Thursday, February 27, 2020

How Not to Get People to Attend Church

So I've been toying around with finding a church again. I've found one or two that seem promising and was committed to trying one of them out last weekend. But all that got put on hold when I saw an article a Facebook friend had posted.

The title was something like, "Church Should Be Your Excuse for Missing Other Things," and, really, I should have known that would be triggering, ha... but I was in a decent mental space that day and was like, "I can read that, I'll probably disagree but I want to know what they say!" and then after finishing the article was left with such a sense of hopelessness about ever being able to attend a church again, and when the time came for me to go check out the one I wanted to check out, the words of that article came back to me and convinced me that it was pointless. I wish I hadn't let that article have that power over me, and I'm hoping writing this out will be one way of stripping it of that power.

The gist of the article was nothing I hadn't heard before, just not one I'd had to contend with in awhile: that church is the most important priority, and that you cannot be useful as a Christian unless you are a regular attender. (And I'm not being hyperbolic, I went back to confirm what it said and it was literally stated that you cannot be a blessing to other Christians if you aren't regularly attending church. Because Christians only exist at church services and fade away into nothingness once they step outside the building, I guess.) It also informed me that by not prioritizing church, I was making it clear that I was not prioritizing God. And then it got real fun by hinting that even if I attended church all the time, if I didn't love it, I was still a bad person.

Where do I even start with this?

I guess I can start by saying that the most frustrating piece of this is probably that this article thinks my story is a lie. Despite the benefits it promises me for church attendance, the years I spent prioritizing church above all else were the loneliest years of my life and the worst years for my faith. Church attendance has never been a good source of fellowship or connection to God for me, most services just aren't built to help me with any of those things -- and that's fine, they don't need to, I am not the center of the universe and I can appreciate that they work well for other people. For me, the social and mental energy it takes for me just to take up space in a pew once a week leaves me with very little left to stay focused on my faith throughout the rest of the week. Often attending church uses me up completely, and that only gets worse the more weight is placed on my attendance. Prioritizing it means that I am prioritizing it over my true fellowship with Christians and prioritizing it over my daily walk with God, which, I think most Christians would agree, is not ideal.

I feel like I explain this all the time but nobody really believes me. They assume I wasn't giving it my all or that I was in the wrong church or something else that means it was all my fault. I'm OK if people don't get it, if it's so far removed from their own experience that they can't fathom it being the case, but it's important to me that they at least believe it was how I felt. (I feel similarly baffled that people are getting something meaningful out of church attendance, but I'm willing to believe they do!)

The most frustrating thing about this article, and the piece that immediately discouraged me from attending church the following Sunday, is how elevating church attendance to a mandate with no wiggle room reinforces the Us vs. Them that was one of the most isolating things about the church experience for me. There's Us, the good Christians that are at church on a regular basis and prioritize God, and Them, the weak Christians who don't come at all, or (maybe worse?) come occasionally. There's Us, the good Christians who are working to bless our fellow brothers and sisters, and Them, the lazy Christians who only focus on themselves. There's Us, the good Christians who love church and could never go without, and Them, the weak Christians who might not even be Christians at all, because they just keep making up excuses to not attend church.

Here's the thing -- even at my most committed, I have never felt like an Us in the church.

No matter what I did, no matter how many rules I followed, I was always, always somehow a Them.

I wasn't extroverted enough.

My views on art were too weird.

I wasn't witnessing enough.

I read the wrong writers.

I befriended people from the wrong denomination.

One of the biggest mental hurdles I'm trying to get over is the fear that there IS no faith community where I will be accepted or valued. Going to church for me is a step in faith, trusting that maybe there are some Christians out there who are willing to believe my faith is real, and maybe they'll let me hang out with them.

This article, however, informs me I will always be a Them and there's no point in even trying. Because I can't prioritize church attendance over my personal relationship with God and the global church. I won't. It's not good for me. I have to be able to have a Sabbath (which church attendance may never be for me). I have to be able to choose an actual daily connection to God over a weekly demonstration of connection, which is what it was for me all those years. I have to be able to be honest about the stress and anxiety church attendance brings up for me and have the response be, "We love you. We hope you join us. We care about you," rather than, "You have no excuses to not be here." And this article says, "Well, if that's your attitude toward church, we don't want you anyway."

I am not the only person battling isolation, anxiety, and shame in my relationship with church. I know I'm not, because as I was in a near-panic state after reading this article, I reached out to a group of podcast fans who nearly all grew up Christian (some still are, some are not) and so many of the responses spoke to the same anxieties, the same sense of "You'll never be enough," the same sense of not belonging. This article continues to build up the mountain of shame that I have been trying hard to knock down and/or climb over. That right there is the titular "How Not to Get People to Attend Church."

I don't have much else to say, just wanted to unpack this a little for myself. For those of you who have found a faith community of your own and can't imagine my story happening there, good, I'm glad for you, but I encourage you to continue to have patience, love, and grace for those who struggle. Be the one who loves and believes them, be the one who sees the burdens they already carry and does not place more on them.

And for anyone else who happened to see that post and also felt immediately shelved and dismissed... I'm sorry. Reach out to me and vent if you want. I believe you, I believe your story, and I hope you find a faith community you can trust again. Here's hoping I can too.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Podcasts I'm Subscribed To (Part 1)

So I realized I have some however never recommended any podcasts on this blog. Or, well, I wrote about four favorites awhile back, but I haven't shared the huge amount of podcasts I subscribe to. It's too many, really. I have about 15 of them as actual top-of-the-priority list favorites where I listen to every new episode that comes out, and a LOT more that are just in the "when I run out of top priority, play any of the rest of these at random" list. I hit subscribe quickly and then hit unsubscribe when I realize whatever I'm listening to has ceased to be fun to me and I skip it more often than not.

Because I have so many, I'm going to do it like this. Here is a photo of the first 9 podcasts in my podcast app, alphabetically. I'll talk through this, and then later I'll post another 9.

10 Things That Scare Me. A micro-podcast where a huge variety of celebrities share 10 things that scare them and talk a little bit more in depth about a few of them.

99% Invisible. Another very short one from the folks at RadioLab, about design choices you probably don't think about.

Advanced Spanish (News in Slow Spanish). One of several podcasts I added to help me practice my Spanish. This one's like a 5-minute news blurb in Spanish. I like it because it's short.

Ask Me Another. An NPR game show that I first started listening to because Jonathan Coulton co-hosted it, but turns out it's just great.

Bad Batch. A terrifying short series about a bad batch of stem cells that caused longterm damage for a lot of people.

Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People. Anonymous people call comedian Chris Gethard and talk to him for up to an hour about whatever they feel like. He's a wonderfully empathetic listener and interviewer and makes every guest seem specials.

Behind the Bastards. I just recently subscribed to this one on someone else's recommendation and haven't gotten a chance to listen to it yet, so... *shrug*

Best of All Possible Podcasts. A theater in Virginia gives table reads to unproduced 10-minute plays and then talks about possible ways to stage them.

Black Men Can't Jump in Hollywood. This one is newish to me as well, but it's a group of black men discussing mainstream films featuring black leads and dissecting them. The couple episodes I've listened to are fascinating and funny and it's good to hear perspectives other than my own on film!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Top 10 Songs From Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 3)

Now that the show has been over for almost a year... I think I've finally decided on my definitive list of the best songs from season 3. We'll give season 4 a bit more time to settle in. So here are my top 10!

10. The Buzzing From the Bathroom

In what could have been a tiny throwaway moment, a side character who's usually the butt of the joke suddenly realizes that, well, his wife hasn't been as magically swept away by his sexual performance as he thought she was, and far from sneaking off to "brush her teeth" after every time they have sex, she's almost certainly using a sex toy. It's the kind of joke that is often used on an annoying sitcom side character who thinks they're all that, but in this show the character gets an enormous, dramatic, "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables"-style ballad. (And they actually address the fact in a later conversation that if she was lying to him about how great their sex life all this time, that's at least partly on her! He can't fix what he doesn't know about!) This song itself is one of the more vocally ambitious tunes Crazy Ex has attempted, and I love that it's given to such a minor character. And the song is delightful.

Best line: "I'm haunted by the buzzing from the bathroom, like tinnitus of the loins."

9. The Moment Is Me

After being a college student for years, Heather finally accumulates enough credits that they force her to graduate, and she's not sure how to feel about it. To her horror, she is compelled to sing an inspirational musical theater song about it being her time to shine. It's hilarious, especially knowing Heather's characterization as a deadpan, too-cool-for-anything sidekick. The contrast between the expression on her face and in her voice and the High School Musical enthusiasm of the background dancers continues to be hilarious to me.

Best line: "'Cause the clock just keeps on ticking, it doesn't care that time goes by. (What?)"

8. I Go to the Zoo

Nathaniel lets down his guard more than ever this season, and one of my favorite moments of that is in this song, where he starts with a Drake-style "look at me and my money and how many women want to be with me" and it turns into a bizarre ode to the zoo. The video for it is even funnier, with these slow-motion "cool guy" walks past zoo animals.

Best line: "Sometimes even the zoo isn't enough, so then... I go to the aquarium. It's like a zoo for fishies."

7. F***ton of Cats

(Originally in the show as "Buttload of Cats," but as usual, I prefer the explicit version.)

Oh man, this song would have scored even higher for me if I had first encountered it in my single days. I was all about upbeat songs about being alone forever. And this one is hilarious. Rebecca has decided she's going to be single for the rest of her life, so she might as well just get started doing what forever-single women do: get Way Too Many Cats. The lyrics here are funny and clever, but the visual jokes and line deliveries are even more so, from the other cat customer's "And cats!" to the cat puppets to Rachel's exceptionally jaunty walk to the cat store. And this time around watching the video, I was really amused by the cat in the lower lefthand corner, which is either not a very pliable puppet or has a very unenthusiastic puppeteer, because it is not trying to match its mouth movements to the lyrics. (Most visible on "We gotta work on our collective image" around 1:40, where it opens its mouth four times in rhythm while the others enthusiastically mouth every line.) It's just such a fun upbeat song, and it's so much fun to sing along with.

Best line: "The ironic part is we're not that friendly. If you're lonely, we might make it worse. Also, we sleep like 16 hours a day. Have you considered getting a dog?"

6. Strip Away My Conscience

O for more fun songs for altos to sing! I partly like this song just because it's in such an amazing range for me, but it's also got such a great sleazy sound to it, and the lyrics play with the concept of "evil = sexy" in such an entertaining way. Rachel Bloom does an incredible job of taking sexual tropes and stereotypes and emphasizing them in a very funny way -- "The Math of Love Triangles," my favorite song from season two, is another great example of that. One of my favorite moments here (though I saved my favorite line for down below) is in between verses, when she does the "Stop hitting yourself" bit, demonstrating hilariously that this character does not have a sense of where that line is between hot and just mean.

Best line: "Innuendooooo!"

5. Nothing Is Ever Anyone's Fault

This song is one of my favorite examples of the narrative this show fights against -- the idea that nobody can control what they do, we are controlled by fate or our genes and don't have to take responsibility or make tough decisions. It's especially funny, though, when framed in terms of a big romantic ballad -- Nathaniel's transition from explaining how nothing is his fault to "I can't control that I'm in love with you" is hilarious, and Rebecca gets sucked into it partly because of the temptation of blaming all her issues on someone else and partly because it's a moment of romantic confession from him. Fortunately, by the end of the episode she's come to terms with the fact that she can't hide behind her diagnosis and her parental abuse anymore -- they may explain what she does, but they don't excuse those actions. Contrary to the song's lyrics, psychology is not a great excuse.

Best line: "I understand what makes me frightened and sad, so now I still do bad things, but are they actually bad? No! Because nothing is anyone's fault!"

4. My Sperm Is Healthy

So I got to the top four on my list and texted Jacob saying, "I'm stuck. All of these songs are my favorite. What do I do?" He helpfully responded, "Choose the one you like the least!" So I guuuuuesss that's this one but the top four on my list are all gold.

Anyway, "My Sperm Is Healthy." Rebecca's boss Darryl has decided he wants to have a baby with a surrogate, so he gets himself tested to make sure the odds are good before he starts the process. In this song, he gets the results of the tests back, and, as you can guess from the title, it's good news. I laughed out loud when the song begins with his co-worker Mrs. Hernandez going, "Ugh, this is going to be gross," because, yes, it is, but it's also kind of glorious. It takes the musical tropes of guys bragging about their sexual prowess and uses them to instead empathize with a middle-aged man who loves being a parent so much that he wants another one even without a partner. Darryl's glee at learning he can indeed father a child is infectious. This is another one where the explicit version is funnier to me, but there's no video version of that one, so you get the CW-approved version.

Best line: The string of Tom Hanks puns out of nowhere. "I'm in a league of my own, just like Tom Hanks / Not a cast away when I blast away / That thing I do is inseminate you."

3. Fit Hot Guys Have Problems Too

This season saw the unexpected buddying up of Nathaniel and White Josh as they both got over breakups that they denied meant anything to them. They bonded over their obsessive gym workouts, but it's not until this song that they (and, halfway through, Josh Chan) bond over their broken hearts, and perform a song about how just because they're attractive doesn't mean they don't have issues of their own to deal with. But, of course, since it's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, they also do it while showing off the attractive bodies they're usually so proud of and use as a defense against the world's cruelty... until it doesn't work anymore. (...CXG had an unusually high number of stripping songs this season. And they were all good.)

Best line: "It's just hard to process emotions with our clothes on."

2. I've Got My Head in the Clouds

And now for a much less sex-related song than the last two... this one is about religion! Or, rather, about using religion to run from your problems. Josh Chan has decided to become a priest so he doesn't have to deal with the stress of relationships. This does not turn out to be a sustainable plan, but for a short while he's happy about how great it is that being one of God's top guys will mean all his problems will be automatically solved and he'll never be sad or confused about anything again. (Incidentally, I like that in dealing with this issue, the show doesn't look down on religion -- it's very reminiscent of Mother Superior in Sound of Music's, "These walls were not built to shut out problems. You have to face them.") Anyway, Josh is channeling Gene Kelly here with some killer dance moves, and the whole thing is so joyous and fun and silly that it always makes me smile.

Best line: "Whoa! That's what you look like?" "It's what YOU think I look like! Now let's dance!"

And before I get to my #1, my runner-ups included...
  • After Everything You Made Me Do (That I Didn't Ask For) - Rebecca's vengeful reprise is so intense and fun.
  • A Diagnosis - A beautifully relatable song about "Oh my gosh, we'll finally figure out what's been wrong with me and it'll be OK!"
  • Without Love You Can Save the World - Rebecca's enthusiasm is fun, whether she's wholeheartedly pursuing love or wholeheartedly running away from it to save the world like in this song.
  • I'm Just a Boy in Love - Season 3 Trent = Season 2 Rebecca and it's amazing.
But my actual #1 song of the season was...

1. Let's Generalize About Men

This is just so ridiculously fun. More than any of the others, it's the one that I've found myself playing at the end of a difficult day at work. Even if my frustrations had nothing whatsoever to do with any men, there's a dramatic, upbeat aggressive tone here that channels the exact right mood for me. It's also an incredibly funny tune about our tendency to generalize when we need to feel better about a situation. It even hits on the stereotype of the sassy gay best friend - they get to be generalized about as well in this song. (...Yay?) It's funny and delightful and maybe the MOST fun one to sing along to on this list. Such good stuff.

Best line: "Why do men never listen and always think about themselves, as opposed to women who always listen and never think about themselves?"

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Give Me Your Blog Post Ideas!

There almost wasn't a blog today. I'd forgotten about it and hadn't written anything up.

Sometimes I have a bunch of ideas percolating in my mind, other times I have very few. But I think I worked through all the blog suggestions I got last time, so just in case I run into another situation where suddenly I don't have any idea what to write about... Let me open up for blog post suggestions again!

You can comment here, or on the blog Facebook page, or message me on social media, or check out this anonymous suggestion box link.

Need some ideas for giving me ideas? Well, blog labels I have used often include "arthritis," "books," "cast albums," "Christianity," "church," "depression," "Disney," "education," "Flickchart," "games," "introverts," "movies," "musicals," "nanowrimo," "podcasts," "Sims," "theater," "writing," and, of course, the ever-popular "The Quest for Forgiveness" and "The Quest for Skye." If any of those sound like something you want to hear more about, go for it.

I swear one of these days I'll be able to sit down and make myself write about The Quest for Freedom.

Or maybe I'll skip it and head straight for The Quest of the Sultana, which might be less pro-war than I worry The Quest for Freedom will be.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Learning to Believe My Emotions

The church where I grew up had an interesting anti-emotions current running through it. This ran the gamut from a milder "Emotions are fine, Jesus felt emotions, you just can't let them control you" to the more extreme "Your emotions will always lie to you." Most often the verse "The heart is deceitful above all things" was used as the justification for this, and people who diverged from us in doctrine or behavior were frequently said to be letting their emotions take control or interpreting the Bible through their feelings instead of the truth.

So I grew up with an intense distrust of my own emotions. If I was sad or angry, I felt the need to apologize for feeling those things, like they were embarrassing signs of immaturity. I was pretty good at acknowledging I was feeling things, but I just thought of myself as being "too emotional" and told myself I needed to just turn those emotions down because they clearly weren't useful. At best they were to be tolerated, at worse they tried to control me. And making decisions based on emotion was always a bad idea.

Problem is, there are some decisions that you have to make based on emotion. Or at least heavily informed by it.

My junior year of high school, I was super involved in my youth group. I did everything I could. I was at every after-youth-group hang out and went on every trip. Then my senior year, I burned out. I couldn't explain why, I just... couldn't do any of it. I stayed involved with my drama team (arts still fed my soul) but almost all the other extracurricular stuff, I just backed out of. I couldn't do it anymore. That's also when the church anxiety started, when I started being less involved because it felt terrible and then feeling unbelievably guilty for not being involved and feeling like I had to justify it to everyone and telling myself, "Your anxiety is a lie. You have to go."

But turns out, my emotions had in fact been whispering truths to me for a year.

Feeling anxious: "You don't feel secure here."

Feeling lonely: "You're not letting anyone here see the real you."

Feeling unfulfilled: "This isn't helping you grow no matter how hard you try."

Feeling irritable: "You're at your limits."

I ignored all these things. I dismissed them as emotions. And then I broke down.

The anxiety about backing out of church stuff was also trying to tell me truths I didn't recognize for awhile: "You've internalized the idea that you have to be active in church to be a good Christian" and "God is not only in the church building" and "The Christian life can be better than this." And for awhile, I shut those truths down too, insisting my emotions were lying to me, my emotions couldn't be trusted, I couldn't let my emotions make decisions for me.

I should have, though. Maybe if I had spent more time trying to tease out which parts of my feelings were true and which were not, I could have listened to those truths. And what would I have turned to at that time but my emotions? Like... there's no Bible verse that says, "Hannah, make sure if you're going to every youth group event that you give yourself a break sometimes because you are not as extroverted as the youth group leaders you're trying to imitate, and you're going to burn out." It all requires interpretation and discernment and self-awareness, but self-awareness is stifled without emotional awareness.

On a day to day basis, my emotions can be a wonderful barometer for me. My emotions are the best way for me to sense my own needs, what I'm lacking, who I should get close to, what my next steps should be. They don't need control so much as discernment, finding the true thing they're trying to tell me and holding onto that. By shoving it down or dismissing it as "well, you don't make decisions based on that," I lose all the truths that, actually, I should be incorporating into my decisions.

So let me attempt to read my emotions right now.

I'm anxious about posting this.

The lie the anxiety is telling me is that I don't deserve to say anything, I don't know what I'm talking about, my emotions ARE actually evil and I shouldn't say they're okay, and everyone is going to hate me for some reason because I posted this and I won't know how to deal with it.

The truth the anxiety is telling me is that while this kind of thinking may help some folks (I don't know their emotional journeys), it hurt me. And that hurt was real, and it's something I'm still dealing with, and judging by the anxiety, I'm not out of the woods yet, and may not be for awhile.

But I'm at least out of the woods enough to be able to communicate this. So here I am.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Apps I Highly Recommend

Let's do something silly. I'm going to scroll through my phone and tell you which of my apps I highly recommend. None of the big obvious ones, I'm not going to tell you "Oh YoU sHoUlD cHeCk OuT iNsTaGrAm." These are smaller ones you might not actually have heard of.

  • AIDungeon. An absolutely amazing app where an AI writes text adventure games in real time in response to your prompts. It does some fascinating things, and I spend way too much time playing with it.
  • Chwazi. For choosing who goes first in a board game. Everyone puts one finger on the screen, and the app puts a colored circle under one of those fingers, and that's your first player. Simple!
  • Down Dog. Easily the best yoga app I've found. So much customization, very clear video and instructions, and it shakes it up so you're not just doing the same routine every time. It's much closer to what it's like taking a real yoga class, and I love it. 
  • Food of Fortune. Can't decide what you want to eat? Go through its 20 food categories, take out the ones you don't want, and then spin the wheel to choose one. And then it'll tell you applicable restaurants nearby.
  • Kingdoms. So the one game I'm weirdly obsessed with is this one, under its full title, Disney Magic Kingdoms. I've been playing it every day for over a year. It's super dumb but kind of addictive... You collect Disney characters and send them out on quests to collect other Disney characters. And that's basically it. I have no idea why it's so addictive. I just like collecting things.
  • Long Game. I've got a few apps involving savings, but Long Game is probably the most similar to other auto-savings apps out there. It withdraws a set amount of money from your bank account on a regular schedule, and the more money you have sitting in your account, the more "coins" you accrue, where you can play lotto slots-style games to earn more money. The money itself stays untouched no matter what, so you can "gamble" your coins and not lose anything. 
  • Old Time Radio. This is exactly what it says -- a bunch of old time radio shows you can listen to. I listen to these as I go to sleep.
  • Podcast Addict. Easily the best podcast app I've found. It is beautifully customizable -- I have it set up for just a constantly updating playlist of my favorite podcasts, with my favorite ones floating to the top every time so I can stay caught up. It's phenomenal.
  • Qoins. Another autosave app, except instead of keeping it around in an account, you can connect this one directly to a loan account, and the app will send the collected money to that loan once a month. It keeps track of how much you've paid off in total with the app and the average amount of interest you've saved doing that.
  • Stash. The third money one I'm going to recommend. This one allows you to make micro investments with your money and track how all your individual stocks are doing. It's also really good about providing financial literacy information about the stock market, and I feel like I've learned so much from it.
  • Walk to Mordor. A sillier one to end on. This one allows you to put in how far you've walked that day, and it tells you how far you've walked on the journey from the Shire to Mordor. I haven't gotten very far because I keep forgetting to update it... but it's fun.