Like most people, this summer completely overwhelmed me. It felt (and honestly still feels) like the world was tipping sideways, sliding toward a precipice of anger and confusion waiting to swallow us. The news is always bad; people are grieved and shocked and dying and selfish.
In June, my friend RachelAnn told me about a podcast by a woman named Jen Wilkin, which is a recording of a study she led on the biblical books of Joshua and Judges. At the time, I was sold because RachelAnn mentioned that Wilkin spoke on the character of Rahab in a way that was different than any teaching she’d heard before. I, like a lot of women in the church, tend to think of the Old Testament as a bit of a barren wasteland for women--a place where the true heroes are the men, and the stories about women are mostly just those illustrating abuse or suffering.
I couldn’t anticipate, at the time, how deeply this study would affect me. I didn’t know how it would not only completely upend my perspective on the amount of time and attention given to women in the Old Testament, but also transform my anxiety about the world. The one thing--the only thing, I think--that could reach me in a place of true grief over the state of the world and the state of my own heart was a careful study of wickedness, and the God who moved the authors of Joshua and Judges to record it.
I began with Joshua, and true to RachelAnn’s words, I was struck by the story of Rahab and her courage and faith. It’s been years since I read this book, and I felt as if I was reading it with new eyes. This post is partly an encouragement to listen to Jen Wilkin’s study, because it’s extremely thorough in scholarship and timely in its nature, but it’s also just a reminder that all of scripture is precious. I admit that I spend the bulk of my time in the epistles and the gospels, but after living in Joshua for eleven episodes, I am hungry now for the words of the Old Testament. The care God took with the Israelites as he brought them into the promised land, the way the stories are recorded, and the steadfastness of God’s promises are life in a time when we are all feeling uncertain and, to be honest, a little abandoned. Patience is probably my least present virtue, and to read about the many times God had his people wait, and wait, and wait was both crushing and freeing to me.
But really, the book of Joshua felt like a warm up to the book of Judges. It was important in content and context, but when I began the episodes on Judges I felt the true surgery begin. This book is both beautiful and horrible. It tells of a people who are constantly doing “what is right in their own eyes,” with no true leadership and no desire for the good of others. For large chunks of the book God is silent, allowing events to unfold. I felt my heart resonate with the squandered land, the injustices, the exploitation. It all seemed so familiar.
In her lectures, Wilkin kept saying, “If you want to know how the Israelites are doing, look at the women. How are the vulnerable being treated?” She guided us through the beginning of the book, where women have the status to negotiate for what they want (the story of Aksah), places of leadership (Deborah, who also presents qualities of God in such a way that she points to the character of Christ) and the ability to fight for those less capable (Jael). But by the end of the story we are seeing a people who have begun to abuse the vulnerable (as in the truly horrible story of the Levite’s concubine) and care so little about the value or interests of women that they give their blessing to the abduction and rape of hundreds (the wives of Benjamin.)
I knew these stories; I had read them before. But they always seemed disjointed. Now, with the background from the study of Joshua, and Wilkin’s careful contextual analysis, they were transformative. I went to see Rachael Denhollander (the first accuser of convicted sexual offender Larry Nassar) speak last Spring, and her talk was all about how important it was when she came to truly believe that justice and forgiveness are inextricable, and that it was through her study of the Old Testament that she found healing in the fact that God is a God of justice. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think I can understand a piece of that now, even though I have not gone through what she has gone through. There is a simmering anger I feel, and I think a lot of us feel, at the continual abuse of women, and of people of color, and of the marginalized, and the only way I know to find peace from the anger is by seeing that God cares even more about it than I do.
There were a million personal applications along the way that made the Joshua and Judges study especially helpful for me, but the overarching message is this: God is not overwhelmed by evil, even though we are. And through the many stories about women that are found in Judges (and now I recognize, are found in the entire Old Testament) he is showing us that he sees. When I cry out in my spirit about the endlessness of pain and the triumph of evil, the book of Judges is saying, “He sees.” He does not always help in this world, which is hard for me to understand, but he always sees, and it always matters. And he will always have the last word.
Wilkin ended her study by referencing the book of Ruth, which ironically, although Ruth is my namesake, has always sort of mystified me. It seemed like such an odd little book to be placed right between the chaos of Judges and 1 Samuel. But when I read it with fresh eyes full of context, I just cried. It’s so clear to me now why it’s there--right there, immediately following some of the worst evil found in the scriptures. Because in it, as Wilkin reminds her listeners, we see a picture of sacrificial love from both Ruth and Boaz, a story of courage and tenderness and selflessness, that is so deeply in contrast to the stories we just read. Ruth, like Boaz, points to the character of Christ, and through their descendents God brought about the birth of the savior that is the true triumph over the chaos we still feel.
Most remarkably, Wilkin points out that the story of Ruth runs concurrent to the rest of the book of Judges--not after it, but at the same time. While all this chaos is happening, while women and the vulnerable are being abused, while people are taking what they can and rejoicing in the suffering of their enemies, God is faithfully, quietly at work. That is a true hope to cling to, and one that has radically altered my feelings about the world I live in right now. We do not control the hearts of our fellow people, and most of the time we can’t even do much to fix the horrible things that have been done. But we have the courage to continue to live and to work because God has never abandoned his people, and he never will.
Last year my brother Daniel released an EP with five songs on it. It was called At Last - Far Off, and it has some of the most beautiful worship arrangements on it. One of my favorites is Psalm 77--it is such a simple refrain, but one that is refreshing and humbling.
Worth listening to, especially during this time of advent. Or check out his new single just released for Christmas, Puer Natus Est.
Basically, just listen to his stuff. It's all good.
There have been a lot of things said over the past several days in regards to the turmoil in St. Louis, and the controversy surrounding the ruling not to indict Darren Wilson. I found the words of Benjamin Watson, a tight end for the New Orleans Saints, to be really truthful, in the midst of it all. Worth a read.
From Benjamin Watson's Facebook page:
"At some point while I was playing or preparing to play Monday Night Football, the news broke about the Ferguson Decision. After trying to figure out how I felt, I decided to write it down. Here are my thoughts:
I'M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.
I'M FRUSTRATED, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life, away from safety movie sets and music studios.
I'M FEARFUL because in the back of my mind I know that although I'm a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a "threat" to those who don't know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.
I'M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests, and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many, validate, the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.
I'M SAD, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day.
I'M SYMPATHETIC, because I wasn't there so I don't know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point.
I'M OFFENDED, because of the insulting comments I've seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.
I'M CONFUSED, because I don't know why it's so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don't know why some policeman abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.
I'M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take "our" side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it's us against them. Sometimes I'm just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that's not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That's not right.
I'M HOPELESS, because I've lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I'm not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.
I'M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it's a beautiful thing.
I'M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I'M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that's capable of looking past the outward and seeing what's truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It's the Gospel. So, finally, I'M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope."
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!
Friday is moaning
and Sunday is laughing,
but Saturday is silence.
I breathe the deep stillness of both
the cross and the empty tomb,
but the disciples and the women
knew only the pit of having had Him
and being left with nothing, and silence
weightier than existence,
that broke the earth
and rewrote it backwards and forwards.
Silence that fills lower and higher--
pouring out of a sepulcher
that calls forth my adoring wonder.
(Last two lines inspired by The Valley of Vision)
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.
Whatever your stance on the issue, this post by my friend Courtney is worth reading. She's not interested in yelling or arguing. She just shares her honest, beautiful story of anorexia, pregnancy, and, ultimately, love.
Take a look at Courtney's eloquent words.
a two and a half hour sobbing
scream for mercy that doesn’t come
even with a happy ending, it doesn’t.
trapped in history, squeaking folding seats
pain, over and over
flirting with the line--artistic flaw
punishing us for things we didn’t do
but continue to live with.
I’m not the one still suffering.
but I am the one asking myself
what I would have done:
I know the answer.
I would have batted my fan
and gone back into the house.
in my head I speak truth and live with open hands
in my heart I just want to be okay
and that’s why I squirmed
that’s why we all squirmed
watching a history that was, and could be
again if we forget stripe-crossed backs--
answered only by stripes
stripes thank God.
I will take my children to the graveyard.
I will let them run through tombstones
like shards of rain, beating into the earth
between cracks in the sidewalk, yelling
and laughing and hiding behind big stones.
I will tell stories, snuggling our toes into the grass
curled over the Smiths and the Wrights,
and show them the woman who lived to be one-hundred.
Seated on the tombstone benches
we will grieve those who are dead, and rejoice for those
who will never die--
who are alive
for the first time, the longest time, forever.
My children will grow strong;
death shall not frighten them
when they understand that the bones of those who have died
salted the world they live in, and gave sweat to the groaning
of this very good creation. And when they grow old enough,
they will lay my bones beneath the ready earth
and they will cry--
but they will also laugh, because they will know,
as they did when they played hide-and-seek among old names,
that death has no victory--
supposedly, it does not even have sting.
Death clutches our lungs for just this one, wilting moment.
Once, during my time at Wheaton, I went downtown to Chicago to observe tech at Lookingglass, a prominent theater in the city. As I walked through the streets, I noticed for perhaps the first time that my shell was growing tougher--my face was set in a rock hard expression that was unrecognizable as the woman I really was. I texted a friend and asked, “How do you walk around a city with an open heart, and not as if you own it?”
“What else is love?” he texted back.
I was amazed at the complexity held in that simple response. And since that day, I have thought back to his words and wondered at my own idea of love. Can it be so large? Can it be carried on the hips, and held in the fingers, so that people on the street can be witness to it?
Since my decision to move to New York City to pursue a masters degree in theater, there have been a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head. And the memory of that big city’s--well, bigness--has come back to me. The swinging hips and turned up nose feeling. The feeling that I am somehow less than everyone else, and I have to overcompensate for that. The feeling of being scared.
My acting teacher in college used to say, “If something scares you, it’s worth doing.” (Within reason, obviously.) In the context of acting classes, that usually meant taking a risk on a scene; wearing something you wouldn’t normally, or choosing to reveal something about yourself that was personal. But what I began to realize, through those small risks, is how much of my life was ruled by fear. How many situations I flee because I don’t have the right category to file them under. How many conversations I cut short because I’m afraid of where they might go.
My teacher also used to tell us, during class, to have “soft eyes.” My immediate response to this was emotional--having soft eyes, at the time, meant being open hearted and ready to take what came. And somehow, these two ideas--that of doing things that scare me, and that of having soft eyes and an open heart--became wrapped up into one single choice. The choice to live my life with these ideas as a reality.
My time in Pittsburgh, these last two years, has been almost like a rest--a quiet period of growth and settling. Looking back on it, I can see how everything I have done has been useful, and good, and has helped me grow deeper into myself and my faith. But Pittsburgh, for me, has not been a place that has challenged me to combine fear with softness.
My sense is that New York will be just such a place. First of all, because I am scared to go. Much less scared than I would have been two years ago, but scared nonetheless. Scared, rightly so. The city--and especially the theater scene--is one of the fastest and smartest in the world. I am a girl who finds it challenging to attend a new church by herself. The world of networking and connections will be crazy hard for me. But I can't help thinking that what's important is not being fearless--it's recognizing fear and being okay with it. Understanding what scares you, and doing it anyway.
And I know this: God has provided this opportunity, and he has been preparing me. I also know the truth that if something scares me--with that wholesome, slightly thrilling fear--it’s worth doing. But how am I going to walk around a city that frightens me, and still keep my eyes soft and my heart open?
If the answer was easy, it wouldn’t be worth discovering. And my story is my own, and no one else’s. There is beautiful comfort in that thought, because it means that even if I move to New York and hate every second of my time there, the pieces of my life will still add up to a story worth telling. But I suspect that if I’m honest about my fear, and own it, and reveal it, and keep my eyes soft and my heart open, I will find things to give and to take during my time of studying and creating and breathing stale city air.
Because really, what else is love?
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria