Me, Myself and God: Prayer in the Woods of Western Massachusetts

This weekend was perhaps the most perfect weekend, and let me tell you why…

When I was in California this past summer, while my roommates went to church somewhere in Oakland or San Francisco, I would head out into the wilderness and enjoy the wonder that is God’s Creation. Ordinarily, I am the full-on church-going type who enjoys the sitting, standing and liturgical cycle that church entails; but sometimes I just need to be free and enjoy God’s initial creations, which most certainly excludes physical manifestation of a church building. I haven’t had the urge to be outside as strong as I did this afternoon since I came back from California nearly 9 months ago. A friend of mine and I have taken to running along with the setting sun, which both allows for the perfect temperature here in Northampton, but also the perfect opportunity to see the beautiful sun setting below the Western Massachusetts farmlands, and also the clear sky afterward.

The Mill River Path is perhaps my favorite part of my Smith experience; I have been running on this path since I was a first year, both alone and with companions. It has been the forum for my excitement, frustration, sadness and unrest. It has willingly taken my sadness, my mess-ups, my pain, my happiness.

As my time at Smith races toward its finish line, I see that God and I have been together all along on this path. We have communicated through this path. At times, when I didn’t think I could ever find the answer to a looming question or decision, I would go for a brisk run on the path, and all my problems would be solved – however temporary the solutions were. I could “run it out” (as I would often find myself saying…), and miraculously, at the end of it, I would feel more at peace, at rest. I would feel more confident in myself, my decisions, and my overall ability to make the “right” decisions for me, and only me. While I can’t begin to say that God was with me each and every time I went for a run by the Mill River over the last 4 years, because that would be far too many times for a busy man like Him, but I think that much of my prayers over the last 4 years have been said by the Mill River.

Once in a Bible Study I went to, the host led a discussion about “The POWER of Prayer,” whatever that means. He discussed how it was our “Christian Duty” to pray every day that the country would be delivered to God, and “His Will would be done.” (Whatever the heck that means, who really knows? Christianese at work…) We then proceeded to go around the circle, talking in detail about our prayer styles, how often we prayed, and what we most frequently prayed for. The normal BLAH BLAH BLAH (meaning the “I’m praying for the starving children” or “I’m praying for my job” or “I’m praying for the raise at work” etc.) came and went, and then it was my turn. I frequently admit that I am not an active “pray-er,” and no matter what, I will never lie about that fact. For me, my faith is more about the work I do and the conversations I have; so, of course, I proceed to say as much, and almost immediately, the leader of the group begins to say something along the lines of, “Well, if you aren’t actively praying, God has no way of knowing that you LOVE Him, or that you are living FOR Him. How is He supposed to help you if YOU SIMPLY DON’T PRAY?” Not a surprising response, but what does one do in this situation? Good question. For the longest time, I thought that the only way to pray was to get down on your knees and pray for the safety of my soul. Never did I think that prayer could be creative, constructive, let alone EXCITING! I love being outside, whether it is running, cycling, hiking, rock climbing, and if given a choice, I would spend the rest of my life in the great outdoors! Why not pray outside while doing something that I love? So, for me, being outside, immersed in His Creation, is the way that I pray. It is the way that I commune with God, talk about my feelings (of all sorts, positive and most certainly negative…), and thank Him for everything that is going on in my life.

So what is so wrong with my rather unconventional prayer style? In my opinion, obviously nothing! I mean, lets be serious. These photos…who wouldn’t thank God for such an amazing skyline? Its hard to look at that view and not think that God created the heavens and the Earth just for me! So, just because I don’t sit down on the floor – or rather kneel down on the floor – and say, “Dear God…” doesn’t mean that we don’t have proverbial coffee together; in some way, I think my way of prayer is special. It is me sharing a part of me with the guy that created me…who made this thing a part of me in the first place. God put the running bug in my heart, and in some way, it feels like the best way to thank God for that is to keep running – or perhaps, TO RUN MY HEART OUT JUST FOR HIM. So I’m sorry if anyone out there doesn’t like the fact that I pray in a rather untraditional manner, that’s your right. But when I run, I feel as though God is right there with me, helping me to figure out my life stuff, however big or small.

Today I had the opportunity to be a part of God’s natural creation, to just be alone and reflect in how amazing He is…how amazing His creation is. I wasn’t trying to figure out anything major, or perhaps, I wasn’t trying to figure out anything at all. I’m just getting back into physical activity after having to take 6 months off due to an injury, and it has been without a doubt a challenge to take it easy. Baby steps, everyone has been telling me, baby steps. But I don’t do baby steps that well. I jump head forward into things, not looking at the consequences that I will most certainly have to pay for later on. But this time, I have taken it more slowly, and so running has come to mean something even more significant in my life. My normal means for prayer for a short time was taken away from me, or rather, God was saying that I need to find another way to connect with him. Either way, now that I am able to run again, I feel as though I have gone from the occasional chit-chat with God to a full on relationship again. I mean, just look at the view! –> How could you not thank God for such an amazing view of nature?

This summer gave me the chance to reconnect with God through nature – to find a way to connect with God that only I would see him, hear him. Some people pray in their rooms, others pray out loud. I pray when I run, hike, ride. I pray when I am out in nature, because when the wind blows, the sun shines, the rain falls, God speaks, smiles, cries. God’s emotions are so deeply embedded in nature, and I feel so strongly connected to him when I am unbridled by walls and doors. No matter how bad my day may be, a short run in the woods beside the Mill River and I will have the clarity and answers I needed to fight head on. I feel brave, strong, confident.

Thank God for God; His Creation not only keeps me sane, but it keeps me driven to build my faith. I can chat with my best friend in nature – God.

But more importantly, find creative ways to pray, because how you pray is between you and God, and no one should determine how and where you speak to God. That is up to both you…and God!

…Go With God!…

Reflections, Reflections…

The last few weeks have felt especially reminiscent of my first spring at Smith College, perhaps because they are, in reality, among my last. While I am not currently in Northampton (I’m at home in New York), I could feel that spring was on its way; the typical snowy days were replaced with rain, and the skies stay lighter into the early evenings. But what is even more than the change in weather is the fact that I have changed so much in the course of my four years at Smith.

Three years ago, I was nearly finishing my first year, still filled with zest and enthusiasm for college life, while still feeling as though I could do anything with my life. At this point, I was just starting to develop my sense of “self” in terms of my faith and belief in Jesus, and to be brutally honest, I miss those days. I don’t miss the level of insecurity socially – being a first year to begin with, let alone at a Women’s college, you are still trying to establish where you belong on campus, and who you are to hang out with, potentially for the rest of your college career. (Obviously excluding the fact that socially, you are at the bottom of the food chain, with seniors as the sneakers, and first years as the troublesome gum on the bottom of the senior “shoes.”) I miss the days of having a simple faith – not a simple outlook on faith so much as a view of faith through baby steps toward a finish line, rather than complicated by various ways to pray, worship, etc. Before I came to college (and this would have happened regardless of where I went…), I only knew of one worship style – traditional and liturgical. In my childhood church, there was no rock band or rock music, no spontaneous praying out loud, no radical message of how our “saved” status made us completely “sin-free”, no immersion baptism, and absolutely no discussion of being a “Christian,” whatever that really means. It was just about praying to God for the forgiveness of our collective sins, recognizing that no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to fully repay Jesus for his sacrifice; but if we truly make an effort to serve God each day, we will make a dent in that debt, always taking one step closer to the finish line of our faith journey – that is God/Jesus.

Three years ago, I was still looking for my place on campus – not only my social, physical and academic place, but also my spiritual place. Coming from a fairly low-profile spiritual community, where the two major happenings during the year were Christmas and Easter, with a nice lull in between. The church’s attendance dies down during the summer, as families head off to their summer homes in the Hamptons, Nantucket or “The Vineyard,” or kids venture off to resume-building summer camps. (To ensure that their 7 and 8-year-olds will get into Harvard or Yale 10 years down the line. So coming into an environment completely different as Smith was a shock to the system, to say the least. For one, I was raised to not openly discuss faith/religious affiliations, but even at Smith, no one talked about religion, except to comment that “religion is the government’s way of having us conform to its mind-altering/mind-melding ideals.” So obviously, finding a spiritual home on campus was going to be more than challenging.

Three years later, I’m applying to seminary, trying yet again to choose a spiritual home for a period of my life. Three years ago, I wasn’t doing this so much consciously as I was out of habit or necessity. But this time, I am making a conscious choice, as I am making religious obligation/spirituality my future, my life. Three years ago, I was somewhat choosing to find a spiritual home on campus (or off) at Smith, because I had grown up in a church that was very welcoming and laid back (I would later learn simply how open and welcoming it really was in comparison to my church experiences in college…MERCYHOUSE…**cough cough**) Or perhaps, three years ago, I was looking for a spiritual place to belong because I needed to belong somewhere, having not truly belonged anywhere for more than 4 years.

Now, however. Three years later, I have found a place that I truly believe will become my home, perhaps immediately, perhaps in time. But I have this confidence that Princeton Theological Seminary will be the place (and the period in my life) I always hoped it would – a place where I can grow as a person, earn how to be the best minister I can be, but most importantly, take the next step toward being the person I only dreamed of being only a short three years ago. Obviously, Princeton isn’t the place that is going make all this happen, but it most certainly is the catalyst that will get the whole process started.

Why blog about changes in the first place? What is so important about any of this anyway? I was thinking in the last few days about what I must have been like as a first year. Before I didn’t think that I had changed that much in the last three years, but in the past few days, I realize how much I have changed and who I have become. Three years ago, I didn’t necessarily have a faith that I could call my own. I had the faith that my parents had raised me on, but I didn’t have a sense of my own flavor of it – a unique idea of what I believed, where I thought I was int he grand scheme of faith, etc. I also didn’t know specifically what I believed, or even who I wanted to become as an adult member of the world. I began as a girl who knew some stuff about faith, or rather, a girl who knew some stuff about church; a girl who wanted to learn more about this Jesus guy and his daddy, God, but who had more or less outgrown what her church resources could provide her with.

So I went to college, hoping that I could learn something about faith. And without a doubt, I can say that I learned more than I ever thought I would about faith; I have learned what kinds of faith there are out there in the big, bad world, and more importantly, what kind of faith I want to have – what kind of faith I need to have in order to be a productive and helpful person in my society. More importantly, I have learned what kinds of faith and beliefs are not going to help me give back to the people I love most. But what does that mean? I have learned how to make my faith last a lifetime, not just a month, a year, or five years. I have been given the gift of a lifetime supply of belief and faith. It has been a long and at times, bumpy, road, but thank God that it has been what it has. I love the person I have become, with much thanks and gratitude to God, my parents, and the people I call my friends. I cannot wait to see how I grow and flourish in the year to come!

 

…Seminary…HERE I COME!

United We Stand, Divided We Fall?: The (Il)legal Fusion Between the Christian Religion and Politics in the United States

I have held off writing about the relationship between religion and politics in the United States in my blog for several reasons. Firstly, I don’t know whether or not there is a place in a blog about faith for politics, and secondly, it was and still is never my intention to emotionally injure anyone with my blog. Thirdly, I don’t think it is anyone’s business what my political beliefs are. But more and more recently, I have seen the clash between the two – people, friends, family merging two completely un-matchable properties together, like oil and water. It seems to me that even when we try to separate the two, they end up coming right back together. But why? Why do religion and politics flock to each other like two people in the tangles of a torrid affair?

Many people assume that this country was established based on religious tenets, when in reality, they are sorely mistaken. Yeah, people flocked to the “New World” to escape religious and political persecution in a wide assortment of European, and later Asian countries, but it was never their intent to found a nation based on their religious beliefs. I’m not sure that they ever desired to have the church run their state, as that was what they were seeking to escape in the first place. The Pilgrims and Puritans- my family – fled England in order to shirk the bonds of the King and the Church of England; they viewed firsthand the abuses of the church at the hand of the King, dictating how and where they worship, what they believe and what is worse, how they conduct their lives, both public and private. If this were to be true, then why would they want to create an identical situation, only replacing the Church of England with their own? That certainly seems like a chance for history to repeat itself.

A bit later in history, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin alike both were recorded as saying that there is no place within this beginning nation for the merger between religion and politics; further, to do so would be a detriment to its growth and success. So why then are we so eager to add religion into our politics? Or rather, why are we so eager to add politics to our religion? What’s the big deal anyway? Why do we need to combine the two?

I don’t need to go through the last 300 or so years of US History, nor do I need to talk in depth about the state of US politics or Christianity today; but regardless of either situation, religion and politics are included in the same sentence in the public arena more times per day than anyone can count. This is shown explicitly in films such as “Hell House” and “Jesus Camp,” two documentary films portraying Christian culture and the influence of the Religious Right at the beginning of the 21st century. “Jesus Camp” frequently uses voice overs of George W. Bush’s various state of the union speeches, and especially emphasizes his “One Nation Under God” theology, while utilizing a phrase taken directly from the Pledge of Allegiance. (Little do people know, the original Pledge of Allegiance did not include such phrase; “One Nation Under God” was added during the Red Scare of the 1960s as a part of JFK’s efforts to show how civilized, Westernized, and ultimately non-Communist America was.) Repeatedly, the various characters emphasize that for them, God guides their political decisions, and they vote based on ‘what the Bible says.’ In other words, they interpret the Bible literally (which in and of itself isn’t necessarily detrimental to anyone), and use it to decide which party (rather than which candidate) best fits their Biblical values. What do they mean by these Biblical values? Abortion, Gay Marriage, War, just to name a few. But we all know that this is happening, no sense denying that it does, each and every day. I wish that I could say these decisions were made for the betterment of mankind, but of this fact I can’t be 100% sure. What I am discussing has frequently been called “Faith Wars” or “Culture Wars” by the popular media; in other words, the war at hand is between the faithful and the faithless, Christian culture versus non-Christian culture. Unfortunately, it is far more complicated than just that, however. Words are not deep enough to describe the emotion behind each of those categories.

Often I wonder why Christians are so divided over politics. Lets be honest, how many churches are actually divided completely by religious tenets? Because in reality, that answer should be close to if not wholly none. Churches don’t split completely because of religious disagreements – they don’t split because one believes in Jesus more than another; that is just silly. Rather, they split because church and national politics influence their faith and belief systems. Church governments, like my own, take stances based either intentionally or unintentionally on political stances; this forces churches to separate from others based on which category they belong best in – liberal or conservative – with not much wiggle room in between. Much of the fear that exists between church communities comes from the subject of morality; it is their understanding that people of other religions don’t have the same morals as Christians do, and therefore cannot be trusted with leading a government or representing the people.

Perhaps this is why we have never had a Jewish, Muslim or agnostic president. Perhaps this is why the leaders of the United States are Christians. I mean, according to the 2010 census, 84% of Americans identified as churchgoers, regardless of their annual attendance records (Mainline Protestants, Evangelical, Catholic, etc). With this in mind, it is understandable that an election has the potential to be largely determined by our country’s religious inclinations. Because the majority of voters affiliate with a religious belief system, they are therefore more likely to vote based on that system’s tenets. This is, of course, not to say that all act in such a manner. Rather, the statistics and surveys indicate as much.

I don’t vote necessarily based on my religious beliefs – meaning that whoever might have similar or identical religious beliefs as myself; if that were to be true, one would assume that I would vote with candidates such as John McCain or George Bush. Instead, I vote based on which candidate best embodies the direction I would like to see my country head in. I try to closet my religious beliefs in favor of picking a candidate that has the most motivation and best ideas for fixing our country’s problems. I would much rather see a candidate who is private about their religious beliefs, but who is solid in his criteria and stands for something that will best benefit the country he wishes to serve. If he believes in God, wonderful. But I under no circumstances will place value judgements upon a candidate that selects to keep his religious affiliation outside of the political arena.

I would also like to open up another line of thinking. What about those who are not Christian, but are still religious? I cannot imagine what it must be like for others who have tremendous faith but see that the Christians are perhaps “given” preferential treatment in the Senate and House. Or yet, how do my Jewish friends feel when God is mentioned, and in reality, the politicians are really meaning to talk about Jesus? That couldn’t be a larger insult in my opinion.

The United States is supposed to be a nation for all, regardless of creed, race, sexuality, ethnicity, wealth, etc. But why is it that when it comes to religion, it is only a nation for the majority? Better yet, how can we as the 20 something generation make positive change in government to prevent such prejudice from occurring? Who better than us? Think about it. InterVarsity uses Christians to infiltrate college and university sororities and fraternities to “win the lost.” Why can’t we as men and women of all faiths infiltrate the government (for a lack of a better word) to “win the lost,” meaning that we teach those who see just one group of people (aka “the lost”) see how colorful, rich and diverse this country is.

I mean, if we are the future of America, then why are we sitting back and watching the future happen before our eyes? If we do this, we can’t complain about the situation that occurs, as we have taken no ownership of our country, our rights, our freedom to worship (or not) the way we please, and further, to vote the way we please, keeping in mind the First Amendment, which commands us to keep a separation between “the church” and “our state.”

God+Jesus: The Glue That Binds Opposite People Together

My first intention for this blog post was to talk about the fuzzy but dangerous line between the merger of religion and politics, but I’m not quite sure I’m ready to talk about that yet. So, instead, I thought why not discuss my impending trip to Florida. On Thursday morning, I am taking a flight down to Boca Raton to visit my dad’s parents, whom I haven’t seen probably since I was 12-years-old. I won’t bother to lay out my family history or the dynamic that exists between my father and his father, as that is extraneous and unnecessary for my sake of the argument. But, I will go as far as to say that I am the only granddaughter, and the only one who has a college degree to her name (oh, ok, I am the closest to a college degree than any of my male cousins got. But that is beside the point…), let alone the only one to even apply and get into graduate school. Anyway, back to the main point. I am seeing my grandparents (2/4, I still have all 4 grandparents) for the first time in a really long while, and it will be interesting, as the last time they saw me, I was pre-pubescent and looked completely different. We have, however, kept in touch by phone and letters, but lets be honest, that’s not nearly a fair replacement for human contact. But that isn’t to say that they haven’t had their fair share of opportunities to come visit, for example, my high school graduation. Putting that aside, this is the first time they will see me as an adult, and with that comes a lot of expectations from me.

I honestly don’t know what to expect from the experience at all. Seeing as they haven’t been a physical presence in my life, and over the last 10 years we have barely spoken on the phone (mind you we have talked on the phone physically, but in reality, I really don’t know too much about them. We talk, but not much is actually said…), so I have no clue how the three days spent down there will in actuality go. I want a good relationship with them, as not only are they getting on in years, but they are also family. And since my family is so tiny, I need all the family I can get.

But what does this have to do with the title of this post: “God and Jesus: The Glue That Binds Opposite People Together”? I suppose the thing that binds my grandparents and myself together is the sole fact that we both go to church. A belief in God can bind people together that might not ordinarily have anything in common. This is not necessarily true in my case, as my family and I have a lot in common besides faith and blood. This is also the case with many of my friends from SCF. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have a reason to hang out with or get to know those women, but a uniting faith in God brought us together and created a bond that won’t be broken.

This isn’t necessarily the case with all Christians (or churchgoers), but it definitely happens. Let me provide another example. Yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity to hang out with one of my roommates from CSM in New York. She now works for CSM at their Brooklyn site, and it is such a blessing that she is on my coast now so we can build a post-CSM friendship! We were hanging out in Grand Central in their food court, enjoying yummy New York food. Often times during the harsh NY winters, the homeless will flock to Grand Central to take refuge from the snow and wind blowing off of the Hudson and East Rivers. This was the case yesterday, as it was unusually cold, so the homeless were resting at the tables in the food court. As we hadn’t seen each other since the beginning of August, we had much to catch up on; our conversation was going on and on, talking about church (she goes to and has gotten involved at Joel Houston’s Hillsong NYC church in Brooklyn) and God and plans, etc. She put her arm over an extra chair, unintentionally preventing a homeless man from taking up residence in it. The woman at the table next to us (Obviously a tourist, and therefore unaccustomed to the obscene size and presence of NY’s homeless population) leaned over and said something along the lines of, “I couldn’t help but overhear you both talking about church. Are you Christians? Because I’m a Christian and I just want to thank you for putting your arm on that chair.” RANDOM, right? But that is precisely what I mean when I say that God brings people together who might not ordinarily have things in common.

Are these relationships built to last? Hmm, now that’s another question entirely. I don’t think I have an answer to that, but that isn’t what matters. I find that my faith is brought to a new level when I am able to spend time with other Christians; in these interactions, information and experiences are exchanged, both of which serve to strengthen and enhance one’s relationship with God. Further, Jesus emphasized that we are a community of believers, not simply individuals wandering in the desert to face faith alone.

But what does this mean for people who come from completely different socioeconomic and political stances, different geographic locations? Does this mean that besides faith, the relationship will fail? I’m not sure that this is necessarily true. I think that through faith, alliances and understanding is bred. Yes, we have seen in the political arena that religion can serve to deadlock progress. But at the same time, if two Christians from completely different viewpoints can come together and have a discussion, hopefully (and logically) some level of understanding can be reached. Does progress happen overnight? Certainly not. But I believe that if enough Christians come together and have the necessary discussions and arguments in a safe and constructive environment, anything can happen. Progress can happen. I hope and pray that the future is brighter because of the relationships forged between Christians. As I say constantly, we as Christians are supposed to love, regardless of economics, political views, geography, race, gender and sexuality; it may seem challenging because faith becomes complicated in our society (rather, we think that in order to be properly faithful, our beliefs and practices must be complicated – complicated faith indicates a mature and righteous belief and faith in God.)

So back to my journey to Florida. What does this have anything to do with faith binding us together, despite the fact that we haven’t had physical contact in nearly if not more than a decade? My grandparents, especially my grandfather, are deeply religious/faithful people. In fact, my grandfather’s church back in the early 1940s offered to pay for him to go to Princeton Theological Seminary to become a minister, but WWII intervened, and he headed over to do a 3 year tour in the South Pacific. Not that going to seminary necessarily indicates a higher level of devotion to God, but I could tell that when I got into Princeton, it touched his heart in a place he had never shown anyone, let alone his kids or grandkids. My grandfather and I haven’t had many deep and personal discussions – ok, I actually can’t remember one – but I know in my heart that we are connected because of and through our common belief in Jesus and in the existence of God. Our faiths are by no means on the same level; He ascribes to a more conservative, exclusive view of faith, while I am more on the educated, sophisticated theological side. But regardless, both my faith and his boil down to the same unifying set of beliefs: God exists, God knows everything, Jesus is God’s only Son, Jesus lived, died and rose again so that we could live. Based on all these facts, we have more in common than either of us will ever know. Will either he or I recognize them in three days? Probably not. But what I hope to get out of the next three days is that we can grow a little bit closer and come to understand each other a bit better.

I’m definitely not scared of the unknown the way I used to be. But a part of me is a little frightened of what is to happen in Florida. My grandparents have changed quite a bit over the course of 10 years, and that is scary enough; but what scares me most is that the three days will just be a long uncomfortable discussion about their various accomplishments, and no progress on a relationship will be made. Life is so short – this I have personally learned a lot in the past 2 weeks, and since they are in their late 80s, I would like to help them get to know me and the woman I hope to become. They should be so proud of what I have done so far, and even more proud of what I hope to do in my future. I hope (and pray) that I am able to convey this to them in the short time I am given. Hopefully we can hone in on the bond that we do have aside from our familial relationship – our belief in the same God and the same Christ.

 

 

Perhaps I am ready to tackle the discussion between religion and politics. Perhaps for next time.

 

The Lent Series: Using the Jesus’ Sacrifice to Initiate Positive Change

The past two blog posts have been discussing the various aspects of Lent – Ash Wednesday, why we give things up, etc. But so far, I have only discussed the process of eliminating things from one’s life and daily routines during Lent; however, there is also a lot to be said for making positive additions as well. I talked previously about my interactions with my friends on Ash Wednesday, both Christian and non-Christian, both parties asking what I was giving up for Lent; my response to both groups was the same – I have no idea. For me, I have tried time and time again to give up candy or soda, or limit my TV time, just to name a few examples; but each time, I would go two or three days, maybe even a week before I would give in to temptation and go back to my previous habits. Then comes the guilt, and my prayers to God to forgive my slip ups and weakness. But over the last few years, I have come to realize that it is less about what you give up – the object, habit, what have you – and more about the way you remember and enact the sacrifice. It is less about giving up smoking or candy or TV, and more about the positive actions that come about through the elimination of such habits. Or rather, it is about the positive effects that come from a clear mind and focus on the more important things than what your habit may be.

What does this mean? Well, for the last few years, instead of struggling through giving up caffeine or chocolate for example and constantly feeling mentally occupied by the temptation to backslide, I should focus that attention and enthusiasm on something that will affect not only my life, but the lives of others as well. This does not mean that I go out and share the Word of God with people left and right; the outcome shouldn’t be to evangelize and bring more people into the fold in the process. Lent is supposed to be a time of repentance and remembrance of the sacrifices that Jesus made in the desert so that I can be who I want to be, free of any restraints that may be holding me back. However, this does not mean that I can be free of my obligation to love on others in any way possible. What I’m getting at here is that there is such an emphasis placed on making a symbolic sacrifice similar to that Jesus made 2000 years ago in the desert; but why can’t we as humans/Christians/churchgoers not only make a sacrifice, but also take on something as well. What do I mean by this? Lets bring it back to the example I used. Last Lent, I gave up candy for not the first Lent, and as usual, I struggled through, failing a few times (a huge understatement), and always feeling guilty that not only cheated myself, but also that after everything he gave me, that I cheated Jesus as well. But no matter how hard I tried, it always seemed as though I was giving up for cheating Jesus by not being able to keep up my end of the bargain. There is nothing worse than feeling as though you have failed in general. But what is worse, I can’t even begin to imagine what it truly feels like to have failed Jesus, but that is what it feels like to fall down during  Lent. So a thought came to me – why not do something positive for others during Lent, rather than just giving something up? Not only is this more empowering personally, but it is also has the potential to have a positive effect on others as well! Hopefully in the process, I will learn something as well!

But what types of things can I do, you might ask? Obviously, I’m a college student, so I don’t have an endless about of money or time, but that doesn’t exclude me from still doing something kind and empowering toward others! For example, last year, I tried to do random, and hopefully anonymous acts of kindness across campus; so I would hold the doors open on campus for people whenever I could, or if I found a dollar, I would go to the vending machine and buy something and leave it there. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve money or a massive amount of time. The aim of the project is to affect change in your community and upon those you might not necessarily interact with. You might next ask, “Wait a second, what does that have to do with Jesus, anyway? You’re not preaching the gospel to others, so where does Jesus come in?” That’s a good question, my friend! As per usual, I refer back to pretty much every single one of my previous blog posts in which I discuss how to be a good Christian or churchgoer – through our actions first, and then if necessary, through our words (aka the Word). In the end, the random acts of kindness done in the name of God – meaning that each time I do something for others, I try to think of God and thank Him for allowing me to do them – will go far further at Smith (especially with its outlook on Religion and being a faithful person) than me standing in the Campus Center preaching the Word for all people to hear (or rather, NOT hear…). I want to change the world for God, and I think that God put me on this earth to serve Him in a church through ministry; but I can impact the world now as a 22-year-old Smith College senior by doing things for others when and where I can.

Ultimately, Lent should be about making changes, both to ourselves and to others, in order to make more room for quality time with God. Why not start with changing myself through trying to help and change others? I’m not suggesting that you should try to convert your roommate or hall-mate; that might not go over that well, and you will probably have to apply for a room change. Rather, you could try to write your roommate a happy Monday note, or ask them how their day was – something small, but yet significant when pursued over a period of time. They may or may not know that you are doing anything in the first place, but they will feel as though perhaps someone loves them, or that their day is on their side. Little acts certainly go a long way, especially when they come out of nowhere and are unexpected.

Make it your goal for tomorrow – to do a little random act of kindness for someone that you don’t know. Not only will their day be made a little brighter, but I can almost guarantee that yours will be as well! Give it a try!

The Lent Series: Why Do People Give Stuff Up For Lent? What’s The Point, Anyway?

What is the point of giving things up for Lent? I mean, really…Its 40 days (well, 46 including Sundays) of misery while going coming down from a temporary sugar high or suffering from chronic (but yet obligatory) college caffeine withdrawal. Realistically, it is going to be 40+/- days of craving and desiring the things we have given up, and when we slip up, feeling guilty and repenting countless times for our short comings. But is this actually what Lent is supposed to be like? Are we supposed to suffer through our desires and temptations constantly, or is removing something from our existence for nearly 7 weeks supposed to serve another purpose entirely?

This past week marked the beginning of the 2011 Lent Season for myself and the hundred or so other churchgoers at Smith, plus the billions of Christians worldwide. Smith College surprised me certainly by holding an ecumenical service to mark the start of the holiday season. I was asked to read the Gospel reading, and minus my monumentally massive screw up (and the pathetic apology I offered to the entire congregation after…), I felt as though the beginning of a long 40 days had started with a BANG! Or perhaps, they just started properly, with the sense of purpose. I left the stereotypically New England chapel – properly named Helen Hills Hills after an Alumna who prior to marriage was Helen Hills, but promptly married a Mr. Hills and thereby became known as Mrs. Helen Hills Hills. But I digress. Helen Hills Hills is both a typical New England chapel on the outside, and also the inside as well, with the whitewashed wooden pews and unsurprisingly traditional pipe organ, pulpit and lectern. A sermon was given from the pulpit about embracing the meaning behind Lent, understanding that throughout the next 40 days, we remember the sacrifice and suffering Jesus underwent on our behalf. When the sermonizing was over, people were invited up to the table to receive their ashes from the college dean of Religious Life and the visiting speaker, who was the president of the School for Social Work.

To answer the question I asked myself in my last blog post (will I receive ashes?), no, I didn’t stand up and get in line to have my forehead marked with the sign of the cross in ashes. Why, you may ask? Why not just do it because everyone else was? But that is precisely the answer; I was the only person in the entire chapel who didn’t leave with an ashy forehead, but in my opinion, I just wasn’t ready to partake in that rite. For me, religious belief, or rather religiosity is entirely personal, a grouping of personal selections that when brought together make up my faith/belief system. Ahhh, but what does this have to do with the ashes, you might then ask? Ashes were never done in my church, and thus they were never a part of my religious upbringing. When my faith developed further as a high schooler, I celebrated the coming of Lent with an awesome pancake supper, and then just moved along, slogging toward Easter Sunday. So by not taking ashes this past week, I wasn’t purposefully trying to insult all those who themselves selected to.

As I was leaving, a discussion began among the friends I was sitting with about what we were all giving up for lent. One said that she had already begun her efforts to give up Pepsi for the 40 days, while another was giving up sweets. Then, the pointed question turned toward me: “So, what are youuu giving up for Lent, Liz?” That’s a perfectly honest and relevant question, but at the same time, it inspires so much frustration and just plain anger in me. Why is there so much emphasis placed on giving something up for Lent in the first place? Is it a sign of personal devotion or a way for us as college students to brag to our friends that we can’t go to Herrells because we gave up ice cream in the name of Jesus? Ultimately, are we giving things up for Lent because we want to show our devotion to God or just because we like the attention it gets us? Or rather, is it just something that is socially expected of us in 21st century American Christianity?

As I mentioned before, Lent is a way to engage more fully with God, eliminating things that are out of conformity with Him and strengthening the bond between ourselves and God/Jesus. Perhaps this is why Lent and Easter take place in the Spring? Because Lent is a time of spiritual growth and rebirth, much like during the spring, the grass becomes green again, and the flowers and trees grow. During this time, we are expected to examine our faith and how we practice our beliefs, making additions and subtractions based on what we feel either adds to or distracts from a devotion to God.

But if it is a season of growing and developing, why then are we so focused on giving things up for Lent? I am going to answer this question with a story. This summer, as you all know by now, I lived in Oakland and worked both there and in San Francisco. My denomination just acquired a church in San Francisco called the City Church – San Francisco. (Commence the screams and giddiness over the potential to head back out there permanently…OMG!!!) Fortunately for me, their sermons are uploaded into iTunes, so even though I am nearly 3500 miles away and can’t physically attend their services, I can still listen and learn from their weekly messages. I was listening to a sermon of theirs from the Lent season back in 2006, where the minister – I think it was Mike – talked about the meaning of Lent. When I heard this particular sermon, it was as if a lightbulb turned on in my head…WOAH! This is what I needed to hear like 4 years ago! He used Isaiah 58 to discuss exactly what Lent should be all about:

[Background info: God is yelling at the Israelites for their interpretation of what true fasting is; He is pissed because the Israelites have been pretending to fast, but haven’t fully committed to following the rules of a true fast.]

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I….if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” Isaiah 58:6-11

The point of using this scripture is that God is telling the Israelites that if they follow Him with their whole hearts, He will always be the spring that never fails, no matter how grand the problem. With this in mind, Isaiah 58 describes the relationship with God that we are supposed to have, but it is difficult to consistently engage with because of all the distractions in life (Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, movies, TV shows, etc…). But Lent is the unique, annual opportunity to bond with Jesus without the distractions of all those wonderful, but harmful modes.

As I said in a previous post, Lent is the remembrance of Jesus’ 40 day fast in the desert while being tempted by the devil. Jesus cut out food altogether during those 40 days; obviously, we as human beings can’t live up to the standards that Jesus set in the Bible. However, we can cut out certain things to make room in our lives to think about where we are going in our journey with God. Are we really engaging with God on a daily basis, or are we only praying to God when we need something? Or only on Sundays? Holidays? By giving up something that means a lot to us in our every day lives, we are able to hone in on our relationship with God, rather than our consumption of a certain product. For example, I have decided to give up candy, because I eat a lot of it and it is something that I enjoy very much. Jesus most certainly enjoyed food, and by giving it up for 40 days, he was able to focus on things that were far more important – like his faith and devotion to his father, God in Heaven. Because Jesus could give something so important up for such a long period of time, I most certainly can give up something that is a part of my life too – Candy.

So what about giving things up? Should we do that because we have to or because we want to? Most people give up things because it is what they have always done, from their childhood; ordinarily, there is nothing wrong with that. However, the whole point of giving something up for Lent is to do it of your free will. It is an act to de-clutter our lives to make more room for God, rather than to give something up because it is what we should do or rather, what we have always done. That is all well and good. But what you select to give up shouldn’t be easy – it should be something that is a part of your everyday life and will be challenging to live without. This is to remember that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t easy – it was perhaps the most challenging thing anyone could do; but he still sacrificed himself for us, and what we choose to sacrifice should have a similar effect in our lives. Each day that we are tempted by the thing that we have removed, we should remember how Jesus was tempted, and that regardless of how hard he was tempted, Jesus stayed strong for us, for our sake alone. But our sacrifice shouldn’t by any means be approached from a legalistic perspective. We shouldn’t ultimately feel forced to give things up because it is what we should do during this time of year. Rather, it should be something that we want to do to grow closer to God.

Mike concluded his sermon on the purpose of Lent with the following scenario:

“If we cannot control our appetites, then we will never be able to make a change in our lives – to cut back or make room for new relationships and beliefs.” Ultimately, Lent isn’t supposed to be 40 days of suffering because we have cut out something that we are dependent upon. Rather, it should allow us to ask the following questions:

“Am I glorifying God through my work and actions? Am I showing God’s love and grace through my interactions with my friends, family and loved ones?”

Why don’t we make Lent the time when we contemplate the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf? Lets make the next 40 days count by focusing on solely on God and a more serious examination of how we interact with our environment and people.

The Lent Series: Ash Wednesday: Is It Just About The Ashes?

Lent is beginning soon, and for years, heck for my entire life, I have blindly practiced the different rituals and rites leading up until Easter Sunday with no freaking clue what any of them actually mean, let alone why we as modern churchgoers even do them in the first place. Hey, how appropriate that lent begins THIS Wednesday, so why not start with Ash Wednesday!

My church always rings in the Lenten season with its annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake supper. Staffed by junior high and high school students, people from the congregation can pay like $5-$10 to get all they can eat Pancakes, bacon, and sausage. But in actuality, the message behind Ash Wednesday was not highly emphasized. I only knew that Ash Wednesday existed because my catholic friends growing up would show up on the day after my pancake binge with ashes on their foreheads. In my recollection, I can’t say as to whether or not my church did the ashes ritual, but regardless of the outward rites, this day has incredible Biblical significance drawing back to the Old Testament.

Some might say that the use of ashes in a religious ceremony or rite draws from Jeremiah 6:26, which states:

“O my people, put on a sackcloth and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”

However, this is not the only example of the appearance of ashes in the Bible. Such a rite appears in Daniel 9:3 and 1 Maccabees 3:47 and 4:39. In general, the using of ashes in a religious rite was used to symbolize the expression of mourning the dead. With this in mind, one might be able to assert that Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance for previous mis-steps and faults on top of mourning the 40 days leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ; this is the time when Jesus was sent into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (As shown in Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13)

But hold on! Why do we do this? What is the point of marking our bodies with ashes on a Wednesday in either February or March? It can be said that the placement of ashes on one’s forehead acts as a public admission of sin, but it didn’t begin that way. Historically, the use of ashes was a matter of private devotion, but slowly it came to stand for a more public admission of guilt, and also as a way for fellow Christians to recognize one’s sins and pray for the state of their soul.

Interestingly enough however is the location of the ashes on the body. Think about it. The ashes really could go anywhere, but the minister or priest selects to put the ashes on one’s forehead, often in the shape of the cross. This is the precise spot where the holy water is placed during a traditional baptism. So in one rite, you are cleansed of your sins and brought into communion with God, and in the other, you are also being cleansed, but in an entirely different way – through the public exhibition of one’s sins and guilt. By bearing the sign of the cross drawn in ashes, we are able to admit our guilt and sin to the world, all the while still displaying the sign of our collective faith.

Tomorrow, I have the advantage, privilege even of doing the Gospel reading during tomorrow’s ecumenical Ash Wednesday service. The reading comes from Matthew:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full…Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What I don’t understand about the chosen reading is its significance/pertinence to Ash Wednesday. Matthew warns us against doing things just for their outward value and for the praise of those on earth. Instead, we are supposed to “give in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” If this were to be true, then why wear ashes on our foreheads in the first place? Isn’t the ash an outward sign of devotion or faith? I wonder that myself, but if we follow the line of thinking I brought up earlier, then no, it is something entirely different. The ashes are not meant to symbolize a devotion to God and Jesus; rather, they are the admission of guilt, suffering, a way for us to repent our sins and shortcomings to the world. We aren’t cocky for wearing ashes – rather, it is supposed to be a humbling experience, a way for us as churchgoers (or Christians) to confess to the world that we aren’t holier than thou as everyone thinks we are. We are subject to temptation and sin as much as the next person, perhaps even more so; we hold ourselves to a higher standard, which means that when we fall, we fall further and harder. We want to be better and less subject to the same faults that everyone else succumbs to, but in the end, we are no better. The ashes symbolize all that – that we are still human, still subject to hurt and sin and defeat, but in the end, we ask for forgiveness for all that in the hopes that God will love us again, the way He loved us before we were screwed up.

So. Will I be wearing ashes tomorrow as a sign of my sins? Maybe, but probably not. I know that I have sinned and screwed up. I don’t need ashes to prove that, and what is more, I don’t need the world to know that. What I do is between me and God, and only God can cleanse me of my screw ups and make me whole again. But with this in mind, I completely understand why the ashes exist. It is one thing to confess in your head, but it is yet another thing entirely to confess in public, with your shame out there for all the world to see and judge.

But at the same time, I give those who are going to wear ashes tomorrow a heck of a lot of credit, as they are embarking upon a journey full-heartedly; they are showing their full commitment to their faith and declaring it out in public for all to see. I am not sure that I am that courageous yet, or that wearing ashes is the right thing for me, but I can’t wait to see Smith’s campus teeming with ash-wearers, visually shouting out their sins, guilt and desire for repentance for the rest of campus to see.

 

Kudos to you, Ash-wearing Smithies! You go girl!