Churches without All the Noise

My church in Daegu, Korea is very modest. Besides the geometric stained glass behind the altar, it has the feel of most Protestant churches that were built in the 50’s: the architecture and decor is built for function more than religious expression. For the English service, the congregation of about 20 people meets on the third floor and are seated behind folding tables draped in flower-patterned table cloths. The worship team, which anyone who mentions they play an instrument will be encouraged to join, nearly outnumbers those in the congregation.

Growing up, I rarely went to church, even though my family was Christian. In college, I accepted that, unless I joined a community of Christians, I wasn’t going to develop my relationship with God. I was constantly faced with a sense of loneliness and laziness in my faith and started seeking a community that would support and encourage me. I had witnessed a drastic change in heart and attitude of an acquaintance on Facebook after he started attending a church in Colorado Springs, where I lived, so when he invited me to attend that church’s Bible study, I was excited. However, I had experienced Bible studies held in people’s homes before, and they always seemed insincere or lacking in meaningful discussions, so I didn’t know what to expect from this one.

I was struck when I walked through the door, very hesitantly taking off my shoes in the entryway, and I heard my name called out. Two friends from high school, who I hadn’t talked to since right after we graduated, greeted me. It started to dawn on me that most of the people here were tied to my high school, which normally would fill me with panic and dread, but it felt welcoming and familiar. Who would have thought that my old friend, Kim, would be here? (Well, God did…)

I started attending their church services with the accountability of Kim, who also became my roommate later on, the year before I left for South Korea to teach English for a year. Having this connection to a church was vital to my future in Korea, because, as I was preparing for this transition, I always had people praying with me and encouraging me. So when I left the States, I was hoping to find a church where I also felt a sense of belonging.

And I discovered, as I continue to discover, that prayer works. My first day in Korea, I met my best friends, Timmy and Rachel, who became like my brother and sister, and they invited me to a church they had chosen out of a few they had visited.

When I had attended church irregularly in high school, before I started going out of the desire of my heart instead of out of guilt, I went to a mega church: a church famous for the Ted Haggard scandal, when the pastor was found guilty of engaging in prostitution and drug use; a church that used up tens of thousands of dollars buying world flags so that we could pray over/at/to (?) them in the auditorium, and then following it up with a “Move the Mountain [of Facilities Debt]” series wherein they emphasized the importance of tithing; a church that hosted guest speakers that prioritized salesmanship over teaching; a church that believed strongly in pleasing the masses over addressing difficult questions of Christianity; a church that produces cirque du soleil-magnitudinal performances of the salvation story and sells pricey tickets; a church that people flock to because their worship services are rock concerts with colored spotlights and fog machines. From this, my experience with the church was that it was a business. It was a corrupt government. It was a popularity contest.

So I learned to love churches without all the noise.

God led me to these small, welcoming churches. This church in Daegu, where the Korean pastor tries so hard to speak our language and apologizes because his English is “short,” and it doesn’t matter because he’s so kind and joyful. Where my favorite pastor is a woman because she knows how to get to the point of her message and talks to us like it’s a conversation, a devotional, rather than a lecture. Where the worship service is led by passionate people from Uganda, the Philippines, Korea, the United States. Where we all speak in different tongues to worship our Lord. Where, afterwards, we gather together and pray and converse over rolls of kimbap and Costco muffins.

And that’s how I want to worship the Lord on Sundays.

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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!

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.

A Spirit of Quietness at St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery

Today’s guest blogger is John Parker.

High up in the tree-covered hills of Platina, California sits a string of buildings and huts strewn throughout the woods. From morning until sunset, men in black robes, young and old, can be seen walking or working on various tasks: adding new rows to the cobblestone path, tending to the gardens, or most commonly of all—prayer. Dogs wander aimlessly, happily, between the buildings, looking for pinecones to chew. And at the appointed times, a resonating hum of bells sounds across the hillside, beckoning listeners. This is the brotherhood of St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery.

Orthodox Christian Monasteries have been in existence for well over a thousand years. The monastic life is a removal from the chaos of society, a sort of self-imposed exodus into the wilderness—a place where many throughout history have encountered the spiritual life in God. St. Herman’s began out of the desire to return to the spiritual heart of ancient Christian truth and praxis. Father Seraphim Rose, a prolific writer of Orthodox books, helped bring this vision to fruition at this monastery. Since then, this brotherhood has lived in simplicity and humility living out the Orthodox Christian Faith, occupying themselves with devoted prayer and worship, hard work, and hospitality toward the many frequent visitors (ourselves included) who come to see Father Seraphim’s grave. We were there to stay a day in the life of the monastics.

I came on this pilgrimage as the culmination of a year of “returning” to my inner self. I had been running for years from God and from anything resembling church, and had only recently been drawn back into that life. I felt as though God was slowly softening my heart and leading me back, so that by the time I visited St. Herman’s, the noise of the life I was coming out of had diminished enough for me to be able to listen and at least catch a small measure of the stillness of prayer.

After two full days of nearly non-stop driving from Colorado to the west coast, crammed in a van with four other young adults I’d only recently met, I wasn’t sure of what to expect when we arrived. I only knew that I felt something when we walked through the gates—stillness, a quietness returning to and settling on the earth.

Brother Cassian, a man in his early twenties and the most recent addition to the brotherhood, showed me and fellow traveler Jeremiah to our rooms—cells, as they’re called. Like most of the other monks, Brother Cassian was very quiet. Not standoffish or rude, just quietly engaged in a deliberate, contemplative silence. Beyond showing us our rooms and amenities and asking if we needed anything, there was very little conversation. This was the consistent theme throughout the stay: we were given a tour of the monastery, ate meals with the monks, attended services, and were treated with every kindness—nevertheless, a spirit of quietness infused all of these things.

One encounter my friend had with a monk is a fairly good representation of the whole trip’s experience. When we had free time to explore the grounds, this friend of mine was walking and singing to himself. Unknown to him, an elder monk named Brother Theophil was sitting nearby, praying in solitude. My friend thought he was alone, and was singing rather loudly, no doubt distracting Brother Theophil. As soon as my friend noticed the monk, he quickly stopped singing and began apologizing: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you from your prayer, I’ll leave now.”

Brother Theophil, a man who I would have otherwise thought seemed strict and austere, cracked a warm smile and turned to my friend saying, “It is alright. We must learn to pray, especially in the midst of distraction.”

Even though we only stayed a day at St. Herman’s, this truth has stayed with me. In the midst of a work filled with noise, chaos, pain, and suffering—there is a stillness that is waiting to be encountered. There is a life of prayer and inner quietness that I believe not only helps one endure the outside world, but actually helps sustain the world. These small, humble spaces where people strive to overcome the noise and seek a full life of faith help give breath and life to the surrounding world, even if it can’t perceive it.