How I Know

When salt-water tears stung my eyes because at the age of 22 I still had never seen the ocean, I never would have guessed, imagined, that in less than a year I would be peering through goggles, 20 meters below the surface of the South China sea, at a turtle paddling in a soft current with sleepy eyes, my breathing slow and steady, wrapped in the ocean, suspended by the ocean. A paradise risen up around me with palm trees aching with unripened coconuts.

And that’s how I know that I am loved, even when the moment is a desert with sinking sand and parched tongue, where hope becomes a mirage and faith the pulsing in my temples.

Because that moment of smallness, struck by the ocean, humbled by the creatures living below the surface, flipped upside-down in awe, feeds me the promise of a future. I know I am loved when I face great things, like the thought of someone dying for me with the pain of mothers giving birth, of sons sent across the seas to face mortality at the end of a gun barrel, aching with love that is burdened with fear and driven by holiness. I know I am loved through sacrifice. When, in the midst of despair, someone fought for me.

No matter what pain sears through life, I know I am loved because good remains. When children and mothers laugh, when battles are won, when a Savior breathes life after waging war against incomprehensible evil. Good remaining despite anguish. I know I am loved when good overcomes. When the story doesn’t end in defeat. When everything He gave led me to know love manifested in turtles who don’t worry about tomorrow, in oceans of blessings, in each new breath that inhales grace, in the sunlight of hope making a whole world glow, even in the depths.

Happy Easter, everyone. He is risen!

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The Thorn: Behind the Scenes and Beneath the Makeup

Note: I wrote this literary journalistic piece in 2014, when I was trained in airbrush makeup for The Thorn. Some of the information included may be out of date as the production has only continued to evolve and expand its outreach.

A long, unwieldy string of costumed dancers begins in the airbrush room, snakes through the door, and ends somewhere down the hallway. A row of three girls, hair at their temples pulled back, dresses flowing in bright colors—yellow, pink, blue—sit in folding chairs and close their eyes as we spray golden yellow bands of paint from the corners of their eyes into their hair lines, like the tails of shooting stars.

When their makeup is finished, these dancers, ranging from children to women in their late twenties, will go back to stretching their legs and chatting about last minute stage directions before rushing through the mega church to backstage, where they’ll wait for their cue. Then, they’ll scamper downstage when music gushes from speakers blaring through the auditorium that seats 10,000 people, referred to by New Life Church regulars as “The Living Room.” This space, which usually holds church services, has been transformed into a theatrical heaven where rows and rows of overwhelmed and intrigued eyes view dancers and aerialists, martial artists and stage actors.

The Thorn is a dramatization of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The emotional performance starts with the creation story and the fall of man, ventures into the politics of the Roman Empire, and opens onto the story of Jesus with Mary rejoicing over her immaculate conception. The rest of the story unfolds in graphic detail, and it ends with a montage-like scene of the disciples sharing the Gospel throughout the world.

As youth pastors, John and Sarah Bolin created The Thorn in 1997 in order to share the Christian message with high school students in a new, relatable way. By 2014, the performances have grown to include hundreds of cast and crew members, performing not only in Colorado Springs at New Life Church, where The Thorn originated, but also in cities around the country, such as in Denver, Fort Worth, Dallas, Kansas City, Sacramento, and Nashville. The audiences have grown to include over 20,000 people per show.

The dancers, along with the rest of the cast and crew, have been training and rehearsing their parts since at least January, preparing for the Easter performances, where they usually spend entire days at the church or other venue, switching back and forth between stretching, rehearsing, performing, and taking breaks to pray and eat snacks. Sometimes the Dancing Angels return to the rehearsal room and their ballet slippers have stains from the artificial blood that flies from the Jesus actor’s body suit when he is lashed by a whip. The girls laugh it off—by now, their shoes are a mess with the stickiness of such a production.

The representation of angels brings an awe all its own to the play. When the meta-narrator, John the Beloved or Doubting Thomas (the roles alternate every year or so, just as the play itself evolves), finishes the introduction, the auditorium darkens until all attention is centered on the Globe Angel, who walks under a spotlight with a glass globe, representing Earth. As she walks, the haunting soundtrack plays and a woman’s voiceover speaks: “In the beginning was the Word.” The globe is lifted into the rafters by a pulley system, and a bell tolls twice, leading into the “heaven” music, a beautiful orchestration that matches the soaring of acrobats on silk cloth that spills from the ceiling to the floor. I have always gotten goosebumps at this point in the production, whether I was in the audience or dancing on stage as an Angel.

But there’s a darker side to this supernatural representation when spiritual warfare is enacted by the actors casted as Demons. They wear torn up black t-shirts and sweatpants, and the makeup artists airbrush every inch of their skin in white paint and shadow their muscles and bones to look gaunt. In the play, the demons are always crouched at the side of the actor who plays Satan; they are like his minions, always present to fight the angels. They descend from the rafters in nets, writhe down the aisles and make gutteral noises at the audience, or leap on the stage with spring-powered stilts. They look inhuman, as we imagine demons would.

A twenty-something girl with hair teased into a burst of frizz, next in line for airbrush, plops down in front of me and waits for instructions. I tell her, “Raise your chin up to the ceiling for me.”

She turns her head up, and I spray a “V” shape from her earlobes to her collarbone. I use a plastic board to cover part of her cheek as I airbrush a shadow across her jaw line. Then I paint a black ray into her hair, blend the darkness onto her eyelids and into the crooks of her nose. One Demon tells the artist beside me, “They won’t let us go up behind people and scare them anymore. It’s so stupid. That’s part of the fun!”

Representing spiritual warfare in The Thorn is undoubtedly part of its appeal. While it strikes the fear of God in some, for many it has the effect of a haunted house. After all, evil is thrilling—it’s sudden and mysterious. I once watched the auditions for the children’s version of The Thorn, called The Crown, which several years ago played alongside The Thorn so that a less mature audience had the opportunity to experience the story in a way that wouldn’t be too intense. The casting director had to warn the teenagers and children auditioning that it’d be better for them to show that they could perform well as an Angel; everyone wants to be a Demon. It’s more competitive because it’s more glamorous. Everyone wants to be intimidating; being the villain gets you more attention than being the hero sometimes. Additionally, though the whole Supernatural cast gets the coveted full-body makeup, the Demons don’t necessarily have to have martial artist, acrobatic, or dance skills to qualify for the role, so there are always more people trying out for the Demon cast.

When I was a Dancing Angel in high school, a fellow dancer told us, when asked what her atheist husband thought of the play, “Well, he liked the demons. He thought they were cool.” In many ways, The Thorn could be seen as an attraction for Christians and non-Christians alike. The play has even been compared to Cirque du Soleil, with the addition of a storyline that’s heart-wrenching to watch. S. Watkins, from Colorado, wrote a review, saying, “My life was changed at The Thorn. I couldn’t stop crying—not a weeping but a gut wrenching sobbing.” However, the struggle to downplay the theatrics of the Demon cast continues to be controversial within The Thorn community. It’s important to ask, Are we drawing in an audience by encouraging them to get excited about, even comfortable with, evil? Do we want to generate chants of “More demons! More demons!” from audience and cast alike?

In some scenes, especially at the end of the play, the demons run, or rather slither and crawl, away whenever the power of God overcomes them. However, the demons are not simply there to be foils for the angels. They have a more complex role in developing the characteristics of evil. In the scene where Judas betrays Jesus, it grows intense with the screams and writhing of Tortured Souls and the demons flit about the aisles making creepy, guttural sounds. This, along with blinding pyros, unsettles the audience, but it’s undeniably a fascinating scene in the way it highlights the chaos of hellishness. However, it can arguably distract viewers from confronting the significance of this evil: Judas hanging himself from the guilt of his betrayal. The music shrieks to a hault, the lights go out, and the audience looks for the Demon who is running on all fours up the aisle, making animalistic sounds.

One girl returns to the airbrush room twenty minutes before the show. “Hey, can I get some more makeup? I saw my friend with lines on her neck. Can you give me that? And can you paint the skin showing through the holes in my costume?”

Jessie, who was a Demon last year, raises the girl’s sleeves and sprays her arms. She turns her around and highlights the spinal cords on her neck in thick, black curves. “Awesome,” the Demon says and then scoots out of the room before the first VIP tour comes by.

The Thorn might seem like a circus when you’re not whispering the Salvation Prayer in your seat during the sermon-filled intermission that follows the scene where Jesus is nailed to the cross, spilling the blood that gets on the dancers’ shoes. There are scenes reminiscent of a haunted house, tours, real tigers (some years back), stuntmen, acrobatics, everyone covered head to toe in costumes and makeup. There are merchandise tables in the lobby, like any business-savvy Christian concert, conference, author visit etc. would include before and after the shows. If the muscular, martial artist Angel and skulking Demons appeal to you, then you can pose with them for a picture. You can also leave with a Thorn t-shirt, water bottle, or bumper sticker. You can buy a DVD of the production to watch on a Friday night. You can get a selfie with Jesus.

“AMAZING! WOW! By far the Best Live Theatre we have ever seen,” remarks Dawn Christiansen, from Washington. With a budget of $175,000, The Thorn creates an experience unlike your average church Easter play. The production is worth seeing whether you are moved by the story or not—the theatrics are impressive and so much professionalism goes into the end product. It’s interactive in a bold way; when you’re finding your seat pre-show, centurions might harass you or little girls might try to sell you flowers. When John and Sarah Bolin set out to create The Thorn, their mission was to allow believers and non-believers to experience God in a powerful way, and this is still the mission of the majority involved. But does the high-quality production persuade the audience of the truth of Christianity, or does it only prove to the audience that even Christians can put on a good show?

John Bolin said in an interview, “The story of God should be done with excellence.” With tickets selling from $20 to $50, the Bolins, with the hundreds of cast and crew members who dedicate their time and energy year-round in preparation for this production, have built what was once a small performance into a major theatrical ministry…and spectacle. If you find yourself in the position of not being able to afford the pricey tickets, The Thorn does offer scholarships to go see the show. However, no longer are there free performances during the final dress rehearsals, where New Life Church members could invite their friends and family or anyone who might have otherwise not attended, who may have especially needed to experience this message of love and grace. Now if you want to invite your atheist coworker, you’ll have to be ready to shell out some cash or really play up the Cirque du Soleil comparison.

Now a tour of children, their parents, and their grandparents are walking by, tugging on their VIP badges and gawking at us as we pretend to paint the demons before the show, as if we hadn’t already finished a half an hour ago, right on schedule. “See? We’re not scary,” a Demon tells a child. The child returns a smile.

Costumes are on, makeup is perfect—everyone playing a role. It’s show time.

Tea with Refugees in Belgium

Today’s guest post is by Kate Connelly.

My junior year of college, I had the privilege of studying abroad in Brussels, Belgium. I had so many amazing experiences, from attending a film festival at the European Parliament to seeing the largest collection of dinosaur bones in Europe. I traveled to the Netherlands to see The Hague and to Germany to meet one of my dad’s childhood friends. However, of everything I got to see and do, there is one experience that stands out.

I studied abroad through the ISA program and the directors, Matilda and Paula, or as we called them Ma and Pa, would sometimes set up activities for us around the city. One day they sent out an email inviting us to meet them at St. Catherine’s Cathedral for a service opportunity working with refugees. We arrived at St. Catherine’s and were greeted outside the doors by Ma holding a basket filled with oranges and cups of tea. She handed out the goods and told us to go pass them around and chat with those inside. She explained that the refugees were mostly from Afghanistan. The majority of them were young men who were waiting to see if they would be granted asylum. They did not have papers, so they could not work; they were completely dependent on the charity of others for food and shelter.

St. Catherine’s is no longer an active church but another one of the beautiful cathedrals of Europe that are preserved for tourists. However, no tourists would be visiting St. Catherine’s. The pews had been removed and had been replaced by rows of tents. We awkwardly began to walk around, passing out tea. Those that knew English greeted us warmly. Eventually a group of the refugees invited us into their tent. We were out of tea, but they insisted that we drink some that they had. They also offered us sugar-covered dates. As I took a date out of the box, I noticed that it was covered in Arabic writing and I wondered if they had brought these dates all the way from their home country.

One of the volunteers asked them their story. They told us about living in fear as a war that did not concern them was raged all around them. They told us about the journey from their homeland to Brussels, about watching their friends die as they tried to flee. They told us about the hope they had for a better life and the disappointment they faced at being seen as a burden. They explained how the authorities had taken their papers and how they wished they could work. Surprisingly, though, they were not bitter. When we were finished, we went outside to play soccer. Even though I missed almost every kick, they continued to pass me the ball. They clearly knew how to work as a team. After all, they only had each other.

That was the only day I saw the St. Catherine’s Refugees. I asked Pa what happened to them, but she never wrote me back. I think and pray for them often and thank God for the opportunity to meet them. They touched my life more then I possibly could have touched theirs. They taught me that no matter how difficult life circumstances may be, it is possible to hold onto hope. They taught me that even when everything seems to be against you, if you hold on to relationships, you can make it through. They taught me that even though the news portrays the Middle East in such a dark light, many people there are just like I am. They want to live a prosperous life and are not entangled with their governments.

I also learned to see the world in a more positive light. The St. Catherine’s refugees and the volunteers that work with them are not reported about in the news. They are not talked about in government circles (mind you this was before the Syrian refugee crisis). All over the world people are reaching out to each other. You don’t have to travel all the way to Belgium. Sometimes all it takes is offering someone a cup of tea and a smile.

Being an Ugly White Girl in a Pretty Korean World

My eyes are round and two different colors; one is blue and one is greenish-brown, depending on the lighting in the room. The students notice this a lot and point and ooh and ahh over it. They tell me my eyes are beautiful. I know compliments always seem less sincere when they’re immediately returned, but when I tell these girls that their eyes are beautiful, too, they are firm when they tell me “no.” They shake their heads and pull their eyelids down, forcing the delicate ovals into the coin-shape they are told is more valuable.

I don’t spend much time looking at my eyes. I’ve had them for almost 23 years, so they’re just a part of my body. What I do notice when I look in the mirror, or when I notice other women’s faces, is my blotchy skin sprinkled with big pores. I notice my eyebrows, which I have carefully constructed to avoid looking like those of the men in my family. I notice my big, Italian nose, my fat layers, my unmanageable hair, and the way my natural, relaxed facial expression makes me look either manically depressed or super pissed off.

So when these young girls sherk my compliments, I start to resent the both of us for wanting what we don’t have. Koreans are so freaking gorgeous in ways that I fear they don’t realize, just like any person of any ethnicity doesn’t realize about themselves when they’ve been picked apart by their culture, or other cultures, for as long as they can remember. What if I complimented these Korean girls on their honey-brown eyes or their glowing skin or their dainty noses or their soft brown hair or the fact that the vast majority of them are slim and fit into any clothes they choose? Would this build self-esteem and send a message of “don’t change a thing”? Because sometimes Korean women have achieved what is called beautiful only because they changed and changed their bodies until they could fit themselves into the puzzle of social acceptability, where every piece has the same shape and each molds together to create one mindset, one concept of perfection, lacking creativity and complexity.

And Koreans are complex people, just like everyone else. There are short Koreans. There are very tall Koreans. There are skinny Koreans, tubby Koreans, hot Koreans, not-as-hot Koreans. Koreans with flawless skin, Koreans with acne. By no means are all Koreans the perfect, petite, doll-like creatures that culture tries to make them represent. Here in Korea, there are a lot of beautiful men and women, sure, but few actually look like that. But there is undoubtedly a significant pressure for Koreans to look a certain way, so there are inevitably going to be many people who just look so…clean. And put together. And well-dressed.

Moving to a new country where there is a specific, demanding standard of beauty can play tricks with your mind. My insecurities stem from many years of wishing I was skinnier or wore better clothes; the U.S. is not exempt from these standards of beauty. We all want to be skinny and in shape and have pretty faces, but the concept of “pretty faces” is more general than in Korea, because America has a social makeup of so many different ethnicities that it’s impossible to demand each girl have similar facial qualities. Yes, we all want good, healthy, probably tan skin, and tiny, toned bodies. However, when I left the U.S., it seemed like many of us were rocking out to “All About That Bass” and were starting to greet ourselves in the mirror with a “Hey, there, beautiful” instead of looking at our reflections like they were an unwanted love child.

So in Korea, there have been times where I’m like, wow. I should probably wear more makeup. My skin is disgusting because I don’t have an hour-long daily routine to take care of it. I need to lose 50 pounds so I can fit into the one-size-fits-all clothing in so many Korean stores. I need to smear on some lipstick so I can look successful and put-together. I need to wear skirts so people don’t think I’m a lesbian (?).

These thoughts have crossed my mind when I see girls primping in the bathroom mirrors, or hear my male co-workers talk about how pretty Korean women are, talk about white women and their comparative frumpiness and hairiness.

In the end, I’ve had to ask myself the following questions: Do I want to attract the type of men who think women are better if they spend hours on their bodies? (Ew. No.) Do I want to sacrifice precious time on this earth taking extra care of and altering a body that’s just going to die in the end? (No. I have too many people to meet, places to see, and things to write about to waste that time.) Do I want to feel healthy and happy with my body? (Yes. Maybe I’ll step it up a little. Continue my jiu-jitsu training. Buy a quality face scrub. Shave my legs a little more often, when I feel like it.) Do I want to kick some ass and take some names? (Yes and yes.)

No matter how long your eyelash extensions are, no matter how many meals you skip, no matter how much a surgeon tweaks your face, you are always going to be you. It only matters how you feel about yourself, inside and out, heart and mind and face and thighs.

So I’m going to appreciate when people compliment my eyes, but I hope that if they do so, they’re not doing it at the expense of their own self-perception, their own beautiful body, fearfully and wonderfully made.

Korean Animal Cafes

One of my favorite things about Korea is the immense variety of cafes, each competing to offer unique experiences for customers. Until I lived in Daegu, I didn’t know petting zoos could also be places to sit and drink coffee. To me, coffee shops were either Starbucks or a local cafe where you were supposed to sit back and knit sweaters or write poetry. Although there are some pet cafes in the United States, featuring cats or dogs, they are rare and novel, so exploring animal-themed cafes in Daegu has been both entertaining and therapeutic (for the times when you just need a dog to cuddle).

Below are four animal cafes I have experienced so far in Korea. Please forgive the picture quality; I’m not a photographer and I don’t think I’ll ever be one.

The Cat Cafe

I’m not what you would call a “cat” person, but I was curious about visiting this cafe, especially as it’s the first animal one I had been to. There was a large number of cats roaming the cafe, napping on people’s coats, or hiding in those carpet towers cats enjoy. If you buy fish treats for the cats, they’ll come up to you and try to claw your face off for a taste. Otherwise, they were kind of indifferent to customers. Sometimes they wouldn’t mind if you petted them–just not on their right shoulder, the center of their chin, their whiskers, their belly, or any region remotely near their tail.

In all seriousness, though, this cafe was fun to visit. It was pretty clean and the cats were well-groomed and, sometimes, well-dressed. Of all the cats I petted, only a few of them were plotting against me.

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The cat that shares my heterochromatic eyes.

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Devious, or just wants love?

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These silly cats think they’re people.

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Management posts pictures to show which cats belong to the cafe. Their names are in Korean, along with what I assume are brief memoirs of their lives.

Pet Cafe

I had been warned by my cat-loving co-worker that the dog cafes were nasty because dogs pee and poo on everything, and cats don’t. This, unfortunately, was confirmed for me in the Pet Cafe, which had dogs on one level and cats on another. However, this cafe was mainly just disappointing because we seemed to have gone at a time where there were few dogs, most of which were tiny and aggressive–the two qualities that I dislike in cats.

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Pre-peeing on the couch photo

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These dogs mean business when you have treats. How rude. *Necessary Full(er) House reference, so that I am topical in this blog post.*

Racoona Matata

Racoona Matata is probably the most unique animal cafe in Daegu. When I was growing up, racoons were the rodents that tore the lids off my family’s garbage cans and feasted on our trash. My dad would try to come up with methods of keeping them away, like fastening bungie cords around the trash can lids, but they always found their way in and made huge messes.

The racoons in the cafe, you can tell, are just as smart and conniving, but it was fun to get up close to them and pet their heads in the cage they were contained in, or watch them on the ceiling ramp where they would crawl out and try to reach for our food. They were cute, but also a little creepy with their grabby hands and the way they stood on two feet.

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This ramp spanned three-quarters of the room and allowed the racoons to peer down at us suspiciously.

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Inside the room where they’re contained

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One of the few dogs that also roamed the floor, separate from the racoons. So cute.

Cat Dog Cafe

My favorite animal cafe is the Cat Dog Cafe. This one has a lot of dogs who are all really sweet and cuddly, and there are more than just the tiny, yappy dogs. In this cafe, there is one floor for the cats and an upper floor for dogs. Before we went up to the dog floor, we put on skirts that the cafe provided, which encourages dogs to curl up on your lap because they are familiar with the sight and material of the skirts and have been, in a way, trained to trust them. The skirts also help keep off the dog hair and drool from your clothes.

I stayed here for a couple of hours with my friends, petting the dogs as they fell asleep in our laps. The dogs were so relaxed that one of my friends started to lose feeling in his legs because a huge dog was curled up on him like a puppy. He dragged himself backwards all the way across the cafe to fetch his coffee and the dog didn’t even stir.

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Big dogs.

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Little dogs.

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Dogs with underbites.

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Dogs that look part wolf and are sooooo fluffy.

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Warning: Dogs might use you as a fire hydrant. “Oh My God!!”

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Can I get a dog refill, please?

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The dog who escaped the cafe and was carried back inside.

So, as far as I know, these are all the animal cafes in Daegu. But with such a quickly-changing city, maybe there will be a cafe with monkeys soon.