Here's a piece I wrote back in the spring about some good changes and things I see happening back at my alma mater (that sounds weird to say...). Bethel is one of my favorite places, and I'm thankful for the ways God is moving there, especially in the sense that LGBTQ students are starting to feel safer and that the atmosphere is shifting for the better. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.
I feel like this is probably a super millennial thing to say, but the transition to the adult world has been pretty jarring over the past few weeks. My college student body isn’t used to getting up at 6am to make it to work at 7:45am and then going to bed early to do it all over again, and my mind isn’t accustomed to all the new routines and mental switches I have to make during the day. All of that being said, it hasn’t been too rough yet, but I think one of the hardest things for me was also one of the more cliche things you could probably say about leaving college and starting to work full time: I honestly miss Bethel so much, and not necessarily specific friends or specific people at Bethel (though I definitely do miss all my friends and everything SO much; don’t get that mixed up, haha). But it’s more the sense that Bethel really did become my second home over the course of my three years there and it was so bittersweet to graduate and leave. I actually applied to a couple jobs at Bethel as graduation was coming up just to see if I could stick around a little longer, and as my job search got longer and more tedious over the summer, I actually started to get upset about the fact that I wouldn’t be going back (now that fall has rolled around, it’s more like tears and a lot of emotions, lol).
Currently, I work in the office at a charter school in St. Paul, and even though I do really like it, there’s still a large part of my heart and soul that misses Bethel and aches to be back there this fall, coupled with the fact that so many of my closest friends are still seniors there. At the same time, I wholeheartedly believe that wherever we happen to find ourselves at any given moment is exactly where God wants us to be for that season of life. That’s something that was hard for me to accept, being in a place where I maybe didn’t want to be, and something that I’m still working on and through during this period of so much change and adaptation to a different world, a different schedule, a different mindset, and a different group of people that I find myself spending the majority of my days with now. But I still cling to the promise that God never has us walk through specific corridors of life in vain, and right now, as much as I might not like it, I know that where I am is exactly where He wants me to be.
But at the same time, maybe just as an encouragement to me (today was the first day of school at work, and it was a crazy, hectic, draining day), God seems to have reaffirmed that eventually my desire to return to Bethel will be fulfilled at some point in the not too distant future, prompting some ugly tears from me in my bedroom circa 8:30pm tonight. This promise came through a section of Acts 18 I was reading. In it, Paul has been moving all over, preaching and teaching in various cities as the Spirit led him. Right around verses 20 & 21, he’s leaving Ephesus and it says that the people asked him to stay with them a little longer but that he declined because he felt the Lord calling him to continue traveling and ministering elsewhere at that point in his life.
However, it also says this: But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus. – Acts 18:21
In all of my weariness and also maybe bitterness about not being back at Bethel this fall, I think this was probably one of the gentlest ways that God could’ve encouraged me and told me to keep at it for this stage of life. And maybe that promise seems like a stretch, but I also think that’s the way that God tends to operate and maybe what He meant when He promised that His word would always be relevant to us, over the course of all of time.
Throughout my time at Bethel, Ephesians was always a go-to book for me, and it was also the first time in my life I could actually say I had a favorite book of the Bible. I still want a tattoo eventually to commemorate two of my favorite verses from it (v. 20-21 also super not coincidentally, because that’s how God likes to roll), and it quickly became a home base of sorts in the Bible, just like Bethel became a second home to me, mentally, relationally, spiritually, and physically. So, it seems just like God to sneak this reminder and promise into my day just before bed after a day where I honestly questioned whether I’d be able to make it through the whole year working at this school where every day just seems to suck all the energy right out of me. It’s seriously mind blowing how God does that, how He speaks to us when we’re at our lowest that bring tears to our eyes and an nodding affirmation as we wipe them away that yes, we can do this, but only because He’ll be walking by our side the whole way.
I’m not exactly sure when God will bring me back to Bethel, and whether that’ll be in the distant future or whether it’ll be a little sooner, but I’ll be anxiously awaiting that day while simultaneously asking Him for the strength and grace to get through this season that He’s brought me to. I want to love and serve as much as I can right now, right here where I am, but look out, Bethel, because I’m coming back for you someday, and I’ll probably be crying buckets when I finally make my way back.
Currently doing some storyboarding for some more fiction I'm working on, but I discovered another piece hidden away in the archives that I had never published (seems like this is a semi-frequent occurrence). As I'm transitioning back to writing some fiction, I've been finding that it's taking me a lot longer to figure out how I want to write things and what kinds of ideas I want to use, but maybe that's more normal than I'm giving myself credit for.
With this piece, the primary idea behind it was conceived through a series of discussions I had at my Bible study where we talked about what it means to actually be a Christian in the 21st century, in 2016 and how we can sometimes read our own biases into the parables and stories we read in the Bible. Oftentimes, this manifests as us, as mostly privileged, American Christians, identifying more closely with the oppressed people groups described in the Bible rather than with the oppressors. However, something that we realized over the course of our discussion and Bible study was that while the Israelites and the entire nation of Israel have typically been the minority ethnic group and minority religion in the majority of eras, that's not really the case for most Westernized or American Christians. What we decided is that more often than not, our actual lived realities align more with those of the oppressing Pharisees than with those of the oppressed Israelites. Interesting food for thought for sure.
have we become the pharisees?
When I was younger and still in Sunday school or just in school for that matter, since I went to a Christian K-12 school for a long time, sitting in a sagging, scratchy couch in one of the many rooms scattered along the length of the Catholic church activities building that my school rented, I always thought that things were pretty straight forward. By the time I left that school after my sophomore year of high school, it was easy for me to assume that I had a lot of things about my faith and about the Bible all figured out, something that remains one of the most false thoughts I’ve ever had in my entire life. One thing that particularly sticks out in my mind is the way that we learned to categorize people in Bible stories. I always used to think that the Pharisees were the bad guys in the Gospels, but something I’ve been realizing is that they really weren’t, at least not at the time. No, quite the contrary, the Pharisees were the good guys in their day, and they were probably viewed as the ones who were as good as anyone was going to get.
The Pharisees knew their Scriptures. They knew the Old Testament law. They could probably recite entire chapters from what they had of the Bible without missing a beat. To make a loose parallel, the Pharisees were the pastors’ kids who were born and raised in the church, the kids that showed up to church every Wednesday and Sunday, the kids that were on worship team and hospitality team and everything else in between. Unlike how we were taught to view the Pharisees in Sunday school, they were the good guys, the good Christian kids of Biblical times.
And Jesus and His disciples? They were probably seen as the rebels of youth group and Sunday school. Jesus was the lone rabbi who may or may not have actually had rabbi credentials who went around Israel with his ragtag group of twelve, give or take a few. As far as we know, Jesus didn’t work during His ministry, instead living primarily off the support of his followers such as Mary and Martha and perhaps His family. When you think about it that way, it’s actually not too hard to imagine why the Pharisees and the other religious folk didn’t like Him.
Jesus was the unemployed fake rabbi wannabe who lived in his parents’ basement and only seemed to stir up trouble wherever He went. He took out the moneychangers in the temple with a whip, he hung out with the other good-for-nothings in Jewish/Roman society like the tax collectors and prostitutes, and he repeatedly broke the Sabbath, which, last I checked, was probably just as central to the Pharisees’ theology as being pro-life and saying that marriage is between one man and one woman are to conservative Christian theology today. On top of all that, he told them over and over again that they were being too legalistic, using all kinds of relatively nasty metaphors to get that message across. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. Whitewashed graves. Blind guides. Jesus didn’t hold back when it came to telling the Pharisees exactly what He thought of them.
The more I think about those dynamics, the more I think that perhaps I would’ve been pissed at Jesus had I been living during that time period too, and that’s a scary thought to have, because I think that many of us have been raised and taught to identify more with the oppression and hounding of Jesus and His disciples than with the self-righteousness of the Pharisees responsible when I don’t think that’s the place that we hold in modern Christian circles. I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, it makes more sense to put ourselves in the Pharisees’ shoes than in those of Jesus and His disciples, if we’re being very, brutally honest.
Again, the Pharisees really knew their stuff. They knew what the law said about what you could and could not do on the Sabbath or the regulations stipulating this or that about ceremonial uncleanliness, and I think that’s really reflective of many of us today, myself included. Many of us were raised in the church, and we also know all the Bible stories as well as what they’re supposed to mean and what we’re supposed to get out of them. Along the same lines, we also know all the verses that tell us what’s good and what’s not. We know the verses that supposedly tell us that women shouldn’t be leaders in the church. We know the verses that say homosexuality is an abomination. And we know the verses that “clearly” state every other thing we’ve learned in church or in school, but because of that we’re missing the point, just like the Pharisees were.
Because the truth of the matter is that it’s not about the rules or the law or anything else that makes the world seem like it’s black and white to us. It’s always been about standing out and being different, with radical love as our banner, because that’s what Jesus did, even though it doesn’t necessarily seem to make sense all the time. If you think about it, Jesus didn’t have to heal or do miracles on the Sabbath. He didn’t have to be kind and loving to the tax collectors who were seen as sellouts to the Romans. He didn’t have to heal the Roman centurion’s servant. He didn’t have to do any of it if He really wanted to fit in with the Pharisees and live His days as the good Jewish boy that He could’ve been, but instead He chose to be radical in way that directly opposed many of the religious traditions and norms of His day. He prioritized people and meeting with them, touching them, and loving them individually over religious correctness, and I think that’s crazy. I also think that the saying is true that we would probably crucify Jesus all over again if He walked the earth today, regardless of whether that’s physically, politically, socially, or culturally and that saddens me, though I would also include myself in that statement.
Something else that I kept asking myself as I was going through elementary school and middle school was how all of these people missed what Jesus was trying to do and how they couldn’t seem to understand some of the most basic concepts that He was trying to teach them, but I think I understand now because our American world has become so similar to the world that Jesus lived in, filled with people who know the Bible backwards and forwards, who know theology like it’s their native language, who know facts about God and arguments for this doctrine or that doctrine, but also filled with people who don’t know what love looks like anymore. All of sudden, love looks like being right when it comes to this or that theological question and knowing all the proper motions to go through at church, because you know that your love for God is measured by how often you show up to church, or how good of notes you took at that last sermon, or whether or not you’re on the church or school worship team, or whether or not you support the right political candidate, or whether or not your views on a particular issue align exactly with those of your church. That’s what love and devotion to God look like in 21st century American culture, and I think that’s the exact same kind of religious atmosphere that Jesus was born into 2000 years ago, at least by my reading of the Bible, and that makes us the Pharisees, regardless of whether we like it or not. We’ve become the bad guys that we loved to hate in Sunday school, all without even realizing it, because just like them, we think that we’re the good guys.
In light of that, I think that we need to try and do what the Pharisees failed to do. We need to follow Jesus’ example and start worrying less about being the good guys and more about loving the way that He did, because that’s the only way that we’re truly going to transform and engage with culture, not by being right or good, but by being loving.
Wow, writing this piece was definitely more of a struggle than any of the others I've written recently, but it does mark my return to fiction writing or fiction style writing for the first time in a while. Figuring out transitions and how this piece was going to flow from beginning to end were probably two of the hardest things I had to overcome while writing this one, which sort of threw me for a loop.
At any rate, this piece is based off a passage from Ezekiel 37, and I thought that adapting and reimagining something already in existence would be a good exercise to stretch out my stiff fiction writing muscles. Hopefully this will spur on some more fiction writing and energy in the next few days, but for the moment, I'm just glad I was able to get through this piece.
Warm streams of wind spiraled around me as the mist cleared from my eyes. The churning air beneath my feet ceased its whistle and began to settle as the familiar edges of gravel and stone greeted me underfoot. Safely on the ground again, I turned and surveyed the land from where I stood at the southern mouth of a brown, deadened and dry vale, craggy walls jutting upward at steep angles on either side. All along its entire length dirt-stained boulders and rocks were strewn, of many strange shapes and sizes, some elongated, some round and smooth. Only when I started into the gradually widening corridor formed by the stone walls to my right and to my left did I realize they were not stones at all. I raised a hand to my mouth in shock as my eyes widened. Littered throughout the valley bed was an endless pit of bones reaching as far as I could see, a mass grave completely dehydrated from a years’ long bath in the sun’s rays. Skulls lay with their faces turned toward the heavens, and a thousand hands poked through the skeletal debris, futilely grasping for the sky.
As I traversed the desert basin where a river surely must have once flowed, brittle calcium fragments cracking and snapping below my feet, a golden light shone down from the cloudless expanse above, taking the form of a ball of light flanked by soft, hazy halos of the same color. Startled, I recoiled from the light, but a warm voice emanated from within its brilliance.
“Child of this earth, tell me, can these bones once more return to life and breathe in the air I’ve created to fill their empty lungs?”
“Father of Lights,” my voice began, shaking but gaining stability, “you alone know the answer to this question you pose.”
“You have spoken wisely, my son,” the voice replied. “Now, lift your arms to me and turn your face heavenward as these souls have done. Prophesy to these people of dust with the words I shall give you, and you shall see for yourself the answer.”
Turning from the light to face the valley of withered bones, I lifted my arms to the sun above and began to speak. At the same time, the earth below trembled and a slab of rock heaved itself away from the surrounding dirt, forming a platform for myself and the ball of light above the rest of the ravine so that I could see all of the lifeless bodies I addressed.
“Dry bones and thirsty souls, hear the words of the Father! Look now, for he will restore the breath to your lungs and cause you to live once again. He will rebuild your bodies with flesh and muscle and wrap your sinewy frames in skin, and then he shall breathe his breath into your sleeping souls again to call you back to life. By this resurrection, you will know who he is.”
Once the words had left my lips, the entire valley began to rattle and shake, all the bones knocking against each other, moved by a force I had never before seen. All at once, the bones were drawn to each other like magnetism and began to assemble themselves into complete bodies, erecting a ghastly skeletal legion before my eyes. Stepping back in awe, I watched as ribbons of red and yellow light then whirled around these incomplete frames, drawing tendons and muscles onto the bone as they glided between the ranks, and when they were finished, they flew over in a second pass, dressing their humanoid features with flesh. As the lights spun around themselves into the sky, dispersing over the barrenness of the canyon, an assembly of fully formed bodies was left standing before me, heads bowed in submission. Yet, they were still. Though restored in body, lungs still lacked breath.
The sphere of light pulsated at my side, drawing my attention, and then spoke again. “Now, prophesy to the winds, child of earth. Tell these children how they will be restored and it shall be done.”
Stepping to the front of my little platform once more, I held my arms out at my sides and called to the multitude before me. “As the Father of Lights has spoken, let life and breath flow in from the four winds. Come and breathe into these dead bodies so that they may life again and the light be returned to their sleeping souls!”
Before the words were even off my tongue a thunderous current rushed through the valley, roaring between the earthen walls on either side of me. Steeling myself against the force of the air, I looked to the light beside me as dust and stone cut through the air, carried by the hands of the wind. The gusts threatened to throw us from the stone pillar we stood on, but the light only pulsated, as if to nod towards the valley below.
Throughout the deadened basin a white mist had rolled in, led by the gale. Weaving between the undead bodies, streams of mist twisted about each of the figures, adorning them in battle clothes and forming swords, shields, and bows and arrows in their hands before funneling themselves into the mouths of the soldiers, filling their lungs and beckoning them back to the realm of the living. At once, the soldiers’ eyes opened with a piercing gleam in each one, and they once again turned their faces to the sky. Inhaling and gasping for breath like a swimmer saved from drowning, the whole crowd began to cough and heave and breathe all along the length of the valley where their bones had once been scattered. Now rather than a sea of bones, they comprised a great army as they regained their breath and stood in formation before the risen pillar on which I stood.
The light then lilted to my side and pulsed again, as if to put a hand on my shoulder, before saying, “Child of earth, these bones represent my chosen people, a people that was once dead and a people that I am now restoring to life. While they were still asleep, they called out to me, saying that they had become nothing but old, dry bones, all their hope evaporating into the desert air like the moisture from their deceased flesh. They believed their nation was extinct, like creatures of old, but I have a new message for them, so prophesy to my people once more to tell them what I have to say.”
With the light beside me, I once again stood before the army gathered in the valley below, looking over the now endless crowd of living and breathing bodies, with light once again shining in their eyes and the air they breathed in once again nourishing their newly revived spirits. Closing my eyes, I felt the words well up inside of me, allowing them to flow out of me as I looked over this crowd.
“Listen to what the Father of Lights says, you dry bones who have been restored. He says that he will exhume your graves of exile and desolation and cause you to rise again. He will bring you back to the land you one inhabited, and when this comes to pass, you will know who he is. He will return his spirit to your bodies and you will live again in your homeland. Then, you will know that he has spoken and done what he promised he would do, for this is what he has spoken.”
At these words, a tremendous cry swelled from the ranks, quickly filling the valley until the sound burst up from the fractured earth. All the soldiers lifted their faces to the heavens and jabbed their arms in the air as the ball of light cast golden beams across the valley, dispelling any shadows from the walls and shining on every face. And as the cheers died down, each one in the army mirrored the next in turn, bringing one fist to his or her chest and then kneeling in the dirt and dust before the light that illuminated the valley that was once filled with corpses but was now filled with rejuvenated souls.
The air was cool for Minnesota summer, and a fire crackled and snapped over wet logs in the fire pit in front of me. I was about to tell a story I had only told once before, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the words still felt almost fake as they churned inside of me, bringing a new sensation of reality to the term word vomit. It just didn’t feel right. In a way, it felt selfish, what I was about to do. At a cursory glance, everything about my life seemed to be just as it should, if not better, but I was about to confess that for the majority of my life I had felt like I had to earn love and wasn’t quite sure what it actually meant to be loved.
I mean, honestly, I’m 19 years old, have a college diploma hanging on my bedroom wall, my family is great to me and always has been, my friends are some of the best you could ask for, and I have everything I need, among other things, but I couldn’t escape the voice of God trying to convince me, for the umpteenth time in however many years, that there was no possible way for anyone to ever earn someone else’s love. But along with that, He also seemed to whisper that the reason was that you didn’t have to. His love, as well as anyone else’s authentic love, doesn’t need to be earned. That seems like such a simple, basic concept, but it’s one I’m honestly still processing and learning to be true.
I don’t know exactly when it started to why, but what I do know is that for most of my life, I’ve harbored this nagging voice constantly telling me I have to be smart enough, nice enough, Christian enough, musical enough, x enough, y enough, or z enough in order for people to like me, and by extension, love me. For most of grade school, and I suppose parts of college as well, I partially satisfied that voice by assuring myself I would be the smartest, and I guess that’s why I have a college diploma framed on my bedroom wall before my twenties. Beyond that, I fed that voice’s hunger by also telling myself I would have the most friends and be the best Christian person I could be, but all of those things have come under attack in the last few years as God has started breaking down those walls to show me what He’s really about, and what He’s about is unconditional love.
For about as long as I can remember, I believed it was my job to keep my friends around and stay in their good graces as well as God’s. In grade school and to this day, I was always the person wondering and freaking out about why someone hadn’t texted or messaged me back yet. Depending how long it had been, I would start thinking back to anything I had done recently, or even further in the past, to make them not want to talk to me anymore. Or if someone canceled plans with me, I would wonder if it was perhaps my fault that they didn’t want to get together anymore. With every little thing I was questioning myself, trying to find something I had done or maybe even just something about myself that had caused it, and this vicious cycle continued to perpetuate itself, only exacerbated by the fact that a handful of my former friends did just up and disappear off the face of the earth one day.
But the fact of the matter was that I was trying to earn and maintain the love of everyone around me, and it was eating away at me inside. By junior year of high school, I was having anxiety attacks on the regular, paralyzed by this gripping fear and panic that trapped me in my own mind, going through all the different reasons someone might’ve decided they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore or didn’t like me anymore, until the fated person or people messaged me back or rescheduled our plans or whatever it might have been. Then, everything would be fine, until it happened again. It created a constant fear and terror that the people I cared about and loved would all of a sudden decide one day that they didn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore, even if I had just seen them a few days before, and it was a mentally and emotionally draining.
At the same time, I was coming to grips with a lot of other things going on in life, and it was about the same time most mainstream churches were really cracking down and getting brutally honest with what they thought about LGBTQ topics. All the while another tempest was brewing inside of me, I was also sitting in church listening to pastors essentially telling me I was deformed by the Fall, doomed to a constant state of constant lust, and that the only way for me to be right with God was to relegate myself to being alone forever, and that’s if they were being kind about it. On social media, other evangelical Christian leaders were telling me I was an abomination, an insult to men, a spawn of the devil, just another step away from a pedophile, and a myriad of other things I could choose to repeat but won’t. It wasn’t much help that my youth pastors talked about people like me and treated me directly like I was spiritually sick, as if who I was could somehow be cured if I just prayed enough and had enough accountability, whatever that was supposed to mean (in my head, it sounded like weekly updates on what it was like to be gay that week, which I didn’t really understand the purpose of).
Combined, the world started to look like a really dark, bleak place to be. Already struggling with the idea that the people I loved and cared about most might just one day cast me aside, the message that I was either inherently bad by nature of existing or destined to be alone forever really supercharged my drive to prove that I was okay and that I could be good, and my need to earn the love of others only skyrocketed. I became convinced that if I was just good enough, if I was Christian enough, and if I could make a relationship work that I’d be able to prove to myself, to God, and to everyone else that I actually was good and that the way I was could be good and that the way I loved could be good, that I wasn’t all of those bad and awful things the church had told me that I was. And if I did all of those things, I’d also be able to convince God and everyone else to love me.
But all of those things crumbled to the ground as soon as this most recent season of life started, with college ending, me not going to church because it still stings too much, and me still being very much single. Suddenly, everything holding me together had disappeared and I was starting to feel it. But the thing is that God always seems to make the biggest breakthroughs when you don’t have anything left to give, which oddly enough, also happens to be the point right after He’s already taken away all the false hopes and defenses we’ve built up for ourselves.
Having stripped away everything else I thought I was hanging onto, what He taught me and is continuing to teach me is that you can never ever make anyone love you, at least if you’re talking about real love that is. And unlike normally, the same rules apply to God. You can’t make Him love you, and even though that sounds scary and out of your control (because it is), it’s actually the best thing He ever could’ve said, because the truth is that you don’t need to make Him love you. He already does, and He always will.
Maybe part of the truth is that my learning of this profound, but also incredibly basic idea was hindered due to the fact that 97% of the boys and men I encountered made fun of me and directly, straight up, no punches pulled told me I wasn’t good enough up or I was too different until my junior year of high school (when I finally met some real ones, mind you) or the fact that the church told me I was worse, dirtier, inherently flawed, and more sinful for so long, but I think another part of the truth is that God needs each of us to learn the insanely beautiful truth that we are loved by others and loved beyond compare by Him, without any restrictions, loopholes, conditions, or exceptions, on our own, in our own way, before we can really believe it for ourselves.
So, if you took the time to read this, just know that you are loved. You are so loved. Full stop.