When It Is Not Well With Your Soul

Sometimes, when I sing songs in church about God remaining faithful in hard times, I can’t relate at the moment. My life is good, and it feels almost dishonest to sing about how I can still love God in spite of suffering. Does “It Is Well With My Soul” mean anything on sunny, happy days? Maybe, but certainly not as much.

So you know what I do?

I sing those songs to the future. I say the words with everything in me, almost like I’m pouring them into a bottle and wedging in a cork. Saving them. Waiting.

Then, when the hard days come and I’m struggling to believe that God loves me and acts justly in a world that is very, very broken, I take them out again. Because on those days, I cannot sing those words and mean them. It is not well with my soul, the name of the Lord is not blessed, and while he may give and take away, I cannot praise him for it, not yet. I’m not strong enough, not brave enough.

Which leads me to think faith is not always what we think it is.

It’s not dispensing pithy Christian sayings or having an inspirational Bible verses to answer every question. It’s not a gritted-teeth determination to be happy despite pain. I don’t even think it’s always being serenely at peace with everything that happens, although that peace may eventually come.

Real faith sometimes has to use the bottled praise. It clings to the memories of a distant promise, even when nothing around it seems to fit with that promise. It tries to sing, but when only laments come, those laments are still worship, because they contain a courageous defiance that says, like the psalmist, “I will yet praise him.”

Faith is falling to the ground with worn places in your soul, exhausted from crying, and letting yourself be carried by your brothers and sisters. Carried to the throne of God when you’re too weak to come to him on your own or too angry to want to.

I call that “faith” and not “general emotional collapse” because the person being carried believes in the character of God even when she absolutely does not feel it or feel like loving God for it. And that’s a beautiful thing.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

These are the promises we hold on to when everything is falling apart. We don’t apply them like a smiley-faced Band Aid to a wound. We speak them, read them, pray them, and let them heal us. Sometimes, it doesn’t happen right away. If Job and the Psalms teach us anything, it’s that there’s a place in the Christian faith for lament. So we wait, and that’s faith too.

In a world that is so deeply broken, it’s hard to believe in a God who is not broken, who is perfect in justice and love. So we do the best we can, and it is difficult and it takes courage and I believe God, weeping with us, understands that.

Until we go to a place where there are no goodbyes, our partings are going to hurt. When we are living in a reality without death and suffering and pain, our praise will be more consistent. We’ll see the full story and experience the realities we once recited in creeds and confessions. We will be able to both give sincere praise and feel the truth of the words we sing.

But for now, we’re living in a broken world, trying to learn to be brave and asking for God to make it well with our souls. Waiting with bottles in hand.

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The Problem with #Adulting

“Sewed on a button with floss because A. I don’t have real sewing thread and B. I don’t ever floss.”

“It’s been a good run, houseplant. I kept you alive for a record three months before you died a scorched and thirsty death. RIP.”

“I can’t adult anymore. If you want me, I’ll be in my blanket fort, coloring.”

Some examples of #adulting.

Welcome to the world of #adulting—“to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups.” It’s a trend that the larger non-Millennial world is starting to take notice of, not always in a good way. I’ve heard or read all of the following explanations:

  • Even if they’re competent, smart, and successful, young people feel they can’t brag about their real achievements on social media, so instead they talk about getting excited about buying a toaster or finally having a dinner that didn’t come out of a box.
  • High schools don’t teach basic skills like balancing a budget, cooking, or sewing, so what used to be common sense isn’t anymore.
  • Thrust into a difficult economy, surrounded by broken relationships, and facing an uncertain political climate, millennials feel a Neverland-longing for childhood. The world seems bleaker than ever, so in a way, #adulting mourns lost innocence.
  • It seems hypocritical for the generation that gave young people participation ribbons in elementary school to suddenly wonder why they seek out validation on social media and call them overly sensitive or lazy. Why not mentor them instead?
  • Millennials are reaching traditional landmarks (getting married, owning a home, etc.) later than any previous generation. When they talk about saving up to buy a lawnmower instead of the latest video game console, it’s a joking way of processing a transition that many of their friends might not even be going through yet.

There’s a nugget of sociological truth in each of these explanations, but I’m mostly with the people who say #adulting is a specific kind of humor that happens to be popular right now. Combine that with a wave of not-so-distant nostalgia (the Pokémon resurgence and live-action remakes of basically every Disney golden age classic ever, for example) and you get 20-somethings joking about accidentally turning their laundry pink or finally reading a book not classified as YA. (more…)

The Vineyard: A Story for Good Friday

MARTHA

The Passover crowd surrounded him like buzzards. Sometime, selfishly, I wished Jesus would send them all away, and speak only to us as he used to back in Bethany. But of course, he couldn’t do that, not with so many of the curious gathering to hear him.

The parable he told was a short and direct: a man bought a vineyard and left tenants to tend it. When harvest came, he sent servants to collect the fruit. The tenants beat, abused, and even killed the servants. Finally, the owner sent his own son…but the tenants killed him too.

MARY

As Jesus told his story, I thought of a different vineyard. No other rabbi will teach women, of course, but there are certain stories they make sure we know: ones where women caused the downfall of men. We all know of Eve and Tamar and Bathsheba. They are cautionary tales.

And none more than Jezebel.

King Ahab found a vineyard he couldn’t have, and like the men in Jesus’ parable, he wanted to take it by force. But Queen Jezebel had a better plan. Invite the owner of the vineyard to a feast, she said, make him feel welcome, seat him in the best place, next to the king, his friend.

And then they betrayed him. Paid false witnesses to speak lies about him. And the crowd dragged him away and stoned him.

Ahab got everything he ever wanted, and for a moment, I wonder if he thought he was happy.

But when he went down to claim the vineyard, the word of the Lord came to him. The prophet Elijah declared that for his treachery, he too would die. Then Ahab regretted his choice…but it was too late.

And Jezebel? We’re not told if she had any regrets. I doubt she ever did.

LAZARUS

Like the other boys from well-to-do families, I studied the Scriptures. None fascinated me more than Isaiah. Something about him…a kind of lyricism. He spoke the truth, but he made poems instead of proclamations. He told stories.

That’s what Jesus does. That’s what I’ve done, these past few months. “Did you hear about the time I died and was brought back to life?” I say. And it draws people in, every time. Like this passage from Isaiah:

“My loved one had a vineyard

    on a fertile hillside.

He dug it up and cleared it of stones

    and planted it with the choicest vines.

He built a watchtower in it

    and cut out a winepress as well.

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,

    but it yielded only bad fruit.”

Everything was there in the parable—do you see it? The vines, the wall, the watchtower. I felt a kind of dread as Jesus spoke of the owner sending messengers, because I knew what would happen to them. I knew who they were.

They were Ezekiel and Nathan and Jeremiah and Micah and every other prophet who brought tidings a stubborn people didn’t want to hear. I saw Elijah in the parable. I saw Isaiah.

I saw myself.

MARTHA

Why would he come into Jerusalem at the time he is both most loved and most hated? Doesn’t he know he’s putting himself and all of his followers into danger, speaking like this?

He never has seemed to care about that.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said to me, when Lazarus died.

It’s an outrageous statement, really. But I was too tired from crying to laugh, or to get angry, or even to question him. A moment before, I had thought there was nothing left in me at all, hollowed out by grief.

But then I heard myself replying, “I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God.”

And I realized there was something left after all: faith.

MARY 

Sometimes, after Jesus tells a parable, I look around to find the ones really listening and understanding, not just hearing.

Today, I saw the group of Pharisees on the fringes, their hateful glances shouting what they attempted to hide behind whispers. With joyful crowds all around Jesus, celebrating his entrance into Jerusalem, they can’t speak against him—yet.

And then I turned away from our enemies, back to our friends and found there was one face among the disciples that was…different. Most were confused, others indignant, carried away by the injustice of the tenants. But one stood apart, a frown on his face, as if wondering: were the tenants the real villains of the story?

And I thought, “I have found Jezebel and Ahab.”

LAZARUS

The crowd was watching, waiting. But instead of telling us the ending of the story, Jesus asked us to supply it. “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

And I wanted to say, with Isaiah:

“Now I will tell you

    what I am going to do to my vineyard:

I will take away its hedge,

    and it will be destroyed;

I will break down its wall,

    and it will be trampled.

I will make it a wasteland.”

Something terrible is coming, isn’t it?

MARTHA

Jesus’ parables are rather straightforward when you stop puzzling over the details and ask two simple questions: where is God and where am I?

This time, I knew: God owns the vineyard. And I want to be a branch that bears fruit, a faithful tenant. Whatever comes next, that is something I can be sure of.

But sometimes, when I allow myself to think on it, I do wonder: what is coming next?

MARY

“Are you there, my old enemy?” That’s what Ahab said to the prophet in the vineyard. It’s a terrifying thing, calling the one sent from God your enemy. I wonder, has Judas thought of that?

Jesus must know. What did he say? “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

This may be the Lord’s doing, but it is not marvelous in my eyes. No. I am afraid. That’s my old enemy: fear. And there’s no need to ask if it’s there. It always will be…but especially today.

Sometimes, I can still smell the perfume I used for his anointing. “She is preparing me for my burial,” Jesus said, when one of the disciples protested that I had wasted something expensive that could be used for a better purpose.

Judas. It was Judas, who said that, wasn’t it?

LAZARUS

“The vineyard of the LORD Almighty

    is the nation of Israel,

and the people of Judah

    are the vines he delighted in.

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;

    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”

The crowd walked away from Jesus’ parable feeling satisfied, because there was justice. The right prevailed. But the passage about the vineyard from Isaiah ends with blood and distress. Which will we see, this Passover?

But he can’t die. Surely not the one who already showed power over death. It isn’t possible.

This can’t be how the story ends.

(Every year, around Good Friday, I write about Judas, either directly or indirectly. Here are the archives: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.)

 

The Moon Colony Question

Sometimes, small talk is boring. When I’m tired of discussing the weather, my go-to is my favorite hypothetical question, one I’ve asked dozens of people to answer for me. (The original version belongs to my friend Kyle, and I have blatantly stolen it.)

You are the leader of a moon colony with 5000 residents. Over the years, you have become almost entirely self-sustaining, growing your own food, recycling water, and generating your own oxygen. Currently, all of this is contained under an air-locked dome, but a terraforming system is being tested and may be successful.

Reports from Earth have been coming in about an alarming disease, a pandemic on a scale the world has never seen before. Those infected don’t have any visible symptoms for several weeks, but they can often sense a change in their health before then. The disease is highly contagious and always fatal.

Soon, your attempts to communicate with Earth go unanswered. You can only assume that enough people have died that technical systems are failing. Several days of silence go by, and then you receive a transmission from a spacecraft approaching the moon.

They claim to be a ship from Earth, bearing news that everyone on the planet either has or will soon die. They were quarantined and insist that none of the 100 people on board have any sign of the disease, so they are requesting you to lower your shield and allow them into the colony. Also, the oxygen on their ship ran into issues on the way. They only have ten minutes of air left.

As the colony’s leader, you must decide between one of two options: do you let them in, risking contaminating your colony and possibly eradicating the human race? Or do you leave them in space and let them die?

(Are you thinking about your answer before you read what other people said? Good.)

When I give this scenario, the first thing that happens is that everyone tries to look for a third option. (You don’t have time to send up a doctor for examinations, you do not have a separate docking bay that could contain contaminants, you are not allowed to resign your post as leader, and it doesn’t matter if this scenario makes no scientific or medical sense.)

So, assume I told you that your clever loophole doesn’t work for some obviously contrived reason.

Next, people ask questions. This part is the most interesting to me—the answers people feel they need in order to make a good decision. Here are just a few I’ve been asked:

  • Were these one hundred people randomly chosen, or are they all rich politicians and military leaders who forced their way in?
  • Do I know anyone on board the ship?
  • What kind of leader am I? (Elected, dictator, etc.)
  • Do we have any way to verify that all or most humans on earth are dead?
  • What is the anticipated public response if I let these people die?
  • Are most of the people on the ship babies? (This is the best image ever. Enjoy. And yes, someone actually asked me that.)

Mostly instead of answering, I ask people why or how their answers would change if I said yes or no.

Finally, people have to choose. All of the people who have answered this for me fall into one of three groups:

One: People who let the spaceship in, usually motivated by compassion. Most women chose this option (with one exception, mentioned later). The general idea they expressed was that they’d rather do what they felt to be right and risk the consequences than live with blood on their hands. Many (but not all) Christians who took this option, interestingly, had a very high view of the sovereignty of God. They explained that it was their duty to do what they believed to be right, and leave the power of life and death to God.

Two: People who felt they would have to let the 100 people die, with different degrees of agony depending on the person. This was a smaller group. Some decided right away that this was the best option. (Most of my writing friends, regardless of gender fell into this group, possibly because it gives the story more of a plot.) But there were also people who agonized back and forth, taking the question very seriously. They finally felt that as a leader, they had a responsibility to their people and the human race in general to make a painful choice and deal with the fallout, both from their citizens and with their own conscience.

Three: People who refused to answer or still manage to weasel out a third option despite all of my attempts to stop them, like shooting down the spaceship in the sky to make their deaths quick and painless, then holding a colony press conference where you lie your head off and say it was an attacking ship so you don’t have to deal with the fallout of intentionally killing 100 potentially innocent people. (Yes, really. Two people suggested something like that.)

So, if you’d like to share your answer in the comment section, here it is: would you let ship from Earth enter your colony, potentially killing every human on your colony and maybe in the universe? Or let them die even if you weren’t sure they had the disease, ensuring the safety of your own people?

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

When an eleven-year-old boy asks me theological questions, I get suspicious. Circumstantial evidence told me this particular kid was only trying to get out of singing slightly catchy but incredibly annoying VBS songs in the next room. (Exhibit A: the suspect had spent most of lesson time clocking another kid in the head with an inflatable taxi.)

Fortunately for him, I also hated those songs. Bring it on, kid.

He started out with questions related to the lesson—the Good Samaritan—but then moved on to things like why there was suffering in the world and how we knew the Bible was true.

Kid had been saving up. I liked him considerably more than earlier in the morning when he’d thrown glitter in my hair during craft time.

He nodded through my explanations, sometimes looking like he got it, and sometimes looking like I’d just started explaining trigonometry in Elvish. But he kept asking questions, finally getting to this one: “Why do Christians think Jesus have to die? It doesn’t seem fair. Why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins without the cross?”

Okay, kid. That’s a good one. You’re thinking these things through with Gungor and The Shack and a bunch of others.


This is way past my pay grade (since, you know, I’m not getting paid), but here we go anyway.

It’s the basic plot of lots of mysteries and thrillers, right? Someone who cares about the real criminal—a spouse or parent or lover—tries to take the blame for the crime. The detective finds out about the noble gesture…and the guilty person is punished and the innocent one released.

We like that ending. Sacrifice is all well and good when it’s a Tale of Two Cities situation where both people are innocent, but we have this instinctive sense that the penalty should go to the one who earned it. This is not the story of the cross, as the kid pointed out.

One problem is, the alternative he suggested doesn’t work. If you don’t think it’s fair that God let Jesus take the punishment for our sin…would it be any fairer if God didn’t punish anyone for our sin?

I’d say it isn’t be fair or just. But I’d go a little farther and say it’s not possible. (more…)

Don’t Live For Others

Have you ever thought about the hidden danger of being Mary Poppins?

The Disney version of the world’s coolest nanny is pretty, delightful, boundlessly creative, and a good singer on top of it all. Everyone, children and adults alike, adore and admire her, and she’s quite perceptive about the world.

Then, once she’s solved everyone’s problems, made people happy, and become a legendary figure, she just…drifts away.

She doesn’t really need anyone else—she’s practically perfect in every way, after all. And I can’t be the only one who’s thought, watching the Disney movie, that she seems rather lonely, despite the fact that she never seems to exhibit a stray emotion.

And it makes me wonder…is there a difference between being a beloved person…and being loved as a person?

Because, while I’m sure the Banks children will miss their temporary governess, are they really missing Mary Poppins herself, or just her magic? Just what she could do and the atmosphere she created? Come to think of it, we know very little about Mary herself. Not much slips through the controlled image she projects.

Disney producer Thomas Schumacher put it this way: “Who of us doesn’t want a Mary Poppins in our life? Someone to love us unconditionally, to be magical but not too sappy, to enchant us and to make everything right, and then to leave us to do it on our own.”

It’s a very good description. Anyone would want a Mary Poppins.

But I don’t think anyone would want to be one.

And yet, sometimes we are. Sometimes—often—I am.

Why?

Partly, it’s fear. Deep down, sometimes we doubt if we’re really all that likeable. If very few people really know us, they can’t hurt us, right? It’s easier, sometimes, to keep up a practical perfect persona than to risk others sticking around when we let it slip.

And then there’s pride. If we can do it all on our own—if they need us but we rarely need them—that makes us feel good about ourselves and our abilities. Admitting we are not fine or don’t know or need to talk would make that come crashing down in the time it takes to say “Please help.”

And maybe that’s the most dangerous thing about this: it looks so…holy from the outside.

We give of our time and energy and resources until we feel empty…but we never give ourselves, the most carefully-guarded parts of us, anyway. We are willing to serve, but never to accept service. We accept admiration and become a loveable icon and hope that it will be enough to make us feel acceptable and useful and worthy.

It won’t. It can’t be. If you live for others, you will soon find that they are fallible and frail, just like you. They can love you, and some of them will. They can see Jesus in your weakest attempts at imitating him. They are worthy of your time and attention, even when you feel you don’t have much left.

But they cannot give you purpose.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is beauty in giving, even to the point where you surrender your own desires over and over again for others. In an era where empowerment and self-fulfillment are virtues, I want to say something completely different, to applaud the quietly heroic sacrifices that many around me make every day.

But I also want to remind you, gently, that it’s not enough.

You can love others with all the strength you have. You can be magical but not too sappy. You can be enchanting and make everything right.

That’s not what God has called you to.

If you spend your whole life dispensing wise advice and cheery tunes and spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down, no matter how hard you work and how good you appear, in the end you’ll find it’s a hollow imitation of what your life could be.

Yes, love others. But let them love you. Stay when you could move on. Ask for prayer. Admit when you don’t understand. Mourn for something you’ve lost. Accept forgiveness. Most of all, live in confidence as a child of God, not as everyone’s favorite hero who’s practically perfect in every way.

LeFouGate, Part Two: A Christian Response

Have you ever had this strange, twingy, glance-over-the-shoulder feeling that something is wrong even when there are no obvious signs of it? That’s how I felt about my last blog post on Christians’ reaction to the announcement that LeFou would be portrayed as gay in Beauty and the Beast.

At first, I couldn’t pin down what was bothering me. Most everyone loved it. It was pretty mildly worded and cautious. I didn’t get sucked into the sarcasm trap or say anything that someone could take personally.

lefou3

And, although I felt like I didn’t cover nearly the ground I wanted to, the main message was helpful: if you’re going to be offended by something, be careful to explain why in a gracious way to start better discussions.

But there’s something important that I completely left out.

All of the sample explanations I gave were reasonably worded. Even if you totally disagree with their take on sexual ethics—whether homosexual relations are okay or not—I hope they came across simply as people taking a stand on something they believed.

But—and this is hard—I think some, even most, Christians were not just upset about a gay character in a Disney movie because of their interpretations of the Bible or because of their desire to maintain the innocence of their children.

They were upset because sometimes they do consider LGBT people offensive. They find the idea of loving others who deeply disagree with them in this area incredibly hard. Some are trying to work out what that looks like. Some, sadly, don’t want to. (more…)