Hope in the Past Tense: A Good Friday Reflection

Jesus was dead.

Jesus was dead, and there was no going back.

It had been three days already, and three days marked the expiration date of any lingering hope of resurrection.

They had opened themselves up so vulnerably to a hope that seemed too good to be true.

And it had been too good to be true, hadn’t it?

Hope had just been a cruel joke.

God had certainly been teasing them.

Or perhaps they had been deftly deceived by the Enemy.

Whatever the case, hope was in the past tense now, the “have hoped” was swallowed by “had hoped” as they walked along that road to Emmaus.

They poured their grief through the filter of their own understanding, and truth was sifted out; they looked at the man walking beside them through blurred human eyes and didn’t see that what they had hoped for had come to pass:

The resurrected redeemer of Israel had answered that vulnerable hope with more than they had dared to expect: He had killed death, and their redemption was eternal.

And walking along the road with them, Jesus didn’t leave when one spewed sarcasm, saying, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” Instead, he continued to walk beside them, patiently teaching them what the Scriptures said about Him until their hearts burned with the truth.

And that’s what Jesus does.

He walks alongside us in our cynicism, in our doubt, teaching us the truth while we rage that He just doesn’t understand.

He walks alongside us when we put hope in the past tense even though Hope incarnate is close enough to touch.

So as we remember Christ’s death today, let’s remember His love that is so, so patient with us, a love that wasn’t only contained in a day of death, but extends to every moment of our lives as we stumble and lose heart and question. And let’s pray that as the eyes of the men on the road to Emmaus were opened, that ours would be too, to the reality of Jesus’s love and compassion and the absolute goodness of His character.

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Luke 24: 13-32 (NIV, emphasis mine)

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.  In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning  but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

3 Ways to Fight Depression When Counting Your Gifts Doesn’t Help

Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts made a lasting mark on Christian culture, and rightly so. In her “dare to live fully right where you are,” she recounts her transformation from despair into joyful gratitude through the simple practice of counting her gifts, blessings from God that are all too easy to miss unless we commit our eyes to intentional sight.

“Morning shadows across the old floors,” she writes.  “Jam piled high on the toast. Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce” (p. 45).

I read the book when it came out in 2010 and was captivated by Voskamp’s poetic writing and fresh expression of a timeless truth. And today, healthy and healed, when I count God’s gifts, a gloomy demeanor on an off day is put into perspective, an inward focus turns upward and outward, and joy begins to diffuse the despair.

But when I was severely depressed, this practice backfired. In the years of the deepest depression, I fought back with Voskamp’s advice. In a tear-riddled journal, I etched my gifts hard into the pages day after day.

And all I felt was shame.

Shame at how God had given me so much, yet I still had a perpetual lump in my throat.

Shame that the hopelessness I felt outshouted the hope I had in Christ.

Shame that God had given me so much to live for, yet, on some days, I wanted to die.

If the same has happened to you, you are not alone.And if the same has happened to you, remember this:

Faith and feelings are not synonyms. Continue reading “3 Ways to Fight Depression When Counting Your Gifts Doesn’t Help”

A Countercultural Faith: Why We Should Fight for Community in a Culture that Idolizes Independence

Nearing the end of my time in Russia in 2014, I sat with a close friend trying to puzzle out my next steps. I was going to be in grad school part-time, which would make a full-time job difficult, but I had to find a way to support myself. I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that it was imperative for me to set out on my own. I couldn’t return to my parents’ house if I wanted to wear the title of true adult; going back home would be to regress into immaturity and an unhealthy dependence. It would definitely be something to be ashamed of.

But my Russian friend didn’t see it that way.

“Why don’t you just live with your family, Hope?” she asked. “It would be good for you and good for them. You could help to support each other.”

The way she said it made it sound so easy-too easy, when as a young adult I should be paving my own way, not relying on others, being self-sufficient and independent. But something about her words made my perspective ring hollow. And as I let her words linger, I began to realize that my perspective wasn’t necessarily right, it was just…American.

The Role of Culture in Our Worldview

Although I thought that my viewpoint was one built by morality and maturity, I see now that it was actually a perspective built largely by my culture. It took seeing through the lens of another culture to realize that my view did not have the moral high ground.

The more I interact with my international friends and students, the clearer it becomes that as humans, we often place moral judgment on other cultures’ viewpoints and behaviors when in reality, our way of doing things isn’t necessarily better than theirs.

A great example of this is the typical American’s reaction upon entering Russia and being met with unsmiling, seemingly harsh faces. Americans tend to interpret a lack of a constant smile through their cultural lens: in America, smiling equals politeness and goodwill, so these unsmiling Russians must be rude, cold, surly people. What most don’t know though, is that a smile has a different definition in Russia. Russians generally smile when they are truly happy, and it is not seen as necessary to smile in public. In fact, it may even come across as disingenuous. So smiling, something we assign moral value to without even realizing it, is actually more neutral than we realize.

I believe it is much the same with the American ideal of independence. Many of us were taught the value of hard work and being able to support oneself from a young age, and there is much to be said in favor of this. However, I’ve learned that when this principle is taken to the extreme of I don’t need anyone else, the effects can be devastating. Since that conversation with my friend back in 2014, I’ve gotten to explore the issues of American independence and individualism through conversations with my international students and friends, in my grad work, and in my experience living both sides of the story. And the conclusion I’ve come to is that the belief that independence from others equals maturity and freedom is a lie that has had costly effects on our culture.

Dissecting American Individualism

The Geert-Hofstede model of cultural dimensions is a fascinating way to see how American culture’s individualism stacks up to that of other countries. For those of you who like Myers Briggs (INFJ anyone?), it’s basically the Myers Briggs for countries and their cultures. Geert Hofstede analyzed different cultures by 6 orientations: Masculinity, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Indulgence, Future-Orientation, and of course, Individualism. All are fascinating, but what stands out especially when you see America is how much higher it is on the individualism scale than that of the cultures of many of my friends and students. Geert Hofstede defines individualism as “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.” It has to do with whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies, people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family. In Collectivist societies, people belong to “in groups” that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/the-usa/)

What this means for American culture in general is that, “The society is loosely-knit in which the expectation is that people look after themselves and their immediate families only and should not rely (too much) on authorities for support. There is also a high degree of geographical mobility in the United States. Americans are the best joiners in the world; however it is often difficult, especially among men, to develop deep friendships.” (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/the-usa/)

This “loosely-knit” geographically mobile culture is in stark contrast to the more collectivist cultures I am familiar with. Take Russia and China for example. Russia comes in at 39 on the individualism scale, while China scores a mere 20.

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Chart: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/

Collectivist culture manifests itself in different ways, both negative and positive. One thing that I have found in cultures that are more collectivist is that a.) moving out of the house is not a rite of passage into adulthood, but families often live together, and b.) there are tightly knit communities that are not only based around the nuclear family. Whereas in collectivist culture, community is almost a given, in American culture, it is relatively foreign. There are certainly pros and cons to both individualistic and collectivist cultures, but what I want to highlight is that pursuing community certainly doesn’t come naturally to Americans.

Many of my ESL students have expressed bewilderment and a sense of sadness at the way Americans act as individuals rather than as part of the community, for example, moving across the country on one’s own for a job. Whereas Americans take pride in their self-sufficiency and view isolation as a necessary cost of success, many I know from other cultures would argue that the toll that loneliness takes on a person far outweighs any benefits.

An Afghani friend who studied psychology hypothesized that the current mental health crisis in the U.S. is strongly related to loneliness and isolation. My own experience supports my friend’s thoughts. During my 9 months in Russia, I had no church community and was an outsider in a closely-knit foreign culture. By four months in, my mental health weakened to a point where I didn’t know if I could wait it out. God gave me the grace to push through to the end of my grant, but I came back a shell of myself.

Then, 3 years later, I became one of those Americans who moved across the country for a job. It seemed like the perfect opportunity at the time, but it soon became clear that what the job required of me would leave no margin for the type of deep Christian community I longed for, one that was woven into the fabric of my daily life. I felt myself wilting by the day, so I decided to make a choice that seemed strange from an American perspective and leave it all behind. I left a stable job with a fancy title for a place where I had no job lined up, but I knew that I would be living life with my best friend.

When I arrived in Burnt Hills, I didn’t think that I would find a true Christian community. I had become cynical of the possibilities for community that the American church structure provided, and I hadn’t seen many people who thirsted for community like I did, who had been so deprived of it that they wanted to find it and never let go. But God surprised me by placing me in the midst a diverse group of people united in their love for Jesus Christ and a desire to do life together.

This, I found, was the body of Christ in action. Imperfect, but beautiful. Human, but miraculous.

Called to Be Countercultural

As Americans steeped in an individualistic culture, it may feel natural to approach our faith as a solely personal thing: me and God and maybe my family, but nobody else. But if we approach our faith like this, we disobey the Lord and we lose something precious.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul calls us the body of Christ, in which God lives and works and ministers. As the body of Christ, each of us has a specific function given for the common good (1 Cor. 12). God has given each of us spiritual gifts, but we can’t live solely off of our own gift. God may have given me the gift of discernment, for example, but it’s arrogant to think that I can live my Christian life without others encouraging me, teaching me, and loving me. It is also selfish to not contribute what God has given me to the common good. We are not meant to function alone, but we “are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” (Romans 12:5)

During my short time being a part of this community, I can attest to the way that I have seen the body of Christ work together toward the common good and for the purposes of God’s kingdom. One thing that has been special to me is the way the Lord surrounds us and provides for us through His people.

Recently, we had a worship and prayer night with a visual that powerfully illustrated this reality. We stood in a circle while different struggles and sins were named. We were encouraged to step in the circle to receive prayer for those struggles and sins and to be reminded that we were not in this alone.

It was what happened after the service that was the most powerful though. Friends laid hands on me and prayed for me that evening. One checked in on me during the weeks after, talking through my tangled emotions and offering the blunt truth I needed to hear. And when God freed me from my struggle in an unexpected miracle, this friend was there to praise the Lord with me. This is just one of the ways I’ve seen God work over these past 5 months through this body of believers. And as I reflect upon my time here, I’ve seen myself change in many ways:

  • Whereas once I thought that a romantic relationship was the only thing that would take the ache of loneliness away, deep-hearted friendships with other believers have replaced my frantic longing with a hopeful contentment.
  • I feel empowered to use my gifts for the common good. Now that I’ve been poured into, I have energy to pour out, and I have the desire and opportunity to minister to others with the gifts that God has given me.
  • And most importantly, I’m growing leaps and bounds in my love for Jesus and in the knowledge of His love for me.

Aggressively Pursue Community

It is not easy to pursue Christian community in our culture. Many of us are raised and conditioned to solve our problems on our own and to approach our faith in isolation. But now that I have seen, experienced, and participated in a community that is committed to God’s kingdom and committed to each other, I can earnestly say that any sacrifice it takes to pursue this type of community pales in comparison to the beauty, grace, and power that you’ll receive from it.

Christian community is certainly not perfect; in our sinful state we still hurt each other, in our differences we frustrate each other, and in our limited perspectives we misunderstand each other. A quick glance at Paul’s letters tells us the story has been the same from the earliest of churches. But the miraculous thing is that though on our own we are sinful and petty and weak, Jesus Christ has blessed us with the honor of being His body and whose power in us overcomes our shortcomings. “[We] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

So my charge to believers who are reading is this: aggressively pursue community. This will look different depending on your season of life, but the principle is the same: seek out a group of likeminded people who desire a community that goes beyond crossing paths once a week, who are committed to using their gifts and keeping you accountable and spurring you onward in this journey of becoming more like Christ. It may take time. It may take sacrifice. But it is so, so worth it.

Divine Translation: The Word Became Flesh

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1:14a

The Word become flesh is the most breathtaking, precise translation of language ever accomplished.

In all other cases, there is something lost in translation, the nuances and intimacies of the native tongue sanded away until only the general message remains. But in this one, the precision is only intensified because the translator is also the Creator, knowing the hearts of the people He is speaking to and exactly how to reach them.

The truth of God, His mind, His heart, His message, translated into our flesh-language, the language of skin that bristles in the cold, is singed by the fire, that stretches, wrinkles, dies.

The Word become flesh is a translation of eternal omnipresence into a finite house of one human’s consciousness, a consciousness often clouded by hunger and cold and loneliness.

The Word become flesh is a translation of omnipotence into backaches and sweat and veins that would open and leak life away.

The Word become flesh is beautifully inefficient. An efficient translation would trade nuance for speed and intimacy for numbers, but He chose to save us by growing up in obscurity, 30 years of humility in mundane labor, living an unseen life so similar to ours. And then, in His ministry, again and again He slowed and stopped to listen to the individual, to hear their story to to speak healing into it.

God’s ways are higher than ours, His wisdom and love beyond our comprehension, but He has revealed them to us in the language that we can understand: Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. And I pray that you would let this language rest in your heart, that you would know, personally, the depth of God’s love that is in Christ, our Lord, our Savior, the Word become flesh.

On the Lies I’ve Believed and the Truth He’s Giving

“The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus said. “If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

My eyes have been bad for so long, viewing dirt as gold and being blind to the treasure before me. I run after cheap copies of the real thing, then scream at God in desperation when he keeps them out of reach.

I am like the idol-maker Isaiah speaks of in chapter 44 verse 20: “Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

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I’ve been telling myself lies about God for years. He’s good, of course, but he’s not really good to me. He loved me enough to give me eternal life, but not enough to give me what my heart needs on this earth. And suffering, what do I make of suffering, both the general suffering of the world and my own private sorrow, the years of seemingly unanswered prayers and unexpected detours? According to my man-made scale, God has been judged, and found wanting.

I didn’t always question God’s goodness; there was a time when my mind was not disturbed by dark questions, when faith aligned with sight. It was in this time of easy trust, in 2012, that I wrote a poem from the perspective of one who believes in God’s goodness even when suffering doesn’t make sense.

The poem was inspired by a scene in my favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, in which two very different brothers meet at a pub and wrestle with this question that has been a barrier to faith throughout the centuries.

Ivan, a brilliant intellectual, is tormented by the reality that God allows innocent children to be abused. It’s not that he doesn’t believe God exists, but that he doesn’t want to associate with such a being. In his words, he “returns his ticket” to God. His brother, Alyosha, in training to become a monk, also feels tormented by the tension between God’s character and the suffering of children, but chooses to view Christ not as the problem, but as the solution. And this is the poem I wrote, from the perspective of Alyosha to Ivan:

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This poem has taken on new significance because now, I have been both brothers. When I wrote this poem, I came firmly from Alyosha’s perspective. Over the next 6 years though, although I fought to cling to the truth, the onslaught of severe depression, long periods of loneliness, and hopes deferred tempted me further and further into Ivan’s cynicism.

In 2013, one of my dreams came true- I received a Fulbright grant to teach English in Russia, the country that the Lord had brought me back to time and time again since childhood. The dream soon dissolved into a nightmare, as the isolation was like none I’d ever experienced, and the spiritual darkness of the city was oppressive. For 9 months, I gritted my teeth and held back tears every day, and when I came back to the States, I nearly collapsed. A shell of myself, I had hardly enough energy to get through 2 hours at work, and at night, I was often assaulted with vivid, dark memories of the past year. My mental and physical health were the most fragile that they had ever been, and there were even times, when, driving my little red Chevy, I had the impulse to jerk the wheel to the side and see where a crash would take me.

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Alongside the depression was the ache of an unanswered prayer, the one I’d been praying since I was 13, that the Lord would unite me with a man after His own heart, one whose heart for God’s kingdom beat in rhythm with mine. And like a drumbeat, each passing year pounded a resounding “no.”

And through it all, just like Ivan, my mind began to cannibalize my heart, to attack the very truth of God in me, my DNA as his child. It wasn’t black and white; there were certainly times of praise and trust and hopefulness, but nonetheless, I began to consistently doubt His goodness, and my heart spewed bitterness at him.

This bitterness, I’ve grown to realize, was sprouted from and feeds on my forgetfulness of His faithfulness. Because if I am nakedly honest with myself, He has been so, so faithful to me. But in the throes of depression, in the ache of rejection, I not only fail to remember what he has done, but I dis-member the past, I take it apart, throw away the times he shielded me from evil, paint over the joy he sang in the dark, and slice away the comfort of His presence.

And then, I re-member it into one where He was not faithful- I add my own embellishments before gluing it back into my memory. And even if He was faithfulthen, then His character has rapidly changed in light of a present reality that I certainly did not ask for.

Bluntly, when I don’t get my way, my heart is revealed as a muscle that pumps disbelief.

But remembering his faithfulness is what reveals these thoughts for what they are: lies.

The story of the Israelites is the same as my own: God is strikingly faithful, the people forget, complain, and lose heart, only to be shown his goodness once again. And God hasshown time and time again that he sees me and loves me.

During those 9 months in Russia, he sent me two friends. A girl working at the university who had never met me had a dream one night that I was in trouble and that she needed to help me. The next day, she acted on my behalf and became a light in that dark time. And God made me a light to her-he opened her heart to long talks about God and salvation and the person of Jesus. Another teacher at the university befriended me and was revealed as a kindred spirit, and is still a great friend to this day.

In the midst of severe depression, the Lord surrounded me with my loving, supportive family and used me, in my weakness, to minister to international college students, some of whom who were experiencing the same isolation and loneliness that I had in Russia.

In my years of unwanted singleness, God has been good every time he has said no, as I look back and see that the relationships I so desired at the time were not what was best.

And the more I do that, the more I refuse to dis-member the past, but instead to re-member his faithfulness, to piece it back together in my mind, the more the lies lose their potency; they are revealed as stale words that are no match for the power of the Holy Spirit in this woman consecrated to her Lord.

Life is short; I’m going to blink and be eighty years old and blink again and be before him. And right now, my eyes see things through worldly glasses, and I have only faint ideas of God’s glory. And like Job, I know that when I finally come face to face with Him, I’ll fall on my knees and say “I was so wrong about you, Lord. So, so wrong. Forgive me.”

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He has been renewing my mind and bringing me to a place of open trust, of a vulnerable heart, of a firm belief that He is truly good to me, whatever comes. And as I preach this to myself, I find myself faced with a test. Last month, a wound in my heart that I thought had been healed was violently torn open and revealed as festering beneath the surface. Amidst the shock of it all, I feared that I would spiral back into the depression that He had freed me from.

You see, I believe that Satan wanted to steal my joy. He wanted me to shake my fist at God, to again give advice to the One who created me.But I have a choice now, to go along with Ivan’s airtight human logic, or to believe that although right now, none of this makes sense, Jesus does.

Jesus has come to us, defying the worldly math and logic of suffering, bringing peace and joy and piercing our hearts at the sound of his name.

And in the midst of this battle, the truth is winning. I know that although the suffering does not make sense, that Christ within me is fighting for my mind to be renewed. He is fighting for me to grasp the depths of His love. He is turning what I saw as a spiritual attack into a spiritual surgery, cutting out the festering wound with the sword of His Spirit, the Word of God. He is placing his hand on me and saying, “my dear woman, I long to heal you, and I have, and I will. I banish this wound, I banish these lies in my name. They have no power over you; you are mine. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so you may have life, and have it to the full.”

References

Matthew 6:22-23

Job 42:1-6

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Book 5, “Rebellion.”

John 10:10