Maybe it's because for the past few months I've been in such an uncertain period of my life, but I've recently been thinking quite a bit about joy. Unlike happiness, which is something that cannot be called upon or chosen, joy is something that we can, in fact, choose to have.
That reality has always kind of confounded me. Because my understanding of joy is usually a false one (mixed up with the idea that it is the same thing as happiness) I've always viewed verses that discuss choosing to have joy, or being overcome with joy, as quite difficult. I want someone to just tell me exactly what it means to choose joy. Joy is slippery, because it must be sincere, but it is also a clear decision.
In addition, the Bible not only encourages us to be joyful, it commands us. One passage that has been a stronghold for me for many years is this one from Romans 12:12:
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. (NIV)
I don't know exactly what it means to be "joyful in hope," but I know that I'm commanded to do it. And as with so many other things, that is a good place to start. CS Lewis wrote a whole book that told the story of his journey to joy, called, appropriately, Surprised by Joy. In it, he discusses the ambiguous nature of joy, and explains what he thinks joy is:
Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with [happiness and pleasure]; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.
And later on Lewis writes:
All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still "about to be."
In Lewis's opinion, then, joy is something just out of our reach, something that we receive only when in communion with God. And yet we are clearly commanded, throughout the Bible, to rejoice, as in Philippians 4:4:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (NIV)
So what does it mean to choose joy? How do we separate joy from the health and wealth gospels and the wrongness of expecting Christianity to bring prosperity and happiness?
I think it has to do with the first verse I quoted. Being joyful in hope points to the fact that this is not something we can pull from inside ourselves, or manufacture. It is a constant choice to call ourselves back to the truth of hope--a reminder to fix our eyes on the grace and promises of Jesus. On a super practical level, it probably means reciting the words of the gospel to myself, meditating on the work of Jesus, speaking with God. It means questioning my motivations and assumptions, and forcing myself to weigh my words and my thoughts before sliding to extremes.
In this season of life, it means being grateful for the blessings poured out on me, and being patient in the uncertainty. It means trusting in God's provision, and not being cynical about my dreams. It means being faithful to wait, and pray, and cry maybe, and not giving in to the frustration of constantly being in a state of uncertainty.
The times in my life when I have had the deepest awareness of both the fragility and the beauty of life are when I've had to wait, and be joyful in hope. Especially during this season of Advent, let us rejoice in the goodness of a God who commands us to pursue something so very good for us.
I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m getting older, or if there’s something specific to the way NYC has been shaping me, but I’ve recently been thinking a lot about being able to just be who I am. At this point, while I will always continue to change and grow, I am settling into the woman I am and the way I’ve been shaped. The process of questioning myself doesn’t end, but there are some things I know, and I want to have the ability to just be.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to art, and to being a Christian. I am much less worried about being a Christian than I have ever been before in my life, and that strikes me as encouraging and also kind of embarrassing. This is who I am, and yet for most of my life (and there are still many moments) I’ve been worried about how people will treat me, or what they’ll think, or how they might misperceive my beliefs. But I’m starting to believe deep in my core that it’s okay to just be. I am a Christian. It’s who I am. It’s okay.
And I am an artist. This post is about why I am starting to question the label “Christian artist.” This is not the first time I’ve questioned it, but it’s the first time I’m putting it into words. Questions about it have crossed my mind several times recently, most recently when I came across this article about Switchfoot and their contention of the label “Christian band.” (I know this is an old article. But hey, I’ve been busy.) When asked if they are a Christian band, their lead singer, Jon Foreman, says:
"To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple SF tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds. The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed."
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling oneself a Christian artist. But I agree with Foreman that there are certain unfair expectations that arise with the label. Like erroneously expecting a pastor to be more pure than his congregation, expecting an artist who is a Christian to only ever create art specifically referencing Christ is severely limiting. Would you expect a bank teller to make a Jesus reference to every customer who comes up to his booth? Or a journalist to work a Biblical narrative into each byline? And yet Christians who are artists are often unfairly expected to reference Christ in every piece of work they create.
The genesis of this, I believe, is complicated. I would argue that it is partly cultural, and partly theological. Culturally speaking, it’s closely tied to the fact that in many parts of the West, and certainly in the United States, the cultural consciousness surrounding art is unhealthy. I’ve written about this before, but because art is considered a luxury, only as good as its entertainment value, and primarily an industry--not as a way to share stories and therefore an integral part of life--artists tend to feel the need to heavily justify their decisions to be artists, whether in a monetary sense or otherwise.
Theologically, the matter is complicated by the fact that most art in the West during the Middle Ages revolved around the church. In addition, during the Reformation Christians developed the idea that any kind of art during worship needed to be heavily justified, and as art became more important outside of the church, this trickled down into art outside of worship as well. Today, these cultural and theological pressures often take the shape of artists telling their Christian friends that they are pursuing art so that they can either “bear witness in a secular industry,” or use their art as a platform for proclaiming the name of Jesus. Neither of which is a bad thing. But, I would argue, neither of which should be the primary goal in being an artist.
As Christians, we are called to bear witness first and foremost in every aspect of our lives. That is certain. But that is true for every Christian, no matter what profession, and it does not always take the form of explicitly naming the name. In some fields, like my father’s field as a physicist, it never does. The great thing about art is that it can take that form. But it doesn’t have to.
There is no need to justify a career in the arts any more than to justify a career in plumbing. Art is inherent to humans, and storytelling begins as soon as speech does. As Christians, sometimes we speak in our daily life about how much we love Jesus, and sometimes we speak about how much we love coffee. Artists should be free to speak about either as well. And really, there is a lot of laziness that has come about because of the concept of “Christian artists.” There are many beautiful pieces of sacred art, or stories about Christian experiences that are heartfelt and important. The Biblical narrative is woven through all of us, as Christians, and it should come out of our pores. But there are also plenty of pieces of horribly lazy art and stories with the name of Jesus plastered on simply because there is a market for it.
Artists who are Christians cannot be lazy. They cannot rely on a market, as many have. It’s much more difficult to tell a diversity of stories, some of which specifically name Jesus, and some of which don’t, and it’s difficult to interact at all times with a world that holds different beliefs and values and find ways to create and converse with artists outside the Christian faith. But it’s important. It’s a command, to all believers.
In the same way, Christians who are not artists must refuse to be lazy as well. It’s much easier to rely on a Christian label or art industry to provide entertainment and enjoyment, for us and for our kids. But we are called to engage in the world, and to feel the pulse of its heart. Doing the work of evaluating art--by artists who are both Christian and not--is important. Some of it you’ll have to throw away. Some of it will touch you deeply. And that’s good.
The bottom line is that we are Christians first, and that changes the way we think, speak and breathe. But once it gets into our blood and marrow, we as artists don’t need to be constantly questioning our profession. We fix our eyes on Jesus, and trust in the process of sanctification. Sometimes that means we’ll create art that speaks intimately of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and sometimes it means we’ll write a comedy sketch about the bus stop. Whatever project we’re working on, let’s not be afraid to just be.
*My brother Daniel recommended a book called Art and the Bible by Francis Shaeffer to me recently, which apparently speaks directly to this. Worth checking out!
I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions, but this year, since January, I have been giving a lot of attention to the cynicism present in my heart and my mind. At first, I was startled by its very presence. I have always considered myself an optimist, attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others. There should be no room for cynicism in my heart, especially as I continue to grow deeper in my faith.
But of course, this is not the case. As I have been observing, my heart is steeped in cynicism and fear. Over the past few months I have noted this with dismay, marking the crippling outworking of it in my life. I tell myself that whatever it is that I want, I won’t receive it or it won’t come to pass, because good things just don’t happen to me. I don’t walk in the rosy light that so many seem to walk in. I struggle.
Even a snapshot look at my life should reveal to me how ridiculous this is, but it doesn’t. Today my pastor preached on greed, and Matthew 25, speaking to us about money. Such a touchy subject, but one that Christians have to hear, and I felt my recent convictions about cynicism stirring in my heart, because I think my cynicism is often just a mask for selfishness. Especially when it comes to money, but really in everything, I truly own nothing. Everything has been given to me, and yet in my heart I deeply believe that I am entitled to what I think I need. On my birthday, a few weeks ago, I jokingly told my family that this was my name-it-and-claim-it year. As I get older, and figure out what I want, I want to know that what I want will happen. That I’ll be taken care of.
I don’t want to be rich. I’ve never wanted to be rich. I just want to be comfortable. I don’t want the best job. I just want a job with health insurance, where I feel that I’m using my talents and skills. I don’t need a month in the Mediterranean every year. I just want a few weeks to dip my toes into the ocean. And these are not bad desires. Comfort and security often lead people to a place where they can be loving and useful to others, and where their skills are truly used for good.
But my absurd cynicism rears its head and makes these desires more important than they should be. My cynicism is born out of selfishness, but it’s also born out of fear. It’s a way of buffering my heart against failures. If I care too deeply, or want something too badly, I will be hurt when it’s not given to me. But if I cynically tell myself not to get my hopes up, I won’t feel the sting when it doesn’t pan out. I live in my crippled shell of fear, with selfishness textured in, because I don’t understand that every moment of breath is a gift.
My pastor described God as a billionaire taking fistfuls of money out of his pockets and throwing it at people. We live in the midst of the incredible gifts thrown at us--and I don’t mean the money or the comfort or the security. I mean the way the train runs around a bend and comes to a stop in front of me, and the yellow daffodils nodding at me on the kitchen table, and the glancing eye-contact I shared with a woman I passed on the street yesterday, and the heavenly smell of coffee brewed on a rainy morning. We live among splendor, every moment of it rubbing up against pain, and the tension of holding the sorrow of the world in one hand has to be balanced by the joy of holding the beauty of it in the other.
I don’t want to imprison myself in a shell of cynicism. I don’t want to be afraid to trust, and to love, and to risk. I want to give generously, of my money, and my time, and my prayers, and my love, even if it’s not reciprocated, as hard as that is. God has given me common sense so that I don’t squander my gifts, but he’s also given me a world to explore and to love, and to help. He has given me so many good things, and there is no time for selfishness or fear or cynicism.
My acting teacher Mark Lewis used to say: “Everyone should have their heart broken, and break someone else’s heart. At least once.” We are obsessed with safety, especially the safety of our hearts. We pack ourselves in so tightly that we can only ever look forward to the next thing, because maybe it will be more satisfying than the hollow isolation of the present. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t make us any safer, and it’s certainly not Biblical. So this year I am resolved to continue to watch my heart, to pray that my cynicism is slowly carved out of it, and to open my eyes to the momentary blessing of each day.
Even if you’ve never seen the above image, you probably know people who have said similar things. Or maybe you’ve said them yourself. It’s tempting, as a single person, to feel this way. But as I encountered the third friend-of-a-friend who was using this image as their Facebook profile picture, I began thinking about just how wrong this message is.
As I approach my 24th birthday, I’ve been giving relationships more thought. In the eyes of the world, I’m still a relationship baby. In the Christian community, I’m middle-aged on the marriage market. It makes sense, therefore, that I vacillate often between being in absolutely no rush to find someone, and being very ready to put my heart out there.
Most single people operate like this; it’s a confusing time, with the sense of endless opportunity. But as my generation of Christian-raised singles grow up, I am feeling the backlash against the expectations of the Christian culture. Most of us have been raised in homes that support young marriage, support commitment, and “settling down.” But we are part of a culture that offers a blinding amount of choice, and the idea that there’s always something better out there. With the internet and globalization, we all have a giddy idea that anything can happen. Anything.
So what does this have to do with the above picture making the Facebook rounds? The problem is that the only people I’ve seen put it up on their profiles are Christians. And yet this idea that a relationship is about finding someone who is amazing enough to challenge your singleness is not Christian. It goes against the very spirit of the Biblical sense of marriage. (I say marriage, and not relationships, because there is very little “dating” in the Bible...mostly you are either single, or you find someone and get married, and there are no long dating relationships or mini-marriages. Another blog post.)
I’m going out on a limb here, because I’m not married. So any married friends who’d like to weigh in, I would love to hear your perspective. But from my relationships with friends, and with family, I cannot believe that dating someone is about finding someone who is perfect in every way. My friends are far from perfect. My family is far from perfect. I am far from perfect. How can I expect a husband to be perfect? But that is part of what makes relationships so beautiful--because we, as Christians, are given the privilege of modeling God’s grace toward us. God does not turn from us though we are imperfect, and we do not turn from each other. We learn to forgive, and to see our own sins.
Of course I am not saying we shouldn’t be discerning when it comes to dating. Of course there are people we are attracted to, and whose personalities complement ours, and who have similar goals. But recently, while I was in L.A., I went to a stand-up club and one of the comics was making jokes about dating, and how the problem with our culture is that we have too many choices. He likened relationships to chocolate, and how with so many choices, the chocolate we end up eating seems only so-so. He was right. We have too many choices. And because there is always something just around the corner that is better, we don’t let ourselves settle into the real work of loving someone because it is good to love, and to love consistently. Even through pain, or disappointment.
While I was at Wheaton College, there was a lot of talk of singleness (naturally, with that many single people crammed together) and whether it was better than being married. The Apostle Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians was a huge topic of discussion. Is it more godly to be single? Paul calls it a “gift from God” (1 Cor. 7:7), and talks about how single men and women can devote more time and energy toward the church. I had friends who said we should all try to be single, rather than married, because it is clearly more godly.
I agree that singleness is a great gift. But I don’t know if I agree that it is more godly. In Hannah’s previous post, she quoted from a scholar who wrote at length about how men and women reflect God’s image together. I don’t know if you necessarily need to be married for that to happen, but being married is the natural state of humankind. Themes of marriage run throughout the Bible, and illustrations of godly marriage light up its pages. Marriage is a good thing. Being single is a gift, and if we find ourselves single for a long time, or for our whole lives, we have a great and precious (and often difficult) task given to us. But we should never hold up singleness as more holy than marriage.
I was talking recently with my brother Joshua, and he told me about a question and answer session he’d attended with his college pastor. I think his pastor said something very wise, and very helpful. While discussing singleness, and Paul’s 1 Corinthians passage, he began to talk about the gift of singleness, as Paul says it. And Joshua’s pastor said that we should not be worrying about whether or not we have the gift of singleness--whether we should stop dating or opening our heart to love. Because we all have the gift of singleness--everyone who is single has it. The gift is simply that we are single. We are charged to make the most of it, and when we marry, the gift is taken away and replaced with other gifts.
What a beautiful gift we have been given, as single people. We will never again have the time and the freedom to serve God as we can while we are single. But that does not mean we will not serve him just as effectively when we are married, nor does it mean that we have the right to stay single until we are swept off our feet by someone who is absolutely amazing. We have the counter-cultural privilege of choosing, committing, and not looking any further. Our own love is messy and knotted together, and we must expect those we love to return it in kind. But single or married, God does not abandon us to our own imperfect love. And that is a beautiful thing.
This summer has been a series of emotional ups and downs. From the beginning of June, when my internship ended, to, well, now, I have been in a continuous state of limbo as far as what my life this upcoming year will be like, and whether the dreams and plans I have for my life will, down the road, be possible. It’s been very uncomfortable, and stressful. But I’ve been learning.
At the end of my senior year of college, my acting teacher Mark Lewis gave me some great advice—to allow myself to slow down. To do something meaningful, of course. But to take the time to figure out where I was meant to be, and what I should be doing. In his words: “You should be able to wake up in the morning and say, ‘I think I’ll have a cup of tea today.’ And do it.” I started crying when he said those words. And that told me something very important about myself—that I needed to follow his advice and give myself some breathing room apart from the non-stop world of college.
I did a theater internship part time, and to make some money I worked as a nanny. I was blessed to have two great families and four incredible children to nanny. And as I worked at both these “filler” jobs—an internship that didn’t pay me and as a nanny with no benefits—I began to have my first doubts about the way we, as Christians, use the word “calling.” If you had asked me a year ago what my calling was, I probably would have said that it was to be an acting teacher. But as the year went on and I opened my heart to the children I spend time with every week, I started to question the use of that word.
By referring to our careers as our “callings,” I think we misinterpret the real meaning of God’s calling in our lives. As I spent time with Ruby and Miles and Zane and Andrew, the children I have gotten to know and love, I recognized that my career will not be as their nanny. But I am convinced that my “calling,” during the time that I watch them, is to be their nanny. I have come to believe that our calling is not our dream career, or even the career that best uses our talents and skills. Our calling is to be doing whatever it is we are doing right now, in this moment as we are breathing and thinking and loving. Our calling is to serve God through our actions, and to become more like him, whatever we are doing.
As I grew more and more sure of this, and as my internship ended and I was faced with the fact that I was still nannying, but was no longer working for a theater, my eyes began to open to the way I think about myself, and the things I have to do to get approval. My goal is to be an acting teacher. That will not change. God has given me the skills and the training to be an acting teacher, and I intend to pursue those opportunities. But while I waited, and waited, and waited for schools to respond to me, and things to happen, I got to see a pretty clear glimpse of what I think is important. What I really think, when it comes down to it—not what I say I think, or think I think. And it shocked me how many of my decisions are based on the way I think people think of me, or things that I think people think I should have or do. (See. It’s so messed up it’s even hard to understand grammatically.)
Things like living at home, or driving a beater car, or being on my parents’ health insurance. Or being a nanny. Feeling like I had to apologize every time I told someone what I did for a living, or add a long story about what I really want to do. And I had to ask myself when we as a culture began to decide which jobs you have to apologize for, and which ones you don’t. When did it stop being about the fact that I am a really good nanny, and the children I watch are being served by my efforts?
I don’t want to get on a soapbox. Trust me, I know what it’s like to get a college degree and be frustrated about not using it like I envisioned. But the point is, whatever we’re doing, if we’re doing it well, we are using that degree. We 20-somethings have been trained to look ahead and push forward, and we’ve also been told that we can do whatever we want. I don’t know whether we were also told that we can do it immediately, but we definitely act like we should. And I’m just not sure that—especially as Christians—we should be ashamed of the “filler” jobs most of us have to do while we chart our career paths.
I love nannying. I won’t be a nanny forever—for one thing, I wouldn’t have benefits, and for another, I have been given an opportunity to be trained as an actress, and I believe I should use that training. But if I was a nanny forever, my life would be just as worthwhile. I don’t know if we’ll ever truly believe that—if we as a culture can ever value something like nannying as highly as something like being a doctor (and I am certainly not downplaying the importance and skill of doctors.) But as Christians, we absolutely should. We are all given one calling—to worship God by becoming more like him. What career we choose is second to that. Because no matter what we do, we are called to give everything we have, whole-heartedly, to our occupation. And that is worth thinking about.
- Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
~ My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman
~ The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton