A Cup of Sadness

church

I went to church last week.

Not really unusual, I know. But since I haven’t attended church for nearly 2 years, it was a big deal for me.

What I found disappointed me, yet it didn’t surprise me.

Having been ‘out of the loop’ for a period of time made me accutely aware of the extent to which the church is really only for the initiated.

There is a different language–it’s cliched and exclusive to those in the know. There were so many assumptions made–assumptions that everyone would know and agree with certain key points of doctrine, assumptions that everyone would have an understanding of what ‘worship’ is, assumptions that everyone is straight, middle class, and Christian.

There is strange music-. At thgis particular service, surprisingly for a Evangelical church, no ‘pop Christian’ songs (a-la-Hillsong) were sung–or at least none I could recognise. The music was dull, uninspiring, repetitive, and, after standing for 25 minutes ‘worshipping,’ my middle-aged feet really couldn’t take a lot more. To make matters even more confusing, the ‘worship’ leader had so much intensity and so little charisma (or joy, for that matter) and her face ached with angst when she prayed.

It really wasn’t a happy place. While we knew a few people and had good interactions before and after the service, those on stage weren’t welcoming. Those in the congregation weren’t joyful. It seemed like everyone was trying a little too hard to impress. The happiest person I saw was a lady who mistook us for someone else (I think she had dementia) and, when she realised this, it didn’t seem to matter at all.

As we climbed into the car for the trip home, my wife and I exchanged disappointments and deflated looks. Tears welled up. How is it that these few hours had turned into a cup of sadness which we both felt we could not bring ourselves to drink? Could it be that we have moved past what once was a taken-for-granted weekly ritual? Are we that far removed that we can’t even entertain the idea of getting back into a Sunday morning religious routine? Has our worldview shifted so far that the thought of subjecting ourselves to an hour-and-a-half of Evangelicalism provokes such intense emotion in us?

I’ve been brought up going to church.

We raised our family in church.

We were actively involved in all aspects of church life and used our gifts to grow and nurture our local church.

We are grateful for the friends we all made and the personal growth we all experienced in that community. (At the same time, it hasn’t escaped our attention how many we have never heard from since we haven’t been frequenting our regular house of worship.)

I’ve also had it drilled into me all my life that going to church isn’t about us but about what we can bring to the community and what we can give to God.

I’m not sure we can give anything to this community and certainly have no inclination nor motivation to invest in a view of God that we find at odds with all we have come to know and experience regarding love and truth and the nature of our amazing universe.

We are not who we were two years ago. It’s beginning to dawn on me that we actually weren’t that far then from where we are now, but we denied it, white-washed it, mislabelled it for the sake of our family, our friends, and our community.

We still value these circles of relationship and long for the friendship and community. But I don’t think, at least for the time being, that we will be finding it again in a church.

Silence

shhhDid you know that the Dalai Lama gets up at 3:30 every morning and meditates for four hours before he starts his day?

No. I didn’t either.

What a waste of time!

Or so I thought.

But then I heard how that, at 83 years of age, his mind is sharp and his memory is crystal clear (he can remember the clothing worn by someone he met  when he met them 20+ years ago–Go on, try to do that!)

Maybe there’s something to starting the day in silence.

While all around us is noise, it seems like quietness is a luxury. Yet, this is something that folks are paying a good price to enjoy. Just a quick serach shows me that I can pay a local complimentary therapy chain $60 for a 45-minute session in a float tank. That’s without the black-out effect of the same thing in a dark, gravity floatation chamber (which can be yours for $80 an hour).

Yes, silence is golden.

There is a reason why these therapists are able to charge this much for these treatments, The reason is that we are an increasingly disquiet people. Noise is the rule these days. Music blares. Cars rumble. Plans zoom above us. Power tools, kitchen appliances, machinery . . . and then there’s the ubiquitous TV in every home–maybe even 2 or 3. Even the ‘peaceful’ noises of bird song, frog croaks, or grasshopper humming can become a cacophony for the growing number of us who have a newly-recognised disease called misophonia, or sound sensitivity disorder.

There are few places in the world we can travel where we can escape the sounds of our planet. In even the quietest of forrests, birds still sing. In the vastest of deserts, the wind can still distratct from the peace.

But we need silence.

We need moments of nothing.

Our minds need time to focus, sharpen their thinking, become more sensitive, develop a higher level of consciousness. We need a reset. 

Silence has a way of doing just that.

If you doubt, have a look at the benefits of silence (click here or here or here).

The Dalai Lama is on to something and it would do us well, Buddhist or not, to learn ourselves the art of being still.

 

Limited Vision

fogI got up this morning to see my wife off to work. She works in a bakery where she does amazing things with cakes, so the 4am alarm clock is our constant not-so-much-loved companion.

As I was waving goodbye, I noticed something strange happening down the street. It was as if someone had gotten thick grey curtains and was pulling them across the street one house at a time.

A thick fog was rolling in.

Thick, ‘pea soup’ fog that you can’t see through.

It was still there three-and-a-half hours later when I headed out the door, and it was raining as well.

Lights on, wipers going, traffic was slowing down drastically.

Limited vision.

Slowing, confusing, frustrating inability to see beyond a certain point.

Half-blind, stumbling (or, in my case, driving very slowly) through the fog, trying to make out what is ahead but not seeing it until it is nearly upon you.

We’ve all been there.

The truth is we all have limited vision aboiut what is ahead.

How can we see beyond what is right in front of us, today? Perhaps we think we can make out something a few weeks–or months–down the track. But is that because we actually see it, or is it because we hope to see it?

We don’t know what tomorrow brings. As St Paul wrote in the eloquent love chapter (1 Corinthians 13), ‘. . . now we see as in a miror, dimly.’

In the day this was written, mirrors were polished sheets of metal and the reflection they gave was often cloudy–a little like being in fog. What you saw staring back at you was often not much better than a shadow.

My vision is limited.

So how then can I navigate through my life in this fog?

Carefully. Even if I have a GPS, it won’t show me obstructions that are in my way on my travels today. I need to be careful to avoid these impediments if I want to arrive at my destination safely. Chances are that, if I put my foot down and drove at the posted speed limit all the way to work, I would have had an accident. I would most certainly hit another car that I couldn’t see in time to brake.

Confidently. We have a general sense of where we are going and work towards that goal. This is why education is important. This is why looking at the ‘maps’ of those who have travelled this way is essential. This is why I listen to the traffic reports on the radio as I navigate this well-worn route. I have as a great advantage that I know the road to work very well. I can navigate through the fog confidently. However, should I be less familiar with this route, it would do me well to look to those who have gone this way before.

Consciously. I need to focus on what is firectly in front of me now and move with a consciousness that this is the only moment that matters. There is great power in centering myself in the present. Relating this to my life, living in the past won’t help me  just as much as living with an idealised view of the future won’t get me where I need to go.

Today I arrived at work safely. The fog lifted as I drove. By the time I pulled into the car park, only a little drizzle was there to greet me. While it may be foggy again tomorrow, I’ll live now in the truth that I am safe, I am dry, I am wartm, and I am in the place I need to be right now.

 

 

 

Seeing

When Emily was born, I bought a video camera.

(We really couldn’t afford it at the time but I told myself that we couldn’t afford to miss a thing as Emily said her first words, took her first steps, played with her first friends . . . but I’m getting off track here.)

It was one of those Sony Camcorders that took the compact tapes which allowed us to record for about an hour before we had to copy it off to a normal VHS video cassette. It had a small black-and-white viewfinder which let you see what you recording and how well your subject was in focus.

janeI remember driving in the country one day while Vicki was filming the beautiful scenery. Looking over to the left, I saw a stunning display of what we call here ‘Salvation Jane”–a mass of purple covering field after field in the Adelaide Hills.

“Wow! That is amazing! Look at all that beautiful purple.” I said to the videographer to my left.

“It’s not purple,” she declared quite matter-of-factly. Then, realising what she said, she dropped the camera and we both realised that she had been looking only through the small, monochrome viewfinder. In closing her other eye, she totally couldn’t see the beauty that was purple-covered hills in the summer sun.

How often do we miss the beauty of the world around us, the details of life, the amazing things passing by because we fail to look beyond our small, low-res viewfinder that is created by our environment, our traditions, our worldview, our beliefs?

How often do we close our eyes because we’re straining to catch the perfect shot, or make sure we aren’t missing out on what’s happening in that small window in front of our eye?

Last night as I was driving down the hill towards home, I witnessed the most amazing sunset. The sun was a perfect, huge orange ball and it ever-so-slowly settled into the sea beyond the harbour, I was breathless and speechless at the same time. It was awe inspiring?

My first instinct was to pull out my phone to capture this moment on the little 5″ screen.

But then I remembered the purple fields and how easy it is not to see when you let capturing the moment get in the way of the experience.

So I sat, watching until the fiery ball dropped below the horizon and the bright orange sky turned pink, then purple, then hazy blue, grey, then black.

No, I can’t show you a photo of that sunset. To be honest, you’ve seen enough of these anyway.

If I were to tell you about it, however, you would see my eyes light up and I would get quite emotional as I did my best to share this moment with you.

And that’s something that technology cannot replicate.

And that’s why we need sometimes–often–to ditch the tech and soak in all the wonder we can. Because what life is all about cannot be contained in a memory card, or on a tape.

Songs of My Life: The Great Adventure

TGAJust married.

Flying across the sea to have our first great adventure together.

Riding in our Buick station wagon across the good ol’ U S of A for six months.

Summer of ’92.

Air conditioner broken.

The radio blared loud to whatever local Christian radio station we could find.

And what did we hear?

Steven. Curtis. Chapman.

All day.

All night.

Preceded by a ‘Prologue’ that sounded much like the soundtrack to the then-currently-running television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles with its symphonic action-adventure tones, the acapella first line hit us full on:

Saddle up your horses!

Who wouldn’t want to join in?

Started out this morning in the usual way
Chasing thoughts inside my head
I thought I had to do today
Another time around the circle
Try to make it better than the last
I opened up the Bible
And I read about me
Said I’d been a prisoner
And God’s Grace had set me free
And somewhere between the pages
It hit me like a lightning bolt
I saw a big frontier in front of me
And I heard somebody say let’s go
Saddle up your horses
We’ve got a trail to blaze
Oh oh oh
Through the wild blue yonder of God’s Amazing grace
Let’s follow our leader into the Glorious unknown
This is the life like no other whoa whoa
This is the great adventure

Co-written by Geoff Moore (80’s CCM fans would know him from Geoff Moore and the Distance), The Great Adventure is an inspiring anthem that speaks of all that is good, right and positive about being one of the chosen few. For me, it was a masculine-sounding, heady motivational song that made me think, ‘This is why I’m here.’

We bought the tape at one of the million or so Christian bookstores that dotted the cityscape of America, then proceeded to wear that out so we bought the CD.

So come on, get ready for the ride of your life
Gonna leave long faced religion
In a cloud of dust behind
And discover all the new horizons
Just waiting to be explored
This is what we were created for

It wasn’t until years later I saw the music video. I’m glad. It was really bad. I much preferred the vision I had in my mind of a Young Steven Curtis Chapman riding with his posse through the canyons of the wild west, in a literal cloud of dust.

I wasn’t the only one as it turns out who saw this song as a call to living the grand life of following Jesus. It apparantly was one of Bart Millard’s (MercyMe) formative songs as shown in the movie I Can Only Imagine. No wonder. It was soul-stirring. I can’t say how many times this song picked me up from moments of doubting, times of despair, and sadness and got me back on track. To me, this was the Christian equivalent of Tina Turner’s Simply the Best. Rousing me to action. Made me proud to be a follower of Jesus with a definite–and holy–calling.

It certainly helped shape a part of my life when I was unfocused, immature and definitely scared to death of what married life–in fact, what life generally–had to bring. While it wasn’t until some years later I was finally semi-comfortable with who I was and where I was meant to be, this song helped me navigate the unsettledness and uncertainty of the present moment.

Unstoppable Force vs Immoveable Object

 

I love a good argument.tweet

Mind you, I would run away from a fight as fast as I could in real life. But, while I flee in haste when any type of confrontation arises, it’s a different story on Twitter.

This hit me when I was scrolling through my Twitter feed the other day. I had chosen to argue with a well-known controversial Australian political figure. He sided with Aussie Rugby start Israel Folau and argued that we must have legal protection so people like Izzy could safely tell every LGBT person that they’ll burn in hell forever without threat of reprisal (in his case his multi-million dollar contract being torn up).

I asked him if he would afford the same freedom of speech to a Muslim person who advocated jihad against Australian ‘infidels.’

His response to me: ‘You’re an idiot.’

I looked at his feed and saw that several hundred tweets had protested his false logic and I was so tempted to strike back with some smart, well-thought-out response.

But it was then that I realised that here was an immoveable object and our collective tweet-attack was like an unstoppable force.

He wouldn’t budge an inch.

We wouldn’t let up.

Stalemate.

So what good is Twitter anyway?

I concluded that Twitter is great to let off steam and offers a chance to find like-minded haters in the fight for right. But, as far as actual change goes, it is a rather ineffective and useless tool.

*  *  *  *  *

Contrast that with the work of David Fleischer of the Los Angeles LGBT Center whose work has been to change people’s minds regarding LGBT inclusion. His work method has exploded on to the scene since his appearance on the public radio broadcast This American Life.

He comes from a place of awareness that it is a very rare thing to change someone’s mind simply by a well-crafted argument or by logical thinking.

I recently listened to an interveiw he did with HumanizeMe’s Bart Campolo. Using the Californian Prop 8 referendum as an example, he demonstrated how all manner of logic and emotion was thrown at the people of the state to convince them that marriage equality was a proposition worthy of their ‘Yes’ vote.

The proposition failed.

He and his team went back to the drawing board.

In their work of evaluating what went wrong, they studied on their method of canvssing the general population and revisited electoral districts that had overwhelmingly voted against marriage equality–this time using a different strategy: one of connection. Rather than bombard the resident with facts and appeal to their sense of justice, the canvassers tried a different approach: having a comnversation with the person and drawing out from them their story, building trust, and then sharing their own story in such a way that it relates to that person’s own emotional connections and relationships.

It worked.

Using the new technque, they were actually able to convince far more people that marriage equality was something worth considering based on the new relationship they had formed.

Essentially, Fleischer discovered that prejudice can be overcome with relationship built in a non-threatening way using conversation.

I have read accounts of the same thing working in conversatons between African-American folks and KKK members, between youth and the elderly, between Christians and Muslims, and between Israeli and Palestinian people.

What Israel Folau, Mark Latham, Lyle Shelton, Pauline Hanson and others like them must come to realise is that it’s only in the context of relationship and connection with others that trust can be built in such a way that people begin to understand you and your message. No bashing-over-the-head-with-a-Bible can build consensus in anywhere near the same way as a heartfelt, sincere comnversation that addresses underlying feelings, emotions and experience. Our stories are so different, but in them is a point of intersection where we can agree and connect and understand each other.

I’m all for dialogue. And yet I let my need to be right get in the way too many times. My first thought was to delete my Twitter account and start again. But when I had time to collect my thoughts, I realised that I don’t need to be part of that unstoppable force that expends its energy trying to shift that immovable object. I can back away from the comments section. I can refuse to scroll. I can, instead, ask sinecer questions about folks and their closely-guarded beliefes and, somehow, I may be able to make some small difference. Twitter is full of angry people. Maybe we need to become an unstoppable force of kindness that, as kindness often does, breaks down piece-by-piece seemingly-immovable objects.

Songs of My Life: Arms of Love

Music is a language that can often  express what a heart feels better than any words.

Even better when well-crafted poetry is added in the form of lyrics to a moving, compelling melody and appropriate harmony.

There are songs that have not only meant so much to me, but clearly defined moments in my life or seasons. They have shaped my response to struggles and events. They have lifted me up, comforted me, motivated me, brought new meaning and clarity or grounded my life in uncertain times.

That’s why I thought it would be a good idea to share with you a few songs that have spoken into my life and made a profound impact along the way.

Arms of Love  (Amy Grant on Age to Age, 1982)

Lord I’m really glad You’re here
I hope you feel the same when You see all my fear
And how I fail
I fall sometimes
It’s hard to walk on shifting sand
I miss the rock, and find there’s nowhere left to stand;
I start to cry
Lord, please help me raise my hands so You can pick me up
Hold me close
Hold me tighter

I have found a place where I can hide
It’s safe inside
Your arms of love
Like a child who’s helped throughout a storm
You keep me warm
In Your arms of love

Storms will come and storms will go
Wonder just how many storms it takes until
I finally know
You’re here always
Even when my skies are far from gray
I can stay;
Teach me to stay there

Written by: GARY W CHAPMAN, AMY GRANT, MICHAEL W SMITH / Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., CAPITOL CHRISTIAN MUSIC GROUP

How clearly I remember having this song on repeat on my CD player and lying on the living room floor bawling my eyes out and praying like never before. How clearly Amy’s words matched with my struggles at the time.

I was going through a rough time. I had just finished College and had a part-time job but I was struggling financially. I was having a difficult time meeting my rent obligations and was living from eviction notice to eviction notice. I lived on two-minute noodles and corn flakes. I didn’t know where my life was headed. I had problems dealing with simple, everyday things. Today I would most likely be diagnosed with depression but, being from a strict Christian home, depression (at that time) was not something to treat with drugs or therapy but with prayer and Scripture.

And this song became my prayer.

Through it, I admitted my failures, my fears, my uncertainty. In its simplicity I found peace knowing that, even though I couldn’t see what the next day would bring, I could still rest in the truth that I would not go it alone.

It didn’t fix everything. But, as music often does, it comforted me with the knowledge that somebody bigger than me cared about me.

I still get a melancholy feeling when I hear this song. It brings me back to a less fortunate, less-awakened time. In retrospect I would say this song marked, for me, a milestone in my journey to becoming a responsible adult. Yet, it also nurtured my faith and helped me to understand that there is always a safe place in the shelter of God’s love.