Category Archives: Faith & Culture

Where faith and belief intersect with questions and doubts

Why the Church Needs to Throw More Parties

I have been curled up in a coffee shop for most of the morning. I have a list of things to do: thank you letters to write, papers to grade and emails to respond to. Each task warrants my attention, but the truth is I am distracted. My heart and mind feel mixed up and overwhelmed, like a dryer that keeps spinning around the same wet mess of clothes all jumbled up and intertwined. I have all of these ideas cycling through my head, but I can’t make sense of them yet.

Conferences have a way of doing this to me. They suck you in with thousands of great ideas and inspirational thoughts and then spit you out to sort through them all. blah.

Sorting Through

So now I am doing the sorting through, processing and thinking about. I spent two full days last week at Catalyst, a conference geared for church leaders, pastors and directors of non-profits— none of which entirely define me, but all which deeply affect me.

Perhaps the best part of the conference was that these people- these pastors, authors, media analysts, creative visionaries, artists and non-profit directors believe that there is hope for this next generation. They believe that the church has to change. And that excites me.

Hope for Change

I have been in the church for most of my life, but I have probably struggled more in the past year to fit in at a church. I sometimes wonder where is there room for a left-leaning, creative, passionate follower of Christ who wants to engage in dialogue not doctrine, and whole-heartily believes that we should spend more time loving people for who they are than lecturing them about right from wrong.

I confess: I know that I am young and I have a lot to learn, but I am seeking to understand and live like this man named Jesus. I am trying to make sense of this radical, subversive man who honored and acknowledged women in a culture where they lived as second-class citizens, who sough out and actually chose to spend time with the tax collectors, the sick and the marginalized. Jesus’ harshest judgments and warnings were for us; for me, the Pharisees, the church goers. What does that mean for me? For you? For the church?

Called to Love

I believe somewhere we have inadvertently taken authority to be the judge of people and society. I can’t remember where I read or heard this (so forgive me for not giving credit where credit is due) but it went something like this: God’s job is to judge, the Holy Spirit convicts and we are called to love. That’s it.

Andy Stanley, one of the speakers at the conference, challenged a room full of 3,000 leaders of this next generation, What if we lived this out? What if we embraced and preached and acted upon Jesus’ command to “Love one another.” In John 13 he says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples.” I have heard this passage numerous times, but I have never let it resonate and ring so clearly. Imagine if people knew Christians because of our love? I mean really imagine it–Imagine what our world would be like if people thought…hmm, I want to be a part of that church because they are so loving. Or imagine if people thought…wow, that person doesn’t agree with me, but they really love and care about me. This is radical. And it was radical back then in Jesus’ day and it still is 2,000 years later.

Reggie Joiner, the founder and CEO is of reThink Group, a organization that helps churches connect with this next generation, reminded us that the church is called to be like the father in the prodigal son story. Our job is welcome people, embrace them and shower them with love and forgiveness. This is where people meet Christ and this is how people change. People don’t change by shame and guilt, they change through relationships and love. He left us with this question: Where will people go when they have wandered away from the church? He added, “It’s not if, but when. Because the truth is we all know people who will or already have wandered away from church. It’s part of this generation’s process. But he challenged us “You want to be sure that they can wander back to your church to be welcomed and embraced.”

Just like the father in Luke 15 who when he saw his son far off he was “filled with compassion [so] he ran to him [and] threw his arms around him.

And then…

the story says that the Father threw his son a party. Yep, a party.

My hope is that church can throw a lot more parties in the years to come.


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Drops Like Stars

On Thursday night I and about half of southern California went to LA to hear Rob Bell speak. I was like a little kid waiting in line to meet Santa Clause. Now I know Rob Bell is not in fact Santa Claus, but that same childish excitement and giddy feeling was present as we waited to enter the Wiltern Theater. I’ve read RB’s books and listened to his podcast for years because they offered a different voice, a new perspective and sometimes a radical understanding of the gospel. In some of my darkest and most painful seasons his writing and words offered Hope, when everything else seemed silent.

And in case you were wondering, he is just as good live. Articulate. Creative and Down Right Funny. He somehow connects Will Farrell and Jesus in the same sentence- pure brilliance. He’s the kinda guy you’d want to have over to your house to hang out with your friends. And yet he seamlessly connects faith and pop culture and art and politics and the bible into a canvas that leaves room for mystery and honesty.

Obviously, I don’t really like him.

The best part about Thursday was that Rob Bell acknowledged right off the bat that bad stuff happens- pain, heartache, loss, suffering, and grief- and yet, we don’t know why. Our lives do not unravel the way we expected. Some things never, ever make sense! But instead of trying to give simplistic answers that many Christians to do, he invited us to see pain, heartache and loss as a complete disruption to our lives-which it is. But “The Art of Disruption” as he says, also plants seeds of creativity. When we suffer we are challenged to re(create), (re)imagine and re(define) parts of our life that will never, ever be the same.

I think about some of the times I have cried out in anger or heartache and how I often feel like the sadness and loneliness are the roots of my pain, but RB said often the root of our pain is actually mourning the loss of the expectation.

Aren’t these some of the thoughts that often go through our heads?
This is not how I thought life would be. I expected him to be here forever. I never thought we would lose our house. I expected to be married by now. I never imagined my mom getting cancer. I never thought we wouldn’t be able to have kids.
I never planned on this. And the list could do on.

RB said something that stuck with me– Pain has a way of making us honest.

He didn’t justify the pain, gloss over it or simplify it. No, he just said, it has a way of making us honest. And I think he is right. Pain forces us to look deep inside and cry out with questions. Pain forces us to admit I can’t do this alone. And the God that I believe in meets us right there in our pain. He meets us in the empty places. Some of the most beautiful, honest and genuine people that I know have experienced deep pain and loss, but somehow they’ve taken the art of disruption and let it shape and change who they are.

RB obviously describes it better, but this is the best I could do at quick synopsis. If you’re inclined to fly to the UK or Australia you still have a chance to see him! Click here for tour dates. For the rest of you, you can settle for buying the book.

Next post, bar soap and “The Art of Elimination.”

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Christmas Sans Internet

For the past 10 days we have not had internet at the house. Something happened with our cable or modem and thus interrupted the usual, continuous flow of wireless signals that keeps me and my computer connected to the outside world. After a few initial days of withdrawals and lamenting frustrations that I could not return emails from home or read my favorite blogs or peruse for book deals, I actually started to like life without internet.

I started to like evenings without my computer. I started to like the freedom that comes from being able to say I’ll do it tomorrow, instead of feeling pressure to get everything done today. I started to like that my main form of communication with friends was not through some virtual wall, but through real life, face-to-face conversations. And I started to notice that during this Christmas season, one that often feels too busy and over scheduled, I have actually had more time to soak it up and enjoy it. Instead of dreading the stress and sometimes loneliness of Christmas, I have felt really, really thankful.

There have been nights with friends over for dinner and too many rounds of speed scrabble. Christmas music and red wine with my roommates. I remembered how much I like writing old fashioned letters and making little crafty projects. I got to enjoy fires in our fireplace. Serving dinner at the Rescue Mission. Christmas parties with friends. Lots of tea drinking and movie watching. I learned how to make tamales and was introduced to pozolé for the first time. And I even managed to crawl into bed a little bit earlier most nights.

Now, internet and computers and any type of life-enhancing-technological device for that matter are obviously not bad, but we’d be naive to dismiss the fact that they do change something. And despite all the hype about making our life easier and more efficient, I actually believe they do quite the opposite. The megabytes of information that are flashed before us and the instant gratification of texting a message in a 140 characters or less affect how we live and think and interact with each other. I am not some fanatic who is going to do away with my cell phone and computer and the convenience of modern technology. No, of course not…like you I enjoy it and use it daily. But I am coming to believe that many of the ways we interact relationally and even how we structure our daily lives is directly related to the technology that we consume.

I am sure scientists somewhere have done fascinating studies about how these things actually and measurably affect out physical, emotional and spiritual health. But I haven’t done a lot of research on the subject yet. All I know is that growing up my dad always used to tell me, “When you say yes to something, you are by default saying no to something else.” And sometimes I wonder what do I or we, say no to because we’ve said yes to this high-speed digital age of convenience?

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My five favorite words

I like gifts. I like getting them and probably equally, I like giving them. In fact I think five of my favorite words to hear are, “I got something for you.” My heart kind of skips a beat and I am almost instantly filled it this giddy, childish excitement. Now, I realize by admitting this I sound like a greedy, gift-obsessed excuse for a human being, but hear me out. It’s not about the gift as much as the thought behind it. Ask my roommates or closest friends–even the simplest of items, albeit a recycled plastic cup, a new pad of post-it notes or a bar of dark chocolate, all constitute a gift in my mind. We are talking small things, with maybe little or no monetary value. Just small, thoughtful gifts, heck even free things and garage-sale things. All are gifts in my mind.

Part of this probably has to do with how I grew up. My mom and dad were superb at bringing home little treasures and “gifts” from weddings they attended or conferences they were at. They’d walk in and say “Michelle, we got something for you.” And that was all it took. With eager eyes and anticipation, I would tear open the little bag to find a collection of hotel containers, filled with shampoo, conditioner and lotion…and even an occasional shower cap! Other times my parents would creatively sneak a few extra wedding favors left over on the tables in order to bring them home for us kids. I cannot tell you how excited I got for those little mesh bags filled with mints tied in purple ribbon. (Parents: don’t under estimate how exciting these little goodies can be for kids).

All this being said, we enter the Christmas season where we’re supposed to buy, buy, buy and then give, give, give. It’s all about gifts, so naturally you would think someone like me would love it, right?

But I don’t.

I mean I do like Christmas, but I don’t like all of the pressure and urgency to buy everyone and their mother gifts. Sometimes I feel like we miss the point of giving gifts when there is the underlining sense of obligation. And in recent years I’ve started to question why and when did Christmas become defined by the marketing and materialistic kings of corporations. Now, before I start to sound like the Scrooge who stole Christmas, know that there is obviously nothing wrong with gifts. I know for most kids, gifts are synonymous with Christmas. But because I don’t have kids yet, maybe I have a little more room to think through what Christmas and gift giving means to me.

A few years ago some pastors from various churches started re-thinking how we celebrate Christmas. They found out that America spends an average of $450 billion a year every Christmas. Wow. They asked what if we chose to do Christmas differently? And out of this, a movement called Advent Conspiracy was born to encourage faith communities, to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All during this season. My church showed this film last night at our Saturday service (click here to watch it) and I felt simultaneously convicted and inspired. For as cliché as it sounds, the part that stuck out to me the most was the idea of giving the gift of presence, instead of presents. And then using the money we would have spent on that tangible present and in turn, giving it away.

In our fast paced, drive-through-Starbucks-kinda-culture, I am learning that the gift of presence is rare, but so desirable. I think more than anything else this Christmas season I want to be with people. I want to share a meal with friends and linger longer around the table. I want to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea and laugh with my sisters. I want to give away money I would have spent on excess gifts and instead spend a leisurely evening walking downtown, sipping hot cocoa and looking at lights.

I want this Christmas to be different.

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Shades of White

I’ve been back from Guatemala for 2 weeks and I always feel a bit disoriented upon returning home- which I realize sounds a bit ironic, but it’s true. Santa Barbara welcomes me with open arms and ocean breezes, but sill some part of the coming home process, even with all its comforts and conveniences, feels hard. But maybe that is not such a bad thing. Maybe there is something to learn in those seasons or days when it feels like nothing really fits or seems to makes sense.

In an effort to accustom myself back to life here and not spend too much time sipping coffee and dreaming and journaling about life in Guatemala I decided I need a fun and easy home project to complete before school started (side note: I am learning that fun and easy do not belong in the same sentence as “home project”)

My vision was to re-plant all of our potted plants, trim the hedges and basically make our side patio and front yard a bit livelier. Now, I am no gardener- I dream of being one of those people who grows my own tomatoes and bell peppers and carrots, but in the mean time my specialties include, well…herbs and succulents. Both which are quite resilient and forgiving of neglectful owners who forget to water them on a regular basis.

Within two afternoons and one trip to Ace Hardware our patio had a new herb garden, some blooming flowers and a few succulents to add to the ambiance. The project was complete and much to my surprise it wasn’t all that difficult.

Then came the painting project. My roommate and I decided that our old futon with chipping black paint would look better if the frame was re-painted with fresh coat of white. So I went back to Ace Hardware (again)…this time with the intention of staying clear of the garden section and instead focused on buying a can of paint.

I should clarify that I actually really like hardware stores. But the problem is I walk in and immediately get distracted. I see things I think I should have in our house- things adults have in their homes, like WD-40 and carpet stain remover and really cool flashlights-those kinds of things that somehow signify adulthood in my mind. I walked by the wood and shelving unit and saw the door handles and power-drills and I got all kinds of ideas about how to change and re-do and add stuff to our little house. Mind you all of these ideas are just that, ideas, because in reality I don’t think I am that well skilled at do-it-yourself home projects.

I finally made it to the Paint Department where I expected to pick up a can of white paint, some brushes and be on my merry way. Imagine how shocked and overwhelmed I was when I found out that in fact there are 32 shades of white! I stood there dumbfounded as I flipped through the samples of white. There was <span style=”font-style:italic;”>bone white, dusty white and quiet white. Not to be confused with new canvas, pita bread or heavenly sand. My favorite: gentle bluff! Really, I mean what color is a gentle bluff? For the sake of making a decision, I finally settled on distant white.

And then the helpful man with the long, gray ponytail behind the counter asked me:

“What sheen do you want?

Huh? I just stood there and stared at him. What the heck is sheen? Obvious to him now, I had never purchased paint before. He patiently explained the differences between high-gloss, semi-gloss, satin, egg-shell, etc. I reluctantly settled on satin (not really having a preference). I purchased my sandpaper and brushes and 40 minutes later made my way back home.

Now, this project is not yet done. I am learning that sanding and painting and re-painting take a long time- not exactly fun or easy. But I have been thinking a lot about all those shades of white paint. It’s interesting to me that I just assumed white paint is white paint. I don’t really ever notice different shades or pay attention for that matter. And I wonder how often how I approach my day or my life in the same way? I wonder how often I make assumptions, and look at people and buildings and bus stops and cars and only see what’s right in front of me, instead of seeing what’s underneath the surface or the story behind someone or something.

It’s funny, I was in Guatemala for less than 2 weeks, but something about being away helps me see more clearly and live more holistically. It helps me see the shades of life that may go unnoticed sometimes. Those subtle differences and nuances that you can only appreciate when you stop and slow down and really, really look.

I sometimes wonder what it is like to see things and people through God’s eyes. In all his creativity he must see every detail on a tiny ladybug and appreciate the wrinkles on a weathered face from years of working in the sun. And I bet that He sees more than 32 shades of white, too.

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The 4th of July

I have always loved the 4th of July. It feels like the epitome of summer with the smell of BBQ and long hours spent in the sun, lounge chairs and watermelon, hooded sweatshirts and fireworks. Aww, I think in fact it may be my favorite holiday, maybe because it’s not quite as commercialized as other holidays. Ok, well…at least its not as commercialized for quite as long as other holidays. It’s one of the only holidays that doesn’t seem to center on fancy dinners at long tables, where relatives gather and comment how especially good the dead, upside down bird tastes this year.

Even when I was a little kid I remember sitting excitedly on the curb at our neighborhood block parties watching my dad light fireworks and being mesmerized by the explosion of light and color and pure mystery. (yes, this was before having your own fire works show was deemed illegal) There was just something special, almost magical about the 4th of July. And even though some of that childlike wonder and glee wears off with age, I still think there is something about the 4th that just makes me happy.

And this year was no different. I had a wonderful 4th of July. Beach time with friends. BBQs. Good food. Fireworks. But this year I was also struck by the tension of celebrating and appreciating our country, while also acknowledging some of the failures and embarrassments of the very nation I love. We seem to be plagued with, what Barbara Kingsolver describes as prideful wastefulness. She begs the question, “What other name can there be for our noisy, celebratory appetite for unnecessary things and our vast carelessness regarding their manufacture and disposal?” And it’s not just that we live in a consumer culture (that I too, buy into) it’s that sometimes we don’t seem to connect the dots: the food that I eat, and the store who hires the workers, and the rain runoff that drains into the ocean and the oil used to fuel my car and the refugees in Afghanistan…they are all connected. As a nation we cannot continue to use resources at the rate we do and simply pretend that we’re entitled to an unlimited amount. At some point I think we need to learn to live within our means.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not live by some ideal super-conscious lifestyle checklist that monitors where I buy my food and how the workers are treated and if they land is preserved and replenished. I wish I lived a more sustainable lifestyle, rooted in simplicity and contentment, rather than selfishness and entitlement. The truth is I am attached to convenience like the rest of us. I drive my car when my bike or two legs would work just as well. I’ll buy a new shirt because it’s a “good deal” regardless of where it was made. Sometimes I waste food and let the run water too long. And all too often I choose to ignore the injustices and inequalities that are apparent both in my local community and in the world at large. I recently read that the United Nations estimates that $13 billion in foreign aide would provide health and nutrition to EVERYONE in the world. And you know what? Americans and Europeans collectively spend $17 billion a year on pet food.

Sometimes I am humbled and slightly frightened that my generation has more access to information than ever before, and not just information, but with one click of a mouse or a nifty iphone app we can Google search any word or phrase or language. We can see pictures and videos and live satellite images from parts of the world that only National Geographic photographers used to be able to go. We have access to news broadcasts and articles and blogs from just about every nation. And yet I wonder, do we live any differently? Is having access to this much information helpful or does it only leave us numb to the real human stories and people behind the facts that we can so easily search? Does it change the way I live or at least challenge the way I make decisions?

The day after 4th of July I walked along the beach by the Santa Barbara harbor. Every Sunday a group of volunteers place crosses in the sand for each solider who has been tragically killed in Iraq. This makeshift memorial is known as Arlington West and it’s easy to simply walk or drive by and not even notice it, but this Sunday I stopped. My life is comfortable and convenient and I do not often think of the 4,323 America men and women who have lost their lives. Nor do I pause to remember the countless numbers of Iraqi men, women and children who have also died and the thousands more who are still alive, yet mourning the loss of a loved one. Loss is loss. I remember walking through the streets of Sarajevo during college and hearing an aide worker who lived through the Balkan Conflict quote “War is the lesser of two evils. No one wins in war.” A few months ago I saw a documentary called the Road to Fallujah as part of the Santa Barbara Film Festival. It was equally challenging and eye-opening to get a first hand glimpse of the horrors of war in Iraq. It is all too easy to sit behind the comfort of my home computer and ignore the reality of what is happening in our world.

I don’t completely understand the ins and outs of foreign affairs and I am the first to admit that the situation in Iraq and now Afghanistan and Iran is terribly complicated, but I don’t want to celebrate a nation that seems to be more concerned about it’s corporate profit and mini oil fields than limiting fossil fuel emissions and creating fair and equitable treatment for workers. I want to celebrate a nation that is generous with our resources and our aide; a country that comes to see the connectedness between people and the land with which we live on.

In her book, Small Wonders, Kingsolver states, “Real generosity involves not only making a gift, but also giving up something.” If living generously is a goal I have for my country, I realize it probably starts with me and with you. It starts small. It starts with every day, average people choosing to live differently, choosing to live differently and in the process giving up something.

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