Monthly Archives: April 2013

God says, “Laugh, dammit!” – A guest post by Lauren Martinez Catlin

If you’ve been visiting this blog for a while, you might have seen that I’m not a very prolific reviewer of books. In fact, I’ve reviewed one book in the blog’s history – The Other Side of Silence, by Lauren Martinez Catlin. Lauren is a friend whom I met through a Vineyard event, although that’s not why I reviewed her book. I reviewed it because it’s fucking awesome. It didn’t take much cajoling to convince Lauren to write a guest post for What the Faith – but it did take a little cajoling. So let’s show her some love, okay?

 

She's the one on the right.

She’s the one on the right.

 

Oh, and by the way – her book is, as I said, fucking awesome. And I think you’d love it. And if you don’t believe me, I dare you to buy it here.

*          *          *          *          *

This is the story of how God told me to watch a really silly tv show.

Due to a small case of cancer, I had a medical procedure that involved some radioactivity, so I had to be isolated from all people for three days, and from my one-year-old daughter for a week.  I knew I needed this procedure for about a year before it actually happened, so I had plenty of time to dread and plan for it.

I comforted myself with the thought that I would eat whatever I wanted, get lots of writing done, do some new drawings, play the piano, finish reading Anna Karenina, and if all else failed, I could watch movies and crochet.

Because I go to a Vineyard church, I had plenty of opportunities to ask people to pray for me, and I took advantage of them all.  People prayed for my cancer and this specific treatment at the regional conference in Duluth, at the worship conference in Inver Grove Heights, in my small group, at the staff meeting at my church, at the leadership meeting after Celebrate Recovery.  I had a thick, wooly covering of prayer.  Lots of people prayed that isolation would be like a spiritual retreat for me, that it would be a peaceful and enjoyable time.  I’d personally felt like God had said, “I can make this good.”  I was still not excited, but I was mildly hopeful.

The radioactivity didn’t have many side effects, but the drug treatment leading up to the radioactivity made me really sick, and I couldn’t stop the treatment until halfway through the isolation period.  I  couldn’t eat whatever I wanted because I had to stay on a ridiculously restrictive diet through most of the isolation.  I was too tired to sit up at the piano, there was no way I’d have the concentration for sketching or writing, much less reading a freakin’ Russian novel.  I mostly slept, showered, ate a piece of salt-free banana bread, slept some more, and then showered again.  When I was conscious and not washing off radioactive sweat, I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

 

Clinically proven to be good for what ails ya.

Clinically proven to be good for what ails ya.

 

My first night alone in that big apartment, I video chatted with my tiny gorgeous daughter as she was going to bed, and I teared up.  I felt a sharp burning in my eyes, but ignored it so I could focus on that chubby little face.  The sharp pain didn’t go away, though, and after my daughter was peacefully sleeping, I saw that the inner corners of my eyes were blood-red and shrunken.  The radiation in my tears had burned my tear ducts.  For the rest of the week, I couldn’t even cry.

I was laying in bed, mired in depression and trying not to exacerbate my scabby tear ducts.  Way too tired to do anything crazy like shake my fist at God, I just asked in a tired voice, “Hey.  You know how you said you’d make this good?  Is that still coming?”  My exhausted brain made a lazy connection between that question and the one John the Baptist sent to Jesus from prison.  “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for someone else?”

In the Bible, Jesus replied by saying, “Tell John what you’ve seen.  The blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

In that empty apartment, Jesus replied by saying, “Stop watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Watch something that’s just funny.”

I was annoyed at the unspiritual nature of this response, but I followed the advice anyway.  Buffy was getting me down with her near-constant state of apocalypse anyway.  The funny parts of Buffy are really funny, but they’re a light seasoning at best.  So instead I watched “Coupling.”

 

Who knew Jesus was a fan of the BBC?

Who knew Jesus was a fan of the BBC?

 

“Coupling” is an quirky little British sitcom that is similar to “Friends” here in the states.  Except “Friends” takes itself way more seriously.  In the first episode that I turned on, a male character drifts  into a recurring nightmare that if he ever tries to kiss a woman, his mother will emasculate him with a miniature guillotine.  This is not spiritual fodder for anything.  But it is funny.  Even with my salt-free banana bread and scabby tear ducts, I found myself smiling.  A few more minutes into the show, and I actually laughed.  I felt better because I was laughing.

I felt a surge of gratitude, not toward God, but toward people who do comedy.  I wondered if they knew how transcendent their work is, if they know that their talent and hard work brought a laugh to me through a wall of cancer, radiation, and depression.  I wanted to write a letter to someone and tell them to just keep being funny and not worry about anything else.  Comedy is so good for the world.  Comedy felt like a golden elixir come to save me from my darkest hour.  Not because comedy was going to take away my cancer or help me pass a geiger test so I could hold my daughter, only because it actually made me laugh.

I’ve had other moments like this in my life.  The day my childhood dog passed away, I went over to my boyfriend’s house and he happened to be watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force on the Cartoon Network.  The sheer silly disconnected-ness of that cartoon had me laughing hysterically.  The hysterical laughter helped me feel better about saying good-bye to the constant companion who helped me through a lonely childhood.

When I was twelve one of my cousins was murdered, and my immediate family had to pile into a small car and drive for seven hours to the funeral.  To rescue us from that drive, I brought a little used book full of funny stories by Art Linkletter and read the whole thing aloud.  Our family laughed together.  We laughed for hundreds of miles.  My cousin’s death is still one of the saddest events in my memory, but I always remember that road trip filled with laughter and light.

God knows that I respond to comedy, that it would help me on a day just like that day.  I didn’t have it in me to remember that something funny would help me get through cancer – I couldn’t remember where I left the coffee I’d just poured.  So God helped me, he showed me something that was easy and doable that would make me feel better.  This was not a shattering revelation and won’t go down in my history as one of those moments that changed my life.  God was just being God, just being good to me, just speaking in the language I understand, saying things that make sense.

I sometimes expect God to sound more like one of those freaky oracles who say things that don’t make any sense until it’s way too late to be helpful.  In response to the question, “are you going to help me feel better?” I imagine God will say something like, “Eagles soar far from their nests,” or something equally unhelpful.

Partly I think this because Jesus in the gospels can sound an awful lot like that.  A guy says, “I’ll follow you anywhere!” and Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  M’kay.  So, we’ll be sleeping outdoors?  Do you not sleep at all?  Are you the Son of Man?  Am I?  Does that mean it’d be a better idea to stay home?

 

"So then he says, 'Let the dead bury the dead,' and . . . I have no idea . . . I think I was tripping BALLS, you guys!"

“So then he says, ‘Let the dead bury the dead,’ and I was like, “Okay.” But I’m not sure I wasn’t tripping balls the whole time.”

 

Another reason I expect God to sound more mysterious is because it feels more spiritual that way.  Like if I can’t quite understand it, it must be super deep.  I want to be one of the cool kids who likes stuff that’s weird and ethereal and really damn impractical.

In my actual life experience, God doesn’t usually use those weird fortune cookie phrases.  That might  be because I’m a very pragmatic person, and hearing weird metaphysical metaphors frustrates the hell out of me.  I love artwork that has nuance and room for interpretation, but if we’re talking and I just asked you a question, I want a response.  Preferably one that I can take action on.  God knows this about me.  The times I feel certain that God has sent a message through my synapses are the times when I hear something practical, short, and unbelievably powerful.  When I end up saying, “Of course that’s what I should do.”

I once prayed to God to help me deal with my insane anxiety about my grades in college.  I got good grades, I worked hard, I did the reading, I went to classes, I did well on tests.  But if I got less than an A, I was consumed with utterly irrational fear and shame.  As soon as I saw that letter on a piece of paper with my name on it, I freaked out.  Lots of friends explained that my worth is not tied to my grades, that grades are an imperfect representation of my grasp of the material and have nothing to do with my intelligence.  I agreed with all of this, but I couldn’t get over it.

When I prayed to God for help, he said, “If grades upset you, don’t look at them.”

Duh.  Why hadn’t I thought of that?  The reaction I had was visceral.  Intellectual reasoning couldn’t change it.  I couldn’t have a visceral reaction to a letter I didn’t see, so I just didn’t look.  I proceeded to have one of the most peaceful semesters in my entire collegiate career.

God does this kind of thing in the Bible too.  When Isaiah runs for his life into the desert, curls up in the fetal position and prays to die, God doesn’t tell him, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Nope, God sends a messenger with a care package and says, “Why don’t you eat something and get some sleep?”  Anyone who has experienced any kind of depression can see the consummate wisdom in that.  You’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re alone.  So find a friend, eat some food, and get some sleep.  One hundred per cent guarantee that you will feel better.  It is crushing in its simplicity and power.

So that’s how I know that God suggested I watch a truly silly television show.  There was nothing to say at that moment that would make me feel better.  There was no way to reason out of having cancer, missing my daughter, or the stabbing pain in my eyes.  There was no spiritual insight that was going to make me smile at that moment, so God didn’t offer me a spiritual insight.  Instead, God inspired a team of people to make hilarious theater AND provided a way for that theater to come right into my sick room.

God talked to me like a good friend, a friend who’s been around long enough to say something real and concrete.  A friend who doesn’t just advise, but actually walks through the difficult moment with me.  Or in my case, a friend who comes over with a case of really silly dvd’s and a box of salt-free popcorn, plops down on the couch and says, “You’ve gotta see this.”

 

"Trust me - laughter is the best medicine. Well, that and radiation therapy, in your case. Whatever, just hit 'Play'."

“Trust me – laughter is the best medicine. Well, that and radiation therapy, in your case. Whatever, just hit ‘Play’.”


Sometimes, teens are awesome.

When I was a skeptic (well, when I was more of a skeptic than I am today) one of the things that bugged me most about Christians was that they did incredibly stupid crap all the time, but none of them ever seemed to notice it. Every church scandal seemed to be met with people either defending the committer of the scandal, or excusing them by saying that we all fall short of grace (a shallow excuse for whoring or embezzlement if I’ve heard one), or claiming that the person who carried out the scandalous activity was not “a real Christian”. I hated these answers. I hated that I never saw any Christians just taking a moment to say, “Yeah, that guy was a complete ass. Sorry about that.” So when I started my own faith blog, both Brandi and I agreed that we weren’t going to do that – when we saw someone showing their ass and claiming to represent the whole Body of Christ, we were going to a) call them out, and b) apologize.

I think I can honestly say that we have done that. We have gone out of our way to single out people who, we felt, were misrepresenting not just Jesus Christ, but everyone who tries to emulate Jesus in their own lives. And that experience has been rewarding at times, depressing at others, but never something done with glee.

We need some glee, man.

 

. . .no.

. . .no.

 

This time, we’re pointing out what happens when Christians decide to do awesome things.

There is something to be said for a part of the Christian experience that maybe doesn’t get the same type of media attention as the fall of yet another mega-pastor. Maybe there’s more to being a Christian than “being good” and calling out the bad guys, like Brandi and I have been striving to do. Maybe it’s time for us to point out to our audience, especially the skeptics, that Christians occasionally do some really awesome stuff, for no reward, and no recognition, and often at the expense of their own comfort or safety. And while, yes, we all know that there are missionaries in China and Africa who risk their own lives as they commit to glamorously dangerous black ops for God, we might not know that there are also ordinary people who go out of their way to help others they have never met. These are regular people who are doing something to make the world a better place.

Sometimes, against all common sense, they are kids.

The youth group at my church, River Heights Vineyard, is participating in a project called 30 Hour Famine. By partnering with World Vision, our youth group is raising funds to give to a group of over one hundred children in the Republic of Kenya, kids that the church sponsors every year. Their goal is to raise $1,000 for the bunch, which will help pay for food and shelter for the kids for one month. And in their effort to raise these funds, after lunch on this upcoming Friday, April 26th, they will stop eating. They won’t take a bite of food until they eat dinner together on Saturday, exactly thirty hours later.

Yep, that’s why they call it that.

For the Christians reading this blog, you’re probably aware that fasting is something that we do sometimes. If you’ve ever fasted yourself, you know that it is freakin’ hard. Remember how it feels to go a day without food? Multiply that by teenager and you’ll get a sense for how difficult this could be for our kids. Do you remember how much food you ate when you were fifteen? Your mom does, and she is still pissed about it.

 

“Nothing. . . he left nothing. . . devastation, thy name is TEEN!”

“Nothing. . . he left nothing. . . devastation, thy name is TEEN!”

 

When I found out that my church youth group would be pulling this stunt, I wanted to know more about it. I asked some questions of our Youth Pastor, Justin Law, who some readers may remember being mentioned as the worship pastor for my church. He does both. Justin took time from his busy schedule of being all the pastors to answer my questions. Here is what he had to say.

What the Faith:  Why did you, or the church, choose to participate in 30 Hour Famine? There are no shortages of causes that need our participation – why was 30 Hour Famine one that you went with?

Justin:  30 Hour Famine is run by World Vision, which has demonstrated a surprisingly holistic approach to aiding the poor and hungry. Their goal is not only to feed people, which they do well. They also increase education opportunities and sustainable change within communities, handing things back to the care of the community and then moving on. The members of RHV also sponsor a large number of World Vision children for our size (currently over 100 children sponsored), so there is a personal connection for our church community.

WTF: As the youth leader for the church, part of your job is to get the kids inspired to participate in events like the 30 Hour Famine. What are the challenges involved in getting the youth pumped up for an event like this? How do you overcome them?

J: I had mainly led in adult contexts before I recently added youth leadership, and I think kids’ challenges aren’t much different than yours or mine. Our culture tends to be quite self-concerned, yet blind to ourselves. The youth get more excited about an event like this when they are willing to see someone else’s need as important, then realize they can do things as individuals and as a group to address that need. In the end, I think we overcome the barriers by loving the kids, being together in community, and helping them know that they are fully loved by God. It’s not nearly as hard to love people and give when you realize how much you are loved and have been given.

WTF: Why is service an important part of the youth group experience at River Heights?

J: Our purpose as a youth group is the same as {River Heights Vineyard}’s purpose: Love God, love people, and change the world. It’s really just a quick rephrase of what Jesus has told every one of his followers to do. Jesus shows us a picture of God that is shockingly dissimilar to our mental pictures of power and kingship. Jesus loves and comes to serve. When we love him and the people he loves, we do begin to change the world. We want our youth to have the chance to experience this and build it into their lives.

 

Answering questions: like a boss. Or. . . like a pastor, really. . .

Answering questions: like a boss. Or. . . like a pastor, really. . .

 

I also asked some questions of the participants in the famine – the youth group members themselves. A couple of them – Alana and Alexis, both fourteen years old – were willing to chime in.

What the Faith: The famine is coming up pretty soon. Are you excited? Nervous? How are you feeling about it and why?

Alexis: Yes, because it’s fun and it’s an amazing opportunity to get closer with God.

WTF: Why is going without food an important part of this charity event? You could just raise the money, send it to World Vision, and then go eat a pizza! Why is it important that you go through that period of famine yourself?

Alexis: Because it kind of gives you an idea of what starving people live like every day.

Alana: You can experience the circumstances others deal with and it makes you feel more appreciative when you finish.

WTF: How does participating in 30 Hr Famine Benefit you? What do you get out of this experience?

Alana: I get to be a part of something bigger than myself.

WTF: Many of my readers aren’t religious. Why is it important that all people, regardless of religion, take steps to help those in need? Why would you help the poor if Jesus had never told you to?

Alexis: It could be you that is starving, you never know. The person you sit next to at lunch, the meal they are eating could be their only meal that (they) have had in a couple of days. So it’s important to help someone even if it is one child. Help them have hope.

WTF: Thanks, guys!

Now, I’m not trying to shame my readers into giving, but I am shamelessly encouraging my readers to give to this 30 Hour Famine. I’ll be donating to it, and I think that you should, too. It doesn’t take much for you to have a direct impact on the lives of over one hundred Kenyan rugrats. If you have five dollars to spare, please donate $5. If you have a tenner sitting around, throw it here! If you have to skip lunch to afford to help, I can point you in the direction of some great kids who will be right there with you; whenever your stomach growls, just imaging it joining a chorus of some seriously hungry teenagers’ stomachs.

If you are able to give, would you please consider giving through this link? This will ensure that the funds we are collecting are correctly allocated to the group we directly sponsor.

If you’d like more information about World Vision, follow this purple spot right here.

You should give.

You should.

You really, really should.

 

THANKS FOR GIVING!!!!

THANKS FOR GIVING!!!!


A shameless reblog to hold your attention.

Yay, tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of 12-hour workdays, I will fear no overtime. But it doesn’t leave me much time to write fabulous posts.

SO, in lieu of a fabulous post, please check out this post I got from CNN’s religion blog this morning, written by author/blogger/pastor Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio. I guess Boston is still quite on my mind. I’m not ready to stop focusing on the events of the marathon bombing, probably because questions like those presented in this article keep me up at night.

Is it worth it to witness a small triumph of light over darkness, if that triumph results from the pain and suffering of others? The author of this article doesn’t really delve too deeply into that philosophical quandary. And the quandary isn’t limited to Christians, obviously – it is a relevant question for anyone who believes that we can only experience good because of the existence of bad.

We can’t know light unless we can compare it to darkness, or so the philosophy goes.

But I respond to that with a question.

“What about. . . fuck darkness? Do we really need it?”

Discuss! I’ll try to write something real very soon, I promise. Hugs to you all! Oh, and look forward to some guess posts coming up in the upcoming weeks. The future’s so bright, you’ll have to wear shades.


On Boston

I remember, back in the dawn of the internet age, there was a website called “Naked News”. It was a website where you could get your news. . . from an anchor who would strip down during the video broadcast. I didn’t partake in the site – not because I was morally against it, but because it was a pay site – but I was aware of its existence. And because it was around in 2001, I got to hear, in a radio interview with one of the anchors, how the “Naked News” chose to deliver information about the World Trade Center attack.

It didn’t.

As the anchor explained during a morning radio interview, the Naked News wasn’t going to touch 9/11 with a thirty-foot pole. The site was supposed to offer a lighter take on the daily news, and they figured (rightly so) that it would be disrespectful to broadcast during a time of national tragedy. Instead, their website simply posted a somber note advising people to seek their news elsewhere. Nobody was going to take off their clothes for this story.

That’s kind of how I feel about “What the Faith” and national tragedies. This blog explores faith through the lens of two immature thirty-somethings who are overly fond of fart jokes. We tend toward cynicism, we laugh at many things deemed inappropriate, and we are, in many ways, completely unequipped to comment on the horrors of Virginia Tech, or the tsunami in Japan, or Newtown.

So, we haven’t.

But yesterday, as the news of the Boston Marathon bombing came in, I, like most people my age, took to Facebook to get my updates. And while I was scrolling through my phone’s Facebook app, I came across this quote, by a guy who could be considered even less qualified than myself to address a national tragedy: comedian Patton Oswalt. If you haven’t come across his quote on your own interwebbing, I’ll provide it here.

“Boston. Fucking horrible.

“I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”

“But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

“But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.

“But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

“So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.’”

My heart breaks when I look at a picture of Martin Richard, who died waiting for his dad to cross the finish line. A year ago a picture was taken of Martin holding a hand-written sign that said, “No more hurting people. Peace.” Now, Martin is gone. The urge to despair of my race is strong right now. It’s only hope that holds me back. That’s why Patton Oswalt’s words are so comforting to me. They show that the spirit of God is covering the whole human race – that a stand-up comedian of no particular religion can espouse, without even knowing it, the coming of the Kingdom of God.

I don’t have to despair of my people. I can choose to be proud of us. More importantly, I have reason to be proud of us. And that makes me want to comment on this terrible fucking tragedy, regardless of how unqualified I am.

Someday, the pain that comes from living in a broken world will be over. Until then, I’ll follow the advice of my friend, the J-man, who told me to pray like this.

Our father, who is in heaven

Hallowed be your name

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth,

As it is in heaven.

Give us, this day, our daily bread.

And forgive our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.

And don’t lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil

For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever.

Amen.

If you want to help the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, especially if you’re in the Boston area, this article is a helpful resource. Let’s do things we can be proud of.


Affectations for Christ!

Last Sunday, when I was at church at River Heights Vineyard, I raised my hands up during a worship song.

I don’t usually do that. Here is why.

Have you ever seen that movie Saved? If you have, do you remember that scene near the beginning, at the Christian high school, when the worship band is playing and the singer is singing and all of the students have their hands raised high, rapturous looks on their faces?

My years of fervent anti-Christian sentiment taught me to hate that shit.

Okayyyy guys, who here is the holiest???

Okayyyy guys, who here is the holiest???

There’s nothing like a raised hand, a lowered head, and closed eyes to show anyone who happens to be looking that you’re having a Moving Holy Experience. It’s like holding a sign up that says “Spirit Moved” with an arrow that points down at the bearer. Nothing else says, “Don’t talk to me unless it’s in tongues!” in quite the same fashion. As such, I spent years assuming that it was an affectation. After all, people can’t be moved by the holy spirit every goddamn time a worship band plays!  It seemed to me very suspect that every person at this church was feeling the ol’ holy shakes coming on a the same time, and I began to judge people for showing their faith in such obvious ways. After all, I reasoned, didn’t Jesus constantly tell us to keep shit subtle?

As time has passed, and my confident anti-Christianity was replaced by a tentative Christianity, I learned that there is some honesty behind the raised hand, the lowered head, the closed eyes. For one thing, when I was convinced by God to hang out with Christians at Christian churches, it seemed that part of his pitch was that, occasionally, a weird, heavy feeling was going to settle over the room. It might make my skin tingle. It might feel like a light change in cabin pressure to my ears. If my eyes were closed, it might give me a light case of the head spins. It might make everyone want to shut up, all at the same time, so that the room became damn-near silent (with the exception of babies, who seem to either ignore the presence of the spirit or feel compelled to talk to it). It might happen at any time, but it would definitely be more likely to happen when a bunch of people all asked, at the same time, for it to show up. People refer to that feeling as the Holy Spirit, and when it shows up it’s kind of big deal.

"Hey guys. You called?"

“Hey guys. You called?”

When that happens, it can be ignored, for the most part. There’s no rule stating that people have to react to the Weird-Tingly-Cabin-Pressure-Thing. Some people might not even notice it. (As an aside, God knows I’ve sat in congregations that seemed to be moved to swaying like voodoo practitioners without feeling any such urge to sway myself, and while it’s tempting to assume that they were all delusional while I was clear-headed, that stance takes a bit more self-assurance and pride than I’m able to summon right at this moment. ) But in our western Christian culture, most people seem to have trained to react with those gestures I mentioned. They close their eyes, because that feeling is (honestly) kind of like a mild high, and because closing your eyes kind of seems appropriate for some reason. Their hands go up, usually in one of two ways. The first way is with the arm stretched up, hand and fingers fully extended, like a student eager to answer a teacher’s question. Alternately, some people raise both hands from the waist up, elbows bent, palms facing the ceiling. That pose vaguely resembles someone holding an outstretched samurai sword across their palms as they present it to their daimyo.

Yeah, you knew I was a geek when you came here.

Example One - Teacher, teacher!

Example One – Teacher, teacher!

Example Two - Domo origato, Jesus.

Example Two – Domo origato, Jesus.

Now, I won’t say that I feel the Weird-Tingly-Cabin-Pressure-Thing every week, because you don’t. And when I don’t feel it, I don’t raise my hands, or close my eyes, or lower my head, because to me, that would  be an affectation. I’d be acting like I felt something that I didn’t. That doesn’t mean that everyone else follows my “rule”. In fact, most people who attend the churches I’ve attended just do that stuff as part of their worship. Maybe it’s how they remind themselves that they aren’t just listening to music and singing along – they’re worshipping. It’s something special, something set apart from singing in the car to the latest Imagine Dragons single.

Could some people be raising their hands and closing their eyes to show off how Christian they are? Could be, I suppose. No way of knowing, really. But the thing is, when the Weird-Tingly-Cabin-Pressure-Thing is happening, questions like that seem comparatively unimportant. Last week, when our worship pastor Justin Law (really his name!) was playing “The Offering,” I felt that feeling come over me. And I resisted lifting my hands for a moment, because I was afraid that I would feel like a fake. But then it occurred to me – the only reason I was resisting was because I wanted to, and my holding my hands at my sides, I was being a fake.

So, Samurai Sword it was.

After the song was over, and my eyes opened, and my mild “spirit high” faded away, I saw the people around me having the same heavy-lidded look on their faces that I felt on my own. Brandi was seated next to me, head in her hands. And Justin, up on the stage, was idly strumming.

“Wow,” he said, “the spirit is really heavy in the room right now. Jesus, thanks for being with us.”

So in that spirit, I’ve amended my rule – I will raise my hands, but only when Jesus shows up. That seems fair.


To Serve Man

As a result of my daily internet-ing, I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff lately about “actually living life” and “making a difference in the world” and “having meaning in your life”. I’ve seen those ideas in memes, in Facebook updates, in Tweets scarred with that most hateful of hashtags, #yolo.

Can we, as a society, please agree to kill this phrase with fire?

Can we, as a society, please agree to kill this phrase with fire?

Whatever else they said, all of these various messages implied that living, real living, happened out there. Somewhere very distant from the office, desk and computer chair that most of us have to spend our day to day lives. Sometimes it would be stories of missionaries doing this crazy meaningful work, sometimes it was people who dedicated their lives to art and beautification for very little reward beyond leaving the place a little prettier than they found it, sometimes it was people who had felt God’s calling and sold everything to go travel around the world touching people’s lives in any way they could.

All of these different articles and blog posts and calls to action posed the same question: didn’t you want that? Wouldn’t you love to have that life that somehow made a difference in the world? Didn’t you want to leave some impression on this place when you were gone? Wouldn’t you rather feed some hungry people, clothe some poor people, teach some children, volunteer in a clinic, do anything that meant something? And I, as was their intention I’m sure, took a look at my life, and my office and my desk and my slacks and I thought, “Why, yes. Yes I do want that. Whatever it is I’m doing now (which, for the record, is answering phones for a cable company) it sure isn’t living. Not living like the people in these stories are doing. I want to live.”

Now, anyone that truly knows me knows that those are dangerous words for me to say. It’s a dangerous concept for me to have in general. You see, I have this . . . fear, I guess, of being anything I might interpret as “caged”. Freedom is very important to me. The idea of Living – with a capital “L”, and often italicized – is very important to me. These two things flow through the heart of everything I do and pull me, like a river current, from one life decision to another. It’s overall a good thing, I think (though Daniel might stridently disagree), but it has led to such remarkably stupid actions as two failed marriages, both of which I ran as fast as I could from for various reasons that really came down to feeling trapped somewhere I didn’t want to be. It’s led to not one, or two, but several large moves between cities, states and even across the country. I’ll probably do that one again at some point – can’t get too static. It’s driven me to get several tattoos and piercings that I got, not because I was being particularly artistic or expressive, but because I thought, “Fuck it, I wanna be different”.

I’ve been in my current family situation now for 9 years. That’s forever in Brandi years. Daniel helps my natural restlessness by being constantly willing to deal with my crazy new ideas and life directions, and long-suffering enough to be willing to pretty regularly pack up his whole life to follow me on one of my crazy adventures. Seriously, he’s a saint.

 

Here he is - St. Daniel of the Plaintive Self Pic

Here he is – St. Daniel of the Plaintive Self Pic

 

In all seriousness though, that concept of wanting to Live is prime breeding ground for completely uprooting my life. Even with all that Daniel does, there are still times I feel this tug to something more. Not more than my family, per so – I don’t want to make it sound like I’m ungrateful for them (though sometimes, admittedly, I’m ready to make all of my kids move out and I don’t care if they’re only 12, 9 and 6. Honestly. My kingdom for some quiet.) In reality it’s just that same pull to freedom and meaning. It makes my feet itch. I know there’s some amazing thing out there for me. It’s waiting for me. I was made to do this thing, and no one else can do it. I feel these things as capital-t Truths. I’ve felt them since I was a little girl.

And that’s great! I love the idea of everyone having their own personal legend, their own adventure, their own story. The fact that I feel I have one waiting for me is awesome! The problem is that while I feel this in me, sometimes so strongly I can hardly think around it, I get impatient for it. That leads me to resent where I presently am. That resentment leads to restlessness, which builds into this need to move, to start over, to find something new and maybe stumble upon my calling. Sometimes I feel like those upheavals to my life were genuinely the prodding of God to get us to a certain place, like my move from Arizona to Duluth, for example. At other times though, it was just my restless impatience, my equivalent of giving my handmaiden to my husband because, “I waited a really long time and nothing happened, and now its getting too late, so this must be what God meant”. (Disclaimer: I do not have a handmaiden to give to my husband. Sorry, Daniel.)

 

Editor's Note : Quite alright. This shit is creepy.

Editor’s Note : Quite alright. This shit is creepy.

 

Probably for the last year or so I’ve felt this flaring up. I’ve been getting restless with everything in my life. The mess and chaos of day to day living with three kids, one of whom we’re pretty sure has Asperger’s, another with ADHD, and a third who’s about to be 13, makes me want to run away screaming. The doldrums of working, day to day, in a call center taking calls from people who want me to explain their cable bill when I could be, I don’t know, building a community garden or volunteering in a clinic for the extremely poor, leave me looking out the window and dreaming up ways to give up my life.

The clincher is, I don’t really want to give up my life. I love my husband and my kids, even though they can be real idiots sometimes. I don’t hold that against them any more than they hold it against me when I let them down, which happens more regularly than I’d like to admit. I just feel like I was destined to do something that mattered, and I feel like my current life is the opposite of that.

But I can’t just throw it all away, give up capitalism in favor of more humanitarian work, like I might have once done in my misspent youth. I have a family, I have kids, I have a car payment and a mortgage and the computer I’m typing this on or the smart phone that I access the app I respond to comments with. I have bills. How do I contemplate leaving all of that behind to go run off on some crazy soul-revealing adventure in some derelict country? I can’t take my kids, because I know from experience when you do this sort of thing on the fly there are a lot of times when you’re hungry, exposed to the elements or otherwise not safe or secure. Did I mention one of my kids very likely has Asperger’s? That will never work. I would feel like a shithead for putting them through that. Plus, I’m pretty sure my offspring aren’t ready to experience actual poverty without losing their damn minds.

 

“Oh, did your IPod charger die? Well, let’s drop everything and find a Radio Shack.”

“Oh, did your IPod charger die? Well, let’s drop everything and find a Radio Shack.”

 

So what are my options? Stay in this meaningless rut, answering call after call and listening to people whine about their first world problems so that I can earn a paycheck to provide a safe and structured (if not exactly stable) environment for my family? Well, I could do that. It’s the easiest option,  actually, since all my stuff is already in my house, and I kinda like my family. But that could seriously mean I’ll live the rest of my life in this rut, with no hope of resolution to this feeling I’m meant to do something that has an impact on the world. Ok, then – while we’re taking an honest look at the options, I could alternately just go. Leave it all behind, leave the kids with Daniel and my parents where they’ll adjust, eventually, to my absence. Go live a life that has some purpose behind it. Sure, that would let me feel like I had some forward momentum toward making a difference, but at what cost? Could I ever enjoy living, even Living, if I had to hurt and betray and lose all of the people I love? Clearly, that’s not an option. I couldn’t go anywhere without Daniel, life would be way too boring without him. So what’s left? Can I have more than a sense of longing and unfulfilled purpose?

I’ve been tossing around some big questions onto this blog lately, and a lot of those questions, and a lot of your comments, have caused me to stop and take a hard look at myself. The reflection I’ve seen has, at times, been a little unflattering. Maybe a lot of the people I’ve been criticizing were getting it wrong, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t, too. And maybe there are a lot of opportunities to get out there and really make a difference in this world, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities closer to home. I began to see the problem wasn’t the hypocrites I was mad at, or the office I was forced to work in for the sake of my family. The problem wasn’t even that I had this unfulfilled destiny. The problem was my selfish worldview – my problem was that I was putting myself before everything.

Through your comments, and the prodding of the Holy Spirit to look closely at who I am and what kind of person I’m exemplifying, I began to see that the problem was me. Not only was I being selfish, but I was letting that selfishness, that longing for greater purpose, blind me to opportunities I had to impact people every day.

Aren’t we all part of the same world? If I make a difference in the lives of my friends, my family, my co-workers, isn’t that still impacting the world? If I could serve here, wasn’t I serving everywhere? It’s so easy to forget that, while there are huge problems in some third world countries out there, the world where we live every day is still broken.

We touch the lives of people every day. For good or ill we make differences in the lives of the people around us. Maybe they don’t live in a dump on the Thai border. Maybe they’re not living off of three dollars a day with penicillin a distant dream. Maybe, though, they’re a single mother who got walked out on by their man and now has to struggle, even turn to desperate options, to feed their baby. Maybe it’s someone who has suffered the sting of verbal, physical, or mental abuse, and now honestly believes that they’re worthless. Maybe it’s someone who has been sexually assaulted and feels unworthy of real love. These are examples of the broken lives that people live around us every day. Are their lives less important, less in need of healing from the brokenness of the world, than the people who are drinking sewage water in some remote, extremely poor corner of the third world? Does God mourn more for the poor in Mali, or Haiti, or Thailand than he mourns for the broken and discarded of America?

 

I tried to think of a funny quip for this picture, but I can't because this situation is fucking tragic.

I tried to think of a funny quip for this picture, but I can’t because this situation is fucking tragic.

 

The answer is, of course, no. The problem wasn’t that I hadn’t found my calling and that I needed to keep moving and running hoping to stumble over it. My calling has been all around me from the start. The problem was my selfishness and my greed created a pretty lie that the hurts and worries and fears of the people I see every day were somehow less important, less noble,  because they were first world. “How bad can they have it?” I thought, when I thought of it at all. “They have full time jobs, cars and regular meals.” Obviously, I was wrong. My whole attitude was wrong. Maybe that stirring in me, that longing to serve and leave the world somehow better than it was when I got here wasn’t put there to prod me to change my scenery or location, but to change myself so that my life could have impact and meaning even if the only people I ever spoke to were in line at Cub, or in the pod next to me at work. I could start to change the world, to affect the future right where I was standing.

In chapter 25 of Luke, a crafty man famously asks Jesus to define who God considers a neighbor. The implication in the scripture is that the man wanted to limit his sphere of influence to the people he already interacted with on regular basis, and Jesus defied his expectations by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Your neighbor, he seemed to say, is whoever you run into, anywhere, anytime. In my ignorance, I was asking God the same question but from a different perspective – I assumed that my “neighbor” could not literally be my neighbor. Now that my perspective has been straightened out – now that I have re-oriented myself, or, so to say, repented – the world seems pregnant with the potential to act as the saints act. And if that isn’t purpose, then I literally do not know what the fuck “purpose” means.

I often end these articles with a question, but this time, I’d like to end it with words of thanks. The What the Faith readers have become an invaluable resource to me as I try to figure out what a more Christ-like Brandi looks like, and I would be a dick if I didn’t give credit to all of you for helping me through the rough spots on my spiritual journey. I owe each and every one of you, individually and collectively, a Pepsi. Hugs!


NT Wright, Skeptics, and Jesus Christ Superstar

I was browsing through my Facebook feed today, and I caught a post from my good friend (and fellow blogger) Jenn with 2 N’s. Her post was a quote from NT Wright, former bishop of Durham and a theological hero of mine. The quote was about Jesus’ resurrection (cuz it’s Easter, see?) and how skeptics see it. Here is what Wright had to say.

“But the other part of the answer to what the skeptics have said is that is in fact the skeptics, from that day to this, who are guilty of the very thing of which they are accusing Christians. It is the skeptical world-view that has been blown apart by Jesus’ resurrection. Ever since that day they have been only too eager to find stories to tell to show that actually it didn’t happen, that their original world-view (in which dead people cannot, do not and will not rise again) was correct after all, that some other story will explain it. You can feel the sigh of relief in the skeptical camp each time one of these stories is put forward, however unlikely it may be. Phew! We don’t need to believe that Jesus rose again. That’s all right then. We can cope with him as a great teacher (with whom we may from time to time disagree). We can even see his death as a great example of love in action. We can share his vision of a world in which people live in peace. Only don’t ask us to accept that he rose from the dead. That’s just too much.”

When I read this, I was tempted to respond to Jenn’s Facebook post. I am, after all, a former skeptic. In fact, there are days when I feel rather “not so former.” Plus, the author’s tone came off as a bit smug, and as you’ll soon see, I have a long history of arguing with self-righteous Christians. So Wright’s assumption about the nature of skeptics, and their take on Jesus, seemed like something I was uniquely qualified to respond to. I didn’t, though. I stopped in the middle of mentally preparing my comment, which would have gone something like this:

I’m a fan of NT Wright, so it’s with some fondness that I say that he apparently doesn’t know skeptics as well as he believes. Most skeptics aren’t on the fence about the resurrection of Jesus – they do not believe it happened. A staple of the skeptical mindset is the adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The resurrection of Jesus is about as extraordinary a claim as can be made. Skeptics believe that the people making the extraordinary claim have the responsibility of providing the extraordinary evidence to support it. Conversely, the skeptic’s claim about Jesus – that Jesus did not come back from the dead – is a rather ordinary claim. After all, it’s said that seven people die every second, and none of them come back to life (at least, not after three days, as in the case of Jesus). Therefore, only ordinary evidence is needed to support that claim. Skeptics are not, as Wright asserts, secretly fearing that their claim could be proven wrong. They don’t latch onto evidence that supports their disbelief in the resurrected Jesus, because no such latching is necessary. The evidence that people who die and stay down for three days are basically going to stay that way is reaffirmed every day a thousand, thousand times.

 

Your honor, I rest my case.

Your honor, I rest my case.

 

But I didn’t post that comment to Jenn’s Facebook, and here’s why. In my very first post ever I mentioned being “saved” as a kid, and then sort of drifting away from Christianity soon afterward. I spent my teenage years as an on-again, off-again Neo-Pagan. My mid-twenties found me exploring Gelugpa Buddhism. In between those periods, I’ve called myself an agnostic, an atheist, a deist, and a secular humanist. Clearly, I didn’t know what I was. What I did know was what I wasn’t. I wasn’t a Christian. Christianity was the religion I despised the most. I was convinced that while a few individual Christians might be great people, Christianity as a culture was hypocritical, judgmental, lazy, and damn-near worthless. I was so not Christian that at times I found it hard to stop focusing on how non-Christian I was.

And yet, in my quiet moments, I was aware (almost fearfully so) of the fascination that the religion held for me. I remember being in high school when my best friend’s church put on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. My buddy came to me one day in drama class, and asked if I would be willing to volunteer my time to help the production. They needed a couple of guys to work the spotlights, and would I be available? It happens I did have time on my hands, so I joined up with the church folks to help out. It would be my first time seeing Jesus Christ Superstar, a show that so enraptured me that I have since seen it live four times – once, with Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach in the lead role.

 

Oh man, it was awesome! At one point he turned water into wine, dirt into cocaine, and pharisees into hookers and the SHOW HADN'T EVEN STARTED!

Oh man, it was awesome! At one point he turned water into wine, dirt into cocaine, and pharisees into hookers and the SHOW HADN’T EVEN STARTED!

 

It was during one of the productions that I had the strangest thought. I was working the spot on the stage left side of the balcony, and I was focusing on my best friend’s girlfriend (and now wife!), who was beautifully belting out “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” My eyes were tearing up, which wasn’t a surprise to me even then – good music almost always makes my eyes rain. By this point I’d seen the show a couple of times, not counting rehearsals, so I already knew I loved it. But this time, something seemed to hit me with unusual poignancy. I remember thinking, “Man. I wish this story were true. It’s too bad it isn’t.”

That wasn’t the first time I felt the siren’s call of Christianity in my coal-black pagan/Buddhist/agnostic/deist heart, but it’s one of the times I remember with the most clarity. Those moments aside, I was quite the good anti-Christian. I argued against those that claimed that Christianity was logical – and I argued gleefully. I turned high-school level apologetics over my knee and spanked them mercilessly in my eagerness to prove the logical inferiority of Christianity. But, aside from my enthusiastic debating, I was a nice guy. I did my best to be a good person, to treat people well, to do what was (as the Boy Scouts’ motto put it) “morally straight”, and to make it known to anyone who asked (or didn’t) that I was doing this despite the fact that I was not Christian. I wanted everyone to know that Christians didn’t have a monopoly on morality – far from it, in fact. Most people weren’t all that moved by my efforts – high school students at the time had more pressing things on their minds, like AOL chat rooms or the Nintendo 64 – but one person took notice. The aforementioned best friend, who happens to be named Robert, once told me, “Dan, you’d be a really good Christian.” I was flattered – I knew the spirit in which the compliment had been given, and I wasn’t that anti-Christian as to be a jerk about it – and I thanked him with the comment that I hoped I was already a good whatever-I-was that time. But even as I semi-deflected his compliment, I was pleased by it.

Part of me, you see, wanted to be Christian. Part of me had always wanted to be Christian. What I didn’t have was the reason to be Christian. It wasn’t enough for strangers to tell me that Jesus was a big deal. I needed Jesus to tell me that he was a big deal. After all, the claims surrounding Christianity – big, bold, impossible miracles; small, intimate, improbable miracles; the goddamn dude coming back from the dead – made the religion hard to buy into. It was one thing to buy into the Neo-Pagan idea that a person’s thoughts affect their world; it was another to believe that Jesus fed five thousand people with (what my pastor calls it) a kid’s lunch. If I was going to believe in the model of reality put forth by Christians, they were going to have to explain things better than they had. I even once told somebody, “If God wants me to be a Christian, God is going to have to tell me so himself.” God would have to pull off the impossible – he was going to have to make me believe in miracles.  Until such a time, I told myself, I would stick with a more rational system of beliefs.

 

In hindsight, I'm not sure it was more rational - but the home made wine was pure tits.

In hindsight, I’m not sure it was more rational – but the homemade wine was pure tits.

 

Years later, when events in my life would lead me to conclude that Jesus was sending me the old proverbial text message (did they text in proverbs?), my journey to Hillside Church in Duluth would begin with an email conversation with pastor Ryan Bauers. After some pleasant chat, Ryan recommended that I read a book called Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist, by author Dave Schmelzer. Brandi and I bought the book for my Kindle, and through a series of zany mishaps, we were forced to read the book aloud, together. Dave Schmelzer had spent a period of his life in a state of anti-Christianity very similar to my own. Like Dave, I was considered the “atheist debater guy” in my school, and like Dave, I was good at poking logical holes into the arguments of the Christians I dueled wits with. I could relate to the author, who came out of atheism into Christianity and has been practicing a life of Jesus Type Stuff for over twenty years. I could relate to him so much, in fact, that there was one question I was dying to ask him. As luck would have it I was able to meet him, some six months after reading his book, at a church conference in Minneapolis. One night of the conference, as I sat next to him drinking beer and eating a Rueben sandwich, I got to ask him my one question.

“Dave, when you were debating all of those Christians in college, were you secretly hoping that one of them would beat you?”

Without the slightest hesitation, Dave said yes. He’d debated, hoping to lose. It was the answer I’d expected, because it was the answer I would have given, had I been asked the same question. As crazy as it was, my vehement anti-Christian sentiment had lived alongside a deeply hidden desire to believe in a story as crazy, as unlikely, and as wonderful as the story of the man Jesus and his resurrection. And clearly, I wasn’t the only skeptic to feel this way.

So maybe NT Wright knows a bit more about skeptics that I was originally willing to credit him for, even if his words seem a little condescending. While I am not ready to believe that all skeptics are just Christians waiting to happen – that is an idea that, as a previous skeptic, I still find a bit offensive – it is easy to see the truth that some of them are. Dave Schmelzer was, and I was, too. And while I doubt that there’s ever going to be enough scientific evidence of the resurrection to get all the world’s skeptics through the church doors, that’s okay – Jesus is a big deal because Jesus is a big deal. We can trust him to send that proverbial text message when the time is right. These days, everyone has a cell phone.

 

"Totes time for a new profile pic."

“Totes time for a new profile pic.”