Learning to Live with Question Marks

My least favorite part of any social exchange, (especially a professional one where I’m trying to make a good impression) is when someone asks me, “Do you have any questions?”

It’s a perfectly considerate thing to ask. But I feel put on the spot. If I do have questions, I feel like they may be stupid ones. If I don’t, it may seem like I haven’t thought things through enough. Should I have questions? I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

So my typical answer is half casual, half flattering: “No, I think you’ve explained everything pretty well.” Or I take a rain check: “You know, I probably will down the road, but at this point no.”

Maybe someday I’ll pull a Kelly from The Office, and answer, “Yeah, I have a lot of questions. Number one: how dare you?” but unfortunately (or fortunately) no situation has called for that, and I doubt I’d be brave enough to say it anyway.

That’s what it all really boils down to: bravery. Or the lack thereof. I don’t ask questions because my goal in any given social exchange, particularly one where I feel the lesser of two powers, is to keep my head down and gather as much information as possible while causing as little a scene as possible.

I also don’t have confidence in my brain’s ability to come up with dazzling, insightful questions on the spot. It’s only later, at home, while I’m brushing my teeth, that I realize I’m wondering something and that that person earlier could have answered my questions. But at this point, of course, it’s too much of a bother to go back and ask, so I’ll figure it out on my own.

Figure it out on my own. The phrase is code, I’ve realized, for I’m too afraid to ask for help.

Or maybe, I’m afraid of the answer.

The second one isn’t usually my reason for not asking questions in, say, a job interview or a writing class. But it has, in the past, been my reason for not asking the deep questions of life and faith.

In my experience, this fear of asking questions is especially marked when you grow up as a Christian kid. In the church, you’re often subtly discouraged to ask tough questions, because even the existence of a question shows some level of doubt, and doubt is terrifying.

We become obsessed with finding the single right, godly, biblical answer that will be 100% correct 100% of the time. That’s why good church people squirm around the tough questions on things like war and miscarriage and poverty and addiction and divorce and sex. These subjects are not tidy; there’s no single, right, godly, biblical answer, and it’s easier to just make a blanket statement and move on.

It’s understandable. Questions make us all uncomfortable no matter who we are, because an answered question changes the status quo, and an unanswered question shows weakness in the status quo. Questions drive us deeper, make us evaluate the situation and ourselves, and sometimes we don’t like what we see. It’s easier to keep plodding along the way we’ve always been, to resist change, to be an object in motion staying in motion, instead of defying inertia for a moment and asking, “why?”

A few years ago, during one of the hardest times in my life, I was questioning everything. It was terrifying. I was like a two-year-old, experiencing everything for the first time, asking why why why?

Why do we do things this way? Why don’t we question that? Why did I only ever learn that Christianity could be aligned with a single political ideology? Why didn’t I learn that art and culture can be beautiful things that point us to God? Why have I always learned to look at marriage a single way? Why are we so quick to make the Bible into a calculating list of appearance-keeping? Why do we treat some sinners worse than others?

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t accepting my world the way it had been presented to me. I was asking all the questions about all the things.

And you know what? God still found me. God wasn’t wringing his hands, lamenting about how Hannah had walked away from the faith with all her questions. No, God followed me through each dark thicket and shadowed forest, until I realized that God wasn’t following me at all: I was following him.

For the first time in my life, my faith was my own. I had wrestled with it, using the brain and words and thoughts and emotions God gave me. And that’s when I realized that God is stronger than our questions. Curiosity and faith do not exist on the opposite ends of a spectrum. God is never threatened by my desire to know more; he’s honored and loved by it. Because to love is to know. The desire to know is the desire to more deeply love.

Do I trust the Holy Spirit to guide me into all truth, which he promised to do? Do I trust that my questions are God tugging at the corners of my mind to pull me into a deeper knowledge of him? Do I trust that if I’m seeking the truth, I will find it?

And the answer is this: I must trust that these things are true, because God already promised these things to me. He has promised that his spirit will lead me into truth (John 16:13). He has promised that when I seek, I will find what I’m truly looking for (Matthew 7:7-8).

It wasn’t easy to question everything. It still isn’t, because I still am questioning. I’ve found that even believing some things for sure doesn’t mean other things won’t be in flux. I think that’s why the most powerful prayer we find in the Bible is “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:23).

God’s response to us wanting and needing to question our faith isn’t “Go to hell! (Literally and figuratively!)” God doesn’t turn his back on us and say, “Go have your hippie fun and come back to me when you’re good and ready.”

God pursues us, relentlessly, and delights in us, always. Especially when, like little children or angry teenagers or curious adults we ask questions about our Father. Filled with love and compassion, he looks for us, runs to us, and embraces us (Luke 15:20). All he wants, all he has ever wanted, is our companionship. All he wants is generous, lavish community and oneness and love.

Because plot twist: God was never concerned with our tidy answers anyway.

A List of Tooth Complaints

I have a recurring dream in which I have a loose tooth.

Damn, I think to myself. I’m too old for this. Okay; I’ll just take out this one tooth, and no one will notice.

So I wiggle the tooth, and little by little it becomes looser and looser, and then it falls out. Mission accomplished. Except, in a weird turn of events, the tooth isn’t the only thing that wants free of my jaw. There’s another loose tooth, and another, and then a piece of bone I can’t recognize, and then another, and suddenly all this bone and enamel has come from my mouth.

Damn, I think to myself. I never knew there was this much jaw in a jaw.

I wake up feeling hot and cold, my heart pounding. I feel my face, tapping my jaw to make sure it’s still solid, running my tongue over my teeth. All twenty-eight, still intact. I lay back down and replay the dream in my head, cringing at the memory, the feeling, of pulling teeth out of my jaw.

I don’t remember when this fear of dental injury first started, but in the past few years I’ve noticed I carry a certain squeamishness around teeth. Odontophobia, I’ve found it’s called. Maybe it’s due to a few things:

The time I was five and an older kid told me about how he’d knocked out his two front teeth on the handlebars of his bike. I remember cupping my hands over my mouth and thinking, that will never happen to me, you barbarian.

The time I was eight and a dentist extracted one of my baby teeth. The tooth died right in my mouth and wouldn’t budge to let the new teeth grow in. The tooth was gray. They gave me a tiny red plastic treasure chest to put it in. (That’s a terribly morbid thing to do to a child.)

The time I was fifteen and got braces (thank you dead gray tooth) and felt wire cutters just a little too close to my teeth for comfort.

The time I was seventeen and got the braces off, and they had to scrape cement off my teeth. (Scrape. Cement. Off my teeth.)

The time I was eighteen and I got all four of my wisdom teeth out, which were so impacted in my gums that I had to be drugged into a deep sleep while the oral surgeon cut them out, and I was in pain for a week and looked like a chipmunk for two, and they gave me all four wisdom teeth to take home in a sandwich bag. (That’s a terribly morbid thing to do to a college freshman.)

The time I confided to my best friend that my greatest fear is a razor somehow, magically, coming into contact with my teeth and… I don’t know, shaving them? And every time she mimes shaving her teeth like it’s some kind of joke just to bother me, and how my mouth tastes like vinegar every time, and how she’s not even miming it the way I really imagine and fear it, but I’m definitely not telling her how I really envision it, because best friends are terrible people when they know your greatest fear.

(It’s not a joke Jennifer!)

And then the dental hygienist wonders why I don’t floss enough. Haven’t my teeth been through enough, lady? Have mercy!

Clearly I have some deep-seated tooth trauma I need to take care of. And the funny thing is, I didn’t realize how much until I wrote out my list of tooth complaints just then. It’s funny how the stuff that bothers you, the memories and fears, lurk in your subconscious and only peek out from time to time, like when you have a weird dream about pulling bone from your jaw or when your best friend asks if you want to brush your teeth with a Venus razor. (Shut up Jennifer!)

This isn’t only true of teeth, either. There are several areas in my life where I’m coasting along, doing my own thing, and then a stray word from someone else or an unfamiliar circumstance or a random memory in my head sends me on a road of cringy anxiety.

Just this week I got to the bottom of tender subject that has been bothering me for months. I was talking to my husband, thinking out loud, and suddenly the list of complaints spilled out, and it led me, like a map, to the real root of the problem (root. teeth. hm).

It was awful and wonderful and painful and cathartic. Like pulling out a tooth, wiggling and wiggling and feeling sharp jabs of pain, then finally taking a deep breath and pulling. It hurts, a lot. But then the pain is worth it, because the pain has gotten you somewhere, and like that dead tooth from when I was eight, there’s now room to grow.

There’s room for a beautiful smile.

(I still don’t understand the red plastic treasure chest, though.)

Rest in Solitude, Heal in Community

This summer has been a season of transition. Amidst moving, new living situations, new jobs, and new prospects for the future, I’ve found myself overwhelmed and suddenly unsure of everything. It’s interesting how when you’re in a life stage that has a deadline (i.e. school), you look forward to the time of endless possibilities, and then when the gate opens and you have the freedom to do anything, all those endless possibilities suddenly seem like too much.

I’ve noticed that I freeze up whenever I have too many choices. Just ask my husband how long it takes me to pick out cold medicine at Walmart. I’ll stand in the aisle, staring blankly at the shelves while my nose runs and my eyes water and I whine that my head and body and everything hurts. You know how they make fun of men for being bad at being sick? They never met me.

“Just get the DayQuil,” Alex says.

“But there might be another brand with more caplets in it for less money!” I cry. “I have to look at them all. Or I could get liquid medicine. But there are so many brands of that! Oh, I hate being sick! Oh, to be well again!” and I wring my hands.

Thirty minutes later, we walk out of there with a box of DayQuil.

(I’ve since learned that a store with less options, like Aldi, is a better bet for me.)

As with DayQuil, so with life. The choices and decisions pile up until I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know what I even value.

My approach to overwhelmth is often to retreat, monklike, into my own space and where I feel comfortable and in control. Since I’ve started doing research on human behavior and psychology and have discovered the ins and outs of introversion, of which I am a subscriber, it’s become a little easier to excuse my monkish state and to be okay with excessive solitude. I’m recharging, I tell myself. I’m self-caring. I’m figuring things out in the quiet.

And many times, I am. I’m still a firm believer that we find rest in solitude. And that goes for all of us, not just those introvertedly-inclined. We all need a moment to be with ourselves, to tune into our inner minds and hearts. I discover a lot in prayer, in reading, in yoga, in writing. These are all things that pack the most punch when I do them alone.

But solitude is only one side of the equation. Self-care only goes so far, and self-care doesn’t always look like sitting alone on your bed with a candle (don’t do that; it’s a fire hazard). Human beings are made for community, too. We may find rest in solitude, but we find healing in community. It’s in community where I gain perspective, where I realize that the things which freak me out most in life are not things I carry alone.

In The Quotidian Mysteries, a collection of essays which is just an excellent book that everyone should read, writer and poet Kathleen Norris talks about how the everyday routines we take for granted serve to ground us in reality. And part of this is spending time with others:

[We] need the daily love of other people to reassure us that our lives have value.

In community I find solidarity, and I learn to pay attention to other people’s needs and fears too. In community I can be honest about my failings and find some catharsis. And often, community even connects me with people who have answers to the very questions that are overwhelming me, from the family friend who knows of a job I’d be good at, to the new friend who’s doing good things in my hometown, to the best friend who understands how I feel and prays for me.

Engaging with community can be as simple as putting aside my work to chat with my husband, taking a day trip with my family, or socializing after church. Or it can be as complicated and challenging as introducing myself to someone I haven’t met or going to an event I’m nervous about.

Solitude is only good when it doesn’t become loneliness. When I’m lonely, I forget who I truly am and I forget that my life has value. I need my friends, my family, my community, to connect me with the world again. And the beauty of it is that they need me too.

Giving love away doesn’t deplete or decrease; it only multiplies. And taking part in community only multiplies and strengthens the ties we have to each other and to our inner selves.

When I do that, the wall of overwhelming life doesn’t see so scary anymore.

Fighting Vocational FOMO

This summer I have one overarching goal: to focus on my writing. There are several aspects of this in play: there’s the editing business I’m building, the book I’m writing with my best friend, the coursework for my creative writing MFA, and of course, the lifelong journey of learning to Just Write.

In many ways, I’m very well cut out for this life. I love thinking thoughts and exploring life through the written word. I enjoy both the solitude and the collaboration that this vocation requires.

But one sneaky part of my personality comes into play when I decide to Just Write: apparently, I have Vocational FOMO.

According to the kids these days, FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I don’t really have FOMO in the sense that the kids these days do; I’ll stay home while you party on a Friday night and I don’t really care about missing out. But show me your steady job while I’m building a freelance career, and hello, FOMO. Soon I am diverging from my own career path to follow someone else’s, and of course it doesn’t work, because, well, it’s someone else’s. Then I’m back to square one, knowing what I, me, myself, should be focusing on, and feeling guilty that I haven’t gotten farther, and guilty that I keep losing focus. Vocational FOMO.

In the Bible there’s a letter in which Paul, a writer in his own right, looks forward to the day the church is brought together in unity, not “blown aside by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). Paul is a very metaphorical writer, and this letter is no exception. Many of Paul’s letters to his friends talk about guarding against various false messengers. These evil people often bullied and manipulated Paul’s fellow Christians into losing focus, abandoning what they believed in favor of something that sounded true, but was actually a ticket back to mental and spiritual slavery. “Stop letting these heavy winds of doctrine blow you aside,” says Paul. “Enough with the spiritual FOMO.”

Some days I feel very much like Paul’s friends. I get excited by this opportunity, that job, this career path, that life philosophy. But they all distract me from what I know I need to do. It ends up taking me weeks to detox myself of all the mental noise, the you should be doing thises and why aren’t you doing thats. The fear that I’m not doing what I ought keeps me from doing what I must.

Luckily, I have a Paul. I have a best friend who is always telling me not to be blown aside by the winds of doctrine. She knows I am happier when I’m not giving into Vocational FOMO. She also, unlike Paul, has unlimited texting, so the message gets to me sooner.

This, I’ve found, is why community is extremely important for writers. We need Pauls to keep us focused, to use metaphors to keep us on our own unique career paths, to remind us not to be blown aside by the winds of doctrine.

I suspect this doesn’t just apply to writing, either. All of us, especially in our success-driven culture, give way to FOMO. We are always unconsciously sacrificing what we must do to chase what we feel we should do. The catch-22 is that society’s definition of success changes on a decade-to-decade basis. Luckily, I think we’re realizing just how important it is to have Vocational Joy, not Vocational FOMO. If we’re all different and unique, our vocations will be different, and that’s okay.

As a millennial, I grew up with a sense of insecurity in any given career path or economic system, and this is actually a blessing in disguise. The lack of surety is freedom, because it means I can follow my calling in my timeline. I don’t have to fear missing out. None of us do.

Knowing this, of course, is one thing, and putting it into practice is another. I have to remind myself daily that my pursuits are worthwhile, even when they don’t immediately pay off. I have to learn to quiet the noise, clear the table, and Just Write, and little by little the small voice that tells me what I truly need gets louder and louder.

 

That Time I Went to Yoga With Sweaty Hands

Hello, my name is Hannah, and I have sweaty palms.

Not perpetually or anything; at least I hope not. But at certain times, when it’s very warm or I’m very nervous, I get sweaty palms.

Take on of my first dates with Alex, six years ago. We went to the movie theater to see the first Hunger Games, and in a confused flurry of emotion—hey man, that movie is traumatic—we wound up holding hands. And then a few minutes later my hands started getting warm and damp, and Alex very nonchalantly stopped holding my hand by pretending to check the time or something. Because we’d only been dating a few weeks, I assumed he was trying to maintain healthy physical boundaries.

But deep down we all knew it was because of my sweaty palms.

Of course, now that we’re married, I can insist he get over it and hold my hand anyway. It’s not like I’m unclean or anything. And he can refuse anyway, or make a joke of it, and the issue isn’t in danger of ruining a burgeoning romance. The sweaty hands are more of an annoyance.

Until the other day, when they became nigh unto life-threatening.

We moved this past month, and one thing I lost by leaving our former community was my favorite yoga studio. It made me very sad, because a good public yoga class is akin to a good cup of coffee. You don’t really need it, but you also do. It makes you a better, more peaceful person. And you miss it terribly when you don’t have it. I was in desperate need of some guided zen.

So I did some research and found a new yoga studio. It was thirty-five minutes away, because our little area in the Pennsylvania mountains is still catching up on the hipster trends, but it looked perfect. So I hauled myself through the woods and past cow pastures to make it to class at 4:30 in the afternoon.

I arrived at the yoga studio three minutes late. I was anxious about this, but told myself that I was overthinking it and that no one else got as persnickety about time management as me, and that I’d be just in time to sign in and find a spot before class began, and that there was no way the yoga teacher would begin right at 4:30.

Except my fears were all true; the door to the studio was locked, and a little chalkboard sign hung on it, which cheerily informed me that class was in session and I could come back later.

Cue sweaty palms. I stood on the sidewalk in a kind of yoga-deprived daze.

“Wait! I got you!” came a voice. A woman walked up and drew out a ring of keys. “I own the place,” she said. “Go in and enjoy your class.”

Maybe I was assisting in a break-in, but I didn’t care. I thanked her profusely and ducked inside, slipped off my shoes, and sheepishly walked into the big room where a middle-aged yoga trainer was leading a group of six other women in some shoulder rolls. I put down my mat right on a squeaky floorboard, and the sounds it made while I stretched were akin to that of a hundred-year-old barn in a windstorm.

But the yoga class went on pleasantly, and I soon calmed down a bit. The air smelled like essential oils, and mellow music wafted up to the white painted ceiling, settling into the red bricks of the walls.

And then we started Downward Dog, and that’s when I realized that my sweaty palms were still sweaty. It was warm, we were working out, and I had just come off the stressful situation of breaking into a yoga studio. Every time I tried to plant my hands into my mat, they slipped just enough to ruin any stability. Soon it wasn’t just my hands, but my feet too. And this wasn’t even hot yoga.

Ten times we went through the poses of a vinyasa. Ten times we came to Downward Dog, and ten times I clenched my finger tips into my mat and rued my recently-clipped nails. Ten times I feared I would slip out and topple over. Eventually I gave up on Down Dog and just folded into the little face-down ball that is Child’s Pose, feeling like a child myself.

I was so frustrated with myself. I remembered this same thing happening last summer, and I should’ve learned from that. I should’ve brought that yoga towel I bought at Marshall’s, the one that you lay over a yoga mat for such a time as this. It’s meant for hot yoga and any-yoga-with-Hannah-With-the-Sweaty-Palms. This whole episode was so not the way this yoga endeavor was supposed to be. I wasn’t supposed to be three minutes late. I wasn’t supposed to be locked out. I wasn’t supposed to be so rushed and stressed only to have it culminate in help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! and muscles sore from trying to hold up my body in a levitating inverted V. This was supposed to be a fun, relaxing time. It was supposed to make me feel happy and rested, like my old yoga class.

Eventually, mercifully, we stopped vinyasa-ing and stretched on the floor, cooling down the little by little. There’s this wonderful part of every yoga class: the very end. You lay down in Savasana, which means Corpse Pose, which aside from its morbid name is truly lovely. You just lie there, all stretched out, and you let your body sink into the earth while you close your eyes. Some people fall asleep; I’ve been in classes where people snore. Thank God that’s never been me. I’ll take sweaty palms, thank you very much.

And as we all lay there, our teacher talked in soothing tones about peace or acceptance or love or something, and I realized that this was a lovely class. It wasn’t as familiar or comfortable as the studio I had left, but it had all that I had come there for. It had taken me to the end of myself, to the end of all feeling of control, of anything but frustration. But I think we forget that the end of ourselves isn’t the end. There’s something beyond pain, and it’s strength. It’s peace.

There are many events in my life that have done on a large scale what that yoga class did to me in an hour. There have been so many times life takes me over the edge of my own control and comfort, and I expect to fall into some kind of endless abyss.

But I never really end up falling, because pain is not an abyss. It’s just an edge. And when I get past that edge, I do not fall, but I am suspended. I am held. And I learn that everything does not have to be perfect in order to find enjoyment and peace from a situation. I can have sweaty hands on my first date and still get married; I can have sweaty hands in a yoga class and still have a lovely time.

This week I’m doing some traveling for school, and although I’m super excited in many ways, I can’t ever seem to feel excitement without a corresponding amount of dread. It’s all part of this wonderful world called anxiety. My way to combat it is to always be prepared, to always have things planned out, to always think ahead. This is all well and good, but when life inevitably happens and things don’t go according to plan, I tend to sometimes freak out. The one thing I thought would keep me safe—a well-hatched plan—fails, and I don’t feel safe anymore.

But thinking about the sweaty palms helps. Discomfort and frustration are a part of getting stronger, and everything doesn’t have to be perfect for everything to be wonderful.

Which anyone who’s taken a yoga class knows.

 

From Numbness to Feeling: My Return to the Church

The room was filled with people. And the room was huge, so it was a lot of people. Hundreds of us were crammed in the black box room that had a stage and big screens in one corner. Lights in various colors flared. Upbeat music played. The crowd of people became a sea of heads and arms under the clouds of light and music.

It was my first time visiting this church. My best friend invited my husband and I along. He and I had been on an unfortunate streak of non-attendance, not because we didn’t think church was something we should do, and not because we had given up our faith or anything. The reason was simple: we hadn’t found a good church near school. The reason was also complicated: my heart was numb and suspicious.

Around the time Alex and I got married, the church I had grown up in for almost a decade turned its back on my family when we needed it most. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to us. Our exit from my childhood church was similar, though under different circumstances. This time, although I personally wasn’t involved in the details of this episode, I was still more affected than I initially thought. Months after the earthquake, the aftershocks hit me over and over again, when I least expected it.

The community of people I’d spent my teenage years with was now gone, and even worse, some of them were hostile. I was a new wife, and I craved some kind of support and advice, but the pool of people I felt I could trust was dry. The counsel I’d once relied on now seemed compromised with bitterness and hurt. I couldn’t even trust myself; everything I knew about my identity as a Christian was steeped in teachings that I now knew were false, in mindsets that were heretical, in motives that were misguided. For me, identity is so important, and I felt it swept away in a matter of months.

But I knew one thing: I could trust God. I just had to figure out who He really was. So in many ways, the first year of my marriage was like coming to God all over again. I couldn’t trust other people to guide me. I pretty much sat down with the Holy Spirit and said, “You’re gonna have to show me the right way to live. I don’t know a damn thing, and I don’t trust anyone to tell me the truth.”

I had always thought living a life pleasing to God was a clear-cut path: do these things, live this way, and you’re pleasing in the eyes of God. Little by little, He stripped away that comforting illusion. He gave me glimpses of the vast, terrifying freedom we have in Christ. My path became more rough-hewn, more wild, more like cutting out a path in the woods than following a well-worn road.

I learned not to be afraid of changing or evolving, of outgrowing who I used to be in favor of who God was making me now. My approach to my personhood and my marriage became different. And I clung to God because I really didn’t have the luxury of clinging to anyone else. I wasn’t just trying to find the way to Him; I was making my way with Him. It was a sucky time, yet it was when my faith truly became my own.

Except there was one catch: I couldn’t go to church. I did, physically, but my heart and mind felt like the skin had been ripped off. I was raw. Every time I went to church I was no more than a body in a room. I didn’t sing. I didn’t close my eyes to pray. I spent the sermon doodling in my journal. It’s not that I didn’t want to participate. I really did. I’d spend every church service on the verge of tears, because I wanted my heart to be there. I wanted to be invested. But it wasn’t. I didn’t trust any church not to make the same mistakes of the churches I had grown up with.

I realized this was a common mistake: to assume all churches are hypocritical because a handful are. I knew that there are no perfect churches; they’re made up of human beings, and human beings are stupid. That’s why we need God in the first place. But my brain knowing these things didn’t help the deep bruising in my soul. Our church had prided itself in being true, welcoming, and understanding, a place where the Spirit of God worked. A place that really had the answers. And it was all a sham, and now I couldn’t trust any church that claimed to be the same things.

For a time, I couldn’t go to church at all. It’s like when you have an injury. You know that in order to fully heal you have to eventually start exercising, which will be painful. You’ll have to start doing all the things you did before you got hurt, but with timid weakness. But before you do that, before you start to face the pain and build up strength, there’s a space of time where it’s okay not to expect anything of your injured body. It’s better, even, to rest and wait while the worst of the pain passes. For a season, that’s what I did with church.

And then my best friend invited me and Alex to the church she attended at school. It was one of those big, trendy churches you find in the suburbs of a city. And right away, I was suspicious. There were too many lights. There were two huge screens. They said things like “We’re a different kind of church” and the speaker that first week wore running clothes (it figured into his sermon, but still). The church had all the red flags on my list: it claimed I was welcome, it claimed it brought everything back to the basics of loving Jesus, it claimed it was “a church for people who’ve given up on church.”

Yeah, it was too perfect.

Also, there’s a weird stigma I noticed in myself and that I’ve since noticed in the church: to automatically discount bigger churches or megachurches. Perhaps this is only a phenomenon in small towns where there are small churches, but the prevailing attitude seems to be that if a church has more than a hundred people who regularly attend, its theology is automatically shot. As if Jesus didn’t speak to ten thousand people at a time, and as if Peter didn’t bring three thousand people to the Lord in one day. But I digress.

I was numb as ever, and I’d gotten to a place where I accepted the numbness. I couldn’t will it away; I couldn’t make myself feel comfortable or safe in a church. I could only accept where I was and hope that someday, maybe in ten years or so, I’d actually feel at home. In the meantime, I kept going to church, and I gave myself the space to dislike it if I wished.

It was a funny time, because while I felt deep spiritual growth in my person, none of it took place as a result of church. I can’t recall one message that spoke to me, or one time I felt church connecting with the things God was teaching me. When I went to church, it felt like looking at fish in an aquarium: I watched and admired (and was occasionally horrified), but I didn’t get in and swim.

This was painful, especially as someone who grew up learning that church attendance is essential for the Christian life. But it was important, because it taught me something: while church is truly vital for the Christian life, because without a body we do eventually die, God’s work is not dependent on other people. The Holy Spirit can change and transform when we are most raw, most isolated, most fearful. In fact, I would venture to say He does His best work in those times.

Little by little, month by month, I felt feeling return to the numbness. I remember being at church one Sunday morning, in that same storm of heads and arms and music and light, standing in my favorite spot between my husband and best friend, and singing to a worship song for the first time in months. I remember my voice cracking a little. I remember starting to cry.

And little by little, month by month, my guard went down. I began to trust this trendy suburban church, because I realized that the Spirit of God was at work there, and the word of God was held in the highest esteem, and that those are the only things we should ever worry about. Little by little, month by month, I began to feel belonging in church again.

There’s a lot of talk about the modern church. Many people are worried, because the church of the new millennium has an increased focus on accessibility and acceptance, simplicity and diversity. Many people see this as a departure from the true faith. But I no longer see it that way. To me, the modern church is a return to the roots of the faith. The church is starting to strip itself of its once-shiny trappings that made it more of an institution than a family. We are rediscovering the spirit of the law as we throw away its wretched letters one by one.

So when I hear some Christians lament about the new generation, my generation, and how we’re compromising the faith with our laziness and lack of piety, I have to disagree. Anyone who thinks the church is on the decline hasn’t been paying attention. I’m truly looking forward to where the church will be in thirty years, because the heart of modern Christianity is one of earnestness, of a deep desire to connect with God. And let us not forget that the faith needs very little upkeep to stay true, because Christianity isn’t dependent on us to keep it alive. Its life force, its soul, is in God, and he’s really good at sustaining truth. The Holy Spirit is alive and well.

Now when I go to church, I stand in the sea of heads and arms under clouds of light and music, and I remember that this is what heaven will be like. And unlike in the past, when I felt detached, set apart, observing, I now feel at home. I am part of the sea and part of the clouds, no longer raw, but strong.

And I feel sometimes, in those little scraps of moments, that heaven has come early.

Once Upon a Time in Italy

 

There’s a picture that hangs in my bedroom. It’s one of those photos which gets more detailed, more rich, the longer you look at it. At first, it’s simply a view of an alley between two buildings. They are stone, very rough and old. Some of their windows are bricked up, others covered with shutters. There are two heavy metal lanterns hung over the alleyway. The alley soon turns into stairs which carves between the buildings and down to a path, which extends through trees to more, smaller houses farther away, then to cypress trees, and then the picture fades into the greens and browns of the countryside, where a little ridge of bluish mountains just barely blocks the horizon. Your eyes double back to the beginning, and you pick out the little tray of blue paint in one doorway, the bright green of a fence, the flaming red of a bush and deeper orange of a roof. Soon your eyes are at the horizon again, at the wispy bluish ridge of hills, and finally up to the cloudy sky marbled with blue.

My cousin Ian took this photo and had it put on a canvas as a wedding present to me and Alex. He took it in Assisi, Italy, going on five years ago when I joined a group from Ian’s school on a two-week tour of Italy, Austria, and Germany. Assisi was the third day of our trip, and it was the first day I actually enjoyed.

When we flew into Rome two days after Christmas, I was already tired and jetlagged. I had never taken such a long flight before. We got to the Rome airport and had a few hours to kill before our bus picked us up, and I was starving so much I ate some really bad pasta. Truly, truly terrible. I thought, hey, it’s Rome; they can’t get pasta wrong, right? Wrong. My mom literally makes better pasta, and she’s not Italian at all. Maybe they should have American moms of Irish descent working at the Rome airport.

But I digress. That first night in Rome, I threw up about three times, and I went down to breakfast the next morning, gagged at the sight of a croissant, and told Ian I was going back to bed. He very sweetly delivered me some bread and jam before they all left on the day’s sightseeing, and gave me the phone number of the nearest pizza place in case I miraculously desired Italian food again. And then I was alone in a strange hotel, in a foreign city, with nothing to do because the internet wasn’t working and I only had one book.

So I cried for my Irish mom who made better pasta than the schmucks at the Rome airport.

At one point, the maid tried to come in to clean up the room, so I had to turn her away apologetically. Thankfully, “no” is no in Italian too. But I didn’t know how to say “I’m sorry,” because I’d prepared more for the German leg of the trip, so I just shrugged and looked as ill as possible. Then I spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating croissants and jam. At one point I went out on the balcony and took in the balmy, sunny weather of a December day in Rome. And something about that smell of warmth in the air made it a little better. Nice days smell very similar, no matter where you go in the world.

The next day, we packed up our bus and drove north. A long bus trip is probably the worst thing you can do after being sick off bad Italian airport pasta. I felt woozy and wobbly, and stared out the window as far to the horizon as I could. Ian kept me supplied with croissants and sour gummy candy. Soon the stucco and dirt of the city were swaddled by the blanket-like countryside, small and massive scraps of farmland stitched together with lines of cypress trees. We passed villas and cottages and forests and rivers, and it was everything you imagine when you read the storybooks.

At some point in the afternoon the land became more hilly. We went through a village which looked too fragile to let a big tour bus go through it, and we charged up a hill which was suddenly swarmed with more cars we’d seen all day, and we parked in a lot full of tourists. I wondered if they too had tried the bad airport pasta.

“We’re here! This is Assisi,” our guide said.

A parking lot full of tourists. This would be Assisi. I wanted to go back to the bus and sleep with my croissants. But true to my nature, I followed the rest of the group as we alighted a very modern-looking, a very long, staircase that led up the hill. Despite my wobbling knees and aching head and sloshing stomach, I followed the mob of fellow tourists. (Side note: I’ve read that based on my personality, I’m susceptible to cults. Who knew.) When we finally got to the top, there was nothing but a driveway leading further up the hill. Oh, lovely. My favorite thing is to document driveways around the world. This would be an excellent addition to my collection. But the mob pressed on, and up the driveway we went.

And suddenly, the driveway became cobblestone, and suddenly, it led through a tawny stone gate with opened doors. And as the mob of tourists floated through with cult-susceptible me in tow, it was like another world opened up on the hill, and it was bigger and more beautiful than it seemed it could be. Suddenly I was surrounded by stone houses and cobblestone streets and colorfully-painted doors and alleys pancaked on each other and stairs leading up to gardens or down to shadows. This was Assisi.

Hundreds of tourists were all packed into this little, ancient city, yet it seemed there was more than enough room for us all. The place was bigger on the inside. We were only there for an afternoon, but I don’t think we could’ve seen it all even if we spent our entire two weeks there. Despite the hubbub, the tourists and the Christmas lights and shops selling cheap mementos, I felt like I was back in time, or out of time, and it was a giddy feeling. My headache mellowed. My knees were stronger.

At lunchtime our group broke off to find food, and Ian and I stepped into a little sandwich shop and got paninis with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. We ate outside in a courtyard where small, shiny Fiats and BMWs occasionally came through, honking at the droves of tourists. It was a mostly cloudy day, but the sky was marbled with blue, and little mists of rain mixed with the stone and made that peppery scent in your nose. I nervously bit into my sandwich, hyper aware of my sensitive stomach. But the first bite went well, and then the second, and soon I was really eating Italian food, good Italian food not from the Rome airport. I realized I did like Italy after all. Assisi saved Italy for me.

We spent the rest of the afternoon milling around. Ian and I took pictures of each other and of all the same sights. We snuck pictures inside the Basilica of Saint Francis. We both took the same shot of that alley with the lanterns. It was my favorite scrap of Assisi, and that’s a hard choice to make.

And so now, almost five years later, that shot is what hangs in my bedroom. I look at it every now and then, and I appreciate it, of course. But I very rarely really look at it, closely, until recently.

A lot of change is coming in the next few months. Some of it I know, and some I feel. Some, to be fair, is probably imagined. But I don’t deal with any change, real or imagined, very well. Even though I know life contains change, and I know we would all be miserable without it, and I know I’m excited overall, there’s still that nagging fear of unpleasantness and mess I must push through in order to reach some equilibrium again.

And then I look at the picture of my favorite alley in Assisi. I remember that tiring first morning at the airport in Rome, that awful first night throwing up in Rome, the awkward second day driving out a maid in Rome, and finally that glorious third day in Assisi. I remember all the nerves and stress and hunger and illness finally dissolving as the Tuscan countryside swaddled it up and gave me one of the best experiences of my life. And I realize that all change, no matter how unpleasant, is only the jet lag, the food poisoning, the tourist-infested parking lot, the driveway, the ancient gate to a beautiful experience. In the end, it’s that beauty I remember; it’s that favorite view I hang on the wall. The joy is what lasts and what matters.

Later that day, we had authentic Italian lasagna for dinner. My mom’s lasagna is way better.

 

Finding God in the No Man’s Land

I’m not proud to admit it: I’ve become ostrich-like when it comes to the news. Whenever there’s political or social turmoil, I want to bury myself in the sand.

This isn’t because I don’t want to be informed, or I don’t want things to change, or that I prefer to look at the world through a rose-colored monocle. It’s because I’m just overwhelmed. I’m tired of violence and pain, tired of media, tired of Facebook debates.

I’m tired of the little light bulbs of random opinions, each shining a different color, until the air is ablaze with blinding, dizzying, vitriolic reactions. I’m tired of the arguments being wrung out like clothes in a washing machine, twisted and stretched and flung round and round.

I’m a peacemaker by nature, which I think is why I get so especially exhausted. I’m naturally inclined to see both sides, to try to find common ground, to reach compromise. I dwell in the no man’s land.

So when something like, say, a shooting happens, when children die because they happened to be in school, when a highschooler is so riddled with nihilism he commits homicide, I am pained not only by the event itself but by the tsunami of reactions that inevitably arrives. Two discernable sides emerge, as if on cue, and tragedy instantly becomes politicized. I find something to agree with in every side, threads of cause and effect in every opinion, a common ground in every argument. And I feel sick.

It happens over and over again, every time this happens, in many similar things that happen. The opinions ping back and forth: should we pass stricter gun laws? Should we pass looser gun laws? Would this happen if kids could pray in school? Would this happen if no one prayed at all? But the talk doesn’t accomplish anything, at least where it really matters.

I’ve been pondering these things, and I’ve been trying to figure out what the Christian response should be. Sadly, Christians can be found on both sides of any given argument, both sides of the culture war. But the more I think and pray on the subject (I don’t think thoughts and prayers are completely worthless), the more I become convinced: Christians are not to fight in the culture war at all. God calls us to be peacemakers.

God calls us to the no man’s land.

I find a worrying trend for Christians in conservative circles to focus on protecting our political rights above all else, even at the cost of our credibility and our witness. I wonder if maybe God calls us to be citizens of His kingdom first, to give up our earthly rights in order to better show love to the people who need it. I wonder if maybe our allegiance should not be to the flag of the United States of America, but to Jesus, first. Always.

We are called to be above the petty squabbles of the political sphere, because Jesus made it very clear that His kingdom is not dependent on the systems of the world. We are called, instead, to love, to make disciples, to be known for how we cherish each other (John 18:28-40, 13:34, 35).

This realization has taken a long time to retool my brain. I’ve dwelt and prayed and meditated on its implications for a long time. And the more I do, the more I become convinced that our Christian response to socio-political issues should never be to dig in and root down in our preconceived cultural ideals. Rather, we need to cling to Jesus, because He is the only truth we are guaranteed. We need to think about the ways we took on the values of Americanism and the world at large, and how we baptized those values until they became woven into our religious belief. We need to let God unravel these ideals, little by little, until we hold them loosely, as we should.

We will never affect change by voting for a “Christian” president or lobbying for “moral” laws. We will never maintain peace by clinging to our rights or hearkening back to the “good old days.” Rather, we maintain peace in the no man’s land, getting down where it is ugly and messy, and loving the casualties of war who need it most. And maybe this means we give up our earthly rights so we can love better. Maybe it means switching political parties or belonging to no political party at all. Maybe true, sacrificial love is the only way to stop the violent cycle.

And maybe that’s the point.

Foolish Love

I really love Valentine’s Day. I know to some people it’s magical because of the roses and chocolates and candlelight, and for other people it’s repulsive because of those very things. But I love it, because it’s the one day everyone sets aside to love each other. We can gripe about the capitalistic plot to make us buy Hallmark cards, or the hypersexualized cultural atmosphere, or the overpriced chocolate, but we are missing the point when we do that. Holidays aren’t a dictation of our love; they’re a reminder for us to show it. They are a mark on the calendar that says, “This day is special from all other days. Go make it so.”

And this is why I love Valentine’s Day.

Now that my PSA is out of the way, I want to talk about God. Sorry if you feel a bait and switch. But lately I’ve felt very drawn to the concept of the love of God, which I find poignant given the time of year.

The Bible tells us that God speaks in a still, small voice. A whisper. Lately I’ve been trying to grow more quiet and still so I can hear the whisper. But I’m not very good at it. I don’t talk much, but my internal chatter is loud. So I ask God a question, and He answers, but it’s in a whisper, and like a deaf grandmother I shout, “I can’t hear you!” but then I let my mind chatter more, so when God answers again, I have to warble, “What?” And He refuses to play this game, so I have many painful days of feeling that God doesn’t speak to me at all, and then I finally get the hint and start to turn down the internal chatter notch by notch, and then I hear God. And geez, does He talk a lot.

God: “Let me tell you about how much I love you.”

Me: “Oh I already know all about that. I was homeschooled.”

God: “I know. So let me tell you about how much I love you.”

Me: “I told you; I know all about it. I asked Jesus into my heart when I was like seven.”

God: “So then I assume you know all about how you can’t do anything to make me love you more than I already do? And you can’t do a thing to make me love you less? And that when you feel most weak and ineffective, that’s when you are most resting in my love?”

Me: “Well I have to do a little. I mean, there’s the whole bootstrap mentality.”

God: “F–k the bootstrap mentality.”

I’ve never heard God actually say the F word, but sometimes there’s a sense of Him damning an idea so heartily that the only English equivalent is the F word. Sorry if that offends you. If I knew more languages, I could do better.

Because the truth is, I know very little about God’s love. Not despite my Christian upbringing, either. Often because of it. As Christians, we get very used to the basics of Christianity. Saved by grace through faith, yada yada yada. We move on very quickly, because the gospel is simple. Ridiculously simple. Too simple. It makes us feel better to start squabbling about details. What words are okay to say. What music to play at church. How short a skirt should be. Whether to let a woman talk to people about God.

Little by little, we turn salvation into the exact opposite of what it was meant to be: works-driven. And when you grow up in the church, or spend extensive time in the church, and learn that [good behavior]=[people being happy with you]=[you are loved], it’s incredibly easy to transfer that same equation to the love of God. You learn that doing well in your Christian school satisfies the Christian school’s values of excellence, so that must satisfy God too. You learn that following the rules satisfies your parents’ values of a godly family, so that must satisfy God too. You learn that voting a certain way satisfies the popular paradigm of faithful Christian politics, so it must satisfy God too.

On and on we go, subconsciously learning that God’s love depends, or is at least enriched, by our good behavior.

A few months ago, I had to quit a job we desperately needed, because of some anxiety issues. Despite the peace I felt in God calling me to other endeavors, I still felt riddled with guilt. When money was tight and opportunities were limited, I cried out to God, but my mind beat me down.

What right do you have to ask God anything? It taunted. God doesn’t owe you any help until you start pulling your own weight. You got yourself into this mess; get yourself out.

This is the voice of sinful, works-driven human nature. This is the voice of the success-driven culture. This is the voice of American capitalism. This is the voice of legalism. This is the voice of the devil.

This is not the voice of God.

God asks me, pointedly, if doing stuff is how I got my salvation (it isn’t). God asks me why I’m trying to work for the wages of a house servant when I have the inheritance of a daughter (Gal. 3). God loves me with an everlasting love, which is never contingent on my action or inaction (Jer. 31:3, Eph. 2:9-10). God damns, quite harshly, anyone who preaches a gospel different than one based on the love He gives because He wants to (Gal. 1:8-9).

F–k the bootstrap mentality, indeed.

It sounds too good to be true, because it is. That’s the point. If anyone tells you there’s more to it than that, they are wrong. If anyone tells you, “well according to this one verse we found here, we actually have to also—” they are wrong. If anyone tells you there are structures and dogma you must also adhere to, they are wrong. Run so far.

God’s love is a welcoming love. God doesn’t wait for us to get cleaned up before He lets us into the house. God does the cleaning afterward, and yes, that’s not always fun. Sometimes we have layers of gunk that have to get washed off with a sandblaster. Good times. But that comes later. God never stands in the doorway, barring our entrance, pointing to the outdoor shower. God has no outdoor showers. God lets us in and sits us down and gives us something to eat and sends us to bed and gives us rest, and He doesn’t get mad as us for sleeping in (Matt. 11:28-30).

God’s love is simple, rather juvenile. The Bible actually calls it “foolish” (1 Cor. 1:24-25). It’s a love that enjoys, not because it’s obligated to based on our merits, but because it wants to based on His nature.

And this is why I really love Valentine’s Day.

 

 

On Ukuleles

I’m not always good at asking for gifts. Someone says, “What do you want for Christmas?” and I’m like, “Um… stuff and things, please.”

But this past holiday season I planned ahead. I gave little lists to the various people who wanted them, and one of the presents I asked for was a thing I’d had tucked in my mind for a long time:

a ukulele.

I don’t know what drew me to the ukulele in particular. Maybe it’s because they’re small and only have four strings, although I did used to play the violin, which fits all those requirements. But a violin is much more labor-intensive; I appreciate the compact little ukulele, which you can pick up and strum with cheerful determination.

Sure enough, on Christmas morning an oddly-shaped package was labeled to me. It was my very own gorgeous little ukulele. I was so excited I spent three hours learning chords.

While I’m still rusty—though I do fancy myself a quick learner—the ukulele has already brought a lot of joy to me. There’s something about being able to sit down and make music, with no need to talk, no need to think really, and to be creative simply by showing up and letting your mind spill out into sound.

Sometimes as a writer, I want to be able to write without using any words, letting the repetition and flow of my mind create something without effort. But of course, this is the antithesis of writing. One must naturally exert effort, in order for the words to make any sense.

Playing the ukulele is my writing without words; my creativity finds a voice even when my words are knotted, and I can create something beautiful even when my mind is numb.