Student Blog Posts

Vanity, Vanity

Last year, I traveled a whole lot. I think I took trips just about every or every other weekend – some as far away as Korea and Japan, which were exciting but time-consuming – and although I tried my best to keep up on coursework and attend every class I could, my energies and psyche sometimes felt quite divided between my school community and the new places I found myself sleeping on a given night.

Vanity, Vanity, says the Professor, Everything is Vanity. My personality is that such as I am always oriented towards excitement and leaning forward to the next cool thing: my ideal universe curves towards jubilation and playfulness, and avoids stagnancy and sterility at every turn. It’s easy for me to always keep a few things simmering, while looking towards that next bubbly thing that’s right around the corner.

This year, I have tried to be more physically present in Hyde Park (to varying degrees of success). I’ve been trying to invest more intentionally in the patchwork of streets around my school, in the people and classrooms and church sanctuaries in this local context. As a college student, something I noticed was that unless you were intentional about setting down roots in a place, it tended to be very easy for a student to hover above a city and not feel quite like you belong in it.

Yes, I live in Hyde Park, a storied neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Yes, I am from the northwest suburbs of Chicago. But how well do I really know my neighbors? Too often, I fear, I have been happy to remain wholly ignorant of the place in which I live. Do I know the names of my the neighborhood’s streets, of the nearby cafes and book dealers and barbershops and local eateries and grocery stores? Have I let the names of this neighborhood’s streets sink into me? Or do they mean very little to who I am, am I treating this city like a hotel guest – a parasite, even – with no connection to its history or land?

Certainly working at a neighborhood Episcopal Church and doing my field studies this year has helped provide me with a rigorous and flexible framework for structuring my weekends more locally. I can’t be eagerly jet-setting off to an event when I am helping to lead Sunday worship. So too, have the various job responsibilities I have taken around McCormick helped ground me in this community.

There’s a Native American theologian named Randy Woodley who rails against the Christian celebrity culture that I’ve seen thrive in some cool-new-thing-Christian-conference spaces. Randy gets asked to speak at a lot of sexy, exciting conferences, and he generally sends back an email that reads in part:

“Over the past few years I have made a decision, except under extreme circumstances, to speak only in my general region, There are many reasons for this including: the time I am required to be away from my own family and my community; my belief that most meaningful theology and ministry is be done locally and developed relationally to be effective…Thanks for considering me for this event. I hope instead, you will chose someone locally/regionally with whom you can learn together and grow relationally…Everyone is writing another book or developing another shtick so they can be more famous and asked to speak at more conferences. These events are entertaining but when compared to the values of Jesus, they most often don’t measure up.”

That is, to me, maturity. Investing in something meaningful, more than the vapor, vapor vanity, vanity, clamor of that more-wonderful somewhere else. This year I am hoping for God to teach me to be more satisfied with a little less: to imbibe more stillness, silence, and placidity. To rediscover and invest in the under-the-surface indigeneity in my context. I think this will help me to embrace the mucky and un-glorified but no less fantastic elements of doing family, ministry, and justice work right in our communities. There are exciting and real things happening here, too, and they demand our energies just the same.