Alone in Africa {A Story of Waiting and Advent}

Kenyan countryside
Kenyan countryside, from my bus window.

Two years ago, I flew to Nairobi for a dear friend’s wedding. It would be a whirlwind trip with only five days on the ground in Africa, my first visit to this continent. I would spend three days meeting Gracie’s new Kenyan family and friends, frosting cakes, and, finally, putting on a red dress and curling my hair to be bridesmaid. But for those first two days, I would take a bus to Mbale, Uganda, to meet Brenda and Remmy, my sponsored children.

My flight arrives late evening, and I only get a few hours of sleep before I have to get up to catch the bus. We drive as close as we can to the station, then make our way through the crowds, Gracie and her fiancée, Ken, seeing me safely on the bus before leaving.

I take one of the closest seats to the door, the stairs down and below my feet, the sun destined to bake me through the windows once it has fully risen. I am carrying two child’s backpacks, each stuffed with toys and school supplies and toiletries, along with my own clothes and my camera. I am bringing no books to read, only my journal and nine Advent cards with a picture on one side and a one- or two-sentence reflection on the other.

The day wears on, the sweat accumulating on my back and at the bridge of my nose. I see zebras on the side of the road once, and monkeys, and an egret and a cow lying down nose to nose. Short trees cover the oh-so-green rolling hills, and plots of land are marked as “NOT FOR SALE.”

I order the beans and chicken everyone else is ordering when we stop for lunch, and I struggle to understand the heavily accented English around me.

I catch snippets of bus announcements, and after a while, when the conductor mentions Kampala but not Mbale, I start to worry that I am not on the right bus. The conductor knows only a little English, so I call Ken on my basic phone, and he talks to the conductor, and then Irene, my local contact at the center, talks to the conductor, but the accents, rendered difficult in person, are nearly impossible for me to unravel over the phone.

Finally, I break through the communication barrier and learn that my first inkling was correct: We are driving north now, as we should be, but when we are still two hours from Mbale, the bus will not take that turn but will instead veer west, bound for Kampala.

I approach the conductor again with my phone, and after he speaks to Ken or Irene in their shared language, I press the phone to my ear, hearing all but understanding very little. I repeat this scene again and again, sometimes with another traveler instead of the conductor, and I piece together more and more of the plan we’re forming, while simultaneously second-guessing everything I think I know of that plan, worrying that no one else understands the situation as I do, that I will be stranded and forgotten.

But in between the phone calls, in between the stops, while this is still the road I am supposed to be traveling, I have nothing to do but watch and wait.

I see Kenya from my window, hundreds of people living their lives: Women selling potatoes on the side of the road, men sitting on the hillside while their sheep or cows or donkeys graze, children playing soccer and holding hands, people walking, walking, always walking. Sometimes, a child skips instead of walks, and my heart skips too.

When I’m not looking out the window, I pull out those Advent cards from the small cloth purse tucked in my bag. Today is day 7 of Advent, and today’s picture is of a full moon in a star-speckled sky presiding over a mountain range. A lightness at the horizon promises that night will soon end. Alicia Heater drew this picture, and on the other side, Cara Strickland wrote, “In my family, we set out the nativity scene on the mantel, without Jesus. The lonely manger reminds me that in this season we embrace waiting empty.”

I read and reread that card and the six that came before it, filling myself with pictures of small lights in the darkness, of snatches of carols and Bible verses about the Incarnation, of words about hope and waiting, memory and silence.

“‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask the Israelites. ‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask Zechariah and Elizabeth. ‘Have you forgotten me?’ I ask.”

I think about how I’m waiting for this long day to end, and how I forget about people in developing countries until they’re right in front of me.

Advent cards
The Advent cards. Artwork by Alicia Heater, reflections (on back) by Cara Strickland.

We stop at the border near sunset, and the crossing takes hours, standing in lines in first one building and then another, filling out forms and getting my visa stamped, and then lots of waiting, milling around on the red patches of dirt, waiting for our bus and then waiting for our driver.

Night is falling by the time we start up again; I see very little of Uganda in the darkness.

We reach a busy intersection, and the bus slows across from a hotel. They are stopping for me. “This is it!” people are saying, everyone now aware of my plight, my confusion, my anxiety. I gather my bags and thank the conductor. A man walks with me across the street while the bus waits for him.

I sit in the dimly lit lobby, surrounded by my possessions, for another two hours. Others notice me waiting and offer to help, but I am now where I need to be. Finally, Irene arrives and we drive the rest of the way to Mbale. I can now relax. It is nearly midnight, and a trip I thought would take six or eight hours has taken 18.

I fall asleep in my fancy hotel room thinking about the kindness of strangers, and I awaken to palm trees and a fancy buffet breakfast and excitement.

I meet Brenda, a teenager on the verge of adulthood whom I have been sponsoring for more than 10 years. She is almost as tall as my 5 feet, 9 inches. I meet her mother and stepfather and siblings, and I see where she goes to school. She is wearing an ankle-length blue-and-black dress, and I recognize her immediately. I can tell she recognizes me too. She can’t stop smiling. She shows me old letters and pictures I’ve sent her over the years. She speaks less English than I expected, but someone is always there to translate.

For weeks, I didn’t know if my other sponsored child, Remmy, would be able to come. He is from another part of Uganda, at least half a day’s journey away. I was planning to mail him his gifts once I was in the country, but then I found out that they would be able to bring him to Mbale after all. He is here with Godfrey, a former sponsored child himself, and they also came on the bus. He is eight years old and shy and doesn’t smile for the camera at first, but eventually we bond over selfies, and he delights in taking pictures of everyone and everything with my DSLR camera. He is wearing a tan suit and dress shoes, but seems more comfortable, more himself, after he takes off the coat.

We eat a meal together, and the center staff share Brenda’s file with me, and then we take the van to her family’s house and I meet everyone. Remmy is there too, sandwiched on the couch between us and treated as part of the family. They open their presents, and then they give me presents I had not expected: a purse with black and white and red beads that Brenda made for me, and a letter from Remmy’s mother that means more to me than I can say. I wish I could have met his family too.

The day fills me up to the brim, worth every twist and turn it took to get here. Before I know it, I am waiting on the side of the road for my bus. Brenda and Remmy and I sneak in a few more pictures, a few more memories, and then the bus arrives and we say our hasty goodbyes.

With Brenda and Remmy
With Brenda and Remmy, right before I left Mbale.

The return trip is uneventful. I sit next to another American all the way to Nairobi. Through the night, I sleep and I wake and I cross back into Kenya and I sleep again. I am not alone and this time I don’t need my Advent cards to comfort me.

So many of my experiences with Christianity have soured, but the season of Advent remains sweet to me. I have a soft spot for “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and the candles and the waiting. I don’t know how much is true and how much is myth in the traditional Christmas story, but somehow, for a few weeks, I’m able to suspend my cynicism and let my heart expand in the darkness.

Advent has never been more special to me than it was that December in Africa, and especially that day when all I had to keep me company were those cards, when I was waiting in the unknown and could only gaze at the pictures and the words and think about all the others who have also felt lost and forgotten.

 

Alicia Heater’s illustrations can be found at slightlystationery.com, and Cara Strickland’s writing at carastrickland.com.

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).

Listen to the Longing

Travel is lovely; travel is lonely.

I know loneliness very well … both the loneliness of a crowded room and the loneliness of my own room. I know the loneliness of being the only one and the every one.

I know longing too.

Many words are associated with these four weeks before Christmas, these four weeks they call Advent: Expectation. Anticipation. Hope. Waiting. Arrival. Come. Longing.

Longing.

One quarter of December I will spend simply getting from one place to another. Another two quarters, roughly, I will spend being in those other places. And this doesn’t count all the time spent preparing and recovering, the prologue and the epilogue.

This month, I will be spending a lot of time with the new and the old and the in-between. I don’t know if this will make the longing heavier or lighter than if I were to pass the time in my new home, in my new normal.

The longing that unites us Christians is the longing for Christ, the longing for all to be made right in a shitty world. I think of these words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

But there are other longings: For that to end which has plagued us for far too long. For that to begin which has evaded us for far too long. For grace in the long, long middle. For purpose. For peace. For love. For knowing deeply and being known.

The season of Advent is the first season of the church calendar. It is a beginning, of sorts, but it also meets us in the messy middle. Whatever longings we’re carrying when we light that first candle and sink into the cold and the light, the invitation is the same: To name it and sit with it. To not hurry past it or push it down or change its name, but to say, “This is what I’m desperate for. This is what I’m feeling around for in the dark. This is my ache.”

At least, that’s the invitation I hear, when I slow down enough to listen.

And after all the preparing and the packing, once travel is underway and there is little to do but wait and sit and be carried to distant lands, if you let yourself, time will slow down. You may find in yourself someone other than a list-maker, a doer, a blur among other blurs. You may find longing again.

And that longing, it is lonely, and it is lovely.

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).

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 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 10: Why did he use mud?

(This is Day 10 of 31 Days in the Word)

He could’ve healed the man with a simple word or touch. People knew this. Maybe that was why the word spread … and the threats. There was no question that people were really being healed. You can’t disguise a trick in a word.

The more basic the means, the more likely people would know they were witnessing a true miracle.

So why did Jesus use saliva and dirt to heal one man’s eyes?

As he and his disciples were walking past a beggar, his disciples asked matter-of-factly, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Maybe it was for their benefit.

This poor, uneducated man is just as much my child as you are. He is just as worthy of my time and attention and love. Let me show you.

And he reached down into the dirt and singled out this man of obscurity and lifted him up. It seemed an arbitrary choice, but it was no more arbitrary than God’s decision to form man from dirt rather than speak him into life.

“He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see,” the healed man replied to the Pharisees’ questions.

Maybe it was for the benefit of the man.

He couldn’t look into Jesus’ eyes as he was being healed and see the love there. Jesus had approached him, not the other way around. Others had come in hope; he hadn’t known to come, hadn’t known that the one who could heal him was so near.

This is your chance to believe. Jesus spread the goop onto his unseeing eyes. Will you accept this gift? Will you choose faith? After all, it was up to the man to wash his eyes, to take hold of the gift.

Maybe he needed this unorthodox physical touch to convince him that Jesus was different, that this was a miracle.

Maybe the mud was the fertile soil needed for his faith to grow, as he explained himself and, even in his simplicity, staunchly defended his healer — a man he hadn’t even seen, hadn’t spoken to since he had regained his sight — to the hostile religious men. Unceremoniously and unjustly, they cast him out of the synagogue.

And there, outside the walls, Jesus met him again. The eyes of the one who knew caught the unsure, perhaps frightened, eyes of the one who didn’t know, didn’t recognize.

“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

“And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”

“You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”

“Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

a plant sprouting up from the dirt
photo by poppet with a camera on creative commons (flickr)

Day 8: A Confession From One Who Loves the Bread More

Pieces of bread
photo by Dinner Series on creative commons (flickr)

(This is day 8 of 31 Days in the Word)

Jesus fed the five thousand, and the next day they came back wanting more. What they wanted, though, wasn’t more of him, but more of the bread. And then when he started talking about how he was the bread of life, they pulled back.

When Jesus gives us stuff, we want more and more and more. But when he starts talking about who he is and what that really means, we pull back because it all sounds too strange and radical and uncomfortable.

We forget that he is supposed to be our bread of life.

I want to love the Giver more than I love his bread.

I want to, but it’s hard. I can see the bread, the gifts. The people. The job. My writing. The new-and-improved me. They are all wonderful and life-giving and answers to prayer. But the Giver? I can’t see him.

Sometimes I feel like I do, but do I really? If my negative feelings don’t always reflect truth, how can I trust the positive ones to be accurate? I want to see God, the Giver, but I’m afraid I will never stop second-guessing: What if it’s just my emotions? Or my tiredness? Or these people? Or those people? Or….?

C.S. Lewis wrote this in a letter to someone who had written to him about her upcoming confirmation:

“Don’t count on any remarkable sensations, either at this or your first (or fifty first) Communion. God gives these or not as He pleases. Their presence does not prove that things are especially well, nor their absence that things are wrong. The intention, the obedience, is what matters.”

I want to obey, but first I need to know, deeply. Maybe I do know, and I’m just listening to all the wrong voices and getting too caught up in the chaos of life to remember. Or maybe there’s still something I need to find out, to taste and see, but I just can’t quite glimpse it yet over the wall. That’s why I started this 31-day series: to give myself a box to climb on to see over the wall … or a box to hit me over the head and remind me of the truths I’ve forgotten.

Day 5: The Cup

cup
photo by ConnorConundrum on creative commons (flickr)

Your hands hold tightly to that bone-dry glass cup. Your fingers are rigid and white and if you ever let go, your fingerprints would still be there.

You remember days when the cup was full and you drank long, replenishing draughts and you lived life with laughter and abandon. You dream of those days now, and you pray they’ll come again.

The cup is your life. It dominates your prayers, it dominates your hopes and fears, and it dominates your days.

If filled, the nectar of the cup would supposedly fix everything. Maybe your nectar is a job or a relationship or good health or a better this or that.

You are clinging, and there seems to be no way out. No way out unless, somehow, your cup is filled. Then life can (and most assuredly will) resume.

But what if the cup breaks? What if it wasn’t made to be your everything? What if all the pressure you’re putting on it is just too much for a physical thing, and you find yourself staring in horror at the pieces and shards that were supposed to hold your dreams come true? What if the cup is filled and then it breaks, and as the liquid spills out over your hands the cold realization spills over your heart that this was not the water of life I thought it was.

Blessed is the one whose eyes are opened.

Put your hope in the cup that cannot break and will never run dry, and whose water really is the water of life.

John 4:13-14: “Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

This is day 5 of 31 Days in the Word.

Day 4: Brought to Wide and Wild Life

(This is day 4 of 31 Days in the Word)

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night…”

I can’t help it. Whenever I read this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus, I hear in my head the voices of the Two Witnesses and Tsion Ben-Judah, from the Left Behind dramatic audio series. Say what you will about those books (and believe me, I have plenty to say), this adaptation had some amazing voice acting.

Including in a pivotal nighttime scene where a desperate rabbi-turned-Christian found himself talking in Scripture-code with two supernatural old men.

Moments like that stick with me. Good words brought to wide and wild life are never forgotten.

The Crucible
“The Crucible,” a Taylor University Theatre production. The best play I saw in college, and one full of many good words spoken well. (photo courtesy of Tim Kerigan)

There’s just something about hearing the Bible read with emotion, full stop and for its own sake. For its own sake, not for the sake of a point I’m making or a paper I’m writing or any means-to-an-end you can think of.

The longer I work in radio, the more I understand that it isn’t just the what you say that matters, but also the how and why.

Imagine if we got to see this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus brought to life. We wouldn’t just hear “the best summary of the Christian faith,” or “what it means to be born again,” or “the most well-known verse in the Bible.” From the acknowledged ruler of the Jews, we would hear confusion and a humbling struggle to comprehend and maybe even some embarrassment because he feels like he’s asking stupid questions, but this is too important to stay quiet and dignified and pretend he understands. And from the other, the unacknowledged king of the Jews, we would hear love and patience that draw people out from behind their masks, and wisdom that is gentle but sure and bears no trace of the know-it-all.

Jesus the teacher, Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Christ. Jesus with his prayers on the Mount of Olives and his sermons on hillsides and his hands on the heads of the needy. Jesus with his bread and wine at the Last Supper, and his body hanging pitifully on the cross, and his scarred hands palms up and outstretched before a group of timid men.

We have many pictures of Jesus fixed in our minds. Let’s allow those pictures to expand and fill our whole consciousness. Let’s add the sound and watch. Not as we would watch a movie, in front of the box with the popcorn and the sporadic chatter, but as we would watch a play — riveted as those who see the flesh-and-blood people before them and hear the words and music and forget it isn’t real. Because this one, this one is real.