A Hell of a Tone of Voice (Some thoughts on how we talk about what happens after we die)

A while back, I was asked to participate in a panel answering questions about heaven and hell. The group had spent a couple weeks in a series looking at what Scripture says about what happens after we die. They were asking questions about heaven and the various ways people have understood “hell”: is hell eternal conscious torment? Is it annihilation—a case where we are, and then simply are not any more? Is there a case to be made for Christian Universalism – where after a time of suffering, all souls are restored to God? What about Martin Luther’s idea that death was sleep? Was CS Lewis onto something when the faithful Taarkan (a Muslim-figure) is allowed into Aslan’s eternal Kingdom in The Last Battle (whereas Susan Pevensie, who wore lipstick, was not?And why would a good God allow for a place like hell, anyway?

I had several other teaching commitments that week and so declined the invitation, but even if I hadn’t been busy I possibly would have said no, anyway. My sieve-like memory knows that I studied this stuff  before, but the content is mostly gone. It’s been a long time since I read up on the various theories of eternal punishment, and I would have had to brush the dust off some of my theology books and do some serious reading.

But the invitation itself got me thinking: what have I believed about this? And, are there reasons to revisit this topic now? I certainly grew up believing that hell was a place of eternal conscious torment, but some of the Bible scholars and teachers I have learned from don’t agree. And certainly, given how upsetting and offensive the idea of eternal conscious torment is (It’s the ultimate version of “my way or the highway”, isn’t it? Even for people who never got a chance to hear about God’s way…), I resonate with the desire to understand this in a way which reflect God’s goodness and mercy and compassion , which annihilation and christian universalism both seem to allow for.

I was a little surprised to find myself thinking: it doesn’t matter what conclusion I come to on this.  Not really. God-fearing people have come to different conclusions on what the passages referring to Hades and Gehenna and punishment mean, and I don’t know that I can sort it out with a new, independent rigorous study of my own. But what matters more to me is this: the tone of voice we discuss this in. Because even if I’m not sure what Jesus meant by the all the hell talk, I’m sure of this one thing: whatever he meant by it, he considered it VERY important to avoid, and a VERY good reason for people to trust in him instead. It’s better to suffer egregious bodily harm in this life (lose an eye! or a hand!) than to have two eyes and two hands and go to hell. Whatever hell means (and Jesus would know), he warns people to go to ANY LENGTH to avoid it. He went to hell himself to keep us from there. Whatever hell means, he assures us it’s not somewhere we want to be. Weeping and gnashing of teeth sound awful, even if they’re hyperbolic.

So even if it is true that we are annihilated, or we suffer a while and then are reconciled to God (and maybe this is the case, I don’t know), Jesus doesn’t seem to think that those options should be something which, when explained, we should feel we are comfortable with. If anything, one of the ways we might know we’ve come to the right conclusions about hell is that we respond the way Jesus says we should respond: with urgency. with grief. with seriousness.

I remember Dave, one of my campus pastors, teaching a few of us students twenty years ago about how to prepare and teach a small group bible study. We were discussing the passage in 1 Thessalonians about the Lord’s coming, and someone in our group got a little “firestone and brimstone-ish” in his conclusions. Dave commented that even if everything my friend was saying was true, he’d missed an important thing in the passage: 1 Thessalonians was written to comfort believers, not to threaten them. And so, whatever we made of the content of the passage, the tone of our conclusions on the paragraph should be wrapped in the comfort of the letter’s context.

I’ve carried those words with me since: we need to pay attention to the tone of voice of the speaker. I still don’t know what exactly happens after we die: how our spirits and bodies might be separated or joined again at resurrection, how conscious we’ll be, what the first and 2nd resurrections might look like, or what hell is like. But I’m sure about Jesus’ tone of voice on which I want for me, and which one I definitely don’t want for me or anyone else. And that is sobering as hell.

 

Photo credit: free stock photos from Pexels.com

I love you, friend, but I don’t want your essential oils (or leggings, or mascara…)

If you’ve been around church women for any length of time, chances are you’ve been invited to some kind of product party: a “no pressure, just-a-bunch-of-girls get together” with food and a presentation of jewelry, essential oils, makeup, leggings, cleaning products, accessories, nutritional supplements, skin care miracles, or (fill in the blank) on display.

Or, you’ve been invited to an online shopping party to buy books or mascara that will Change your Life.

Or, (and this might be my least favorite), you’ve been added to some FB group you did not ask to join and now have live videos appearing in your feed of someone applying their makeup.

Church life, it seems, is a hotspot for business. Multi level marketing (the I-sell-to-you, you-sell-to-your-friends, your-friends-sell-to-their friends model) is a 34 billion dollar a year industry, according to Christianity Today’s feature article on the topic… and a vast proportion of those sales are by and to women, and church ladies are at the forefront of the salesforce. There’s a reason your facebook feed is filled with church contacts selling stuff.

I used to think it was just me who got an icky feeling every time I got one of these party invites. I don’t like shopping at the best of times (I can feel my soul leaching out of me with every step I take deeper into the mall), but I’ve been wrestling for months on what it is about this particular type of shopping that makes me so antsy, and more and more I’m realizing it’s not just me… and getting closer to articulating what it is that bugs me.

So let me start out by acknowledging the good things about this trend. Targeted primarily at women who cannot engage in the workforce full time (because they’re caring for kids or parents) and women who need additional income because they’re in lower-paying jobs (I know multiple teachers and medical assistants who are keep ‘consulting’ businesses on the side for this reason) – these businesses do something wonderful: they acknowledge the talent and leadership potential of women, and give them opportunities to use their gifts in a significant way. The trainers invest time in developing women’s gifts, and they encourage them and build community among their participants.

Let me say from the get-go that I FULLY believe in acknowledging, developing, and encouraging women as able and ready world-changers. The world has come a long way in the last fifty years, but office space and church life still remain places where women sometimes aren’t fully welcomed as adding significant value. These companies SEE the incredible power and potential of women in the pews in a way we could learn from.

I also want to acknowledge that for a handful of women, these stay-at-home businesses have provided significant income opportunities, allowing women to help put their kids through college, or pay off student debt. That’s a wonderful thing. They work hard. I’m thrilled for them. And yet, I know a much bigger number of women who landed up investing more than they earned, and for whom the hours invested and nights away from home hosting parties have yielded very little. So, there’s that.

So why do I feel icky about it? Is it that I loathe the free market so much that I can’t bear to see people sell stuff? Nope, that’s not it. Is it that I am jealous of others’ success? Nope, that’s not it either (I wrestled long and hard about this.) I think, when all is said and done, the unease I feel about this phenomenon is for two main reasons:

First, it muddies the waters of friendship. True friends are one of my chief life lines as I cope with the stresses of this life stage (I wrote about it for Christianity Today this month here, if you’re curious.) Knowing that there are people whose care for me is genuine makes the world of difference, and it feels yucky to doubt overtures of friendship from other Christian women: am I a friend to them? Or just a potential customer they’re being friendly to? When someone who’s never been active on social media all of a sudden becomes highly active, liking all my posts, and posting highly hashtagged pictures of herself “living the dream” after years of never posting a thing…. I smell a rat. If the first time you message me after ten years is to “connect” and ask me about what’s up in my life and oh-just-breezy-sharing that one of the things you’ve been up to is starting this or that business… it doesn’t feel like friendship to me. 

And I hate feeling like a bad Debbie-Downer-Doubting-Thomas mashup about friendship. I think one of the most precious resources we have is our friendships, and I cannot shake the feeling that these billion dollar industries are muscling their way into sacred spaces they have no right being in. Especially when the language of the company is such that purchasing their product is seen as “supporting your friend’s business”. I don’t want a price tag imposed by some third party on how well I support my friend. I don’t want the first time I’m invited to your house to be for a sales/pampering/shopping party… that doesn’t feel like friendship, either. I love and believe in girl’s time, but I don’t want to be on my guard when someone invites me to spend time with them: will I have to resist a sales pitch? do I have to rehearse my awkward excuse? How many polite refusals can a friendship endure?

I feel some real grief for women wanting to build a business in these models: they are gifted and talented and I know they are trying to make an honest living in a way that supports their family… but the relational cost to have to look at a significant part of emotional support base all as potential clients has to be something that weighs heavily on them. It is no small wonder that I see friends engaged in these businesses bonding more and more closely with other women in the same business: new communities beyond the church where no-one has a before/after comparison on how their friendships are now.

My second big concern is this: these companies make us spend our invitations on a product instead of on Jesus. The model for sales is actually eerily evangelistic: consider the way we are encouraged to share our faith..

Be such a great friend, and live such a good and flourishing life among people that they will be drawn to you. Pictures of radiant smiles, testimonies of how your life is different, celebration of community and change all help show this.

Invite others to share in the joy of what you’ve found.

But do so with gentleness and grace.

And if anyone asks you for a reason for your hope, do so with gladness. 

Invite others to join the “family”, and hope that their joy will be contagious, too.

But what’s the source of the joy? My feeling is you can’t say “It’s Jesus. Oh, and also my amazing product,” in the same breath.

The evangelism model above works for the gospel… and remarkably well also for Tupperware, Young Living, Pampered Chef, 31 Bits, Doterra, Arbonne, LulaRoe, YouNique, NorWex, Beach Body, Premier Jewelry, Rodan+Fields, Urborne Books, and fill in the blank. Perhaps I also need to add here that the quality of the products that are being sold is often really great (such cute leggings! and necklaces! And your skin really does glow!) But the question remains: what do people associate with you, when they imagine you completing the sentence, “__________ has made all the difference in my life.”

Often we only get one chance to invite people into our lives, and one chance to share the story of what’s made the difference. My deep concern is that person-to-person sales leverage relationships for the wrong purpose: it uses our opportunities to build relationship in service of a product and not the Person.

I don’t ever want to be a person who has their overtures of friendship met with suspicion. No-one wants to be friends with the person who “just wants to evangelize them”. Whether for God, or their product. I think I have a way to go (we have a way to go, really) in learning how to develop and believe in women. I believe women can lead. I believe there are ways of developing and supporting income-generating projects. But I don’t believe the model we have on offer from companies that make their billions by exploiting my friendship-list is a healthy one. I know a handful of women who manage to walk this line of friendship and business remarkably well (and I should say, most of these are involved in justice-motivated ventures to support entrepreneurial women in developing countries)… but these women are exceptional in more way than one.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to buy your product. But I really, really do want to be your friend.

 

 

 

Is it okay to watch Game of Thrones? (some thoughts on freedom, fear, and viewer discretion)

 

“Dear Bronwyn,

 

Is it okay to watch Game of Thrones? I have Christian friends who want to get together and watch it, and other Christian friends who think it’s the Show Satan Made. Any thoughts?

 

Thanks,

HBgO or HBnO?”

 

Dear HBOer,

I don’t know if it’s okay for you to watch Game of Thrones (or any other show, for that matter). I’ve only watched the first episode, and I know it’s not for me. Here are some of my thoughts in trying to figure that out, though.

We like binary answers: black or white. Yes or no. Wrong or right. And for sure, there are things that are absolutely black or white: it is ALWAYS wrong to murder. it is ALWAYS wrong to steal (and that includes pirating movies, BTW).

But the Bible also has all sorts of things where the answer is neither black nor white. Rather, the situation calls for discernment. Take this frustrating pair of verses from Proverbs, for example:

When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are.” (Proverbs 26:4)

followed by,

When arguing with fools, be sure to answer their foolish arguments, or they will become wise in their own estimation.” (Proverbs 26:5)

Huh??

And then there are the passages in the new Testament that talk about how for some, eating a certain diet and neglecting certain religious days is sinful, while for others it is fine (Colossians 2:16, Romans 14). So in other words: sometimes the answer to whether something is right or wrong is IT DEPENDS.

It depends on the context. It depends on your community. It depends on who you are and where you are at in life.

We are coming out of a generation in Christianity that has been bounded up with lots of rules, well intentioned (I think) to try and keep us from sin. Rules about clothing, dating, dancing, modesty, music etc have abounded in church culture, and I do believe for the most part this has in an effort to pursue holiness. But often it’s gone the way of LEGALISM.

In response, I’ve seen so much about Christian freedom: critique of purity culture and some very fundamentalist ways of doing church/discipline etc. But often it’s gone the way of LICENSE.

I think neither legalism nor license help us navigate the complexity of living well in our world. We need DISCERNMENT for the vast area between the “I don’t watch any TV at all!” and the “I can watch ANYTHING AT ALL!” extremes. I don’t know that we talk about (or teach) discernment enough.

Discernment has to mean more than a “do what works for you” policy. I think we do need to have better, wiser conversation on helping one another gauge these things. In between legalism and license, we need WISDOM. “Everything is permissible,” said Paul, “but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 6). So the question is: how do you figure out what is beneficial?

One of the hallmarks of growing in maturity is learning to pay attention to your own sweet self. Listening to your body, being aware of your emotions and thought patterns etc are all part of our journey in discipleship. We are not good at this. We need to be better at this. Rest (and with it, reflection and self-examination) are important parts in us helping live meaningful, intentional lives. We need to pause and take stock on how things are affecting us, what we’re learning, how we’re growing or being shaped by the choices we make… in order to make better and wiser choices.

It is simply NOT TRUE that what we can watch/listen/engage in whatever and remain neutral and unaffected. We absolutely ARE shaped by the stories we expose ourself to. In books, TV, movies, pictures and real life – each story we expose to leaves its mark in our formation. The stories in our lives shape the way we approach the world: they sculpt our vision of the “good life”, they spark our imagination, they make us want certain things and hate other things… and if we are not paying attention to what is being sparked, nurtured, or drowned in our desires, we can land up in serious trouble. Like Rom Coms with the underlying message that it’s the “proposal moment” (or the dramatic chase to the airport departure chase) that brings the moment of clarity that you’ve met “the one”. Or like porn giving us really messed up scripts for what to expect in sexual intimacy.

 

I think it’s a healthy practice to talk through our show choices with friends or family and think through questions about what the underlying messages and values of a show are, and how they are affecting you. Naming the issues is a big first step in being aware of the impression they might have. A deeper level of conversation needs to happen in then considering what impact those messages are having on you: how do you feel after watching the show? Turned on? Angry? Riled up? Triggered? Numb? Disappointed and disillusioned with your own life?

 

Here is how this has worked out with me in considering a couple of shows:

  • We started watching New Girl and stopped a couple seasons in – the room mate drama and sex were getting too much for me. I have a high view of sex and I was just getting tired of how often (and how poorly) it was addressed in the show. Sex shouldn’t be the butt end of most of a show’s jokes, and I don’t want to curate a jaded view of sex.
  • We watched 24. I couldn’t cope after season 2, but my husband was okay watching through the end. I think the show really showed how ALL of us are corruptible, but I just so desperately needed someone honest and reliable (a redeemer!) in that storyline. Also, I was continually frustrated that no-one ever seemed to need to use the bathroom or eat.
  • The Good Place has received critical acclaim, but I chose not to watch (and wrote about it) … matters of eternity are close to my heart.
  • I loved season 1 of Crazy Ex Girlfriend: so clever and funny. But when I realized she wasn’t just kooky, but that there were actual mental health issues at stake, somehow it just wasn’t funny to me anymore. I think I’ve just met too many people really hurting from mental health issues to engage that way anymore. I know, I’m a real party pooper. But I’m trying to care for people with these issues and a show which makes fun of them (and where no-one knows the problem is a problem) was a problem for me.
  • I watched all the Friends seasons, and felt aware of (and distant enough from) the very different relationship values in them. My husband, on the other hand, was perpetually frustrated by how the friends lie to each other (or conceal things from one another) as the center point of every episode’s drama. I hadn’t noticed it before, but he’s right. They really do hide things from each other. He didn’t watch.
  • We watched Parenthood. I thought it was excellent. He thought the family arguments had too many people talking at the same time (and shouting at each other) – it stressed him out. He was paying attention.
  • He watched Lost. I can’t. I know my imagination cannot handle the paranormal or big suspense stuff. It makes me anxious and weepy…
  • I didn’t watch (or read) 50 Shades of Gray. Jamie the Very Worst Missionary did watch it and she was fine. Her post makes exactly this point: you need to know what you can handle. And ask questions about what’s drawing you into the story again and again.
  • I watched Outlander, which has plenty of sex. I don’t think this would have been helpful for me to watch in my early 20s (age matters), or maybe if I was single (“don’t awake love before it desires”, is Song of Songs’ advice to young women). But as a now older, married person – it was okay. except for the violence parts, which I absolutely cannot handle. I skipped those parts in the book and the movie.

Which brings me to your question: what about Game of Thrones?

It depends. From the brief part I saw, and from the bulk of what I’ve heard, this is a show with PLENTY of graphic (and unhealthy) sex, and PLENTY of violence. I think we are, in general, overexposed to those things, and thus in danger of being numb to the power of those stories’ shaping power. So there’s a caveat, and there’s a LOT of wisdom in erring on the side of caution in these things. One of the big dangers in movie and TV watching is that you can’t unsee things. So if it’s likely that you will see things you might wish you hadn’t (if you don’t want them turning up in your dreams or your fantasies), then maybe rather not.

But that doesn’t make for an automatic no. My questions for your consideration are: what impact is that show having on you? How do you feel afterwards? What does it make you want more of in life? If you think of God being present in the room with you as you watch, how does that change your awareness regarding the content of what you’re watching? What if you were watching with your parents?

 

As disclosed above, I’ve watched some TV that for others, is dangerous or damaging. I think in general GoT has a very high risk of being dangerous and damaging in how it kindles our imaginations. But that’s for you, the Holy Spirit, and wise counselors to wade through. I find the “it may be permissible, but is it beneficial?” grid to be really helpful for me to think this stuff through. I hope it is for you, too.

 

Best,

Bronwyn

 

Got a question you want to send my way? Find the Ask Me page… I’d love to hear from you 🙂

A story and a prayer about Cake

Once upon a time there was a cake. Some travelers came upon the cake, and being hungry after their long journey, they cut it into even slices and shared it between them. Where they came from, the King ate most of the cake, so this was a real treat. Not long afterwards, some local people arrived and said “hey, who ate our cake?”, and the travelers shrugged: “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” they said.

The travelers liked this land with its good ingredients for cake, and worked very, very hard to make as many cakes as they could. A strong workforce was kidnapped imported to come and make cake. But the workers were not allowed to eat any of the cake. Not at all. Every now and then the workers would try to run away, or complain that they, too, liked cake – but those workers were punished and killed for their insolent cake-wanting ways. Some of the more heroic people who quashed uppity cake-wanting workers even had statues erected in their honor. Freedom, independence and liberty to eat cake. That was worth celebrating.

Many years later, some realized that women liked cake too, and some years after that, that black people should get to eat cake as well. The self-evident truths that all men are created equal needed to include all of mankind: men and women, people of all colors. This was a huge celebration.

But, in the years that followed, some of the original cake eaters began to complain that they didn’t feel the portion size of their cake was what it had been before. “We deserve 20oz cake servings,” they said. “Make our cake great again!” When others protested saying, “your expectations that you deserve the biggest slice of cake were set by a very flawed history…”, they got upset. “Are you calling me racist?” they said?

“No,” said others. “we’re just saying that we need to acknowledge that white people have always got the biggest pieces of cake, and that wasn’t right. That’s what privilege is: expecting a piece of cake without anyone questioning your right to it. We need to recalibrate our serving size. We need to make sure that those who have never had cake before get some. We need to watch out for bullies at the table who want to snatch others’ cake away. We must oppose leaders who fail to condemn militant whites-only-cake-eating-groups.”

There’s a lot of cake. There’s more than enough to go around. We don’t need to be greedy.

//

When Nehemiah asked for news of what had been happening in his home country, people told him of “great trouble and disgrace”, of “broken walls, and gates burned with fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3) When Nehemiah heard these things, he sat down and wept. He mourned and fasted, and prayed to the God of Heaven: “O Lord, who keeps his covenant of love, please listen. I confess the sins we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.”  (Nehemiah 1:4-6, abridged from NIV and ESV)

I stopped still when I read these words earlier this week. Nehemiah was a generation later than those who were most directly responsible for the tragedy that had befallen Jerusalem: he wasn’t the rebel, surely? But Nehemiah knew something I—we—have been slow to learn: there can’t be any petition for help or any hope of praise until we have lamented the wrong and repented of our individual and group participation in it, both now and in history.

Even I and my father’s house have sinned. Even I have expected a bigger piece of cake. I did so because my whole life I’ve been told that I deserved cake. Work hard, and you will get cake. I worked hard, and I got cake… but I also believed that others who didn’t have cake maybe didn’t deserve cake, or didn’t work hard, or didn’t like or want cake. Their cakelessness was surely their problem, or worse yet – their fault. White people have always had cake, and we have teased and punished others for asking for a slice. We may not live in a time when it’s illegal for some to eat cake, but when we refuse to look at our portion sizes or to acknowledge that we’ve become fat from cake while others starved, then we continue to perpetuate skewed slicing.

I have been silent when people have pointed out inequalities. In my social media feed and in our churches, we have been silent, and the elephants in the room have left people trampled and bleeding.

And so, I’m lamenting and repenting.

Oh God, my failures in seeking justice have been explicit, implicit, and complicit. I have done wrong things, and I have failed to do the right things. I have benefitted from a system which gave us so much cake at others’ expense, without showing humility and gratitude and compassion to others. I have not listened to others’ stories, or I have nit-picked and found fault with them and in doing so, dismissed them when they pointed out the size of my slice. I have been ashamed to have the size of my slice noticed. We have been hoarding the cake. We have stayed silent in rebuking cake-stealers. 

Lord, you know I don’t hate people of color, but you know the ways in which our cake-hoarding has hurt people of color and I’m sorry I’ve been so slow to own that. We have been so slow, and so silent, and our passivity has perpetuated the problem. God, you have made and love all people. You own all the cake. You forgive and redeem the hardest of hearts and the worst of situations. Please teach us to share. Please give us humility. Please make us better listeners. Please teach us to lament wrongs and repent. Please dismantle our defensiveness. Please would you fill every plate and every heart and every stomach by your grace. 

 

Image credit: Pexels, common license C00

Eeny Meeny Miney NO (talking with my kids about rhymes and race)

 

My kids were figuring out whose turn it was to do something this morning, and instead of their usual game of rock-paper-scissors, busted out that ubiquitous kids’ rhyme to solve their dispute:

Them (chanting): “eeny meeny miney mo, catch a tiger by its toe. If it hollers…”

Me: Now wait just a minute. We need to talk…

My eldest understood fairly quickly why the rhyme was offensive: until fairly recently, “tiger” wasn’t the word in the rhyme, and she is sensitive to (and appalled by) the stories of slavery and oppression she has read. My boys were a harder sell. I told them that tiger kind of rhymed with a very hurtful and mean word people used to use to describe black people, and then thought of an example to try and make it relatable:

Imagine that a while ago there were a group of bullies who used to hurt you and tease you on the playground, and they had a special song they made up just to tease you. They would kick the ball at you and sing “Jacob’s a loser, Jacob’s a fool” over and over again. All the kids on the playground knew that horrible, teasing song. Now imagine you were at your new school and the bullying had stopped, but one day at recess you see some kids who also used to go to the old school, and they have are kicking around a soccer ball and singing that same old tune, but just with different words: “Bacon’s a loser, bacon’s a food.” How would you feel if you heard that?

Even my five year old got it. “Bad,” he supplied. “It would remind me of the teasing,” said the other.

What if the other kids said they were just joking and it was just a song about bacon? 

They looked perplexed. “My feelings would still be hurt,” said my son.

“Yeah,” I said. “And I think when people of color hear that rhyme, for some of them it reminds them of the yucky version of that song, even if people don’t use the words. And we don’t want to sing songs that make other people feel yuck, right?”

My eldest shuffled on her feet a little: her question unspoken between us: “If it’s so bad, why didn’t you tell us before?” I told them they weren’t in trouble, and after all they probably learned that rhyme from me because it was something I’d heard and sung as a counting rhyme all my life. And that, until recently, I didn’t know that it hurt people’s feelings. But now I’ve had some friends of color and parents of kids of color tell me their stories about how that song made them feel… so now I do know, and I want to do better. Mom is also learning. Unlearning. Relearning. Once we know better, we need to do better.

They nodded and got back to their game. “Rock, paper, or scissors?” my youngest asked, and the morning continued.

Honestly, I sometimes wonder what we can do to raise respectful, kind, compassionate kids in the cultural climate and privileged bubble we live in: it feels like a Herculean task. But we can nix that nursery rhyme, and that’s a small start.

 

 

Which is more blessed: poverty or plenty? (Some thoughts on wealth, faith, and the feelings that go with that)

Gilted Guilt.

I’ve been wondering about this recently: the feelings of guilt that—for me and many other Christians—seem to attend the having of things and money.

There’s a Scriptural basis for the call to financial simplicity:  ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’, said Jesus, and ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. ‘The love of the money is the root of all kinds of evil’, warned Paul. And I hear it around me, too: from the Kon-Marie call to purge and simplify one’s life, the rise of Buy Nothing communities, to the hilarious-yet-convicting Jen Hatmaker read 7: An Experimental Mutiny against Excess… there’s a lot out there that commends buying less, having less, living more.

What complicates it further is increasingly realizing how privileged our wealth is. We work hard, yes… but there is no way that I can say I worked for and deserve all I have. I am, from birth to death, the recipient of bucketloads of privilege. Born with a white skin to educated parents in a country where the legal system opened doors to whiteness that it slammed to brownness: I got health care, education, opportunity. I was born English-speaking in a world that favors English. Having financial stable relatives opened doors to being able to do things like buy homes, travel, secure loans for entrepreneurial ideas. Privilege cumulates: it wasn’t just that I was born into privilege… it’s that the system continues to reward it. (For a brilliant explanation, read this on how riding a bike taught this guy about privilege).

So then, what does it look like to be a privileged, wealthy person of faith? Jesus has called me to simplicity and to

Our cherry tree. Oh, the bounty.

pursue the Kingdom first and to beware of greed and the love of money which is like bermuda grass to the soul… and yet I live in this place, in this time, in this skin. We own a car. We own a (big) house. We have fruit trees that produce cherries and plums and tongue-tang perfect oranges. We live in a safe, well-resourced community with a school district that is the envy of surrounding cities. Having more (food! savings! travel! cute shoes!) is not only possible, but desirable… and is strongly encouraged by every glossy-paged advert that gets stuffed into my mailbox.

It’s so easy to be greedy.

And, coupled with news of those starving all over the world and the realities that it is not merit but mercy that separates my living conditions from theirs, it’s so easy to feel guilty.

I’ve been wrestling with this since we moved into what is admittedly our dream house a couple months ago. What does it mean to live amid such abundance? I am tempted to downplay the gifts (“oh, this old thing? let me point out the faults so you aren’t too jealous…”), or just ignore them completely. Or feel guilty. Guilt is always knocking at the door asking to come and play.

However, as I’ve wrestled and prayed over this, God is gentle\y reminding me of some additional truths. Yes, it is true that Jesus had no possessions, but it is also true that his ministry was supported by wealthy women of independent means. While it is true that for our sake, Jesus became poor 2 Cor 8:9., it is also true that  God himself is rich in every way (power! goodness! all creation is his!), and that the Father has no Gilted Guilt over it. Instead: he is GENEROUS with his riches. He lavishes his grace on us. He shares his inheritance with Jesus and all those who are his.

So, rather than feeling guilt and greed over wealth, I am called to gratitude and generosity. 

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do food, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. (1 Timothy 6:17)

It baffles me that God has set up the world where evil and good thrive side by side: where we will “always have the poor with us”, while others are “richly provided with everything for their enjoyment.” And it baffles me all the more that we are in the latter rather than the former category. Why? Why? I don’t know. It is a mystery; it is not merited.

I may not know why, but I do know what God asks of us, should we find ourselves among the fed/clothed/free/literate/privileged. He asks us not to put our confidence in that, but in Him. He asks us to enjoy what we have as gifts. And he asks us to be generous. Generous with our time, generous with our money, generous with our home.

Yes, there are those who identify with the sufferings of Jesus in his poverty; but perhaps there is also a place for us to gratefully identify with the God who has plenty and throws his arms and doors open to the world and invites them to share in his goodness. And so—following his example—we say yes, we can host that dinner. Yes, you may borrow our car. Yes, we can help with this or that.

Not guilt, gratitude.

Not greed, generosity.

Remind me of this if you see me getting tangled (again), please? And come over and eat bread and pick fruit off our trees: come and taste and see with us that the Lord is good.

 

 

 

Is a Green Card really green?

 

 

So, is a Green Card really green? Well, after 12 years, 7 months, and 8 days (but who’s counting?) of being in the US, I finally know the answer. Yesterday brought the squeal-and-dance party worthy news that we are finally Permanent Residents of the US. Or, to put it in everyday language: we got our green cards.

It has been a long, long wait. And, it has been fraught with massive expenses, crazy immigration scares, deep frustrations and (no kidding) thousands of pages of paperwork along the way. We are so relieved, so grateful, so wildly happy to have these big little cards in our possession.

We have longed for this day for years. It is such a relief to no longer worry that something could go wrong and leave us suddenly separated from our kids or dizzyingly displaced because of losing a job/catching a border patrol official on the wrong day/being at the whim of an administration that suddenly changes its immigration policies.

I wish this news had come years ago, but as I reflect on today, I am grateful for some good that has come from the delays:

  • today we celebrate with so many more who have prayed with us and supported us along the way. Thank you.
  • having hit as many obstacles as we did along the way, I learned a massive amount more about the immigration process in the US – and along with that knowledge came a huge amount of compassion for anyone who has to navigate the system (whether through valid, open channels; or trying to untangle and resolve a situation where they are undocumented). If it was this hard for me—an educated, english speaking, Christian, legally-trained and financially-privileged person—to navigate the system… how much harder is it for others?
  • As such, the long delay meant I’ve been emotionally invested in the state of immigration and the church’s involvement in it and have landed up feeling compelled to speak as an advocate for better understanding. The first semi-viral blog post I ever wrote was about immigration (I am the immigrant), and a subsequent piece (What you don’t know about immigration) republished at the Huffington Post earned me my first death threat and no small amount of hate mail. The obstacles we faced opened doors for advocacy and entering into the suffering of others, and I will never be sorry for that.
  • With somewhat comic timing, our photographs and biometric data for our green card applications were done on the day before the Presidential Election last year. We stood in the queues of hopeful applicants, seeing pictures of President Obama on the wall, and wondered whose face would replace his in the coming weeks, and how that might affect us as newly minted residents of the US if our petition was successful. The weeks and months following led to drama beyond our wildest imagination in this department, and when we left to visit our family in early February, I experienced real fear about whether we might be caught up in some kind of airport-immigration-drama on our return. (We weren’t. It was fine. But that wasn’t everyone else’s experience.) All of this has made me read more, pray more, care more. I’m grateful for that.
  • This experience has made me a fan of a new podcast Maeve in America – hosted by comedian Maeve Higgins, and telling the stories of immigrants in the USA. Give it a listen. It’s fabulous.

But for us, for now, the great wait is over; and we are excited about continuing to invest in the lives of those we know and love in America. We want to “seek the good of the city”, as God says to do in Jeremiah 29, and settle down, plant a garden, and seek the welfare of the community we’re in. We’re delighted to legally be able to do so; and we do so with such a deeper gratitude for what a rare privilege that is.

So, with confetti and fanfare and praise and gratitude, I’m signing off this blog post. And one more thing:

Is a green card really green?

Why yes it is.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes 🙂