Heresy Monday

How I’m Like the Avengers

Several years ago, I had what I call the Really Weird September. I’d gotten an offer for a dream job (without even applying)…in a time when I felt clearly called to stay where I was. I’d been extended a hopeful second chance to re-try an old relationship…and I said no. I’d met someone who quite possibly could have been a great friend and mentor…who was moving away in a few days.

It was a series of weeks that felt full of “almost”s and “what-if”s and “Am I crazy, what am I even doing?”s. Even though I felt some peace about the decisions I was making, it felt like way too many narrow misses for all the things that were supposed to make me happy.

Soon after, I listened to the song “The Wrong Year” by the Decemberists—don’t ask me to tell you what the lyrics mean, I have no idea. Except for maybe this one part: “And the rain falls on the wrong year / And it won’t leave you alone / Won’t leave you alone.”

I heard that line. Heard it again. (And again and again—it’s in the chorus, so you know, that happens.) And I thought I might know what it felt like for rain to fall on the wrong year.

One spring, we had massive flooding in my home state, road closings and school cancellations and storm after storm with no letting up…when the year before had been one of the worst droughts we’d ever seen, full of parched corn stalks and dried-up grass.

What might have been considered a blessing in a different situation was inconvenient and even damaging, because it was the wrong year.

When something like that happens, it nags at you in the back of your mind where the “why”s aimed at God gather up and sometimes fester. It won’t leave you alone.

That’s how I felt. I’d think: what if I’d gotten the job offer right out of college, or the relationship had never ended, or I’d been living here at the right time to be mentored by someone I respected? Did all of these things happen on the wrong year? If the timing had been slightly different, or I’d made tiny adjustments to my choices…what could have happened?

That’s what I thought about after watching Avengers: End Game, because time travel is one of the deepest kinds of wish fulfillment.

Haven’t you replayed a conversation in your mind, thinking of how you’d do it differently if you only had a chance? Don’t you have a collection of “what-ifs,” from silly missteps to major life decisions, that keep you up late at night, wondering? Can’t you name the regrets that still twinge in your memory?

Haven’t you ever wondered if the rain fell on the wrong year? Just slightly off, a little too late or early, too much or too little. And whether you felt like it was your fault, or someone else’s, or even God’s…it’s a hard emotion to deal with.

That’s how we relate to the Avengers at the start of End Game. So many characters have lines that mention failure, regret, and resentment:

“You could not live with your own failure, and where did that bring you? Back to me.”

“Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be, Thor.”

“He thinks he failed, which of course he did. But you know there’s a lot of that going around, ain’t there?”

(That would be Thanos, Thor’s mother, and Rocket for those of you playing “Guess the Quote” at home.)

We also get to see how the Avengers respond to their apocalyptic-level failure. As the audience, we’re supposed to sort their reactions on a spectrum from healthy to unhealthy.

Captain America counseling others to move on? Good. Thor swigging beer and playing video games? Bad.

Natasha heading up a squad of super-peacekeepers from the survivors? Very good. Hawkeye going on a revenge spree murdering criminals? Very bad.

The Hulk trying to act like none of it is a big deal and embracing his celebrity, and Iron Man isolating himself to live his second-chance life? Sort of in-between?

Probably, everyone can see themselves in one of the Avengers. (I can picture the BuzzFeed Quiz now: “Faced with a soul-crushing regret, which Avenger would you be most like?”) But even though some had better ways of coping than others, nothing was satisfying for us as an audience…until they had a chance to go back and fix things, to undo every awful thing that had happened in the Snap.

We waited on the edge of our seat until the moment when everything was made right again, and the Avengers—all of them, even the fallen—assembled. And saved the world.

In the real world, we’re not there yet. We’ve got the regrets, sure, and plenty of failure and blame and heartache to go around. Only when we look back, the story doesn’t change. There are no Infinity Stones to capture and rearrange reality with. We have a deep need for everything wrong to become right again…but we don’t have a time machine.

So what do we do?

I’ll admit it: the reason I sometimes wish for time travel is because I want more control. I’m searching for some tiny changes I could make to settle everything back into place and make things feel the way I think they should, hoping that I can fix everything. Somehow.

It won’t work. It could never work, and it never does.

Back in the Really Weird September, I handed the decisions I made over to God, dragging all the “why now?”s and “did I do the right thing?”s and “what if no one else ever comes?” out of their dark corners and praying. It was only then that the doubt and regret finally left me alone.

Because if I really trust God, there’s no such thing as the wrong year. Not for rain. Not for the timing of the Really Weird September.

Not for when or where any of us were born, not for how the events our lives shaped us, not for the people placed around us at any given time. It’s all purposeful. Not a dice roll, not bad luck or arbitrary punishment or a random Snap.

I still can’t tell you what would have happened if I’d said yes to that guy or accepted that job or moved away from Minnesota after a year, or any of the other not-quite choices I could have made. I can tell you some of what I would have missed out on, because that’s the reality I’ve lived the past four years, but some of the whys and why nots will always be hidden from me. And that’s okay.

I made meaningful choices, but this is also the story that God put me in. The only story.

And someday—don’t forget, this part is important—the Christian faith teaches that everything will be made right again. We have that deep, aching need for a reason…it’s just that we can’t do it ourselves. With or without a time machine.

To All the Brave Ones

Ever since I was Little-Overly-Enthusiastic-Bowl-Cut-Amy, I’ve always dreamed of being brave, and I had a very specific image of what that meant. I remember daydreaming as a first grader about how, if the McDonalds PlayPlace in front of me were to spontaneously burst into flames, I would heroically march up those weird climbing platforms while everyone else was fleeing and drag the other kids to safety.

Yes, really.

Those were the days.

Years went by. I would like to tell you that I’ve abandoned all dramatic dreams of heroics, but that’s not quite true.

That said, I’ve realized something really important: courage doesn’t always look like what I thought it would.

Sometimes it’s quiet and simple and not accompanied by sirens, breaking news updates, or a dramatic, fiery sacrifice. Every time I look around me, I see men and women who are the heroes I always wanted to imitate.

I’ve learned it takes courage to let go of offenses and resentment and the need to be right. To apologize first and linger a little longer than others when it’s hard. To—even when you do walk away from something or someone—seek peace and decide to live graciously. It might be a teeth-gritted, deliberately-chosen graciousness, but that doesn’t make it any less courageous.

It takes bravery to dream small and choose priorities that others don’t understand. To give to those who can’t give back and dispense kindness with every step like a leaky watering can, without looking back to decide if the flowers or weeds drinking it in deserve it.

It takes a long and faithful strength to go unseen and unapplauded through a daily routine of sacrifice—whether as a parent or a caregiver or someone in ministry. To work hard in a boring job or step in as peacemaker over and over again or endure unjust criticism without becoming bitter.

I’ve seen you. I want to be like you.

And I know what’s holding me back. (more…)

Songs of Spring

Yesterday I read in Isaiah 50 that God’s servant knows “how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” And I thought to myself: what one word would be enough to do all that?

There are many, but since I was looking out the window at a snow-slush mix of despair, only one came to mind: spring.

Here’s where I pity you poor folks who live in temperate climates where only the change of a few degrees and the Walmart holiday displays show a change in seasons. In Minnesota, you notice the arrival of spring. You wait for it, long for it, plead for it to show up sooner while you’re hazarding icy driveways to scrape frosty car windows in the bitter wind to get into a car that may or may not start in the -30 degree temperatures.

Maybe you can tell: it’s been a long winter for me, inside and out. And I am weary.

If you are too, here are a few songs of spring to remind you that, like C.S. Lewis wrote in his Narnia series, Aslan is on the move, even if we can’t see it quite yet by looking at our thermometers (or our life circumstances).

Ever since sixth grade, I would sing Nichole Nordeman’s “Every Season” out in the neighbor’s field on sunny days, sometimes running down a hill and twirling around when no one was watching like that one scene in The Sound of Music. I loved that song, because it sounded just like Ecclesiastes, but with a little more Jesus.

“Even now in death you open doors for life to enter.”

In college, I would fairly regularly explore the woods alone and/or climb a tree to read a book. After I attended a production of the musical The Secret Garden, I spent most of the next February and March wandering around with a large stick and belting out “Winter’s on the Wing,” charming all of the area squirrels with my terrible Yorkshire accent. (I really hope only the squirrels were in hearing range.)

“I say, be gone, ye howlin’ gales / Be off, ye frosty morns / All ye solid streams begin to thaw / Melt, ye waterfalls / Part ye frozen winter walls / See, see now it’s startin.’”

I was going to add a disclaimer here that you shouldn’t think of me as some crazy hippie who spends most of her time wandering barefoot in the woods while singing to herself. Except that’s actually reasonably accurate, so whatever. I’m just going to embrace it. (Believe me, I have no other Disney Princess-esque qualities.)

Lately, I’ve been looping Andrew Peterson’s “The Sower’s Song,” because I appreciate the hard-fought reality to his spring. Where it lands in the album, it’s at the end of a long, dark winter of the soul, and I love the promises repeated again and again. They give a sense of faith when you can’t see the first signs of spring yet, but you know they’re coming. That’s where I am right now.

Usually, I play this song on headphones and occasionally hum along in the quiet of my room. But tonight, for old times’ sake, I jammed on my paisley rainboots—because I’m defiant and I like metaphors and one of my snowboots has a hole in it—and made my way to the trail in the woods near my apartment.

Someone else with larger feet had stomped out a trail before me on the packed-down snow, high above the tree roots usually level with the path, and I followed their footprints. After I was surrounded by bare branches that look dead but are really only dormant and I had checked both ways for stray joggers willing to brave the weather…I sang.

Snow Shadow Selfie

“So I kneel / At the bright edge of the garden / At the golden edge of dawn / At the glowing edge of spring / When the winter’s edge is gone / And I can see the color green / I can hear the sower’s song / Abide in me.”

Once I was done, I breathed in the fresh air and wrote in the snow with a mismatched glove whose twin is buried somewhere underneath a February snowdrift.

And I listened very, very carefully. I heard the song of a hardy chickadee instead of a robin, and the one time I thought I might be hearing the drip-drip-dripping of an early thaw, it was only the wind. But that’s okay. I’ll be back in a few weeks, and the green hiding, waiting, will be come out again. It always does, and that’s the beauty of the promise of spring.

On the way back, I launched into another round of the song. And it sounded like hope.

The Great British Baking Show on Self-Worth

As demonstrated by yesterday’s set of Valentines, I love The Great British Baking Show. I’ve lost all sense of season and episode numbers because of Netflix, but one of the most interesting moments to me was when a competitor, John, said the secret truth about bakers is that, however they appear, they’re really just “quite controlling people who want to be told that they’re loved.”

Which seemed pretty accurate. John had, in previous episodes, talked about how the judges’ feedback made him feel like he really was good at something, and interviews showed that his family seemed to have very little understanding of his talent or ambitions. They joked that if he won, they’d finally have a reason to be proud of him, and as they did, John laughed with a cringe I’ve seen before.

You have too, probably. In teens making fun of each other to subtly brag about themselves. After self-deprecating comments that beg to be countered with, “No, don’t say that, that’s not true at all.” In fully-grown adults who cringe at criticism, offered with or without a punchline. Because in their hearts they—sometimes even I—believe there must be a little truth to it. Or maybe even a lot.

Who knew a baking show could reveal so many deep-seated insecurities?

Another one of the show’s final was made up of three bakers, all settled with families and kids (I won’t put up a picture so as not to spoil it for those of you who are now adding this to your watch list). All their interviews showed loved ones who expressed how proud they were of their mum or dad or spouse, shared that they are fantastic human beings regardless of the outcome of the show, and named totally non-baking-related virtues they appreciated.

It was the least stressful, most delightful final I’ve ever watched. All three bakers competently and calmly…baked things. That’s it. Sometimes the bread/cake/pastry came out just the way they wanted, sometimes it didn’t. No nervous need for validation. No constant apologizing or overstating the significance of the event or breaking down into tears with every setback. You got the sense, watching them work, that they were all perfectly aware of their abilities without being overconfident. They had worked hard, but their worth wouldn’t be determined by the outcome in the tent.

It didn’t make for particularly dramatic filming, but it made me want to be just like them when I grow up.

Obviously, it doesn’t always work this way. There have been contestants with the full support of friends and family (at least as much as you can tell from the staged interviews) who have very little confidence in themselves, and I’m sure the reverse is sometimes true as well.

Which is one reason I can’t end this post the way I wanted to. I was going to say that we have to be careful about the kind of jokes we make, about others and even ourselves. We should remind our friends and even acquaintances of what we appreciate about them instead of assuming they already know. We need to look past ourselves and see what lies those around us are believing—I’m worthless, no one cares, my life has been wasted, I’ll never get past this—and counter them with reminders of the truth, loudly and often.

That’s all true, and important to remember.

But.

It’s not quite enough. I’ve known people who are almost smothered with affection and encouragement and still have difficulty believing that they’re significant. I am that person from time to time.

We’ve all noticed the problem: there’s a near-constant barrage of fears and insecurities telling us we’re too much or not enough, and very few voices that take the time to disagree. But I don’t think we’ve arrived at the right solution.

The best that we’ve got, most of the time, is to tell each other to give out more gold stars to those around us, to be affirming and kind. That’s nice, but the problem with that is it still puts me at the mercy of others…and some days I haven’t done a single thing to earn any color of star. On those days, is it true that I’m not valuable or worthy of love? It would be easy to believe that.

Alternately, we’re told we can look inside ourselves for the confidence we need, striding forth in self-sufficiency, knowing that our own approval of our actions is all we’ll need. The problem with that is, it puts me at the mercy of…me. And there are so many days when I am not strong enough to be who I want to be, much less to cheer myself on to get there.

So what else is there?

As a Christian, I never quite understood what it meant when people would say things like, “Put your identity in Jesus.” Like, are we trading nametags? Am I supposed to treat all compliments like bombs and fling them away because accepting praise means I’m basing my worth on the wrong things? (I tried this for a while. It’s a bad idea.) Do I stop all self-reflection and development of my abilities and just meditate on Bible passages?

Probably none of these things. I’ll learn different aspects of what it means to be “in Christ” for the rest of my life, but one practical application I’ve been thinking through is that I don’t get to say who I am, what I’m worth, or why I’m here. I have to let God do that.

Then I can ruthlessly compare my feelings with what the Bible says is true of me in Jesus, tossing out anything that smells “off” as ruthlessly as my spring cleaning purge of expired food from the fridge. I can pray about what I should be doing next, and in the meantime, do the things I already know God wants me to do as faithfully as I can, while knowing that my accomplishments don’t define me. I can fail and falter and forget (again)…and know that none of those things mark me because I am chosen and called and deeply loved by God.

You can’t get that from a positive work evaluation or a compliment or a Valentine. It’s a more profound change of mind than repeating mantras of confidence and ability. And it will give you a more lasting joy than even the most delicious chocolate cake.*

*Although I have nothing against Jesus + chocolate cake. These are not mutually exclusive.

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.