Day 26 – Eat Thai, Talk Anger

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My roommate, Matt, treated me to a late birthday dinner at Beau Thai. It was my first time. Honestly, I rarely think to walk the few blocks west to Mt. Pleasant. I should do it more often.

The food was tasty. The service was quick and friendly. The restaurant was cute and comfortable. On the way home, we walked up Mt. Pleasant Road, the opposite direction of my stroll on Friday. It was a lovely night.

Matt was gracious to let me reflect on my negative church experience yesterday, the sharply worded blog post I wrote about it, and the reactions from readers. Actually, most people were appreciative. But I was still thinking and feeling deeply about it. His assessment, “Well, you seemed angry.”

I was angry. I was angry that the preacher presented faith in such a burdensome way. I was angry at his disdain for the culture, as if we’re not all a part of it, as if we can separate that easily from it. I was angry because it reminded me of my formative years in a very similar church, whose view of God and the world caused a lot of damage.

Clearly, some scars remain. I think that they’re gone, but then something happens to show they remain, even if healed. I don’t think that means I’m nurturing hurt or refusing to grow. I think some hurts just linger, sometimes hidden. Then they flare up and you figure out how to attend to them.

I could look at my hurts as problems to be fixed. Instead I see them as opportunities for humility, a reminder to ask for love in the places where I feel poor. And the wounds give me a chance (when I’m at my best) to find communion with others who have also suffered. (There is, of course, the temptation to lash out and to wound in the way I was hurt.)

I am flawed and scarred. I get angry and self-righteous. I think and think and think, and then express that energy. There is good and bad here, healthy and wounded. Weirdly, I am grateful for it all. I see these as invitations to remember how small I am and how big the world is. And that there is a goodness, far greater than any of this muck, that is available.

Tonight I ask for love, and the grace to give it in return. Thanks, Matt, for the chance to reflect.

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Day 25 – Hate a Preacher

I loathed him as soon as I saw him. I recognized his demeanor before he even spoke. The whole thing was just like I remembered: hard edged and scornful of the world. I had stumbled into a conservative church like I grew up in, and the minister was pedaling a Christianity that made me want to be a pagan. Jesus, save me from your followers.

The church was full of 20 somethings in jeans and tshirts, swaying and clapping to upbeat music from the band. Then the pastor got up to speak. He wore a suit and tie, had slick, dark hair, and sported trim glasses he constantly adjusted — to underscore his erudition I suppose. He spouted 40 minutes worth of forgettable statements about faith, but people everywhere scribbled down his wisdom on notepads. He had disdain for the culture and little sympathy for weakness. He spoke about the poor with condescension. Above all, his god felt very demanding.

Yet I was fascinated by his showmanship. His voice would soar to make a point, then fall to a soft tremor with pauses after each, word, for, effect. His fists doubled in conviction. He bounced on his toes. His arms stretched to full length as his voice boomed to climax. He grew still and quiet, leaning into the mic for a few soft words aimed at your heart. He was Jimmy Swaggart, minus the charm.

I hated him and everything he stood for. He pushed a triumphalist Christianity that admits no weakness, accepts no uncertainty, allows no mediocrity. Burden piled on burden. Do more. Be more. Work harder. God demands it.

But this is not the God or the faith I know. It is a distortion.

Then all my thoughts turned to confront me. Who are you to suppose that God cannot do some good here? “Who was I?” I wondered, with such hate in me? I was the smug hypocrite from the Bible story, who looked to heaven and thanked God that he was not like the sinner next to him. But it was the sinner, who beat his breast and asked for mercy, that had a true measure of faith.

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This world is full of self righteous, arrogant Christian assholes. Yesterday I met one: myself. While I don’t buy the brand of faith I heard yesterday, my own spirituality will be just as distorted, unless I acknowledge and accept my own faults, failures, and deep seated weaknesses. I need mercy. He needs mercy. You need mercy. I think that is what can draw us together if we’re willing.

I want a faith that pulls me closer to others, not pushes us apart. I want a faith that embraces weakness, not makes us afraid of it. I want a faith that anchors you in a vivid sense of love, not a constant nagging to do more. I hope that in some way, the spiritual part of me can free me from the presumption of my ego, enough that I can receive real love and give real love, in a real way.

A man becomes a saint not by conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

 

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Day 18 – Stroll Down H Street

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I planned an H Street stroll weeks ago, but the real gem I stumbled into on a whim. I got off the X2 bus blocks before my stop because I had time to kill. And I wanted to see the development that has popped up in the last 3 years. A giant tea pot above a storefront window caught my eye. I paused long enough to snap a picture, but then decided to poke my head in.

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Inside I found a cozy, rustic Ethiopian coffee shop. Large burlap bags of coffee beans surround the bar like overstuffed Christmas gifts. Kid art on notebook paper covers a side wall. Through a nondescript back door I found a cozy, sunny garden for sitting and sipping. At the bar, a friendly woman served me good, remarkably affordable coffee. I smiled at the good fortune of finding this charming spot by accident. I took more pics, like an idiot tourist, and made my way down the sidewalk very content.

I was struck by how far west the development has gone. I passed tons of restaurants, a bike shop, a pet groomer, even a bocce/wine bar. Surely bocce is a sign that gentrification has arrived. Of course, I also saw what looked like remnants of a previous era–a Murray’s grocery, tax preparers, barber shops, a strip mall, and Popeyes.

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My destination was Table Church, where I met a handful of friends for the 5pm service. A year and a half ago, a group of young adults formed a new church based on gathering around a table, telling good stories, and eating good food. The music is a little Mumford and Sons, the vibe laid back, and the message light-touch, perfect for people burned by church. Some things felt a bit inauthentic or awkward, like the pastor carrying around his coffee mug (but not really drinking) to show how informal things are. But he, the people, and the service were very accessible. Hats off to people engaging the city with a fresh approach to faith.

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The same friends and I ended the evening at the Argonaut, where we deconstructed the service, drank beer, and ate fries. We reflected on what turned us on and what turned us off, but the discussion eventually turned to our own church, about who we are and want to be. The conversation was lively and fresh because we had ventured outside our zip code and comfort zone to see something different.

That’s exactly the point of this 30 day challenge. Is the coffee or church really that different on H Street? Hardly. But, God, it’s good to get out of Northwest DC and get a little fresh perspective.

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