Liturgies of Life

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The readers of this Irregular Ideation most likely noticed that I was down and struggling a bit.  No doubt the prayers of my family and good friends have been heard.  While the neck and other issues linger, there has been a break in the form of some good news that has brought with it that glimmer of hope again.

These cycles of mood and emotional swings have been something that I’ve pondered.  Despite there being events that are involved, there is also this sort of rhythm and inevitability to these things.  The phase “what goes up must come down” comes to mind.  Sure, I’m probably on the more neurotic end of things, with higher highs and lower lows.  But most people, no matter how good or bad their life is compares to others, seem able to identify with these ebbs and flows.

I mean, we have that time before coffee in the morning then that time after where the brightest of the world returns.  There are those the weekly slow starts “a case of the Mondays” contrast with that euphoria of Fridays.  Then the longer cycling patterns tired to holidays or weather.  Has anyone else had encounters with SAD or Seasonal Effective Disorder?  Descriptions like “terrible twos” or “the midlife crisis” exist for a reason.  Is the “sophomore slump” real?  I think so.  

And there does seem to be a preordained nature to this all, like the seasons or how the sun rises and sets. 

This kind of constant change is confirmed in Scripture:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1‭-‬8 NIV)

To me this is both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.  The woman who brought a man such joy in their youth may make him all the more lonely when the season of death and seperation comes.  The attributes that make a nation rise in prominence, say a focus on equality, can be the very thing that brings about their collapse once it finally does reach the top.  

Not to say that any of this is meted out evenly across board either, some do have it easier or a higher baseline mood and others not as fortunate, nevertheless there are patterns.  

Bigger dreams lead to bigger despair.  But a harder struggle can also lead to greater joy and a more wonderful triumph for the faithful than those who lived for their own comfort.  There is balance, there is growth, larger and smaller patterns, a predictability that seems could be modeled.  How it plays out across groups of people is also a fascination of mine.

My own thought is that we could probably remove the triggering events and still end up with the same patterns in the end. 

In other words, there would have been a world war even if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been assassinated, my disenchantment with the Mennonite denomination would have eventually boiled over even if not for the same specific reasons, and Elon Musk’s Twitter account isn’t the reason the crypto market dropped from those all time highs either.

First, Let Me Talk About Stocks…

If cycles of human emotion could be mapped out, the stock market might be the place to start.  The euphoria of a “bull” market and seeming endless pessimism of a “bear” market show how our emotions, collectively, shape the direction or mood of the market.  But it is more than just random noise, it is a complex dance of feelings and facts, that produces the ‘right’ price in the end.  It can often be algorithmically predicted.

A little story, for example, of how it works: I have bought and sold Dogecoin over the past few months.  My first purchase, in December, at a cost of $1000 then, would have been worth hundreds of thousands at the peak.  I sold it for a small gain.  But later, as not to miss out, I bought in again, and saw my portfolio balloon when the “meme coin” finally caught fire.  However, over the past few months, things haven’t been too good and the price was going down and down.

At first I had complete resolve.  The smart investor holds, I did my due diligence, this is only a correction cycle and things will reverse soon.  But eventually the pressure broke me.  I decided that it was time to save what was left of my gains and move to something that would produce a better return.  I thought this down trend would continue indefinitely or at least go lower—give me a better buy-in price later, right?  

I’ll show you where I sold around 80% of my Doge…

Oh well, I think I’ll be able to get more later.

Yup.  I picked the very bottom of the downward trend.  Even knowing that cryptos have gone through similar corrective phases in the past before continuing their upward climb, and even telling my coworkers that Bitcoin (despite the plunge) would end the year above $70,000, I fell victim to fear, uncertainty and doubt precisely at the wrong time.  I had waited for two months to see that trend reversal, at the bottom, and would have gotten it had I held on for another couple more weeks.

But more than to talk about my missed opportunities, I’m interested in that larger cycle of the market and how human emotions (in an aggregate) create this clear pattern.  Many people want to blame events, like a Tweet from Elon Musk or what have you, for their change in fortunes.  However, while we could see these events as being triggers, it seems the larger patterns are something more or less baked in.  

Elon Musk speaks as Doge sells

Dogecoin, for example, could not continue straight up forever.  Smart investors, who know the adage, “buy the rumor, sell the news,” started to sell before Musk’s SNL appearance.  And the sell-offs came with mentions both good and bad.  It was not the autistic billionaire businessman’s fault that so many people decided on that moment to cash in nor that others began to panic sell as the price dipped.  It was all predictable, part of some sort of fractal meta-pattern, can be modeled (like this), and would have happened (triggered by something else) regardless.

Smart investors learn to zoom at, look at the longer trend, rather than let the emotions of a bad day get to them.  Cryptos, despite their recent dip, have remained in an ascending pattern with the recent lows still higher than the high of the prior cycle, which is why the smart money (unlike your’s truly) continues to buy the dip and HODL (Hold On for Dear Life) rather than give up.  Most people miss on big gains because they’re impatient.

Despite Recent Lows, An Upwardly Building Pattern Prevails…

It was after my most recent dip in mood that I realized something.  In my prior lows over the years, as a Mennonite, I would still go to church for the fellowship and yet would not sing if the words didn’t feel authentic coming from my mouth.  

But this past time, despite my feeling low, I still showed up to sing and did because (despite my pain and depressed mood) someone had to carry my part in the choir.  Music was my worship, spiritual combat, rather about how I felt.  This time I soldiered through the liturgy, toothache, emotional turmoil, and all.  I left immediately after the service, rather than do the social ‘coffee hour’ thing, because I was miserable.

It might seem to be virtuous to only show up or sing when the feelings are there and yet it is hardly sustainable.  If I only showed up for my job when I was in the mood or having a good day, my paycheck would be small to nonexistent.  Many marriages end in divorce because the ‘love’ therein depends on their feelings in the moment and is not an actual commitment to love through better or worse.

So, in short, this duty-driven devotion, rather than being led by emotions, is actually progress.  It was not simply another dive into the same dumps as before.  No, I have changed, improved, from the “be true to yourself” advice to doing my job, for the good of others (including my choir director), gutting it out.  Two steps forward, one step back, will eventually get you where you need to be.

There is a sense in which it was always a choice whether or not to participate.  But my character development?  That seems like something guided, the result of years of small nudges in the right direction, and not something that I can take credit for.  In other words, I’m becoming what I was meant to be, having been placed in the right time and circumstances.

Despite Individual Progress, Are We Becoming Weaker?

That’s not to say that this kind of building pattern cannot work in reverse.  When we consider our “first-world problems” in comparison to what people face in Afghanistan, it would appear that we are becoming collectively weaker rather than use the past generations boost.  We use our opportunity to “stand on the shoulders of giants” to bellyache about ‘oppression’ because other people are not forced to pay for our lifestyle choices.

To put things into perspective?  

Charlotte, my Igorot bhest, as the daughter of a subsistence farmer in the mountainous Benguet province, was sent away to assist her grandmother.  She describes her childhood as being her “grandma’s water pump,” carrying heavy buckets to keep the garden watered.  The work was so hard that she would cry and wonder why she was even born.  That’s pretty much how my grandparents or great-grandparents lived, they did complain and probably because there was nobody to listen.  Everyone struggled, physically, and became strong enough to survive.

Not Charlotte. But how many in the world work.

Compare that to my generation, where we were mostly spared hard physical labor, yet find plenty of reason to cry injustice.  We have gone from “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” to triggered because an Amish kid stares at us.  Being looked at too long a micro-aggression, I’ve heard.  My own endless existential crisis another example and there are many other cases, in my generation, of oversensitive and dark struggles of those truly privileged compared to their hardworking parents.

While past generations in my religious upbringing may blame their insecurities on the standards and not being appreciated by their workaholic father or whatever, the latest generation can’t even eat peanut butter without breaking into hives.  It isn’t their fault either, they’ve been coddled and protected from birth, their parents worked overtime to make sure that they felt heard and connected.  Now, rather than see their discontentment coming from having to follow ‘legalistic’ church standards, our youth will struggle with questions of whether or not they’ve somehow been mis-gendered at birth.

There is little doubt that our sterile environment is likely contributing to the vast increase in autoimmune disorders and allergies.  Whereas previous generations fell to disease, endured actual physical hardship and wondering where the next meal would come from, girls married as teenagers, we now have people distressed that someone used the ‘wrong’ pronoun…

Triggered transgender

However, in a sense, over the generations it is the same struggle in different form.  No matter how improved things become, whether we get that go cart we dreamed about every day or not, there will always be another circumstance to blame our own feelings of not belonging on.  The more challenges we remove for our children, the less capable they become.  No longer comfortable in their own skin.  We blame different externalities for our despair, yet maybe it is something genetic, internal and inevitable?

How Civilizations Rise And Fall

There have been various descriptions of how civilizations rise and fall, one example below:

Many Americans see that we’re on the decline and that our fall from world prominence is now as inevitable as the sun going down.  And, given that many great empires have come and gone, this is not a big surprise.  How could a nation of immigrants, people who left the oppression of the old world, traveled across the treacherous Atlantic and conquered a continent, who understood sacrifice, lead to a generation so entitled, unappreciative, self-loathing and suicidal?

It is easy to paint a very bleak picture.  But then, gripes about the next generation are as old as human civilization and this doesn’t always mean a collapse is imminent.  Yes, there is change.  Top hats have gone out of fashion and will likely never make a return, trends come and go.  There have been times of great social upheaval, like the American Civil War, followed by periods of relative calm.  Those who lived through the Great Depression, the World Wars or Cold War all had their anxieties about the end being near, only for that “great peace” and fall of the Soviet Union to follow.

What feels like the end, under fresh leadership, could be the start of a new epoch.  Take the fall of Rome.  Sure, the Mediterranean empire fragmented, yet the common thread of Western civilization has remained to this day and is arguably stronger than ever.  Yeah, the British Empire may no longer rule the seas, but their rebellious American sons and daughters have become even more powerful than any empire ever.  So maybe after a painful declining corrective phase there will be a revival or rebirth?

Our survival depends on our optimism.  We must assume that each pullback will lead to the next increase in amplitude.  No, that doesn’t mean this is easy, doubt and despair require far less effort than hope and faith; failure is always possible even with the best efforts, but humanity has made it through many bad moments—moments many times worse than any of us will likely experience in our own lifetimes.

Maybe the down is what we needed to give us the bounce to greater heights?

Going Through the Motions

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The phrase “going through the motions” usually implies a half-hearted or insincere effort.

It is most often used for circumstances when we want people to be engaged and enthusiastic, but instead we see vacant expressions, a sea of zombies. And, like an old high school football coach screaming in the locker room at his sleepwalking athletes, we plea to the listless bodies: “Let’s show some life out there!”

There also seems to be an expectation, at least in the contemporary Western church, that a worship service should be a sort pep rally event, where anything short of people jumping over pews and shouting “hallelujah” is a disappointment.

Many, in defense of their preference for a lively experience, cite David’s dance (2 Samuel 6:14-15) as a proof-text and prescription. They treat this fist-pumping, near-naked and completely undignified affair as a sort of standard. However, this perspective neglects something very important and that something being context of this over-the-top expression.

That context?

Literally a once in a lifetime event.

The most sacred object of Jewish worship, the “ark of the Lord,” the physical manifestation of God in their midst, was being returned to Jerusalem. Recall the ark had been lost for a generation, captured by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:11) and, though back in Israel, had never returned to Jerusalem. Of course this was a joyous occasion, a reason for great exuberance, the glory of God was being restored!

Revive Us…Again?

Those raised in a revivalistic setting often seek after an emotional experience. Unfortunately this is often the spiritual equivalent empty calories, something that feels good but lacks real substance of change, a momentary high often followed by a corresponding crash—a crash of equal (or greater) proportion to the energy boost that leaves many feeling more defeated in the end.

I made the mistake, in one of the most vulerable times of my life, of attending an Evangelical “tent meeting” outside of a nearby town. By chance, coincidence or divine appointment, the ‘impossibility’ (that person who became the physical representation of my inability to find a place in the Mennonite culture and not someone I had wanted to see in that particular place) had decided to attend. Not only that, but the ushers of this event, obviously not knowing of my personal struggle, seated her right in front of me.

Her presence there, combined with a sermon about faith and Peter’s walking on water before slipping under the waves of doubt, was the perfect storm for upheal. The manipulative tactics worked. My body began to shake and, after a few choruses of those familiar “altar call” hymns, I got to my feet and walked to the front of the congregation. Soon I would be wisked away by an earnest young gentleman, who offered to listen, prayed with me, and even checked in a couple times in the weeks after.

But the revival effect was very short lived. A day or two later, after that fleeting moment of assurance, I plunged back into my living hell. That exhausting emotional rollercoaster, the fleeting hopes of resolution followed by soul-crushing deep despair and longing for death, day in and day out, did not end. What happened that night was nothing but a false hope, it left me only more confused, more disappointed and desperate.

What finally did work to bring back some stability of mood was an Adderall prescription. That drug, an amphetamine, is prescribed for attention-deficit disorder and yet did wonders for my anxieties as well and was wonderful while it lasted. The morning after starting this, I woke up with music in my ears and the thought, “wow, this must be what it feels like to be Betty Miller!” It felt like a miracle. My mind stopped spinning in circles. I had confidence because I didn’t think, I simply engaged.

Ultimately, even after going off the drug for various reasons (including my inability to sleep) the effect of that experience was long-term. It is actually what gave me the reprieve needed to launch this blog, Irregular Ideation, and showed me some of the potential that I always knew I had and somehow could never realize. The revival meeting, on the other hand, was simply another episode that convinced me that the religious system I was a part of lacked a critical component and was only useful in that it led me to look elsewhere for answers.

The Cure For Chaos…

There is a big push in our time for spontaneity and casualness. Those trying to bring emotional energy back into worship attempt to accomplish that end by changing up the program. The assumption being that this change of window dressing (or rearranging of the deck chairs) is the key to spiritual renewal and confuse the commotion of the change with something of real spiritual value.

Unfortunately, the ‘pump’ is nearly always followed by the dump. More and more young people are losing interest in the shallow, ever-changing, consumer Christianity of their parents. For some this chaotic environment, supposed to keep them interested, provides them with no escape, no means to be in awe of God, and only feeds their confusion. Not everyone can jump and shout on cue—especially not when there are better adrenaline rushes to be had elsewhere.

What if I were to tell you that worship is about orienting ourselves towards heaven, not our personal preferences?

What if I were to tell you that church is a sanctuary, not a stadium?

It was only after attending a liturgical service that I realized the things missing from the form of worship that was familiar to me. Shockingly, it is in going through the motions, by worshipping in the manner similar to heavenly worship, that I’ve been most profoundly moved. Ironically, despite the order, despite the mundane moments of going through the same old routine, there is also a peace that comes by participating in worship passed down from ancient times.

But, more than that, it is trotting this well-worn path that the practice leads something wonderful beyond words. A cousin of mine, Michael Logen, a professional musician and song-writer out of Nashville, once told me that the key to good art is consistency of practice. In other words, instead of only writing when feeling inspired, he encouraged me to set aside time to write every day and it was in this “going through the motions” that our moments of inspiration could be most fully realized.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” (Bruce Lee)

In this age of instant gratification and ‘worship’ that amounts to emotional pornography, many run from one ‘spiritual’ experience to the next, and miss out totally on the real need of their heart. Tragically, in their constant running from one temporary fix to the next, they miss out on the opportunity to practice a worship that is not centered on them, their whims, and eventually no amount of gimmick will fill that void. No, repeating the same routine, in worship and prayer, will not transform a heart. That said, neither will constantly changing things up.

Sure, there is a time for the emotional display and recklessness of king David. However, there’s probably a good reason why worship at the temple in Jerusalem was orderly and patterned. Like an athlete who goes through the motions, repeating the same routines of exercise and practice to be ready for game time, we too benefit from a worship that doesn’t conform to our own expectations—rather preparers us for a life that requires less spontaneity and more stamina.

Sometimes just showing up, regardless of how we feel, is enough.