Dispatches From My Dining Room (No 3): A COVID-19 Easter

This Easter weekend was one of the strangest I can remember. Holy Week didn’t feel quite like Holy Week. Easter didn’t feel quite like Easter.

As rather “older” members and sometimes leaders of our last church, we generally hosted large Easter gatherings in our home – the kind of open invitation gathering where everyone brings a dish to share and food and people overflow everywhere. The week leading up to Easter would be full of not only contemplation of Christ and His gift of Himself for us, but also the planning of the main meal and the coordinating of logistics as we tried to work out how to cook and serve a meal for a large group of people in between a church service and toddler naptimes.

This year was different. I’d gotten Easter candy for our kiddos ahead of time (though I forgot to get an Easter egg decorating kit – oops). Matt wanted to make turkey and mashed potatoes, so he took responsibility for that, and I only needed to throw together some simple sides for just our family. We knew we’d be going nowhere, nor would we have any obligations, so we could take a pretty laid back approach to the entire day.

Sarah Bessey’s Holy Week meditations were my saving grace in the days leading up to Easter, the one thing that made me feel like we were, in fact, approaching Easter at all. Having left our church recently, we have been attending another church that we really like, but we’re not exactly plugged in yet, so we’re not even really connected to church people virtually. We did watch the livestream of that church’s Easter Sunday morning service, though, which was sweet.

The most notable thing about Holy Week for me this year was Saturday. Every other year, it has felt simply like the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – a day to use for cleaning the house and preparing for Easter. And this year it felt almost like the main event – because we are in a Holy Saturday kind of world right now.

I found myself frustrated by the memes that loudly proclaim, “It’s Friday – but Sunday’s coming!”

Yes. That is true. It is so very true.

But the disciples didn’t know that. Jesus’s mother didn’t know that. We can’t just skip over the devastation, the suffering, the agony, the questions, the fear, the anxiety. They were so real. They mattered. That in-between day mattered.

Jesus’s people thought He was the One. They thought He was going to usher in a new era – in which He would rescue them from their Roman conquerors and set them free. They didn’t understand that He came to offer a different sort of rescue and a different sort of freedom. We can look back now at their foolishness, at their failure to understand, and scoff condescendingly. We can dismiss their Saturday, that in-between time in which they had to live with their brokenness, sitting in the reality that they had just witnessed their world fall apart.

Or we can look around us at this Holy Saturday world in which we live right now. There is so much uncertainty. There is so much we don’t know. Schools are shut down, businesses closed. We stay at home. I have not driven my car anywhere in over a month. We all have so many questions.

As of the evening of Thursday, April 14, Johns Hopkins is reporting 2,158,250 cases worldwide with 144,243 deaths. Within the United States, there are 662,045 cases with 28,998 deaths. Of those, 5,560 cases (with 170 deaths) are in Missouri. Unemployment is ravaging the country, with more than 20 million people filing claims in 4 weeks.

And no one knows what to do to fix it. We wait for doctors and scientists to develop a vaccine. We wonder if there might be treatments for the virus, medications to mitigate its effects, to decrease the probability of its fatality. Politicians debate when we should reopen the economy and get people back to work, uncertain of how best to care for millions of suffering people – or perhaps uncertain of how people will weigh the loss of others’ lives against the loss of their own financial security as they decide how to vote this fall, wondering if perhaps a loss of a couple million lives would give them a more appealing result than the continuing job losses of millions more. Our governor today extended Missouri’s stay-at-home order from April 24 to May 3. That is only a little over two weeks away, but so much can change in two weeks. We’ll see what happens. For now – we stay home, and we wait. It’s a dark, Holy Saturday kind of time.

And yet…we can also enjoy the glimmers of Easter hope. We can see some moments of flickering beauty –

Kiddos watching a dancer worship with her talent as part of the Easter church service we watched.

Snuggles with my little kids.

Andrea Bocelli singing Amazing Grace to the empty plaza in Milan – giving of what he has to sing out hope to a hurting world.

And Easter dinners with family.

May there someday be a fulfillment of that Easter morning hope after our time of Holy Saturday darkness.

And in the meantime, may Sarah Bessey’s Easter benediction be true for us all –

May you be given the gift of believing today.

May you know God in the dark.

May you abide in the country of grace even while you are in exile.

May you know and experience God With Us.

May God wipe away every tear from your eye, may there be no more death or mourning or pain – someday.

May everything be made right, may the old order of things pass away.

Even if you are beginning the resurrection from the dark, may the light break through.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life,

and so may it be well with your soul.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves matter. In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a meme floating around that illustrates this powerfully.

But it applies more broadly, as well. I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ve told myself throughout my life. I remember, in my twenties, desperately wanting Matt to get a good job, so that I could quit my job and have babies and stay home and raise them. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself when that wasn’t happening. Part of that was truly a desire of my heart – from the time I was little, I have always been determined that I wanted to have children and build a family. My new year’s resolution at the age of 4 was to have lots of babies! And I wanted to take care of my babies – I had worked in daycare, and I knew that I didn’t want my kids spending 40+ hours a week there. But also, I had fully embraced the story that good Christian women got married, had babies, and quit their jobs. As a rule-following perfectionist, obviously this was what I was going to do. I remember being absolutely shocked when my therapist at the time suggested that not everything was absolutely black and white, and perhaps there was a way that I could have children while also working. WHO KNEW?!?

And now, at the age of 37, I have had (and adopted) the babies. I am raising them (while working part time). We have a good life. And yet – I wonder about the stories I am embracing and occupying.

It is ironic to me that a major catalyst for both Matt and me examining the stories we tell ourselves was our participation in the evangelical movement of adoption. Adoption seemed, on the surface, to contain the perfect story of beauty and redemption – there is a child who has no family, and I step in and become their family, just like God had adopted me into His family while I, a sinner, had been an orphan separated from Him, and we all celebrate this triumph. But wait. That child DID have a family at one point. Why do they not have a family anymore? Could there be evil involved there? Perhaps that evil is direct. Maybe there was trafficking. Perhaps it is murkier – pervasive systems of injustice, poverty, and racism. Also, need it be said that I am no savior? Any story I tell in which the analogy sets me up to be the God-figure deserves to be questioned. And while my adoption into God’s family is described as a transition from sin and brokenness to love and wholeness, my child left one beautiful language and culture in order to be assimilated into another lifestyle – that is a loss. The reality is far more gray than the story we tell.

I began to realize that that might be true for other stories, too. I’m reading Glennon Doyle’s book, Untamed.

She writes of women, “[W]e do not honor our own bodies, curiosity, hunger, judgment, experience, or ambition. Instead, we lock away our true selves. Women who are best at this disappearing act earn the highest praise: She is so selfless. Can you imagine? The epitome of womanhood is to lose one’s self completely” (p 116).

I wonder – where is my self? I don’t know.

I spent the first seven years of Matt’s and my marriage working to pay off debt and support him as he pursued the career of his dreams, and I followed him to Missouri once he got that job offer for which we had both yearned. We had our first baby in 2010 and brought home our last in 2016, and I have fought to get everyone set up with every medical treatment and service that they need. I have been homeschooling everyone. These are good things. I have wanted to do every single one of them.

I have watched other people’s children and delivered more meals than I can count. I have met with people to talk about all manner of struggles and offer what counsel I could. Those are also good things.

But I also wonder – am I living the life that God designed me to live? Am I using all of the gifts He has given me? Am I experiencing the resonance that comes with doing what I was born to do?

Glennon Doyle also writes, “I quit spending my life trying to control myself and began to trust myself. We only control what we don’t trust. We can either control our selves or love our selves, but we can’t do both. Love is the opposite of control. Love demands trust” (p 116).

I excel at self-control.

And she says specifically of motherhood, “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist…When we call martyrdom love we teach our children that when love begins, life ends. This is why Jung suggested: There is no greater burden on a child than the unlived life of a parent. What if love is not the process of disappearing for the beloved but of emerging for the beloved? What if a mother’s responsibility is teaching her children that love does not lock the lover away but frees her? What if a responsible mother is not one who shows her children how to slowly die but how to stay wildly alive until the day she dies? What if the call of motherhood is not to be a martyr but to be a model?” (p 128).

I do not feel like I am wildly alive.

I debate with myself about whether this matters. Is this just a first world problem? Am I having a mid-life crisis? Do other people feel this way? Am I selfish to want to feel wildly alive?

I believe in a wholehearted love of my people. I believe that love is sometimes – often – sacrifice. Jesus tells us, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Even as He laid down His life, He did not lay down His self. He fulfilled all of who He was as He lived – and died – on earth.

Am I fulfilling my self as I go about my daily life? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I like my life. I like the work I do. I want to keep doing it. And yet, I think there is more to it than being whatever anyone else needs me to be in any given moment. I don’t know what that looks like. Glennon Doyle writes, “Heartbreak delivers your purpose…We all want purpose and connection. Tell me what breaks your heart, and I’ll point you toward both” (p 269).

I just started the book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom, by Kelley Nikondeha, last weekend. In her introduction, Sarah Bessey writes, “For too long the notion of biblical womanhood has felt weak and ineffectual, a cookie-cutter version of a 1950s sitcom that didn’t even exist in real life, and yet it crippled and silenced generations of women in the church. In Defiant, Kelley lays out a feast for us of the truth about biblical womanhood: the resistance, the strength, the civil disobedience, the collaboration, the truth-telling, the drumming, the wit, the holy liberated power of women who know their God. She connects everything she learned from the women of Exodus to the women of our past and our time whose subversive strength continues to spell the downfall of evil and injustice. In these pages, you will learn to recognize women at work. This book is more than permission; it’s a clear call to rise up to the Exodus mandate for all of us” (p x-xi).

That sounds so inspiring for me. I wonder, can I be part of that?

I don’t really know what to do or how to do it.

I want to try to figure it out. I want to be part of that story.

God as Gendered

Years ago, a book called The Shack was released and stirred a great deal of controversy within the evangelical Christian world, in part because of its portrayal of God the Father as a large Black woman. Interested in what it was really all about, I picked up a copy of the book and actually enjoyed it a great deal. No, I don’t picture God the Father as a large Black woman – but neither do I picture Him as an old white dude with a flowing, snow-white beard, XY chromosomes, and a penis. The God who exists outside of space and time, who spoke the universe into being, creating it ex nihilo, who created us in His image – I don’t think He can be reduced to either of those human-like representations.

I liked what the God character said in the book, when asked why She was showing up as a woman – “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you…Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your Father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?” The main character, “knew she was right, and he realized the kindness and compassion in what she was doing. Somehow, the way she had approached him had skirted his resistance to her love. It was strange and painful and maybe even a little bit wonderful.”

Isn’t that who and what God is? Showing up in ways we don’t expect? Looking different than what we thought? Demonstrating compassion and kindness? Working in our lives in ways that are strange and painful and wonderful?

I just finished reading Sarah Bessey’s latest book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, and one of the most encouraging parts of it was her description of her thought process in imagining God mothering her.

She writes, “Most of us identify God in parental terms as a father – and that is deeply meaningful to me as well…But just as my own father gave me a glimpse of God’s good character, so did my mother. She could not be erased from the goodness of God’s expression…I find that the older I get, the more I care for the ones I love and for the world, the more I need both – I need both the energy of the mother and of the father. I need the fullness of the expression of God, not a lopsided caricature of either. And in times of suffering or loss or exhaustion, it has turned out that I needed a mother” (p. 172-173).

And she tells of how this has played out in her life recently, saying, “This has been the question God has given to me as a practice of spiritual discernment during my life with chronic pain: How would God like to mother me today? If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today? It’s a great question to ask in prayer when I feel scattered and exhausted and empty” (p. 172). She notes, in her discussion of self-comfort versus self-care that, “Perhaps self-care is simply joining with God to care for ourselves as a mother would care for us” (p. 170).

I am well aware that this idea of God as Mother – or, really, as anything other than an old white dude – can be controversial among Christians. One of Rachel Held Evans’s last tweets before she died was, “I’ve written four books, hundreds of blog posts, and dozens of articles, and only once have I used a feminine pronoun for God. People still point to that as a reason I should be killed in order to quicken my eternal torment in hell. No joke.”

And yet, there is imagery of God as a mother in multiple Bible passages. Isaiah 66:13 says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Psalm 131:2 says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).

I’m finding myself comforted tonight, thinking about God as both Father and Mother. I am encouraged as I think about the difference between self-comfort and self-care and how this image that Sarah Bessey sets forth of, ” If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today?” can be a guide for me as I move forward. And I am thankful for the men and women who have gone before me, who are reflecting back for us the wildness, the nurture, and the utterly-beyond-gendered-ness of the Living God.

We Left Our Church This Year

In a recent post, I alluded to the fact that this year has been tough. There are so many factors that have been at play in that.

One big one, though, has been a spiritual questioning, an uncertainty.

I became a Christian as a sophomore in college, and I spent the next decade generally feeling pretty at home in evangelical Christianity. Sure, there were some areas about which I wasn’t sure exactly what to think. And there were segments of evangelical Christianity with which I felt I fit more than others. But I fit.

And then came the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. I’d already known that Matt and I were more progressive than many other evangelicals. We voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

But 2015-2016 felt different – in particular because of the rise of Trump and because so many evangelical Christians supported him, seemingly wholeheartedly. He was famously quoted as saying, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” In my mind, it is a problem if your opinion of a person or their fitness for office would not change if you were to be confronted with undeniable evidence that the person was a murderer.

We already knew who Trump was. We had heard how he spoke about women. We had seen him mock a disabled reporter. We knew. But the Access Hollywood tapes were a whole new level – a stark confirmation that Trump really was the lascivious, lewd, disrespectful human being we had believed him to be. I thought maybe the position of evangelical Christians would be swayed by this clear moral failure – and for a moment, it seemed that it might be. Wayne Grudem, the author of Systematic Theology, a book I considered for many years to be second to the Bible in its authority, penned an editorial withdrawing his support for Trump.

But then – just ten days later – he again urged voters to choose Trump.

What do you do when someone you once considered to be virtually infallible in his Christian character and wisdom and understanding makes a choice – and urges others to make a choice – that you find clearly morally repugnant? What do you do when you start to identify more with writers like Shannon Dingle (who wrote an incredibly persuasive editorial about why she, as a pro-life woman, was voting for Hillary Clinton) than with Wayne Grudem? What do you do when the voices that speak to you most begin to be people like Sarah Bessey and Jen Hatmaker? When you actually read some of the writings of Rachel Held Evans – whom you’d always, for some reason, dismissed as a rogue inventor of convenient theology – and find that you actually identify with her and her questions and explorations?

What happens when you learn and understand more about the experience of LGBTQ+ individuals and begin to see how important it is that you do not go along with the church’s high-priority, black-and-white stance on an issue that Jesus never saw fit to address once in the Gospels? What about when you have a daughter with a physical disability and you realize how behind white evangelical Christianity is in prioritizing the lives and access of people with disabilities? What about when you know that her experience – and your experience as her family – at your own church has not always worked for your family and is heading toward another season of not working as well as it should? What happens as you realize that the differences between your own stance on gender roles and your church’s is growing, not shrinking – and on top of that, your three daughters are racing toward adulthood? What about when you begin to think about the ways in which church structure – a topic you’d always considered pretty uninteresting – actually matters a great deal to the ways in which relationships within the church function and the health of those relationships? And what happens when you realize that, within your sphere, there are some questions it would not be okay to ask and some answers it would not be okay to give?

If you are me, you begin to investigate – quietly. You begin to question things that you used to believe were black-and-white certainties. You read books. You talk to people you respect. You realize that there are so many more questions than there are answers. Sometimes you do have answers – but those answers are not always the same as the answers the people you have revered as heroes of the faith believe to be true. And sometimes you come to believe that the questions might stand on their own – with answers to be unknown in perpetuity.

And you realize that you can no longer stand in a place of claiming Truth in all of these matters. You no longer believe that the answers are all black and white and certain. You have been given new glasses, your vision has deepened, and you now see the grays.

There is a discontent in the questions. You miss having the answers. You didn’t mean to trade your answers for questions. You thought you were chasing new answers, and you still hope that someday you will find them, but you realize that for now, you are being asked to sit with the questions.

But there is also a peace. There is a space for the not knowing. There is a space for the investigating. There is time for the paths and the future to unfold. There is freedom in that but also fear. You wonder what the future holds – and you don’t know. You are now conscious of the fact that you cannot see the entirety of the path your life is taking – you never really could, but now you know it.

As you contemplate a separation from your church, you realize that you have spent so long conflating the voice of your church and the voice of God that you are no longer able to distinguish between the two of them. You know that the survival of your heart depends upon your relearning to recognize the voice of God. You feel a little bit like Elijah, standing out in the wilderness, waiting and listening – wondering if the voice of the Lord is going to be in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. You know in your heart that it is not – but you also don’t know whether you will recognize His voice when the low whisper comes. You hope desperately that you will – and you know that you have to try.

And you resign your membership in your church. You cry and you mourn and you grieve. You talk to your therapist. These were your people for 12 years. You served together in ways too numerous to count. You brought your babies home to this church. You have shared your life with these people, and you know that some of those relationships will be altered. You have no desire to walk away from these people. But you no longer feel like you fit in this particular institutional manifestation of the church.

It feels a little bit like becoming untethered. Where you were once firmly stationary, set in your little place in the big world, you are now adrift. You feel more alone, more separate from a group, than you have felt in a long time. Part of you feels free to breathe in that new alone-ness; and part of you feels lonely. You are able to explore much more broadly the world around you. You are now free falling, and oh, my God, it is beautiful! But it is wild and terrifying, as well. You wonder – the God of the universe, that Being whose essence you once foolishly thought could be captured in a theology book, whom you once thought you were close to understanding as well as was humanly possible – will He catch you?

And you hope in the wisdom of the Internet age that you have seen so often before.

You don’t know what this journey forward will look like. But you place one foot in front of the other and you trust that God is still writing your story, and that He is good. Sarah Bessey writes in Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, “When we try to script our own resurrections, we miss the places where God wants to surprise us with a more full, more whole expression of healing than we could ever imagine” (p. 157). You feel great comfort in that but also great wonder. You wait, listening, for the low whisper, and you wonder what it will say, and what your story will hold.