The mask we all wear

Does your inner monologue reflect your outward persona? In other words, do your thoughts reflect what you tell others, or do you project a certain image to others in your appearance and speech that does not reflect how you are actually thinking and feeling? Lately, I felt a bit of a disconnect between these two things. I feel that I need to disguise my thoughts from the real world; to wear a mask so to speak, The reason for this disconnect is simple, I am ashamed of my thoughts.
Lately, I have felt hopeless. I am not sure where this sense of hopelessness is coming from, but I can’t help but feel that nothing matters. In response, I have felt paralyzed. However, I feel like I can’t express these emotions or thoughts because people wouldn’t understand. They’ll tell me to get over it or be strong. Sometimes I fear that they’ll suggest that I feel this way because I lack ambition or drive. The solution is simple, just get out and stay busy. If I stay busy, I won’t have time for introspection. Yet thinking about my open schedule, in the end, makes me feel more hopeless and alas the vicious cycle continues. Thus, instead of opening up about my feelings, I just bottle them and either avoid talking or pretend to be busy. It’s a shame because I think I would be much happier if I could be myself instead of trying to be what I think the other person wants to hear.
I used to admire people, who were always happy. However, I’ve come to realize that happiness is a mask as well. Appearing happy can give the illusion of control. It keeps a person from being authentic. When asked how they are doing, the biggest lie people tell is that they are, “doing good.” The reality is that we are all struggling with something and we yearn to know that we are not alone. We yearn to be heard.
One of my favorite songs is Believe in Dreams by Flyleaf. One line, “For now Is it worth it to be sad If it’s harder to be glad To be alive,” stands out in particular. Sometimes it is hard to be glad, but it is also taxing to be sad and it is easy to be stuck in a vicious cycle. As the song reaches the chorus, it suggests that even though, “I wonder where do I belong
Is it here,” that I must continue to believe in my dreams and be able to express them to others how I feel.
In short, I think that we need to be more honest with. ourselves and with others as well as not be afraid to live our dreams. By believing in our dreams we can push through the sad hopelessness the pervades our modern society. By daring to be authentic we can strip off the mask that we wear and can encourage others to do the same.
 

Believe in Dreams by Flyleaf

My visit to the Church of Nativity

On the weekend of September 9-10th, I made a trip to Timonium, Maryland. I was there to experience The Church of Nativity. This church is somewhat famous or infamous depending on who you talk for being the subject matter of the book, Rebuilt written by Father White (more on him later). The book outlines questionable methods used by the church to rebuild into the thriving parish it is today. I’ll admit that at one point in time I was a huge fan of this church. Thus when I found out that they’d be opening a new building on September 11th, I decided to make a special trip.
I was very excited to visit the church especially since I felt like I was an honorary member. I knew people, who attended due to joining an online small group ( a decision I had made because I wanted something to help me spiritually grow without any leadership role). Thus I was also excited to connect with them in person as well.
Having attended in person, I finally feel qualified to judge the experience. I do have mixed feelings on Nativity has a whole.
So the first thing I would like to say is that this church is beautiful and the online pictures do not do it justice. However, if you are a fan of traditional cathedral style architecture then you will hate it. When you come up to the church, you are greeted with a white stone sign with the churches name engraved in it. There is a curvy road, which leads up to the parking lot. In between the road are trees and flowers. The first part of the building you see is the glass coffee shop. Then you see the main doors and as you head out of the parking lot you see the old church, which has been converted into a children’s wing. Once inside, you see a white brick wall with a cross carved into it. To the right of the front doors is a bench. Next to the bench is a stand and video screen, which says next steps. After passing that you enter into the coffee shop.  I would later learn thåt to the left of the main entrance is guest services.
I arrived at 9:50am for 10:30am Mass. We were greeted by parking lot ministers. These volunteers were very good at their job. They told the person driving me that I could get dropped off and that they would have a spot open in 15 minutes. So I texted my small group leader, Sue, and had her meet me outside.
She met me outside and we proceeded into the building. Now here’s where things got interesting. Nativity’s claim to fame is their radically welcoming environment. However, walking into the building I didn’t notice any greeters. I am not sure why but I suspect several possibilities.  First, I was with someone I knew and seemed to know what I was doing and second, Mass was not over yet and thus the greeters were not out yet. Third, there may have been some confusion regarding where they were supposed to stand and greet since it was a new building with multiple entrances. Even though these are all possible excuses, it still feels odd. First of all, if the volunteers wait until Mass is over to do their job, then why are the parking ministers already directing traffic? Second of all, even if I am in a group and seem like I know the place, I still deserve to be treated the same as someone new. In fact Father White in the book, Rebuilt, mentions that the inspiration for the hospitality team stems from his visit to Saddleback Church, where he was greeted so warmly, he entered the building not once, but twice.  I also find it hard to believe that the greeters would not have been trained regarding the entrances and exits of the new building. It may seem that I am being overly harsh since most Catholic churches don’t make greeting a priority at all. However, when you write a book about it and do several T.V. interviews on how to have a welcoming environment, I expect a level of excellence that goes above and beyond the normal. I guess I have abnormally high standards due to my experience at nondenominational churches.
So after chilling with my small group while waiting for my other friend, Andrea to park the car, Sue convinced me to go ahead into the sanctuary and wait for Andrea so that I could have a good seat. By the way, Andrea says that she wasn’t greeted either. We headed into the sanctuary, which is located right behind the white brick wall. There were doors on either side of the wall. In front of the door, I see my first greeter/usher. They were passing out a pamphlet. I didn’t take one, but I could see that it had a map.  Once inside the doors to the left, I notice a silver dish with holy water. I bless myself, as is custom. Sue meets me and she says, “you found it, I was looking for it.” We head down the center aisle. The sanctuary sort of slopes down and is curved, but not completely circular. Above the main pews is a white balcony. There is a cut out in the front pew for someone in a wheelchair. I take that spot with my chair. To my left is the baptismal font. In front of me is the altar. It is wooden dark brown. On the base of the altar are carvings of religious figures. Behind the altar is a white jeweled box, which I am guessing is the tabernacle. Surrounding the tabernacle is candles and a wooden carving of Mary and Joseph. The altar is light with stage lights. To the far left and right of the altar platform or stage are two screens. Underneath the screen is a camera crane, which I guess it is used to record the Mass. I thought that it would be more distracting than it was. The lectern is to the right of the altar. The drum set was off to the side. The service started with a video. At first I thought it was an announcement video, but instead, it was a voice reciting scripture about the importance of church. Then the band came out. To my dismay, the band was on the first-row step, not necessarily in front of the altar, but to the left and right of it. I don’t quite understand the placement of the band. It is my major critique, especially since a brand new sanctuary can easily be designed to have a side space. If intentionally left out then it shows that the church prioritizes a view of the band rather than the altar. If unintentional, then it shows a lack of Catholic architectural understanding by the designer.  If the church wants to prioritize the band, then why spend money on a new altar design.
As much as the placement of the band frustrated me, I must say that the music quality is excellent. I still maintain that the Catholic Church would do well to invest in quality music. Andrea compared my old parish to this one’s music style by saying, “if a parish is going to use contemporary music and instruments then the need to invest and go all the way or the need to stick with traditional hymns; your parish tried to straddle the middle line and it didn’t work.” I think that modern instruments can work, but you have to always be mindful of tone. Nativity’s worship team does tone well in that a Eucharistic song is not upbeat, but slower and meditative. I also enjoy the modern twist on Latin chant; it actually sounds really good with an acoustic guitar. As far as style goes, I am not sure all modern contemporary praise and worship is the way to go. I wouldn’t mind hearing some older hymns occasionally.
The Mass itself was pretty standard. There were a few things that bothered me. First of all, I am not completely sold on the idea that the reader should be the same person or that they should be paid. On one hand, it gives it a sense of quality, but on the other hand, I feel like it loses the human element to it. For example, when she got up to read and the light shined on her face, I could shake the sense that I was watching the performance of the mass and not the mass. The lack of children or any noise for that matter made it super easy to concentrate, but also made it feel artificial. Second of all, the Eucharistic ministers felt irreverent at times. I am also a little unsure about when they received the consecrated Eucharist since they never received it from Father White.
I would be remiss if I omitted my thoughts on Father White. I feel like he is a great speaker and gives a great homily. However, I do get a general sense of aloofness from him. This began during the administration of the Eucharist. He administered the first few to parishioners but then decided to sit down and chat with the altar server. Second of all, he did not do the final blessing or process outward but rather retired to the sacristy. Lastly, when Sue asked if I could meet with him, Jackie, one of Father White’s helpers, said that he would try, but most likely not since he was tired and didn’t want to be mobbed by the crowd. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I was able to get a blessing from him, but the gesture felt empty and cold considering he did not approach me in a friendly demeanor. I hope that maybe he was just having a bad day and tired. Andrea said it best, “this church is his baby, he conceived it, he birthed it, and now he needs to rock it.”
There are a few last details that I’d like to comment on. One positive thing is that I really did enjoy how the narthex and concourse were uncluttered and spacious. There weren’t a million different ministries trying to grab my attention as I walk out of the sanctuary. There weren’t multiple fundraisers going on. It was nice. On the negative, I am not sure I liked how the cafe was set up. If the cafe was a place for people to fellowship, I believe it defeated that purpose by having mass live-streamed. If the purpose is overflow space then food or drink should not be sold in that space. I personally liked the idea of it being a fellowship hall.
Overal I want to like Nativity, but in their pursuit of excellence, they may have unintentionally created a Mass that comes across as a production rather than something personal and human. If I lived closer, I would definitely go back if for nothing else than to experience good music and receive a good homily; however, I would hesitate to endorse it wholeheartedly due to a little bit of irreverence and impersonalness.
Should Mass be a production? If not, what should Mass be like? Can we pursue quality and still keep the humanness of Mass?
 
 

Let's try to think creatively

The title of this blog post is a reference to the viral youtube sensation, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. If you haven’t seen it, the basic set up is that three child like puppets are stars in a children’s program, where they interact with animated objects, who teach the children a lesson. However, the lesson usually takes a turn towards the dark as the puppets are taught not to question anything. In the first episode, a notepad attempts to teach the puppets how to be creative. The notepad says things like green is not a creative color. When the puppets attempt to create on their own, bad things start happening. It ends with the notepad instructing the puppets to never be creative again. While the meaning of this series is up for the viewer to decide, most people agree that at its most basic, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is a satire about children’s television programs and the mob mentality it creates. The video criticizes the idea that 1. There is a correct way of thinking when it comes to creativity and 2. The idea that children should not think creatively for if they did, dangerous consequences would result. Creative thinking cannot be taught and it does not fit one style. Yet I feel that the Catholic Church is failing to cultivate an atmosphere necessary for creativity to survive. With the exception of a few parishes, the Catholic Church needs to hire a market manager.
 
This problem became very clear to me when I began working as an outreach intern for New Creation Catholic community. Even though they are not a parish, I believe they have the same problems as most Catholic parishes. First of all, they did not have a functioning website. The information was outdated and never updated. To quote Father White, “an outdated website signals ‘out of business'” Why then do so many Catholic parishes not care about the way their website is designed, or the information put on it? Case in point, http://staugustineparish.net is the website of the parish I grew up in. First of all, it is not visually pleasing. Second of all, it is not very organized or interactive. For example, while it does do a decent job at displaying information, most of the information ends with ‘contact so and so.’ Well, what happens if I’m new and don’t know who that is or what if I want to know more about what your community looks like? There are no pictures and nothing to attract me.
 
Compare that web page to this one: http://st-ann.org/home. At the top, I am greeted with mass times, reconciliation, and giving, which is all the information I need as a newcomer. Below that is a slide show with pictures and a read more buttons. This technique is visually engaging. Below the slide show are boxes with pictures and categories. The new here category makes me feel welcome. Below that is a weekly calendar and under that are pictures of parish life and social buttons. The calendar helps me see what is going on and the pictures help me get a feel for the community. While the design is not perfect, it is much better.
 
One way The Catholic Church of St. Ann is able to communicate efficiently is that they’ve hired a Communications/Multimedia Director. This person handles all communication for the parish, which includes the website, the bulletin, social networks, and media. In most parishes, this job is delegated to the Parish Secretary. This person is usually an older woman, who is more familiar with bookkeeping than web design. Yet I am sure there are creative people sitting in the pews, who would love to help design a website or an engaging bulletin.
 
In fact, there is a group called Catholic Creatives, which consists of a collaboration of “Catholic designers, filmmakers, photographers, creative thinkers, artists, entrepreneurs, and others working to bring the gospel to the world in fresh, beautiful ways.” One objection is that parishes have limited resources to work with and that it is expensive to create a beautiful project. I use to think similarly until I started designing for New Creation. I discovered plenty of drag and drop interfaces for websites and if you know a little bit of code, WordPress.org is a free option. Likewise, canva.com is a great place to design anything, but they do have templates for beautiful church bulletins.
 
The church needs more organizations like Catholic Creatives and parishes need to put more time and effort into creative marketing. It might be dangerous, even disastrous at times, but it is much better than to not think creatively.

Finding God in the darkness

An explanation for why there was no post on Monday.

Psalm 139 verse 11-12 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,  and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Have you ever experienced complete spiritual darkness? A time, where your world is falling apart and you have no hope? You may even ask, “where is God?” I, unfortunately, know this feeling too well and experienced it again recently. Last week I spent four days in the hospital because I had three blood clots in my leg. One might say that those four days were the darkness, and if it were my first time lying in a hospital bed I might agree; however, the hospital was a sweet relief to the agony of the days prior. The lonely nights spent shivering with a low-grade fever and in excruciating pain staring at the wall wondering if I was going to die. When you are confronted with the reality of death, two very different emotions come to the surface: fear and relief. Fear because I was afraid for who I’d leave behind, my family, my friends, and even people I hadn’t talked to in years. Fear because of the nagging question, “Am I ready?’ Jesus tells us so many times in the gospels to be ready, but how can you be sure? I remember thinking about the small sins that I had committed and had not gone to confession for such as cursing out the HP customer service people. I think the Friday night before. going to the hospital, I prayed that Jesus would have mercy on me, not because I feared punishment, but because I desperately wanted to be with him in heaven. Hence,  the feeling of relief that comes from knowing that death brings an end to pain, suffering, and tears. The idea that I’d finally see Jesus face to face. Yet despite this desire, I furiously did not believe that my life was meant to end; I believed that God still wanted me to do more for his kingdom. It is in this moment that I encountered God and that the darkness became light. My prayer became less about my needs, wants, and fears. Instead, it became about God, “I trust that You, God, have a plan for me and though I may not understand it, it will work out for good because You are good.”
CS Lewis said, “pain is God’s microphone.” I believe this to be true. Through pain, God can speak. In my pain, God wanted my unwavering radical trust, not just in him, but in the teachings of His Church. Let me be very clear, God is not the author of our pain; He does not create it. Rather pain is the result of our fallen world. For the Earth, itself groans in anticipation of redemption (Romans 8:22-24). However, what the devil intends for evil, God can use for good and pain is one of those things. The ordeal has me utterly convinced of the Catholic truth regarding contraception.
You see, from the time I had started my Period until now, I had been on all sorts of types of Birth Control. I had justified it based on the idea that I was not sexually active. Taking of Birth Control for any other reason other than contraceptive purposes is not a sin. I was using it to regulate my period. However, the blood clots in my leg were a direct consequence of taking Birth Control coupled with a sedentary lifestyle. This led me to ask  a question, “is the risk of blood clots and death comparable to the benefits received from controlling a natural process using artificial means?” The answer I believe is no. My mom said it best with regards to her menopause medicine, “there is a 5% chance of breast cancer, why would I take that chance just to regulate a natural process.” However, as finite beings, we understand physical tangible consequences, but fail to understand spiritual consequences. Yet if we rephrase the question, “is the risk of separation from God comparable to the benefits received from controlling a natural process using artificial means?” The logical answer should still be no; however, for me to fully understand and embrace that truth, I needed God to allow darkness to cover me and then make it light.