Spiritual Stuckness

In meeting with my prayer partner D this weekend (well, we're really just friends, it's just an intentional friendship where we also pray for one another) we were talking about in what ways we've been experiencing God lately. We both haven't been feeling God as much lately, and for a long time she has been having a hard time connecting to God through the typical avenues (reading the Bible, normal praying, etc.). So we talk about other ways we can engage with God, and try to find out how God might be wanting to engage us. And for her, lately, it has been really frustrating. (If you are feeling an urge to write words of advice for my friend, please fight the urge.)
But it got me thinking about seasons in the spiritual life--and how sometimes one thing that really helps me connect to God for a while, will eventually not work anymore. And how something that may not have helped me in any way to feel God's presence before, later may become a great source of spiritual nourishment for me. Sometimes I get stuck in wanting God to keep relating to me in the same way, and I get frustrated when the tried and true methods of connecting to God stop working. And instead of looking out for new and fresh ways God wants to meet me, I keep doing the old ways over and over again and getting more and more frustrated that God feels distant. Which is not to say I expect God to never feel distant, it's just that I think it's easy to get stuck in spiritual practices (which can be good in some ways too, i.e. disciplines).
I guess what I'm saying is just that I want God to help me become a new wineskin as often as I need to.



AAAGGGGHHH!!! In a few days I will be officiating at my first funeral. I met the family at the hospice and spent a little time with them, and they asked if I would do the service. It's a very scary thing, since it's the first one I'm ever going to do, and it's just so official--with my name in the funeral announcement in the newspaper as the Reverend presiding (though I'm not a Reverend officially, so I had them list me as Chaplain). The family does not really have a church background, so it's going to be kind of a generic "God" service just meant to remember the woman and give thanks for her life.
So please be praying. I would also be interested in any ideas you guys have for small prayers, poems, or rituals you have been a part of at a funeral that seemed meaningful to you. Or just what you think the value of a funeral service is in general. I need help!!


Choosing to Lay Down my Will

One of my friendships here at seminary has been really helpful for me learning the importance of having agency in my own life. Because she is a pretty aware feminist, she is able to point out to me some of the interesting gender dynamics of culture I have not been aware of. (Case in point: She recently pointed out to me that often in sex women lack agency, and that the sexual act is about the man getting turned on, and the woman gets turned on because the man is turned on by her. So it really becomes focused on the man's arousal and the man getting turned on, rather than being focused on how turned on the woman is. Anyway, that's just a sidenote.)

But anyway, the point is, being around her has helped me to realize in deeper ways that I have the option to choose which things I do and don't want to do. Particularly in regard to other people, and things other people ask me to do for them. I think in college I did most everything I was asked, because that is just what you do--you put other people's needs above your own. But the thing is, I don't think I really understood that I had a choice; so there was not a real laying down of my will, y'know? And I realized that I have needed to get to this place where I really understand that I have the option to say no to someone, in order for my choosing to lay down my own will to have any meaning. And truth be told, I think I have become a little more selfish in the past couple years. In some ways I have been less likely to step up and help out if I didn't want to. But I think that's just part of the learning curve. I think God has helped me feel a real ownership over my will, so when in the future I make the choice to do something I don't want to do for the sake of another, I know it's not because I am being passive and lack agency, but it's because I am choosing to follow Jesus and live out the Gospel. And I do hope this happens more often in the days ahead.

And for the record, if someone says they feel the freedom to say no to doing things for other people, but never actually say no, then I question whether they really feel that freedom.

From Moby Dick: I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate'-de-foie-gras.


The Worst Sermon I've Ever Heard

Last Sunday I visited an Atlanta area church (that I will not name) because they have great music, and people get really into the singing--so I go maybe a few times a year. Worship songs are one way I really connect with God, and I felt the need to go last week. But the rest of the service is usually really terrible, and I typically leave right after the singing. But last week I stayed for the whole service, since my friend Frank moved back to town and came with me. And I heard the worst sermon I've ever heard in my life. I can't really remember all of the points of it--I went to try to access it online, but the link isn't working for that week. Argh. So I'll just include a few of the points I remember best, but I really hope that the link is up soon so you guys can hear it and see another reason why we all need to be praying for the Church as a whole.

1) The title of the sermon was "Welcome to the State of Childhood" and the topic was something like "A guide to parenting." And I don't necessarily think all sermons have to apply to all people, but I do think that if it's for only one specific segment of the church, I want the pastor to openly acknowledge that and say why it should matter to me anyway.
2) He opened with like 5-10 minutes of one/two liner jokes. Okay, so this is just my own pet peeve, when the pastor seems to be more of a stand-up comedian than a preacher. It just makes me feel like I'm being entertained at the theatre or something. But that's just a personal preference.
Now to the actual content of the sermon that was horrific:
3) Everyone should get married. AND everyone should get married young. This is so that you can have many children, and because everyone in the Bible got married young. (he partially got this from the statement "be fruitful and multiply"--he said that doesn't just mean to have one or two, it means to have a lot...he himself has 8.)
4) The world is not overpopulated. (Part of his reasoning on this was that he went on a flight over the Amazon and after 4 hours he was still flying over the Amazon. According to him, it has rich soil with much plant life, and thus, it is a myth that our world is overpopulated.)
5) Everyone else in the world is having babies except Americans. (huh?)
6) The reason people aren't getting married is because they are overly focused on their careers and so-called education. (I don't know many unmarried people who wouldn't prefer to find a loving companion and then get married.)
7) Another reason people are so against love is that we call it "falling in love"; it makes it sound like a bad thing, like you're falling down. (again, huh?)
8) You should definitely spank your kids for discipline. Hospitals give out worthless pamphlets about using "time-outs" instead of hitting your kids. And don't do any kind of soft spanking either, you want it to sting and for them to get the immediate response of pain so they will learn. He then also made some jokes about having a special room in his house where he can spank his kids so the neighbors won't hear them scream, and then call the police. (This whole corporal punishment section was very strange and somewhat scary. I mean, are you a sociologist or a preacher? Well, neither really.)
9) Parents should not say to their kids "don't do that or I'll kill you" unless you're willing to follow through. Because then your kids won't trust your word. (Um, what? Are you listening to yourself? I don't think dead kids have a high capacity for trust. I mean, I get the point--don't say you're going to kill your kids...but I think it's probably better not to follow through in the event that you do say it.)

Well, I can't remember any more right now. I will check when the link gets put up. It was really more of a misguided child development lecture than a sermon or biblical reflection. It made me sad. It also made me laugh hysterically. I almost bit my tongue off trying to keep from laughing (My friend Frank brings out the giggliness in me anyway). And I desperately wanted to leave when the pastor started talking about other countries and how they have it so much better because they have more children than America (um, hello? ever heard of famine?) partly because I was deeply offended, but also because I couldn't contain my laughter of disbelief. I wanted to walk out and be rude.


If you use the phrase "TMI" then don't read this.

So today I had a medical exam. And the last time I had this exam (2.5 years ago) the doctors were terrible, and it hurt so much they were not able to complete it. The doctors blamed this on me and my monk-like lifestyle. (Are the TMI police sounding the sirens yet?) So I was not looking forward to getting it again. But alas, a couple of my friends forced me to do it.

I went to a feminist clinic though, figuring that if anyone is going to respect the vagina then certainly a bunch of feminists would (am I allowed to say this in a blog?). Anyway, God was with me, and the exam went quite well. And I realized that there is a scriptural mantra I repeat in my head over and over, especially in situations like that, from Psalm 46:1 "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." So, all that is to say, I got to wondering if anyone else has a scripture they repeat in crisis? I mean, I imagine we all have several, but is there one that comes up most of all?

From Moby Dick (appropriately): It is customary to have two harpoons reposing in the crotch, respectively called the first and second irons. [Unintentional double entendres...ah, hilarity.]


Enemy Love

I'm thinking that I will start including in most of my entries a quotation that strikes me in some way from whatever book I'm reading at the time. It may or may not have to do with the content of the post overall, but it will give me a chance to just throw out little literary nuggets that I like and over time to have a compilation of sorts.

Lately Jesus' statement about loving our enemies has really been sticking with me. It really is so easy to love people who love me, and not at all easy to love people who dislike me. That is one of the callings of Jesus that feels the least natural to me; it's one of those things I can't even begin to accomplish without his help (there are many such things...). And really, I think loving my enemies is truly helpful to me, in so many ways.

From Moby Dick: Ah, God! what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.


Cut 'Em Off at the Knees

Last night I went to a free Weezer concert in the downtown ATL. I'll spare you the details of what it was like to be around a couple thousand drunk teenagers, to be standing in the soaking hot humidity, and to only be able to see the back of the guy in front of me for the whole two hours...but there was one thing that happened that was a good illustration of something I've been thinking about more recently.
There were a couple pillars in the midst of the crowd that were not really for climbing, but which a few people did climb up on to sit. For the first hour we were there, there were about 3 frat-looking guys sitting atop the pillar, and no one really seemed to pay much attention. But then a girl climbed up and was rocking out on top of the pillar (she seemed like a cool girl, just having a good time). Then a bunch of people around me started commenting on her, and mostly saying negative things about her. People then started throwing empty plastic bottles at her, and saying insulting things about her. One of my friends heard one guy say he was going to throw a bottle at her, and the other guy said, "Well it's a big enough target." The girl was very average-sized. (Obviously this situation illustrates several of the poisons running rampant in this world.)
But the specific poison I've been especially noticing lately is this strange compulsion in people to take someone in the spotlight and pull them down. People seem to love to criticize and say negative things about anyone who gains a position of prominence. Whether it be celebrities, church leaders, or just charismatic/effervescent people at a party or in a group of friends, there seems to be this need to bring them down (because of insecurity, boredom, whatever). I am certainly not immune to it, and I'm not saying it's never called for...it's just one of those things that happens when someone is willing to put themself out there.
And I'm realizing that this is one of the reasons I don't always put myself out there. It's one of the reasons I sometimes hide my gifts, and choose to remain in the background (which I am realizing I do much more often than I thought). And I guess that's just part of the deal in being willing to risk revealing the deep gifts (and also the many limitations) that are in us. Stand up on the pillar, and you're a target. Get ready for resentment, criticism, jealousy, negativity, and maybe even some plastic bottles.


Question of the Moment

After having some thoughts and revelations about my M.O. in new friendships and in life, I got to thinking about the following question (it's hypothetical, I'm just interested in hearing how other people think in this area of life).

Let's say you are right 80% of the time about whether people like you or not. Like, 80% of the time you get it totally right about which people like you and which people don't. But the other 20% of the time you are wrong, and it is in only one of the following ways:

A) You think people do like you who actually don't like you.
B) You think people don't like you who actually do like you.

Which would you prefer, and why?


Pursuing Reconciled Community

Several weeks ago I heard a sermon about Christian community--and the pastor brought up a point that at other times has been at the forefront of my mind, but in this current time when kindred spirits are hard to come by, I seemed to have forgotten it. The strength of the early church was how different people came together--slaves and free persons, women and men, rich and poor, powerful and powerless--all of them could come together as a community because Jesus had broken down the dividing wall of hostility. (Not that it always was easy and successful, see the various chastisements from Paul...)
But I thought about how I have preferences for the type of people I like to be around; for the type of people I want to be in my inner circle of friends. And though I don't necessarily discriminate on the basis of race/gender/status, there are certain types of people I don't really spend time with. For example, all of my close friends are college educated. The majority of them have or are pursuing graduate degrees. All of my working friends work pretty high level desk jobs. And part of this is just the nature of where I spend my time, and the people I meet there. But it's also because I enjoy conversation and the company of educated people, and we tend to have more in common and an easier time getting along. (Yes, I equally enjoy the company of people with cognitive disabilities...but it's all those people in between the two extremes that I have more of a problem relating to...)
But how does that represent the reconciling power of Jesus in my life and relationships? How does it exemplify how Jesus draws people from different backgrounds, lifestyles, statuses, etc. together to stand in contrast to a world where people are stratified by socio-economic or cultural status? It doesn't.
So is it important for us as Christians to try and pursue community with people very different from us in life? Or should we just go along living life, and be open to the people God brings to us? Or something else? I'm still thinking about this.


Things I like about Atlanta

Since this is likely to be my last year in the Southeast, I want to make sure I take the time to enjoy and relish all the good things I enjoy about life here. Sure, it's never felt like home, and it's not somewhere I would want to settle, but there are definitely some things I have really liked about this part of the country. So to that end, I am going to begin a list (that will have more added to it over the year as I think of things) of things I really like about Atlanta that are new to me, and seem to be here more than southern CA. In no particular order (other than the order they come into my brain...)

1. Weather...in particular, abundant thunderstorms and rain, especially throughout the summer
2. Hip-hop/rap stations play Gospel music every Sunday morning until noon
3. Relaxed bar culture...you can go grab a drink with a friend, and not worry about looking good or being part of the "scene"
4. Trivia nights at lots of bars...for free once a week you can play Team Trivia against everyone else in the bar for bar cash
5. My seminary...in particular, the faculty who are amazing.
6. Not everyone looks like they want to become an actor or model
7. Movies almost never sell out
8. Abundant parking that you rarely have to pay for
9. Sweet, big-hearted, simple country boys
10. Agnes and Muriel's (a restaurant)
11. DeKalb County International Farmer's Market...a GIANT place w/ tons of fruit, vegetables, baked goods, meats, and international products that aren't too expensive; plus, about 2/3 of everyone that works there is from a country I haven't heard of and speaks a language I've never heard of (it's written on their name tags).
12. Lots of lakes
13. Mary Mac's Tea Room (another down home Southern restaurant)
14. A city that is trying to take homelessness seriously and a mayor that has a plan to help get all homeless people back on their feet in the next 10 years
15. Seeing more wild animals...yesterday I saw an owl perched right by where I parked my car, last year I saw a hawk actually pick up a live squirrel off the ground with its talons.

OK, that's enough for now.


Getting Advice

Does anyone actually enjoy getting advice? I have lately begun to think that more often than not people give advice to assuage their own uncomfortability with pain the person they're talking to is going through. I mean, if there's a solution then you don't have to enter into the person's pain with them, because, wham! it's solved. But I doubt that advice giving is really the best response...it still leaves the person alone in their suffering, but potentially now the person can feel hopeless too, since whatever "solution" might not actually seem so feasible or helpful to them. Something I have seen often, and which I have seen among family members, etc. in hospice is that people are very against going through any kind of emotional suffering. So, rather than meet the suffering person in their suffering, they will try to bring the suffering person up to their mood level. Sometimes the suffering person will feign an improvement of mood, just to get rid of that damn do-gooder by appeasing them, and then the "helper" can feel like they made such a difference by cheering the person up. So the do-gooder didn't really help anyone but him/herself.
And the person is still alone in their suffering, waiting for someone to come to where they are and be willing to enter into their pain with them; a gentle presence in the harsh darkness.


4th of July

Today I just did some studying, went to the gym, and attempted to waylay my online stalker yet again. So as I wind down from the day of not going to the BBQ I was supposed to go to, not meeting my friends to watch fireworks as I said I would, and doing absolutely nothing to commemorate the 4th of July, I am softly singing this song (appropriately enough called the 4th of July) by Aimee Mann because it about matches the mood I am in.

Today’s the fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky
I’m certain that I am alone
In harbouring thoughts of our home
It’s one of my faults that I can’t quell my past
I ought to have gotten it gone
I ought to have gotten it...

Oh, baby, I wonder
If when you are older -Someday-
You’ll wake up
And say, 'My god, I should have told her'
What would it take?
But now here I am and the world’s gotten colder
And she’s got the river down which I sold her.'

So that’s today’s memory lane
With all the pathos and pain
Another chapter in a book where the chapters are endless
And they’re always the same
A verse, then a verse, and refrain

Oh, baby, I wonder
If when you are older -Someday-
You’ll wake up
And say, 'My god, I should have told her'
What would it take?
But now here I am and the world’s gotten colder
And she’s got the river down which I sold her.'