Love and Cynicism

Lent Week 4

A year ago on a Sunday afternoon, I tried out a new church.  Not necessarily because I was discontent with the one I was already attending, but because I was just looking for something more I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  I wanted to possibly meet some new people that weren’t the same five people I talked to every week at my own church.

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However, I am pretty cynical about churches.  This church was considered the “cool” church in town where all the 20-somethings go.  They had an official greeting team, because you know, saying hello to someone who is assigned to stand by the door and shake my hand feels so authentic and welcoming.  They had a coffee bar and a welcome center where I could get a free mug and coffee for being a first time visitor.

When I walked into the sanctuary (which rather resembles an underground bomb shelter), there was a count-down clock on the screen and some music with a nondescript techno beat.  I tried to sit in a corner where no one would notice me, and a guitar player wearing suspenders got on stage.  The room started to fill up with plaid button-up shirts and thick rimmed glasses and knit beanie hats, stylish couples, and girls who look much better in skinny jeans than I do.  I started to get a major “too cool for you” vibe, and moved over a few more seats, attempting to go unnoticed.

The band starts playing, and I see all these people enthusiastically clapping and lifting their hands and singing along to songs that I don’t know, and I just feel kind of dead inside.  I stand with my hands to my side, trying to sing along, and trying to feel something.

But 40 minutes later, I was trying to hide the tears in my eyes, because I heard exactly what I needed to hear.  The message was on finances and scarcity, which had been a huge struggle for me that week.  I felt like I would never have enough money to feel secure, and that all the decent men in the world were taken or interested in other women or seriously weird, and that there would never be enough for me.

The pastor asked us to take out our wallet, hand it to the person next to us, and then tell them how that felt.  Suddenly, I looked around me, and I wanted to get to know these people I was so quick to judge half an hour ago.  I wanted to share my story with them, and hear about their lives.  I’ve never been great a making small talk, but somehow, in the midst of my social awkwardness and cynicism and inability to feel any affection for an invisible deity, something broke through to me.

Even now, I’m trying to remember that no amount of cynicism or disappointment or walls that we put up can truly separate us from the love of Christ.

I remembered after I wrote this that one of this Friday’s lectionary readings was from Romans chapter 8.  Funny how that works out.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.—Romans 8:38-39 ESV

Have you ever experienced something like this?  How has God spoken to you despite your cynicism or unbelief?  

Transformation

Yesterday, the lectionary text included the story of the woman at the well in the book of John.  This is a commonly-told stories, one of the greatest examples of Jesus’s character and his mission here on earth.  No matter how many times I hear this story, though, it never really loses its meaning.  Here was a woman, a Samaritan, a sinner—someone who in that day in age would be completely insignificant—and Jesus still thinks that her life is worth changing.  And changed it was.

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The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)  Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” —John 4:9-15 ESV

Though this is not necessarily verifiable history, it’s interesting to note that stories have been passed down through the orthodox church about Saint Photini, or the woman who Jesus met at the well.  Photini is said to have become the first evangelist—telling her town and her family about Christ.  They were so outspoken that she and all of her family members were hunted down and martyred by Nero in the first century—most notably, Photini died by being thrown down a well.

Whether or not the stories about this woman are true, it’s undeniable that her life was changed.

Maybe you, like the woman at the well, can trace your faith back to a single encounter with Jesus.  For me, though, this is not the case.  I haven’t had a major transformational experience—only lots of small experiences that have shaped who I am.

How have you encountered Jesus in your life?  Have you found him in your spiritual practices this week?

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What are you seeking?

Lent: Week 1

This week, I went to an Ash Wednesday service for the first time.  It was completely in Spanish, and my Spanish at this point is only good enough to understand about half of of it.  But we said the Lord’s prayer and put ashes on our foreheads and passed the peace and recognized the day in the same universal ways that have been done for generations.

Padre Nuestro, que estás en los cielos, santificado sea tu nombre.
Venga a nosotros tu reino,
hágase tu voluntad
así en la tierra como en el cielo.
Danos hoy nuestro pan de cada día
y perdónanos nuestras deudas,
así como nosotros perdonamos a nuestros deudores. No nos dejes caer en tentación, mas líbranos del mal. Porque tuyo es el reino, el poder y la gloria, por los siglos de los siglos.
Amen.

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This year, I am not fasting from anything specific, but I am still trying to set the season apart.  I am trying to get up earlier, to read from the lectionary each day, to be more mindful of God’s work in my life.

Each week, I would like to post some thoughts, verses, music, or photos to represent each week of Lent.  I don’t claim to be a Bible scholar or a spiritual director, merely a person who thinks too much and sometimes likes to share these thoughts with other people on the internet.  If you would like to receive these posts in your inbox each week, you can subscribe using the form at the bottom of the page.

The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lame of God!”  The two disciples heard him and said this, and they followed Jesus.  Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” —John 1:35-38a (from Friday’s lectionary reading)

In this season of Lent, what are you seeking? Are you observing it in a specific way?

Join the discussion in the comments.

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The Music of Imperfection

I was a music major in college, and in freshman music theory, we learned about an interval called a Tritone.  

A Tritone is an augmented fourth, or a combination of pitches that make a dissonant sound when played together.  We also learned that from the Renaissance until the Classical Era, Tritones were generally banned in church music.  A musician in the early 18th century even referred to the Tritone as diabolus in musica, or the Devil in music.  

Church music of this era was supposed to be beautiful and pleasing to God, full of predictable chord progressions and pretty major chords and final resolutions.  You could spend years learning all the rules of hymn writing, the rules about passing tones, chord structure, and bass lines.

Though many of these hymns were written for pipe organs and choirs and great cathedrals, in its essence, church music hasn’t changed much in 800 years.  We may go to church in repurposed warehouses and school gymnasiums and modern sanctuaries, but we still have a set of rules to follow.  We still write worship songs with the same predictable chord progressions and pretty major chords and final resolutions.

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Jupiter

I think I’ve written before about Jupiter, one of my favorite pieces of classical music by Gustav Holst.  But I would like to bring it up again, because there’s something about this music that I find so deeply healing.  Madeleine L’Engle writes in her book Walking on Water:  Reflections on Faith and Art about the cosmos and the chaos. “Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named.  And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos, we see despite all the chaos.”  We can create cosmos out of chaos, she says.

In the beginning of Jupiter, we hear chaos.  We hear the broken fragments of a melody, sped up and rearranged.  If you’re listening for the first time, you might be tempted to skip over the first three minutes, to fast forward to the “good part”.  You don’t know exactly when or how, but you have a the sense that something else is coming.

Then, everything becomes quiet and you hear the melody.  This is what everything was building to all along, and you begin to understand the broken pieces.  You might recognize now that the bits of chaos in the beginning were all parts of this melody in a less-recognizable form.  Holst created cosmos out of chaos.

But then, just when you’re expecting the very final note of this great recognizable melody, the chaos comes back again.  Even after you got to the place where you began to understand, the resolution is missing.  It’s not until the very end that you hear the tonic chord and the final resolution, but even then, it’s much more chaotic and exciting than you might like.

Music can teach us so much about life—about melodies and resolutions, and the way beauty can be created out of dissonance and chaos.  I always laugh when I hear about the way the early church used to ban certain dissonant chords and intervals from being used in church music because they believed the act of praising God should always be beautiful and full of pretty major chords and resolutions.  I think sometimes the church still holds on to this idea—the idea that we have to hide the dissonance.  However, when Jesus says “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden”, I always imagine him saying “Bring me your chaos. Bring me your imperfection, your broken pieces, your honesty.”  We don’t have to cover up the parts of our lives that aren’t resolved.

I just hope that one day we can get to the other side of whatever trouble we are facing and say “I understand now.”  

One Word 2015

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

This year, I am participating in One Word 365.

It was hard to think about what I want to be this year. I can make a big long list of the things I want to happen to me, but it was harder to think about what I want to do myself. It’s hard to envision a life for myself when so much of it is outside of my control.

Even if everything goes wrong, what do I want to be anyway?  

My life in 2014 was made up of moments.  Some of which I noticed, and some I missed.  Time has been going by so quickly this year that I’m afraid I’ll blink and miss this year completely.  This year, I want to be surprised.  I want to find a job. I want to be loved.  But even if it all turns to dust, I want to be awake.  

And so my One Word for 2015 is Awake.

I want to live with my eyes open. Not numbing myself with shallow joy or laughing to forget it all. I don’t want to spend my days being tired and bored. Being awake could mean taking better care of myself. Going to bed earlier, eating more than spaghetti and takeout, and being more active. It could mean capturing moments: photographing, writing, reflecting. I’m probably one of the only people in the world who made a New Year’s Resolution to post more on Instagram.

When we are awake, we can see more clearly.  2015 is here, and I don’t want to miss any of it.

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In case you missed this, you can subscribe to my blog to receive a free ebook, I will call this place home: Essays from Guatemala.  I’d love to stay in touch this year!  

A Spiritual Identity Crisis

I was that kid in high school.  

You know, the one who always took on leadership roles in youth group and memorized scripture in my spare time and brought my Bible to school and got into theological arguments at the lunch table over pizza slices and curly fries.  Needless to say, I wasn’t invited to many parties.  After graduation, I fell out of touch with most of my friends, and honestly, I don’t wonder why. Instead of inspiring me to love and accept others and form deeper relationships, my interpretation of Christianity pushed me away from authentic connection.

Later, I became angry.

I took issue with those Christians who see other humans simply as “outreach opportunities.”  I’ve distanced myself from the evangelism mentality to the point where I go out of my way not to bring up my beliefs in conversation.  Instead of singing “I once was lost, and now I’m found”, I sometimes joke that “I once was found, and now I’m lost.”

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Until the Son of God Appear

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The season of Advent is one of my favorite times of the year, though for me it’s also one of the busiest. But it seems that all of the wishing and hoping and praying and waiting I do during the other eleven months of the year is more meaningful during this season. In more modern language, we could probably re-name this season as “The season of waiting”. [Read more…]

To Pray

On Sunday mornings, I don’t always look forward to dragging myself out of bed to walk a mile to a 9:00 service and a congregation of five other people. But I still do. And each Sunday morning, this small Episcopal congregation opens up the Book of Common Prayer to the same worn-out page.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our
hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may
perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

[Read more…]

To be Quiet

Here in Guatemala, it’s a Sunday of rest. My life has suddenly gotten monumentally busy in the past couple of weeks, which is a good thing. It’s good that I’m working, accomplishing things, learning Spanish, spending time with friends, re-vamping my website, but there hasn’t been much time for quiet.  But today, there’s soup on the stove and my relaxing music playlist on my iPod, and there’s quiet.

I would like to share something with you that I’ve been working on, and I’d love to hear some feedback. For the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a collection of essays, which I hope to release all together in December. Here are the first two chapters, let me know what you think! [Read more…]