It’s Christmas, so that means one thing: It’s time to read books about the end of the world.
Of course, The Last Days of California isn’t about the end of the world, not really. It’s about a family and the lies they tell themselves and each other, and the complicated, broken way that they’re holding themselves together.
I am well aware that gratitude practices are actually a pretty significant key in leading a happier life, and I am a person who does, semi-regularly, think of gratitude. I think it helps me to cope with some of the things that happen in the world that are challenging- not by avoiding them but making sure that my thoughts have some balance, avoiding getting swallowed by awfulness. However, I am not always excellent at expressing that gratitude publicly – I’m more of an internal processor. Still, it helps to make it public, write it down and such.
I am grateful for my family, for being with them, and for their health.
I am grateful for a family that’s willing to engage in dialogue about challenging topics.
I am grateful for my health.
I am grateful for my friends.
I am grateful for friends who make time to see me when I come to town.
I am grateful for my friends who have maintained friendships for years upon years.
I am grateful for my stability.
I am grateful for my independence.
I am grateful for having somewhere to stay that is safe, warm, and dry.
I am grateful for my access to healthcare.
I am grateful for my reliable transportation.
I am grateful for a job that is meaningful.
I am grateful for my access to free graduate education.
I am grateful to every person who supported me and helped me along the way, even though they didn’t have to.
I am grateful to have a week off of school to rest and recharge.
I low-key love the idea of Lent because I like all the things Lent is about less, about giving up, about making space in your life for the things that actually matter. It’s about cutting through the nonsense that so often occupies our minds and focusing on the things that actually matter.
It’s a little bit Puritanical, in the best way.
I don’t come from a background that makes a huge thing of Lent, and growing up, I mainly heard it from my Catholic friends and family as a time of giving specific things up – chocolate or pop or fast food or TV.
I’m not terribly interested in that concept of Lent. It’s weird, for me – the same as obsessively setting SMART goals, it’s a way to get yourself laser-focused on improving your life/spirituality in one very specific way, and often allows us to let everything else fall by the wayside, instead of trying to improve things with a more holistic mindset. You give up pop but spend the whole of Lent craving it, what’s the point?
It’s so tempting to be like “I’m giving up stressing about school for Lent!” but frankly, that’s unrealistic at this point in time – I’m stressed about school all the time, I’m frustrated with my management and the state of my classroom. It feels like I’m working really hard at management, and I’ve only seen marginal improvements. I have my second formal evaluation coming up at some point as well, and that’s huge and scary.
Giving up stress wholeheartedly isn’t an option, but I can work on narrowing my stressors down to the few things that really do matter – focusing on my management and worrying less about larger issues at play in the district, for instance.
Pope Francis had a perspective on Lent that I really appreciated.
Dear friends, Lent is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in is word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor. The Lord, who overcame the deceptions of the Tempter during the forty days in the desert, shows us the path we must take. May the Holy Spirit lead us on a true journey of conversion, so that we can rediscover the gift of God’s word, be purified of the sin that blinds us, and serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need.
Not focusing on giving something up so much as readying ourselves for renewal and conversion. Serving Christ in those in need. I can get behind that.
Unrelated: The world really needs a devotional for Nasty Woman that blends empowering scriptures and feminist theory. Someone who knows the Bible better than me, go write this.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is this huge big deal theologian who I’ve heard a bunch of people recommend. I read his book “Life Together; The Classic Exploration of Christian Community” so that I could learn more about…Christian community, or any kind of community. Trying to work out people can live together at all, really.
Personally, I’m much more about Christianity on your own. I don’t see huge benefits of Christian community, for the most part. The Christian communities that I have been a part of were either dysfunctional or primarily concerned with socializing. I appreciated them, for sure, but I don’t feel like the Christian communities that I’ve been a part of were helping me grow in my faith. Moreso, they were communities that I valued for the community, but it felt like we were mostly doing faith on our own, with vastly different levels of interest/commitment/knowledge in our faith.
In “Life Together” Bonhoeffer writes “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” My response to that was “Really? Does that include any other Christians? Because some Christians are Trump-supporting, racist, Islamaphobic bigots.”
A few pages later, there is a passage that feels so right and makes so much sense. “We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.
“What does this mean? It means, first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.”
“He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation…The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”
In the intentional communities I’ve been in, it felt like we had these lofty ideas for what our community would be, but we were ultimately more concerned with other aspects of our lives and let the community fall by the wayside. This passage speaks to that.
“The more genuine and deeper our community becomes ,the more everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly and for all eternity.
“That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood.”
Perhaps this was the founding flaw of the Christian communities I’ve been in. I think we may have been hoping for an extraordinary social experience when what we should have been aiming for a Christ-centered community.
Later, Bonhoeffer writes “when a community of a purely spiritual kind is established, it always encounters the danger that everything human will be carried into and intermixed with this fellowship.”
I feel like this factor was such a huge issue in the communities I’ve been in, that we brought everything human into it. I don’t know how to get past that, to move beyond those very human issues to transcend and create a purely spiritual community. I don’t know if any of us know how to do that.
I have a hard time with the idea of God calling anyone to do anything. Sometimes, when people say that God called them to do something, I feel a desire (you could say I’m called) to push back on it. To point out that it’s okay to admit that you wanted to do something, on your own. To say that maybe it wasn’t all about God.
Maybe that’s blasphemy. I’m not sure if I care that it might be blasphemy.
People seem to love the idea of calling. That God has something predestined for you, that you were made in God’s image for a unique purpose. I understand why we feel that way – there are some points when our lives feel really meaningless, and that makes us feel a sense of despair. And you turn to God for that meaning, and it’s comforting.
Some people like to say that teaching is a calling, a vocation. I think that might be true for some people. For me, it’s a scramble, it’s an equation of how much do the kids know about this already/do I want to spend more time on this right now/how long is the attention span/it’s time for us to move to centers/I really hope we have time for recess today. I like it sometimes, I like that I’m not sitting at a desk all day, I like the immediate feedback. You know right away if something works or not, and you have to face the consequences when what you’re doing isn’t working.
If I’m called to something, I know it isn’t this.
What is it, then? How do you know what God is calling you to do, or if God is calling you to do anything at all?
Calling, in some sense, validates unpaid labor. Not just validates unpaid labor, it venerates it. If your calling is to do these more feminized types of labor, caring for others, it’s venerated by the idea of calling being applied. Now, it’s no longer undervalued in the labor market, it’s a calling.
I think there’s sometimes arrogance to the idea of calling, or the idea that you can follow what you may be called to do. Who has the ability to follow the things God calls them to do? People with privilege, generally. People with power and freedom.
I looked up what the Bible says about this idea of a calling or a vocation, and the Bible seems to be much more focused on the gifts that God gives us, rather than the specific things that God wants us to do. Romans 12:6-8 says “We have gifts that differ, according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”
This theme holds true in elsewhere in the Bible, in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 it says “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.”
For me, it feels much more like God gave me some talents, and said “Hey, you have to figure it out from there.” rather than some divine calling. Of course, I should be using those talents, we all should be, but the details around that don’t feel like they’ve been determined by God. Some help from God would be nice, for sure, but that hasn’t happened for me in any clear way.
At church today, the liturgy was Exodus 32:1-14, about the Israelites and the golden calf. Here’s part of it:
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.”6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt.8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people.10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’”14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
The sermon, today, started out framing the beginning of the bible as a three act play, starting out in the beginning, where everything’s good – the Israelites get out of enslavement in Egypt. Then in the second act, this idolatry and golden calf situation tangles everything up. The Israelites left the only home they’ve ever known, their leader is gone for the moment, and they’re feeling incredibly insecure. So Aaron makes the calf, and they worship the calf. God is angry, but that idol gave them a sense of security when they needed it most.
Personally, I can empathize with the Israelites. It would be scary to leave everything you’ve ever known – even if everything you’ve ever known isn’t good. They’ve left home and they don’t really know where they’re going, just that they’re never going home again. Of course they’re feeling insecure, and they’re just grasping at anything they can to find security. The thing they grasp onto is an idol, but is that so wrong? After all, worshipping idols like that was pretty common at the time. God gave them the Ten Commandments before that, but if the Ten Commandments are this new thing that goes against what you already know, it makes sense that following the Ten Commandments is not making you feel more secure.
Of course, the next obvious question is “How am I worshipping idols in my life, how are they keeping me away from God?”
I’m not interested in this question. I think that asking it is just starting on a road to a guilt trip. Right now, my job is probably getting between me and God – I spend a whole lot more time and energy working than I do praying or reading the Bible or thinking about God. Sometimes, my desire to sleep in on a Sunday morning is getting between me and God. Sometimes the TV that I like isn’t the most God-like (but I’ve finally finished Mad Men, and the last few episodes are making me feel some things.) And I would sell my soul right now to anyone who would make me excellent at classroom management, but that option hasn’t been available to me yet.
Those things give me comfort, or security, or a mix of the two.
I don’t know quite how to find the balance between being a human who exists in the world and being a human who exists to serve God. I don’t know when to trust myself – trust that it’s fine to sleep in on Sunday mornings sometimes, trust that it’s sometimes okay to throw yourself into work if that means putting my relationship with God on standby for a bit.
After grappling with that question for a while, it’s sometimes easier to just check out. Just embrace the real world and leave the grappling for others.
This made me think of I had to read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God for an early American literature class I took in college. My whole reaction to Jonathan Edwards at the time was “this man just needs to cool it.” But I thought I remembered some mention of security, and humans finding security away from God.
“Natural men’s prudence and care to preserve their own lives, or the care of others to preserve them, don’t secure ’em a moment. This divine providence and universal experience does also bear testimony to. There is this clear evidence that men’s own wisdom is no security to them from death: that if it were otherwise we should see some difference between the wise and politic men of the world, and others, with regard to their liableness to early and unexpected death; but how is it in fact?”
Basically, Edwards says that people’s own wisdom isn’t security from death and damnation. He takes it to an extreme, because he’s Jonathan Edwards – he’s a little bit obsessed with wickedness, that humans are inherently evil, that kind of thing.
“All wicked men’s pains and contrivance they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, don’t secure ’em from hell one moment. Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do; everyone lays out matters in his own mind how he shall avoid damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives well for himself, and that his schemes won’t fail.”
Edwards pretty much says that those who trust in themselves over Christ are foolish and damned, essentially. Still, he’s Jonathan Edwards, and that’s kind of his thing.
I’m still looking for balance, still looking for some kind of middle ground between following God and just being a person. I have to be able to carve out some kind of space for myself, someplace to care about God and ask deep questions of faith, and space to care about the ending of Mad Men too.
I’m sitting in worship today and I’m thinking of how different church feels in Mississippi than it does at home. Here, it seems like young people who don’t have kids go to church pretty regularly, and that really isn’t a thing at home – it seems like it’s pretty rare, where I’m from, for people in their early 20’s to go to church. College students will go to campus ministries, for sure, but attending church in your early 20’s really isn’t the norm. It seems like many people at home will stop going to church in college, then start going again when they have kids or when they get married.
In Mississippi, it feels like everyone goes to church. I remember, at my school’s open house, a parent asked me where I went to church and it totally took me by surprise. I’m used to that being a fairly personal question, and I can’t imagine asking someone I just met if they go to church, let alone where – it’s so loaded and personal. There’s also the very real difference of going to campus ministry versus going to what I like to call “grown-up church”.
While I’m sitting in church I’m thinking about why we worship. A friend of mine has asked me this before – why should we worship God? Does God actually need us to worship?
In thinking through all of this, I googled “scriptures about how to worship God” because I honestly had no idea what the Bible said about it. The results that came up and applied to this specific context were 1 Chronicles 16:23-25, “Sing to the Lord, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples. For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.” and John 4:23-24, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers mush worship in spirit and in truth.”
But then there’s this other one, which feels pretty contrary to the above verses. Isaiah 29:13, “The Lord says: These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”
So in 1 Chronicles 16, it’s about sing to the Lord all the earth, great and worthy of praise, etc. John 4 is all worshiping in spirit and in truth, then we have Isaiah 29 with God being kinda “meh” about those whose worship of God is made up only of rules taught by men. Where does that leave us?
I don’t think God needs us to worship. I don’t think God needs us. Then what’s the purpose?
Of course, some parts of the purpose are obvious. Part of church is preaching, which is basically lecturing with more personality, right? That part isn’t so much about worshiping God as it is about learning, and learning together. Solely from the perspective of learning about faith, worship gives us a place to understand scripture with more context, which is valuable. We care about our faith but need some guidance in learning more, and sermons can serve that purpose. But if worship is only about sermons, why not just download a podcast and save yourself the time of going to church?
I sometimes think that if it was up to me, worship would only ever be walking in the woods, quietly, by yourself. If spirituality is about quiet contemplation and connection with something larger than yourself, that’s the way to do it. I fully believe that being alone in the woods (or wherever feels right to you) is an important part of faith, but there’s more.
My great grandmother died a little over a year ago. Her side of the family is from the Saginaw area, about an hour and a half north of Detroit. My great-great-great grandparents had a farm there, and there’s a small cemetery where generations of my family are buried. When we went there, to bury my great-grandmother’s ashes, I was struck by how rooted I felt, in that moment. It hit me in the face, this feeling of “This is who you are, and this is who you belong to.”
Standing in a cemetery at the corner of two roads in the middle of nowhere. This was not a matter of finding my people so much as realizing who I belonged to, all along.
That’s why worship, for me, will always be drenched in tradition and ritual. The purpose of worship isn’t so much to worship God, as it is to remind us of who we are and who we belong to.