Songs of Spring

Yesterday I read in Isaiah 50 that God’s servant knows “how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” And I thought to myself: what one word would be enough to do all that?

There are many, but since I was looking out the window at a snow-slush mix of despair, only one came to mind: spring.

Here’s where I pity you poor folks who live in temperate climates where only the change of a few degrees and the Walmart holiday displays show a change in seasons. In Minnesota, you notice the arrival of spring. You wait for it, long for it, plead for it to show up sooner while you’re hazarding icy driveways to scrape frosty car windows in the bitter wind to get into a car that may or may not start in the -30 degree temperatures.

Maybe you can tell: it’s been a long winter for me, inside and out. And I am weary.

If you are too, here are a few songs of spring to remind you that, like C.S. Lewis wrote in his Narnia series, Aslan is on the move, even if we can’t see it quite yet by looking at our thermometers (or our life circumstances).

Ever since sixth grade, I would sing Nichole Nordeman’s “Every Season” out in the neighbor’s field on sunny days, sometimes running down a hill and twirling around when no one was watching like that one scene in The Sound of Music. I loved that song, because it sounded just like Ecclesiastes, but with a little more Jesus.

“Even now in death you open doors for life to enter.”

In college, I would fairly regularly explore the woods alone and/or climb a tree to read a book. After I attended a production of the musical The Secret Garden, I spent most of the next February and March wandering around with a large stick and belting out “Winter’s on the Wing,” charming all of the area squirrels with my terrible Yorkshire accent. (I really hope only the squirrels were in hearing range.)

“I say, be gone, ye howlin’ gales / Be off, ye frosty morns / All ye solid streams begin to thaw / Melt, ye waterfalls / Part ye frozen winter walls / See, see now it’s startin.’”

I was going to add a disclaimer here that you shouldn’t think of me as some crazy hippie who spends most of her time wandering barefoot in the woods while singing to herself. Except that’s actually reasonably accurate, so whatever. I’m just going to embrace it. (Believe me, I have no other Disney Princess-esque qualities.)

Lately, I’ve been looping Andrew Peterson’s “The Sower’s Song,” because I appreciate the hard-fought reality to his spring. Where it lands in the album, it’s at the end of a long, dark winter of the soul, and I love the promises repeated again and again. They give a sense of faith when you can’t see the first signs of spring yet, but you know they’re coming. That’s where I am right now.

Usually, I play this song on headphones and occasionally hum along in the quiet of my room. But tonight, for old times’ sake, I jammed on my paisley rainboots—because I’m defiant and I like metaphors and one of my snowboots has a hole in it—and made my way to the trail in the woods near my apartment.

Someone else with larger feet had stomped out a trail before me on the packed-down snow, high above the tree roots usually level with the path, and I followed their footprints. After I was surrounded by bare branches that look dead but are really only dormant and I had checked both ways for stray joggers willing to brave the weather…I sang.

Snow Shadow Selfie

“So I kneel / At the bright edge of the garden / At the golden edge of dawn / At the glowing edge of spring / When the winter’s edge is gone / And I can see the color green / I can hear the sower’s song / Abide in me.”

Once I was done, I breathed in the fresh air and wrote in the snow with a mismatched glove whose twin is buried somewhere underneath a February snowdrift.

And I listened very, very carefully. I heard the song of a hardy chickadee instead of a robin, and the one time I thought I might be hearing the drip-drip-dripping of an early thaw, it was only the wind. But that’s okay. I’ll be back in a few weeks, and the green hiding, waiting, will be come out again. It always does, and that’s the beauty of the promise of spring.

On the way back, I launched into another round of the song. And it sounded like hope.

If God Has Given You More Than You Can Handle

If you’ve ever wandered around the gift section of a Christian bookstore, Googled the most popular inspirational Instagram posts, or been #blessed with a prayer journal, you’ve probably seen slogans like this making the rounds:

Handle.jpg

And if you run in the gospel-centered (*cough*, slightly nerdy, *cough*) circles that I do, you’ve also seen people talking and writing about how this idea is 100% feel-good nonsense.

Read those articles and you get the general picture. Many of them get a little snarky, because being snarky is cool. They tell us somebody who likes to paint the world with rainbows and fluffy kitties hijacked verses like 1 Corinthians 10:13, “And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it,” and infused it with an upbeat, you-can-do-it mantra.

They, very correctly, point out that if we only had what we could “handle,” we wouldn’t need Jesus or faith or any of those other things that are kinda foundational to Christianity. Along with that true statement, though, I at least picked up on a tough-love, drill-sergeant mentality from that crowd. You know…

“Life is pain, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something—probably floral hand-lettered pallet art of Jeremiah 29:11 infused with essential oils. Jesus promised we would suffer for our faith. That’s right, SUFFER. So don’t you Philippians 4:8 your way out of this one. It’s about our holiness, not our happiness…so stop being so happy.”

That sort of thing.

Okay, that’s exaggerated, but you know what I mean. There’s something a little bit fun about pouring the cold water of reality and exegesis on someone’s overly-cheery, Bible-lite parade. I’ve been there, rolling my eyes at the “Never Too Much to Handle” crowd and their me-focused, repetitive worship choruses.

So…I get it. But take a look at that verse again. Especially how it starts. There might be something else we could talk about here.

“And God is faithful.”

That hit me recently, because it means that the Corinthians were doubting God’s faithfulness. When life got hard and the pull of the world felt too strong, they felt God wasn’t being fair in holding them accountable. Probably, they even felt confused and abandoned, just like many of us.

So before Paul gave them specific teaching about their specific situation (temptation), he told them something that is generally true, for all of us, in all times, and in all situations: God is faithful.

Always. No matter what. We can build all the rest of our theology on that one truth.

And guess what? That’s a very comforting thought, a rock-solid, never-changing, dare-I-say-inspirational promise, especially when you are facing what feels like a lot more than you can handle. It’s a reminder that even then, even when you’re stressed or exhausted or waking up at 3 AM every morning with the same nagging fear, even when there’s no money left in the bank account or someone you loved is no longer around or you don’t know what to do next and your prayers are met with silence…even then, God is faithful.

So yes, remind people to give Bible verses proper context. Don’t turn Christianity into a bunch of happy slogans that can’t stand up to our difficult and broken world where we’re supposed to be taking up our cross like Jesus. Talk about hard truths and passages that don’t make us feel good, because that’s not the point.

But also…don’t cling so tightly to anti-prosperity-Gospel annoyance that you start criticizing simple faith. Don’t treat Scriptures merely as texts to be interpreted and forget that they’re also promises to build our faith. Don’t become too cool for hope.

And if you’re stuck in one of those hard times, the most inspirational thing I can tell you is: God is faithful. Even if you can’t see it now where you are, you can see it in Jesus’ sacrifice and in the Bible and in the answered prayers of the past and in the thousands of tiny kindnesses around you. And, by faith, you can see it in the end of the story too.

So hold on, with me, with the Corinthians, with Christians who post hand-lettered Bible verses and the ones who post snarky satire articles making fun of them. Let’s grow in faithfulness to a faithful God.

Let Me Womansplain Something To You

Is it officially a word because it made it into Merriam-Webster? Your guess is as good as mine. Either way, here’s the definition of mansplain: “(of a man) to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic.”

I was going to say that people either love this term (usually because it illustrates a frustrating reality they’ve dealt with their whole life) or hate it (usually because it sounds like whiny name-calling).

Except that’s not true at all, because you are allowed to have a more nuanced attitude toward something than either loving it or hating it. Hooray! Freedom from extremes! Also, you are free to read this post and disagree with me.

I’m sorry for everyone whose experience has been like this.

I’m one of those in-between people.

For starters, I’ve never been in an environment where men repeatedly treated me like I didn’t know or couldn’t contribute anything. Sure, I’ve had conversations where someone underestimated my knowledge, clearly wanted to show off, or made me feel like they were about to pat me on the head. But they were mostly one-off encounters, not repeated interactions with coworkers or relatives. For the most part, I’ve been listened to and treated with respect, but for the ladies out there who haven’t, the term “mansplaining” probably rings true—and gives a feeling of being understood.

I also know that the point of the term is general cultural commentary on a widespread problem: men are often in charge, women often don’t stand up for themselves, and sometimes the person with the biggest ego (and biggest mouth) doesn’t have the greatest knowledge.

I’m just not sure the term itself is as effective as a social critique as it should be. Accusing someone of mansplaining tends to shut down dialogue instead of starting it because:

  1. It’s an unclear term that’s easily misinterpreted. (“Oh, so if a man explains anything to a woman, it’s not okay?” That may not be what you mean, but it sure is what the word sounds like it means, and that matters when communicating.)
  2. It puts the other person on the defensive, which can be a good way to make a dramatic point but a bad way to suggest growth and change in a way that will get results. (Who likes to be name-called into personal improvement? That’s right. NO ONE.)
  3. It assumes a position of superiority that sometimes comes across as meeting condescension with more condescension…which is the kind of cycle I try to zip out of as quickly as possible.

But most of all, I personally don’t like using the word “mansplaining” because it focuses on the bad communicators—often a minority of arrogant/oblivious people—and doesn’t let us point to examples of how to do things right. Which is way harder and way more important.

Basically, when we complain about mansplaining, I think we miss the chance to celebrate something about women. (more…)

The Great British Baking Show on Self-Worth

As demonstrated by yesterday’s set of Valentines, I love The Great British Baking Show. I’ve lost all sense of season and episode numbers because of Netflix, but one of the most interesting moments to me was when a competitor, John, said the secret truth about bakers is that, however they appear, they’re really just “quite controlling people who want to be told that they’re loved.”

Which seemed pretty accurate. John had, in previous episodes, talked about how the judges’ feedback made him feel like he really was good at something, and interviews showed that his family seemed to have very little understanding of his talent or ambitions. They joked that if he won, they’d finally have a reason to be proud of him, and as they did, John laughed with a cringe I’ve seen before.

You have too, probably. In teens making fun of each other to subtly brag about themselves. After self-deprecating comments that beg to be countered with, “No, don’t say that, that’s not true at all.” In fully-grown adults who cringe at criticism, offered with or without a punchline. Because in their hearts they—sometimes even I—believe there must be a little truth to it. Or maybe even a lot.

Who knew a baking show could reveal so many deep-seated insecurities?

Another one of the show’s final was made up of three bakers, all settled with families and kids (I won’t put up a picture so as not to spoil it for those of you who are now adding this to your watch list). All their interviews showed loved ones who expressed how proud they were of their mum or dad or spouse, shared that they are fantastic human beings regardless of the outcome of the show, and named totally non-baking-related virtues they appreciated.

It was the least stressful, most delightful final I’ve ever watched. All three bakers competently and calmly…baked things. That’s it. Sometimes the bread/cake/pastry came out just the way they wanted, sometimes it didn’t. No nervous need for validation. No constant apologizing or overstating the significance of the event or breaking down into tears with every setback. You got the sense, watching them work, that they were all perfectly aware of their abilities without being overconfident. They had worked hard, but their worth wouldn’t be determined by the outcome in the tent.

It didn’t make for particularly dramatic filming, but it made me want to be just like them when I grow up.

Obviously, it doesn’t always work this way. There have been contestants with the full support of friends and family (at least as much as you can tell from the staged interviews) who have very little confidence in themselves, and I’m sure the reverse is sometimes true as well.

Which is one reason I can’t end this post the way I wanted to. I was going to say that we have to be careful about the kind of jokes we make, about others and even ourselves. We should remind our friends and even acquaintances of what we appreciate about them instead of assuming they already know. We need to look past ourselves and see what lies those around us are believing—I’m worthless, no one cares, my life has been wasted, I’ll never get past this—and counter them with reminders of the truth, loudly and often.

That’s all true, and important to remember.

But.

It’s not quite enough. I’ve known people who are almost smothered with affection and encouragement and still have difficulty believing that they’re significant. I am that person from time to time.

We’ve all noticed the problem: there’s a near-constant barrage of fears and insecurities telling us we’re too much or not enough, and very few voices that take the time to disagree. But I don’t think we’ve arrived at the right solution.

The best that we’ve got, most of the time, is to tell each other to give out more gold stars to those around us, to be affirming and kind. That’s nice, but the problem with that is it still puts me at the mercy of others…and some days I haven’t done a single thing to earn any color of star. On those days, is it true that I’m not valuable or worthy of love? It would be easy to believe that.

Alternately, we’re told we can look inside ourselves for the confidence we need, striding forth in self-sufficiency, knowing that our own approval of our actions is all we’ll need. The problem with that is, it puts me at the mercy of…me. And there are so many days when I am not strong enough to be who I want to be, much less to cheer myself on to get there.

So what else is there?

As a Christian, I never quite understood what it meant when people would say things like, “Put your identity in Jesus.” Like, are we trading nametags? Am I supposed to treat all compliments like bombs and fling them away because accepting praise means I’m basing my worth on the wrong things? (I tried this for a while. It’s a bad idea.) Do I stop all self-reflection and development of my abilities and just meditate on Bible passages?

Probably none of these things. I’ll learn different aspects of what it means to be “in Christ” for the rest of my life, but one practical application I’ve been thinking through is that I don’t get to say who I am, what I’m worth, or why I’m here. I have to let God do that.

Then I can ruthlessly compare my feelings with what the Bible says is true of me in Jesus, tossing out anything that smells “off” as ruthlessly as my spring cleaning purge of expired food from the fridge. I can pray about what I should be doing next, and in the meantime, do the things I already know God wants me to do as faithfully as I can, while knowing that my accomplishments don’t define me. I can fail and falter and forget (again)…and know that none of those things mark me because I am chosen and called and deeply loved by God.

You can’t get that from a positive work evaluation or a compliment or a Valentine. It’s a more profound change of mind than repeating mantras of confidence and ability. And it will give you a more lasting joy than even the most delicious chocolate cake.*

*Although I have nothing against Jesus + chocolate cake. These are not mutually exclusive.

Great British Baking Show Valentines

It’s the week before Valentine’s Day, and that means…another set of handmade Valentines from my heart to yours. This set is based on the only show I actually watch on Netflix. (If you’re one of those who doesn’t quite understand the love…yes, the desserts look delicious and yes the hosts are funny and yes everyone has delightful accents, but mostly I just enjoy seeing people who genuinely love baking create beautiful and tasty things.)

So, here you go. Laugh at them, share them, print them out to give to the special people in your lives. Preferably with baked goods so fancy that no one really knows what they are, like mille fois or frangipane tartlets. In fact, if you have extras and would like to deliver some to me too, I will not say no. I’m not saying that the way to my heart is homemade bread. But I’m also not not saying that.

I was also going to include some serious British Baking Show thoughts on love…but we’ll save that for tomorrow’s blog post. Stop back if you’re interested. Here’s a sneak peek:

And if the Great British Bake-Off isn’t your thing (and it doesn’t need to be, because I’ve learned that not everyone has to have the same favorites that I do), you can raid past years for cards: Star Wars, “Love at First Fight,” Lord of the Rings, and Theologians.

Happy Valentine’s Day, all!

4 Terrible Kids Ministry Ideas

I have a lot of bad ideas, even when it comes to teaching kids about the Bible. In fact, some of them are so bad that they never get any use out of brainstorming sessions, so I decided to share them with all of you. Can’t let them go to waste, after all. (Except, surprise! They actually let me try one of these, which is proof that sometimes even the craziest ideas can sneak past and get approval.)

And feel free to comment with any ideas of your own that you’ve always secretly thought would be hilarious even if you know they sound more like a Babylon Bee article.

One: Ecclesiastes Blast-off: Stare into the Void with Solomon!

Want a truly original VBS theme for your church? Have we got the kit for you! None of this “he makes everything beautiful in its time” nonsense. We’re going to take the little tykes to the brink of despair only to provide hope on the last day about the ultimate meaning in life.

Here are the lesson themes.

Day One: Nothing Ever Changes.
Day Two: Wisdom and Foolishness are Meaningless.
Day Three: Power and Popularity are Meaningless.
Day Four: Money and Fame are Meaningless.
Day Five: Death Comes to Everyone.
Finale Night: Remember Your Creator in the Days of Your Youth (unless you broke down after Day Two and didn’t make it this far).

Suggested decorations: Lots of black and darkness. Possibly a ceiling full of stars to represent our own insignificance in the vastness of the universe. Have all of the leaders dress like the Grim Reaper for added flair.

Activities will include:

Work Projects: Need some landscaping done? How about some amateur parking-lot repavers? You can maximize your time by explaining to the kids that they’re exploring the meaning of “toil under the sun.”

Modified Snack Time: A few kids get a heap of overly-sugary snacks to “eat, drink, and be merry,” while everyone else gets nothing. Visual aid to reinforce the concept that both the very rich and very poor can’t find happiness in the pleasures of the world.

Endless Relay Races: Tell the kids you need them to bail out a pool of water using Dixie cups. Put a hose in the pool to add water as it is taken out. This will emphasize the futility of life found in Ecclesiastes 1: “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness.”

Existential Crisis Tag: Everyone is blindfolded and stumbles around in the dark trying in vain to connect with another human being in a meaningful way. Occasionally have the game leader shout ominously, “But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” The kids will love it. (more…)

The Best of 2018

It’s the first Monday in the new year, at that means…time for a blog birthday party! It’s still crazy to me that the blog I started in January of 2014 has lasted this long.

5 cake

In 2018, I wrote 39 posts, which is less than any previous year. Before, I’d only give myself a week off if I was deathly ill or it was a major holiday. This year I let myself skip if I was working on another writing project or had a busy weekend or just didn’t have anything worthwhile to say.

Overall, I’m a fan of the change and the freedom to pause…which is also why I’ll be taking the rest of January off. I love exploring my faith through writing, but I also feel like it might be time to step away and spend more time with God without an audience. So I’ll see you in February!

Here are a few of my favorite posts of the year, in no particular order. (So yes, it’s a “Best of”…but according to me, so a little biased.)

What Matters More than Your Problems

Why: The great thing about doing a post reflecting on a great song is that you have most of your content given to you already, and Andrew Peterson’s “Is He Worthy?” is my favorite song of 2018.

Quote: “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.”

Baby Dedications for the Rest of Us

Why: Basically any time I get a chance to talk to my generation, and myself, about how being a part of the church means serving others and not just being served, I’m in. Also, it was through the church that I realized I actually enjoy kids. Who knew?

Quote: “Here’s the thing, though: you don’t get a family—a real, beautiful, stuck-with-each-other sort of family—without sacrifice.”

Chase Your Ordinary Dream: Time Travel Edition

Why: I’m a history nerd.

Do I really need a longer explanation?

Okay, fine, contrasting two pre-Civil-war preachers was fascinating because it shows that not much has changed. You’ll always have your private-jet feel-good-gospel leaders…and the ones who do what’s right, even at great cost and without reward here on earth. Also I just really want to hang out with Leonard Grimes in heaven.

Quote: “Appearances can be deceiving. Faithfulness has a cost. And history sometimes exalts the unworthy and forgets the selfless heroes…but God does not.”

Judas and the Mermaids: the Seduction of Sin

Why: My annual Judas post almost always makes my favorite list, because it’s helpful in shaking up my perspective on important things, especially my own sin. Add an eerie mermaid song, and this is a lesson I’ve returned to a few times throughout the year.

Quote: “We have to start with ‘All sin is seduction, and it leads to death’—even our sin—before we can get to the glorious truth of ‘God’s grace is salvation and it leads to life’—even for our sin.”

Come Quiet

Why: This is a lesson I’ve been kicking around for several years now, so it was fun to finally put it into words and share it. (Slightly ironic, since the whole point is that sometimes we don’t need to have everything spelled out and expressed? Maybe.)

Quote: “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.”

(If you’re interested in past “Best of” posts for some guidance in exploring the archives, here are: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014.)