Heresy Monday

The Last Jedi and Everyday Evil

It’s game night. We are playing a “social deduction game” where the object is to either assassinate the player who is Secret Hitler or to get Secret Hitler elected Chancellor, depending on whether you’re a liberal or a fascist. As usual, I am defending myself, and as usual, the people who know me best don’t believe a word I’m saying.

Finally, someone comes to my defense. “Come on, guys,” he says, holding up one of the world-famous chocolate chip cookies I’ve brought with me. “No fascist would make us cookies.”

“Yes, they would,” I say automatically. Then I explain that one of my philosophy professors had a song called “There’s a Little Hitler Inside of You.” Looking back, this didn’t help my case at all.

SecretHitler

It really is a fun game. You should try it.

Since I am getting strange looks from the people who met me twenty minutes ago, I don’t tell them that I’ve read dozens of books about racism and genocide, and most of the people involved were decent, mild-mannered neighbors who donated to charity, doted on their children, baked cookies…and turned away from a vast and sweeping evil that they could have resisted.

And I certainly don’t say that every time someone watches a movie or the news and tells me, “I can’t imagine how anyone could let something like that happen,” I think, You have such a limited imagination, my friend. Or maybe just a short memory. How long has it been since you dwelled on something dark and secret instead of turning away? Since you felt hatred for someone you didn’t really understand? Since you saw the way out of temptation and didn’t take it?

Not long, at least not for me.

While I’m thinking these things, the game goes on. I am, actually, a fascist (but not Secret Hitler). I get assassinated and the liberals rue the cookies they ate in confidence. They should have known better.

(more…)

The Best of 2017

(Disclaimer: this is momentarily going to be somewhat depressing, so go ahead. Skip to the fun facts if you want. I don’t mind.)

It’s the end of another year and the fourth birthday of this blog. Along with all the usual greetings wishing everyone a happy new year in person and on social media, I’ve noticed more people than usual commenting on how they hope this year will be better than the last one.

That’s a wish we probably all share after a 2017 that was hard by most measures—we had political strife, natural disasters, global tragedies, and a front-row seat to the decay that goes on when morality doesn’t matter anymore.

As a friend or family member, I hope your 2018 is without those sorts of trials, personal or public. As an imperfect person with half-finished thoughts living in a sin-stained world, I know your 2018 probably will be marked with the same signs of brokenness as the one before. As a writer who has continually been amazed by the grace of God at work in the midst of the craziness, I trust that instead of losing hope, you’ll be reminded to depend on the only one who is actually in control.

And now for the usual year-end recap.

Assorted Fun Facts

  • The Monday Heretic is up to 244 posts if you’re new to the blog and want a deluge of back-reading…but only 41 from this year. Out of 52 weeks, that means I wasn’t quite as consistent this year as in the past. No bonus points for me!
  • Besides the US, top countries for views are: Canada, the UK, Australia and South Africa (a new entry in the top five countries this year).
  • This is the first year since the blog began with no posts that were actually a disguise for a secret code for some sort of escape room/puzzle challenge. Yes, really.
  • I’m running out of Lord of the Rings characters I can use for my annual Hobbit Birthday Party. I might switch to linking “gifts” to relevant places or significant props. If you’re a LOTR fan, you can help me out by commenting with your top three settings or top three objects in the books.

Most Viewed Posts

Gold: The Wise and the LeFous

I love that this post and its sequel, below, got just about the same number of views. And I hope is that each one didn’t get passed around to people who already agreed with it. This one was a challenge to articulate a difficult position in a nuanced way (I feel like that was a theme of many of my 2017 posts).

Sample Quote: “Our faith matters. It relates even to areas of our life like what animated movies to watch. This isn’t a ridiculous overreaction…as long as Christians thoughtfully and graciously make and explain their choice. What we watch may be important, but more important is who is watching us to see what Jesus is like.

 

Silver: LeFou Gate, Part Two

This is one of those posts that bothered me until I wrote it, the critical missing sidenote to the original that I think was more important because it asks tough questions. What does it look like to live out our beliefs? How does the “love” part of “speaking the truth in love” come in? Where have we failed to act like Jesus? I didn’t articulate everything perfectly the way I wanted to, but I’m glad I added this.

Sample Quote: “These are real people who you might have offended with your general anti-gay post about the movie because, no matter what your actual beliefs are, they are hearing that you wish people like them did not exist, or at least that you wish they’d exist silent and unseen.”

 

Bronze: The Church’s Biggest Problem

Controversy! Also, I get to quote from my friend Greg’s book, Single Gay Christian, so here’s a reminder that it’s so good. This one has a message that I want to shout from the rooftops all year long until my voice is hoarse…and remind myself over and over till it finally gets through.

Sample Quote: “I am deeply, desperately afraid that we are destroying our witness in our pursuit of the Christian version of the American dream. The world is looking at what we’re doing—and not doing—and coming to conclusions about the God we claim to serve…and they’re not always good. Sometimes, we are silent when we should speak. Sometimes, we talk too much when we should listen first. Sometimes we just run away.”

 

Amy’s Favorite Five Posts

In no particular order, here are five posts I particularly enjoyed writing.

Advent Stories: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Why: All of the Advent Stories this year were delightful to write (there’s a good chance that I’ll continue with more carol stories next year), but Ernest’s prodigal son story has been brewing in my head for a while. I’m glad I got the chance to share it.

Sample Quote: “Charley thought it would a lark, an adventure, a response to the taunting of his friends who had enlisted to skirmish with those know-it-all Southerners and be back home with medals and glory in a few months. It’s been over three years. The war isn’t over, and for all I know, it never will be. We’ll just go on fighting and fighting until the Mason-Dixon line is nothing more than a boundary between two graveyards.

 

When You’ve Almost Lost Hope

Why: This one combines my favorite metaphor of the year with my favorite Storytime with Amy. After all these years, I can finally admit how I conned my way into my high school’s advanced choir without being able to read music. (Confession is good for the soul.)

Excerpt: “We’re the choir, church. Sometimes we’re not going to know what’s going on, and many times we’ll feel mildly terrified when it’s our turn to break the silence, but the world needs our song. Let’s go with what we know—the truth that’s gone so deep it’s a part of us—and sing it loud.”

 

Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton Review Snow White

Why: This was just a really fun fact to stumble upon when researching for a Snow White retelling I was working on…and a chance for me to see myself in some of my favorite Inklings, but in a negative way. (And since Lewis is basically a fourth member of the Trinity to some, criticizing him does actually feel like heresy, so that’s a bonus.)

Excerpt: “When I elevate myself above those around me, when I interrupt people who are clearly wrong to bestow my great thoughts upon them, when I divide everyone into “us” and “them”—I lose focus on what matters.

 

Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr.

Why: This is one where I processed something as I was writing. I’m still not sure I’ve got it all sorted out, but it was an interesting connection, and I’m still working out the implications. Also, it’s one of the few movie-reaction posts this year.

Whether these connections make sense or not, wherever you are on the political spectrum, whichever order you use to watch the Star Wars movies, I think there’s a takeaway we can all agree on: don’t reduce people. Don’t forget that they are not causes or archetypes or walk-on roles in a saga starring you. They are people.

 

How Do We Respond to Radical Extremism?

Why: Of my responses to current events, this one hit me the hardest. There is tragedy here. There is also a challenge, hope, and some book recommendations.

Excerpt: “I want to be a brave person. Even more, I want so badly to live in a brave country. But we have to remember: courage takes action when the stakes are low, in the small things, and those million tiny decisions make us who we really are.”

 

That’s it, friends! Thanks for reading along on the blog this year. I appreciate you and the good thoughts and conversations you’ve sparked, whether in the comments section or a private message or in person.

If you want to look through past best-of posts, go to 2016, 2015, and 2014.

 

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.