Of God, Geeks, and Doctor Who…

With friends. Well, friends and a Dalek and a Weeping Angel. There's one more? I don't remember. What's a Silence?

With friends. Well, friends and a Dalek and a Weeping Angel. There’s one more? I don’t remember. What’s a Silence?

Warning! The following may contain Doctor Who references, fandom spirit with distinct overtones of a Christian and spiritual nature. 

Recently while on vacation in Alabama, I attended Con Kasterborous, basically a Doctor Who convention. I unabashedly love Doctor Who; I won’t deny it. And Con Kasterborous was probably the best first con experience I could have had.

People of all kinds from all walks of life came together to celebrate, discuss, and totally go crazy over one thing: Doctor Who. People postulated, hypothesized, and referenced the classic and spin-off series more than I had ever imagined anyone would. They debated whether the next doctor would be male or female, blonde or ginger, who was the best companion, and how Moffat will get around the 12th regeneration problem.

We have found our people, we joked. Now, I’m not used to random strangers understanding my quips. But part of the magic of the con was being in a room packed with people, where you could make the slightest Doctor Who reference and everyone in the room would get it.

It was one of those things that seems like it should be just a fun weekend event. But it may yet prove to be more life-changing than even I suspected. I was happy. I was grateful. I was overwhelmed with dreams of great purpose, etc. It was very much inspiring. That deep heart-string at the seat of my being resonated all the way to heaven and back. I believed God was showing me glimpses, not of the whole picture, but of a greater, more complete direction for my future. I was reassured that it was okay for me to like the things I like, to dream the things I dream, and write the stories I write, because everyone else at that con was either an artist, a writer, a fan, or all three. I began to think that maybe I didn’t have to be quite so shy about wanting to write fantasy or sci-fi or whatever genre my scribbles may be. It is always my hope that whatever I write will speak to someone, whether it is fantasy or fanfic or a post on a blog. To quote one of the speakers, Lady Soliloque: “Make your art whether it’s writing, drawing, or fanvideos. Some one will appreciate it. So put it out there. Go. Create!” We had found our people indeed! I saw through a glass darkly, but after that con, I saw a shade more clearly.

Lady Soliloque and me at Con Kasterborous

Lady Soliloque and me at Con Kasterborous

One of the things that impressed me the most was that, no matter if we sometimes disagreed, or didn’t see eye to eye, or if our favorite doctors weren’t the same, in the end we were united by our common love of Doctor Who. It resonates with us in some deep way that we can only guess at and it bound us all together. It was a beautiful thing.

All my life, Sunday School and Youth Group leaders have endeavored to teach me that if you are not going to church to have a spiritual encounter with God, then you are going for the wrong reasons. Okay. I am a sincere, spiritual, and devout person. But rarely have I ever encountered God in a church. He doesn’t change my life in sermons, prayers, or worship songs. Generally, when He wants to redirect my life profoundly, He will whisper to me in the wind, at a Ukrainian bus stop, in a yoga class, or at a Doctor Who convention.

A good number of my generation and I are losing patience with the modern church. We seem to be looking for community, peace, and a safe place. And let’s face it: there are very few churches where one can truly find those things. These days it seems like Christians will have one disagreement and split! Ta-da! A new denomination is born. Church history shows this pattern from the Protestants and Martin Luther all the way back to the very first split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century.

Me, Vita, and our new ride!

I asked my friend, Vita, who went to Con Kasterborous with me made a similar observation. So I asked her to share some of her thoughts as well:

“[Recently], I went to my very first ‘con’. Con Kasterborous was one of the craziest and fun events I have ever been to. I was surrounded by a thousand other humans who all shared my love of the BBC show Doctor Who. It was fabulous. There were so many different unique and amazing people there! I was inspired and challenged. I felt like God was saying, “Hey, your pen has been silent for far too long. It is time to let your words out on to paper.” My good friend, Sarah Marie, was the one who finally hit the nail on the head. She said, “Why is it that this weekend, at a con, I felt closer to God than I do when I go to my church?” I was blown away, because I felt it, too. At a non-Christian event, God was making His presence known to us. This got me to thinking. Why is it that I feel closer to God everywhere but in a traditional church setting?

“I love Jesus Christ. I love having Christian friends (I love my non-Christian friends, also!). I love going to church. But I am so tired of being around other Christians that are “play-acting” church. We pick songs to get an emotional response. We show videos that I swear the sole-purpose of is to make people cry. Why do we go to that much trouble to get an emotional response? Where have all the genuine Christians gone? I am absolutely exhausted with modern religion. Why do we feel like a church setting is a good place to pick apart our faith? There are certain areas that I consider to be gray areas of Christianity. Subjects that in the Bible God isn’t exactly black and white about whether they are wrong or not. And that’s okay. These are the subjects that each Christian has to approach from where God leads them. What is good for one may not be good for all! (Just check out Acts 10!) In the modern church setting, these are the subjects we as Christians pour so much time and effort and passion into. Stuff that doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things. We allow them to split churches and divide families. We allow them to get in the way of God’s vision and plan for our future. We focus on them more than we focus on God. We forget that God told us to love Him first, and love others next, nothing more, nothing less.

“We are a society that is obsessed with being right. And that’s wrong. We are so busy judging everyone else’s sin that we forget about being remorseful about our own sin. There aren’t multi-levels of sin; there is just sin. And Jesus died for all sin. Equally.

“So, why can’t we as Christians come together in the same way as other groups of people? We have even more of a reason to come together. We are united under more than just a mutual love of something nerdy. We are united under the God who created the world. We are united under the Son of God who died for our sins, so our imperfection could be perfection.

“Imagine, at a con, that some of the different fans got into a fight over whether Superman was Caucasian or African American? The mud starts slinging and all of a sudden the one group splits into two. Then the groups split again over whether he has brown eyes or blue eyes or green eyes. What was once a fun topic would no longer be enjoyable. Eventually the fandom would be so split to the point of breaking. The comic books would no longer exist because there would be too many versions of Superman to get enough support to survive. We wouldn’t let this happen to our fandoms, so why do we let it happen in our churches? Why can’t the different fandoms (church bodies) of Christ put aside their petty disagreements and come back together in the common unity of love for God and love for others? Why do we continue to allow the fighting, misunderstandings, and disagreements to destroy the reason why the church exists? Why do we continue to stress over pointless things? What good does it do if we decide that dunking or sprinkling is the proper form of baptism, if people are still dying and going to hell?

“Maybe we feel closer to God outside a traditional church setting because we are too busy in the church to remember that we are there to worship Him. We are too busy trying to get a response out of other people to remember to approach God on our own and show others by our example. If we want to be near to God, we need to quit focusing on others and start focusing on being right with Him ourselves. If we draw near to Him, He will draw near to us. (James 4:8 – Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.) We need to rejoice in His love, and let the miniscule things go. We need to love others, because we were put on earth to show God’s love to the world. We need to unite in Jesus Christ.

“Be encouraged, be challenged, be loved.

V”

In the end, it all comes down to people. Christianity is a religion of love, redemption, and forgiveness. Why then are there so many Christians who seem to be just the opposite? Shouldn’t we be united by our common love and adoration of Christ? Shouldn’t we be able to share our faith and enjoy fellowship without undergoing a “great divide”? It’s like telling a child to believe in the power of true love while their parents repeatedly remarry and divorce.

That’s not to say conflict will never happen. Conflict will always be with us. We’re people – unique and opinionated people – and at one point or another, we’re gonna disagree. But can you imagine if Doctor Who fans split every time they disagreed over whether the Doctor should be male or female or ginger? What if they split over their favorite Doctor? If Whovians split over every little thing, “Whovian” would not be in the dictionary and we wouldn’t be sending a TARDIS into space. (True story! Check it out here!)

My desire is that Christians would come together because of their mutual love of God, and not just because church is the thing to do on Sundays, or to be a good Christian, or so all the other Christians won’t judge us. (Besides, wouldn’t it be awesome to cosplay your favorite Bible characters or saints on Sunday and not only at the yearly Harvest Festival on October 30th?)

But the truth is, God is powerful and loving enough to give his children places of rest, healing, and peace. God once made me a promise, when I was rebuilding my faith from the ashes up. In the middle of my messy life, when I wanted to change but I didn’t know how, he promised me, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.” (It’s Jeremiah 29:14, but I didn’t know that then.) In all the subsequent years of feeling like I might well be playing hide-and-seek with the God of my universe, He has never failed to be found in precisely the moment I needed Him. He has never failed to lead me exactly where I needed to go.

If we seek to find God, He will be found. Even if He chooses to be found at a Doctor Who convention. And I find that infinitely reassuring.

Kabardinka

I have waited a very long time to tell this story. It is the memory I hold closest to my heart. But recently I went back to Worldfest and one of the employees, upon hearing me mention how Worldfest had changed my life, encouraged me to write. So here is my story.

It was World Fest, 2002, 11 years ago. I was 15. Wildfire was the hot new coaster, Red Gold Heritage Hall had just opened, and the Fresco Barn served the best Cornish hens I have ever tasted in my life. It seemed like a place where magic could happen. And it did.

But first, you must understand my situation at the time. I had a miserable home life. My parents fought and argued constantly: my mom cried and screamed, my dad broke stuff and cursed everything. It was not a happy place. I was empty and numb, a huge void of emotions, because to feel happiness or joy was to open up to pain and anguish. And no one ever noticed that I was collateral damage of parents at war.

But once in a lifetime something happens that forever splits your life in two: the time before and the time after. For me that something was Kabardinka.

Worldfest brought musicians and dancers from all over the world to share their culture. Who could have known what was about to happen? I was entirely unsuspecting.

When I saw the show by Kabardinka, I had not a clue what Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Elbrus were. I only knew that I had never seen dancing like this before. The women were more gentle than doves, more graceful than ballerinas, drifting as softly as feathers borne on the wind, with movements so effortless that they seemed to float just above the floor, the very picture of feminine beauty and mystery. And as much as the women were soft and beautiful, the men were as wild and fierce, creatures of the mountains straight out of legend. Together they were absolutely the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Every movement, every step, every glance of the eye was timed to perfection. They caught my attention and never let it go, from the moment the first dancing booted foot touched the stage until the last beautiful dancer had disappeared behind the curtain.

I went around in a daze, visions of highlanders and dark-eyed beauties dancing through my head. Dreams of the kind of women wars were fought for and men who would die defending a woman’s honor.Longing for everything my life lacked: integrity, protection, respect, and honor.

Back then there were Closing Ceremonies. All the performers and guests would gather in a big circle and dance around the gazebo as we sang “What a Wonderful World.” To this day I cannot hear that song with a dry eye. “What a Wonderful World” is springtime at Worldfest, the fragrance of flowers after rain, faces I once knew, the first time my heartfelt anything at all. It marks such a sweet memory of such a precious time. After the Closing Ceremonies, I asked to snap a picture with some of the dancers from Kabardinka. Upon learning that I was a dancer too, they oohed and ahhed and asked to see some ballet. As it happened, I was wearing dance sneakers. I did a pretty little curu on my toes and a curtsey. They seemed quite impressed and even applauded. Nothing fancy, nothing special. But that was all it took. From that moment on, despite their very few words of English and my complete lack of Russian, they were my friends and I was their biggest fan.

And by “biggest fan”, I mean, if they had a show, I would be there. 20 times, at least (probably more),over 6 days, 4 different weekends. And by “friends” I mean, whenever they saw me outside of the Hall, they would always break out with huge smiles, wave vigorously, and cry, “Hello, Sarah!” in those thick accents, whether I was in a crowd full of people or just walking in to watch the show. And I would wave back and call, “Privet!” just like they had taught me. When it was time to leave, they would ask, “When are you coming back?” or the broken English equivalent. I can still see it all vividly when I close my eyes, like a video I can turn on at will. And I can clearly recall their faces without the aid of pictures. The memories are so firmly fixed in my mind. Considering I lived in a different state, I really don’t know how I talked my parents into bringing me so often. I asked my mom about it the other day, and her reply was, “Well, at least I always knew where you were.”

My mom had a point. I was always hanging around the dancers, so much so that sometimes other patrons of Worldfest would ask me questions about the group and their culture. And sometimes I could answer. I even ended up playing interpreter a couple of times for those that didn’t speak charades. Communication without words is a skill that has stayed with me to this day.

My friends and I would often go to watch the other shows, wander all over Silver Dollar City, or ride the roller coasters. We loved Wildfire and Thunderation. They taught me their dances and my very first words in Russian. I adored them no end.

Later, when I realized that Kabardinka had toured all over other countries and that some of those dancers who knew me by name and always greeted me with a smile were THE principle dancers of the ensemble, I just couldn’t believe it. Who was I? I was nobody. And yet, while all my world and my parents’ marriage was burning to ashes around me, they were my lifesavers in an ocean of despair.

It was the first time in my life I had ever felt safe. They were the kindest, most compassionate people I had ever met. They showed me glimpses of a world beyond the one I was trapped in, the first ray of dawn in my endless dark night. The dancers of Kabardinka saved my life.

I know I will probably never meet any of those dancers again. But that’s okay. They will hold a special place in my heart. Always. Because of them, I have seen the names of my ancestors carved in stone in a Ukrainian cellar, I have drunk pure water from one of the last clean wells on earth, I have international friends all over the world, I can smile without sadness, and dance freely. I have found things worth living for. I speak Russian and a little Ukrainian, I am proud of my Ukrainian Mennonite heritage, and I learned of my great-uncle who was born in Pyatigorsk, about 55 miles from Nalchik, where Kabardinka was from. I have learned to never let language get in the way of kindness, because I know first-hand the value of a smile. I know who I am because of one chance encounter 11 years ago at Worldfest, Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri when a handful of dancers from a city in Russia that no one in Arkansas had ever heard of, were kind to a broken 15year-old girl. To this day their kindness allows me to heal.

If I could ever see them again, I would try to tell them thank you from the bottom of my heart, for saving me from my life, for giving me hope when everything looked hopeless, for showing me goodness when all the other “good” people were passing me by. There is never a day that goes by that I don’t think of them with overwhelming gratitude, that I don’t wish all the best things for them, that I don’t wonder if they would even remember me at all. Because I will never ever forget them. I learned Russian for this very reason, so I could tell them. Just in case I have the chance someday.

Of all the things I hope to do before I die, at the top is to see Kabardinka perform one more time.

American Toilets, Ukrainian Style

There are three essential items one should always carry in Ukraine: hand sanitizer, wipes, and toilet paper.

Public restrooms in Ukraine are my worst nightmare. Okay, maybe not my worst, but they are pretty close.

Now I’m pretty tough. I’ve been to Ukraine enough to know the ropes of public restrooms. I’m not bothered at all by the ones in the floor where you have to squat. Or the ones that stink to high heaven as if the sewers have been backed up for twenty years. Or the ones that are pretty much just a hole in a concrete slab in the middle of the countryside. Those are all fine. The really scary toilets are the ones just like ours in America. I quickly learned that people do not understand how to use these toilets. My best guess is that some Ukrainians think it is unsanitary to actually sit on the toilet seat. So what do they do? Apparently they hop up and squat.

Walking into a bathroom stall in a super fancy McDonald’s after holding on desperately for hours, only to find shoe prints on the bowl is approximately horrific.

But when you have to go… What can you do? Obviously, everyone else is doing it, and my bum is definitely not going anywhere near that nasty toilet seat. (May I reiterate at this point: wipes, paper, sanitizer!)

But once, after doing as they do in Ukraine and thinking myself very Ukrainian for it, I got caught. The next lady in line, an older Ukrainian woman, saw the seat after I exited the stall and bawled me out right there in the restroom. My Russian was not that great at the time, but I understood enough to know she was yelling something to the effect of “don’t you people know you’re supposed to put your bottom on the seat and not your feet?” The repeated smacking of her bum and thigh might have been a clue also. I’m thankful she was smacking her own, and not mine.

She was very not happy.

And the lady cleaning the sink kept right on scrubbing like it happened all the time.

Well, it would have been pointless to try to explain that at least five other people had squatted on that seat before me. (This is why you always carry wipes with you. And sanitizer. And toilet paper.)

So when an angry Ukrainian zhenschina shoves a wad of paper towels at you, what do you do? Why, you take the wad of towels and you clean the seat for her. And then you write about it.

Because you have not fully experienced Kyiv, Ukraine until you have been yelled at by a Ukrainian woman and cleaned a Ukrainian toilet.