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I had a surprising end to 2015, which led me to develop a hopeful feeling of premonition for 2016. I felt the year would bring new, exciting things, or a new, exciting direction. At the same time, a little, superstitious voice was telling me to be cautions. It’s going to sound ridiculous, but… odd numbered years are just better to me than even numbered ones. I know it sounds a bit neurotic. BUT. I’ve kept a journal since I was eleven; I have the receipts. But getting $10,000 from God kind of made me think the pattern was broken. It felt odd to enter the year with an optimism I hadn’t embraced for a while. God would carry us through, he was “on our side” now, doing big things, and it all would get easier.
2016 has been a whopper. A doozy. And I’ve done a slapbang job of renewing my trust in God’s provision through it all. This year, I’ve had a lot more responsibility fall into my lap. I’ve become more selfless and more selfish simultaneously, as I’ve given my time to a lot of different things but not enjoyed them as much as I wish I had. I’ve had handfuls of work-related, church-related, friendship-related, family-related, and faith-related challenges this year. Nothing huge or unbearable, but a lot of things all together causing me strain and stress. The good change I anticipated at the beginning of the year has probably come to fruition more than I realize, but I wasn’t expecting it to come at me like a hurricane.
And then there are all the absolutely heartbreaking things that have happened this year. I think we all need a respite from 2016. From all the bickering and tension and violence and aggravation and injustice and disappointment with humanity… 2016 has made me long for peace unlike any other time in my life. Can I get an amen?
Because of all… that, I’ve been forced to find spaces where I can cultivate peace. Without those spaces, I would be much more of an angry, anxious, and bitter person that I already am. Three things this year have helped: exercise, reading, and writing. I can feel both tuned out and deeply connected to the world through yoga, or running with very, very loud music. I can completely escape real life through books, but feel more compassion and understanding toward real people when I connect with fictional characters. There are times when I think that journaling has literally saved me – I would not be the person I am today without the self-reflection and discovery and clarity that comes to me through writing things down.
I started this year with a weird tug to write like I haven’t before. I’ve been totally unfiltered, and rather than just journaling and blogging happening as a result, I’ve actually started writing essays and novels, never finishing one before moving on to the next. There have been quite a few nights where I couldn’t sleep because I needed to write down a story or a thought. I’ve used creative writing about my past experiences through other people’s perspectives as a therapeutic, healing technique. I’ve handwritten and typed chapters of a memoir that I’m too unexperienced and under-qualified to write.
Then there’s this blog. I’m used to posting 2-3 times a year and having 18 people pop by to read my thoughts. But, since I’ve been consistently sharing my story about struggling in my faith, I’ve had a stream of visitors I didn’t expect at all. I wish you could see me blushing, telling you this. In 2016, more than 2,000 of you from ten different countries have viewed my blog. I don’t know if those statistics are good or bad for people who do this a lot, but I really can’t believe it. They could be a bunch of spam bots and I would still be flattered. As much as my friends have told me that I should speak openly and without fear, I never really believed that my honesty and transparency would be of use to anybody.
So, the next thing.
In 2016, I have been continuing to ask God and Jesus just who they are, and wondering what I believe, and becoming more and more okay that my faith doesn’t look like it used to. I’ve found answers and reassurance through other people, through teaching, through stories… but my doubts were so centered on the Bible that my heart was too wounded to look back there. Every time I tried to read it again, I felt betrayed. God, why aren’t you like this in my life? Why is what you’re saying not clear? How is this part of your “holy Word”? Plus, I’ve been taught so much that reading Scripture is an act of obedience out of love for God, so reading it just didn’t go with my vibe. Maybe I was sinning. Simple as that.
But an idea and a desire sprung up in my head, one that felt too “church-y” to me, but I couldn’t let go of anyway. I kept remembering that month where I got out of bed every day, made my coffee, and woke up reading and digesting Scripture. I wanted that again, but to be even more connected with it. I brought an idea to some of my friends, and now a wonderful community is going to be Advent-ing together to the tune of the names of Jesus.
Starting December 1st, we will be sharing verses and thoughts every day that focus on who Jesus is. I’ve been asking him that question for a long time, and his answer is out there somewhere. I’m so glad I have friends who will be sharing their perspective, too. These are all people I look up to, with regards to their faith and character. Plus, most of them learned to write for a living. We want you to follow along, to use it as your daily devotional, and give us all your thoughts and feedback.
I’m also very excited to tell you that this Advent series will be posted on my new website: hannazoeo.co. It launches with the Advent series on December 1st!
If you are interested in collaborating on this project, please comment or email me at email@example.com
[for part 1, go here]
This was not the fig tree moment that I was trying to learn to be content with. This was the big, God-sized moment I had been waiting for… but it tasted a little bitter. It was still confusing. Did I want money, or did I want answers? And what did this say about me? That I could wickedly write a paragraph about my life that’s manipulative as hell (this is not actually what I did, just something I worried I had done on accident), or that God wanted to give me $10,000?
It felt like when you’ve been visiting your grandparents, and you’re really bored. The whole time you’re there you’re searching for cellphone service and watching cable. You can tell they’re disappointed, but what are you going to do? Maybe you grudgingly go with them to their Weight Watchers meeting or the YMCA. Then, at the end of your visit, they stuff a $50 bill in your hand, and you’re like “Naw, man.” And they’re like, “Keep it, keep it.” All does is make you feel lousy.
But as the Christmas season unfolded around me, I grew eyes to see. First of all, that $10,000 from God, intended by the giver to pay off student debt, meant that no “mistake” or decision of mine (or Brett’s), made as innocently as taking out student loans when we were seventeen, condemns us to a life of unfulfilled calling. (Praise the Lord!) With that came the realization that God could have just as easily given us $100,000 – enough to completely pay off our student loans, medical bills, and then some. But He didn’t. We could have been out of the country and on the mission field in a matter of months, but instead we still have a long way to go. What does this mean? I wrote in my journal days later:
This $10,000 is encouragement that I’m in the right place. He gave us what He wants us to have to work within His will and timing. We are here, and honestly, at this moment, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. How long has it been since I could say that?! Yet I’ve felt that feeling growing. At this moment, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else! It’s not a profound feeling – not a mountaintop feeling – but it’s TRUE and SIMPLE and TRUE. And I am rejoicing in it.
Moreover, I started to realize that our missionary desires are rare and real. I used to imagine that most Christians wanted to travel to other countries and start home churches or make connections with their Muslim neighbors. Then it dawned on me that if that were true, more people would be doing it. And the chances that I would find someone to marry who wants the exact same things I do? One in a million! More than ever, I know that it’s going to happen. One day. Sometime. And that feeling has both motivated me to keep pressing on to make it happen soon, and relax into the life I have now. Maybe it won’t happen first of all the things I want to do in life, but it will happen.
On December 31, I paid the last of my medical bills. With the new assurance we felt that we’re meant to be where we are, we put 10% of the money into a savings account, with the intention to “tithe” it toward being missional here in our own neighborhood when a need arises. With the rest, we paid off student loans, one by one, until the money ran out. After that, we calculated… and realized that, with determination and zero setbacks, we could be on the mission field as early as 2020. This might not happen, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel, when before there was no end in sight.
When I started to share this whole experience with my friends, I began to describe this odd provision of $10,000 as manna. In the Old Testament, when God’s people wandered in the desert for 40 years, God sent a sweet bread from heaven to nourish them. It was daily bread. Every morning, the Israelites woke up, and, and like snow, it covered the ground. They had never seen it before, so they called it “manna” which translates to, “What is it?” That was basically my reaction to $10,000. WTF, God? What is this? What does it mean? Why now? Why are You choosing to bless me at a time when I feel so far from You?
At this point last year, I was six months in to trying to discover who God was in my life, in my own experiences, apart from any teaching or testimony. I’d been pondering the question (so theologically phrased), “God, what kind of guy are you?” And I’d been trying to find that answer in who God had been to me. In that six months, I’d dealt with depression, doubt, anxiety, and feeling ungrateful, like my heart was disconnected. This experience made me look at those six months with new eyes. What had God actually done in answer to my question?
He gave me the best community – everything I needed – the understanding, the depth, the being seen and heard and understood – in my Missional Community group. He gave me my husband back – Brett got a new job and was no longer traveling for work. He gave me wonderful interactions with my neighbors, sparking my desire to be a missionary in my own apartment building. He even gave me deep, meaningful experiences where He revealed His true self – on the beach after Ty’s memorial service, focusing on Jesus’ character in “Jesus 101”, Vista choir rehearsals that were more like worship services, Tammy’s text, and $10,000.
His provisions were nothing like I imagined. They weren’t exactly what I wanted. But they were good. God is good. He will sustain you. He will never leave you or forsake you. And I don’t know this because He gave me $10,000, but because through all this time and with all He’s done, He’s given me hope, and just enough bread to keep believing. His provision is manna – it’s curious. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense. But it’s nourishing and sweet and there will be more tomorrow.
[This is part of a series that starts here.]
I’ve been thinking about this post since day one of deciding to write this series, but I can’t think of how to start. “And then God gave us $10,000” is catchy, but leaves out vital background information. “There’s a lot of things $10,000 can change, but not my attitude” was another consideration, but not entirely truthful.
Now I’m thinking I might just share my entire journal entry from a life-changing night. My permission to read my diary might snuff all the fun out of it, but here you are anyway:
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Someone just anonymously gave us $10,000.
Lord, how many times have I begged You in the past three years to do something? How many stories have I read about your provision that I am now a part of?! How many times have I questioned why You’re making me wait?
Every day. Every hour. I want what I want.
A gift – this is a gift. It feels weird. Given anonymously. Received anonymously. It could be a gift like any other gift – fun, exciting. It could be a trip around the world. A vacation unlike any other. Even a portion of it, and we could be on the beach in a week, drinking and eating all we want. Sleeping in a huge bed where we don’t even touch each other.
We’ve decided to use it to pay off student loans 6, 7, and 8. And part of 9. Out of 18, so we’ll be halfway done.
It’s sort of… lackluster.
I hate to say this, but it came at an unexpected time, in an unexpected manner, but it wasn’t wholly unexpected. I’ve been waiting for this. Asking for this. Feeling missionary-entitled to this.
And isn’t this… abnormal? That a worry about money is what ultimately caused us to have this money? When your worry is that you don’t have enough money, isn’t God supposed to give lessons instead of cash? Doesn’t He teach us about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, or that the love of money is the root of all evil? Or is He really the God who actually gives us what we ask for?
So I’ve accepted this money, spent it already in my head… and I feel selfish. Like I got a gift, but it was my birthday. Like I got candy, but it was Halloween, and maybe I’ve already eaten too much.
I’ve accepted this with one eyebrow raised. A gift expected – asked for – can it be accepted with the same gratitude as a surprise?
God, at least this once, You were who I expected You to be! Finally, here You are showering your subjects in kingly gold instead of riding in on a donkey!
Can’t I be relieved and happy that He is who I “needed” him to be?
Maybe my attitude this whole time has been unbelief. I’ll ask for this because I know You will withhold it, and then I will have something against You. Something to blame You for. The cross to which I’ll nail all my woes at You, God! I asked but did not receive – see, You are a liar!
Maybe I haven’t been who I imagined I was. And You aren’t who I’ve been imagining You to be, are You, God?
Even if God is answering my prayer after three years (and that feels like a long time), He still has:
– answered my prayer
– moved someone to give this money. This could have been all they had.
– given us a gift of $10,000 and made us move closer to being free of student debt.
It still feels like, Oh, you heard me now, God? After I used the internet to my advantage? I feel like, by sending what I did to Tammy, I knew I was getting the ball rolling. Is that why I feel selfish? Because I feel like I did this? You wouldn’t do anything, so I had to act. So I manipulated someone into having pity on me, and they felt bad enough that they gave us $10,000.
But that sounds crazy doesn’t it?! And what really did I do? Brett and I had a really hard budget meeting last month. We had new medical bills. We were behind where we wanted to be with student loan payments, which take up more of our budget than rent, utilities, and groceries combined. It looked like we couldn’t even afford Christmas. We went to bed frustrated, with no answers, and I was worried. I cried… The next morning, December 3, I drove to work sick with anxiety. Right when I walked in the door, I got this text from Tammy (a group text to the whole choir):
Have you said hello to the Lord this morning? Cultivate an awareness of His active presence with you all day long. Read Hebrews 13:5. ❤ u – Tammy
Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'”
Immediately, I started sobbing in my office. It felt so personal that I sent it to mom asking if she got the same text! It touched on my worries about money, but also hit the nail on the the head with how I was feeling toward God. He’s not helping. He’s forgotten me.
I emailed Tammy the story, because she had asked the choir and everyone involved with the Vista program to send her stories about how God had shown up unexpectedly in this season. “Unexpected” was the theme of the program this year. I gave her some background on our student loans and desire to be missionaries so she would know where my feelings came from. Then, when the program was over, she posted the stories on a secure site where only those involved could read them. She made them all anonymous.
Then someone saw my story and gave Brett and I $10,000.
After mom sent me some weird texts tonight about Tammy asking where I live and stuff, I thought I might see her at our door. Sure enough, there was a knock, and mom and Tammy were there. I invited them in, moving dirty socks off the couch so they could sit down. Tammy handed me and envelope and video taped Brett and I reacting. I couldn’t even read the letter because I was crying. Mom and Tammy said, “Thank you, Jesus,” and, “Praise the Lord” so many times, but I’m not sure if I said it once.
Lord, after all this eucharisteo talk [aka reading One Thousand Gifts] and everything You’ve done, why can’t my lips praise You? Why does it feel strained? Why am I talking to a stranger? To a dull feeling inside of me?
What is this world, God? What is this relationship we’re supposed to have?!
I’m going to put this money in my bank account and use it to pay off loans 6-8. But what about You and me?
It would feel better to give it to my neighbors. Lord, give it to someone who actually needs it, so I can still say You don’t listen to me, You don’t care for me, You’ve given me a passion that just ends in a brick wall.
Lord, why do I want to be angry with You? Why do I want to hold things against You? Lord, with this money, what are You telling me?
– You’ve made good, selfless people who listen to their hearts and do what they’re prompted to do
– There’s enough to go around. Money isn’t in short supply for everyone
Are You saying that You love me? Are You saying that You hear me? Are You saying that You want me to be a missionary?
I feel like an unbeliever who has manipulated a believer into giving me money. What a con!
I don’t know what I really should do with it. Cabo? Tempting. Down payment on a house? Give it to someone – anyone – so I don’t have to deal with what God is doing or saying?
I feel like I can’t even tell people about this. I feel like I would be judged. Or envied.
Are You saying that You hear me? Are You saying that You love me? Are You teaching me a money lesson? Are You teaching me an expectations lesson? Are You mad at me?
Who gets $10,000 from a stranger and asks if God is mad at them?!
The stranger said they wanted us to use the money to pay our debts. That they believe that Brett and I will be missionaries one day. They said they wanted to be anonymous so we would only have one person to thank – God. But I want to know if they really believe that. I want to know if they’ll feel joy when they see $10,000 drain from their bank account tomorrow. I want to know what God told them. I want to hold onto their faith for dear life.
And I’m the wannabe missionary.
Stranger, you are more a missionary to me right now than I have ever been. You have given me so much to think about regarding God.
Maybe sometimes God gives what we ask for, instead of teaching a lesson.
Are You saying that You love me? Are You saying that You hear me? If I keep asking, will I keep receiving?
Did I really want money… or answers? Now I have money, and more questions.
God, what are Your answers for me, with this money?
No, I am not holding you captive.
It’s not enough to pay off all of it, but I want you to be encouraged.
I might have just caught a glimpse of Jesus saying, What do you want to talk about money for? Of course I love you!
Lord, I don’t want to hold things against You anymore! I don’t like this relationship. Every time I think I let go, I must still be holding on. I don’t want to mistrust You. Help me see Your steadfastness. Help me trust.
I see You outside the boat, holding out Your hand. Do you trust me? You ask. I want to! I want to feel firm water between my toes – a complete paradox. Me hand in hand with You. I want the beautiful adventures. I want Your happiness, and I want to smile.
Let our giver experience joy beyond measure this Christmas. Yes. That’s all I can ask for right now.
It’s a gift. It’s a gift. With a gift, givers say:
– I was thinking about you. You are on my mind 24/7.
– I wanted to give you something. Everything. EVERY thing.
– I love you. I LOVE you, I LOVE YOU.
– I hope this makes you smile. And laugh and dance for me!
– What’s mine is yours. Take it. Take it!
I’m ending here for now, but will be posting a part 2 in a couple days. If you’re interested in attending this year’s version of the Christmas program that changed my life, I’m singing in this thing, and I’m inviting you:
Choose from the following 7 programs in 4 locations. HILLIARD: Sun., Nov., 27, 6 p.m. @ Makoy Center, 5462 Center St., Hilliard, OH 43026. MARYSVILLE: Sun., Dec., 4, 6 p.m. @ Marysville High School, 800 Amrine Mill Rd., Marysville, OH 43040. WORTHINGTON: Sat., Dec., 10, 2:30 & 6 p.m. @ Thomas Worthington High School, 300 W. Dublin Granville Rd., Worthington, OH 43085. DUBLIN: Sun., Dec., 11, 11 a.m, 2:30 & 6 p.m. @ Dublin Jerome High School, 8300 Hyland-Croy Rd., Dublin, OH 43016
The “Jesus 101” class brought me to a hopeful plateau. I still had doubts and questions and negative feelings about God and the Bible, but my fascination and, dare I say, love for Jesus grew in that month of October last year. Maybe Jesus was who I wanted him to be. Maybe I could keep going in my regular Christian life, eyes pointed his way, the rest on the back burner. Of course, this is the method of coping that I’d tried many times in the past when I encountered doubt. Find the easy answer, ignore the rest. Hold on to one true thing, stop searching for more truth. “Jesus,” the cover-all Sunday school answer, was all I needed.
That, and gratitude, I decided.
In an effort to right my attitude of resentment toward God, and to convince myself of his goodness, I read One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp. It’s the book your childhood best friend’s mom’s women’s group at church probably did a study on about five years ago. Voskamp wanted to “find joy” in her daily life, so she developed the spiritual practice of thankfulness and wrote about her experience. I read it with a similar goal: if I wanted to see God’s goodness in the Bible, and in all the history of the world, I could start by counting my blessings. I picked out a pretty notebook, numbered the lines 1 – 1,000, and began jotting down my own thankfulness list, trying to mimic Voskamp’s style while occasionally slipping up and adding my own flair. My list hard stops at 217, and contains things such as:
17. Christmas music in the morning
27. Looking fly
67. Driving with windows down in November
104. Shower beer
107. Getting fed dinner instead of turned away when accidentally showing up early to life group
112. When Hagrid [my rabbit] licks the throw pillows
131. Simple coffee-making morning ritual
166. The fluffy yellow blooms of acacia
I was trying to bring out the positive, Anne of Green Gables side of my personality that I’ve always wished was more prominent. Ultimately, it was a failed experiment. I would read the book and get so on board with her imagery and romantic writing, but after ten seconds of stepping away from my reading nook, my soul would do a mega eye-roll.
Bubbles, Ann? You have ten items on your list about soap bubbles? And bread?
But I’ve still been chewing on one of the biggest messages of the book: “all is grace.” The good and the bad, all gifts from God. That’s kind of the most basic thing we have to put our faith in when we believe in a God who is omniscient, omnipresent, and is supposed to love us more than we can understand. “God has a reason for everything,” is what I believed as a kid, but this “all is grace” thing asks me to go a step further and redefine what grace means. In all this time that I’ve been struggling with believing that God is good, maybe I’ve missed the part where I define “goodness.”
About a month ago, I had dinner with a friend who wanted to talk about this blog and my recent posts. My friend is gay, and the first few posts I wrote kind of focus on the questions a lot of Christians ask about homosexuality. I was nervous for this conversation. I assumed he’d be coming with his own questions and want me to answer them, which I was not in a good place to do. As it turned out, after knowing this guy for two years, I had no idea he was Catholic. I was immediately humbled by our conversation, and so grateful to feel like I was the one being encouraged, not the other way around. He taught me a lesson about grace when he confessed, “I’m okay with a God who gives us hard things – doubts, being gay – and says, ‘You have to figure it out.'”
…What could be more human than that?
Don Miller, in Blue Like Jazz, writes one of my all-time favorite analogies: “I can no more understand the totality of God than the pancake I made for breakfast understands the complexity of me.” We are the created ones, and while I don’t think that God, like an overtired mother, is saying, “I am the one who defines what’s good and if I say it’s good then it’s good,” maybe when he made us in his image he neglected to build a born-with understanding of grace. Maybe, though I look like God, I still have to define my words on his terms. Maybe questions are part of the answer.
If grace is why we exist, created out of love, and there is nothing more human than wrestling with the things we do not understand, I can only conclude that the struggles with Scripture, with doubt, with faith, are all under the umbrella of “good.” And if someone like my friend, who many would say God detests, can say that they are fine with the hard stuff, why shouldn’t I be?
I think some of my Christian friends would read this and say, There it is! You’ve found the answer! Game over. Hand to the sky: He is God, and I am not. But I don’t want to end up right back where I started; I’m afraid I would go back to worshiping what I want God to be, rather than knowing who He is and making the choice. To avoid the wrestling match is to avoid any engagement with God. My humanity will keep bringing me back to the ring.
In my last post, I talked about wanting a “fig tree” moment with Jesus. In John chapter 1, the disciple Nathaniel speaks out loud his doubts about Jesus, and Jesus tells Nathaniel that he saw Nathaniel while he was under the fig tree. Nathaniel immediately proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. He hadn’t yet seen the “greater things” – the miracles, the crowds of followers, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – but believed that Jesus was God for the simple, assured knowledge that Jesus knew him and saw him in that moment under the fig tree. That’s what I needed. Just one moment that would be enough to walk step-by-step in faith. In a way, that’s exactly what happened for the next few months. Little by little, I felt God speaking into my life, and now I want to share some of the ways that happened.
I’ve already talked about a few people and resources who helped me. There was Carrie and Ty, friends whose faith in the face of tragic death completely blew me away, to the point that it caused me to look deeply inward and realize that I didn’t have it.
There was Rich Mullins; I read An Arrow Pointing to Heaven and started watching his concerts on YouTube. Mullins is someone who went against the grain of his fundamentalist upbringing and the conservative religious industry in which he struggled to work and remain authentic. The simplicity of his faith and patience with himself, God, and his journey with God – where he readily admitted that he didn’t know everything – was so refreshing.
There was my friend who pointed me to The Liturgist podcast, which not only helped me be okay with the way my faith was unraveling, but made me feel like I was in community with other people who were going through the same thing.
During this time, I was involved in one of the most amazing and impactful small groups I have ever been a part of. It was a place where I could openly say such blasphemous things as, “I don’t think sin is really that big of a deal,” and, “What Jesus is saying here doesn’t make any sense,” and, “Why should I trust what Paul says about wives and husbands when he wasn’t even married?” And finally, “I’m scared of death; I’m not sure how I would feel if I was dying; I’m not sure God is good.” The amazing thing about this small group is that it contained a handful of the pastors, elders, other staff, and small group leaders at my church, and they all encouraged this level of honesty, didn’t try to talk me out of it, and graciously let me “be where I was.” A lot is said about “meeting people where they are,” but I think it rarely happens. Our instinct (or the way we’ve been cultured as Christians) is to teach and “hold accountable.” Even as I shared things in the group, I wanted someone to just give me the answers. But this group full of equipped leaders and teachers didn’t say one thing remotely close to the cliches we often hear.
God has you right where he wants you.
Jeremiah 29:11 says…
You just have to have faith.
And they didn’t try to explain away my doubts with apologetics. They just let the conversation happen. I think everyone in that group acted a lot like Jesus.
Then, the weirdest thing happened: out of the blue, I developed the practice of having a daily quiet time, for the first time in my life. I bought a little study book on Psalm 119 because I saw it on Instagram and thought it was pretty, and every day for 26 days I woke up early, read scripture, read the short devotional, and journaled my thoughts. I didn’t plan it or intend it – it just happened. I didn’t use any notes or commentaries; I didn’t look up the word meanings in their original language. I put as little effort into it as possible, and it may have been my most prolonged period of honesty with God. My responses are full of snark, questions, and objections – things that show the pride and dissatisfaction and anger in my heart, sometimes not even related to the scripture I was reading.
I still hold out hope that half of the Old Testament isn’t even true. What do these stories show me that is more valuable than the lives of innocents? I’m sorry, but You showing me that You are on my side and will win a fight for me doesn’t outweigh how I feel about believing in a Holy God who murders people left and right – who wipes out whole generations. It’s one thing if evil just happens, but the Bible is “clear” about Your hand in it. So what about genocides that happen today? How am I supposed to know what You’re “behind”? What are You up to, and why can’t You do it without making Yourself look like a dick?
Don’t let me be put to shame in my hope!
That is (I assume) all Christians’ secret cry: BE REAL! BE GOD! If You’re not, I have wasted my life and my words and all I’ve believed is worth nothing. I’d be shamed in the face of those who have provoked me – those who have found it fun to mock Christianity. Those who troll on Facebook.
Nothing I do seems worthwhile. I struggle to see significance in my day-to-day life. Why, Lord? “How long, O Lord” must my life suck?
Every time I hear something “Christian” about to come out of my mouth, I want to hold back. Because what do I know, really? And how was I ever certain?
Clearly I am not offering that studying the Bible is part of a magic formula that will get you through times of doubt. Clearly I think the Bible is confusing and full of a lot of things I don’t like. I wasn’t trying to pull my faith up by the bootstraps. I wasn’t driven to the Scriptures, searching for answers. This didn’t feel holy. It felt therapeutic.
During that time, my churched offered a Sunday school class for young adults called “Jesus 101.” And, what a coincidence, I happened to hear exactly what I needed to, every Sunday, for a month. Our pastor taught from the book of Mark, that’s central question is, “Who are you, Jesus?” In response, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
…Which, of course, was exactly my conversation with Jesus that had been going on for months.
And while our conversation about it still hasn’t ended, I heard some things in that class that left me in awe of Jesus. I felt uncomfortable in church, felt uncomfortable around most Christians, didn’t really like God, had no clue what I believed about heaven, felt all sorts of entitled unfairness about my life situation, yet couldn’t get enough of hearing about Jesus. Thoughts like: maybe Jesus didn’t seek out to perform miracles so much as they just leaked out of him, like when the bleeding woman touched his robe. And how he laid down every ounce of his power for the sake of a real relationship with us. And how the cross is the place where Jesus is enthroned in glory, and those sitting as his right and left in glory were the two thieves. How, to defeat evil, Jesus had to let it do its worst to him. How he brought things full circle with Peter, the betrayer, on the beach after his resurrection.
I felt like I was joining the fandom of some epic fantasy novel. The hero was so good, and the plot so complex that I could have listened to it explained to me all day and still have had more to uncover.
Then there were songs that became significant to me, and of course then went viral, so I heard them everywhere. During one particularly uncomfortable moment in a yoga class where I couldn’t relax into a pose, the song “Let it Go” by James Bay played over the speakers, and I don’t know if it was the final release of my hip muscle or the fact that I felt completely existentially lost, but I started crying when he sang,
If this is all we’re living for, why are we doing it anymore?
Jesus got real and on my level, like If you’re not going to trust me and keep pushing me away, why is this even a thing?
There’s more I could share, and probably will, but for now I just need to reiterate something. A couple weeks ago, I met with some of my favorite missionary friends, Brian and Shelly. Near the end of our time together, Shelly brought up my blog and was interested to hear about the responses I’ve gotten from people I’m close to as I experienced these times of doubt. Having been on multiple diverse mission fields, Brian and Shelly have seen a lot, and their surprised response to what I had to say reminded me how good I have it. God was so gracious to me, has been always, and I consistently fail to recognize it. Even now, though I think I’m learning and growing in general through this journey, I’m not writing this from a super humble place. I still feel quite entitled. I’m still angry at God for things he’s done – not even to me! I still feel like God is the big guy in the sky with all the resources and all the answers who chooses to be withholding. The hard thing to get over about that is that I’m right. God is that, albeit so much more, and I can’t change him. I can only try to change my attitude, meanwhile totally privileged to be covered under his grace.
Looking back, I feel like there was this comfortable bubble of security around me the whole time, without which I wouldn’t have had the bravery to ask God the questions I wanted to ask. Without that protection, I don’t know if, today, I would still be wanting to write about God on my blog. Thank you to all the people living the Jesus Way who have been in my life the past year and a half. I am privileged to have been able to let my faith unravel because of you. You are that bubble of protection, God love you. And if you are a person who needs a person to be that place, I am here and will do my best.
August 20, 2015
I want to be an authentic steward of Jesus’ love because of a faith grounded in the knowledge of God’s goodness.
I’m so ready to be ready to do the first part [be a steward/missionary], but it’s the second part of that statement that I’m working on. I’m not certain of God’s goodness apart from Jesus. I can blindly believe it, trust it, and defend it, but I want to know it.
I want to open myself up and see my life how it truly is. What parts were God’s goodness? Who’s responsible for the bad stuff?
I know who God is supposed to be. God is love. He is unconditionally loving, of everyone. He wants the best for me and for everyone. He is the Orchestrator of the good and the bad, the Giver of every good gift, and the Creator of everything beautiful and weird in this world.
That’s who I think God is. That’s who I want him to be, I think.
I just can’t reconcile that with the God in the Bible.
I want to sugar-coat it all by telling myself, “Who cares? Even if the Bible makes it seem like he hates some people and is sending people to hell, and even if he’s made a pretty unfair world, at least I got the long stick. God clearly loves me.” So he should be my God, no problem. Right?
But I really can’t do that.
A small voice is saying to me, “Well, the God of the Bible gave you Jesus. Can you start there? Isn’t that enough to go on?”
Seeing others’ responses to Ty’s death agitated me in a way I’m not proud of. I felt like they were faking it. I wanted these people I knew in college – who went to the same weekly Cru meetings and the same retreats and conferences, had the same teachings, and heard the same preachers as I did – to admit that they were as scared and unsure as I was. Or I wanted them to give me proof that their faith wasn’t fake – to somehow quantify to me what God had done for them or said to them that made them so at peace with death. To me, they sounded foolish in their assurance of heaven, but I desperately wanted to be that way too. I was afraid, and ready to say “I quit” to the whole doubting process if only I could.
But I couldn’t, I figured, at least not without some work. So I tried to gather my life together piece by piece. At the time I felt – as I often do – overwhelmed by all of life’s tasks, and I was on an emotional roller coaster due to, well, my absence of faith and Brett having to travel for work. Ty’s death sort of sent me plummeting, and in the three weeks that followed, I had the physical presence of my husband as support and a shoulder to cry on for a whopping 24 hours. But I tried to take care of myself. I took up yoga, picked up books, cooked, called the insurance company, paid medical bills on time, got dinner with friends, and got by.
Prayers/cries to the vacuum of space were finally answered when Brett got a new job at the beginning of September, right before we left for a week-long, much-needed vacation with his family at the beach. On this vacation I took three books: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven (a Rich Mullins biography; I was still thinking of him as my guardian angel. I know it’s weird), the second Game of Thrones, and a tiny little copy of the book of John. I became fascinated with the story of Jesus and the disciple Nathaniel in John chapter 1. In this story, Jesus introduces himself to Nathaniel by saying, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” Nathaniel then asks how Jesus would know that, as they’d never met. Jesus replies, “I saw you while you were under the fig tree.” And at that, Nathaniel calls Jesus Rabbi, the Son of God, the King of Israel. Jesus says, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.”
And Nathaniel did. As one of the twelve disciples, he saw 5 loaves and 2 fish feed thousands, he saw a storm calmed at a wave of the Teacher’s hand, he witnessed the dead come to life. But all it took for him to believe was one simple thing. A private moment, when Jesus saw him and knew him. I don’t think Jesus “caught” Nathaniel in an act of sin. I don’t think “under the fig tree” was some sort of innuendo, and I don’t think Jesus was being sarcastic when he called Nathaniel an honest man. But I don’t know. Nathaniel could have been napping or reading or thinking profoundly, or he could have been at rock bottom, calling out to YHWH for answers. Whatever it was, the fact that a strange man said that he saw him there and knew him in that moment, was enough for Nathaniel to believe that he was in the presence of God. Maybe the only point of this story is that Jesus knows us, and Jesus can keep a secret.
This story meant so much to me because too much of my faith was based on big moments with God. Mountaintop highs that my generation chased through youth retreats and college conferences, praise and worship songs soaring through little wooden chapels and huge concert halls alike. I have always looked to God for big things, clear answers, epic moments. Kind of goes along with how I want to be a missionary. I’m kind of dramatic. I’ve read Radical. I want experiences with God to be extreme. Bible stories in Sunday school were kind of dramatic, so don’t you dare blame me for this. I was conditioned! I believed in God and Jesus and the Bible my whole life, and I wanted to see the “greater things” that Jesus told Nathaniel he would see. I was due. The disciples followed Jesus for three years, but I had followed him for twenty-two.
But when I read that story that September, because I was at this point in my life, all I wanted was to know that Jesus saw me and knew me. I wasn’t sharing my doubts with others, and I wanted a moment that no one else would notice. Something small that would make me believe.
Anyway, I think this story was part one of me finding Jesus objectively intriguing. For the rest of vacation, I finished this sentence every day: What I love about Jesus today…
I talked about the beginning of my journey with doubt in my first post like it was a conscious decision, and on one level, it was. I had a bit of an, “Ok God, don’t forget I’m a rebel now!” attitude. I stopped reading my Bible and didn’t care. My attention span in church (when I went) was shorter. Singing in church didn’t feel very honest. I wanted to see what would happen. Instead of dipping my toe in a sea of doubt, I put both feet in… and found out that it was a puddle. I discovered I could stand. Life without paying attention to God wasn’t so different.
Then my friend Ty died of brain cancer.
My experience with death was pretty well-rounded already. When I was eight my youngest brother, who was born with a heart condition and had many operations and hospital stays during his two-year-lifetime, passed away. When I was a kid and a young teen, I watched my grandpa die through a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis. In college, my Yiayia, who I felt very close to since I’ve always been described as her “mini-me”, declined swiftly from a blood infection. The same year, my brother’s roommate fell from a cliff while hiking. So I fully understood that death could come for anyone – young or old. Slowly or unexpectedly. Yet, for some reason, as I read the news about Ty in a Facebook post on the way to my brother’s wedding rehearsal dinner, I felt shaken. For the first time ever, perhaps because I was practicing distrust of God, I felt afraid of death.
What a wonder of a wholly Christian upbringing – not feeling afraid of death until I was 24 years old. But it’s true. I think because of Adam’s death when we were very little, I looked forward to and believed in heaven with a greater hope and assurance than most kids. Maybe I never questioned heaven because it meant more to me – I had a little redheaded roommate up there. And I never believed that death should be “fair.” My brother’s friend was so full of love and life that his memorial service blew me away. He was in his early twenties, studying to become a nurse, good-looking, was going to marry his girlfriend one day… People said that it wasn’t fair for someone like that to get taken to heaven so early. Because of Adam, I never felt like that when young people died. Sure, it wasn’t “fair,” but death wasn’t supposed to be.
Yet, Ty’s death was a shock, and I felt the injustice of it. He was another popular, funny, good-looking Christian guy. He left a large legacy of strong Christian men whom he lead in Bible studies and spent a lot of time with. He sang and played guitar. He was the kind of guy who made you feel like a cool, good person if he took some time to talk with you. His wife, Carrie, was a year above me in college, and she was my favorite friend from the pool of young married women I sought out relationship advice from while Brett and I were dating, engaged, and newly married. They became part of a ministry called the Traveling Team, where they adventured through the northwest region, visiting colleges and speaking about world missions along the way. This was something I saw myself possibly doing in the future. The last time I saw Ty was about a year after his cancer diagnosis, when they drove hours out of their way to see Brett and I, just to encourage us with our missionary goals.
I read that the brain tumor had won, and I sucked in tears and anger, went to the rehearsal dinner, and greeted cousins and aunts and uncles I hadn’t seen in years. I tried not to think about Carrie. I tried not to think about cancer. I had a wedding to get through. I made boutonnieres and corsages as I questioned my belief in heaven. I got my hair done and read Facebook testimonies from his friends, all of them half if not fully joyful and celebrating that Ty was pain-free, tumor-free, and with Jesus. I stood at the altar next to the bride becoming my sister-in-law, looked out at the crowd, and saw more friends from college who knew the news and held back sad and happy tears.
It was an emotional weekend.
When it was all over, I sat awake at night, imagining if I was dying of cancer, and someone was holding my hand telling me to “go to Jesus,” would I fight to hold on? Would I really believe, in that moment, that I was going… anywhere? I tried to take a break from my doubt and find comfort in God.
God, how am I so far from you? Where am I? Have you lost me? Don’t I know that Adam is up in heaven? Don’t I know that Yiayia is there? What about Grandpa, running around with strong muscles again?
I don’t even know what I believe
I don’t even know if I believe
Everything you’re trying to say to me
Open up my eyes
Tell me I’m alive…
Say something, say something like you love me*
I thought about Brett and my fear grew. Brett had just turned 26; when Ty turned 26, he found out he had a tumor the size of an orange in his head. Could I hold Brett’s hand in two years and tell him to go to Jesus if he was suffering?
I decided I did not have that much faith. And that, no matter the faith of my hundreds of Facebook friends eulogizing Ty, I could not behave like I did.
Brett left for a business trip right after the wedding, so I drove myself up to Lake Erie College for Ty’s memorial service. I sat with my friends, who all had someone to hold their hand, and felt so lonely. Lonely without Brett, and lonely with my own shaken faith. I watched Carrie walk down the aisle between Ty’s parents, head tall and softly smiling, and I felt this courage radiate off of her. The service was about faith and suffering. It could have been funnier.
After the service was over, we stood around, old friends who rarely saw each other, and had this awkward hesitation as to whether or not we should hang out. Was it appropriate? But we made the best decision and went out for burgers and shakes, sitting around one long table swapping Ty stories and laughing. It was healing and wonderful. Then, about half of us decided to take advantage of the nearby beach. We ran through the sand with our shoes off; we collected smooth, round pebbles and spelled Ty’s name in the sand. Everybody left, but I stayed behind, not wanting to drive the two hours back alone to an empty apartment. I happened to have a blanket, my journal, and a biography of Rich Mullins in my car, and that and the sunshine were perfect medicine.
During my time on the beach, I realized that there were two things I didn’t question or need to question: that God was real, and that Jesus is who he said he was. From there, I wanted to start from scratch. I knew I had forgotten to pay attention to Jesus in all of this, and that, if I still trusted Jesus, I could try to trust what Jesus said about God. Other than that and my own life experiences, I wanted to delete everything – all the confusing and conflicted messages I got from the Bible, church, and other peoples’ experiences. My big question wasn’t, “God, are you there?” but, “God, what kind of guy are you?”
Ty’s death ended up motivating me to delve deeper into doubt. Weirdly, though I was questioning whether I liked God, I wasn’t questioning whether I still wanted to become a missionary one day. I needed to figure this out, because I couldn’t go through life sharing Jesus half-heartedly. I couldn’t say, “Look! Here’s Jesus, who will save you and be your friend and give you all the love you need,” if I didn’t really believe that the One who sent him is Good. Death had made me wish I could take a break from my doubts, only to find out that this was a ride I was on – there was no getting off voluntarily. But I felt like Ty and Rich Mullins were my odd-couple guardian angels, and as I drove home I had hope.
In this wasteland
Where I’m living
There is a crack in the door filled with light
And it’s all that I need to get by **
*Song lyrics from “Believe” by Mumford and Sons
**Song lyrics from “Wasteland” by Needtobreathe
My gut reaction to the conversation I talked about before was anger. Not at the YWM in particular, but that in the world there existed such difficult questions that I had to find the answers to. So my mind immediately went to how to solve my problem.
Problem: Maybe I didn’t know so much about what the Bible says about homosexuality. I definitely didn’t know how to have a very intelligent conversation about it. My “all you need is love” answers weren’t enough anymore, it seemed.
Solution: Talk to my favorite pastor.
As a twenty-something Cru-graduate Christian Girl, that was the obvious answer. I laid out the Facebook conversation with the YWM to my friend, Joel, over sandwiches one afternoon. We talked mostly about the gay marriage/what the Bible says about homosexuality issue. I thought that if I could get answers to the questions that were on the surface, all my other fears and questions would go away. Plus, Joel is my kindred spirit. We think alike. If he could be like me in personality (albeit way smarter than me) and still have the assurance that God is good and unchanging, then I could too. I left our meeting with a list of books and materials to dive into and started to feel better.
I started reading a book that he recommended, and about 20 pages into it, I put it down. All I could think while reading it was, You know what, I don’t care. If you’re gay and you want to know if your attraction is a sin, you figure that out with God knowing that you are loved and created by Him. I still want you in my church and as my neighbor. I want you serving. I want you fed. I want you to preach and to tell your story. I want you to raise families and have holy marriages.
So, in the course of a week, what I thought had shaken my faith – the question about whether homosexual behavior is a sin – became totally unimportant to me. I knew how I felt about it, and I knew what I wanted God to say about it. I realized that my true questions weren’t about other people, they were about God. I started to fear that I only knew the God I wanted to know, and not the Real God. And if that was true, the Real God might not be someone I liked or trusted.
The arguments in the book I read 20 pages of started with the neutral assumption that God is fair by our standards. The basis for their argument was that God wouldn’t create someone for the sole purpose of condemning them. Being gay isn’t a choice, and being celibate – without the God-given gifting, they said – isn’t a true choice either if you want to have a good relationship with God. And I realized that, unlike the authors… I wouldn’t put it past God to be that unfair.
…Because if God allowed the Egyptian babies to be born only to be struck down by the Plague of Death, they why wouldn’t he make people gay just to tell them they’re sinners? If God, even today, is in charge of a world where IF you live too often depends on where you were BORN, then why wouldn’t he make and condemn gay people? You can’t choose if you’re gay, but you can’t choose where you’re born, or who your parents are, or what your health will be like at birth – and I’ve seen plenty of those things bring about much distance from God.
God allows many things.
It all boiled down to this: my big, deep, theological struggles with issues like homosexuality were just average struggles with God’s character.
I haven’t been blogging because I don’t want to complain to you about my life. And, truthfully, I’ve never felt so unoriginal. I may have been impressive and worthy of applause by blogging with my heart on my sleeve back when I first started this, or when we were all tender and in high school and my parents confronted me about my Xanga posts. The internet has evolved so much since then, and I’m actually sick and tired of everyone’s authenticity. People are too much sometimes! Even Internet People (you know, the ones we haven’t met in real life) who seem to have the lives I want to live can whine about the most ridiculous and small things for the sake of being “real.” We millennials are scared to gloss over the bad stuff. Even if the worst thing that’s happened to me is only a 5/10 in your experience, you can’t invalidate my pain, man! Now we’re all a bunch of whiners.
So here I am, being one of those people. Just to set the tone: what you’ll read below will sound sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek at times.
In all my privilege of being safe and secure in Jesus, in all my knowledge of His Word and experience of His love, I decided to take a spiritual walkabout almost a year and a half ago, hold my hand up to God in a very “no” fashion, and pretend I didn’t think He was good anymore. “Prove to me,” I said to God at one time, “that the good you promised for me doesn’t end up being bad for somebody else.” I wanted His love to be equally spread out. (As if it has to be spread. As if there isn’t enough to wash all the feet of all the people in all the world.) I wanted Him to give me what I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember: a life filled with purpose and meaning, centered on serving Him and others. I don’t think I have that right now, because I have a job in a secular field, because I don’t have the energy or the time I think I need to serve, because I’m paying off student debt, because I can’t get over my selfish habits, because most of the time I fail to do basic human things every day, like make food for myself and put my laundry away.
Since the day Brett and I added up our student debt and realized it would be a long, long time before we could ever be missionaries, I have been holding a grudge against God. What could I possibly do with my life that would please God more than to go be a missionary overseas? To help the poor and needy, and tell people that Jesus loves them? Obviously, nothing (I thought/think). And yet God won’t (hasn’t) made a way for me to go and do this thing that I want to do for Him. So I’ve held it against Him for four years.
I know that so far it sounds like me wanting to go be a missionary is all about me. And don’t get me wrong – it is. Because it’s like the greatest thing you could do as a Christian, and what point is it to be a Christian if you’re not the greatest? But I would go to all those poor people and be like, humble about it, you know? I wouldn’t go out there with tracts, or thump them on the head with Bibles. I wouldn’t learn apologetics to use as a defense of the Gospel. Nono. Who needs to do all that work when it’s all about Love!
“All you need is love.” – The
Obviously I am ready to go be a missionary and God is the only thing holding me back, and He has no idea what He’s doing.
…I’m being silly. Writing this out is making me see my circular and egotistical thinking more than ever. But holding a grudge against God and telling him that he’s not a good guy… that’s not silly.
Junior year of high school was the first time I had a twinge of doubt about God. I remember sitting in Philosophy Club (lol), patiently explaining – straight from my homeschool science text book – how when the flood happened in Genesis, the “firmament” that separated the heavens from the earth could have literally been broken to allow this downpour of rain that no one had ever seen before. (Yes, I believed that I had nothing more to learn back then, too.) And my friend and founder of the club made a joke about the Big Guy in the Sky “parting” the firmament with his hands and peeking over the clouds to see what damage he’d done. Within the same half hour that friend asked me, “So if God is good, why did he kill all the Egyptian babies?”
I had never thought about that before. I realize now that this is quite a common argument about the tyrannous, bloodthirsty, OT God, but it was all new to me. I did what any steadfast teenage Christian Girl would do, and asked my mom about it. She gave an answer that sounded passable, and the next day I brought it to my friend.
“In the Old Testament, God was all about his people, the Israelites. He did everything to protect them and fight for them. Now, we can all be his people, so it’s all good. Plus, those babies went to heaven.” He looked at me adoringly because I had found the answer for him. It was good enough for him that it was good enough for me (he was way more accepting of my Christianity than I was of his athiesm), and that was good enough for me.
Fast forward to June of 2015. I’ve already been mad at God for not giving me what I want for more than three years. It’s not like in those three years I never had any growth in my faith or experience with God, but underlying it all was this frustration about my life plans being put off. Anyway, June 2015. The SCOTUS decision about gay marriage had just happened, and that same night Brett and I went to a Walk the Moon concert. I was feeling like a very cool, pro-gay marriage Christian. So enlightened above so many of my Facebook friends. So deserving to go carry Jesus’ message of love throughout the world. People, of course, are posting all sorts of things on social media, and what do I do that I swore off doing as a New Year’s resolution in 2015? I engage. The conversation, as best I remember it:
YWM (young white male): You can’t be gay and be a Christian
Me: Oh yes you totally can!
YWM: No you can’t, and also the Bible is dumb
Me: Jesus’ love is for everyone, also read the Bible
YWM: Read the whole thing, girlfran. Also, God is a jerk
Me: …Not in my experience
YWM: Yeah, but what about the Egyptian babies? Etc., etc.
Me: You are lost. Peace out, byeeee *dies inside*
This was the moment when I, an upright and outstanding virgin-till-marriage, dry-till-21, AWANA-graduate, missionary-wanna-be, decided to give doubt a try.
And I will leave you there for now. Peace out, byeeeee