Heresy Monday

On Being Thankful for Famines

Do you remember why the prodigal son came home?

I hadn’t. That story is fixed in my mind in the stained-glass image of the father embracing his son, the moment we all remember and hope for. And, because I relate to him, the dangling plotline of the older brother who wouldn’t go inside to celebrate, the one who was the farthest away even though he never left.

We all shift our roles in the story, over the years, in different relationships, passing the script around to play the part of the runaway outsider, the dutiful-but-secretly-resentful legalist, the longsuffering embodiment of home. We understand the people of the parable because we’ve been them, and that’s what stories do.

But this time, a different detail stood out to me—a silent, non-human antagonist in the story: “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.”

See that? It wasn’t the sudden realization that his father still loved him, or even sorrow over his bad behavior, that drove the prodigal away from his old life. His stomach, not his heart, led him home. (more…)

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.

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.

 

 

Quit the Hustle

Okay, let’s be honest, Americans: no one really knows how to celebrate Labor Day. Even after reading up on the history of the holiday, there wasn’t really a union-themed party I could throw together, so I’m settling for writing a blog post about work.

Recently, I read Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s autobiography about his childhood in South Africa, for a book club discussion. Noah is a fantastic storyteller who weaves some fascinating ideas in with the hilarious hijinks of his growing up years.

One chapter that stood out to many of us was about Noah’s several-year stint on the streets selling and trading, burning pirated CDs and DJing parties, making connections and loans and enough money for his crew to make it by to another week.

Looking back on that part of his life, Noah says, “The tricky thing about the hood is that you’re always working, working, working, and you feel like something’s happening, but really nothing’s happening at all…Hustling is maximal effort put into minimal gain. It’s a hamster wheel.”

 

In response, various book club members talked about economic development in third-world countries and access to education and the complexities of questions like what to do to lift people out of poverty. They wondered how we could provide training or give loans to business owners or help motivated young people go from struggle to success.

Those are great and important questions (that I don’t have answers to), but I added one qualifier: “We need to be careful not to replace one kind of hustle with another.”

Which made me think: maybe I’m trapped in the cycle of hustle too. (more…)

God Doesn’t Owe Me a Spouse

Ah, Christian Mingle, you thought you were so clever, targeting your Facebook ad to a 20-something woman who has posted about her faith on social media.

It’s too bad your algorithm didn’t know I was once a teenage girl who, when told to write a letter to her future husband, scribbled, “Dear Future Husband, Why are we doing this? It feels selfish, like you’re supposed to be a long list of things I want, when I don’t even know if you exist. (No offense.) If you are out there, keep doing what God wants you to do, I guess. I’ll do the same. We’ll talk later.”

Who, two Christmases ago when I was single, responded to a sweet relative’s concern that I wasn’t dating someone with, “So, I’m just curious: what do you believe about the sovereignty of God?” (which was absolutely not the best response but also hilarious).

And who has a particularly strong radar for heresy on Mondays.

Because if you’d known all that, you probably wouldn’t have targeted me with this particular ad.

I’m mostly focusing on the verse written over the proposal image here. The other photos in the slideshow ad display the rest of Luke 11:9: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

I’m not criticizing online dating, but I am 100% criticizing the application of this verse to imply that God will give you the man or woman of your dreams if you just ask (click), seek (sign up and pay) and knock (connect with matches).

I could talk about how the entire rest of the Bible is full of clarifications on this. Every promise in the Bible gets less commercial and cutesy when you step back from it and look at the context…but also larger and more amazing.

  • Psalm 37, tells us “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” followed by a list of what desires your changed heart will have, including justice, righteousness, and self-control.
  • Jeremiah 29:11 says, “I know the plans I have for you,” but we forget that the plans in that original context involved toiling away in exile in a foreign land.
  • Romans 8:28 reminds us that “God works all things together for good for those who love him” and was written by a man who was persecuted and executed for his faith.
  • Philippians 4:13’s triumphant “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” is the ending of a conversation about being able to find contentment in every kind of hard situation.

Even the immediate context of Luke 11 tells us Jesus wasn’t peddling a wish-fulfillment service. After talking about how fathers love to give good gifts to their children, Jesus says, “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

God does sometimes give his children other gifts—everything from our daily bread to a loving spouse to miraculous healing—but here he’s talking about giving believers the Holy Spirit.

Which means he’s promising to give us wisdom to understand the Bible, grace to better love and serve others, and conviction in the areas of our lives where we’ve gotten too comfortable with sin.

That’s an amazing promise…but not one that’s going to sell an online dating platform.

Neither is this, but I’m going to say it anyway, and say it loud because there are a lot of flashy voices trying to yell the opposite, some draped in prosperity-gospel-glitz, others disguised in faux-Proverbs-31-femininity:

God does not owe me happiness. Or any specific thing that I or my culture has decided I need to be happy.

The American dream. A job that is also a “passion.” Health and wealth. Even marriage and kids.

Could he give me all of those things? Sure. Do I cheer when I hear stories of believers who are thankful for these gifts? Of course. But God doesn’t have to give me any of that, and sometimes he doesn’t, for reasons that are way bigger than me or my wishlist.

That sounds harsh, and listen, I’ve had my moments and seasons of searching—for good things like community or purpose—that took longer than I wanted or didn’t ever arrive the way I wanted them to.

I’ve worn my knuckles out knocking on heaven’s door for everything from good weather to the salvation of people I love, but sometimes the answer is “no” (or at least “not yet,” which without a timeline looks like the same thing from my perspective).

But one passage I come back to when I feel like that’s unfair or that I have a right for God to approve of my plan (this happens fairly often) is when Jesus prays in Gethsemane, right before his death, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”

Jesus asked. He sought. He knocked.

And God answered, but the door stayed shut, because it was not God’s will. Jesus had to die for us. There was no other way.

And so Jesus said, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

If “Everyone who asks receives” means that God will always approve our plans and grant our desperate longings…then it didn’t even work out for Jesus.

What do we do with this kind of God? The one who doesn’t promise health and wealth, but in fact tells us we’re going to suffer in this life? The one who could say no to what we see as a good and beautiful dream? The one who might not deliver a spouse or any other blessing if we click a button and have enough faith?

We worship.

Because I do not want to believe in a God who structures the world around my wants and whims, who never lets me experience the growth that comes with loss or longing, who is only barely big enough to respond to whatever vending machine button I happen to be pushing.

That sort of God is no God at all.

What seems at first to be unfair fine print on an open-ended promise is actually large print written over every page of the Bible and human history: GOD IS GOD AND I AM NOT.

And that is a very, very good thing.