Come Quiet

Every time I read Ecclesiastes (and I read it often; it’s my favorite), I pause at chapter five, thinking, This one’s for me, isn’t it, God?

And it is, always.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

Do not be quick with your mouth,
    do not be hasty in your heart
    to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
    and you are on earth,
    so let your words be few.

I was born into the church, the toddler who sang “Jesus Loves Me” loud and proud who grew into a kid who always raised her hand to answer Sunday School questions with need-to-go-to-the-bathroom-level fervor who grew into the teenager who thought and wrote and talked at a level that, she was sure, was above her peers.

And Ecclesiastes reminds me, Let your words be few.

Even now, as an extrovert, group discussions and Bible studies are my favorite things, and I can churn out dozen of blog posts, all of them much longer than The Experts say they should be. I’m the one with split-second opinions on any issue under the sun, unfailingly confident in my advice and decisions.

And Ecclesiastes reminds me, Go near to listen.

At every stage in my life, I have puzzled through times of uncertainty about what God is doing—when the journal page stayed blank, when my eyes roamed over familiar passages without feeling strengthened by them, when my expectations remained unmet or I disappointed myself or others. There are days when I don’t mean the words to the songs I’m singing or I’m tempted to give up on a hard friendship or life just seems weary, and instead of turning to Jesus, I think I need to solve everything myself, to sit down and make a plan, start a conversation, rescue everything with my own brilliant idea.

And Ecclesiastes reminds me, Do not be hasty in your heart.

If you’ve ever found yourself in a place like that, here’s what I’ve learned: go to God. Go to his house and his family, the church, in whatever state you’re in. Write if you need to, pray if you can, groan with all of creation if you can’t.

But come quiet.

Leave behind the need to fill up the silence with words or Internet scrolling or even music. Don’t even feel like you’re entitled to discover all the answers or come away with the right solution. Just listen. It’s a place of humility, and one that we sometimes need to be dragged into, because it’s uncomfortably dependent…but good.

Because Ecclesiastes reminds us all, God is in heaven and you are on earth.

Not that he’s far away and we’re small and insignificant (even though we are). After all, the first verse tells us to come near. Instead, the image it should give us is of a God who is holy and mighty and totally sovereign.

And maybe it’s good, sometimes, to remember that our words—that even my many, many words—are ultimately not enough. The best response to the hard times of life is not frequent check-ins with others for reassurance, more logical reasoning, a longer to-do list or a five-year plan…but silence in the presence of a God who is in heaven and in control.

Oh, Ecclesiastes. You know me so well. Because I have many words. I’m not always good at listening, especially to God. My heart is often hasty.

But God is in heaven and I am on earth. And that is all I need.

You *Are* You When You’re Hungry

During WWII, thirty-six conscientious objectors showed up to the University of Minnesota football stadium instead of being drafted into the army. Their mission? “Starve Yourself that They Be Better Fed,” as the recruiting pamphlet stated, along with a picture of sad, hungry children.

Nutritionist Ancel Keys needed volunteers to go on a restrictive diet—fewer than half the recommended number of calories—for 24 weeks so that he could study the effects of starvation and test various rehabilitative diets to use on war-torn populations in Europe.

Sounds like fun, right?

It was just about as miserable as it sounds. The young men studied at the university and exercised enough to burn 3,000 calories a day (compared to the 1,560 calories they were taking in), until their lives were more and more restricted as they faced increasing hunger and temptation to “cheat” by sneaking food from the school cafeteria, garbage cans, and even the grass on the lawn.

Participants saw a decrease in focus, endurance, and mood, becoming reclusive and irritable. Some would pore over cookbooks, constantly talking or thinking about food, getting angry at those who wasted it, and becoming increasingly isolated as the study went on.

By the time they finished and moved into the recovery stage, all had lost around 25% of their total body weight. Pictures of their frail, ribbed forms look similar to starving Russian peasants or concentration camp victims—the very people the study was used to rehabilitate.

So…this is kind of a bad opening for a post on the benefits of fasting, because obviously what was going on as an experiment for the war effort is not the idea behind the spiritual discipline of fasting. (For different kinds of fasting and its purpose in the Christian faith, check out this article by Richard J. Foster.)

Even though these two scenarios are totally different, one thing made me nod in recognition while reading about the Minnesota Semi-Starvation Experiments. A participant remembered, “Somebody was always apologizing for something,” remembering that as time went on, the hungry men became increasingly irritable and unkind.

I’ve been there, I thought. And that, my friends, is the #1 benefit I’ve found from fasting. (Only for a day or two at a time in my case, not 24 weeks, don’t worry.)

Let me explain.

Lies, Snickers ads. All lies. You’re just not who you like to believe you are when you’re hungry.

Some people say that the point of fasting is that you can take the time you’d spend preparing and eating food and use it for prayer and Bible reading. But since we live in the venerable era of HotPocket and Kraft Mac&Cheese, that seems less important.

Others say that without the distraction of food, you can focus more fully on God. Maybe that works for some saints out there, but personally, I find hunger pretty distracting.

Still others say that when you’re giving up something, it shows you’re serious about whatever you’re praying about and God will listen. To me, that seems borderline manipulative.

The main benefit I’ve found from the spiritual discipline of fasting is that it shows me a more accurate, uglier picture of who I really am.

On my fasting days, I fall back on the same habits, turn to the same (not-God) things for a burst of affirmation, dwell on the same lies and fears and insecurities that sneak back when I’m not strong enough to fend them off. Like the MN experiment subjects, I’m more likely to be short-tempered or passive-aggressive or resentful. Maybe I’m not actually more lonely or stressed or tired, but I feel those things more strongly.

Fasting is like a bizarre reverse trap to catch and identify my sin struggles: instead of putting bait inside, I set out an empty plate and wait around for a while to see what darts in after it.

Christians don’t fast because we enjoy being hungry. We fast to find out what we’re hungry for—the hidden wants and preoccupations that control our actions or have become more important to us than God.

Most of us don’t often have to say “no” to what we want, not voluntarily, and our culture doesn’t prioritize ordinary selflessness. Big-time Hollywood drama type of sacrifices? Sure. That’s fine. We like to hear about those.

But any simple putting aside of your own desires and needs is undervalued, and the concept of denying yourself food as an act of worship seems just plain strange.

That’s another reason why fasting, an ancient concept, still has benefits in 2018. It’s a great way to examine your desires, learn self-control, and snag the sin that’s been lurking in the background. Everything hidden will eventually come to light, but sometimes you can force it out early and deal with it head-on.

And while I’m guessing they don’t allow experiments like Ancel Key’s today…bonus points if you can be an obscure WWII hero at the same time.

Welcome to the Church of Smartphone

James K. A. Smith thinks most of us spend more time worshipping J. Crew than Jesus, singing the praises of Prada and conducting regular baptisms at the shrine of Starbucks.

In his book, You Are What You Love, Smith compares the shopping mall to a temple, describing how mannequins function as iconography we should imitate, shops are like little chapels dedicated to different saints (St. Hollister, St. Victoria, St. Nike), and the sales counter is the alter where we give an offering and receive a relic in return.

(Seriously, go read the book. It’s got both thoughtful insights and a clear and engaging tone. Which is a rare combination.)

 

That comparison takes something we’ve all probably heard—consumerism is a kind of worship—and makes it feel more real by breaking it down.

  • What does it look like to worship our stuff?
  • Why do we believe more material things will make us happy?
  • How does advertising persuade us that we’re trading our time and money for a better life?

In some ways, it’s because our modern consumer culture steals values and experiences from religion, replacing one set of liturgies with another. (“I’m broken, therefore I shop to fix myself,” “My value is in my appearance,” etc.)

Smith goes on to mention other aspects of our lives that could be compared to religious worship, from university education to sport stadiums. At one point, he brings up the smartphone, asking the reader to “consider the rituals that tether us to them throughout the day.”

So I did.

Welcome to First Smartphone Church, where an Apple leads to enlightenment rather than the Fall of Man.

Maybe our use of phones is like a perpetual communion, a sacrament we return to time and time again, trying to remember our purpose and feel connected with those around us.

Maybe it’s a substitute for prayer, a constant feeling of connectedness and communication, the portal to a rich inner life of discovery, relationship, and knowledge. It is accessible at all times and places, the first place we turn when stressed or confused or in need of answers.

Maybe it’s more like a rosary with its reassuring closeness. From nearly the moment we wake, we keep our relic nearby, with us nearly constantly. Even those of us who aren’t superstitious feel a jolt of panic when we realize we left it at home, and not just for what it does, but for how it makes us feel. Instead of “Mary, mother of God, pray for us,” it becomes “Siri, call/set a timer/give me directions/play a song for us,” or “Google, tell us what/when/where/how/why” anything you could possibly imagine.

Maybe it resembles penance, a way we can bury our feelings of shame and guilt by binging a TV show, comparing our Pinterest fails and FitBit inactivity to others’ effortless success, or returning again to the Instagram feeds of our ex-lovers and ex-friends, hoping we’ll find our ex-life and the happiness it had.

Maybe it’s all of that and more.

There are liturgies at First Smartphone Church, repeated messages we tell ourselves and others.

  • “I am significant.” The pings of work email and social media notifications create a choir of affirming voices to give purpose to our lives, and we all sing along. Some rituals are distractions, some are meaningful contributions to society, all give us the idea that we are achieving something of value, and therefore we are valuable.

 

  • “I am loved.” The incoming array of texts and images, comments and upvotes, winks and right swipes give us a way to connect with other worshippers, to know that we are not alone. Never again do we have to sit in the quiet of our own thoughts. We can be in constant contact, not just with information, but with a community of fellow believers.

 

  • “I am in control.” This liturgy comes with a thousand micro-checks of data: weather, stocks, time, GPS directions. Everything can be quantified, analyzed, and prepared for. There’s a deep sense of security in always knowing, always being up-to-date, always able to “recalculate” if needed.

Those three seem to be the most common doctrines repeated as we move our fingers in a familiar way over the symbol of what we believe in, but there are others for those who claim particular patron saints, whether that’s St. Twitter’s prayer for justice by hashtag, St. Podcast’s call to unlimited knowledge, or St. XXX.com’s promise of pleasure without risk.

We see some on the spiritual mountaintop, YouTube star preachers and their megachurches of followers, smug deaconesses with their perfect family pictures (#blessed), clergy who have built beautiful blogging temples to whatever startup or diet or fandom they are most devoted to.

Most days, we clutch at our object of worship, wanting to be as fulfilled as those people seem to be, and failing. Sometimes, the liturgies seem to be repeating words to silence, but we keep up a front, not as religious hypocrites. Of course not. Just as devotees who are waiting for a spiritual breakthrough.

We’ll feel significant and secure and loved if we just press on, just keep going through the motions.

It has to be coming. Soon. Right?

I’ve sat in these pews. I’ve memorized some of the catechism. I’ve contributed membership fees and app download prices into the offering plate.

And I’ve found: technology, for all the positive, even amazing things it can do, doesn’t make a very good god. Or a compelling community. Or a reason to get out of bed in the morning…especially if the first thing you do before getting out of bed is reach for your smartphone.

If you, like me, saw yourself in the fears and desires of the Church of Smartphone, it might be time to think about what that means. Where you might need to log off or cut back or engage more wisely.

Because you are what you love…and you may not love what you think.

 

 

Quit the Hustle

Okay, let’s be honest, Americans: no one really knows how to celebrate Labor Day. Even after reading up on the history of the holiday, there wasn’t really a union-themed party I could throw together, so I’m settling for writing a blog post about work.

Recently, I read Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s autobiography about his childhood in South Africa, for a book club discussion. Noah is a fantastic storyteller who weaves some fascinating ideas in with the hilarious hijinks of his growing up years.

One chapter that stood out to many of us was about Noah’s several-year stint on the streets selling and trading, burning pirated CDs and DJing parties, making connections and loans and enough money for his crew to make it by to another week.

Looking back on that part of his life, Noah says, “The tricky thing about the hood is that you’re always working, working, working, and you feel like something’s happening, but really nothing’s happening at all…Hustling is maximal effort put into minimal gain. It’s a hamster wheel.”

 

In response, various book club members talked about economic development in third-world countries and access to education and the complexities of questions like what to do to lift people out of poverty. They wondered how we could provide training or give loans to business owners or help motivated young people go from struggle to success.

Those are great and important questions (that I don’t have answers to), but I added one qualifier: “We need to be careful not to replace one kind of hustle with another.”

Which made me think: maybe I’m trapped in the cycle of hustle too. (more…)

Why I Enjoy Owl City

So, some people seriously hate Owl City—and I understand why. Musically, Adam Young’s pop hit generator isn’t often complex, even with time to mature after its glory days on the Top 40 charts. Lyrically, I read an article recently where the kindest review was that the songs “could make a motivational speaker seem suicidally depressed.”

(Which is funny but SO TRUE. Like, if you froze the laughter of unicorns and put it into a blender with fresh sunshine and synth, you’d get an Owl City smoothie.)

When thinking about why I don’t have the same violently negative reactions to Owl City that some critics do (and why I sometimes feel ashamed admitting that I don’t) my immediate thought was Citizen Kane, probably because I watched it this weekend. The classic film deals with a man so unlike Adam Young’s lyrical persona that you’d only overlay the credits with one of his songs if you were making a parody.

(Do you need to warn people about spoilers for a movie that is over seventy years old and consistently named as one of if not the greatest American films of all time? If your answer to this hypothetical question is “Yes,” then skip the next three paragraphs because it gives away the movie’s ending.)

In the movie, we are taken through an investigation of the life of Charles Foster Kane, billionaire newspaper magnate, basically watching him use and discard everyone around him. In each scene, a reporter interviews those people, seeking to find the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud.” After finding nothing, the reporter reasons, “Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost.”

In the last few minutes of the film, the audience—but none of the characters—realize that “Rosebud” was the sled that young Charlie played with before his carefree childhood ended and his parents sent him away from them.

So the reporter was right after all. Kane lost his innocence and security of being loved that day, and he spent the rest of his life trying—and failing—to get it back, often in terribly selfish ways.

Here’s the point: it occurred to me that most of us relate more to Charles Foster Kane and his life than we do to Adam Young and his songs. We’d rather assume the worst of people than idealize them. We are afraid of being hurt or abandoned. We know it’s cool to seem aloof and rational and independent. We’re more comfortable with cynicism than joy.

Again, feel free to critique Owl City’s musical ability or the “sameness” of many of his songs. If you like, you can flood the comments with technical analysis, and I will probably agree.

For example, I can think of creative projects that have the same spirit of innocence but with more artistic value.

But the reason I don’t mind is this: almost every Owl City song is about Rosebud.

Unlike Kane, who pursued what he lost and couldn’t get (which was his own prideful fault), Owl City songs are about love and innocence found or maintained or remembered. The narrator of his songs has a childlike happiness. He’s not afraid to love, and even love foolishly. He doesn’t take simple things for granted. He’s not weighed down by the drama and trauma that we mistakenly define as all that “real life” means.

Instead of going for gritty noir or stark realism, Adam Young is talking about playing in his basement as a kid, pointing out the scenic details of various places he’s traveled, making bad puns about dentistry, praising the people he loves, and dancing with fireflies. And, critically valuable or no, I appreciate that.

Is life “always a good time”? No. Of course not. And it’s silly to put those songs on a loop in an “Everything Is Awesome” Lego Movie sort of way.

We need fugues and laments and hymns in minor key. We might even need breakup songs and cautionary tales and rallying cries for difficult issues facing us today.

But I think it’s good to have a reminder of the small joys in life too. Without those voices, it becomes easy to accept a distorted and incomplete story about the world: that failure is inevitable and terrible things happen to good people and love isn’t worth the risk and all heroes fall and the only one you can really count on is yourself.

I don’t want to be trapped in that story or feel threatened by art that is simple-but-earnest just because it’s got a happy ending (and sometimes beginning and middle).

God Doesn’t Owe Me a Spouse

Ah, Christian Mingle, you thought you were so clever, targeting your Facebook ad to a 20-something woman who has posted about her faith on social media.

It’s too bad your algorithm didn’t know I was once a teenage girl who, when told to write a letter to her future husband, scribbled, “Dear Future Husband, Why are we doing this? It feels selfish, like you’re supposed to be a long list of things I want, when I don’t even know if you exist. (No offense.) If you are out there, keep doing what God wants you to do, I guess. I’ll do the same. We’ll talk later.

Who, two Christmases ago when I was single, responded to a sweet relative’s concern that I wasn’t dating someone with, “So, I’m just curious: what do you believe about the sovereignty of God?” (which was absolutely not the best response but also hilarious).

And who has a particularly strong radar for heresy on Mondays.

Because if you’d known all that, you probably wouldn’t have targeted me with this particular ad.

I’m mostly focusing on the verse written over the proposal image here. The other photos in the slideshow ad display the rest of Luke 11:9: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

I’m not criticizing online dating, but I am 100% criticizing the application of this verse to imply that God will give you the man or woman of your dreams if you just ask (click), seek (sign up and pay) and knock (connect with matches).

I could talk about how the entire rest of the Bible is full of clarifications on this. Every promise in the Bible gets less commercial and cutesy when you step back from it and look at the context…but also larger and more amazing.

  • Psalm 37, tells us “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” followed by a list of what desires your changed heart will have, including justice, righteousness, and self-control.
  • Jeremiah 29:11 says, “I know the plans I have for you,” but we forget that the plans in that original context involved toiling away in exile in a foreign land.
  • Romans 8:28 reminds us that “God works all things together for good for those who love him” and was written by a man who was persecuted and executed for his faith.
  • Philippians 4:13’s triumphant “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” is the ending of a conversation about being able to find contentment in every kind of hard situation.

Even the immediate context of Luke 11 tells us Jesus wasn’t peddling a wish-fulfillment service. After talking about how fathers love to give good gifts to their children, Jesus says, “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

God does sometimes give his children other gifts—everything from our daily bread to a loving spouse to miraculous healing—but here he’s talking about giving believers the Holy Spirit.

Which means he’s promising to give us wisdom to understand the Bible, grace to better love and serve others, and conviction in the areas of our lives where we’ve gotten too comfortable with sin.

That’s an amazing promise…but not one that’s going to sell an online dating platform.

Neither is this, but I’m going to say it anyway, and say it loud because there are a lot of flashy voices trying to yell the opposite, some draped in prosperity-gospel-glitz, others disguised in faux-Proverbs-31-femininity:

God does not owe me happiness. Or any specific thing that I or my culture has decided I need to be happy.

The American dream. A job that is also a “passion.” Health and wealth. Even marriage and kids.

Could he give me all of those things? Sure. Do I cheer when I hear stories of believers who are thankful for these gifts? Of course. But God doesn’t have to give me any of that, and sometimes he doesn’t, for reasons that are way bigger than me or my wishlist.

That sounds harsh, and listen, I’ve had my moments and seasons of searching—for good things like community or purpose—that took longer than I wanted or didn’t ever arrive the way I wanted them to.

I’ve worn my knuckles out knocking on heaven’s door for everything from good weather to the salvation of people I love, but sometimes the answer is “no” (or at least “not yet,” which without a timeline looks like the same thing from my perspective).

But one passage I come back to when I feel like that’s unfair or that I have a right for God to approve of my plan (this happens fairly often) is when Jesus prays in Gethsemane, right before his death, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”

Jesus asked. He sought. He knocked.

And God answered, but the door stayed shut, because it was not God’s will. Jesus had to die for us. There was no other way.

And so Jesus said, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

If “Everyone who asks receives” means that God will always approve our plans and grant our desperate longings…then it didn’t even work out for Jesus.

What do we do with this kind of God? The one who doesn’t promise health and wealth, but in fact tells us we’re going to suffer in this life? The one who could say no to what we see as a good and beautiful dream? The one who might not deliver a spouse or any other blessing if we click a button and have enough faith?

We worship.

Because I do not want to believe in a God who structures the world around my wants and whims, who never lets me experience the growth that comes with loss or longing, who is only barely big enough to respond to whatever vending machine button I happen to be pushing.

That sort of God is no God at all.

What seems at first to be unfair fine print on an open-ended promise is actually large print written over every page of the Bible and human history: GOD IS GOD AND I AM NOT.

And that is a very, very good thing.

For the Discouraged, Disillusioned, and Disappointed

This one’s for all my friends who are looking around—at the news headlines, at their former heroes, at their unfulfilled ambitions—and feeling like life isn’t what they thought it would be. For anyone who feels worn out waiting for everything to come together and feels hopeless and helpless in the meantime.

Basically, if your life isn’t Happy-Christian-Instagrammable right now.

You’re not alone. Not even close.

By now I’m convinced: we’re all waiting for something better.

I was reminded of that last week, telling the kids at a summer camp program a story. It’s fairly standard: High School Amy noticed a girl in her choir class who no one talked to, who made herself small and stared at the ground and ate lunch alone. Amy knew she should reach out to that girl…but it felt uncomfortable.

After a lesson at youth group about loving our neighbors, High School Amy resolved to talk to the girl before class the very next day. But Monday came, and the girl was absent. And also the next day. And the next. Finally, Amy learned that the lonely girl had moved to a different state unexpectedly.

The reaction from the kids is the same every time. Silent stares greet me. A few mouths drop open. By the time I get to, “I never saw her again,” a few kids look like they’re about to cry.

If I had said, “I walked into school the next day…and the girl had turned into a DRAGON,” I don’t think they would have been so surprised. That, at least, would have the potential for a dramatic showdown, some kind of Disney-like good-triumphs-over-evil finale like the kids have been trained to expect, with the loose ends tied up by the credits.

And so I call it out: “That’s not a very happy ending, is it?” Some kids shake their heads. Some kids are still staring, waiting for me to tack on something that will make it all okay.

I thank God for those wide-eyed faces. I pray a little harder for the ones who don’t seem surprised at all, who are overly familiar with unhappy endings.

Because we should all be surprised when conviction doesn’t come in time, when we don’t get a second chance to do what we should have done in the first place. We should genuinely grieve when a church leader falls or another tragedy rocks the world or an attempt at forgiveness is rejected.

I think, sometimes, in a church culture that emphasizes happiness and love, we need to leave a little more space to mourn sin and its consequences. Not pretend it doesn’t exist. Not become so jaded that we don’t ask the Holy Spirit to change and correct us and other Christians.

For me, those moments of mourning have come when repeating a liturgy of confession in church, when praying over the faithless corners of my life in small group, and when taking my distress over all the noise in the world before God.

I hear it in Good Friday hymns, feel it in the presence of those who love me enough to hold me accountable, see it in the eyes of the children waiting for the happy ending.

And so I tell them the happy ending, because even though God didn’t give High School Amy a chance to right my wrong, he did—and does—give me grace.

There is something beautiful in all our badly-finished stories of defeat and disillusionment, because they point us to Jesus.

Jesus who loves me even knowing all my fears and faults and failures.

Jesus who loves the church even when so many of the people within it do damage to themselves, the reputation of the Gospel, and others.

Jesus who loves the world steeped in the mess we’ve made of it, who sees something worth dying for in the sludge of systemic evil and violence and selfishness and oppression.

And Jesus who will one day undo the effects of sin forever and make all things new.

But we’re not there yet, and I want the kids to remember that too, because the evidence will add up for them through the years. They will experience unmet longings and broken relationships, confused emotions and mixed motivations.

Sometimes justice will come fully and immediately…but sometimes it won’t. Sometimes groups calling themselves Christian will beautifully demonstrate what Jesus is like…but sometimes they won’t. Sometimes God will answer their prayers clearly and in the exact way they wanted…but sometimes he won’t.

If kids are only taught the rosy, happy stuff, if they’re armed only with slogans of self-esteem or blessing…what will they do with the world as it is?

If they think Romans 8:28 promises that they’ll never experience hardship, how will their faith survive when it comes?

And if they aren’t taught about sin, why will they need Jesus?

Let’s tell all the stories from our lives and the Bible, happy and bittersweet and ugly and messy, because together they teach us who God is and why we need him to be those things. Tell them to kids, tell them to your family, tell them to yourself, especially on the hard days.

But above it all, let’s tell the story of the cross, tell it a thousand times louder than our shame and hurt and regret. Let’s remember the cost that our sin had and the grace that can be found for it in Jesus, because that’s the only way to a happy ending in this messed-up world.