What Matters More Than Your Problems

Right now, I’m surrounded by people who are going through every kind of hardship and heartache possible. You probably are too…and those are just the ones we know about. If we could somehow see a feed of the unspoken anxieties and hurts and doubts of people we interact with every day, it might be too much for us to handle.

That’s why I love the song “Is Anyone Worthy?” by Andrew Peterson. It’s got a congregational call-and-response format, and I’ll explain why that matters in a minute. But first, listen to the song. Seriously. It’s great.

Here’s what I love about liturgy and catechism and really good worship songs like this one: they allow us to affirm truth together.

Because there are days when we want to give the wrong answers to the questions in “Is He Worthy?” Sure, we know what we’re supposed to respond to “Does the Father truly love us?” Sometimes, though…it doesn’t feel like he does.

But when you’re repeating back God’s faithfulness with dozens of your brothers and sisters, from all different backgrounds, suffering in a hundred different ways and still singing…you start to be able to feel the things you know in your head. It gets you outside of your narrow focus on whatever trial is in front of you and helps you remember that you’re part of a community, that God has done amazing things in the past, that there are other believers who care about you, that it’s possible for something to be 100% true and still feel like a far-off hope. But the more you repeat those hopes and the past realities they’re based on, the closer they feel.

That’s why I love the seemingly content-less question in the song, “Is it good that we remind ourselves of this?”

It is.

It is, because it’s so easy to forget, to lose perspective and hope.

In the end, God will make all things new. He won’t utterly destroy the old things, but he will transform them, and all creation is waiting for that day. He can do it because he’s already accomplished the ultimate act of renewal and reconciliation in the cross.

If Jesus can fix the most deeply broken thing—our relationship with God, made up of millions of hard hearts and defiant rebellions stretching out over centuries—then he can restore all of the broken bits of our lives and give them purpose and meaning, sometimes here, sometimes not until the new heavens and new earth.

If he is worthy to die in our place, then he is worthy of it all. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12)

I remember thinking once, overwhelmed by some decision or difficulty now forgotten, that it’s easy to say that faith the size of a tiny mustard seed can move mountains…until you’re looking up at the mountain.

The answer to that was obvious: So don’t look at the mountain, Amy. Look at Jesus.

It’s good to process and to listen well to others who are struggling. Both self-reflection and sympathy have their place. But they often grow out of their place, at least for me. It’s easy to dwell on my problems—feeding them my time and attention, constantly returning to questions that refuse to be solved, cycling through self-pity or resentment or worry as if that helps anything at all—or to let someone else do the same. We justify and even praise those processes when honestly that’s what seems to make us feel most stuck and scared and paralyzed by the unrealized good that might have been or the possible bad that might still be. None of it is helpful.

But you know what is? Directing our thoughts back to what God did, is doing, and will ultimately do. “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5). That’s a truth the Bible speaks louder than all of the groaning of creation and the groaning in our own hearts during the waiting in between.

It is good that we remind ourselves of this—of the mercy of God, the shortness of life, the beauty of faithfulness in hard times, and the ending of the story.

Why I Disliked the Ending of Infinity War

Here are three facts that should not all be possible at the same time: it took me six months from release to actually watch Avengers: Infinity War.

I volunteer at a youth group full of superhero-obsessed teenage boys who get great joy from getting a reaction out of me.

And I didn’t hear a single spoiler about this movie.

It’s a miracle.

That’s why I waited so long to write about the latest installment in the Marvel Universe, not because I needed to think deeply about it or was trying to give a spoiler gap for others. (Several not-highly-specific spoilers will follow, so be warned.)

So. That ending.

What?

Listen, I don’t require my stories to have happy endings. I appreciated the gray-area triumph of Dunkirk, with its flawed heroes and realistic grief. The bittersweet, open-ended conclusions of Home by Marilynne Robinson and The Long Road Home by Louise Penny were both fantastic, and I’ve read several of Shakespeare’s tragedies this year and greatly enjoyed them.

So, why didn’t I like this particular sad ending?

No offense, Marvel people, but you dragged us through two-and-a-half hours of introducing all fifty dozen superheroes and having them do things that were supposedly important to saving the world and such. (My rallying cry throughout? “Cut the side-quests. The people demand more witty banter!”) We at least expect to get some narrative satisfaction after the smoke clears.

But instead, we ended in the middle, in that moment where all hope seems lost. Not even the moment when our heroes decide to rally and make one last desperate stand or we see some glimpse of lessons learned or justice vowed. Nope. The moment before that.

Every now and then, I don’t mind a good cliffhanger that will be resolved later in a series, if the author has good enough payoff. (Brandon Sanderson, I’m looking at you.) But I don’t like being left in despair.

I was reading reviews of Infinity War to see if everyone else thought the ending was artistic and bold and I’m just crazy. One had this gem when explaining why the movie was hard to watch: “Plans fail. Character fails. Even sacrifices fail.”

That’s it. That’s exactly it. (more…)

Sherlock Holmes Charity Fundraiser

Welcome to the community of Sweetwaters in South Africa! In the video below, you’ll meet some of the amazing people involved with iThemba Ministries…and tour their partially-built community centre. Right now, it houses a preschool and a garden/nutrition program, but they have big dreams for what they can do when the rest of it is completed.

What does this have to do with the streets of Victorian London, you ask? (Wait for it…)

Elementary, my dear reader. Please, continue, and all will make sense.

I wanted to support this project, but anyone who knows me in real life recognizes that there is no way that I am going to run a marathon this side of heaven. (Possibly even on the other side of heaven, let’s be real.) So, instead of a fundraiser where you donate money to encourage me in some dramatic feat of athleticism, here’s the deal: you give any amount to the iThemba community centre (tax-deductible and all that), and I will email you a link to download seven complex puzzle PDFs, along with accompanying storyline, solutions, and a scone recipe.

There are codes and riddles, games for people who love numbers, maps, shapes, or spotting small objects, plus a dash of deductive Sherlockian silliness. They’re perfect for a date night, an evening of games with friends, a gift for someone who loves puzzles, or a long road trip (as long as you’re not the one driving). Our testers took about an hour to go through them all. Here’s the official description:

The Mysterious Occupant of 221 A Baker Street

When Mrs. Hudson decides to let out the flat next to the office of the illustrious Sherlock Holmes, a number of suspicious persons show interest. While Holmes himself is busy working on an incident of national security, he assigns Watson to screen each of the six applicants by gathering clues about each—also known as snooping. Which is a spy from Scotland Yard, eavesdropping to check in on the famous detective? Which has a grudge against Sherlock from a past investigation? And which might be an assassin sent by Moriarty himself? It’s up to you to help Watson solve the case.

To read more FAQs about the puzzles or to donate, click on the button below. (If I missed any questions you might have, put them in the comments.)

Be sure to share the fundraiser landing page on social media with anyone you think might be interested.

Thanks, everyone! We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled blogging next week (probably thoughts on Avengers: Infinity War, because I finally watched it).

How Do We Respond to a #MeToo World?

So. People have been asking what I think of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and the #metoo movement in general.

I usually only weigh in on controversial political issues when I might have something new to add to the conversation or at least something I haven’t seen it being discussed in my circles. On this subject, I’ve seen thoughtful questions about due process and standards and political bias. But my favorite is this one: What does it look like to create a culture that doesn’t encourage or enable abuse (as a first step)? How about one that actively fights it?

My thoughts on this might need more context than I can properly give them and I’m still working through the implications.

So I will say it quietly and as carefully as I’m able, trusting you to read all that I’ve said before and after it. It feels like stepping into a circus ring with a PowerPoint, but here it goes:

It’s going to be very difficult to create a culture that values clear consent, protects women, and stands against abuse while at the same time glorifying sex without commitment.

Hear me out. No situation causes us to take advantage of others—not the campus culture of drinking and hooking up, not provocative dress and entertainment, not ads that have used women as props to sell everything from potato chips to pick-up trucks. What those practices do is give us a wildly uneven standard for our behavior. (more…)

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.