Unintended Learning

There are a lot of things I thought I might learn about on this year.  Preaching, culture, change, church structure, flora and fauna, time zones, jet lag, new food, French, and a whole lot more.  But one has surprised me – and it hit me like a ton of bricks the other day when I first thought about it.

Going to a new church is hard.

I’ve been going to church since I was a little kid.  I’ve been to churches that are small, large, middle-sized; country, small town, big city; traditional, conservative; Lutheran, Catholic, non-denominational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, etc; English and non-English speaking; rich, poor; where I know everyone and where I know no one; and a myriad of other categories.  I studied theology for four years to earn a Master of Divinity degree.  In a colloquial way, church is what I do.

And yet I find myself anxious a lot of the mornings that I go to a new church here in South Africa.  I’ve been to at least a dozen different churches (I can’t recall exactly how many off the top of my head).  In the morning, I wake up and my first thought often is, “I hope their website is still up-to-date and they haven’t changed their service times to start a half hour earlier.”  I wonder what the parking is like – is there a one-way driving loop around the church with arrows saying which way to go?  Or will there be enough parking in the lot at all?

I think about what I should wear – is it more formal, more casual, extremely casual or very formal?

How long will the service be?  What will happen?  How long is the sermon – 15, 30, 45, 60 minutes?

Are the chairs comfortable?  Or are there pews?  Will there be cushions?  Will I have legroom?

Do I need to bring earplugs because it’s so loud?  (Yes, this has happened.)

If they have Communion, can I take it?  Will I offend someone?  Will I do it the “right” way for that congregation?

Will I know any of the songs?  Are people praising by lifting their hands and pumping fists, or simply by lifting their voices with maybe a little body swaying?

Is it weird that I bring my Bible to church?  Do they have them in the seats?

Do they have fans, air conditioning, a breeze?

Will the people sitting next to me acknowledge me at all, or will we go a whole hour or two without exchanging words?  Are they new, too?

Will I agree with the pastor, the songs, the prayers?  Will I get anything out of being there?

Do I really want to go to this church is the person driving behind me is tailgating me, then cuts me off in their hurry to worship God?

Going to a new church is hard.

There are some days that I wake up and go through these questions and wonders and fears and think to myself, maybe it would be easier to go back to bed.  It’s hard to get up and go through all that and still get in the car and drive somewhere.  And I’m sure there are other questions I have but can’t think of at the moment.

I didn’t think I would learn how difficult this is.

It’s definitely opened my eyes.

Will

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New Years Resolution

Yes, I realize that it is almost the end of January, but I made this resolution at the beginning of the month. I’m not cheating…but I’m not really winning either.

I’m not really big on the whole making resolutions at the beginning of the year because, knowing myself, I will promptly not do them starting January 3rd. I forget or life gets in the way or I feel like they are not accomplishable or whatever my excuse may be. I just don’t do them. I also hope to live my life in a way that if I see a change that really needs to be made, I will just do it. I’ve done this before on numerous occasions. My hope is to be able to continue to grow and change throughout my life, whether or not it is the beginning of a calendar year.

This all being said, I have made a resolution this year. I am going to pray through all of the psalms by the end of the year. This endeavor was inspired by a Taize monk that I have as a friend and was also one of my professors at seminary. For one of the classes I took from him, we were required to pray through the psalms and keep a journal of it throughout the semester (or 6 weeks, maybe…I don’t remember which right now).

I loved it. I absolutely loved it.

The reason that I loved praying the psalms so much is that they are so incredibly honest and emotional and real. They are moments of people talking to God in various places, seasons, and situations in their lives. Sometimes they yell at God. Sometimes they accuse God. Sometimes they praise God. Sometimes they request things of God. The topics of the psalms are far-reaching, but the center of them is a dialogue or monologue with God. They psalmists take up their beefs with God directly and I’ve been feeling lately like that’s a direction I need to go, but I don’t have the words to talk to God anymore. I needed help.

Through the struggles and trials and tribulations of the past few weeks, months, and years, at times it seems like my voice has grown hoarse with the petitions I’ve laid before God. My reservoir of words has run dry in my conversations with God. In the area of my call as a pastor, I feel like God has turned Her back on me and is plugging His ears. Why have I been led on this path? Why does everyone else get a call and I don’t? Why am I living in limbo?  “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.”

It is now only a few days before the draft, the fourth year that I have been eligible and I’m not even sure what to think. Will this be the year that all the planets will align and I’ll finally get to be a pastor? Who knows? I’m not sure what to hope for. The first time I went through, I would have gone anywhere and I was assigned to the place my heart and soul most desired to go. I was elated and then let down by not receiving a call. Now I don’t dare hope to get that again. I just hope that I get something.

So, I pray. I’m praying the psalms. I open up my bible to a random psalm and pray and try to mean the words that I pray. Even when the praising is hard. Even when my bones are out of joint and my heart is melted. Even when it is so hard to “Be still and know that I am God.” I pray. And through the words of these men (and women) in the scriptures, I find my faith again. I find my hope again. I find a moment of peace and joy and release.

Praying the psalms doesn’t necessarily make things easier, but it helps me to speak when my voice is gone and to pray that I will be able to lift my eyes and my soul to the Lord, from where my help comes.

I encourage anyone who has not tried it (and even those who have) to join me in praying some psalms this year. Even if you are praying the same one over and over again. It is a beautiful practice and maybe we can both find our voices again when the words refuse to come from our own minds.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Katie

He is not “The One”.

I’m going to write a serious post. I know this is not particularly common for me, but I promise the world is not ending. I just got an idea that happens to be less stream of consciousness than my other ones and I wanted to share it.

Today is Will’s 27th birthday and today I was once again confronted with the idea that he is not “The One”. I’m not saying that I want to divorce him, in fact I love him more and more each day as we grow closer together in our marriage and our adventures abroad. However, I don’t think Will is “The One”. I don’t think this because I don’t believe that there is such thing as the one person you are supposed to spend the rest of your life with. Will agrees.

This morning, after I gave Will some birthday snuggles and drank a cup of coffee, I read this article. It speaks to this idea better than I probably could, but at some points it sounds like it was written by my own hand. The article is instigated by the announcement that Nicholas Sparks and his wife are getting divorced and that this fact is going to ruin the romantic lives of millions of girls/women across the world. A sort of “if the god of romance can’t make it work, how will my relationship ever have a chance?”

Frankly, I would like to give women a little more credit than that. I don’t think that we are all simpering idiots that bumble around aimlessly trying to find our “soul mates” and then upon finding this person believe that we will never have to work at the relationship anymore because they were “meant to be with this person”. Nobody really believes that. Or do they?

I must admit, Will sort of felt like my soul mate from the very beginning of our friendship. We just got each other and laughed at the same things and could challenge each other and be honest with each other from the very beginnings. And even when we started dating, we had such great communication skills. We were so willing to approach the hard topics. If we were hurt by something the other said, we would address it. If we came to an impasse, we would struggle through it together (even if we ended up not agreeing). It did seem easy at first.  However, as the relationship made the change from “we like each other” to “we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together”, something about that communication became harder. Suddenly there were bumps on the road that didn’t appear to be there before. The soul mate illusion started to fade.

And then we got married.

Granted, our marriage journey has not exactly been typical. Will had just graduated from graduate school. We were both in the process of moving into a temporary space, so we had to decide what we would need for the next two months and what we should immediately put into storage. We were dealing with all the millions of problems that come with moving to foreign countries. We had to pack….which presented all sorts of problems. We had to do legally things and make arrangements for our car and our stuff and our jobs and I had to get re-approved for ordination, since I hadn’t gotten a call in 3 years. That meant re-writing an approval essay and finding time to get interviewed. Then there was the leave-taking with families scattered across the country in 5 states (Fortunately, two of our family members had moved into states with other family members, so we could cut it down from 7 to 5). It was a bit overwhelming in ways that many other people don’t get to experience. This all amped up the normal stress of beginning a life together.

We ran headfirst into the realization that marriage is HARD!

It’s not like we didn’t know it was going to be hard. When we were doing pre-marital counseling, the person who analyzed our Prepare and Enrich quiz told us that we had some of the highest stress indicators and levels, but the lowest “reality distortion” levels she had ever seen. But going into marriage with your eyes open doesn’t make it less hard. I promise, it doesn’t. Yet, we should all be going into our marriages with our eyes open to at least some of the difficulties of what it takes to commit to another person.

We choose to make our other, our “one”.

It is a choice, not an appointment from on high.

Yesterday Will and I went to see “The Best of Me”, the newest installment of Nicholas Sparks on the big screen. We like chick flicks. They are generally cute and always filled with angst. And with Nicholas Sparks, there is always the element of extreme tragedy that simultaneously pulls you in and makes you want to punch Nicholas Sparks in the face. What makes us want to mutilate the author? He inevitably breaks up true love with death or disease.

True love is supposed to last forever!

This is the disturbing piece of the stories of love that pop-culture tells us. Cinemas and romance novels make it sound and look so easy. People who are meant to be together stay together, against all odds and outside forces. Right?!

WRONG!

I don’t believe that there are any two people that are destined to be together forever. Our love stories are not written in the stars. We cannot rely on the fates to keep us in our marriages or blame our failings in our relationships on the “I guess we were just not meant to be” mindset. When we make a commitment to marry someone, we should not be blindly walking into the pop-culture worldview that we were brought together by destiny so nothing can tear us apart. It is fantastical view more than just about anything else that punches holes in our real life marriages. We do not live in a fairy tale.

When we marry another, we are making a conscious choice everyday to love and cherish, protect and preserve, be honest and be authentic, to and with this person. This greeting from our own wedding is a good reminder to me, “Katie and Will have come here freely so that their loving relationship may become a permanent union. The essence of this commitment is to join with another person as lover, companion and friend.”

There is no such thing as “The One”, but when we openly and freely bind ourselves to another person, we make that person “Our One”. And we, as two individuals also become one entity. And I think that is so much more beautiful  and freeing than the feeling of being required to be with someone else because they were made for you in eternity.

Will could have been another person. But he’s not. Will is my one because I chose to enter into this union with him and I will fight to keep him as my other half.

So, here’s to you, my lovely husband. Today, on your 27th birthday, I choose again to have  you as my partner in crime and creativity and life.
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I choose to love you.

Katie

Happy Halloween!

Today is January 9, 2015 and I am celebrating Halloween. For today, I (finally) received the package my lovely sister, Elizabeth, sent me on October 15, assuming that it would arrive in time for Halloween. Since it didn’t arrive in time for the traditional Halloween, I have decided that I am going to celebrate Halloween today instead.

Costume: Nerd. I have my glasses on, my button up shirt tucked into my pants, and by golly, if I had some masking tape I would put tape on my glasses.

Candy: Unfortunately, I am trying this new diet (slash have been for 4 weeks) and I only get to eat 500 calories today….so I will count today as the trick-or-treating day and eat chocolate and Swedish fish (both of which came in my package) tomorrow!

Jack-o-lantern: I carved a tomato instead.

Halloween in January in South Africa. CHECK!

In other news, the package contained wonderful things. She sent me a pound of Caribou’s Amy’s Blend coffee, which I enjoyed a cup of with my stovetop espresso maker. She sent me two bags of Swedish fish, which I will generously share with Will and any of you that wish to visit me. (there’s some enticement for you). And two bags of CHOCOLATE CHIPS!!!! I am giddy with girlish glee! On top of those wonderful things, Zee also included a Halloween card that is stupendously funny….it’s too good to be explained on here…I’ll keep it and show it to anyone who wishes to see it…and also a note written on glorified post-its, which we both love.

In the note that Elizabeth wrote, she told me that I need to write more and I need to post more pictures. SO! My new New Year’s resolution is to post on here more per her request. I will also try to post more pictures, but the Chromebook doesn’t always get along with my camera…I will try though.

To top off this wonderful Halloween, I also was able to Facetime with my sis and both of my mother’s sisters for a few minutes today.

It has been a goodish day.j

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Katie

Part 3: Reflections

I didn’t imagine this three-part reflection series to take nearly a month to write.  Alas it has – here goes Part 3.  As a recap, Part 1 was about how we talk about Jesus and tell the message in the church within a changing society, and Part 2 reflected on some organizations and individuals who are spreading God’s love outside church walls through their actions and love to their neighbor.

Part 3 is about the confluence of inside-the-church worship and the cultural experience outside it.  When I was in Guatemala in 2009, I had an experience that made this idea very important for me.  The following is an excerpt from my GPF application:

“Vamos,” the former Catholic priest said after glancing at his watch. We stood up from our chairs, exiting his office which also functioned as our one-on-one classroom. Down the stairs and the hill, we entered Parque Central, the heart of the old district of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The frenzy of cars, street vendors, the smell of freshly-baked bread, at least three languages, church bells, and the sharp color contrasts of the green grass, blue sky, and large stone buildings hit me at once. We crossed the square and entered the Catholic church.

The sounds died completely away. Lit by candles and faint daylight, we found our way to some pews, sitting and watching, taking it all in. My heart leaps as my mind transports back to that day – the peace of that place and the drastic change from the square outside. The church was a place of refuge – and though there was no official worship service or sermon, I heard the words read to me and by me while I was growing up come flooding over me: “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” It was the Gospel I needed to hear, to feel, to experience in that moment. I remember talking with my instructor about light and darkness, peace and chaos, on the way back to his office that day.

It was inside this church that I felt the safest I had since arriving in Guatemala over a month earlier. Even at my host home, behind the 12-foot cinder block walls with broken glass embedded in the top, electrified razor wire above that, and a closed circuit TV system, I did not feel as safe as I did in that church that day. And it was with the thoughts and activities of that day that something flipped, something changed in my mind – I began to link the ideas of “Church” and “Change” together.

And I still wonder about it.  How do the church and culture change each other?  How do they affect each other?  How can the church be a positive force of change in our cultures, and a positive voice that is not laying down a simple message of “love, love” or “woe, woe” all the time?  Here are a few ideas I have been thinking about the last few weeks:

First, don’t live the Christian faith like the seasons in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  There is a scene in that cult-classic movie in which the narrator says, “Winter changed into Spring. Spring changed into Summer. Summer changed back into Winter. And Winter gave Spring and Summer a miss and went straight on into Autumn.”  Sometimes it feels like we are always in Winter, or always heading toward it imminently.  There is always something to worry about, to complain about, to fear.  We are looking for the Spring and the Summer.  But it may feel like we are in the Fall and Winter, in a slow, cautious, dying phase, one in which we don’t want to expend too much energy in any one direction for fear of being snuffed out, when in reality, not going whole-heartedly (and possibly foolhardily) toward something may finish us off.

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, was one of the rallying cries of the Reformation in the 1500s (Martin Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, that time period).  It means “The Church reformed, always reforming”.  It didn’t mean, “let’s reform what we see is wrong with the church and then lay down the exactly perfect structure for everything that will happen in the next millenium and never ever change anything for the rest of all time until Jesus comes back.”  The Reformers of that time knew that they didn’t have everything perfect, that the seasons of the year and the church would change, and we would be led back to a new Spring each time, a new Easter, a continual Easter.

We are reformed – we’ve been through the Winter, been tried by fire and cold and ice and pain and death and whatever else.  And we are to come back to the Spring, alive and changed and growing and reacting to the world around us, yet rooted deeply in the same dirt, the same grounding, the same life, the same Truth of God’s love and Jesus’ death and resurrection.  We can constantly cling to that Truth, sinking our roots in deeper and deeper; or, we can sink our roots in deeper and deeper, and at the same time stretch upward toward the light and warmth.  We can cling to the past and only what we know now, or we can cling to our history and stretch toward the future, constantly communicating between the two.

Second, Risk.  The board game by the same name offers a good example of this.  (If you haven’t played or seen it played, it is a game in which people try to take over a map of the world by building up armies and rolling dice to see who wins the battles.)  At the beginning of the game, and certainly at points along the way, it is very easy, and perhaps wise, to not do anything.  There is equilibrium.  Drawing attention to yourself by acting may make people think differently about you, good or bad.  And so sometimes it is nice to just sit there, commander of a powerful army, doing nothing.

As people who believe in Jesus Christ as God and Savior, we are armed with powerful tools as well – among them, power over evil forces, the ability to forgive sins and wrongs, community, and life.  And yet it is very, very easy to just sit and not share these, or share them passively with other people.  It’s scary to move, to speak up, to act, to share.  But whether you do something or don’t, people start to think differently about you, just as in the board game.  Keith and Ang McLaren, who I mentioned in Part 2, decided to act differently than those around them.  It has brought animosity and hatred, but also love and respect, hope and life.  Like Keith and Ang, sometimes we need to act because of our faith, impacting the culture, however small or large, because of what we believe.  Whether that’s fighting against child labor, sitting with someone in hospice and giving them joy and hope, or providing employment for another, we are called to Risk.

Third, be like Thumper.  In the movie Bambi (you can see a clip here) Thumper says “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”  One thing I’ve noticed in so many of the churches we have been to is that the first thing people say after or about a worship service is how great it is. “That was a great sermon, wasn’t it?”  “That worship was wonderful.”  “Strong preach today.” (Note: “Preach” is used in a few churches here to mean “sermon” or “message”.)  They may later say that something was “flat” or “down” or “not up to par” – but nearly always the first thing people say is positive.  And the information is volunteered, not coerced.  People want to talk about their great church experience.  We went out to a market with one of our friends, Mervin, the other week.  He invited a shop owner he bought some food from to come to his church.

I’ve listened to a lot of sermons (“preaches”) here, and heard a lot of people speak.  Some people are wonderful public speakers, others are not.  But even when people who are poor preachers are speaking, people still come to church, still participate, still are excited.  And I will be honest – I think the main reason many of the churches we have visited are strong and growing is because people speak well of their church.  They have good things to say.

And we can’t leave out the negative – but leading with the positive and showing we do like where we worship will go a long way.  I think it is one of the most important things for the health of the church and it’s future.  It’s simple, but it’s powerful.

Above I posed 3 questions, but I think only responded to the last.  Here I’ll briefly respond to the first two. (How do the church and culture change each other?  How do they affect each other?)  Paul writes in Romans 12, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (NIV)  I’ve heard this paraphrased down to “Christians are in the world, not of the world”, with the idea behind it that Christians aren’t supposed to have anything to do with modern culture, that modern culture and modern Christianity are entirely mutually exclusive and can never interact.  But they do interact, and I think they should.

The culture changes how and what people want to hear – length of attention spans, preferred preaching and worship style, a message of hope, face-t0-face community, and so many other things.  It can keep the church from getting complacent in how it preaches the Gospel, how it shows the message, forcing the church to adapt and not stagnate, while still preaching the same message.  And the church changes, or can change, the culture – a positive message of life in the midst of a 24/7 news cycle of mostly debbie-downer stories, caring for the poor and lonely and immigrants and hurting across social groupings, stories of God’s actions for thousands of years, and showing that trust and faith and hope and belief are still valid in a world filled with numbers and reports and so-called “hard evidence.”

I think the church and culture are intricately linked – and it can be a good thing.  The key for the Church is to stay rooted in the message of and about Jesus Christ, while also reaching toward the future.

Will

#thisisafrica

On New Year’s Eve, Will and I went on an excursion. We traveled to a place called the Midlands and went shopping. By the time we arrived there, everything was open for another 2 hours. We didn’t know this when we left home. Anyway, this is just context for the story that I am about to tell.

In the car on the way to the Midlands, I at some point said to Will, “if I ever become the person that says ‘hashtag (insert thing here)’ make me stop immediately”. The whole hashtag thing is just something that I have thought was silly. I am not a part of the Twitter world, and I think it’s silly to use verbal hashtags-not least of all for the reason that I grew up calling it a pound sign. Whatever, I made Will promise me that he would stop me.

And then we had the return trip to Gillitts…

I don’t actually remember what prompted the comment, but somehow Will got on the subject of things that happen in Africa that you just become accustomed to because you are in Africa. This comment prompted me to say “hashtag this is Africa”. Upon uttering this phrase for the first time, I melted into a puddle of mush. Had I not just stated that I would not be one of those people? Yes. Yes, I did. And no sooner did I make this promise that I came up with a phrase that turned me into a hash-tagger. I’ve been infected and I cannot stop myself. It’s a disease that is taking over my mind. Each time I think of something that happens here and I don’t think it’s weird because I’m here, in Africa, I immediately follow it up with a thought of “hashtag, this is Africa.” MAKE IT STOP!

….

Well, since I cannot seem to stop thinking of things to hashtag as African, I will share them with you as well.

During New Year’s Eve fireworks- “are those fireworks or gunshots we just heard?” #thisisafrica

“Oh, we didn’t blow a breaker, it’s just load-shedding.” #thisisafrica

“Don’t worry, I’ll just creep across the intersection on the red light” said the policeman #thisisafrica

“the geckos just pooped on me…again” #thisisafrica

“there’s a monkey in the hammock” #thisisafrica

“Going to the grocery store (or anywhere)? Shoes not required.” #thisisafrica

a man was trampled in his backyard by a hippo. #thisisafrica

These are just a few of the many that have been running rampant in my head in the past 24 hours. I can’t help it. Modern lingo, what have you done to me?!

Cheers, Everyone! (it means goodbye here #thisisafrica)

Katie