I love real books.
I love how they feel and how they smell. I love their sense of space and progression. I love their permanence.
Sometimes, however, I run into people who advocate for real books as if they were advocating for trafficked children. I think that’s a little extreme.
I know an older person who has invented body language for the specific purpose of disparaging e-readers. She doesn’t just say that she prefers physical books. She views e-readers as a moral wrong. She’s also pretty sure they cause brain damage. “I only read REAL BOOKS,” she declares, standing firm as the final line of defense against an invading army.
I get tickled when I see this, imagining the transition between scrolls and the codex between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Maybe the old folks back then complained, “There’s no way a human brain can process the true flow of writing with all these blasted page breaks. These great works were meant to be taken in by scroll, and I’ll read scrolls until the day I die.”
Or when parchment began to replace papyrus, “These young kids have no commitment to precision. They can erase on parchment. You couldn’t erase back in my day. You had to get it right the first time.”
Was there ever a critic who griped about portability of papyrus? “I remember the good old days when somebody who had something worth saying carved it into a big, fat rock. Now THAT was a world of stability.”
For whatever little it matters, here’s my philosophy on the thing.
There are some books I only read in bound form. I tried to hit the ESV Reader’s Bible on Kindle, for instance, and that just didn’t work for me. I need the layout of the printed set to do part of the work.
But there are other books that I find much easier and more effective to read on Kindle. I’ve been taking a leisurely approach to Les Mis for the past year, and reading this book on Kindle is a far better experience than reading it on the printed page. With a click of a thumb, I can look up rare historical references, and reading footnotes is a breeze.
I’m not thumbing through a thousand pages every few paragraphs to find out what a “Saint-Jacques pragmatist” is. I touch the footnote number, get the historical nugget, close out, move on. Takes five seconds instead of thirty. That makes a big difference when you are tackling a project like this.
Here’s another confession. I bought Les Mis in three formats, audio book, hardback, and Kindle.
I knew that I would enjoy this book for the rest of my life, and I knew that this first reading would be a big part of my recreation for many months, so I took the leap.
On long bike rides, I listen to George Guidall’s brilliant rendering of the story--which is mighty helpful in some of the historical passages with complex pronunciations. When I want to go back over a specific passage in depth, I open the physical book and set Julie Rose’s translation up against several others that chose a word-for-word approach instead of an idea-for-idea method. Late at night while my husband is snoring away, I open my beautiful new Kindle Paperwhite and revel in the miracle of a 1300-page novel reduced to 7.3 ounces.
7.3 ounces. I can take that anywhere. And I do.
In every format, I am delighted with Hugo’s work. In those passages I have read three different ways, I have found that my brain picks up different things...not greater or lesser information but different information. Some details I have missed in bound form, the audio or the Kindle have revealed. It’s been humbling to realize that.
One more thought. It’s not true that all printed books are created equal.
When my friends over at the Rabbit Room print a hard copy of a book, they obsess over margins, fonts, paper quality, typesetting. This publisher is thoughtful and precise so that when you buy a Rabbit Room book, you’re buying a reading experience that enhances the reading material. When I have the opportunity to buy a book by Rabbit Room Press, I never pick the Kindle form over the hard copy.
But Rabbit Room production stands head and shoulders above the cheap paperbacks being thrown out en masse today. The classroom versions of so many brilliant novels are hideous, and I can’t blame students for being exhausted by them.
Great classics are ruined when they are thrown onto grey-smudgy, thin, stinky, cheap paper, words in tiny fonts crammed together, margins virtually non-existent, no beauty in page composition, a binding that makes opening pages fully impossible. We do our teenagers a great disservice when we hand them these aesthetic disasters.
I would much rather my students read Pride and Prejudice on a Kindle in a nice, clear Bookerly font than to mess with the headache of a poor physical reproduction. I can see why students toss many of those books aside for the SparkNotes summaries. I wouldn’t waste my time on trying to hack through such a mess, either.
All this to say, if you have been exposed to e-book shame, be free, be free. Do what you need to do to get the books read. Find the venue that works for you, and don't let anybody make you feel guilty about it.
Because I have the Kindle app on my phone and iPad, I wrestled for a year about a Paperwhite purchase. It seemed extravagant. Now I see that it’s one of the most important investments I have ever made. How I wish I could go back in time and make myself buy this two years ago. I could have used this sweet little thing during the election. Curling up in bed with a device that won’t let me check the news or social media is helping me sleep better than I’ve slept in a long time.
Having the option of silently reading a chapter or two when I wake up in the middle of the night is lowering my stress. I don’t see headlines. I get away from all that madness and allow hours meant for rest to be restful. I wake up, click on a soft little backlit page, read for fifteen minutes, then go back to sleep without the weight of the world on my shoulders.
And while "real books" will always have a soft spot in my heart, I'm completely smitten with this little thing. Welcome to my world, Paperwhite. I think we're going to be good friends for a long, long while.
I love real books.
This won't be a long post, just a little housekeeping. :)
Today I realized that I need to let my readers know that I keep a filter on comments here, and that I plan to do so for as long as I blog. There are many places on the internet where people call each other names and try to hurt others with their words, but my blog isn't going to be one of those.
While a hearty discussion between people of different belief systems can be profoundly beneficial, abusive firestorms begin when verbal hostility takes over, and these accomplish nothing but the purposes of hell.
My blog is a place to talk about ideas and seek Jesus. It's not a free-for-all where strangers are allowed to be mean to strangers. I never mind disagreement, but all comments that you offer to other readers must be civil, patient, and kind or else I won't push them through to the public eye.
Basically, I don't allow anything said here that I wouldn't allow to be said over my dinner table. If my children were sitting in a room while an adult was flying off the handle, I would ask that adult to leave my home. I'm applying that policy to my blog as well.
If you disagree with me or someone else and want to talk about an issue publicly here, take some time to do the following before commenting.
- Ask a humble and sincere question for clarification before making angry assumptions.
- Remove all name calling, insults, and unfair associations in your post. Stick with the issue instead of trying to hurt people.
If you just need to vent at me, you can do that. But when I can tell a reader is letting his/her temper lead, flying off the handle unfairly, I usually just read a sentence or two and then mark the post as "spam" without finishing it. That sort of label means all future messages from that IP address go directly to the trash, and I won't even see them.
Hateful comments make me feel empathy about the trauma or relational lack that leads a person to adopt a hostile style of communication, but they don't hurt me. They evoke mercy, but they are too pitiful to actually sting. At least they haven't yet.
Thankfully we live in a free country where aggressive and rude folks have other venues for their anger. I'm just not going to host them here.
This post doesn't apply to 99% of you. Of the tens of thousands of hits I got on a post this week, I only had two rude comments attempt to make it through. That's pretty stunning, if you think about it. But it's still loving to define some ground rules for a community now and then, and these are the rules for Thistle and Toad.
Oh, one more thing. I sometimes hold off on comments that make claims about public figures. That's not because the writers are trying to be rude but because I need some sort of validation before helping spread information that might hurt someone else's reputation. If you have something in such a category to share, please just provide external reference material that allows me to validate your claim.
Alright, gotta get back to some things here. I'll be back in I Corinthians tomorrow!
NOTE: Over the years, I've learned that when my friend David tells me to read something, I should read it. He's one of those people who seems to have a knack for suggesting books that scratch an itch. A few days ago, he urged his friends to reread the book of I Corinthians because its teaching fits the needs of our American church, so I hopped on it. Today I'm continuing yesterday's post, working through this epistle. If you want to read along with me, I'll be posting on this topic for the next few days.
ON LIVING IN TWO WORLDS AT ONCE
When people on the internet disagree, they usually fight by calling their opponents “stupid," but Paul doesn’t do that. In fact, he does the opposite. He admits that there are different systems of wisdom, and that it’s possible for someone to be brilliant in one of those other systems.
When Paul critiques his opponents, he critiques them by speaking teleologically— a word which looks at the purpose or end of a thing. To critique the telos of another worldview is to ask: “Let’s look at where this alternate system of wisdom is going to end up?”
In making this distinction between God’s wisdom and the world’s, Paul writes: “...we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God...”
In other words, it is possible for a system of wisdom to look brilliant on earth, but that doesn’t mean (the telos) of that system is going to end up being beneficial or pleasant. (Need an anology? Compare this to a dating relationship that looked so promising during the first month but made you miserable after six.)
My two favorite Christian apologists are Ravi Zacharias and Tim Keller, in part because they tend to get this one rhetorical skill right. They don’t attempt to elevate Christianity by taking nervous pot shots at secularists. When they see logical errors, they address those with humor and respect. But they only engage after taking the time understand and speak accurately about the world’s systems. They aren’t haphazard in calling other systems foolish; they address them in light of their telos — their ultimate end. (They operate like a wise parent who says to a teenager, “You can try that. But let’s talk through where this is going to land.”)
If we get this right, we will still be deeply offensive to many secular thinkers. Why? Because there’s a diagnostic built into God's system that violates the strongest values of the godless world.
The secular world believes that all truth can be found through the power of the human mind and the reliability of the natural world. Any eternal truth that requires more than these two elements feels unfair to the pure materialist.
But God didn't guarantee that all important knowledge could be obtained this way. In fact, he set up the world up so that people who are only willing to embrace the secular currency of wisdom will be blind to the spiritual realm.
I can see why this dynamic would feel unjust to anyone who thinks the world’s system of knowledge should be reliable enough to find God. But that sense of injustice is a natural consequence of misplaced trust. If we insist on worshipping our own minds and our own ability to analyze the world, we're going to end up with the limitations of those two gods.
Imagine a community of people living in a little biosphere, people who can’t imagine anything beyond the tiny world in which they exist. Or go back to Plato’s Analogy of the Cave, a tiny underworld in which lifelong captives of darkness can’t imagine an outside realm full of sunlight and greenery.
If we choose the small gods of our own minds and perceptions, we can insist that all we have ever known and valued is all that is fair and good to know. But our confidence doesn’t make our assumption right.
- - -
ON DIFFERENT TYPES OF PAULING TEACHING
Several times over the years, I’ve been frustrated with Paul because some of his teachings of seem contradictory. It wasn’t until I realized that Paul openly admitted teaching different sorts of truths to different sorts of believers that the pieces began to fall into place.
Paul writes: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh.”
In other words, Paul didn’t teach all Christians the same things. And he did that intentionally.
We do this sort of thing with our kids, right? When our children are young, we give them less freedom and different types of instructions than we do when they are grown in trust, intellect, and character. As their maturity develops, we begin to trust them to be heart-driven instead of task-driven.
When we read Scripture, we tend to do read it flatly, as if there were no topography to the thing. But that’s just not how the text itself claims to work. The books of the Bible, and especially the epistles of the New Testament, were written to specific people, and understanding the original audience matters.
It takes effort to be a thoughtful reader and to unpack the levels of instruction included in the Bible. But I don't know why anybody would ever think that studying the Bible should be easy. And this is the sort of effort that can protect us from making serious errors in interpretation.
I wish I had more time right now to make a huge chart, delineating the various maturity levels of the audiences Paul addresses and then listing the sorts of instructions he gives accordingly.
But as far as I can tell, the bottom line is this: maturity boils down to union with Christ-in-us. Once we really learn to walk in the Spirit, a lot of the rules that are essential in our early days of faith become unnecessary because we cannot carry out the deeds of the flesh if we are abiding in Christ.
However, it takes a long time for some of us to let go of our fleshly efforts to try be “Christian.” Like Paul, many of us will have to go through humiliating experiences with failure before we finally become willing to depend on an indwelling Lord.
A young believer may need more rules, not just to protect him, but to show him that he doesn’t have the ability to keep them without Christ. Eventually, we will learn what Paul say here,“...no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” But different believers need different sorts of instruction along the way to arrive at that conclusion. Those nuances not only appear in the teachings of Paul, but I think also in the teachings of Jesus.
Ultimately, after years of being aggravated at Paul (and Jesus) for teaching what seemed like contradictory instruction, I’ve come to see this section of I Corinthians as a key that unlocks most of the New Testament. (Tim Keller actually addresses this principle in his sermons “The Inside-Out Kingdom” and “The Upside Down Kingdom.” These two messages are definitely worth a listen, if you haven’t heard them yet.)
Ever since I can remember, I’ve seen Christianity taught by one of two secular methods.
Because I teach philosophy, I’m going to use two philosophical terms to describe those two methods. The first term is rationalism. The second is empiricism. It’s important for you to understand both of these if you are going to understand the first paragraphs of I Corinthians.
Rationalism goes back to the Greeks, and essentially, it means you use formal logic to prove something. According to Plato, logic exists in the invisible realm—and this invisibility was important to the Greeks because they didn’t trust their senses completely. Our eyes and ears can deceive us, but we can tell deep in our minds that 2+2=4*
Empiricism started in earnest around the time of David Hume (1700’s), and it means you use physical evidence to prove something. This works more like our modern scientific method, in which you run an experiment and trust the results of that experiment to teach you some truth about the universe. **
Modern academics tend to use a muddy blend of rationalism and empiricism, and most of us think very little about doing this. When we see Sherlock Holmes using induction and deduction, trusting both his senses and his logical ability, we think he’s smart. When we see hot heads on social media yelling things like, “Do your research!” or “Think about it!” we realize they are asking for some sort of source that can be validated. But unless we’ve done some formal study into how proofs work, we might not realize that it’s almost impossible to prove anything, really. Both rationalism and empiricism are helpful, but they’re also flawed. They remind me of those times Siri has tried to get me to a rural location, and she just gives up five miles out and says, “Please walk to your destination.”
At the time that Paul was writing this book, Greek rationalism was still in full force. Even though the Romans were dominant at this time, they had adopted most of the academic ideas of the Greeks. So when a Greek person wanted to know if something was true, he would use a rational system of logical proofs to make his argument.
Apparently, the Jews worked a little more like David Hume’s crowd would 1700 years later. They wanted physical evidence. Paul says the Greeks wanted wisdom and the Jews wanted signs, but that he wasn’t going to speak in terms of either value system. Instead, he was going to choose an epistemological value system that would make him look foolish to both groups.
Before I write any more about this, I’d like for you to read this section of I Corinthians.
- - -
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but indemonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Yet among themature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
- - -
For many years, I was a systematic theology junkie. I was raised in the Lee Strobel/Wayne Grudem/R.C. Sproul/John Piper era, and because I tend to be a bit of a nerd, I was thrilled by the promise that a rational/empirical approach to problem-solving could be applied to the Scripture. Not only did this give me a sense that I could figure things out for myself, but also, it gave me a sense that I could fight culture wars and win souls by watertight proofs.
But that’s not what Paul says here at all. My theological assumptions were based in my secular values, not in the values of the Bible.
Paul was a super-educated guy, and he knew exactly what he was saying when he was defiant here. (When he chooses to use logic and proofs other places in the Scripture, he's a master of these disciplines.) But there’s a powerful bit of irony in his statements, boasting about intentionally losing his case on every academic front that meant anything to the people of his era.
When he talked about being unimpressive in speech and presentation (trembling and bumbly), he was saying, “I’m bad at rhetoric.” Rhetoric was the formal discipline of presenting your case in such a way that you could persuade others to agree with you, and it was mega important in Greco Roman times. This was how anybody who was anybody got things done. In terms of cred, he’s shooting himself in the foot repeatedly here, taking every angle to try to stand like a fool instead of scrambling to use data or arguments to prove his faith to anybody.
Why? Why would an educated man like Paul do this?
Look at what he elevates instead.
Paul emphasizes something that I almost never hear a modern Christian academic admit these days. He says that God’s wisdom is intentionally secret. It’s intentionally hidden.
He says you can’t get to the truth of God by the common roads, and that this is purposeful on God’s part. There’s a Spirit involved here that knows our hearts way down deep, not just our minds, but our inclinations. And that Spirit is able to determine our motives.
In other words, our judgment won’t just be based on what we could figure out with our thoughts. The most central and true qualities of our souls are seen in total clarity by God. When it comes to the essence of who we are, we are totally bare and defenseless before a God who looks straight into our hearts. We can hide nothing from him. And when he judges us, he's fair, because he sees with flawless vision.
Paul says that people who attempt to use only rationalism and empiricism will never be able to understand certain eternal truths because while those two roads are commonly traveled, they don’t lead everywhere. There are some destinations that you can only reach if you are willing to operate in the realm of the spirit.
That doesn’t make the faith irrational. It doesn’t make it violate empirical truth. But it does mean that people who attempt to find God only by the mind or by the senses won’t ever find Him. There has to be a willingness to engage at the spirit level with a Being who has intentionally made it impossible to find him through the world’s most trusted methods. This is a matter of posture, not just knowledge.
Sound cruel? Sound unfair? I can see why it might feel that way at first glance--especially when we are accustomed to addressing the entire universe by the lower roads. Our value system is the value system of the secular world.
Even though these epistemological roads are lower than the realm of the spirit, they are treated with profound respect by people who are respected here on planet earth. This makes the realm of the spirit seem foolish, when it’s actually the most pure knowledge of all.
A whole book could be written about this, but I’m afraid you’ll stop reading if I keep writing. For now, go back and reread that I Corinthians passage a few more times. In light of what I’ve just told you, I think a few new things will pop out to you as you study it.
Am I going to make a case for total Christian mysticism? No. Church history shows us how strange and greedy people can misunderstand the realm of the spirit, making systematics a healthy guide for staying out of heresy. (Like bumper bowling. Ha.) Besides, I’m still too much of a rationalist to go there entirely.
But I do keep my systematic theology and my empirical proofs in a more humble position after realizing what Paul was actually advocating here. There are things we can know, but the things we know are always secondary to knowing the Maker of all things.
For so many reasons, both personal an interactive, that's vital to remember.
- - - - -
*This is a huge oversimplification because the realm of math was actually below the realm of pure logic in Greek rationalism. If you want to study this more, study Plato’s Divided Line Theory.
** Also a significant oversimplification because David Hume showed how we couldn’t prove causality, and we also can’t resolve the gap between our perception of the physical world and the physical world.
When friends of mine are hurting, their pain takes root in my own belly. I feel what people I love feel, and I feel it intensely. Several times, that empathy has been so strong, a friend's suffering has disoriented my own convictions.
Once a friend of mine was going through a brutal divorce. The spouse was not only sexually unfaithful but also emotionally abusive. Flagrant affairs were thrown in my friend's face. Marital sex was used as a weapon of emotional torture. Cruelty to the entire family (including their children) was intentional and boundless. I don't know if a personality disorder was involved, but the spouse seemed to delight in setting traps for my friend, causing as much pain as humanly possible.
My friend was close to suicide, and for weeks, I spent long hours walking as close as I could. Many nights I got just a few hours of sleep because I was committed to being there no matter what. I was scared a lot. Scared I'd get a call that my friend had given up living.
When a second romance came into this friend's life, we were both fatigued. It's hard to tell you how happy I was when for the first time in a long while, I saw a flicker of joy. I saw hope. I saw this friend realize that she could actually be loved.
Waves of relief washed over me.
When you've seen someone you love on the brink of death, this sort of change is like rain in a drought. I was so thankful for this man who loved my friend.
Then they started to sleep together, and this is where I stopped knowing what to say.
I don't believe in sex outside of the confines of marriage, and I don't say that out of naivete. I'm human enough to have experienced the temptation and the excuses. I have never followed up on those temptations, but I do know how a wrong thing can seem absolutely right. I know that, and still, I hold to Biblical morality.
Yet this friend who was nearly dead seemed ecstatic as she engaged in extramarital sex. Instead of suicide threats, there were tears of, "I finally feel seen. I finally feel known."
As I loved her, I never stopped believing that sex outside of marriage was wrong. I always believed that, technically. But I also knew everything about the hellacious emotional torment my friend had experienced. Some days my compassion for my friend was so strong, I wondered if a sinful thing might somehow be used to repair the consequences of abuse. I wondered that because I loved her, and I felt so much relief that she was finally joyful.
I never changed my beliefs, but in flashes of empathy, I wondered if there were individual human exceptions to the rules. I wondered if cases of gross abuse made a difference in the boundary.
But as months went on, the sex that initially brought so much color into my friend's life brought grave trouble and pain. What felt like being known was being used. Love wasn't love; it was two lonely people leaning on one another until they both fell down. Extramarital sex had been a trap, of course--a trap that hurt everybody involved.
God's rules are always there because he loves us. He isn't trying to be cruel with any boundary, sexual or otherwise. But the intense pain of earth can cause us to mistrust him sometimes. After walking with my friend through this situation, I understand how hard that struggle can be now.
I didn't wonder if there were exceptions to the rules because I wanted to defy God. I didn't waver because I wanted to be a relativist.
I wavered because I was overwhelmed watching someone I loved suffer at close range. I wavered because I desperately wanted her to live. I wavered because I wanted her to find immediate relief instead of waiting for God's long and difficult rescue.
In those moments, I was wrong. But I was wrong out of fatigue and human empathy.
As I've grown older, several standards I've embraced "on paper" have had to work out in the context of real people. What was easy to proclaim at a distance became complicated sitting with my arm wrapped around the grieving and the dying. Getting down in the trenches has made me ask different sorts of questions.
I have emerged from those struggles holding to orthodoxy--but those convictions haven't come cheap.
I trust God's boundaries now, but I trust them as someone who has doubted them and found them solid and kind. And, I can see why someone like Mr. Peterson was caught off guard if he has lived taking the risk of loving at close range.
If someone had asked me a question about my beliefs randomly, during a season when my heart was bleeding for my friend, I might have given a rash answer from my gut instead of speaking from my spirit. It might have taken me a few days to go back to God's throne to say, "Do I really trust you? Even when it seems like your rules are way too difficult for hurting people to follow?" If I had prayed hard prayers in honest pain, I might have had to correct myself, too.
As I look across the landscape of evangelicalism, I see the sorts of leaders who bloviate and blast, and I used to be intimidated by them. But over the years, I've seen enough sex scandals emerge from this camp, I'm no longer awed by their proud self-righteousness.
I'm now drawn to gentle teachers who speak about sin with a tender understanding of how human pain works. While these tender men still hold to orthodox truth, they engage with humility and deep concern because they've taken time to weep with those who weep.
When we pray for the Lord to break our hearts with the things that break his heart, we are asking to be shown the intimate details of human suffering. That's going to involve emotional challenges we can't even imagine when we are living safe, comfortable, removed lives.
There's a huge difference between speaking of gay people categorically and speaking of your gay friend, Christine, who was brutally abused by her uncle for two decades and now feels nauseated every time she smells a man. It might be possible for me to walk with an evangelical swagger and act like an expert when postulating about the first category, but the second is a real person whose story brings me to my knees.
Do I think sex outside of marriage is wrong? Absolutely. Do I believe in the sanctity of male-female marriage? Yes.
Do I also sometimes kneel beside my bed and weep for my abused friends by name--friends who seek relief in ways that don't align with God's word? Yes. I do.
And when I pray for those friends, I don't pray simple, condescending prayers because their lives aren't simple, and their wounds aren't simple, and they bear horrible old complicated burdens that I have never had to carry.
I appeal to the father, holding up all their suffering and saying, "This story. This story. This story is so messy, God. How will you save my friend?"
As someone who has wandered into the underworld of pain with people I care about, I affirm my strongest convictions with tears in my eyes and not with hate or hostility.
I am firm in what I believe, but I am not unfeeling. And every "no," I give comes from learning the hard way that "no" is the most loving response--even when it doesn't feel like it.
Because of this, I'm willing to allow Mr. Peterson the chance to clarify without my condemnation. He has a huge heart, and he loves people profoundly. If he was momentarily disoriented because of tenderness, I get that. I've been there, too.
As far as I can tell, a lot of kids growing up in Southern Protestant churches are given one of two promises.
If you grew up Southern Baptist, Methodist, or Charismatic, you were probably promised that you'd be able to feel God somehow at some point.
If you grew up Presbyterian, DTS/Bible Church, or maybe Anglican, you were more likely to receive a promise that God could be proven with facts and your mind.
These are broad generalizations, and I don't mean for them to be watertight--some Baptists are deep into apologetics, and some Presbyterians are more mystical. But just for kicks, let's allow for outliers here and dive into some of the problems these two promises can create.
Why do that? Because more and more lately, I'm seeing young adults who grew up in the shadow of these two promises hit a crisis of faith. When gets super hard, hurting people go back to those two expectations and shout out across the canyon of their deep doubt, asking for God to show up in the way they were promised he would.
But all they feel is silence.
That silence is scary because many people don't feel like they can take it back to their churches and say, "Hey! This thing you told me didn't work." Instead, they hold it in their bellies and fear and churn. The silence makes them lonely, and it makes them wonder if they believe in God at all.
These two promises produce different sorts of disappointments, so let's look at those individually:
AT THE END OF THE "FEEL" PROMISE
At the end of the feel promise, you reach out to God because you desperately need him, but he doesn't seem to show up. You can never honestly say, "I had a peace about it." The warm fuzzies never hit. The world feels empty, and you feel like you're praying out into a vacant universe.
God feels cruel because what kind of all-loving Father would ever do that to somebody? An earthly parent won't even ignore her child when he needs help... would it really be so hard for God to get involved?
AT THE END OF THE "PROOFS" PROMISE
At the end of the proofs promise, you find out that something Lee Strobel wrote just wasn't right historically, and you feel betrayed. Or you find out that a certain historical document conservative Christians use to validate the faith was actually doctored by a monk. Maybe you discover that other religions that predate Christianity also had a virgin-born messiah figure with twelve disciples. You run into verses or passages that contradict logically. You get worn out from trying to make them all jive.
WHY I'M INTERESTED IN THIS
First off, I've been there. At the end of both of these promises, I've hit the skids, and I have retreated into myself, terrified that I was slowly becoming an atheist. Some people might look at that fear as proof that faith is an artificial comfort, created to manage dread of the unknown. However, I don't think the fear of losing your old perspective is singular to Christianity. Whatever your worldview is, it's disorienting to have that rattled. I've felt similar fear when my opinions on other matters (like politics or the inner dynamics of marriage) have changed. I've also seen atheists fear when changing over to a posture of faith. Change is just a disorienting experience, right?
And when I couldn't get away from the fact that God was real, I've wondered if he was mean to keep so far back. Why would someone who COULD be obvious choose to be hidden?
So, before I say anything else, let me say that you're not freaking me out if you have hit this point. I get it. I know how frustrated and scared you are.
I can also tell you that so much good has come from these dark stretches of doubt in my life. At the time, they literally felt like the end of everything I knew to be true. But now that I've walked through this crisis of belief, I can put my arm around people who are there and say, "It's okay. I remember. And here's some more stuff to think about as you process the silence of God."
I'm not sure if everything I am bringing to you is right. I'm still a learner here, so check all this against the Bible and against your trusted mentors. But even if you make some corrections to this post, I think sometimes just seeing someone, ANYONE talk about this can be encouraging. It can crack open the freedom to raise your hand and say, "Me too!"
WHAT DID GOD ACTUALLY PROMISE US?
If we step away from the extreme promises our denominations sometimes make to us, it's kind of startling to see what Jesus did and didn't say about belief in Him.
He never said, "Hey! You're going to find TONS of historical and scientific evidence, and reading Scripture is always going to match up in a way that you understand it."
He never said, "You're going live at a ten on the warm-fuzzy scale, and whenever you doubt me, you're going to see my face appear on a pizza-flavored Dorito."
In fact, we see lots of places in Scripture that indicate that belief will (at least sometimes) be tough.
God sometimes refers to the truth as a secret that he intentionally hides from certain types of people. If empirical evidence alone proved the gospel, you couldn't ever veil it from anyone, right?
And to Thomas who said he was never going to believe unless he could actually see physical proof that Jesus was alive, Jesus showed up and then said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed"
In other words, he's not always going to prove himself in that same extreme way to every human being. He might not even use a proof that works like other proofs we have used before.
I'm embarrassed and frustrated by some of the scientific, historical, and logical errors passed around inside certain versions of Christianity. But despite those mistakes, I'm pretty nerdy about research, and I still think empirical/historical/logical evidence points strongly to the reality of Christ's life, his death, and his resurrection. My research doesn't remove the gap, but it narrows it an awful lot. I think what remains is intentional on God's part.
In terms of feelings, sometimes God does show up and direct us. Sometimes we do see clearly for a season. But even the Apostle Paul had moments that were so hard that they led him to despair. ("We were under a burden far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.")
Think about that. This guy who had experienced this major flash of God showing up directly, the guy who told us to "rejoice in all things" and said that "the peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts" still got down the road to a point where his emotions weren't jiving with his beliefs.
YOU'RE NOT WEIRD. YOU'RE NOT ABANDONED.
I promise. You aren't weird if these disappointments have hit you.
In fact, it's taking every ounce of self-control I have to streamline this post because if I knew that I could glue your eyeballs here, I would unpack tons of the Bible and tons of examples from the lives of Christians to show you that hitting these two skids is often just part of a thinker's journey. A huge could be written about this topic. I'm trying to hit the highlights.
These hard spots don't mean your faith is dying. I know it might feel like everything is falling out from underneath you, but this season often just means that you're growing up, and sometimes growth hurts.
If you ever get a chance to listen to Monty Python's John Cleese read The Screwtape Letters on YouTube, DO IT. Do it. Do it. They are hilarious and so good. Anyway, in Chapter 8, Lewis talks about times of doubt just like this. He calls those the "troughs," and he explains why sometimes God removes evidence of himself so that we can mature in faith.
In another piece of writing, Lewis says that sometimes God lets us experience struggle so that *we* can realize what is really inside us. He knows all along what our gaps are--we just don't. So times like what you are going through right now can help you learn yourself better while also helping you learn God in a deeper way.
After that verse about Paul's despair, he says something so interesting. Get this: "Indeed, we felt we were under the sentence of death, in order that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. In Him we have placed our hope that He will yet again deliver us..."
This means Pauls despair was actually a classroom that taught him not to depend on the strengths of his emotions or his logic but on the living person of God.
ONE LAST THING:
One of the worst things (I think) about the extremes of the "feel promise" and the "proof promise" is that they can sometimes decrease our sensitivity to the realm of the Spirit. While God did give us some pretty solid evidence for the faith, and while he also gives us feelings sometimes, there's also a realm of the Spirit in which confirmation isn't just a logical conclusion or a surge of endorphins.
This realm isn't often discussed by folks because it's difficult to describe. I think of it almost as a sixth sense. If we were animals, I'd use the term "instinct," but it's more than that, and it's also more than intuition. I think it's actually part of the "imago Dei"-- or the capacity for God that God put inside humans and no other animal.
Instead of hacking through a ton of theology, I just want to mention this capacity in a simple phrase. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
I don't think that's describing a simple emotion, and I don't think it's referring to empirical proof. I think it's whatever word we should use for the unspeakable connection of the human spirit with the divine Spirit.
Yeah. That's going to get too complex to address here properly. But maybe saying that much will help somehow, too.
Know you aren't alone. Please know that. It's okay if you are here. Lots of people have been here. I certainly have.
It's the scariest most disorienting thing in the world to wonder if everything you have believed isn't even real. And it's hard to wonder if God is cruel or indifferent if he does exist. But over time, I've realized that a lot of my problem was rooted in expectations that God never actually put on me. And just relaxing there, admitting the truth of my struggle, and taking a big breath has helped so much.
You want to know something super ironic? When I read my Bible now, sweet, confirming emotions that fear had frozen in me for years have returned. (For several years, I dreaded reading it because I was afraid it would just frustrate me all over again.) And when I research historical and intertextual evidence now, I don't freak so much when I see bad proofs. Yeah, it still embarrasses me when Christians make errant claims. But I usually just move forward now, looking at primary sources and strong logic for what does hold water.
Now that the fear is gone, I can approach both emotions and proofs with a more relaxed spirit because I'm learning to depend on God instead of my own self. Paul was right. There's a way through the fog, and that way is a Person.
As hard as it was, I'm increasingly thankful that I walked through that dark night of the soul these days. What felt like the end of everything was actually only a new beginning. I had to shed an old skin before I could begin to emerge from it.
When I tell you I love America, I am not speaking out of anger, blindness, or fear. I am not chanting with my fist raised, foolhardy and blazing, pumped full of populist rage.
When I tell you I love America, I am not claiming perfection, holiness, or even goodness. I am not denying that the blood of innocent men and women was sometimes spilled needlessly into this soil or into the soil of other continents--blood that secured ease and power for the comfortable and the mighty.
When I tell you that I love America, I am not embracing revisionist rhetoric that tries to turn founders of flesh into gods. The best of men are only ever men of dust who must learn to kneel before what is better still.
If I say that America is the best country in the world, I say this like I would say that my father is the best father on the planet. You will know I'm making a statement of deep and personal gratitude. You will know that I am speaking of a devotion grown in proximity and from loyality that comes from familiarity.
You will wink and say, "You can't have the best father because I do," and I won't stop the conversation to draw up a protest sign to shove in your face but wink back and say, "Aren't we the luckiest two to have each had the best father in the world?"
We will let the paradox stand.
When I tell you that my earthly citizenship is dear to me, I am not denying that my eternal citizenship is dearer still. I am a patriot like I am a lover of my husband, for my devotion to him is a foreshadowing of a deepest love reserved for a heavenly Bridegroom.
If I tell you I love my fellow Americans, that I am devoted to my kin both past and present, I say that like I would tell you that the two dearest neighbors in the state are found on my street on those two houses. Then I will tell you about how Mrs. Watkins makes the very same pecan pie that LadyBird Johnson once made, but that she adds one teaspoon of vinegar, which makes all the difference. And I will tell you about the fresh figs that grow in her back yard.
You can say, "But Canada!" and I will tease you about the poutine. Then we can share our stories and try to convince one another of the rich wealth of our beginnings, and I will bring up how the tickle weeds bend in the August breezes here, and how the frogs sound late in the night down by the pond, and our rhetoric will rise and fall while the milk and honey drips off our tongues, and we each will be the luckiest two citizens in all the world, each smitten with the homeland we were given.
And when I sing my national anthem and my heart beats wildly, that will be because I remember being a child and sitting in front of a kitchen table full of marked postage stamps, my legs swinging crossed at the ankles, learning to spell out Granada, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Kenya, Vietnam, Poland, tracing them all out on a map, then finding my own... this one was my home, the United States of America.
I remember the burden I felt on Nixon's resignation, my mother waking me up with a grave look on her face and saying, "You are only two-and-a-half, but you must remember this day all your life. When great men in this country do bad things, we have a good laws in this land to protect us from them."
I remember being a fiery young woman in a home where my mother kept a quote from Benjamin Franklin on the refrigerator. "Give me 26 lead soldiers, and I will conquer the world." I read that quote every day of my life, every single day, and I believed it. I knew that my words mattered because this blessed, broken land gave me the freedom to roar.
The American dream was always for me a dream of sacrifice. A dream of recognizing what had been invested in me, a dream of investing in others, a dream of compounded interest, a dream of liberty magnified, a dream of leaving a place better than you had found it when you had arrived.
And when I sang "God, Bless America" I never once thought that I was asking for God to make my nation wealthy so that it could be proud. It was always a gentle prayer for me, a prayer that we might be grateful, a prayer that we might grow in holiness and service to a world in need.
So on this eve of July Fourth, I find myself sitting alone in a quiet room, my two hands cupped in bittersweet devotion around the small flame of that same love.
Strange fires have been burning of late, old names twisted, faithful landmarks reassigned. But I remember America, the America I loved. I love that nation still.
I love her now like I might love a rebellious child storming through a gangly teenage phase, hard headed and reckless. She drives too fast, and she wears too much makeup--those dumb false eyelashes--that horrid music blasting from her room. I don't like her boyfriend. I don't like her attitude. What a headache. When will this be over?
But she is mine. So I will tend her. And I will correct her. And I will see what she might be in the end, praying over her at night while she sleeps, as her eyes flicker in dreams that soothe my mother's heart. ("She is still in there somewhere!") And I will pray, "God, Bless America" like a mother begs the Shepherd to chase His lost sheep.
For a long time, I didn’t realize what was actually going on here. I feel stupid looking back on my naïveté now, but several years ago, I thought artistic people connected with other artistic people because they wanted to swap ideas and encourage each other. Besides, I had been a part of the real and beautiful community of the Rabbit Room, so I expected authenticity from everyone.
Then I walked into the bigger world and got it. This wasn’t just about spiritual and artistic support; this was about building a network of useful connections.
Of course, synergy happens in sincere artistic relationships. When you actually know and trust good people who know and trust good people, you tend to find folks whose hearts resonate with your own. And that’s a beautiful thing that makes everybody stronger. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
A lot of folks out there are networking for the sake of trying to get famous. They aren’t after relational substance or support-- they are connecting for the purpose of trying to advance their art. I’m not going to do that. In fact, I’ve intentionally tried to remove myself from several strategic connections when an actual relationship didn't exist.
This boundary has encouraged my heart deeply because the people who remain in my circle are there because I know and care about them personally. And when I compliment or forward someone else’s work, he or she knows that I have no secondary goal in mind.
2. Choose Distribution over Ethics
Businesses need to make money, and some companies are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens. Even Christian industries have formed unholy alliances for the sake of the dollar.
One powerful venue in the evangelical world is actually connected with the porn industry behind the scenes. I dearly love some people who work with that venue, so I’m not going to call them out by name. Those folks are trying to make the most of this bad situation, and I trust their hearts enough to know that they’ve wrestled honestly with the Lord before making faith-oriented choices. But the line I’ve drawn is this: if the choice were ever given to me, I wouldn't work with that company until those alliances are broken.
I would rather self-publish and live an unknown life as a writer--I would rather work with tiny, sincere companies for tiny advances--than support corruption within the big machine. I realize that I’m one piddly writer with almost no platform to make a difference, but maybe it will help someone out there to hear one person say this: serve the Lord uprightly in your sphere, even if your sphere is small. Commit early to making principled choices instead of positioning yourself for financial gain. You will sleep better at night.
3. Brand Myself
You might not know this term, but you definitely know what it means. It’s the modern tendency to reduce faith writers into logos and styles.
In our money-driven culture, publishers need writers to be simple consumer products that they can promote. This means a writer’s site needs to have a “look.” Everything needs to revolve around a theme. Posts should be short and use a reliable voice.
All of these minimizations make a writer more sellable. They create a predictable product that can connect with a regular readership, which equals clicks, which equals forwards within a target audience, which equals book sales, which equals profit.
I’m a huge fan of aesthetics, so I don’t see anything wrong with beautiful blogs and websites that hold to a look or theme out of a desire for artistic unity. But when the motivation isn’t artistic unity but the development of a persona/style that can go viral more easily, something is dastardly wrong.
I've been around famous Christian world long enough to see famous pastors, Christians musicians, and Christian writers who have allowed persona to dig a deep gap between what they actually believe and who they feel they have to be in public.
In private, these people are participating in all sorts of terrible things, while in public, they are maintaining social media platforms with pretty, pithy spiritual updates. Eventually, this all explodes into a scandal—or worse, it becomes a managed cancer that twists the heart of the gospel into a watered-down spirituality that cannot reconcile with the New Testament at all.
Why is this inevitable? Because the whole concept of persona violates the teachings of the Bible. The gospel isn't supposed to be about superstardom. Paul said that it didn’t matter what Paul or Apollos did because God caused the growth, and when we move away from that core, calcifying into tiny brands of micro-Christianity, we have no center to keep us oriented.
4. Become apolitical.
Haha, about four of you thought you were going to agree with this whole post until you got to this one. Now you're squirming. My stance on this is not Jesus-trendy at all. And I get why. I really do. The political world has become so disgustingly corrupt, a lot of writers are making the decision to pull out of the national discussion altogether.
Actually, of all modern writer trends, this one makes the most sense to me. I respect those who have prayerfully made that call. Sometimes I envy them. Leave room for me on that train, in fact. Someday, I might jump on board.
But at present, I think that my own motives for going politically-neutral would be selfish. I would go neutral because I’m tired of feeling like the fight is futile. I would go neutral because I’m weary of conflict. I would go neutral because I hate challenging men who used to be my heroes. I would go neutral because I simply enjoy conversations about beauty more than I enjoy making hard, public statements about sin. I would go neutral because I have a closet full of Rich Mullins/Shane Claiborne clothes, a playlist full of folk music, and I’d prefer to never read anything Matt Walsh writes again for the rest of my life. I’d so much rather be a nurse than a prophet.
Besides, it’s stinking dangerous to be what I am, an ideological conservative who feels called to stand fiercely against the corruption within faux-conservatism. I hate being misunderstood, and most of our world can’t seem to think beyond two extremes. If you try to fight corruption within conservatism, you are automatically labeled a liberal—even if you are more conservative than most of the current conservative party—even if what you are fighting directly defies the Bible.
Engaging in politics is one of the most frustrating, exhausting things I have ever done. I’ve never identified more with Coriakin stuck on an island of Dufflepuds more than I have the past two years. (I’m sorry if that sounds condescending, but I seriously doubt that most of the folks goofing conservatism up have read those books to begin with. If they had read them, I think they would be living differently.)
Many of my thinking Christian friends are so put out with this battle, they have removed all allegiance from their government altogether. My heart is with theirs. A million times I have wanted to walk away from the whole mess. But for now-- even especially now when the gospel is being actively threatened by unholy alliances--I think it’s important to make the sacrifices of speaking truth in this regard.
Like every resource the Lord has given me, my citizenship is a stewardship issue, and I don’t want to bury talents in the dirt just because the present challenge is profoundly difficult and it feels like there’s no way to win.
But, y'all... the minute I feel the Lord giving me permission to bail, I’m out. If you hear a shout of joy rising out of the mountains of Appalachia, that's me getting the Divine memo that I'm freed up from the task.
- - -
Anyway, this is an odd post, I guess, and I hope it doesn’t come off as elitist or judgmental. However, I don't know of a comfortable way to say some of this stuff. And I think some of this is important to name, even though it's uncomfortable.
Over and again, I’ve found that when I just crack open my own struggles and put words on them, somebody else needs those words--maybe not 2000 people, but three or four. And three or four is plenty for me--if Jesus spent his ministry tending twelve, why should I be trusted with even five or six?
These are super confusing times, and it’s easy for believers to feel alone and disoriented. Now that I’m 45, I feel more maternal every day, wishing I could put my arms around the young twenty and thirty-somethings who are trying to hack out adulthood and faith in this madness.
Know that I am praying for you. Remember that Jesus is real. He has works ready that he has prepared for you since before the creation of the earth. You don’t have to jump through any wily strategic hopes to find those tasks—he’s going to hand them over day-by-day, hour-by-hour as you trust him.
He lives in you. Take that seriously. Read your Bibles. Pour your hearts out to Him. Love what is true and good, and don’t lose heart, though the mountains around you crumble into the seas.
I was one of those over-thinky kids who looks for metaphors everywhere. I always thought that nature was a book waiting to be read if we could simply listen well enough to what it was trying to say.
But one afternoon when I was about six or seven, I was sitting at the kitchen table when a huge, flat housefly landed right next to my hand and died. Boom. The impact didn’t kill the thing, he just ran out of life smack at that moment--one second he was buzzing around, the next, he was belly up with all six legs in the air. The whole scene could have been part of a British comedy, it was so dark and severe.
While that experience wouldn’t create a spiritual crisis for a lot of people, it threw little-kid-me for a loop. Until that moment, the world had been pregnant with the presence of the goodness of God, and here was this stupid random fly knocking me off my game. The whole aesthetic of the thing, the ugliness and pointlessness of it, didn’t fit into the Divine romance that had infatuated me about planet earth.
“What does this MEAN?” I prayed. “Is the world really so random?”
I hadn’t read any existentialists at that age, of course, but here was the epistemological seed of Waiting for Godot or "The Metamorphosis." I was asking, “Is there really no grand narrative of the universe?”
This dead fly felt like a flash of hard, ugly, adult reality, a look behind the Matrix, or behind the Wizard's curtain in Oz. That dead fly meant that nothing meant anything after all.
As I roll that memory around in my mind today, I still take it seriously. Yeah, these were child thoughts, but they were also part of the fundamental decision we all have to make when trying to figure out how the beauty of the world connects with its apparent meaninglessness.
As the years have passed, sometimes I’ve felt close to God, and other times I’ve felt far from him. Sometimes I’ve been swept off my feet because nature reads like a prophecy that points straight in to the Holy of Holies. Other times I’ve watched NOVA specials and seen a band of wild dogs attacking a wounded animal and creation has felt cold, void, material, and indifferent-- saying nothing at all.
Wendell Berry once claimed that the Lord, ‘goes fishing every day in the Kentucky River. I see Him often,’ and these lines make me smile, because I, too, have often met with my Lord where waves smack against the sides of a metal fishing boat. But I have had dead times, too, where I felt like a naked ape wearing sunscreen, floating in a chunk of metal, and not sensing much of anything deep at all.
So while I can tell you what I have experienced in nature, and while I can tell you what I think its beauty means, I want you to know my limitations in that exercise. I have known spiritual ecstasy and I have known spiritual drought.
I can be honest with you about both, but The Holy Spirit must finish the work every poet begins. Eloquence accomplishes nothing apart from him.
(From Chapter 8)
I'll never forget the day I ran into that cute 24-year-old blonde at the YMCA.
I was a mom of little ones, constantly exhausted. Two or three stolen hours at the gym were the highlights of my week.
I felt guilty about leaving the house, but I needed it. I needed time to get my brain and body back in gear before giving myself away again.
"I could hardly make myself get here," she said. "This is the hardest thing I ever do!"
I stood there stunned. The most luxurious thing I did was this gal's toughest. It shocked me to realize that what felt like indulgence in my world was a point of self control in hers.
Even now, almost twenty years later, I feel a little guilty about taking time to work out. The house still needs work. There are a thousand ways I could be giving myself to my family to make life easier for them.
But when I do take a pocket of time to stretch, to strengthen, to get my heart rate up, I'm able to be better at being a giver.
To attack our work vigorously as Proverbs describes, sometimes moms need to strengthen our arms first. You're still being a giver when you make this investment.
Moms, I know why it's hard for us to think like this. When we see the vanity of a gym-rat lifestyle promoted all over the place, it can feel selfish for us to exercise. But taking time to make sure we feel strong and stable isn't the same thing as the insecurity of a risque, workout selfie approach to life.
If you need permission to carve out time for exercise in your schedule, here's my magic wand. Poof. Go ye therefore and take care of your bodies.
I try to remember to hit "post to Twitter" every now and then when I do yoga in hopes that other moms will realize that they aren't alone in needing this kind of space in their day. I'll try to remember to do that more. If you see one of those posts, take it as one mom saying to another, "You're not alone. It's okay if we make room for this stuff."
You'll never see a risque gym selfie from me online, but you will feel a hand reaching over to grab yours to say, "Don't feel badly. This is good for us. It's good for our families. Let's go."
How to Be a Better Atheist: What to Understand if You Want to Be More Effective in Rejecting Christianity
Lately I’ve seen too many people rejecting Christianity the wrong way. I understand why these folks are confused. The name “Christian” has come to represent a lot of crazy stuff over the past 2,000 years.
But if you’re going to be an atheist, you might as well have a solid grip on what you are rejecting. So I’m going to try to make a few clarifications here to help the non-believing do that work with a little more precision.
First off, let's talk about what you’re not rejecting when you are rejecting Christianity:
1. You're not rejecting a political force.
A couple of decades ago, the Moral Majority/Christian Coalition decided to work with the GOP, and what’s grown from that alliance is now a sort of spiritual/political cyborg.
This evangelical political movement has borrowed a handful of elements from Christian morality, but the whole machine cares a lot more about gaining earthly power than it does about listening to your hard questions or talking to you about your faith. I mean, think about it. When was the last time someone fighting for political Christianity actually took an interest in your soul? It’s probably been a while, right? Now think about the last time you heard a “Christian” fight for laws, political platforms, and government benefits. Last week, probably.
I’m not saying that Christians can’t get involved in government. A responsible government is made of people of all belief systems. I am saying that a lot of what’s hitting the public eye as “Christian” has very little to do with the teachings of Jesus and a whole lot to do with an attempt to maintain cultural muscle.
2. You're not rejecting young earth creationism.
So in the 50’s and 60’s, America’s educational values changed because of the Space Race. We needed to beat the Russians to the moon, so American school shifted its priorities to produce better scientists.
There’s nothing wrong with emphasizing science—science is great. But it’s important to realize that a historical nationalistic/military shift impacted America’s epistemological values. A lot of us were taught the scientific method as kids--a method which is rooted in a philosophical system called empiricism. In other words, we were taught to trust our senses to tell us ultimate truth. And even though we never really thought about the decision we were making here, we went with the flow and accepted the fact that empiricism was the most reliable measure of truth because our nation needed students who could grow up to build bombs and rockets.
When Christians realized this shift in values was happening, they got nervous. They worried about losing credibility in a world in which empiricism was the trump card. So some Christians decided to try to engage with the new values of our time. They started attempting to find ways to make the Bible fit what was being said in the realms of science.
Some of this feels like an exercise in futility to me. If God has all the creative power, he could make an old earth look young or make a young earth look old. Besides, if he’s outside of time, the complex stuff that wows us quickly becomes a non-factor to him.
When you throw an understanding of how ancient Hebrew poetry works into that mix, and then add in two scoops of what modern physicists are finding about human inability to validate the material world, you end up with so much nuance, nobody on either side ends up standing on solid ground. I’ve yet to see a Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate that did anything more than serve as a pep rally for what everybody on either side wanted to hear from the get go. They never get to the first question, which is how to verify a system of truth from premise #1.
Some of the most thoughtful, orthodox Christians I know actually allow for an old earth creation model. I’m not saying those people are right or wrong, but am saying that Young Earth Creationists who claim, “If these chapters aren’t literal, nothing is literal,” are (in truth) making a claim for Young Earth Creationism. They aren’t making a claim for all of Christianity.
3. You're not rejecting the "Hurry and Get Saved So You Don’t Go To Hell!" bit
This point is complicated, and it involves quite a bit of church history that would likely bore you. But let me just say that in some of the revival movements, the great big package of “salvation” got compressed into Tweet-speak: “Trust Jesus, or go to hell.”
I think well-meaning Christians started some of this because they were trying to communicate what Jesus is offering in a few simple steps. But the problem is, people are lazy. A lot of folks don’t study. They don’t dig. They don’t take risks. The structure that was supposed to unpack into a lot of different angles ended up being presented as the ultimate deal. These "SparkNotes" of faith didn't just help people interpret the Bible, they took the place of it.
The reduction also morphed into some emotional manipulation that was strategic for making big congregations. While awe should exist in the presence of a transcendent, holy God--and while hell is something to fear---the fear that many pastors wield while trying to grow a church is a whole different entity. Earthly religious fear is more about controlling you than it is about helping you. Holy religious fear is about healing your wounds.
4. You're not rejecting a God who can kill anybody he wants, who oppresses women, and who encourages slavery.
I’ve seen many atheist sites that argue against these three points. They pick verses out of the Old Testament and claim to offer proof that God is an immoral, narcissistic, and bloodthirsty being. Then they cite the Crusades and try to connect the dots. They say that Christianity is dangerous and that anybody who loves a God like that either has Stockholm Syndrome or is content with being a Stepford disciple.
This topic is too complex to unpack in a tiny section of a single post. However, all those family members or acquaintances who have told you that you just have to accept all this stuff without questioning God because he’s perfect aren’t speaking for all of Christianity.
Scholars like C.S. Lewis had a lot of trouble with the brutality of the book of Joshua. Ivy League philosopher Greg Boyd spent eleven years studying the morality of the Old Testament. These guys didn’t accept easy answers, and they were honest about what they discovered as they explored.
There are so many ways Christians deal with some of these passages, and a lot of the best ways boil down to being responsible enough to interpret the Bible like we interpret other works of literature. We look at history. We look at authorship. We look at theme. We make the scholarly efforts we make to interpret every other piece of literature from Sophocles to Tennessee Williams.
One of the downsides to the elevation of science, and the subsequent treatment of the text by Young Earth Creationism, was the development of a harsh, humanistic, linear approach to Biblical interpretation. Those folks claim to life by faith, but they have embraced secular values for understanding a sacred book. I don't think they realize how proud that is, but the people who do this have actually limited their interpretative abilities instead of elevating them. And they have also violated some Biblical guidelines for finding truth in the process.
Since I’ve already named some of the errors of Christians, I hope you will let me also say that numerous citations on atheist sites do not interpret Scripture responsibly. So many snarky remarks from non-believers have more style than substance because atheist authors tend to miss what was actually being said in the Scripture.
Again, there’s not room to deal with this whole point here, but just know that a lot of people are popping off at the mouth about this stuff without having done the academic work needed to make a solid claim. When you find people who have done the work, a lot of times, their answers are much more substantial.
SO...IF YOU REALLY WANT TO REJECT CHRISTIANITY.
If you reject any of those main points above, you aren’t actually rejecting Christianity. You may be rejecting political, cultural, and financial forces that are attempting to use the gospel for an earthly end, but you aren't rejecting the true gospel.
If you want to reject Christianity, you’ve got to go beyond all that. To be a proper atheist, you must reject the heart of the faith, which is this:
Once upon a time, there was a God who made a material realm which fit inside of a more complex, metaphysical realm.
The smaller, material realm had boundaries (like dimensions and time), and God gave humans (and other creatures) the ability to sense those boundaries.
He also gave humans a unique perceptive ability to connect with Him that reached beyond the material. This ability is called "the spirit." Lots of animals have bodies, and consciousness (souls)-- I think some even have feelings--but humans are the only creatures that have the ability to connect directly in the spirit with their Creator.
Humans were also made uniquely creative, not just with problem-solving skills or tool-making skills, but with an aesthetic sense and the ability to innovate. We can call this ability the "imago Dei," or being made "in the image of God." Modern lingo? MiniMe.
Relationships are important to God because he exists in community with himself. The concept of the Trinity is kind of hard to understand, but I think it boils down to relationship between three persons that is so synchronized, all three beings operate as one.
Maybe a metaphor of the creative process will make that more clear.
When an artist comes up with an IDEA for a project, she then applies her ENERGY to that creation. When she is done creating, there is a connective POWER that binds her audience to the work she has made. So, an IDEA works out through ENERGY to result in connective POWER (Sayers).
Likewise, the Trinity has an invisible directing IDEA (the Father). The ENERGETIC outworking of the idea in the physical realm is the Son (Jesus). And the connective POWER between humans and the godhead is the Holy Spirit. Like a single piece of artwork that is unified in beauty but contains different elements of process, the Godhead is both one and three.
God wanted humans to join in that union. So, we were established on earth with a spiritual capacity that would allow us to create with him and live in his love. (Some of the first commands of God to humans were encouragements to be creative, you know.) But nobody can be creative while being a lemming. So, God made us free to either choose that artistic union or reject it.
The story of Eve talks about how humanity made a choice long ago that it still makes today. We decided that we wanted to be like God without really being dependent upon God.
I think all of us have wanted to be god-like without being subject to God's authority or his resources. We are like teenagers who want to be left alone to try things our way. But in our liberty, we tried to break free, and we tore a great big hole in everything.
A piece of art doesn't thrive without its creator. If a painting in process could yank away from its painter, deciding to try to make itself beautiful, it would look terrible. And in a similar manner, the original vision for what humans were supposed to be and do was lost.
God saw we had chosen to be fiercely independent. He heard our stubborn insistence that we didn’t need any help. But he also knew that we couldn't get out of this hole we were digging by ourselves. So he sent Jesus from the meta-dimensions, compressing him into our human boundaries of space and time.
In this tangible, physical form, Jesus took all of the separation we had created into Himself. He did that so he could patch the break up and make a bridge that led us back into relational and spiritual communion with him, the Father, and the Spirit.
Why did He do that? Because he knows it’s hell to be solo. He knew this hell of autonomy could last forever, and grow deeper, and darker, and become more lonely without some intervention. And he knew that even though it would hurt, he could help us live and thrive instead of going deeper and deeper into isolation.
It's hard for us to see this, because humans have been trying to make our own autonomy work forever--which means it's still our default. We don't hear our independence any easier than we hear the accents we learned as kids.
We notice when humans get surges of brilliance here and there. And we learn to love the thrill of our own roar. We notice that it feels good to say things like, "I am god!" and "I am master of my destiny."
But down inside us, there’s still a restless, a homesickness, a sense of loss—and that loss comes from being torn away from the heart of the creator who made us to connect with him.
When we refuse that creator, we’re going to feel a couple of things. First, we will feel proud, like we've got this and don't need help. Declarations of self-sufficiency cause an adrenaline rush, right? It's hard to give up that thrill.
But eventually, many of us will begin to feel lost and empty, like something is missing. And that emptiness can last for eternity if we remain unwilling to be vulnerable to the God we need. He won't dominate us. He will let us resist him until we harden into a forever-hell of “I’ll do this myself.” But that's not what he wants for us, because we were created for artistic community.
The next part of what I'm about to write is something you won't hear from a lot of people who call themselves Christians. I don't know why the rest of the story is hardly ever mentioned in Christian dialogue because it's all over the New Testament. It's hard to read a single book of Paul's without finding this concept. But for some reason, a lot of preachers and teachers don't talk about it much.
The whole machine of faith doesn’t stop with a single moment of saying, “Okay, save me." Sure, that's only the starting point, but there’s an awful lot that is supposed to happen after people are born into a new life in Jesus.
The New Testament tells us how to finish out the years we have on this planet, plugged in to a God who actually comes to live inside us. This new way of living is not about trying to be moral. It’s not about following a bunch of rules. It’s about letting go of effort and independence and learning to lean into a connection that is free, resource-rich, and beautiful.
You’ve seen those television shows where people who have been single for 40 years finally get married and struggle with sharing the toothpaste. Well, after years of living independently, it’s a whole new dynamic for Christians to learn community with a God who lives inside them. A lot of Christians never really explore what that means, so they continue to try to do everything on their own, using shame and guilt as motivators, and leaning on the same old broken methods of self-control and determination that they used when they were secular.
This is why so much of what is called Christianity is messed up. A laser focus on only keeping as many souls out of hell as possible has resulted in failure to implement what is actually supposed to happen after salvation. So many Christians think there’s not much more to do after walking an aisle and praying a prayer, so they fumble around post baptism trying to accomplish personal and social change, and they goof a lot of stuff up along the way.
But when Jesus comes to live inside a person, new resources for a new life are there.
People who were impatient have tools to be patient. People who were selfish have tools to be kind. People who were resentful have tools to be forgiving. Like a kid learning to drive a high-powered vehicle, we have to learn to use those tools, and that knowledge takes time. But resources for living in a new way show up once we are connected with Jesus. At conversation, we at least get the keys to the car.
The letters of the New Testament spend a ton of time talking about how when our identity changes with faith. Paul tells us that we don’t have to struggle and strain to be good like we used to; we just need to learn to depend on the gifts of a God who loves working with us, and who is helping us become beautiful like he is.
And by the way, we don’t lose our old personalities here. We fill them out until they are winsome and generous. In other words, we begin to look like a painting that has finally turned itself over to an artist who knows what he’s doing.
If you’ve never heard of a Christianity that looks anything like this, write me. We can get away from all the politics and arguing and take apart a book of the Bible like Galatians or Ephesians. Or we can look at John’s gospel and see what sort of descriptions he has for us. It’s possible that you might learn things about the faith that most people who call themselves Christians don’t see because they are distracted and confused.
In the end, you might still reject Christianity. But if you do, you will be rejecting the true heart of it, not distorted imitations. And you will have rejected it at the source, after having done some primary research, instead of floating along with sloppy, self-serving interpretations. I think this sort of clarity tends to be a good idea, no matter where we stand on the issue.
So, it's that time of year when all the "Moms, Get out There in Your Bathing Suit" blogs start to circulate on social media. A couple of titles I’ve read this morning?
"Dear Moms, This is Why You're Going to Put on Your Damn Swimsuit."
"Why You, Dear Mom, Should Rock Your Bikini."
"Moms, Put on That Swimsuit."
"Put on Your Damn Swimsuit."
There’s kind of a formula to most of these posts. First, we get a confession about post-baby weight, stretch marks, belly flab. Then we get a confession about what female insecurity feels like in a Victoria’s Secret world. Finally, the post ends with a call to arms for moms across the nation to wear the “damn swimsuit” and get out there and play with their kids.
I get why women write these posts. We live in an Instagram world obsessed with tight little gym bods, and regular folks (like me) need to psych ourselves up to slip into our own skin. Some of my closest friends feel emboldened after reading those posts--they read them and walk away motivated to be better moms. I’m glad to know this writing helps some people.
But "Get-Your-Swimsuit-On" posts don't motivate me. In fact, they exhaust me. The very last thing I need to hear while crawling across the finish line of the school year is a commission to prove a point to my kids, to myself, or to the world.
When these bloggers suggest that I'm shirking my maternal responsibility when I don't wear a swimsuit while playing in the water with my kids, I feel weary. When they suggest that I’m selfish if I’m not parading my mostly-naked body in front of complete strangers, I feel burdened. When they exhort me to fight sexism by stripping down (?!) so that my young sonwill realize that women should be okay with being mostly-naked in front of strangers--I wonder who signed me up for that job first place.
I don’t need a cause on vacation. I need rest.
I need to make sand castles and play in the water, but I don’t need to do those things while attempting to fulfill some sort of civic duty during the ten days a year I finally get to crash. And whether it’s right or wrong, I crash best in quick-dry shorts, a floppy hat, and a swingy, SPF shirt.
That’s not about modesty so much as it is about how I feel most comfortable around strangers. I normally wear clothes in front of people I don’t know, so come vacation, I can’t suddenly pretend like wearing almost nothing in front of a crowd isn’t weird for me. (“Hi there! I don’t know you. These are my raw nekked thighs.”)
Now I don’t sit at the beach judging other women who wear swimsuits. Sometimes I wear my swimsuit, too. But other days, I don’t want to spend emotional energy trying to be okay with feeling exposed out in public, so I wear something else. Om those days, the very last thing I need is General Blog Mom calling me to bare arms (and bare legs, and bare everything else) for some higher good.
Giving all these writers the benefit of the doubt, I thing they are probably trying to help withdrawn moms engage with their kids instead of allowing insecurity to keep them from connecting. That’s probably a much needed battle cry. But in the midst of this encouragement, a couple of clarifications would be helpful for moms like me.
1. If play is the focus, play is the focus. So, wear what makes it easy for you to play.
My friend, Tim, had a wise insight about the futility of exhorting women in traditional swimsuits to play like men:
“This is like telling our 3-year-old that she should 'run like the boys,' then putting cute little flowered sandals on her feet. Sure, she can run - but she falls literally every single time. Then we feel guilty that her brother got to go to church in his Keens. Trying to be better about this. You can't call a little girl prissy when you're dressing her in prissy shoes, or a Mom too reserved when she can't be comfortable in what she's wearing.”
Perfect example. If you are wearing something that makes you feel restricted, change into something that makes you feel like playing. If you are comfortable in a bikini, that’s great. But if you aren’t, you don’t have to feel strange about feeling strange for being exposed.
You don't have to pressure yourself to do something that is uncomfortable. Just switch to an outfit that makes you feel naturally relaxed. Wear something you can get wet, something that won’t chafe. This isn’t a performance, it’s a holiday.
2. You don’t have to shoulder the responsibility of fighting the global body image war during your little family vacation.
We live in an impossible world, girls. There’s so much pressure all around us to look a certain way. But that’s a huge, huge issue, and we don’t have to carry the entire weight of it on our vacations. We have zero moral obligation to crusade against sexism in the public sphere during the precious little time we are supposed to be relaxing with our kids. We can fight to change the world on the other 355 days of the year. And most of us do. That's why we need vacations.
3. It’s okay to show up for vacation as the most generous form of who you truly are.
I’m not talking about doing whatever is easiest here. I’m not saying you should be a lazy, selfish, disengaged, coward. I'm saying there is a value to being authentic in the passions of the personality God gave you.
I grew up with a wonderful mom who almost never "played" with us in the ocean. She didn't do beach games, and she almost never got her hair wet in the pool. She hated being splashed. When she did swim, she swam laps with real strokes. She didn't frolic.
However, every year she did tons of vacation prep for us. She always had healthy and good food ready for us in the condo, she researched places for us to visit, and she did a billion acts of service during the week that made our vacations fun. She found wildlife preserves, and she helped us comb the beach for shells, insects, and crabs. She found historical sites and took us on tours.
She was *herself* on vacation, which was great! Her personality didn't enjoy being rowdy or reckless, and I wouldn't have wanted her to strain to become what she wasn't. That would have felt artificial and uncomfortable for us as kids.
Besides, she worked hard all year, and it was good for the kids to see her rest on those rare moments when she finally did take it easy. Dad made sure that we respected Mom’s need for rejuvenation, too, which was a great way of teaching us to honor her. When we had more energy than Mom did, Dad took over. I loved seeing him love her that way, and it was fun to have him to ourselves during those moments.
As someone who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, it strikes me that today’s family vacations seem incredibly kid-centric. Sure, we did kid-focused things on our vacations, but we also learned to have fun with Mom and with Dad in their different ways, and we learned to respect both boisterous and subdued forms of relaxation. I’m so glad I had that diversity instead of a performance context in which Mom felt a need to change her entire personality so that I could have an idealized beach experience. It was much better for me to have the real her.
I didn’t need Mom to jump through any sort of recreational hoops to be a "better" parent than she was. I needed her to model authenticity. By doing this, she taught us that we could be our best real selves, too.
During those moments when she sat back and watched us while Dad played with us, we had fun looking over and seeing her laughing at us and taking pictures. I never once resented her for doing that. It was sweet to just be together, all of us feeling space to be ourselves.
What did Mom do when she was herself? Well, one year she helped us scrounge up crabbing gear. Then she bought an electric popcorn popper to boil water (don’t try that; you might die) so that we could cook them. She was always in "Let's figure this out" mode. She was the scientist. The artist. The explorer.
On vacations she brought Peterson identification guide books, and glue and wood for shell crafts. After we got cleaned up from the ocean, she sat quietly with us at dusk to help us arrange the treasures we had found while Dad watched TV.
I remember her attention to our watercolors. She noticed color, line, nuance.
I remember moving logs with her to look for little bugs, and kneeling down to listen to the suckle and pop of the coquinas.
I remember how she would get up before all of us in the mornings to watch the sunrise. I never wanted to go with her, but the fact that she loved beauty enough to chase it made a huge impression on me. Her love of solitude was formative for me--it gave me permission to be okay with being sober and alone. I would need that example in years to come.
Dad was wonderful on vacation in his own right, but he would have never done the specific stuff Mom did because Mom's way of doing things wasn't Dad's way. He was a blast when he played Nerf football with us, splashed us in the pool, taught us to swim, taught us to fish. But I needed both his strengths and Mom's strengths to make a vacation experience complete.
I didn't need Mom to be Dad. I just needed Mom to be Mom.
Anyway, maybe those “Mom, get your damn swimsuit on” blog posts motivate and help you. If they do, just throw all this out and ignore me.
But if you are like me, I hope you will also feel permission to get comfortable in your own skin this summer. If your skin is more comfortable in swim shorts and a UPF shirt, you aren’t failing at motherhood. If you legitimately don’t like splash wars in the pool, that’s okay. You don’t have to spend ten days forcing yourself to be who you aren’t.
Get out of your comfort zone and do something crazy-memorable-uncharacteristically-nuts now and then, but please don’t feel badly about teaching your kids how to love a nature preserve when pool time is over. God made you with your personality and your interests for a reason. He gave you kids who need the best of your wiring.
If you can find some space in the chaos to listen, I think He will show you how to unpack yourself most generously to your kids on vacation. Because if you have trusted Jesus, you are God's little girl, you know. When He made you (and then remade you), He created something wonderful. Who you already are is worth enjoying, and the “blog-shoulds,” shouldn’t ever trump what is most beautiful about your innate, God-given inclinations. Wear your swimsuit or don’t. But a vacation shouldn’t ask you to become someone you weren’t ever made to be.
Of all the emotions I’ve ever felt, regret is one of the most difficult. It’s not just painful, it’s sickening.
With grief, you feel sorrow over loss. With regret, you feel sorrow over loss compounded by guilt. You’re not just processing pain, you’re realizing that something stupid or selfish that you have done has caused pain. And you haven’t just damaged yourself, you've damaged people you love.
A few weeks ago, I was attempting to comfort a friend who had made a horrible mistake she couldn’t undo. As she replayed the memory of her error, she kept wishing she could just go back a few days to prevent what had happened. I watched her grief cycle from, “How could I have been so stupid?” to “Why didn’t I just think!” to “I was distracted!” Then, as she assessed the people she had hurt, she would collapse into self-condemnation. I tried to look for a bright side, some lesson to be gained, some benefit that would rise out of the ashes. But mostly, I understood her despair. I’ve made bad decisions, too. Some of those I would give my life to undo.
I tend to be playful on the outside, but deep down, I’m a hyper-responsible perfectionist. I try to keep that part of my personality hidden, because perfectionists are (let’s face it) annoying. I don’t want people feeling judged or nervous around me. I don’t want them picking me apart because they feel picked apart by me.
So I intentionally let surface details slide at times, and I tease and volley. But underneath all that, when it comes to values or long term investments, I’m 100% type-A, obsessive, determined. I make sure that I do the most important things right. I’ll do any work that’s necessary, no matter how hard that work is, to reach the results that I want.
Well, until I don’t.
There have been times when I couldn’t finish the race.
There have been times when my flesh was too weak.
Twice in my life, devastating news has hit smack in the middle of a big hormone swing. If that news had come three or four days sooner or later, I would have been strong and selfless. But no. This news hit on the worst possible day, right in the middle of a migraine. I roared so destructively over the next 48 hours that the relational damage I caused lasted for years. There was no way to undo it.
Once in my life, temptation hit when I was so tired and so broken that I was desperate for any sort of relief. (Our tempter plays chess.) Though I didn’t give in to this temptation physically, I did let it distract my focus and my heart. In that wave of distraction, I missed crucial opportunities with people I love—opportunities that I will never be able to embrace again. I also let temptation breed resentment in my heart—resentment that may have done as much (or more) damage as any physical sin that I could have committed.
While I can name those three big regrets, lesser regrets also swarm like angry yellow jackets in my memory. In macrocosm, in microcosm, I’ve messed up so much that I wish I could undo.
A thousand times I have wasted money, resources, focus. A thousand times, I have dropped the lesser baton. I haven’t prayed for my children in the ways I should have--haven’t prayed for my husband, my students as faithfully as I wish I had. I have mocked when I should have empathized. I have raged when I should have waited. I have been selfish when I could have been a servant. My heart has been divided when focus could have healed someone.
When I look back over all those mistakes, my inner perfectionist recites tapes of condemnation. “How could you do that? Why weren’t you strong when it actually counted? None of this other stuff matters if you couldn’t handle that. It’s hopeless now. You’ve ruined it all.”
It’s horrible knowing that none of that can be erased. I live in a world where comments can be deleted and where a simple Control-Z command can undo my mistakes. But real life is permanent. And the consequences of real life are permanent.
Last week I was reading one of those hateful blog posts by one of those mean, hyper-legalistic Calvinists, and as he railed on the teachings of two different writers, he used phrases like, “burning a strange fire before the Lord” and “give an account of every word spoken.”
I felt my knees go weak, because here was the echo to every accusation I hear every day of my life. “You screw things up. Your deeds aren’t good enough.”
Actually, I know that, Mr. Cruel Calvinist. I live so much of my life tormented by my own insufficiency. And while you might talk about grace as sustenance, nothing about your haughty demeanor rings of it. When you write, I see the garbs of a temple priest scowling because the lamb I’ve brought for slaughter isn’t perfect.
I would never admit this to Mr. Cruel Calvinist, but inside, I do flinch at his confidence. He frightens me more than anyone, because if heaven really is full of people who stand scowling at people like me, calling us names, nitpicking, what use is it? What fire isn’t strange before a holy God? If an imperfect person like me can be so hard on herself, that her stomach stays in knots, what flaws would a perfect being find in me?
Today is Spy Wednesday, the day in Holy Week in which Judas was supposed to have betrayed Jesus. This was the day Jesus was ambushed, snared, double crossed. This is the day when I, too, feel the need to throw the thirty pieces of silver that I have chosen over the indwelt life over and again, crying out, “What have I done? I’ve sold him, too! I’ve ruined everything!”
Because to see yourself clearly can make you want to run hopeless away from the cross. This is the second half of the first lie of Eden.
“Eve, do you want to be like God? Knowing good from evil?”
“Becca, you know good from evil now. You also see which you are.”
I regret. I regret so much.
There is no way to undo the damage I’ve done. None. But in the darkness of the grief of a failed perfectionist, there remains a promise.
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
The old order of things. The old world in which scribes, and Pharisees, and type-A types come up empty handed. The old world in which Peter who has promised to die with His Lord, denies him three times, then runs to hide. The old world in which courage, determination, focus, accuracy, making the right choices at the right time wasn’t enough. The exhausting, damning, shaming, hopeless world of my best effort, two inches too short.
“My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.”
It takes a lot for somebody like me to believe that. It goes against our nature.
People like me would rather hang on to regret as evidence that we could have done better if God had given us a better circumstance.
We would rather think, “That wasn’t fair,” or, “I was cheated,” or, “I was set up,” or “Give me another shot at it, instead of, “That was too hard. I couldn’t do it.”
Lately when I catch myself being sucked into the bottomless pit of regret, I’m taking a leap. This leap felt super uncomfortable at first, because it goes against everything in my nature. It feels evasive. It feels like giving up. But then I remember that Paul made this leap, too.
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Delight in weakness? Oh boy.
If I could go back an undo all the harm I’ve done, I would do it. I’m sure that if Paul could have gone back to stop the murders he urged, he would have made that choice in a heartbeat. But there is a difference between sorrow over wrongs done and letting your mistakes reiterate your bad theology. And believing that we could do this right if the circumstances were right is bad theology.
We need Jesus. That’s why He came.
So I’m slowly praying against my shame nature, praying prayers of gratitude with a wobbling voice, gratitude that my weakness points me to Christ’s big-enough strength. While I do this, I’m simultaneously asking Him somehow to hover over the chaos of my past wrongs and make beauty rise out of the messes I’ve made.
This is so hard. It’s a 180 degree switch, in fact.
But in glimmers, I see that there is a way to stand in the full truth of my inadequacy without letting shame and regret drive me back into the self-determination that will never produce the results I want. Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” And though it is a painful classroom, regret is teaching me that he means it.
For me, there's no close second. Far and above every other television show that I have ever loved stands Anthony Horowitz's Foyle's War.
Until watching this program, I never understood what fans meant when they said, "This is my show." I'm not a fan of TV in general, so it always felt a little silly to hear someone connect his or her identity with a weekly program.
I now stand corrected. Foyle's War is the show of my heart. I hold these episodes with a similar loyalty to the writings of C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, Shakespeare, Flannery O'Connor, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The setting is WWII, in Hastings--a town on England's southeast coast. Michael Kitchen plays the Detective Chief Superintendent, a police officer who is attempting to fight back small town crime in the shadow of a massive global war.
While each episode unpacks a murder mystery, so much more happens simultaneously as well. Like the best mystery stories of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, Horowitz uses the genre to address human nature in all of its potential wonders and flaws. Essential questions of ethics are addressed in such a way that we learn both the risks and the nuances of living uprightly in a broken world.
Week after week, Foyle shows us that it is both dangerous and vital to maintain personal integrity, and he does this in a way that is so winsome that even a rebel like me wants to make good choices at the end of every episode. As a protagonist, Foyle is shrewd without being proud. He is thoughtful, discerning, kind, brave, and principled. He is willing to stand against corruption that has infected his peers, even when he is threatened. He stares down "for the greater good" arguments, knowing that not all ends justify all means.
Beyond all this, the show is beautiful without sacrificing honesty. The East Sussex countryside is glorious, and yet scenes of bombings and battles show us the trauma of wartime. And as a viewer moves slowly from the opening episode through the last season, the reality of WWII, and the sacrifices made by thousands of families become moving realities.
When I grow weary of the state of the world, discouraged about attempting to hold to what is right and good, I often sit with an episode of Foyle's War. This show reorients my vision, reminding me that it's okay to feel alone in corrupt times. It reminds me to hold fast and to love what is lovely and true, though all the world goes mad around me.
If you have never watched this show, start with the pilot episode: "The German Woman." (Because Foyle progresses through history and plot development episode to episode, chronological viewing matters here.) I think this series is the most important show conservative America could be watching right now. It's stellar viewing for your older kids. It will likely be medicine for your heart as well.
No matter what we think about politics, Election 2016 had a big impact on how Christians talk to one another.
Who can deny that long, brutal months of online debate between family and friends bruised us? That debate changed what we fear, what we hate, and how we speak to one another. So many of us felt relationships splinter and groan, and quite a few of us emerged from the election feeling like we had looked behind the curtain of our favorite political party and found a withered little wizard pulling levers instead of some Great Oz.
Since November, we’ve felt disappointed and hopeless. We’ve also felt discouraged about continuing to expose our real selves because we’ve seen what happens to people who are vulnerable.
Last week I was reading comments under a Christian satire site’s post, and I felt a little sick watching the mocking, hateful spirit of the conversation. A female Christian teacher was accused of heresy, perversion, and greed.
Snotty, sarcastic women and domineering, cerebral men seemed to delight in dropping fiercer and fiercer charges against this writer, and I took in their animalistic fervor until I began to wish I had never agreed to write a book at all. While I don't agree with everything this woman writes, I didn’t understand how people could be so cruel to her. She’s trying to live a Spirit-led life. What more do any of us have to offer?
Yet while I was frustrated with the savagery of those comments, they were also convicting to me.
After all, I’ve handed out biting language to my own ideological opponents. I’ve called names and used sarcasm. I’ve roared against and derided people instead of going to them directly. I’ve tried to jolt people awake with extreme analogies, and I’ve excused my cruelty with, “This is for your own good.”
Don’t think I’m being humble by admitting that much. Even as I tell you what I’ve done wrong, I start to make excuses for myself.
I can’t even confess wholeheartedly to you, because deep down, I really do think that I tend to be more accurate about my judgments than most people are. I have studied a lot, I have a high IQ, and my intuition tends to prove right most of the time. If I know something, and if I tell you something, I think you should trust me. There's my pride, right there. There's my self-reliance. See it?
But even if I am right (and sometimes I am not), does my rightness justify my rudeness? (Megan Phelps-Roper). Election 2016 says yes.
Election 2016 parallels the story of the Garden of Gethsemane almost exactly. For decades, the church has slept like Peter while it should have been praying. When danger finally woke us up, we went nuts and started whacking off ears.
I assume denying the Christ three times out of fear comes next—or maybe we will just slink off and sulk. I don’t know. But I do know that there are a couple of evangelical leaders who have made me very angry, because I think they have betrayed Christ. And even though I believe that strongly, I’m not sure how to communicate my concerns without slipping in to the sort of ugliness I saw happening under last week’s Babylon Bee post.
If spiritual gifts tests are worth two shakes—and I’m not sure they are—mine tend to come back with the gifts of (1) prophesy, (2) teaching, and (3) mercy. Breaking that down, (1) I tend to sense theological error fast and deep (2) I feel God’s delight when I write or speak, and (3) I feel other people’s suffering all the way down to the bottom of my stomach.
This is a weird mix, because Gift 1 and Gift 3 can sometimes get in conflict with one another. There are times when I let truth push mercy out the door. There are other times when I let mercy dilute truth.
The 2016 election has taught me that I must learn how to balance that tension. My old, lazy ways of looking at evangelicalism are gone because I have seen demons rise from the right now as well as the left. While that experience broke my heart almost as deeply as anything ever has, in the wake of my sorrow, I have begun to fall more deeply in love with the Bible. I’ve also begun to lean into the presence of Jesus like I never remember. A few times I’ve even found myself thanking him for the death of my old template because of what it has produced in our relationship.
I’ve been scared, discouraged, lonely, disoriented — but ultimately I am finding that when my politics and my theology divide, there is only one great treasure in this world. And as I have grieved the loss of many things I once loved, I have found delight instead of just fear in the command that there be no other gods before our Creator. He is worth that sort of devotion.
But other days, I struggle with finding the heart to write.
There’s so much cruelty out there, so much barbarism. I don’t want to engage with it.
“Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold,” Jesus predicts in Matthew, and I see now how growing cold is the great temptation in times of evil. As I watch the abuse of other teachers who have been vulnerable and tender, I want to fold inward so that I won’t face the same attacks.
It’s always horrified me to think that Jesus might have been crucified naked, but in a culture like ours, a powerful writer must be both bare and willing to receive torture while being exposed. Humiliating. No wonder Christ sweated blood in anticipation of this pain.
As I’ve worked on my book lately, I’ve caught myself whispering, “Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.” That’s not altogether a selfless prayer. Forgiveness is oxygen for the creative spirit. I’m speaking ahead of time to my critics because I can hear them raging and shouting already, and releasing them gives me strength to continue creating with boldness.
If I am going to write at all, I must recognize that those men and women who respond so cruelly to the sons and daughters of Jesus have spent months forwarding proud and ugly links on their social media pages. They have drunk down self-righteous rage until they are intoxicated and primed to explode. They are sure and hard. They believe they are defenders of our country and of the faith. They enjoy tearing apart the most delicate emotions Christ’s sons and daughters reveal to them, believing (just like the Pharisees did) that they are serving their God by making holes in the flesh of Jesus. After all, the children of Christ are now his body.
I anticipate those reactions, and I’m also convicted. Like Paul, I have been Saul cheering as the children were stoned. Sometimes I still am. Sometimes I'm angry at the man behind the curtain. Sometimes I behave just like him. It’s a lot to consider.
“Quiet time” is a phrase Christians use to describe a pocket of the day for Bible Study and prayer. It’s not exactly a direct command of Jesus to have a quiet time, but quite a few churches and para-church organizations teach believers to embrace the discipline.
Over my 30+ years of faith, I've been through several stages of quiet times. When I was taking Precept classes, I embraced my daily homework like a literary scholar, coding, marking, analyzing. Other years I would print off a book-by-book reading plan that allowed me to methodically work my way through so many chapters and verses per day.
My prayer life has swung from free-form communion with my Lord to meticulous charts that break down global, community, and individual needs alongside specific lists for gratitude and praise. Okay, some mornings I've tried to pray while just falling back to sleep, too.
But even though my methods have changed, having a quiet time has often been sort of like exercise. I have done it because it was good for me and I liked the results. Some days, I just wasn’t very excited about getting started.
That’s changed over the past few months. Every day now, I’m itching to sit down for a quiet place to work through my Bible. I’m reading with curiosity and interest, and I’m finding teachings in the Bible I somehow missed in the dozens (hundreds?) of times I’ve read it before.
This change hasn’t come from a new method. It began when I found a Bible without verse and chapter numbers.
I first heard about this concept of a Bible without number markings through the Bibliotheca Kickstarter years ago. I ordered a set for my husband through that campaign, but as much as I adored the artistry of those books, I wasn’t thrilled about switching to the ASV. (Rabbit trail info: My favorite translations for study are ESV or Holman Christian Standard. My favorite translation for beauty is the KJV. My favorite paraphrase for reading is The Message. )
Anyway, when I read that Crossway was releasing a 6-volume reader’s version in the ESV, my ears perked up. I bought a set for my classroom at school, and I let my high schoolers check them out. When a 17-year-old male told me (with a stunned look on his face) that he had accidentally read the Bible for two hours without realizing it, I knew the concept had worked. One of my best friends and I bought each other a set for Christmas, and that’s when I finally got to tear into this new, old way of reading the Bible for myself.
Until they were finally gone, I hadn't realized how much visual distractions were impacting my comprehension, or how much the presence of numbers poking out everywhere gave me a sense that the Bible was somehow mathematical. The numerical quantification of words also caused me to assume that the Bible was empirical more than narrative, and I see now that this was a much bigger deal that I realized.
The versification of scripture also made me more militant about how I used it. Remember how the old fashioned Bible drills told us to “present arms?” There can be a forcefulness to the wielding of amputated Scriptural bullets. By naming book, chapter, and number, I can engage in Westernized dialectics. I can truncate complex stories into linear arguments that may or may not be indicated by the actual source material I am citing.
Once the coordinates for a tiny piece of Scripture were gone, I was immediately forced to explain greater sections of Biblical context to get any ideas across to others. When that happened, I found that I was yanked out of a imbalanced, humanistic dependence upon my own reason and thrown back into the power of a living document that was powerful without my help.
It took me a while to adjust to this. I felt disarmed and uncomfortable for several weeks. But now I see how it often feels more respectful of the Scripture’s power and of my listeners hearts to orient conversations around images and themes instead of simply numbers.
Even more importantly, I hadn’t realized how those numerical divisions were determining how I interpreted various passages. If I am reading a versified Bible, when a given chapter ends, I have several tendencies:
First, I can have a sense of “reaching my goal,” and then stopping my reading, no matter what comes next.
Secondly, I can subconsciously assume that the end of a chapter is the end of a Scriptural idea, which is not necessarily true. So many times, the flow of a section of Scripture moves beyond the end of a chapter, and I just wasn’t able to see this fully until those divisions were gone.
Thirdly, a versified Bible keeps me bound to the clock. I don't know why, but it does. Just like my student noticed, I tend to lose all sense of time when reading a words-only Bible. I just melt into it like I melt into a good novel, sinking into the rise and the fall of the picture the author is painting. This allows me to dance with my Lord while reading, listening to His guidance for where to stop and when to keep going. This pushes me into a more relational reading of the Bible instead of just jumping through hoops. I find myself in more regular conversation with him as I read, waiting for the “slow down here” or the “dig here” or the “reread,” or the “this is enough for today.”
I felt a little strange when I first realized how big of a difference the reader's version was making for me. In fact, for a while I kept comparing my verseless Bible with my versed Bible to make sure the words were really all the same. It just felt so different, and this difference was a disorienting. I almost felt like I was doing something scandalous like Jefferson with his infamous razor.
Then I realized that the verseless way of reading the Bible is closer to the original text than anything I’ve ever read before. As you might have already guessed, chapter and verse numbers weren’t in the original manuscripts of the Bible. In fact, from what I understand, our present chapter divisions didn’t exist until Stephen Langton added them in the 12th century. Before this, subdivisions of Scripture existed as early as the fourth century. Robert Estienne divided chapters into verses in 1551. So since the publication of the Geneva translation of 1557, the Bible has used a similar breakdown (bible.org). Over the past few months, I’ve begun to wonder if adding those numbers was a more serious step than our early fathers realized.
Now that I've told you my story, let me leave some room for possible differences in the body of Christ here. (The last thing the Church needs is another us vs. them debate.)
First off, it's possible that the presence of numbers impacts some personality types more than others. Also, I’m not sure if I would feel as strongly as I do if I hadn’t already had years of Bible training (with scores of commentaries and Bible classes), which helped me collect the broad strokes of how the Scriptures work.
What I do know is that taking the visual clutter out of the Bible has been revolutionary for me. It’s changed how I study the Bible, and it’s changed how I feel about studying the Bible. If you feel stuck lately, maybe this little change will help the same happen for you.
My worst crushes have always been on the short, smart guys. Michael Kitchen in Foyle’s War tops the list, of course. Then there was Bob Newhart and George on Seinfeld (was George smart or just adorable?) But before all of these, there was my college lit professor, Dr. M.
It’s no big secret that I had a crush on Dr. M because we all had a crush on him. The entire college.
“You realize that all the girls are in love with you, right?” one of the female profs once asked him.
He made a little grunt and shook his head as if the principle of gravity were strange and unfathomable. But it was true. The female students giggled over him, and the female teachers understood. The first time I heard the word “man crush,” it was one of my guy friends describing his affection for Dr. M.
All of us walked around trying to talk like him, walked around trying to walk like him. We wrote down phrases he dropped in class in the margins of our notebooks and memorized them, and we spoke them to one another with reverence and glee, as if we’d carried them down from a high mountain. His quotes became epic like lines from Casablanca.
I should also probably tell you that Dr. M collected socks (even Arbor Day socks), wore colored corduroy jeans with embroidered pockets, and made coffee so bad that it could kill a small dog. He looked sort of like Juan Valdez (the coffee man) and sort of like Rhett Butler, loved the Rolling Stones, and despised sloppy criticism. He spent more time in the library than anybody I ever saw.
This is the man who taught me to read with fairness. He taught me the value of knowing where I am in time. He taught me that whatever hard work it took to get what a text actually said was worth the labor. He taught me to respect the work of other writers, and he taught me to respect myself as a thinker. He also made me fall madly in love with old literature.
The first time I heard him speak Middle English, I grabbed the sides of my desk. My knees felt weak, and my arms ached.
“What was THAT? What just happened to us?" I leaned over and whispered to my buddy. It was like hearing Sean Connery speak Elvish from the back of a wild horse. Jiminy cricket, I was going to marry this man.
These were the days before cell phones, so at night when my friends would study at Grandma’s Kitchen truck stop, I would dial Dr. M.'s office to listen to the witty messages he would leave on his answering machine. I had his number memorized, which (okay) I suppose was kind of creepy. But when the message would start, “You have reached the office of Dr. M...” I would say to my friends, “Hey! Hey! Shutup! He’s talking!” and we’d lean around and listen together to what he had left there.
While that was kind of thrilling and kind of weird, it really was not a big deal until that one night when I didn’t hear the recording beep. That was the night my 19-year-old crush went nuclear, the night all the words poured out of my mouth, words describing my love for Dr. M. in a desperate, passionate gush. “Why doesn’t he love me? He’s single! I’m single! So what if there’s a 20-year difference between us! I could make him coffee, and he could read me Middle English. We would be so happy together!” On and on I went until I finally realized that the whole thing had been recorded. He would have recognized my voice, too.
I was dead.
I almost quit college that night. I cried for something like eight hours, then I crept in his office the next morning with a puffy face and sniffled, unable to look him in the eyes. “I’m so sorry about the message...”
But he cut me off there. “The phone system wasn’t working last night. I didn’t get any messages.”
I suppose it was the only lie I ever heard him tell, but it was also one of the greatest kindnesses I’ve ever been given. Chivalry was not dead. This is the sort of man he was.
I told my husband about Dr. M. while we were still dating, feeling a little sheepish about my confession. He didn’t judge me. In fact, he started chuckling.
“What?” I asked.
“I had one of those,” he said.
“I was in love with an English teacher.”
Then he told me about a high school teacher of his, a dear lady who wore long, swishy skirts and librarian glasses. She talked to him about poetry and books, she read to him in Middle English, and his young heart pounded to see that the world was an enchanted place.
I leaned back at the news and belly laughed because I got it, I got it! Of course he would have fallen for that. I was grateful to hear he had. I wanted to swing that dear lady round myself.
We live in a world now where such bizarre things happen. Old men take advantage of vulnerable young girls. Old women take advantage of young men. Everything is so sexualized and perverse, there’s no room anymore for a simple, sweet, childish crush— the admiration of a young person for an authority figure.
As time has passed, I now realize that my youthful affection wasn’t so much a romantic attraction as it was deep respect for a hero. I was right to love Dr. M in a way, because he showed me what the world had been, what it was, and what it was becoming. He taught me how to engage, how to be humble, and how to work hard while chasing what was beautiful.
Unlike so many greedy men in authority positions today, Dr. M. stayed sober in this role of shepherding my heart and mind, not allowing himself to be flattered by the wild affections of a silly, 19-year-old woman who was trying to figure out who she was. He protected me, and he protected all of us. I'm so thankful for his character.
A few months back, my best friend from college wrote and said, “Dr. M’s on Facebook!”
My stomach fluttered a little bit at the news.
“He’s been out west panning for gold,” he said. And I smiled, because that’s exactly what he would be doing. I clicked around and found a picture of him wearing one of those dorky sun hats that protects your neck. A long sleeve shirt with sleeves rolled up. A tin pan full of river rocks. A mustache. A grin. Looking for a nugget of pure goodness, just as he always did.
I looked over all his pictures, but I didn’t send him a friend request. I just took him in from a distance, still feeling a little nervous and a lot thankful at the sight of a man who had changed my life. What a gift to have had a teacher who was safe, who was good, who was a gentleman and a scholar— a man who used his authority and my admiration to launch me out stronger and richer, more ready to help a world in need.
Look round you and see how the world is full-bellied, flushed, and pregnant.
Four fetal feet kick within her, for she is great with twins-- two primitive beauties, not tame wonders ruined by convention, instead Holst and Wagner who crash and thrum, with order enough to make you thirsty and with danger enough to keep you wide awake.
If you are brave enough to walk in the woods at the edge of spring, or courageous enough to walk along the foaming lips of the sea as a storm rolls in, you will find that all that is natural and unsullied by human hands speaks a language you've nearly forgotten.
All that has been left alone resounds, and her songs make you ache, and this is embarrassing and uncomfortable for you with all of your school of hard knocks graduate degrees, so you don't talk about it much.
But of all that is wrong in the world, is right also to ache, for this world was created to be read like a child reads.
Once you start to hear what she has to tell you, it will pass also before your eyes like a flicker of light, and you wonder if you have really seen anything at all. Then once you admit what has come to you, once you relax into all the possibilities that M-theory, and molecular biology, and Degas, and Pascal, and Vaughan-Williams strain to promise, you will have to shove your fingers way, way down into your ear canal to deny what is impossible to deny but difficult to believe.
Because here is a love song sung in an age of lost love, see? But do not sing it. Do not sing it! You dare not hold this melody inside you because it is too much for the frail wineskins of your mortal heart. It will burst you clean.
But if you will not run, I will tell you a story that goes like this... long, long ago the most eloquent of all poets, the most expressive of all musicians, the most nuanced painter of gold light upon blue shadows decided to create a new work of art.
This Creator decided to mold dimensions with his own hands, length, width, depth, time -- and work upon this canvas a creative being that He could love and enjoy forever and ever.
Like a papa creating a playroom for his own, the Creator designed a studio--an entire planet full of pigments, marble, wood, metals, jewels, and every element that could be harnessed to make more beauty still. He planted inspiration all round and about to teach lessons of form and balance, plants, and animals, and stars--a world full of textures, and stories, and lessons packed with inspiration.
But the Creator knew that an artist cannot be an artist without autonomy. Autonomy allows an artist to make new ideas come to life, and so the Creator took a great risk. He decided to give his created being freedom--freedom to love him or to reject him. Freedom to abide by beauty or to turn away from it.
He got down to the business of making his beloved, formed the animal body of the created, then knelt to place his own mouth around the nostrils of his new man. He exhaled His own sweet soul-life into his creature's lungs, and at that moment, his new man fluttered and quickened and became more than an animal--he became imago Dei--a being made in his Maker's own image.
And oh, this creative creature was stunning. As he stretched out his bare arms into the light of the star his Creator had made, as he opened and closed fingers nimble enough to play Kabalevsky or do a surgeon's work inside the chest of a little child-- the Creator smiled over his work and and said, "This is delightful."
The Creator wanted to keep close company with the created, a closeness very much like the Creator kept with His own God-Kind. So the Creator walked with the man and talked with him in the cool of the day.
He also warned his man of danger, for there was one who hated the freedom and the gifts of this Adam. This enemy was a proud, hateful being who despised the Creator and all he made.
The Creator implored his man to use his freedom to trust him, to recline in his lavish love, to dwell in the life of God-communion so that death would never come to this artistic paradise. (For all that is of God is life, and all that is not of God is dead and dying.) The Creator pointed north, east, west, and south and told his creature to play, to work, to revel in every luxury -- save one single barrier, one boundary that had to be respected out of trust in the wisdom and authority of the Creator.
The warning proved true and good, for the enemy of the Creator and his created did indeed come, and he was sly, and he was wicked. This enemy convinced the created to mistrust the Creator, and so the death of separation from trust in God entered the world. And in the separation of man from God, there is death, and disease, and sadness, and loneliness, and bloodshed, and hatred, and suspicion.
Instead of choosing communion with the Creator, man chose to defy Him. Instead of choosing to yield to the warm light and love of his maker, he chose to rip himself apart and stand alone in the stone cold dark.
The mighty Creator's heart was broken, but he had a plan for rescue even yet. Even in the day of her greatest sadness and shame, he whispered over the man and his wife, promising them that one day a descendant of the woman would crush the evil one who had deceived them.
The Creator gave her hope, but He didn't tell her how much that hope would cost.
In the years that followed, the death that the man had been warned about unfolded. The world was now plagued with trouble, violence, injustice. Humans learned the hard way that even their greatest strengths could not save them. They needed help or else death would grow until there was no life left at all.
And so the Creator did something radical. He shook off His rights and implanted an essential, vulnerable part of Himself into one of the grandchildren of the first woman. He made his infinite self small enough to fit inside of a human womb, small enough and yet vast enough to soak up all human wrongs into His own flesh.
This man-God stretched out his own arms to all the mistakes the created had ever done and said, "Beat me for them. Abuse me for them. Let the payment for my children fall upon me."
All the darkness and the ugliness of all dark and ugly things poured into the Creator's body. Though the gravity and the horror were great, though like a black hole the density of all history was pulled into a single lightless center, the Creator yielded. All death that was meant to fall upon the created, he welcomed in to kill himself instead.
And this created a vacuum inside of every soul of every person willing to offer her failures to God, a space large enough to make room for a living part of God to be implanted in her. So when this Son of God rose from the dead, his roots loosened the graveyards, his resurrection plowed up black earth souls, made them soft so that he might dig down through to plant the seed of a powerful, invisible part of His own God-nature to fill up their emptiness.
The communion that resulted from this exchange between the Creator and the created was even closer and more powerful than the communion of those first long walks in the garden. This time, the Creator wouldn't just visit His created. He would indwell them. An internal dance began between the maker and the made.
Once again there was freedom. Freedom to receive this union. Freedom to reject it. Freedom to willingly agree to trust. Freedom to unify with the giver of beauty and love. Freedom to refuse connection with him and scratch the best life possible out of death.
To woo the children of the children of the world, the Creator continued to leave whispers of His love. The crash of the sea against the rocks. The creak of old wood. The little black eyes of a fawn. The romance of His fingerprints. The ache in a chest at the end of a good story. The reaching out of a soul for a home it's never quite had.
And He left stories like trail markers, tales told by prostitutes and tough-talking fishermen. He entrusted his holiest words to the motliest crew of men and women, a rickety, traveling caravan of gypsies who cannot quite translate what they have seen, but if you are humble enough to sit at their feet, you will find mystical, magical tales of wonder.
Through toothless grins, they will tell you of buried treasures, and like a fool, like a child, you will want to listen, and you will pity them, too.
And maybe it will cross your mind that in the best stories there is always a Yoda or maybe a hideous old hag standing beside road asking a glass of milk, and that sometimes it take a week or two in the swamp to learn to become a Jedi.
For the way is narrow and few will walk it, but it is not narrow like membership in the country club, and not narrow like an SAT score, and not narrow like being born with Kate Upton's legs-- but the way is narrow as a fat little bluebird who comes to sit on a barbed wire fence, and stares at you directly, then nods as if she wants you to follow her.
If God is all powerful--if he's all good--why doesn't he stop people from doing the awful things they do to each other?
I’ve had enough theological training to answer that. <Pulls up her pants by the belt loops. Spits in both hands and rubs them together.> Theologians say every terrible thing we do is somehow a consequence of the Fall, which was a way-back "don't step across this line" violation committed by two naked people I wouldn't know from Adam.
They tell me those two choices got into my blood like an STD, that I'm guilty by default, and so are you, and so is everybody else, so now we're stuck doomed to hurt-and-be-hurt because of a jillion-year-old flub up that you and I couldn't have prevented if we'd wanted to.
If we grumble that we got handed a raw deal there, we get a big, fat finger pointed at us, reminding us that we have flubbed up too. I'm supposed to feel ashamed of myself right then, and (subtract and carry over) use my shame to make myself okay with a fate of being shameful.
That works for some people, but it doesn't fix anything for me. It's circular and frustrating.
If ALL have sinned, if I'm out of luck from the get-go, that means I can't help but mess things up down here. My chances at winning the Big Game of Being Okay are about as good as some guy's driving a truck with a nail in his tire, one good headlight, wheeling around in the Appalachian mountains on a curvy road, during an ice storm.
The whole thing feels like a setup. I'm not going to make it out of this alive.
I know the theological reasons behind people doing mean stuff, but they never get down into the part of me where I ask big questions about the justice of the universe. Those reasons don't work for me because I'm not a chemist or a statistician; I'm a poet. I'm not asking something that a cold equation can fix.
So when I get full of despair about the rotten state of life on planet earth, I turn to the parts of the Bible that make the most sense to me. I will warn you, though, these are the same parts of Scripture that tend to frustrate my linear friends the most.
I have some friends who read the math of systematic theology and then say, "Oh, okay." They walk away satisfied with the long division of the divine, and there's nothing wrong with that.
But those same people also tend to get in a kink while reading verses that crawl down through my throat, and get down in my belly, and warm it up like a shot of Woodford Double Oak.
For example, Job 38-41, in which an insulted and misrepresented God roars out in a Shakespearean monologue--defending the beauty of His sovereignty before a devastated man who has lost everything, all his kids, his health, his dignity, the support of his wife, the respect of his friends.
God is relentless with that poor man, and every time I read those chapters, I find that I am holding my breath. "I had forgotten," I finally whisper. Then "Uncle!" because it is too much to bear. Then "Mercy!" then "Hallelujah," but not a token Hallelujah--rather, the ravenous realization that I'd rather be consumed by holiness than try to defend myself against it.
Or give me the graphic (almost pornographic) details of Ezekiel 16.
That passage is awkward from start to finish. I tried to paraphrase it today, tried to soften it for modern sensibilities, and I found myself stumbling all over the place. It was an exercise in futility. There ain't no way to make this story easy to swallow.
God finds a bloody baby abandoned in the wild. Nobody even cared enough to cut her umbilical cord. He rescues her, notices when she blooms into puberty, waits until she comes of age.
Then he marries her.
Are you uncomfortable yet? Well, if you are, get ready to be more uncomfortable still. The narrator of this story is going to step it up a notch.
God dotes on his young bride, spoils her. Buys her all sorts of fancy shoes and embroidered clothes, gold jewelry, a crown, fancies her up, makes her a queen of all his kingdom.
But she doesn't live like a queen. Instead, she whores herself out to foreigners from every country, goes for the guys with big genitals (that's in the Bible!), and sleeps with every man she can get her hands on.
She spreads her legs to all who pass, no restraint, no discretion, and her husband goes volcanic. He's devastated. He's scorned and broken hearted. "I rescued you and gave you everything, made you a queen, and you made me a cuckold!"
The storm of his fury passes, and then (of all things) he softens--he cannot seem to remain in anger. He will heal her. He will restore what he has diminished.
I'm not stupid. I know what a psychologist might do with that story. He might call the husband a dirty old man, or cite Stockholm syndrome for the young bride. I know the jokes critics could make here--the jokes people make in internet threads on YouTube. Just another line of proof that the Bible is whacked up, right?
And yet, I also see in this dangerous and strange story a truth that no safer narrative could convey. Through squinted eyes, I see how desperate humans are before God, how he doesn't just save us but wants to engage with us as near equals, how he lavishes riches upon us but we throw everything he gives us away to make lovers of the stuff of earth, and that breaks him and it hurts him.
At this point, a couple of seminary students reading this are scolding me, saying Ezekiel was written for the Jews, not for you and me. But no matter what they have to say, here's what I get--I get hope out of this passage. I'm hopeful because God feels. He feels. He feels.
Yes, I fear such a vivid, unpredictable God, but I'm also drawn to Him because I see here that he is somehow more like me than I had realized.
He feels anger. He feels jealousy. He feels offense at my reductions of His glory. He is jealous for me and my affection. He is capable of such intense love that he cannot stay away from me even when I wound Him.
Yes, his fury frightens me, but it doesn't leave me despairing like the dry, silent math of systematic theology. I'd rather dig up the dusty corpse of Brahms, Rachmaninoff, or Chopin and try to talk with them about my grief than take my bare ache to the gospel of equations.
Give me a God who bellows like a storm on the seas, black clouds a thousand miles wide rolling, lightning flashing, a voice on the winds calling out, "Brace yourself! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth!" Give me that, and something in my heart will settle down into submission. That is a God I can tell is worth living and dying for.
But please do not explain to me one more time how the Fall brought sin upon the earth, blah, blah, blah and expect me to copy regurgitated righteousness in straight chalk lines on a blackboard when I'm suffering.
True, yes. Helpful, no. Not to me. Not helpful to a poet when she has been abused. Not helpful to a poet when she is grieving over the abuse of another.
In those moments, I want to get my arms around a God who feels my pain, who knows the force of emotions every bit as strong as mine and stronger (how I would weep if I could see what it means to break His mighty heart!), a God who can be impacted by what I say, who can be moved by me when I am moved. A God as sensitive as the feather from the underbelly of a titmouse, caught on a barbed wire fence.
Give me a vulnerable God in my pain, even if that vulnerability makes Him dangerous. Even if I must take the risk of an answer that will flatten me. That is the sort of God I can love with a poet's heart. That is the sort of God I can trust with the intensity of my devastation.
- - - Spoilers about the film Silence below - - -
When I first heard Andrew Peterson's song “The Silence of God,” I was stunned. It was so bare. I wondered if it was even heretical.
I had never heard anything like that song because I had grown up in Southern Baptist churches singing lyrics that focused on moments of “feeling” God.
“Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” we harmonized together on hot summer nights. The last verse would be a cappella so that we could revel in our intimacy.
I would sometimes wear shorts to the evening services, and my bare, little kid legs would stick to the old varnish on the balcony pews. I remember peeling them off one at a time while shutting my eyes, trying to feel the “brush of angels’ wings,” trying “see glory on each face.”
I always assumed that glory was a sort of shimmery glow? Sometimes I would peek to scan the crowd and find an old, bald, fat man sweating, glistening and smiling, praising God, and I would guess this was close enough to count.
A middle-aged woman with a teased-out mass of hair sang about a garden in which the Lord walked with her. I knew about gardens. They were places of hot, hard, dirty work. You couldn't walk through them without twisting your ankles on mud clods.
I had worked rows of green beans while sweat bees stung the backs of my knees. I'd pinched tomato worms in half, and flicked spiders off my arms. I'd thrown half-rotted tomatoes that left my fingers smelling bad like grenades that exploded on the back of my little brother's t-shirt.
But the garden this woman sang about was different. She seemed to take easy walks there in the mornings while the dew was still on the roses. Jesus somehow walked and talked with people openly there, so I got the impression that the Lord must like manicured, Edenic gardens better than pragmatic rows of hairy okra and sweet corn. As she sang, her voice would shake with vibrato, and some of the old people would cry and nod their heads.
The pastor would pray, "Father God, just show up tonight, Father God. And Father God, be here among us."
I was confused by this because I knew God was supposed to be omnipresent. "Did He leave?" I thought. "Is he gone?"
Later in life, I found the phrase "all language is metaphorical" in a book--and I took a big sigh of relief to see someone name the gap between words and reality. But back then, I was troubled by the constant reaching of our descriptions--particularly in church.
I knew God was among us. These adults did too. But we were asking for the moment in which you see Him clearly, the electric flash of the transcendent, the confirmation of the Pillar of Fire. We were children crying out in the night to a parent because we needed to hear His voice again.
I knew those moments of confirmation existed because even as a child I had had a few experiences with what I believed to be God. People who don’t know Jesus will probably think I’m talking about a surge of animal joy hormone, but it wasn’t like that. I've had animal joy hormone surges.
This wasn’t just pleasure. When God showed up He gave a moment or two of clear wisdom. The emotion wasn't just happiness, it was a giddy, vibrant love of purity—not purity like we talk about purity--not just the stingy restraint of impulses. This was the completion of what all your impulses are trying to find in the first place.
This was "pure" in the same way refined metal is pure, a refined fullness (not a lack) and a merriment that has no small percentage of disappointment in it. We think of purity as forfeiting delight, but this was delight in full measure, packed down dense like brown sugar in a cup. Unlike those awful, boring images of fat cherubs sitting on dull clouds, I could see how whatever this was would draw me into adventures forever.
It was “There You are!” All as it was meant to be, just for a second or two.
I suppose that "You" was the Holy Spirit, but if it was--whatever the Holy Spirit was, I couldn’t seem to hold on to those moments in which He seemed so obvious.
Once they were over, my heart ached as if most of the color had gone out of the world. A ping of a pure note on a glass crystal, and then diminishment into the quiet, I couldn’t understand why that sensation had to cease. Why would He let us taste this, then disappear?
I’ve since read thoughts by theologians about the growth value of long spans in which God leaves us in silence, but if I remember correctly, the first time I ever encountered someone wrestling with the concept wasn't in a book, but in Andrew’s song.
He was the first person I heard admit, “I can’t hear God’s voice right now, and that's terrible and it's scary.”
It's enough to drive a man crazy
It'll break a man's faith
It's enough to make him wonder
If he's been sane
When he's bleating for comfort
From Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heavens' only answer
Is the silence of God
And it'll shake a man's timbers
When he loses his heart
When he has to remember
What broke him apart
And this yoke may be easy
But this burden is not
And the crying fields are frozen
By the silence of God
If a man has got to listen
To the voices of the mob
Who are reeling in the throes
Of all the happiness they've got
When they tell you all their troubles
Have been nailed up to that cross
What about the times when even
Followers get lost
'Cause we all get lost sometimes
If you know this song, you know these last stanzas don't finish it off. But even hearing this much, I felt a strange sort of relief wash over me. Until he verbalized it, I hadn’t realized that all those years of religious-speak, all those appeals for God to "show up” had made me feel pressure to find continual signs of His engagement.
I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear someone I trusted say, “When God is silent--and that's often enough for me to write a song about it--I feel disappointed and lost.”
Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, was another one of those moments for me. Among other things, this is a film about faith attempting to survive long expanses of Divine quiet. The film reveals how we expect God to show up, how He does show up instead, and the human weaknesses that appear in the massive gaps between those two realities.
Unlike Christian movies in which God provides some sort of "I have arrived" moment-- God does not show up here with a new pickup truck, a much-desired pregnancy, or a restored marriage. The God of this film lets His children wrestle with years of suffering in relative silence. Because of this, we watch people who are trying to obey Him strain and grieve--desperate for confirmation during impossible times.
There are so many angles to this film, but I’m just going to focus on the one most personal to me in this post: the traumatic impact of an older follower of Christ who abandons his pure faith.
The film opens describing the work of Christovao Ferreira, a legendary Jesuit priest who has spent 15 years attempting to evangelize Japan. Ferreira was iconic to believers at the time. Your denomination’s equivalent might be N.T. Wright, Billy Graham, John Piper, or Francis Chan—but whoever that hero is, Ferreira was this sort of leader. He was so solid, so certain, so strong that every young priest knew that he would not sell out for any reason.
When news hits Portugal that Ferreira has apostasized, Rodrigues and a fellow priest believe the news is a dirty rumor. So, the two leave home to scour Japan in an attempt to dispel the disheartening story. It is a dangerous mission, likely to lead to death, but the two young men are idealistic and devoted, and they know how important it is to to the global church reclaim Ferreira's reputation.
After arriving in Japan, the two young priests grieve to see believers tortured and slaughtered. As they experience emotional and spiritual torment, they stumble; they fail. But over and again, they rise up again in their faith to try to follow God once more.
When Rodrigues is captured by Japanese officials, his opponents try to break his faith repeatedly. The young priests heart crumbles, and he wavers on insanity, but he continues to hold fast. At last, the Japanese leaders bring his suffering to a climax -- a meeting with Ferreira.
In this meeting, Rodrigues finds that Ferreira has truly apostasized. His hero is now a Buddhist, writing a book about the great lie of Christianity. His former hero begins to discourage Rodrigues from his own belief, arguing against the gospel and its ability to saturate Japan.
Ferreira urges Rodrigues to give up his faith, to compromise, to conform. Rodrigues is devastated, but he holds fast.
The Japanese could kill Rodrigues, but for strategic purposes, they want him to abandon his faith instead. So, they place Rodrigues in a holding cell where he can hear the gasps and wails of other believers being tortured. He is told that these Christians will be persecuted until Rodrigues denies his faith.
As he praying for strength and wisdom, he finds words of praise carved into his cell wall. Laudate Eum (Praise Him). He runs his fingers into the grooves and appeals desperately to the Lord for courage and fortitude. At this moment, Ferreira enters the cell and explains to Rodrigues that those praises were carved by himself before his denial of the faith.
It is a hellish scene of betrayal and temptation. Ferreira urges Rodrigues to see how selfish it is to maintain an idealistic belief that causes others to suffer. He urges Rodrigues to see that apostasy is altruistic. He builds a case for joining with the leaders of the world out of love of the masses.
Of all the torment Rodrigues endures, this betrayal of a former hero is the worst. This man who had once led him in steadfast belief is now leading him to abandon it. It is more than Rodrigues can bear.
As I sat in the theater watching all of this, I was blown away. The timing was more than a little ironic.
Just a few moments before watching this film, I had been talking with a friend about how distraught we have felt this past year. So many people my age feel abandoned by our own older faith heroes. In dire national circumstances, we have watched several of our evangelical heroes abandon the ideals they have taught us--urging us to make alliances with forces hostile to our faith.
They have told us that this is loving. They have told us to do this for the good of the people.
Values they once encouraged us to embrace in the face of all opposition have now been discarded for what they now claim to be a greater cause. They mock us for being too committed to impractical standards. They tell us to wake up, to open our eyes, to give up our old, innocent way of looking at the world.
But before our very eyes, some of these men seem to have changed into different sorts of beings. We recognize their faces, but we no longer recognize their hearts. Their language is different, soured, horrifying. They twist the stories of our Scripture to suit their new causes.
Watching this has taken our knees out from under us.
I’m not going to get more specific than that, nor am I going to dig into what happens in the end of the film here. But I will say that this movie (among other things) helped me to understand why the last few months have broken my heart so deeply. Watching my heroes conform to the ideals of the world has been too much for my heart to bear.
These men ask us to "leave well enough alone" and move on. But we aren't sulking. We aren't pouting. We feel like we have watched people we trusted and imitated trample on the gospel. And we feel like they have called out and asked us to do the same.
So many people claim to know exactly what God is doing these days, but I will tell you the truth. I don’t. My perceptions might be all wrong.
I don't know if God is being silent, or if I have misheard Him, or if He spoke through tears of grief at a rainy inauguration ceremony. Maybe those raindrops were a particular Divine blessing like Franklin Graham indicated. I think it's also possible that rain fell on our new President because of a weather front that had nothing to do with a change in national leadership. God's kindness falls on the just and the unjust alike.
Time will tell, I suppose.
I do know that I’m profoundly disappointed in some of my old heroes. I know that I no longer recognize our strange, new evangelical America. And even though scores of people around me believe that I am too sensitive, I think it is right to be disappointed. Watching your heroes distort truth is no small thing. God holds leaders to a higher standard because heroes falling creates aftershocks that can trickle through an entire generation of young believers.
A huge lightning bolt of God's appearance didn't show up at the end of this film, but I left the theater feeling like I felt when I first heard Andrew Peterson's lyric. I walked away affirmed that it was not wrong to be sincere, not wrong to be sad, and that it was even okay to sit alone in the quiet and wait for an honest manifestation of God's presence instead of letting immediate needs force me to rush in to claim what He isn't and what He hasn't done. (What was that brilliant line about realizing that God was actually all round and about us? I'm saving that angle for another essay, but it was beautiful)
God's name is holy, even when He seems silent. In those expanses, I do not want to use it in vain. It is terrifically hard to wait at the foot of the mountain for the Word of the Lord, but I would rather wait in the dangerous quiet for what He truly is than grow desperate enough to worship a golden calf.
There's a statue of Jesus
On a monestary knoll
In the hills of Kentucky
All quiet and cold
And He's kneeling in the garden
Silent as a stone
And all His friends are sleeping
And He's weeping all alone
And the man of all sorrows
He never forgot
What sorrow is carried
By the hearts that He bought
So when the questions dissolve
Into the silence of God
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo
Of the silence of God