What does life look like post graduation from graduate school? I am about to find out!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hard Candy Christmas

"Christmas: It's not the giving, it's not the getting, it's the loving."

"I'll be fine and dandy. Lord, it's like a hard candy Christmas. I'm barely getting to tomorrow but still I won't let sorrow bring me way down."
-Dolly Parton

I wanted to just take a minute in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season to reflect on the real reason for the season. I think too often that so many of us forget to just take a minute to reflect on what Christmas is really all about. It's not about getting the newest toys or the latest fashions, it's about being with the ones you love and celebrating the magic of the holiday season. I also think it's important to take a minute to remember all those who don't have any family or even a place to stay. I work with a lot of homeless youth at my site and I just feel so bad for them that many of them won't have a place to stay on Christmas Eve and will be forced to sleep on the streets in the cold Chicago winter. It doesn't seem right that they have no place to stay and no family to take them in or buy them presents for the holiday. It breaks my heart that they are in this situation through no fault of their own. My sincerest holiday wish this year is that they all find a home and a family to love them this next year. I know that's unrealistic but Christmas is all about miracles.
We also should take a moment to remember those who have lost a loved one this year and will be spending Christmas without them for the first time. Just in the last 48 hours, I have found out about three people back home who have lost someone they cared about and it just kills me. I have always thought that people dying so close to Christmas is some kind of cruel joke that God likes to play on us. It just doesn't seem right to lose somebody you love so close to what should be a day of joy, not sadness. I don't know why these things have to happen. I just know that it is a terrible thing.
So, while you are out these next few days buying that last toy that your child or sibling or spouse just has to have, just take a minute to reflect on what the real meaning of this season is. Is it really about the gifts?? Does your wife really need that diamond necklace she's been eyeing all year?? Do your kids really need those video games that they have been begging you for since March?? Do you really need to pile on more debt so you can buy something that will score you extra points and make you the best father/son/husband/brother ever?? The answer to all these questions is no. I worry that Christmas has become too commercial and has become all about the stuff. Whatever happened to spending the holiday with family and singing Christmas carols and baking cookies and staying up late talking to a long -lost friend? Isn't that what Christmas is really all about?? Reflect on that for a minute and you just might realize that you have signed up for the material rather than the spiritual side of Christmas.
As for me, I'm not getting anyone any gifts this year mainly because my budget can't afford it anyway. I couldn't even think of anything I wanted or needed for Christmas either. Odd, as I used to be the kid who had his Christmas list ready by Halloween and made sure to pack it with lots of stuff that I just had to have. Now, reflecting on it, I realize that I had too much stuff. Most of that stuff I played with for a few months but then never touched it again. A lot of it is probably sitting in a box in the garage somewhere. Stuff that I just had to have is now collecting dust. How sad is that?? Plus, to be honest, I don't really have room for any more stuff. I have way too many movies (which I almost never watch since I rarely re-watch a movie), books (which I rarely re-read), CDs (which just get uploaded straight to my Ipod and then never opened again) and various other things. Of course, there are some things that I have gotten for Christmas that I still use frequently (Ipod, TiVo, my big-screen TV that I cannot wait to get back to) and such. However, the majority of the stuff that I get for Christmas ends up not getting much use. Perhaps I've finally realized that the stuff isn't important. It took moving here and living simply for me to realize that that is actually an efficient and good way to live.
I'm not going home for Christmas so will be spending it here in Chicago with the cold and the snow. It's supposed to snow almost every day this week which I am excited about. Should make for a white Christmas which is rare in my world!! Most of the roommates headed home for the holidays so the house is practically deserted now. Makes for some very quiet nights which allows me to get a lot done. I've been "adopted" for the holidays so won't have to spend it alone which is good. I'm realizing that family is not just your biological family but also whoever you choose to include in the definition. Work is slowly turning into a ghost town and next week there will be almost nobody there which means my work load will be significantly reduced. That should allow me time to finish up my seminary applications and get them submitted. It's a long process but I am diligently plowing through them. I still plan to have them completely finished and ready to submit by January 1st so that I can go party on New Year's Eve with a clear conscience!! The last couple of weeks at work have been super busy as Advent at a church is always a busy time of year, in case you didn't know so I am looking forward to next week when it slows down considerably. Have had so much going on the last couple of weeks between Christmas parties and Christmas dinners and special worship services and such so a week to just relax and not do anything will be great and is exactly what I need. It's also that time of year for me when my movie watching ramps up considerably as we are hitting awards season (aka my second favorite time of year). I've already made a list of all the movies I need to see and have started diligently plugging away at them. So, for the next few months, I may be busy watching a lot of movies. I can't help it, I will always be a movie buff!! Anyway, I shall close this off. I will probably not get a chance to write again until after Christmas so I do sincerely wish everyone all the best and may you have a Merry Christmas!! Remember to take some time to acknowledge those who have no roof over their head or food in their belly and also those who are grieving the loss of a loved one this Christmas. Maybe call them up and invite them over to your house for Christmas or some similar gesture. I know they will appreciate it even if they don't accept the offer. Finally, I want to leave you with my all-time favorite verse from the Christmas story. Enjoy and remember God loves you (and so do I)!!
"And it came to pass that in those days there were shepherds watching over their flocks by night and an angel of the Lord appeared before them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were afraid. But the angel said unto them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people for unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior which is Christ the Lord."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Silent Night

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." -Phillipians 4:13

Today, we spent the day on a silent retreat. This means that we turned off our cell phones, left our iPods at home and were required to not speak for the entire day. I, for one, had been looking forward to this day for a while even though I did have some trepidation over whether or not I would be able to do it. If you know me, you know how much I like to talk. I can be a very talkative person when I want to be and when I feel comfortable with the people involved. However, I can also be really good at not talking when the moment requires or when I am feeling shy so I knew that I would be able to do this. Because of the weather (highs in the teens and snow on the ground), we opted to do our day of silence at Navy Pier which has lots of shops and restaurants and an IMAX theater and an indoor garden and plenty of other things to distract us from keeping silent.
This definitely made it harder as there were lots of people there and so I had to resist the temptation to talk to anybody. The temptation to talk was all around us as we couldn't even really go into a store or to McDonald's because it would be hard not to talk while in there. I spent the day doing a lot of talking with God and journaling. God and I had a good, long talk about everything that has happened to me and about my life's journey. I really needed that time with him and am glad I did it. I am also glad that this retreat happened right in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season. During this time of year, it can be very hard if not impossible for anybody to slow down and spend some time in silent reflection and talking with God. It helped put the whole season in perspective. I love Christmas but even I will admit that the holiday has become so commercialized and full of consumerism that we tend to forget the real reason why the holiday exists. I actually spent the first two hours of my silent time sitting right by Santa's Workshop observing all the kids standing in line waiting to sit on Santa's lap so they could tell him what they wanted for Christmas. It was an interesting experience contrasting the two in my head: the day of silence and reflection with God contrasted with the very epitome of consumerism and gifts. I will always love Santa Claus and I love getting gifts at Christmas but doing this retreat in the midst of the Christmas holiday season reminded me of the true meaning of the day.
It's about making time for God. Remembering to take some time out of our busy days and our busy lives to just sit and be and not be so worried about everything else going on in our lives. I'm a Type A personality so I like to stay busy but today I found myself being comforted by being able to just sit and journal and not have to feel pressured to go anywhere or buy anything or do anything other than just sit there and relax and let the Spirit lead me. I got the chance to walk all over Navy Pier which has so much to see and do and I definitely want to go back when I can talk again as it looks like fun. Most importantly, though, I got to do some thinking about myself and my YAV year. I realized that I am letting other people's expectations cloud my judgement. I have been so worried about what others are going to think of me or going to say to me that I have forgotten to focus on what I and most importantly God thinks of me. God loves me and that will always be true and that is honestly the only thing that really matters in life. It is the one constant in my life and God wants me to be here and God knows what he is doing in my life here. No, what I'm doing isn't what I signed up for and doesn't necessarily yield tangible results and doesn't let me use my gifts in the way that I wanted to and doesn't always go smoothly or easily or well but that's not the point. I am here doing God's work and that is the most important thing. He's allowing me to develop other gifts and realize important things about myself. Maybe that's how it's supposed to be. I am starting to become convinced that a YAV year is less about the work you do and more about the person you become. 6 months ago, I would have never imagined that I would be here doing what I am doing and learning what I am learning. I would have never seen myself cooking dinner for others (and being pretty good at it too) or working mostly behind the scenes or giving up my dream of moving to New York and being a professional actor or applying to seminary yet all those things are happening to me in my time here and it's great and wonderful and sometimes painful and terrible but that's all part of the journey.
I was talking the other night with a former YAV who now lives here in Chicago and she was saying that her YAV year was an absolute nightmare that she is still recovering from. She said that for most people at the end of their year, they find that the negatives and the positives almost even out. Yet, she also said that it was still the most important and formative year of her life. I think that is proving to be true. Yes, being a YAV is tough and there are plenty of times when I just want to throw in the towel and wonder if I am even making a difference in anybody's lives or saving the world or even having a good time. Life here is tough, I'm not gonna sugarcoat it. Yet, in my journey today, I realized that that is the whole point of it. Sometimes, we have to be completely broken before God can do any good in our lives. Yet, if we just believe in his power and listen to his voice, we can accomplish anything and need to learn how to do that.
I also spent some time today just reading the Bible which is something I almost never do. I've never been a big fan of the Bible and have often made it clear that it doesn't play a part in what I believe. What I believe is not based on what the Bible teaches but what I feel in my heart to be the truth. I think too many people expect the Bible to answer all the great mysteries of life and it just doesn't do that for me. However, I have realized that I really need to spend more time just studying the Bible and figuring out why I have so many issues with it. I started off the day by rereading my favorite Bible verse (reprinted above) and journaling about what this verse means to me in light of everything I have experienced since I have been here. It helped me realize that I need to stop letting my fear of failure or my fear of disappointing others stop me from doing things. I've let my fear paralyze me for so long and it is time to just trust in God and follow him. After all, I really CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens me. If I want to go to seminary, I'm gonna do it and not worry about whether or not it is the right fit for me or that I will flunk out or that I won't be smart enough to make the cut and will have to drop out thereby disappointing everyone. It's time to put those fears to rest and just let God take over. He's never steered me wrong so far so why would he now?? Trust in Him more and good things will come from it.
I'm glad I had this chance for some introspection. I really needed it especially in the craziness known as Advent. I need to start making it a more common part of my routine, maybe taking a couple days a month or whatever to just spend with God and doing some reflection. It's not a bad idea in the grand scheme of things. I successfully managed to not talk for over seven hours which is a personal record and proved that I should just shut up more!!
We broke the fast with dinner at Bubba Gump's and having our pictures taken with Santa Claus because we are all five year olds!! All in all, it was a great day and I am so glad that we did it. It really helped me reconnect with myself and with God and made me realize that I need to refocus my self and my priorities. Perhaps being a Type A personality just isn't going to work anymore. Or perhaps I can still be a Type A but just make sure to take some down time for introspection. Thoughts to ponder as I move through the rest of my week. Last week was super busy but this one is not looking as bad which is really good. Next week is practically dead and the week after that will be almost a ghost town which will be nice as it will allow for plenty of down time. Whether or not I end up using it wisely remains to be seen!! Hope everyone is having a great Advent season and staying warm. The highs are in the low 20s right now and yet I haven't felt that cold yet. I've learned how to shovel snow which is a skill I thought I would never actually learn!! Remember, God loves you and so do I!!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Winter Wonderland!!

Well, folks, winter has officially come to Chicago as this week saw our first snowfall of the season. It started Wednesday and hasn't really stopped since. It looks really beautiful to be honest. It's like a real life winter wonderland here and I personally love it. I didn't get enough snow as a kid so my inner child is very happy right now. I can't wait to build a snow fort and a snow man and go ice skating and do all those other winter time activities that I never got to experience growing up in Texas. I'm sure come January, I will be sick of it but for right now it is the perfect thing to get me in the holiday mood.
Speaking of the holidays, we have hit my favorite time of year which means I am super busy with all the Advent/Christmas activities going on around me. This next few weeks are filled with Christmas parties and special worship services and gift exchanges and free food and caroling. I've already started listening to Christmas music and have been occasionally watching Christmas movies to get myself psyched up for the holiday. I just love the Christmas season and am really excited about this one because I am actually spending it someplace cold. It's hard to get into the Christmas spirit when it is 60 degrees outside but when the highs are in the 20s and the lows are in the teens (as they have been all this week) it makes getting in the Christmas spirit so much easier. I usually go into a bit of a depression right around the holidays for some reason and I admit I was a bit depressed for a few weeks there (which I think is understandable given everything that happened) but I'm feeling much better now. I attended a Blue Christmas service at LakeView the other day and that was a good way to get some of the sadness and misery and depression out and dealt with. Anyway, now I'm back to being the same old happy-go-lucky me that I once was. Now that I've got the holiday blues out of the way, I can focus on all the good things that are happening in my world right now.
On Monday, the six of us in Faith House woke up ridiculously early in the morning to head to the State Capitol in Springfield for People of Faith Rally Day. We got the opportunity to rally the state legislators to abolish the death penalty in the State of Illinois. It was an exciting opportunity and one that the political junkie in me enjoyed thoroughly. Unfortunately, the issue didn't get voted on this session so the House and Senate will reconvene in January to discuss it. On the bright side, however, the House and Senate did pass the civil unions bill meaning that starting next summer it will officially be legal to get a civil union in the state of Illinois!! So, at least some good came out of the legislative session even if the actual issue that we were there to rally on didn't actually get voted on.
Just to clarify, the State of Illinois has the death penalty currently but has not used it in over ten years yet still maintains a death row where the prisoners just sit in limbo filing appeal after appeal and costing the taxpayers thousands of dollars every year on a broken system that doesn't serve any purpose and promotes the myth that killing an individual can bring any sort of peace or closure to someone's life. It doesn't and keeping the death penalty just ends up costing the taxpayers more in the long run and goes against every single Biblical teaching there is. As a Christian, I cannot support such a barbaric and inhumane practice and that is why I was looking forward to the trip to Springfield to rally behind a cause that I believe so strongly in. Plus, I got to see the Capitol Building which is always a plus.
Ok, off my soapbox. This next week consists of a staff Xmas party at work (which includes a white elephant gift exchange), the Young Adult Progressive Dinner, a Lessons and Carols Service and maybe more. All in all, it is going to be a busy but great week!! I've already got my Christmas sweater ready to wear for all the holiday occasions!! I'm staying warm so don't be worried about me freezing to death. I brought plenty of warm clothing with me plus a scarf, hat, gloves and snow pants so I seriously think I am going to be ok. If I can survive winter in Chicago, I'm pretty sure I can survive anything!! I've been in a baking mood lately so I think things are going to prove to be fun around here!! Look at me, I'm turning into a regular ole' chef!! First the cooking, now the baking!! Where could this possibly lead?? I'll keep you posted on that development. I've also made it my goal to have all of my grad school applications done by the first of the year which is a large task but I think I can do it. I am going to have a lot of free time over the holidays so will use it diligently (hopefully!). Anyway, will close this off now as I need to get to bed soon. I hope you all have a great week and remember Jesus loves you (and so do I)!!