We can be Christians and ____ : a defense of ACU’s Optimist

This afternoon, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to the website of ACU’s student newspaper. The article featured was an editorial response to comments the newspaper had received after endorsing President Obama for a second term. If you would like some additional context for this piece, I encourage you to read that article, the endorsement, and the comments.

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Before I’d finished the response, I had to close the window. I spun out of my chair and walked back along the hallway toward the copy room, to make some coffee, clean the table…something.

The fist behind my ribcage quickened, and I could feel the blood pounding red, agitating my limbs, wanting action. But why? What’s another internet fight between Christians? It’s the daily routine: offense, anger, pride and biting speech filling up the comment boxes.

But these are my Christians. This is my school. Just a few months ago, I would have waited with my friends after chapel as the lines thinned, slid my card, stepped, haltingly, down the stairs under section K and grabbed my own copy of the Optimist.

So I went back to the computer, read the editorial, read the comments, readied my own response, rallying myself in support of the college students being virtually berated by 40 year old alumni.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…

And then this comment:

Tell me “How can one be a Christian and a Democrat [?]”

that saved a wretch like me…

It’s a phrase thrown out so easily, repeated too often: how can you be a Christian and…

And call yourself a republican?
And align yourself with the democrats?
And spend billions on the weapons?
And support the rights of gays to marry?
And encourage women in roles that contradict scripture?
And cling to a broken hierarchy?

I once was lost, but now I’m found…

Can’t you just hear the condemnation, the indignation dripping off those words? You can’t live out two contradictory identities simultaneously. So surrender your faith or admit defeat. Because you cannot possibly be a true disciple of Christ and ….

Because I am a Christian. I know what God wants. So how can we both claim the same God?

was blind, but now I see…

Because when we teach an inerrant, get-it-right-or-you’re-going-to-hell theology, we end up with Christians devoid of humility, unable to admit uncertainty lest they condemn themselves.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear…

And when we preach a God born in 1776, tied irrevocably to the Manifest Destiny stretched between Washington and Washington, we end up with Christians who worship political parties, terrified that the wrong vote will oust God himself, banish him forever from these shores, like a deposed king.

and grace my fears relieved…

It is not enough to rail against the vitriol and the hatred. It is not enough to plead niceness. We need a better theology, a theology that can handle our disagreement.

How precious did that grace appear…

So we can be Christians and…

Because I believe in a God who is not threatened or empowered by political parties or policy makers. I believe in a God who does not need the President of the United States of America to be on his side. I believe in a God who existed long before Jefferson made his declaration and will continue to exist long after North America has devolved into the Hunger Games.

the hour I first believed.

Because I believe in a love that will not be weakened by my inadequacies. I believe in a deep, incomprehensible love for this mess of a planet that will not be thwarted by my endorsement or my vote or my ideology.

And because I believe that if I give everything I have to walk beside my God, to love with mercy, and to seek justice, that God’s grace is sufficient for the rest. Even if I get it wrong every single time.

I am not threatened by our disagreements. I am not frightened by Fox News or The Optimist’s endorsement. I am not afraid of admitting that I might be wrong. Because I believe in a grace that will cover the insufficiencies of our reasoning and a God that will not be stopped by them.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.

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Well, this is embarrassing…

I realized this weekend that 47-92% of the things I do are completely absurd and kind of humiliating if I think about them too much. Here’s a few examples for your enjoyment. But first: Happy Halloween!!

Isn’t he an adorable little monster? Please don’t mention the weird smugy thing above his eye. He’s very sensitive about it.

1. I spent Saturday helping the chemistry grad students host a chemistry fair for students in the area (along with many of their parents and teachers). I had such a great time! And no, that’s not the embarrassing part because science and middle schoolers are both cool.

* Side note: A surprising number of teenage boys in College Station will let you paint their nails if you tell them that the nail polish changes color in the sun.

The embarrassing part is that the first thing I noticed when I walked in the lab was a sign that said “keytones”. And an angry red line is confirming what I already know: that word is misspelled. It bothered me. It’s still bothering me. I really want to print a new sign for them. But apparently people think that’s rude, so I will abstain.

But in 2001, I was the third best speller in Abbett Elementary’s fifth grade class, so I’m totally qualified to address these sorts of situations.

2. Frequently Periodically, I will finish exploring all avenues of social media on my computer and close it, only to pull out my phone and open the facebook app. To find that, surprisingly, nothing has changed in the last 1.35 seconds. So I open tumblr, then twitter, then instagram, then pinterest, then….. I have a problem.

3. As a direct result of this problem, I’m sure, my To-Do list is about 7 1/2 pages long. It includes such magnificent gems as “make a comprehensive wedding to-do list for all the things you haven’t thought of yet” and the incredibly detailed “figure out 401(k)”.

Okay, maybe I have two problems.

4. Despite the incredible amount of time I spend on facebook, I am unreasonably bad at replying to facebook messages. (“Deal with facebook” also appears frequently on my to-do lists.) With email, I will “mark unread” and then that awful, glaring red number will stare me in the face every time I open my phone until, eventually, I cave and compose a response. But with facebook….

5. Last week, I slept on a bare mattress for two nights like a freaking 18 year old boy, because I was too lazy busy to make the bed. The first night they were three floors down in the dryer. But the second, they were in my room. And I just thought…nope. I am too tired. That is too much.

To be fair, I have the world’s softest mattress cover, but still….

6. When I cook it sometimes looks about like this.

The carnage.

And this picture doesn’t capture the blanket of sprinkles or the dirty bowls or the spoons covered in melted almond bark…

7. Occasionally I get frustrated with people for things that are a little bit their fault and mostly the fault of the stupid freaking jskdhbvajkbv cake balls that will not freeze the way they’re supposed to and keep falling off sticks and….breathe. not important. it’s over.

So then I make sad-faced I’m sorry cake pops.

He’s very, very sorry.

In my only experience this will work 100% of the time for minor infractions.

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So that’s pretty much how my week has been? How’s yours?

The Casual Vacancy: A Review

When I announced that I was reading The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, several people asked me to share my thought when I finished, so here you go!

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There is a line in the third Harry Potter book where Sirius says to Harry, “The world isn’t divided into good people and death eaters.” A sentiment that cuts straight to the heart of our desire to herald one side as incorruptible saviors and turn the other into irredeemable tyrants. As we age into adulthood, we are forced to wrestle with the world as it truly is, vastly complicated and messy.

But I would argue that the Casual Vacancy makes that point much more strongly than the Harry Potter series ever did. The characters in her previous series tended to fall somewhat neatly into the good and evil categories (with some notable exceptions). But I found the kindness, greed, pomposity, love and selfishness displayed in the people of Pagford to be much more nuanced.

There are no unambiguously good people in that little English hamlet, and while they might at times wish for a Hero to vanquish evil, they, like those of us in the real world, must rely on broken people working within broken systems. And as in real life, many of her characters are simultaneously self-destructive and pitiable.

While many loved the fantastical world she painted at Hogwarts, I would argue that her greatest strength has always been her keen insights into the complicated incitants and motivations of human behavior. A strength she uses deftly to point out the desperate need for empathy and humility. In a world that enjoys painting broad strokes, laying blame, and ignoring inherent inequality, (particularly when it comes to discussions of poverty and drug addiction), Rowlings’ book is a gift that neither condemns nor acquits its characters.

There is a line early on when a mother says to her son, “You must accept the reality of other people.” Though they may be greedy, selfish, short-sighted, or weak, they have their own experiences and beliefs which have shaped them. You can not escape their humanness; they are not simply caricatures of your prejudices.

Rowling uses her characters’ numerous faults to bring searing social criticism through some thoroughly unlikable people, which has disappointed some critics. There is a belief among many readers that for a novel to be “good”, the story should be fun and the characters should be “relate-able” (read: likable). While Harry Potter certainly fit those constraints, The Casual Vacancy does not*. And I think that change gives it a raw and honest voice that is needed to address issues of marriage, sex, adolescence, fidelity, domestic violence, and addiction.

The novel is fiercely dark at times, and I found myself emotionally un-done by the tragic turn the novel ultimately takes, partly because the pain and injustice it portrays are all too real. This is not a story that offers neat conclusions. In contrast to Harry Potter’s epic that gave its heroes the happy ending they deserved, The Casual Vacancy refuses to tie up its narrative with a shiny bow. Instead it leaves the readers with painful questions that we must learn to answer ourselves.

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*As John Green said about Holden in The Catcher in the Rye: “He isn’t the person you want to be or the person you want to be with. But he is the person you secretly know yourself to be.” I think that applies here, too.

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A few notes:

1. There is one character painted as an undiminished saint: the man who dies in the first two pages. Another interesting social criticism.

2. David once accused HP of being absurdly unrealistic, because it is narrated entirely from the POV of a teenage boy, and doesn’t mention sex once in seven years. This book does not have that problem. This is not 50 Shades of Grey – none of the sex is meant to be titillating, as Rowling said in an interview “people have sex in this book, but nobody really enjoys it”. But if you don’t wish to read frank talk about human thought and action regarding sex, don’t read this book.

3. One of the most dislikable families in the book reminds me pointedly of the Dursleys. It’s like they moved from London to Pagford, and refer to Harry as their estranged daughter to avoid talking about him.

4. As some criticisms have said, there are A LOT of characters, and everyone’s related somehow to everyone else. I found them difficult to distinguish at first, but that didn’t last long. If you can manage it (I couldn’t), read the first section of the book in one sitting; I think it would help solidify the individual relationships and characters.

5. The last quarter of the book is the very best part. I enjoyed reading the whole thing, but I couldn’t put it down when I got near the end.

But I do know him

We are officially less than two months away from our wedding. Oh boy.

I’ve joked to David that this marriage better work out, because I don’t ever want to plan another wedding.

I’m only half joking.

If, God forbid, David dies in a tragic accident and I re-marry after the appropriate 30 year grieving period, I’m eloping. In jeans.

But kidding aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage, and about God. And about “the bride of Christ” – that mysterious metaphor, God as the bridegroom, marrying his people, binding himself to them, again and again.

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I remember “asking Jesus into my heart” at four years old. It’s my first memory of prayer. My mom sat down beside me on my Minnie Mouse comforter, and there, surrounded by pink and white polka dots, I plunged into faith with a four-year-old’s naivete, a four-year-old’s trust, a four-year-old’s image of a white-robed Santa Clause rising out of the clouds.

I had no concept of suffering, of redemption, of sacrifice. I had never heard of the crusades or the Reformation or the Moral Majority. I didn’t know that before the year was over, my dad’s partner (a fellow member of our church) would cheat him out of his practice and send us scrambling back to Texas. I couldn’t imagine how that move would tear into the foundation of our little family.

But I knew that after church on Sunday, Megan would come find me, give me a piece of bubble-iscious gum, pick me up and spin me in laughing circles around the atrium. I knew that when my daddy got down on his knees, looked me in the eye, and asked me to forgive him, it had something to do with Jesus, with flannel graphs and Easter and grace. I knew that I was loved.

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Seven years later I decided that I wanted to be baptized. I don’t know why that choice took root when it did. There was no impassioned speaker making the altar call at a youth rally, no hyper emotional, “can he still feel the nails” worship experience at church camp. Maybe I was just tired of not getting to enjoy the crackers and juice.

One day, it was some thing that would happen someday, and the next day, I didn’t see any reason to put it off. I believed in God, without question or qualification. I believed in church, in the bible, in the Nazarene who walked around the Middle East 2,002 years ago.

I was twelve. I had very few friends. I played the violin (badly) and I loved school. I was pro-reading, pro-life, pro-french, pro-George Bush. I was anti-gay, anti-terrorism, anti-swearing, anti-drinking, anti-Texas History class. My position on evolution was evolving.

I thought I knew who God was and what he wanted.

This may not quite be twelve. There aren’t many pictures from middle school because I tore them all into tiny pieces and threw them away.  I even went looking for pictures on my myspace page, which, let me tell you, is embarrassing. But apparently I didn’t start the social networking until high school. How far I’ve come.

I couldn’t foresee how a Wednesday night series studying other religions would eviscerate my certainty, force me to wrestle, hard, with the idea of an omnipotent God who would deliver babies into the middle east, into Muslim families, into belief systems as strong and confused and loving as my own, then condemn them to an eternity of suffering.

I wouldn’t have guessed that my first foray into doubt would bring me face to face with a God more wildly loving and forgiving than I had ever imagined, years before Love Wins would spark controversy into the heart of every LifeWay Christian Store.

I didn’t anticipate an almost forgettable conversation with my cousin, four years younger, that challenged all the lines I’d memorized about gay marriage and “the homosexual agenda”. I didn’t realize that would be my first significant break from my parents’ theology*.

At the time that my dad immersed me in that unexpectedly warm water, I would have sworn to the moon and back that I would never attend Abilene Christian University. I had no idea how much my soul needed that place.

My parents bought me a new dress from Limited, Too. It was black, and it sparkled. My grandparents came to celebrate, and I was granted the all important Sunday lunch decision. I chose Joe’s Crab Shack.

I barely knew God. But oh, I knew him. Something deep in my bones, stitched into the fabric of my skin – he wasn’t going anywhere and neither was I. I grew. I changed. My entire belief system got turned inside out and left me naked, without answers.

But always, somehow, I found myself growing into him, even on the days when I wasn’t sure there was such a thing as God. 

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David and I are twenty-two. I have many friends already married, but still, we are young. At least five years below the average. Some people say it’s too young: you can’t know the other, you barely know yourself, you don’t know what you’ll want in five years, you will change so much.

They’re right. Of course, they’re right. And maybe I should be more afraid of marriage, of this choosing at a fork in the road, a decision that cannot be undone, a life stretching out into the wilds of an unknowable future.

Maybe I should be more cynical, less naive, less certain of the hands I hold. There is so much future waiting ahead of us – most of our assumptions are probably wrong and four years is nothing like fifty – we barely know each other.

I’m sure we will look back, years from now, and wonder at ourselves, at how we could leap so blindly into a covenant we only barely understood.

I have no idea what awaits us. I don’t know where we’ll live. I don’t know that we’ll always be able to find work. I don’t know how parenthood will change us or how long our parents will be around to offer their love and advice. I don’t know what it will look like when death takes someone loved, when we are finally forced to encounter that reality.

But I know that even though David hates spicy food, he still ate the pasta when I accidentally went a little crazy with the Cayenne. I know that I stayed up till one helping him study after he talked with me for two hours about gender and the bible and the church. I know that we keep choosing each other, over and over.

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So my parents bought me another new dress, white this time.

And on another December day, I’ll make another life-long commitment. And maybe it doesn’t matter that I can’t know what’s waiting beyond the next ridge, that I can’t foresee how it will change us. I know the one I’m choosing.

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*I don’t meant to speak for my parents; they’re beliefs are more nuanced than I understood them to be when I was twelve. But that was how it felt at the time.

Bomb threats and the illusion of safety

We had a bomb “scare” Friday afternoon here on campus. I got the email while on my lunch break, and I might have literally rolled my eyes.

Because bomb threats are ubiquitous, and empty in my experience.

What a world we live in. In which not even the immediate threat of violence can shatter the illusion of safety.

I drove back to the office passing lines of walking, laughing, joking people (the alert ordered evacuation on foot).

A group of smiling students, in army fatigues, walked by on the sidewalk.

I thought about the people evacuating bombed out cities on the other side of the world. Also on foot, but carrying children instead of iPhones, and food instead of textbooks.

But the streaming mass of people crowded outside of chipotle, strolled under a brisk, autumn sun, enjoyed an unexpected opening in our collective schedules.

Because there’s never a bomb. At least not here. Not in our world of twitter alerts, not under the watchful eye of uniformed, yellow-vested officers.

We are safe.

David and I, relieved of the responsibility to be productive, watched some friends.

At the turn of another New Year, 1999, all the Friends made resolutions. Phoebe resolved to fly a commercial jet. Chandler made a joke about a plane full of people whose resolution was to plummet to their deaths.

They laughed. Phoebe left to hang out at the airport, “in case someone left an airplane unattended”.

It’s weird. The jokes that are funny, until they aren’t anymore.

Wedding Shower Weekend: Part 2

Last Sunday, David’s church threw a really lovely shower for us. Hosted by these wonderfully kind women:

Hostesses

It was such a delightful afternoon. But I kept experiencing this twinge of not-quite-right-emotion that I just couldn’t place. Kinda of like guilt, but not so guilty.

I’ve always had a sort of weird relationship with gift giving in general, but there’s this thing about wedding gifts that feels so, “hey! buy me stuff!”

But I was sitting there, opening presents, and thoroughly enjoying myself, I must say. And I just couldn’t ignore this feeling squirming quietly in the back of my mind, trying to get my attention, to reconcile a disconnect that I couldn’t quite articulate.

Then I was holding a gift from my sweet mother, a gift we had been equally excited about when we found it at Pottery Barn, a gift she knew I would love. And I didn’t feel that squirmy feeling. That was the crux of it.

Gifts are rarely exchanged between strangers.

They are given to co-workers in gratitude or presented thoughtfully to friends who are enduring too much.

They’re pulled from deep within a suitcase full of dirty clothes and passed out at the end of a trip, joyful in reunion.

They’re unwrapped around a Christmas tree, pajama clad legs folding indian style, excitement transforming sleepy, long-loved eyes.

They are the result of relationships, a natural celebration of the work, the grace, the give and take necessary to draw close and share life. They are reciprocal, by their very nature.

And so it is an unusual experience to open a pile full of gifts brought lovingly by people you have never met. A realization drawn more starkly by David’s absence.

Because the pretty white packages – the tea kettle, the shiny silver knives, the striped duvet and turquoise bowls – they will find their way into my home, my kitchen cabinets, but they were never really meant for me. They were bought for David and mostly for his parents, for the years they’ve spent loving their church.

As I opened those gifts, I received the blessing poured out of someone else’s relationships. Gifts that I didn’t earn, can’t pay back.

I can offer only my thanks, which feels gracefully small.

I never knew how humbling it is to be loved; it’s so much beyond what I deserve.

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And now for pictures!

Family

Both mine and David’s moms were able to be there, along with both David’s grandmothers and his dad’s sister, Kathi. Though I’m sure they would have loved to see David, I really enjoyed getting to spend the weekend with all of them.

Mother and me

Me and my mom! (sorry it’s a bit blurry)

My future mother-in-law

I’m trying not to gush too much, but I just love family.

David’s sweet grandmothers

Me and Susan’s mother.

As you can tell by these pictures, I had no fun.

None at all.

I definitely don’t like cookware.

Or presents.

It’s a rough life, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Me and the “bridal bunny”. He has a veil and everything.

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*As a side note to all my CoC friends, my shower was held at the home of the lovely Raye Lynn McCloud. That’s right, as in the mother of TJ McCloud, as in “Out of My League” TJ McCloud. In honor of my middle school, church retreat attending self, I was appropriately excited about this fact.

Part One: Why am I such an American?

At 5:00 last Friday, I pulled up outside David’s apartment and nearly ran up to the front door, leaving all my stuff in the car, itching to get going, get on the road. We’d be driving late into the night, just me and my favorite person.

I opened the door to find him asleep on the couch, “Rise and shine, babe. Time to get on the road.”

He opened he eye wearily and muttered, “How mad will you be if I can’t go?”

“Ha.ha. Very funny. Seriously, get up. You can sleep in the car. Where are your bags?”

At which point he was like, no really, I have [insert long list of actually very important PhD things that need to be done] and I can’t get that done if I go away for the weekend.

“You could do it in the car” (lie)

“You can always work on it tomorrow. There will be so much time” (bigger lie)

To say that I was disappointed would blow straight past understatement into big, fat I’m-sugar-coating-because-I-don’t-want-to-look-bad lie territory.

I literally couldn’t stop crying. I just sat on the floor in his room and ugly cried. It was a little bit missing him and a little bit exhaustion. But mostly I just kept thinking about 7 hours. in the car. alone. again.

And then I remembered those heart searing stories from Haiti, posted just a few hours earlier, and I felt like such a selfish American. I want so badly for the knowledge of their suffering  – of rape camps and of parents begging strangers to take their children – I want it to matter.

I want awareness to sing louder than the constant, clanging, cacophony of my expectations, to reach deep inside the tangled, mess of my desires and clear some space, leave an empty place on the floor where I might notice, might remember how blessed I am.

Because I realized I was crying over the fact that I had to get in my car and listen to music, to see people that I love who love me, so that I could receive gifts and food in celebration of the fact that I get to marry this really awesome person who is currently sitting beside me and rubbing my back and letting me cry about it.

And that realization just about undid me.

I finally stopped crying. And my parents met me in Dallas, so I wouldn’t have to drive the whole way by myself. And the whole weekend was lovely and fun and kind*. And I just couldn’t escape the knowledge of how beautifully blessed I am.

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In the Old Testament, God makes three promises to Abraham, promises that echo through generations that follow: he promises descendants and he promises a home. And he promises that because of those blessings, all the nations of the world will be blessed in turn.

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Maybe that is the key: to have hands open, willing to receive, with humility and with thanks. To recognize, to remember all that you are given beyond what you deserve. And to have fists unclenched, generous, ready to surrender, to hand over your blessings so that they might bless exponentially.

If we can learn to do that here, everyday, maybe that generosity could reach even into the heart of suffering.

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Tomorrow there will be part 2 of my weekend: What I learned about Jesus at a wedding shower. And there will be pictures!

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*An aside: At dinner Saturday night, David’s dad made a joke exactly the way David would have, down to the facial expression. And I missed him in a laughing sad-happy sort of way.