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.

More Than We Can Handle

I’m not sure what led me to go down this rabbit hole, but the other day I was thinking about Anne Frank.

As you probably remember, she was the young Jewish girl who kept a diary while hiding in an attic during the Nazi occupation. One famous quote from her diary reads: “In spite of everything, I believe people are really good at heart.”

And we think, “Well, if Anne was going through such a difficult period with this great attitude, then she must be right. If Anne Frank could say that, then it must be true.”

But I wonder if Anne felt that way after she was captured and taken to Auschwitz. When you read about the last months of her life, it’s hard to imagine anything more horrific. First she was separated from her father, then stripped of any dignity or humanity. She and her sister became ill with a series of serious ailments, ending with typhus which finally killed them.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this experience crushed that beautiful faith in humanity. And the experience of losing her faith and optimism must have been a huge loss for Anne, among all the other losses she experienced. I can imagine it was probably similar to the loss of faith that Elie Wiesel famously described in his book Night: “Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”

The truth is, that we all start out with optimistic beliefs about the world and about other people. And while (thankfully) we probably won’t have the horrific experiences of Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel, we eventually do find out that the world is more than we can handle. There is a saying that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I don’t think that’s true. I think we routinely experience pain and evil that is well beyond what we can handle. Cancer, abuse, genocide, murder. The loss of people or relationships that we cherish, even need. And the fact that He allows pain which is more than we can handle drives a lot of us to question His power, benevolence, and even His existence.

One popular way of trying to resolve this ancient theological dilemma is by placing God’s power solely within human hearts. There is evil, not because of some remote power outside of us, but because humans cause it. There is goodness, again not because of some remote power outside of us, but because humans have divine goodness within them and sometimes choose to act on it.

This is a comforting philosophy, but it’s problematic to me for many reasons. To me, belief in a God who is far away and never acts in our lives is the same thing as not believing in any God at all. And if that’s the case, what’s the point of faith at all?

It can’t be denied that humans are often God’s instruments when they allow themselves to be used that way. On 9/11, God used rescuers who, by selflessly helping others, showed that God was present even in the midst of evil. During the Holocaust, God used brave people who risked their lives to save others. Yet why did He allow evil to occur on such a grand scale in the first place?

These days, most of us shy away from using the word “evil.” It’s uncomfortable for us. Yet evil exists. There is a powerful and intelligent force of evil at work in our world which is almost (almost!) as powerful as God. And like God, It can use humans as instruments with great power and success.

It’s scary to think that there are forces at work that we don’t understand. But to deny the power of evil is also to deny the power of God. If there is no evil, then we must blame God for everything, if we even acknowledge His existence. He is either apathetic and uncaring, or (worse) capable of great malevolence. But the God I know is not like that. He is not distant or apathetic, and certainly not malevolent. And so the only other possible explanation is that there is another powerful spiritual force at work in our world besides God.

Of course, this does not absolve humans of responsibility. As beings created in God’s image, it is our responsibility to work for justice and peace, to conquer evil wherever it is found.

There is more pain and evil in this world than we can handle. Thankfully, God is on our side. And while many battles may be lost, the final victory is assured.

God’s Parlor Tricks

During devotion time yesterday morning, we read John 4. I was really struck with Jesus’ response when someone asks him for (another) miraculous healing: “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.”

I could hear the exasperation in his voice, almost seeing him rolling his eyes as he said it. As if what really wanted to say was, “I’m so tired of doing these stupid parlor tricks for you. Either you believe in me, or you don’t.”

And yet, they were constantly asking him for physical evidence of his power. Over and over. And we still do that today.

As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons for the fact that most people today reject Christianity. One reason is because throughout history (and still today) Christians have a reputation for being at best prim, proper and boring, and at worst, cruelly and barbarically judgmental. And let’s be honest, no one wants anything to do with that (understandably).

But the other bigger problem with accepting God in general and Christianity in particular is that humans struggle to accept the existence of spiritual realities. For most of us, everything has to be physical, concrete. There has to be physical evidence that we can observe with our senses in order for us to believe something. 

But God exists in the realm of the spiritual. So unless we can embrace the life of the spirit, we will never see or feel His presence anywhere.

Yesterday while out hiking, it occurred to me how narrow life would be if I only recognized the physical realm of existence. The life of the spirit opens up so many experiences, makes life so much richer. To confine myself to the physical realm would be to shut out half my conscious mind, to close my heart, to experience life in a narrow way similar to the way I imagine physical blindness or deafness.

As it is, I get to experience God’s presence in every situation, to hear His voice in my heart. Mundane, everyday experiences become portals to flashes of sudden insight and inspiration. The words of the Bible, which appear irrelevant and even contradictory when read on a merely physical plane, resonate with strength, and each time I read them, carry new and more powerful meaning. On this level of existence, there is no need for physical proof. There is no need for “parlor tricks” to prove the existence of God when He walks beside you every day.

In the physical realm, humans constantly need proof. They constantly demand evidence. But it is impossible to either prove or disprove faith. If you could do that, it wouldn’t be faith.

Instead, faith is a decision, a relationship, a commitment. If you do not have faith, you will look for proof of God’s absence everywhere, and so you’ll find it. If you do have faith, you will look for proof of God’s presence everywhere, and so you’ll find it.

It’s just a matter of meeting God where He is, in the spiritual world which exists all around us.

Are You a Good Person?

Why do we do kind things for others?

Whether it’s helping out at a soup kitchen or just listening to a friend who’s having a bad day, what is our motivation?

In my community, people enjoy giving their time to a number of volunteer organizations in town. And that’s great.

But sometimes, I wonder what motivates such acts of kindness. Is it just to achieve that warm fuzzy feeling that comes over you when other people are better off because of you? Or is there another agenda/motivation at work?

Any time I work with a volunteer organization, I can’t help but notice that there’s always a moment when the spirit of unconditional helpfulness starts to break down. People start to argue. They start to complain. It starts to become clear that, by helping, they believed they were entering into some kind of bargain…and now they feel that they’ve been cheated. 

It’s the same way with friendships and relationships too. We all have that friend who will do absolutely anything for people they care about. That’s a beautiful thing. 

But when someone else can’t return that devotion in kind, we get angry. We feel burned. Why did we waste our time on such a person when they were so unworthy?

Philosophers have often asked the question whether it’s possible for humans to be purely altruistic. Are we capable of doing kind acts without the expectation of a return?

Based on my own experiences and observations, I would have to say yes…but only to a point.

After that point, we can no longer sustain kindness simply for the sake of kindness. We need to receive something in return for it…usually intangible things like love, respect, or control. We need these intangible rewards, because we are frail humans who can’t sustain our efforts for very long without them. And God knows this. Even Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

In our own feeble power, we can’t administer the same kind of unconditional love and kindness that God shows to us. After a while, when we don’t get anything in return, we feel resentful, even angry. We feel hurt, rejected, and betrayed when our love, kindness, or volunteerism is not returned in the same spirit in which it was offered.

Unless…

There is this wonderful gift that Christians have access to, known as the “Holy Spirit.” If you have ever met anyone who was truly powered by that Spirit, you could probably tell. That person had boundless energy for treating others with kindness. They always had a smile. When you are in their presence, you feel like you are bathed in warmth and unconditional regard. If you accidentally said or did something hurtful, they forgave you immediately. And they weren’t shy about telling you that God was the reason for their goodness, that they wouldn’t be able to do it on their own.

We all know people like that…and it is a prime example of the Holy Spirit at work.

In the New Testament, the apostles who received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost did all kinds of amazing, supernatural things. They healed lepers and demoniacs, they escaped from prisons, they faced persecution and eventually martyrdom with true forgiveness in their hearts.

Could they have done these things without the Holy Spirit? No. The New Testament stories show that, before they received the Holy Spirit, they were just regular people, trying their best to earn a living on the shores of Galilee. They were suspicious, blunt, tactless, often unkind. They had their own personal agendas and motivations. In the end, it was God’s Holy Spirit that transformed them.

Do you truly want to love others unconditionally, as God loves them? Do you want to give your time and energy without care for the outcome? 

Do you want to be purely altruistic?

Well…you can’t.

Unless you are ready to invite the Holy Spirit into your heart. 

And then…we have all the power of God at our disposal.

Are We Suffering Enough?

Abraham Lincoln. Virginia Woolf. Winston Churchill. Vincent van Gogh. The Apostle Paul. Jesus Christ.

What do all these people have in common?

Two things: they all made incredible contributions to society which changed the world forever.

And: they suffered. A lot.

Abraham Lincoln was known for bouts of “melancholia” that lasted days at a time. (As a matter of fact, so was Winston Churchill!) And we all know about both the suffering and the creative genius of Virginia Woolf and Vincent van Gogh.

Is suffering a requirement for making lasting contributions to the world and society?

When it comes to suffering, most of us want to avoid it. We can’t even tolerate a bad cold or a bruised finger without throwing medication at them to make the pain stop.

As for emotional suffering (grief, fear, anger, and sadness)…forget about it! Just think about something else. And if you can’t, have a drink or five.

We don’t seem to ever allow ourselves to experience suffering for more than a few minutes at a time.

And when we see other people suffering, our instinct is to turn away. If we can’t fix it, we don’t want to know about it.

What would happen if we really embraced suffering, allowed it into our lives, and let it teach us its lessons?

In 2 Corinthians, Paul has this to say about suffering: “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Many people have speculated about what exactly this “thorn” might have been. It could have been a physical illness or disability. Or he might just have been talking about the persecutions he faced. In any case, Paul embraced suffering. He believed it made him stronger because it forced him to rely completely on God for everything. And it does seem to have made him stronger; Paul probably did more to spread the gospel all over the world than any other single person.

As for Jesus, he took on the ultimate suffering in order to bring God’s grace to humanity. And if you go back and read the accounts of his Passion and crucifixion, you can clearly see how real and horrific his suffering was.

What does suffering do for us? Maybe it helps us see with greater clarity the problems of this world and motivates us to reimagine a world in which these problems can be solved. Maybe it opens up our minds and hearts to the suffering of others so that we can walk alongside them instead of turning away from their pain in disgust and fear. Or maybe it strips us of our own feeble powers and replaces them with the power of God instead.

For those of us who have a mental illness (or any kind of chronic illness, really), there is no escape from suffering. We carry despair and fear within us all the time. We understand the frailty and futility of this world better than anyone else. Is this weakness? Or is it a unique path to finding the strength of God?

In my own lifelong walk with the pain of severe depression and anxiety, I have had to trust God fully every moment of every day. In fact, my life has depended upon the relationship I’ve had with Him. I’ve often thought that if anyone else had to spend even two minutes inside my head, they would run away screaming with torment. But still, I go about my work in the world every day, sometimes even with a genuine smile. As Paul did, I feel that I can boast in my weakness, because it has given me the strength of God.

If I hadn’t suffered so keenly, would I have had the opportunity to know God so intimately? It’s hard to say.

But I do know that His power allows me to experience suffering without being destroyed by it.

And with that power of God on our side…there’s really nothing we can’t do.

The Time Jesus Got Angry About Sex

That’s one of those click-bait trick titles of course. Jesus never got angry about anyone having sex. Not even once.

Of course, we think of Jesus as a mild and gentle person who really never got angry much at all. But actually, this perception of him is completely untrue. There were several times when Jesus did express great anger. (Take a look at Mark 11:15, Matthew 23, and Mark 5 for just a few examples.)

But, although I have looked for it, I have not found a single verse that showed Jesus looking into people’s bedroom windows and launching into angry sermons about who they were having sex with. The closest he came to this was when he told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.” And he said that only after looking into her eyes with kindness and love, saving her from being stoned to death, and pronouncing on her a benediction of divine forgiveness.

But who did Jesus get angry with? He was angry with the religious establishment. He called them out as hypocrites. He chastised them for neglecting to help the poor among them, while the religious leaders got to walk around in “soft robes.” He accused them of loading people down with restrictive religious obligations while refusing to help them with the problems of daily life. He angrily overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were trying to monetize the love of God.

Jesus was angry about hypocrisy, inequality, the absence of compassion. These are things which, as Jesus’ representatives on Earth, we can rightly be angry about, too.

Yet, it seems to me, very often, that Christians are angrier about sex than almost anything else. With most preachers, when they mention sin, they almost always mean it as related to some kind of sexual activity. They are extremely preoccupied with what they term “sexual sin.” Any kind of sexual activity (but especially homosexuality) seem to be matters that concern them greatly. But except for that brief moment with the woman taken in adultery, Jesus never mentions it once.

Why is that? I think it’s because Jesus was so busy addressing the problems of poverty, illness, injustice, and hypocrisy in the world that he just didn’t have time to run around looking in people’s windows to make sure they were having sex with the right people. It just wasn’t on his radar. He had more important things to do.

And I believe that as Christians we have more important things to do, too. Our world is still riddled with the same problems that angered Jesus back in A.D. 30 or so. As Jesus’ representatives on Earth, it falls to us to address the myriad and obvious instances of poverty, illness, injustice, and hypocrisy that are ripping the world apart more thoroughly and completely than any hapless adulterer ever could.

I do not think, though, that Jesus was unconcerned about sexuality. He preached the importance of treating others with integrity, with compassion. He preached against adultery and divorce on the grounds of compassion for others. In the culture of the time, divorce ruined women financially for the rest of their lives, since they were dependent on their husbands completely. And adultery is sinful not because it involves sex, but because it involves hurting another child of God.

Concerning sex, as with anything else, I think Jesus wanted us to treat others as God’s children, not to use them for selfish purposes. This idea is laid out clearly when I Corinthians tells us to treat our bodies as “temples.” And integrity and compassion were the main concerns with everything Jesus preached about, whether money, religion, or family relationships.

Imagine if all the passion directed against people for “sexual sin” were used to address the real and very harmful sins which are surely but certainly destroying humanity. If we could harness all that passion for good, we would truly be a powerful army of God.

Is Morality a Dirty Word?

Subtitled: Has our culture lost its moral compass?

There was a time, still relatively easy to access in our collective memory, when morality was very black and white and, more importantly, the same for everyone.

You could appeal to this collective morality about anything, because we all agreed about what was right or wrong. We all went to church every Sunday. We all banded together to fight threats like WWII or the Depression. We all believed in God as He is depicted in the Bible. If you and another person had a disagreement about what was right or wrong, it was fairly easy to resolve, because we all believed the same things.

So simple. Wouldn’t it be great to go back to that?

Except it wasn’t that great for everyone. We mistrusted anyone who was different. As a society, we punished or ostracized people who didn’t believe as we did, were raised with different values, or who stood out in any way. (Immigrants, racial minorities, LBGT people, and women who wanted to have more rights come to mind.)

Because of these oppressions, our society went all the way in the opposite direction. Any kind of universal morality was abandoned as if it it were a gross and offensive hot potato. Mentioning God in certain circles is like dropping the naughtiest of swear words. And when we try to appeal to others on the basis of any kind of moral high ground, it soon feels like we’re speaking a foreign language that our hearers can’t understand.

The older generations (people my age and older) feel understandably lost and frightened in this bizarre landscape. We had certain moral values instilled in us by our parents. We wonder, why aren’t parents today teaching their children those same moral values? Surely everything that’s wrong in our world is because our children aren’t saying prayers publicly in school anymore, because they’re not saying the pledge (which most schools still do, by the way), because they’re not learning all the subtle nuances of behavior in a morally black-and-white world. We throw up our hands in dismay. WHAT is going to happen to these future generations who were never given a proper moral compass, as we were?

And yet, that desire within us for a universal morality still exists. You see it in almost every argument or debate, in every setting. One person has a strong inner sense of morality. The other person has an equally strong sense of morality; however, because we are so individualistic, their beliefs about the moral high road are quite different. This has the effect of making us feel like we are speaking different languages, in which it’s impossible to understand others’ point-of-view or to make ourselves understood. We are united in our desire for a moral universe, but deeply divided on what that moral universe should look like.

At some point during my career as public school teacher, we became aware that schools needed some kind of universal morality. Children and teens all learned a very different set of morals from their families, mostly taught by example rather than explicitly stated. Hence we couldn’t appeal to our students on any moral ground because everyone’s morals were so different. A number of initiatives cropped up over the years to try to give the students some kind of universal morality. We usually gave it a name like Citizenship or Leadership or Character. Yet it always seemed to me that these were too vague. Good citizenship for one person looks different from good citizenship for someone else. The same with character; what does that even mean? I could tell you what it means to me, but your perception of it might be very different.

I think these efforts by the public schools reveal something important about our society. Despite our individualism, we yearn to share some kind of universal morality, something we can all appeal to, a set of agreements about the way people are supposed to treat one another in this world. But how can we get there? Is it possible to create a set of agreements like this without punishing or ostracizing those who are different?

I believe that Jesus had the best answers to these questions. The ancient Hebrew people had universal morality in spades, with an elaborate set of rules for every occasion. Stories from Jesus’ ministry reveal the ways certain groups were hurt or oppressed by the system: women, Samaritans, the poor. When Jesus was asked which of their hundreds of rules was the most important, he responded: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In Jesus’ view, a love for God spills out naturally into a love for others. A respect for a higher power in the universe who created each one of and gave us our sense of purpose leads us to recognize the sacred purpose of our neighbors too. A neighbor is anyone with whom we share a sense of community either because we inhabit the same street, the same town, the same country, or the same world.

An elaborate system of rules about things like prayer in school, saying the pledge, or even going to church every Sunday won’t get us anywhere in finding a set of moral values we can all share. In some ways, it just creates more division. But imagine if every person in our world could agree on the sacredness of every individual as created in God’s image? What if every person loved their neighbor as themselves?

Some version of this kind of morality forms the foundation of every major religion of the world. That alone really tells you something about how universal this code of ethics is. It’s almost as if this moral code exists already within our DNA, but because we don’t articulate it or discuss it, we often forget about it.

One of the functions of the new covenant with Jesus was a “law that is written on our hearts.” Because of this new covenant, we no longer need an elaborate set of rules explaining how to be good, moral people. And we no longer have to learn a specific belief system from our parents or our teachers. Because everything we need for morality already exists within us.

Let’s start by acknowledging the sacredness of every individual person, their unique role in God’s creation. If we all start there, we could soon be speaking the same moral language again.

And what a relief that would be.

What Do You Do?

It’s one of the first questions anyone asks when getting to know someone. What’s your name? Where are you from? And…what do you do?

For me, the answer to this question used to be simple. I was a teacher, specifically a French and Spanish teacher. This role gave me my identity in the world, a simple way to articulate who I was to others.

These days, it’s not so simple. When people ask what I do, it’s like being asked to list every food I’ve ever eaten. The menu is so vast, so varied, I can’t possibly confine it to one thing.

My primary job is as a freelance writer where I write about, well, almost everything. Yesterday I had to write articles about creativity in teens, how to start your own clothing line, Medicare coverage of Zephyr valves, and a comparison of Hubspot and Pipedrive. One day recently, for reasons that are unclear, a number of my clients all wanted articles about feet. So that’s what I spent the whole day writing about.

Besides writing, I also work part-time as a bookkeeper at my church, fill in occasionally as a substitute teacher at my daughter’s school, and give virtual French lessons to two 13-year-old friends who are being homeschooled.

This lifestyle affords me a dizzying amount of freedom compared to the teaching job I had for 15 years. I work a lot (because I have to) but I set my own hours. This makes it easy to go to appointments or to do the grocery shopping when the stores are less crowded. If I’m suffering from anxiety and don’t feel like leaving the house or talking to people, I don’t have to. (Ironically, the fact that I have a choice makes me feel less anxious and gives me more desire to interact with others.) But most of all, I don’t have a full-time boss. Or more specifically, my boss is God alone.

I really can’t complain about the human bosses I’ve had. They have (for the most part) been supportive, even during times when it was difficult to do so. But as mere mortals, bosses are subject to all the whims, temptations, and pressures that humans experience. At normal jobs, where you are defined by your work, you are solely dependent on the good humor of your boss for survival. It just feels like too much power over my life to leave in human hands, and this has never felt quite right to me.

I often wonder, how did we get to the place where we define people’s identity based on their work? When did we BECOME our jobs? How did we all buy into this belief that we have to earn the right to be alive, or that we need a title to prove we’re worthy of existence?

Numbers tell the story most vividly. Most people spend 8-10 hours a day, 5 days a week, doing their job. Assuming they sleep for 8 hours (most people don’t), this leaves them just a few hours a day to prepare meals, go to appointments, clean the house, shop, spend time with loved ones, socialize with friends, enjoy a hobby, do volunteer work, exercise, meditate, journal, and all the other activities of living. The majority of our day belongs to someone else.

Of course, it is not practical for everyone to quit their full-time jobs and patch together a hodge-podge of gigs. And maybe not everyone would be happy doing that. But I can’t help but wish we could restructure our societal and economic expectations in some way to give individuals more freedom. I’m not sure how that would work, or what that would look like. All I know is that an economy that depends on humans belonging to other humans feels deeply wrong, on every level.

It appears that people in the early church were mostly defined by their jobs, too. The characters in Jesus’ story were introduced by their occupations: fisherman, carpenter, tax collector, lawyer, scribe. But when Jesus called His disciples to leave their work and follow Him, they did so without hesitation. They were ready to leave behind the clearly defined roles they had in the world and declare God as their boss instead. As that old bumper sticker from the 1980s says, their boss was a Jewish carpenter.

Maybe this is the place to start. Maybe we each need to be ready to give up the job that defines us and accept God’s leadership instead. Perhaps He would tell us that we are serving Him already in the role that we have. Or maybe He would tell us to do something completely radical, as He did with the disciples, with His assurance that we will be OK. The thought is scary, but freeing.

Maybe the place to start is not by changing our political and economic systems. Maybe the place to start is within ourselves.

Let’s all try it and see what happens. Maybe there is a lot to lose.

But just imagine all that we could gain.

Empty Hands

Emptiness. That’s a bad thing, right?

We are all seeking to be filled. We’re not exactly sure with what. We think money, love, a meaningful career, a family, or some combination of these things should do the trick.

But we don’t stop to think about it much. We just know that we don’t want to be empty. Ever. For even two seconds.

It’s as if we are bargain shoppers running up and down the aisles of life, filling our arms with as much as we can carry. We grab things off the shelves with reckless abandon. We take so much that we can hardly carry it. We don’t even know if we want or need it. We just want it, just in case it might fill us up.

What would happen if we allowed our hands to be empty?

Sometimes the true blessings of life come at you when you aren’t expecting them, when you aren’t even looking for them. They might come in an unexpected conversation with a child. Or a new friendship with someone you wouldn’t have expected. Or a sudden, breathtaking encounter with nature.

What if your hands are full when these unexpected blessings come at you? How will you receive the blessings if your hands are full of other things?

In Isaiah 40, the prophet tells us to be prepare ourselves for the Lord. “Make straight in the desert…a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all the people shall see it together.” Later, John the Baptist quoted this verse when he prepared to baptize Jesus, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s Messianic prediction.

John was talking about the human heart, instructing the people on how to be ready for the Lord to appear. And later events in the story of Jesus’ life and ministry showed that many people followed this advice, that they were ready, that they were open to the leading of the divine. But many others were not. They were unable to see God’s work in their lives. Because their hands were full of other things and they had no place within them for his Spirit. Like the Town of Bethlehem, which had no place for the Baby Jesus in the inn, the hearts of the religious authorities were too full of other concerns to make room for the Lord.

It is not an easy thing to empty ourselves. We have to let go of old habits, old ways of thinking, sometimes old relationships that hold us back from growing. Being empty is difficult and frightening.

Yet it is necessary work if we want to make space for the true, eternal, lasting blessings of God’s life in our hearts.

Allow yourself to be empty. Sit with that emptiness. Because within that emptiness is a wonderful openness to accept blessings that you could never have imagined.

Within that emptiness is freedom.