traditional church with book pages lining front walls
Connectivity, Stunted World Changers

Why Non-Christians Might Feel They Don’t Fit at Church

I am beginning to understand why non-Christians don’t feel comfortable at church.

Angelus Temple skylineChurch people are weird. They hug a lot. They sing a lot. They even have a lot of terms every church person seems to catch that don’t make sense in daily life: prayer request, praise report, clap offering, secular, and even non-Christian. But while these words can be disarming, it’s the stuff that happens in a church service that can make even less sense.

Since I moved to the greater Los Angeles area earlier this year, I’ve been looking for a new church to call “home.” In Reno, where I’d previously lived, I’d found a family in my church. But recently I had to start over.

And even as a Christian, I wasn’t sure how to feel about half the things I saw in churches I visited.

At one church, while people collected tithe (10 percent of your income, given back to God through His church for all He has given you), a young girl belted out lyrics in a solo with a literal spotlight. I blinked. Wait, was there a Beyoncé voice impression scheduled that I didn’t know about?

Then there’s the church with gluten-free communion crackers beside miniscule plastic cups of grape juice. That’s conscientious, I suppose. It just struck me as odd.contemporary church service

Then I saw countless banners, proclaiming the names of Jesus, the attributes of Jesus, the predictions for Jesus. All in jewel-toned primary colors with gold tassels and Brush Script style fonts.

One church had a literal wooden bridge outside for people to walk across as they chose to accept Jesus as the bridge between sinful people and a holy God.

One church had three tiers of balconies, a big screen to see the pastor preach in contemporary style, and stain glass windows as a reminder of its history.

One church had ripped pages of random books stapled to its walls, parchments to signify the story we’re all living.

Some churches have their own T-shirts, their own sunglasses, their coffee shops, and their bumper stickers. Some still use pews and hymnals and an only old-school piano. Some church people even meet outside on the lawns of public parks.

Gluten-Free communion crackersAmid these atmospheres—whether the air is clear or clouded with smoke from a backstage fog machine—are people. And church people can be weird.

I understand, to a small degree, why people who aren’t used to church don’t feel comfortable in our churches. I found my reasons, and I’m sure each person can add their own. I don’t presume to know them all.

Between the communion crackers, the jewel-tone banners, and a preacher’s words, we feel a bit lost.

It’s not familiar.

We don’t feel comfortable in unfamiliar situations.

But church is filled with people.

Many times, I reminded myself that going to a church for the first time isn’t much different than going to a party or going to a first day of school. There’s the introvert who can’t muster the nerve to talk to his neighbor. There’s the know-it-all who forgets she can learn from others. Cliques still form when people find people with whom they connect.traditional church with book pages lining front walls

And if you don’t reach out to others, they likely won’t reach out to you. Sure, you might get lucky. An extrovert might find you on your first day. But you also might be alone for a while. I learned I had to make the effort even at church, and I couldn’t expect everyone to come to me.

Jesus promises to meet you where you are, and He never fails. People try their best to emulate Him, but sometimes we fail. So, please, be patient with us when you come through the church doors.

In the meantime, reach out. Get involved. Team up with someone you meet, grab a cup of coffee or a bite to eat after the service, and ask questions.

Every church has its own customs. Every family has its own norm.

Like a family member, try your best to connect with others in the house. You may not see eye-to-eye on it all, but you’ll likely find the friendship (or as Christians might say, the “fellowship”) is worth coming together with people different than you.

Together you can discover what church is designed to be.

Photos (featuring churches visited) and words: Ally Siwajian

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desert road in winter
Connectivity, Daily Life, Stunted World Changers

Change is Hard. God is Good.

I used to worry when I heard the sound of a helicopter’s blades whirring and pumping somewhere above my neighborhood at night. It used to be rare—the sign of cops looking for someone who was making himself hard to find. Now that sound is normal.

So are the sounds of sirens. Of music blaring from passing cars. Of children’s feet hitting the pavement in the outdoor hallway beyond my apartments’ windows and of a young girl next door singing. Singing because she sounds beautiful—to her ears—and she hasn’t learned yet to care what other people might think.

I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks now.

How do I encapsulate the twists and turns of a road from Reno, Nevada, to Los Angeles? How can I capture the dreams Anthony and I shared—dreams that came true and yet somehow came so unexpectedly but expectantly.

desert road in winter

In March 2012, Anthony and I drove home from church one evening and sat slumped in our car’s seats in our Reno apartment’s dark parking lot. God has forgotten us, we thought. We bought the lie—that America sells.

We wanted simple: to be, to live and to love. But we had traded it for convenience. Somewhere between rent payments, electronic gadgets, a desire to dine at restaurants instead of cook at home, and a whole mess of being over-committed for all the right reasons to all the right things but to too much at the same time.  We had forgotten how to say ‘no.’ And we felt buried.

Let’s run away and move to Canada, we thought. I have enough extended family there that it just might work. We could live in Nanaimo. Write books. Stay in a little secluded cabin made of cedar wood. We could disappear, and we could be free.

But there’s this problem called relationship. People die of starvation from the human connection.

Dreams of that kind of freedom quickly became overrun with realities of isolation. While utter escape sounded appealing to a couple of introverts, we knew that pace couldn’t be sustained any healthier than our current state of rat-race numbness.

So we stayed.

The college version of myself would have scoffed. Don’t settle, I would have said. Just do something.

But sometimes “just do something” can be just as harmful. I might send myself spiraling as I force my way forward, on the wrong path, misstep, and fall flat on my face.

Sometimes we aren’t called to just do something. Sometimes we’re called to wait. Because when we wait by continuing the slow, steady walk of what we know how to do, we find clarity. Then when the clinging fog clears, you can see the rocks in the road and see the paths you should take.

I waited in Reno for one year. Then seven years from my initial entry point into that city, I knew: It was finally time to go. But when I went to leave, I realized I’d done it the right way for once. I’d planted roots. When we moved, we missed those we left behind. We’d have to start over, start fresh. But that’s okay.

Relationship with people and with God is what I seek in this life. If I don’t jump in—if I instead allow myself to be numb in the waiting seasons—then I’ll never know the joy of stepping into my purpose.

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Leave a Comment: What do you think about waiting? 

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Special thanks to Natalie Heifner who told me: “Change is hard. God is good.” and to Louie D. Locke for showing Anthony and me how to wait but wait well. 

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LA sidewalk and street
Daily Life

Welcome to California

On my birthday, only a few weeks ago, I ran along dirty sidewalks with a plastic bag of Subway sandwiches slapping against my side. Earlier that morning, I’d driven from my hometown Las Vegas to my new place of residence, Los Angeles. Anthony and I planned to sign a lease to a new apartment—one that cost more than we could ever fathom forking over in Nevada. But such is the big city life, even for an antiquated abode by the train tracks.

We’d arrived with thirty minutes until our appointment to receive the keys. So we parked our cars streetside, asked Siri for the closest place to find lunch, and started our walk. Let’s just say: Subway wasn’t as close as we thought. We purchased a couple sandwiches from the man behind the curtain—no, counter—with six minutes and a mile between us and our new apartment.

Now I like to run for fun on occasion. But I can safely say I can’t run half a mile, let alone a full mile, in six minutes. But Anthony apparently possesses Batmobile wheels in his shoes. With my consent, he jetted down the sidewalk to our appointment. 

As he sped ahead like a lion on the hunt, I ran along more like an orangutan. Stomping, panting, breathe, breathe, crosswalk—go!

“Hey!” A middle-aged man with gray hair and a disheveled rust-colored baseball cap shouted at me and stepped into my path mid-intersection. He shoved his hand forward to point behind me. “Be careful,” he said and jutted his chin in the direction he pointed.LA sidewalk and street

I stepped back from him and turned. A pile of filthy clothes lay on a patch of dirt where all the grass had died beside the sidewalk. A dented shopping cart filled with tied plastic bags sat nestled in leaf-ridden bushes. Pigeon poop littered the sidewalk, trash gathered in the gutter, and the nearby underpass boasted words I couldn’t read in bold, black graffiti.

“People live here,” the man said and shoved his hands into his pockets. I didn’t know what to say. I dodged out of his path as he passed.

I walked most of the way back to our apartment, where Anthony had met the landlord streetside.

“You okay?” Anthony said, his cheeks still ruddy from his run.

“Yeah.” I nodded. “We’re not in Reno anymore.”

Lively Mediterranean music emanated from an open window above us. Nearby a multigenerational family gathered on their patio, passing plates, speaking Armenian, and laughing loudly. The elderly landlord, in his plaid shirt and suit pants, surveyed us as we surveyed it all. He smiled, then shook my hand.

“Welcome,” he said, “to California.”

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Runner in Color Me Rad
Daily Life, Stunted World Changers

Fear and Forward Motion: Reflections on the Past Year

Last year, I wanted to learn to live again. This year, I want to learn to love life again.

I want to appreciate the little things I take for granted and to remember to find something extraordinary in each ordinary day. To awake in the morning with the sun shining through my window and to say, ‘That’s incredible.’

Runner in Color Me Rad

One of my 2012 highlights: Finishing the Color Me Rad Reno 5K with good friends and family! I totally took a pop of color to the face!

In 2012, life raced by. I challenged myself to find the balance between apathy and overworked. I considered why we couldn’t just learn to live simply. I berated the fact I couldn’t write more, do more, be more. I wondered why accomplishment, that elusive sensation, never stayed for long. And I wondered why fear never seemed to set foot away from my doorstep.

I learned a lot in 2012. I achieved personal goals, like becoming a vegetarian to support Mom through her health issues and lifestyle changes. Training for my first 5K, even though I couldn’t run for a quarter of a mile when I started. Meeting celebrities, like blogger Perez Hilton and The Millionaire Matchmaker Patti Stanger, and discovering a “work event” meant attending a CeeLo Green concert on a warm September evening.

I also fought fear … and likewise often succumbed to it. I thought about money issues and financial struggles much more than I’d like to admit. I worried about friendships and relationships and the changes that happen as people grow. I cared a lot about image, and I didn’t share as much as I may have liked on this blog for fear of crowds.

This past year was ripe with frustration at my own immobility. A lot of that boils down to how much I take for granted. I saw myself as stuck, merely existing, just there. Toward the latter half of the year, I realized as much. Sometimes it’s not your circumstances that need to change. It’s your perspective that needs to shift.

This year I want that focus. I want to choose forward motion over stagnancy, positive thinking over “realism,” and faith over fear. Remind me of that, friends.

Photo credit: Anthony and Ally Siwajian © 2013

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hand prints
Stop Social Injustice, World News

Evil always wants an audience

Evil is not content to stay in the shadows.

The thief wants acknowledgement. The murderer can’t hide for long. The adulterer eventually takes the relationship public. The liar lets loose a little too much, and those who envy are bound to show it with time.

Evil is not content to stay in the shadows. It wants a scene. It wants a screen, and it wants to be seen—to be known and feared and reviled and celebrated.

We must stop giving evil its stage.

As someone who cares about stopping social injustice, I do think we need to know about evil in our world. But just watching it… just reading the news… just following the updates: That is not the answer.

In the wake of this past week’s horrific shooting at an American elementary school, I read a friend’s Facebook post that struck a chord within me. Its writer asked people to stop announcing they were praying for families and to start taking action.

I found out about the shooting through Facebook—through people who offered their prayers.

Those of you who know me or have read my Blog’s Motivation know I believe in prayer. It is a good gift from God the Father to enable His kids (us) to communicate with Him directly, and it is powerful tool in time of need. But I have to agree with my Facebook friend on this one. If all we have is faith that is not accompanied by action, then our faith is dead (James 2:15-17).

But when faced with such tragedy, what actions do we take?

Continue to pray. Then…

Honor the fallen victims, rather than sensationalize the criminal.hand prints

Send cards to survivors.

Add a heartfelt comment to an online memorial page.

Donate to a relief agency or grief counseling organization.

Support a hospital, mental health center, or medical group.

Sponsor a funeral fund.

And do not condemn those who do not immediately follow in your footsteps.

We need to empower people by sharing what they can do to help.

Rather than tell the tale of the criminal and his craziness over and over, rather than give evil continued audience, let us make people aware of the situation and ways to support survivors. Then don’t stop there.

Begin to act proactively as well.

Find ways to give all the time (because giving is good), not just in times of national tragedy. Reach out to your community and its victims. Volunteer. Donate regularly. Build relationships.

Take the space where evil would make its stage, and instead claim it for good. This takes faith in Jesus, who genuinely knows how to overcome evil with good. This takes action. And this takes all of us together.

Let us do this. Let us change the scene, the conversation, and the images that occupy the corners of our TVs, computer screens, and brainwaves.

Overcome evil with good.

Photograph credit: Allyson Siwajian © 2012

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Advocacy Tips, Connectivity, Daily Life, Stop Social Injustice

Every day is grief awareness day when you’ve lost someone you love

This past Thursday, November 15, 2012, I wore a blue shirt as part of a movement to commemorate Children’s Grief Awareness Day and speak about the needs of grieving children and young people. Yes, kids are resilient. But they cannot be expected to bounce back within a specific time frame.

As a culture, we too often expect the same of adults. Not at first. No, at first, it’s:

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“That’s so sad. I’ll be thinking about you.”

“May I make you a meal or bring you a card or talk with you for a while?”

That’s how it starts. It’s heartfelt. It’s genuine. But time passes, and time is expected to heal all wounds.

“You should be over this by now, don’t you think?”

“It’s not healthy for you to still be sad these days.”

Perhaps instead we should continue to offer help, empathy, and heartfelt care to those who are grieving even as time passes.

“I’m here for you.”

“How can I help? Not just this once, but any time for a long a time.”

When I think of friends and family members who have died (and yes, let’s not use euphemisms here), it never feels good. But it feels less bad with time. That’s called healing. As we grieve, we must learn how to heal. As time passes, the intense sorrow will subside and make way for a dull ache, that pang when you remember.

It’s not Grief Awareness Day today. But I am aware of my grief today.

So I choose to remember, to channel grief creatively, and to choose the path to healing.

I think of you when…

I scroll past your phone number in my contact list.

I wear your ski jacket to stay warm.

I glimpse your photo framed by the front door.

I drive my scarlet car with your name embroidered on the dashboard cover.

I observe a yellow Labrador running in the park.

I look for the signature 925 on a piece of silver jewelry, just like you taught me.

I carry cash bills in my jeans’ front pocket, not the back.

I pledge allegiance to the flag.

I notice waitresses’ faces at Caesars Palace.

I see someone in gray scrubs.

I hear someone speak your name.

Take time to remember your loved ones today.

If you would like to share a small eulogy or a few memories of someone for whom you care who has died, please feel free to do so in the comments section.

I am standing with you.

To leave a comment, use your WordPress ID or select “Name/URL” to enter your first name, e-mail address (which will not be published), your message, and (optional) the link to your blog’s home page. Thank you.

Photo credit: Ally Siwajian © 2012

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favorite Converse shoes
Connectivity, Daily Life, Submissions

“One Day” in my life: Project to document the daily norm

On my post “How do I start writing?” last week, Jessica of Mothering with Creativity recommended bloggers share who they are. “People like to ‘see’ other people,” she said. I couldn’t agree more!

So when I read about Laura at Hollywood Housewife’s plan to document a day in her life and her invitation for other bloggers to join in “One Day HH,” I couldn’t resist. I joined the movement, and I documented my Wednesday, November 14, 2012, with photographs.

The goal of “One Day” is to document pieces of your life you wouldn’t otherwise see fit to photograph. It’s the toothpaste you use, the gas prices that day, or the stack of papers you just can’t seem to get through. It’s the Post-it Notes of your life that, when pieced together, form your story.

And it’s a good story because you live your life in it.

Click any photo to start the slideshow and see complete captions!

Thanks for sharing in my “One Day”!

Photographs: Anthony and Ally Siwajian © 2012

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