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 religionand 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.

#024 – Trudy Holmes-Caines

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I sat down with Dr. Trudy Holmes-Caines before leaving Lincoln, Neb., and had a wonderful conversation for this podcast. She is a professor of psychology at Union College who came to the United States to pursue graduate studies. We discussed her life in Jamaica and how language plays a role in one’s identity, as well as how the immigrant cultures differ from the culture in their respective countries of origin.

#023 – Michael Paradise

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Before leaving Lincoln, Neb., for good, I sat down with Michael Paradise in his office at the College View Seventh-day Adventist Church where he serves as the young adult pastor. I was curious to know what it is like to work with young adults and what made him want that job—it may have something to do with having a pretty wife.

After a fun chat, I left so he could continue eating pizza and playing worship songs on the guitar, which is basically his job description—according to him, not his employer.