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.
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.
Each of us, in our own way, lives in brokenness. Some people display it much more than others. But as I walk through my own season of pain, I am realizing more and more just how beautifully important brokenness can be.
All of our bodies are broken. Some are extremely broken; some are mostly healthy. In the grand scheme of things, I’ve been hugely blessed. I do not live with a debilitating disease, or a life-altering injury. And yet my body is imperfect. I have had depression; I have had eczema. And the older I get, the more I realize that my body is irreparably wrong.
The catalyst for these recent thoughts has been my problem with OCD tendencies. I do not have OCD--it takes quite a lot to be diagnosed as OCD, and to have it affect your lifestyle. But lots of people have tendencies, which manifest in various ways. Some people obsessively check outlets before leaving their house. Some people hum or clear their throats. I often find myself with ticks--feeling the need to take deep breaths, or touch the door handle on my way out of a room. These have always been things that I can control. Recently, I have been compelled to constantly twitch my back. This is annoying. This is wrong. This is out of my control. This is broken.
This is not uncommon, as I said. These tendencies come and go, and I’m not worried about my health. But what I have been realizing, as I struggle daily to turn off the part of my mind that’s telling me to twitch, is that I do not control my body. I do not have the ability to clamp down and force myself to be “normal.” Deep inside, there is something in me that’s broken. If I’m honest with myself, that thought is terrifying. And I’m sure that everyone else, if they’re honest, is terrified as well. At some point, we realize that we do not control our own selves. We realize that there is something within each of us that is broken and bent. Something we can’t fix. Paul speaks to this rather ugly truth quite eloquently in Romans chapter 8, when he says:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (22-23)
And yet, this is where beauty comes. When I struggled with depression, I had to come to the world-grinding realization that I do not control my own mind. There are things I cannot fix. Through this process of facing my OCD tendencies, I have come to the same realization about my body. It, too, is wrong. It, too, is broken. And yet one step beyond that devastating realization is life. Because once I realized, in my depression, that I did not control my mind, I found myself resting on the promise that there is one who does. Likewise, though I cannot control my body, I know that it is under control. Broken and painful, it is not abandoned.
God uses many means to teach us about himself, but for me, the most consistent and effective way has always been to reveal my weakness to me. Just as I was called back by the pain of depression in my mind, I am called back by the pain of this (granted, pretty light) physical problem. As C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” It may take months, or years, but I am continually surprised at the beauty that comes through our broken and wasted bodies and minds. And, like the state of my soul, the state of my body actually gives me hope. Right now, my soul is filled with bitterness and anger and pride and many other sins. But one day, my journey of sanctification will be over, and my soul will be free. Likewise, one day this broken, aching body will be new, and will be strong, and will be so beautiful. (And, because I’m not a gnostic, I know that the process is somehow interwoven and mingled together. And that makes this broken body even more essential.)
It’s important for us to know that we’re not alone. First, in the sense that we are not the only ones with strange ticks and problems and afflictions, or whatever your brand of brokenness may be. Humanity as a whole is dealing with a world full of crushed souls and bodies all wrapped up together and slowly dying. It is wrong to think that we are alone in the terror of living in bodies and minds that we don’t understand. And it is also important that we understand how truly understood we are. Not by ourselves, or by other humans. But by the God who created us, and feels our pain, and our ticks, and our addictions and compulsions. By the God who provides peace enough to bring us to the point of total fear and helplessness, and then remind us that he does not leave, or abandon. He knows every broken bit of us, more than we know ourselves, and he is faithful to preserve us, and promises to make us whole. Paul, continuing in Romans 8, provides us with a powerful assurance and beautiful promise:
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (26-27)
If there is a more powerful hope than that, I have never encountered it. We are held in the palm of God, prayed for by the Spirit, and rest in the advocation of Jesus. Even in the power of our awful broken minds and bodies and souls, we are known thoroughly and loved completely. Right now, I am thankful for a body that reminds me of my weakness, if only so that it can continually bring me back to reliance on Jesus, and I eagerly await a body that is strong and perfect.
How blessed we are.
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.
- Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
~ My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman
~ The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton