An Unexpected Blessing from a Nomad’s Journal

A couple weeks ago, I told you a little bit about the adventure I’m in the midst of or the unusual homeless summer that I am having. How I threw all of my stuff into storage—besides a few bags of clothing and necessities—at the end of April and flew out to New Mexico to spend a couple of weeks with my best friend Nichelle. From there, I flew out to the east coast to attempt to start a new life out here.

I touched down in Newark, NJ in mid-May. Since then, I have moved around quite a few times. I started off staying with a friend in Stamford, CT then rented a room for a week in West Haven, CT and now I am renting a room in New Brunswick, NJ with a couple of grad students from Rutgers University.

This last month has been an emotional roller-coaster that I’m not quite ready to write about in detail. There is a story that I’d like to share with you that has been on my mind again after visiting church yesterday.

The room that I rented at the end of May through airbandb was in the home of a Christian family from Indonesian. When I came down for a quick lunch on the last day that I was there I ended up chatting with a pastor who was staying with the family. He invited me to eat with him because he wanted a chance to practice his English since he spends most of his time in the U.S. with people who speak his native language. I was happy to have some company before a long trek out to Jersey by myself.

We spent most of our conversation talking about his travels. Eventually, he asked me what brought me out to CT. I told him that I was out on this coast looking for a job because I had been laid off. I had chosen to stay in West Haven that week because I had been hoping to start a temp-to-perm in a nearby CT city that, unfortunately, didn’t end up panning out. He was sympathetic with my unemployment. I was touched when he said that he would pray for me. I didn’t realize that he intended to pray for me right then until he bowed his head and closed his eyes.

I was so surprised that I didn’t close my eyes immediately. Then I kept them open because I was captivated by how he prayed. Even though he was sitting in a chair, I was reminded of when I’ve seen Muslims pray because he seemed to put all of himself into it. He emphasized his words with his whole body moving his head and hands the most, raising them to heaven or toward me. It was incredible to see someone that I had just met pray over me with so much sincerity.

Though he spoke in a language I couldn’t understand, I knew that what he was saying over me was more of blessing than a prayer. After he said Amen and translated the sentiment of his prayer into words, he confirmed my conviction.

While I have had countless remarkable interactions with strangers, this one stands out as being the most moving. I’m reminded of how John Ames talks about blessing in Gilead: A Novel: “There is a reality in blessing…It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.” This is the closest approximate I can find to what I felt that afternoon though I was the one receiving the blessing, not having it pass through me.

After he finished summarizing the blessing/prayer he had said for me, he looked up two passages in the Bible on his phone. He found them in his language and then had the app translate them into English for me. The first was Lamentations 3:19-25 and the second was Romans 8:28.

What he couldn’t have known is that these passages have been following me around since I was laid off. I read Lamentations 3 during lent which began just after I was let go. Romans 8:28 is a verse that I have had memorized since childhood. Both keep cropping up in sermons and in my mind (Romans 8:28 was used again in the sermon I listened to yesterday). That afternoon, I needed someone to read them to me because I was feeling deeply discouraged.

I felt incredibly alone during that week in West Haven. I have never had a time in my life during which I have been so untethered–to people, a place or a job–as these last few weeks since I left my friend’s in Stamford. There have been some incredibly hard days and nights. The trek out to Jersey that night was a ridiculous nightmare that maybe I’ll tell you about another time. The kindness and concern of that pastor—who drove me to the train station that night and had even offered to drive me all the way out to Jersey though I couldn’t bring myself to accept—helped bolster my spirits. He reminded me, just when I needed to hear it,  that everything will eventually work out well. Even if it seems hard to believe.

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Me Without You: Thoughts on Faith

I have sung e.e. cummings poem “I carry your heart with me” to God like a psalm for years. I used to say it was my prayer but I’ve realized that’s not exactly true. I don’t sing it hoping that the words will become a reality but knowing that they are my reality. There is no fate, no world for me outside of him. I know because I abandon him so frequently. And when I do it is like I’m cut off from what the moon means and what the sun sings. Like I am a body and mind without a heart.

When my voice sings out those words, it is in desperate need to feel the beat of my heart within my chest again as it beats with his. Cummings words are so beautiful, so enticing, they help draw me back.

This is one of those times that I need this song.

It sounds so pathetic to say that without God in my life I don’t know who I am. That I feel vacant and vapid. That I lose all sense of direction. If I were to use this as some sort of argument for God’s existence (which is not my intention), I know how it would be ridiculed. I despise this feeling of weakness but this is my Achilles’ heel. Every time I shut God out, and it happens all frequently, this is what happens:

Self-assurance is replaced by self-doubt. Passion turns to apathy. My well of words begins to run dry. My thoughts grow quieter and quieter until they can’t be heard.

This person is so foreign to me that I feel like a stranger. Somehow, it still takes me ages to identify why this is happening. This time, I think it’s taken nearly a year.

Locking God out this year wasn’t exactly intentional. Not like when I was mad at God in college. I just haven’t wanted the emotional clutter that close relationships, especially with men and God, bring to my life. I haven’t wanted the confusion of trying to sort out what I want versus what God wants from me. So, over this year, I’ve been gradually withdrawing more and more into myself, making it impossible for another man to enter my life or for God to have an active part in it.

As a result, 2013 was rather placid. Sure, I had I raging internal debate about what I want to do with my life but it was more rational than emotional. Honestly, it was a mental exercise in futility. Life has a way of working these things out for us—opening doors, closing others—it’s impossible to determine more than what I want/should do right now. I know this so I don’t know why I bothered being so engrossed in the debate besides wanting something to obsess over. My concern about the weight I gained back last year was a similarly pointless, emotionless debate. I kept telling myself I should care, mentally listing off the reasons and the solutions but, emotionally, I didn’t give a damn. While my mind and body didn’t have a great year, for my heart it was tranquil.

Solitude has that effect on me. There is a certain freedom in solitude that I’ve always found comfort in. I strongly feel the heavy weight of the responsibility that relationships impose upon us. It’s a yoke I find hard to bear every day. At first, it is a pleasure to feel free of it. In the absence of those relationships, I gain greater control over what I want and how I feel. The downside is that this sort of freedom eventually has a deadening effect because the body and mind can’t survive without the heart.

I’m to that point now where I feel like I might die without the challenge and reward of those heart to heart conversations with God that push me to try harder in my relationships with other people. Without that fire that burns inside, prompting me to challenge things I feel deep in my bones are dangerously ugly. Without the passion for beauty and meaning that drives me to write. Without those pangs of conviction that disrupt my apathy and compel me to change, to grow.

So, I’m singing out e.e. cummings words to God again hoping that soon I’ll feel my heart beating with his. I wonder when I’ll learn to stop cutting myself off from my heart.

Feature image by Pablo Heimplatz.

The Splendor That’s Been Hidden from the World

Can you believe there is only a week until Christmas? Since I work weekends, and lots of Sundays lately, I’ve only made it to one church service this Advent season. I intended to visit a church group last night but ended up staying home so that I could catch up with my dad for the first time in a few days (through the weekend he slept at my mom’s bedside in the hospital and is staying again tonight – I don’t think she’s ever found so much comfort waking up to his snoring before). With so much care, attention and concern directed towards my mother, I’ve been expectantly awaiting her recovery more than the coming of Christmas day.

It wasn’t until my calendar alerted me to wish my sister Noel a happy birthday,* that it struck me how close Christmas is. For everyone in our family, her birthday practically starts the countdown. Today it provoked me to re-read the nativity story in Luke. I prefer Luke’s account to Matthew’s. Not only is the nativity story in Matthew shorter, it lacks all the narrative flare of Luke’s.

I found myself most interested in Zachariah and Elizabeth’s part of the story. These two are the parents of John the Baptist and relatives of Jesus Christ. I couldn’t help but think it was a kindness that God gave them John, their only son, when they were already old. Very likely, they passed away before he began living in the wilderness and was beheaded. His mother would probably have been worried sick about him living out there surviving on locusts and honey. It’s a terrible thing for parents to lose their child, even more so when he is their only child. I imagine that God gave them just long enough to deeply delight in him.

Thinking of the gratitude that both Elizabeth and Zachariah express for John when he’s born brought me back to a passage of Gilead I’ve been dwelling on (yes, I’m not yet ready to be done with that book). The narrator John Ames also had a child in his old age. He writes to his son,

“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face….This is just a way of saying that I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world—your mother excepted, of course—and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.”

What Ames is writing about is the depth of joy deferred. That is what Zachariah and Elizabeth’s story is about too. The Christmas story itself, of a savior long awaited, is also one of joy deferred.

The beauty, maybe the reward, of joy deferred is that we usually have a more profound sense of gratitude for gifts others often take for granted. For a child after years of being barren. For a spouse after decades of singleness. For our health, when it’s been restored after a long period of illness. For a savior who whispers we’re loved when we feel unlovable and tells us we’re forgiven when we feel unpardonable. Gratitude is hardly an adequate word. It doesn’t quite touch on the depth and complexity of what we can feel. I think that quote from Ames best captures it. It is a feeling without proportion.

All of those years of solitude, of postponement, were not a waste for Ames. They allowed him to see more clearly “that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.” So, he has honored what has been put in his hands. It is obvious that he was a great blessing to his congregation and friends even while he awaited his own blessing.

I imagine that Zechariah and Elizabeth were a great blessing to others before receiving John. We’re told that they were righteous in God’s eyes and we know that His greatest commandments are that we love Him and others. That’s true religion and righteousness.

A theme in Christianity (inherited from our Judaic tradition, from the moment when God promises Abraham his son Isaac) is that we are blessed to be a blessing. In my experience, we often become a blessing to others before we experiencing our own blessing.

I’m sure that the reason I’m most interested in this aspect of the nativity story is because I’ve been reflecting a lot upon, as well as living in, postponement. Even before yesterday’s post, my thoughts have been on my friends and I who are all still single despite all our effort and any number of dates/dating experiences we’ve had/endured (even while I posted some guidance, I’m well aware it offers no guarantee). Through my mom’s drawn out ordeal, I’ve not only thought about her delayed recovery but continually had in mind, and been in even more awe of, a couple of my friends who live with chronic medical conditions and pain. We’re much like John Ames before he was blessed with his young wife and son. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth before the angel Gabriel brought them good news. Like Israel waiting for her savior.

Most of these people I’ve been thinking of are doing a great deal to honor the precious things God has put into their hands right now. Being slowed down by chronic pain, one friend has started a nonprofit that provides underwear for poor children in local Dayton schools (which may sound like a laughable cause until you hear the stories of these children and realize how valuable it is to have a clean pair of underwear). Another friend who is pursuing a medical degree, despite chronic pain and complicated medical issues, is becoming more and more aware of the gaps and problems in our medical system. Through these experiences, she’s gaining more compassion, making numerous connections and coming up with practical solutions that will allow her to one day open up an incredible clinic for underprivileged people. Despite her own suffering, no one is better to turn to when you need sympathy. She always seems to sympathize in a way that brings others (especially me) great comfort.

Then there is Christa and Jon’s friend, who has long been single, who has been one of their greatest blessings after moving down to Alabama. When Christa’s father-in-law passed away on her birthday, he sent her the sweetest and most touching message letting her know how grieved he was on her behalf that this loss had occurred on her birthday. He hoped that, after the funeral, they would all have a chance to celebrate her as she deserved. I know that message brought her great comfort. When she and Jon made the decision to stop pushing off pregnancy, he helped them to be much more excited about starting a family by letting them know the great joy it would bring him to be their child’s Godparent. I could go on and on about all my single friends who are using their freedom and singleness to be a profound blessing to others, even if in the seemingly simplest of ways.

I wonder what splendors God has hidden from the world to be revealed to them when they come into their joy? Even while we do not always know what joy awaits us, what blessing is being deferred while God uses us to bless others (for God answers the desires of our hearts at unexpected times in unexpected ways, just as He sent a savior that neither the Jewish people nor the world entirely expected), I have great faith in His goodness. In His providence. That He will bring us into our full joy. For to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, the morning light of heaven is about to break, which will guide the way to a path of peace. Of flourishing, wholeness and delight (Luke 1: 78-79, my paraphrase).

It seems that even while I haven’t been intentional about observing Advent, God’s drawn me into it anyway. Because Advent is meant to be about anticipating the splendor that’s been hidden from the world in a gift of love that has no proportion. In a joy that was deferred, and continues to be somewhat deferred as we await Jesus’ return.

Aside:

*It isn’t that I forgot Noel’s birthday, I’m just terrible at keeping track of what day it is. For that reason, all my family members and close friends birthdays are set in my calendar. Before I started setting these reminders my family members would call to remind me if it was someone’s birthday.

Feature image by Ben White.

Jonah: The Key to Understanding Jewish Prophecy

I think that most of us who are familiar with the story of Jonah in the Bible think about him trapped in the belly of a whale. The most common moral of the book is that we can’t run from God. That’s how I grew up with it at least. Over the last few years, I’ve realized that the heart of the story is actually the conclusion. In a way, the last chapter of Jonah is the key to understanding all the rest of the prophets.

The story most of us are familiar with is that Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh to prophesy their destruction. He didn’t like that idea so he tried to flee on a ship in the opposite direction. Insistent on His plans, God sent a storm that resulted in Jonah getting tossed off the ship, swallowed by a whale and then spit out on the shore near Nineveh.

Having had a sort of conversion moment in the belly of the whale, Jonah did what God had asked this time and went around the city proclaiming God’s judgment. In response, the people of Nineveh believed in God and repented. Seeing their faith and repentance, God withdrew his anger and didn’t destroy the city. You would think this would be the conclusion but it isn’t.

After Nineveh is saved, Jonah huffs off and shouts at God: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen” (Jonah 4:2-3).

I’ve always been amused that Jonah tries to insult God with His good qualities. You’d think he’d be happy that God is compassionate, slow to be angry and filled with unfailing love. No, he’s pissed. Maybe because he feels like God made him look like a fool because his prophesy didn’t come true. Maybe because he didn’t like God having compassion on people of than the Israelites. The writer doesn’t really give us any clues but he’s sure is a petulant child about it.

God simply replies, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” Jonah doesn’t even respond, he just melodramatically leaves the city and goes on a hillside where he can stare at it, hoping God will change his mind and destroy it.

Instead God makes a plant grow that shelters Jonah from the sun and heat. After he’s become fond of the plant God makes it wither and die. Again, Jonah goes on a melodramatic tirade complaining about the plant this time. Yet again, he wishes he would die.

God responds, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”

That’s where the story ends with that question from God.

Maybe this part of the story doesn’t seem significant to you but it gives insight into all of the books of Jewish prophesy. As Walter Kaufman, a Jewish scholar, says:

“Hebrew prophecy was not meant to come true.

The Hebrew prophets foretold disasters that would come to pass unless those who heard them returned from their evil ways. Jeremiah did not gloat when Jerusalem was destroyed; he was grieved of his failure.

Jonah, of course, felt aggrieved when his prophecy forestalled its own fulfillment; but this only provides the occasion for the moral of the story. He is told, and we are told, that this sort of failure is a triumph.”

The prophecy Kaufman is referring to are the prophets messages of destruction, not Messianic prophecies. His quote echoes what I was taught in my Old Testament class in college, that the purpose of God’s prophecies are to draw His people back to Himself.

Recently, when I was re-reading the book of Jeremiah I kept thinking about this. Those prophecies are agonizing to read. The disasters he foretells are heartbreaking. It could be easy to think that Jonah is wrong. That God isn’t compassionate, slow to anger or full of unfailing love. That God desires vengeance, not peace.

But if you read the books of the Kings, God’s anger is justified. The books of the Kings are not only filled with lots of idolatry, they are soaking in blood. Murder, not just war, is rampant. Child sacrifice is prevalent (God takes this very seriously, repeatedly he says in Jeremiah, “they have filled this place with the blood of innocent children!… I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing!”)*. In Jeremiah and Isaiah, God makes it very clear that this is why He is angry:

When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen,
for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
Wash yourselves and be clean!
Get your sins out of my sight.
Give up your evil ways.
Learn to do good.
Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.

(Isaiah 1: 15-17)

God becomes harsh because He is forced to become harsh. He removes His hand of protection and gives them over to the nations they’ve been flirting with because He cannot let them continue to murder bearing His name (Don’t we Christians wish that the Crusaders had not murdered in God’s name? That the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa was not murdering in God’s name? That people who commit hate crimes against the LGBT community and minorities would not do it in God’s name? If we are offended by this, how much more is God?).

Jonah is our reminder that God desires is not punishment or vengeance, but repentance and peace. That He never wanted His prophecies to come true. That as much as He thirst for justice, He desires to show mercy and love.

 

 

*Endnote: If you would argue that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, you would be forgetting that God did not let him kill Isaac. God gave that task to Abraham to powerfully test his faith because he was going to establish him and his wife as the parents of a nation and grandparents of a savior. It is an event that also foreshadows the cross, God’s sacrifice of his only son for the world. He never commands anyone to actual sacrifice a child but instead is very much against it.

Part 2: Falling Back in Love with God

Finally I have a little time to resume my story. Before continuing to share about falling back in love with God, it might be helpful to give you a little of our history.

God has been a character in my life for as long as my parents have been, which is to say my whole life. Both of my parents are devout Christians. They prayed with us before meals and every night before bed. We went to church and Sunday school and for a few years (a very few something like kindergarten, first grade and second) I went to a private Christian school. On top of this, they always had serious conversations with us about God.

My life was saturated with Biblical stories and sermons. Still, God was always more intimate to me than just a concept I heard about. What has shaped my relationship with God as much as, and often more than, my church experiences has been my experience of God’s presence. I cannot remember a time before I felt the presence of God. It’s hard to explain exactly what I mean by ‘God’s presence.’ You might say that God was like my imaginary, invisible friend. That is an easy way to explain something of what it is like (if you understand how real an imaginary friend can seem), though God’s presence is also distinctly different. And I knew the difference.

As a child I not only had imaginary friends, I had imaginary worlds. I went on all sorts of imaginary adventures. Some of which I’d invite my sister Christa or my friends to go on with me (yes, meaning I basically turned them into role playing games). Most of the time, I’d play them out with my Barbies or in my head until I eventually started writing them down. So I’m no stranger to the power of the imagination. But there is something about the presence of God that is indescribably but undeniably Other.

God was my closest companion during those early years. Still, this is often true. People who see me in a social setting may not realize how solitary I am and have always been. They do not realize just how much time I spend alone, by choice. I’ve always created a wide space of solitude around myself. God has crept into this space more than anyone else. Still, early on, I began questioning this relationship and reality.

Imaginative as I was, I was always a budding little philosopher too (not that I realized it at the time, it was a long time before I knew about proper philosophy). From elementary school through high school, I wrestled with the reality of God. I didn’t need to be introduced to Ludwig Feuerbach or Sigmund Freud to consider the possibility that God might be our projection or a comfortable figment of our collective imagination. I pondered it myself. Though I can see how this can be true, that some gods do seem very much to be our creations and projections, I did not and have not found that the God of the Bible, or of my experience, comfortably fits within these rationalizations. Or is adequately explained away by these explanations.

Even when intellectually I was debating God existence, his reality was too real for me to truly disbelieve. Too Other for me to be convinced it was just one of my imaginings. At times, he was much too uncomfortable to believe he was just for my comfort. Ever since I accepted Jesus into my heart at five years old, despite emotionally and intellectually wrestling with God fiercely, this has always been true for me. But belief is not the whole battle. To me, at least, it is a very petty one. Just because it is easy to believe my parents exist, it is up to me to choose whether or not to love, honor and trust them. That is much more challenging. The same is true of God.

Loving God when I was little was easy and automatic. Like loving my parents. Letting God into my life and mind and adventures was easier back then too. Like how simple it was to become fast friends. Falling in love with God came much later. A child is not mature enough for that kind of love, for love that is responsible and involves actively choosing another.

I didn’t start actually falling in love with God until my sophomore year of high school. Like falling in love with a person, it was a long complicated process that had been building throughout all of those years. Though intellectually there is a lot that I like about Christianity and believe rings true, that is not why I fell in love with God. I fell in love with him because of who he has revealed himself to be in the Bible and how he’s revealed himself in my life through people and experiences. I fell in love with him because of my enjoyment of him and because I love who I am with him.

I love God because he is the God Who Sees (Genesis 16). In particular, he is the God who sees women. In a Theology of God class I took in grad school it was brought to my attention that Hagar (Sarai’s handmaiden who gave birth to Ishmael) was the first person in the Bible to give God a name and this is the name she gave him. In both ancient cultures and many myths, to give someone a name and to know someone’s name is incredibly intimate and often gives you power over them. So this is a rather monumental moment. She gives him this name because he sees her when she is alone and distressed and speaks to her. Leah, Jacob’s wife, reiterates this name when he sees that she is unloved by her husband and opens her womb to give her a child to love and comfort her. Over and over again, there are intimate moments in the Bible when God sees women and personally responds. He has done the same in my life.

I love God because he takes oppression and injustice more seriously than the most serious humanitarian. I love that he hates bloodshed so much that even after Cain had killed Abel he put a mark on him to protect him from being murdered (he only instituted death for death after the flood, after the world had been overrun with violence, the purpose was to make men pause and understand the gravity of their action by giving it a grave consequence. It is a reminder that no life is more valuable than another, that no price can compensate for taking a life but it is only equal to the loss of another). I love that he pleads for orphans and widows and strangers.

I love God for fighting for those he loves. For fighting for their love. For sending his prophets to plead and beg and warn. For sending Christ not just as a savior but as a symbol and sign of his love. For loving us enough to let us choose, but loving us too much to not be overwhelmed with grief and sadness and righteous jealousy when we do not choose him. I love him for not letting it be easy for me to let him go. (If you let me go, if you don’t fight for me, you can lose me pretty easily. I think I’m a little more prone than the average person to walk away and not return – for lots of reasons).

…I cannot even capture or articulate all that I love about God or how I love him. But this is a start.

Still, no relationship is easy. I had all of those rocky years with God. When I came back, though we’ve been on good terms and gotten along, I didn’t work hard enough on falling back in love with him. So there I was at the beginning of July feeling like we were strangers. I was as much a stranger to him as him to me.

…This story is long enough for today. I’ll stop here for now but don’t worry, I’ll finish it soon

Part 1: Falling Back in Love with God

“We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.”  – Shall We Dance

This quote from the film “Shall We Dance” has stuck with me for years. Lately I’ve been thinking about it in relation to God. The main analogy for our relationship with God that resonates with me is that of a spousal relationship (maybe because ever since I was a little girl I’ve badly wanted a spousal companion-that phrasing is more accurate than saying I’ve wanted to be married). I’ve been contemplating how, in order to be a witness to each other’s lives, we have to share our lives with each other.

In the film, the couple’s marriage almost falls apart because they haven’t been sharing their lives with each other. Like so many couples we hear about, they’ve practically become strangers. Many of the young married couples I know are already learning how easily this can happen. When you see someone every day it’s so easy to take it for granted that they will always be there. So you don’t pay enough attention to each other, you stop prioritizing spending time together. You settle into being roommates who share the same bed.

In these early years of my friends’ marriages, many of them have had experiences that reminded them that they could lose each other. They’ve gone through events that woke them up to the fact that marriage, like all other relationships, has to be continually prioritized and protective. They are learning how important it is to fulfill their promise to be active witnesses of each other’s lives.

I’ve had a similar wakeup call in my relationship with God.

Ever since I stopped battling with him, I’ve been having a problem with consistency. As you can even tell with my blog, consistency is a common problem for me. I have a somewhat detrimental tendency towards reclusion. Being a recluse can have a serious impact on relationships, especially the ones closest to you. I’ve definitely done some unintended damage to my relationships as a result. My family (especially my parents) and roommates have always been affected the most.

For a long while now, I’ve been treating God a lot like I do my parents, who are my roommates right now. With them I tend to disappear without warning for a while (sometimes a few days) then show up again unannounced. I can be terribly flaky when we’ve made plans. Unless we eat together or doing something together, I pretty much keep to myself until I’m in the mood for company or a chat. After spending a little time with them, I retreat again. Basically, our relationship is always on my terms and in my time. I tend to not let them have too much of me. And so it’s been with God. I’ve only been prioritizing our relationship when I feel like it.

The more this has continued, the less we’ve been involved in each others lives. I didn’t even realize the depth of it until July 4th. That afternoon my grandpa called to wish me a belated Happy Birthday and chit chat. Like usual, he asked me what I had been reading in the Bible. I didn’t even bother to lie. I hadn’t been reading it for a while. With concern in his voice he told me that I needed to work on my appetite for God’s word. In our short conversation, he emphasized maybe fifteen times the need to read the Word.

Once upon a time, my grandpa and I would have great conversations about God. Though he and I are so different (he is a staunch fundamentalist and I’m very much not), though I’ve been arguing with him about he and his church’s problematic beliefs since middle school, we’ve always shared a deep love for God’s word and a sincere desire for others to fall in love with God too. But we haven’t communicated this way for a few years now. Every birthday card he’s sent and conversation we’ve had since I was in grad school has shown his growing concern. That afternoon, when I hung up the phone, his concern brought me to tears.

I didn’t crying because he was worried. I cried because he was right. God felt like a stranger. With that realization came a painful longing. The next week when my friend reminded me of telling her about Hosea and Christa told me that I used to have a love for the Bible that she couldn’t even imagine I was pained further. I felt as if someone had told me fondly of how in love I used to be with my spouse and all it did was highlight our present distance.

I didn’t just miss God. I missed ‘us.’ Like you don’t just miss qualities that you like about your friends. You miss their whole essence and who you are with them and the pleasure you both take in being together. For the last month, I’ve been working on getting that us-ness back.

…I desperately want to finish this story but…I’m running way late to meet my parents. More to come…

Hold On To Me

So far this month I’ve spent more nights away than I have at home (granted, only by two days but it still indicates how much I’ve been gone). Last week I was down in Ohio, helping my sister Christa and her husband, Jon, with projects around their house. While I was there, she introduced me to a song I’ve become obsessed with: For King and Country’s “Busted Heart (Hold on to Me).”

Late into the night last Thursday, as I scrubbed their kitchen floor till it was sparkling (well…until I ran out of my good cleaner and the flooring was as close to sparkling as it’d get), I listened to this song on repeat. I was mostly stuck on one section of the song:

Hold on to me, hold on to me
Don’t let me lose my way,
Hold on to me
Broke Your heart a thousand times
But You’ve never left my side,
You have always been here for me
You never let me go, You never let me go
Don’t ever let me go

Sung by a Christian band, I think it’s safe to assume these words are addressed to God. These lines reminded me of an email my friend sent me that week in which she wrote: “I will never forget the time you retold the story of Hosea to me. You opened my eyes to the beauty of God and the passion He has for His bride, however wayward she may be… Will you remember something for me? Throughout the whole story of Hosea, throughout all the faithfulness and unfaithfulness, we are never told the woman lost her beauty or ability to instill desire.” As Rebecca St. James’ younger brothers continued singing to me, while I moved across an ever whitening floor, I thought about how this song relates to the story of Hosea.

I can’t say that I remember telling my friend about Hosea, but I’m not surprised I did. It is among the Old Testament books that are particularly close to my heart. It’s about the prophet Hosea who was called by God to marry a prostitute, Gomer. God uses their story, of Hosea’s unfailing love for her despite her unfaithfulness, as an analogy for His relationship with His people. Though they break His heart, though he rebukes them and sends them out into the wilderness, He never truly lets them go.

Throughout college, when I would’ve told the story to my friend, I very much related to Gomer. I still do now, even if less so. Then the verse that meant the most to me was Hosea 2:14. God is speaking of wooing back His people: “When the day comes, says the Lord, you will call me ‘my husband’ instead of ‘my master.’” Bitterly I had been singing “You never let me go” to God. I resented Him as one would a master. I found hope in this verse, as well as a God I can love in this story.

My friend’s words brought me back to Hosea in a new way with her comment about Gomer, about Israel, about me. Though Christians talk so much about God’s love, it’s hard to comprehend God’s desire for us. I think I’m only beginning to be able to.

For years I’ve said that God loves us not just because He made us but because He loves who we are. But it seems like only now can I grasp the depth of what that means. What it is to truly love the existence of a person. To delight in their being, even despite anger. To desire not only to be reveled in, celebrated and intimately known but to reciprocate this relation. To love someone with a passion and devotion that makes silence and distance painful. God’s love means so much more in this light. His longing for the reciprocation of His love and devotion, His righteous jealousy, is so much more coherent and justified in this light.

Throughout Hosea, God’s cry to His love is “Hold on to me.” Well…that’s not Scripture but it’s a good paraphrase. To sing these words back to God, despite instances of unfaithfulness, is to return longing for longing and love for love. It makes sense of the band’s album title Crave. I feel as if I’m only now becoming fully capable of returning this kind of love and desire.

What I’m Not Saying When I Say Love God, Part 2

There was a second, more personal reason that the critique Rollins’ has of the church (that I shared Monday) resonated with me. After seeing this facebook status from a pastor, “the only person who will never let you down is Jesus,” I think I should share it.

The gist of Rollins’ critique was that while we might say we don’t believe in a convenient Santa Claus like God, that we don’t just use Him as an ideological security blanket, most churches still support this God. The God we meet at church is still a comfortable God. Maybe He challenges our consumerism a little, maybe He challenges our selfishness a bit but, like that pastor’s status, we’re told he’ll never let us down. While you, like me, might hear that and think, um…that’s not exactly true because that implies he’ll always meet our expectations and God tends to like to shatter our expectations more than meet them, this message is all around us. Rollins argues that while the church still believes this it makes it hard for us not to still believe it deep down, even if we’ll argue with it intellectually.

This struck me because one thing I’ve realized over the last few months is how deeply ingrained it is for me to still relate to God that way. The truth is that it’s easy to change an intellectual view of something. It’s easy to say I disagrees with these subtle and not so subtle inadequate portraits of God, it’s a much more difficult task for these intellectual views to become as deeply ingrained. To allow them to become so true that how I relate to God is actually altered. It was through Lent this year that I began to recognize just how much this lingers in my relationship with God.

Up until about just after Easter, these many many months since graduating from grad school felt like a wild goose chase. One of the most discouraging aspects of the chase is that I felt like I didn’t even know what the goose looked like that I was chasing. With too large of gaps between bursts of temporary employment, my finances were in ruins. How could I not call out to God for rescue? Like Hagar. Like David. Yet, as I walked through a directed reading of the Psalms and read so many of David’s pleas for rescue, I began to recognize how hollow and cheap my prayers were.

I felt like I was just climbing up onto God’s lap, whispering in his ear what I wanted, then vacating the premises without even some meaningful chit-chat but maybe with some self-indulgent prattling. Like a very persistent and anxious child, I just kept repeating this process over and over impatient for the day when I could get what I wanted.

It struck me that I was not really praying to God. Not at least the God of Abraham and Isaac. Not Yahweh. Not even Hagar’s God who sees. No, I was praying to this convenient idol of Jesus who I expect to never let me down. To not let me feel so lost or get so behind. I was addressing a god I don’t assume will explode my expectations of what I want. Who will not allow me to be led where I don’t want to go.

The problem wasn’t that I was asking for rescue. All throughout the Bible we see heros of the faith calling out in great despair and anguish for rescue. Yahweh is known throughout the Scriptures to be the God who sees, who hears and who responds. That wasn’t it. The problem was that how I was coming to my god revealed who I was really crying out to. As I heard my cries echoing off the walls of a vacant temple, I realized how ingrained this belief in a convenient god, that I claimed to reject, was. So, I allowed David to teach me a thing or two about what it means to truly approach Yahweh in need of rescue.

David approaches God without my own sense of entitlement. His pleas for rescue are accompanied with reflections upon who God is: mighty, merciful, justice… He recognizes that God is greater than him, that God doesn’t owe him anything, and that His designs are more comprehensive than we can comprehend. When he makes a request for himself, he recognizes that if it is fulfilled it will not be simply for his own glory and comfort but for God’s glory and evidence of His bountiful love.

When I prayed for rescue, I began contemplating stories of other women in the Bible who cried out in distress and were heard. I reflected on what it means to have a God who sees that a woman is unloved by her husband and sends her children for comfort. But, also, a God who allows even a great prophet like Elijah to feel alone and flee for his life. My pleas became more humble and my requests more broad.

While God eventually answered my prayers, he did not meet my expectations. I did not expect that I would be choosing to live outside of my comfort zone and that only when I accepted this would He meet my needs. I did not expect that what began as a year off of school to save money before returning for my PhD would begin to turn into two and may end up being three. I can’t say I’m not a little let down knowing that I’ll be here at my parents for quite a while longer. But, now, when I come before God in prayer I meet the God of Abraham, of Isaac. The God incarnate in Jesus Christ.. Through work, I’m dislodging my loyalty to a Santa Claus like god, to the god we worship all too often in our songs and sermons and who can so easily be the god to which we pray.

*By the way, I’m sorry to disappoint those who came to this post expecting it to be a justification of faith/case for God instead of a discussion about a religious practice and a critique of Christian churches portrayal of God. In future posts I’ll deal with more epistemological issues of faith.

What I’m Not Saying When I Say I Love God

After hearing so much about Peter Rollins the weekend I was at Cornerstone’s Conference, I was expecting more from reading him. I thought his book Insurrection would invigorate me like John D. Caputo’s On Religion. That his style would be equally delicious and his ideas similarly thrilling and similarly on the edge of a very dangerous line. I expected too much. As a result, I’ve been making slow work of a short book.

Stylistically, Rollins is easy to read. Not especially boring or exciting. Each section begins with an amusing religious joke he ties in (so obviously the result of cultural theorist/philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s influence upon him, by the way). Whether or not you have a background in philosophy or theology you will easily be able to follow along with his ideas (though you might miss just how much he’s sponging off of Žižek’s thought*). Though I’m obviously feeling a bit underwhelmed by this work, I have to admit that some of what he has to say is striking a cord with me.

So I’ll spare you a detailed critique, in which I would take issue with how much he’s letting Žižek color his perspective. To be honest, where I disagree with him most bores me. Instead I’ll simply urge that, if you read him, you won’t let his argument to give up God as deus ex machina (i.e. a slot machine God/God as psychological crutch) make you think God is inactive in your life or impassive.

Though I would like his view to be more nuanced and for him to understand our religious impulse a bit more positivity, I cannot deny that he’s leveling a critique that the church needs to hear. Even if I’m not in love with how he’s articulating it. In the section I just finished he even put words to my growing discomfort with church services.

Just so you know, I’m not one of those people who is turned off by the structure of contemporary church services and has gone back to more liturgical roots (though I know and respect many people like this). As I said recently, I just can’t get into liturgical services. In part because they make me so self-conscious with all the standing and sitting and kneeling. Also, because it’s too distractingly jolty for me. Once I’m allowed to sit down, I want to zone in with complete attentiveness without the fear I’ll be interrupted in another 20 minutes. (I’m the type of person who doesn’t think a two hour lecture is too long, unless it’s boring). Plus, I prefer an electric guitar and drums to an organ any day (honestly, few sounds repulses me more than that of organ music but that’s just me). It’s not the structure that’s been unsettling me, it’s the words.

There is a growing number of “worship” songs I can hardly bare to sing along with. Both at my church in New York City and my parents’ church, I’m restless and irascible during the sermon (which has always been my favorite part of church). Even helping out in children’s church there have been lessons that deeply disturb me. I simply can’t watch testimonial videos played from the stage. To keep myself from muttering critiques throughout sermons I’ve resorted to allowing most of my attention to be absorbed by reading the Bible (usually whatever passage is being preached on or tangentially mentioned, whatever the case may be).I’ve been continually trying to put words to what has becoming unsettling.

Something you should understand about these churches that I’ve been attending is that, as far as contemporary churches go, they’re pretty remarkable. They practice what they preach when it comes to engaging the community. They have services days where they go out and do gracious acts of kindness. Of course, they have regular mission trips and organizations that they partner with to serve others. Their pastors don’t deliver turn or burn messages. Nor do they try to peddle the American dream as Christian. Their pastors are good guys who I respect and have a sincere heart for God. They seem to be about as good as you can get. The best I’ve been able to do to articulate the problems that I sense has been to critique their pastors for not being Rick McKinley** and not being Narrative. ***

Though I don’t withdraw these critiques, they haven’tquite captured all of what I sense to be amiss. This is where I’ve found Rollin’s helpful. In the section I’ve been reading, he’s talking about how lots of us are like Donald Miller in Blue Like Jazz. We’ve realized that our view of God was limited and child-like. That we’ve been treating Him much like a slot machine or like Santa Claus. Like He’s just here to give us what we want, to help us out in a pinch, or to give us a sense of comfort. Most of us would say that this is an inadequate view of God. That we want a robust faith that acknowledges that God isn’t just our big virtual security blanket, that we aren’t just Christians because it makes our lives comfortable. But what Rollin’s says is: Don’t our churches still imply this? Even the best ones?

We sing about how everything is well with our souls. Pastors encourage their congregants to go to Financial Peace University classes because God is here to bring us peace and freedom, so we should have financial peace and freedom. Our sermons wrestle with our walk of faith but not with God Himself. With the God of Job who allows Job to suffer not for Job’s benefit, but for Satan’s. The jealous God of Israel who judges the world with a sword. Not Jesus saying he came to bring a sword, not peace. Not Jesus saying that to love him we must hate our fathers and mothers, our sisters and brothers, even our own life. Our sermons often challenge obvious and superficial problems from the pulpit but rarely deeply rock our bad practices or talk about more insidious and subtle thought patterns we’ve inherited from our culture that need to be transformed. We say God is not a crutch but play testimonials from the pulpit in which people in despair, in need of a crutch, have stumbled to Him and lodged Him under their arms.

Rollin’s states, “while believers may say that we turn away from the view of God that simply helps them feel secure, this idea is still enthroned in their liturgical/church practices and thus remains firmly in place…We are able to talk passionately about the dark night of the soul without feeling it as long as the worship songs are full of light, the sermons lay bare all mysteries, and the prayers treat God as an object there to tell us it’s all going to be OK.” In short, our practices and our sermons are structured so that we’ll always have a sense of security. That’s a problem because that is one thing God does not give us and in order to create this sense of security there is almost always a level of superficiality going on.

The challenging thing about this critique, what might make it frightening, is that almost all of our churches are guilty. Most times when I’ve critiqued the churches I’ve attended to my friends they’ve told me stories about why their churches are different, better. Like they don’t even have a service some Sundays but instead everyone is encouraged to go out in the community and serve. So they poured out unexpected love on a stranger. But these churches I’ve attended do the same things.

What’s ironic is that even that example illustrates the problem. Sure it is a sweet and beautiful thing to inconvenience one’s self for a day and be inordinately kind to a stranger. But it is also an easy thing to do and ultimately pretty superficial. Though it may stretch our comfort zone for a moment, it doesn’t actually break us out of it. I don’t even know if it really displays God’s love as much as it lets us feel good about ourselves. Don’t get me wrong. It’s something, it’s nice, but it’s not enough. Just like these sermons I keep hearing. It is not that they are awful (though you’d think so from how I react) it is that they aren’t enough. They’re too easy. The God articulated is…more like a stock character. We’re never left wrestling with uncertainty.

Though God will always be able to work through an imperfect Church, just as He worked through Israel despite rebellion and rejection, that doesn’t mean this isn’t problematic. The trouble is that the account of reality we are being given from the pulpit isn’t matching the one in our Scriptures and it isn’t adequately accounting for the fullness of our lived experience either. Hope has much more grit and depth to it. Faith comes with a lot more mystery and a deeper challenge to how we live and act and love. Life is just so much harder and God’s rescue sometimes doesn’t feel like rescue. The greatest problem is that it’s hard to know if what we are loving when we say we love God. It’s hard to know if what we actually love is how these sermons and songs and practices make us feel about ourselves or if it is in fact God.

For me, when I say I love God it has to be God in all of His frightening and challenging glory. What I need on Sunday is to be confronted by His face. Convicted, inspired and brought to my knees by the myriad ways in which He explodes how I try to cage Him and explain/understand reality more comfortably and simplistically. I need to be drawn in by a reminder of how He is wooing me,even if sometimes His love seems severe. I just can’t accept anything less than God. Yet, this image of God I meet in church still affects me, still influences me to hold onto my slot machine God. I wonder the impact that it would have on all of our lives if the Church embraced uncertainty, if it was more willing to allow God to be fully God.

*Obviously, I don’t really respect the thinking of Slavoj Žižek very much. Though I will say that he’s enjoyable to read, for the most part.

**Rick McKinley is a pastor out in Oregon who I’ve been listening to for years. Though this critique sounds petty, it really isn’t. What I mean is not that they don’t have the same style or tone but that, unlike him, they do not wrestle that much with who God is and how who God is challenges us and challenges so many of even our unconscious assumptions about life. Oh, they do talk about the challenge of being a Christian, they wrestle a little with Christ, but never so deeply or profoundly. Their messages are also structured in such a way that we, and our lives/struggles with faith, are at the center and then God moves into the picture. This structure is deeply problematic. Rick’s sermons are structured in such a way so that God is more central, more integrally woven into the structure from the start.

***Narrative preaching doesn’t mean just using stories as illustrations in a sermon. Practically all pastors use illustrations in sermons. It means reading the Bible narratively and structuring a message so that it deals with the narrative nature of Scripture. Here’s an example: If the sermon was on faith, instead of telling you illustrations about Joe Shmoe’s faith and stringing together excerpted verses in the Bible about faith to make a few points, the pastor would choose to say look at the faith of the apostle Peter. He would talk about stories from the Bible about Peter that have to do with his faith journey and reveal something about our faith. Coming from a background in literature, it’s hard for me to feel that interpreting/teaching the Bible any other way is anything but inappropriate and a little  irresponsible.

Forsaken

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Not too long ago, I read a blogger who tried to explain away this cry. He said Jesus was just quoting Psalm 22, which is ultimately a psalm about trust. So we could in no way take Jesus’ words as a serious cry of anguish from his soul. It was just another teaching moment. All I thought was, How can you possibly interpret Christ’s cry this way? Why would you encourage others to do likewise? Echoing in my mind was the wisdom Yann Martel shares through the mouth of Pi Patel:

If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ (Life of Pi).

When reading Peter Rollin’s Insurrection, I was surprised and disheartened to learn that this is a common interpretation of Jesus’ cry.  Though I disagree with how Peter Rollin’s (at least as far as I’ve read) is reducing the central moment of Christianity to this cry,* I appreciate how he challenges this interpretation:

This perspective, however, fails to take into account the significance of the fact that the cry recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark is put in Jesus’ native tongue (Aramaic) rather than in the psalm’s original Hebrew. In the Jewish faith, the Hebrew Scriptures are read, memorized, and recalled in the original language not one’s native tongue, so while this cry might be inspired by the psalm, the words reflect a person’s heartfelt cry of agony and loss rather than some mere quote. [Here, echoing Pi’s sentiment, he goes on] To read it otherwise would be to view it as part of some kind of cosmic theatrical show, a phrase that provides the whole Crucifixion scene with a sense of drama and despair all the while offering a wink that tell us everything is really fine.

What I cannot help but wonder is, Why are people so afraid to believe that Jesus’ cry of anguish was sincere? Why must we deny that God might have actually turned His back, or withdrawn His presence, from His Son on the cross as he hung there taking all of our sins upon himself? Why are we reluctant to think that Jesus experienced fear?

In the Garden of Gethsemani, Jesus calls out to God three times to take this cup of suffering from him. Mark tells us that his spirit was in such agony that he sweat blood even though an angel appeared to strengthen him. He seems to have been fearful, and the severity of his internal turmoil suggests that he might have known that he was going to suffer more than simply humiliation and a human death.

I don’t think that accepting any of this makes God less God-like. But I think it does make Christianity more frightening. Rollin’s makes another apt observation about this moment:

The Crucifixion signals an experience in which all that grounds us and gives us meaning collapses. On the Cross, Christ is rejected by his friends, betrayed by the religious authorities, and crucified by the political leaders. We witness here, in the starkest of terms, the loss of all those structures that ground us and give us the comfort that life makes sense. More than this, Christ experiences the loss of that which grounds each of these realms—God.

It strikes me that this is why so many Christians try to come up with alternate explanations. We are afraid of sharing in this experience. Thus, the Church has been subtly and not so subtly peddling the idea that doubt and fear and struggle are signs that we’re in rebellion. That something is wrong with us. They don’t want to accept, the fact that following God is so often painful. That, though God promises to never turn His back on us as He did his Son, He does not even promise that we will always feel His presence.

I have a hard time not saying, if this is the story you buy into, if you accept Jesus without fear and profound suffering and separation on the Cross, if you think your own suffering, doubt and fear is necessarily the result of your faults, than you don’t know the Christian story. You do not know the Christian God. Even before Christ, we see that those who follow Him experience great doubt, fear and struggle as much as they also experience His profound power and love and provision. All you have to do, if you don’t have time to read the Old Testament, is turn to Hebrews 11.  The author recaps many of the Old Testament stories and ends like this:

For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to fight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again.

Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.

The heroes of the Christian faith know what it is to be and to feel forsaken. That Christ allowed himself to experience the most profound experience of being forsaken is part of why he can be our Savior. It is why we can relate to him in our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Thus, we must stop trying to rid ourselves of Jesus cry on the cross. If we want comfort, all we must do is look to the resurrection. Jesus separation from the Father was not permanent, just as our feeling of forsakenness will pass.

*It strikes me as a great fault when any theologian reduces the defining characteristic of Christianity or the Christian life to one moment and particularly one moment in the New Testament. Soon, I might find myself taking Rollin’s to task for this so don’t think that just because I’m quoting him I fully endorse him.

White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall