Monday, November 25, 2013

God's Sanctuary

This weekend my family spent the weekend up at two harbors, examining wedding venues. We stayed at our top choice, Superior Shores to see if it would suite everything we envisioned. When we arrived late on Friday, I was tired and irritable. I walked into the lobby and was slightly discomforted by the numerous stuffed foxes, wolves and bears. Cheesy advertisements cluttered the walls, and the room we were in was filled with kitchy decorations. At first blush this lodge clashed with the ideals in my head and the 5 getaway wedding resorts that were covering the bridal magazines I purchased. I went to bed frustrated, John being his usual wonderful self- comforting me, telling me I was worrying too much and to give the place a chance and to have some faith everything would work itself out.

Despite how tired I had been, I woke up for very early on Saturday morning, 7:00am. Not being able to fall back asleep, I got up and decided to go for a walk outside. The room we were in opened up to a big lawn. And then the pathway from our room led to a wooden covered bridge that opened into a pebble beach. I took sharp breaths in the cool November air as I walked along the frost-crunchy grass. I walked up a small hill after the bridge to get to the top of the beach (which slops downwards) and was immediately taken by the mist and the daybreak over lake superior. The thought whispered through my hair into my ear- “This is the place”.
Enveloped by the beauty and freshness of the lake, any residual concerns and annoyances from the previous night washed away. The appreciation and awe for my surroundings quickly clouded out worry and selfish preoccupations. God was the lake. He was in every wave, every wind current, in the mist rising from the water, the soaked and smooth black rocks on the shore. He was there and I couldn’t help but drink him in. It was a similar experience to sitting in an empty church for me. But instead of focusing on a cross, it was Lake Superior sprawled out in front of me -breathtakingly blue. Nothing I could plan, orchestrate or come up with myself would ever compare the grandeur of the lake and the divine swirling within it.

The day that unfolded after that walk was filled with ease. My whole family as we walked around the lodge was pleasantly surprised by the service and the set-up of the lodge, and many of the rooms in the lodge (most individually owned) were more modern and well-decorated than the one we happened to be in. But truly, if that had not been the case, it would have been ok- I laughed at myself for how right john was and how easily I had been focusing on what didn’t matter.

You hear and witness all sorts of wedding horror stories. With so much hyper-focus and excitement that goes into it, it is no wonder all the stress, concern and ups and downs that come with it in our culture. I am blessed with generous parents, loving in-laws and an unbeatable and easygoing fiancĂ©. But I also see the temptation to go down the rabbit hole, the bridal fascination with the details and planning the event and everything else. The bridal magazines are have to be somewhat akin to female porn, drooling over the decorations and the dresses and all the other material items that piece together a wedding. It is tempting and easy to turn to being self-focused; selfish. That is after all what all the worry and stress point to- this is/isn’t what I want.

I need to continue to remember to look outward. To look outward at the other people this is really about (Johns family, my family, those who are important to us). To look outward towards the lake, towards the beauty of the journey and the process, towards the marriage. And of course, to look outward for God, and to remember this is ultimately a celebration to honor him and the absolutely necessary role he will play in our marriage day in and day out. And that is one of many reasons I look forward to getting married on lake superior, and spending extra time up there this upcoming year planning and orchestrating the event. Because if I am on that lake, it will be much harder to forget what is really important.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Trust and Judgement

One of my weaknesses in faith came up and stared at me in the face this past week quite unexpectedly. After a series of conversations with a variety of people in my life around faith, I found myself in a place of discomfort. I realized I was stuck between a rock and a hard place because I like to be a Christian diplomat. To me what this means is being an individual who can align themselves, at least somewhat, with most any christian, and even many of varying faiths.

I believe this is a strength in that I am able to be open and accepting of many others varying perspectives on faith. I can see truth being communicated in a variety of ways. I also can relate and genuinely connect to people of varying demoninations, faith backgrounds and belief sets. I can go to a variety of different church services and get a lot out of each one- be catholic, evangelical, baptist or something entirely different. Being open and accepting is a value of mine, and I believe this is one way I live out that value.

The sacrifice I can pay when I take this diplomacy too far sometimes is working under the concern that others will evaluate and judge me for my faith and how I live it out. The truth that hit me this week is just how scared I can be of being judged, of being thought less of. Of not being fundamental enough or being too fundamental. Of doing christianity different from how I am supposed to. I believe this mindset is part of why I have in the past had trouble connecting closely to a church body- I am worried about being evaluated by them, by having them diminish my faith because it is not enough like theirs.

This can make me a bit non-commital and tentative I believe. Furthermore it allows for doubt and being unsure to come into my experience of faith. I distinguished this weekend through a conversation with a Lutheran pastor and friend of mine part of what this stems from. When I was a kid and in middle school/high school I loved going to church and being a part of my church in particular. I was always an animated part of bible studies as I loved the discussion and perspective. Pulling out the deeper meaning of verses and the big picture of the bible is something I relished and enjoyed. One confirmation meeting, I got into an animated conversation with my small group leaders about believers of other faiths and if God loves them. I shared excitedly that it made sense to me that everyone went to heaven no matter what because God loved them and Jesus saved them. My small group leaders argued differently, pointing to versus in the bible that communicated how only believers of Christianity got to go to heaven and everyone else went to hell. They even called the pastor over and he confirmed that I was indeed mistaken. In that moment I was crushed. I was sad and felt like if I agreed with them I was condemning my buddhist thailand host family, or my athiest friend at school... not to mention the billions apon billions of other people in the world. What about northern africa? Asia? Most of the country of India? The loving, pure God that pulsed through my veins and sang amidst the stars did not seem to fit with their description.

The great thing was my relationship with God never wavered. But I lost faith in my relationship with the church and with the bible for awhile as a result.

I went on a walk with my future mother-in-law and she told me a compelling story about her husband that made me think. There was an interaction at their church where a unmarried couple living together wanted to host a bible study at their house. It was against the churches beliefs for an unmarried couple to live together, however the invitations went out and people planned to attend regardless. The husband in this instance approached the pastor of this church and made a stand to not hold the bible study at their house given that the couple was violating something that they and others knew was a principle of the church. The pastor agreed- and explained to the couple such and then the bible study was held elsewhere. This particular story/confrontation had a happy ending, as the couple proceeded to get married 2 months later- and likely as a result of the reaction of the church.

On the one hand this example is very neat because it demonstrates resolve. Standing up for what you believe is right even in the face of discomfort. And holding integrity with your beliefs and not tolerating behavior you/your church body believes demonstrates a lack of value. It also makes me slightly uncomfortable and I can't pinpoint why. Maybe it makes me wonder about the couple feeling rejected by the church. Maybe because I am not sure I would go have such a conversation with my pastor in this situation. Maybe because I am not sure if that is what Jesus would have done in that situation, but maybe he would have! I can see the honor this series of actions demonstrates.

I have a lot of resolve when it comes to sticking up for others. If someone or something is hurting a person- even if I am not close to them- I have no trouble speaking out no matter how uncomfortable. And I also am not usually shy of being challenged, in so many areas of my life I welcome it. Maybe my discomfort around faith and being judged caters to the intimacy, the vulnerability and the preciousness I tie with faith.

I prayed a lot this weekend about this matter and decided in faith the best thing to do is to be more trusting and less concerned. To continue to have faith in God, but also maybe a little more in myself and the beliefs I have worked years to hone, challenge and developed. I am not in danger of living an unexamined life or faith- thats for sure. And also trusting that God has led me to the right places, people and values. And I need to trust myself to be able to not only discern for myself but also trust my connection with God and my ability to listen to his direction. And ultimately, remember we all are human, and that no matter how strong my conviction or anyone else's, there are things that we just will never know in this lifetime. And that mystery and unclarity is worth embracing and accepting.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

This is It

One of the leaders of the small group I attend at church asks us every week if we had any 'god sightings'. This struck me teh first time I heard it because I had never heard the expression before. He explained these were times where we saw glimpses of God's presence around us, whether playing a part in an uncanny event, bringing grace/kindness to an interaction or surprising us in some other miraculous way.

For a skeptic, this (along with many other notions around faith) must seem a bit ludicrious. It all boils down to your underlying assumption: Is God there or is he not? If you assume that he is (as I do), then it makes sense to look for him in your day to day, to watch for him. Kind of like Einstein's quote: "There are two ways to see the world- one is as if nothing is a miracle, the other as if everything is." For me I work under the assumption that God is in fact the color to our world, the energy in and behind everything. I assume that the experiences of awe and wonder and appreciation for beauty are usually good clues to his presence. The experience of love or loving (not infatuation, happiness, etc. but selfless love for something or someone- an appreciation that makes you feel as if you are vibrating at a higher frequency) is a good clue God is in the air as well. And sometimes I experience being more attuned to god than other times. Im comfortable with the notion of him appearing in my life through others and events- though it is rarely a bang! boom! pow! sort of encounter.

This sunday however was different. This Sunday I had a vivid, striking, slightly uncomfortable 'God Sighting'. Felt like walking out of a cave or seeing the color blue for the first time in 6 months.

Sunday was a Sunny, Windy day. My favorite type of weather, especially in the fall. John left to go up north and I threw on some clothes for church. I was driving to the service at the Urban Refuge, and 2 blocks away from my house I got this uneasy, resistant feeling. "don't go" crossed my thoughts. I tried to shake it- reasoning not feeling like going to church was not a good reason not to. Plus, I rationalized, I love going to church... But I couldn't shake the notion and a block later I turned around and drove around the block a couple times- thinking furiously and slightly befuddled at this unexpected intuition. I pulled over to the side of the road, took a deep breath, gave in and went home. I sat in front of my house in my car- 'now what?' Should I clean? Go for a walk? hmph...

I noticed the beauty of the fall day, the red and yellow trees glittering in the wind, the sunshine warming everything. The air was fresh, vibrant, sharp. I then focused on the church next to my house, a brick lutheran church with an old fashioned billboard out front announcing service times. I noticed the services for the day were over- and I had not been inside the church so I was drawn to go in. I walked in the front doors- unlocked, and easily found my way to the sanctuary. A usher gave me permission to go sit in the sanctuary- so I entered into the sunlit, glowing room of stain glass and dark wood. I went and sat in the front pew and just breathed and listened.

My thoughts quickly went from a torrent of rapids to a meandering current. I remembered a quote from the movie I had watched the night before "It is hard to fill a cup that is already full", and allowed my mind to empty and quiet. To let go of as many assumptions as possible. Peace, calm and solace washed through me. Sometimes when I pray the first question I voice in my head is "God where are you?" and then I allow myself to be open to experiencing him. That question wasn't necessary- as I was swimming in his midst- to me he was so obviously right there in front of me. The sanctuary was filled with the divine, he was in the fern leaves glowing in the morning sunlight. In the grains of wood on the pew in front of me. I was struck by magic, by orchestrated and wild beauty everywhere I looked. I experienced reverence, respect, wonder and joy.

I spent an hour in the church (though while there I lost track of time)- drinking in the divine. At one point someone came and sat in the back and played the guitar softly. The sunlight continued to flicker in the windows, highlighting the life in the room. As I sat I felt as if I was a cup being filled with clear, pure and life-giving water. And as I sat there silently and immobile- God and I danced. I experienced several unarticulated inspirations and take-aways- most of the experience was blissfully wordless. Perhaps the most important take-away being the reminder/hyperfocus on my calling to share the magic and the beauty of the world with others. To bring community and joy to everyone around me as much as possible. And the very present, potent conclusion of 'this is it'. This is our one life and it is to be lived out loud and relished with as much courage and grace as possible right now, and moment to moment onward.

Someone from the church had to come up and gently ask me to leave as they had to lock up the church. She asked me if I wanted to get coffee or needed anything- I always find it amusing that people assume something is wrong if you are sitting in a church alone. She asked me what brought me to the church and I stumbled over articulating something- what words do you say? I just felt randomly that I should skip church to come hang out here alone? Doesn't make a lot of sense to me much less to an observer. Yet it was such a perfect morning- it was exactly what I was supposed to do. So I felt compelled to share that very precious experience from this weekend. I feel so lucky to be where I am in life right now- and even better as the year ahead looms with joy, busy-ness, change and stress- to be in touch with the bigger picture. Who knows what else is to come...