Doubt

The Summer of Unbelief

It rained almost every day this summer –not the brief and angry afternoon storms of my childhood, but in intermittent streams all day long, like someone turning a faucet on and off. The honey-golden days of June and July were swallowed by a colorless sky and air so thick and sticky that walking to work in the mornings felt like wading through molasses. The barometric pressure swelled every day, the pressure inside my head building with it, straining for equilibrium, my nose and eye sockets and temples pulsing with pain like I’d been punched in the face. Sometimes I felt like the summer had been one long headache, though in fairness, I suppose it could have partly been from all the crying.

April and May and the beginning of June were an emerald green haze of hope. I felt energized, excited about the future, and more open to God and to life than I had in a long time. We made the decision to stay in Korea, the cherry blossoms were scattering beauty everywhere and my parents came all the way from America to visit. I joined a Bible study and Husband and I started meeting with our friends each week for “church.” I was running again, my writing was gaining momentum, and I felt like I could see God’s fingerprints everywhere I looked.

When the summer came those fingers I’d imagined sweetly leaving their mark on the world turned into fists that pounded me so relentlessly I was sure that if I looked closely I’d actually see bruises blooming purple under my skin.

Some blows were truly big and terrifying things, like cancer and ISIS and planes falling from the sky. Some were only personal tragedies – losing our cat and saying forever goodbyes to friends moving away, moments of disconnect and frustration. And some were simply annoyances—a broken computer, a busted kindle screen, a new shirt that shrunk in the wash—but piled on top of the big things they felt like a conspiracy to suck all the goodness out of life.

I have prayed more and harder over these past few months than any other time I can remember. In the middle of the night when I have lain awake, exhausted but unable to sleep, I have begged God for mercy – for the world, for my loved ones, for myself. But I always woke in the morning feeling alone and unheard.

Part of me was angry. Because even though this goes against everything I believe, some subconscious piece of me felt cheated. Like I’d been faithfully holding up my end of the bargain and God had let me down.* And another, larger part of me was simply bone-weary.

Husband says these are the moments that draw him into God, make him see his own need. I suppose that’s what the people who suffer so beautifully through great tragedies experience. They are drawn to God in their pain.

I’m not one of those people.

When it seems like the darkness is winning and God feels utterly disinterested, I lose heart. And I lose faith –not in God exactly, but certainly in God’s goodness.

See, I’ve never really questioned the existence of God. My Big Question isn’t if God exists, it’s “Is He good?” And even if He is good, how can I know that he is really involved in the world in any significant way?

I know, I know. Oh me of little faith. But the problem is that you put your faith in the one you trust. And it would seem that I am not to-my-bones and in-my-belly convinced that I can trust God’s goodness. When I see the vast power of the ocean or the way the mists roll over the mountains in the morning, or when I see ordinary, messy people made beautful, I see God’s work in the world and I believe that God is good and maybe even that he cares about me. But when the ugly bits of life break in and I beg for grace and rescue that doesn’t seem to come, I waver. Is God still good here? Now? Or (maybe worse) is He good and simply not interested?

I don’t believe God has promised us an easy life. He has simply promised to be with us. To give us Himself. But sometimes He doesn’t seem to be doing that either.

My wise friend Julie said to me “Maybe God is asking, ‘Will you still trust me now?’”

If He is, I’d like to be able to answer His question with a grumbly, big-sigh, reluctant, “Yes.” But the truth is that I don’t know. I just don’t know.

The summer is ending and I am running out of tears and out of prayers. All I am left with are the words of the father in the gospels whose name we’ll never know: **

“Help my unbelief!”

___________________________________________________________

*Which, of course, isn’t Christianity at all. It’s karma. But that’s another story for another day.
**The man in Mark 9 whose son has an evil spirit.

 

 

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Chock-Full of Ugly: Discontentment, Depression and Making Room for Joy

Last August my husband and I packed up our apartment, stored our belongings, sold our cars, crammed everything we thought we couldn’t live without into 4 suitcases and took a one-way flight to South Korea. We were going to teach, something neither of us had any experience doing. We didn’t know anyone in Korea and we didn’t speak the language. The plan seemed foolproof.

After three years of marriage and three years of working dead-end jobs – watching friends finish graduate school, start the careers they dreamed of, and begin buying houses and starting families, I felt stuck. I felt stuck in spite of the fact that we had moved across the country, just to try something new. I felt stuck in spite of my changing jobs every summer since college, consistently growing to hate whatever my current job was and searching for something better. I felt stuck even though I loved North Carolina, lived within meters of my best friend, had two fantastic cats, and had been able to do some traveling each year. In spite of all of that, the disquiet inside of me was unrelenting.

And so, we struck out across the sea. To a continent neither of us had stepped foot on before. To a country I’d honestly never even considered visiting. We went in pursuit of adventure and new opportunities and a fuller life. I thought living abroad would mean an end to boredom. An end to feeling trapped in the tedium of the jobs I’d held before. An end to the monotony of the ordinary American life, and an end to unhappiness and discontentment.

It took only a few months for the newness to rub off and suddenly Korea was no longer a shiny and alluring dream to chase, but a somewhat dull and ever-present reality. The novelty of being immersed in a new culture gave way to the everyday challenges of being misunderstood and the frustration of feeling like a child again, unable to properly do something as basic as ordering food in a restaurant or answering the telephone. Every small aspect of life being just a little more complicated and a little more confusing than it should be soon became exhausting instead of thrilling. As the winter came and the weather became colder and grayer, I found myself, once again, struggling. Struggling to be positive. Struggling to pull myself out of bed and head to work in the morning. Struggling to care about blow-drying my hair and dressing nicely. Struggling to eat well instead of ordering McDonald’s delivery and lying in bed until it arrived. Struggling to connect with my husband instead of sinking into my own little Downton Abbey world at the end of each day. Struggling to go through the motions of another day that is as ordinary as daily life was at home, except that now ordinary includes not understanding half of what happens around me.

Although intellectually I always understood this, it wasn’t until we’d picked up and moved across the world that I fully realized that no matter where you are, the rituals of daily life just are mundane. Even in Korea I have responsibilities. I have to get up and go to work on time. I have to do the laundry and clean the apartment and cook dinner and buy groceries. Yes, there are new things for me to explore every weekend if I want to. Yes, I have a job that doesn’t feel as pointless and soul-sucking as my marketing job did. Yes, I have opportunities to travel and see new things I never dreamed I’d see. Those are the things that make this experience the best decision we’ve ever made. But in my day to day life I can find just as many things to complain about, just as many things that weigh me down or to make me unhappy as I did back home.

For years I have wrestled with discontentment. I have been the master of convincing myself (beyond all logic and in complete contradiction to the Apostle Paul’s assertion that he had learned “to be content in every circumstance”) that the reason I was discontent was because of one particular set of circumstances or another. That life would be better when the next thing came. That I would be better. I told myself I would be content once I went to college, had a boyfriend, graduated from college, got married, stopped nannying and found a real job, moved somewhere new, quit my new job, went back to school, lost weight, had more friends, took an exciting vacation, moved abroad…

Sometimes this was true. Going away to college made me infinitely happier than I was in high school. Getting married has been the richest and best experience of my life. Quitting my marketing job helped me realize that I am not cut out for a desk job. And moving to Korea and the travel we’ve been able to do since we came has made me feel alive in a way that nothing else ever has. But in the end none of those things were a permanent fix. Three weeks or four months or a year later, there was always something else for me to be dissatisfied with.

I’m not a “sad person.” I laugh easily, and often. But those who know me best can see that there is often an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with life and frustration with myself for being that way.

Because even though I have made change after change after change (and some of them have been wonderful) I have carried the root of the problem inside of me like a cancer. Living in Korea has objectively been a wonderful experience, but Korea doesn’t have the ability to make me happy. Because I brought pessimism and discontentment and a tendency towards depression here with me.

I understand the difference between happiness and joy. That happiness is temporary because it is affected by our circumstances, but joy is something you can possess even when you’re unhappy with your circumstances. But I also know that discontentment leaves very little room for joy. And for me, sometimes discontentment’s uglier cousin, depression, can fill up all the space inside of me until there isn’t any room for joy to grow.

Coming to Korea has changed me in some positive ways. I am no longer waiting for the next great thing. I no longer tell myself that I will be happier or more content when I reach the next milestone. I think of Korea, and this time living abroad, as our great adventure. I don’t in any way think life will be miserable after this, but I also feel that this may be the biggest and craziest thing we do. That there might not be a “bigger” thing after this. And I don’t want to live my life constantly looking forward to what’s ahead. I want to live a life that is full of wonder. I want to soak up beauty like a sponge and know wisdom’s voice. I want to know that things are real because I’ve seen them and touched them with my own hands. I want to be willing to give of myself with no thought to how tired it will make me. I want to learn to love the whole world. And I want to learn to love myself.

This is the life I want and yet, this winter has been dark, friends. Some days I’ve wanted to let it swallow me. To lay down in my bed and not get up again until spring. This isn’t because my life is horrible or even particularly difficult. This has nothing to do with my actual circumstances. This is because I am broken.

I’ve been depressed before. The scary kind of depressed. I’m not quite in that place. I’m not unhappy about my life– there are so many things that I am truly, deeply grateful for. I’m not incapable of feeling joy. There are many moments when I am deeply, wildly happy. The problem seems to lie in my inability to rest in that joy and let it color my more monotonous days. Many days I lack either the will or the skills to let those precious, joyful moments weigh heavier and count more than the gray sky and the sour smell of rotting kimchi on the street.

I wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the fight for joy wasn’t quite so hard. When I didn’t reach the end of each day exhausted from the energy it took for me just to smile, to be kind and to stay engaged that day. I’ve tried to change. I even tried to writing 1,000 Gifts like Saint Ann Voskamp and was pretty pissed off when I was not magically transformed by gratitude. (By the way, that is not a dig at Ann Voskamp who I think is wonderful person and whose book and blog you should read.) It’s possible that this is the result of chemicals in my brain or hormones in my body misfiring, keeping me unbalanced, my whole being in turmoil because of some rogue element. But even if that’s part of it, I know deep down it’s not the whole thing. I know there is a core to this problem that is spiritual. It is a disquiet that comes being dissatisfied with myself. From the questions I have been afraid to ask. The truths I’m not always sure I believe. The prayers I pray and the ones that I don’t want to.

Here in Korea, I have been given the gift of space and the time to do some of the deep work I need to do. To wade through the muck inside of me and to start giving a voice to the questions. To start expressing the doubts. To expose the darkness I see in myself. To admit how much it scares me. To see if Grace might intervene.

I want to live an extraordinary life. But I can’t do it when I’m crammed full of ugliness . So maybe it’s time to stop waiting for the next thing to come. Maybe it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. Maybe it’s time to beg Grace to show me how to carve out space for joy.

The Dilemma of My Generation: When “You Can Do Anything!” Means, “You’d Better Make it Good!”

Not many people know this, but for the past several months I have been diligently pursuing applying to PhD programs in cultural anthropology.  Travel, different cultures, and many of the issues of applied anthropology have continued to fascinate me and as I’ve thought about what to do in life I’ve started to lean more towards further study of anthropology. I was thinking of pursuing the PhD because I wasn’t aware of much that could be done with just the master’s and because I thought having the PhD would give me the option of working in the non-profit sector or teaching in a university. I’m all set to take the GRE on Tuesday and over the past few weeks I have started contacting programs and asking more specific questions. Most programs require you to go into them with a very specific research question in mind and many recommend that you’ve already dialogued with a professor who would be willing to serve as your advisor. It’s a lot more work than simply filling out an application.

As I’ve started to get responses from people I’ve contacted I’ve become more and more discouraged. Not only has no one so much as said, “thanks for looking at our program” but they have by and large responded with an attitude like, “Why do you want to this? “ or “Why are you bothering me?” Yesterday I got in touch with a Wheaton grad who recently earned his PhD from the University of Virginia. He basically told me that if I get a PhD I will lose my faith, change all of my political views, and be completely unemployable because I’ll be overqualified to work with non-profits and I will be in a very, very competitive pool for the few available university positions that don’t even pay enough to support a family on.

I’ve become overwhelmed with the sense that maybe I am not pursuing this because it’s really the passion of my life and I know that it’s what I’m supposed to do, but rather that I’m pursuing it because I am so tired of not having goals or something to pursue and if I got into a PhD program that would give me something to spend the next 6-7 years working towards. Which probably is not a good enough reason.

I have a theory about people in my generation. Particularly people who have been blessed with a lot of opportunities. People who have good, supportive families and went to schools like Wheaton and have been told all of their lives that they are exceptional. The theory is this: being told that we are exceptional, having it drilled into our heads that we are destined for greatness has ruined us for ordinary life. Believing that I am extremely gifted and talented and that I could do anything I set my mind to and that I have been given privileges in order to do something amazing makes every ordinary, mundane day seem like a failure. I feel like I am not living up to my potential or to the expectations of all of these people who believe in me. I can see and agree that I have been given opportunities that not everyone gets and despite pulling my hair out trying to figure out what I’m meant to do with my life, I can’t help feeling that I’m squandering the gift of those opportunities. I feel that I have to (and want to) do something cool and significant and amazing with my life, but I have no earthly idea what it is and the feeling is beyond frustrating. Sometimes I feel like God is teasing me. Like he is saying, “I gave you all of these opportunities for a reason, but I’m not going to tell you what it is. But if you don’t figure it out on your own, you will be held accountable.” I know God’s not really like that, but sometimes it definitely feels that way.

It is the moral gem we learned from Spiderman, “With great privilege comes great responsibility.” I genuinely feel that if I don’t do something amazing with my life, I will have wasted it. Thank you, John Piper. And so today, as I sit in my cube and design flyers to sell properties and maintain databases, I feel that I am indeed wasting my precious life. Watching it slip past me day after day and week after week as I plod along doing the same thing with very few highs or lows to break the monotony.  I am striving to make the most of my days. To be a good friend, employee, co-worker, and wife. But mostly, this doesn’t feel like enough. Beyond the expectations of others, I’m disappointed in myself. And I am so afraid of life always being this way.  I am afraid I will finish life having seen and done so little. This is not at all a critique of those who do feel fulfilled by staying in one place or working a corporate job or just raising a family. But it is true that I have an insatiable desire to see and experience everything. I literally stay awake at night longing to see the canals in Venice and the Greek islands and the Great Barrier Reef and being afraid that I never will. It’s silly, I guess, but it’s true.

Every so often I strike out and choose a course of action from my list of possibilities (writing, non-profit work, academia, kindergarten teacher, pastry chef) and every time I am advised, “You shouldn’t pursue this unless you are 100% certain that this all you want to do in life ever, ever, ever.” And  between the “you can’t” s and the “you shouldn’t” s I’m advised to “wait” until I know. And I feel like I’m never going to just “know.” It’s completely unhelpful and infuriating, particularly when so many of my friends are in grad school or are already teachers or nurses or photographers, pursuing their chosen profession. Meanwhile I actually feel  hindered by all of my options. When you are led to believe that you can be anything you want and do anything you want and you are already an indecisive person (me!), it is a tremendous burden rather than a freedom to be asked to decide or to discern. Ultimately, all I want is to honor God with my life. To do what he has gifted me and called me to do. But I am so tired and so discouraged by doing nothing while I wait for him to tell me. And I’m tired of him not telling me. And I’m tired of feeling that any direction I try to move in is blocked.

This isn’t uplifting, but this is true. I know God has a purpose for my life, but I sure wish he’d share that information. And I know I’m not the only one.

Learning to Trust the Church Again: a really long post about coming out of a bad church situation and learning to believe in the goodness of the Church again

This past Sunday was a celebratory day in the Dunn household.  It was Jonathan’s final day of work at Starbucks in Raleigh. Not only was this exciting because he has a new job and no longer has to make coffee for picky customers 6 hours a day, but most importantly because he will no longer have to work on Sunday mornings. Ever. Since arriving in Raleigh two months ago, there have only been two Sunday mornings when Jonathan was not working (despite requests not to…don’t even get me started.) Because of this we have been making slow progress on our search for a church, but now we are hoping it won’t be long before we are involved somewhere. We are (shudder) hardcore church-shopping.

I hate the term church-shopping. I hate the idea of church-shopping. I firmly believe that the purpose of the church is not to meet all of our needs, to entertain us, or to cater to all of our preferences. The church as an institution is here to facilitate believers living as representations of Christ to one another and to those in their community. A church should facilitate spiritual growth in individuals as well as corporate growth as a community. This requires active participation by the congregation. And since the congregation (and the leadership) are made up of fallible people, there is no way that any church can escape imperfections. And yet, past experience has taught me that, universal imperfections acknowledged, not all churches are equally sound. Not all churches are honoring to God. Not all churches are a nurturing and healthy environment. So the idea for Jonathan and I is not to find the perfect church, but to find a healthy church and a community we can share life with, even if we don’t love everything about it. A church whose growth and development we can become a part of. People we can love and be loved by.

As we’ve begun to explore churches in Raleigh I’ve been surprised to realize how much my past experiences in the church are carrying over into our search for a new one. In some ways, Jonathan and I are on exactly the same page. For us, the most important things we are looking for in a church are biblically sound teaching and a community we feel we can really be accepted into. But in other ways, our different faith backgrounds and particularly my experiences in the church I was raised in have really affected the way I view the church.

The church I grew up in was mid-sized, but growing fast, charismatic and non-denominational. From that church I had more or less been led to believe that people in non-charismatic traditions were in a spiritually dry place and were not passionate about their faith. I actually had really well-meaning people caution me when Jonathan and I started dating that his Presbyterian background could result in us being unequally yoked because of our different beliefs about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When I got to Wheaton, and particularly after Jonathan and I started dating, I encountered people from all different denominational backgrounds, many of whom were very passionate believers who understood things about Christianity that I had never even considered and were from mainline Protestant backgrounds. These were people who were excited about their faith, they just didn’t express it in the emotional way I was used to seeing. Not only that, but I found that while I had assumptions about them being dry and passionless, the prevailing attitude was that emotionally expressive, charismatic churches lacked depth and substance. Suddenly I was the anomaly.

Over my years at Wheaton it became clear that some of the things I had been taught in the church I grew up in were just plain wrong. Not just differences of opinion or a different interpretation, but bad theology. Worship had become a concert given by the most talented people under the guise that we were “pursuing excellence”, appearances were more important than real relationships, and the concept of “spiritual authority” led to abuse in the leadership. The church declared itself to be a “family,” but there were very strict rules for how the members of the family were expected to act. The teaching was that this church was God’s family and that any deviation from the way that church was running things was rebellion against God himself. If you disagreed with something that was said from the pulpit, it was up to you deal with your sinful inability to handle offenses. In words, no one would ever have said, “This is the perfect church,” but in practice, anything that was contrary to what the pastor wanted or said was rebelling against the “spiritual covering” God had given us in our church and pastor. Although they hadn’t started out that way, sermons had subtly changed to focus on what God can do for you or on how obeying God “opens to door for his blessing” which led to the underlying idea that if you hold up your end of the bargain, God will hold up his and that if you are not experiencing God’s blessing perhaps you need to be more obedient in some area of your life. Imagine the pressure of believe that God’s goodness is conditional based on your own goodness. Yikes.

As I grew in my intellectual knowledge of Christianity and my understanding of who God is I started to identify some of these things. I was startled by how many lies and unhealthy attitudes had been ingrained in me and the ways they came out in the way I thought about God and the world. As I began to identify these things, the result was that I started to push against anything that reminded me of the church I had grown up in. Not just reminded me theologically of it, but reminded me of it at all. For example, I somehow got the idea that because the church I’d grown up in had had amazing musicians and singers leading worship which eventually led to a “concert” like atmosphere, that truly holy worship must necessarily be really crappy music. 🙂 The church we attended at Wheaton had a  worship team made up of a rotating group of volunteers, many of whom were not the best singers or musicians, and the music they chose was more often than not CCM music from the late 80’s and early 90’s. It wasn’t the best quality, but it was heartfelt.

Part of my rejecting the tradition I’d come out of resulted in my becoming highly critical when it came to sermons and teaching. While I think it was good to come to a place of examining what was being preached in the light of Scripture and not just accepting anything that was spoken in a church, in some cases I actually became overly critical to the point that one small thing I wasn’t sure about caused me to reject an entire message or service. I was afraid of being deceived, but ultimately what happened was that I became too critical to receive much of anything. I would spent the entire service on the defensive, looking for something I disagreed with. I had started out on one end of the spectrum and then, like a pendulum, swung wildly the other way.

Gradually, through two very genuine and god-honoring churches we attended in Wheaton and in Naperville I began to understand how God can work through an imperfect church and speak into our lives, even when the worship isn’t the most beautiful or the sermon is less than riveting. And in the same way, I shouldn’t reject a church with a very talented worship team or a very engaging pastor just because that is similar to the church I grew up in. The key is not rejecting anything out of fear or accepting anything out of ignorance, but instead trusting that the Holy Spirit alive in me will direct me and that I can fully trust him, even if I’m not sure about a particular church service.

The churches we went to in Wheaton and then Naperville were both very stoic in terms of being expressive in worship and very conservative in terms of their theology. In a strange way, these traditional, conservative churches have really been a stretch for me. Because I grew up in an environment where people were very expressive in church, a service that is very quiet and worship that is very stoic are actually as uncomfortable to me as loud worship with people jumping around is to Jonathan. Because everyone is quiet and still I feel conspicuous if I clap or lift a hand. I feel that my expression of worship will distract those around me, whereas in an environment where people are generally more expressive, no one is going to notice if I sway to the beat. Through those experiences though I have learned firsthand that just feeling uncomfortable does not mean something’s wrong. Being out of my element does not mean I should shut down and reject everything I hear. And in the same way, being somewhere that I am more comfortable doesn’t make everything right.

By God’s grace I believe I am now in a position where I can see both extremes of the pendulum and am praying that God will help us find a healthy medium. I want to be able to trust where I see God working and to be able to receive with discernment but without fear. I would love to find a place that I can worship expressively and still be taught the challenging truths of the gospel. I want to find a place that serves the community and allows Christ to be the most attractive feature rather than displays of opulence, but that is concerned with being relevant. I want to be an active part of the miraculous, living body of Christ without fear of being hurt or rejected or deceived. That’s far more important than what the music sounds like or how entertained I am by the sermon or how technologically savvy the illustrations are.

So, in a very long-winded way this is me saying, OK, Lord, whatever you have for us, I am ready to receive it. My sails are flung out wide, let your winds guide us where you want us to go!

When God is Silent

I feel like a rug has been pulled out from under me the last few days and it hasn’t just left me flat on my back staring up at the ceiling with a headache. When my metaphorical rug was pulled out from under me it revealed a giant hole where I thought the floor was and left me falling through it like Alice down the rabbit hole with nothing to grab hold of and no end in sight

My brand-new nephew

This is my nephew, Jasper Mason Trahan, about four hours after he was born

Over this weekend my breathtakingly beautiful sister graduated from high school and I met her very first boyfriend, I got to hold my nephew when he was just 4 hours old, I got to see my family and friends from home, some of whom I hadn’t seen since my wedding last summer. I also learned some really upsetting things about people that I love. The type of things that I have no control or authority over, but that still make my heart so heavy. And while I was gone my husband received a job offer out of the blue that would move us to a place that I really don’t want to go.

In the past few days there have been three separate things that I was really excited about that I feel have now been tainted or taken from me entirely, the biggest of which being our move to Raleigh. We had already made a decision we felt good about and were making plans to move the first week of July. We even had a place to stay free of rent for the summer. I had been applying to jobs almost daily and Jonathan had made arrangements to transfer with Starbucks until he lands another job. One of my dearest friends is also moving to Raleigh this summer where she’ll be in school for the next 5 years.

And I had found a darling little cottage we were going to look into renting…a white cottage with a stone pathway and a beautiful garden and an office loft for writing

My breathtakingly beautiful sisters at graduation. Maggi (left--graduate), Anni (middle, 16) Me

.

To be asked to give all of that up for a place that holds no charm for me is staggering and painful. However. To refuse to give up my dreams and my wishes in order for my husband to walk through a door that God has opened for him is unbearable. How do you love someone selflessly and still be completely honest with them? How do you make a decision that could change the course of your life without feeling any excitement about it? How do you lay your life down so sacrificially that you never, ever regret it?

I can’t stand the feeling of regret. Just last week I got in touch with someone I hadn’t spoken to in years just because every time I thought about him I still felt regret over the memories I had from the time I knew him. It’s the worst feeling.

I briefly shared the situation with a friend of mine from home and she said, “You will never regret going where God tells you to go.” I needed those words and I so appreciate the encouragement that comes from them, but I am still at a loss. Neither of us have a clear sense of where God is telling us to go. A week ago, we obviously thought he was saying Raleigh, but now we don’t know. And my husband isn’t even sure he wants to take the job being offered to him, but doesn’t want to regret turning down a good job to go to a place where he doesn’t have a job lined up at all.

When we got married, I committed to lay my life down for Jonathan. Somehow I (foolishly) couldn’t conceive of a situation like this one in which it could really mean the sacrifice of more than my choice of movie or not complaining about him watching sports. But I really did mean it. And if God told me to do this I would. But right now all I’m hearing is heavy, heavy silence.

Thought I'd try to lighten the mood with a few more Two days old

Jasper with his Mommy, Amanda, doing Blue Steel

Eat, Pray, Love: How things you won’t find in a Family Christian Store can move your soul

Well, it’s been a while. In the time since my last post I’ve been to Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario, Canada. I have seen the Amish, been to Niagara Falls, lost two more pounds (for a grand total of 12.2, for all you Weight Watcher buddies,) watched a delightful performance of My Fair Lady, decided to move to North Carolina, and underwent minor surgery. But I don’t actually want to write about any of those things. For now, at least.

What I do want to write about is how I am borderline obsessed with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. My first encounter with it was last summer when the movie first came to theaters. I was mesmerized. I was literally unable to look away as I watched the movie. Since then I’ve read the book and seen the movie several more times and each viewing evokes the same response in me. Admiration. Longing. Inspiration.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Eat, Pray, Love it is the true story of writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey to find peace and joy and balance in her life. Gilbert travels to Italy where she spends several months eating Italian food, learning to speak Italian, and learning to really enjoy and savor life. Then she spends several months in India at the ashram of the guru she follows, devoting herself to spiritual disciplines and making peace with God. Then she finishes her year with several months in Bali making friends with natives, and learning to love others.

It’s not that I agree with the particulars of her journey. I don’t think I should leave my husband and travel the world to find myself, I’m not Hindu so her version of spiritual truth doesn’t impact me, and I hardly think that a Balinese medicine man holds the key to balance in life. What I find so compelling about Gilbert’s story isn’t really the particulars, it is the overall sense of the journey. Besides feeding my overwhelming desire to travel and see everything in the world before I die, the thing I find most captivating is Liz Gilbert’s honesty in admitting that although her writing had won prizes and she lived a life that most anyone would have called successful, there was something missing. She recognized that she needed to find spiritual peace and that she needed to understand herself better. From the way she describes it in her book, the majority of her adult relationships had been co-dependant ones in which she lost herself in trying to become the perfect match for whomever she was with. Her journey was about self-discovery, it was about spiritual discovery, and it was about learning to balance those things in such a way as to be loving towards herself and towards the rest of the world.

Julia Robert’s version of Liz Gilbert sums up her journey here:

I admire this woman for her desire to know God and the lengths she was willing to go to to make that happen, regardless of whether or not I believe in her religion. While not many of us have the means or ability to leave everything and go somewhere new and unfamiliar to devote ourselves to nurturing our spiritual lives, I am convicted that I am rarely willing to leave anything or put anything aside for the sake of developing my spiritual life. I have many questions for God and I also want to come to peace with God and with the truth, but if I am going to be honest, I haven’t really devoted my energy to it. I have thrown up questions to the sky as though I wasn’t expecting them to be answered. This final clip of the movie about what Gilbert calls, “The Physics of the Quest” is a challenge to me. I have asked and continue to ask my questions. Getting to the point that I allowed myself to ask them in the first place was a journey of its own. But now that I’m here, I realize that I need to do that second part. To regard those I meet and the experiences I have as teachers and lessons. To acknowledge that God works in our lives through other people and through our circumstances and to pay attention to the ways in which he is offering answers. Granting peace.

This is what I wrestle with…I want to believe that God has a purpose for my life that doesn’t include wandering aimlessly through it, but lately I just can’t see it. I want to believe that God is good in such a way that I really can trust that the events of our world are in his hands, but sometimes I feel like we just attribute good things to him and write bad things off as his inexplicable sovereignty. I want to believe that God is perfectly just, even when I don’t understand how he’s displaying that in a particular situation. And finally, I want to be open to seeing and hearing the ways God meets me in my doubt in my everyday life.

I think we are all voyeurs at heart. It’s why we read people’s blogs and stalk their facebook pages, and (even if we aren’t the type to seek it out on our own) can’t help being interested when we hear a detail about the Royal Wedding or Lindsay Lohan’s arrest record. We love to take our stories and lay them beside other peoples, compare and contrast. We are comforted by finding that someone else thinks like us, struggles the way we do, wants what we want. Or we are (strangely) comforted by seeing someone doing worse than we are and pumping ourselves up about it. Whichever one you are (and don’t be ashamed because I’ve definitely been both) I want you to know that I’m inviting your voyeurism. I invite you to watch and to listen to my ramblings. And I invite you to participate.

PS. If you want to read some supremely witty and clever commentary on movies and media and life, check out my hubby’s blog, Found Footage.

Ask, Seek, Knock: Questioning God and Explaining Circumcision to a Four-Year-Old

I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions over the last few days and weeks. As we have started looking for jobs and a new place to call home I’ve been asking God and asking myself what I should pursue and what things are important in choosing a new location. I’ve also been asking a lot of questions about God and about faith. My small group discussed hell at our last meeting (just, you know, your typical casual Friday night conversation) and it raised so many of the questions that I’ve been grappling with over the past several years about God’s goodness, his plan for creating the world, and why he allows so much of what happens here on earth. And as if it wasn’t hard enough to be trying to figure out all of my own great questions about life, a large part of my day job lately has been trying to answer other difficult questions on the level of a four-year-old. Here’s a sample of a few conversations I’ve had with Sami over the last several weeks.

Me (reading from the Illustrated Children’s Bible): And on the eighth day they took the baby to be circumcised and they gave him the name Jesus

*side note: why the heck would you feel the need to include that in the Illustrated Children’s Bible?!

Sami: What’s circum-skied?

Me: Ummm….it’s a special sign between God and his people?

Sami: Do I have it?

Me: Ummm…only boys had it (No, I am not even about to get into female circumcision)

Sami: Do they still get circumsigned?

Me: Yes….

Sami: Where?

Me: At the hospital when they are born

Sami: Does Dylan have it?

Me: Yes…

Sami (completely out of the blue): I am so glad that Abraham Lincoln helped the brown people. What did he help them do?

Sami: I would never drive my car to hell! (also out of the blue)

Me: Well, that’s good, but you know, hell’s not really somewhere you can drive to.

Sami: Well, where is it?

Me: It’s kind of like heaven because you can’t go there while you are still alive on earth. Only souls.

Sami: A long time ago they used to put people in boxes when they died and put them in the ground.

Me: Well, they still kind of do that

Sami: Will they do that to me when I die?

Me: Probably. But you won’t need your body anymore because you will be in heaven with Jesus so it won’t matter. (Talking quickly so she doesn’t freak out about being buried)

Sami: I’m just really worried about my friend Olivia

Me: Why?

Sami: Because she moved to Bloomington…what if she dies there? She won’t be able to go to heaven.

Me: I’m pretty sure people who live in Bloomington can still go to heaven.

Sami: Why did God make the bad people? (Perhaps there was a context for this one in her mind, but it was very unclear.)

Or, my personal favorite conversation:

Sami: How old are you?

Me: I am about to be 23. (This was right before my birthday a few months ago)

Sami: Maybe when you turn 23 you’ll get taller

Me: I don’t think so. I think I’m pretty much done growing taller.

Sami: That is so sad! Why would God do that?!

(Note: I am 5’3”. I’m no giant, but I’m definitely not the shortest woman she’s ever seen)

Me: I don’t know Sam. Maybe he just likes short ladies.

Most of the time, I just want to look at her and tell her honestly, “I really don’t know! Stop asking me questions!” But instead I do my best to think of an answer that is true to the best of my knowledge and is also on her comprehension level. (A challenge, believe me, because Sam is often not the quickest at connecting A to B.) It can be difficult (although admittedly hilarious) to try to answer these questions, especially since I am not her mother and I don’t want to explain anything to her in a way her parents wouldn’t agree with, but ultimately I think it’s important for her to ask questions. I think it is OK for her to want an explanation for things or to admit that she doesn’t understand something and to ask for help.

A few days ago my husband and I were discussing the failure of the evangelical church to communicate this very thing. I have never been to a church service (particularly the church I grew up in) where anyone expressed that it is ok to question scripture, doctrine, or even God himself. The general view seems to be that questioning is the opposite of faith and a very slippery slope towards losing your faith altogether. As a result the evangelical church has formulated pat answers to complex and difficult questions about faith, God and Christianity. (For example: “Why did God allow the incredible devastation of the earthquake in Japan?” “God is sovereign, so it must be a part of his bigger plan that we can’t see right now.” Technically true, but incredibly unsatisfying.) Frankly, I am of the opinion that if just asking some questions about Christianity were enough to make me lose my faith, perhaps it wasn’t worth having in the first place. On the other hand, choosing to ignore the questions does nothing except create shallow (or blind) faith.

I think asking God questions is as much a part of having a relationship with him as giving thanks and singing praise. I know that I can’t understand everything and there will never be a point at which everything makes sense to me. I am ok with that. But I am hopeful that if I keep asking the questions, God will answer me the way I try to answer Sami—giving me just enough for my comprehension level—but with infinite gentleness, patience, and compassion. “For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Mt. 7:8) But you know what happens to those who don’t ask/seek/knock? They build themselves a little lean-to beside the mansion’s doors and then spend their lives convincing themselves that the house of sticks they built is the real thing.