Entries with tag love of god .

Faith Witness in Albania

Albania, which is not high on most desirable destination lists, has long competed against a not-so-untruthful global reputation. Having spent 12 days touring most of the country, I can attest that some clichés are rightly earned. But any minor nation that spent 45 years of the last century completely isolated under a repressive and paranoid Communist dictator may have a few issues here and there.

However, despite Albania’s underdevelopment, there is a beauty to the land and the people that is slowly garnering attention. One such dimension is the religious plurality that has blossomed out of the world’s first atheist state.

Due to its history and geographic location, an intricate religious web is woven in Albania. Throughout the first millennium, the territory of modern Albania was essentially split with the northern half belonging to the Western Roman Empire and the southern portion belonging to the Eastern, resulting in Catholic and Orthodox populations, respectively. The territory changed hands a few times as the Bulgarians, Serbians, and Venetians all vied for control in the Late Middle Ages. Finally, the rise of the Ottoman Empire consumed the Balkan peninsula and brought Sunni Islam, from which sprouted the Bektashi order of Sufism. Many Albanian natives converted to Islam, by choice or by force, but Catholic and Orthodox Christians survived albeit in an oppressive condition.

An Orthodox church and a mosque stand side-by-side in Berat, Albania.

An Orthodox church and a mosque stand side-by-side in Berat, Albania.

 

After World War II, Enver Hoxha seized Albania’s government as first secretary of the country’s communist party and held grip until his death in 1985. During his reign, Hoxha pushed communist objectives that makes Joseph Stalin seem like a reasonable man. By 1967, his aggressive agenda officially outlawed the practice of religion. Whereas even the Soviet Union left some wiggle room, Albania became the first nation to mandate strict atheism as government policy.

Churches and mosques were destroyed or converted into hotels and nightclubs, clerics were imprisoned, tortured and murdered, and the people were forced to abandon the faith of their forefathers in fear of their lives. When communism finally toppled in 1991, the religious landscape was decimated. Yet, like tiny seedlings in an arid climate, the consciousness of Albania’s religious communities revived as democracy opened the floodgates.

Learning from its experiences, history has taught Albania the necessity of a peaceful religious coexistence. Now a secular state, the small country does not ignore or repel the importance of its local religious traditions. As the new parliament was forming, civil authorities worked with religious leaders to ensure a smooth, tolerant transition that would minimize the risk of an extremist takeover.

The spiritual leaders of these communities have worked tirelessly over the last twenty-five years to fulfill the underserved needs of the Albanian people. Outreach programs, such as food and homeless shelters, orphanages, vocational schools and medical facilities, were established to fill the gaps of a government trying to get back on its feet. They even helped rebuild each other’s places of worship.

In all that they did, Albanian Muslims and Christians did it freely for the love of God and the love of their neighbor. Herein lies the foundation of World Interfaith Harmony Week, which begins today.

Declared in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly, World Interfaith Harmony Week was proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan after witnessing the ongoing religious turmoil in the Middle East. A common thread of the Abrahamic faiths, King Abdullah reiterated the greatest commandment of loving both God and neighbor with all one’s heart, mind and soul.

From this, the United Nations has proclaimed the first week of February as a time to “spread…the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship…based on love of God and love of one’s neighbor or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbor, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions.”

World Interfaith Harmony Week serves an important purpose in our increasing secular lives today. It sets aside time to reflect on our relationships with our religious neighbors. How well do we know each other? Are we cooperating for the greater good of society and the honor of God? Do we see Christ in our neighbors?

Such interaction does not give reason to compete with other faiths or water down one’s own, but rather it provides the opportunity to bear witness to one’s faith. For an Orthodox Christian, all interreligious engagements should be approached with humility, asking “what can I learn?” And upon observing our neighbor, we then ask “what can I offer?” What we learn and what we offer will depend on the circumstances, yet we always respond with the same embrace the Church offers her children.

Albania is just one of the many parts of the world where the Good Samaritan has strengthened communities and given life to the beaten and downtrodden. World Interfaith Harmony Week invites us all to return to the core of our beliefs, that innate goodness with which Christ created all people—the goodness sought and expressed by all faith traditions—so that we may be the Good Samaritan Christ has called us to become.

What CrossFit Taught Me About Loving God - Pop Culture Espresso Shots

Okay. It’s time for me to write about CrossFit again. I’m really sorry.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Good grief, Christian. We’ve heard it all from you. The Church community could be more like CrossFit. There’s something powerful about shared suffering. Blah blah blah.

While all of that is true, and I remain convinced that those of us in the Church would do well to heed some of the lessons that CrossFit has to teach us, I’m mostly struck by something entirely different today: habit and its power within the spiritual life.

Generally speaking, when it comes to our spiritual lives, we may tend to think that “going through the motions” is somehow an unworthy premise. That we can’t really be Christians (or at least be good Christians) if we aren’t feeling it - if we don’t mean it. We value authenticity, and we aren’t satisfied with ourselves (or anyone else) unless this is what we get.

In this way, our cultural heroes become those who are “true to themselves” - whatever that means. This is also how we justify not saying sorry unless we mean it. There is something nearly sacred about intention and motivation for action today.

And this is all fine and dandy if the ultimate good, if the ultimate call for us is simply self-expression. After all, “we’re just being honest.” We don’t actually seem to believe in the possibility of transformation because there often is no good outside the self toward which we are called to incline ourselves, much less toward which we are called to conform ourselves.

When authenticity is the ultimate good, then conformity (read: phoniness) is, at best, a social faux pax or, at worst, the chief sin. After all: conforming to a good that exists outside yourself, something that would lift up your current way of being comes with an implicit confession: something is wrong with me, and I need to change.

In the Age of Authenticity, however, nothing is wrong with you. You do you, bro. All that is left is self-expression.

As Christians, however, we know that we are made to be in the image and likeness of God, a likeness which we do not possess currently and are ever aiming to grasp. But even we Christians struggle against the notion that we should do something even when we aren’t feeling it.

CrossFit, however, has taught me that there is a great lesson to be learned in simply showing up. 9 times out of 10, I don’t want to go to the gym. I come up with all kinds of reasons: it’s too early; deadlifts hurt my back; I hate doing burpees. If I can just get myself to CrossFit, however, the workout is already written for me, I just have to submit myself to it and allow it to do its work on me.

In order to become the kind of person who exercises, it would be foolish to think that I should just wait around until some desire to workout arises in me, and it is here that we see the problem inherent in valuing authenticity above all else. Just because we don’t feel something, doesn’t mean it’s not benefiting us; it may actually be transforming us below the level of our awareness.

Indeed, this is the power of thinking in terms of character formation as opposed to self-expression. By disciplining my body, by submitting myself willingly to the workouts of CrossFit, in time, I may actually become the kind of person who looks forward to working out!

As working out becomes a regular part of my routine, being oriented toward healthy living takes on a life of its own in me. It becomes a disposition, a natural inclination of my character.

Isn’t this the case with our spiritual lives?

We may not be able to make ourselves feel any particular way about Christ, but we can stand in front of our icons. We may not be able to desire going to Church, but we can still stand there and make the sign of the Cross whenever we hear the Name of the Trinity invoked.

While we cannot force ourselves to feel something, we can discipline our bodies, hoping that these routines and rituals will root a love for God deep in our hearts.

Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be all roses and buttercups as we take on this practice. After all, it’s practice. We will still show up at Church not really wanting to be there. We will still have days where praying seems like a monumental task, but by undertaking a regimen, by disciplining our bodies and forcing ourselves to be present, to “get ourselves to the gym,” even when we don’t want to, we stand a fighting chance at becoming the kind of people whose hearts desire to know and love God.

Photos:

Gym: Author's photo

Kettlebell: 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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For more:

For more on how the Church can be like CrossFit, check out this episode of The Trench:

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Beautiful/Sensational Stories from Anonymous/Shipwrecked People - Pop Culture Espresso Shots

I’ve recently become a huge fan of a new podcast: Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People (Beautiful/Anonymous). I love it.

I don’t know that I can necessarily recommend it to everyone because it can have some really strong, colorful language and often intense subject matter that might be upsetting for others. So if you choose to listen to it, be advised.

The premise of Beautiful/Anonymous is that anonymous people call Chris Gethard, a comedian and the show’s host, in order to have an hour long conversation about anything they please. Sometimes the guests discuss incredibly intense topics like being married to a sociopath, and other times they talk about some relatively less intense but still extremely personal issues like their reasons for converting from Pentecostalism to Anglicanism.

Regardless of the actual content of the show, the circumstances of each episode, the lives of the people involved seem to be uniformly exceptional.

They tend to be stories of people beset by great pain. They are people who have either overcome adversity or who are in the midst of challenge. You find yourself rooting for the raw power of human beings who endure great tragedy and either emerge victorious or struggle to maintain hope that one day they will do so. The show is deeply moving, and the lives of these people are truly sensational.

And that’s when I realized something: that’s just the point.

Their stories are beautiful, yes, but by and large, they are extraordinary. These stories are meant to appeal to us through their sensationalism. They get us amped up, they get us shocked, they get us drawn in through just how nuts their lives have been.

After all, it’s supposed to be entertaining.

And I realized this as I listened to the most recent episode of Beautiful/Anonymous, “Noodlebody,” wherein the 23-year-old woman interviewed seemed to possess anything but an exceptional story. She was totally okay. Ordinary.

In fact, she never once lost her cool, got emotional. She actually was a very put-together, considerate young woman whose life is full of prospects. At one point, she admitted some mild “stalking,” which really amounted to some guy being alternatingly dismissive and then clingy. Gethard’s response to this was, “That’s it?”

At that point, Chris Gethard decided it was his duty to spend the remainder of the podcast offering her (tongue-in-cheek?) advice. He encouraged her to start making bad choices, to do drugs in seedy places, to make mistakes. He said that our twenties are meant to be a time of destruction and the thirties are a time of rebuilding ourselves. I think (hope) he was kidding?

But as I listened to Gethard interact with her, I couldn’t help but notice that he was getting extremely frustrated with this girl for being so error-free. He was getting irritated that things were going well for her. He became upset with her because she didn’t seem have any crazy, sensational story worthy of a Beautiful/Anonymous call.

And as I listened to his growing irritation amount to actual yelling at her, I began to realize something: I also was bored with her.

I began feeling like I was wasting my time, thinking that she didn’t have anything good to share. I said to myself, “She’s just some young girl who is fresh out of college and wants a boyfriend.” And I was mad at her for it.

Uh-oh.

I had been duped by the show’s premise.

I had been invited into the podcast to hear Beautiful Stories, but what I really had grown to love was Sensational Stories. I don’t just mean that the content was necessarily graphic, but the content was raw, honest…“real.”

But after hearing this young woman share her thoughts, share her inner workings (which, she admits, don’t like to stay angry), I realized that my and the show’s working definition of “real,” was essentially synonymous with evocatively painful.

I had grown to think that the only real stories worth hearing were the ones that elicited some kind of response from me, that the only stories worth taking the time to listen to had to be extraordinary, as if “ordinary people” were simply a waste of my time.

But then I started wondering: what if Christ approached human beings this way? What if Christ were only interested in people whose stories were ultra-sensational?

Almost immediately, I realized how uncharitable toward others I had become. I begrudged others, shaming them in my mind for being “boring,” judging them as “less than” others because their story didn’t involve being stuck in a loveless marriage.

We run a great risk in thinking this way, as if someone’s “beautiful story” ought to be determined entirely by the course of what has happened to them in the past. It would be far better, rather, to consider other human beings beautiful in the light of what they are becoming. Indeed, in this way, for Christ, there is no such thing as an ordinary person.

All of us are called to be perfected in the image and likeness of our extraordinary God.

To this point, C.S. Lewis writes:

"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to [or hear on a podcast] may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations."[1]

For God, there is no such thing as ordinary people, and every story is a beautiful story, for all stories are fulfilled in His Story, the Story of an extraordinary God, who became an ordinary Man and gave Himself for the life of the world.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p. 46


Photo Credits:

Silhouette: Depositphotos

Lego Guy: coleydude via Compfight cc 

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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Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter.  As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

 

Star Wars: An Entertaining, Misdirection of Love - Pop Culture Espresso Shots

I’ve got a problem. I can’t stop checking for updates on the status of Star Wars: Episode VIII.

I keep swearing to myself that I’m not going to google anything related to the film franchise, but without fail, I lose my resolve, and before I know it I find myself swimming in rumors, spoilers, and theories.

None of this is even to mention Rian Johnson’s (the film’s director) latest picture on Instagram of his first day of editing. As you can imagine, I’m now on high alert for any more news or snapshots of the film.

Like I said: I’ve got a problem.

And I can’t help it. I can’t keep myself from looking up stuff about Star Wars because of a simple reality: I love Star Wars.

I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember. I would play in the garage, pretending that I was Luke Skywalker, reenacting the iconic moment in A New Hope when he and Leia use a grappling hook to swing across the bridgeless chasm in the Death Star. Of course, I didn’t have a chasm; I had a blue mattress that worked just as well.

Even as an adult, I still love pretending to inhabit the universe of Star Wars as I play with my daughters, and you can bet your life that I’m doing the best I can to pass on my love for these stories to them. And my wife and I have been sure to start them out young; in fact, we even used Sphero’s remote control BB-8 to entice our little one to crawl.

With Star Wars playing such a central role in my life and now in the life of my family, it’s hardly any surprise that I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself from checking my news feed daily to see if Disney has released anything more to temporarily sate my hunger for more on the next installment in the saga.

I love Star Wars, and I long for the new film, and so I keep looking for signs of its imminent arrival, an arrival that I have been promised.

Now, I know that googling information every day is a bit obsessive, and I also know that new information doesn’t show up more days than it does. And yet I keep checking because I want new information; I long to know what is going on in post-production, and so I compulsively and habitually look for tastes (even if only morsels) to appease my hunger.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith writes about this phenomenon in You Are What You Love:

To be human is to be for something, directed toward something, oriented toward something. To be human is to be on the move, purusing something, after something. We are like existential sharks: we have to move to live. We are not just static containers for ideas; we are dynamic creatures directed toward some end. (p. 8)

According to Smith, my fanaticism can actually be tied back to what it is to be human. To live is to love. The sad thing is, however, that as a Christian, I know that this love, this movement toward an end must be reserved for the one promised end: the Kingdom of God.

As much as it pains me to admit, my love for Star Wars has actually co-opted my love for the Kingdom.

If I longed for the Kingdom in the same way that I long for Episode VIII, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that my energy would be directed toward seeing it now. The words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” would guide my life, leading me to desire God’s Kingdom here and now.

Instead of primarily looking for signs of the coming of Episode VIII, I would look for signs of the coming Kingdom, recognizing in my neighbors the image of God. I may even direct my own time and effort toward manifesting God’s Kingdom in my own life, serving the poor, forgiving my enemies, and teaching my own children to meditate on the story of God and to long for God’s things in their lives.

The Kingdom of God is coming, whether we like it or not. It may not be coming as quickly as the new Star Wars movie, but it will last far longer. The question that lies before each of us is whether we will receive its advent joyfully or whether we will receive it begrudgingly. Honestly, if the Kingdom of God comes before December 15, 2017, I don’t know that I can say that I’ll be terribly happy about it.

Lord, have mercy.

The good news, however, is that love can be retrained. Indeed, I’ve already shown that I have great capacity for anticipating the good things of the future; now I just need to orient it toward God and God’s things. To be human is to love; you can’t help it. So if we’re going to learn to love something, let’s practice loving that which is eternal, that which is above all else.

Photo Credits:

Kylo Ren: Depositphotos

Star Wars Fans: 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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Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter.  As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

When Simba Came Home - Sunday of the Prodigal Son

You are more than what you have become.
- Mufasa to Simba, The Lion King

I was nine years old when I saw The Lion King for the first time. The death of Mufasa was unbearable (it isn’t much easier now), so I cried. I still watch the movie and weep, but as I’ve gotten older, the reason for my tears has changed.

When I saw the movie for the first time, I wept for the loss of Mufasa. When I watch it now, I weep for the loss of Simba. In losing his father, Simba loses himself. It is the prophetic Rafiki that tells him, who reminds him, “You’re Mufasa’s boy.”

So who is Simba after Mufasa’s gone?

At first, Simba ran away from the pain and loss of his life to embrace “Hakuna Matata,” a life with no worries, further losing himself. But in the end, he had to confront himself and his father, and he had to reckon with his past.

This tragedy finally begins to be healed when, after a sprint through the jungle, Simba finds himself confronted by his departed father, who reminds him once more, “You are my son, and the one true king…You are more than what you have become.”

And this is the part that causes me to weep today.

Mufasa graciously gives Simba back the gift of his person. Simba, a lion without a father, has forgotten who he is; but in remembering his father, he remembers himself. There is something deeply powerful about this. And it is only then that he has enough courage to return to Pride Rock and claim his place as king.

I have a lot in common with Simba. I, too, often try to flee into a “Hakuna Matata” way of life that neglects reality, and in so doing, I lose myself. Hiding behind comfort, behind good food, behind good television, I fail to attend to the reality of my life, and I forget who and Whose I am.

At the beginning of the Triodion period, as we prepare for Lent, the Church, as she does every year puts the Prodigal Son before us, reminding us that we, too, are far from home.

Like Simba and the Prodigal Son, we have left the land of our Father, and have settled for a way of life that is unbecoming for us, eating grubs and pig food (slimy, yet satisfying).

Like these two, we also are more than what we have become.

The Prodigal Son, shows us, however, that the path home is not simply a return to a place: it is also a return to oneself. In this return we are reminded of who we really are: Children of the Merciful Father, who treats even His servants better than we deserve.

This Sunday, the Lord is inviting us to confront ourselves. He is inviting us to “come back to ourselves,” to realize that we have abandoned the house of our Father, and that He is graciously welcoming us home. And now it’s up to us to turn back to the Father and to reckon with ourselves.

As we stand at the entry to Great and Holy Lent, we may be tempted to think that our first move should be to accuse ourselves of being sinful. But the parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us that the first movement of Great Lent in our hearts ought to be a reaffirmation of the Goodness of the Father.

The son does not despair of his hope but, trusting in the mercy of his father, he is emboldened to go back home. And it is precisely because of this confidence, because of his assurance in the mercy of his father, that the son feels brave enough to confess his sins.

We, too, are called back to the home of the Father: not to pretend that all is well, but to trust that He is gracious enough to forgive all that has happened! The goal of Lent is to return to oneself, to understand that one is not simply a sinner, but a forgiven sinner.

We must reckon with ourselves as we stand in the confidence that God has forgiven and continues to forgive us.

This Lent, I want to seek further self-understanding. I want to grapple with the depth of my sinfulness, not because I want to roll in the muck with the pigs, but because I want to know how much the Father loves me, which I see as He lovingly embraces me when I return home covered in pig muck. 

I want to plumb the depths of my own heart, not because I’m excited to see the darkness, but because I want to see how far the Lord has descended into the crypt of my soul in order to raise me from the dead.

This Lent is an opportunity for us to see the truth about God and the truth about ourselves. That God is merciful, gracious, and kind. That we are silly, stupid, and sinful.

We are more than what we have become. We are children of the Father, and this Lent He is calling us Home. Let us return quickly and confidently, trusting that as we draw near to Him, we will see that He has been waiting for us all along. 

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 MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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