Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Layers: Onions, Ogres, and Me

In the long tradition of God using cartoons to teach me theology, I've recently been thinking about Shrek. When explaining to Donkey why being friends with an Ogre is, er, complicated, he refers to his "layers."

Shrek: For your information, there's a lot more to ogres than people think.
Donkey: Example?
Shrek: Example... uh... ogres are like onions!
[holds up an onion, which Donkey sniffs]
Donkey: They stink?
Shrek: Yes... No!
Donkey: Oh, they make you cry?
Shrek: No!
Donkey: Oh, you leave 'em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin' little white hairs...
Shrek: [peels an onion] NO! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.
[walks off]  

Since worshiping at a liturgical church, I've been realizing my own, er, layers in a new way. Here's what I mean. I am a Christian, which means I've heard the good news that God is God and I am not-- and I've believed the good news that I can not only serve Him, but have a personal relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. I'm a Christian, which means that my whole story-- past, present, and future-- has been put in a much bigger frame, because I've found it to be a small part of a much bigger Story-- one that involves all of history, and in which God is the central character, not me. 

In the past few months, I've come to realize that the Christian life is about living in and being shaped by that one reality. But I've also come to realize my tendency to want to treat the Christian life like grade school, where I memorize information and then get to "move on" to new information. Sometimes I want the Christian life to stay in my head, where the incredible reality of God's, well, --Godness!-- is safe from the deeper layers that I, like Shrek, don't want others invading. 

In a liturgical church setting, however, I "re-live" the Story of God every Sunday. Through the confession of sin, the reading of the Word from Old and New Testaments, and the celebration of Communion, I'm reminded weekly of the Big Story that frames my whole life: God created, sin distorted, God redeems, sin is destroyed. In short, Jesus is the Hero and He invites me to follow Him. Exclaiming, experiencing, and enacting this fundamental reality week after week, year after year, sends it deeper and deeper into the layers of my life, until all of me truly hears it, truly believes it, and truly lives it. 

In worshiping this way, I'm learning that what I need is not more words; it's the same Word more deeply. I'm learning that God "grows" me as a Christian not by graduating me on to new information, but by letting what He's already revealed penetrate every area of my life, layer by layer.

What about you? Are you used to thinking that being a Christian means checking a box at church or believing certain bullet points of information? What attracts you about the idea of living in God's Story and letting it change you layer by layer? What scares you about it? 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Really Bad Stuff

Usually, when the word sin is mentioned, really "bad" things come to mind. Baby killing, genocide, spousal abuse, stuff like that. Usually, when the word sin is mentioned, a list of "what not to do" comes to mind. 

In a fairly conservative setting, most of those things aren't prevalent issues. Generally, people who have either grown up in the church or who currently belong to it aren't really struggling with why God would call them to give up their practice of serial murder or infanticide, for example. The sad result is that many "church people" thus conclude that God has already saved them from "the really bad stuff." When they worship God on Sunday morning and praise Him for saving them from sin, they think, "Thank you that I don't struggle with those bad things."  

It's true, that to be a Christian-- a follower of Jesus Christ-- is to have been saved from sin. But it's also true that to be a Christian-- a follower of Jesus Christ-- is to experience God's ongoing salvation, and to realize that sin no longer fits into a little black box of things we consider "really bad stuff" that can be tucked neatly away in a closet full of past memories. 

I used to think my obsession with productivity was just my personality. I used to tell myself, "I just do better with structure," or, "I'm just really high strung, I'm just type A, I'm just..." When I praised God for saving me from sin, I would think of the "really bad stuff" I used to do and thank Him for helping me grow out of those patterns. 

In the last few months, I've come to realize that my refusal to trust God with my life is not something to laugh off with a comment about being Type A. It is, in fact, really bad stuff. I've come to realize that when I'm so bent out of shape over which night of the week we should go out to dinner and which night we should stay home to study that I have a hissy-fit in the waiting room of the dentist's office (not like that's ever happened, today...), it's not just a preference for structure. It's idolatry. 

Right now when I praise God for saving me from sin, I think of my anxiety on the way to church. I think of how rude I was to my husband last night when he offered to help me with a project. I think of my fear of the future and my obsession with others' opinions about me. Right now when I praise God for saving me from sin, I think of His ongoing work of uncovering fear, distrust, and idolatry in my life, and for His incredible patience in teaching me, as a Kind and Loving Father, how to live free. 

I'm still thanking Him for saving me from really bad stuff. I'm just learning that His rescue from it goes even deeper than I knew I needed. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sick Week, Star Wars, and True Humanism

Michael and I were pretty sick a few weeks ago, which basically just means that we watched all 6 of the Star Wars movies in about 72 hours. Yes, we love stories, yes, to the point of nerdyness and yes, we've embraced it. Honestly, it was the first time I watched any of the Star Wars films as an adult. Han Solo was a bit less cute this time around, and Leia's hairstyles were a bit more fascinating. A lot of Yoda's advice made more sense, and Vader's mask was waaaay less scary. 

But. The relationship between Luke and his father really interested me. Having steeped in a number of epic tales in the last year, I thought about how this villain compares with others I've come to know. Vader is definitely a bad dude. He's given in to "the dark side" and embraced evil to the extent of eagerness to destroy his own children. He doesn't look like the boy next door, either. In fact, he doesn't look-- or sound-- human at all. At one point in the film, someone comments, "He is more machine than anything now." 

Without being a Star Wars scholar (I know you weirdos are out there!), I picked up on the fact that Vader was once a Jedi, a "good guy." And yet, as he gave in to evil, he lost not only his status and reputation, but his very humanity. One look at his creepy mentor, the Emporer, and it's obvious that the same is true of him. Evil has distorted and disfigured them both, to the point of their becoming unrecognizable. 

Vader's mask is silly, but his story is not. It's the story of humanity. God created us in His image, to love Him and act like Him. Sin-- our embrace of evil-- distorted and disfigured us to the point that we became no longer recognizable. I used to think to be human is to be "bad," to be "imperfect"-- screwed up, selfish, sinful. (We all know the apology that goes something like this: "Sorry, I'm only human.") But as I've learned more about God and His good plan for creation, I've realized that to be human is to be good, to be "like God"-- kind, in harmony with Him and others, stewarding the world with justice and love. Sin is the foreign agent that has literally warped our insides, just as it warped Vader's. 

The sweet thing about Vader's story is that someone was willing to fight for the sake of His rescue. Luke believed that no matter how far gone Vader was, there was still something in him worth rescuing-- there was still the human inside the machine. Luke's love and humility in the face of all that hate did end up breaking the spell, and Vader was restored in the end. 

Watching Vader's story reminded me of my own. Sin distorted and disfigured me. It dehumanized me. But God was willing to fight for my rescue. In the gospel, God sees past the distortion of sin that has so warped us and goes to battle to bring us back. Because of his rescue in my own life, because He's exposed sin as the foreign agent that actually wreaks havoc on my humanity, I'm learning to listen to Him and accept His leadership. In doing so, I'm being restored. Slowly, layer by layer, He's healing me of the distortion that has warped my very insides. Slowly, Jesus is showing me what it truly means to be human. 

No matter where you are, no matter how "far gone" you feel, you are made in God's image. You are His creation, and He can restore you. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

How God Healed Me

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I've had chronic back pain since high school. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I've been working through perfectionism and fear-related patterns since high school. 

By the middle of last month, both of these problems had reached a peak. I was stressed, strung out, anxious, angry that I couldn't get everything done, and judging myself harshly for it all. I was also becoming more and more debilitated as my back pain kept escalating seemingly randomly. 

By Saturday, Dec. 15, I remember lying on the couch thinking, "My body feels so broken that I can't do the dishes without crying. I'm 24 years old and have no children. How will I make it?" What's more, I was waxing poetic about how innocent I was in the midst of it all. "I'm just trying to be faithful with the tasks before me, but I can't even get them done because of this pain. I've been unjustly afflicted and even though I'm doing everything I can to get rid of this problem (there's that perfectionism again!), it just keeps getting worse. Woe is me!"

The next morning I went to church discouraged and desperate to meet with Jesus. After communion, I went forward to ask for prayer that God would heal my back. A man and his wife began to pray for me by asking God what He would like to do or say. After a few minutes of listening, the man said, "Hannah, this will be hard, but I think you need to let go of control." 

The minute he said those words, I understood. I came asking God to heal what I understood the problem to be-- the back pain-- and He answered by revealing what the problem actually was-- my unhealthy pattern of trying to control my life through perfectionism. I thought I was an innocent victim of this back pain, and the Lord clarified that I was actually contributing to it through my lifestyle. In revealing my sin and the extent of its effects on me, God showed me how much He loves me. He loves me enough to heal not just the symptoms, but the disease itself. 

This powerful experience reminded me that God really knows my story-- that He sees and cares for my suffering, and He understands it better than I do-- and that God, in Christ, offers healing that is deeper than I even know to ask for. His response to my request for relief was to convict me of sin. In doing so, His kindness led me to repentance and restoration. It led me to healing. 

Since that day, I've invited God to keep showing me when and how I seek to seize control from Him over my life. I've invited His continual conviction because I know He exposes sin for my own good. Since that day, I've had to repent again and again and again of my destructive pattern, and practice releasing control to Him. 

Since that day, I have not had back pain.   

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Les Mis, Rescue, and the Real World, Pt. 2

In my last post, I wrote about how the Rescue of Grace is what both Valjean and Javert ultimately needed, and about how Valjean's acceptance of it-- and the resulting transformation that came from it-- is what changed the trajectory of his life. I wrote about how the Rescue of Another enabled him to become an agent of rescue himself in the lives of others.

Valjean's transformation is amazing, but it happens at the very beginning of the story. What follows is his long obedience in a world that is just as systemically broken as it was before he changed. What hit me afresh in this re-telling was the overwhelming opposition he faces in his efforts to do good, and the seeming hopelessness of his actions. His goodness-- in the vastness of the corrupt society he lived in-- was like spit in the ocean. 

For two and a half hours, I watched one character after another stand up against injustice and get destroyed. It seemed that despite their best efforts to do good in the midst of so much wrong, their most valiant courage to fight against the injustice of their day, evil "prevailed." This is seen most obviously in the barricade. It was a brave stand against a corrupt government, and it was destroyed in less than a day. 

As I watched, I was tempted again and again to lose hope. Why fight it? Why try to stop something that seems so unstoppable? Sometimes the Thenardiers approach-- stay alive and get what you can out of people-- seemed a more attractive approach to me. It's certainly safer, and less painful. In fact, when I think about it, the way they turned out makes perfect sense. In a world that dark, it seems that the only choice was get hard or get run over. So what motivated these characters to choose the latter? To choose good, even if it means suffering or death? Like Marius, the only survivor at the barricade, we may often think, "My friends, don't ask me/What your sacrifice was for."

I realized that this is at the heart of the Christian experience. It's not philosophical to acknowledge the brokenness of our world, it's simply honest. Things are not as they should be. In fact, things are so bad that innocent children are murdered in their elementary schools and young women are taken from their homes and sold into the sex-trade. We may not have a corrupt King on the throne, but our world is not so different from Valjean's after all. 

So what motivated him to persevere with good in the face of such overwhelming evil? What motivates any of us to oppose the forces that seem to stop for no one? To stand in harm's way for the sake of good, knowing it often means we will get gunned down in the process? 

The answer is whispered in the story itself. It ends not with a sense of despair and pity for those who "failed" in the fight against evil, but with the promise of victory to come and hope for those who died in the process of its arrival. I realized, this is what the work of Jesus Christ in the world does for those who receive His rescue-- it gives the promise of ultimate victory over evil and therefore the energy and purpose to stand against it, even now, whether or not we see its arrival in this life. It's why Fantine could die with a smile on her face even without ever seeing her daughter again, and why Valjean could forgive Javert with no bargains, even though it meant the continuance of his probable pursuit. Good does win out in the end, and because that hope is sure, we can stand for it now, no matter what. 

In the second book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a fearful king asks, "What can men do in the face of such reckless hate?" The answer he gets is, "Ride out with me." Face the evil. But why? For the hell of it? To go out with a bang? No. We ride out because Jesus Christ has already faced the evil and risen victorious over it. And He is returning to bring that victory to completion.