Why I Complain About Technology

If you ever wondered how Disney does good ol’ tall tales, there’s an animated collection for you: American Legends, which I watched recently with a room full of antsy kiddos.

Being Minnesotans, we started with Paul Bunyan, whose boot-steps formed the thousand lakes of our proud state. (I asked why he couldn’t have eradicated mosquitoes instead of cutting down trees, and a four-year-old rolled her eyes and informed me they would be way, way too small for him, obviously.)

General overview of the tall tale: Paul the giant goes around causing mayhem and somehow still being useful. He meets a big blue ox and eventually challenges a chainsaw and steam engine to a grand contest to see who can cut and haul the most trees.

And…he loses.

The kids were shocked. I was even kind of shocked. Banished to the wilderness, Paul continues to frolic around with Babe the ox, but it still felt like a bit of a letdown of an ending.

The other stories in this volume had a similar theme. Johnny Appleseed doesn’t travel by rail or even wagon train out West—he sets out on his own, planting trees as he goes and dies in obscurity. John Henry also gets into a duel with a machine to lay tracks and dig through a mountain. He, unlike Paul, wins…and then dies of exhaustion. Even Casey Jones, a railroad engineer, survives by grit and pushcart to deliver the mail on time when his train fails him.

I will be honest and say that only the “John Henry” clip is worth watching.

Rugged independence, strength, and down-home courage, sure, all of that is there. But a deeper value found in these stories was a distrust of technology. Set in the rugged, untamed West, there was a sense of mourning the coming changes. The frontier would be civilized, there was no choice there, but it would lose something, something inherently good and heroic, in the process.

Apparently, the classic American hero is courageous in the face of great odds…and then eventually defeated by so-called “progress.” Change is both inevitable and sad. Whether this reflects on the era in which the legends were first told (the late 1800s) or the one where they were animated by Disney (mostly the 1950s), it said something interesting.

And I wondered, were they right? (more…)

Donald Trump Is Not the Exception

Sometimes, people try to convince me that the human race is slowly progressing. “Think about it,” they’ll say. “At least in our culture, there’s no more human sacrifice or slavery. Women can vote, and minority groups of all kinds are fighting for and receiving equal rights. Repressive and outdated moral codes are fading in influence, and we’re working toward justice and love for all. Also, Wonder Woman finally came out!”

And some days, I can almost believe them. Yes, I think, I’m delighted that I live in a society where, even though someone in my apartment building has a wireless network called “Racist Neighbor,” (yes, really) at least no one I know is heil-ing Hitler or boiling and eating their enemies. Could we be getting better after all?

And then I go on Facebook or Twitter or the comments section of blogs or articles, and I remember: nope, people are not basically good.

Social media might be the most obvious way to see our true selves: unscripted and unfiltered. Most bad behavior trends in and out, making resurgences like fashion fads: are we cynically self-sufficient this decade? Maybe legalistic condemnation is more in vogue. Or is lawless abandon making a comeback?

Our selfishness takes different forms, chants different slogans, and gets a rebranding to change the packaging, but the content is still the same, variations on those ol’ seven from church tradition: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

For a specific example, in some ways, I’m encouraged to see outrage every time President Trump is unprofessional or just plain mean on Twitter. It’s good to hold those in public office accountable to be thoughtful and deliberate in their choice of words.

 

That said, Donald Trump isn’t the first person to be rude, gossipy, and narcissistic on social media. There’s a greater shock value for what he says because we expect better of our president, and rightly so. But what we can learn from this is more bigly than just dissatisfaction with our current president’s behavior (sorry, couldn’t resist). It should remind us of something much more fundamental: our unrehearsed selves are not kind.

Not just Trump’s. Ours.

(more…)

Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton Review Disney’s Snow White

I realize this title sounds like a punchline to some sort of weird Christian literary joke, but it’s true. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis went to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs together when it first came out.

Neither man was terribly impressed—and that’s stating it mildly.

Tolkien was outraged at the portrayal of the dwarfs (because they were there for laughs and not, you know, a complex race with their own lore, language, and history). Of Disney’s works in general, he said, “Though in most of the ‘pictures’ proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them is to me disgusting. Some have given me nausea.”

Lewis’s thoughts were just as straightforward: “Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs’ jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music. But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving. . . . What might not have come of it if this man had been educated–or even brought up in a decent society?”

(Confession: I did, in fact, roll my eyes at the thick condescension in the last line.)

“Ugly” and “nauseating” – Inkling endorsements for the film, considered a groundbreaking masterpiece in its day.

So, there you have Lewis and Tolkien’s official movie review. As I read the article describing these reactions, I thought, “That’s interesting. But I think I know which of their friends probably did like Snow White.” So I looked it up on the Internet, and tada! Evidence.

Allow me to introduce you to G.K. Chesterton (because apparently if you wanted to be a British Christian writer in the 1930s or thereabouts, you needed to have a mildly embarrassing first and middle name, which you then changed to initials). (more…)

For the Tired Ones

Spoiler alert: Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

 

Okay, fine, so you’ve known that since your juice box days. But not everyone does. This is what’s so fun about teaching American history to a group of immigrants to help them prepare for a citizenship interview: basically everything is a plot twist.

Columbus thought he was going to the East Indies? George Washington owned slaves? France just up and sold all of the Midwest to baby America for a cool 15 million? (One of the men in the class was quite sure there was some blackmail going on between Jefferson and whichever Roman numeral of Louis was in charge at the time.)

Every little detail from the Civil War to civil rights is fascinating to them, and the students always ask great questions. (“If you were a slave, how much would you cost?” “Why didn’t all of the slave states join the Confederacy?” “Eisenhower sounds like a German name. Why did he fight against the Germans in WWII?”)*

It makes me more interested in my own country’s history, hearing from people who are so surprised by the endings to what are, to me, old and familiar stories, dry points on a timeline I once had to memorize for exams.

One of my small group members said something similar about telling the Bible story of Joseph to a group of preschoolers. They stared wide-eyed through the twists and turns of a page-turning plot that we forget is fascinating because we’ve known the story for so long.

Only a few years later, some have lost this childlike excitement. I help teach 3rd-5th grade kids’ church on Sundays. And sometimes, when they’re feeling particularly—how shall I put this?—churchified, they’ll hear what we’re going to talk about and whine, “We already know this story.”

To which I reply, “No. No, you don’t.”

I say this as an echo of what I lecture myself when I skim the Bible chapter to get to the “good stuff,” when I am disappointed because the sermon application is something I’ve known I’m supposed to do since I was out of diapers, when a testimony starts, “I grew up in a Christian home.”

No, you haven’t heard this story. And you won’t hear it now, either, if you don’t snap out of your cocky, self-assured attitude right now.

You may know how the story ends, but there’s something you don’t know about the God who works out that ending, or about what you should change in your own life, or about how the story points to Jesus. You’re hearing, but not listening.

I say that to myself, I say that to squirmy elementary kids, I say that to you if you need to hear it.

And with it, let me say something even harder: if the gospel feels tired, it’s not the story that’s worn out; it’s you.

That’s good or bad news depending on how you take it. If, like me, you prefer to assume that anything else is the problem—the worship pastor’s style just doesn’t move you or that section of the Bible just doesn’t have much for you or you just don’t have time right now—it might feel like an attack, a kick when you’re spiritual down.

But guess what? If you are feeling tired, that’s when Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

I’ll be honest: Lately, I’ve been feeling weary. A little stuck. A bit slower to reach out and quicker to resent. Singing the bare words to praise songs without letting them change me. It’s been a while since I was surprised by joy. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve scheduled it in here and there. I’ve prayed without saying much, served from wrong motives, and read the words without hearing the story.

But until recently, I hadn’t asked God to reveal anything new—either a truth about himself or an area to work on in my life. (Because that might involve, you know, work.) It had been a while since I’d been still. I had gone a long time since looking for the unexpected in the Bible.

It’s a good change to make.

If you’re weary, come to Jesus. Come to his word. Come into community. Ask, seek, and knock, instead of kinda-sorta drifting along on a stream of halfhearted choruses and half-remembered Scripture verses.

With Paul, I pray “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

His grace is big and bold and beyond our comprehension.

Let’s let it surprise us.

 

*Stuffy Educational Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: Answers—As a woman of childbearing age, I’d be worth up to $800 by the 1850s (until they found out I know almost nothing about harvesting crops or cooking over a fire, at which point my value would drop sharply); it’s complicated, but basically the majority of people in charge chose to stick with the Union/federal government and also were playing the odds of one side winning; and apparently yes, Eisenhower was of German descent, but that does not automatically make him a Nazi.

Hobbit Birthday Party, Round Two

Welcome! Tomorrow is my birthday, and in true hobbit tradition, I’ll again be giving out virtual presents to all of you to celebrate. This was so much fun last year (stop by for that post for double the gifts), that I decided to do it again.

Unfortunately, there will be no fireworks. Haven’t quite figured out how to make that happen.

Pretend I actually made this cake. Just for you.

These are various fun things I’ve found on the Internet over the past year. Hope you enjoy them!

Galadriel: Because I can picture elves being crunchy hipsters (and they’ve got the subtle brag thing down).

Frodo: Because you have to remember what’s worth sacrificing for.

Smaug: Because he could use a crash course in riddles.

Grima Wormtongue: Because I have no idea how he even became advisor with a name like that.

Boromir and Faramir: Because even brothers disagree sometimes.

Sam: Because basically everything about him is heartwarming and wonderful.

Bilbo: Because he needs a little help dealing with difficult dinner party guests.

And finally, a short speech.

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve….

Kidding. Wrong one.

As some of you know, I’m a youth group leader at my church, and this year we’re doing a few fundraisers for summer camp. I thought I’d join in on my birthday blog. If you’d like to help pay for meals and s’mores and scholarships for our teens, I’ll be sending fun thank-you gifts to anyone who donates. It’s basically a bake sale, but where I am pawning off random artifacts of creativity instead of cupcakes. Here’s how it works:

If you give at least $5: I will send you a hand-crafted, limited edition Calvin and Hobbes postcard and a personal note of thanks.

If you give at least $10: I will give you access to three amusing one-act plays I wrote. (And the Calvin and Hobbes postcard.)

If you give at least $20: I will write a short story with you (or a person of your choice) as the main character. (And the Calvin and Hobbes postcard and access to three one-act plays.)

You can give more if you like, but those are the only levels I’m assigning thank-you gifts to, because otherwise I’ll be making rewards until Christmas. The card and one-act plays will be delivered within a week or two. The short story, obviously, will take longer. I’ll work out dates depending on how many requests I get.

If you’d like to support our camp fund (or, you know, just receive fun gifts), here’s how in three easy steps.

Step One: Go to my church’s giving website and donate your chosen amount. Since you have to select a fund, choose General Operations, but be sure to write “Donation for Youth Camp” in the memo line.

Step Two: Go to this form to let me know that you donated.

Step Three: Wait for the postcard/note to arrive in the mail, for the one-acts to be delivered to your email, and/or for Amy to send you an email to work out a short story possibility.

If you have any questions for me, ask them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Thanks for another great year, friends. I am immensely fond of you all, and eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits.

When Life Is Hard, Sing

Sometimes it takes me eight years to answer a question. And every now and then, I do a good enough job of keeping track of the unanswered ones that I can find them again.

Let’s go back in time, to high school Amy coming home after a concert rehearsal. Somehow, she’d managed to con her way in to the advanced choir class without being able to read music (shh, don’t tell). This is what she wrote eight years ago:

“I’m wondering something,” my classmate announced, after waving his hand around in the air for a few seconds until my choir director noticed. “Why are our competition pieces either Latin church songs or spirituals?”

“That’s a good question,” he said. “Does anyone want to offer any ideas?”

I thought about that for a second, and the contrast hit me for the first time.

Some of our songs were high-arching, floating hymns, written hundreds of years ago by monks in a language that no one ever uses. The harmonies were pieced together with the exactness of a stained glass window, and, when done right, they sounded like sunlight streaming through one, creating a rainbow of echoes in the atrium. Gilded and formal, they were the most difficult to memorize and perform.

The others were spirituals, written by slaves bent over in the fields, despised by everyone and singing through the sweat of the afternoon heat. Without formal training or written music, the original singers managed to create something that resonates—that sounds like it was a part of our history too. The words, the dynamics, even the harmonies, stir something in us that goes deeper than what we usually feel, a corner of our souls that still knows what it’s like to suffer. The music is telling a story. You can feel the whip, taste the tears, and, sometimes, hear the faint sound of a land of hope beyond the river Jordan.

These are the two types of songs that are considered the best of choral music.

Why?

One of the sopranos offered an answer that went something like, “they’re the hardest,” or “they sound cool.” But I knew that wasn’t it. Oh, all that was true, but there was more. Whether chanted in the dank coolness of a stone monastery or repeated over the dry cotton fields, these were the ones that lasted, the ones that mattered, because they meant something.

These songs ——.

 

That’s where the entry ended. With no conclusion whatsoever, only dashes to hold my place until I could come back, eventually.

(more…)

When It Is Not Well With Your Soul

Sometimes, when I sing songs in church about God remaining faithful in hard times, I can’t relate at the moment. My life is good, and it feels almost dishonest to sing about how I can still love God in spite of suffering. Does “It Is Well With My Soul” mean anything on sunny, happy days? Maybe, but certainly not as much.

So you know what I do?

I sing those songs to the future. I say the words with everything in me, almost like I’m pouring them into a bottle and wedging in a cork. Saving them. Waiting.

Then, when the hard days come and I’m struggling to believe that God loves me and acts justly in a world that is very, very broken, I take them out again. Because on those days, I cannot sing those words and mean them. It is not well with my soul, the name of the Lord is not blessed, and while he may give and take away, I cannot praise him for it, not yet. I’m not strong enough, not brave enough.

Which leads me to think faith is not always what we think it is.

It’s not dispensing pithy Christian sayings or having an inspirational Bible verses to answer every question. It’s not a gritted-teeth determination to be happy despite pain. I don’t even think it’s always being serenely at peace with everything that happens, although that peace may eventually come.

Real faith sometimes has to use the bottled praise. It clings to the memories of a distant promise, even when nothing around it seems to fit with that promise. It tries to sing, but when only laments come, those laments are still worship, because they contain a courageous defiance that says, like the psalmist, “I will yet praise him.”

Faith is falling to the ground with worn places in your soul, exhausted from crying, and letting yourself be carried by your brothers and sisters. Carried to the throne of God when you’re too weak to come to him on your own or too angry to want to.

I call that “faith” and not “general emotional collapse” because the person being carried believes in the character of God even when she absolutely does not feel it or feel like loving God for it. And that’s a beautiful thing.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

These are the promises we hold on to when everything is falling apart. We don’t apply them like a smiley-faced Band Aid to a wound. We speak them, read them, pray them, and let them heal us. Sometimes, it doesn’t happen right away. If Job and the Psalms teach us anything, it’s that there’s a place in the Christian faith for lament. So we wait, and that’s faith too.

In a world that is so deeply broken, it’s hard to believe in a God who is not broken, who is perfect in justice and love. So we do the best we can, and it is difficult and it takes courage and I believe God, weeping with us, understands that.

Until we go to a place where there are no goodbyes, our partings are going to hurt. When we are living in a reality without death and suffering and pain, our praise will be more consistent. We’ll see the full story and experience the realities we once recited in creeds and confessions. We will be able to both give sincere praise and feel the truth of the words we sing.

But for now, we’re living in a broken world, trying to learn to be brave and asking for God to make it well with our souls. Waiting with bottles in hand.

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