Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Doing Ordinary Things Differently: Soul Dialogue With Sheldon Good

Sheldon Good is the Employment & Community Outreach Specialist at Community of Hope DC, an organization working to improve the health and quality of life for low-income, homeless, and underserved families and individuals in the District of Columbia. A graduate of Goshen College, the 20-something Good is a Pennsylvanian Mennonite just recently married (05.24.14) to the irenically Texan Catholic Jenn Svetlik. Good is a 7 on the Enneagram, a marathon runner, Allen Iverson fan, avid writer, cook & gardener.
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EY: I was pleasantly not-surprised to read your email a couple of weeks ago: "Given the protests over the past two years, we are boycotting the World Cup, in solidarity with poor and vulnerable people in Brazil and beyond. We also aren't really into soccer."

What went into this decision and how's it going?


SG: While I may not be the world's biggest soccer fan, I am a huge sports fan. I've never boycotted a professional sports event before.

I decided to boycott the World Cup after learning about how outraged Brazilians have become regarding the government's decision to spend $14 billion on a soccer tournament while millions of Brazilians lack basic services. Myriad of strikes and protests in major cities across the country have included homeless people, subway workers, and airport workers. The day World Cup action began, as 600,000+ visitors were making their pilgrimage to the pitch, stadiums, airports, and transport systems weren't even finished.

So far, I've had to decline multiple viewing party invitations. When the U.S. played Germany I watched for about five minutes because my coworkers were providing pizza.

EY: I haven't totally boycotted, but I do make it a spiritual practice to root for historically colonized teams over conquistadors. Basically, I root against (mostly) white teams. US versus Belgium? I was "rooting" (while not watching) for Belgium because the overall (per capita) quality of their beer is far better than what Americans have to offer.

Can't a case be made, though, for boycotting ALL of our professional sporting events since most (if not all) of the cities who have teams have subsidized stadiums with taxpayer money and heavily gentrified neighborhoods, displacing hundreds & thousands of poor people?


SG: This boycott is not about me. I wouldn't be boycotting the World Cup if local people had not engaged in protests and strikes. I see my boycott as a way of being in solidarity with Brazilians in their quest for justice. It is true that taxpayer-subsidized stadiums are constructed all across the U.S. and lead to economic displacement and neighborhood gentrification. In Sao Paulo, where the World Cup kicked off, subway and overland train workers went on strike for higher wages, forcing commuters onto overcrowded buses and into cars. This produced a 125-mile backup. I'm not aware of anything near this scale happening in response to a sporting event in the U.S.

EY: Let's shift from sports to a topic a bit closer to home: marriage. As a newlywed, what are you discovering about what it means for a radical disciple of Jesus to be a husband?

SG: I'm no expert on marriage, seeing as I've only been married for a little over a month. What I'm discovering daily through marriage is that Jesus' call to live a life of humility, faithfulness, and peace applies not only in our public (political) lives but also in our private (covenanted) relationships. I'm learning the importance of taking consistent personal inventory. What makes me irritable? What makes me jealous? What makes me lonely? What makes me grateful? What makes me energized? Ultimately, what allows me, and my partner, to flourish?

Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian and public intellectual who teaches at Yale Divinity School, has written extensively on the topic of human flourishing. Volf says there are two key components to flourish as a human being: leading life well and life going well. So human flourishing has both active and passive dimensions. As a husband, I am learning that a covenant relationship allows me to flourish more fully, to practice radical discipleship, to become the person I am called to be.

I am trying to reflect on what it means to value and practice humility, faithfulness, and peace in the context of a covenant relationship. It can at times feel intimidating for me to be a husband, like I don't want to fail or hurt my wife in any way. This leads me to sometimes retreat, shut down, and not share my thoughts and feelings out of fear that I will hurt my wife. But what I'm realizing is that closing myself off is what can hurt our relationship, not humbly, honestly, and openly sharing my thoughts and feelings. So I'm learning to lean in to my emotions more and to share them with my wife, even and especially when that feels difficult. This, I believe, is part of what it means for me to flourish as a radical disciple of Jesus who's learning how to be a husband.

EY: I really resonate with your compulsion to retreat, shut down and not share thoughts/feelings out of fear our hurting your spouse. This has been a major struggle for me in the past decade of marriage to Lindsay. I still have amateur status when it comes to identifying and sharing my feelings. I'm emotionally still an adolescent. For decades, I lived with the wrong-headed notion that emotions were just speed bumps on the road to achievement and success, at work, in ministry, with athletics and even, ironically, in relationship. T.S. Eliot wrote that "our lives are mostly an evasion of ourselves."

This, I've experienced & observed, is a major challenge for radical Christian disciples who believe that a prophetic imagination requires the bulk of our time, energy, thought and resources to be poured into prayer, research, activism and a variety of good deeds. Personal inventory, as you note, must be at the forefront of all these endeavors. Marriage is quite a laboratory for discipleship experimentation. I simple cannot wiggle out of all my sin & weakness (as Paul laments in Romans 7), no matter how much I creatively try to closet my False Self.


SG: Indeed!!

Thomas Merton: "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects ... is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist ... kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

EY: How does the radical disciple go about eating? How does the follower of Jesus eat differently than nominally "Christian?"

SG: Eating, along with breathing, thinking, and sleeping, is one of the most basic human functions. Although integral to our survival and well-being, we're generally not very mindful of these sacred acts. Too often we passively place ourselves on autopilot, ignoring what makes us uniquely human. In fact, I just read in the Washington Post about a study where people chose to be shocked by electricity rather than just sit alone and do nothing but think. In other words: people, especially men, the study found, hate being alone with their thoughts so much that they'd prefer to be in pain.

Eating is a sacred act. Jesus didn't just want his disciples to encounter him through the Eucharist, but through daily acts of mindful table fellowship. For those of us with a certain financial stability, eating is not just a sacred act, but a moral act. When discussing questions of "how to eat well," I often turn to the topic of food security.

The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. Food security includes questions about economics and incentive systems, food distribution, nutrition and health, agricultural practices, and power and politics. Keep in mind the most basic, yet integral fact when discussing anything related to food: Enough food is produced worldwide to feed all 7 billion of us. However, nearly 1 billion of us are suffering from chronic hunger today.

For me, one of the most fundamental ways I act as a radical follower of Jesus is to eat a mostly vegetarian diet. There are a myriad of reasons why I and others chose this lifestyle, some of which are personal preference, others of which are acts of solidarity. There's a lot we don't know. It may sound surprising, but a full range of necessary nutrients for humans has yet to be identified by scientists. However, what we do know is that vegetarians have roughly half the food-related carbon footprint of meat eaters. Vegans are lower yet.

Food production is responsible for about 25 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions heating up our Earth, and meat has a much large climate footprint than fruits and vegetables. But in addition to eating mostly plants, eating local is just as important. Consider how much carbon we would keep out of our atmosphere if we ate more food from our farmers market than from South America and Asia. Author and activist Michael Pollan's bestselling book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" contained an audacious, yet simple, maxim for how to eat well: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

What kind of society could we create if morning, noon, and night we had the prophetic imagination to alter our most fundamental act of consumption in such a way that valued our personal wellness as well as that of the common good?

EY: Despite his sexual/power dysfunction, the work of John Yoder challenged me to think differently about the Eucharist. Yoder expanded and deepened it for me, bringing it to my personal meal decisions and pressing me into more systemic engagement with industrial food production and the politics of hunger. The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed, as Brother Gandhi reminded the world 7 decades ago. He was just following the radical actions of Jesus who shared simple-yet-abundant meals with the unclean, impure sinners and called his followers, the night before he was assassinated to do the same--and to remember him every time we do it. I really believe that one aspect of the Eucharist is what Mark Bittman addressed in his last NY Times column, challenging the social consciousness of "foodies:"
The qualities that characterize good food vary within a narrow range. Good food is real, it’s healthy, it’s produced sustainably, it’s fair and it’s affordable. Maybe it’s prepared at home, though if communal kitchens or restaurants can deliver those qualities, I’m all for that.
Like you, my vegetarianism is pure discipleship. They are totally interrelated. My call to follow Jesus requires me to think critically about the foods I'm buying. Where was this grown and harvested? What was the carbon footprint to deliver it to my plate? What chemicals were involved in the growth and packaging of this "food?" Were the workers paid (at the very least) a living wage? How much water was used to bring this to my plate? Etc, etc, etc? We could go on and on. And we must. If Meister Eckhardt was right, then what we eat REALLY matters (more than ever) in the world today: In this life, we are to become heaven so that God might find a home here.

Last topic: physical exercise. As a committed radical disciple, I believe in taking care of the storehouse of the Spirit of God and I feel God's presence during and after hard workouts, especially long runs. The endorphins kick in and there is a natural rush of gratitude for the body and determination I've been given. And it is all a Gift. And it connects me with the Creator and the beauty and wild of Nature. But, I think, as a 3 on the Enneagram (the achiever) I've always felt the tension of "getting my workout in." I can get quite obsessive with lifting weights 4 times per week and running 5-6 times per week. The illusions & lies flood me: I am only as good as my last workout. There are body image issues as well that lock me into a mental prison.

How do you experience your marathon training and racing as an aspect of your discipleship?


SG: My journey with running began in spring 2006 as a freshman at Goshen College. I was on the men's tennis team, but largely dissatisfied with the results of my individual play. I was on scholarship, was under-performing, and stressed. I needed an "outlet" from the daily grind and pressure of collegiate athletics, so I started running, going out for two or three miles once or twice a week. I hated it. Absolutely hated it. Now, I'm the son of one of the most gifted athletes I know: my mother. She's been running my entire life, and ran up until the day before she gave birth to me. I grew up going to her races and could never figure out why she and the thousands of other people in these races would want to run mile after mile, for fun. And when I started trying it the spring of my freshman year in college, I still hand't figured it out.

Slowly but surely, however, I began to enjoy it. By my junior year I was running year around, and by my senior year I told myself for the first time that I loved running. I loved it a lot more than collegiate tennis, though I finished out my four-year career. Since 2009 I've run multiple half marathons and marathons. So what happened? How did I come to love something I used to hate? Why did I enjoy a sport that's used as punishment in other sports?

The longer, the harder, the farther, the faster I ran, the more I learned about myself. I learned about my body: how to care for muscles I didn't know existed, how to fuel and hydrate properly, how to use the proper stride rate, how to breathe efficiently. I learned about my mind: how to slow my hyperactive thoughts, how to get pumped up, how to convince myself I could do a little bit more. I learned about my soul: how to reflect on the previous day and anticipate the upcoming one, how to pray while exercising, how to detect the presence of the Spirit in the movements of my emotions. That last one is perhaps the biggest blessing of running for me, and the spiritual exercise -- no pun intended -- that most intrigues and challenges me.

One of the most fundamental maxims running has taught me is that every one of us is stronger than we think we are. Scott Jurek, arguably the best ultra-long-distance runners in the world who happens to be vegan, put it this way in his book "Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness":
Every single one of us possesses the strength to attempt something he/she isn't sure he/she can accomplish. It can be running a mile, or a 10K race, or 100 miles. It can be changing a career, losing 5 pounds, or telling someone you love her or him.

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