scattered, intentional

I’m finding myself scattered more and more. My mind doesn’t feel like a cohesive unit, but pieces trying to remember how they fit together. I want to be writing, but when I sit down to do so, I’m completely blank.

April is significant in three ways that come to mind.

  1. My birthday is in April.
  2. We’re in the season of Lent, and Easter is coming soon.
  3. It’s Spring, finally.

My birthday always sneaks up on me, since March still seems so early in the year, and April marks some changes. It’s transitional. Before April, it feels like the year has just begun. After April, summer comes quickly, and the year is so not new anymore.

I have never wanted to resist getting older. I’ve never wanted to resent aging. I’ve always wanted to embrace it and age gracefully, accepting the reality that we don’t stay young forever. Everything has a season, and every season has something for us. It’s actually our culture that values youth above all. As people approach thirty, it’s apparently time to start freaking out…which I suppose is ridiculous, though I understand the feeling of knowing that your youth is quickly becoming your past.

There is something obviously romantic about being young. There are so many possibilities. When the future is wide open, you can idealize and romanticize forever. When you can only see things continuing as they are, the impact of your choices seems fairly small (though not insignificant). 

I think about the span of my life often. What will it feel like to be fifty or sixty and look back at my 25th year, or my 27th. Will I be able to differentiate? Can I even remember the different years and their own themes now? But the difference between being forty and being sixty will be so great. I’m still far from forty now. Will I even live long enough to find out how it all feels?

I love Spring. I love the anticipation of warmer weather. I love the warmer weather. I love knowing I won’t need a jacket when I go outside. I love breathing in the thick air of a car parked in direct sunlight. I love the occasional chilly or rainy day. And I love life returning as trees and flowers and birds make colors and noise. 

I have been searching my mind to discover what I’ve learned in this last year of my life. I have learned that I am selfish with my time. It comes up so often. I’ve learned how much I still want and need to learn…and have been pretty paralyzed by that. The other things are more personal, I suppose. I don’t want to refer to specific situations, so I’ll just say that I’ve faced some relational stress and seen some relational growth and been forced to mature or at least do very uncomfortable things and hope that they helped me change.

As for Lent, I have barely managed to remember that it’s happening. I say that I want to remember the Christian church calendar and observe the different seasons and holidays in special ways. There’s no time like the present…but I was not quite prepared. This morning, I looked through a few readings from this website: https://www.redeemer.com/learn/resources_by_topic/lenten_devotionals

So, bear with me as I start reflecting.

Lent is the season leading up to Easter – its forty days represent the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness (before he began his public ministry) being tempted by the devil and resisting him. We are supposed to remember our creatureliness – our sin. We are supposed to reflect on the ways we need to repent and draw nearer to God. It’s a time of repentance and humility. Because humans sinned, the world is under a curse. We struggle here. Jesus needed to come to Earth and be cursed to remove the effects of the world’s curse on people who would have faith in him. 

Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. He is God himself, and he’s simply a man as well. Just thinking about the fact that Jesus faced the devil, fasted, and was alone with all this for forty days makes me see my inadequacy. I would not have had the strength to persevere. I am guilty and weak. God is holy and righteous – Jesus is perfect. I am sinful. He never sinned. Yet he took the burden for sin that was on me. That doesn’t make any sense.

Back in the day, Israel’s kings were expected to uphold divine standards and exemplify God’s righteousness and obedience to the law. They were supposed to show the people God’s character through their behavior and their rule. Looking back, the Bible is clear that the record is spotty. But Jesus became the ultimate king for God’s people. He didn’t do it the way they expected on Palm Sunday. He cares and loves and rescues. He is holy, righteous, and divine. He is compassionate, and he became one of us so that he knows what it’s like to be tempted, to suffer, to enjoy the world, and to live as a human in the midst of brokenness and beauty.

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”
Isaiah 61:1-3 NIV

Jesus read from this passage in the temple and declared that these words from the prophet Isaiah were fulfilled in that moment. It’s incredible. God anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor, to restore prisoners and broken-hearted people to flourishing, and to comfort people in grief and mourning. He brings the ultimate reason to rejoice and celebrate.

In Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus is led to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, as I’ve mentioned. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, mirroring the time that Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai when God was giving him the new tablets with the law written on them (after the first ones were destroyed). So, Jesus is pictured as the new Moses, the new deliverer of God’s people. He will fulfill the law that was given to Moses.

That website that prompted all these readings and reflections was…presumably…created by the author Timothy Keller, so I’ll tentatively attribute this quote to him (though there was no author listed on the page): 

“The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is the contagiously clean man. When he touched a leper, Jesus did not contract leprosy. Rather, the leper became clean. Those trying in vain to remove their sin must allow themselves to be touched by the contagiously clean man. And, like the leper in the story, may we who have experienced that touch possess an uncontainable gratitude, talking freely about our encounter with the contagiously clean man.”

I want to enter this Holy Week with intention. In college, everyone in my Christian community wanted to live “intentionally” and have “intentional” relationships. Now, the main place I hear that word is in the yoga videos I do a couple times a week on YouTube. The teacher reminds me to “set an intention” for my yoga practice. I think it’s time for me to remember the benefits of intentionality in the everyday. If all of life is “practice” for living in God’s kingdom, which is coming in ways even now, then living carelessly is not an option.

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unfinished thoughts from current reads

According to my own goals, today is the day I’m supposed to publish a new blog post. For the last couple months, I have had something to work on. In January, it was time to look at the 2018-2019 transition. Last month, I finished up what I wanted to write about politics at the moment. And this morning, my writing time feels like the rest of my month has felt – aimless and apathetic. It’s not that I don’t have anything to write about. I’m reading about five books at the moment…slow going on all of them, of course, because my focus is so scattered. Oh, six – just remembered another one. So, maybe not apathetic. Just pathetic? Just too hyper and interested in too much at once. 

I’m working on a story that I’m not sure I have any way to finish. I’m working on getting back to basics and figuring out what I can write about. I’m working on a poem about an Austen character. I’m working on a family project, collecting stories from my grandma. I’m supposed to be writing a paper for school. But I’m not working on all of those things actively because I don’t have time…my personal writing time is from approximately 8-10 on Sunday mornings. Sometimes it starts at 7 or 7:30 if I went to bed decently early on Saturday. Last night, I did not, and it was “spring forward”, so you know I’m waiting for my coffee to walk through the door as we speak. My lovely husband makes breakfast for me on Sundays so I can just sit at my desk (breakfast angel that he is). And I want this time to be fruitful. 

Yesterday, I finished reading a book for the class I’m currently taking. The book is Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, by Timothy Keller. I took a lot of notes, and I enjoyed it as much as one can when reading about suffering and evil. Keller attempts a lot with the book, and I think he succeeds. He addresses the Christian and the skeptic and the Christian-made-a-skeptic by awful circumstances. He reminds us that Christians *will* suffer and that it shouldn’t be a shock, and he explains why it is shocking for much of his probable audience. 

Historically, cultures have provided answers to the deepest questions of life and have helped people to deal with adversity in meaningful ways. Keller tells us how Western cultures have failed at this. The result is that today, the mainstream secular culture in the U.S. has no satisfactory way to explain or deal with suffering. Suffering is seen as a meaningless waste. People respond to it with anger, hatred, and shock. People of the past were more resilient. Suffering was more commonplace, so people expected it, and their belief systems had a place for it, so it actually could be meaningful. 

But if the material world is all we have (which is the at-least-subconsciously prevailing view), then we are supposed to be as happy as possible and seek pleasure and fulfillment in this life. If that pursuit is met with suffering, how can one explain it or find meaning in it? Suffering is accidental if this world and its people are generally good. Keller describes suffering in this view as an “evil hiccup”- no origin to it, no response to it, no justice for it, no meaning to it, just pain. If every individual is supposed to create the meaning of his/her own life through doing good and feeling good, then suffering can’t be anything but traumatic.

It is also interesting to look at what our (mainstream secular, U.S.) culture offers people to help them deal with suffering. Instead of digging into the deep questions, wading through the suffering and looking for meaning, people are given coping methods. The goal is to get out of the suffering, rise above it, and get through it without feeling pain or asking difficult questions. People are told how to control their immediate responses and their environment. (Stop thinking negative thoughts. Get good at self care and making yourself feel better without feeling any of the bad stuff.) But they miss out on lamenting, growing through the experience, seeing the meaning of suffering in general, joining in Christ’s suffering, and experiencing the hope of the resurrected life. 

Keller shows us the stories of those who lived through extreme suffering in the Bible, including Job, Paul, and ultimately Jesus, to emphasize that suffering has a definite place in Christian history and the Christian life.

Such a short blog post as this certainly wouldn’t do justice to the question of evil in the world or of suffering in human life. I can’t fully relate what God has to say about it and how the Bible beautifully makes sense of it. Keller’s book does a good job. 

The thing I thought about most while reading it was honestly, “Ok, I hear it. I’m going to suffer, and it’s going to be meaningful and make me a better person or at least have a greater purpose even if I can’t see it. So…what is my Big Suffering going to be?” I have always felt a sense of dread…a sense that since we have to suffer, I can’t relax. I can’t rest because I should be on alert for the thing that’s going to try to kill me. So I think the last few chapters of Keller’s book were actually the most applicable to me (not that I needed it to be immediately applicable – it was for class, after all). 

He goes through the things that characterize walking with God through suffering: weeping, trusting, praying, thinking, thanking, loving, and hoping. In the chapter on thinking-thanking-loving, he references Philippians 4:8-9. In it, Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” 

Paul has elsewhere written that he has practiced and learned to be content in any situation. Christian peace doesn’t come just to those who have the natural propensity for being content. It requires us to discipline our thoughts and feelings. We can learn to sense God’s presence and protection and thus know his peace. It was surprising at first to read that thinking, thanking, and loving are disciplines. But as I read, I found it seemed obvious and encouraging.

Seeing these verses in Keller’s book made me smile. I’m reading another book – for my own heart – called All That’s Good, by Hannah Anderson. (I wrote a post last year about another of her books, Humble Roots.) Philippians 4:8 is the foundation for her book, which is about discernment. Six of her chapters focus on things recommended by this verse: whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. She used a different translation, but the ideas are the same. This approach to the topic of discernment was initially surprising to me, but now I see that she’s right. When we choose to focus on the things we know to be good and true and we live in pursuit of these things God calls us to prioritize, we will grow in wisdom. God will teach us. He will walk with us, guiding us by his spirit and wisdom in his will for our lives.

Keller calls his readers to think more intensely about the big issues of life so that we will be prepared to face hard times. We need to think out the implications of what we believe. We need to love God above all other things in our lives. We need to see that his glory is greater than the glory we can attain or the glory of any of the best things we have in this life. When we think about truth and righteousness, or about lovely and pure and commendable things, we are going to be thinking about what Jesus has done. We will be drawn to the cross, and we will see God’s work in history and his work in our lives. We will have reasons to glorify him, and we will be humbled. 

We will be restless unless and until we put God at the center of our lives. Audrey Assad has a song called “Restless” in which she says, “I am restless, restless, ‘till I rest in you, ‘till I rest in you, oh God.” I know that this is my pattern. I am restless internally. I look tranquil, and I’m good at putting out those vibes. But I’m restless. I don’t actively rest in God. Jesus should be the center (as that song we sing at my church reminds us) of all, of my life, of the church. When he is, we will be concerned with knowing him and glorifying him. Our need to have a comfortable life, and our need to know we’re making all the right choices will fall to their proper place on our list of priorities. 

politics, part 3: true or false

At this point, I think it is clear that I don’t accept the premise that politics should be kept in a bubble. It applies to other areas of life — that’s why people care about it so much. It’s easy to become passionate when talking about politics. That should tell us both why people want to section it off and why we can’t. Some people want to engage in their daily life and activities without having to think about difficult realities. Some don’t see the ways that they benefit from the status quo, so they think political talk is irrelevant. This last group…I don’t know how to make them care. I’m sure that seeing the way most people engage in politics right now isn’t convincing them to join in. None of us should want political conversations to sideline friendships.

When it comes to sidelining friendships…I think political talk online has taken care of that. Facebook and Twitter are platforms that people use publicly, but it is easy to think that they’re somewhat private places to comment, express views, and argue about them. I have seen some deeply malicious and troubling conversations there. I’m sure friendships have been ruined. There are family members I’m a bit afraid of these days, to be honest. And I’m definitely part of the crowd that has been spending less and less time on Facebook over the last few years.

We can’t section off political talk…because we do care. There’s a reason it all comes out online or in arguments or, say, in a call to boycott the NFL. We can’t section it off because policies do impact life. The personal is really political. I think we see that in things like Trump rallies and the Women’s March. 

I’ve been reading a book of sermons by Dr. King (MLK), called Strength to Love. He deals with the immediate and applicable in every single one. He explores how Christians should live in light of the gospel and in response to injustice. There were plenty of people in his time who wanted to keep those things separate. They wanted to say nice things and be good Christians but keep to themselves about political issues, even in the face of great injustice. I dunno if that sounds familiar…

In Strength to Love, Dr. King says, “Success, recognition, and conformity are the bywords of the modern world where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority” (12). In his time, this referred to the church’s willingness to be complicit in acts of injustice because they were unwilling to upset the status quo. His entire “Letter from Birmingham Jail” revolved around this issue –  the white church was too patient, too silent, and too complacent. Make no mistake – these churches were engaged in political fights. Dr. King was a pastor and faithful believer, and he was also a political figure engaged in the fight for civil rights. Have white evangelicals still not learned the lessons he fought so hard to teach? His writing is readily available. Maybe if we actually read it cover-to-cover, rather than in token memes once a year, the message would start to get through.

This week, my local public radio station hosted a conversation about religious “nones” and why this is a growing group in our city. Specifically, they discussed why people are leaving religious institutions behind and what that looks like in a lot of people’s lives. So many people have found the Christian church to be off-putting for a variety of reasons. Sometimes their honest questions about life and their doubts about faith were met with criticism and fear, rather than love and conversation. Sometimes the alignment of the Church with the Right led people to believe they couldn’t hold their personal/political convictions and also stay a Christian. The issues were so simplified that people didn’t think they had a choice. There has to be room for nuance. It’s so important. People will walk away.

I’m currently in a class called “Common Objections to the Christian Faith,” and I’m so glad we’re going to explore the deepest questions and doubts that people bring up in relation to Christianity. The ones we will cover in detail include the problem of suffering and evil; the idea that God wants to interfere in our personal lives; the idea that God has something to say about human sexuality; and the reasons for prayer. I have had or still wrestle with some of the same questions myself. But for the ones I’ve never asked, I need to know the heart behind the questions, and I need to be confident of my answers – that they are true and that they’re helpful. 

Christians will only become increasingly irrelevant over time in the eyes of the generally irreligious. (Perhaps the same is true of people of faith as a whole…though I doubt it because people tend to advocate for Muslims and Jews – as they should when these groups are threatened.) But if I could speak to the people who want to write Christians off, I would remind them that it’s dangerous to start writing off groups of people. Remember what it feels like when people write you off for something that’s part of your personal identity. Remember that no group is a monolith – there is nuance everywhere. Know this: “The desire for community is so strong in the human heart that when shared facts and values don’t unite us, we will find consensus through shared emotional or subjective reality. We will retreat into tribes that validate our own experiences and form community around these biases and identities. And when this tribal or party identity is threatened, we will respond, not from carefully considered decisions made for the common good, but from a place of insecurity.” – Hannah Anderson in All That’s Good, pg. 70

This is happening all the time. People have taken their sides, and they’ve mounted attacks. They’ve written off everyone who doesn’t know exactly what they know and think exactly how they think and come to the exact same conclusions. Bear with me in another long quote from a different book: “In the U.S….staunch Democrats and hard-core Republicans hear the same data but, predisposed to interpreting them differently, they walk away with opposing conclusions. In an fMRI study conducted at Emory University prior to the 2004 presidential election, Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they were to evaluate damaging information about their own candidate. Notably absent among the subjects involved in this study was any activation of the neural circuits implicated in conscious reasoning once they were confronted with the damaging evidence. The researchers concluded that emotionally biased reasoning leads to the ‘stamping in’ or reinforcement of a defensive belief, associating the participant’s ‘revisionist’ account of the data with positive emotion or relief and elimination of distress. The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and persons can learn very little from new data” (119). This quote is from Body, Soul, and Human Life by Joel Green. That article is called “Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning…” from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 

This shows us the most dangerous thing – that if we don’t learn to respect and listen to those with whom we disagree, we will fail to see their side even when they are correct! When that happens, truth doesn’t matter anymore. Journalists talk about how we’re in a “post-truth” world, and that’s basically what postmodernism stands for, but the absence of any truth is a sad, chaotic mess that won’t allow us to live together for long. 

Anderson writes, “Communities [are] coming apart at the seams – not simply because we can’t agree on what is good and valuable, but because we can’t even agree on what is true anymore” (66). This is one of the main reasons why I think our current president is not merely objectionable but actually dangerous. He encourages people to choose which facts to believe and which ones to deny. He makes people believe that by saying, “that’s not true,” you can make something false…even when it’s a fact. He makes people believe that true journalism is suspect and that the sensational is to be trusted. He doesn’t care what is true – he cares about what looks the best for him and about making people believe he is right. 

As a Christian, I am deeply invested in the notion of truth. I believe that my faith is based in something real – an historical person, historical events, and a living God. If something is true, then it isn’t just true for the person who believes it’s true. It’s actually true…real…in existence. If NPR published an article saying that Kamala Harris announced her presidential candidacy, as they did on January 20th, then we all know that Kamala Harris is going to run for president next year. This is something true. If you choose not to believe it because you think NPR is fake news, then you are actually wrong. She is actually running for president, whether you believe it or not. Now, this is a simplified example. No one has actually denied that Harris – or any of the millions of people announcing their run for president – has actually made such an announcement. But truth really is that basic. Something either is or it isn’t. I’m either alive, or I’m not. If I’m alive, it would be factually false to call me dead. Jesus either lived, or he didn’t. He either rose, or he didn’t. 

You can’t let me believe “my truth” without responding to it…without either denying that it’s true or accepting that it’s true. Our perspectives and beliefs actually affect other people, and theirs impact us, whether we like this or not. We aren’t islands. We at least have to acknowledge that contradictory truths call one another false. This is so clear when it comes to politics. I wish it were so clear in terms of spiritual and religious beliefs. I think people are afraid of disagreement there because of the terrible things brought about by such disagreements in the past. We need to find a way to talk with people who believe differently than we do without calling them stupid, but actually trying to understand their worldview and interacting with it critically, as a valid contender for truth. This is what I need to commit to as a Christian seeking to respect everyone I come in contact with. This is what I would hope others would do when interacting with me. It can be hard to look another person in the eyes and see that they are human, flawed and amazing. It can be hard to remember that I am just like you. But it’s true. We are not that different, after all.

politics, part 2: (un)patriotic

Welcome to part 2 – if you read part 1 first, this will all make more sense. There should be a link to the right, or if you’re on the general blog page, just scroll down.

If you’re a Christian (or familiar with my blog), you might be wondering how I’m going to bring this subject around to faith and how I think Christianity and the political sphere interact. I want to do that a little bit today and more in part three.

Now, I want to talk about the thing that originally made me want to write about this. That is the NFL players’ peaceful protest of police violence against – and murders of – black people. They chose to kneel during the national anthem. Whether you agree that that was a “good move” or not, it is completely strange to dismiss the whole thing as “unpatriotic” and attack Colin Kaepernick, et. al. by going after their character and being unkind (which is how I perceived the general response of NFL fans). 

When I heard about the players’ actions, it was clear to me what they were protesting. I try to stay generally aware of what’s going on in the news/issues of injustice, and I live in a place that’s gotten national attention for racial issues. It would have been a bit strange for me not to understand. However, if I hadn’t been aware, I would have been curious. My general reaction when I “don’t get it” is to investigate. I would have wondered about the players’ motives and intentions, done some research, and figured it out. They have a right to express their opinions. One would think that kneeling peacefully could be an acceptable form of protest. 

The personal was political for the kneeling football players. They didn’t feel the option of keeping their politics out of their sports. Their very identities as men of color make them more vulnerable than others to police violence. They had the guts to stand (by kneeling) against police brutality and against political rhetoric that they saw as threatening to American ideals. They did so in this public way that was sadly misunderstood by most of their fans. What would it have cost their fans to say, “Wow, they must be going through a lot to do something so big and public. How horrible that this is an issue. I need to learn more.” What would it cost fans to respect players as human beings? Realize that it’s not just fantasy football – it’s real life…

American patriotism is a COMPLICATED thing. It has always been complicated for me personally. Growing up, I was an unrelenting pacifist. I could not comprehend the idea of war – it seemed neanderthalic and stupid. (I still don’t fully get it, but I understand that it’s a part of our world that’s not going away.) At the same time, my dad was in the U.S. Army. I had to grapple with the fact that his whole job revolved around the idea of war. Eventually (after 9/11), he was deployed to fly helicopters in the war in Iraq. I was afraid for his safety and for my family. I was afraid to ask him what he’d done and seen. I understood that war was profoundly sad, destructive, and traumatizing. My dad was never an ultra-patriot in the sense of being excited about war or touting his role as heroic, etc. So, it has always seemed strange to me that the most patriotic among us glorify the military and love that they fight (quite literally) for our country. I used to protest in my own small way. I would stand for the anthem (and as an Army kid, I heard it more than a lot of people), but I wouldn’t sing it. (Sometimes, I wouldn’t put my hand over my heart. *gasp*) 

Brief aside: I’ve always wondered why in the world we play the national anthem at sporting events – and random other events for that matter. The local outdoor theater where I live plays the anthem before plays and musicals… I’m confused about it. Turns out, it was first sung in settings like this around World War I, but even then it had not become the official national anthem. Decades went by before it was played everywhere for all variety of events. Here’s an article about it from the History Channel’s website – https://www.history.com/news/why-the-star-spangled-banner-is-played-at-sporting-events
Suffice it to say that we don’t actually need this practice, and everyone would be fine without it. It’s the National Football League, after all. If it were international, I guess I could understand playing each team’s national anthem (as they do in the World Cup). As it is…I don’t see the point. *steps off soap box*

It’s complicated to be a “proud American.” I would add “these days,” but I think it has always been complicated. That just hasn’t always been acknowledged. People are using their voices to point out how complicated it is, and that’s a good thing. Many in the U.S. have assumed that we have conquered the moral high ground in the world for so long. We’ve been on the right side of history in some big ways in more recent memory. And when we talk about the times we were on the wrong side, there’s sort of an “everybody was doing it” mentality… For example, we learn vocabulary terms like “colonialism”, “manifest destiny”, and “underground railroad” in history class, but we don’t lament the way that our ancestry involves the colonization and genocide of a land and its people. Our ancestry involves slavery, and we’ve inherited a persistent racism. Our ancestors did have some actual good ideas, which have become the best parts of living in the United States today. Yet, some of their ideas were deeply flawed, and so are many things about our history as a nation. 

We didn’t learn much about our country’s internment camps in school. 

We tend to think that the family separation issue is “over” because it’s not coming through the news cycle the way it was a couple months ago. 

etc.

I think real patriotism is NOT a look back at a country that we think has done everything right. Real patriotism involves hoping that we can continue to improve as a nation, using everything good that we have to the best ends possible. It is a celebration of the values of democracy and freedom. It is a desire to unite as a people in order to make our country a great place to live, a welcoming place to visit or immigrate, and a peaceful place of asylum. We should acknowledge the flaws in the system and in the individual, facing them without deflecting. That’s the only way we can ultimately move forward. I do want to be proud of my country, but I need it to be a place we can all be proud of. Until then, I’m not afraid to say that I’m disappointed, and I don’t feel very patriotic most of the time. But I am grateful to live in a place where change is possible, and you and I have the ability to suggest, create, and vote for those changes.

I hope you don’t hear me saying that we should put all our trust in the political system, as if the government will save us from all ills. Of course I don’t believe that’s possible. I know there are flaws, and I know it is not the highest authority to which we answer. However, I think it’s a complete cop-out to say that the church should be the exclusive place Christians are doing all their good in the world. It isn’t the only place we’re allowed to act as Christians. We’re actually supposed to be the hands and feet of Christ in all spheres. I love the church, and I want it to be doing so many things for the world, but I believe Jesus said something about the fact that the people of God are in the midst of the world…

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:14-18)

I’ve often heard Christians use this phrase: “Be in the world but not of it.” This can convey the idea that Christians should stand out as particularly moral and good people. We shouldn’t just do what everyone around us is doing – we need to do the right thing, and we follow Christ, so sometimes that will look super weird to the rest of the world. We should be distinct morally, ethically, and lovingly. However, we do lose something when we focus on the idea of being separate. We lose a lot of what Jesus was actually saying. He does not ask that we be taken out of the world. We’re not supposed to separate ourselves, contrary to how lots of Christians have lived. Many have used this idea to validate seclusion.

Jesus is saying that we are made for the new heaven and earth that are coming but that we are here now for a reason. He has sent us INTO the world. My ultimate hope is in God. My ultimate home is with him, and the church (at large – not a particular church or denomination) is the primary institution with my loyalty. That doesn’t mean that I’m not a participant in other institutions. Shouldn’t I be active, concerned, and helpful? Isn’t education important to me? Don’t I earn and spend money? Don’t I want justice to be done? The phrase “on earth as it is in Heaven” comes to mind.

So, we need some nuance.
Don’t be of the world: Don’t be hateful, vitriolic, and ultra-partisan. Recognize the need for truth and unity.
Be in the world: Use your voice for healing and justice. Do what you can. 

I think it’s interesting that people don’t view certain areas of life as having political import. It turned out that many NFL fans were quite conservative. It is interesting that these fans care about the many black men who play on their football teams when it comes to statistics and game days. Yet when those same black men started asking their fans to wake up and look at the injustice in our country, they were hated, shunned, and attacked. They were using their voices in the largest arena (literally) to which they had access, but their fans could only see people refusing to stand and salute the flag (committing the most anti-American, unpatriotic act of all, in their eyes). Fans didn’t take the time to ask questions and listen to the answers. If they had, maybe one group of people would have gained a little more understanding about another. The players’ peaceful protest was also a form of patriotism — they wanted more from this country and for it, and they knelt in the hope of something better.

There’s more to come. This concludes part 2 (because it’s going to get too long again). 🙂

Recommendations:
The music I’ve been listening to during writing time these days: Otis Redding, Leon Bridges. I had a trial of Amazon Music until recently, and their playlist “100 Greatest Classic Soul Songs” was the BEST.
Book I just finished reading – An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green (Remember him? His video was in my last post. His book is good! I’m sure I’ll be quoting it here soon enough.) 

try to imagine

I am going to attempt more of an essay here than I normally do. Fun fact: Essay means try. That’s an oversimplified version of the truth. I had a professor explain it in a personal nonfiction class once, and a cursory Google study tells me the etymology is from Middle French, which makes sense because “essayer” is a French verb that means “to try.” So fun. Hope you think so too, and I’m not the only nerd here. All that to say, my first sentence is redundant. 

I recently attended a conference on Apologetics and the Christian Imagination. Very niche, I know, but also great. It’s a theology conference for the likes of me: obsessed with fiction, in love with ideas, always wanting to know more about philosophy than I actually attempt to learn, etc.

One seminar I attended was called, “Imagination in the Western Philosophical Tradition: A Select History”. It was taught by a philosophy professor from a local university. She was engaging, funny, and very good at teaching. She’s one of those people that can make you rethink what you’re doing because what they’re doing seems so obviously interesting and important. (Note: I am always rethinking because everyone else usually seems to be doing great things.)

It is a constant struggle for me to focus on what is in front of me – not to spend so much time (like the last 20 minutes) researching something that matters but doesn’t matter THAT MUCH for what I’m currently doing, which is TRYING to write something in the time I have. I just investigated which translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy I should order when I decide to purchase it. The philosophy professor spent a lot of time talking about it as a prime example of imagination used in Christian philosophy. That’s where I’m going with this. 

In the Divine Comedy, Dante writes of a pilgrim’s journey through hell, purgatory, and on to paradise. I haven’t read it, so I am regurgitating what I’ve learned. (This makes me feel phony, which is why I spent so much time researching him/it just now.) Dante uses poetic images to evoke emotions in the reader, which leads to understanding of the moral lessons he is teaching. Like rationalistic philosophers, he values reason. Like romantic philosophers, he values emotion. He uses both to prompt an ethical response from readers: being afraid of this vision of hell should prompt one to hate sin and root it out. The Divine Comedy is from the fourteenth century, and it is still being translated, studied, and viewed as one of the most important written works of all time. 

We need imaginative renderings of the Christian life and Christian concepts. If our imaginations are stimulated, we can see ourselves and life in general more clearly, and we can move toward real knowledge of the truth. I don’t want to imagine what it would be like in hell, but doing so might give me more reason to pursue righteousness. Imagining what it might be like in paradise, and seeing it in contrast to hell, might give me more reason and urgency to talk to people in my life about real things – about God, grace, and morality. Imagination is important. 

I have been slowly reading a book called Seeing Through Cynicism, by Dick Keyes. It occurs to me that cynicism has become a large aspect of the Western, postmodern philosophical imagination. In the “Western Philosophical Tradition” (what my seminar presented), we talk about the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Rousseau, and Aquinas. Keyes talks about Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and their greater influence on the philosophical air we breathe. (I also want to recognize and emphasize that I’m talking big-picture and “Western” here. I recently read a book in which it was recommended that we never say “culture” or “the culture” because that could mean a zillion different things. SO, when I say “philosophical air we breathe”…I know that’s a little problematic.) I also realize that we are in an interesting period of time currently…in which it doesn’t necessarily seem accurate to say postmodernism is central…but I’m not an expert. I’ll come back to this.

The ideology critique that is used by Keyes’s philosophers tries to undermine the Christian faith. The critique says that Christianity is used for unsavory purposes or to meet basic human needs, but it is not real. For these more recent philosophers, it is some sort of projection. It is an aid to the human imagination because it provides a story that helps people out of despair. It provides a narrative that justifies weakness and suffering (for the weak or for the powerful, in different ways). They approach Christianity with cynicism. Postmodernists approach all belief systems with cynicism. This is why no one can make claims of ultimate truth without facing derision. Because we can’t know anything for certain, we have to have a hermeneutic of suspicion. Anyone is entitled to believe what they believe, as long as those beliefs don’t have teeth – as long as they don’t impact anyone except the believer. Of course, it’s impossible to believe something that doesn’t have an impact on others. You can pretend it doesn’t, sure, but the fact that you are Buddhist means that you believe something in particular about the universe. You can allow me to be Christian. You can be “tolerant” all you want, but if you ultimately believe in Buddhism, you ultimately believe I am wrong. You know I’m not going to reach nirvana if I continue believing what I believe, but you don’t want to convince me. Only one thing happens after we die. We don’t get to choose our own adventures (i.e., nirvana for you, heaven for me). 

I want to return to the question of whether or not “postmodern” is an accurate label. It seems so at times. Relativism is the explanation for so much. Yet, when push comes to shove in the political sphere, we see very clearly where everyone stands…and how universalized they want their beliefs to become. The rise of cause-supporting and activism in recent years has also shown me that cynicism is not thoroughgoing. The phrase “silence is violence” has made me feel so guilty that I am not an internet activist that I’ve had to deactivate social media at different times. Yet the discourse to be had there seems less than productive, to put it mildly. All that aside, people are passionate about political causes, promoting social justice, and making a difference in the world. Perhaps cynicism is only a good coping mechanism for so long – after awhile, we need a change. Apathy and irony seem very hipster…which is a very millennial thing. What happens when millennials start to care about ethical consumerism and gentrification? Not saying we ALL do…but there are contingents.

Perhaps people would stop viewing the church with cynicism if the church became more active in the fight for justice – more akin to the early church that we don’t talk much about anymore. Less obviously hypocritical on a national/public level. The philosophical place that Christians can occupy (according to the professor), is one that values both rationality and emotionality. We should be both contemplative and active. But do our beliefs have teeth – do they have real meaning for our lives and how we engage with others? Are we prepared for that to be seen as unacceptable, or are we prepared to sacrifice the concept of truth for acceptance? Keyes states, “Earnestness and seriousness are out” (62). If they are starting to come back “in”, is there room for us to be earnest and serious? I think so – if we are not hypocritical, harsh, or overbearing. I don’t really think there is another way to live the Christian life besides being earnest and serious about following Christ.

In college, I took a class called International Human Rights in which it was a tremendous struggle for my fellow students to come up with any reason why human beings deserve to have rights. What distinguishes human beings from animals? What determines what human rights should be? There was a huge rejection of the concept of a soul, and people seemed confused and frustrated as to why we needed a reason. Why were we even discussing this? In addition to its being important, I think it was partially because our professor was Jewish and believed humans to be God’s image-bearers. He argued that there was no way to find specific reasons apart from some spiritual/religious belief.

There has been a cultural (mainstream American?) emphasis on the idea of storytelling lately. I love this and hate this. It’s great because I have always loved stories. I’ve been addicted to books since day one. I get obsessed with movies and television shows because of the stories and the characters in them. I want to know the story of every person I meet immediately, and it’s frustrating that I have to do that over the course of a whole friendship (even though I don’t tell my story up front, no way). Stories are special and personal and wonderful, and we can learn so much from them. 

Yet, everyone has become obsessed with telling their stories. In some sense, this is a result of postmodern cynicism. “Any meaning that I have must be generated by me, for me and from my own resources: my story is all there is” (Keyes, 63). Our experiences are paramount. My reality dictates my truth. I can listen to and possibly appreciate your story, but it remains your story. Your truth belongs to you.

As a Christian, I’m to see the collective story as well as the individual stories within it. (What is the Bible, amiright?) I am given the story of the world and its savior. I am connected to the people in this story, and my story has a place. I occupy a place in the story, but my story isn’t of primary importance anymore. My story has a greater meaning or purpose because of the person at work in my life – the author himself. It is connected to a deeper truth, and I can find meaning in my story by looking to this truth.

I have tried to weave a lot of different threads through this little “essay”. Each attempt is an effort to keep learning through this written form of processing. Thanks for reading. I’m going to end with a quote from The Valley of Vision, which is a book of old prayers.

“May the truth that is in him illuminate in me all that is dark,
establish in me all that is wavering,
comfort in me all that is wretched,
accomplish in me all that is of thy goodness,
and glorify me in the name of Jesus…
Teach me that Christ cannot be the way if I am the end,
that he cannot be Redeemer if I am my own savior,
that there can be no true union with him while the creature has my heart,
that faith accepts him as Redeemer and Lord or not at all.” (168)

 

seattle two: not about seattle

I don’t grow as fast as I want to. Ten weeks is shorter than it sounds. I have low output and a low capacity, and I hate myself for it sometimes. But I’m learning to understand and set realistic expectations. All that said because I had hoped to be on approximately “seattle ten” by now. Hah. Here goes.

One morning last week, I woke up and talked on the phone with my friend. We talked about the day and the week and the difficulty of processing what’s in our hearts. I told her about this book I’d just finished reading: The Pursuit of God, by A.W. Tozer. I said it was the most convicting book I have read for awhile. She asked what was convicting about it.

I appreciate being able to talk with friends who respond to my somewhat faltering, intermittent way of speaking with patience. I appreciate reciprocity. I have such a hard time sharing what’s really going on in my head because it’s kind of crazy sometimes, and because you never know who’s going to stay. It takes awhile. Friendship is a long road, but it’s so rewarding when you walk far enough together that you can be unfazed by what you hear. I’m hard to faze anyway…but I assume that others are easily driven away. The best way to put it is a lyric from one of Nick’s songs about me… “If you know her half as well as she knows you, then you know you’re gettin’ there.” It’s usually true. It feels nice to be known by him in that way, but it’s also a line that I suppose makes me disappointed with myself. I’ve read about the enneagram 4 (me, as far as I know: 4 with a 5 wing…if that means anything to ya) that we’ll tend that way. I desperately want to be close to people – closer than most people want to go – but I can’t go there without knowing that those people are going to be forever-friends. So I have to be okay with only having such closeness with a few people. I might not have a group of friends that all know and love each other this way because my closest friends tend to be those who also don’t fit with a group – who just have a few besties, too. Friend is such a unique and serious role to play in someone else’s life…it should be.

So I tell my friend that I’m so convicted because I’m so lacking. I don’t pursue God like I should; I don’t pray like I should; I don’t expect God to be present with me; I choose to do other things when I could spend time seeking him. We talked about uncertainty and that process of doubting God’s existence and then responding to ourselves with the Bible, which we believe to be true. What a funny thing to do, and proof of some faith that still lives. It can be scary and disorienting…can seem unspeakable to have any such thoughts/feelings because you’re supposed to be a church member, a seminary student, a ministry leader. But if no one ever talks about it, no one ever will, right? I talked with my friend about human insanity. It turned out to be something she understood, something she felt in her own way.

When I pray, something happens. When I pray for things people talk to me about, those prayers often are directly answered. When I pray for Nick – in a circumstance or emotion – I see the changes happen, without telling him about the prayer or the change. When I pray for clarity or peace or my own circumstances, my prayers are answered in some way that is clear to me. It’s pretty crazy, and I know that God is not a wish-granter or a vending machine. I think that was hammered into me so hard that I stopped expecting him to answer prayers at all. I stopped thinking he could really hear me. So when he began to respond to me that way…it was like he was saying, “I hear you.” I may never have heard God’s audible speaking voice…but he has been listening to me. This is how he’s teaching me that he’s here, that he’s real – that he’s in the details and the big picture.

So why don’t I pray all the time? What am I doing when I sit down to read the Bible and have some spiritual time, but I close it and move on without a word in God’s direction? What am I afraid of? That he won’t answer, or that he will? That if he’s in my life and in this world, I might have to change something? That I might be committed to following him forever and doing things that are scary and uncomfortable? I’m sure I would rather dictate my own life and make choices based on my own will. This tension is nothing new in the Christian life. And yet, there is something so much more comforting about knowing he is taking care and making ways for me to live despite my fear/baggage/inattentiveness. He’s loving me, the unloving, undeserving recipient.

I worry and wonder what God’s doing and what I’m supposed to be doing. But I don’t talk to him about it? What even is that? I laughed over the absurdity with my friend. We noted the ways that we ebb and flow in spirituality. The times Nick has had to sustain our evening prayer life without my input. When all I could muster was “amen” at the end. This not because of anything terrible going on in my life, just for the periodic darkness or the weakness of my heart. It was the first time I had talked to a friend about the fear that we might fall out of this faith and the strange way that God uses what we’re not sure we believe to assure us that we do.

There was about one year when I felt joy and gratitude acutely…and for the rest of my life, I struggle. It’s nice to talk to others who aren’t naturally happy people. Other people who can do melancholy and not be sad or uncomfortable, but find it natural. Yet because I believe that God loves me…isn’t joy/hope/gratitude/happiness the most appropriate, necessary response? And why can’t I muster it the way some can? And does that mean there’s something wrong with me, or something missing in my faith? OR does it mean that I’m well-suited to see the needs, the things to pray for, the people who need love and don’t have it? To be with people who are struggling without blinding them with: BE GRATEFUL LOOK AT ALL THIS JOY! I think this is true. But I know where I need to grow. What to pray for and seek: restore to me the joy of your salvation. Psalm 51 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible.

I wanted to write about this Tozer book, though. Man, it brought me around. I have been feeling out of touch – exiled from my internal world. I guess theologians forever have been right about that connection between knowing God and knowing self. Imagine that. As I seek God, it gets easier to see myself. Mystery. Please continue to bear with this scatterbrained post: your patience is appreciated.

At the end of each short chapter, Tozer writes a prayer that deals with the themes he’s just talked about. I need to ask God to, “Begin in mercy a new work of love within me.”

Tozer believed in the need to wake up and remember what we’re here for, and who brought us here. Everything I’m writing about now…just assume that Tozer said it, and I’m processing.

Do I ever experience God’s REAL presence? Why don’t I feel him with me? Have I ever asked for him to show himself, to be here in a special way, to reveal his presence to me? I really haven’t asked, and I haven’t had a great big experience. But why not? People are afraid of giving up whatever fulfills us instead of God. Our “toys” are God’s rivals. I’ve dealt with this before, so I’m good, right? Then what is keeping me from coming close to God and expecting him to be close to me?

Is God more of an inference from accepted evidence, or a person who is real to me?
I need the ability to perceive spiritually. “He is manifest only when and as we are aware of His presence.” (64) “Our pursuit of God is successful just because He is forever seeking to manifest Himself to us.” (65) We might use “near” and “far” to describe our proximity to God, and these are relational terms. I can actually cultivate a spiritual awareness and receptivity – in order to gain the perception I need.

Do we confine God’s word to what we can read in the Bible, or do we recognize that he can still speak to our hearts?
I don’t leave space for God to speak. I move from one word to the next, down the page, close the book, stand up, and move on. We need to be still. Find a way to be still and wait on God: be alone, and bring the Bible. “Then if we will we may draw near to God and begin to hear Him speak to us in our hearts.” The Bible speaks continually for God. Can I breathe in between passages, or sentences, and pause long enough to learn something?

We don’t get much toward a definition of faith in the Bible as a whole – just what Hebrews 11:1 has to say: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Tozer describes faith as “the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.” The faithful heart is bent by its intention to look on Jesus forever, and it forms the habit. Faith is focused on the object, not on itself. It’s not self-consciously examining and questioning. It’s seeking something beyond itself. My faith can be pretty self-conscious at times…no surprise.

On believing: “It would be like God to make the most vital thing easy and place it within the range of possibility for the weakest and poorest of us.” (94) Real faith looks pretty simple. It requires nothing fancy. What do we need to do? Pray, meditate on God’s word, serve others, participate in the life of the church…behold God. Anyone can do this, but I like to make things complicated by over-thinking and wondering – could this really be possible for me?

On church: “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other?” (96)

It’s important for us to see that salvation is “…not a judicial change merely, but a conscious and experienced change affecting the sinner’s whole nature.” (100) It can be so easy in my denomination to stop with the language of legal change. In talking about justification, we use legal language because it is appropriate to do so. Yet it can sound somewhat cold or sanitized.

Bible teacher: “God took your record of wrongs and applied it to Jesus. He took Jesus’ record of rights and applied it to you.”

Me: *shakes Jesus’ hand* “Thanks, that was unbelievably kind of you.”

Also me: “Jesus died for my sins, and he gave me his righteousness. I’m going to heaven, yay!”

It can’t stop there, given that there’s probably a lot of time between now and that future, so what happens in the meantime?

One of the main questions I had to answer satisfactorily when I interviewed for a ministry position was: “What are justification and sanctification – and how are they different?” One of the main objectives in a class called “Sin, Christ, and Salvation” was to answer this question. These are wonderful things – it’s so important to understand God’s work and how it applies to us. Yet I can define these words so perfectly without feeling myself changed and without living in the presence of God. It’s not enough to watch the courtroom scene and read the sentence we’ve been given (not guilty) if we don’t walk out understanding everything that means for our future.

One of my favorite seminars/sermons I’ve ever heard was about glorification. I’ve listened to this two-part talk about four times. No one in my church background had ever pointed so clearly, so earnestly, and so matter-of-factly to what the future holds if we believe. Contrary to what some might think, this didn’t make me sit back dissatisfied with life, set to wait for that time after death. It didn’t make me wish for everything to look like heaven immediately. It made me want to live in such a way that other people could hear about this…to live in a way that might point toward glory in a world where things really don’t. That doesn’t mean making our houses look like castles. It means exhibiting a knowing joy. Reminds me of yet another favorite passage, 1 Corinthians 15:51-55:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?'”

 

If we’re going to believe…we have to realize that we owe God everything. We’ll use everything we have to glorify him. We don’t lose our dignity by offering everything up this way – he has dignified us innately. Any desire for human honor gets squarely in the way of our desire for God. He wants all of us: our heads, hearts, and hands (to borrow a seminary phrase). We can pray that he would have us, that he would be exalted over our possessions, friendships, comforts, reputation, ambitions, preferences, family, health, and life…that we wouldn’t value these things more highly than we value him. If we walk out into the world and feel free from the burden of sin but don’t feel any gratitude or obligation to Jesus for what he did…we don’t really get it, do we?

Rest in Christ is the release from burdens. We’re burdened by pride, pretense, artificiality, competition, posing. We need to stop being fooled about ourselves, as Tozer puts it. We are really weak and helpless, but God gives us tremendous significance. Let God defend you – don’t be defensive. I am so sensitive…SO sensitive. Some people are so defensive – like, defensive before anyone has been on the offensive. We can’t rest until we “…accept ourselves for what we are and cease to pretend.” (116)

“The meek man is not a human mouse afflicted with a sense of his own inferiority. Rather…he has stopped being fooled about himself…He knows well that the world will never see him as God sees him and he has stopped caring.” (113) Meekness brings peace. This is what I mean by “I don’t really care what people think,” on my very best days. Or at least I mean I’m trying for this. I don’t mean that I disregard people’s feelings or thoughts. I don’t mean that I’m above caring about opinions. I just mean that we have to put those things in their proper place, knowing and being concerned primarily with what God has told us to be true. In a sense, we are looking above the general human murmur because we answer to someone greater.

Everything we do can be done to God’s glory. This is the goal – not to gain approval, success, personal fulfillment, status, wealth, or any kind of personal glory you can think of. The goal is to work at something that will bring God glory, or to do the work set before you in a way that he would approve. Jesus’ life wasn’t divided into sacred/secular categories. There was no spiritual/natural dichotomy for him to navigate. The only dilemma here is one that humans have created. Tozer uses the example of the body to explain this: “God created our bodies, and we do not offend Him by placing the responsibility where it belongs.” (120) So modesty is biblical, but prudery and shame are not. (All these nuggets are from Tozer, not me. I’m just your friendly blogging paraphraser.) I’m grateful to go to a seminary that understands the body this way and encourages us to stop seeing our bodies (and the physical and the world as a whole) negatively. Instead, we interrogate their nature, the way they reflect God, their purpose in his kingdom.

Everything we do can be given up to the kingdom of God, turning life into a sacramental act of worship. This should be “the complexion of our thoughts” and what we practice, meditate, pray…leading to a “restful unity of life.” But it requires “aggressive faith.” (122-123) “Let us believe that God is in all our simple deeds and learn to find Him there.” Then nothing we do can be called common. This is something I need to hear… I can affirm this so easily when someone else posts about it on Instagram. I can look at people doing work that the world (or my heart) might not count as Meaningful, and I can see that God makes it meaningful…I can see their commitment to it as sacred. But when it comes to doing the menial tasks of my day…to serving others in small ways…to sacrificing the time I want to spend on Purposeful, Inspiring tasks…I will grumble inside. I have a long way to go.

“I long to live in restful sincerity of heart.” (127) This is from another of Tozer’s prayers. And it’s like…exactly right. I cannot think of a better summary of what I long for and what I find so elusive. I long to live in restful sincerity of heart. Those are words my soul can adopt. It’s a mantra I can get behind. It’s what I will be praying for, as I clear away the distractions and enter a space that will hopefully grow larger forever as God fills it with himself.

There is so much more I could say…so much about the Holy Spirit. So much from a paper I wrote last semester about the kingdom of God. But this is a blog, and it has already taken me three days to write this post. I’m going to let it be.

Music while writing this: The Avett Brothers (Emotionalism) and Horse Feathers (So It Is With Us) – Gonna see Horse Feathers open for Blind Pilot this weekend with another dear friend. EXCITEMENT

Recommendations: The Lowland (book) by Jhumpa Lahiri – my first book-cry of the summer.
And of course, The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer

respect

On Thursday night, Nick (my husband) played (his original music) at a legit venue for the first time since we’ve lived in St. Louis. He has played at a coffee shop a couple of times, but never as a performer recognized as such. There was a simple stage, a sound check, and an opener. We got to the venue about an hour early to set up and get a vibe. We chatted with the bartender before people started to arrive. A friend (from the seminary we attend) played a set of his own music to open up. Friends (mostly from the seminary as well) trickled in over the course of the next hour. When it was time for Nick to start playing, someone who worked at the venue came onstage and gave a short, seemingly out-of-the-blue speech about the fact that during the show with an obviously largely Christian-seminary-crowd, the bar was making the least money in tips than it ever had before on similar nights. He addressed the idea of generosity and basically spoke against us for a little while. And then Nick had to start playing (for his own CD release show) in the midst of the subsequent atmosphere.

At first, it made me feel super unwelcome, like we were almost being asked to wrap things up and leave (before the main act had started). At the same time, I started to feel terrible. So terrible. Such a sinking feeling in my stomach. Nick and I were each given two tickets for free drinks since he was an artist and I was taking cover charges at the door. I hadn’t had the opportunity to tip or buy my own drink. But I have known for a long time that in the restaurant industry, Christians have the worst reputation as customers and specifically as being terrible tippers. That has always informed the way that Nick and I try to extend generosity when we tip (besides the fact that it’s a decent and normal way to behave, no matter who you are). Nick has also worked at three or four restaurants in his life, and he understands what it’s like to rely on tips on your shift.

The speech we should want people to give when a group of Christians comes into a neutral space is quite the opposite from the one this man had to give last night. It should be, “You Christians have been the best-tipping crowd we’ve ever had, and that wasn’t what we were expecting! Thank you for living up to the standard of generosity that you’re supposed to have!” We should be living in a way that shows people who don’t share our beliefs that we actually let our faith inform our way of being in the world, everywhere we go. As I sat and listened to Nick play his set (very graciously and positively and addressing the bar in a congenial way, seemingly unfazed by the speech) I started to get pissed. We invited this crowd to a bar we had never been to before, and they were representing us, our school, our faith, and ultimately our God. I wish they had thought about that when they decided not to leave a tip (those of them who didn’t leave a tip…probably better just not to buy a drink in the first place). I had used my drink tickets, so I went ahead and bought a beer.

After Nick was finished, he wanted to buy a drink as well, and a couple of our friends stayed back with us as we sat at the bar and chatted with the two people who had been working that night. We addressed the issue right away – we apologized for the way they had been stiffed, and made it clear that we weren’t on board with that. The lady that we had talked to early in the evening told us a couple of comments she’d overheard from the guests. One person commented to another that they hadn’t tipped and that their friend shouldn’t feel bad about not tipping either. One person questioned the bartender’s sexuality based on her short hair. I was horrified!! We personally knew all but three of the people who’d walked through the door – albeit we don’t know all of them as close friends. I couldn’t believe that some of my friends/acquaintances had behaved so poorly, especially in light of the speech from a person who directly said that he had grown up in the church. What a terrible impression we confirmed for him.

Our conversation – the six of us – after everyone else had left was really helpful and hopefully healing to the employees. They had gotten a terrible view of Christianity from our group that night. They expressed their gratitude for all the music, and for the four of us who stayed and tried to make amends and just talk as people. We listened to their thoughts about faith – some direct challenges and even really offensive accusations…but we didn’t argue or belittle. We tried to listen and be honest when we were asked questions. The guys exchanged phone numbers. We gave them most of the money we’d made at the door as our tip (something we weren’t necessarily guaranteed from Nick doing a show, and something that Nick does anyway when the tip jar is low). It was my favorite part of the night. And I was so proud of Nick for playing his really evidently Christian music without shame after being ripped, and for treating the staff so well, and for acknowledging with honesty the need to make up for the animosity they felt that night. I was grateful to have friends who stayed behind with us – I think it was really important for the staff to see that we weren’t the only people who could be kind to them and act normal. There are more than just two Christians who know how to love.

As I read that, it seems like I’m ranting and tooting my own horn here…but I am not trying to make us look good…I’m really trying to process being appalled and heartbroken…

When someone says to you that they were starting to heal and think about the Christian faith again, but your audience made them question whether they wanted to do that anymore, it is a big deal. Our behavior has consequences, and I want people to know that they leave an impact. Whatever your intentions, and whatever you think about your own money…Christians have to be the perfect example of human beings – we have to be extra generous and extra loving, because there is a stigma attached to us when we walk into the room. I think people are still used to the privilege of being accepted everywhere and having the freedom to behave how they like.

I’m not accusing anyone in particular of wrongdoing…but I was so embarrassed and so upset…and I wasn’t even on the receiving end of any comments or carelessness. The guys and the bartenders did one round of shots together to finish off the night, and we all hugged it out. I’m so glad that they were generous-spirited people, open to talking to us even though they didn’t have to trust us. I’m so glad we were able to have an open conversation about how they felt and what they saw and heard. I’m so sorry that Christians are so culturally clueless and blind to the way they affect others. I’m so glad that Nick’s music was still beautiful to them. It really was the kind of night that Nick wants his music to facilitate…just not in the way we expected.

It’s time to pray that we’ll have further interactions, conversations, positive experiences, friendships, with this place and the people who work there. It’s time to pray that they remember the way they were treated and respected at the beginning and end of the night. To pray that they know they are loved by God, and that their hearts might be opened. This should be our prayer for everyone we encounter, and I thought that Christians understood that…at least the ones who go to our seminary…perhaps I am just naïve. I’m usually cynical, and this whole incident isn’t helping with that. It is our actions that show who we truly our, not merely our words. Dumbledore says it. The Bible says it. We’ll be known by what we do.

Like I said, there were plenty of our friends there who were being perfectly kind and normal. And like I said, the speech was pretty brutal…it hit people the wrong way in general. The bartender made a caveat that the women were doing great (once the women started to arrive, she said, the tips started rolling in generously). We were a group of graduate students who generally look like we have it together but actually can’t really afford to spend money on drinks. Perhaps we shouldn’t have invited people to an event where they had to pay a cover as well as purchase drinks. It’s complicated, right? But in another way, it’s not complicated at all. Not to the two people we should have been most conscious about in that space.

I wanted a space to process this, so thanks for reading. Here are some quotes from a book we read at this seminary about living as Christians in a world where Christianity turns people off.

“Respect and graciousness are to flow from a heart that is being changed by the way God has come to meet me in Christ; they must arise from genuine love and a proper regard for my neighbor’s true dignity.” – The Heart of Evangelism, page 195

“Christians, above all people, should be aware that we need to earn respect from unbelievers by our life of service to the community.” – The Heart of Evangelism, page 144