Heresy Monday

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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Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

When an eleven-year-old boy asks me theological questions, I get suspicious. Circumstantial evidence told me this particular kid was only trying to get out of singing slightly catchy but incredibly annoying VBS songs in the next room. (Exhibit A: the suspect had spent most of lesson time clocking another kid in the head with an inflatable taxi.)

Fortunately for him, I also hated those songs. Bring it on, kid.

He started out with questions related to the lesson—the Good Samaritan—but then moved on to things like why there was suffering in the world and how we knew the Bible was true.

Kid had been saving up. I liked him considerably more than earlier in the morning when he’d thrown glitter in my hair during craft time.

He nodded through my explanations, sometimes looking like he got it, and sometimes looking like I’d just started explaining trigonometry in Elvish. But he kept asking questions, finally getting to this one: “Why do Christians think Jesus have to die? It doesn’t seem fair. Why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins without the cross?”

Okay, kid. That’s a good one. You’re thinking these things through with Gungor and The Shack and a bunch of others.


This is way past my pay grade (since, you know, I’m not getting paid), but here we go anyway.

It’s the basic plot of lots of mysteries and thrillers, right? Someone who cares about the real criminal—a spouse or parent or lover—tries to take the blame for the crime. The detective finds out about the noble gesture…and the guilty person is punished and the innocent one released.

We like that ending. Sacrifice is all well and good when it’s a Tale of Two Cities situation where both people are innocent, but we have this instinctive sense that the penalty should go to the one who earned it. This is not the story of the cross, as the kid pointed out.

One problem is, the alternative he suggested doesn’t work. If you don’t think it’s fair that God let Jesus take the punishment for our sin…would it be any fairer if God didn’t punish anyone for our sin?

I’d say it isn’t be fair or just. But I’d go a little farther and say it’s not possible. (more…)

When You’re Tired of Performing

The only thing weirder than visiting your old high school is being asked to give an impromptu speech to a group of students. I was a college freshman, stopping back for some boring errand like picking up a transcript, and I decided to say hi to my favorite teachers. During one of those stops, my choir director asked me to share the most important thing I’d learned in the past year in front of his freshman choir class.

Put on the spot, I panicked and said something bland about getting to know new people and always challenging yourself. I started every sentence with “I” and played right into the hard-work-pays-off script that I knew I was supposed to use.

Later that night, I realized what I should have said, something like this:

Last year, after our diplomas were stowed away who-knows-where and everyone faded into a sugar coma from countless slices of open house cake, everyone in my graduating class went our separate ways.

Most of us traveled to new communities, and it was scary and exciting, all at the same time. These new people hadn’t seen the awards we’d racked up, didn’t know what social group we’d been placed into, couldn’t even remember our names.

And each of us faced a choice. We could either try to build ourselves up again—carefully craft our image, subtly brag about ourselves, work hard, become known as the smart one, the talented one, the hot one, the funny one, whatever we wanted.

We could work and train and charm and achieve, longing to be known and understood and admired…until the next time we had to start over. College graduation. A first job. Another new city. And the cycle would continue, over and over again.

Or we could step away and say, “It’s not about me, and it never was.” We could love and serve and forgive and try and sometimes fail…and live in freedom, not just from the pressure of impressing others, but from the need to make ourselves feel worthwhile.

That’s what I’ve learned this year. I want to choose purpose instead of performance.

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There’s what I should have told them. It’s not the story we usually hear, not from our educational system, not from the American Dream, and not even, sometimes, from the church.

I see the bestselling Christian books and blogs, the articles people are sharing and the verses in flowy Instagram script, and I want to remind you and me and everyone I know:

The way to choose purpose instead of performance, the way to be free from the cycle of impressing others is to realize that life is not about you.

Even the Bible is not about you. It’s not a book you can flip open to gain a better self-image or sense of belonging, not a horoscope chart, not a personality quiz that tells you which Harry Potter character or zoo animal or obscure punctuation mark you’re most like.

It’s about God.

I think I get that in theory, but just like my eyes scan a group picture to inspect my own face, I find myself looking first in the Bible for me.

Don’t get me wrong: “How does this apply to my life?” is a great question to ask. If you hear your heart’s cry in the Psalms, ask which character in Jesus’ parables acts most like you, and feel an uncomfortably personal scolding in James or Proverbs, you’re not doing anything wrong.

But what has helped me most in hard times is not seeing myself in the Bible, but seeing Jesus.

My first winter in Minnesota was difficult—the kind of difficult where you finally brave the biting wind long enough to raise your eyes up from the frozen, salt-scorched sidewalks…and find that you are utterly alone in a new state: friendless, directionless, and very, very cold.

So I taped a paper on my bedroom door where I wrote down things that were true about God, no matter what I felt at the time.

It wasn’t until later that I realized why: for the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t sure about myself, who I was, where I fit. All of that comfort and security had been taken away—the old friends and routines and measurements of accomplishment.

But God hadn’t changed, and what I knew to be true about him was more important that trying desperately to work out my identity again. When I read the Bible, it was less about a to-do list or an emotional connection with the text and more about how what I knew about God would change the way I lived.

I find myself circling back to this conclusion this winter. Not because I’m in the same place I was three years ago, but because the world is looking pretty depressing, and I find people asking, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned this year?”

I immediately try to string together something brilliant, questions whirring through my mind in the face of fears and uncertainties and strong opinions: What should I say? How can I convince people? What stances will I take, and does it even matter?

Me, me, me, me. As if I could save the world. (I want to.) As if all that matters is what others think of me. (It doesn’t.) As if I have all the answers. (I don’t.)

So I stop. And this time, I say the right thing. I tell you what I didn’t tell that choir class years ago.

It does not matter what I’ve learned this year. Not really. My opinions may change, my tastes certainly will. My clever connections and original ideas have been done before, my encouraging speeches will fade away and be forgotten.

What matters is what I know about God and how that changes me.

What matters is what you know about God and how that changes you.

Have you learned something new about the God you worship lately?

Set aside the devotional books and the encouraging podcasts for a moment, clear away the expectations, inspirational quotes, promises to claim, and all the other good-but-not-ultimate spiritual clutter that can set us as the center of our universe.

Then ask God to reveal who he is as you pray, worship, and read the Word.

When we do that, when we focus on God instead of us, we can finally stop performing and start really living.

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How Terrible is This Generation, Really?

Sometimes, I think things are as bad now as they’ve ever been, and probably getting worse.

Our politics are worse than anything since the fall of the Roman Empire, technology has distanced people from the idyllic Little House on the Prairie style of togetherness and contentment, and this generation has a behavior chart full of black marks in nearly every category.

And then I read about vinegar valentines, and I realize that people have always been awful.

vinegar7

If, like me, you hadn’t heard of this tradition, here’s the short version: from 1850s to 1940s, greeting card companies made cards you could send to people you hated. Or at least people you wanted to make fun of, along with a caricature and a poem pointing out their particular flaw.

This was not an isolated thing. Thousands of these cards were delivered anonymously every year, and not just to your frenemies, but to random people in your life like your banker, shop clerk, or doctor. (more…)

Seventeen Life Lessons

A friend of mine asked me to sum up what the past several years have taught me. Kind of a New Year’s reflection sort of thing. It was a fun exercise, so I thought I’d put a few of them on the blog, phrased like I’m giving advice to my past self.

(Side note: have you ever wondered if Present You would be friends with Past You if they were able to meet?)

I will let you imagine the circumstances that prompted each lesson. Here’s a hint: most of them involve me being a jerk, then having someone point that out to me. And to be honest, I still fail at almost everything mentioned below. The difference is…now I know the problems I have, and I’m trying to work on them.

And bonus! You get them for free, without having to learn the hard way.

And so what we have learned applies to our lives today...

And so what we have learned applies to our lives today…

One: There is a difference between listening and waiting to talk. (You mostly wait to talk. Stop that.)

Two: Loving others is more important than being proven right.

Three: Watch for the person at the party who offers to help the host or cleans up afterward. Talk to that person. He or she will almost always be pretty cool.

Four: Also, watch for the person who is gracious to the incredibly annoying person at the party/class/Bible study. Same logic.

Five: If you have to choose between your personal ambition and the people you love, always choose the people you love.

Six: Don’t be afraid to tell people specifically what you appreciate about them, even though that intimidates you.

Seven: Uncertainty is okay. Don’t stay there when there are steps you can take, but there will be some answers you never get and some issues you will never have a strong position on.

Eight: People are hard—they will hurt you, betray you, anger you, and generally make your life much more difficult. But if you avoid difficult relationships, if you only spend time with people who are easy to get along with, you will miss so much. You will learn more about God and grace through those relationships than any other means so far.

Nine: Learn to accept compliments and offers of help graciously. It’s encouragement, not a grenade that you feel like you have to drop instantly.

Ten: While you’re at it, learn to apologize. Whether or not it repairs the damage you’ve done, whether or not you’re the only one at fault, it cultivates humility. And trust me, you need that and probably always will.

Eleven: You know that difficult, broken situation where you actually said, “I don’t think anything redemptive can come from this?” It will. Because that’s who God is and what he does. Wait for it, and don’t forget to be thankful (and a little shocked).

Twelve: Serving others is a great way to show love for God, but it can’t be the basis of your entire relationship with God. At some point, you’ll have to stop and ask: what does my relationship with God look like outside of the things I do in the church?

Thirteen: In a generation that leaves too quickly, stay. Bear with others’ faults and flaws. Commit instead of wandering. Don’t settle for shallow connections. And refuse to write people off as lost causes.

Fourteen: Don’t look at the world in general and the church specifically as vending machines to meet your needs. Come to serve.

Fifteen: Contentment is nearly impossible you if you are constantly missing the opportunities and people you left behind or dreaming of the mythical opportunities and people you’ll meet in the future. The circumstances and people around you right now are not perfect, but they are here and they matter.

Sixteen: Even when you feel uncomfortable in a social situation and do not know what to do, do not make it into a rerun of the Amy Green Show (where you are the host, star, and celebrity guest). This show always gets poor ratings, even from you, so it’s probably time to cancel it.

Seventeen: Other women are not competition. You need to stop comparing yourself to them, and especially subtly bringing them down while in the presence of men. They are your sisters, and it’s critical that you love and support each other.

Your turn! Name one bit of advice (or several) you’d pass on to yourself five years ago.

(And to the dedicated readers who hold me to every word I write here: I know, I said this week’s post was going to be about Rogue One. But I have some more thinking to do on that one, so it’ll wait till later this month. And I know: “What about a blockbuster franchise film could possibly need more thinking?” But just trust me.)

The Best of 2016

It’s The Monday Heretic’s third birthday! To celebrate that and the end of a very long and sometimes exhausting 2016, I’ve complied some of my favorite posts from the past year.

Hope your holidays were a time of rest and refreshment. Regular posts will resume next week! (Probably something related to Rogue One.)

2016

Most Popular Posts

Gold Medal: Lord of the Rings Valentines

Just like last year, my punny valentines climbed to the top. I find this hilarious, and plan to continue the series, though I haven’t settled on this year’s theme yet. I do have plenty of ideas, so we’ll see how long this keeps up.

Summary Quote: I think these you just have to see for yourself.

Silver Medal: Hamilton and the Danger of the Single Story

I’m glad this one did so well, because it links to a TED talk that I hope profoundly shapes the way I interact with people for the rest of my life. Also, a political post that wasn’t too terribly controversial, yay!

Summary Quote: “We will only be able to move forward as a nation if we learn to have civil dialogue on tough issues, if we speak with both grace and conviction. On a smaller scale, our relationships with those around us will benefit if we listen well, if we allow others to be complex and not defined by a handful of tweets, positions, and stereotypes.”

Bronze Medal: Of Course All Lives Matter. But…

I love it when I find an obscure historical scenario that relates to current events (we tend to repeat ourselves a lot, so it’s not surprising). This post is, in a way, the starting thoughts of an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about and will continue to think about, because there are no easy answers.

Summary Quote: “It’s not a matter of pinning blame or parsing statistics. It’s realizing that power can corrupt, injustice breaks God’s heart, and our black brothers and sisters live with fears and struggles we’ll never have to deal with. We affirm that all lives matter when we take the time to defend the lives of others and hear their stories.” (more…)