Heresy Monday

A Cynic’s Guide to Thanksgiving

This is for the one who dreads the magical monotony of the incoming Hallmark holiday movie season.

For the one who grouches about the blatant commercialization of the holidays every time a Black Friday ad comes on, and sometimes even when it doesn’t.

For the one who feels a compelling need to explain that the snippet of praise on the Thanksgiving place card is actually from a psalm where David is asking God to slay his enemies, and would you like to talk about the implications of that over pumpkin pie?

I am right there with you, my friends. Let’s talk.

After the hurricanes and fires and shootings these past few months, I watched a number of people post this quote from beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers.

Part of me said, “That’s lovely and a very appropriate way to direct children’s attention after a tragedy and also, seriously, Mr. Rogers rocks that sweater.”

Another part of me said, “But…that’s not enough.”

It wasn’t the part of me that scoffs during cheesy lines in movies or expects to be double-crossed in games of Risk or writes satirical song parodies. That’s more surface-level.

It was the deeper part that loves both redeemed villains and fallen heroes and finds it easier to mourn with those who mourn than rejoice with those who rejoice and marks the pages of books with a special symbol for paradoxes.

Yes, there is beauty and strength in stories about people helping each other, and I’m thankful for those who make the right choices in the face of disaster, even at great personal risk.

But I look outside at the world and inside at my own heart and know that selfishness takes the day more often than not, sometimes in terrible ways. There is more destruction than reconciliation. It’s more common for people to reach for bitterness than forgiveness. In the war of the Image against the Fall, when I look around…sin nature seems to be winning.

And Thanksgiving is coming.

Sometimes, at least to me, this time of year can seem overly sentimental. Writing out your blessings seems great for the preschool set, but the appeal can fade along with crafts like candy corn turkeys and construction paper Pilgrim hats.

When I start to think this way, I have to remember:

  • Contentment takes courage. So does faith, even the simple faith that I sometimes pretend is inferior because I don’t have it. You know what doesn’t take much risk at all? Snarky comments about the state of society. Witty takedowns and sendups of everything that’s wrong in the world. Stances on issues that make us feel superior to all those people who just don’t understand. As the dour and disapproving Anton Ego in Ratatouille put it, “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” The truly brave act isn’t cynicism. It’s joy.

 

  • Stories about the Image—the ways in which humans display attributes of God, whether that’s human interest stories of sacrifice or movies about grace in the face of adversity—need to be told. They remind us of what we ought to be, sure. But maybe it’s even better that they remind us of what we sometimes fail to be, because that points us to the one who is perfectly loving and holy and just when we are not.

 

  • Paul wrote Philippians, famous for its references to joy, while he was in prison and wrote it to a church undergoing persecution and opposition. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” wasn’t written first on a rustic pallet wall decoration or a calendar of inspirational kittens, it was a solemn charge to a suffering church, as were many of the promises and exhortations of the New Testament.

 

So what do we do?

We celebrate Thanksgiving, like the saints have been, officially and unofficially, for centuries.

We collect paradoxes and adjust our expectations toward the already-not-yet reality of our world, both bitter and sweet.

But we don’t get too comfortable, because there’s a better story coming. That’s what we’re living for, and all the blessings we have here are shadows cast from that ultimate reality.

And I’m grateful.

A Suggestion for Thanksgiving Advent

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m still trying to make Thanksgiving Advent a thing, because gratitude shouldn’t be isolated to one lone day. But how does one celebrate such a countdown, you might ask?

My suggestion: write a few Thanksgiving cards. That’s what I’m doing this week, which is why this post is relatively short. I’m saving my words to tell some people in my life what I appreciate about them.

I highly recommend fun notecards, an inky pen, and a mug of cider or tea for this activity.

I’ve written about this before, so if you want the full persuasive argument for this practice, go here. Or if you want more of the emotional heart behind it, go here.

But before signing off, I want to tell a story. Two years ago, I was writing my Thanksgiving cards in an airport, surrounded by people nodding off or on their phones or anticipating narrow seats and turbulence with a look of resigned defeat on their faces. There was one older gentlemen who kept glancing my way, tattered worn like the newspaper in his hand. Eventually, he came over to me. “Excuse me,” he said, “What are you doing?”

“Writing Thanksgiving cards.”

“You mean thank-you cards?”

“No. Thanksgiving cards. Just to tell people that I appreciate them, not something in particular they did or gave me.”

“Ah,” he said, “I see. That’s a good thing. A very good thing.” And he smiled, and there have been few smiles in my life so beautiful. I almost wanted to write him a thank-you note for it, but then we started boarding and the moment was gone.

I’ll be beginning this year’s round in another airport tomorrow, with people coming and going and losing their tempers and rushing about and living for a lot of things that will end up disappointing them. I’ll eavesdrop on halfhearted conversations and be interrupted by an endless stream of rules announcements and watch the ebb and flow of thousands of people much more important than me with urgent business and exotic places to be.

And I wonder if the words I’ll write will be be more important, in the end, than all of that noise.

Maybe. Who knows? But I do know it’s a good thing. A very good thing.

 

Thankful for Loneliness…and Community

Okay, this is going to turn into a crazy Russian-doll scenario. A kind of blog-ception, so try to follow along.

In 2014, I wrote a post about Gerig Hall, a dorm on my college campus. In it, I reference a different blog post from 2012 where I decided to get to know the people who lived there, and then I go on to describe how meaningful that process was for me. It’s a roundabout love letter to people who welcomed me in, the beginning and end of that story.

At that point, I was just barely starting to get connected to my church, coming out of a pretty lonely time where I’d struggled to adjust to living in a new place without knowing anyone. If you look closely, maybe you can hear it between the lines in the 2014 post: a kind of thawing, a tired determination, a distant hope that I might find real community again.

It’s 2017. I did. It took longer than I wanted or expected, and it required me to change some of my attitudes, but recently a card that I keep in my Bible fell out and reminded me where I am now.

image

Isn’t that the best? It’s basically a construction-paper-and-marker definition of hospitality and Christian community. (Okay, maybe the door in the picture should actually be open, but I choose to interpret it as a subtle depiction of the moment just before the opening, for greater emotional resonance. #ArtAppreciation)

When I think about what I’m most thankful for this year, those “open-door” relationships come to mind: the people who have gotten close enough to let down their guard and ask hard questions and look after me. Sometimes I don’t understand the way they think or share any of their interests or agree with them on everything. Sometimes they probably think I’m a little crazy or annoying or selfish (and sometimes I am). But I love them, and our lives are open to each other, and that’s significant.

Especially among people in my stage of life, I hear lots of discussions about how deep friendships are difficult to cultivate as adults—almost impossible, depending on who you ask. I’m all for pointing out problems, but I’ve also noticed most discussions don’t offer any advice. This isn’t going to cover every scenario, but here’s what I’d add to those conversations:

  • Don’t come to a new stage of life with a cast list. By this, I mean don’t have certain roles that you’re looking to fill. Then you’ll spend all your time scanning your acquaintances to see who can be “the new [insert name here],” expecting conversations to follow a script, and being disappointed when someone who you’re sure should be in your life by now misses a cue. Of course, you’d never put it that way, but it sometimes happens sneakily. It did to me. Here’s what I learned: people will always disappoint you when they’re trying to live up to roles they didn’t know they were auditioning for. It’s a limiting and frustrating way to live.

 

  • Relationships may not look like what you think they will. For example, maybe you’re dreaming of a mentor who will invite you weekly to a cozy coffee shop and ask to hear all about your life and give wise advice for all your struggles. Okay, but what if instead mentorship looks like getting in snatches of great conversation while helping a church member paint a garage? Or watching how people you admire discipline their children? Or having a friend who sends you occasional texts of encouragement? You’re still growing, but sometimes that requires becoming part of people’s already-in-progress lives wherever you can instead of clinging to an Instagram-able ideal of what your relationships should look like.

 

  • You may have to be the first to move. Sometimes, you have to invite people over or follow-up on an invitation to “hang out sometime” or start serving in a ministry or introduce yourself. This was hard for me for a while. I occasionally need to be reassured that I matter—that people actually want to spend time with me—and if I’m the one doing most of the seeking others out in my friendships, I can start to wonder and worry. But again…I realized that’s self-focused. Obviously, figure out who is actually interested in investing time in your life, but you might need to take the lead on gathering people who you want to get to know.

 

Basically, if you want more open-door relationships…try to be that sort of person for others. It’s hard and risky…and also beautiful, as so many things worth doing are.

For those still waiting for an end to their loneliness, I hope this isn’t discouraging, like I’m giving you a list of extra things to do when you barely have the emotional energy to show up. I’ve been there. I get it. That’s not what this was meant to be.

It’s a reminder to you to hold on, and where you can, knock on doors if they’re not yet open.

To be honest, I’m thankful for that season of loneliness now, because I learned things in it that I couldn’t have learned any other way (because I’m absurdly stubborn). But I’m thankful for community too.

We’re called to love, and that love gets involved in others’ lives. It sets aside preconceived ideas and learns and asks questions and volunteers for the hard things and doesn’t give up easily.

In a generation of drifters, let’s stay. Because only in staying—only in a long, everyday sort of faithfulness—can we really see what God’s up to and get to the end of the story.

When Life is Hard…Be Thankful

Some of you, seeing the title of this blog, are saying, “It’s October, Amy, you can’t talk about Thanksgiving yet.”

To which I say, Oh yeah? Stores have Christmas decorations out already, and you’ve probably consumed a food or beverage product related to pumpkin within the last 24 hours (clearly a reference to the bountiful harvest and pies of the Pilgrims). By the authority not really vested in me, I declare this season Gratitude Advent. We’ve only got five Mondays before the official celebration of Thanksgiving, and I’m going to argue that we should take a little more time to think about the blessings in our life outside of one food-loaded day.

So, sit down and join me for Storytime with Amy.

I was seventeen, trapped in one of those terrible classes where “toxic” was more than the smell of Axe body spray and gym socks. It was bad. Nearly everyone gossiped and complained and bragged like they were trying to distill all high school stereotypes into a one-hour extravaganza of noise and misery.

Oh wait, Disney already did that…

It didn’t take long for me to reach a familiar moment. I call it the Point of No. (Not the Point of No Return, just No. Sometimes there’s nothing worth returning to.) The Point of No is when I decide the crowd is stupid, so it would be a terrible idea to go along with it.

So I gathered three allies before class one morning. “Starting today,” I said in a conspiratorial tone, “we are going to be happy.” (more…)

On Knowing and Being Known

I probably shouldn’t be saying this since parents from my church read my blog, but there was a time when I was fairly sure I didn’t like kids. At all. The first time I babysat for anyone was in college, I volunteered to clean toilets on mission trips rather than play with toddlers, and I never offered to hold someone’s baby. (They cry and can’t tell you why. Who wants to deal with that?)

The first time I joined a kids’ ministry in college was an accident (long story), but having signed up, I was determined to stick it out…and in the process, found I actually enjoyed it. Radical thought.

When I went to my sister to gather advice about interacting with the little terrors, her first and best bit of wisdom was: “Learn their names.”

And wouldn’t you know, she was right? Saying hello to kids by name—even telling them to stop talking/fidgeting/jamming a pencil in their friend’s ear by name—matters, and I think I know why. Even from our earliest years, we have a need to be loved and known for who we are.

That’s what I thought about when I heard about the song Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. When talking about his inspiration, he said, “The headline in The [New York] Times on Sunday was, ‘Many Towns In Puerto Rico Feeling Forgotten,’ and that broke my heart.”

So he called up a ridiculous number of bilingual musical artists and wrote a song to raise money and awareness for the devastation in Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Praying.” You should listen to it. Several times. I choose to exercise my Miranda rights not to tell you how many times I’ve put this on repeat yesterday.

(For those of you who aren’t musical theater buffs, the opening lines are sampled from “Maria,” a love song from West Side Story, a musical about Puerto Rican immigrants. So Miranda just got about 1,000 symbolism points.)

Besides that snippet, the lyrics are almost entirely formed by the names of all 78 towns in Puerto Rico. Yes, the song’s got a great beat, but what really gives me chills is hearing those names. No village too obscure. The capital San Juan just a few breaths away from the 6,000-person town of Maricao, a name no one outside of its borders had heard before. Until now.

The message of the song is clear: you are not forgotten.

 

I love that. Some of my favorite verses in the Bible are Exodus 2:24-25, talking about the Israelites in slavery in Egypt pre-Moses: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”

And one of my favorite stories in the Bible is about Hagar, the battered and scorned servant who met the Lord in the desert and had the audacity to name him “The God who sees me.”

Seeing a pattern here?

The theme of being known by name is woven all throughout Scripture, from obscure genealogies and recitations of the history of Israel to the parables of Jesus and the greetings of Paul. Christianity has a lot to say about being seen.

And yet, being human, Christians are often not great at seeing others. And I’m including myself here.

My challenge to you this week isn’t just about memorizing names, although that might be part of it. It’s just to do your best to slow down long enough to look for the humanity in those around you.

Resist the urge to define others by who they are to you. That checkout clerk has a life outside of a frustrating return policy and a half-lidded “Did you find everything today?” Every coworker or small group member or neighbor holds onto a thousand silent hopes and fears. Even your spouse or mother or best friend is not first and foremost your spouse or mother or best friend.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with this realization, especially scrolling through Facebook. We have more ways than ever to amass positive feedback about our appearance, choices, opinions, witty remarks, and beautifully-arranged dinners. And yet I see so many lonely people, hoping to eke out enough affirmation to make them feel that they matter.

How well do I love them when we’re face-to-face? How often do I pray for them by name? How easily do I forget that they are just as complex and interesting and loved by God as I am?

Whoever you are, whatever background you come from, don’t forget to see people. Not as masses or political parties or age brackets, but as names and faces and individuals.

Facebook Grief: An Argument for Offline Emotions

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, my first instinct is to tell you what I think about the rise of lawlessness and gun control and processing grief and media coverage of tragedy.

I think my first instinct might be wrong.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying it’s inappropriate to express prayers, sympathy, or an emotional reaction on Facebook to this event or any other, or that you shouldn’t ever talk about issues, even complex ones, online. (Guys, I have a blog. This is what I do here all the time.)

Basically, though, I think it can be harmful if we express our emotions only, or even mostly, in a format that wasn’t meant to carry that weight. Using the Internet to process grief isn’t always a good solution. Here’s why.

I’ve been thinking recently about how social media culture, mass communication, and the Internet in general has changed us, especially how we react to evil in the world. Unlike even a few decades ago:

  • You can’t get away from bad news. We’re followed around by issues and anxiety and tragedy, poked and prodded into one sort of commentary or another by friends, acquaintances, or total strangers.
  • We can know what everyone thinks about anything. No level of trust has to be established before we hear others’ opinions on what used to be personal subjects—it’s all out there. We’re surrounded by thoughts, typed impulsively next to tiny pictures of people we know that sometimes we feel that we don’t know them at all, that they couldn’t really mean it that way—and what was meant to bring us together pushes us apart. It makes people feel less personal. Easier to hurt. Easier to hate.
  • Our opinions can suddenly be heard and interacted with by a large audience of people. Some days, everyone responds/misunderstands/disagrees and it feels like we went from a nice chat to the Hunger Games cornucopia in five seconds flat. Other days, no one replies, and that makes us feel badly too—as if we don’t matter at all.

I’m not sure what sociologists’ official conclusions about all this would be, but for me, it’s a five-layer cake of existential weirdness. (That’s an official term, by the way.)

One conclusion I’m coming to is that I process too much, sometimes, in public spaces. Sometimes my own dirty laundry, but mostly the world’s, the church’s, my country’s, strung out neatly on a line for everyone to see and react to.

It’s not all bad. Even this blog is my way of starting some productive conversations, and it has, especially with people I already know.

I wonder, though, what it does to my level of empathy when it can be drained dry time after time by a parade of headlines and statues and reactions. Will I still be able to love my neighbor—even notice my neighbor—when so many other voices are louder and more all-present?

I wonder if I get too much validation out of blog comments and shares and likes, if the reason I want to speak is to hear myself talk, or at least to be known and appreciated. At the end of the day, are my opinions all about me?

I wonder how many more times I’m going to speak too soon or too forcefully about something I don’t know much about. The Internet is full of self-made experts, and I can join them with the push of a “Publish” button. Through years of practice, I can also tell a story, spin a phrase, draw a crowd. But—in classic Jurassic-Park-quote sense, but without the dinosaurs—should I, just because I can?

As usual, all I really have to offer you are questions. That, I think, might be good. It seems like lots of people are offering answers and stances and solutions at full-blast volume everywhere you look (but wait, there’s more—we’ll throw in some biased commentary for free!), so the least I can do is bring a few questions to balance things out.

There are only a few things I’m sure of:

In a loud world, we need more time for silence.

In an opinionated world, we need more thoughtful uncertainty that pursues answers but doesn’t assume they’re always going to be clear or easy.

In a crazy, violent, mixed-up world—when we ourselves have selfish, anxious, mixed-up hearts—we need more truth and less noise, and sometimes that means turning to praying instead of posting, resting instead of ranting, talking things through with a friend instead of the Internet at large.

This isn’t about standing by and refusing to take action on important issues. It’s not about editing all opinions out of our social media (although I’m a huge fan of being more gracious online).

My challenge is simply this: don’t let your online emotions become your only ones.

Mourn in real life, in prayer and in conversations about how we can do better. Love your actual neighbor instead of only eulogizing people you never knew. Take the long route to form an opinion, collecting different perspectives and considering other sides, instead of reacting to every news item that comes along.

And know that you are a person, not a selfie. You’re living a life, not a content feed. What you think and feel is significant, even if the masses don’t hear it. It may not change the world or even gather a lot of “likes”—but it will change you and the way you interact with others. And that matters.

Let People Love You

I went in skeptical of the new “Anne with an E” TV series. The book and original movie are both dear to my heart, mostly because I pretty much am Anne, minus the red hair and elderly adoptive parents. Besides constant daydreaming, pretentious vocabulary words, tree-climbing, and general humorous-accident-prone-ness, the day after I watched the movie, I decked a boy in the head with my plastic lunch box for making fun of me. While Anne has lots of worthy traits, this, according to my horrified mom, was not the right one to emulate.

The point is, I’ve actually been impressed with the series. If you’re okay with a shade of melodrama in the earlier episodes (which feels realistic if you live or work with an adolescent girl), there is a depth and humanness to the show that delight me. (Also, Gilbert is more adorable than ever, which yes, is actually possible.)

For those who haven’t watched it, this isn’t a real spoiler, but in one episode, Matthew and Marilla are having financial difficulties, and in true sharp-tongued spinster form, Marilla informs everyone who shows up to help that “Cuthberts do not accept charity.”

At one point, Aunt Josephine Barry hides money in a book she gives to Anne, with the elegantly-scripted note, “Love is not charity.”

My first thought: That is so sweet.

My second thought: That is so…linguistically inaccurate. (more…)