Cracks in the Wall

Tease me if you want but I sometimes love facebook. I like reconnecting with old friends and seeing how our lives have turned out. Sometimes I laugh because they are exactly as I thought they would be. But yesterday, I found two friends on facebook and it stirred a great excitement. Both were friends from youth group at the beige church. I got frustrated at times with them because they seemed like the perfect family. Both went to Christian schools, were always talking about good quiet times or retreats, and listened to Christian music; people loved them. In my normal cynical fashion, I assumed they would go on to be pastors, wear polo shirts and never really encounter the real world. I am a judgmental jerk at times. And often, I am realizing, I am completely wrong.

I was right that they would go on to be pastors. But not the way I assumed. One is leading a community of "skeptics and dreamers" in Pennsylvania. The other is a youth pastor in Colorado. From what I have heard from them and read of their work, they are doing amazing things. I found myself getting excited about how God is at work in our lives and communities. But mostly about how God through His Gospel transforms peoples lives.

They say you should never assume because it makes an ass out of you and me. I assume anyway. In this case, I figured I was the only person who had grown up in Sunday School and seen the error in some of its teachings. I wanted everyone who went to Sunday School with me to have turned out to be robots who blindly believed everything. It gave me a feeling of superiority- I was the smart one, the only one who could reconcile the problems in the institution with the truth that I hold so dear. I am ready to admit I was wrong.

Sure, there are probably some who never get out of the mindset that whatever they learned at church must be true. But, what I realized this morning is simple: God is bigger than Sunday School. These guys I reconnected with know the Gospel and speak of redemption. God reached past our limited knowledge of grace and showed all three of us its power. No one is beyond it- no matter how perfect his/her life may seem. These guys are living real lives. I arrogantly thought that anyone who was the model youth group attender could not possibly live with such authenticity. I am happy to be incorrect.

I am not the only one to believe this story and I am excited, for the first time, to meet others who share this experience. All is not lost. And maybe, my cynicism is cracking...

I am Woman, Hear Me Roar?

When I was 14, I wrote a manifesto calling for reform of the advertising industry. I thought (and continue to think) the industry should be more responsible in its use of models who are much thinner than average because of the way we, as young women, looked at the ads. Regardless of our opinions on advertising, most, if not all, of the women I know have difficulty loving our bodies. But at 14, I started a crusade. My mother spent much of my adolescence reminding me that not everything has to be a revolution.

Women do have a lot of expectations place on us in life. We are expected to be wives, mothers, businesswomen, feminine, smart, beautiful, funny, and nurturing. And sadly, the church does not relieve those pressures. I am not sure what prompted my thoughts on this topic, except that I found myself in a situation where I needed to be assertive. And I thought to myself, “If I am assertive, I will not be attractive because godly, patient women are attractive. And godly women are not assertive.” While Sunday School is not entirely to blame, I remembered the lessons about Biblical femininity and heard those messages play out in my head even now, ten or fifteen years later.

The phrase “Biblical femininity” entered my vocabulary when I was 14 and my family first attended the beige church. My church in California had not addressed gender much, if at all. So at the moment I was beginning to think about what it is like to be a woman in this culture, I was inundated with lessons of what the Bible says about being a woman. 

There are multiple sides to the Biblical femininity debate though I mostly heard the traditional view. One says that we should emulate the women described in Paul and Peter’s letters- endeavoring to serve our families, be good housewives, hospitable and submissive to our husbands. This view is inherently opposed to what the world in general says, women should endeavor to do everything. All sides are probably right. I do not want to address the theology of it. I am not an expert on it. What I do know is the way this debate deeply affected me.

In high school, and really for my entire life, I was bossy. I liked to tell people what to do and when to do it. My brothers and their friends were constantly under my influence and power. My aunt calls me the “benevolent dictator” of our neighborhood. I was loud, bubbly and argumentative. Many will argue I still am. But, in high school and in youth group, I learned those things were detrimental to my future. I do not remember anyone telling me that it was bad to be bubbly, loud, aggressive or driven. They did however provide strong arguments to be patient, godly, passive, demure, pure and hospitable. 

My small group would open our Bibles and look for verses about women: Proverbs 31 (The Traits of a Godly Wife), the books of Ruth and Esther, Paul and Peter’s letters about marriage and husbands and wives. I think because we were adolescent girls, trying to understand what it meant to be a woman, like most adolescent girls are, we naturally turned to the Bible and books by Elizabeth Eliot, wife of martyred missionary, Jim Eliot. Ironically, if you really read Proverbs 31, Ruth and Esther, you will not find passive women waiting for a husband and family. Proverbs 31 describes a businesswoman. Ruth and Esther took charge of their families and nations and played active parts in both the story of Christianity and their lives. But, for some reason, the message I took away from all of this was that the way I am was wrong. 

I remember my youth pastor saying that one of our leaders was “a really godly woman.” She was not married but was in fulltime ministry. Women who were held up as role models were always wives and mothers and/or in fulltime ministry. Thanks to Facebook I have reconnected with many friends from youth group. Most of the women I knew are now married and most have gone through counseling programs at seminaries so they can be Christian counselors.

I compiled a list of what godly women were like based on my observations. Godly women wore long dresses and had long hair. They wore terrible shoes and no makeup. It took me several counseling sessions just to go buy makeup, let alone decide to wear it sometimes. Having learned that godly women did not need the outward adornments, I wanted to prove I was not superficial. So, I refused to wear it, despite the fact that it is fun at times. Godly women did not care what the world thought. I could not stop worrying what the world, specifically the Christian world, thought of me.

None of the women I heard described as “godly” were like me. I quickly adapted from aggressive, driven and loud to quiet, self-conscious and driven to please others. Giving up on my true nature led to greater conflict within me and in essence the loss of myself. I went from being comfortable with who I was and how I looked to insecure and far from confident. I wanted to fit in with these girls and wanted to be seen as godly because godly women got the godly men to marry them. And when that is the ultimate goal (see previous blog post), it becomes necessary to adapt. Even now, I start to wonder if the path I have chosen is wrong. Will a great Christian guy want to marry someone who wants to own her own business, likes to wear make up and does not know how to cook?

It’s not that I have a problem with the path many of my friends have taken. I just wonder if things would have worked out differently if we had been informed that the Proverbs 31 woman was a successful businesswoman and that who we are is who we were created to be.

Both sides of this argument have merit and fault. On one side, we hear that women should be successful, equal to men and driven. On the more traditional side, we hear women should not be aggressive and should not pursue careers that would take them away from their families or husbands. But both of these camps are full of “shoulds.” The whole point of Christianity is that we cannot live up to standards- on either side. What if girls were taught that who they were created to be- long hair, short hair, good shoes, bad shoes, loud, quiet, aggressive or demure- was just fine. The last thing any of us need is a group telling us we need to be less feminine or more feminine. Godly women are women who follow God. It is as simple as that. Perhaps that is where we should leave it, instead of creating a new list of standards to be considered good enough for God, his service and godly men.

Those Pearly Gates

My grandma is dying. The doctors and nurses say her death is imminent though she has been known to rally before. But there will probably not be a rally this time, which is okay. She has lived much longer than she would have without serious medical intervention. She has some severe form of dementia and for the last few years has struggled to remember even the simplest details. When my grandpa died six years ago, she began to steadily decline mentally. I think she is ready to be done and as she believes in life after death, I think she is looking forward to being with my grandpa and being well again.

It may sound callous to say that I am happy for her. But, if what I believe is true, then she will go on living. Thinking about my grandma’s impending death (which of course leads me to think about my parents’ deaths and my death someday) is the ultimate challenge to my faith. If what I believe is true, then death is merely a passing from one realm to another. But what if it is not? Then death is the most frightening thing we can imagine. As I read recently, if we only have one life to live, is it worth living? 

Growing up death was terrifying. The first death I remember was my uncle’s. He died due to pneumonia when I was sick. I remember a few things, like visiting the hospital. Because I was so little, I was not allowed to go in his room and had to play My Little Ponies in the waiting room with my cousin Sabrina. Obviously I was not thinking about the philosophical implications of the events. I can remember one day when my dad cried and was sad after a phone call. When I asked my mom why everyone was crying, she told me my uncle had died. As heaven was a very assumed reality to me, I did not necessarily understand the sadness.

At church in San Francisco, we used to sing a song about heaven. I do not know the exact words but it’s something about not rollerskating up to the pearly gates. Some research has uncovered the actual lyrics:

Oh you can't get to heaven
on roller skates
'cause you'll skate right through those pearly gates

Oh you can’t get to heaven
with nickels in your jeans
'cause the Lord don't allow
No slot machines

Oh you can’t get to heaven
in a rocking chair
'cause the Lord don't allow
no lazy bones there

Oh you can’t get to heaven
on a pair of skis
'cause you'll ski right through
St. Peter's knees

If you get there before I do
Just drill a hole
And pull me through

If I get there
Before you do
I'll drill a hole
And spit on you

This was my first lesson about heaven. Heaven would have pearly gates and golden streets. An old man would stand at the gate and check us in, like at a hotel. We had better hope we were on the list. And there would be no rollerskating in heaven.

When I was four or five, I loved to watch the “Royaled Wedding,” a VHS recording of Prince Andrew and Princess Fergie’s wedding. I watched it over and over. It was during one such viewing that I turned to my other grandmother and asked her why she did not believe in Jesus. When she replied, I informed her that she should believe in Jesus so she wouldn’t go to hell. That did not go over very well. The Royaled Wedding may have been turned off at that point.

A few years later, I learned that heaven was going to be all about God, which sounded alright at first. Then my Sunday School teacher said, “Won’t it be great to sing praises to God forever?” And I started to dread it. I was afraid of death because I did not (and do not) want to spend forever singing cheesy Christian songs and listening to guitar guys everywhere play the same four chords. A friend of mine recently told me that growing up, he was taught that heaven would be just like church and he panicked. Heaven did not sound so good. And I began to wonder why I would want to go there if it just meant an eternal church service.

Heaven was supposed to be the perk of being a Christian. We were supposed to believe so we would live after we died. We were supposed to tell others so they could spend eternity with us and God not bad people and the devil. Heaven (or rather, not Hell) was our goal and purpose. Believing in Jesus was good for at least one thing- getting to the good place after we died.

At the beige church, my one and only stint in a Calvinist church, the rules of heaven were even more important. You had to be a Christian, a real, authentic Christian to go to heaven. And God had predestined us to either believe in him and go to heaven or not believe in him and go to hell. (Note- that is not what I believe, just what I was taught). Again, heaven and eternity caused chaos and panic inside me. What if I was not an authentic Christian? I had doubts, fears and skepticism and I was not always nice to people. What if all that pointed to an eternity spent in hell because I was not a part of this chosen group? I prayed dozens of times for Jesus to “come into my heart.” I figured that if I prayed it over and over, the odds would work in my favor and one of these prayers would stick. Rather than comforting me, life after death, eternity and heaven became more reasons to worry. 

The idea that any of us know the exact dimensions or rules of heaven and life after death is preposterous. Even people who have been dead for a few minutes and then are revived do not know exactly what heaven is like. Some people believe it is a rehabilitation of this earth and this world. Others believe it is an entirely different world. Some think it will be like the Philadelphia cream cheese commercials and we will all float around on clouds. I cannot even venture a guess. But, if what I read in the Bible is true, then it will be great. I do not believe there will be a forever praise and worship service. Or, if there is, I like to think God will let me skip that. But, we will know what God is like because we will see him. There will be no wars, fighting or meanness. There will not be any more sadness or death or pain or suffering. And after this week of my grandma’s death (she died while I was writing this post), I am looking forward to not having to experience sadness or pain. I do not know much about heaven. I just know that it would be ironic to spend our time worrying about the qualities and rules of a place that will not have worry or anxiety. Or rollerskating for that matter.

First Comes Love

It has taken me a long time to write this post. I think I wanted to avoid it as long as I could because it had the potential to be bitter and because it is the most personal subject. I was actually surprised by how deeply writing this affected me. I expected to hesitate the most before sharing about my mental issues or my personal sin. But no, what I am most nervous about is addressing the idea of marriage as taught in Sunday School. Really there are three topics to cover- dating, marriage and sex. Marriage is at the forefront of my mind because my roommate is getting married next month and we are in full wedding mode. Except today, we paused from looking at flowers and dresses and invitations to talk about what marriage is and what we always thought it would be. 

I should back up and say that marriage is good, it is right and it is holy. I do not have much baggage surrounding marriage because my parents have been married happily for twenty-eight years. My grandparents divorced when I was 19 (yes, I know that is weird and yes, many people told me how weird it was when it was happening). But that did not affect my idea of marriage much because of my parents. 

To begin, if you look at our culture, it does not take long for something good to be twisted. We get so excited about something that is great that we become somewhat obsessed. Please see American Idol, Britney Spears and beanie babies as evidence. Each is good (I guess) in its own right but it gets weird when it’s a national obsession. I am simultaneously horrified and impressed that more people vote for our American Idol than for our President. The show itself is good and watched regularly in our apartment. But there is something wrong with these people who keep auditioning every year despite the fact that they are profiled each year for being so terrible. I love Britney Spear’s music. I can admit it. But the fact that we love her so much and put her on the cover of every magazine for doing things like shaving her head is disturbing and in some ways, has caused some of the problems she is facing now. As far as the beanie baby phenomenon- I cannot even venture to understand it. I just think it’s weird. We can take pretty much anything good and make it into an obsession.

For those of us who grew up in Sunday School, I think we did that with marriage. We all have a desire to be known, to be loved, to be chosen. We want the love, partnership and companion that we will find in marriage and in our spouse. This is where becomes so personal- I want to be married someday. Yes, I too am excited to have someone to spend national holidays with (it’s a line from When Harry Met Sally). But, we begin to obsess on it and that is where the problem lies. I do not want to imagine a future without being married.

At the beige church, I was possessed. I spent more time in church thinking about the story of my relationship with my future husband than what church actually meant. Over the course of four years, I thought I would marry one of five guys. I had the perfect Christian scenario for each of them. With Adam (names have been changed to prevent some serious embarassment), I met him early on in high school, we would go to prom together, we would go to college together and he would propose at the spot where we met in church, with his guitar and a song he had written just for me (that had religious overtones of course). Peter would propose on a mountain because it a. showed God’s creation and b. was where we liked to hike a lot. Mike would fall in love with me on a mission trip to Nepal and then would propose in Mexico, where I would be working as a missionary and an English teacher. James would fall madly in love with me when we were youth pastors together at the church. And Kevin would have been so enamored with my love of children and my desire to open an orphanage in Cuba that he would propose on the spot in Havana. Yes, I could have written Christian romance novels. I am so glad I did not. The important thing you will notice is that not one of these stories continued past the proposal. What more could there be?

This obsession continued in college too. I can vividly remember sitting around a table with a bunch of friends from college. We were all at Christian beach week (yes, we had Christian beach week. Yes, we drank and had fun). Someone said, “let’s play ‘where will we be in ten years.’” We went in a circle and took turns describing the life of the person on our right. My friend Bryan set up an elaborate scenario for our friend Chris involving tightrope walking and a motorcycle racing career. But then we got to one of the girls. “You’re going to be an amazing Christian counselor married to a doctor with four kids,” she said to the girl on her right, who promptly began to tear up. I am not kidding when I tell you that every girl around the table used that description for the girl on her right. I am also not kidding when I tell you that Mary and I played “Where would you be without Jesus” and we decided I would be a judgmental bitch and she would be addicted to painkillers. It was not the same game. In the whole discussion though, I was struck by the fact that no one described a life without including marriage.

In high school, we often read books about dating and marriage. I think in part because it appealed to our romantic nature. We wanted to read about couples who had not met before their engagement or who had kissed dating goodbye but still married great people. We wanted to know that no matter what, the people who wrote these books ended up married. I remember reading Passion and Purity and being excited that someday, someone would love me enough to marry me and desire me. And excited that someday someone would inspire true passion in me. I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye because I wanted to pursue the godliest path. And they all said that godly girls got good guys quickly. What is not to like about that message?

Looking back, I see how those books really just crushed us. Most are written to encourage Christian teenagers to not have sex before marriage (which, incidentally is not working. Christian kids are having sex at the same rate as non-Christian kids). They come from an opinion that having sex before marriage is the absolute worst thing that could happen. I think it’s a bad idea (for many reasons- not just because of the Bible) but I don’t think it’s the worst thing that could happen or that the whole institution of marriage depends on keeping us pure. Those books added so many more rules to our lives and depicted marriage as something much more important than it is. Again, I have the utmost respect for marriage but bear with me. 

As my roommate and I were talking this morning, I said, “Christians seem to see marriage as the culmination of our lives. When really isn’t that supposed to be heaven?” And Laura said, “Christians have a flawed view of it. Often we love God so we can get married.” We were told that if we were good Christians, models of biblical femininity and hospitality, if we were patient and pure like the woman in Proverbs 31, God would reward us with a husband. We hear stories of women or men who prayed for a spouse and because they prayed and were “in God’s will” they met the right person. As far as we saw, life ended at the wedding. We acted in certain ways to keep us in God’s will, not because we love him and desire to serve him but because we would get a great wife or husband out of it. If you grew up in a youth group, you remember those talks about dating and marriage. People who were pure, patient and self-controlled got the good mates and good marriages. I wish someone had told me just how poisonous that line of thinking is.

Even outside of the topic of marriage, this is a common view of life- we have to have it all together before we can get whatever it is that we desire. We think we need to be good enough to deserve the perfect job, the perfect family, or the perfect spouse. It’s not how it works. Maybe it’s just me, but when I try to have it all together, I fail miserably. I always have. If this line of thinking is true, I am royally screwed. If I have to be perfect before I can be loved and married, it will never happen.

This brings me to another point. Metaphors point to something greater, they are not literal. In the Bible, marriage is a metaphor for how Jesus loves the church. He left his perfect heaven to enter into our dirty, messy lives and gave up his rights to all sorts of good things to be a sacrifice for us. And we do not have to perfect to get it; he loves us even when we’re completely flawed. That is damn romantic, if you ask me. But, we get more excited about the metaphor than we do about the real thing. It’s understandable because we can’t touch Jesus. We can’t wake up next to him and we cannot spend national holidays with him (you get what I am saying). Marriage is supposed to show us a small slice of what grace and Jesus are like. Marriage is not heaven. You are not incomplete without a spouse and you are not necessarily successful in your faith if you do have one. Our faith does not exist to get us a spouse or to guarantee us a perfect marriage. Our lives do not end with the wedding. Our lives keep going. 

Marriage cannot be the culmination of the story of our lives. That’s already happened- Jesus sacrificed himself and rose from the dead. We were created, we fell and we were redeemed. That’s it. It’s done and marriage is not required. Marriage is a partnership, a moving forward in that faith together. It does not make you a super-Christian. You are loved already and yes, marriage will be great. I am excited for it. But there is more to be learned at church and in the Bible than how to catch a great guy. We’ve got enough reading material on that subject at it is.

1400 Baby!

My best friend from college, Mary, never answers her phone. She has been going through some tough stuff lately so I call her regularly to tell her voicemail I am thinking about her and hope she’s doing okay. So when she answered on Thursday night, I did not believe it was her. In fact, I thought she had changed the message to say “Hi Janey” because I call so often. But it was, in fact, Mary. We were talking about different things going on in our lives and she told me about yet another tragedy in her life (there have been a lot lately). She then said something interesting, “Whenever I am around Christians (she had just returned from some sort of retreat), I feel like we compete to see who has the worst problems and the most difficult life.” After a week of wondering what I could possibly write about, Mary gave me the answer. 

Why do we compete for the worst life? It’s completely opposite of how most of us would think. Usually, we try to have the best life, the nicest, biggest, cheapest apartment (I live in New York where people freely discuss how much or how little they pay for rent- it’s not even remotely taboo). We try to have the nicest clothes or the best car or the smartest children. But I have noticed among Christians the same problem that Mary noticed. We all want to have the most difficult life.

I remember small group from the beige church and if someone shared a struggle or a sad thing, usually people would “hmm” or “yeah” while she spoke and then would share their own experience with that struggle or something sad. I remember in fifth grade Sunday School, I heard someone talking about their mom hitting something with her car. I immediately rushed into the conversation and said, “One time, my dad hit a rabbit. It was so sad.” That was a big deal for me- we had hit a rabbit on our vacation and I made my dad go back to make sure it was okay. It was not. Then my teacher informed me that this classmate of mine’s mom had hit a child with her car. I still feel awful about my statement.

I think we try to make our lives seem more difficult for a few reasons. I think part of it is what I addressed in an earlier blog post about testimonies. I think we believe that unless there is something major to triumph over, our story is worthless. It makes sense from a narrative perspective. Who wants to watch a movie where the hero just has to walk upstairs to get his princess? Or who wants to watch a movie about two dogs and a cat in the backyard? No, we want him to have to cut through huge briar forests and defeat the evil witch (Sleeping Beauty). We want the animals to have to walk all the way across America with some sassy dialogue and humorous antics (Homeward Bound) to get back to their families. Without difficulty, our stories seem much more boring. But we need to shift our thinking- we are not the heroes of our own stories. We are the princesses needing rescuing. I am going to write more on this later.

I also think it’s in reaction to what we are often compelled to do- be prideful and brag about our great lives. I can feel that reaction in me. Because we do not want to portray Jesus as the great white rabbit’s foot that can fix everything if we just carry him with us, we dive into a different picture- one where Jesus doesn’t fix anything on earth and in our lives and where our lives continue to suck or even get worse. There are two ends of the spectrum: those who preach the Health and Wealth Gospel and those who preach the Despair Gospel (if that makes sense). The first group is often quite popular, a la Joel Osteen, because they talk about Jesus like a self-help guru. We can live our best lives ever, make a lot of money, feel better, lose weight, fix whatever it is that ails us, etc. by believing in Jesus. Who doesn’t want that to work? Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, authentic Christianity says that there are bigger problems than our poverty, our illness and our weight issues. 

This is where the second group tends toward a gospel of despair- the world is broken, we are sinful, nothing changes until we get to heaven. Our lives are more difficult because that is how we can know we are Christians, if our lives suck. There are flaws in this too, obviously. Whenever I hear people say that the world is in a downward spiral and we’re only a few steps away from the apocalyptic chaos depicted in Doomsday, Waterworld (a great movie if you watch it as a comedy rather than the drama it was intended to be) etc., I am always drawn to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s what I studied in school and I love that period of history because it shows how God does in fact care about people and our lives on earth and prompted thousands to move together to change things. I know it may not be the best example but you cannot convince me that culture is falling apart when only forty years ago, our entire culture shifted and serious wrongs were righted. And, Christians are not the only people who suffer. Everyone does. Suffering is not what makes us a Christian. It is what makes us human.

But back to the problem at hand, why do we compete for the Toughest Life Award? As I said, I think part of it is a desire for a better story and part is in reaction to the misguided Health and Wealth preachers. But I think part of it is also things we learned in Sunday School. We learned that Christians’ lives are not perfect just because they are Christians. And we learned about the saints (thank you Sacred Heart Catholic School) and martyrs of the faith. Job was held up as an example of how Christians should respond under duress. I think somewhere in my mind, I equated great suffering with great faith. I somehow came to believe that God did not want me to be happy, he wanted me to be sad. I walk around in great fear of the next tragedy. Whenever my life seems good or fun or like what I want it to be, I get anxious. I worry that something will happen to my family or my friends. I have become catastrophic. And I do not think I am alone. 

I think deep down, I believe that God will continue to test me (again, see Job- it’s hard not to think we have to stand up under serious pressure to make God happy), because I am good enough to handle it. I think of Bible verses about how God will not give us more than we can bear. When you carry that idea through, you see how easy it is to believe that the best Christians, the ones who are suffering the most are the ones who can bear the most. Therefore, (I feel somewhat like a lawyer here), we think that we must suffer greatly to be great Christians.

But here’s the deal- we are never good enough to handle it. Yes, we may not collapse in a heap on the floor when tragedy strikes. We may have incredibly difficult lives (this is in no way to diminish those very sad experiences people have). But, we do not have to be cheerful or joyful or respond silently as Job did to be good Christians. The truth is we, on our own, are not good enough or strong enough to handle it. I wish someone had told me that suffering is not a test; you do not get a score. It’s like those kids in high school who would tell you what they got on the SAT, not just for your information but to make sure you knew how smart they are. Note to those kids- we get it- you’re smart. We do not have to “pass the test” on how to suffer well. It’s okay to be angry and hurt and cry out to God. Hell, Jesus did on the cross. 

So what does this all mean? Does it mean we should quit telling our friends about our pain? No. It does, however, mean that maybe we should listen to one another before sharing our own problems and maybe we should take a moment to make sure we are sharing for the good of others and not to let them know we got a 1400 on our SATs, even if we did (I did not, for the record). And ultimately, we are not expected to suffer well. It is not an indication of whether you are a good Christian. Suffering is an experience we share as humans and we should say thank you to the God we can cry out to, rather than thank you for the suffering ‘cause it’s a chance to show how awesome I am. Though if anyone has prayed that prayer, I give you major points because it is hilarious.

North Face Jackets for All

We all want some direction. I mean, who among us hasn’t asked, what should I do? Or who should I be with? Or where should I move? Or better yet, why am I here? We all ask these questions. I know I ask them daily. I feel like if you could draw a table of my life (which, as a complete nerd, I will admit, I totally have), there would be questions marks in almost every field. Slowly, as I get older, I answer a few of the questions. I want to be a preschool teacher and artist. But, I have no idea who I will be with or where I should be or when I should be there. 

In junior high and high school, I looked for meaning all the time. I cannot be the only person who had a mother who told me I was “just figuring out who I am.” And I know I am not the only person who was dumped because the guy was still trying to figure out what he was supposed to be doing with his life or needed some time to figure his life out. And I think because of my church-going, I looked to God to answer all of my questions about my life at once.

For a romantic teenage girl, like me, the best thing God can tell her is whether or not she is going to be married and which cute boy she will marry. Looking back on it, I am so glad he a. has not told me whether or not I will be married and b. that it was not one of the boys I knew in high school. But, I had read the books and heard the testimonies of those couples who had just known in one instant that they would spend the rest of their lives together. I wanted that to be me. I actually thought I heard that voice once but that guy is married and I haven’t spoken to him in years. So I guess I was wrong. I have not even pretended to hear something similar since.

But as I got older, the questions got bigger. What would my career be like? Where should I move? What kind of mom will I be? What kind of person will I be? I always heard that we needed to be in line with God’s will. That it was important to ask him to show us what to do or where to go. If we were not in God’s will, he would not bless us and we would not be right with him. But, as much as I sought it, I did not know his will. I was often told that as doors close and windows open, we will know which way is God’s will. But that was not always easy enough for me.

One of my friends from youth group at the beige church (it’s just easier to identify churches by colors, it’s how I remember them) once told me that she did not know whether to play lacrosse or run track in the spring. When she heard it was going to snow, she prayed that if it was God’s will for her to play lacrosse, that it would snow exactly an inch. When she woke up, they reported we had gotten an inch of snow and she had her answer. I tried that a few times but it seemed a little too “church voodoo” for me. We think that if we set conditions (if only an inch, if I roll a six, if the lights go out), God will be happy to work in those parameters. 

There is a story about a guy named Gideon. He wanted to know the answer to whether or not to attack a group of people. He put a fleece outside and if it was wet, he knew he was supposed to. I may have gotten that flipped- maybe it was supposed to stay dry. Anyway, it indicated he was supposed to attack. So then, he reversed the conditions and it again indicated he was supposed to attack. So he did and they won. It is really only about ten verses long. We often stop at that part of the story. What we don’t remember is that he went on to hear God tell him to cut his army by almost 90 percent and then go save Israel. We like the first part where we set the rules, God is happy to play along and we win. There have been a few times in my life where I have wanted to set up this same trial. As a seven year old, I figured my Patagonia fleece would have to do. But I was too embarrassed to actually set my jacket outside. To be honest, I probably also feared what my mom would say when she found my jacket lying outside in a rainstorm.

It is hard to criticize this method since it apparently worked for some people, namely the nation of Israel. But, I think we long for answers to the point that we are willing to put human constraints on God. If only we were taught that God’s going to do his will no matter what we do. Fleece or no fleece, God can make anything happen. It’s a matter of trust. If I am honest, I have to say that I would much rather rely on my sopping wet jacket than on faith. 

But I also think we tend to use “God’s will” as an excuse. I used to think that if I woke up on time, I was clearly supposed to go to breakfast with a friend. If I did not, maybe God was keeping me from a car accident or something like that. I heard many stories of how people were supposed to be somewhere but then, there was traffic and so they avoided the snowstorm or car accident or whatever disaster awaited them. We use “God’s will” to allow ourselves to make choices others may not agree with or as the ultimate justification for our actions. I remember friends in youth group shrugging off meetings or plans because they said it wasn’t “God’s will.” In reality, we were just lazy. Or there were the times we would openly criticize one another (aka speak the truth in love) because God had “put it on our hearts” to do so.

As a history fan, I cannot think of two words that have caused more pain and suffering when misused than “God’s will”: The Crusades, the conquistadors, Manifest Destiny, wars, fighting, and ultimately manipulation. Who can argue with “God’s will?” It’s a hard statement to stand up to.

I still get angry when I think about how we have taken something good and turned it bad. Ultimately, I am happy that someone other than me is in control of the universe. It lets me relax and not be anxious. But, when I hear people say that it is God’s will for all of us to be healthy and wealthy, or that terrible things that happened are a result of God’s will, something deep inside me churns. I know we want some direction, but at what cost? Usually the people who are using the term “God’s will” are just trying to strengthen their own case. When his will is being spun to create support for our personal goals, I have to doubt that it is actually what he wants us to do. 

I do not have much of a solution. Just perhaps when we talk about God’s will, particularly to adolescents, maybe we should talk about it as something holy and deep rather than something trivial and useful in debate.

Freefalling


I have always hated to fly. No, that’s not quite fair, I used to enjoy flying when I was five, blissfully unaware of the fact that we were hurtling along, miles above the ground, relying solely on two metal wings and physics. Once I understood that, I hated flying. I hate that we need to fly places. I know flight and airplanes have made what would have been a sixteen-hour drive a three-hour flight. But, I do not like airplane seats, or airplane food (though now, most airlines have quit serving it). I do like smooth flights that make me forget that I am in a large metal canister suspended in air. I should not be so melodramatic, but I really don’t like flying. However, in this day and age, flying is a necessity, especially when traveling from Huntsville, Alabama, as I did last week. 

My memories of previous bad trips came back to me when I was leaving Memphis on my flight home from Huntsville. I was tired and had just smeared vegetable cream cheese on the garment bag I was carrying. The airport was hot and muggy, like the rest of the South, and the cream cheese had melted. When I started to eat the bagel, I got the cheese on my hand and then touched the garment bag. I had to use three napkins from the ice cream kiosk to get it off and the ice cream server did not look happy with my repeated trips to the napkin stand, especially since I had not purchased their product. 

But when I approached the gate, I was finally holding a clean garment bag. I sighed and handed my ticket to the gate attendant. The ticket scanner beeped ominously and red lights began to flash. This was not a good sign. I know because my little brother sets off alarms at airports all the time. He has a fairly all-American name, which of course, is on the terror watch list. I guess they think that it would make a good alias. But he’s sixteen and only travels with my parents. Every time we travel, they randomly select him for an extra security question at the ticket counter and an extra security search at the metal detectors. I would believe he just had bad luck on those random flaggings but the truth is, it’s really not so random. But each time he flies, they have to call the CIA or FBI or some group to ensure that this sixteen-year-old kid with braces and a generic name can actually be trusted to not violate national security.

So my ticket did not scan properly. They checked the computer and my name was not on the passenger manifest. (A very special thank you to the television show Lost for teaching me the meaning of “passenger manifest”). After several different combinations of my last name, first name, seat assignment and ISBN number, they found me, issued me a new ticket that was exactly the same as the last one and let me on board. Actually, that ticket also set off the scanner’s alert systems, but they let me fly regardless. 

I got to my seat only to find two teenage girls sitting in my row. It turns out they were friends who wanted to sit with each other but, since another woman and I both showed up to sit in Row 19, they were separated. I’m sure it was fine. I was in the middle seat, which I mentally complained about, though it’s really not a problem since I am five foot four. I am still not a fan of it. But I was seated between an older African-American woman who was reading Jackie Collins’s latest novel, something about death and romance, and a fifteen-year-old girl who read her Bible. I rolled my eyes at both- one was reading less than intellectual literature and the other was well, reading her Bible on a plane.

The fifteen-year-old girl next to me was also writing a letter, which I tried not to read over her shoulder. However, she wrote in fifteen-year-old girl handwriting that means it was big and bubbly and hard not to notice. Dear friend, I wish you were here in Memphis with us. I was at church camp and you should have seen me. I was so filled with the Holy Spirit. My eyelids were all swollen. I chuckled silently as she leaned forward so I could not read the rest. I laughed because I am sure I have written letters like that before, though I did not know that the Holy Spirit caused our eyelids to swell. 

I then realized that it was rude to read over someone’s shoulder, especially a fifteen-year-old girl writing to her friend. I would have been mortified if I knew that people had read my deeply personal thoughts about God and the Holy Spirit. So I quit reading over her shoulder and started reading Life and Style, which is almost as embarrassing. 

Then she put away the notebook and reached into her overstuffed purse to withdraw a bright blue book with a plasticized cover. It was almost holographic with the image of bubbles imprinted on the cover but only seen at certain angles. It wasn’t until she opened the book that I realized it was her Bible. I am constantly amazed by the diversity of Bibles out there. You can walk into Barnes and Noble or Borders and find entire bookshelves full of Bibles- NIV, NKJV, KJV, NCV, The Message, The Guidebook, Bibles for teens, for preteens, for adults, for singles, for couples, for mothers, for grandparents. It’s not just diversity of editions; Bibles come in all sizes, shapes and colors. We have Bibles that look like old leather journals (probably designed for the rugged, intellectual Christian), Bibles with quilted covers (generally for mothers), bright pink or orange Bibles (for teenage girls) and Bibles that look as though they are covered in ads for MTV (for teenage skateboarders and indie rockers who need to carry a Bible but also need to look scene). It’s the same word of God, the same story, the same words (for the most part). We just wrap it up in plastic or synthetic leather or fabric to make it seem more relevant and less nerdy to carry our Bibles. I often wonder what God thinks about all this fancy marketing of his Word. Does he feel like Shakespeare did after the latest remake of Romeo and Juliet? Does he feel like people are getting rich off redecorating his message to us? Does he ever feel like people are missing the point?

As this teenage girl next to me read from her hip, plastic Bible, I wanted to make fun of her. I wanted to laugh inside and think, wow, honey, get a grip and read a novel. I wanted to hand her my In Style magazine and let her read something else. I also wanted to tell her that all the Bible reading the in the world wouldn’t keep us from crashing to the earth in a giant ball of fire. Like I said, I hate to fly. But I couldn’t do it. I could not do much more than smile and hope that she reads other books. I don’t know if it’s because God has dramatically changed my heart and made it harder for me to be sarcastic and relish in it. I think it was more that I saw myself. As a teenager, I thought that reading my Bible was the most important thing and the best indicator of what a good Christian I was. I read my Bible in hope that the person next to me would say, “What is that you are reading? Oh, tell me more about Jesus.” And I would get more points toward the fanny pack. Everyone knows that planes are good places to talk about religion because the person next to you cannot move. I wish someone had told me that it is okay to fly without holding a mini-revival in the aisle. And I wish someone had told me that there is a whole world out there to understand as we read our Bible.

Don’t get me wrong- I in no way am advocating putting away our Bibles. They are important and tell us about ourselves and a God who loves us. I am, however, arguing that we keep our Bibles next to Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment, To Kill a Mockingbird, Things Fall Apart and the latest John Grisham novel.

Letters about Doubt

My friend Sally and I write letters to each other. We have written them since her first year in college- which was six years ago now. This is one I wrote to her.

Dear Friend,

I wanted to write in response to your email. I have gone through a very similar period and while I may not know exactly what you are feeling, I do remember how I felt. And how I feel often. I’m not sure any of us can go through tough stuff without doubt. And if people say they don’t doubt, then they are liars and way too fake to be your friend.

One of my favorite thoughts about doubt is from some book- If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. Our relationship with God is not designed to be automated. At work, we talk a lot about how man/woman has free will. And I don’t think God made us to just believe without some internal struggle. It is the struggle that makes the belief more valuable. I think we are more devoted to things we have to fight for, even if that fight is internal. All of that may seem too theoretical but it’s like this: I am a nerd, you know that, and in classes where A’s were handed out (Leadership), I didn’t really value that A. But in my Physics class my C was something to be proud of, because I worked really hard for it. All this is to say Doubt makes us human and God would rather have us be the humans he created us to be than autotrons who are fake.

I also think we were done somewhat of a disservice by older Christians—especially when we were in high school. Somewhere I learned that I was only as good as my “quiet time.” I told my friend Michelle that I’d been a crappy Christian and then sheepishly told her I hadn’t been reading my Bible. She laughed and reminded me that I’m a good Christian when I remember I am a bad one because it shows me how grace-filled God is to love someone like me. And then she told me that there isn’t a twenty verse requirement per day to maintain my Christian status. Like at Sam’s Club when you have to pay membership dues. God isn’t going to block my entry to heaven because I didn’t have an hour-long quiet time. This is not to say the Bible or prayer is unnecessary- quite the opposite. They are so important but too often we see it as if we have to read or pray and then we do it out of a sense of obligation or legalism or perfectionism- which is not great. The Bible is so important that to read it out of guilt is to ruin what it is supposed to be- a message from God to his people. 

I’ve been realizing I’ve felt so guilty because I didn’t have quiet times like you or Cari or whoever. But we’re all different and I’ve never been able to get up at 6 am and spend an hour praying like that girl in high school that we always hated. I still don’t think that is what most people do, nor do I believe that it written anywhere in the Bible, as if the only time to relate to God or to learn anything about him is at six. I think that is mostly for the hardcore Christians who want to prove how crazy about Jesus they are- like people who wake up at 2 am on December 26th to get the deal but really do it just to tell other people about their crazy devotion to saving money on towels and sheet sets. But don’t let sucky quiet times or lack of desire to pray get you down. I know you will find other ways to connect with God. 

After my depression, I did not want to read my Bible at all. I hated reading about all these people who were redeemed or had great joy or peace. It just made me more despondent and thought I’d never be rescued. And I would not sing at church. People only write happy melodies for praise songs. I felt like I would be the biggest poser to sing a song such as “God of Wonders” when I didn’t believe that God could control my turmoil let alone the universe. So I didn’t read my Bible, I didn’t sing and the more I think about it, I probably didn’t pray.

But two things happened: One was that my truly amazing friends and family stood in my place before God and cried out for healing and joy. I know this because I heard you all do it. And the other was that I started to volunteer with kids. I couldn’t find God in my prayer times or in songs but when Sam would sit in my lap or Caroline would draw me a picture, I found God there. It may be crazy but I know God can be found in everything around us and sometimes finding another way to connect with God reminds me that God is all and in all.

Lastly, please don’t rely too much on emotions. I’ve been really scared by my emotions in the past (please see years 2000 and 2001) and believe God is so much bigger. We tend to think that if we do not feel close to God that something is wrong. It may not be super comfortable but even when God seems far away, you know (and sometimes have to say out loud to yourself) that God is nearer than we think. I love Psalm 139- “If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” It doesn’t talking about feeling God with us. It’s just fact—he’s there. I’m sure sleeping in the depths (wherever that is) wasn’t the most God-filled feeling but God was there.

I feel like a big fake writing this since I haven’t come out of my doubts and cynicism and judgmentalism and sin and I don’t want this to sound like, “Get your shit together and be good.” It’s not. I’m not a good Christian in the legalistic sense but I know God is near to you and know that you will be made EVEN more real. It may lead you to cuss in a letter to one of your best friends (and a pastor’s wife, nonetheless) but you will have such an authentic faith. Even when God seems far and you feel bad, repeat this mantra from Henri Nouwen- “God loves me and God’s love is enough.” Sounds dumb and something you know but how different my life would look if I KNEW it in my core. I love you more than these words can say.

Guilt and the Eternal Fanny Pack

My friend Grace called me last week in a panic. She left a message on my voicemail. “I hope you are home. I am near your apartment and just had a really bad experience.” I got to my phone on the third ring and heard the message. At the same time, I saw the “Bateria Baja” alert on my phone which is programmed in Spanish. I may not be fluent but I know the words for message, texts and outgoing call. 

I plugged my phone into the charger and forgot about the message. I am not an excellent friend. I called her back around eleven. “What happened?” I asked, hoping I had not abandoned my friend in a time of great crisis. 

“It was really weird,” she said. “I was in the park reading when a guy approached me. He was friendly and started asking me questions about what I do for fun and for work.” I could hear her voice start to shift. “Then he asked if he could read my palm.” 

I remembered that another friend, Laura, had the same thing happen to her. “Grace, my friend had that guy or another guy like that approach her. It’s just a scam.”

“Well, then he asked if I wanted to go get a drink with him.” Internally, I kept thinking, please tell me you did not. But she did. “I just started to think what if God had this happen for a reason and I was supposed to share the Gospel with him.” She went, it was uncomfortable and she left pretty quickly. We talked for ten more minutes about the importance of safety and I praised her for going only to a public place and near people. 

But I recognized the tone in her voice- one of guilt and anxiety. What if God needs me to tell this person about Jesus and I don’t do it? Would he be disappointed? Would the universe fold in on itself? I had a similar feeling when I was younger and did not share “the Gospel” (the main message of Christianity) with my ex-boyfriend. I had a mild panic attack about it before reminding myself that God is way more powerful than I believe and can bring people to him even without my help. I have done a lot of stuff out of a guilty conscience- confessed pretty much everything to my parents, writing letters to ask for forgiveness years after the offending act, trying to share my entire faith in four sentences so I could quit feeling so guilty for not sharing it.

Guilt is a terrible feeling. For me, it feels like when I eat too much. I feel like I could simultaneously throw up and sink like a rock. It is a pit in my stomach or really in my esophagus that just sits there as if I swallowed a squash ball and it is filling up with water or something that makes it feel heavier. I never experience guilt without this strange phenomenon that causes my skin to feel hot but the inside layers to feel cold- almost as if I were wrapped in saran wrap. Guilt eats us up inside and slowly destroys us. It takes away our abilities to see ourselves as we truly are because we obsess over the bad thing we have done. It clouds our opinion of ourselves until we cannot see the beauty in ourselves as the people that God has forgiven completely.

I just can’t believe that God would want us to share about our lives out of guilt. It has caused many problems in the world, this feeling of guilt. We worry that if we don’t do exactly what youth group taught us, we will fail as Christians. We fear missing out on the opportunity to convert someone. Leading someone to Jesus is the pinnacle of a Christian’s life- at least so we are told. It is almost as if we are all members of one of those sales companies that advertised on the back of Archie comic books where one sale would gain you points to redeem for things like a keyboard or a fanny pack. Only in the Christian world, the convert would gain you points to redeem in heaven or temporary relief from the guilt.

While I have shared my personal faith with people and while I agree it is one of my favorite things to do, I can’t believe that Jesus wants us to convert people out of guilt. I’ve heard before that we have to share the Gospel with everyone on the earth before Jesus comes back. As if he will only come back if we systematically talk to every country about him. I also heard that if we didn’t share the Gospel with someone, we would be personally responsible for his or her eternal life in hell. Do I believe that God uses people to draw other people to himself? Absolutely- I am proof of that. Do I believe that God wants us to feel guilty and thus put ourselves in terrible situations just to alleviate some guilt that we feel, to remove the squash ball from our esophagus? No- he has come to set us free. 

This is not a pass to never talk to anyone about my faith. It does, however, cause me to use discernment in sharing my story. I have to do a double check to make sure I am doing it for the right reason, not to get the eternal fanny pack that I used to long for.

Bar Codes, Computer Chips and Eternal Damnation

I remember seeing signs up in Sacramento that said, the world will end on October 9, 1993. I’m not sure how they came up with October 9th since it’s not a special day, not an important holy day, or witch’s holiday or Marilyn Manson’s birthday (PS I do not believe he is the antichrist- just a very broken and sad man). But, I remember thinking, what if they are right- what if the world ends in three weeks? Then October 10 came around and I thought the people who made those flyers must feel like the biggest idiots. I tried to predict the end of the world shortly after that, thinking it would give me the greatest bragging rights of all time- the ultimate victory as the know-it-all ten year old I was. I was wrong too, not surprising since I just kept guessing tomorrow until I learned more about the Rapture and Tribulation.

I was in fifth grade when my Sunday School teacher, Lori, thought we should discuss how the world would end. It was not a good class. I remember we prayed and did a craft. I wish I could remember what craft we did on Rapture lesson day since I think it would be pretty funny. But she began to tell us that someone would become a powerful world leader and would tell people to do things they shouldn’t. This would be the anti-Christ. True story- when I was in high school, my friend Ben swore Bill Clinton was the anti-Christ. He was also wrong. But Lori told us that the anti-Christ would ask us to get bar codes printed on our hands or computer chips implanted in the back of our hands. And we should not do that- it was the mark of the beast. If we received the mark of the beast, we would not go to Heaven, even if we had accepted Jesus. And then everyone would get sick and no one would be happy and then Jesus would come back and rescue all the Christians in the world. We would all vanish, as if we had been vaporized. Our clothes would still be there and our cars, much like the bumper sticker says, would be unoccupied and crash into things. We would be safe. But he would only rescue the real Christians. The other people would have to stay on the earth for the Tribulation, which would be way worse. The Tribulation would involve bombs and wars and darkness and smog (at least the way I imagined it). We all had to be sure we were real Christians and did not receive a micro-chip, or we would not be rescued. This is what I learned in fifth grade.

A few years later, I read an article about the GPS locator chips implanted in dogs. I thought to myself, well, the end of the world is coming now that they can actually easily implant chips into animals’ skin.

Then in high school, I came home one day to find a half-eaten quesadilla on the counter, a deck of cards left strewn on the floor and a letter half-opened on the dining room table. My first thought was that Jesus had come back and taken my family and left me behind. I would have to live through the Tribulation, without my family. I then prayed to accept Jesus into my heart for the fiftieth time in my life. A few minutes later I discovered my dog had been hit by a car and they had all dropped everything to take him to the vet. I did not share my Rapture fear with anyone. It seemed like I was admitting I wasn’t a real Christian.

For good reason, I used to hate the book of Revelation. So many people think it describes the future and exactly how the world will end. I don’t understand the fascination with the end of the world. When it comes to Armageddon, my policy is strictly “Ignorance is bliss.” I figure that when the world ends, if I am alive, I will not have the time or energy to run around saying “Told you so.” So I might as well act like it’s not going to end for awhile. People have always argued that the end is just around the corner. Then the day they predicted for Jesus’ return comes and they go to sleep that night, waiting to be raptured, only to wake up and realize they were wrong and have to face their neighbors who probably already thought they were crazy. 

I’m beginning to appreciate Revelation now though because it tells us who Jesus is. And that no matter what we struggle with in the present moment, he defeats all of that. I don’t really like the idea of heaven as a golden city with pearly gates and fountains of joy. I also hope we do not really have to stand around singing praise songs forever. That does not sound fun to me. I do however like the part in Revelation when John describes how no one will be sick or cry or be depressed or anxious (my own translation). And I like how there will be people from all different tribes and nations there. And I like that we will be eternally happy and have purpose in our lives and be just like we were made to be. When you describe it like that, I am happy to join John in saying, Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Boring Faith

I think we’re afraid of boring faith. Boring faith doesn’t sell books or movies and certainly doesn’t hold an audience at a youth group testimonial event. It doesn’t create a buzz around us and it isn’t generally the topic of many sermons. No one ever wrote “The cross and my homework” or “Finding Jesus after many years of thought.” 

At the purple church, we celebrated the radical transformations that took place when people met Jesus. We cried with the young woman who told of her past abortion and reconciliation with her parents. We amen-ed the man who had quit smoking crack cold turkey because he heard the Gospel. Christians, like everyone else, are suckers for a blockbuster. 

Being surrounded by people who celebrate dramatic changes, I thought my own story was boring. My family was a Christian family. We moved a little bit and my dad and mom went to counseling. My brothers and I spent afternoons playing together with neighborhood friends. The worst thing I struggled with (other than general apathy) was watching a PG movie when my parents told me I was not allowed to. I lied a few times and got caught a few times. But other than those minor infractions, I didn’t have the same compelling story. I prayed to “receive Jesus into my heart” when I was five and it’s not like I was a heroin addict or prostitute before that. When people asked me what difference my faith made in my life, I did not have a real answer.

I think a lot of Christian kids struggle with that. I know I personally wanted to rebel, to stray, to react against the perfect suburban life that I lived. And by making my struggles a little bigger or more dramatic, it was as if I had. My story became one of lies, to a great extent, of changing my story to pretend I had been such a terrible person that it was a miracle Jesus accepted me, but not terrible enough for people to judge me. That is the key to a good testimony: share a few struggles, embellish them to legitimate the grace you experienced, but remain within the acceptable boundaries. For girls, it is easy to mention an eating disorder- something many of my friends claimed to share. I think out of my twelve friends who claimed it, three could have been legitimately diagnosed. But no one would share that she was having sex with her boyfriend. For boys, I have heard testimonies of struggling with lust and peer pressure to drink. But again, no one would admit to bigger sins like looking at internet pornography or masturbating. But our stories all ended the same way, when we found Jesus, we quit doing such terrible things.

I think we also neglected to think about the amount of guilt and shame that our peers with great testimonies faced. By exaggerating my story, I was envying something that I should not have. I spoke with a friend of mine recently whose college girlfriend had gotten pregnant and had an abortion. It’s been a long time since that happened but he regularly deals with the guilt. The girl who cuts herself or with her finger down her throat in the cafeteria bathroom probably isn’t thinking, “When I find Jesus, this will make for some compelling sermon.” As Christian kids, we do not realize how lucky we are to have avoided much of the truly scarring events of these “great” testimonies. To experience a change like these people have requires many years of pain and loneliness. In my aggrandizement of my own story, I trivialized their suffering. 

At the same time though, by changing my own story to one of sudden transformation, I lied to everyone around me. It is not the dramatic change that I want to hear about- the cold turkey quitting of heroin or the desire to leave a gang after twenty years because you found Jesus. I don’t even like the people who say that after they found Jesus, their entire lives got better. They usually don’t. My friends who were having sex with their boyfriends before they found Jesus, generally do the same thing, at least for awhile, after their conversions. The people who drank underage before their conversion generally still drink. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to quit being depressed and self-critical. It took months of work and I still see a counselor and take medicine. Our adoration of these sudden change stories is drawing an unrealistic portrait of faith.

If faith was only about getting us to be good people rather than the bad people we were, no one would care. And no one would want to join. I certainly wouldn’t. I don’t think Jesus died for my sins so I could quit using curse words and lusting after anyone. I do believe he changes us- but I didn’t suddenly quit resenting my perfect, talented brother. It took years. But none of us want to admit that we still hate ourselves or others, that we still judge other people around us, that we are not the perfect people deserving grace and mercy. We think that the only compelling thing about Jesus is his ability to turn someone’s life around 180 degrees. We don’t believe people will want to know a God who turns us a few degrees at a time, and even then doesn’t force us to be different.

It’s as if somehow we don’t think the mere fact that Jesus has invaded our lives is exciting enough.