Friday, February 22, 2013

Christmas, Lent and Easter

I was thinking about lent, and then a good friend of mine wrote an excellent blog post on the topic. Summer actually was my first inspiration for writing a blog (if she can do it, maybe i can too!)- though I am not sure if I am as successful at it as she is- her blog is candid writing on her marriage with my other good friend Owen- a neat reflection on a young couple making marriage work in modern day America. Anyway, here is her recent post on lent:

This reminded me of a story I have wanted to write about for awhile- the Christmas service I enjoyed with my family. Christmas and Easter have become the two pinnacle church visits for many Christians- they may not frequent church otherwise, but they do make it on Christmas and Easter. Several more regularly practicing Christians have a problem with this, saying its a washed out version of faith. Personally I don't know if I agree- I know I personally benefit from going to church more often and having God in my life on an intrensic level- does that mean I have a right to evaluate the faith of others? I mean I believe they may be missing out on a great opportunity, but I also am happy many make it to church that much! It signifies there is something still important to them within the tradition, within the faith. I read an article recently by the Gallup group citing America as one of the most religious western nations. Something like 83% of our population believes in God, whereas only 9% claim to be Athiests.

On a side note, I actually am not resolved about Athiesm. Agnosticism I can understand and sympathize with. I also have a certain understanding for choosing a different religion outside of Christianity. Athiesm from what I have studied of it I cannot relate to. That is not to say I think Athiests are bad people, in fact a lot of Athiests I have discoursed with have more intellectual knowledge about religion then a lot of my spiritual friends. I understand from a high level the belief set, but I cannot relate- but that is a whole different debate that I would be happy to take up if someone prodes me/is interested :).

So anyway, back to the church service on Christmas eve. It was one of the most genuine services I have been to. There were no pretences or business as usual approach that I am used to. Yes we sang the hymns and lit the candles and read allowed all the regular Lutheran liturgy. But the sermon was what set the service apart. The pastor at St. Andrews Lutheran church stood up and immediately had 1) all the athiests raise their hands 2) all the people who had only come to church once that year 3) all those in the church of different faiths and religions. He then stated "you are all welcome, thank you for being here". He acknowledged the medley of reasons people come to church on christmas- family tradition, so as to not upset one's parents, because that is what you do etc. etc. He then told a story (which I will do my best to retell well):

Turns out the pastor had adopted a foster son several years back who proved to be a handful. He did his best to love him, but the two regularly fought. At one point his foster son ran away, got into drugs etc. etc.- it was bad news. Eventually the pastor and his wife got their foster son involved with the army (navy?), and the pastor described how he felt like a failure as a father sending off his son (I think because he felt he hadn't built the relationship the way he wanted, not because of any issue with the navy), but that he knew it was the best thing for him. He watched him drive away expecting to never hear from him again.
5 years later, the son showed up on the pastors doorstep. He had graduated, made it through his four years of service and came back to thank his foster father. The pastor then spoke of how elated he was, how thankful he was to reconnect with his son and be able to express his love for him. He spoke of embracing his son, and of how this day was the happiest of his life- having someone who he imagine lost to him return as a family member.

I know this story rings hard of the prodigal son, and is not the only story of its kind. And the parallel here may be all too obvious: each of us distancing ourselves from God, and him then welcoming each of us back joyously. But the way the pastor shared it was so genuine, and the story naturally inspired authentic hope. Within me was kindled the possibility of many others- after whatever journeys they have imparted on in life drifting from God, whatever convictions they hold against him, being able to reunite with him; and have a relationship with him, and to feel his love as a real, tangible experience. That is a bright outlook to have to look forward to.

So maybe this Easter, for those who go to the service because it is ritual, or for whatever other reason- maybe this time they go will make the difference. Or maybe they will find God some other time in a walk in the forest or in an experience in some other unexpected place. You never know in life where God will show up, where suddenly the spiritual is present in real time. So for me, I am going to rejoice in all of those who go just 2 times a year, because maybe the visit this Easter, or next Christmas, or some far out service in the future, will be the one that makes all the difference.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Importance of Community

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. -Hebrews 10:24-25

I feel community is the perfect mid-blog topic- because the topic really speaks to what this blog is about- developing and inspiring community around faith. After reflecting now for about 6 months, I am in many ways more grounded in my faith. But in many more ways I feel the result of writing has been more questions, more ups and downs- maybe growth but growth in the sense that right now I am more present to the new overwhelming challenges lying ahead than the triumphs of the past. I am greatful for what I have learned and the new wisdom others have shared with me in dialogue. Yet the search continues. And I realize more and more how a faith journey is just not one that is meant to be embarked on alone.

Human's require community, we are social beings. Many enjoy time spent alone with their own thoughts, but for most being alone is only so sustainable. I know I am especially avoidant of spending time alone, as a strong extravert more often than not I search for social interaction. After a long day at work, 30 minutes in a group gathering can more than rejuvinate me.

The irony I find in today's society is that although we are electronically more communicative and connected than ever, people feel increasingly more alone and isolated from others. I know I sometimes feel like my own little ship, although along my day I encounter many other ships, ultimately I sail alone and chart my own voyage. So in our technologically powerful yet individualistic society, where do we go to find community?

Ask yourself the question: Where do I belong? To whom do I belong? What are some of my communities? What is home to me?

One of the times I felt the most isolated from people but most connected to God was during my trip to the middle east. I did experience a certain thrill of meeting and connecting with foreigners, learning about new people and cultures. However I did feel misplaced from 'my community of people', I knew what it was to be an outsider, and I craved at times to once again know a sense of belonging. Towards the end of my trip I did really learn to adopt, I had this sense of being a citizen of the world, of knowing that no matter what place or time I was in as long as God was with me I would be ok. But on my flight home, I remember promising myself: next time I will set out with someone I love, someone who is a part of my intimate community. I am not meant to travel alone.

So why community? What does community mean? To me the word means a gathering, a bond shared by many. A community is a place that many different people belong and are able to support one another and work together. A community is an army at your back, the wind beneathe your wings. Community is the ultimate reassurance each of us is not alone. A community is those we can go to when we are weak, down or unsure. A community is an opportunity for contribution, for each individual who belongs to fulfill a sense of purpose by serving the greater whole. A neighborhood, a club, a church, a company, a sports team: those are all examples of community to me.
And what is at the essence of "a sense of community?" The things that come to mind to me are connections/bonds with others within the community. Actually reaching out and being reached out to for the purpose of connection. Another element that comes to mind is by being in the community, a certain affinity is generated. By belonging and connecting, I develop loyalty and compassion for others in my community. Finally, a higher purpose I think is also essential: whether fostering an appreciation for a hobby or protecting the survival of a certain body of people (a family perhaps?). It makes sense to me also that a healthy community is also naturally inclusive. The community wants more to be united and join, as ong as those joining do not disrupt the community's higher purpose or uniting tenant.

Community is fostered in many ways spiritually. The church is a community, as well as other bodies of people who come together to contemplate, serve and rejoice in the divine. One way to define faith is a community of many people united over a spiritual bond/understanding. I think the church, christianity and other religions are one of the primary ways people find community in their lives.

I am fortunate to be a part of many communities, in Ultimate Frisbee, at Work, in Worldbridge. I am a part of the Uptown community, the St. Olaf alumni community. I am also a part of the Urban Refuge community-my church. However lately I have been neglecting that community. Due to travel and a variety of other excuses, last sunday was the first time I had gone to Church since Christmas. Furthermore, due to scheduling conflicts I have become less and less active in a church small group or sub community. When I did go to church this last weekend it was so refreshing- to actively listen, be around others etc.

I feel there are many Christians these days who choose to not go to church often. I, having been one of these people myself during periods of my life, understand how it can be hard to fit in and other times not always a fun activity. Churches, like every other community I know, are also admittedly not flawless. Their are times when poor decisions are made, communications misrepresented, sins are committed. There are times when the church says things I or others disagree with.

But I do not think these flaws outweigh the benefits to belonging to a church community and participating in it. I think by being a part of a church you really get to experience community at a whole different level- connecting, sharing and contributing to others, growing in well-being and faith. Practicing important values such as compassion, listening, charity, service. Not to mention when going to church I am reminded of the bigger picture, the commitment of all the people to God and of doing their best to be good people.

In the next couple of months, I do plan to make a renewed effort to be a part of my church. So often in my churches I have experienced being an observer, an outsider. I wonder now what it will be like to become (at least beyond my current level of comfort in doing so) more a part of the church community and body. To know that sense of belonging, guidance. To trust. That is my biggest shortcoming in all of this, I think to trust in my church community. I have so often remained the skeptic when it comes to church. Maybe it is worth setting that aside for awhile, and practicing something new.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My life's Mission

“We want to do more than plod through life, going to work, coming home from work. We want to find that special joy, “That no one can take from us.” Which comes from having a sense of Mission in our life. We want to feel we were put on this earth for some special purpose, to do some unique work that only we can accomplish. We want to know what our mission is” –Richard N. Bolles

One year ago tomorrow was a big day for me. After a frustrating day at work leaving me questioning my career and vocation, I went to find a sanctuary to spend some time thinking and praying in (this is one of my favorite ways to connect with God- to be alone and silent in an empty church). I went to several churches in Minneapolis, and found that most closed their sanctuaries after 5:00pm. Finally, I discovered the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist church. I wandered into the dark sanctuary, round in design with a brilliant 8 point star capping the ceiling and permitting small bits of light to filter in from the above steeple.
I sat there engulfed by the dark church, scared first, then excited, then finally calming down. The room reverberated with an intense presence, as if the room was pulsing with something invisible rather than empty. My thoughts cleared, my worries calmed.
I then began an exercise suggested to me by a coworker: sit quietly with a piece of paper, and write down the words that come to you- that inspire you. So I began- with the hope that these words would help me find some direction, some clearer path to follow. Some of the words that covered the page included: happiness, inspiring love and compassion, writing, orating, growth, bold leadership, uniting others, people, mind, natural beauty. Then, after sitting and praying with these words in front of me for several minutes, with a quiet mind and openness to God, new words echoed in between my ears: “Fostering Community in Israel”. The longer I sat with the words the more sure I became that they were the ones I was supposed to hear. I was elated and terrified, confident of the message but unsure of the meaning or how to carry it out. I left the church with new conviction and confidence.
This experience catapulted me into a year of searching. This blog was a reaction to that experience, as well as many conversations with pastors, friends, family and strangers. I have gone all over the spectrum with reacting to that statement “Fostering community in Israel”- from pushing to move over to Israel for a year ASAP to pretending this revelation did not occur and just going on with my life.
I mean Israel? Out of all the places… I mean when I was in Israel I was definitely drawn to the country, the people. But put my life towards it? Have it be a part of my vocation? I’m still wrestling with that- Israel was never a part of my long term plan. In fact, Israel literally means: “To wrestle with God” according to my pastor. The irony is not lost on me.
What I am present to right now is frustration. The last year now doubt has been made in my relationship with God, I feel I have been tested in a variety of ways in the last year- in the arenas of money, personal relationships, career, time management, successes and failures. I have practiced patience, faith, compassion. I have been humbled and have failed at things I have set out to do. I have learned the bible better, stepped into a faith community, served others.
Yet I am still in the same job, experiencing the similar worries, still wondering what is next for me, feeling like although I have learned a lot where I am that my work at Medtronic is not it for me. And I genuinely want to serve, to commit my life to making a difference. But I also am still unsure, scared, questioning. I wonder sometimes if I am just full of myself- who am I to think I can save the world and demand from God to live an extraordinary life of service? Do I even have what it takes?
My pastor suggested I just consider ‘going’ to Israel- to see what I experience. It has been a year and I haven’t even accomplished that! I am scared to! I do not know what I would be doing there. I don’t logistically know how to make it work!
So that is where I am on my faith journey right now. My path feels more circular than linear. I have more questions than answers, more problems than solutions.
I think I need to continue to look to God and the community of people around me. To be open, do my best to be patient, be willing to have faith, be fearless. To not only talk about my faith but live my faith out. And even if it is uncomfortable, I will continue to wrestle with my confusion, my worries and insecurities. Because it is worth it to me to have a bigger picture dictate my life rather than those types of thoughts. And I will keep my eyes open for the impending miracle.

“When we do the best that we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.” –Helen Keller

Saturday, February 2, 2013

It Is Up To You

Have you ever heard yourself saying; "the world is this a dark place" or "there is so much bad happening in the world..." The evidence is easy to find- take a quick look at national news or crime stats and you will see there are plenty of awful things happening. In philosophy when I studied the concept of evil- it was easy to get discouraged about the fate of the world and humanity. Part of why I think I find fault in the world is because I see it in myself. I know I have many shortcomings- I am sometimes selfish, self-pitying, critical of others. I sometimes prioritize behaviors that are not healthy or god-seeking. I have empathy for how people can treat one another poorly or be overcome by their own agendas.

Yet I think it is a mistake to write off the world even with all the negative. I think it is easy to react by saying- "well really what can I do? The difference I would make would be so small in the grand scheme of things." In response to thoughts like this I think the below verse is essential:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as done who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. - Peter 5:8-11

The Blind Side is a fantastic movie about someone upper class
really being unreasonable and making all the difference in
the world with her adopted son
This verse when I think truly absorbed is inspiring and terrifying at the same time. It claims every word we utter, every action we take is the difference the world needs- is the very stuff that generates the good in the world. What would the world be like if you took responsibility for generating good, bringing good to the world? If you related to yourself as the one who needs to make the difference?

One of my exemplars who I think really practiced this was mother Teresa. In reading her writing regularly, I have found not only did she take responsibility for the difference she could make every day, in some of the dirtiest and impoverished slums in the world, but she also encouraged others to make the difference they could in their own communities. Here are two of her quotes that I find pertinent to this discussion of doing good:

 "  Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier. "

In light of these collections of thoughts- the main message here is that generating good in the world is up to each of us individually. It is our responsibility- my responsibility to make the difference. How often are we willing to look at our relationship to others, to our community and the world this way?

mother-teresa-1.jpg (400×300)What can each of us do this week to generate genuine good? Here are some thoughts on behaviors/actions that could make the difference:

-call someone you have a grudge against and forgive them 
-rearrange your schedule to serve someone you love or a stranger to fulfill a need
-quiet your mind and spend some time generously listening to those who you talk to every day
-thank someone for the difference they make in your life
-smile and be generous in action and conversation to the strangers you run into day to day
-apologize to someone for a way you have wronged them and make amends
-make someone's day
-Tell someone that you don't usually that you love them

These are just a couple ideas... maybe readers can suggest some other habits/actions to contribute to this list?