Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Mis, Rescue, and the Real World, Pt. 1

Les Mis is one of my favorite stories, for about a thousand reasons. It is with exceeding difficulty that I narrow my thoughts and feelings about it for the length of one blog post, but here I will attempt to do so. I'll limit myself to discuss one theme that moved me this time around (thank you, Tom Hooper for putting it into another medium!). This theme concerns the whole meta-narrative, but is seen explicitly in the parallel stories of the two main characters, Valjean and Javert. So I'll start there.

Both grow up victims, in a sense, of the systemic evil of their time. Valjean is a child of France's urban poor, who ends up in jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving child. The injustice is staggering, and the seemingly cruel indifference of his captor Javert is infuriating. But as the story unfolds, tiny pieces of Javert's own trajedy are revealed. At one of their first confrontations, he sings, "You know nothing of Javert/I was born inside a jail/I was born with scum like you/I am from the gutter too." This man was obviously marred by the corruption of poverty and injustice, just as Valjean. 

Both men start off in the narrative by seeking their own "way out"-- attempting to set things right according to their own means-- Valjean does so by attempting to cheat the system and Javert by trying to manage it. Both end up, at different times, realizing the hopelessness of their efforts. Valjean is confronted by the weight of his own sin and is utterly undone by the mercy of the Bishop who clears his name of crime and offers him a new identity. He realizes that life as he knows it-- his attempt to set things right on his own terms by getting bitter revenge-- has come to a dead end. He sings, "I am reaching, but I fall/And the night is closing in/And I stare into the void/To the whirlpool of my sin/I'll escape now from the world/From the world of Jean Valjean/Jean Valjean is nothing now/Another story must begin!" 
Much later, Javert experiences the same existential crisis. Finally caught by his enemy, finally expecting his own death at the hand of Valjean, he is instead offered forgiveness and freedom. No bargains, just grace. Javert is confronted by the weight of his own false judgment and is utterly undone by the mercy of Valjean who secures his release from captivity. Javert realizes that life as he knows it-- his attempt to set things right on his own terms by being "the Law"-- has come to a dead end. "I am reaching, but I fall/And the stars are black and cold/As I stare into the void/Of a world that cannot hold/I'll escape now from the world/From the world of Jean Valjean/There is nowhere I can turn/There is no way to go on"

Both come to the end of themselves and their ability to manage the evil that has marred their world. Both realize they must escape from "the world of Jean Valjean"-- the world of each of their making. The amazing thing is that these two very different men ultimately need rescue in the same form: Grace. Valjean needs grace to cover the multitude of his sins and Javert needs grace to melt his heart of stone. At their core, both the legalist and the sinner are in need of the same Rescuer.

Both are offered it, but only one chooses to receive it. Valjean accepts the grace extended to him and finds himself transformed by it. Things are set right in his world through the rescue of Another. As a result, the trajectory of his life is forever changed-- the rescued one becomes an agent of rescue for others. He knows what Power reached down into his life and saved him, and it is with that confidence that he is able to move forward in a world just as hard as it always was, only without being hardened by it as he was before. Javert, however, can't allow his life to be changed and so he chooses to end it. 

It struck me that this is at the heart of the Christian experience. In a world as hard and broken as ours, we must come to the realization that we can't "make things right" according to our own means-- we can't find our own "way out." God, in Jesus Christ, is the Rescue of Grace. He reaches down to us and gives what we cannot provide for ourselves-- transformation by way of repentance and forgiveness. And it is because of His victory over the sin that has so marred creation (including our own souls!) that we have any hope to stand in opposition to it in the here and now. Like Valjean, our confidence in moving forward without being hardened by the overwhelming evil in the world-- that would otherwise destroy us, just as it first destroyed Valjean-- is only because we have hope in the One who has defeated it, and will one day come again to bring His victory in fullness. 

Ok, so I can't limit myself to one post. To be continued...

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Unkown Christmas

This is my first Christmas away from my nuclear family. 

The past two years, Michael and I have gone to SC for Christmas to be with my mom and siblings. This year, we decided to spend Thanksgiving with them and come to NJ for Christmas. That means that the comfort of familiarity-- the anticipation and expectation of "Christmas" as I've always known it-- is absent. I don't know what the Christmas Eve service tonight will bring. I don't know what the celebratory meal tomorrow will taste like. I'll be new to this family's way of opening presents. Do we all take turns? Is it a free for all? What happens afterward? Christmas-- the event that has become meaningful in American culture simply because it's overflowing with the comfort of familiarity and tradition-- is an unknown to me this year.

Last year, I remember really struggling with my Christmas experience. I was home, and I clung tightly to my expectations of what it should be like. "Things have always been this way-- we've never done that before-- I remember it always being like this..." My commitment to my own expectations over and against anything else resulted in frustration and depression. My hope was in my idea of how things "should be" rather than in the God-who-is in the midst of how things are. 

This year, practicing the season of Advent has invited me (and challenged me!) to let go of my own expectations about what is to come. It has reminded me that life on my own-- even my most perfect "idea" of what it should be-- is dark and broken apart from God. It has reminded me that the whole point of Christmas is that God interrupted our expectations, and in doing so, brought salvation. He entered our world in the most shocking of ways-- by entering into our very humanity-- in order to rescue it. 

Practicing Advent as a spiritual discipline has invited me to recognize that I am in fact better off when I let go of my own expectations and expect instead only God and His redemptive entry into my life. It has helped me to see Mary's response to God's redemptive (and unexpected, surprising, terrifying!) entrance into her own life-- "Let it be to me according to Your word" (Luke 1:38) as the call to me as well-- to accept the good that comes from God's hand, whether I expect, envision, or even agree with it or not. 

In doing so, I'm surprised to admit that this unknown Christmas has not been stressful. In remaining open to whatever God has for me in each moment, I've been able to enjoy what has come, rather than be bitter about what hasn't. And in letting go of "Christmas" as I know it-- the comfort of familiarity-- I've been reminded in a new way of "Christmas" as it really is-- God's surprising, unexpected entry into my world, and the rescue He brings. 

That, after all, is pretty comforting.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Spoken Word-- Be Present

Lately I've been thinking and writing a lot about time, and a new way to think about time. My brother Eli sent me this spoken word poem by an artist he likes, and it put this season of transition into different words.   

Let me know what you think! It this something you can relate to? How would your Advent and Christmas season be if you chose to live within its time differently?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Guest Post: Legitimacy in Addiction

Another guest post this time, because it highlights Advent in a way that reminds us of its reality, its nearness, its relevance. Christ's coming isn't just an idea to "believe," or a piece of information to glean, it's an event that has changed everything-- and it's an event we're to long for again. My "friend" Grace wrote this post after coming home from England and having an unexplained sense of sadness and longing for what she experienced when traveling. Can you relate? Maybe you'll like what she has to say.


“You’re in good company if you’ve struggled with that.”

I lay in the Papasan chair on the screened back porch. The breeze blew and stirred up the leaves on the ground outside.

Seventy degrees in December. I’m not in England anymore.

I looked up at the stark blue sky. I used to watch planes crisscross the cloudy sky outside my window every minute or two when I lived on the Gatwick Airport flight path in England. Here, not a cloud. Not even one jet trail.

My passport’s tucked in a drawer for the first time in two and a half years.

“Realize there is legitimacy in your addiction. What Christian who has a front-row seat to seeing God move the way you have wouldn’t want that to continue? When we pray, ‘Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,’ you experienced a drop of what that will be like, and you want more – a LOT more.”

The words that a wise and understanding friend penned me when I got back to America resonate with me as I sit and watch the leaves rustle.

I do, Father.

I want a lot more.

And the more I put gas in the car, do the daily commute and sit at a desk, the more I realize … it’s not the travel I want.

It’s the concentrated time to see You at work, to learn Your heart. To really see You. To ask for more. Then to go where You go … or stay where You stay.

Before I moved to England, sure, I’d heard it. Sermons, Bible studies, etc. Do you get as excited about Jesus as you about a football game? Do you spend as much time reading the Bible as you do watching TV? Do you pray without ceasing? Do you love Jesus more than you love your stuff?
They’re all good questions … if we dare to deal with them at more than a surface level. Do I get as excited about Jesus as I do a football game? Um, that’d be weird and awkward to yell about Jesus. Do I love Jesus more than my stuff? Sure, I’ll put it all on Abraham’s altar … and expect it to not really be asked of me. Do I read my Bible as much as I watch TV? Is this like setting the egg timer for my preteen piano practice?

The real answers are a finger-smudged iPhone and a dusty Bible.

Or a finger-smudged egg timer and a dusty heart.

At this time of year, this kind of thought would normally lead into a New Year’s resolution for me. I’m gonna read my Bible more. I’m gonna get rid of some stuff. While I’m at it, I’ll lose a little weight and plan a trip to Europe.

Not this year. I don’t want resolutions.
I want Advent.

At this time of year 2,000 years ago, God’s people were waiting expectantly for the birth of the one Person worth everything. The only Man who would ever call out, “Follow Me,” and men would drop everything and run, only to find unspeakable joy. The God of the universe who would come and die a brutal death so that we could know Him and long for the day we’d be with Him face to face.

He’s not a tired Christmas song. He’s not a doll in a manger scene. He is the Savior our souls cry out for, whom we can know and want and chase after to the point that everything else truly fades away, not in an egg timer kind of way … in the kind of way that we forget the egg timer exists.
He’s a Savior who longs for us to push through the pat answers and know Him.
We talk about dreams (of travel, of marriage, etc.). We talk about plans (of being more disciplined, exercising more, reading the Bible more, moving away, etc.). But what of expectancy?
They longed for Him. He came.

And He’s coming back.

I want my candle trimmed and full of oil. (Matthew 25:1-13) I want my eyes trained on the sky, and not just for jet trails. Longing for the day He rips open the sky and sets everything right. The day we see His glory in its fullness.

I want more.

When we pray, ‘Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,’ you experienced a drop of what that will be like … and you’ll get it by the hydrant full when His Kingdom does come on this earth for good. So know that experiencing the goodness of God IS addictive and that part is okay.”
Only the Father knows when He’ll come again. Only He knows where He will want me in this life – travel or no travel, being used or not being used, family or no family. Only He knows how many times I’m going to get this wrong along the way (over and over), and how desperately I need Him.
But one thing I know … this Advent, this Christmas, I long for His coming.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” (Rev. 22:17)

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’” (Rev. 22:20)

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.


(If you’re interested in a free downloadable book of short daily readings that John Piper wrote for Advent, click here. It’s really good.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Advent for a Perfectionist

Growing up, I was not a very organized person. Forgetful is one way to put it, but that's a bit of an understatement. For example, leaving my keys in my car was a tame mishap for me. I came back to my car on more than one occasion-- after hours in school-- to find it still running, radio still playing. But it gets worse. One time, I made dinner with the girl I nannied and we planned to take it to her mom's house as a surprise. That required a bit of foresight and organization, and I was proud of myself. But after running inside my own house to grab something, I came back to find my car gone. Gone halfway to the street because I had left it in reverse, door still open. Luckily my sixteen year old legs carried me fast enough down the gravel driveway to dive in and save it, get the point.

Naturally, as I aged I realized I needed to work-- hard-- on getting organized. Not locking my keys in my car. Not forgetting to pack a meal or turn off the stove. Not forgetting to show up for work, not losing assignments. Being one of six children belonging to a widow, I had to take on responsibility for life earlier than I felt prepared for, and that motivated me. Eventually-- out of sheer necessity for survival-- I morphed into someone who could pass for Type A any day. Good grades, well-managed finances, a dent free car, a good track record at work, etc. Lately I've noticed how "ahead" on things I am and have scratched my head thinking, "When did I figure out how to be ahead on anything?" 

But, whether you're cheering for me or rolling your eyes at this point, let me finish the story. A few months ago at the counseling conference I went to, I heard a man speak on perfectionism and was cut to the heart. He talked about different "kinds" of perfectionists-- namely, successful and unsuccessful. Unsuccessful ones procrastinate and don't even try because their expectations for themselves are so high they they think they'll never measure up. So they protect themselves by giving up before they start. Successful ones are those who do measure up to their own expectations and get an adrenaline rush from being "on top of things"-- checking off their to-do lists every day and sighing at the rest of the population who just can't seem to get it together. (Yes, getting things done is a drug of choice. If you're a successful perfectionist, you know exactly what I'm talking about!)

I realized that I go back and forth between these two extremes. My younger self was so insecure and felt unequipped to "measure up," so she didn't even try. Time was a commodity to be, in a sense, ignored out of fear of failure. Now, I've figured out a few things (like how to keep track of my driver's license, for starters) and the rush I get from it keeps me feeling "in control." Time is a commodity to be managed out of the need for a sense of success. So, while these two manifestations are very different-- I've definitely gained important skills since high school-- the fear underneath them is strikingly similar. Either check out and blow off my expectations out of fear of failure, or become a slave to them out of fear of failure. 

Yesterday, I had one such day. With big plans to get a lot done, I threw out my back early on. Aggravation #1-- not feeling in control of my own body enough to clean out the dang closet. Then, the medicine my doctor gave me made me loopy enough to need to lie still for a while. Aggravation #2-- not being in control enough of my own mind to focus on studying. After the meds wore off, Michael and I began planning the grocery list for an event we're planning. Sounds simple enough-- to a "successful" perfectionist, that is!-- but by this point in the day, I was feeling quite unsuccessful, so I started panicking. Suddenly, whether to cater muffins or bake them seemed like the weightiest, most painful decision of my life. And how much ham would we need? How could I possibly know? Thus, the downward spiral accelerated to the point that cooking dinner got put off, to the point that then being "behind" on our dinner schedule sent me into deeper depression, which put off dinner even longer...see the pattern? 

It's really quite funny-- and sad-- to see in writing. But this is a real and reoccurring experience for me. How it all gets back to Advent might seem random to you, but to me, it's incredibly healing. Throughout this month-- this season of waiting-- I'm being called to remember God's in-breaking presence (He came!) and how that changed everything. And as someone who has put her trust in God, I'm being challenged to expect His ongoing arrival in my own life in a way that changes everything. In other words, I'm being challenged to change my expectations.  

My expectations, which have been an uncaring master. My expectations, which have sent me either hiding in procrastination or working overtime on an arbitrary to-do list. My expectations, which leave me depressed when I'm behind on dinner or get less than a 100% on a Hebrew quiz. My expectations, which often have nothing to do with God's. In Advent, I'm invited to simply let them go and instead, embrace whatever God has for me-- whether it's lying on the couch with a hurt back or making dinner on time; whether it's figuring out a grocery list in no time or learning to work with my husband on a confusing decision; whether it's getting a 100% on my final tomorrow or simply thanking Him for making it through the semester. 

God's in-breaking presence is disruptive to a perfectionist like me, but it is healing. His wrestling time from my grasp and teaching me to see it not as a commodity to be managed, but as something to be experienced-- even enjoyed!-- in dependence on Him and His control, is painful, but freeing. His exposing my expectations for the false master they are and replacing them with only the expectation for Him to show up is difficult to fit into a to-do list. But it is changing everything.  It's helping me realize that time is actually not about me and my potential failure, but about Him and His sure rescue. And that is a much better way to experience time.

What kinds of expectations do you put on yourself that may or may not come from God? What would His in-breaking presence look like in your life? How would it change things? 


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Learning How to See

When I began (attempting) to read the Bible in its original Greek and Hebrew, it was slow going. I couldn't gloss over the words quickly and half-heartedly. I had to work at it. But in doing so, I found a new world of meaning in the passages I'd once skimmed with the assumption, "Oh yea, I know this part already." "I know what this means." "I know what happens next." 

This past semester, I've begun reading through the gospel of John with a friend of mine whose native language is not English. We read a few sentences at a time out loud and then discuss the meaning of the words as well as the meaning of the story. It has been worth every moment spent in seminary to explore Jesus' life together with a friend who is hearing it afresh. 

Since attending a liturgical church, I've been introduced to a form of worship that is organized around the "Christian year," also known as the church calendar. Much like my experience with Greek and with my friend, it has been an incredibly meaningful invitation to approach the Christian Story-- of creation, fall, redemption, consummation-- as something more than mere information I learn and "move on" from. It has reminded me that as a Christ follower, I am to live inside that Story and let it determine the rhythm of my life, not the demands of higher education, an American 5-year plan, or any other "story" I could live by. 

This December I'm trying to approach Advent-- the season of the church year that recalls Israel's anticipation for the Messiah to come-- in a fresh way. I'm trying not to gloss over the readings or passages that foretell Christ's earthly ministry with the disinterested assumption, "I know this part already." I'm trying to approach this part of the Story as a learner-- and in doing so, I'm finding that I have a lot to learn. 

God's Word-- Jesus Christ-- is not a flat, two-dimensional piece of information that can be mastered. God's Word is a living, breathing, Person who invites me into relationship with Him. And that means I'll never be able to gloss over Him and say, "I know already." Rather, I'll always be invited to know Him more

Thursday, December 6, 2012

God Is Not Like Santa

A few years ago, I realized something for the first time. 

"You better watch out, better not pout, better not lie I'm tellin' you why-- Santa Clause is coming to town! He knows when you are sleeping, He knows when you're awake, He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake! He's making a list, checkin' it twice, gonna found out who's naughty or nice...."

That is probably some of the worst theology I've ever learned. "But Hannah," you say, "This is about Santa, not God! It's just a fun little story for kids." Well, yes. It is about Santa. But Santa was part of my worldview! Promulgated  by parents, teachers, peers, and the media-- basically everyone with an authoritative voice in my world-- I grew up believing that the giver of good gifts at Christmas time gave them based on my performance. 

I'm sure the adult consensus is that this "story" is just fun, and that it has no real or lasting impact on the way children see the world or perceive reality. Well, it has taken me becoming an adult to realize that's not true. It's taken me becoming an adult to realize that I may have "learned" more about God from Santa-- a capitalistic god who appeals to my selfishness by promising me "goodies" if I am "good" and who employs fear-mongering to keep me from being "bad"-- than I learned from God Himself. The problem is, I didn't know it even happened. One theology just collapsed into another. 

That is syncretism. We in America may not have household gods that are made of bronze and sit on the mantle, next to an altar, but we have household gods that make their home with us through the television, the mall, the radio, the political system and the cultural climate. And what I learned about the household god Santa and his character became part of what I believed about God and His character. In other words, I somewhere, somehow, believed God was like Santa:

"If I'm good, He'll give me goodies. If I'm bad, I'll get nothing."
"Since I want goodies, I better be good."

Here's what that might look like contextually: 

"I've obeyed God's commandments. Where's my husband?"
"I've sinned sexually. God will never bless me with a good man."
"I want people to think I'm really spiritually mature, so I'll be really nice to everyone and tell them I'm praying for them."
"I want God to like me and answer my prayer, so I'll go to church. I'll even donate to the offering." 

I want to stop here and clarify: I'm not saying "Santa" is bad. I'm just pointing out that the narrative I learned from "Santa" actually confused me about who God is, because it was presented to me as true. When my parents told me Santa's not real, they never told me that his morality wasn't real either. 

But since God is real, He's begun clarifying a few things to me about who He is and how reality works. He's shown me that I don't always get the carrot I think I deserve. He's taught me that sometimes obedience and doing the right thing come with no visible "reward" or goodies. He's shown me that when my motives for righteous behavior are to get something I want in exchange for it, it's not really righteous at all. But most importantly, and most difficult to accept, He's shown me that He gives good gifts not on the basis of my performance, but on the basis of His character. That is, in fact, the bottom line of our relationship. 

I was "bad," and deserved punishment. I deserved the removal of His blessing, His favor, His kindness, His good gifts. But He didn't give me what I deserved, what I "earned." Instead, He gave me more good than I could possibly imagine-- He gave me Himself. He invited me into relationship with Him as His beloved daughter and continues to pour out His grace in my life, despite what I "deserve." Does He discipline me? Yes. But He doesn't do it by withholding good from me. Does He teach me to live righteously? Yes. But He doesn't do it by bargaining with me.

God is not like Santa. And that is very good news.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Confessions of a Disillusioned Paper Writer

This week, I'm writing final papers for classes. Given the fact that I have a blog, one could say I like to write. But every year when writing includes footnotes, not addressing the reader, using big words, and sounding intelligent all while being organized, I can slip into a scary place somewhere between depression and craziness. I like to write, but I don't like to not feel proud of my writing. And sometimes, I set myself up for not feeling proud by telling myself, "I'm going to figure out what 2,000 years of church history hasn't yet!" Or, "I'm going to make the most amazing point ever, my teacher will want to publish my paper!" Sometimes, I set myself up for not feeling proud just by telling myself, "I'll be able to figure out how to work the margins on Microsoft Word," Or, "I should be able to enter all my sources in no time!" (Ha!) 

This week, I've been praying that my papers can be an act of worship. That I can practice approaching God's Word humbly and learn from it as I write about it. That I can encounter Him more deeply and fully through the exercise of study, and that I will grow to look more like Him in the process. But today I realized I need to pray for something more: that I can experience all those things even if I don't end up being "impressed" with my own work. 

It's one thing to feel "worshipful" when I'm pleased with myself. It's another thing to feel worshipful when I'm still scratching my head about a passage even after just writing 20 pages on it. But I'm thankful for the gracious gift of realizing my own limitation, because it ensures that I really worship Him in the process, not the sound of my own voice. It reminds me that He is the object of awe and wonder, and that I'll never be able to really wrap my head around Him. It reminds me that I'm invited to enjoy Him even if He doesn't explain it all to me, and even if obedience means doing something I don't get an "A" in. 

It reminds me that I can "spend my life to know, and still be far from close" to all He is. He is great, and experiencing that greatness necessarily involves experiencing my weakness and lack of control over Him and His truth. 

If one song could sum up my seminary experience so far, this would be it. It's especially good for me to listen to during paper week! Maybe your life experiences are different from mine, but have brought you to a similar place. See if this song is helpful for you too!