Music and the Gospel: “Scars To Your Beautiful,” Alessia Cara, 2nd Sunday of Lent

This week’s Spirit tackles our ideas of self-image and beauty. High school can be a difficult time. A lot of personal and social changes are taking place; we’re constantly trying to fit in and fit an image of who we think we should be and who people will accept. Trying to live up to these expectations can make us act in ways that aren’t in our best interests. Alessia Cara’s song “Scars To Your Beautiful” is a song that reminds us that we’re all beautiful regardless of who might say otherwise.

Key Lyrics: But there’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark / You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are / And you don’t have to change a thing, the world could change its heart / No scars to your beautiful, we’re stars and we’re beautiful

Questions: What is your idea of perfection? How are your self-expectations different from social expectations? When have these expectations come into conflict? How did you handle it?

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Music and the Gospel: “Chasing Shadows,” Santigold, 1st Sunday of Lent

Santigold says that her song “Chasing Shadows” is about being “caught in the web we spin around ourselves…as quickly as we reach our goals, our gaze shifts to those still looming…we judge ourselves harshly for not being further ont he path” (Pitchfork). High school is a stressful time. Our own expectations and the expectations of those around us put the weight of the world on our shoulders. It’s important to recognize when we need to slow down, when we or someone around us might not be making the best decisions, whether it’s about grades, relationships, or even physical health.

Key Lyrics: Maybe I won’t get it wrong, no patience for myself / Only this is ideas come old, I’m living on the shelf / I will follow in thinkin’ the long way if my standards hold up

Questions: What expectations do you have for yourself? What expectations do others have for you? Which expectations influence the way you make decisions? How do you balance these expectations?

Rich in Faith

The Second Reading for Sunday, September 9th:

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality

as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please, ”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet, ”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?

James 2:1-5

What a perfect reminder to start the school year off right! There is a lot of pressure in school to look right, and looking right costs money. Every year, a new group of students enters the building, each being judged quickly and effectively for what she or he looks like on the outside. Students admit to spending a great deal of time and money on their appearance, especially early in the fall when their reputations have not yet been determined by their peers. In almost every school setting I have been in, there are students in “gold rings and fine clothes,” and there are students in “shabby clothes.” These two groups of students are often treated differently by other students and even by teachers. The last school I taught in had uniforms, but socio-economic class could still be easily distinguished by things like shoes, backpacks, accessories and phones.

This reading adds a whole new spiritual weight to our lunchroom experience. Saying, “Sit here,” to a friend and telling others to “Sit at my feet,” marks us as judges with evil designs. Those are pretty strong words that we can take as a challenge this school year. If you accept this reading as a challenge for you this year, however, being conscious of your own personal prejudices and inclusivity could be a powerful spiritual practice, a way to live out your faith every day.

Our human brains snap stereotypes as we walk down the hallway. It is a skill that our brains have to file information quickly and efficiently. The way we stereotype is deeply affected by messages we are receiving from media and the world about what is acceptable and what isn’t. Companies like Apple, Sperry and Nike market heavily to young people to make sure you equate their product with being cool. We have been socialize to think it is better to be rich than poor. Recognizing these factors and not letting them affect how we treat each other is the key. It is human to have stereotypes and make judgements. This reading is calling us not to voice them and act on them. Conversely, by noticing them and choosing not to act on them, we can dismantle some of the socio-economic discrimination that happens in our schools. You have the power, this year, to not feed into stereotypes and love God by loving your classmates. Loving your classmates may look like being inclusive of people who, on the surface, do not fit in. It may look like sitting with and getting to know all your classmates, regardless of how many gold rings they have.

Maybe you are the student with the shabby clothes. The truth is, there are many different ways we can stereotype each other. In school, it is easy to gravitate to the people who think, look and act like us. This reading is calling us to cross some boundaries this year, and give a classmate who you do not normally interact with a chance to get to know you for who you really are.

Does how you dress matter in your school? Do you think money matters? Do students with more money get treated differently? How or how not?

What are the dynamics of your lunchroom at school? Is there such at thing as a more prestigious spot to sit? Are there students who are made to feel left out? How?

What can you do this school year to notice your own prejudices and overcome them to include others? Who can you get to join you in this pursuit?

Photo courtesy of nigel_appelton via Creative Commons Licence

Graduation

This weekend I am flying to Atlanta, Georgia, to participate in the commencement ceremony that marks my graduation from a doctoral program. Next weekend I am driving to Iowa to attend a graduation party for my cousin, who will be finishing high school in a few weeks. It is that time of year—black gowns, mortar board hats, tassels, “Pomp and Circumstance,” speeches, parties.

To be honest, I have never been the biggest fan of graduations. It all seems like a lot of hassle. If you are a graduate, you have to dress up, find a way to secure a ridiculous looking hat to your head, wait around for the ceremony to begin, and then listen as the name of every single one of your classmates is called. If you are attending a graduation, you also have to dress up and then fight with other people for the few good seats that will actually allow you to see the action, all so you can catch a fleeting glimpse of the one person you care about walk across a stage.

On top of being a hassle, graduations can also be anticlimactic. I have participated in three graduations to date, and at the end of each one, I felt let down. Never during the ceremony did I have a swell of emotion or a sense of accomplishment. I knew the event was supposed to mark a significant accomplishment in my life, but really, my main emotion was boredom, not pride.

So why am I going to my graduation in Atlanta this weekend? Why I am driving to Iowa for my cousin’s graduation party if I am such a graduation downer? Actually, the reason I am going has to do with two experiences I have had with church.

The first experience was Confirmation. Along with everyone else in my grade school class, I received the Sacrament of Confirmation in the eighth grade. I hated the experience. Confirmation classes were boring, focusing on right and wrong answers to factual questions rather than deeper questions about who we are, why we are here, and what we are supposed to do as Christians. While all the other girls in my class got to wear the cute floral dresses that were in style at the time, my mother bought me a pleated black skirt and a red, black, and white plaid blazer with shoulder pads to wear for the big occasion. I was mortified. As if that was not bad enough, when I went to receive the sacrament, nothing happened. I expected to feel something different after the bishop laid hands on me, but I still felt like the same old Claire. “What a stupid sacrament,” was my thought at the time.

But then the next year, at a time when I really needed God, I felt God’s presence with me in a way that I never had before. And that continues to happen. When I really need God, I can sense God’s Spirit with me. And I would like to think that I have been there for God, too. While others in my confirmation class have left the church, I still attend mass (and do things like write for this blog). So while the actual night of the Sacrament of Confirmation may have been a bit of a bust, in retrospect, it was an important night. I went forth from that sacrament ready to receive the Spirit’s presence with me in new ways and I found myself living more fully as a disciple of Christ.

My second experience came in high school, when I was struggling with whether to continue going to church or not. I really did not feel like I got much out of being at church and preferred to pray on my own at home or to spend time with God outdoors. But then I heard a homily in which the priest suggested that going to church is not really about us or for us, but is rather about and for God and the community. In other words, I shouldn’t go to church because I wanted to get something out of it. I should go to church because I have something to give—praise and thanksgiving to God, prayers and care for others. So I kept going to church and changed my focus to being part of a community gathered to give thanks and praise for all God has done.

So despite my negative attitude toward graduation, I know that graduations are important. They are important not so much for the actual ceremony itself but for what the ceremony signifies. Graduations mark the ending of one stage of life and the beginning of another. While we may not feel it during the graduation ceremony, graduation signifies that we have grown and are new people heading out into the world to do new things. Importantly, graduations bring together the community—not unlike the way sacraments in the church bring together the community—to witness this important life transition. Teachers, friends, family, and other members of the academic community gather in order to celebrate who we have been and to look forward to who will be. Graduations are not only about us; they are about giving thanks for what has been, praying for what will be in the future, and being together as a community.

Perhaps most importantly, graduations encourage us to think about who we will be in the world as we go forth. How will we put what we have learned into practice for the good of the world? How can we support others as they work to do the same? Really, it is not unlike the focus of each Sunday Eucharist. We gather as a community to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, but then at the end of mass, the priest says, “Let us go forth to love and to serve the Lord and each other.” We come together in Eucharist not only for the sake of that hour spent together as a church community but in order to be sent into the world, changed by our taking the body and blood of Christ into our body.

Of course, graduation is not sacramental in the way the Eucharist is. However, it is a time we come together for the sake of publicly witnessing what has been accomplished, only to be sent forth to live what we have learned. What matters most is what we do next.

As you approach the end of the school year or perhaps a graduation of your own, take a moment to reflect on where you have been and where you are going. What have you learned this year? How have you changed as a person? How will you live what you have learned in the world for the good of all God’s people?