Tuesday, July 24, 2007


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.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Letter to a friend

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.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

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 fanany pack that I used to long for.

Monday, April 30, 2007

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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

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.