On Failure

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As you can see from my previous post, I had grand plans for Lent.  A strict writing schedule, introspective reflections on my spiritual life, and a determination that through sheer willpower, I could reset my faith to what it was.  Unsurprisingly, I failed at this utterly.

If I were better at being kind to myself, I could excuse this failure for the myriad of things that happened over the course of Lent.  A global pandemic.  Getting furloughed from my full-time job.  Failing to get into every single PhD program I applied to.  A failure multiplied by other failures in my life compounded by failing.  It has been a rough spring, y’all.

My friends dislike me deeming all this as “failure”.  Their hackles rise at the word because they are protective of me and rightly get sick of me beating myself down.  I understand this and I’m grateful for it.  But the truth is, I want to rest a little in the word “failure”.

All my life I have feared being a failure.  Do you remember those John Eldredge books, “Captivating” and “Wild At Heart”?  My exvangelical readers are cringing at the memories of them.  Eldredge asserted that men’s greatest fear was failure while women’s was abandonment.  This always puzzled me because I knew from a very young age that failure was my deepest fear.

There’s a moment in the third book of the Harry Potter series where each of the children have to face a boggart for their final grade.  Boggarts are wicked little creatures that can manifest into your deepest fear.  A spider for Ron Weasley, a dementor for Harry Potter, Professor Snape for Neville Longbottom.  But for Hermione Granger, she saw her favorite professor tell her that she had failed all of her classes.  Hermione was in hysterics at this.

I relate to Hermione a lot.

The truth is, I measure myself in accomplishments.  Accomplishments are tangible things I can use to keep away the devastating fear that I’m not good enough to exist.  I accomplished writing a book.  I accomplished signing with an agent.  I accomplished working full-time and getting my Bachelor’s.  I accomplished publishing C.S. Lewis scholarship.

The trouble with this is, when I come across a failure to that accomplishment, it spirals me down into misery.

This has been an odd spring.  I’ve had to look at myself outside of my academic accomplishments, outside of my writing, and really figure out how to accept myself without the accolades and gold stars I give myself.  I’ve had to tell myself, “okay, I failed at this. What do I now? Who am I now?”

Society’s answer to this is “DON’T LET FAILURES KEEP YOU DOWN! KEEP PUSHING! TRY TRY AGAIN! FASTER AND HARDER! GET BACK UP!” and there is a time and place for that.  But the truth is, I’ve been doing that kind of shit all my life.  Getting back up is exhausting.  Necessary, but exhausting.  And something I’ve had to learn about failure, is that maybe I don’t need to IMMEDIATELY rush to the next thing and try, try, again.

Maybe I need to rest in the failure.

I do not mean wallow.  Do not wallow.  But simply take the time to reflect on what you want and who you are.  I’ve been running so fast, chasing my ambitions for so long, I’ve forgotten the person without all of it.

Ironically, as soon as I really became comfortable with the failures in my life and began to suss out a path forward, I received word from NYU.  They do not want me for their PhD program, but they DID accept me into their Master’s degree program and I have until 5/29 to decide whether or not to accept.

It occurs to me…oddly enough…that I needed these failures to help me remember who I was and what choice I was going to make without rushing headlong in.

Perhaps I was a failure this spring.  Perhaps that’s okay.  Perhaps I can rest, renew, and create my way forward.

40 Days of Hope for the Hopeless

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I don’t know what to do for Lent this year.

This is unusual for me. Lent is my favorite season of the liturgical calendar. It’s something I start preparing for way in advance, because I enjoy it so much. I’ve spent a significant amount of time studying the history of the season, combing through Rachel Held Evans’ blog for ideas, and excitedly chatting with my best friends about my Lenten preparations.

In 2015, I gave up all beverages except water.

In 2016, I gave up sleeping in.

In 2017, I gave up sleeping in again because I failed utterly in 2016. (I didn’t do much better in 2017 either.

In 2018, I gave up social media.

In 2019, I gave up meat.

Now it is 2020 and for the first time in my life, I’m seriously considering giving up Lent.

Maybe it’s the depression. Maybe it’s the grad school rejections that keep hitting me like bullets to the heart. Maybe it’s the fact that we lost Rachel during Lent last year. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like the only emotion I can dredge up for Lent this year is apathy. I look at the woman who was so excited about Lent all those years, who craved the discipline it offered, who felt that Lent was her special time with God, and I wonder, what on earth happened to her?

What on earth happened to me?

As I said to my best friend today at lunch after our Ash Wednesday service, “What else can I give up when so much has been taken from me?”

Do I still believe in God? I flit in and out with this. Some days the answer is, yes, of course I do, I could never not believe in God. Some days the answer is I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. Rachel’s death shifted something in me and sometime I feel like I’m struggling to keep my head above water.

I suppose this is where Lent comes in.

Rather than giving up something for Lent, many people choose to “add” something to their Lenten practice. This could be anything from praying the offices, participating in some kind of charity or volunteer program, reading Scripture daily, you name it. This has never been something I’ve done because I’ve always felt the discipline of abstaining from something was better for me.

But this year is different. Everything is different now.

I’m in the process of reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith”. I liked “Leaving Church” and “Learning to Walk in the Dark”, but neither had much of an effect on me. This book however, is making me think.

I decided to incorporate this book in my Lenten practice. Taylor has twelve chapters on different unique disciplines in faith. On Fridays and Mondays, I will reflect and attempt to participate in these practices. Because discipline is important to me in my Lenten practice, I will blog about these practices, with posts going up on Fridays and Mondays. These practices include:

  • The Practice of Waking Up to God – Vision
  • The Practice of Paying Attention – Reverence
  • The Practice of Waring Skin – Incarnation
  • The Practice of Walking on the Earth – Groundedness
  • The Practice of Getting Lost – Wilderness
  • The Practice of Encountering Others – Community
  • The Practice of Living with Purpose – Vocation
  • The Practice of Saying No – Sabbath
  • The Practice of Carrying Water – Physical Labor
  • The Practice of Feeling Pain – Breakthrough
  • The Practice of Being Present to God – Prayer
  • The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings – Benediction

In addition to this, every day on my social media accounts, I will post something that gives me hope.

For the first time since I’ve become a Christian, I’m not looking forward to Lent. I’m not dreading it either, I just feel completely empty towards it. And the emptiness is worse.

But I will begin my 40 days of Hope for the Hopeless in the attempt that He may fill it.

On Lampposts and Crowded Tables

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This has been a great year of travels for me.  Travels to Chattanooga, to mourn a beloved leader and writer.  Travels to New York, to explore and become inspired.  Travels to Belgium, to drink copiously, eat tons of chocolate, and celebrate the merriment of one of my closest friends’ wedding.  Travels to Denver, to gaze upon the mountains, laugh with my best friend, and remind myself why I’m still a Christian.

And now, my final trip of the year, to Black Mountain, North Carolina to attend the C.S. Lewis Symposium at Montreat.

I’ve been to many C.S. Lewis conferences before (I am just that level of nerd) but this one was particularly special and poignant for a number of reasons.  I love driving through the rolling multicolored hills of Tennessee into the Smoky Mountains in the fall–it’s a magical, nine hour reprieve for me, where I sing, pray, drink coffee, and think about my life.  The introvert’s dream.  I was also reconnecting with a bunch of fellow C.S. Lewis scholars and friends that I hadn’t seen for a few years.  Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis’ stepson and one of the very few remaining people to have had a personal relationship with Lewis, attended and was a keynote speaker.

And of course, the heartbreaking realization that a year prior, I was in the exact same place for the very first Evolving Faith conference.  The last place I saw Rachel Held Evans alive.  My final moments with her involved her taking my hands in prayer, holding up the line behind me, and asking God to watch over a refugee friend of mine.  My final memory of Rachel was her praying over me and my friend.  There is something beautiful in that, though grief clouds it too much for me to be truly appreciative.

I arrived in Black Mountain around noon last Tuesday, which gave me ample time to rest, meander around the little town, buy a ton of Madalyn McLeod prints, and reflect on what the day would hold for me.  I forgot one of my books at my hotel room, so of course, I had no choice but to buy a new book to read during dinner.  (I ended up with Patti Callahan Henry’s book “The Bookshop at Water’s End”, go read it, it’s fabulous.)

I met up with another fellow Inklings buff, my dear friend Rebecca–who I met at a C.S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien conference in Oxford in 2016!  I never fail to be inspired by Rebecca.  She has a way of reminding me who I am and what I want to do with my life, whenever I feel a little wayward.

The first day I ended up running a little late (I stayed at the Red Rocker Inn, which has a magnificent breakfast that is sure to make you late for any morning plans you have in Black Mountain).  I dashed through the doors and nearly crashed into Douglas Gresham–the stepson of C.S. Lewis.

I gaped at him for a minute until he noticed me gawping at him.  “Oh, hello!”

I stammered out something unintelligible about how honored I was to meet him, how much I loved his mother, and I may have shoved my left forearm at him to show my tattoo.  (He had to put on his glasses to read his mother’s quote)  I then disappeared into the arena kicking myself for being so awkward.

After a quick welcome, we heard some opening remarks and an incredibly informative interview with Douglas Gresham.  We learned about his frankly chaotic childhood, the deep love between his mother and Lewis, and his personal favorite Lewis book!  (Till We Have Faces, if he HAD to choose!)  A particularly striking moment for me was learning that Lewis actually wanted Joy’s name as a cowriter for Till We Have Faces–but she refused, telling him that she was a nobody and would detract from his sales.  I’ve already felt intense sorrow for how Joy’s own talents and skills have been overshadowed by Lewis (certainly not purposefully) but this just topped it all off.

All of the talks were incredibly inspiring.  Diana Glyer’s talk on the collaborative nature of the Inklings particularly struck me; I found myself scribbling out possible schedules for my own writing, making plans with fellow writer-scholars to have weekly call dates to encourage each other, etc.  I loved learning about Lewis’ poetry, Dorothy L. Sayers’ love of film, and of course how she wasn’t afraid of calling Lewis out!

There were so many moments of personal validation.  Dr. Don King suggesting that Lewis’ final sonnets, written around the end of Joy’s life may have been in response to reading her sonnets about him–we cannot prove that, but oh, how lovely would that be?  (Can’t help but think of how Patti Callahan fictionalized that possibility in her book, with Lewis teasing Joy!)

I had a proper redo with Douglas Gresham and was able to give him a copy of Heath McNease’s album which was written in response to some of Lewis’ major works.  I reiterated, again, how much I loved his mother’s poetry and how much I loved her.  (“I loved her too!” was his response!)  I still wish I could’ve conveyed it a little better–how I often worry about fitting in the seemingly stringent lines of Christian womanhood, and how Joy’s boisterous and courageous demeanor reminds me that there IS no ideal of Christian womanhood.

And smaller validations, like learning that Douglas Gresham was very against the Susan-Caspian kiss in the film, he was as tired of hearing complain about Susan’s fate as I was, and how Hollywood tends to ruin good things.

But the most meaningful moment of the conference came AFTER the conference.

There was a quiet gathering on a large front porch where we formed a large circle, smoked pipes and drank scotch.  (And cider and something else that I can’t remember what it was because of the scotch.)  It was something akin to the Inklings–if the Inklings had ever been invaded by five women, one of whom (the ravishing Rebecca I mentioned previously) showed me how to use a pipe, puffed away at her own, and pulled out her knitting.

Lewis may have loved male company, but God do I love female fellowship.

What a time it was!  Douglas Gresham showed up too, with his documentarian Robert, and Dr. Root had my other dear friend Jennifer start the gathering out with a poem.  We interviewed each other, I had a chance to tell Douglas Gresham about a nonfiction project in the works, we laughed, we puffed, but most of all, we listened.  Douglas Gresham never ran out of stories to tell us, stories about his mother, stories about his stepfather, stories about a policeman’s hand smacking him in the forehead while he was gazing at a pretty girl, stories, stories, stories.  We drank it in completely and I felt awash in gratitude and warmth.  Someday I will get to tell my children, my grandchildren, that I shared scotch and pipes with C.S. Lewis’ stepson.  Someday I will get to say that the Inklings had a rebirth of sorts.  (But with more women!)

I even had a private moment with Douglas Gresham, that I will only share with personal friends–but it was no less meaningful, no less magical, and no less…amazing.

But while I was enchanted and delighted and inspired, I was also…reminded.  Reminded of how far we need to go and what I dream for the conference.

I was speaking to a fellow attendee named Kasey, a fascinating fellow philosophy nerd (you will pry alliterative descriptions from my frozen, festering, phalanges) and she mentioned something that had struck me.  She’d thanked one of the conference organizers for including women in the speaker lineup (two women is pretty good for these kind of conferences) but honestly told him that she would’ve appreciated women on the final wrap-up panel.  (The final panel of the day included only men.)  He became very defensive, claimed one of them was sick and the other was busy.  And then, “we do what we can.”  And then walked away from her.

These sort of dismissals are disheartening, especially for women in academics.  Particularly after an invigorating talk about polarity and for the C.S. Lewis world to be more inclusive and welcoming of diversity.  This is not to disparage the hard work it takes to create a huge event like this.  I’m very thankful and very grateful towards all of the organizers for making this happen.  But nevertheless…this is something we need to talk about.

Kasey very kindly shared her notes with me and she said something rather striking.  “Diversity isn’t a tagline, it’s an intention.”  Wow!  What would an Inklings conference look like if we had diversity as an intention?

What if this didn’t offend us?  What if we didn’t have to be defensive?  What if we took a page out of Evolving Faith’s book and strove every year to be more inclusive and diverse?  To showcase viewpoints different than our own?  Suppose we made an intention to include, invite, and encourage POC scholars?  Female scholars?  LGBTQ scholars?

I know, I know.  I don’t know how the wildly Evangelical audience would take to a transgender scholar talking about his or her theories on Lewis and gender.  But I think, because of Lewis, we could lean into that discomfort and allow the Holy Spirit to show us something new.

I feel confident that older white men will not be the main demographic of C.S. Lewis and Inklings scholarship.  (I have NOTHING against older white men, I have so many friends who are older white men!)  I think there is enough room at the table for multiple perspectives, even ones I disagree with vehemently, to be expressed and welcomed.

Think of the Inklings themselves.  Sure, they were bunch of older white men, but they were a bunch of older white men who competitively debated, who argued, who critiqued, who yelled over foaming pints of beer their objections.

Suppose we made space for disagreement, diversity, and more voices?

The table might be crowded.  But I have a love of crowded tables.

We’re Trying To Evolve

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“There’s a part of me that thinks it’s my fault.”

Jan glanced at me for a minute before her eyes returned to the road.  “Why do you think that?”

“Because I prayed for a way to stay in my house.”

I didn’t want to move.  The original plan was to move in with my best friend and her girlfriend, into a three bedroom apartment.  I had reservations from the beginning, particularly when I thought the cost of the endeavor exceeded our collective finances.  But the girlfriend waved my concerns away.  It would all work out.  She charged the deposits to her credit card.  I told myself it was fine.  She made more than me and my best friend.  She had a steady job.

But as time went on, things shifted.  The girlfriend decided she didn’t want to work at her job anymore due to mental health concerns.  (Fair.)  She decided she wanted to go back to school full-time and work part-time (Wait, what?).  Suddenly, my best friend and I were subsidizing her living situation.  (It was only fair, since she’d charged our deposits to her credit cards.)

I started feeling worse and worse about the whole deal.  And I started praying for a way out.  My idea was that maybe God could just drop $10,000 in my lap.  Could pay back the girlfriend, cover my best friend, and remain in my wonderful little house.

Instead, my best friend and girlfriend’s relationship ended.

Jan said to me dryly, “That sounds like your Evangelical upbringing talking.”

She’s not wrong.  Seven years ago, I would think this was some kind of fucked up “be careful what you wish for” lesson that God was teaching me.  Like God was punishing me for a selfish prayer.  There is a part of me that longs for that black and white nonsensical view of the matter.  Because then I would know how to handle it.

But it has nothing to do with me, is the thing.  The now ex-girlfriend made bad financial choices I tried to talk her out of.  The ex-girlfriend broke my best friend’s heart.  The ex-girlfriend hurt her, insulted her, and betrayed her trust.  The ex-girlfriend then tried to get me and Jan on her side and when that didn’t work, cut us off completely.  Blocked my number.  Leaving us to foot the bill for breaking the lease.  ($884 we certainly did and do not have.)

I had the 12 hour drive to Denver to think about this loss and what it would mean for all of us.  I felt a little guilty about it–flitting off to Evolving Faith when things had been so completely upended.  But maybe that is why I needed it.

It was so different from last year.

I am a different person from last year.

There was an innocence to last year’s Evolving Faith.  Laughter as the rain poured down and soaked us to the bone, excitement to see our favorite writers, raucous greetings towards people we only knew through Twitter.  I wore my “Christian Against Trump” shirt and basked in the compliments.  I squealed in delight when Rachel Held Evans retweeted me right before she went onstage to welcome us.  I was inspired, I was motivated, I was impassioned after every talk.  I took a stranger’s hand when we learned of the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and wept with her.  I met friends in underground basement bars, I sang with the band, I felt…hope.  Hope in Christianity, which I hadn’t felt in a long time.

This year was more subdued.  No less inspiring, no less powerful, but it was almost as if we realized we were walking on holy ground.  No rain this time, just clear, cold Colorado skies, the mountains greeting us from a distance.  I sat with old friends, I sat with new friends, I Tweeted up a holy storm, I took notes, I spent my rent money on books (totally worth it.)

But there was that shadow we all couldn’t quite escape.  The grief that followed us.  We honored that grief, allowed ourselves to lament, let the tears flow when we needed them.  But there was simply no escaping the honest fact that it wasn’t the same without Rachel.  That it couldn’t be the same without Rachel.

I am not the same without Rachel.

When Rachel died, I felt immense grief.  Even worse, I felt guilt that I simultaneously held excitement and joy about my summer trips.  Shouldn’t everything be ruined?  Why should I be excited about going to New York and Belgium?  My therapist reminded me that grief wasn’t linear.  Grief is a spiral.  And you can feel these things all at the same time.

There is room in my broken heart for grief and joy.

Because there was oh, so much joy.  There was sub-par pub food with new and old friends, naughty bingo, cat pictures, reflections on the speakers, tears, and so much laughter.  There was a Johnny Cash themed bar with excellent pizza, a Black Star stout that still haunts my dreams, and long discussions about our spiritual journeys.  There were two delicious edibles, there was a sweet little basement apartment, there was wildly inconsistent rules on what food and beverages we could bring into the stadium.

In 2018, I had a tight circle of friends.  I had hope that Rachel would be around to guide us for years to come.  I worshiped a false god that assured me that unexpected tragedy would not come near my life.

In 2019, my friend group fractured.  We lost Rachel.  I gained an awareness that there is nothing, not one thing in life we can control and any day might be our last.  Which made our deconstructions and reconstructions in Christianity all the more important.

The story the ex-girlfriend is telling paints me as the villain.  I hate that.  I hate being the villain in anyone’s story.  I have a desperate desire to be liked.  I want to be known as kind and loving, I fear people realizing how selfish I am.  I turn over my friendship with her, trying to figure out what went wrong, what I did wrong, because of course, somehow, it must be my fault.  It bothers me that perhaps someday this woman will see my book on a bookshelf, turn to the person next to her, and say, “See that writer? She’s actually a terrible person. Listen to what she did to me.”

My best friend has pointed out to me (rightly) that I love being right and I love being TOLD I’m right.  (This trait will help you excel in academia.)  I want to burst into that future hypothetical conversation and say, “NO, that’s NOT what happened! That’s NOT what went down! She is twisting the story! She is twisting what happened!”

Let it go, Kat.

Years ago, when I was…oh, 20 or 21, perhaps, I attended an Evangelical retreat.  I became certain that it was MY job to FIX everyone in my life.  I would convert them.  I would bring Jesus to them.  I would FIX my bad relationship with my family through Jesus, I would FIX my friendships through Jesus, I would Evangelize, I would spread the Gospel, I would be a Proverbs 31 woman, I would try, try, try…

That urge is still there.  That I can FIX this.

At Evolving Faith, from Tanya Marlow, I learned the power of my story.  I learned from Dan Evans and Sarah Bessey that even if things turn to tragedy, even if things are completely destroyed, we can still walk in the wreckage.  As long as we hold onto each other.  I filled my heart with justice and passion, the lessons I took from everyone courageous enough to share their story.

I’m trying to evolve.  We’re trying to evolve.  Evolution at its core means death.  Death of our former selves, death of friendships, of relationships, death as a tragedy that empties and hollows us.

But surely we can see resurrection in evolution.  Maybe not now.  Maybe not in this life.

Maybe someday.

What is Happening in Christianity?

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Two weeks ago, prominent Evangelical writer Joshua Harris (of “I’ve Kissed Dating Goodbye” fame) created an Instagram post where he described something very familiar to Exvangelicals–a shift in worldviews.

“…I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’ By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.⁣⁣”

He concluded his post asking for forgiveness for how he treated LGBTQ people and describing how invigorated and alive he felt–which is an oddly Christian end to the post, in my opinion.

And then, the Hillsong songwriter Marty Sampson wrote a FB post explaining his own uncertainties with Christianity:

Time for some real talk. I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing. I am so happy now, so at peace with the world. It’s crazy…This is a soapbox moment so here I go … How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet—they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it’s not for me. I am not in any more. I want genuine truth. Not the “I just believe it” kind of truth. Science keeps piercing the truth of every religion. Lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of God. Got so much more to say, but for me, I keeping it real. Unfollow if you want, I’ve never been about living my life for others. All I know is what’s true to me right now, and Christianity just seems to me like another religion at this point. I could go on, but I won’t. Love and forgive absolutely. Be kind absolutely. Be generous and do good to others absolutely. Some things are good no matter what you believe. Let the rain fall, the sun will come up tomorrow.”

You can read the rest here.

Which prompted John L. Cooper, of the band Skillet, to quite vehemently write a big long rather tart response to Sampson, that you can check out for yourself.  I’m just going to post what stood out to me:

“What is happening in Christianity? More and more of our outspoken leaders or influencers who were once “faces” of the faith are falling away. And at the same time they are being very vocal and bold about it. Shockingly they still want to influence others (for what purpose?)as they announce that they are leaving the faith. I’ll state my conclusion, then I’ll state some rebuttals to statements I’ve read by some of them…when it comes to people within my faith, there must be a measure of loyalty and friendship and accountability to each other and the Word of God…I have a few specific thoughts and rebuttals to statements made by recently disavowed church influencers…first of all, I am stunned that the seemingly most important thing for these leaders who have lost their faith is to make such a bold new stance. Basically saying, “I’ve been living and preaching boldly something for 20 years and led generations of people with my teachings and now I no longer believe it..therefore I’m going to boldly and loudly tell people it was all wrong while I boldly and loudly lead people in to my next truth.” I’m perplexed why they aren’t embarrassed? Humbled? Ashamed, fearful, confused? Why be so eager to continue leading people when you clearly don’t know where you are headed? My second thought is, why do people act like “being real” covers a multitude of sins? As if someone is courageous simply for sharing virally every thought or dark place. That’s not courageous. It’s cavalier. Have they considered the ramifications? As if they are the harbingers of truth, saying “I used to think one way and practice it and preach it, but now I’ve learned all the new truth and will start practicing and preaching it.” So the influencers become the voice for truth in whatever stage of life and whatever evolution takes place in their thinking. Thirdly, there is a common thread running through these leaders/influencers that basically says that “no one else is talking about the REAL stuff.” This is just flatly false. I just read today in a renown worship leader’s statement, “How could a God of love send people to hell? No one talks about it.” As if he is the first person to ask this? Brother, you are not that unique. The church has wrestled with this for 1500 years. Literally. Everybody talks about it. Children talk about it in Sunday school. There’s like a billion books written on the topic. Just because you don’t get the answer you want doesn’t mean that we are unwilling to wrestle with it. We wrestle with scripture until we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Is it any wonder that some of our disavowed Christian leaders are letting go of the absolute truth of the Bible and subsequently their lives are falling apart? Further and further they are sinking in the sea all the while shouting “now I’ve found the truth! Follow me!!”

It’s times like this that I wish more than ever that Rachel was still alive.  No doubt she would know exactly what to say, no doubt she’d have an insightful and loving blogpost about this, no doubt she’d be reaching out to Harris and Sampson and hell, even Cooper with her words of wisdom and love.

I miss her so badly it aches.

There are a lot of things I could say to Harris and Sampson–point them to podcasts, books, music, etc.  I could tell Joshua Harris that there is more than one way to be a Christian, that the Evangelical formula he espoused was indeed toxic, but it’s not the way to Jesus, and there is so much more to Christianity than he could ever imagine.  I could tell Sampson that there is holiness in doubt, there is sacredness in uncertainty, and that science was never something to be afraid of.  But I’m not going to.  Because I’m beginning to believe that everyone needs to be in the Wilderness for a while.

I’ve been in the Wilderness for most of my life.  When I was Evangelical, I challenged the leaders about women’s roles.  When I was a child first going to church, I challenged the pastors about evolution vs. Genesis.  (Spoiler–there’s no versus! Read The Evolution of Adam by Pete Enns, it’s fabulous)  When I recommitted myself to Christianity in 2011, I challenged my leaders about the inclusion of LGBTQ.  And now, in 2019, I still feel separate from most of my fellow Christians.  Solitary…but not alone.

Perhaps the Wilderness was where I was meant to be all along.

I’m not worried about Harris and Sampson.  They were conceived and grew up in some of the more toxic elements of Evangelicalism and I believe the Wilderness will be healthier for them and they will find Jesus there, more than they ever did in the Evangelical culture.

But Cooper’s message gets on my nerves.

There is a dangerous pride and arrogance to assume that a leader being honest about their struggles means they’re trying to “influence” their followers.  Joshua Harris was brutally confronted with the damage and pain caused by his teachings and books.  Purity culture is and always has been toxic theology that poisons the soul and though I had my doubts, (his documentary was unimpressive) it seems he’s finally reconciled the harm he’s caused.  And is asking for forgiveness for that.  I don’t think anyone knows better than Harris about “influencing” people.

Sampson is a singer.  He’s a songwriter.  He’s not a minister or teacher.  Hell, Cooper even points that out in his post.  So wherefore comes this judgmental idea that he’s trying to “influence” others by being honest about who he is?  Is it not better that Sampson is being honest about losing his faith rather than keeping up a charade for appearances?

Cooper snaps out, “Basically saying, ‘I’ve been living and preaching boldly something for 20 years and led generations of people with my teachings and now I no longer believe it..therefore I’m going to boldly and loudly tell people it was all wrong while I boldly and loudly lead people in to my next truth.'”

Is that what they’re doing?  I see no evidence of this.  Josh Harris isn’t “leading people to his next truth”.  He isn’t suddenly telling his followers to buy Richard Dawkins books and telling everyone they should become atheists because religion is stupid.  Sampson isn’t loudly telling people that science disproves religion neener neener neener.  They’re…they’re just being honest.  Sampson is having trouble reconciling science and Christianity (understandable, when you’ve been taught Genesis is literal and then start learning about the literal truth of evolution).  Harris attended a Pride parade in Vancouver and apologized for the harm his teachings caused LGBTQ.  That’s not leading anyone to anywhere, it’s just being honest.

And his demand if they’re embarrassed, ashamed, fearful or confused…OF COURSE THEY ARE.  Good lord, man!  OF COURSE Joshua Harris is embarrassed and ashamed of his teachings, once he realized how many people they’d hurt.  OF COURSE Sampson is confused.  OF COURSE they’ll have moments where they’re afraid.  That’s what being human is all about.

Does Cooper think that Jesus was never embarrassed or ashamed?  I think he was.  I think the Syrophoenician woman embarrassed and shamed him.  Obviously in Gethsemane Jesus was fearful and confused.  And when He was in the Wilderness Himself…how are we to know how He felt?  When confronted with Satan, with the temptations of the world, I find it hard to believe that Jesus wasn’t the least bit afraid or confused.

“My second thought is, why do people act like “being real” covers a multitude of sins? As if someone is courageous simply for sharing virally every thought or dark place. That’s not courageous. It’s cavalier.”

Harris and Sampson both gave up platforms, profitable careers, and a place in the Evangelical Kingdom of Commerce in order to be honest with themselves and others.  If that’s not courage, I don’t know what is.

It is a scary thing to admit  you don’t know.  It is a scary thing to retract something you once believed wholeheartedly.  It is a lesson in humility that Cooper could learn from.

“Thirdly, there is a common thread running through these leaders/influencers that basically says that “no one else is talking about the REAL stuff.” This is just flatly false. I just read today in a renown worship leader’s statement, “How could a God of love send people to hell? No one talks about it.” As if he is the first person to ask this? Brother, you are not that unique. The church has wrestled with this for 1500 years. Literally. Everybody talks about it. Children talk about it in Sunday school. There’s like a billion books written on the topic. Just because you don’t get the answer you want doesn’t mean that we are unwilling to wrestle with it. We wrestle with scripture until we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.”

It isn’t flatly false.

It just isn’t.

How can it be?  When you have Franklin Graham supporting a president who imprisons children and assaults women?  When black people ask for support from the Evangelical church and are chastised for being “divisive”?  When LGBTQ kids are kicked out of their homes by Evangelical parents and the Church does not rebuke those parents?  You’re not talking about the real stuff, Cooper.  You’re throwing Evangelical formulas in our faces and getting mad when it doesn’t work for us.

Of course Harris and Sampson don’t think they’re the only ones to wonder about Hell.  That’s ludicrous.  But just because we’ve been wrestling with the doctrine of Hell for 1500 years doesn’t mean we’re no longer allowed to be disturbed by it.  Yeah, of course children talk about it in Sunday school and basically the only doctrine of Hell I accept was given to me by a six year old.  We’re not demanding the answer we want, we’re genuinely confused by an ultimate being, a force that is supposed to be the source of love and goodness as being synonymous by a force that sends people to be tortured for eternity.  And I’m sorry, but wrestling with Scripture “until we are transformed by the renewing of our minds” isn’t wrestling.  Being confused by something until you’re able to ignore the confusion successfully isn’t renewing your mind.

And finally, I want to get to perhaps the cruelest line in Cooper’s diatribe.

“Is it any wonder that some of our disavowed Christian leaders are letting go of the absolute truth of the Bible and subsequently their lives are falling apart?”

Obviously, Cooper is referring to Harris and his ex-wife’s separation.

I cannot stress this enough.  Harris’ divorce is none of your damn business, Cooper.  It is no one’s business but Harris and his ex-wife.  It is outrageously nasty to blame the end of his marriage for “letting go of the absolute truth of the Bible”.  Divorce is an intensely personal thing and particularly when you have a platform that was built on your teachings about sex and marriage…I can’t imagine how painful that would be.

And this idea that if only we stuck to the “absolute truth of the Bible” (whatever that is), our marriages won’t fall apart?  Our lives won’t be afflicted with depression?  We won’t suffer catastrophic grief, disappointments, fear?

Bull.  Shit.

I can’t tell you the amount of Exvangelicals I speak to on a daily basis, Christian and non-Christian, whose lives were destroyed by fundamentalist teachings of the Bible.  Temporarily destroyed, I ought to add–most are picking up the pieces and rebuilding, coming out stronger and healthier for it.  Sometimes that means leaving Christianity all together.

And so, I’d like to propose an answer to John L. Cooper about what exactly is happening in Christianity–and why it’s best it happen sooner rather than later.

  • What is happening in Christianity?  We’re sick of being told our LGBTQ friends aren’t welcome in our churches.  We’re angry about how they’ve been treated, abused, and condemned by the people who were supposed to protect them.  We are angry at leaders equating their existence to adultery and evil.
  • What is happening in Christianity?  Women are finding their voice.  We are tired of the lies purity culture told us, we are tired of believing our worth comes from our vaginas, we are tired of being objectified and abused in the name of the church.  Complementarian theology is no longer killing us.  We are prophets and warriors and we will not stand silent any longer.
  • What is happening Christianity?  The old prosperity gospels and formulas aren’t working.  Waiting until marriage to have sex does not mean we will automatically have a healthy marriage and sex life.  “Trusting in God” does not mean we won’t suffer debilitating loss and grief.  Praying every day, reading Scripture every day, going to church every Sunday, does not mean we will be “blessed” with material prosperity.

What is happening in Christianity?

We’re evolving.

We don’t need the Evangelical formulas.  We don’t need “I Kissed Dating Good Bye”.  We don’t need to tell our LGBTQ friends that their orientations are sinful and unnatural.  We don’t need purity culture, with its rings and balls and ‘modest is hottest’ T-shirts.

Sometimes what we need is a little bit of time in the Wilderness.  The Church is changing and I believe it is changing for the better.  That shift may be scary for those who’ve held a lot of power in the Church in the past (looking at you, straight white male John L. Cooper), but a more inclusive and safe Church, a place where women who love women, men who love men, trans people, and gender fluid people can feel loved, can feel God and know that they were made fearfully and wonderfully, that their genders and orientations are unique reflections of the many modes of love from God, a Church where women lead, where POC are valued, where diversity is championed, where justice is sought–that is the Church I dream of.

That is the church of Jesus.

I’ll leave you with a quote of Rachel Held Evans that I think about whenever Evangelical leaders start fretting about the cultural shift of the Church.

“Death is something empires worry about, not something resurrection people worry about.”–Searching for Sunday

The Last Evangelical

mountains

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved Jesus and unicorns–not necessarily in that order.

The other night, I treated myself to a bottle of $7 wine and one of my favorite animated films from my childhood–The Last Unicorn.  I have a deep love of 80’s fantasy films, but I think The Last Unicorn is my favorite, which is saying something, since I’m madly in love with the Goblin King.  The Last Unicorn, like a lot of children’s films from the 80’s, had some pretty intense themes that I’m a little surprised didn’t traumatize me.  Loss of innocence, the price of immortality, really, really scary giant birds.  But there’s a scene that has struck me ever since I was a child, a scene I understand more and more the older I get.  I did a mini-Twitter thread about it, but I’d like to spend some more time discussing the scene.

So, if you don’t know the plot of The Last Unicorn, you should absolutely rent it ASAP or read the book, which is fabulous and is probably superior to the film, but I can’t judge that fairly since the film was so intrinsically tied to my childhood.  Basically, a unicorn learns that she is the last of her kind and wonders where her kindred went.  She leaves her forest and goes on a journey to find them, where she realizes that men no longer believe in unicorns and therefore cannot see what she truly is (most take her for a horse).

There are a few who can.  The witch Mommy Fortuna recognizes her for what she is and captures her, alongside a harpy (which gave me nightmares as a child).  The magician Schmendrick also realizes what she is and helps her escape.

But the most heartbreaking moment is when the unicorn meets Molly Grue.  Molly Grue is a middle-aged woman that lives in the middle of the forest with a group of bandits.  She’s tired, sarcastic, and world-weary.  And when she meets the unicorn, her reaction is devastating.

She screams, “Where have you been? Where have you been? Damn you! Where have you been?”

The unicorn replies hesitantly, “I am here now.”

Molly laughs bitterly, and says to her, “And where were you twenty years ago?! Ten years ago?! Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to. How dare you…how dare you come to me now! When I am this.”

Even writing this makes me tear up.  And as an Exvangelical, it strikes even harder.

Evangelical purity culture used a lot of fairy tale imagery in its marketing.  (Which is ironic, when you’ve studied fairy tales academically, but that’s another post.)  How many books and devotionals do you remember that had twirling princesses, castles, and crowns on the cover?

I can think of two Evangelical rock songs off the top of my head that cite fairytales to promote purity culture.  “What if your prince comes riding in, while you’re kissing a frog, what’s he gonna think then?” (Superchick, “Princes and Frogs”), “Chasing after boys is not my thing, see I’m waiting for a wedding ring, No more dating, I’m just waiting, like Sleeping Beauty, my prince will come for me, he’ll come for me…” (BarlowGirl, “Average Girl”)

(Full disclosure, even as an Exvangelical, I still kinda love Superchick and BarlowGirl, they had some bops despite some of the toxic messages, moving on.)

A surface level reading of fairytales fits neatly into the Evangelical purity culture.  Submissive, patient princesses who remain “pure”.  Active princes and knights that need to rescue them.  Big bad wolves and dragons that neatly fill a satanic slot, everything tidily categorized into good and evil.  Evangelical culture thrives on these boxes, they abhor shades of gray.  (BarlowGirl has another song about precisely this topic...”Grey’s my favorite color, Black and white has never been my thing, I’ll take my drink lukewarm now, Hot and cold is not the thing for me…Absolutes are hidden, I’ve buried my convictions…“, I sure hope they eventually learned that despite their aversion to gray, life is simply not that simple.)

But the truth is, Christianity is not simple.  And fairy tales are not simple.  There are fairy tales about good kings and evil kings and kings in-between.  There are princesses patiently waiting in their towers and there are girls in the forest that get shit done.  Peter Beagle’s masterpiece The Last Unicorn is not so much a subversion of fairy tales, but rather a resurrection of what fairy tales truly are.  Dark.  Twisted.  Beautiful.  Heartbreaking.  Hopeful.  Sorrowful.

So when I see Molly Grue screaming her betrayal at the unicorn, I see myself screaming at the lies Evangelicalism told me about sexual purity, about Jesus, about everything.

ClaritySabbath on Twitter reminded me of something marvelous–how “The Last Unicorn” is a symbol of the Incarnation.  I can’t stop thinking about that.  A divine creature who notices there’s something wrong in the world.  She becomes human, experiences love, regret, heartbreak.  And she sets the world right.  She brings unicorns back into the world again as Christ redeems the world.

I have to connect that to Molly.  The unicorn did not appear to Molly when she was “pure”, when she was virginal.  She appeared to her when she was broken and bitter, alone in the forest in a dead-end relationship.  Christ did not appear to those who were “pure”.  He appeared to those who needed him the most–the sick, the possessed, the starving, the ones in dead-end relationships and the ones who despaired.  He found us in the wilderness, not in clean-kept towers.

Christ does not require us to fulfill the Evangelical formula to meet Him.  He comes to us as we are.

There are no happy endings. Because nothing ends.“–Schmendrick the Magician

Turkish Coffee

coffee

“Every day?!”

She listens to the Google Translate app that translates my incredulity into Arabic and nods an affirmative.  She says something into her app, and Google Translate’s perky automated voice replies, “I want to learn English every day.”

Her husband, who speaks better English, hastily says, “If it works with your schedule.”

“Of course. I can try and come every day.”  Google Translate converts my words to Arabic again and she leans back in her seat happily.  I mentally reorganize my weekly schedule.  Her home is not far from my work, so it seems very doable to pop by after work and go over our daily English lesson.

Maha is only one year older than me, but if we’d gone to high school together, we would have graduated the same year.  (I was younger than most in my grade.)  But her life has been dramatically different from mine.  Her husband and she fled from Syria with their two sons, and they spent six years in Jordan, where she had one more little boy.  Her sons are adorable and speak very little English, but we communicate by making faces at each other.  They enjoy drawing on the dry erase board I bring with me.

Maha is diligent.  She practices by herself ahead of the lesson and aside from a few spelling errors, generally understands it without my help.  We bend over her workbook as I try and explain the crazy English rules of possessive pronouns and contractions.  After about an hour or so, we’ll finish the lesson, and Maha will disappear into her kitchen and come out with an ornate tray with delicate and intricately painted cups of thick, Turkish coffee.

She and her husband were a little concerned that the coffee might be too bitter for me.  But I love the taste of it.  I say to them (through the app) that my grandfather loved dark coffee and I share this affinity.  It burns my tongue at first but its richness soothes and revives.

Her husband works long hours, but is picking up English quicker because of it.  He asks if I know much about Syrian politics, I respond that I know a little, from what I see on the news.  To my shock, he has glowing things to say about Trump.

“He is the only one who has stood up to Assad,” He explains to me.  I hesitate and decide not to point out it’s only because bullies despise other bullies.  I do gently say that I wish he treated immigrants and refugees better, and he agrees with that.

“You are a Democrat, right?” He laughs. “That’s what’s so great about this country. You can say whatever you want. You can disagree. You can criticize and you won’t get in trouble!”

I glance at my red tote bag, which houses my tutoring supplies.  Emblazoned on the front are the words CAPITALISM RUINS EVERYTHING AROUND ME.  It is decorated with carefully chosen pins, which read everything from the literary “Not Your Handmaid” to the far less subtle “FUCK TRUMP”, which I’ve forgotten to unpin (I don’t usually wear it to work).  I couldn’t carry such a bag in some places.  I am angry and disheartened by the US so much, I forget the upsides to living here sometimes.

And so I come.  I show up every day around 5:30PM, we go over a lesson, I correct her homework, and when Maha is tired, she announces “Finished!” and goes to bring out coffee and treats.  She’s a hard worker.  We often go through two chapters a session.  The absurdity of the English language continues to amaze me.

She inspires and intimidates me.  I can’t imagine leaving my home with three young children, to come to a country where I only speak a few words.  Her goals are simple and direct.  Learn English.  Make sure her sons learn English.  Learn to drive.  These seemingly simple steps are key to independence here, to life here.

One day after lessons, she brings out little treats covered in powdered sugar.  She explains they are called maamoul, and are usually made to celebrate holidays.  I take a bite and to my surprise and delight, they are not overly sweet.  I ask her what is inside them (I guess dates) and she tells me they are filled with pistachios.  They are light and tasty, a perfect treat with coffee.  I tell my mother about them and we agree to bake our own special cookies for her post-haste–snickerdoodles and chocolate chip cookies.

I wish I spoke Arabic.  Oftentimes are coffee breaks are filled with silence.  The Google Translate app method of communication is imperfect; there are many times where she will ask me something and Google Translates her question into something unintelligible.  And vice versa–I will ask something and watch her brow furrow in confusion as the Google Translate app probably asks her something inscrutable in Arabic.

I told her I was trying to learn Arabic.  She responds that it is a beautiful language and I agree.  I show her my Duolingo app (I haven’t progressed beyond the Alphabet) and her sons giggle at how terribly I read Arabic.  She writes an Arabic word on the whiteboard and I try and read it, while her sons either shout the answer or something random and laugh hysterically as I repeat them and wind up with the wrong answer.

Maha comments that she thinks the Duolingo app is teaching me “too hard” words.  It ought to start with something easier.  This is wholly possible.  I’d like to take a class in Arabic in the fall at WUSTL, if I can swing it.

I think about Maha a lot.  I think about how her family’s apartment is small, but lovely, how they’ve decorated their parlor with a framed photograph of what I think is Damascus, how there’s a Koran displayed prominently on their coffee table, the framed calligraphy on their walls.  I think about how hard she works on her English lessons, all while raising three little boys.  I think about how she told me she had six sisters and one brother, and how her family was still in Syria, but she was able to talk to them every day through WhatsApp.

She would’ve graduated the same year as me if we’d gone to high school together.  I can’t stop thinking about that either.  She is an incredibly strong and intelligent woman and has been through things I can’t even imagine.

I tell her I write a blog and ask if she would mind if I wrote about her.  She laughs and gives me permission.

And then on my Facebook feed, in a spare moment, I see this:

racism

I’m enraged.  My blood gets hot, tears sting my eyes, particularly when I realize that someone I love posted it.  I think of Maha, the graciousness with which she serves me Turkish coffee, the way her brow furrows over her English lessons, the way she giggles when I try and pronounce Arabic words and how I tell her through Google translate that calculator is a stupid word to pronounce, and not to worry too much about it.  I think of how much she loves her sons.

I think of her her husband, his love for America, how despite all the racist hatred our stain of a president has thrown at him, Maha’s husband still thanks him for standing up to Assad.  I think of his gratitude to be here, in a country where he can have whatever political belief he wants without being arrested.

I feel ashamed because of all their family has been through, and how they’re rewarded with cruel FB posts that believe they’re trying to “destroy America”.

I’m angry.  And sad.  And tired.  I want to give up on this country, give up on the cruelty people fling at their neighbors, I want to say “fuck it” and move somewhere more tolerant and loving.

But I don’t.

Instead, when it’s 5:00PM, I will drive to Maha’s apartment.  I will sit down with her.  I will correct her homework.  I will go over the next lesson.  I will make faces at her sons, I will kick a soccer ball with them, I will give them a high five.  I will drink thick, black, Turkish coffee with Maha in contented silence, occasionally interspersed with Google Translated small talk.

And I will keep doing this.  Over and over again.  Until I don’t see those hateful FB posts on my feed again.