Easter: What Difference Does It Make?

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Easter came and went. I celebrated the Jesus’ resurrection by attending church, listening to the Hallelujah chorus, and dying Easter eggs with family. My social media was filled with people in flowery spring outfits, taking pictures in the sun. I saw smiles, Easter bunnies, and Christian graphics.

And yet the whole time, I was haunted by this question:

What difference does it make?

I heard this question posed by the minister at my church yesterday, and initially I didn’t give it much thought. Theologically, I know the range of interpretive rhetoric regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection. I know that the resurrection is supposed to change everything. It is *the* central Christian holiday, the holiday that shows that death has been overcome and Jesus lives.

Then I woke up this morning. Still sleepy, I scroll through social media and see smiling faces and phrases like, “He is risen.” Intellectually, I believe that with my whole heart. Intellectually and theologically, I agree that the cross and resurrection change everything about this life and about the next.

I look at the rising sun and hear my dog barking, ready for her walk. The weather has been abnormally warm for this time of year in Michigan, which is a scary omen of the state of worldwide climate change.

I also woke up early with a racing heart, which is a normal phenomenon given my cluster of anxiety symptoms, which never seem to give me rest, no matter what medication I’m on. There is more talk in the news about nuclear bombs and discord in the Middle East, reminding me that 80% of evangelical Christians, all of whom likely celebrated Easter yesterday, voted for a man who spent Holy Week on Twitter rampages and completed a missile attack while eating chocolate cake in his golf club.

In this moment, if I’m really, truly, being honest, it doesn’t feel like I’m living in the world of a resurrected Christ.

In the sermons I heard over the weekend, I listened to variants of this: If the resurrection is real, we need not have any worries about things going on in our lives or even death. We are freed up to be agents of the Kingdom of God in all aspects of our lives.

While I agree with this, it also misses a lot of the nuances of what it means to be an Easter people in a world that is anything but. Yes, God is in control, and the promise of future resurrection and the redemption of all things are things to which we can cling, but the world we live in is still so, so broken. How can we enforce religious platitudes when there is so much pain that glimmers on the news, in the sirens down the street, and in broken relationships or lives?

My questions are far from unique, and to gain some perspective, I’d like to take us back to that first Easter for a moment. The story of Holy Week is often diluted through our 21st century Western Christian/ post-Christian/ post-Enlightenment lens. The first Easter was anything but pretty floral dresses, church lilies, and spiritual platitudes. It was revolutionary, dangerous, inherently political, and life-changing.

Jesus’ death and resurrection is a whirlwind story of community, servant love and leadership, betrayal, torture, death, abandonment, waiting, pain, anticipation, joy, surprise, shock, worship, terror, and confusion.

Reading the disciples’ words throughout the Gospels, you can almost hear Jesus roll his eyes through the pages, like, “Why don’t you guys understand literally ANYTHING I’m telling you?”

Prevalent in Jewish ideology at the time was the Messianic expectation that when the Messiah would come, he (or she, who knows) would establish a political rule, and the Jewish people would once again have political control. This was enticing especially in light of the oppressive Romans. Jesus’ disciples comment about Jesus establishing an earthly kingdom at different points. Cue Jesus’ exasperation.

Jesus taught ideas that far departed from the religious ideas at the time. He talked about a Kingdom that was political and subversive. It would establish shalom, the peace and restoration of all things, but not in the way anybody believed. When Jesus talked about his death and resurrection, it was not something the disciples could even comprehend at the time.

In the face of opposition and pressure, Jesus chose the right thing, even when it was hardest of all. He was not afraid to speak up against injustice and rules of his time. When accused of heresy and sentenced to death, Jesus was silent. On the cross, Jesus forgave those who killed them and extended love to criminals dying next to him. His last words involved called God, “Abba,” that can be translated as the endearing term, “Daddy.”

Jesus was not the Messiah people expected, but he was the Messiah we needed.

Thinking back to that first Easter, the quiet mourning of women, the fear and surprise when met with angels at an empty tomb, the raw emotion of the disciples… It was not cliché nor did it have anything to do with eggs or bunnies. It was beautiful and mysterious. Too often we become desensitized to its depth and power because we have heard the story so many times. Too often do we resort to simple truisms rather than address how Easter inherently shifts perspective and changes lives for those who believe in a risen God.

In the days, and weeks, and centuries that have followed Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians are forced to live in an uncomfortable tension: Jesus’ resurrection is complete. He is sitting at the right hand of the father, advocating for us, loving us. Yet, the resurrection of all things is not here. While Christians aren’t supposed to fear death, many of us do. Many of us worry about our sins being forgiven, and then there are the questions about hell. What about our loved ones who don’t believe? What about the broken earth? We say in church there is hope for us here on earth as well as the life to come, but do we believe it? Sometimes I don’t.

There is so much tangible, visible resurrection on this earth to point to as symbols of God’s life, death, resurrection, and promises. But there is also so much pain. Easter comes every year, but even there, I feel anticipation. I see rustles of resurrection to come, and I celebrate God’s resurrection every year, but there is not yet a final Easter. Meaning, the final Easter season when all is made whole that has been broken, and the Kingdom of God rules a new heaven and new earth.

I saw this so clearly the day I got engaged. It was the happiest day of my life, the day when I agreed to marry my best friend, a man God has placed so gracefully and lovingly in my life. The very next day, I woke up to hear that a girl whose cancer journey I followed on Facebook had died. She was 26. One of her last wishes was to get married to her loyal boyfriend who stuck with her through what was first believed to be treatable cancer, which then turned into uncontrollable cancer that had reached her bone marrow when she died. The girl’s mom said that a few days before her death, this girl was semi-conscious, and her boyfriend slipped a ring on her finger. They don’t know if she was aware enough to comprehend. I looked down at my own left ring finger, and tears came. It wasn’t fair, I whispered to God. Why did you deny her this?

So back to my question: What difference does it make?

The story of Easter makes no difference at all unless these things are true: That the God who defines and embodies love lived a perfect life only to die as a criminal and was raised on the third day; That this embodiment of God with holes in his hands is seated at the right hand of the father and intercedes constantly on our behalf.

Easter shows that nothing in all the world, not the future or past, neither angels nor demons, nor heaven nor hell can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). This story shifts our perspective. It’s a game-changer. Easter shows us that God is trustworthy and he keeps his promises, even though that can be hard to hold on to in a fractured world.

Just like the disciples misses Jesus’ words even when Jesus spent 24/7 with them, I am not able to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. I cannot understand why certain things are the way they are, but I know God is good, and if he says, “It is finished,” then it is.

Part of Revelation 21:5 kept popping into my head all Easter weekend, “See, I am making all things new!”

Honestly, my first instinct is to challenge it, “What about the state of American politics? What about Syria and North Korea? Why is the American church so consumed with abortion and homosexuality at the expense of the poor and vulnerable? Why isn’t everything new already? You came 2000+ years ago!”

I imagine God smiling at me with love. No words, just love. Just like my therapist smiles at me when I say something so ridiculous that she feels no need to respond, but she’ll still give me a symbol she still cares. My therapist never says, “Okay, we’ve been over this 1000 times and you don’t get it still.” She smiles, and she stays with me, knowing that I will figure it out in time.

God always reminds me, gently, that there is indeed a new order in this realm and the next. It is not up to me to figure out every nuance, nor should I play God and dictate what is and isn’t fair; it is up to me to further God’s kingdom as much as I can with the time I have. With the rustle of the wind, the smile of my loving fiancé, and laughing with friends, I see soft glimpses of the open tomb and hands with holes. On a good day, in a good moment, I feel in my bones that the Kingdom is here already, and it beckons my attention. God keeps his promises. He always has and always will.

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But You Hope

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*This is a poem I wrote several years ago as a theological and emotional reaction to Holy Week, pain and resurrection, and the tension of the now-and-not-yet Kingdom of God.

That moment of agony when you realize
that nothing in the world

no amount of numbing
or screaming
or hiding
can make it feel okay again.

you are left with a void,
an absence of what should be
and nothing can be done about it.

you are left there, dying
holding onto the faint hope of a Being much greater than yourself
that is able to make these dead, broken, dry bones come back to life again

you do not know, but you hope that God can cling onto you
when you are not able to cling onto anything at all

you do not know, but you hope.

On Donald Trump: Post Election Musings 

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On Wednesday morning I woke up as I normally would, snoozing my alarm past the point I should, and groggily leaned to my side to check my phone.

The memories from the night before flashed before me… the increasingly anxiety-ridden faces of the MSNBC newscasters, state after state lighting up in red with the words: ” (state)- Donald Trump: Projected Winner,” stunned texts from my friends, “What is happening?” I remembered in horror as the newscasters dissected Michigan counties, mine and the ones adjacent to me. I remembered a newscaster saying, “Michigan will decide the next president of the United States.” I thought to the many Trump signs I saw canvassing for Hillary and to my conservative family members. My immediate reaction was: Oh my God, it’s up to us, and she’s going to lose. 

I went to bed thinking that it couldn’t be real; still holding on to the faint hope that decency would prevail, that Hillary’s face would be on my Google home screen as our next president when I woke up. “Wake me up when Hillary is our president,” I texted a friend before drifting into sleep.

I was wrong.

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Why You Shouldn’t Call My Eating Disorder A Sin

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My relationship between my faith and eating disorder has been complicated, at best. I said the “Jesus Prayer” at a Christian camp the summer I became anorexic. I proceeded for years in pseudo recovery or full on relapse, all the while left with the question, “Where is God in this?

In the midst of probably my worst relapse, I happened to be interning at a church and was at the height of my cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I was doing daily “quiet times” and working at a church to further the Kingdom of God, and on the other, I was getting more and more out of control with my anorexia. I knew that what I was doing was “wrong,” but I couldn’t seem to stop. There was no praying this relapse away.

At a worship night, I had to leave the room and went outside to cry. I felt so alone and distant from God, and worse yet, I felt like it was my fault. Wasn’t I the one actively choosing to disappear for hours a day to engage in eating disorder behaviors? Wasn’t I the one lying about my obsessive walks saying they were “for worship?” Wasn’t I the one who “wasn’t hungry” at 11 PM after a church event? My supervisor at the time asked me the obvious question, given my emaciated appearance, “Do you have an eating disorder?”

“No, I’m just naturally thin,” I answered in the most innocent Christian church-intern way.

“I thought so,” she smiled. We smiled. Crisis averted.

Even when going to a Christian recovery conference later that summer, I refused to disclose the truth: I had an eating disorder. Nowadays, I’m an open book with that kind of thing, but back then, I felt like it would be a failure to admit that I was struggling with an eating disorder. The entire summer internship I didn’t tell a single person the truth about what was happening for me.

Meanwhile in private… all summer I was coming to the realization of how out of control my eating disorder was getting… again. I was still lying to family, friends, coworkers, and classmates about HOW out of control, but I did at least start seeing a therapist near the church where I worked.

I specifically chose this therapist because I knew she was a Christian, and I thought she could help me. I told her all about how hypocritical I felt, working at a church with a rampant eating disorder. She showed me nothing but love.

In tears, I asked her one day, fearing the response, “Do you think an eating disorder is a sin?”

She didn’t wait two seconds to answer. “I think that’s like saying, ‘Is diabetes a sin?’ ”

She wasn’t judging me.

That was probably the most meaningful minute of therapy in my entire life. Even though I didn’t totally believe her at the time, I remember so much shame lifting when she responded in the way that she did.

Years and two master’s degrees later, I would echo my former therapist’s sentiment that an eating disorder is many things, but sin is not on my list.

And yet…

I recently found out that a church I attended while living in California presented a video testimony about someone recovered (“delivered”) from an eating disorder. Notable in this video testimony is the girl talking about this sin in her life, and she discussed it being “selfish.” She also said that ultimately, the Gospel “marinating in her heart” (these are her literal words, pun probably unintended) “cured” her.

Fifteen years after being first diagnosed with an eating disorder, I have to say, at first I was livid. However, after cooling down, I realized that this “testimony” touches on a few larger issues. I will break them into the categories of: 1) Theological and 2) Societal.

Theology Basics

  1. What does sin mean?

Christians throw the term “sin” into a lot of conversations, but it can mean different things to different people. So here’s what sin means to me (my background is Episcopalian –> turned semi-fundamentalist–> turned Reformed –> turned ?? Protestant with Reformed influences). Sin is anything that is the absence of the shalom, the absolute peace and perfection, of God. As a result of the fall, sin is everywhere in society. People individually sin, there is corporate sin, and there is systemic evil in play in all brokenness of the world. War, earthquakes, climate change, and disease are just examples of how pervasive the brokenness of our world is. HOWEVER, just because something or someone is broken does not mean it is God’s desire for the world. In the Garden of Eden, God laid out a perfect image of what heaven will be like– all humans, in perfect communion with each other, the environment, and God. Regarding personal sin, all humans sin, or fall short of God’s standard. There is no way of earning God’s love by doing good, but we also can’t become unlovable by doing something bad.

2. What does the Bible say about mental illness?

The answer to that is easy: it doesn’t say anything. In 2000 BC or 100 AD, no one was taking Prozac or checking into rehab. The DSM was thousands of years from being created. Mental illness as we understand it now simply wasn’t discussed in Jesus’ time. There are definitely stories in the Bible, that reading them now, I’m kind of like, “Yeah that sounds like schizophrenia.” But the treatment du jour was either leaving the person to die in restraints or conducting straight up doing exorcisms. There are some crazy demon-exorcism stories in the New Testament. However, nothing was mentioned about “mental illness” because that is a societal construct, and relatively recent one, at that.

3. How has the church historically addressed eating disorders?

Again, eating disorders weren’t recognized in their current form until the last few decades. If you look back at The Middle Ages, there are a few saints canonized for their starvation, most notably St. Catherine of Siena, who straight up starved herself to death (sorry Catholics, fasted to death). If you’re interested in the history of starvation/ fasting and faith, there are a few great books on it, such as this one. Now: I am not condoning canonizing anyone for starving, but there was a time in church history when the mainstream church saw excessive fasting as an ideal. Just putting things in perspective.

In conclusion: When I heard on this video testimony that an eating disorder was this girl’s “sin struggle” I was leery. We all define sin differently, and mental illness is not mentioned at all in the Bible, so that’s some hermaneutical gymnastics to come to the conclusion that a culturally defined term, a “sin struggle” could be something that the Bible does not touch on. In my opinion, it comes down to what is seen as personal sin, which I will now address from a wider, societal perspective.

Societal Factors

  1. The myth of an eating disorder as a “choice”

I make a lot of choices in my day: some good, some bad. I chose to have a donut for breakfast. I chose to buy my dog a pet ewok costume on Amazon (sorry not sorry).

A long time ago, I chose to go on a diet. I was 13 and a normal weight and didn’t need to, but I felt like my eating was getting out of control. The diet spiraled quickly, and in a matter of a month, I had full blown anorexia.

While I chose to go on a diet, I did NOT choose to get an eating disorder.

There is a HUGE difference.

As a social worker, I work with people who have severe and persistent mental illness, like schizophrenia. Many people narrate their struggles similarly: they were in college, off to a promising future, when fate got in the way. They perhaps started hearing voices or seeing things that weren’t there and had a psychotic break. They got “sick.”

I have yet to hear anyone call schizophrenia a sin. It is 50% heritable– meaning that if one identical twin has schizophrenia, there is a 50% chance that the other twin will have schizophrenia as well. Schizophrenia is perceived as a genetic issue, an organic chemical imbalance or brain disorder.

BUT… anorexia nervosa is ALSO 50% heritable... meaning there are highly genetic factors associated with this disorder. It is as genetically influenced as schizophrenia.

The brain is still a mystery to us, but we know that genetics, personality, and life circumstances, such as trauma or abuse, are associated with eating disorders. Problematic genetics might be associated with the brokenness of this world, but could it be attributed to a personal choice? I don’t think so.

I think what this reflects is a stigma against eating disorders. I’ve wrote many posts about media glorification of anorexia in particular. I’ve been told that I have so much “willpower” to make myself starve. What people don’t get is that a full blown, diagnosable eating disorder is not sexy, nor is it stoppable without considerable force.

When I was interning at the church in college, I was on what I know now is my “path of no return.” I can control my eating disorder with  up until a certain point, and then, it becomes a monster functioning on its own. Past the “point of no return,” I need residential treatment. It’s almost as if my neuronal pathways have gotten out of whack, and they need extreme treatment to get pointed back to normalcy. That’s not “personal sin” in my book. That is someone struggling with something that is out of his or her hands.

In current mental health legislature, the goal is to have insurance cover mental and physical health care EQUALLY because they are EQUAL issues. Just because we understand diabetes better than we understand anorexia doesn’t mean one should be covered and one shouldn’t. Similarly, I think people have equal “blame” for mental and physical health issues. Just like my previous therapist said to me so many years ago, I am not to blame that I have an eating disorder, similar to how a person with diabetes isn’t blamed for being diabetic.

2. Language and shame

To my last, and most important point: language. The words we use matter. They can speak truth into our lives or they can hurt. Brutal criticism can be memorable for a lifetime. When I saw that a church that I once loved and attended was calling a disorder that I’ve struggled with being “selfish” and a “sin,” it cut me to the core in so many ways. It activates my anger but also my shame. As I’ve discussed, I spent over a decade in an eating disorder, many of those years filled with shame. Shame for my struggle, shame for the way I’ve looked, shame for being who I am. The LAST thing I wanted in times of struggle is being called out as a selfish sinner. I already believed that.

As the church, we should come to those with eating disorders and all other mental health issues with open hands, stigma-free language, and loads of LOVE and GRACE. We should come with open hearts and ears rather than shaking fingers and shaming language.

One reason I didn’t start a blog until almost 2013 is because I didn’t think I was good enough. I wasn’t professional enough, I wasn’t together enough, and I certainly wasn’t healed enough. This article convinced me: No I didn’t have to have it together. There is beauty in the journey of healing rather than only the destination.

There is beauty in the trenches, the gunk, the mess.

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The Good News of Jesus Christ is this:

Sin reigns over this land. There is no part of the world that is untouched by its grip.

But God.

Diseases of all kind, physical and mental, reap havoc on unsuspecting people.

But God.

Christians are busy yelling on street corners about repentance while the homeless person begs for food down at the street light.

But God.

God intervened on this mess of a world, and we know the end of the story. I went to a movie today with the special needs girl I nanny for, and during a difficult part of the movie, she whispered to me, “What happens at the end?” I saw the movie before so I knew, “Everything is going to be alright.”

At the end, shalom will be restored on the new heaven and new earth. No one will ever have an eating disorder, nor will people who had eating disorders be called out for their “selfish sin.” There will be a new order of things, and that new order is love.

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Until then, and I’m going to be completely real with you: we need to chill the fuck out.

I believe that God delivers people from struggles but not always and not completely, this side of heaven. And frankly, those of us in the trenches don’t want to hear the words “what you’re doing is selfish and sinful.”

Let’s play nice and veer on the side of love and inclusion.

I will not tolerate churches preaching about mental illness being sin. I just won’t. It’s really not cool.

I find that many Christians don’t know a lot about mental illness. It is so stigmatized- as if Christians don’t struggle from it like the rest of the general population. Um, well, we do. We might as well talk about it and be REAL.

So please, churches, Christians, don’t call my eating disorder a sin. 

Or do and I’ll have to write another blog post about it.

Whatever.

Your choice.

Becoming a Liberal Christian Part III: Seminary (Or A Strange Experience I Would Do Again)

(Confused Looks)

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Usually when I tell people I’ve been to seminary, they give me a blank stare, as if I’ve told them, “I’ve decided to move to Mars,” or, “In my previous life I sold pineapples to people on a cruise ship.” A lot of times I get, “Isn’t that just for men?” (Answer: Nope, you’re thinking of a Catholic seminary that specifically trains men for priesthood). Or, “Did you pray a lot?” (Answer: Nope, people at seminary don’t just pray or sing hymns all day. Christian seminaries are academic institutions and you do… you know…  academic things.)

People’s minds are further blown when I say I studied clinical psychology at seminary. “Wait so you studied clinical psychology?” “Yes.” “But you went to seminary?” “I studied psychology at seminary.” “I’m confused.” “You can study psychology at the seminary I attended.” “Oh….”

In addition to being Rob Bell’s alma mater, Fuller is the only evangelical seminary that celebrates women in ministry (in theological terms, egalitarian). Overall, in complete nerdy disclosure, I was over the moon about my course schedule. My program at Fuller Seminary consisted of a full clinical psychology curriculum, with the addition of theology classes. I had no idea what to expect, but I was ready.

… or so I thought. These things never turn out the way you think they will.

“Come Follow Me”: A Dangerous Call

What I expectedI thought I would learn new things about God at Fuller.

What actually happened: My mind was blown completely… which I was not anticipating. After graduating from college with a minor in biblical and religious studies, I was pretty cocky. I was no longer arguing with Sunday School teachers, but I had advanced to theological discourse with other academic and pastoral individuals. I was good at theology, and I knew it.

Fuller gave me humility.

My theology classes took me verse by verse through the Sermon on the Mount and the Book of Matthew, and the more I learned, the more stunned and amazed by the beauty of Jesus I became. I took classes from Mennonites and other pacifists who questioned whether violence is permissible in the Christian life. We talked about tough issues, the global church, diversity, and social justice. Fuller helped open my eyes to my narrow, white, privileged view of Christianity.

One of my favorite classes was Systematic Theology: Ecclesiology and Eschatology, a class that sounds boring and theoretical, but was actually amazing. My professor would wear a “Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy” t-shirt to class. You know, Jonathan Edwards, the dude who wrote the ever famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I thought the shirt was hilarious.

I wrote my final exegetical paper for that class on a Jonathan Edwards sermon, called, “Heaven, A World of Love,” which is in stark contrast to the hell fire and brimstone of his most famous sermon. Turns out Jonathan Edwards could be a pretty loving guy, it is unfortunate that history has remembered him primarily for his discourse on hell.

I loved it all, but most of all I learned not to love theology as a practice in and of itself. Learning about God is well and good and all, but theology should not be done for its own sake. Discourse about God should be alive and Kingdom-driven. Peering down at ancient manuscripts in ivy towers is not bad, and in fact can be helpful, but theology should be purposeful.

I learned to check my facts and assumptions before doing any theological work. Theology and the Bible do not exist in vacuums. I bring my life framework, social contexts, and assumptions into theological discourse, and that all must not be discounted.

The phrase that Jesus uses over and over again, “Come follow me,” is a dangerous one. As I learned in seminary, Jesus invites us to dig deeper, love harder, question more, commune often, disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed. 

The scary thing about knowledge is that you can’t go back. Once I learned more about God and the issues the plague the church and world, I could no longer be a complacent, innocent white privileged Christian girl. I knew I wanted to go to Fuller and learn more things about God, but did I really want to follow the radical call of Jesus?

At Fuller, I fell more in love with this disturbing God who turns everything upside down and inside out. I spent countless hours writing exegetical papers, with multiple Greek concordances strewn open in the Fuller library until midnight, and the end result is this: God has given me too much now to stay silent. Not everyone gets to go to seminary, and now that I know what I know, I cannot be quiet. I cannot be the same. I must take up my cross, wash some feet, and follow the small, counter-cultural voice of Jesus even when it clashes with my evangelical upbringing. 

“You Don’t Have to Convert Everyone You Meet” and Other Life Lessons

As you can probably tell, I learned a lot of things studying at seminary, but I’ll leave you with three take home points:

  1. You can be both academic and a Christian- Christians have a reputation of being anti-intellectual, and at times, such a statement is not undeserved. My first boyfriend believed in a literal 7-day creation period and that the earth is 4,000 years old. In fact, for a date weekend he wanted to go to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Some Christians negate science completely. To be honest, Christian anti-intellectualism makes me want to pull my hair out. Let me put my cards out on the table of the creation-evolution subject: evolution is real. There are some people, like my ex-boyfriend, who have sketchy evidence at best on the contrary, but in science, yeah, evolution is real. I was surprised at first when my Biology professor at Calvin College pretty much laid it out there the fact: Evolution is real. Evolution and Christianity can exist together. There is no debate in the scientific community about evolution. There might be like 2 scientists out there who believe Evolution is not real, and they appear on Fox News. Christians need to have faith big enough to reconcile science with the Bible. I don’t mean to pick on Creationists here; as I said before, I used to date one of them. At Fuller, some of my longstanding beliefs about the Bible were challenged. I remember the first time I heard a professor say, “Job was probably not a person and in fact a metaphor,” or, “Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch.” My evangelical background caused my stomach to do a backflip. And yet, these same professors were the kindest Christians, staunch believers in prayer, and active in their churches. You don’t have to toss academics out the door to be a Christian! It is possibly for a person to critically analyze ancient texts, form “liberal” beliefs about them, and then have that same individual serving at a local soup kitchen the next day. Academics and Christianity don’t have to be at odds. I became more open in my interpretation of Scripture? Do I believe that Job really existed? I don’t know. Was Mary a virgin for her entire life? I doubt it. I could go into the contextual reasons why these things are improbable. After 3 years, I came to the conclusion: who cares? The beauty of Jesus is that in the Body of Christ, theological bickering about matters that are not central to God and the person of Jesus don’t matter so much. We are redeemed and loved by the Creator of the universe who is Love. I believe it’s okay that I question the authorship of the Pentateuch because of my academic study of Scripture. Don’t get me wrong, doctrine is important, but my point is, I get worried when Christians 1) Fear or avoid academic study of Christianity and Scripture or b) Put God in neat little boxes where he has no room to be greater than our human understanding, aka… be God. Example: One of my professors had Bart Ehrman as a seminary student, and Bart was by far the most theologically conservative student in his class. Ironically, when Bart started studying Scripture academically, he made a 180 turn to agnosticism and atheism, and I wonder if part of that is because his rather anti-intellectual, fundamentalist view of God was too small. At Fuller, I concluded: Christians can reconcile the person of Jesus and academia without sacrificing faith in the process.
  2. You don’t have to convert every non-Christian you meet!– Per my prior evangelical training, I had one mission: convert souls to the Lord. Classes at Fuller turned that simplistic understanding upside down. One of my favorite classes in seminary was Interfaith Dialogue, the purpose of which is to discuss faith topics with non-Christians and come to some common understanding which discussed talking about faith with non-Christians. Here’s the revolutionary part: WITHOUT CONVERTING THEM. In fact, conversion was off the table entirely. I went to a retreat called Inter-Sem and spent time with other evangelical seminary students, as well as Jewish and Catholic seminary students. I met future priests, rabbis, and cantors, and we spent a whole weekend talking about God WITH NO INTENTION OF CONVERSION. It was liberating, really. I could just see the person for the beautiful, God-created individual he or she was without an ulterior motive of, “How can I weave Jesus into this conversation?” I think more of our theological discourse needs to involve more listening than explaining a reductionist diagram about how we sin, God is awesome, and how they need Jesus to be their “golden ticket” to heaven. I say, let’s love people more and listen to their perspectives, rather than being like, “Let me cut in with my perfect understanding of how you should be saved” (as I did in my militant evangelical years).
  3. You don’t have to run from tough questionsGod’s pretty strong, and so is the Bible. I made it a point in seminary to write theology papers on the most difficult passages in the Bible. I remember in one class, I was bothered that Jesus called a woman a “dog,” and I decided to do my 20-page final on that passage. At the end of it, I came out seeing God as more beautiful and holy than I could have ever imagined. As mentioned before, God is a pretty brilliant creator, whose knowledge and power spans more than the human mind could understand. Do you have an issue with evil in the world? Do you have an issue with asshole Christians? Rampant sexism and racism in the church? Evolution? Violence in the Old Testament? Theology provides a way of understanding tough questions. Maybe the “answer” isn’t a one-sentence simplistic explanation, and maybe in seeking the answer, you come up with 20 more questions, but GOD CAN HANDLE IT. He can handle doubt, cynicism, and pain. What God likes less, if I may be presumptuous here, is a boxed up, neat little answer that has no room for well… God. Let’s put God in boxes less and ask the tough theological questions, often with no obvious solutions, and let that be okay.

This post has become very novel-esque, so I’ll wrap this up. I learned a lot in seminary, and I’ll be forever changed by my experience at Fuller. But there is a component of Christianity that I have completely neglected in this post.

At seminary, I learned a LOT. But based on personal circumstances, my head and heart were disconnected. My seminary years were some of the most painful ones, so next post, I will talk about my own doubt and emotional and spiritual struggles during this time.

Becoming a Liberal Christian Part II: Beach Evangelism and Rob Bell

Humility

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My anorexia and faith had long been intertwined, but as time went on, there was no choice for me but to fall on my knees… in a more palpable way than saying the “Jesus prayer” years earlier. After nearly 5 years of suffering from anorexia, my life had crumbled before me. A vacant, hollow shell was getting good grades and applying for college, and I ended up in residential treatment for my eating disorder and OCD shortly after graduation.

My first two days at treatment were excruciating. Without my eating disorder behaviors, I felt like I was being stripped down to nothing. Who was I? Where would I turn? The existential angst that had always plagued me came at me with a vengeance. I felt like I was internally bleeding, and I needed something– a tourniquet.

In my soul searching, I stumbled across Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 

I wept. 

I imagined Jesus saying, “Are you downcast and hopeless? I will give you hope. Are you exhausted and riddled with addiction? I will give you peace.”

I craved the Jesus of Matthew 11:28-30. I imagined snuggling into God’s arms of love, grace, forgiveness, and rest. This was no longer the distant, aloof God of my childhood. This was a bruised, human God, with outstretched hands, giving me a chance at life… which I would never get with my eating disorder.

For the first time ever, it felt like my heart had found its home.

When I think back on this summer, I think of sweet attunement with the Lord and a huge amount of growth. I was hungry (pun partially intended) for any Christian book I could get my hands on– the Bible, devotionals, Christian inspirational books. An angel from a local Wisconsin church would transport me and some other patients to church weekly. At church, we would watch Nooma videos, Rob Bell’s mini-sermon videos that were so popular at the time. I met with the hospital chaplain often, and I asked her why God gave me an eating disorder. She replied that my sickness was akin to her own hypoglycemia. The rural Wisconsin church and this chaplain showed me grace and compassion that stayed with me.

I left treatment with a new mandate, not a zealous, argumentative quest, but a desire to live for God– whatever that meant. I was never going to be the same.

Paradigm Shift

At the beginning of college, my mind’s focus was no longer on the college experience of football, drinking, and joining a sorority: I wanted to honor God in every way, and that started with church. I got involved in a fairly conservative evangelical church, and by the end of my freshman year, I was on a certain conservative evangelical trajectory.

On a church level, this trajectory encompassed quiet times (i.e. extended prayer times) and beach evangelism– oh yes, I did beach evangelism. I felt dirty approaching random people on the street simultaneously trying to be friendly while attempting to convert them, but I did it. That was what my church was telling me to do. 

My first boyfriend and I even “courted” instead of dated, in the style of the once-popular I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the implications of which included saving kissing for marriage. (Note: Don’t read that book. Don’t kiss dating goodbye).

And yet… more and more, there were reverberations in my mind that something was amiss. One of the people that catapulted my paradigm shift was Rob Bell (the picture below was taken of Rob and I at one of his tours).

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First it started with watching his Nooma videos while at treatment, and then I religiously started following his church’s podcast. I read Rob’s books and even handled marketing for his Sex God tour. Rob was the “spiritual mentor” who I met all of two times but changed the way I saw God. He was also perhaps my transitional object, my bridge to an adult worldview. Rob was the first one I heard say, over and over in sermons, “God is the God of the oppressed.” He talked about Jesus’ Third Way, one that does not incorporate violence or keeping the status quo. Rob was authentic and mobilized his listeners to go out and be the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth. He preached social justice and Jesus’ subversive message. Rob talked about difficult subjects, like Leviticus and violence in the Old Testament.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I read the book The Irresistable Revolution by Shane Claiborne. A Mennonite and pacifist, Claiborne clinched my belief that God is the God of the hurting, vulnerable, and oppressed. In his book, Claiborne talks about going to Iraq to sit with Iraqi civilians following America’s Iraq invasion. Claiborne wrote,

“We must mourn the lives of the soldiers. But with the same passion and outrage, we must mourn the lives of every Iraqi who is lost. They are just as precious, no more, no less. In our rebirth, every life lost in Iraq is just as tragic as a life lost in New York or D.C. And the lives of the thirty thousand children who die of starvation each day is like six September 11ths every single day, a silent tsunami that happens every week.”

Reading this book, it was clear that I was having a faith identity crisis. I started to wonder if my version of Christianity was inclusive of the fact that EVERY life is precious, even the lives of our enemies. In the upside-down Kingdom of God, God was calling the church to something so different than beach evangelism and Bible thumping. He was calling the church to be with the sick and hurting; to provide holistic care that involved theology but also catering to physical needs; to go to the ends of the earth, not just to save souls but to turn the entire world upside down.

Did I know what that looked like? Absolutely not. On the contrary, I barely knew anyone of different socioeconomic classes, races, or sexual orientations. I didn’t know what God was calling me to do.

One thing I did know is that I was no longer at “home” with traditional conservative evangelicalism. I couldn’t live in an insulated church that didn’t have room for these ideas. At the same time, I wasn’t ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I still attended evangelical churches, and I even voted for John McCain in 2008.

As I inched nearer to college graduation, I wondered about my vocation. I switched professionals tracks from psychology, my first love, to ministry. My thought process was this: I loved theology. I loved helping people. How best serve God besides go into full-time ministry? Here’s where my “crazy liberal ideas” started: I wanted to be a minister or pastor. Not just a youth director or secretary, as most conservative evangelical churches utilize women. I wanted to be a legit, ordained minister. At my Christian college, I was on the “pre-seminary” track because my school affirmed women going into ministry (go Calvin!). I even took a summer internship at a church to “discern my calling” (i.e. think about whether or not to go to seminary).

I was learning a lot, but I was torn about grad school. At my summer internship, I had a revelation: there is much value in psychology for the church. I saw a church riddled with wounds and mental health issues, and here I was with a gift to understand and help people with these issues.

At school, I learned in psychology and theology classes that all that is good is God’s. I believe at the core of my being that psychology is good and useful. It is much needed in the church, and I love it. If God is involved in the restoration of ALL things, that means I could both be devoted to God’s work AND choose a full-time profession besides ministry. In the end, I decided to graduate school in psychology. In full disclosure, I went to Fuller Seminary partly because they have a clinical psychology program that incorporates theology classes and partly because that is Rob Bell’s alma mater.

I went to Fuller with no expectations but also searching for something . I wanted a broader knowledge of psychology and theology, but also a deeper relationship with an infinitely beautiful God whose love has no bounds.

In my nomadic way, I picked up and moved to southern California, with no idea what I was in for.

Becoming a Liberal Christian Part I: High Church and Militant Evangelicalism

The Early Years

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Prior to my birth, my mom (a staunch Episcopalian) and my dad (a lapsed Jew) met with a Rabbi to discuss my religious upbringing. His advice was, “Pick one, and don’t make the child go to two Sunday schools.” They laughed. It was a joke between them for most of my childhood that also reflected a certain religious ambivalence, as if religion was like, “Do you want chocolate or vanilla ice cream?”

Even though I’m 100% sure my mom would never have raised me Jewish anyway because she was the only one with firm religious beliefs, my parents went through the trouble of giving me a Jewish baby naming AND traditional infant baptism.

Needless to say, I grew up going to the Episcopal church where my grandparents have been members since 1950.

I was always fascinated with God. At age 3 or 4, I told my mom that when I grew up, I wanted to be a “storyteller for God.” One time I was praying so fervently in church, I lied that I saw Jesus on the huge crucifix in the sanctuary. I don’t know why I felt the need to make that up. Part of me wanted so badly to see Jesus, in flesh and blood.

I was an dedicated Sunday School student with good attendance. If the task at hand was to memorize the Lord’s Prayer or Nicene Creed, I did it. Most of my memories of Sunday school involve discussing church holidays or memorizing prayers. I sang in the church choir (shocking for those of you who know me now) and played bells. I sang and memorized things about God, but I didn’t really “get” God. God seemed distant and aloof, communicating to people using “thee” and “thou.”

My “Conversion” Moment

People in the world of evangelicalism will often tell you that there is a “moment” when you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Some celebrate “spiritual birthdays.” One of my previous churches did an Easter campaign, in which you would hold a sign up of your “date” of salvation and post it to social media.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in God, but when I was 13, I went to an evangelical summer camp. At this time, I was knee-deep in anorexia and equally deep in denial. In my starved state, I remember people were jumping up and down to worship songs I didn’t like, and all I wanted was to sleep. One thing they did that I do remember, however, is “share the Gospel.” In evangelical Christian terms, this means a basic summary of this message: In all of his perfection, God loved us and we rebelled. All of us, no matter how moral, are sinners, and God is our enemy. However, we are in luck. Jesus paid the ultimate price for all of humanity, and all you have to do is accept Jesus’ gift, and you will be saved. 

I heard this message for the first time, and everything made sense to me. The mosaic pieces I had gotten from my Episcopal upbringing and this new wording of what Jesus did came together for me. I looked up in the stars that spanned the sky night and said, “I’m in.” And so began my “Christian journey” (again, not really sure now if it was a “new” journey or rather repackaging  of what I learned growing up).

Militant Evangelicalism

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With my new found life quest, preaching Jesus to the ends of the earth, I began Jesus’ work. And by Jesus’ work I mean my 13-year-old understanding of Jesus’ work, which meant theological arguments with my Jewish family members and getting them passive aggressive Christmas gifts, such as a book on apologetics… which I now understand was not Jesus’ mandate at all. Hostile conversations with my agnostic grandpa about why he should believe in Jesus RIGHT NOW are hardly effective or Christlike.

I became a nightmarish Sunday School student. I admonished our priest because he didn’t talk about “relevant” topics in the Bible such as abortion (he noted that abortion is not actually specifically mentioned in the Bible despite what my Teen Study Bible told me). I argued with my high school Bible Study leader. I would bring up my superior knowledge at every turn, such as my certainty that, “God has a reason for everything.” She disagreed with me, saying that things like disease and war are not in God’s will, although he allows them. I was pompous and arrogant. I thought I knew everything because I checked out a bunch of books on Creationism from the library and read my Teen Study Bible.

One of my camp counselors told me, “Think about the end of time, when you’re taking a staircase up to heaven, and you see people walking down the other way to hell because you didn’t tell them about Jesus. That’s why you need to spread the Good News!” I never wanted that to happen. I would cry at the very thought of half my family descending to hell on my watch. So I would argue with anyone who didn’t know the Lord, partly to alleviate my own anxiety and guilt about hell.

My method wasn’t great. I am lucky nobody slapped me, because I definitely deserved it. That’s why I call these years my “militant evangelical years.” I had good intentions, maybe, but then again, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Stay tuned! There is more to the story.