Dear Adventures in Odyssey: I Love You, But It’s Complicated

“Did you know that Lizzie used to work for Focus on the Family?” he said, she said, with a gleam in their eyes.

It’s not a secret, my internship from last decade, but it doesn’t come up often. When it does, though, it’s a conversation starter, a newsworthy item for my friends to pass along. I don’t fit their picture of someone who once worked there, you see.

Even at the time, I didn’t really think of myself as working for Focus on the Family (FOTF). I was there for Adventures in Odyssey; nothing else at the organization held much appeal.

With the Odyssey crew
With the Odyssey crew at the end of my internship (2009).

Adventures in Odyssey (AIO or Odyssey for short), Focus on the Family’s seminal children’s radio drama, turns 30 this year – today, in fact. On this day in 1987, a 25-minute episode aired about a boy named Davey who feels like a failure until kindly shop owner John Avery Whittaker (“Whit”) helps him realize his worth as they invent something that goes wrong before it goes right. The story, set in the small, Midwestern town of Odyssey, is bookended by a skit with the show’s host, Chris, who tells a story about Abraham Lincoln to reinforce the theme. “Whit’s Flop,” that very first episode, aired one year and four days before I was born, and all my life the show and I have been moving in tandem toward our own milestones.

Can I say I like Odyssey but not Focus on the Family, as I would say I like Jesus but not Christianity?

No, I didn’t think so.

It’s a poor comparison anyway. Odyssey was birthed from Focus on the Family and, like it or not, is a product of its parent organization. Jesus, however, wasn’t always entangled in Christianity, especially not Christianity as we know it today. But that’s another topic for another time.

I do know that I’m not the only one who has been able to partition the two, approving the one and rejecting or ignoring the other. A college roommate was vocal about her dislike for Focus on the Family, but made an exception for AIO.

Even when I was jumping at the chance to be an intern for my beloved radio drama, back in the day when I believed what everyone I knew growing up believed, I was still taken aback by the interview question asking “what my opinions were on the five major issues most important to Focus on the Family.” I bumbled through the answers I knew they expected of me, without much thought as to whether they were really my answers.

Lately, it’s gotten harder to separate the AIO from the FOTF. But once upon a time, it was just Odyssey tapes, Odyssey at 4:30 on the radio, Odyssey before bed and on car rides, and, later, Odyssey on message boards and at events. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

From its earliest days, Adventures in Odyssey has employed some of the best and most versatile voice actors in the business. This is not hyperbole. The show’s main actors include (or have included) Hal Smith from the Andy Griffith Show, who also lent his voice to Beauty and the Beast and An American Tale; Alan Young, best known as Wilbur in Mister Ed and as Disney’s Scrooge McDuck; Will Ryan, featured on The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin; Katie Leigh of Totally Spies; Chris Anthony, the former voice of Barbie; and Jess Harnell with his hundreds of film credits, including Wakko Warner in Animaniacs. These actors and many others have or had extensive careers, spanning decades, and it still chokes me up how many of these people have passed away since I first “visited” Odyssey. I have met many of the actors as an adult, but I was too late for some of them.

Me and Will Ryan
Meeting Will Ryan, voice of Eugene Meltsner (and writer Paul McCusker, in the background), at the 20th anniversary live show (2008).
Me and Katie Leigh
Spending time with Katie Leigh, voice of Connie Kendall, when she came to speak at my college (2011). Photo by Cara Strickland.

I once joined a Facebook group that probably doesn’t exist anymore, about how “Adventures in Odyssey was the soundtrack of my childhood.” I didn’t grow up with Saturday morning cartoons or Boy Meets World or whatever else my peers were watching in the ‘90s. Odyssey was a cozy backdrop to my life, but it was just a backdrop in many ways, piping from the tape deck on the dining room windowsill while I would color and make lists and watch fat squirrels eat birdseed from the feeder in the backyard, filling my long-term memory and stealing my heart.

Later, I would discover Odyssey’s ability to keep me on the edge of my seat, I would get up early on Saturdays to catch the new shows, I would pull out my old cassettes with stronger feelings, I would catch the pop culture references that had once eluded me. Still later, on the verge of college and the verge of leaving Odyssey behind me, I found a fan message board, and everything dormant and untapped in me found its home and sprang to life.

AIO live show
At the 20th anniversary live show (2008). Pictured from left to right (on the stage): Chuck Bolte, Will Ryan, Katie Leigh, Dave Madden, and Jess Harnell.

In 2008, my first visit to Colorado for the 20th anniversary live show became one of the best weekends of my life. I met the actors, the writers, and fellow fans, many of whom I’m still in touch with. In 2009, I spent my summer interning for Odyssey and administrating the above-mentioned message board, and then returned to college and promptly started a club for fellow fans. We made video reenactments and went on a road trip to Colorado and even brought one of the main actors to our Indiana campus to speak in chapel.

This was the zenith of my love for the show, and my nostalgia for that time of my life is matched only by my nostalgia for the show itself.

I was never on fire for Jesus, not really, but I was on fire for Adventures in Odyssey.

Life seems a simpler place when you know what you love and you have ways of expressing that love.

I wouldn’t go by “Lizzie” now if it weren’t for the show, and I might not be living in Colorado. I might not have changed my major to media communication or worked in radio or spent three months in China or done a whole host of other things. Adventures in Odyssey helped me keep my head above water in times of deep depression. It brought about friendships that never would’ve formed otherwise, leadership roles I never would’ve accepted. Directly and indirectly, I have Odyssey to thank for so much joy in my young adult life. I will never forget this. To me, Adventures in Odyssey is much more than the sum of its dialogue.

Adventures in Odyssey Club party
The Adventures in Odyssey Club at our first Christmas party (2009).
Club with AIO showrunners
The AIO Club meeting showrunners Dave Arnold and Paul McCusker (2011).

And it was a dream come true to meet the people behind the voices and the people who wrote and directed and made magic with sound, to work with them in some cases, to go behind the scenes, to know and be known. They are lovely people, thoughtful and professional and funny.

As for the episodes themselves, the writing quality ebbs and flows, as it does in any long-running production, but I’ve found a lot to appreciate: How to craft a story arc, how to tell a story with sound, how to move forward when the actor who plays the main character dies suddenly.

I haven’t listened to any new episodes for a few years. This is partly because the aura of nostalgia is missing with the newer shows. Every semi-reboot has sawed off more of the glue binding my fate to the fate of the show, which I suppose is only natural when the child grows up but the show does not. I am also skeptical about any program’s ability to carry on indefinitely and still remain a high-quality production. The longer I listen, the more déjà vu I experience.

When I was younger, I hoped Odyssey would still be producing new episodes if and when I had kids. Now, if I ever have kids, I would want them to listen to some episodes but not others.

You see, I am not only out of the target age range, I am also out of the target ideology range. The segment of Christianity that AIO is a spokesperson for is one I am no longer a spokesperson for. I used to think Odyssey was good at avoiding denominational squabbles and sticking to the basics of the faith. However, because this show and its parent organization focus on conservative evangelicals and conservative evangelicals focus on them, it’s a narrow list of squabbles that are avoided, a narrow list of “basics” that are adhered to. Christianity has many different expressions, interpretations, and practices, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the show.

In this make-believe world, the conservative Christian worldview and its applications have no baggage, no side effects, and no viable alternatives. All the characters are so nice and well-meaning, their faith clean and tidy and straightforward. There are some episodes that show a cognizance of the things we do not know and that hold certainty loosely, but the farther I get from my “on fire” days, the fewer stories I see, past or present, that do a good job managing that tension. More often than not, it’s oversimplifications and assumptions, and even though I find it’s usually lines here and there that trouble me rather than whole storylines or episodes, those lines add up.

This is not an “open letter” or a rant. I am not going line by line through episodes to point out everything that makes me cringe now. I know everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. Odyssey has gotten better over the years at portraying more diverse characters, more diverse families, but I still see room for improvement.

I have deeper problems with Focus on the Family as a whole, of the choices they make politically and the ways they choose to engage culture and the world. Their pictures of the ideal world or family or culture are not my pictures. When I listen to AIO now, I notice things I didn’t notice before.

Sometimes, though, I am noticing good things. I recognize how a three-part mystery from the mid-90s is all about championing differently-abled people. I am moved by unflinching stories about the Underground Railroad and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. I appreciate the nuanced handling of subjects such as forgiveness, doubt, and grief. I go on everyday adventures with the characters as they take vacations and learn how to drive and fall in love. I go on extraordinary adventures with them as they solve decades-old mysteries and foil the bad guys who want to take over the world. And the best of the Bible story adaptations capture a glimmer of why Jesus is so appealing to so many people.

I can’t help it. I will always love Adventures in Odyssey, even when I have trouble liking it. Whit and Connie and Eugene, Tom and Bernard, Jack and Jason, Jimmy and Donna and George and Mary, they all feel like real people, real friends and family members, even when they fight, or maybe especially when they fight. I’ve seen the same warmth and camaraderie in the recording studios as I see in what comes out of those studios, that sense of connection that we all long for, and this is perhaps the epicenter of my nostalgia.

I would like to think that if these characters became living and breathing people, they would not fall prey to the us-versus-them polarization rampant in our country today. I would like to think that I could have a conversation with Whit or Jack, that, despite our differences, we could sit down over milkshakes for a heart-to-heart, and they would really listen, and by understanding more of the Other with our heads and our hearts, we could change the world a little at a time.

Happy birthday, Adventures in Odyssey.

 

All my Odyssey possessions
Posing with all of my Adventures in Odyssey gear for a contest (2008).

I used to think _________, and now I think ________.

looking into the distance

I used to think in black and white.

There was nothing in the dark to be redeemed, nothing to be recognized, not even a smattering of stars to show me my own spindly hand in front of my face.

And in the white and bright and hot, I was always squinting and burning without realizing it. There was too much gauze and glare to illuminate anything of substance.

I sat in brown chairs on Sunday mornings, wearing dresses and facing a man in a suit. I memorized Bible verses word-perfect and dared to speak them aloud if it might earn me a ribbon. I wore a white gown and was dunked underwater, my ticket to start sipping grape juice from those little cups. I wrote down all the right answers in my terrible handwriting and spouted them to friends.

I had my private miseries, my looming darkness, but God was a wall of bricks, each one unmoving and painted just so and hardly attended to.

I don’t remember when the bricks started to come loose and lose their color. It happened so gradually at first, and for a while I was too sidetracked by the words I could never say and the boys who never liked me back. Then, I was too lost in a depression I could not name and fears I could not overcome.

I am 26 years old, and now I think in gray.

I read the Bible and I am confused. I wonder if we’ve been pushing the text to fit an all-encompassing Divine mold it was never meant to occupy. I wonder what Paul would think of his letters being considered Holy Scripture. And yet I still find many of these ancient words to be truth and life.

I listen to stories and I am awoken. Stories from real live people, stories told and written and photographed and adapted. Stories that break my heart and open my eyes. Stories that aren’t cleaned up or brushed off or tied up with a nice, neat bow. No longer can one narrative fit every face standing here, no longer is it “us and them,” no longer is there an implicit threat in his sexuality, in her culture. I do not know what it is like to be gay, to be poor, to be a person of color, to flee for my life. But give me ears to hear and eyes to see and a heart to understand.

I pray and I am uncertain. What – if anything – is changing because I whispered “please” and “help” into the wind? Are the words carried back to me on the breeze from God or from my subconscious? What is rumbling in the depths beyond the synapses that fire and the blood that travels through my body? I know there must be Something.

I go to a bar and see glimmers of beauty and redemption in ordinary conversations.

I hear the phrase “relationship with God” and I’m not afraid to ask, “How?”

I sit in church and sometimes I feel nothing. I stand in church to participate in the bread and wine – the Eucharist – and I usually feel something.

They speak of Jesus, and I doubt and hope and can never quite leave.

Mostly, I am in the middle and on the margins and engulfed in never-ending mystery, my old assumptions of what is dead and what is alive turned on their heads.

But in this gray, I am searching and being found in ways I never was when I lived my life in black and white. I am more alive here.

I am a boat in the middle of the ocean; I am standing in the rain without an umbrella; I am trying to make out the contours of home through the fog. But every so often, I see a rainbow start to form in the darkest cloud, and it beckons me to follow.

*****

This blog post is a part of author Sarah Bessey‘s synchroblog based around the prompt “I used to think ______, and now I think ______”. Click here to read others’ responses. In the same vein, be sure to check out Sarah’s wonderful new book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith (you can read my review – and possibly win a copy of the book – here).

The Spiritual Practice of Reading Sarah Bessey {a book review & giveaway}

faith isn't certaintyI read the last half of Sarah Bessey’s newest book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, while lounging in my messy bed in my messy room. It seemed fitting.

You see, she starts her book with the analogy of a rummage sale — of laying out everything we’ve believed and inherited and carried with us, and deciding what should stay and what should go. So is what needs to happen when we reach that “out of sorts” place. And it doesn’t just happen once.

Through her writing, Sarah has been a constant companion of mine for more than two years. I’ve fallen in love with what she writes and how she writes it. And most importantly, I trust her.

Whether it’s a book or a service or a meme, it doesn’t take much for something Christian to put me on my guard. I am overly critical and overly sensitive and overly scarred, so it’s no surprise that I fold my arms across my chest more often than not, the words catching on something or bouncing off or just scratching the surface.

Not so with Sarah’s words.

Out of Sorts is, in part, her own story. It’s a tale of “happy-clappy churches” and “getting religion,” of unanswered questions and ill-fitting places, of Jesus and burnout and sorrow and hope. But woven into and over and around it are deep, thought-provoking explorations of the issues themselves that most often unravel us: the Bible, the Church, signs and wonders, and suffering, to name a few.

Sarah’s book isn’t the first I’ve read to honestly (and excellently) explore the hard questions. Some spiritual memoirs throb with the very real pain of loneliness, lies, and wounds from those who meant well … and those who didn’t. Others dig deep into my skin, putting a finger on the very nerve of my own spiritual angst. Out of Sorts does both of these things, while also — one might say first and foremost — being a book of relentless hope.

And then there’s the beauty. The gift of Sarah’s writing — in Out of Sorts as well as elsewhere — isn’t just in what she writes, but also in how she writes it. It is pictures and poetry and music wrapped up in prose. It is grace and peace. It is an invitation, and not just to those on the margins who are questioning everything. This book is for all who hunger and thirst, whether they be on the outside looking in, or the inside looking out, or somewhere in between.

If you are like me, though, you may sometimes wonder how anyone can really love Jesus. You may look into the eyes of the flesh-and-blood people standing before you, the ones who have your heart, and find that the invisible Divine is so hard to know and understand, let alone love. But if there’s one person I believe loves Jesus as much as she says she does, it’s Sarah Bessey. Her words give me hope that maybe, someday, I will too.

*****

Out of Sorts makes its way into the world on November 3 — that’s tomorrow! You can order it on Amazon here, or wherever you buy books. I received an advance copy of this book in order to review it, and I would like to give away that copy to one of you! To be entered in the giveaway, simply post a comment below (making sure to include your email address so I can contact you), and I will randomly choose one winner on Friday, November 6, to receive this book. U.S. and Canadian addresses only.

Sarah Bessey writes from Abbotsford, British Columbia, where she lives with her husband and four tinies. Her first book, Jesus Feminist, is also excellent. You can find out more about Sarah Bessey on her website.

Explore, recover delight, wrestle with the story

Looking between the lines in “Noah”

Russell Crowe as Noah
Russell Crowe as Noah (from ew.com)

As I read reviews and then sat in the dark cinema, I was open. I was reaching, as with feelers, into the waters of Noah, open to receiving what was good and thought provoking about the movie. And I didn’t come away empty-handed.

But then I read the lambasting words, and the movie called blasphemous and compared to excrement, and I tucked my feelers under my body, afraid what they would think of me for daring to see anything good in the adaptation.

But I did. I also saw things that unsettled and troubled me. I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of it all, but I’ll try.

First, I don’t think the filmmakers were intentionally trying to mock Christians or distort the biblical account as much as possible. My take is that this was a serious attempt to examine the story of Noah and the Flood in a new way while challenging expectations, looking at human nature, looking between the lines, looking at philosophical questions the story evokes.

Second, there are many things we don’t know about the story of Noah. Here are some of them: how devoted Noah’s family members were to God and what kind of people they were; if any of them (Noah included) ever doubted or struggled or didn’t understand; exactly how God communicated with Noah, both at the beginning when he told Noah what to do, and throughout the journey of building the ark and escaping the Flood; what the antediluvian world was like; what Noah’s interactions with the corrupt world were, especially as he began his ark-building endeavor; and let’s not forget the mystery of the Nephilim. Granted, I’m not a theologian, but none of these things seem cut-and-dried to me.

The biblical account is essentially this: God told Noah what to do in a way that was clear and intelligible to him, and he did it. And not just instructions about the dimensions of the ark and how many pairs of animals to bring aboard, but also which humans to bring on board, and the fact that He was establishing a covenant with Noah.

This seems clear-cut and straightforward with little room for ambiguity, but is there anything clear-cut and straightforward about a Flood in a rainless world; about a God who embodies both mercy and justice, love and wrath, beginnings and endings, death and life; about humanity being preserved inside a 350-cubit-long box made of gopher wood while death writhes in the waters outside? I remember all the things we don’t know about the story of Noah, and I realize that there may have been more going on between the lines – even if only at the heart and head level – than we know.

(If you haven’t seen the movie yet, be warned that the next few paragraphs contain spoilers.)

In the movie, God’s instructions to Noah are a part of that ambiguity, especially as relates to the future of the human race. At first, Noah is planning on finding wives for his two unmarried sons, but then he sees the wickedness of the world in all its perversity, and becomes convinced that humanity has corrupted itself beyond repair, has lost its chance. God’s justice, he believes, requires that the human race end with his family. But then Shem’s previously barren wife gets pregnant on the ark, and we’re plunged into an Abraham-and-Isaac scenario with a Noah willing to kill his own grandchild if it (or they, as it turns out) is a girl.

As I was watching this, I thought, The only way to redeem this is to make it clear that Noah had misunderstood God’s will and was taking matters into his own hands in the wrong way.

In a way, this did happen, but not as clearly as I would’ve liked.

I have no problems with Noah being a flawed human being. He was a sinner like the rest of us, despite being “blameless in his generation.” In the movie, we saw a man who obeyed God and walked differently from the rest of the world … and yet a man who saw a world that was broken and evil and corrupt, and struggled with that tension.

Here is what I keep coming back to: I think the movie portrayed some of the emotions and struggles that Noah and his family could have been dealing with, even if they didn’t manifest themselves in the same ways they did in the movie. What must it have been like to be the only ones following God in a corrupt world? What was it like to face the unknown and the prospect of every other human drowning while they would float atop the waters and survive? The Bible doesn’t probe their hearts and minds, but Noah opens that door, and is it far-fetched to look into the facts of the Flood and wonder if there was any fear, or doubt, or a struggling with the tension between God’s mercy and God’s justice, or even wondering deep down if they deserved to be spared?

Yes, there were things I would’ve changed about the movie. I would’ve made it clearer that Methuselah’s special abilities were from God. I would’ve sketched out the Nephilim differently. And I especially would’ve drawn out more of God’s mercy and love than we saw portrayed. That is what troubled me the most: knowing that this interpretation of God could leave some people thinking of Him as impersonal and unloving. And yet, wrath and justice are a part of God’s character, and especially need to be examined in a story about the Flood.

But despite all this, Noah helps us explore and ask questions and wrestle with a familiar story in a new way. Even though this movie was made by a non-Christian taking creative liberties, I believe that God can use it. He can illuminate our minds and hearts to see what was good and draw it out. He can redeem the ambiguities and interpretations that went too far. And He can resolve those tensions and bring us back to Himself.

I might be a feminist

church in NorwayPart of me doesn’t want to write this, not yet. Part of me wants to wait until I have everything decided and sorted out and settled upon, until I am ready to perfectly articulate and defend it all. Then it would be less scary.

I’m not ready, but I have decided to come forward anyway.

Reading what women like Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, and many others here and there and in between have written is changing me.

Love is becoming more important. Grace is becoming more important. Justice is becoming more important. I am open to your stories and your viewpoints; I am ready to wrestle out in the open and be challenged.

And I might be a feminist.

I have always accepted the basic complementarian understanding of gender roles without giving it much thought: Women are to submit to their husbands, and preaching is for men. In this blog post, I’ll be focusing mostly on the second one.

It was never a big issue for anyone around me growing up. It was what it was, and people accepted it, and it seemed normal and uncontroversial. After all, I never wanted to preach, nor did I know any woman who did. It didn’t affect my life as far as I could tell.

Now, I’m starting to question it. I’m finding strict complementarians and those who take Paul’s words on submission to their literal extremes. I’m learning to walk in the freedom and love of Christ. And for the first time, I’m asking questions.

Why can’t a woman preach? I wonder. For the first time, it’s bothering me. Women can do this, but not that or that. Did you know that Wayne Grudem, cofounder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, came up with an 83-item list detailing what women can and cannot do in the church? Why do so many people refuse to accept that a woman might have the gift of preaching (or try to find a way around it by calling it “teaching”)? Why is it considered okay for a woman to preach as a missionary in a developing country, but not here in American churches? Why are so many afraid of her sermons and her leadership and her voice? Why do they say his words are approved by God and hers are not, simply because she is a woman?

Why can’t a woman preach? She is just as much of a person as the man in that pulpit is. Her insights and understanding and voice are just as valid as his. Men and women are co-conspirators in sin … and co-heirs in grace. We have an equal measure of both.

I know many people could come up with Bible verses to “prove” there is no room for questions like these, that Scripture is plain and clear on the subject. Why can’t a woman do that? Well, because the Bible says she can’t, that’s why!

For example, I could say, along with Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” but then you could counter me with this other statement of Paul’s: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”

But I think there is room to question, to wrestle, to allow ourselves to consider the possibility that, maybe, the interpretations many of us have grown up with, in one form or another, may not be the right ones.

In her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans showed me that there are strong, biblically based arguments for mutuality … egalitarianism … whatever you want to call it. Other people have also challenged my old assumptions.

One of those people is Sarah Bessey, whose book Jesus Feminist was released one week ago today. In this interview, she defines feminism as “the simple belief that women are people, too. At the core, feminism simply means that we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of women as equal in importance to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women. That’s it.”

Her book is called Jesus Feminist because she became a feminist because of Jesus: “I learned about the Kingdom of God, I learned to look at my life and even the world through the lens of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings,” she says in the same interview. “And as I became more active in women’s issues, I began to see specifically how Jesus interacted with women in the Gospels. It was revolutionary. It was profound. It was just plain normal. And I loved it. Jesus thought women were people, too, and at that point, I decided that I wanted to be a feminist in the way that Jesus would be a feminist.”

This is still so new to me. I don’t know all the right definitions and terminologies, let alone how to argue for one side or the other. But maybe it’s not about sides. Maybe it’s okay to be right where I am, right now, with my wondering, questioning heart and my hands empty of weapons and tactics and “all the right answers.” Maybe that’s the best way.

I always want to be open. Even when I reach a read-and-researched-and-thought-and-prayed-through conclusion, I want to be open to the fact that that might change someday. That knowing Jesus might change me in radical ways. And I always want to save room to listen and learn from your story, your interpretation, your relationship with Jesus. I need your voice.

Interested in reading more on this subject? This blog post is one of many in a synchroblog about being a “Jesus feminist.” You can read more about the book Jesus Feminist here. I’m really looking forward to reading it; I hope you check it out too!

Quote from Jesus Feminist

Day 29: God vs. King (Psalm 2)

throne

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Psalm 2

Even if all the kings, presidents, and prime ministers of the world grasped hands and conspired as one, they would be no match for the King of Kings. God isn’t worried that the people of the earth will be able to defeat Him if enough of them unite against Him. If Lucifer couldn’t do it with a host of traitorous angels, then our efforts are less than feeble.

Sometimes, we raise our eyebrows at descriptions of God as One whose “wrath is quickly kindled” and who will “terrify in His fury.” Why must we “serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling,” as this psalm says? How does this jibe with a God of love and compassion and mercy?

Let’s look at the context. This psalm is about the kings of the earth vs. the Lord’s anointed. In the tumultuous years after David’s son Solomon reigned, when the kingdom was divided and many unscrupulous men (and one woman) took turns on the two thrones, the people followed the lead of their monarch.

If the king feared and served the Lord, the people followed his example and repented and turned away from the idols. If he didn’t, they didn’t.

That isn’t to say that the people were blind sheep without minds of their own. God raised up prophets to be messengers of truth to His people, and there were others who served God even in the midst of corrupt, godless leadership. Obadiah, a man high in King Ahab’s court, is one example.

But when there hadn’t been a true witness of God in years, when the king ruled with an iron fist and he and others in his entourage were enticing and intimidating people away from God, it isn’t hard to understand why so many stopped seeking the Lord. And when they stopped seeking Him, they stopped seeing Him.

The story of Elijah’s defeat of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel is a profound example of what happened when the people saw the power of God in a remarkable, irrefutable display: “They fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God’” (1 Kings 18:39), and then they rose up against the prophets of Baal.

But I digress. My point is that rulers are responsible for more people than the average citizen is. They shape the character of their nation, not to mention so many individuals, and if they reject God and spit in His face and plot against Him, it isn’t just they who are affected, but thousands of others!

And God takes that very seriously. He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9b).

Don’t we want a God who will take action when world powers rise up against Him, who will fight for His people when they are on the brink, who is greater than sin and strong enough for us to take refuge in Him?

(photo credit)

This is day 29 of 31 Days in the Word.

Day 28: Walking with God (Psalm 1)

Tree Planted by the Water

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

Psalm 1

“Enter by the narrow gate,” Jesus said, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

That’s Matthew 7:13-14, and it’s a powerful illustration of the two roads that lie before us.

When we think of these paths, we often envision constant motion, a steady stride to an eventual destination. But it’s not always that black-and-white. “I do good things, I am a productive member of society and a good father,” says a smartly dressed older man sitting in an armchair on that broad path. He shakes his head at the disheveled young people who saunter by, not seeming to care for anyone but themselves.

But even though he’s sitting, he’s still in the wrong place. It’s easy to play the judge, but what good is it to “sit in the seat of scoffers,” finding a comfortable spot in the place that leads to death? Don’t you realize that the road is tilted, that even while you’re thinking you’re far enough back for safety, your chair is sliding down, down, down with everything and everyone else?

Even in our narrow path, we believers can get stymied. One minute she’s walking joyously, the next, she glimpses others who seem to be walking faster. She tries to catch up, her heart thundering in her chest as the joy drains away. She forgets what brought her here in the first place and Who gave her the strength to walk at all. And then she crumples to the ground, oblivious to the outstretched hand before her.

Standing apart from God, from “the law of the Lord,” doesn’t just mean knowingly and rebelliously walking in the opposite direction. Sometimes you’re leaning against a wall that crumbles behind you, and it isn’t until you’re on the ground that you realize you’ve trusted the untrustworthy. Sometimes you’re sitting in a chair and it isn’t until you try to stand and fail that you realize how long you’ve been chained by lies.

Walk with the Lord, stand with the Lord, sit with the Lord. Dance with the Lord, work with the Lord, dream with the Lord, and you will live life in all its verdure. You will be that tree planted in the Lord. But being planted in the same place doesn’t mean predictability or boredom. You will grow new leaves and branches, you will provide shelter for others in ways you never would’ve imagined when you were only a tiny sapling, you will produce fruit that will revive you and everyone who comes in contact with you, and as the seasons change around you and fill your vista with wondrous new sights, challenges, and opportunities, nothing will uproot you, and nothing — not even the greyest of winters — will cause your leaves to wither and fall.

Blessed be this tree, this person, who delights in the law of the Lord.

(Photo credit)

This is day 28 of 31 Days in the Word.

Day 16: Was I Ever on Fire?

When We Were On Fire synchroblogMy hands are covering my face. Or they were before I removed them to type these words.

I don’t know where to begin this story of my life in a first-generation Christian family. There is too much, and there is too little. How can I bring it all together into a coherent whole?

Honestly, I don’t like thinking about my childhood. The bad memories overshadow the good ones. Memories of hiding and oh-so-much-guilt and shattered innocence and the ugly mess of my own angry words stick around as the good ones grow dim.

But those aren’t the stories I want to tell you, not now.

This is the story of how I played the perfect little Christian girl, and how, ultimately, that didn’t work.

I memorized the Bible verses, I did all the Sunday school and Awana assignments, I was the “smart, quiet one.” At home, I shouted, I refused, I glared with my fiery firstborn eyes. At church, I was good.

“Your knowledge of the Word always showed in your sharing in class,” my 6th grade Sunday school teacher wrote in the front inside cover of What the Bible is All About (the King James Version, of course) — a prize for my diligent performance.

I “prayed the prayer” at age 3 or 4, but I don’t remember it. I was baptized young and became a church member young. It was what you did. Baptism was supposed to precede communion, I knew, so I always looked down my nose at the unsubmerged kids who helped themselves to the holy bread squares.

I wrote letters to my unsaved grandparents full of Bible verses and the plan of salvation and matter-of-fact statements that they should become Christians and go to church.

My mom had grown up smack-dab in the middle of pain and brokenness, and her modus operandi in parenting was “shelter them!”

So my sister and I wore our matching jean jumpers to our non-denominational-but-basically-Baptist church, around which our social lives were centered. We were homeschooled. We sang, “Stop! And let me tell you, what the Lord has done for me!” until we were sick of it, we listened to Adventures in Odyssey on the radio most afternoons but never got sick of it, and we were not allowed to watch Pokémon or read Harry Potter or listen to ‘N Sync. But that was okay because we believed our parents when they said those things were bad.

In high school, I left my isolated homeschooling life in the woods and transitioned to a Christian school.

Again, I distinguished myself as the “smart, quiet one”; again I tried to please everyone; again I wore a mask.

It was worse this time, though. When I was younger, I sometimes slipped up and sulked at camp or insisted on my own way during a piano lesson. But in high school, I got better and better at adding mildness to my list of accomplishments. I was the “nice, smart, quiet girl.”

Life rolled along, and I rolled with it. I was living a fully inherited faith with a fully intact mask.

When the full weight of this hit me my freshman year of college, I felt like a failure. I had never “made my faith my own.” My testimony wasn’t victorious. I couldn’t think of any real spiritual turning points.

Insecurity had always been my faithful companion, but college was the worst. I never despised or compared or isolated myself as much as I did then. I was sure that if people knew the “real me,” they would reject me. I couldn’t open up, I couldn’t take off the mask, and I was depressed. I wasn’t the person I wanted to be, and I was starting to believe I never would be.

And today?

I have hope again. I took off my mask, and nobody ran away. I asked hard questions, and I didn’t shock anyone. But even if I had shocked or they had run, that wouldn’t have changed my identity as a person of worth. I’m finally learning who I am, and I finally like myself. But God … he seems so much more confusing and uncertain than he used to, and so does, well, everything.

I want to be on fire, I want to “taste and see,” but I won’t fake it again. I won’t be the perfect little Christian girl again.

The journey continues. I am here, and I am me, and right now, that is enough.

This is day 16 of 31 Days in the Word … and this is also a synchroblog to celebrate the release of Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were On Fire. Click here and scroll down to read the stories of others’ faith journeys.

Day 14: I am not a Sunday-school-teacher robot

My first teaching experience
(deathly afraid) 11-year-old me teaching a short lesson as part of an Awana assignment.

This is day 14 of 31 Days in the Word.

I teach my church’s small group of middle schoolers Sunday mornings, one month on, one month off. I don’t like to improvise and go off script because I’m not very good at it. At least, that’s what I used to think. I’ve been questioning that heretofore defining characteristic of mine lately, in part because I don’t like teaching from a curriculum.

I thought I would, but I don’t. Maybe it would be different if the group were bigger or I had a greater variety of curriculum options or I wasn’t such a procrastinator.

But you’d think a procrastinator would prefer the ready-made lessons, wouldn’t you? I thought those lessons with the pre-written discussion questions and the “say something like this” paragraphs and the starter activities would make this introverted first-time teacher breathe a sigh of relief.

And they did, at first.

Now, though, homemade lessons are my preference, and most of the time they even take less time to prepare.

Being creative helps, sure, but the biggest factor here is that I want to be real with the kids. I want to ask questions and share with them words and stories that resonate with me.

I can’t just come in cold with somebody else’s lesson and not feel disingenuous.

This is not where I’m at. This story doesn’t resonate with where I am right now, even if it is true.

Now, maybe it would be different if I spent more time with the lesson and the Bible passage and made it my own. I’ve done that before, and it’s worked. But it’s harder that way, and I’d rather share with them something that, from the start, I can connect with.

Because I’m not a teacher robot, programmed to read Bible verses and say borderline clichés with a smile. Not every story is easy to understand, not every verse feels good or has only one possible interpretation, not every message can be easily wrapped up, resolved, and applied in 45 minutes.

And even with 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds, I won’t pretend those things aren’t true. I won’t pretend that I know everything. I’ll say, “I don’t know,” and I won’t be in a rush to tie up every loose end into a neat little bow.

Let’s teach our children to really engage with Scripture, even when it means they’ll ask us questions we don’t know the answers to. Our minds and their minds are not the enemy.

Day 11: When the Outcome Matters Most

all-nighter
photo by striatic on creative commons (flickr)

My mind and my life are full of many things, but I can’t seem to settle on any one of them long enough to rest in the exploration. There are too many things worth doing. I must do all of them, and I must do them all well (or so I tell myself).

This is the first of at least three (most likely non-consecutive) posts about rest. This is also day 11 of 31 Days in the Word.

I’ve discovered that I’m much more concerned with outcome than with process. Not in theory, but in practice. I quickly read through a chapter of the Bible and then spend a couple hours crafting an eloquent, relatable blog post that rings true.

The time I spend on each speaks volumes: I’m more concerned with my own writing than I am with the Bible.

I want the blogs I write and the emails I send and the tweets I … tweet to be quality additions to the smaller and larger conversations I’m involved in online. This is good. What’s bad is that my drive for quality is tied mostly to things others can see.

What matters is that I make an appearance on Skype or at Starbucks with you and prove my friendship.

What matters is that I am there for the Internet.

What matters is that you still think I’m cool, and a good writer.

All through college, I drank a deadly cocktail of perfectionism and procrastination. I could pull an all-nighter to write a paper or study for a test and still get high marks, and maybe my outcome looked the same as the kid next to me who had spent two weeks in the process.

But I knew the difference.

I knew I was learning so much less and sabotaging my education by cramming everything in at the last minute or holding my writing skills at gunpoint. That’s not where long-term growth happens.

This is not the way I want to live my life.

I weaken real relationships to keep up the appearance of relationship. I weaken my few things to keep up the appearance of many things.

I want to let go of my “control” of the outcome and the appearance and embrace the process — even the process no one sees — with as much care and attention as I have embraced the outcome.

This weekend, I will be considering how I can actually do this rather than just wanting it but doing nothing.