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?
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.
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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.
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.”
“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?
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.”