Searching for God in a World of Pokémon - Pop Culture Espresso Shots

I’m going to come out and say it: I totally love Pokémon Go.

I really do.

I’m a little embarrassed about it, but I can’t help it. I can’t help but open the app whenever I run out to the store or happen to be in a public area with restaurants and movies theaters. I just have to see if any of those little pocket monsters are anywhere nearby.

While the game has come under some criticism due to some users going to extremes of jumping out of moving cars and falling off cliffs in order to catch ‘em all, I actually think that the game has done a lot of good in some ways.

I’m not the first to suggest this. Some have pointed to Pokémon Go’s effect on an increase in neighborliness. Some have observed that people who might otherwise be stuck inside playing video games are actually going out into the light of day to play video games instead. And yet others have suggested that the game has led to an increase in people’s awareness of meaningful public spaces.

In his article on The American Conservative, Alexi Sargeant writes, “PokéStops fight back against the flattening of the cityscape. Players of the game are being trained to orient themselves towards the sort of monuments and ‘decorations’ that ennoble our habitat.” It is this re-enchanting quality of Pokémon Go that fascinates me most.

Most of the time, many of us are preoccupied with the concerns of this world: making money, saving for a house, getting schoolwork done, etc. We try to carve out a meaningful life for ourselves within the scope of what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame.”

Philosopher James K.A. Smith helpfully describes Taylor’s immanent frame as “a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence.” This immanent frame suffocates all of us, regardless of what we believe. The immanent frame is concerned more with how we believe.

This means that even those of us who are Christians often believe in the same way as those who are not. We tend to think of our faith as that which leads to a meaningful life as opposed to that which gives us access to the transcendent reality of God’s Kingdom. Often our narratives of Orthodoxy are rooted in history (“Proclaiming the Truth since AD 33”) rather than eternity.

Indeed, the transcendent is something that tends to be lost on those of us who inhabit a world following the Enlightenment. While we may not go so far as the New Atheist types so as to say that only that which is “natural” is “real,” we often differentiate between the “earthly” and the “spiritual.” We very rarely see these things as able to coexist, or at least we are very uncomfortable with the idea of it.   

For example, while we can read the Old Testament and hear about God speaking to Moses through a burning bush, most of us would prefer that our bushes remain trimmed and quiet, not ablaze and speaking. And even if our bushes spoke to us, we would be more likely to assume that we were hallucinating, that we were either sick or dehydrated, in need of more rest, than we would be to assume that we are hearing from God Almighty.

This is what it means to be suffocating within the immanent frame. That our immediate reality is a closed system, cut off from participation in the transcendent here and now. Bread and wine are just bread and wine; any significance must be fabricated, “remembered” or “felt.” Things no longer are both earthly and heavenly. In the immanent frame, we all lose our sacramental imagination.

Enter Pokémon Go.

Using real world locations Pokémon Go leads users into to practice a crypto-sacramental way of inhabiting the world. Places can be both parks and Pokéstops. Gamers are able to practice keeping one foot squarely in the visible world while also looking beyond this world to see another one.

Now, I’m not saying that Pokémon Go is a gateway to the Kingdom of God, but I do think it has the capacity to form its users into being certain kinds of people, people who can imagine a world beyond our own, a world that cannot be seen but can nonetheless be experienced, touched in some way beyond the physical.

If turning on our phones and calling the local mall a “Pokégym” is possible, then it might be possible to grasp that the humble elements of bread and wine are also the very Body and Blood of Christ. If around every corner a Pikachu could be lurking, then it may be feasible to see a ragtag group of people as the very manifestation of God’s Kingdom.

Pokémon Go has filled the world with wonder again, and people now inhabit the world differently than they did two months ago. And while Pokémon Go may not be the goal of our journey toward God’s Kingdom, perhaps we can acknowledge it as a divine Pokéstop of sorts, where we are able to pick up some tools as we practice inclining our hearts toward the invisible God who became a human being in order to catch us all.

Photo Credits:

House Pokémon: Depositphotos

Mall Pokémon: Depositphotos

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his first MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Mother's Day on August 15

Every year, Orthodox Christians around the world celebrate the Virgin Mary for the first fifteen days of August. It’s such a great feast that in Greece the celebration on August 15 is known as the Summer Pascha! For the first fourteen days, we fast in anticipation of the falling asleep of the Virgin Mary, and we sing the Paraklesis in her honor.

 

Ever since Jesus put the Virgin Mary into the care of St. John and told him, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27), the Theotokos has been our mother as well. She is the greatest of the saints and she holds a place of honor as the mother of our Lord. The connection that she has with Christ is one which we all can only strive to understand.

 

As we remember the life of the Virgin Mary this month, let’s also bring to mind all of the mothers in our lives. The epitome of womanhood and motherhood, the Panagia is an archetype for all women. The Paraklesis to the Theotokos provides us with some titles that discuss the Virgin Mary but which can be applied to all mothers.

 

1. The protection of my life

 

The Paraklesis service calls the Panagia the “protection of my life,” our “unshakable wall,” and a “wall of refuge.” As the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary had an incredibly important role in guiding, protecting, and raising Jesus. Though God, Jesus was also born a baby in need of protection. As our adopted mother, the Panagia is our protection too, our stability in an often shaken world. We can run to her to shelter us and to bring us under the loving embrace of her Son.

 

As a little kid, I knew without a doubt that my Mama was the person I could run to when I was scared. My older sister, now a mother herself, has also held the role of protector and that unshakable wall in my life. This is who moms are. As I work with moms at my church, I cannot help but be amazed at their strength and resilience. They balance so much, they sacrifice so much, they are the protection of the most priceless of gifts: our community’s children.

 

Isn’t it clear then that the Mother of God would be our surest protection as well?

 

2. The one with a motherly favor

 

We call the Virgin Mary the “one with a motherly favor” because we trust that Jesus will continue to listen to her requests. After all, she did save the day at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) by asking Jesus to replenish the wine! So maybe we, too, can benefit from her loving suggestions to her Son.

 

Though I try to be a generous person, I suppose I could always give more than I do. But if my mom, my sister, or my stepmom were to ask for help…how could I say no!? I love them and have benefited so much from their love and protection; why would I ever want to say no to them? If these mothers can count on me to listen to them and to do what I can to make them happy, then I can also trust our Lord will listen to the requests that our common mother, the Virgin Mary, asks for us.

 

3. A place of joy

 

Jesus told His disciples that if they kept His commandments and remained in His love, their joy would be full. Even though the Virgin Mary stood and watched her son suffer, she was so filled with His love that she did not despair. Can you imagine the joy that she must have had when she saw her Son again after His resurrection? Her heart must have brimmed over! Who else could be such a place of joy as the Panagia?

 

The love of the mothers in my life is the most wonderfully biased love in the world! Whatever I do brings joy to them. They pray for me, they are always happy for my triumphs and they worry about me when a smile isn’t on my face. But they are also a place of hope and always expect the best is yet to come. You see joy isn’t just being happy, it is trusting that what is to come is God’s will and that He is working to fulfill his will in our lives. It’s trust.

 

And with all that moms have to worry about, they would all go grey in a year if they did not trust in God’s power in the lives of their children. So while the Virgin Mary frets over us as any mother, she also has trust that her Son will provide for all of us. And that trust, that joy that she has, gives her prayers strength before the throne of God.

 

*****

 

There is so much about the Orthodox Christian faith that is so wonderfully natural and organic. Our devotion to the Virgin Mary is one which flows from our love and devotion to all mothers, and which makes heart sense. Moms are our protection, they always have our devotion, and they are our place of joy. And as the mother par excellence, the Panagia is always there for us too to protect us, to bring our prayers to Christ, and to remind us to trust in God’s will.

 

So while you’re celebrating Summer’s Pascha, reach out to all the mothers in your life! Happy Mother’s Day this August 15th!

 

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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That Time I Thought My Daughter Was Dying

I’ve lately been writing a lot about the need for courage in the face of death. A couple weeks ago, my own courage in the face of death was put to the test when, after hitting her head on a concrete floor, my beautiful 13-month-old baby girl passed out for roughly a minute.

Nothing could have prepared me for this, and I’m honestly still trying to make sense of it. It is every father’s nightmare.

It happened while my family and a bunch of our friends were out to lunch following the Divine Liturgy. Having just participated in the Lord’s Table, we extended our Eucharistic community through the lifting up of our lunch table.

My baby had just started walking a couple weeks prior, so she was still very new to the whole biped way of life (aren’t we all?). I was walking right behind her, half-distracted by the goings-on of the restaurant as well as the Cubs game on television. She leaned up against a slick, vinyl bench, and down she went, smacking the back of her head square on the ground.

At this point, other than being scared and in pain, she seemed fine. Just a normal, albeit hard fall, I thought. She started crying, as one would expect, but as I picked her up and walked her to her mommy, she must have been unable to get a breath in the midst of her deep pain, which is when her eyes rolled back, and she passed out in my arms.

Even writing this now, I struggle to put the words down, horrified and fighting back tears as images of my infant daughter, limp and unconscious, run through my head.

I have never been more afraid than I was then.

I have never felt more vulnerable than I did at that moment.

I realized just how swiftly my “happiness” could be taken away from me and how fragile everything that I’m working to build for my family and myself really is.

Obviously, no parent wants to see their kid pass out, no parent wants to see their child die, and unfortunately, far too many parents have to go through such tragedy. I have several friends who have lost babies to miscarriage, SIDS, or some other fatal disease.

And after the fainting incident, I can honestly say that how these people found ways through the pain that I only momentarily was afraid of…well, it’s beyond me.

And I think that’s just the point. It is beyond any of us.

The only explanation I have is that somehow these parents who have lost their children believe, deep in their souls, that life is stronger than death. They bravely believe that Christ is stronger than death.

They must have a firm conviction that Christ truly has defeated death, or they are at least actively practicing this conviction, leaning into the discomfort, the pain, the tragedy of losing a child.

These courageous parents choose love and hope, trusting in Christ even when faced with the inescapable reality of death. These are people whom I wish to emulate.

Because the reality of our world is bleak.

It seems like almost every day that we see some news story about someone (or even a bunch of someones) dying far too soon and far too violently. Why do I think that I am impervious to the threat of having my own heart broken?

Death is coming for me and for my children. The only hope is Jesus Christ.

And I felt the need to have that hope, a need to trust the Christ is mightier than anything that could take my baby away from me. I felt the need for that hope when death came knocking at the door of my faith and the only answer that came was the hollow echo of nothingness.

I realized how truly, deeply afraid I am, how much I continually trust in myself to keep my family safe, to keep myself safe. But no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I convince myself that I can protect my children, the reality is that I can’t.

And that terrifies me.

So more than having a lesson or some kind of thesis with this blog post, I write it more as a confession. I write it to confess that I struggle, that my faith gets battered up against the cold, hard reality of death. Or rather, my lack of faith is exposed by the moments that terrify me, that truly deeply shake me to my core.

And I write it as a request because I know I’m not alone. That we can pray for one another that we can learn to hold each other close as we lift each other up to the Lord Jesus Christ, the One in whom we must choose to hope daily, for He alone is the Resurrection and the Life.

Photo Credits:

Dark Path: Desositphotos

Jesus: Despositphotos

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his first MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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The Importance of Having Heroes Who Make Mistakes

Since I’m the oldest child and cousin in my family, I’ve often looked outside of my family for role models and mentors. I found a lot of older female role models in high school via Greek club and GOYA, and later at Camp Saint Paul during my first year on staff.

 

I found myself looking up to these girls, without really getting to know them, because I was extremely shy when I was younger, and saw them as the outgoing and charismatic people that I wanted to be. Before I even knew about their commitments to their faith, I saw their commitments to their goals, to their families and friends. I think it was just what I needed to see to inspire me.

 

Then, I actually became friends with these girls.

 

Soon afterwards, I found that these girls made mistakes. They weren’t perfect. They gossiped, they skipped church, they didn’t always make great decisions.

 

The reason that I found these things out was simple: when you get to know people on a deeper level than simply looking up to them from afar, you’re going to see them more fully than before. Read: the good, the bad, and the ugly. To be completely honest, I was pretty thrown off when I first realized this. I felt like I had misread my role models.

 

That is, until I realized, I do all of those things too. They were actually much more similar to me than I had ever thought.

 

As Christians, we all struggle to do what is best. We are all imperfect, and we are all in need of God’s mercy. Admitting your shortcomings, not hiding them, but instead seeking God’s mercy for them is a beautiful thing that we could all stand to do a bit more. So at the end of the day, I’m glad that I was able to see both sides of my mentors.

 

By being imperfect, my role models showed me something that’s more important than always being on your A-game: being honest, repentant Christians who work through challenges and don’t give up their faith.

 

And because of them, I’ve learned to not only accept, but to love people who admit their imperfections, both seen and unseen.

 

As I have gotten older, I have become a role model to others as well, unworthy as I am. I am always wary when someone tells me that they look up to me, thinking, “Aren’t there better people to look up to than me?” I am reluctant to be seen making mistakes because I’d rather people who look up to me don’t follow in my footsteps.

 

But it’s a teaching opportunity. I can’t help being imperfect, and neither could the girls I look up to because (surprise surprise!) they are humans. They didn’t choose to be my role models and mentors, yet I wanted them to be. And realizing that they were imperfect was just one of the countless blessings that I received by meeting them.


Now, I can look up to them in a different way. Look to them for guidance not only as to the woman that I want to be, but for guidance as to how to get back up when life knocks you down, how to admit your flaws and work on them, learn to live with them or grow from them. And to remain a beacon of light through all of that.

 

I’ve also realized that mentor relationships work both ways. I’ve had people I really look up to come to me earnestly seeking advice. It’s a really nice and welcome reminder of how I have grown with their guidance.

 

The best role models I’ve had are the ones who admit their shortcomings. It helps them love me and guide me through my own shortcomings and mistakes, urging me not to make the same ones and showing me how to set things right through their loving examples. It is only through understanding that my mentors are not perfect that I am able to truly respect and love them.

 

Image credits:

Depositphotos

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Maria is the Administrative Coordinator of Y2AM. She is a New York native who isn't completely sold on the city's charm, yet has never left. A proud graduate of Fordham University and occasional runner, she is happiest whenever chocolate, a sale, or a good Gilmore Girls reference is involved.

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Finding Hope Even in 2016

As many of you probably have, I’ve struggled to keep a good thought in what has proven to be a challenging year. Between the Great and Holy Council, and the US Presidential election, there has been a constant stream of news (both Church and secular) to follow and to worry about.  And even now, the innocent continue to die in the streets both at home and abroad, and politicians continue to bicker.

 

In need of some guidance, I opened up the Bible and found Chapter 8 of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. As is often the case, this was exactly what I needed to read. I needed to be reminded that there is always hope in Christ: that there is hope regardless of our present circumstances.

 

So what did I read in the book of Romans that gave me strength? What was it that helped me not to ignore the suffering and injustices of this world, but to find courage instead of despair even in the midst of it all?

 

1. Fear not, God is our Father

 

“For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, father.’” Romans 8:15

 

In our baptism, we were adopted as sons and daughters of God. What Jesus shares with the Father by nature, we get to share by grace as a gift. We have the privilege of calling out “Abba!” (Baba or Papa) to the creator of the universe. God is not some distant impersonal force out there; God the Father is our guide, our protection, and our cause of joy. We may experience fear, but we are not alone. Our Father is holding us close to Himself.  As a father embraces his child during a thunderstorm, giving them faith that they are safe, so too our Heavenly Father embraces us with His protection.

 

So when the temptation comes to worry about what will happen next, remember that we did not receive a spirit of fear. Our fear cannot fix this broken world. But a spirit of peace might be just what people need.

 

2. Suffering will come, but so will glory

 

“The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Romans 8:18

 

Church history shows us that following Christ does not guarantee an easy or physically blessed life. What the Church reminds us though, over and over through the life of the saints, is that suffering in this life does not compare with the glory that will come through unity with Jesus Christ.

 

We may not be able to control the circumstances that come our way or the evils in the world, but if we are united to Jesus Christ, we will have already found the source of joy to endure whatever it is we face. The world will not be able to knock us off of our feet if we are already firmly grounded in Him. With Christ as our anchor, we will be able to endure the pain we feel watching the news, the frustration of an election year, the suffering that we personally encounter.

 

3. We have an active hope

 

“The whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” Romans 8:22

 

“We eagerly wait for it [the redemption of our body] with perseverance.” Romans 8:23, 25

 

Not only do we await the redemption and resurrection of our bodies (as we confess in the Creed), but all of creation is awaiting this future glorification and renewal with Christ. So what does that mean for our world today? It reminds us that we await something better, that even though the quality of life, technology and medicine have improved over the centuries, sin and death still rule. While we get a foretaste of the kingdom in this life, we still look to a moment when all of this world (with its imperfect people and imperfect politics) will be redeemed.

 

So how can we have this active, persevering sort of hope? Well, have you ever seen a dog wait patiently for a treat? He never takes his eyes off his master and obeys him with eagerness to gain the prize. I should be as eager for God’s grace in my life as a dog is for his treat.

 

4. We are weak, God is strong

 

“The Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Romans 8:26

 

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31

 

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress, or persecution or family, or nakedness or peril or sword?...Neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35, 38-39

 

When I am stuck in worry about the state of the world, when I find myself impassioned over the fate of our country or of Christians in the Middle East, I am acting as if I have the power to solve these problems on my own. I can only despair because I become aware of my own weakness. Instead of turning to God in prayer, I turn to worry. But Saint Paul reminds us that even when we do not know the words to say, the Holy Spirit will help us direct our hearts and minds to Him. God’s power is “made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9) precisely because we can’t get anything done if we rely on our own perceived strength; we can only experience God’s strength if we acknowledge our own limitations.

 

What can separate us from the love of Christ? Absolutely nothing. Except maybe our pride. But when we are weak, God is strong.

 

*****

 

It is good to be upset about and not numb to the injustice, the death, and the pain our world experiences. It is good that we see the imperfections of a world that isn’t rooted in the hope of the Gospel. But instead of turning inwards through despair or turning outwards in anger or resentment, we must turn up to God in prayer first. In prayer, God might even reveal what we can do to be a tool of His grace in this world so much in need of Christ’s presence.

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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