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).

To Be a Part of the Mystery

Communion
“Communion.” Artwork by Ruth Catherine Meharg, inspired by Rachel Held Evans’ book “Searching for Sunday.”

In a few days, I will be offering to others something that is not mine. I won’t be able to take credit for a single taste, for the mystery that’s among us, for any trembling hands or averted eyes, and I don’t want to. The body of Christ, broken for you, my friend, for you, my neighbor, for you who are hungry. The blood of Christ, shed for you.

I tell people I’ve found a church in Denver, but most of them don’t understand how big of a deal this is for me. They don’t know the backstory of doubts and church-weariness and all the sharp points that started poking out of my skin two or three years ago. This church I’ve found now, rich in liturgy, gentle in spirit, a meeting of the old and the new, is a gift in my rocky faith story.

I’ve inhaled that same sweet air in the written word too, in those men and women who write blogs and books that remind me that I am not alone in the questions I ask, in the injustices I see, in what I’m frustrated and passionate about.

One of those writers is Rachel Held Evans, whose third book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, came out yesterday. Her book takes us on a journey through the seven sacraments (Communion, Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage) that carries us into the Bible, into church past and church present. At times, I felt like I was reading a series of interconnected and yet unique essays. One moment, I would be nodding at an oh-so-familiar description of doubt, and the next I would be catching my breath at the enumeration of the many ways throughout its history that the church has descended into darkness. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

When Rachel would revisit Bible stories, she would do so in such a rich, sensory way, attuned to the history and humanity of it all, that it felt familiar in the best way. My favorite of these, I think, was a chapter that wended its through parables of seeds and wheat, through kneading and baking, and brought us to the Last Supper.

I learned more about Rachel’s story through this book, and I also learned about how the early church celebrated communion, how the Orthodox church celebrates weddings, and how church as it’s meant to be is present in AlcoCover of "Searching for Sunday"holics Anonymous and the Gay Christian Network.

There are many reasons why I love this book, but the main one is that it has given me another place, another conversation, where I can breathe a little easier, where I can be myself and yet have hope in this journey at the same time.

Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”

This Sunday, it’s my house church’s turn to set up the chairs, to welcome people, to pray with them, and to hold out the elements of bread and wine as we all remember together. My doubts are still there, but the weariness is lighter, the cynical daggers are blunter, and I’m hanging on. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that this church is a place of peace and welcome, a place that resonates with my soul, and it’s worth it to be a small part of this mystery.

Here’s to Being

Here I am, again.

I’m moving gingerly back into this space, unsure of what I’m able to commit to, of what is life-giving, of what tomorrow will feel like.

But here I lie, in the dark of my sister’s dorm room while she sleeps, with peace and a full heart, and an ash cross on my forehead that I haven’t gotten a proper look at yet.

It is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, and I have come a long way since the darkness of the new year. January was a bleak month for me and others I know. I looked toward February and saw it glowing with hope and promise. And that’s what I found there. I had a weekend of feeling close to God for the first time in a long time, and another weekend of connecting with girls half my age and revisiting my camp baggage and realizing so much about who I am as a person, a youth leader, a counselor.

And yet, I’m still amazed at how easy it was to bend back to how things were before. To bend back to autopilot and doing and hard edges and stagnation.

Maybe I will be bending a different way by this time next month.

I have never observed Lent before, but this year I signed up for an online course that’s focus is on being and resting. After being wrung dry, after depression, in the midst of doubt and sameness, this is what I needed.

I read the introductory posts from the other few dozen women taking part in the course, and I wrote out my story in unabashed wordiness. Then came the peace and the full heart. And the desire to keep writing.

So here I am, again.

Admitting my weaknesses and uncertainties

standing alone“I have a lot of doubts about … everything,” I said hesitantly over Skype.

“Like what?” she asked.

“God, the inerrancy of the Bible…” Gender roles. The charismatic movement. If I’ve ever really seen God do anything…

I was waiting for widened eyes and “Oh Liz” and serious and concern and promises to pray for me.

But it didn’t happen. Something else happened.

She understood. She could relate.

The same thing happened when I wrote my last blog about how “I might be a feminist.” The way people understood, the way people could relate to my journey surprised me.

I saw people come alongside me, people willing to share their journeys and how they too had wrestled or were wrestling with this issue. Some of whom I never would have guessed were in this with me.

“There is more power in sharing our weaknesses than our strengths,” wrote Brennan Manning in Reflections for Ragamuffins. He was right.

And I’m finally taking those nervous steps to share my weaknesses, my struggles, my uncertainties.

It started on my YWAM Discipleship Training School. I started actually talking with other people about my struggles, and none of them fainted in shock or distanced themselves from me. But then again, that was YWAM, where we were all a family “in this thing together.”

But out in the real world?

I’ve always known that I’m weak, but I always assumed other people were more confident, certain, and put-together than they probably were. I would hear a lively, opinionated debate between friends who seemed so sure of themselves, and I wouldn’t dare interject my opinion — partly because I didn’t know what my opinion was, and partly because I was afraid of what people would think of me if I disagreed with them — especially if I disagreed without the confidence and certainty that they seemed to have.

A few years ago, I never would’ve admitted such struggles as I’m now admitting in this public forum. I never would’ve said anything controversial unless it was about the TV show Lost, and even then my thin, sensitive skin might’ve bruised a bit if someone had challenged my point.

So there they are, my weaknesses (some of them, at least). I doubt. I’m all over the place. I often don’t know what I believe on issues of secondary and primary importance. I hardly ever read my Bible. My prayer life isn’t as robust as it was last year.

I wish these things weren’t true of me, but at the same time it does no good to hide them from all the eyes.

After I shared some of my struggles in the above-mentioned Skype conversation, I felt such a massive shift like you wouldn’t believe.

She had been speaking with such certainty and confidence, and talking about God and her convictions, and as I nodded along I just felt worse and worse. I knew I was being disingenuous. I was also feeling bad about myself for not having that same strength.

And then I took that tiny step and spoke words I was afraid to speak, and everything changed. I was honest, and she was honest, and suddenly that picture in my mind, of me as the weak one and her as the strong one, disappeared.

I understand now why we’re afraid to admit our weaknesses. We’re afraid what we’ve always feared will now be proven true: that we’re the only ones who struggle like this.

The thing is, though, even if you don’t struggle with the same things I struggle with, you still struggle with something, and there are times when that something seems big and crushing and isolating to you.

But it doesn’t have to isolate you.

I need you, and you need me. Let’s stop pretending we’re perfect and that we have everything figured out. Instead, let’s move toward greater intimacy, even when it’s scary. Freedom is there.

(photo credit)

Exploring Doubt, Part 2

While this blog is most immediately a follow-up to my last blog, Doubt, the Uneasy Visitor, it so happens that I wrote a blog about doubt two years ago as well, which complements both of these.

More than one hundred people were in Coventry, England, for a DTS Gathering that week in early spring. I was one of them. We worshiped together, listened to inspiring speakers, then stepped out into the city each day to bring the love of Jesus to people in all sorts of ways.

That’s when doubt hit me. I suppose it had been growing for awhile, but the stresses and challenges of this new, unfamiliar environment brought them to the forefront of my heart in a more isolating, painful way than ever before. One night, I found myself wracked with despair and swallowed sobs as I lay on my makeshift bed on the church floor. It was one of the darkest nights of the soul I have ever experienced.

I kept my struggle largely to myself for the rest of the week, but when I finally opened up with others on my team after we returned to our base, our home, well, it was the best thing I could’ve done. The prayers, the knowledge that I wasn’t alone in this, and the honest conversations brought clarity and comfort as we prepared to go on outreach. But that wasn’t the end of it.

As I shared my faith on outreach with individuals and groups, I found doubt creeping back into my life. “Do you really believe what you’re trying to get others to believe?” it asked in its hissing, accusatory way.

But there was a difference between the first attack and this second one. My relationship with God was stronger this time around. I had been learning what it meant to rely on God, to bring everything to Him. So I brought my doubts to Him, I talked with others sooner than later, and, all in all, I learned through experience the right way to deal with doubt.

Here’s some of what I learned:

  • Go on the offensive against doubt, starting with your strongest ally: God. Pray against the doubt and ask God for more of Him. Seek God even when the feelings aren’t there, even when you feel like you just don’t have enough faith. Because faith, like love, isn’t a feeling, but a choice.
  • Doubt can be a lonely battle, but it doesn’t have to be! Be real with other people (as well as God) about what you’re going through, and get their advice and prayers. Don’t just stay in your own mind, introspective and alone. Sometimes you can be your own worst enemy.
  • The worst thing you can do when you struggle with doubt and unbelief is to pretend that you aren’t struggling, that everything’s okay, because then you’ll really start going through the motions and feeling like a hypocrite. Eventually, it will build and build until it explodes in a crisis of faith. Recognize the signs and learn how to deal with it early on.
  • Remember what God has done in your life and in others’ lives in the past. Just because He doesn’t feel real now doesn’t nullify everything you’ve seen Him do.
  • If you grew up in a Christian home, recognize that it’s normal to wrestle with and question what you’ve always been told is true. That’s part of making your faith your own. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions, but don’t stop there. Struggle well.
  • DON’T GIVE UP

It’s not about manufacturing feelings that feel like faith, but coming to God as you are, and seeking Him, and asking Him for more of Himself.

Jeremiah 29:13: “You will seek me [God] and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

Doubt, the Uneasy Visitor

He comes, knocking at the door — softly at first, then more insistently.

You can’t just ignore it. He will keep knocking until the knocking turns into pounding, and if you still refuse to answer, he will break in while you are sleeping and steal some of your most valuable treasures. And then he will disappear into the night, never to be found, never forced to relinquish what he stole. You will have to go the long, hard way around to replace it.

So the only option is to answer the door. You can call the police, but he will know if you do, and will vanish into the night. He is good at vanishing.

Speak to him at the door or let him in for a cup of tea. Allow him to take the conversation places where you in your sheltered, cozy little home have never dared to venture. He wants to convince you that he’s right, that the gaps in your knowledge are your downfall, but be cautious. He is biased. Hear him out on your own terms, bring others into the conversation — particularly a certain other Resident of the house. When you face him instead of cowering under the covers, you will discover the chinks in his armor. Sometimes fear of the thing is more pernicious than the thing itself. Doubt is not the bastion of truth, but he isn’t the devil either.

One word of caution: Don’t invite him into your home to stay. Don’t give him his own room, whether in a forgotten little attic corner or in the luxurious guest room. Because that will not be enough for him. He will not be content to stay there, but will want to take over the whole house. Offer him a drink, talk to him, and then send him on his way. He may come back — in fact, he probably will — but the second time won’t be such a shock, and the third, even less so. We all have our burdens to bear.

Don’t be afraid to speak with this uneasy visitor, just make sure he isn’t your only outside influence. Another’s knocks are less insistent, more gentleman-like, but should be equally attended to. Listen to His truth. It’s not always comfortable either. And He should get not only His own room, but free access to the entire house.

Some think that this isn’t the right response to Doubt, that he shouldn’t be “let in” at all, that the heavenly police can and will bind him and take him away while he’s still on your doorstep. And maybe you’re right; feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section. In my next blog, I will unpack this (imperfect) illustration a bit more by sharing some of my own journey with Doubt.