Glimpses of the holy

When I was in college, I had the chance to speak during chapel, a not-well-attended service in the late Tuesday morning. I sat on a stool, with a red notebook where I had jotted down my talk and an orchestral score for a demonstration. Let’s find beauty in the little things, I said. Let’s find it in the words of a poem, in a pun, a tree, in the soles of your feet hitting the ground as you run, or in the sound of the woodwinds during the opening of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. Whatever it is you enjoy, find the beauty present in those details which seem mundane. It’s there. Try it. See it.

I would add now, however, that such awareness does not need to be restricted to details in things we enjoy, but it should be extended to the interactions we have with others. Our days may be full of uncomfortable and even painful interactions, whether with strangers, colleagues, or family. At the same time, they include small moments of generosity, gratitude, or just mere pleasantness as we share a meal, talk about our day or about an idea or thing that either person just can’t get out of their head.

A poem someone shared on Facebook not long ago popped up on my feed, and I think it beautifully describes these brief interactions and small gestures where meaning is waiting to be found and enjoyed.

I often struggle with who or what God is, but I cling to the description of God in First John 4:8. Simply, that God is love. I think I do this because I experience and see that need for love in me and those around me. And, while it seems to be out of reach, I think we get glimpses of it, and so we keep reaching out. Such glimpses (themselves experiences of love) are not to be found in grand gestures, those that seem to expect reciprocity, but in the small acts of giving of oneself which find their fulfillment in the acceptance and enjoyment of those who receive them.

What if [these small kindnesses] are the true dwelling of the holy? What if we experience God in these seemingly mundane interactions? What if we can find beauty, the holy, in the ordinary?

In the weeks prior to my chapel talk, a professor shared an article on the “disease of busyness.” How are you?, someone may ask, to which we reply with some variant of “I’m just so busy.” Just as I did then, I relate to this—feeling sort of called out—as I see the piles of journal articles I must read, research papers I should start writing, qualifying exams I need to prepare for all looming over. I do think it is important to come back to a place of wonder, where the little things which pass us every day are noticed. Who knows how much of an antidote to our busy schedules this is, but the small things will be there whether we pay them any attention or not.

May we, amidst our hurried calendars and relentless worrying, pause long enough to experience these glimpses of the holy, the divine, afforded to us in the everyday kindnesses we exchange.

What I Read in 2018

This is the second year I meet my reading goals. No, I have not yet read To Kill A Mockingbird or A Thousand Splendid Suns—which my sister keeps telling me about. I should rather say, I read as many books as I set out to read at the beginning of the year.

In 2017, I set my goal at 20, thinking it was a good step up from the 15 I didn’t actually read in 2016 (only read 13). I ended up reading 21 books. Having not grown up as someone who read for fun, or at all, I was quite proud of my accomplishment. So, for 2018, I would try to read 22 books. This, while reading plenty of scholarly articles for my grad program. Once you accomplish something, though, you have to take advantage of the momentum. Lo and behold, last Friday I finished my 22nd book of 2018.

I’d like to think my reading list includes a variety of genres and topics: from something like Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck to Alejandro Moreno’s The Mexican Voter. There are some novels (Orwell’s 1984), some pop science (Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow), some academic books, and some mainstream as well as some unorthodox Christian literature.

It is difficult to decide what my three favorite books I read this year are, but I do want to mention some you may find appealing and, later, enlightening (or entertaining).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah has been on my radar for a long time. Ever since I watched Adichie’s TED talk “The danger of a single story” in my freshman year of college, I have been wanting to read her work. Why I hadn’t is beyond me, but oh was I glad I finally did. I didn’t have to finish reading Americanah to know it would become one of my favorite novels, up there with García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Perhaps it was how relatable I found the immigrant experience of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who moves to the United States and when she returns home her Americanness is quite clear to her and those around her. In addition, Adichie’s keen eye and brilliant descriptions of America’s race relations and the way immigrants fit into it (or are forced to fit into it) make this book a must-read.

Mark Manson, quite skillfully, gave a misleading title to his book. Rather than it being The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, the book argues that we should be conscious about the fucks we give. Each of us possessing a limited amount of fucks, it is important that we give them out carefully. This is no literary groundbreaker, nor does it intend to be, but it definitely makes you think about what are your underlying, fundamental principles which guide your life. Whether you are conscious of them, something drives you and there are standards which you use to evaluate yourself, and Manson wants you to be aware of what those are. A book which is just pure fun to read and gives one pause to reflect should make it into your reading list.

After listening to Peter Rollins in the Robcast, it was time I read one of his books. How (Not) to Speak of God reminds us to be humble when talking and conceptualizing God. If God is so beyond our human understanding, we must recognize how our language will always fall short in describing the whole of God’s nature. The book includes a set of unorthodox rituals such as experiencing Good Friday as the disciples did, without knowing about Sunday, without Good Friday being good. I should probably give this one another read to fully grasp Rollins’ arguments.

There are of course other books that I enjoyed and would recommend. Not all are well-written, to be completely honest, but sometimes it is necessary to get past it, get the main concepts, and get out. Other, while featuring good prose, are unnecessarily long. Be warned!

  • Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell

These ones are more of a maybe:

  • The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See by Richard Rohr
  • The God-Shaped Heart by Timmothy Jennings
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt
  • Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Here’s the full list on Goodreads. Perhaps the 2019 list will at last include A Thousand Splendid Suns and 22 others.

Filling Up Halfway

A couple days ago I stopped at a gas station to refill my tank when I saw the yellow light on my dashboard turn on. I pulled up to the pump and waited for the screen to hit $15 before removing the nozzle. The tank usually fills up with about $30, but I’ve been planning on paying off the balance on my credit card so I can pay for gas with it and get those precious cash back rewards. This has actually already happened twice, in a row. So, with better planning I could have filled up the first time and gotten my rewards.

Oh, well. That’s really not that important.

This may be a silly illustration (it definitely is), but it captures quite well how my mood has been. How my spiritual life has stagnated. How my soul consistently runs on half a tank. And it’s been a while. Too long, really.

Last night, as soon as I got home and put my backpack on the floor, I sat down on the couch and turned on the Xbox to play some FIFA. I was tired, but more than that, I felt empty. When my roommate walked in and said, “You look dead,” I couldn’t help but half-smile and assent. That had been my mood for most of the week. Just going through the motions, trying to find something but not knowing exactly what. My tank running on fumes for a couple days, I needed to find something, but really, I didn’t even want to try at that point.

Every week the story repeats to some extent. I get to Friday night intellectually and emotionally exhausted. Part of me looking forward to reading spiritual/religious books, doing some personal writing, playing clarinet, somehow getting closer to God; the other part staying in bed stressing out about how to best recharge during the remaining Sabbath hours and being so paralyzed that usually not much recharging happens.

To be fair, I do fill up some of my tank. Setting aside and forgetting about any and all schoolwork for the Sabbath is tremendously liberating. It’s the time I can best disconnect from the need of doing—although I can easily end up substituting for other kinds of doing. When the sun sets on Saturday and Sabbath is over, I find myself ready for the week only to find out a couple days later my tank was only half full.

See, Sabbath is a huge blessing, but I just can’t seem to figure out how to recharge. Am I even supposed to figure it out? How much effort should I put in before it all becomes about how well I can perform and then it’s no different from how everything else around me works?

I feel lost in my spiritual practice—if I can even say I have such a thing right now. I often leave church feeling emptier, more upset and frustrated. And I’m just not sure what I need.

This helps. Writing about it. Sharing what’s going on, even if it all comes out as mumble jumble. I will keep looking, trying, searching, and staying still. It’s not about religion and it’s not about correct Sabbath-keeping, although rituals (spiritual practices) can certainly help. I want to better understand how to be present and aware of my place in and connection with a deeper reality.

Sabbath ended not long ago. I hope next time I stop at the gas station, I can fill up the tank all the way.

Modeling God

If there is one thing I hold dear from what I’ve learned in my first year in graduate school, it’s the language of models, whether these are theoretical or statistical models. I have not only found them useful to think about social science-y questions (which is, of course, the reason I learned them), but also for how I think about God. A model is not only a good representation of how we think something works, but thinking about models also gives an understanding of how we think about anything. As a “spiritual and religious” person, I naturally apply this framework to my understanding of God and how we can relate to Him.

The main lesson I draw from thinking in terms of models, is that it gives language to what I think is happening all around me. From the person crossing the street in a hurry (maybe they are late for an appointment?) to why we use our phones so much (is it the overstimulation of saturated color?). A model is a summary of a set of causal statements that help us make sense of something.

It’s what helps us navigate the world.

We need it.

But here’s the important thing: they are incomplete representations of the true phenomena they seek to explain.

We reduce an event or object to a set of characteristics we can work with. If we, for example, were to build a model of a skyscraper, would we include a sewage system and to-scale functional elevator systems? Well, it depends on what we are trying to model. You would include a sewage system if you were tasked with figuring out how that would work on that hypothetical (or real) building. You would definitely not waste your time with elevators since they are irrelevant for the task at hand.

Makes sense, right?

So it goes with any model. What are we trying to get at? … got it? That’s what we’ll include in the model. And this is exactly what we do when we think about God. We build models to explain the experiences we have that transcend the material world, or which include an aspect that is just beyond what we can describe. We find language, we find statements, we find analogies, things that can help us grasp our experiences with God.

We all have models of God. These may be models we inherited from our parents or grandparents that get updated with our own experiences. Sometimes we decide the models we were passed down simply don’t work. Other times, they just need an overhaul.

The other key point this suggests is that models tell you as much about the thing you are trying to explain/understand as they tell you about who build this model. They point to what we care about, the experiences that begged the questions addressed, the contexts, and, mainly, the assumptions (often unquestioned) that we won’t compromise on (our first principles or axioms).

So, our understanding of God talks about God, but it also talks about us. It talks about our  context, our wishes and hopes.

Having multiple, evolving models of God does not necessarily mean the thing we are trying to explain is not there or that God changes on a whim. The fact that multiple models exists and change says more about the ways in which we make sense of the world. Our understanding is finite and evolving, and so are our models.

At best, our models of God are true representations of just one aspect of His infinite character and nature.

What this means is not that we should stop talking about God, quite the opposite. We should engage in conversation of what this ‘thing’ we experience is, and we should do so with the most humble of attitudes.

Lastly, we should engage in these conversations with a deep awareness of what it is we talk about when we talk about God.

An Exploration of (My) Faith

As I have shared before with several people and also in this blog, I have struggled with my spiritual life for the past year at least. Lately, though, I have found belief in God itself to be quite a challenge. From beginning to question my beliefs and deconstructing my faith, I have come to a point where the idea of God just does not seem to make sense. But I have not given up, and I have decided to continue this struggle by engaging in conversation with others about questions of faith, spirituality, and belief in God. And, since you know I love podcasts, the product of this will be For Laypeople, By Laypeople.

Let me be clear: I am trying to hold on to God with everything I have. Losing my faith scares me to death. I want to believe in God; but I am struggling to do so. I love the Body of Christ, but I’m tired of sitting in the pews wondering why I’m there if I don’t feel anything, if half the time I’m not sure I believe in any of what the pastor is saying. I find the Christian story so fascinating and beautiful that I can’t get away from it, and I want to believe it and live it with everything I have and am. So bear with me.

I strive to be completely honest about my faith. I think it is important for believers to be open about how difficult belief can be. It is a scary thought, for sure, but there are many of us who have questions but don’t feel like these can be discussed among believers because they may challenge the very foundations of our faith. And so we hide our doubts and avoid our questions in order to fit in. We grow discontent with our spiritual lives and live out a lie, one in which we may ironically find comfort. But I don’t wanna live out a lie, so I will be honest, and I would be honored to get your honesty in return.

While I believe sharing our struggles is beneficial to the body of Christ because there is a lot we can learn from one another, I am hesitant to be this open when I know how some in the community might perceive my struggle. All I can say is there are people who sincerely and constantly yearn after God and can’t seem to find anything or anyone. The process is exhausting and support, rather than reproach, from fellow believers is crucial.

Lastly, I know nobody needs yet another podcast on faith. There are some great (e.g., The Liturgists) and not-so-great podcasts out there, but I think I do need this podcast myself. I need a space where I can talk openly about where my struggles come from, a space where I can engage with different perspectives and learn from them. And while this is a very selfish project, I hope you can find something useful in whatever conversations take place in For Laypeople, By Laypeople.

So, with that, here’s the first episode:

Like an old Sabbath

A few weeks back, I was invited to do special music for the church I’ve been attending since I arrived in Houston. Given that I really had not other performance opportunities in sight, I accepted.

I haven’t played much, and I have honestly felt the void. On Monday, I had an excellent practice session. It was productive and fun—one of those you don’t get all the time. Then on Wednesday, while preparing the piece for Sabbath, I hated my guts because my altissimo register just plain sucked (that’s what practicing is more like on a daily basis).

So even though I generally don’t play music outside of the classical genre, I looked forward to performing once more, to feeling those nerves and the adrenaline, to enjoy being shaken by the beauty of music.

My faith has been faltering; my spirit has struggled with finding purpose, my self-esteem with the ever-challenging demands and expectations of a PhD program. But today, playing for the worship service at the West Houston Seventh-day Adventist Church, I felt fulfilled. Making music, participating in worship, if only for a moment, I was home.

The Sabbath closes and I thank God for a much-needed reminder of who He is even as I am overwhelmed with, not doubt, but questions. And I am grateful for another chance to make and share music. I needed it.