When I was in high school, I briefly joined the forensics team, thinking I might enjoy public speaking. I wanted to try my hat at impromptu speaking, but when the day of the competition came around, I found a more comfortable place tucked nicely away reading short story. I also re-joined the dance team (poms) year after year where literally every half beat of music was choreographed. No impromptu speaking or soccer tryouts for me.
In college I took exactly one philosophy course...and had a tough time expanding my arguments and thinking up alternative ones in response to the assignment prompts.
And when you, my friend, ask me difficult questions about my faith and Christianity, I tend to stutter through a response. I can tell that my answers fall short from satisfying your inquiries, such as, how can Christians claim to follow Jesus and yet act so despicably? How can a loving God allow suffering? Later, I mull over what I wish I had said in the moment.
She figures you have questions, and she’s more than willing to answer them. Given that Christianity is (for now) still the world’s largest religion, she argues that,
“No matter what we currently believe, we must all confront Christianity: the most widespread belief system in the world, with the most far-reaching intellectual footprint, and a wealth of counterintuitive wisdom concerning how humans should thrive.” (31)
Here, as is her style throughout the book, she backs up her assertions with a quote from a well-known professor:
“Any educated person should, at some point, have critically examined the claims for Christianity and should be able to explain why he or she does, or does not, believe them,” said Tyler VanderWheele, Harvard professor and “world expert on the mental and physical benefits of religion participation.” (31)
What stood out to me?
Take chapter two: "Doesn’t Christianity Crush Diversity?"
For several years now, I have helped lead a Christian after school club at my children’s school. (You can review our lesson plans here on my blog.) On one occasion as I taught the week’s lesson, I looked out at my audience and realized that not only was I the only native-born American adult present, I was a white American looking out on a whole lot of colorful faces. I panicked and worried that I might be repeating the mistakes of imperial proselytisers from the not too distant past. (And you yourself worried that I was alienating white non-Christians and Muslims.) No one was coerced in any way to attend this after school club, but I needed to do something to evaluate the best place for me in the group. One by one, privately, I asked the other parents if they were interested in leading a lesson. Some said yes. Most said no. In the end, everyone contributed according to his or her preferences. They all reaffirmed my place as “lead teacher” and so the group went on.
But Rebecca provides the greatest reassurance for me in her chapter on diversity. She explains how “the Christian movement was multicultural and mutiethnic from the outset”. (35) Rebecca reminds us that Africans first received Christianity in the first century, via an educated man from Ethiopia who was converted by the apostle Phillip. She points out that “one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world” is in Iraq. (38) She provides examples from many cultures around the globe, concluding that, “most of the world’s Christians are neither white nor Western, and Christianity is getting less white Western by the day. This is partly thanks to the missionary activities of non-Westerners.” (43) I felt hit over the head by my own blindness as she revealed through page after page of stories how “our habit of equating Christianity with Western culture is itself an act of Western bias.” (45)
But back to you for a moment. One of the questions you (you, the doubter, you, the atheist), often ask me is, how can Christians commit such terrible crimes in the name of God?
In chapter five "Doesn’t Religion Cause Violence?", Rebecca describes stomach-twisting examples of major religions practicing violence against others. She doesn’t excuse any of it, but she points out that no one is immune to sin. In terms of Christianity, how can people claim to follow Jesus and commit such atrocities? She offers two reasons. First, that many so-called Christians aren’t authentic followers of Jesus. And second, that Christians are made of no stronger moral stuff than anyone else and so are prone to sin just like everyone else. Thank God we have Jesus to show us forgiveness. We can only strive to show forgiveness to each other in the same way.
In terms of one so-called Christian who mutilated Jesus’s teachings, I have to highlight what Rebecca taught me about Hitler.
Did you know that “rather than rejecting Christianity outright, the Nazis endorsed what they called “Positive Christianity,” changing the Bible to fit their ends”? (83) They deleted the Old Testament, removed any hint of Jesus’s Jewish identity (making him Aryan), and revised passages that spoke of compassion for the weak. The Lord’s prayer was rewritten to address the Fuhrer, rather than our Father in Heaven. Rebecca fleshes out the story of the seduction and coercion of the German people which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say, “the Nazis mangled Christianity beyond recognition.” (86)
While we’re covering mine-field-type topics, friend, I have to say I struggled with Rebecca’s chapter on homosexuality. She commits more decisively that I ever have in her interpretation of the scriptures. It’s clear to her: the scriptures ban homosexual activity.
I feel uncomfortable because I can still hear your voice asking, “do you judge me?” It’s clear to me: I do not judge you. But it’s less clear to me what God would say.
I read the passages mentioned and note the prohibited acts of homosexuality listed in a long string of sinful acts, acts that degrade and harm others, acts like slave-catching. I believe the Bible states that man and woman were created to be in relationship with each other in order to better understand our relationship to God. But I’m not the only Christian who longs to ask God, but what about the woman and woman who commit to being in relationship with each other? Is the love they find in their covenant no less a glimmer of your covenant with man, God? In other words, is there a way they could still find their way to you, God, through the love they find in each other?
Finally, I struggled with the last chapter. “How Could a Loving God Send People to Hell?” Yes, I believe he creates and he can take away. He can love us and judge us. And I believe he will. But, as I said to you, old friend, I don’t believe he’ll condemn you without first using every means possible to draw you close to him again. I can’t believe he’ll give up on you.
I’m no match for your questions. So often when you ask them you seem angry. And you seem hurt. So I take a slower approach, one that attempts to reassure you of God’s love. And Rebecca’s writing is laced with the love of God poured out for all mankind. But she throws it back at you too.
Perhaps you’ll walk away with even more questions. I’m sure she’d love to hear them.
Go ahead. Try her book. Don’t give up your search.
*The term “friend” I use in this post addresses several friends who have asked me difficult questions about my faith and Christianity over the past several years.
On my writing days, when I’m able to sit down for a couple of hours together, I begin by adding a few lines to my gratitude journal. Sometimes I have prayer requests that I greedily wish to list first, but I make myself begin with gratitude.
One day this past spring, however, I opened my journal and couldn’t think of a single thing to write down.
I was skeptical, but I also knew I needed something to jump start my attitude. Since it’s way too easy to buy stuff on Amazon, I searched it, clicked buy and cracked the cover two days later. As I combed my way through a foreword by a grateful quadriplegic and the author’s echo of Paul’s admonishment to be “thankful in all things”, I believed in her message, in her interpretation of Scripture calling us to be thankful, in her admonishment that gratitude has the power to transform.
But I wasn’t sure I could do it. To be grateful in all things?
I chuckled when I read this quote:
“If you can’t be thankful for what you receive, be thankful for what you escape.” (62)
I remembered how during frantic moments when our twins were newborns, my husband and I would joke that “at least it’s not triplets!” This type of levity and gratitude definitely helped us through that phase of family expansion.
I felt better about my own shortcomings in the area of practicing gratitude when I reached the “Personal PS” at the end of the book, where the author confesses her own struggle to be grateful in all things. But she keeps going, concluding:
“But my heart is set on this journey. I’m making myself accountable to others who are committed to the process with me until, by His grace, gratitude becomes the “default setting” of my heart and my response to all of life.” (163)
I decided to take her challenge and work through her 30-day devotional guide at the back of the book. After a scripture reading and commentary, she ends each day’s readings with a challenge. Some days I practiced making lists of things and people I was thankful for. Other days I wrote letters -- to share with others what I was thankful for, or to tell someone I was specifically thankful for them!
Every spring I write thank you notes to my kids’ teachers, but this year I decided to go beyond thanking the classroom teachers, which totaled eight people. I ended up writing 24 cards, as I considered anyone who had touched my children’s lives...or mine...this year. And yet, after I distributed them in the school office mailboxes, I thought of a handful of additional names that I wished I had remembered. This is one of Nancy DeMoss’s points: that gratitude begets gratitude.
My husband’s young company is in the throes of building its product and searching for its identity in its sector of the market. From what I’ve heard, the employees are enthusiastic but also acutely aware of the uncertainty that accompanies this phase of early development. Occasionally, one of the employees picks up coffee at the shop where I write. One morning I sought her out and thanked her for her hard work. I asked about other things going on in her life and let her know I understood how things could be stressful for her. I shared that my husband spoke highly of her, and that I, in turn, was grateful for her. She returned my words with a grateful smile.
I also decided that I wanted to thank my husband’s boss. Since he lives in a different city and I rarely see him, I mailed him a thank you note, specifically thanking him for the opportunity that he gave my husband to engage in challenging and exciting new work. I have heard other small business owners worry about how they are going to keep the business going in order to support their employees and their families. I put my husband’s boss in that category of conscientious employers and wondered if he could use a little boost, to hear that whatever happens in the future, I am thankful for this time right now. When my husband saw his boss a week later, he was able to relay a message back to me that the card was very appreciated.
For me, I appreciated that these challenges were taking me outside of my gratitude journal and turning my grateful thoughts into actions, almost giving them a life of their own to be shared with others.
On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln decided to give his despairing country a little boost. In a Declaration of Thanksgiving, Lincoln chose to make a previously occasionally celebrated event an official federal holiday, to occur on the last Thursday of November that year and to be remembered annually. (According to Wikipedia, under FDR, the holiday date was changed to the fourth Thursday in November.) As DeMoss points out, his proclamation “called the American people to recognize the Source of [its] blessings and to respond collectively to the Giver in gratitude, repentance, and intercession.” (212). It read, in part, as follows:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies...Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” (italics mine)
As a nation, we continue to celebrate Thanksgiving one day per year. Beyond that though, what could you do to show gratitude to those around you today? If you need help on where to begin, I recommend picking up a copy of Nancy DeMoss’s book. I can’t guarantee it will “make you happy”, but I do know it will surely help aid “your journey to joy.”
During the last week of June, over one hundred volunteers assembled to welcome one hundred and fifty elementary school aged kids for our church’s version of Vacation Bible School. Prior to that, behind the scenes, crews ordered supplies, built the set, recruited teenage interns, modified pre-packaged themed scripts to fit their needs, rehearsed dance moves and spent time praying for the children they were to meet in their small groups.
When the children arrived on the first evening of the program, they entered a sanctuary totally transformed by the imaginations of the staff and volunteers and blessed with promise by the grace of God. For five evenings the children were engaged in lessons and activities that suggested how they could “Power Up” with God -- through knowing him by reading the Bible, knowing his son Jesus, inviting the Holy Spirit in (and living out the fruit of the spirit), and inviting others around them to know God too.
As the children were entertained and engaged in the lessons taught by interns disguised as popular video game characters, I decided to make my contribution by serving in the kitchen downstairs. For our church, this week of Summer Blast (our name for Vacation Bible School) is an all hands on deck type of affair, and with two children old enough to enjoy the program, I figured I better get with the program myself and help out!
This was one of those situations where you wonder how people make it work. How do they take the time to volunteer when...they work full time? When they have younger children to watch who can’t yet participate? When they have out of town guests visiting at the same time?
Or when they have a child in the hospital?
How do you commit to something when life is so uncertain? When the burdens of life make it feel like it’s a victory to just make it through a day, let alone add something to the schedule?
I had signed up to help with snack, figuring I could drop off a couple of my kids at the program, quickly stuff something crunchy into little baggies for distribution and leave to take my younger two kids home.
When the emails started flying a week before the program began, I realized I had gotten it all wrong. There were no small roles, and new jobs were popping up last minute begging for someone to volunteer to fill in the gaps.
No, they said, I didn’t need to attend the volunteer training program on the afternoon before the start date. But...I could come to the session anyway and serve lunch! No preparation necessary on my part to help with snack once the program began, but the woman in charge had been brainstorming for weeks on how to make each component of snack relate in some way to the day’s lesson. Some snacks took multiple days to prepare. Ingredients and pans and utensils flew around the church’s industrial kitchen, and when I didn’t know how to fit myself into the machinery of the execution, I hid by the dishwasher and washed and rinsed anything the other volunteers threw my way.
One evening I arrived early to help lay out one of the delivered meals -- because why just host a program when you can encourage community building by strongly recommending all (100+) volunteers also attend a nightly pre-program dinner? I had no idea what I was doing and had to fumble my way through cabinets to find paper towels, compostable utensils and rearrange leftovers in the oversized refrigerators. But since I was wearing a baseball cap and an apron, the traditional dress of the kitchen staff, people certainly assumed I did!
By Friday evening I was totally cooked. As were my kids. The nights ran late, and our days were full with summer camp elsewhere. I looked around and realized we weren’t the only ones burning out. One of the kitchen heads asked a pastor if he could bring some sangria to the after party on Friday night. He laughed and waved her off. “The pastor definitely cannot bring sangria,” he replied, leaving it open to interpretation whether she might want to ask a non-staff member to fulfill the role instead. Everyone wanted that little bit of relief.
It made me feel better about wanting to hide in a dark room and finish my book club pick.
Then why do it? Why make it such an extravaganza?
Because this was about the children. This was about showing them God and God-like love in a way they can understand.
As Tish Harrison Warren writes in Liturgy of the Ordinary, children “embrace enjoyment with abandon. They don’t feel guilty about taking time to search for feathers, invent a game, or enjoy a treat.” And they certainly don’t worry about pacing themselves through a race or through a day’s commitments.
My husband and I attended a wedding in Normandy this month, and as I described the experience to a friend, I pointed out that several French children, including babies, were still dancing and celebrating when my husband and I decided to leave the all night reception around two in the morning. I was completely surprised, but my friend pointed out that, from her own observations, children will just keep going, perhaps falling asleep on the car ride home from such an event.
At some point we lose that ability. We grow self-conscious. We grow aware of our limits. We grow aware of life’s other obligations that encourage us to pace ourselves, to turn off the TV and head to bed, to refuse that last drink at the bar, to anticipate what is to come.
But as I look back on my first volunteer experience with Summer Blast, I’m thankful for the chance to look through my children’s eyes, to return to the childlike faith that drew me to God in the first place.
I will need to figure out how to pace myself next summer so I’m not falling apart at the end and seeking my book, but you can bet that my kids and I will be back...and ready to celebrate with our wonderful, enthusiastic church community.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.