Tag Archives: doubt

Andrea Palpant Dilley: Doubt, Flat Tires and the Goodness of God

I first noticed Andrea Palpant Dilley when she shared her testimony in front of our church. That was  sometime in September, four weeks into my new life in Austin. And, I couldn’t help but notice: She spoke like somebody who loved words. I decided right then, I’m gonna make her be my friend

Thankfully, she started a writing group and I jumped on the email list and once a month I get to sit in a circle while she leads a discussion about literary things (and, sometimes, Jesus). I love this lady. (And I don’t think I’ve had to force her into our friendship so that’s a relief.)

I’m also proud of Andrea, whose first book Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubtcame out last month. Her story is fascinating: She spent her early childhood as the daughter of Quaker medical missionaries in Kenya. When her parents left the mission field, she moved to Washington state, began to question God’s goodness as  teenager, and by her twenties had left the church. The memoir is the story of that journey and her eventual return to faith.

I’ve read memoirs about doubt before that were near reflections of my childhood and story: my brother Jason Boyett’s O Me of Little Faith and Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town. But rare is a childhood like Andrea’s. Her faith experience was braided right alongside the deep suffering of the people her parents served. Her story is fascinating to me because she isn’t responding in any way to an overbearing evangelical culture (as I would expect). Her story is about the problem of suffering and the search for God’s goodness. 

Here’s a bit of our conversation about her book:

Micha: You talk about the Rift Valley in Kenya as being the origin of all humanity, but also the origin of your childhood. Do you think your childhood in a developing country made you even more predisposed to question God’s goodness in the midst of suffering and poverty?

Andrea: Absolutely. In the book I poke fun at the fact that, while most kids my age were playing Pac Man and eating pop tarts after school, I was visiting patients at my dad’s hospital. I spent time with sick people who died the next day. I attended funerals. I watched women wail in public, which was part of the mourning ritual of life in rural Kenya. Even the hospital morgue sat only fifty feet from the front door of our house. So yes, growing up as a medical missionary kid exposed me to more death and darkness than most kids my age would ever be exposed to, living in a western country. And those experiences very much informed my view of the world and my view of God. As a child, I don’t think I fully understood what was going on or why it was significant. But I carried those stories with me over the years. Eventually, as a young adult, they came to bear on my faith crisis.

M: Music also plays a major theme in your book. Good music brings about in you some sort of deep spiritual longing for something that you can’t find the church or even in your personal encounters with God. Do you feel like your coming back to the church carried with it any kind of experience that mirrored what you experienced in music when you were younger?

A: I recently visited some friends up in Dallas and went to church with them at an Episcopal cathedral called Church of the Incarnation. I might as well have been attending worship at an Anglican church in London. The cathedral itself was stunning. The liturgy and music were holy. As I walked forward to take communion at the front of the sanctuary, I passed by the choir, which flanked both sides of the altar space and surrounded me with singing. I felt deeply moved by the experience of hearing those hymns and taking communion beneath the high stained glass windows.

Now that I’m back at church, that kind of high-church liturgy really draws out my longing in the same way that some pop music did when I was a young adult. Maybe I’m getting old and boring, or maybe I’m moving deeper into the reflective spaces of art. Art will always play a part in my faith life. I’m a very tactile person, so I find myself compelled by the ceremonial aspects of faith in practice—the liturgy, the sacraments, the music, all those embodied experiences that speak to the senses. Some people might call it false religion, focusing on icons instead of ideas. But I believe that God engages us through our bodies and through visceral experiences that draw us closer to goodness and beauty and truth. Art is a mark of the imago Dei, the image of God in and around us.

M: The goodness of God– “Mungu yu mwema”– becomes a major theme in this book as you journey through doubt and your departure from the church. God remaining / continuing to be good despite your rejection of him (and despite his apparent rejection of the orphaned children you spent time with in Kenya while in college). What does it mean to you now that “God is so good”?

A: When people ask me what drove me out the doors of the church and then what brought me back, my answer to both questions is the same. I left the church in part because I was mad at God about human suffering and injustice. And I came back to church because of that same struggle. I realized that I couldn’t even talk about justice without standing inside of a theistic framework. In a naturalistic worldview, a parentless orphan in the slums of Nairobi can only be explained in terms of survival of the fittest. We’re all just animals slumming it in a godless world, fighting for space and resources. The idea of justice doesn’t really mean anything. To talk about justice, you have to talk about objective morality, and to talk about objective morality, you have to talk about God.

After that realization, I found myself driven back to the doors of the church. More than that, I realized that I had to think about the problem of good. Why is there any goodness at all in the world? Now that I’m practicing faith again and back at church, I can say with more confidence that “God is so good.” God is the source of justice, goodness, beauty, and art. Evil, injustice, and suffering are just a lack of goodness and a lack of God. That vision doesn’t necessarily answer the question of suffering—I still struggle with it—but it draws me deeper into a positive view of God’s enduring love and goodness. I fight to believe what Julian of Norwich believed, that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

M: One of the things I appreciate about your story is that it’s not tidy. It’s easy to want a book about doubt to offer a simple answer at the end: This is how to believe! But your story was a journey and even as you come back into the church and find a place for yourself in the Christian story, you’re still journeying and your questions and past are not neatly bound. As you come back to faith in the story, you say that somehow your “doubt was your desire” in a spiritual sense: “To possess the presence of God.” What did that mean for you then? What does that mean now in your faith experience?
 
A: In the book, I tell a story about walking into an Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco one Sunday morning while I was in the middle of my faith crisis. I didn’t know a soul. I sat at the back of the church. When communion started, I went forward, knelt at the altar, took the sacrament, and then watched the priest stretch out his hand to bless me on my head. In that moment, I felt a strong sense of longing for God at the very same time that I felt frustrated with church and ambivalent about faith.

That story really embodies my spiritual journey then, and in some ways, my spiritual journey now. I believe that doubt and faith—rather than standing in opposition to each other all the time—can actually go hand in hand. In Mark 9:24, the father of the demon-possessed child says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Flannery O’Connor calls it the foundation prayer of faith. I pray that prayer often. Both then and now, my doubt actually grows out of a longing for God, in this way: I feel disappointed with God when I feel disappointed with the messed up world. I feel disappointed with the world because I hope for something better. And I hope for something better because God has given me this inborn desire for goodness, justice and most importantly, God himself. So in that strange, circular way, my doubt often leads me back to faith and reminds me of my desire to know God and “possess his presence.”

M: Sometimes I feel like I battle a laundry list of intellectual questions toward God, only to have His answer be a presence, an experience, rather than a clear-cut response to my issues. That’s why I so related to the moment toward the end of the book when you experience God’s hand on your head in the middle of the night, and are overcome with the presence of peace. Was that your experience of God’s goodness? Was that some sort of answer for you to the long list of questions in your head?

To be perfectly honest, I still struggle to make sense of that experience of feeling God’s hand on my head. It didn’t answer all of my intellectual questions. But it gave me comfort at a low point in my personal and spiritual life. More than that, it assured me of God’s presence in the midst of my own spiritual uncertainty. When I think about that moment, it brings to mind that scene in the Grand Inquisitor chapter of the Brothers Karamazov where the Inquisitor fires off a series of questions and criticisms at Christ. At the end of the scene, Christ steps forward and kisses the Inquisitor on his “bloodless, aged lips” instead of answering him. He doesn’t say a thing. He doesn’t offer a counterargument. He says in action rather than with words, “I Am.” That’s how I feel about my own experience of God’s presence. I didn’t get the answers. But the great I Am made his presence known to me in a still, small moment.

* If you live in Austin, Andrea will be giving a reading tonight at Book People at 7. The rest of you should take a look at her book here.

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{Practicing Benedict} Do not disappoint me…

“When the decision is made that novices are to be accepted, then they come before the whole community in the oratory to make solemn promise of stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience … Novices must record their promises in a document … Each must write the document in his or her own hand or, if unable to write, ask another to write it instead; then, after adding a personal signature or mark to the document, each must place it individually on the altar.  As the record lies on the altar they intone this verse: ‘Receive me, O Lord, in accordance with your word and I shall live, and do not disappoint me in the hope that you have given me.’ The whole community will repeat this verse three times and add at the end the Gloria Patri. Each novice then prostrates before every member of the community asking their prayers and from that day is counted as a full member of the community.”

The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 58 (emphasis mine)

It’s Saturday morning. I stuff my mouth full of pancakes at a diner with one of my favorite 19-year-olds. She looks across the table at me as if I am a surviver, someone once sick but now in recovery. She chews slow then stares in my eyes, says, “I feel like I believe in God one minute, like I’m thanking him and watching him do these amazing things…like I can sing worship songs and really believe them, and then, the next, I’m thinking these crazy thoughts. I hear my professors’ voices calling Jesus’ resurrection a myth. I can’t reconcile my brain and my heart. I don’t understand what’s happening to me. I’ve always believed.”

I stare back. How long have I been working through those same thoughts? How much fear sits in me? What right do I have to look in her eyes and talk about Jesus like I do in those cozy study chairs every Thursday night, our circle full of freshmen girls learning the world, and Christ, and themselves in both?

But she knows. I’ve confessed it enough–my doubt. How can I not? Even as we spread open the onion skin pages of the Gospel of John every week, even as I swear to them that God’s love is deeper than their brains, than their faith or lack thereof?

What can I say to her except that I know? What can I say except, Now it is time to lean back, sweet girl. This is a baptism of fire and you will emerge both burnt and refined.

I beg her to remember the past: every sweet moment where God’s voice broke Earth’s barrier and made its way to her ears. Set up a memorial in your mind, I say. Stones of remembrance, I say. And when the voices of doubt break in, hold up that memory and dig your fingernails in deep.

Jacob and the angel, I say. The wrestling that lasted all night. “I won’t let go until you bless me!” And how the wrestling and the clinging left him with the blessing and the limp.

Believe that the world is far more beautiful and far more complex and far more mysterious than your mind has room for, I say. And remember that God has room for all the beautiful, all the complexity, all the mystery.

“I do believe!” I quote a father’s prayer of hope for all of us faith failures. “Overcome my unbelief!” And the mystery of holding both those truths in the same heart, in the same prayer.

Who am I? I pray in my heart, my eyes on her young face, bringing my diner mug to my lips. Who am I to say anything, Lord? I know myself. I know the ache of my heart, how constant the tapes of doubt jog alongside my prayers of thanksgiving, how quickly my soul can break under the weight of their whispers. How often I kneel beside the couch, holding a physical cross to my forehead and begging: Lord, put this cross in my mind, bigger than the whispers. How I beg for my boys before they fade into the still of evening rest: that if they stray from the Lord, he will always bring them home again.

And then, I recall this prayer, offered by every Benedictine in the history of the order. Every monk has scribbled down the “solemn promise of stability, fidelity…and obedience.” Who can ever promise such a thing?

Of course, sweet Benedict offers them the sort of prayer of commitment that only a doubter would choose when presenting his or her life to the work of God. It is not a prayer of sacrifice, of promised perfection. No, it is a prayer that God would receive the promise, and a gut-beggar-plead that God will not disappoint us in our hope.

This freshman girl looks across the table at me as if I am a recovered doubter. As if these thirteen years of begging at God’s table for peace have finally delivered me smooth-faith brain waves. As if I’ve finished the treatment and come out pure. But the secret is this: I’ve been learning how to make promises, how to scratch them down and lay them flat on the altar. I’ve been learning how to pray with all my heart: My God! Do not disappoint me in this hope!

And I rise from the altar and lift my hands and shout out with the congregation on Easter Sunday, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

And then I sing from my gut as the voices beside me raise:

You make me new. You are making me new…

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To Lose Faith is to Stop Looking

“To lose faith is to stop looking.  To lose faith is to decide that all you ever saw from afar was your own best dreams.”               -Frederick Buechner

I’ve had that quote on a sticky on my desktop for years now. I don’t know where I first read it. I simply read it. Every day I read it.

I’m a doubter.

That probably doesn’t come as a shock to you if you’ve been reading this blog long enough. Usually, if a believer finds peace in the acceptance of “mystery,” she worked a long time to get her hands off of the doubt and on to that mystery.

What I mean is, my head has never let me rest, not since the first day I declared to Jesus my life, a four-year-old on a swing in the backyard of my babysitter’s house. No, that wasn’t when I was “saved.” That came later. At four, I understood what I needed to understand: good and evil. Jesus and Devil. Myself, the swing and the sky. I gave Jesus a whole heart. I rejected all I knew of evil. I offered this life.

There are some decisions that shape the course of what you are, where you’ll walk this earth. Mine was love. I boldly offered Jesus my love. My head has been crammed ever since. For every certain experience of God’s presence, for every answered prayer, there a sure and present nag, a crusty whisper that what I’ve seen is not enough, that what I’ve counted as God’s love has been simply privilege.

Then I pray and choose to let the girl on the swing love Jesus.

My son is three-years-old, and thinking. Every prayer I offer out loud he’s thinking through. Reacting. Analyzing. Determining.

Friday in the car, we listened to an old folk hymn from a children’s album: “Welcome Table.

“This song’s about having dinner with God, August,” I said, glancing in the rearview mirror. “It’s about heaven and how we get to go there.”

“I don’t want to go to heaven,” he said. “I want to stay at my house.”

“You won’t go for a long time,” I said. “And it’s so wonderful there.” He wasn’t convinced.

He was still thinking about it Saturday night. “Mommy,” he said, interrupting my prayer, my hands still tucking the sheets around him as the words came out. “Mommy! But I can’t see God!”

My heart sank. It wasn’t because he admitted what we all struggle with. Not “seeing” is the hardest part, right?

My heart sank because I saw in him what lives in me, that twirling brain, striving for some solid part to hang my faith upon. I long for him to be a man of deep, life-altering faith. And I know it will be a battle for him.

I looked at him, answered: “God is too beautiful for us to see, Aug.”

And so we hold to the part we can’t see, right? We call that beauty the mystery and we beg for it to seep into the rest of us so it’s not just our hearts that believe, not just our bodies, not just our souls, but those pesky minds God gave us too. And I hope I’ll raise this long-legged boy to look with his mind into the depths of that mystery and call it beautiful. Because, when he does, he’ll find that there is much that lies deeper than his “own best dreams” and he’ll long for the table where God is serving that lovely meal.

And I’ll save a seat for him nearby.

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Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart

We sang this hymn this past Sunday. I love these words. I can’t sing it without tears. It was written by George Croly in 1854 and arranged by our church’s worship leader Karl Digerness in 2006. Listen to it here. (And if you like it, you should buy Karl’s new cd here.)

I won’t talk about why it’s wonderful. Except to say that the image of God weaning my heart from the earth is incredibly powerful. And for God to check my rising doubt, my rebel sigh? Oh, beautiful words. Sometimes I just need some guy named George from the 19th century to write my prayers for me.

 

 

Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart.
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art;
and make me love Thee as I ought to love.

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel vision, no opening skies;
but take the dimness of my soul away.

Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

Hast Thou not bid me love Thee,  God and King?
All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind.
I see the cross, there teach me to cling:
O let me seek Thee, and O let me find!

Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The presence of Thy descended Dove,
My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.

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Thankful Tuesday: Mystery and the Rally to Restore Unity

If you haven’t heard, Rachel Held Evans has officially declared this week the Rally to Restore Unity in the blogiverse. What does this mean? It means we’re making awesome pictures of ourselves holding signs that are adorable and clever. And it means we’re actually communicating with each other about our differences within Christianity.

 Look at the Facebook page. And read Rachel’s blog posts about it.

It’s Thankful Tuesday. And in honor of the Rally to Restore Unity, I’m thankful for a word I spent most of my life never hearing in church: Mystery. I’m not thankful for it because I subscribe to some wishy-washy faith that says I can’t KNOW anything for sure. I think there are plenty of things within the Christian faith that I can know, that I must claim to know in order to call myself a follower of Christ.

But I also know there are a lot of causes for division within the faith, and scripture passages to “back” those divisions up. Each side of every divisive issue can justify its position with its own handpicked passage and some famous theologian’s interpretations.  

Last week, my father in law was in town. He’s a dear man who, though he doesn’t believe in Christianity, is often kind enough to ask us questions about what we believe. Somehow, the issue of predestination came up around our circular table at the Italian restaurant. He turned to me: “Micha, do you subscribe to Calvinism?”

I laughed, friends. Because, seriously, is there any issue in the Church more divisive and more disturbing, more confusing and more unsettling? I made up my mind a long time ago about where I stand on the issue of predestination.

“I subscribe to mystery,” was my answer to the table of faces awaiting my response. “That’s why I love Episcopalians!” Then I winked, smiled sweetly and ate a large mouthful of lamb ragout.

After years of struggling with difficult questions about God’s character, the portions of the faith that don’t fall out of scripture into an obvious order (at least for me), after years of doubt and fear regarding science and gender roles and what it means to be “biblical,” I heard some life-affirming words in my former Anglican church’s membership course five years ago.

There are some things that are vital for Christian belief: Jesus Christ as our rescuer, the Triune God, salvation through faith in Jesus. But, there are some issues that are just not that clear:  tongues, baptism, communion, gender roles, sexual orientation, predestination, evolution. Anglicans affirm the reality that some things in the faith are mysterious. That means that we don’t have to take a passionate stance on every issue that has divided the church since the Reformation. We are given permission to ask for God’s help in discerning the truth, to hold loosely, and, ultimately, to love those who come down on those issues differently than we do. I call it “the freedom of godly ignorance,” also known as worshipping a mysterious God, one who doesn’t always give us a straightforward answer to our questions and asks us to love him anyway.

My belief that there are many mysterious ways in which God works is not some weak-willed way to get out of having to draw my line in the Christian cultural dirt, it’s a way of holding tightly to what Jesus calls me to believe, and freely to what can wound and weaken the body of Christ. It’s a way of practicing the calling of Micah 6:8, a passage of scripture that defines what I think it means to follow the God of the Trinity:

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.”

Conviction can and should be a beautiful thing and it is when it involves discussion and grace. So, I’m hoping that each of us walks humbly enough before God that we recognize that his “thoughts are not [our] thoughts, neither are [our] ways [his] ways” (Isaiah 55:8).

Want my opinion? I think the reason God has allowed portions of scripture to be “unclear” on divisive issues is that this whole Jesus following thing is not about finding answers to every question. It’s about a relationship with our Creator, a God who allows us to struggle because he cares more about our sanctification, our being made into our real selves. And that process is a long, troubling, beautiful wrestle with a God who slowly peels away the shadows.

And I’m hoping that in the midst of our ways, we recognize that our greatest calling in this relationship with a mysterious God is to act justly and to love mercy.

Happy Rally to Restore Unity, people!

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On Mary: Faith and Doubt

Whenever I spend time reading the biblical story of Mary, the mother of Christ, I imagine her to be like me, a sincere believer who can still find a way to doubt, to say yes, then run. This Advent season, I haven’t been able to get past Mary’s doubt. It’s not that I can ever know she was a doubter, it’s just that I sort of hope she was. The more I know Jesus the more I grasp my need for what John chapter one calls “grace and truth,” a spiritual rescuing of those of us (all of us) who fail to live up to genuine goodness.

I can’t imagine— knowing who Jesus spent his time with, who he chose as his disciples, who he ate with, associated with, designed his messages for—that in the choosing of his mother, he would have gone with the most beautiful, most gifted, most outwardly holy woman on earth. I imagine that Mary, a young girl, could hardly have known who she was, let alone who God was. I imagine her earnest faith in the midst of utter fear. The angel asked her to do no small thing. And her immediate answer in the angel’s presence revealed the reality of her heart: a love for God, a longing to obey, an obedience to her role in the coming of the Messiah. But, I can’t help but imagine all those minutes and hours and days and months following the angel’s visit, when she wished she could have taken a few days to think through the consequences of such a sudden obedience.

How could she have known what it would mean to be to the Virgin Isaiah wrote about, who would bear the One who came to save her people? Could she have envisioned the rejection of her friends, her family, and the utter embarrassment she would have caused Joseph, her betrothed, whom I imagine she respected (I’m sure he was much older) if not admired? And what about those images she must have had of her own death? Surely she considered that she’d be accused of adultery, the consequences of which were (still are, in some places) death by stoning. What is faith except the choice to act on a belief you can hardly grasp, despite that possibility that if you’re wrong, your life (and possibly the lives of those you love?) is ruined.

We love Mary because she is like us, unremarkable, yet asked to fulfill a task she could not help but complete, knowing if she was right, she’d live; if she was wrong, she’d die. We love Mary because she reminds us that faith is always courage.

Her story is extravagant. If it’s real it should be celebrated. We don’t celebrate Christmas because it’s necessary to get excited about something in the dark winter months, because we need to celebrate warmth in the midst of lifelessness and cold. If we want Christmas to be that for us than we should just celebrate Winter Solstice. We should bake warm cookies and give presents on the shortest day of the year. It would make a lot more sense.

Instead we’re invited to celebrate a story that has the power to change everything about our world. If we really believe in Christmas, we believe that God created a world and then came into it, to rescue it from itself. We believe that all our destructive patterns, from our individual inability to show mercy on the broken around us, to our collective craving for violence and war, can actually be undone by the reality of a God-given “grace and truth.” We believe that Jesus changes us, that he changes the world.

I feel like my life has often been like my imaginary Mary’s: moments of spiritual insight and power, my Yes, followed by my running, my fear, the torture of my brain’s accusations against the possibility of such power. Believing in Jesus is never logical. Since when do virgins become pregnant with God’s child? Since when does a man heal a blind man with a touch of mud on the eyes? Since when does God as man take our punishment through his own death, and then overcome it?

Logic has never been the point. We don’t come to God because of proof, because of mathematical equations lining up and pointing to heaven. We come to God because our souls ache for magic, for a love that greater than our half-hearted attempts at connection, for an undercurrent that can pull us through this world in joy.

I don’t believe in Christmas because it makes sense to me. I believe in it because it doesn’t, because only in its fantastic claim is there something worth celebrating extravagantly over. If God came to earth through Mary’s body, then my body has value as well. If God came to earth to rescue us, then my son’s longing for the magic of Santa is not simply child-like, it’s a picture of our divine longing for love, for laughter, for excessive giving and decadent feasting.

If God came to earth, then everything we think we know is up for debate. That’s sometimes called doubt. But I think we should call it faith.

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“Come now, let us argue it out…”

That’s the New Reformed Standard Version of Isaiah 1:18. If you’ve read (or heard) this verse before, it probably went something like, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (King James Version).

The NIV says: “Come now, let us settle the matter…” But, the NRSV, bless its heart, quotes God as saying, let’s fight about it.

This passage is often used during the Advent season. All of Isaiah Chapter 1 is about the rebellion of God’s people and ultimately, their need to be rescued. “And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.” In verses 12 through 17, God speaks through Isaiah of how he despises his people’s lack of justice (“your hands are full of blood”) and their “vain offerings.” What are they supposed to do? “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s case.”

That’s when we get verse 18, which holds a great promise for God’s people who, try as they might have, had never quite learn to do good. First we’ll argue it out. Then, I will bleach the scarlet off of you.

If Advent is about the arguing, and hence the preparation for the washing, if that’s the purpose of this time of waiting, then what is the thing I’m hashing out with God in this season?

That’s something I haven’t really thought through, but I’m relieved about it. I love that God, in his kindness, lets us have it out with him in the process of bringing our rescue. There are a lot of things about the coming (and reigning) of Christ that I don’t understand. And I’m allowed to wrestle through those. What I do get to know is the reality of my scarlet being undone into brilliant white. I am not who I would have been. I’ve been marked by justice and goodness and hope. And that came to me through the hope of a Savior, who takes the failure we offer (even when he has to pry it out of our hands in the wrestling ring) and makes it beautiful.

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The Hope of Evolution: A Review of Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans

Over the past couple of weeks, whenever I saw the cover of Rachel Held EvansEvolving in Monkey Town lying around my house, my brain would immediately jump into a chorus of “Won’t you take me to / Funky Town!” Funky Town, Monkey Town…who knows the workings of the mind?

Other than the disco background noise in my head, reading Evans’ book was an adventure in my own personally charted territory. In fact, while reading her book, I constantly felt like she and I shared the same childhood. Growing up evangelical has its quirks and I’ll be the first to say that the evangelical church has made some wacky (if earnest) mistakes in their communication of the gospel to children. But I’m convinced that my own childhood brain took me to new levels of religious fervor. Evans’ childhood tales brought me comfort to know I wasn’t alone in my zeal.

While I was confronting kids on the playground with “gospel” tracts in 4th grade, Evans was writing the Plan of Salvation on a paper airplane and flying it into the Mormon neighbor’s yard. While Evans buttered up her Christian school classmates in order to win the “Best Christian Attitude” award four years straight, I was making plans for how I would one day get my shiny face on the wall of spiritual heroes (aka photos of missionaries and pastors) in our church’s main hallway.

For Evans as a teenager, “the Bible read like poetry, each word and verse ripe with spiritual sustenance. It fed [her], and [she] swallowed without asking questions or entertaining doubts or choking on the bones” (41). Her story of devout, not-your-average-childlike-faith and eventual trudge through the murk of doubt is a story so close to mine that I found myself wondering if we’d both come against the “metal sky” (see Jeanne Murray Walker’s poem in the sidebar) in almost the same way at the same time.

Evans takes us on a journey through her Christian college and its emphasis on a young person’s preparation for the intellectual battle against external challenges to the Christian faith, where she became “so good at critiquing all the fallacies of opposing worldviews, at searching for truth through objective analysis, that it was only a matter of time before [she] turned the same skeptical eye upon [her] own faith” (79).

That critical eye peered most intently onto the tennis shoes under the blue burqa of an Afghan woman named Zarmina, whose execution by the Taliban (for a false accusation of murdering her abusive husband) was filmed in the documentary Behind the Veil. Watching (and rewatching) Zarmina’s execution was so disturbing for Evans that it sent her thoughts of doubt into full-blown anger at God. At stake? Would this woman who suffered and died under an oppressive regime, in a society where she wouldn’t have heard of Jesus Christ really suffer “torment in hell for the rest of eternity” because she didn’t claim faith in Jesus? (90-91).

Evans’ wrestling match through the question of God’s goodness in the midst of the world’s suffering brought her into a long season of grief over the loss of a faith that had defined every part of her. I appreciate that while she allows the reader to honestly enter into that pain with her, she never drags us into a cynical view of the faith. There is no snarky-I’m-better-than-the-average-Chrisian-because-I-actually-think attitude that feels so prevalent in the “progressive” realm of Christianity. Her struggle is shared with vulnerability, openness, and a sincere longing to find hope in the God she has known her entire life.

And the journey of her “evolution” is one of beauty and insight and honesty. When she comes to a renewed place of hope, she finds it at 2 am in the bathroom, reading a passage from the book of Revelation (Chapter 7), in which John the Apostle describes “a great multitude…from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (122).

This is where Evans shines: “I imagined that [John] must have seen women wearing glorious red, green, and gold saris beneath their white robes. He must have seen voluminous African headdresses of every shape and color. He must have seen the turquoise jewelry of the Navajo, the rich wool of the Peruvians the prayer shawls of the Jews…He must have heard shouts of praise to Elohim, Allah, and Papa God, shouts in Farsi and Hindi, Tagalog and Cantonese, Gaelic and Swahili, and in tongues long forgotten by history…In one loud and colorful moment, he must have witnessed all that makes us different and all that makes us the same” (124).

The hope she finds in the Apostle John’s brief description of the multitude before the throne is the same hope we are invited to find in our own fumblings toward faith. And that’s why this book matters.

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Thankful Tuesday Ramblings

It’s Thankful Tuesday! Sometimes on Thankful Tuesday I list everything I’m grateful for. Sometimes I spend the entire post bemoaning some semi-depressing situation in my life and then at the end turn it into a surprisingly thankful statement (which gets me off the hook for all that complaining). Sometimes I have some vague spiritual thought that ends up grandly (or not so grandly) pointing to thankfulness.

Today I seem to have none of those in me. I have some books I’m going to discuss tomorrow. I have some thoughts on prayer that I’m working through. Maybe I’ll give you a vague list of ramblings. Like, I’m thankful for:

  • Jeanne Murray Walker’s “metal sky.” As difficult as “Staying Power” is to memorize (are you all finding it hard?), I have some images that stay with me. “Questioning the metal sky” is one of them. How many times has prayer felt that way to me? Closed and hard and defensive. The result of following my doubts numbly instead of having it out with them. It continues to be the truth of the images that I can’t get over in this poem. “Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck / wipe its face, set it down on the lawn / and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire.” Who comes up with a picture like that? Language as a dog that always veers godward? And I’m prone to agree. Could it be possible that everything we long to communicate to each other is actually pointing toward the reality of God? Those moments I stare at my son or husband and think: There aren’t words. That language I’m longing to find is ineffable because the beauty of our Creator was ineffable first…I’m thankful.
  • What August is teaching me about play. For instance, if the walk home from the park gets boring, you should squat and wait for your mom to shout: “On your mark! Get set! Go!” and then run one of those wobbly toddler runs for the next twenty feet until you stop and squat again. Or, if your mom is doing laundry in the dingy apartment storage/laundry room/basement, find your favorite broom and get to work sticking it in dangerous holes. I’m thankful that there’s no point in his life when he isn’t playing, except for when he’s crying…which tends to be fairly often lately.
  • For this city. What?! you say. I know I know. I’m such a complainer. And my being thankful doesn’t undo the fact that San Francisco has stolen summer from my life. But I’m on the flip side of a wonderful long weekend with my guys. I spent the 4th tossing a frisbee and eating chips and dip and blueberry crumb cake and burgers…all afternoon and evening, without getting a tummy ache. I spent yesterday afternoon hanging out with my husband and son while one taught the other how to hit a tennis ball (and the other kept screaming “Myself!” and falling on the pavement…you can guess which was which). We ate dinner with a friend at a cozy little Italian place two blocks from our house. It was a weekend that reminded me that as much as I complain about living here, it’s good, and I have a lot to be grateful for, even if the weather isn’t one of them.
  • My son just woke up and I brought him into my bed where Ezra the cat is snuggled under the covers with his head sticking out like a regular human. August spooned right up to him and turned to me: “Isn’t he cute, mommy?” Yes. He’s cute.

What can you ramble about on this Thankful Tuesday? You don’t have to list a lot. You can just ramble once. But I want to hear from you.

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Staying Power

Yes, fellow poet nerds:  I’ve found a new poem for the month of June.

I’ve been looking around a while, agonizing, trying to find something contemporary, perhaps less lyrical than we’ve been focusing on so far. And maybe even something spiritually moving for us (0r at least for me). Jeanne Murray Walker is new to me. I’ve never read her work.  All I really know is that she’s a poet who teaches at the University of Delaware and “Staying Power” is from her newest collection of poems New Tracks, Night Falling.

Today while sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant in Paoli, Pennsylvania (we’re home visiting for a week), my dear friend Nancy (who is the kind of wise, generous soul I hope to be in 35 years) pulled “Staying Power” from her wallet and declared it the poem she hopes her friend Jeanne Murray Walker will one day read at her funeral. I sighed and made that hmph sound while reading it. Yes, I thought. This is the poem I’ve always been trying to write about why I doubt and still believe. This is what it means to write hope.

Though this is not the easiest type of poem to memorize, it is the type of poem I’m most moved by: picking up a language by the “scruff of its neck,” wiping its face and watching it “toddle right into the godfire / again”? Good grief. That’s good stuff. That’s my life. As much as I can struggle to believe, as much as my situation may allow my brain to swell in on itself until I don’t recognize what’s true anymore, until I don’t remember the moments of God’s reality that have already been seared in…

As much as I “smash” that phone “with a hammer/ till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbered up / metal bits,” it does always ring again. That’s what grace is, right?

And, yes, “a voice you love whispers hello.”

(I said to Nancy, “I think this is next poem for the blog.”  She said, “I dare you.”)

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