Monday, November 15, 2010

Interlude: 107

My pulse is 107. I turned out the lights a half hour ago. I felt tired, I always feel tired. As soon as my eyes closed, my body turned into a machine. My arms, legs, stomach…all mimicked my quick heartbeat. I sensed the blood pumping through my body, pulsating at an accelerating pace. I opened my eyes and turned on my glowing thermometer. Sixty-six degrees, but I was too warm for comfort. Finally, I climbed out of bed to take my blood pressure: 137/84, with a pulse of 107.

November has been a rough month, and Sunday night sleep deprivation is one of many symptoms I have incurred as a result of just trying to get by. I am gaining weight, my mood is irritable and unpredictable, and when I do sleep, I have nightmares. I never could write fiction, but if I wrote down some of my dreams, I might be able to conquer every genre. Historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, all complete with necessary horror…my blog might become a guilty pleasure full of disturbing tales I live night after night.

This month has been filled with rejection, betrayal, and dishonesty. New and exciting adventures turned into terribly hurtful situations. The kind people say, “You’ll learn from this,” but the only thing you learn is to trust people less. The only lesson is lowered expectations and growing pessimism. These so called “life experiences” that are all part of “growing up” are supposed to make me stronger, when really they tear apart my muscles and I can’t even keep my hands still.

I am the only fixed variable in these equations. Continuously blessed with opportunities, I cannot, in good conscious, claim that by chance I am always the victim. Coincidences like that do not exist. Somewhere in each of these seemingly happy, carefree storylines, I am making errors that cause my romantic comedy to turn into a dramatic tragedy. But blaming myself is just as unproductive as blaming everyone else. No matter who takes the responsibility, I am still here, awake on a Sunday night, filled with an unnaturally strong heartbeat.

I thought redecorating would do the trick, and the presence of immense purple did comfort me temporarily. But new curtains do not change the fact that at the beginning of this month, I was going to have a roommate, now I am not; I was going to be in a serious relationship, now I am not; I was going to take on a leadership position in an organization in which I truly believe, now I am not; I was going to enjoy the cold autumn air and anticipate December, but I am not enjoying anything.

Usually I like to end my entries with a realization, a come-to-Jesus moment that ties up the loose ends, solves my problems and pushes me forward. But I won’t be coming to Jesus anytime soon, I fear. My resting heart rate is much too high to consider such a long journey.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Churchopedia #8 (Church #30): The Science of Christianity

I never liked science very much. I find scientific progress fascinating, but I don’t care to understand it. We evolved from apes. That makes sense. I don’t need the details.

And then chemistry just seemed silly. Balancing equations was fun enough, but experiments were neither cool nor were they eye opening. I was rarely the kid who complained that school didn’t apply to me…except in science. I don’t like the outside, I don’t really like animals, and I have no intention of going into medicine, technology or anything else scientific, so why do I have to take two years of this? And three, if I wanted to go to state school.

Scene change to the humanities side of things. The concept of reading fiction, writing newspaper columns and criticizing history held my interest for hours. That was how I understood people—by studying experiences and ideas. There is an element of anticipation that you get from turning a page in a book that you just don’t feel when you light a Bunsen burner for the fifth time and watch chemicals change colors.

In college I became more interested in theology, also a field full of ideas, ritual and imagination. In Kansas, the church and science are in a constant battle (the two do not mix well). Science seeks to understand, inspect molecular details and provide a conclusion. Faith is just the opposite. Faith depends on not knowing and just believing. Theology requires comfort with the supernatural and unknown. There are things we just cannot prove, and that is okay.

When I visited Overland Park’s Christian Scientist church, I had no idea what to expect. I knew the basics—no doctors, no medicine, just prayer. The service itself was extremely boring. They read a script from The Christian Science Textbook along with the bible. A man would read a verse and a woman would respond with the related passage from the textbook. Sometimes the congregation read a response and we sung a couple of (really slow) hymns, which the leader-lady felt the need to read out loud before we sung them. But most of the time, we just sat and listened to scripture. I started to fall asleep about 20 minutes into the service.

The service left me with nothing, so I explored into the religion. Websites are impressively revealing and blunt. Often, there is a page entitled, “What We Believe,” which probably scares off at least half of their potential membership. If they want to convert people, they should really think about being subtler.

The Christian Scientists view Christianity as a science. It’s quite simple, really. Instead of faith, it is fact. Every other denomination I visited had some element of the unknown, but these Christians have a textbook. Not a fantastical Book of Mormon, nor a self-help inspiration written by a mega-church icon; a science textbook of Christianity. Imagine if high school AP Physics became AP Christianity. Now that’s a class I might take.

This past Monday, I turned my focus to possibly the only faith I have anymore, that of human rights. I made a rainbow flag out of thread for National Coming Out Day and celebrated my happy, LGBT friends and their perseverance through the struggle. It was a somber Coming Out, though, due to the recent suicides of LGBT teens, which, if the media paid any attention, is not a new phenomenon. Theology and science don’t mesh together on this issue. If anything, science turns into a creative, humanitarian subject whereas theology holds to some self-righteous, ridiculous fact. Is it possible that in these controversial cases, science and theology kind of switch places? I think the Christian Scientists would appreciate that.

Science has evolved in the study of LGBT people. First, an illness, then a mental disorder, and finally a truth. They don’t fully understand, but at least they are trying, and progressing. I have greater respect for scientists for this reason—though their experiments are conclusive and concrete, they are not afraid to constantly challenge themselves. A hypothesis is written, proven and then tested again. Scientists aren’t afraid to ask themselves, “What if I’m wrong?”

But Theology, which is supposed to be a gathering of ideas, rituals, beliefs and faith, stays put. It took 500 years for the Catholic Church to admit that Galileo was right. Seriously? So can we expect an apology to all the LGBT teens in the year 2500? “We’re sorry that we treated our faith as science rather than art. We’re sorry that we forgot that people and ideas change over time. We’re sorry that we ruthlessly murdered your children with hatred and lies and bigotry.”

I haven’t written this before, I’ve been hesitant: I am no longer a Christian. I always thought I was on the inside, fighting may way through toward change and progress. But I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. I don’t want to be a part of a stagnant, stubborn faith that is barely grasping the present, much less the future. Like so many of my LGBT friends, I am dechurched. I will fight the battle from the progressive world. I’m finished waiting patiently for my religion to catch-up to my beliefs.

With only two more churches to go on 10 Churches: Churchopedia, I feel emotional and radical. I’m not sure I can walk this journey much longer.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interlude: The Comfort of Culture

This was written for a Multicultural Education class after being asked to define who I am as a cultural being:

Walking into the convention hall in New Orleans created a wave of emotion that produced both an excitement in my stomach and a calming sedation to my nerves. The signs for each of the fifty states were scattered amongst more than 9,000 chairs. Beach balls and balloons flew above the crowd of energetic teachers, some dancing to the blaring music. At the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly, things were not always this engaging, but throughout, I continued to feel the purposeful conclusion that this place was exactly where I was meant to be.

My best friend took me to a party in Cleveland with her fellow art students and her fiancé. The house was beautifully decorated with what I am sure were meaningful pieces, which were the subject of many conversations. I paced through the crowd and worked my way into several discussions. Leah and I had been best friends at Oberlin, but I did not know anyone in her new art therapy community. As they spoke of school, Cleveland, art and politics, I felt out of place. When questioned, my answers were as short and vague as possible. I could not stand the reaction on their faces when I told them I was from Kansas. I went to the bathroom and cried before stepping out into the cool night, where a shirtless man grilled hotdogs with one hand and smoked a cigarette with the other. He was humming a country song and greeted me with kind eyes. “From Kansas, then?” He confirmed with a smile. “I did some work near Wichita. I’m from Nebraska myself.” I spent the rest of the evening outside talking about farms and turnpikes.

In elementary school, everyone brought religion with them to the classroom. The teachers spoke of God often and church was discussed as if we all attended together. I was an extrovert raised in a liberal, protestant family. Occasionally I said, “Oh my God,” and got severely punished. Once I said, “Jesus Christ,” and was not allowed to attend music class for a week. We held fake presidential elections and out of 400 students, mine was the only vote for President Bill Clinton. I did not realize this until later, but I was living in the same city as The Assemblies of God and Ku Klux Klan headquarters. Looking back on those experiences, I now realize that the public school was really only public for one religion and one race.

My grandma spent several months out of the year in Japan with her family. She lived in central Kansas since the end of the Korean War, but fell back into her heritage when on the phone with her sisters or back in Japan. In Kansas, she made fried chicken. In Japan, she made sushi. When I was 16, I had the privilege of accompanying her with my parents and brother to the country that holds the majority of my extended family. She was a different grandma during that visit. She cried, laughed and scaled a fish like a cat. She spoke about her diseased brother and father, who both died in World War II. I had sung my whole life, but it was not until Japan that I found out that her mother was also a singer. It ended up being her last visit to Japan before her death. I cried upon departure more than I had ever cried when we moved every few years in my childhood. Still today, I have dreams of getting on a plane and just going to be with my family. I have never felt so safe and secure as I did with them, and we did not even speak the same language.

I illustrate these four experiences as examples of my cultural encounters. There are more experiences on which to elaborate, such as arriving at Oberlin and living amongst fellow liberals for the first time, or writing a pro-LGBT rights column in my high school newspaper that subsequently got me in quite a bit of trouble. I am not sure which of these experiences defines my culture the most—the positive places where I felt comfortable, like I was part of a community; or the times when I was so aware that I was different. To truly understand my culture, I have to think about both sides of the spectrum. When I was comfortable at the NEA Representative Assembly, I was part of a culture of teachers. In Cleveland, I embraced my Midwestern roots. In elementary school, I identified with anything but the conservative, religious Midwest and southern cultures. In Japan, I forgot for a moment that I look nothing like my mother and relished in my Shinto, small-town Japanese heritage.

I spoke with a friend recently who is also from Kansas, but is currently living in Toronto. I had just returned from my vacation in San Francisco. We agreed that in very liberal places, we find ourselves defending, even identifying with the conservatives. But when I am home, it is the opposite. I separate myself from the norm and go out of my way to be politically and religiously different.

The only thing that connects the dots is music. From a Japanese lullaby to a southern gospel hymn, I bask in the musical culture wherever I am. Regardless of my feelings, I can separate that from everything else, and it is a way for me to fit in, always.

I could list aspects of my culture—my Asian upbringing, learning Spanish as a way to connect with my Mexican heritage, being active in left-wing politics and perhaps my most defining characteristic, my fierce loyalty, just like the rest of my family. As culture is about comfort in a community, though, it does not seem appropriate to just list my qualities, weaknesses and attributes. The reflection on stories, and the soundtrack with which they are associated leads me to a clearer picture.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Interlude: The E-Words

There are two nasty E-words that bring out the conservative in me. Somewhere in my bloodline there is a chip off the right wing that works its way through my intellect when confronted with these annoying states of being. These E-words cause me to temporarily denounce government assistance, refuse to pay my taxes and consider visiting the local gunsmith. I can usually force the ridiculous opposite back to the dormant part of my personality, but this past year has proved challenging as I find myself continuously circling back to a basic fact: liberal ideas and policies are not perfect.

Stewing over my inner fanatic is part of that imperfection. If I were a true socialist, a real-life, in-the-flesh-and-blood left-winger, I could meet every republican argument with a viciously non-violent defense. It would be like college again, standing on picket lines for things I believed in, no matter what, no questions asked. But it was in my last year at Oberlin that I learned the E-words and realized their unfortunate effect on my political beliefs. Soon, experience would support my idealistic views but also fuel my doubt. Empathy and understanding make things so complicated. As I look into the eye of an adversary, blabbing my reasoning with complete conviction, in the back of my mind I’m really thinking, “Well, they do have a point.”

Elitism is the first of the two words with which I wrestled in college. Being from Kansas in a East Coast/West Coast student body was not easy. I was constantly trying to explain why Kansas is not such a horrible place to live. We are not stupid, nor are we all bigots. Yes, I know we have that issue with evolution and the whole Fred Phelps debacle, but that does not make us merely a fly-over state to be ignored and/or rejected. Eventually, instead of convincing others of my state’s deep-down, historical liberalness, I found myself defending the very same conservatives with whom I spent most of my teenage years arguing. The most shocking elitist comment was actually from a fellow Midwest democrat who was trying to convince me to donate to the Democratic National Committee. “You know,” he said. “Even the worst democrat is better than the best republican.” Whoa. Fail. Goodbye and thanks, but I will just be giving my money to the National Education Association, thank-you-very-much.

I shutter when I think of the liberal church elitism I ignored for so long. There was a definite Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender caste system which easily pulled “T” from the LGB(T) rights priority list. In the end, it was petty issues about money and who is friends with who that dictated my former church’s future. Needless to say, we did not have enough money nor were we friends with the “right” people. The rainbow flag and mediocre website appear as a justice-promoting liberal agenda, but hiding behind it there are a bunch of rich, elitist ass holes that will only give to charity if there is drinking and entertainment involved.

But I’ve written about “Why I chose Kansas” and conceived this blog due to my dechurching-by-the-elite. The second E-word is dominating my conscious right now: entitlement. That is the word that bothers me the most. No one is safe from the doom of supporting statements such as, “This is what I deserve” or “Now it’s my turn.” It is so easy to be swept into the idea of entitlement. That just supports the conservative notion that people grab more than they give and are inherently accustomed to taking advantage of the system.

Normally, I stand by what I consider a majority. Some people do use government assistance as an excuse to be lazy, drug-addicted fools with way too many children and a general lack of responsibility. My belief, or currently, my hope is that more people benefit from the system than use it for evil. But it is a malicious, premeditated crime to take advantage, and I know this because the lies are personal and I can feel the money slipping from my own pockets, taking a bite of my liberal soul, as well. These people, few or many, have weapons, should I not protect myself with a gun? They rob others of health and stability, should we not also take that from them? Why are we delivering sustenance to their doorstep, implying, “Sure, go ahead and make babies, we’ve got room in foster care. Drugs? No problem, it’s a disease so we’re all right with it. No job? Don’t bother looking, you don’t have to. Oh, and you want to live here for free? We can make that happen…”

Goodness gracious, I sound like Sarah Palin. I’m fresh off a personal experience and radical self-righteous rants seem to be emerging on the other side of my political spectrum. It is not just the government, either, enabling the criminals to remain criminals. And perhaps some of them really are in need of treatment and a boost in self-confidence. It is when they act like I owe them something, like WE owe them something, just for existing that makes me furious. It makes me furious because it is not just me, the middle class, white American they are robbing; it is the hardworking low-income community, the children living in poverty and the parents desperate for jobs. They are making us all look bad.

After processing these strong, uncomfortable urges to crawl on over to the dark side, I can only come to one conclusion: political beliefs are rarely 100% reconciled and political action is sometimes only mildly justified. So I just have to turn on Rachel Maddow and hold tightly to my ideals. I have to remember that even if only one child does not go hungry, one person gets the job opportunity they have been waiting for or one family gets the help that they need, it is worth it. All the heartache and doubting is overshadowed by the people who can gratefully live a better life today than they did yesterday. I push the criminals out of my mind and concentrate, hard, on what matters most…the children who are better off due to federal funds, and the parents, who did in fact access the system for good.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Interlude: Baby Beluga's New Favorite Book

Baby Beluga heard that Miss Megan Highfill is a contributing author in a new book called, One Size Does Not Fit All. He figured, since she is a freakishly obsessed fan of his song, he should probably check out her book. I mean, she does make four kindergarten classes sing Baby Beluga three times a week for about 36 weeks. That's like 432 times a least.

First, he ordered the book on Amazon. It was really easy.

He added a few other books to his cart to get the $25 Free Super-Saver Shipping. That means he had to wait for the book for weeks and weeks. He just sat there at the mailbox and waited. It was a little lame.

Finally, he received the package from Amazon and used scissors as big as his head to open it. It was surprisingly difficult with his fins.

Baby Beluga was SO happy the get the book, he had his picture taken with it. Again, it's called One Size Does Not Fit All and it's edited by Randy Howe, with contributing author, Megan Highfill.

Then, he turned to page 87 to the story called, Anthem, by Megan Highfill and read it thoroughly. It was rather good and he was impressed.

He called his land friends and asked them to read the narrative for their monthly book club. They had an intense discussion and rated the book highly on their animal-star scale.

Baby Beluga went to a special book signing at the home of Miss Highfill, which, since he lives there, was pretty easy. She is a super nice person.

He took a picture of her with her book and because she's really obsessed with pictures of herself, another of her reading her chapter.

"I would recommend this book, especially the chapter called, Anthem," Baby Beluga was heard saying, "To anyone who enjoys reading and everyone who does not."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Churchopedia #7 (Church #29): IHOP

I just wanted a pair of sensible sandals.

Though the mall has grown on me in the past year, I still hate going in there, especially outside of New York & Company’s affordable-and-yet-they-fit-me-and-kind-of-look-nice clothes. This trip required looking at the map, locating the specialized sandal store and purchasing overpriced (but oh so comfortable) shoes before I was supposed to meet Rachel at J.C. Penny’s.

The first part of the excursion went well, and within 30 minutes, I was grabbing sleeveless shirts off the sale rack at Penny’s and Rachel was judging each item with either an “Ok, try it,” or a dramatic, “No. Seriously? No.” Unsuccessful in our summer shirt search, we left Penny’s and shuffled quickly through Lane Bryant and New York & Company. With the sensible sandals as our only combined purchase, we felt the need to explore more options so that our trip to the mall would not be pointless.

We walked toward Macy’s, passing kiosks of beta fish, handbags and cell phone accessories. A miniature booth caught my eye and I slowed down to make sure I was seeing things correctly. In front of me, a man stood with his eyes closed and his hands on the shoulders of a woman and a young girl. His head was bowed and he was rocking, slightly, muttering something only they could hear. Once we passed them, I stopped and began to back up, careful not to run into them or the kiosk. I was trying to get close enough to hear what he was saying when a different man approached, traditionally handsome with a big smile and greeted Rachel like he knew her. She whispered, “No, I don’t know him,” to me and returned his salutation.

“You guys need an oil change?” He asked.

“Like, pull my car up right here?” Rachel replied.

He laughed. His smile was outrageously bright and it made me cringe a little bit. It was the smile of a toddler in a young man’s face.

“No, we have this deal…” He proceeded to explain a promotional offer for car repair through a company called “KC Promotions” (which, when researched, is reported as a scam on many websites). They sell coupon deals and offers, such as “Pay for five oil changes and if your car breaks down between August 1st and August 15th, we will fix it at a 30% discount, excluding breaks, tires and bodywork.” I tuned him out and leaned to the left to watch the man and the two women, who remained in their original positions. Finally, forgetting all etiquette, I interrupted the salesman, who continued to flash his eerie smile.

“What’s going on over there?” I gestured toward the threesome and forced myself to smile back.

“Oh, he’s praying for them. Do you guys believe in the power of prayer?” I searched for an answer that would keep him talking. My blog-alarm had been activated and there was no turning back.

“Sure,” I said without hesitation. “So does he work here?”

“Yea, we both do. Are you guys Christian?”

“Sure,” I answered again, Rachel was more hesitant, citing her Baptist/Catholic upbringing.

“So is this like a Christian Evangelism company?” I prodded, wondering if his employer knew what was happening on the clock.

“I mean, there is a group of us that are all believers, and we all work here.” He turned back to Rachel, “So do you believe in Jesus Christ? That he died for your sins?”

“Yea, I’d say so,” she replied.

The man was still praying over the two women and the salesman was still grinning at us.

I returned to my interrogation, “Are you guys affiliated with some group or church, then?”

“Yea, the International House of Prayer?” He stated it like a question to see if we’d heard of it.

“IHOP,” we said in unison. We had heard of it. It’s a staple mystery in Kansas City and it doesn’t include pancakes.

He continued to explain why it is appropriate to pray in the middle of a mall at the place where you are employed by rattling off bible verses. I just nodded and let him talk, waiting for the right moment to ask my last question. Finally, there was a pause.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, how does this prayer-in-the-mall come about? Do you just go up to random people and offer to pray for them?”

“Usually,” he replied (at this point his smile was creepy and his eyes had the glaze of non-reality), “we start talking about the business and people will start talking to us and something that they need to pray about just comes up.”

“Hmmmm,” I said. “Interesting. Well, thanks.” We all shook hands and Rachel and I turned to walk away. The man and two women were still praying.

“Wait for the corner, wait for the corner,” Rachel murmured over and over under her breath.

“Blog, blog, blog, blog,” I murmured back, picking up the pace and turning left at Dillard’s. After turning the corner we had a brief "what just happened?" discussion and quickly finished our shopping. I, however, was not finished with IHOP.

Later the next day, I sat at the reception desk of the theater, waiting for the musical to end and the venue to clear. I pulled up IHOP's website and clicked around nonchalantly. The salesman had said something about a 24/7 prayer space, which I imagined as a small, quiet chapel within a large, obnoxious building. "There are people there to pray with you 24/7," he had said. "We go in shifts."

So when I finally left work at 11:00 p.m., I decided to take a little trip to IHOP (prayer, not pancakes). I was struggling with the blog entry because this felt more like a mega-church than a cultural church. As I drove to Grandview, I wondered if a cultural church could be contemporary rather than historical. Fads and fashions, styles and societies, movements and music...all constantly reinvent and create new, established culture. The Mormon Church seems historical to me, but when compared with Catholicism, it's modern-day. If IHOP were a mega-church, perhaps I would experience a culture similar to my ten mega-churches prior.

What I found instead was a living and growing subculture that is quietly creeping from the grassroots of the underground into electric popularity. At 11:15 p.m., I pulled into a parking lot full of cars. There was a crowded, outside seating area that was illuminated by neon lights that seemed to take over the entire block:

The rumblings of a blaring sound system filtered through the noise and discussion of those sitting outside. I almost didn't get out of my car.

Many who have studied education or psychology are familiar with the term, "Zone of Proximal Development." Imagine yourself at the center of a circle. The circle represents everything you already know. I, as an educator, draw another larger circle around the first one. The space in between the two circles is the knowledge you have the potential to acquire within a particular educational setting or time period. That is your "Zone of Proximal Development." Hypothetically speaking, your circle and the larger circle both continue to expand based on subject, interest and capability. Beyond your Zone of Proximal Development are things you can’t learn, won’t learn or simply do not want to learn.

I also think we have a Zone of Proximal Comfort. My first ten churches were inside my circle, within my comfort zone. For the next ten, I stepped out and have since been pushing and prodding my Zone of Proximal Comfort in order to learn, grow and maybe even restore my faith.

IHOP definitely wasn’t in my comfort zone and it wasn’t in my Zone of Proximal Comfort. Believe me, I tried to reach to pull it in or expand my zone to meet it, but there was no way.

The prayer room looked like this:

Notice the full praise band on stage, singing and improvising songs that say the same three words over and over. In fact, I swear they sang the word, “Faithfully,” about 100 times in a row on a slightly flat G. There are 10-15 people pacing around, up and down the aisles, around the chairs, mumbling to themselves as if they were speaking to a voice inside their heads. Some people rocked back and forth in their chairs, others stood and raised their hands, swaying. Then, there were those on their laptops (table, electricity and wireless provided), surfing Facebook, doing homework or checking email. A few people were quietly studying their bible. And then there was this:

It’s a space to dance and it reminded me of drunken dancers, alone on the dance floor at closing time. I also remembered dealing with a student on mushrooms when I was a Resident Assistant at Oberlin, and this seemed quite similar. At any moment, I expected snakes or nudity…I’m not sure why, just a worried thought that absolutely anything could happen.

My hands were shaking and my heart was beating fast. I felt trapped, even though I was sitting next to an exit where people came and went constantly. I tried to pray, sing, and raise my hands into the air. Maybe if I participate in the ritual, I thought, I’ll understand. I asked God to steady my hands and slow my heart. For at least twenty minutes I took deep breaths and I attempted to feel The Spirit, or any kind of spirit.

My anxiety attack was tumbling out of control and I was experiencing phobias more serious than my one and only arachnophobia. I finally left and sat in my car for five minutes before driving away. Now, I just needed a place to recover. My blood sugar felt low and I was unnaturally thirsty.

Looking in my rearview mirror I saw the bright “IHOP” disappear behind me.

“IHOP,” I said aloud. “From IHOP to IHOP.” The perfect place to recuperate from my failed quest to the International House of Prayer was obviously the International House of Pancakes—also conveniently open 24/7.

In the restaurant there was a modified, calm version of what I had survived in the prayer room. A lady sitting behind me kept repeating, “But I don’t like the international breakfast,” and rocking back and forth. The girl at the booth in front of me was writing and sketching in a notebook. Whereas the dancers at the prayer room seemed drunk on the Spirit, there was a couple next to me playfully pushing and kicking each other, likely drunk on spirits (you know, the kind with alcohol).

I didn’t feel afraid there, eating my pancakes and reading Percy Jackson. In fact, it felt normal and comfortable—the perfect place to relax after a night of work. The people struck me as ordinary and right inside my comfort zone. “Maybe I should skip the whole church thing and just eat pancakes,” I thought to myself.

Many of you know that IHOPancakes is open 24/7. Just so you believe me about the 24/7 worship, the live web stream is available here:

Go there now. Go there at 2:00 a.m. It’s always on (trust me, I’ve checked). If you explore the website further, you will find an unaccredited university, housing, and multiple evangelistic missions of the church.

I am hesitant to ever use the word “cult” to describe any of the churches I visit. That is a heavy accusation with unflattering associations. I will, however use it now. The International House of Prayer is a cult, growing in membership daily. It takes over people’s finances, careers and family lives. Just as in any cult, there is a choice to join, but cult-followings have an unnatural, manipulative power to change people and then jail them inside of their own beliefs.

The salesman’s soul is lost somewhere inside the movement, along with the thousands of followers they have gained in the past year. My biggest fear is that in a decade or so, all across the nation, someone will mention IHOP and we’ll all have to inquire, “Which one?”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Churchopedia #6 (Church #28): The Catholics (Italian style)

I rested my violin against my right knee and carefully stepped off the bus, turning slightly to my left to avoid hitting the person behind me with my music stand. The black stand poked uncomfortably into my shoulder and the awkward legs pushed into my ankle. A small purse with a long strap hung vulnerably on my wrist, sweeping against the ground.

Once I safely was off the bus I moved to the side to get situated as my fellow musicians stepped down the stairs, each with as much, if not more, discomfort than me. I scooted to my right while trying to hoist my violin on my back, nearly running into Michael as he waited for his bass to be unloaded from the bottom storage compartment. He silently took the music stand in my left hand, allowing me to straighten my dress, sweep the hair out of my face and lock my purse into a more secure position. I picked up his music stand with my right hand and took my own from him with my left. He carefully hoisted up his bass and hooked both hands through straps, putting the majority of the weight on his torso. I was carrying four items to his one, but he still had the bigger and heavier load. “How long do you think we have to walk this time?” I asked him. “Does it matter?” He replied, smiling. We followed the rest of the orchestra down the uncomfortable cobblestone streets of Lucca, Italy.

It wasn’t as hot as Venice, but the black long-sleeved dress, tights and high-heels were already causing me to pant and sweat, as if I were running a race. Every block or so, a girl (often I) would lose track of her balance, get her heel stuck in the road and nearly topple over. We rarely spoke of the unique traveling experience when doing so for performance rather than vacation. We had stayed up late the night prior, sneaking into each other’s rooms and being innocently obnoxious. We rehearsed early in the morning and had a quick break for lunch and a nap. Then, we got dressed, piled on the bus, and headed to our concert destination. At this point, many of us had only traveled abroad with an instrument in hand, so this was normal and even enjoyable. It’s one thing to visit ancient landmarks as a tourist; it’s another to make music the same places music has been made for centuries. It was a blessed experience—one that took me to four countries and two continents before I was 16.

Lucca was confusing. We knew we were performing in a church, but there were churches everywhere. At each corner, we slowed down, in hopes that we had reached our destination. Finally, we stopped at a plain building down an ally from the main square. We walked up several steps and into a cool, open room with columns flanking the seating area. Pictures and statues of saints lined the walls and a moderately ornate altar was behind the orchestra’s performance area. It was at this moment that I fell in love with the Catholic Church.

Michael was less impressed. He was raised Catholic and agreed with the beauty and antiquity of the church, but did not get an exotic feeling from the symbols, statues and décor. We walked quickly down the center aisle, not giving me the time I wanted to take in every detail. We were lead into a chamber off the main room with a large, square hole excavated in the center and surrounded by rope. After dropping our belongings, much of the orchestra rushed to look down the hole. There were layers of architecture clearly made from different materials. Our local host explained that this church had been built a couple hundred years prior on top of another church, which was on top of another church, which was on top of a pagan worshipping space, which was on top of something else. Essentially, we were standing on and looking at more than two thousand years of spirituality.

The concert went beautifully and in my opinion, was the best we had played in Italy. The second to last song was Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a crowd and musician favorite. This time, though, when we began playing, something was different. It was the perfect temperature, we were comfortable and happy, and I felt connected to every musician around me. The audience relaxed, many of them closing their eyes and tilting their heads toward the ceiling. Dr. Block conducted in a tranquil, quiet manner and our sound echoed to the ceiling and back. At the end of the piece, when the last note had faded, we were frozen. We looked as still as the statues and felt as peaceful as the painting of Mary holding baby Jesus. It was silent for what seemed like several minutes, the audience still calm and the orchestra still in playing position. Dr. Block’s hands were stuck in the cut-off mode but he had closed his eyes as if he were listening to the absence of sound. Finally, there was a unison sigh and no applause. Several of the musicians were crying, or shaking their heads in disbelief. It was, by far, the most intense, wonderful, spiritual music experience of my whole life. And though we received no physical or audible sign of enjoyment, I knew that the audience was as awe-struck as we were.

There is not much I can say about my visit to Holy Rosary Catholic Church in downtown Kansas City, except that it managed to transport me back, briefly, to that time in Lucca. It seemed delicate but steadfast and wonderfully Italian. Though it had an old physique, the congregation had progressed, welcoming the Vietnamese population that had settled in the area by doing some of the service in two languages. I left content, falling back into my belief that the Catholic church, though sometimes theologically behind the times, makes up for all of it’s faults in beauty, spirituality and pure historical significance. I envy their grace and dedication, and I hope some of it has rubbed off on me along the way.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Interlude: Why I Chose Kansas

A common stigma regarding liberal, artsy, private college graduates is our wild, adventurous nature that is not tamed by higher education. Instead, the B.A. is like a key to unlimited prospects, an excuse to do anything we want, and a pretty damn good reason to try and save the world. Oberlin is an exaggeration of this stereotype, full of students from around the world, graduating personalities that tend to keep our personal where-I’ve-been maps interesting. We keep ourselves in forward motion and in a something-new mentality. It’s not irresponsible, it’s just unpredictable.

Some of my closest friends’ geographic locale and movement:
From Oregon to Oberlin to New York to China to San Francisco,
From New York to Oberlin to Chicago,
From San Francisco to Oberlin to Nicaragua to Idaho to Chicago,
From Pennsylvania to Oberlin to Guatemala,
From California to Oberlin to Las Vegas to Chicago…

Notice some similarities from the sample: the last location is never Oberlin, a location is never repeated, and therefore, the last and the first location are destined to be different. The gross assumption that turns into basic truth is, Oberlin students never return home.

To add another level of personal discomfort, I should finish the above sentence with “especially if home is a red state!” (The exclamation point is important to the addendum; it is rare for students to return home after Oberlin, it is considered physically impossible if there are republicans involved.)

I am not meek or embarrassed when asked by fellow Obies what I did or what I am doing post-Oberlin. I say, confidently, “I moved back home to Kansas, I teach in a local school district and I got my M.S. at The University of Kansas.” Though I can tell by non-verbal communication that this reply has made them utterly speechless, I seldom get the chance to explain my decision. Once, someone caught me off guard and blurted an overdramatic, “But why?” after my response. As I gathered my thoughts it became clear that this person didn’t really care why, but was going to enlighten me with all the reasons why not. I stared at the floor and crossed my arms as I listened to a rant that not only covered why Kansas sucks, but a generous list of other cities (“including Midwest cities, if that’s what you like,”) that would be better options. The conversation ended with this person saying, “I just want you to know that there are other places out there.”

“Gee, thanks,” I wanted to answer sarcastically. “We never done learned ‘bout all them other places in Amerrrrrica. I’d sure like to try me another state if Daddy’ll ever let me leave the homestead.”

I never took the chance to roll my eyes and utilize my hick-twang accent. Nor did I think fast enough to defend my state, my home or my culture. I didn’t debate the issues or address the misconceptions…until now.

I know there is a book entitled, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” I am aware that Fred Phelps resides down the highway and that our State School Board isn’t so keen on evolution. Isn’t it flat? Yes. Isn’t it hot? Yes. Isn’t it windy? Very. Do you know Dorothy? Go to hell. Wait, do I know Dorothy? “Wizard of Oz” Dorothy, with the double braids and the Aunty Em? Listen, people, I AM Dorothy. And that movie isn’t a revolutionary work of fiction, it’s the God’s honest truth.

The reason Thomas Frank wrote, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is that he believes my state has the capability and potential to make a great difference in this country. What he considers apathy, I perceive as humbleness. Perhaps we don’t open the doors and shout, “Come in all ye who have suffered injustice.” Perhaps we don’t go out to the picket lines and march for our beliefs. We smile and nod, offer our help and then leave you alone. People are part of the community instantly, but they also have the right to their privacy.

This unconditional right to privacy also fuels the school board’s lack of action or consequence on the subject of evolution. It is the reason we haven’t tarred and feathered Phelps and run him out of Topeka. I believe that if Kansans really stopped to think how they could effect change in this state and country, if we put aside our humble, mild temperament and took the podium, we could storm the political climate as we did before and during the Civil War.

I don’t agree with my fellow state-mates on many things. I, like many, get frustrated with the lack of action and forward movement. I know all districts should be teaching evolution as science and Fred Phelps should be imprisoned for some minor tax evasion, pending trial for the rest of his life. I get that we have a bad reputation as a state, but I ask that we not be judged as a people. What we lack in political fury, we make-up for in genuine community values.

I was asked recently, in a very non-judgmental way, how I function in a religiously and politically conservative environment. Though I just wrote about 1000 words on the subject, the short answer is this: This state is my home. My grandparents farmed wheat on this land. My grandma immigrated here from Japan. My parents fell in love here and married. The best memories of my childhood are enclosed in its borders. The children that I love and teach, though from many parts of the world, now call this state home. My family, whom I cherish and love, will grow old in this state.

I have been over the rainbow, to a place where I felt warm and welcomed. It was a place full of music and dancing; a place filled with struggles and lessons, but also huge self-growth and transformation. My over-the-rainbow, Oberlin, took the child from Kansas and sent back an adult. It is a priceless, important part of my history that I miss constantly.

I never believed Oz was just a dream to Dorothy. In some shape or form, she really experienced it. And in the end, she progressed to the conclusion that I believe as truth: There’s no place like home. There’s no place like Kansas. I know I made the right choice.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Churchopedia #5 (Church #27): The Mormons

“Then, I’m visiting a Mormon church,” I commented in chats, emails and conversations over the last few weeks. The response was uncomfortably similar across the board:

Liberal agnostic: “Seriously? Why would you want to do that?”

Conservative Non-Denominational: “That’s funny. Good luck with that.”

Devout Protestant (sarcastically): “That sounds like fun.”

Co-Worker: “You’re crazy, you know that, right?”

Family member: “Yea, not interested in that one.”

I have learned, when people respond to religion in that manner, the root of their reply is fear. For some, this fear is purely based on the unknown, and a slew of based-on-a-true-story-but-really-fictional rumors. Others have personal experience with the Mormon Church, making it easy to kill a whole garden with one bad seed.

Of all these opinions of the Mormons, there is only one person I know with a truly deep and personal relationship with the faith. He was first featured on an MTV “True Life” called “I’m Coming Out.” While a student at Brigham Young University, he spent a desperate amount of time trying to cure his homosexuality. After years of dedication to the church, he did everything possible to keep that religious bond. This meant succumbing to terrifying electroshock therapy at the hands of the Elders, something the church still denies, of course.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was the core of Jayce’s existence. It was as much a part of his identity as his ethnicity, culture, traditions and sexuality. Unfortunately, whereas one can never really leave their physical, emotional and mental characteristics behind, one can be divorced by the church. Jayce left the church, unofficially, and after his MTV special, began speaking for LGBT religious rights. This trial separation from the Mormons was not meant to be permanent, as he had yet to be excommunicated and still had hope of the church coming to a place of acceptance, or at least tolerance, of his sexual orientation.

He spoke at Oberlin College, sponsored by a student organization called Queers and Allies of Faith, of which I was co-chair at the time. Though he was critical of the horrific coming-out-as-a-Mormon incident, his real burden was the loss of his relationship with the church. He still wanted to be a Mormon, speaking highly of his religious culture.

People fairly disconnected from the Mormons, as a religion and a people, are quick to judge, citing polygamy, fighting, and a cult-like atmosphere as reason to disqualify them as a credible denomination. But someone who was deeply hurt by the faith, personally affected and tormented, was accepting, almost promoting the church in his speech.

For some reason, national television and a bunch of speaking gigs did not warrant excommunication, but it was a couple days after his visit to Oberlin that the Elders showed up at his door. We were pretty sure, based on a letter to the editor from local Mormons, that the head of the college LDS had, in effect, tattled on Jayce. I’m sure it was years in the making, though, and the church so proud of its families, history and traditions lost an extremely valuable member based on their own fear of change and the unknown.

When I went to the Church with my friend, Kimberly, I was already being pulled in two directions. One side of me felt afraid, angry and close-minded whereas the other side reminded me that Jayce said he wouldn’t trade his time in the faith for anything. Surely this must be an incredible place if Jayce was willing to go through so much to remain a part of it. I decided to enter in search of the good that he spoke of, rather than the bad he experienced.

Did you know that virtually every Mormon Church in the world looks exactly the same? They have the same layout and design, and their worship services, Sunday School, and gendered meetings are consistent throughout the world. They have a way to control population, as well, so it is unlikely that I will ever find a mega-Mormon-Church. Each church is called a “Ward,” and Kimberly attends the “Ward” based on her address. Most Wards do not exceed 300, for if they do, it is time to build another. They operate with the formalness of parliament and the unity of a small group of friends. They strike me as hardworking, dedicated, and, most importantly, genuine. As many of them commented during the third hour (women’s and men’s meetings), they really believe the bible and the Book of Mormon are true. They “know” it is true.

Structurally, the church’s to-the-letter operation is very appealing. Congregationally, the community found within the Ward is comforting. Theologically…well, this is where my issues start. Not only do I not know it is true, I don’t even believe that it could be true. I’m too faithful to science and history for that.

But that doesn’t make the Mormons wrong and it certainly isn’t a reason for society to assume the worst of them. Every religion has people, often in leadership, that do terrible things. Every faith has its misconceptions about morality and ethics. Every person has their own ideals and beliefs based on what they know to be true. We should not all strive to be a single unit, the chosen people; rather, we should seek to appreciate and learn about our differences. I have always said that liberals talk too much and act too little. I still believe that’s true, however, we really don’t have any business acting until we’ve talked enough to get it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Churchopedia #4 (Church #26): Spiritual Inspiration or Physical Health?

“If you ever get sick and need to go to the hospital,” my dad proposed, “go to a Seventh-Day Adventist hospital.”

Master of health care human resources and well-read labor economist, my father never ceased to provide us with useful information. At one point, I knew exactly who to ask for manager-wise in a hospital at any given time of day. I had nursing positions, schedules and salaries memorized and recognized a somewhat disheartening fact: very few hospitals are still owned and operated by a non-profit entity, like a religious organization or government locale.

Hospitals, nursing homes, retirement facilities and other health care spaces are often associated with a religion. Putting “Saint” in front of everything makes the public immediately think, “Catholic.” In Kansas City, we have “Menorah” hospital, which obviously points towards Judaism. Most of these places, however, are no longer associated with the faith, but rather, a for-profit corporation that has essentially bought the operation, and therefore, the name. Don’t think that by choosing “Saint So-and-So Hospital” for your healthcare needs that you will be attended to by nuns and priests. It’s just not that common anymore.

But the Seventh-Day Adventists are different. They have stayed true to their faith and calling to operate their facilities based on a religious purpose. Though religion can be used to oppress, it can also liberate. When everything is based on thoughtful prayer, people tend to be happier, salaries higher and patients cautiously cared-for. If I am sick, there is a comfort in knowing that the person plunging a needle into my arm feels a sense of religious duty to do so. He or she is answering to God and is concerned with not only job, but spiritual security.

The Adventists do not stop at health care, either. In Oberlin, they held a monthly clothing swap for students and community members, weekly meals and plenty of no-pressure opportunities for musical involvement. As an outsider looking in, they seemed to me a generous, deeply prayerful people who truly believed in what they were doing and were doing what they believed.

I guess I expected their worship service to reflect this intense passion. I at least hoped for an extreme, as the Quakers’ silence, as the Orthodox’s ceremony or as the Assemblies of God’s speaking in tongues. I would have been content with one or two “Amens” from the congregation. The Adventists must be using all their religious zealousness toward mission and not praise, though, because that was one boring service. There were exactly two points of interest: they almost over-utilized old Southern gospel hymns (i.e. “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder) and the preacher had an accent that was some strange mixture of New York, Boston, Ireland, England and Australia. I spent most of the service texting my mom in contemplation, trying to figure out his native country.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been focusing on the purpose of this journey and this blog. Is it to be critical or curious? Is it to be open-minded or jaded? And now, is it a journey of “10 Churches,” as stated simply in my blog address, or a journey of “10 Faiths”?

Reading back through my posts, Lenexa Christian (Mega-Church #4, Church #15) caught my eye. After all, the Assemblies of God as a faith has been vicious and hateful toward some of my dearest friends. Their statements and policies concerning homosexuality are perhaps some of the most extreme in the Christian religion. That service, however, was one of the best worship experiences of my life. Using this logic, the Seventh-Day Adventist’s faith could trump worship service just as easily as the AG’s service trumped faith.

So what—the service was boring. But I’ve been to Shawnee Mission Medical Center’s Emergency Room twice in the past year, spending more time there than in worship with the Adventists. Shouldn’t that be my basis for any judgments for or against their faith? Less than one hour of worship versus needles, x-rays and diagnosis: Am I will to trust these people with an hour of my Saturday morning? No. But am I willing to trust them with my life? Absolutely.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Churchopedia #3 (Church #25): Musical Church/Church Musical

If I had my way, life would be a musical. And I don’t mean one of those plays-with-songs musicals. I mean full-out-rock-opera, little-to-no-dialog and obnoxious-dance-break musical. There would be ballads equal to Lloyd-Weber, tap-dancing a la Cole Porter and some sort of subconscious singing narrator. As I have told many since its pilot sneak preview last May, “Glee” is pretty much the world I live inside my head.

It’s not surprising that the Greek Orthodox Church, St. Dionysios, was appealing for a similar reason. Ninety-five percent of the service was sung, beautifully. It was not the type of beautiful that requires intonation or rhythm. It was just heartfelt and full, from the Friar to the congregants. These people were born to sing. Every word had shape and purpose. I know this is going to sound completely wrong, but, I’ll say it anyway: if I were a God, I would want to be praised by the Greek Orthodox Church.

This is the most challenging service I’ve attended, and probably where I felt the most ignorant. Whereas the mega-church delights in being accessible, the Orthodox take pride in complex tradition. Interestingly, though they were harder to understand, they seemed more welcoming than most of the churches I’ve visited. No one was annoyed or disturbed by my presence, or by my lack of participation. There was a man sitting two rows ahead of me that came back to explain what was happening whenever the service changed directions. “We do ‘this’ because we believe ‘this’,” was how he phrased his statements. It was very direct but not abrupt. It was almost as if he was saying, “We do ‘this’ because we believe ‘this’, and some people don’t, which is cool.”

At the end of the sung liturgy, which lasted almost an hour, there was a short sermon followed by the Eucharist, though I’m not sure if they call it that. (I planned on doing research before I wrote this, but I didn’t want my experience spoiled with facts and history.) Right as the wine was turned to the blood and the bread to the body, two small groups of people entered from the back of the sanctuary. They participated in the English aspects of the call and response, but not the Greek. I was confused and therefore distracted until I heard The Lord’s Prayer, which, unlike the Apostle’s Creed and most of the other liturgy, I actually had memorized. I spoke the prayer in English and then listened to two-thirds of the congregants say it in Greek. Then, as I began to turn the page in my booklet to the next part of the service, I heard the pulsation and breath-marks of The Lord’s Prayer in a different language. The people behind me to my left were praying as all others bowed their heads in silence. Then, a group on the right side of the sanctuary chanted what I’m sure was the Lord’s Prayer in yet a fourth language.

I was bewildered and moved. I really wanted it to culminate in a multi-lingual recitation of the prayer simultaneously, but it didn’t. I glanced around, trying to be inconspicuous. My racial-profiling radar has never been that good. “If only I could hear a single person speak clearly,” I thought to myself. “Then, I could identify the language and therefore the people.”

I never did figure out what the other two languages were. I kept meaning to call the Friar this week and eventually decided that I didn’t care. Speaking purely from logic, reason and basic knowledge, I would guess that the groups were Romanian, Ethiopian or Russian Orthodox. I know that their worship is similar but obviously, in a different language. Regardless of what separated them, the true unity of Christ is what brought them together. Whatever barriers caused them to worship separately for an hour were ripped down, like the sheet in the temple, when it came to Jesus’ body and blood. The late Reverend Fred Lassen once loosely interpreted a verse from Romans to me: “Embrace each other precisely in your differences.”

This ceremony and communal process really attracts me to the Orthodox religion, the same way I envy the Catholics and the Episcopalians. I like feeling like I’m part of the culture of something, even though I may not ethnically personify that representation. I don’t think I’ve fit into a “culture” since Oberlin, and maybe that’s what I’m searching for now instead of a church.

One of my college professors hated the saying, “Music is the universal language.” She thought it was trite and silly. I would challenge her now with the idea that music is a cross-cultural language, a time-traveling language and a telepathic language. It allows us to embrace precisely what is different, and when paired with prayer, is virtually unstoppable.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Interlude: She Ain’t Heavy, She’s my…self.

The first alarm escalates at 4:50 a.m. The phone begins soft, almost charming and then crescendos into an obnoxious serious of chords until a button, any button, is pushed. Alarm number two is the annoying, beeping kind. It rings at 5:00 a.m. sharp, though the clock itself says 5:15. For more than ten years the clock has fluctuated between 10 and 20 minutes ahead, as if the trick will work on the mind unconditionally. “Oh my goodness, the clock says 5:15,” she panics. After she’s dressed and headed out the door, she’s calmed by the microwave’s marquee, “5:00 a.m.”

She enjoys the walk to the gym because it is dark and cold. This is the only time she likes being outdoors. Even so, she is grateful to enter the peaceful, air-conditioned lobby, staffed by a busy senior citizen and a high school lifeguard. She waits with her chin in her hand resting on the desk by the keypad, ready to enter her top-secret gym security code as soon as the clock hits 5:25. Every minute counts. The sooner she finishes the elliptical, the episode of “Bones” and the 45-minute workout, the sooner she can shower and catch a quick nap before school. Some days, if she’s running short on time, she’ll dry her hair for four minutes instead of five. This allows her one more minute of rest.

She ate a breakfast bar and drank a sugar-free energy drink before exercising, but the calories have worn off. As she closes her eyes for forty-five minutes, her stomach grumbles in discontent. She tries to focus on the Oprah-preaching positive: If you are hungry, then you are actively losing weight. By the time she awakens for work, she is too anxious to be hungry anymore.

Eating, though, is like the pile of papers that gathers on her desk every semester. It is okay to avoid it for minutes, hours, days and maybe months. It’s okay to let it slide and ignore it, even though it causes great discomfort and may even put others in an uneasy state. But one day, one very frantic day, she suddenly begins organizing and cleaning, depleting the stack of papers one by one until her room is the epitome of perfection. It is the same for food and hunger. Eventually, she will be full, sickly full, regardless of how long she can avoid it.

She quit wearing make-up in college. She quit caring how she dressed after her first teaching job. She just added it into her quirky character label that she gained in high school when she color-coordinated her days of the week and wrote scathing political columns in the school newspaper. Elitism is an easy excuse for lack of self-confidence. Justification is the easiest way to turn a negative into a positive.

Dieting for 15 years is not easy, for anyone, but especially not for her. She loves food, and sometime in college, she learned the glorious combination of food and alcoholic beverages. Drunken pizza, tipsy Taco Bell…they are all staples in her lifestyle. She eats more than she drinks, for sure. It definitely doesn’t take an evening of frivolity to instigate a trip to McDonalds. Aside from alcohol, her reasons for eating are very good: rough day, hard decision, emotional crisis, fabulous celebration, and important social experience…she never eats if there isn’t a good cause.

Music and food are similar in this way. They can fill the void in her life at anytime. The presence or absence of said item can really make the different in a wonderful or terrible day. Just as she could say, “I’m in the mood for Italian,” she could state, “I’m in the mood for some Mozart Violin Concerto in G Major.” Music and food represent the solution as much as the problem, and the tone and mood of her attitude.

She knew the food obsession was an issue, because she started trying to fix it as a teenager. A person who operates in extremes, however, is not so good with balance and nutrition. The most successful diets were difficult and severe, and they lasted no more than a month. At most, she lost thirty pounds and if she was lucky, reduced her blood pressure to an age-appropriate number. Then, tragedy struck, celebrations continued and food was a necessity once again.

Looking in the mirror today makes her sad and disappointed. Whereas before she had instances of security and self-confidence, that assured stature has completely faded. No longer does she appreciate her curves, her naturally highlighted hair or her dark brown eyes. It all seems secondary to the glob in between. Part of her body doesn’t even feel like hers anymore. It is like an uninvited guest that just can’t take the hint.

And when she stands in the classroom, her biggest fear is that the girls that love her can see her pain. She wants them to be strong, smart and caring. She focuses on their growth, intelligence and personality. She doesn’t want them to look in the mirror and see what she sees, which makes her feel like a hypocrite. How can she say it’s okay to be big and beautiful and hate it all at the same time?

As she slumps up the stairs and waddles into her apartment in the evening, she stands at the door and ponders her success. Job, check, education, check, talent, check, personality, not brilliant, but check. There is no mention of her eyes or her hair anymore. There is no reference at all to image or physical appearance. Even without the acknowledgement, the issues push through. For how she looks on the outside is how she feels on the inside, and refusal to look in a mirror is equal to refusal to assess ones faults and weaknesses.

By doctors’ standards, she is obese, yes. By society’s standards, she is just unattractive. Either viewpoint is uncomfortable, and both seem to be based in fact rather than opinion. She gets confused, “Am I fixing a problem?” she asks herself, “Or altering a solution?” The biggest question on her mind, the most dramatic question that she doesn’t express is: “Am I even worth it?” Maybe this is it, she thinks. I’m just supposed to be this way and the consequences will occur regardless.

Grasping at spirituality, music and writing will not help her at this point. She must take drastic, but reasonable, action. She must refuse to settle into the label that she has endured for fifteen years and through confidence or weight-loss or both, prove them all wrong. She does not fit into a category, a box on a sizing table, or a highlighted column on a weight chart. She just needs to fit into her own body, with enough cushion room but also a safety belt.

When the first alarm rings, she presses “dismiss” without hesitation. She resets the 15-minute-ahead-alarm-clock and crawls back into bed. She feels the weight of her body pressing against her most inner doubts and fears. She is full of compromise, justification and pure desperation. She feels defeated. The baggage she has acquired is heavy, but her responsibility. She’s strong enough to lift it, which means she must also be strong enough to throw it away.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Interlude: Do I look Illegal?

Rachel and I have similar experiences when it comes to racism. We have the unique opportunity to see the most internal, secretive, illogical racism that exists. Family, friends and coworkers, who would normally avoid racial remarks at all costs, feel comfortable making them when only white people are present.

Or so they think.

Rachel is half Venezuelan. Actually, her father is Italian Venezuelan, so I guess that makes her a quarter of each. She has porcelain pale skin and gorgeous red hair. She has been called beautiful and exotic, but rarely a racial or ethnic minority. I, on the other hand, have both Mexican and Japanese blood running through my veins. I grew up in a household that embraced the Japanese culture and when my mom walked the streets of Miami, people spoke to her in Spanish because she looked like a native speaker. I have brown hair, brown eyes and very light skin. Even when people find out I am of Japanese and Mexican decent, they often don’t believe me.

The event usually unfolds as so:
I am sitting in a room, on a plane or in a meeting with people that I consider friends, or at least, acquaintances. They know me well enough to call me by my first name, speak to me sarcastically and ask me for help. Some have known me for a very long time and we might even be related. They know where I went to college, where I grew up and often, have met my parents. Then, a story, maybe from the television or from their personal experience, references Japan or Mexico and the people within those countries.

This is when the conversation gets uncomfortable…for me, and, if I’m in an argumentative mood, for them. The least hurtful comment is the use of the word “oriental.” Rugs are oriental, people are not. Occasionally, the term “Jap,” used regularly in WWII, comes up in conversation. Most recently, a cousin of mine posted a warning on my mom’s Facebook wall about “those oriental nail salons.” My mom was bewildered. “You know I’m Japanese, right?” she responded. “Oh, no offense,” was followed by a detailed essay on why what my cousin said “really wasn’t racist.” When I was in eighth grade, my social studies class spent the better part of an hour watching footage of the atom bomb. “Cool!” the other children exclaimed. The teacher did not intervene as the video promoted the American perspective of the war, depicting the Japanese as terrible, harsh fighters with no regard for human life. Fifty years after the war and we were still dehumanizing the “enemy.” Even at 13, I felt discouraged.

When I defend my heritage, which is 100% of the time now, I often receive the excuse, “I never would have said that if I knew you were Japanese/Hispanic.” That doesn’t change the fact that you are racist, I want to reply. Careful racism is just as bad, if not worse than outward racism. It makes you wonder how many people have these prejudices inside and how many friends to whom they feel close enough that they can express their biases. Unfortunately, this internal fear they possess has ended many relationships for me. I can handle discussion over political beliefs and even open-minded conversations on race. What I will not do is have a relationship with someone who dehumanizes my friends and family. There is a line that needs to be drawn and those of us who like to debate need to boycott those who cross it. I wonder if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had sat around and “talked” as long as we do sometimes, would civil rights have happened? We need to stop convincing and take action, stop listening and take charge, stop buying and start affecting.

The immigration bill in Arizona has started a movement called “Do I look illegal?” To me, that is like asking, “Do I look like an alien? Do I look non-human?” And though the revisions to the bill state that officers of the law may only ask for documentation if they can find another law violation, the first thing the police will do is look. A light-skinned man and a brown-skinned man are standing in front of a convenience store. Which one will the police approach regarding loitering and then proceed to ask for documentation? This bill, just as so many subconscious bigots did when they found out my heritage, makes excuses for discrimination. It is no different than the laws imposed on African-Americans that were full of evidence and arguments and justification.

As I ponder the question, “Do I look illegal?” I put my passport, a copy of my birth certificate and my social security card in my wallet. Every time I use my credit card, go to the bank or get pulled over for speeding, I can offer up all of this information. When I get carded at the bar or club, it will be easier if I just shove evidence of my whole life into the open. And then, I can pleasantly state, “You look illegal. Can I see your documentation, please?”

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Churchopedia #2 (Church #24): Conversation v. Conversion

Usually people either believe or they don’t. The person that believes in fate, God’s plan, soul-mates, signs and superstitions clashes severely with one who enjoys coincidence, choice and the basic fact that “s**t happens.” I’ve always believed in dichotomies, a combination of the supernatural and the rational. I am mostly in control of my experiences, thoughts and emotions, but God has a funny way of throwing that in my face sometimes. When I am most comfortable, when the obvious happens, when the right choice is made, here comes the other side pushing the logical out of the way and screaming for attention. Perhaps it is pure luck that my life always fits so well into the 10 Churches journey of this blog. Maybe it is the way I manipulate words and situations to make a point or come to a revelation. I think, though, that at some point God intervenes and forces me to consider other aspects of the equation: the additional answers and explanations, or, the possibility that the equation is unsolvable.

On Sunday, Rainbow Mennonite fulfilled all of my expectations. I did not write an immediate blog entry because I really could not think of anything to ponder. It was interesting, but non-descript, nice, but plain, and if someone were to ask me about the Mennonites now, I would say the same thing I have always said about them: “They are good people.” That phrase is a common Midwestern term…a politically correct way of defining a culture, a religion or a people by the generalization of their ideals.

When Tuesday rolled around, I was granted the opportunity to see the other side. An experience that accentuated the positive points about the Mennonites while also putting everything into perspective. An experience that made it difficult to only say, “They are good people.” Tuesday night, I attended the “Singles” group at Church of the Resurrection (Mega-church #1, Church #12). This was a community that proved, at least partially, that the Mennonites are more than just good people and the opposite is too multifaceted to be labeled only as “bad.” Philosophy and theology are just more complicated than that.

I visited Resurrection Singles because (let’s be honest here) I am desperately searching for love. It took a lot of convincing from my mother, who has been attending church there regularly and quite a dramatic pep talk in my car prior, but I knew I would regret not at least trying it. I assumed I might feel slightly uncomfortable or a little weird. I thought I might be out of place or slightly more liberal than everyone else. I hoped just as much that I would be surprised by a positive experience, gaining a few friends or possibilities along the way.

I was wrong. About everything.

I’m skipping the first part of the evening when more than 100 singles gathered for snacks and icebreakers. I wanted that to be the most uncomfortable time. It was, after all, the part of the night when an older man in an orange shirt kept moving his chair closer to mine as I inched further away. But that was just the beginning. When we broke into age groups, I entered the 32-and-under room expecting conversation, prayer and worship. What I got was a full-fledged bible study on Acts 13.

First, I forgot my bible. I didn’t really forget it. I don’t carry a bible with me…ever. It stays by my bed, I read it often and I know it well, but the Internet is less heavy than the leather bound, annotated (plus apocrypha) book I own. I was overwhelmed with the loneliness I often felt in high school. When your 16, though, you can build up an overconfident reputation as the “weird girl” and eventually get by. Where is that argumentative, opinionated, crazy liberal now that I’m in my late 20s? Why do I suddenly feel ashamed to be who I am in a room of what I am not?

If you’ve met me, you will find this next part unbelievable. We discussed Acts 13 for over an hour. I did not say one word for 45 minutes. Whenever I had the opportunity, I viciously scribbled notes on my verse-by-verse worksheet, underlining and finishing with explanation points. I tried to be inconspicuous, but if my constant writing didn’t give it away, I’m sure my red face and watering eyes were a sign of discomfort.

In case you do not want to read Acts 13, here is my completely biased summary:

Paul and his friends are on a journey to destroy the Jewish faith. They go to a bunch of places and meet a bunch of people, and those people are a little hesitant. After all, Paul is asking them to completely disregard all the rules they’ve been following since Moses and follow this guy called Jesus. AND he claims they don’t have to atone for their sins, which just seems wrong. Shouldn’t we all have to atone in some way? Anyway, Paul loses his temper and tells the Jewish people that they had their chance to be the chosen people but they questioned it too much so they might as well just go to hell. He’s pretty mean about it, too. He’s all, “Fine! You don’t want Christ! We’ll just give him to the Gentiles!” Of course, Acts is written from the “winner’s” perspective. Paul is made out to be a poor, harassed, selfless follower; really, I think he was a very rude, presumptuous and hateful guest.

Okay, I know that’s a little…dramatic. But sometimes my opinion exaggerates as I hear more of the opposition. In my bible study group of about ten, the words of Acts were taken as pure truth. No questions asked. No consideration of context or different opinions. The worksheet asked: why was Paul a good teacher? The group answered: He lives by example, he is knowledgeable and he shares his teachings with everyone. My answer? Paul wasn’t that great of a teacher. Good teachers are open-minded, always learning and not afraid to admit they are wrong. Good teachers apologize when they lose their tempers. Finally, I spoke, “I feel that,” I started. “I feel that if I were only to read Acts 13, I wouldn’t want to be a Christian.” Blank stares=epic fail. Someone at the table tried to explain Paul’s perspective to me, but I didn’t need to hear it. After all, his perspective is written right in front of me. What I wanted was to consider the perspective of the Jewish people. What I wanted was to consider that this might just be a politically motivated story, based on real events but ultimately fiction. I had forgotten how it felt to feel silenced.

From that point forward, one girl spoke to me. She made small talk as we walked to the parking lot and meekly said, “Hope to see you next week.” I’m sure they all were as nice as her, I just don’t get a chance to experience that because I don’t believe exactly what they believe.

This put the Mennonites in a really, really good light. The Mennonites I know always listen first. They are thoughtful and kind, and they will give you food and shelter regardless of your religion. They work hard and they value the community as much as the individual. Their worship service was a little challenging, very comforting and left room for fellowship and discussion. I didn’t feel silenced in their congregation. In fact, I felt comfortable enough to introduce myself during the service. They wanted my blog address and offered me donuts. Their music was beautiful and inviting.

I’m reminded, now, of why I began this journey. It was to find the good in churches, not the bad. It was to be eternally open-minded and carefully critical. I could have written a blog entry on Monday about the Mennonites. Sometimes, it’s okay when there is no revelation or argument. But God knows that sometimes I need a little bit of drama to stir my spirit and I need the opposite in order to write the obvious. I don’t want to be as harsh on the singles group as Paul was on the Jewish people. I really do want to see the love in all religious situations. After all, I’m sure they are good people.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Interlude: Defeat

I climbed onto the bus after Wednesday night’s rehearsal, absolutely exhausted. Maybe Tchaikovsky drained me, or perhaps it was just the long day that started with me leaving my house at 7:00 a.m. and not returning until close to midnight. My body and mind are accustomed to this schedule. The day’s culmination with a rehearsal or concert often invigorates me. Chatting and laughter are more common on the bus ride back to Kansas City after rehearsal than to St. Joseph at 5:30 in the evening. Musicians appreciate post-music frivolity, that’s for sure.

This time, however, as the rest of the bus riders loudly rejoiced in the night, I slumped down in my seat and pulled out my iPod. I was silently whining to myself, yearning for just a moment of that silence from that Quaker Meeting. My face and arms were warm, like sunburn, and several people had already commented that I looked “flushed.” If I looked in a mirror, I know I would have seen my neck and chest turning red. Allergic reactions and stress reactions are one in the same for me. I considered using my EpiPen, but thought better of it. Stabbing myself in the leg with adrenaline seemed unlikely to make me feel better.

I waited until the lights turned off and the bus started moving before I allowed a few tears to fall. At that point, I started noticing the numbness in my legs and arms, the tremor in my hands and a nausea that was spreading from my stomach throughout the rest of my body. The feeling of defeat has always scared me, especially when it happens at obscure times. There was no life-changing event or epic fail; no loss of competition, life or love. I just know that if someone had asked me, “Megan, how are you feeling?” I would have had a fabulous word bank of adjectives with which to reply: sad, lonely, hurt, angry, fat, tired, sick, crazy, defeated, etc…a list so long, I should have made a word search entitled “Adjectives to Describe Megan when she is Cranky.” Oh, cranky. That’s another good one.

This would have been a convenient time for Jesus to arrive. The door was wide open. If a missionary had approached me, I probably would have converted instantly. But missionaries usually come at when you’re eating dinner or watching a movie, so I just scrolled through my iPod for signs of Christ. God? The Holy Spirit, for goodness sake? I landed on Kristin Chenoweth’s rendition of “Just as I Am.” Not her best work, but even then, still better than everyone else.

The arrangement was simple, quiet and comforting. Often used as an altar call in conservative churches, I had heard many dechurched lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered speakers refer to this song thoughtlessly as a representation of discomfort and unwelcome as non-LGBTs walked down the aisles. When I first read the lyrics, sometime in college, I thought just the opposite. “This should be the LGBT Christian Anthem,” I said to my pastor. “I mean, seriously, ‘Just as I Am’? It practically screams, ‘God made me this way!’” It isn’t always the words, though, but the intention that becomes the common belief. Whereas the words suggested an environment of complete and utter acceptance, they were utilized to separate and judge. How did a perfectly good hymn get twisted up in that mess?

Closing my eyes and listening to Kristin’s every word was really an effort to let Jesus back into my heart. I thought if I could believe the words at my lowest moment, I could believe in Him again. “If you really want me Just as I Am,” I prayed in my head, “then here I am.”

It wasn’t that life had dealt me a bad hand. My life was and still is full of opportunity, positive relationships and many achievements. I just didn’t think I deserved that life at that time. Someone else could step into my place and make the most of my credentials to create more change, a better future and a great life. The only saving grace, the only hope, was that I could give my life back to Jesus. I could love God with all my heart and soul and mind. And then maybe my good luck could be put to good use. I know it’s not possible to just give all of my ‘awesome’ to someone else and shrivel up into despair. I needed a chance to use my awesome for, well, awesomeness. Who better to do that than an Awesome God (now there’s a song I don’t like)?

Most of the time, my rants end in a sensible solution or a provocative conclusion; sometimes, a rhetorical question or a caddy summation. This time, no. This time, I can only write that after internalizing “Just as I Am,” I felt a little bit better. Not get-down-on-my-knees-and-praise-the-Lord better, but there was a slight improvement in my attitude the next day. By Friday, I had regained at least my musical confidence and was back playing Tchaikovsky without fear or anxiety. I laughed more, concentrated harder and whined less. There were a few ups and downs every hour or two and I’m not saved, nor healed nor convinced. But we’re getting somewhere. It’s about freaking time.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Churchopedia #1 (Church #23): Silent Hysteria

Teachers rarely experience silence. There might be a moment of quiet, followed by a “Ssh!” or “Be quiet!” or “She’s pushing me!” During tests, there are papers shuffling or keys clicking. The cell phone in the backpack is a more recent classroom sound, closely affiliated with the tick of buttons texting under a desk. The movement, voices and general clamor of a school become ingrained in our heads like a high-pitched dog whistle that only we can hear.

Musicians seldom come across silence, either. If we aren’t actually listening to or playing music, it is roaring through our head at full speed, providing a constant soundtrack, even when we sleep. Teachers and musicians know what it’s like to hear things from the inside out. Silence is non-existent.

Quakers are known for their preference towards silent, reflective settings. The Penn Valley Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends allowed my mother and I to dive into this place without testing the water first. They were welcoming, full of small talk and introductions and then it stopped. The Meeting began and the sound disappeared. For only that split second, when the quiet began, I heard nothing.

Then, I snapped out of it.

I closed my eyes in prayer and drifted immediately to my students. I heard their laughter and gave thanks, felt their pain and asked for help, but then I started to think about lesson plans. I hummed songs with my breath and recited them on sol-feg to reason their difficulty with the appropriate grade-level.

Someone shifted and I opened my eyes for a moment, hoping the Spirit had moved a Friend to speak. The man beside me simply crossed his legs and settled back into the nothingness. Silent sigh. I closed my eyes again, trying hard to concentrate on the silence.

Then, of course, Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” started running through my head. I had no sense of time, but figured that in the first ten minutes, I had lost any hope of undergoing a divine transformation. I also knew that unless someone spoke-up soon and gave me something to ponder, I was going to lose myself inside my crazy head.

This would have been the perfect moment to hear Kate Oberg’s voice. My Quaker friend from Oberlin is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends. She helped me research from afar and picked out the Penn Valley Meeting for me to attend. But whereas I felt the focus on silence in this Meeting, Kate was more of a passionate listener. During ecumenical discussions, she would sit forward, looking directly at the speaker. Occasionally, she would take weeks before responding during discussion. When the moment finally came, she would sit back and say, thoughtfully, simply, but prophetically something like, “I think…there is a difference between righteousness and self-righteousness.” If Kate had been there, my thoughts would have transformed into a faithful theological discussion in my head.

Instead, though, I was left with a radio station on the “scan” function moving from Simon & Garfunkel to Justin Bieber’s latest, “Baby,” last week’s “Song of the Week” in my classroom. By the end of the meeting, I had ran the entire Kindergarten program twice, figured out the first verse of “The Boxer” (also by Simon & Garfunkel) and pondered utilizing boomwhackers or bells on the “Bluebird” game with first grade. When they gave time to joys and concerns, I thought intensely about the next two weeks: a gig with the St. Joseph Symphony, Census Training, Starlight, a kindergarten program, and a voice/violin performance at my Grandpa’s nursing home.

And once again, we’re back to it being all about me. The Quakers represent the opposite of the mega-church. Structure, leadership, blaring sound and constant entertainment versus simple, silent and peaceful. My problem was, I entered this situation with the attitude of the mega-churcher. “What will this church do for me?”

I keep myself busy because I’m not a fan of being left alone with my thoughts. Even in a solitary state, I can distract myself with television, books and writing. Every now and then, I get a glimpse of what is going on in my crazy brain, but overall I try to stay out of there. When I do delve into my thoughts, often right as I’m falling asleep, I get lost in worry and planning. My brain and insomnia are in cahoots to make my life miserable.

So what I learned from the Quakers today, I actually learned from Kate several years ago. Rather than thinking, praying, planning, worrying, learning, etc., I should just listen. I pride myself in keeping an open mind, when really, I’m just stuffing it with pointless thoughts and distractions. If I just stopped and listened, I might feel more comfortable…and a little less self-righteous.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Church #22: Dead Man Walking. Dead Man Walking!

An Easter Poem

Jesus rises from the dead,
To Angels, Mary cried and pled.
She found him later, down the way,
What was she supposed to say?
The story seems weird enough,
But then two disciples have it rough.
They walk in loneliness, but are unaware,
That Jesus is standing right there.
So we have a dead guy, basically walking,
Seemingly living and definitely talking,
And sometime somewhere someone thought it funny,
To add to dead man walking, a colorful, magical bunny,
The bunny has eggs, that he acquired from a hen,
But somehow they’re colored first by the family within,
Then the family goes to church and listens to the story,
While the Easter Bunny is spreading colored-egg glory,
For candy and treats, the children all beg,
For after finding Jesus, they find an Easter Egg,
And somehow it’s all connected, not sure what it’s about.
But one thing I know is, Easter has always freaked me out.

The Virgin Birth, I can handle. The only thing unusual or unbelievable about that is the lack know. A woman being pregnant, having a baby, even in a stable, is plausible. But there is nothing about a dead man walking that is realistic. I’m even open-minded to spirits and ghosts, signs from God and all that supernatural stuff. I have never been able to handle, though, the fact that he just got up, folded up his tomb blankets (what a nice guest), pushed aside a very heavy rock and just walked away.

Of course, I’ve tried to contemporize the story. I’ve studied it academically and come up with a logical answer: it’s all one giant metaphor. After a couple days of mourning, the disciples asked themselves, “What would Jesus do?” and headed out to spread the good news. His ideas were resurrected. His body, however, was not.

But even that explanation isn’t particularly fulfilling. Without the magic, the bible turns into a self-help book rather than a holy experience. Pushing the science aside, I focused on my faith. Though I believe religion and science actually function well together, in this case, maybe I needed to relax into following the doctrine blindly and without question. What if I just decided it was all true?

The barrier then, is, even if I believe, even if I know that it all really happened exactly the way it was written, I’m still not that impressed. Jesus still did his best work before he died. The resurrection was what made him famous, holy, and worshipped. It is, for some, the entire reasoning behind the Christian faith.

Jesus was born under supernatural circumstances, died, and then came back. Easter forces us to act as if there were nothing in between. I always think, what if Jesus had lived another month, another year? What could he have done? How many lives would have been saved? How many injustices would have been addressed? Great, you came back to life after you died and then ascended into heaven. That really isn’t helpful to the millions of children living in poverty or the victims of genocide. That won’t create peace or pass a health care bill. But it does do wonders for your reputation.

After writing the previous paragraphs, and the obnoxious poem, I realized that Easter makes me bitter. Every year, I am moved by Ash Wednesday and relate to the sorrow of the Lenten season. The actual finale, though, seems self-serving. Unlike Advent, which truly focuses on the miracle of life, hope and love, Easter really is all about death. For without death, Jesus couldn’t have risen from anything in the first place.

As I sat in the sanctuary at Grace and Holy Trinity, a beautiful Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Kansas City, I saw the light and the flowers and was not particularly renewed. A life that revolves around the school year doesn’t allow renewal during March and/or April. Maybe a little Spring Break, but otherwise, testing, frustration, stress, and the wildness of the warm weather. It is usually the time of year I start thinking, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I can make it through the last quarter.”

I’m also not a big fan of the sun or warm weather. Oberlin transformed me into an inside girl, and I flourish in the dark, cold, dampness of winter. When I need a break, I often close my blinds, turn off the lights, and blast the air conditioner. The snow and the rain seem to wash away my troubles and that is when I feel most renewed. On December 25th there is potential, great potential for a baby born out of wedlock. On Easter, there is a middle-age dead man walking around tricking people. I’m just not a fan.

So I’m putting Church #22 behind me and starting a new journey. I’m forcing myself to try something new, even though I do not feel that sense of renewal. I’m hoping, during these 50 days of Easter, that I can find that personal connection many people feel to the holiday. Perhaps by the end of this journey, I can reconcile my faith.