The Honor of Being God’s Co-Parent

Parenting is nothing like I always imagined it would be.

It would probably take an entire book to list all the preconceived notions about parenting which have been shattered for me over the years. But in this blog post, I’m only going to talk about one of them.

I always imagined that my children would grow up to be exactly like me.

I pictured two socially awkward, bookish children who were terrible at sports but could learn foreigh languages with ease.

I imagined them simply as satellites of myself, enjoyable little mini-me’s.

I envisioned coaching them on how to navigate the awkwardness of social occasions when all you really want is to be alone in your room with a good book. I daydreamed about having constant companions who would love wandering in the mountains discussing poetry with me. 

In short, I was euphoric about the possibility of having younger versions of myself available to hang out with me whenever I wanted. 

But as you can probably guess by now, the reality is very different.

My children could not be more different from me. Neither one likes to read. They both enjoy playing sports, and are at least tolerably good at them. Neither suffers the pain of pervasive social awkwardness (which is wonderful for them, but it does put another layer of distance between us.) They both believe in God, but neither shows any interest in church involvement.

To sum it up, my children are not, nor ever have been, my satellites or mini-me’s. They are separate human beings, with their own interests, values and beliefs.

And this shouldn’t be surprising. Because even though I had the honor of bringing them into the world and raising them, even though I love them more than life itself, the truth is they are not really my children. 

It’s true. My children aren’t really mine. They belong to God.

When you think of it that way, having these children in my life to nurture, teach and care for is a tremendous honor. As human parents, we are the people that God has trusted with His most valued possession. He has invited us to share in this sacred task of nurturing and creating a strong human soul. There can be no greater honor than that.

However, it is an honor that is temporary. It’s only a loan. Eventually these children will leave us and go out to do the tasks that God calls them to do in the world. They may share our values, likes, and dislikes…or they may not. They may make choices we agree with; they may not. They may be people that we enjoy spending time with and would choose as our friends…or they may not. At the end of the day, these things don’t really matter. What matters is that we carried out our sacred task as God’s co-parent faithfully and honorably.

My oldest child is approaching the age of 20 now and no longer lives with me. He does come by to visit once in a while. I try to share some of my hard-earned wisdom with him when I can. But the truth is, he will have to earn his own wisdom, which will be different from my wisdom. God has different lessons for him to learn, because we are different people. My lessons are not lessons. In God’s eyes, my son and I are equals. I am not superior or smarter simply because I have lived longer. We are on the same footing.

My daughter is almost fourteen. The other day at dinner we had a conversation entirely in Spanish. She works hard at Spanish, at least partly because she knows how much I love languages, and she desires that connection with me. She will have her own path in life, but her loving nature will always create such connections for the people she cares about. Sometimes she asks me to intervene in difficult situations with her friends, but I resist the temptation to do so. I want her friendships and relationships to be completely her own. 

As it turns out, despite our differences, my children are people that I enjoy spending time with. They are people that I would choose as friends. But more importantly, they are unafraid to chart their own course and seek out what God has in store for them.

And as I near the end of my years as God’s co-parent, I can’t ask for much more than that.

Freedom to Grow and Hypocrisy: Are They the Same Thing?

I am a firm believer in lifetime growth.

The moment we stop growing, learning, and changing, we are as good as dead. Our sense of curiosity and wonder, our openness to change, these are the things that keep life (and faith) fluid, flexible and strong. Able to bend without breaking.

I have known people in their eighties and nineties who had the same sense of wonder and excitement as a young child. And I’ve known teenagers who carried all the jaded inflexibility of early rigor mortis.

I’d prefer to be in the first group. Wouldn’t you?

Of course, change and growth are difficult for many reasons. To continuously learn, to continuously grow, it’s a lot of work. You must constantly engage in the hard work of reevaluating the things about yourself and about the world that you once knew to be true. You are constantly absorbing and integrating different experiences and viewpoints, some of them painfully jarring, into your perception of how the world works. It’s overwhelming and humbling. 

But to have faith and hope that stands up to questioning is a payoff that’s more than worth the effort, in my mind at least.

The problem is that besides these natural and internal obstacles to growth, we also get plenty of obstacles thrown at us from outside sources.

Sadly, it seems that the greatest obstacles to change and growth often come from our family and friends.

Why don’t you like to do xyz anymore?

That’s not what you said about that last year.

You can say whatever you want. But I know the real you.

Gently, and with the best of intentions, our friends and loved ones hem us in with walls of expectation. We have always been this way. As with their favorite restaurant, they have come to depend upon a consistent experience. They want us to be the selves they have always known. Our real selves. 

We can’t really blame them. After all, who doesn’t want consistency in life? It’s a relief to have something to depend on in this chaotic, unpredictable world of ours.

But sometimes, God calls us to move in unexpected directions. He asks us to open ourselves to become something stronger, something deeper, something different from what we have been in the past. He calls us to explore new pathways, embrace new ideas, open ourselves up to new friendships.

And in doing so, we often end up leaving some of our cherished traditions and relationships behind.

We can always be sure that the people who God intends to remain in our lives will remain there. And perhaps they might see in our new path a calling to new paths of their own.

But sadly, there are many who are content to remain locked in the rigid walls of their old selves, never leaving, never changing.

They see our new growth, our changed selves, and they feel affronted. They take it personally. When we change our viewpoint or lifestyle, it’s often seen as hypocrisy. How can anyone trust what you say when your point of view keeps changing?

But in my mind, changes, revolutions, revisions, bring us closer to the truth. 

So the more you’ve changed, the more you’ve learned, the more you’ve grown…it makes you more trustworthy. Because you have done (and continue to do) the hard work of reevaluating what you once knew.

And to me, that is the very opposite of hypocrisy. It is real faith.

What About This Weather?

Hot enough for you? Cold enough for you? Ready for winter yet? What about that snow last night? What about that rain yesterday?

Ah, weather. As a conversation topic, it’s hard to imagine anything more solid and trustworthy. Our family lives are often too personal and involve sharing stories that belong partially to other people. Our religious and political convictions, too divisive. Our hobbies and interests (sports, books, movies, etc.) are not always appreciated by others.

But there’s one thing we all share: the weather.

You might not be able to talk to your next-door neighbor about heaven and hell, but you can certainly share stories of the most recent heatwave.  Your cousin at Thanksgiving dinner might not care about the fascinating book you’ve been reading, but you can definitely trade battle stories about last week’s big snowstorm.

It’s fashionable to scorn weather as a topic for conversation that’s too mundane and banal to truly spark anyone’s interest. And yet weather is one of the few things in life that we all share. The sun shines on everyone; the rain falls on us all, regardless of race, creed, conviction, or interests.

In some ways, you could consider weather the great unifier. It’s the one thing we all have in common.

And here in NH, the weather is so unpredictable that it’s always good fuel for a conversation. This year, we had a weird summer in which it rained almost the entire month of July. We’ve had 90-degree days in April that were followed by a snowstorm one month later. We’ve had days that begin with Arctic frigidity that melts into mellow summer-like warmth within a few hours. If we prepare to go for a hike any time between October and May, we must bring winter gear with us and prepare for the possibility of a raging blizzard above treeline.

While the topic of weather might seem mundane, it is a force that definitely affects our lives. 

For example, I have always found the weather of November and December especially challenging. It’s my least favorite kind of weather. The lack of sunlight makes the days feel shorter and makes me feel like I’m not accomplishing anything. The weather gives my body a subtle hint that the year is dying, and any missed opportunities that the past year might have held are about to die with it. It also warns me that I must prepare for a long period of darkness, cold, and snow before I can enjoy sunshine and warmth again.

Far from being banal and trivial, the weather is a powerful representation of the life of the spirit. It gives a concrete and physical form to the challenges and joys we experience throughout the year and throughout our lives.

Cataclysmic weather events used to be known as “acts of God.” Like God, the weather is a powerful force over which we have no control. Like life itself, the weather brings good and evil experiences which we cannot influence or predict, not even if you’re a Christian and especially not if you’re a weather forecaster. All we can do is prepare. 

And when bad weather comes our way, we have to trust that we have enough resilience within us to get through the storm without losing our joy.

Most of all, we have to keep our faith and hope that the storm will eventually stop and that spring and summer will show up once more, bringing back sunshine and pleasant long days.

The faith and hope that we need to endure bad weather in New Hampshire is the same hope and faith that we need to get through life.

There’s an old saying: If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.

And that’s true about every experience we have. If you’re depressed or grieving, just wait a minute. If you are enjoying a period of happiness, store up every moment in your memory bank because….just wait a minute. No matter what you’re going through, good or bad, whether a snowstorm or a breakup, whether a hot summer day or a dinner with friends, just wait a minute.

And most of all, be prepared. 

Never go into the mountains in the winter without microspikes and warm layers.

And never embark on the treacherous journey of life without a strong faith to warm and strengthen you.

And then you’ll be prepared for anything.

The Truth About Life After Death

Are you ready? I know the truth about life after death. I know what really happens.

Just kidding. I don’t know. And you know what? If anyone pretends to know, they’re either lying or deceiving themselves.

It’s true that as Christians we all believe in the reality of life after death. The Bible tells us, unequivocally, that both heaven (and hell) are real.

But it’s hazy on the details. Here are a few of the scattered and vague hints we get about what happens after death.

And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” –Ecclesiastes 12

We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” – I Corinthians 15

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” -Revelation 21

It’s all vague, symbolic, and I think that it’s written that way by design. Because we are not supposed to know exactly what happens to our souls after death. It’s supposed to be a matter of faith.

And yet that’s hard. Really hard.

I think the scariest thing about death for most of us is the fear that our selves, our identities as we know them, might disappear entirely.

All our emotions, our memories, our relationships, everything that makes us individuals, could cease to exist. These are the products of our brains. And the brain eventually dies, like every organ in our bodies. This is one of the few things about death that we know for certain.

In our Western culture, we’re very attached to our selves and our identities. In fact, they are everything. We are entirely defined by them. Our unique personalities, experiences, likes and dislikes completely encompass all that matters in this world. Without them, there is nothing else. And that makes the idea of death sickening and terrifying in its intensity.

In some ways, I think the Eastern religions have a saner approach to death than us Westerners do.  Buddhism, Taoism, any of those Eastern religions and philosophies teach you to transcend the self, to let go of it, to release our attachments and memories so as to prepare our spirits for something much greater. But Western culture doesn’t really know how to do that. The individual self is our god, and the demise of that individual self is the ultimate tragedy.

But is that what the Bible really teaches us?

In regards to life after death, it seems to me that Christianity is much closer to Buddhism and Taoism than we want to admit.

The Bible teaches that God is love. It teaches us that our spirits come from God and then return to Him. It teaches that all memory of our past tears will be wiped away.

That means all our fears, all our regrets, all our pain will disappear, along with our dying brains which produced them. And I don’t know about you, but I find the thought of such a blessed release as delicious as the moment when you lie down in bed at the end of a long day.

Back in February 2018, my children’s father passed away unexpectedly. His love for his children, his passion, his joy was larger than life, and his sudden loss left a huge void. Most of all, when we lose someone like that, the biggest hole left behind is where love used to be. Where does that love go? That is the most painful question surrounding death. 

I drove my son to a basketball game out-of-state a couple weeks after his father’s death. On the way home, I stopped to fill up my tank. I remember feeling sad because Bill had often filled my tank for me when he happened to see me pulled up to a gas tank. I went in to pay for the gas ahead of time. I asked for $20 worth. The attendant told me that there was already exactly $20 worth of gas, bought and paid for, on the tank where I was parked. 

Was there a reasonable, logical explanation? Of course. There had been a mistake. The person who used the tank before me had overpaid, or perhaps purposefully paid for an extra $20 in a kind “pay it forward” type of gesture.

Naturally, it wasn’t that the spirit of an undead Bill rose from the grave, showed up at the gas pump, and bought $20 worth of gas for me.

But God used that mistake or that gesture to send me a message that day. He was letting me know that the love we feel when we’re alive never really goes away. The love Bill felt for his children was still there. It hadn’t died. Once Bill’s body became too frail to contain this love, it expanded to fill the universe, offering its kindly and paternal care and protection.

Often, when we talk about life after death, we put it in simplistic terms to suit our frail human understanding. It soothes us to imagine our deceased loved ones watching over us from above. We find comfort in images of people running to meet Jesus in the clouds, looking exactly the way they did when they were alive. But these images are colored by our limited human understanding and experience. The reality of life after death is so vast that we cannot possibly comprehend it.

We will all be changed. Our tears will be wiped away. Our precious identities, memories, experiences, everything that we imagine makes us who we are will be gone forever. 

And this shouldn’t be cause for terror. It is cause for peace. What a relief to let go of the burden of the self, to embrace the eternal, to reach a place where our individuality no longer weighs heavily upon us.

It’s love that remains. God is love. That is one thing we all can agree on. And it’s a love too vast, too incomprehensible, to be contained within our frail bodies, our fragile and brief lifespan. It is so great that it bursts the bonds of individual experience to encompass everything. 

Was it arrogance for me to think that God cared enough about my sadness in that particular moment in time to reach out in a special way that only I could understand?

Yes. But that’s exactly what we believe about God.

He is vast enough to exist outside of the confines of human life, and yet personal enough to care about our intimate struggles.

These struggles will be wiped away. Our cherished self, our individuality, will disappear to be absorbed by God, by the vast and eternal love of the divine.

Confined by our frail selves, we cannot possibly explain or understand the reality of life after death. Even the words “life after death” are meaningless, because life as we know it and death as we know it will someday no longer exist. Only love will.

And what a blessed and joyous release that will be.

Grumpy Old People and Dreams Deferred

Remember when we were teenagers and we used to complain about grumpy old men and grouchy old ladies?

Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, we woke up to find that we had become them.

In a surreal and startling role reversal, we are no longer the kids who feel judged by the elderly lady sitting behind us in church. Now we are the old ladies doing the judging.

We are no longer the young person rolling our eyes as Grandpa complains yet once more about “kids these days.” Now, we are scratching our heads over kids these days, just like he did back then.

How does this happen?

The obvious answer is very simple. We get older. It’s part of life, just nature taking its course.

But is that really all it is? I actually think there might be something else going on, something that is described very vividly in this famous poem by Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

 like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

When we’re young, we have this marvelous sensation that every door is open to us. We have plenty of time to open every possible door, explore each one of them, pursue our dreams wherever they might take us.

Then as we get older, we feel like our choices get ever narrower. Doors that were open are now closed. In less time than it takes to blow out a few birthday candles, the many open doors seem to have faded into one narrow passage with one clear and definitive endpoint.

And that makes us bitter and grumpy.

Did you once dream of writing and publishing a book? Of traveling? Of starting your own business? Of going back to college and starting a new career?

Sorry, you can’t. You’re running out of time.

And when we realize this, we begin to play the blame game. If only we hadn’t been forced to work so hard every day of our lives at this dead-end job just to survive. If only we hadn’t sunk all our savings into a nice house for our kids to grow up in.  If only we hadn’t wasted so much of our time worrying about what other people thought of us.

The list of if onlys just goes on and on.

And as always happens when we play the “if only” game, we become resentful of those who are not following the rules we forced ourselves to adhere to.

After all, we had to work every day of our lives at a dead-end job. So the younger generation needs to pay its dues too. That’s only fair.

We sacrificed our dreams and hopes and wishes to follow society’s arbitrary rules of behavior. So why can’t they?

As with any kind of pain or regret, we feel compelled to invite others to share it.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if all of us, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, decided that dreams must no longer be deferred? What if we all decided together that our dreams, our health, our happiness, deserve something better than shrivelling in the sun or festering like a sore?

Then maybe old age would find us beaming with gentle and fruitful happiness rather than exploding or sagging with the weight of dreams deferred.

After all, didn’t God create us for a purpose? Didn’t he put those dreams inside of us for a reason?

And if we think of it that way, deferring our dreams isn’t just painful, but sinful, too.

If you feel like you’re becoming a grumpy old person, ask yourself what dream you’ve deferred. And as long as you have breath in you to do it, keep pursuing it.

While it may be risky, go back and open some of those closed doors again.

Maybe old age doesn’t have to be a narrow passageway to one clear endpoint. Maybe it’s an opportunity to breathe new life into old dreams.

Worn-Out Filters and the Abundance Of the Heart


I don’t have much of a filter anymore.

And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.

It seems that as we get older, we become less and less interested in censoring our opinions, thoughts and feelings.

It seems that many of us (especially women) over the age of 40 started out life with an excellent filter. We brutally censored ourselves to make our persona more acceptable to others.

If you grew up in the church, your filter probably worked overtime. There are certain things one does not discuss in church. There are certain words, mannerisms, and conversation topics that are just off-limits.

But around middle age, it seems our filters wear out. Permanently.

Why?

Maybe as life goes along, we discover that our filters cause more harm than good. Because of our filters, our true self becomes unknowable, facilitating false relationships and putting up a barrier against real ones.

Maybe we feel that it’s too much work to keep that filter in place day after day, and it doesn’t bring us the reward of admiration and love that we had hoped it would.

Above all, I think that middle age brings a stark realization of how brief our time on earth is. We understand with painful clarity that our filters have prevented us from loving our real selves, just as we are, during the short time we have before that self is permanently absorbed by Eternity.

Unfortunately, the disappearance of our filter, while it brings the same delicious relief as removing your bra or pants at the end of a workday, also brings with it some problems.

Problems like false rumors. Malicious gossip. Hatefulness. Just plain old-fashioned meanness.

We’ve all known at least one elderly person that no one wants to be around because they are grumpy, or vindictive, or just plain mean. While part of us envies their freedom in saying whatever they want whenever they want, in our hearts we know that God did not create us to live that way. He wants us to live in freedom, but also in love.

So what’s the answer? Do we need to go through the laborious and painful task of reconstructing a filter in order to be a good Christian?

I don’t believe so.

In Matthew 12, Jesus says, “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

“Out of the abundance of the heart.” In other words, those opinions, thoughts and feelings that spill out of you once your filter is gone, they emerge because your heart is too full to hold them inside anymore. The problem is not the absence of a filter. The problem is what is going on inside our hearts.

If we are full of love, then love is what spills out of us when our filters wear out.

If we are full of anger and hatred, then again, anger and hatred are the things that spill out.

I don’t believe that the Lord intended us to have filters at all. He intended us to pay attention to what was happening in our hearts so that we would not need them.

When we feel angry, when we feel judgmental statements or attitudes forming inside us, we are not supposed to just stuff them down, ignore them, or pretend they don’t exist. Because eventually, out of the abundance of the heart, these feelings will spill out of us before we can stop them.

Instead of ignoring these feelings, God calls us to resolve them. Maybe that means talking to someone about what they did to hurt or anger you. Maybe that means praying for others at the moment you feel angry with them. Maybe it means writing our frustrations down in a journal and debriefing them with a trusted friend. Or it could simply mean recognizing that these bad feelings exist and trying to understand why.

How freeing, how glorious, to not have to use a filter anymore or to have to worry about the consequences.

If the abundance of all our hearts brought up only good treasure, imagine how different the world would be.

Confessions of a Reluctant Sports Parent

This week, my 13-year-old daughter played in her last soccer game ever in her small K-8 school. Next year, if there are any sports, they will be high school sports.

I have been a sports parent for a long, long time. Ever since around 2007 or so when my oldest made his first foray into community tee-ball, in a long yellow team shirt and a helmet that looked much too big for his tiny face.

I remember being shocked at the time at how much was expected of sports parents. Sitting out in the rain and wind for hours and hours, day after day. Never sitting down around the dinner table for a quiet family meal, because practice was always at dinner time. And worst of all, never being able to make any weekend plans, because you would never know how sports events and practices would swoop in to change these plans without warning.

And that was only the beginning. Later there was the agony of watching your child continue to play even though you knew he was hurt. Sitting through entire innings on the bench without going up to bat once. Trying to find unfamiliar playing fields with a non-existent sense of direction which plunged me into aimless driving Saturday after Saturday.

The truth is, as I had never played sports myself, I really didn’t understand what parenting a child who plays them would entail. And I was shocked that everyone just accepted this lifestyle as if it was no big deal.

It was a big deal to me, though. And I resented it.

I dreaded every practice, every game. I sat through each one desperately wondering when it would be over. None of the rules made any sense to me. It seemed that the weather was always horrible. Even when the game or practice was over, it really wasn’t. The coach would often keep the team for a long pep talk before going home. I remember sitting on a dark, cold football field  lit by car headlights, waiting for the coaches to finish their long dissertation to the young boys kneeling around them in a reverent group.

Since those days, I’ve learned survival tactics. I always bring at least five extra layers, including a winter hat, coat and mittens. Even on the warmest, balmiest days, an athletic field will remain an Arctic, windswept tundra. Umbrellas are omnipresent during sports seasons, too. The slow cooker and the nearby pizza shop are my best friends during sports season. And a good book or a good friend must always travel along with me as a safeguard against hours of boredom during lengthy coach pep talks.

I came across a photo in my Facebook memories the other day. It was my son as a nine-year-old, attired in his football uniform. His green eyes were serious and intense, his face, still with a hint of baby pudge, tense with concentration. 

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With a pang, I realized how much I missed the little athlete in that photo. It was such a critical and beautiful moment in his development as a person. And somehow I missed it in a welter of resentment.

It got me wondering, what other important moments have I missed because I was grumpy, or tired, or stressed out?

The moments of childhood, whether sports games, holidays, play dates with young friends, or school plays and parties, streak across our lives like a comet. While we are distracted by temper tantrums (either our children’s or our own), dinner arrangements, and packing the right snacks, the moments explode and disappear in our horizon. There is never a voice reminding us: “This moment is important. Remember it.”

That little football player is long gone, replaced by a tall young man who lives on his own and needs me for nothing. My gangly teen daughter will soon be gone, too, to be replaced by yet another version of herself. 

And versions of my former self appear and disappear continually. Myself as a young wife and mother. Myself as a teacher. Myself as a newly divorced single woman enjoying her freedom. These versions of myself have come and gone without my awareness of them.

What moments will I miss in the future? Will I miss my body’s ability to go for long hikes on warm fall days? Will I miss the thrill of early-relationship bliss? Will I miss my patched-together career of picking and choosing exactly what I want to do every day? 

I don’t know what the future holds or what aspects of my present life will leave an aching void in that future. If past experience is any indication, it’s probably something that I complain about now, even resent.

Whether joy or pain, everything passes away eventually. We can’t live in the past. But we can remind ourselves that the present moment is a future memory, and cherish it as such. Resentment and all.

Because soon it will be gone.

Heroes,Villains and…Forgiveness

One of my favorite TV characters once remarked, “Honey, we’re all villains in someone else’s story.”

And even though this show was not about Christianity in any way, I think this is one of the best ways of explaining the nature of human sin.

Sin, (like evil), is a word that we don’t like to use. That’s probably because, like many religious words, it’s been misused in the service of manipulating and controlling others. There are some Christians who automatically label a choice or behavior as “sinful” if they don’t understand it, if it doesn’t fit their rigid and comfortingly conventional ideas of the way life is supposed to be.

But the real nature of sin is highly personal. It is a condition that exists deep within each individual heart. It is not the same thing as a refusal to adhere to a set of arbitrary rules of convention. Rather, it’s simply a word that describes the human condition. And since we are all human, we are all sinful. 

But it’s hard to admit that. Because that means we have to recognize we have been the villain in someone else’s story…possibly many people’s stories. Whether we like it or not.

But, being human, we make excuses. “I was just having a bad day.” “He shouldn’t have said that to me if he didn’t want me to react like that.” “I needed the money, so there was nothing else I could have done.” “I didn’t mean it the way she took it.” “If he had been through what I have, then he would understand.” And our final analysis, without fail, is always: “It wasn’t my fault.”

Thus we build a solid, protective, white wall of faultlessness around ourselves.

All our excuses are probably true. It’s probably true that we’re not as villainous as the other person (or people) have made us out to be. Yet the fact remains that, whether fairly or unfairly,  we have become the villain in their story. 

This plays out in many ways during our lives, but I think where we see it most clearly is in the circumstance of divorce. (Or any bad breakup, really.)

In fact, the word “ex-husband” or “ex-wife” is synonymous with the world “villain” in our cultural lexicon. An ex is automatically the bad guy. Ex-spouses, without exception, are cruel, manipulative life-destroyers.

And yet, the most interesting thing about that, is if you have an ex, this means that you are an ex yourself. Which, by extension, automatically makes you a villain, too.

In the early years after my divorce, I certainly felt this way about my ex-husband. I felt that his actions during our marriage and immediately after were the textbook definition of pure cruelty. I would see how beloved he was in our community and would think:  Wow, he’s completely deceived everyone. How can they not realize who he really is? Don’t they know that he’s the villain in my story? 

I even nicknamed him Voldemort for a while.

But after a number of years, I was able to see and to acknowledge that we had both been cruel to each other. Both of us were the villains in each other’s stories. Neither one of us was a victim, and neither one of us was blameless. And until he passed away in 2018, this “Voldemort” became one of my best friends, my greatest champions, and a wonderful, supportive co-parent to our two children. If I had never been able to acknowledge our equality in sinfulness, if I had continued to simply label him as the villain, I would have missed out on this wonderful partnership.

Acknowledging our sinfulness frees us to love and forgive others. It opens up amazing opportunities for powerful partnerships. And it’s not only in the realm of marriage and divorce that this plays out.

It plays out when someone cuts you off in traffic. (While this might be somewhat uncharitable, I like to assume they just have diarrhea.) It plays out in our political divisions (you know, because we can’t quite forgive each other for voting for either Biden or…that other guy.) It plays out in almost every news story, every comment section on social media, every road rage incident, every cold snubbing.

Every moment of every day…people mutually become the villains in each other’s stories. And they mutually refuse to acknowledge their villainy.

What if we could put all that aside?

What if each one of us could look in the mirror and recognize that we are ourselves the problem?

How powerful would that be?

Because we might realize, when we’re arguing about politics, that we’re not really angry with each other at all, but that we share a mutual anger towards a corrupt system in need of change.

We might realize that our children are learning how to manipulate others to their will instead of how to peacefully resolve conflict.

And we might even realize that we all share responsibility for accidents, violence, misunderstandings, disasters of all kinds.

Maybe it’s time to bring the old-fashioned word “sin” back into our lexicon again.

Because then the real forgiveness, and the real healing, can finally begin.

The Thorn and the Joy of Mental Illness

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. It’s easy to see how mental illness could be compared to a “thorn.” But in what universe could illnesses such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Clinical Depression, or Bipolar ever be considered cause for joy?

I know it’s a stretch, but bear with me.

A few nights ago, I went to a church service in which the preacher gave a sincere, heartfelt message about evangelism. With tears in his eyes, he delivered his narrative about the experiences he had of leading young people to Christ. The climax of the story was the fact that these young people then went out and brought others to Christ. It was a beautiful testimony.

But as with pretty much every sermon I ever hear, there was a point in his message which tripped me up just a little.

He talked about how important it was, as Christians, to “give an account of the joy that is in you.”  We are called to shine our light to others so that they might want to follow the same path. Christians stand out from the crowd because of their joy. They are always happy, no matter what. And other people are supposed to see that happiness and ask you why it’s there, thus facilitating true evangelism and hopefully a conversion experience or two.

I’m sure for most Christians this method works very well. But for me personally, it’s problematic.

And why is that?

I have struggled with chronic and debilitating anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember. These illnesses were not triggered by any specific trauma. They are simply the result of a brain that does not contain the right chemicals or hormones to produce the feeling of happiness. 

As a result, I have never been able to present myself as an inspirational harbinger of joy. Life has always felt indescribably scary and hopeless to me. And even now, when my life seems to be going well for the most part, I still wrestle with that omnipresent fear and hopelessness.

Mental illness is not simply excessive crazed emotion and fragility, as most people seem to think. In fact, I don’t even like to call it mental illness, because that seems to imply that it isn’t real. It’s really a physical illness of the brain, no different from a congenital heart defect or poor eyesight. It is a disorder which can be treated and managed, but never really cured.

Just as a blind person can’t see, a depressed or anxious person cannot feel happiness or peace. It’s simply not within her physical capacity, any more than a person without arms or legs could turn a cartwheel.

I learned, very painfully and from a very young age, that happiness was not within my physical capacity. 

And yet in spite of that…there has been happiness.

There was happiness when I heard God’s voice clearly in the midst of the turbulent chaos of my tortured brain, bringing an instant and supernatural peace that silenced all the voices of despair.

There was happiness when God reached out and affirmed I was worth saving at the moment when I was praying for death.

And there was happiness when I learned how strong I had become through pulling myself out of deadly despair over and over again, with God’s help. And because I had done that, I was really strong enough to do anything at all…and thus, I have done many difficult and challenging things.

And because of these moments, I’m able to smile and laugh, and really mean it. And I’m able to reach out to others with genuine warmth.

“Always be ready with a logical defense to account for the joy that is you,” it says in I Peter. And I guess that is my account, my logical defense to explain why I’m able to experience joy even though it’s a physical impossibility for me.

I do not believe that God causes illness or disability. But I believe that He uses it. Because it was through my “mental illness” that I truly learned how powerful God is, and what humans are capable of with his help. And this is nothing short of a miracle.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul famously makes reference to a “thorn in his side.” While we don’t know exactly what he was referring to, he seems to be talking about some kind of persistent weakness, pain, temptation or disability. Rather than debilitating him in his work, this persistent weakness allowed Paul to learn first-hand about God’s “power made perfect in weakness.”

In my life, mental illness has been exactly that. It has been “God’s power made perfect in weakness.” And that is a pretty awesome thing to experience. 

Ghost Stories

I absolutely love a good ghost story. I always have. Especially this time of year.

As a Christian, I’ve always felt a tiny bit guilty about my enjoyment of the horror genre. Christians are not supposed to love dark, violent stories. We’re supposed to devote ourselves solely to ideas and stories that are happy, joyful, light-filled.

Yet weirdly, I’ve always felt that my interest in the macabre is the perfect complement to my Christian beliefs. I believe in the supernatural, and I’m always looking for ways to express and symbolize that belief.

There are spiritual forces completely outside of our narrow physical range of experiences, and I want to learn as much about these as I possibly can. And stories (whether happy or scary) give me new ways of thinking about the life of the spirit.

If you think about it one way, the entire gospel is a spine-chilling, supernatural narrative. I like to think of it as a mirror reflection of a good ghost story. Instead of being haunted by a specter of death, the characters are haunted by a spirit of life. Instead of doors creaking open or spooky figures appearing in a mirror, they got miraculous healings and the sight of Jesus transfigured on a mountain. Instead of confronting their own gruesome death, they came face to face with immortality.

It has always seemed to me that the month of October is a time when people are more open to the spiritual world. Many of us believe that the veil to the spiritual world becomes thin at this time, that it’s a time when we can communicate more easily with deceased loved ones.

It astonishes me, though, that we find it so easy to believe in the darker aspects of the supernatural world, yet we are hesitant to believe in God.

Why is that?

Maybe we feel that God will demand too much of us. Maybe we feel that telling ghost stories or holding a seance are just passing amusements, while a life of Christian faith feels like a burdensome chore. And there is probably a lot of truth in that.

Yet what do ghost stories really do for us? They demand nothing from us, but neither do they offer any real hope. They exemplify everything about death which scares us most. In the world of a horror film or a ghost story, there is no heaven. The only eternal life available is through reliving the grisly moment of our death repeatedly as a ghost, wandering around seeing people who react to us not with love or affection, but with terror. Ghost stories take everything about death that we most dread and give that dread a concrete life of its own.

The gospel story is similar to a ghost story in a way. It too portrays death in its most fearful aspect, showing Jesus’ horrific death on a cross. Like a good horror film, it allows us to experience our own death from a safe and distant vantage point. But then, it does something completely different. It offers hope.

In the gospel story, the life of the spirit does not take the shape of some gruesome wraith wandering eternally through the darkest reaches of experience. The life of the spirit comes with joy, with victory. Rather than the most fearful aspects of death enduring for eternity, the most wonderful aspects of life are the things that endure.

If we can be open to supernatural events in our favorite ghost stories, why not open our hearts to the supernatural events that God makes possible for us in the here and now?

The rewards are much greater and more lasting than simply the passing fascination of a good story.