just like us, and wondering what might be.
- Alexandra G. Kytka
As I’m lounging on my couch sick at home, John William’s brilliant soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back resounds across the living room as Luke Skywalker grapples with his potential origins in the dark side of the force. Boxes of tissues are scattered across the room so that with very little effort I can keep lounging and blowing my red nose, but luckily, my mind is more focused on thee grammatical patterns of Yoda’s endearing speech.
If I had to pick a religion that most echoes the world of Star Wars, I might pick Hinduism. And in fact, many sources suggest George Lucas holds Hindu beliefs, and so many other before me have made the same connection, pointing especially to the “Force” as a reflection of Brahman.
But if the Force is an echo of Hindu beliefs, it is a very diluted one. For one thing, although the Force apparently is in all (and can be used for either good or bad), the Force is not all. There is nothing to suggest beings themselves (for example Darth Vader and Princess Leia) are anything but distinct, lacking the monism of Hindu cosmology. Furthermore, such an extreme dichotomy between good and evil (the dark side and the light) is more representative of a Judeo-Christian ethos than a Hindu one, in which destruction is necessary for recreation and morality is dependent on dharma and the maintenance of the social order.
Chewbacca seems to be making fun of me as I have these thoughts. Perhaps having missed school today (and subsequently my World Religions class), I am trying to make up from it by referencing my class material. Of course, George Lucas was not tied down to perfectly recreating a Hindu worldview in his filmmaking and I’m certainly not suggesting he was trying to at all. But there is an interesting note to be made in how Western pop-culture uses belief systems and cultures, especially that of different cultures. It has gotten to the point where words like karma and reincarnation are more likely to remind me of an twenty-something year old hippie playing guitar in Washington Square Park than an actual Hindu practitioner of Indian descent. But it’s hard to truly engage in conversations of comparative religion and worldview when our conception of belief systems are so far removed from their original culture. The reason Star Wars can’t perfectly replicate a Hindu cosmos is partially because that Hindu cosmos is intricately intertwined with the geographical, social, economic, and political history of its people.
I don’t really know where I’m going with this particular post. Maybe it’s the consistent sinus pressure or the fact that Han Solo has just been encased in carbonite. I guess I’m trying to say that although connections between films and religion/philosophy are fascinating and worth a thought or two, we cannot rely only on the plots of Hollywood blockbusters to critically analyze the implications of world views. Simply put, The Empire Strikes Back may end in a victory for the Rebel Alliance but the cyclical universe of Hinduism doesn’t include an ending at all.
- Alexandra Kytka
There’s a weird sort of sound-bite going around- I can’t even begin to explain how many times I’ve heard the sentence “Jesus was the first socialist”- and to be honest, I find it kind of funny. Regardless, due to its recent popularity (Famous YouTuber Painthad Bernie Sanders exclaiming “I’m the second most popular socialist jew being praised in this nation”), I figured it would be beneficial to actually take a look at the evidence and see what this is all about.
Disclaimer: This article is not political- I’m more interested in the reason why people are saying this rather than the pros and cons of socialism and capitalism.
My middle school history teacher always reminded my class to always start with defining your terms, and so I begin.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “socialism” as “A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”
Let’s break that down a bit, shall we?
A political and economic theory: Socialism is a view of how the government should work.
Social Organization: Socialism is about how we should organize society. That’s the only possible way I could think of rephrasing this one.
Here’s the key bit-
It advocates the means of production should be (in this case) regulated by the community as a whole. This usually means that the government provides the needs of the citizens, but unlike communism, wage is still based on work rather than need (cue some George Orwell reference).
So was Jesus a socialist? I think the easy answer is no. But most are not satisfied with the easy answer (as they shouldn’t be). I think if we work through this definition we can get a more clear answer.
I tried, I really did. I looked through all four gospels, and found Jesus saying absolutely NOTHING about what the role of the government should be. He just doesn’t. In fact, the only time Jesus mentions the government was a comment on the role of people in response to their government.
“And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’
But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius(coin) and let me look at it.’ And they brought one. And he said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to him, ‘Caesar’s’. Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’. And they marveled at him”.
He says nothing about what Caesar should do- he instructs the people to respect their government, not what that government should be.
I think people here need to note their preconceptions about socialism. Jesus does often talk about helping the widow, the poor, the sick. But he’s not advocating that the government should provide this help: Israel being under Roman rule at the time, it wouldn’t make contextual sense for Jesus to suggest this to layman Jews. Rather, he’s telling people to take care of others. That’s not socialism in any sense. In fact, from the aforementioned verse, it could be argued that Jesus is saying that taking care of the less fortunate is not the of “Caesar” but of “God”- not political at all.
But I did say that this phrase “Jesus was a socialist” is quite amusing to me. Here’s why.
People trying to fit Jesus into their political ideology is exactly what happened during his time too. Jews were sick of Roman rule, and they thought the incoming Messiah would be a zealot who would overthrow Rome and become King. We like the Jesus who caters to our own needs. But Jesus wasn’t a socialist, a capitalist, or a communist. His entire ministry was not focused on how people should organize themselves down here, but on the coming of the kingdom of Heaven.
I don’t know if this sound-bite is mostly a joke, or if people are taking it seriously. But we are missing the point. Jesus calls us to love each other and to love our enemies. This entire election is driving everyone mad as people divide across the lines of politics. But Jesus supersedes those lines. We can argue over who would be the better president, or rather, who would be the least evil president, but at the same time we need to be able to look past mere political views and love each other as God intended.
- Alexandra Kytka