Heresy Monday

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.

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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…)

Why You Should Write Thanksgiving Cards

When I was a freshman in high school I went on The Last Field Trip. It was to the local zoo, supposedly for biology class, but probably to get rid of 400 immature teenagers for a full day with the hopes that we’d learn some manners from the primates on Monkey Island. Regardless, the next day, everyone groaned when we had to write mandatory thank-you notes to the chaperones.

It didn’t seem so bad to me. I had lots of practice (thanks, Mom!), a healthy respect for the adults who bravely accompanied adolescents to stare at equally smelly animals, and my golden rule for schoolwork: never do a boring assignment if you can do an interesting one instead.

(This rule explains the essay on the French Revolution I wrote as a one-act play, my paper on bacon in different world religions, and the report on water pollution done in a tabloid-style exposé. Possibly also why teachers were never quite sure what to do with me.)

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I made the thank-you note as funny and personal as I could in the five sentences of space I was given. Afterward, my teacher kept it as an example and said she’d like to photocopy it to send to all the volunteers if she thought she could get away with it.

It was a good moment in my (relatively bleak) freshman year of high school. (No offense to my school but it was an awkward time in my life compounded by mandatory P.E. class where, due to an actual fire, I had to go outside in my swimsuit in front of the whole school. In the snow. True story.)

I have, thankfully, lost some of my freshman year awkwardness, but I didn’t lose my love of writing thank-you notes. Every November, I write and send a few Thanksgiving cards (because Christmas cards are too mainstream), not to pass along thanks for a gift, but just because I owe a huge debt to the people around me.

Seriously. Have you thought about that recently? If you’re like me, there are people you look up to and learn from, people who make you laugh, people who have lived out a quality you’d like to develop, and people who will not assume either the worst or the best of you. They might be lifelong friends or only part of your life for a season, but you are different because of them.

Still not convinced? Okay, here are five good reasons to write a thank-you note to someone this November:

  • It’s counter-cultural. Handwritten things take time and effort. So, small-picture, the person getting the note will appreciate that you took that time, and big-picture, you are singlehandedly making a statement that efficiency is not the most important thing in life and that people aren’t only valuable for what you can get out of them.
  • People need to be reminded that they matter. It easy to forget in a culture of comparison and competition, and it’s especially important to affirm that the small, daily, “ordinary” actions of people around us, the ones that aren’t usually noticed or appreciated.
  • We need to learn to live wholehearted lives. I’ve written before about how it’s difficult for me to be honest with people about how much they mean to me…and why it’s a good practice anyway. Small actions like this train our hearts away from fear and pride and toward gratitude and selflessness, especially if it feels like a risky, hard thing to do.
  • Being thankful makes us thankful. As we take time to express gratitude, we realize we’re surrounded by an avalanche of awesome. We didn’t notice it because it accumulated flake by flake—a kind word here, a thoughtful question there, a few challenges and good examples and offers of help throughout the year. Whenever I write out thanks, I find that it changes my attitude, especially when I’m not feeling particularly thankful.
  • Stamps. They are basically adult stickers and everyone finds it totally acceptable when you purchase or even collect them. You should take advantage of this little loophole in standard maturity rules.
This is not what I mean. But I have a golden rule for blog posts too: there is not post that will not improved by Calvin and Hobbes.

This is not what I mean. But I have a golden rule for blog posts: there is not post that will not be improved by Calvin and Hobbes.

Let’s be real: it’s been a bit of a November so far, hasn’t it? This year, I’m coming to Thanksgiving dragging a bit, a little beat-up, a little tired, and just jaded enough to qualify my list of blessings.

I’m thankful for freedom of speech…but it’s hard to see so many people using it badly.

I’m thankful for family…but they’re very far away.

I’m thankful for the fact that God’s mercies are new every morning…but so are the worries and the fears and the sheer mundane-ness of daily routines.

Maybe some of the major blessings feel completely crossed off your list this year. Your health is struggling, you lost your job, someone significant to you will not pull up a chair around the table during the holidays. There’s more brokenness than bounty.

Unanswered prayers taunt us from the margins of our journals, unwanted questions prod the raw spots in our life, unknown futures loom with “what ifs” and wonderings. We can (maybe) admit that God is still good and (sometimes) remember that we have a lot to be grateful for.

But it’s still hard.

At this point, we have a choice: we can withdraw into ourselves, maybe putting on a good show, maybe not bothering, and let this Thanksgiving leave behind nothing but a lingering sense of regret and a few extra pounds.

Or we can tell a different story, one that acknowledges how God is using hard times to change us…and that doesn’t forget to be thankful for the people who have been with us through it. In some ways, thanking others is more than a good deed. It is an act of faith, one that says, “No matter what I am going through, God has provided and will continue to provide what I need.” Not always what I want or even what I ask for, but what I need to become more like Jesus.

So, here’s the challenge: between now and the end of November, write three thank-you notes. (Just text/email someone and say, “What’s your address?” It is extremely painless.) It can be to your best friend or an acquaintance you hardly know at all. It can be a full page or three sentences on a postcard. You can express thanks for huge, meaningful contributions to your life, or something small that came at just the right time.

And who knows? Your note might be just what that other person needed as a reminder that God is still good at the end of a long November.

You Believe the Wrong Gospel (And So Do I)

If this were a catchy, click-bait-y post, the title would be Five Ways to Tell If You’re Believing Heresy.

Except there’s really only one foolproof sign you need: you’re a human. (And not Jesus, which is technically a second sign, but so oddly specific that I didn’t count it.)

Here’s what I mean: maybe you have perfectly orthodox beliefs, prioritized in just the right order with the essentials at the core and the interesting doctrinal potpourri on the fringes. Maybe your pastor is careful to interpret the Bible well, maybe you pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, maybe you compare everything you hear to Scripture.

Even with all that, there will still be days where you believe the wrong gospel. On paper you may say you believe one thing, but what you do reveals where your heart is.

That’s extremely vague and mysterious-sounding, like I’m some sort of spiritual fortune cookie dispenser. To de-guru myself, here are a few examples from my life that I’ve noticed recently.

The Prosperity Gospel

“God wants you to be happy. If you’re experiencing suffering, it must be your lack of faith, because God is waiting for you to call down blessings, live your best life now, ask and receive health, wealth, and a mega-T.V. ministry.”

It’s practically self-satirizing—sites like Babylon Bee don’t even need to do anything to parody this message. You can basically quote the major leaders and it looks like something that no one who read the actual New Testament or examined the life of even one early church leader could possibly come up with.

Joel Osteen and his shiny smile is, in my circles, the universal punching bag for heresy jokes. Kind of like a reverse Chuck Norris. We understand that the Bible tells us we will suffer, in no uncertain terms. (Multiple times.)

Abundance! (Of hair gel, anyway...)

Abundance! (Of hair gel, anyway…)

On the other hand…when things do go wrong in my life, my first reaction is, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Even trivial problems and delays provoke my whining, as if God somehow owes me sunny weather or a non-snoring neighbor on the plane or the return of Aldi’s limited edition Mint Moose Tracks ice cream.

It gets more serious, of course, when the suffering is real—sickness, broken relationships, death. It can be harder to remember, then, that shouting at God for letting this happen is basically saying Osteen was right all along. I deserve a perfect life in a fallen world, and when I don’t get it, I have a right to be angry. (more…)