Wednesday, September 29, 2010

TEASER TRAILER: Real men of Jesus

(This one is dedicated to my friend and pastor Bryan at Sweaty Church - and yes: there will be more to come on this topic, both in parody and sincerity...)

The Windshield presents: real men of Jesus.
(Real men of Jesus!)

Today we salute you, Mr. Relevant Rock Star Pastor Dude.
(Mr. Relevant Rock Star Pastor Dude!)

Any old reverend can pull in a packed church week in and out, but it takes real talent to try and make all those dated references seem fresh and hip.
(Too legit to quit! You’re off the chain!)

Perched on the stage in your stonewashed jeans and cool headset microphone, your multimedia slides and “Three Major Points” stolen from some other church’s website come across as your own oh-so-easily.
(Seeker friendly!)

Multi-site means multi-right.
(Cue the video!)

And even though with your bleached hair and fauxhawk, you look like the creepy old guy shopping at Abercrombie, you love Jesus, so it’s all good.
(Not registered on an offender watch site! Jesus loves you!)

So order an overpriced craft beer or specialty coffee that you don’t understand anyway, pastor dude, because every action you take in the light just to make you look good and plugged in to today’s culture just casts more shadows across your soul.
(Mr. Relevant Rock Star Pastor Dude!)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Grief, renewal, pain, and R.E.M.

(HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: These notes were originally scribbled down in December of 2009 for TT@8. How and why they are only seeing the light of day now is a mystery to me. Maybe the timing is finally right.)

Recovery from grief. How do we recover when the world just hits us square between the valves of our hearts so hard that we never, ever, believe we will feel normal again.

Although I have written before about pain and grief (see here, herehere, here, here), I don’t think I’ve ever really delved in to what it means, for me, to start to recover from these soul-shattering moments: some of the steps that it takes, some of the stages I have to go through, and never necessarily in this sequence. Your mileage may vary, but there may be some shared ideas contained here.

TIME: For the most part, our culture wants us to deal from grief, preferably sooner rather than later, even if that means we don’t recover with it fully. Taking time off work or school after the loss of a loved one? Even if the uber-popular lie “I’m fine” is somewhat applicable for the moment, there may be underlying pain that has yet to surface that only time, reflection, and introspection can bring to the surface. Both while I was a student and as an advisor, I’ve known many people who, after a tragic loss, wind up withdrawing from school. Some of their peers and professors immediately questioned IF this is was the wisest course of action; after all, this could affect their graduation date, chances of getting into a professional or graduate program, or overall grade point average. I’m the lunatic who always advocated taking the time needed, be it away from school or off work. If appropriate grieving does not take place, the pain could soon be substituted with anger, guilt or depression.

TEARS: Ecclesiastes 7:3 states “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.” In their song “Sad Face,” the choir takes it one step further by adding, “It alright; you don’t have to smile.” You have these emotions for a reason. I know that they area visible, tangible sign that, no, not everything is all right. However, tears cleanse both the soul and the emotions. There’s a reason why you sometimes feel this sense of release after a good cry.

TALK: Not just to yourself, inside your own head. Don’t just limit yourself to internal monologues. Journaling is good. Kids sometimes express their emotions they don’t have words for through painting. This doesn’t mean you have to run out and get a box of crayons – but have you ever noticed that sometimes, especially in high school, the most beautiful, intricate art we ever created on the edges of notebooks and the covers of journals came out of pain?  Even friends who may not fully understand what you’re feeling can listen to you talk.

TOUCH: R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” remains one of the most beautiful, haunting songs I have ever heard, and had iPods existed back in the 1600’s when I was in college, it would have stayed in permanent fixed rotation on my playlist. The accompanying video still gives me chills whenever I watch it; one of the most striking moments comes right at the start of it, as the song begins. There is a closeup of a hand on Michael Stipe’s shoulder, squeezing it. Not in a flexing of the muscles kind of way, but in that supportive, loving, “I am here for you” touch that close friends give one another when needed. Sometimes, in the deepest, darkest moments of our own grief, the simple act of a hand touching you can remind you in ways that words epically fail at that you are not alone. Emotionally you may feel it, but here: here is your tether back to love. To life.

TRUST: You are in a stage of rediscovering part of yourself. You are beginning to discover how you will cope with the future. Dealing with loss is in some ways the acceptance of a void coming into your life. Like I used to counsel students who were either applying for RA positions or for graduate scholarships: trust in the process. Trust that these stages are here for a reason, and that no, you may not LIKE some of the results, but they are there for a reason. And trust in yourself to be able to handle these results. Mark Heard once sang, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven can’t heal.” It’s a nice sentiment, but unless you trust in those words, they just remain a pretty poem set to music.

TOLL: Grief takes a lot out of you. Appetites for life and for food sometimes wane. You feel the pressure bearing down on you. You feel a lead weight deposited in your chest. Grief is as much physical as it is spiritual; therefore, the answer to recovering from it must contain components of both. That thick casserole dish of comfort food, that pint of Haagen-Daas calling your name, that “just one more glass/bottle/mug” – all of these can help, in easy-to-handle-and-manage doses, but don’t discount the need your body and soul have for cleansing. Eat healthy (or at least comparatively healthier). Exercise might be out of the picture, but walk. Outside. Breathe deep.

It’s kind of poetically relevant that I’m writing this at the end of the academic semester. Just as with grief, we are dealing with the end of one cycle. However, we also must remember that as one ends, so another begins.

Loss must yield to renewal. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Feels Like Forgiveness

Well, this is a new one for me: a blog entry inspired by a few random words I threw together simply as a Facebook status update.

The other day, I posted online that I was in love with the crisp, cool weather that happened to be outside that particular morning here in Columbia, SC. (Keep in mind that today as I type this, the expected high is supposed to be in the upper 90’s. God apparently has a bipolar angel in charge of the temperature settings). I noted that I love the weather in the Fall, because to me, the Fall feels like forgiveness.

Feels like forgiveness. One simple turn of a phrase that apparently stuck a chord with a number of my friends, both in real life and those I know virtually.

Why does the Fall feel like forgiveness to me? Is it because of the fact that when the weather does start to cool down, your senses become a little clearer, and the crispness in the air just heightens your awareness of the world around you, as if everything around you just feels a little more Psalm 51-ish?  Could it be that because by the time the weather begins to change after the Summer Solstice, that Christmas – the ultimate symbol of the beginning of the cycle of forgiveness and redemption – is just around the corner? Is it because when the weather is finally getting out of its sauna-like end of the spectrum that I have some kind of sensory memory that hearkens to back when I was in high school, and the number of times I listened to Phil Keaggy’s Beyond Nature over and over again, marveling at the beauty of his artistry and in awe of the God who gave him this gift? 

Maybe that last one is just me, but I always "hear" Phil Keaggy playing when I see leaves falling. 

Maybe it’s also because of the fact that my personal cycle in nature has become so attuned to the academic calendar that to me, the Fall is always the start of a new year. To me, things in nature do not die in the Fall; they simply enter the cycle of renewal. So many times, we use Spring as the allegory of rebirth, oftentimes at the expense of remembering when the renewal began. It’s not always about the destination (or the pretty new flowers that bloom up) as much as it is the journey. 

We start anew by shedding the old.

It falls off.

To walk outside...feel the cool see the leaves starting to turn and fall...autumn always makes me feel so...refreshed. Renewed. Peaceful.

Fall feels like forgiveness to me. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

I hope confession IS good for the soul...

I seriously need God to stop messing with my heart.

…okay; not really. But sometimes, the nudging of the Spirit just strikes that perfect balance between challenge and support that you appreciate, but it still rankles you a bit.

Anyway, something that God’s been gently speaking to me about has been my personality. Rather (and here’s where a few eyebrows will go up), my tendencies to swing between introvert and extrovert. Now, some of my friends may read this and think it the height of humor that I might call myself an introvert, but bear with me…

One of the biggest blessings (and, conversely, curses) of working in student affairs is that when we leave a job, we tend to leave that particular campus or institution behind as well. This way, while it may be emotionally difficult to leave behind friends we have made as well as students we have come to care about, it’s at least a clean break. The past three years while I was at UM, however, I was not afforded this luxury. Through choices of my own, I opted to leave UM as a place where I got my paycheck, but still remain on the campus (due to us, y’know, living there). This meant, in fairness to the individuals who came after me in the positions I vacated, I needed to stay “away” from the students I had come to care for and the colleagues I had come to enjoy working with – all due to the fact that I didn’t want to either be seen like the creepy guy who graduates and then comes back trying to relive his glory days or to be seen in some ways as a “challenge” (meaning, the students might come to me for advice instead of the person who is employed there to be their advocate).

So, strike one against my ENFP standing on the Myers-Briggs test.

Then came the fact that I became a stay-at-home parent. This meant that out of necessity, the vast majority of my time I would have otherwise spent being social during the day at work with either students or my colleagues went to being the primary caregiver for Kai. Now, PLEASE understand that I am not in ANY way, shape, form, or fashion saying I regret my decision then nor do I now. Being with this toddling lunatic has been the greatest adventure of my life, and I love it more than I can really express. But, as with all things of any worth, it came with what could be called a price: my socialization. Ashley and I have spoken about how Kai needs to send more time with other kids his age so he can socialize, but…quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  

Strike two. E/INFP struggle a-growing.

I have noticed that in social situations when we have Kai with us, I tend to stay with him (rather than let him go off an lick an electric socket or something) while Ashley stays and talks with the adults. Part of this is because she shares a common thread with many of them (work) whereas I can talk at length about…what? Baby food recipes? The best times to visit the children’s museum? Never knowing where to find the TV remote because Kai has decided that keeping it in the living room by the television set just doesn’t make any sense at all? I may share some commonality with them, but ultimately…I feel many times like I have little to contribute to an adult conversation, partially because I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to HAVE an adult conversation with someone other than my wife.

Never has my Myers-Briggs been so screamingly transparent to me than this past weekend. To give a little backstory: Ashley and I are trying to find a good church fit here in Columbia, and me being me, I just gotta throw myself in heart and head deep to see how I might like the place (see also: Compass Community Church in Athens, GA and Mosaic Church in Miami, FL). Oh, sure – the teaching at the church may be (and in fact IS) fantastic, but I want to get to know the people. This means that when they ask for volunteers for something, my ridiculous self will probably go a-charging full steam ahead to see who I can meet. So, when they asked for volunteers on Saturday to come out for a video shoot, I went out to go see what I could do to assist.

My “I” declared war on my “E.”

To be fair: almost everyone else at this shoot knew each other. So, yeah, I was the odd man out (literally and figuratively). But…when I introduced myself to people, I could tell that I was pushing myself beyond my own comfort zone in some ways, sticking my hand out and saying “Hey; I’m Sonny.” I was forced to look people in the eye AT my eye level, instead of having my head and neck perpetually craned down to watch and make sure that the person I was with wasn’t eating dog food. I was in a social situation on my own, without Kai there – who I realized I have come to depend on, ironically, as my own safety blanket – to serve as a buffer, as a way to escape if I feel uncomfortable with the situation. Because it made me nervous. Because it made me feel self-conscious. Because it was incredibly loud, whether resounding with the sound of laughter or with the screaming void of a comfortable quiet.

“It” being community. That which we are called to. Both as humans but also as believers. “It” being that which we are to live in, act out, and illustrate what a non-fragmented life is supposed to be like.

Man. Talk about a smack upside the heart.

So – I have decided that I am going to start taking the needed baby steps required in order to get back to the me of who I am. This may mean talking to total strangers. This may mean me communicating in a manner other than behind the relative safety and security of a text or email (*gasp*).

This means looking into people’s eyes again.

This means looking forward.

This means “I” does not come before “E.” Especially after “why.”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On this anniversary of September 11...

While we're busy never forgetting, I encourage us all to also do the following:

Never judge.

Never live in fear.

Never assume.

Never hate.

Never believe that you are always in the right.

And never forget that these three should always remain: faith, hope and love. And never forget that the greatest of these is love.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Normal is just a state of heart

In our continuing saga to find a new church home (and, as Ashley reminded me, the one thing both our hearts ache for: true community), we played the role yet again of first-time guests this past Sunday at another house o’ worship.

I’m not going to critique the sermon (although this cat did give some GOOD points out), but at one point, the speaker uttered a phrase that stuck with me for some reason. Like it was some kind of weird itch in the back of my mind, because this phrase reminded me so much of another phrase I was familiar with.

“Normal Christianity” was the phrase he used.

The pastor was speaking on how to live a life of faith, and he kept saying, “This is just [acting out] normal Christianity” throughout the final 1/3 of his message. It wasn’t until the next morning while I was walking Maggie that it hit me exactly what I was paralleling the term “normal Christianity” with in my mind. What’s really cool is that some of my fellow academic nerds are going to have an “ah-ha” moment here, especially we who have studied the history of higher education in America. Others of you may either think: “Wow – he’s really on to something;” or: “Wow – he really needs to switch to decaf.”

I kept thinking of “normal Christianity” in the frame of a “normal school.”

For those of you in the dark and who don’t have a clue what a “normal school” is, normal schools were established to instruct individuals on how to become teachers. Instead of these days where you can enroll in pretty much any college or university and get a degree in any branch of or any level of education, normal schools were specialized, unique, single-focused institutions designed solely on how to teach norms, or standards, of education (hence the name – the administration weren’t trying to be witty by calling themselves normal, which would make all other colleges…well…you know…). They taught the teachers on how to teach.

When the pastor this past Sunday began speaking on how the advice he was giving was just “normal Christianity,” I began to wonder: maybe the goals of a normal school and normal Christianity shouldn’t be too dissimilar. Maybe that’s what “normal Christianity” is supposed to do: teach. Instruct. Provide concrete ideas, mixed with metaphors (because just like the series finale of LOST taught us: life does not always give you all the answers) to help you learn on the journey. Don’t offer formulaic “if you do X then God will Y” ideas or ways to be, because not everything always fits into a nice, neat box…and God ain’t always going to give you a Cadillac. (Sorry, purveyors of prosperity gospel; your bank account may say one thing, but you’re morally bankrupt.

Normal Christianity, the norms and standards of our faith, should help you learn how to learn. It’s not an offer-based faith we should embrace, but instead one that simply teaches us how to be. How to live. How to love.

Now, what with my rage-against-the-mainstream self, I tend to sardonically look upon anything classified as “normal” and immediately have some kind of knee-jerk reaction in the opposite direction – simply because, well, that’s the way I’ve been conditioned, both by myself and by many of the circumstances of my life. What I have to remember (and allow my arrogance and “intellectual” side to die daily with) is that normal does not have to equal mainstream, or boring. Normal does not have to mean “just like everybody else.”

As a matter of fact, practicing normal Christianity and allowing oneself to be “normed” by the Spirit may be the most counter-cultural move possible – to both Christianity as well as the rest of the world.

And that's perfectly normal.