Just came back from a wonderful lunch at a great old Venice haunt where artists and locals of all stripes have gathered for the past 30 years. This little verse was displayed by every booth and, really, what’s not to love about it? It has all our favorite words: passion, dream, kindness, inspire, truth, love, and a healthy dose of our favorite modifier: your, which in these instructions means my. Breezing past this easy wisdom is like taking a shot of wheat grass juice—or tequila. Your choice.
Either way, that’s about how long the buzz of aphorisms like these will last—or help—over the long haul. Like when the love of your life has left you. When your dad has brain cancer or your mom has dementia or your baby has something wrong that no amount of wit or rank or determination can heal. When you’ve lost your job or your way and you find yourself disappearing more and more into a haze of booze or pills or sex because somehow—despite looking great in your yoga pants—your meditation practice is not bringing you peace. When you’re starting to suspect that it really might be you that is the source of your recurring troubles but don’t have a clue what to do about it.
In the land of sandwich board wisdom there is only one “hard” word even mentioned. Cry. Tucked in between laughing and loving it seems more like a salty reflex of living a fabulous life than anything anchored in real pain. But pain is a real thing. It’s not avoidable. Not even if your start-up becomes an IPO before your 30. Or your film gets Special Jury Recognition at Sundance. Or you figure out how to shed—even briefly—your incessant Fear Of Missing Out. Down the road, you’ll be forced to discover that there’s simply not enough Botox in the world to restore the infinite possibility of youth, or the primal rush of being desired, and you can nip and tuck and “speak your truth” of denial like a mantra, but it will not make heads turn or doors open. And it will surely not hold your wounded spirit in its hand.
The reminders to Be Here Now and to Live In The Moment are much needed, of course, given our collective and constant techno-twitch. More than that, though, I think they’re a wormhole into the ultimate lens of this “scripture” —to deny any reality beyond this moment. Your moment. Your truth. As if nothing came before, or will come after. All the world’s a stage and all the players are just potential followers of your life platform, right?
This notion of your truth has no precedent in human history. It’s a bit surprising that so many educated people cling to it when it defies all logic and reason. Either something is true or something is not true. Either your kid stole the cookie from the cookie jar or she did not. Either you closed the deal or you did not. Either there is a God who created the universe or there is not. We can pretend that it’s a choice that we make, but it is not.
Last month, Hal’s Bar & Grill announced that it was closing its doors. Across the social media landscape of West L.A. there was wailing and gnashing of teeth. There was sadness and there was shock: this was the cornerstone of the whole hipster scene of Venice, CA. How is it possible that life would go on without it?
Next month, next year—a hundred years from now— there’ll be a new crop of cool places to gather and new foods to rave about and new variations on the idea of being spiritual or transcendent or perfect or happy or saved.
We won’t be here to enjoy them. But the Truth will be.
Same as it ever was.
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
Either this is true or it’s not true.
Our preference for it to be one or the other is irrelevant—at least so far as Truth is concerned. As for the human heart, well, in that, my friends, it makes all the difference in the world.
The story of my trip to Immanuel Lutheran Church in Whitestone, New York this past week actually began almost four years ago on my trip to Taize. One of the ways they raise funds in Taize is through the sale of ceramics and art; they accept no donations from anyone, as it is their belief that they should trust in their own ability to support their monastic lifestyle and rely on nothing by God’s provision to help them. I bought this necklace while I was there: the deep well of blue just spoke to my heart.But this story begins not with the blue but with the plain, white, unfinished back of the large teardrop pendant and with the verse that came with it.
“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” Revelation 2:17
I met Pastor Johnson Rethinasamy at a conference in Phoenix last year, right after Leann and I had started icktank. She had heard him in a session and ran to find me: Heather, you’ve got to hear what this guy is talking about.What he was talking about was his life story and how God was blessing him and the community in which he’d been placed. He’d arrived in NYC fifteen years ago with his wife, Sharon, and young daughter, Susan, and a plan to get his doctorate in Missions work in Tamil, India. He had the proverbial $10 in his pocket when he stumbled across a little Lutheran church. He wandered in and asked if they might need an organist: they did, and offered to pay him $25 a week to play. He soon developed a relationship with the pastor who discovered that he was not just an immigrant musician, but actually an ordained Lutheran pastor in India, where Lutheranism had existed long before it had come to America. He was soon colloquized (made official) in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and empowered to start an mission outreach to southeast Asians newly arrived in Queens. He quickly built up a storefront church to well over 100 people.
Just when it seemed that life was starting to make sense, he got the Call. A small traditional, old German Lutheran church—which could be called “stagnant” at best— wanted him to become their pastor. He wasn’t sure what God wanted him to do. He prayed, of course, but also, he spoke to his growing tribe of new and old immigrant Christians and said this, “I will only go if you come with me. This is how we begin to address the call to multi-culturalism in the faith in America. This is how we become one in the Kingdom of God.”
Half of the people said no; they wanted to stay there and be with “their own kind.” I love this because it reminds us that parochialism and cliquishness and comfort zones know no bounds. But half of the immigrants said yes, as did a good portion of the traditional German Lutherans at an old church which, when faced with the prospect of dying, said no: Christ will continue to live on in this place and we will simply need to learn to open our hearts, to let in the new, to stop being so worried about being comfortable and having things the way they’ve always been. And so the Mosaic ministry that is Immanuel Lutheran Church was born.
Now, do you remember where I said it was? In a town in Queens called Whitestone. At some point last year I had connected the dots from the Taize necklace scripture to this new, far-off community that was somehow becoming part of my story, and of the icktank story. In January, Pastor Johnson wrote to tell us that he would be doing our new book Loaded Words for an all-church Lenten study. We were honored and thrilled and I began to consider that I would actually make a trip there. The white stone pendant hung over my desk, an ever-present reminder of the mysteries of God and how he speaks to His people.
What I saw and did and heard and learned on my visit to the community in Whitestone made it clear that the Holy Spirit was alive and well and moving in and around us like the sweet spiced scent of curry. I felt as at home in the church and in their small group gatherings as I ever have in any church I’ve ever been in.I met brilliant Indian men who wanted to see their wives lifted up, who served their church and the Kingdom of God with joy, even after long days as high-level IT execs or managers. I wept with a man whose daughter had died suddenly of an infection she got in hospital after a routine procedure: she was just 21, and he spoke of her testimony and how she saw angels all around her and how she spent the few brief final hours she had of this life witnessing to Christ for the doctors and nurses who tended to her. I listened to a man who drove in every weekend from Connecticut to assist with the music: he had had a profound and personal experience of the Living God calling him, and gave up his corporate job and his comfortable life and now writes Christian music and helps to plant churches and shares with his family the piercing joy of relying on God alone for their provision. And I smiled to hear the testimony of a man who might best be described as a Central Casting version of a working class New Yorker. He had not been raised in the church–not really. For two years he had walked past Immanuel and considered going in, until, one morning he said to his wife “Get dressed. We’re going to church.” And as they approached the building he grew terrified at the thought of walking into a space filled with strangers. This was his greatest fear. Until he opened the door, and there on the left side of the pews was a guy he used to work with at Home Depot. And there handing out the bulletins was another guy he’d grown up with. And Pastor Johnson, who’d often greeted him in town, embraced him by name. And he told me, “God knew my fear and he put all those people there so I never felt like a stranger. I haven’t missed a Sunday since. And this church has become for me a true home.”
It is often said the Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, but not in Whitestone, where Tamil and Hindi and Chinese and German and English all come together as one. Some of the services are mixed, and led in English. Some are purely in Tamil and/or Hindi, allowing the immigrants to hear God in their own mother tongue while still being part of a new church family. Pastor Johnson oversees them all, the flock and the local pastors who he’s raised up, trained, seen through ordination, and continues to mentor and supervise. On Sunday morning, he communed close to 200 people in three services and called them their God-given name as he offered them the Body of Christ, broken for them for the forgiveness of sins. Over the course of the morning I sang old Lutheran hymns and new contemporary Christian songs and Indian liturgical chants and words I knew and words I simply let wash over me. And I was blessed to see and feel and hear what it looks like when we get it right: when we yield to the will of the God who tells us that Christ died “once for all” (Romans 6:10). That we are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:8). And that we are, indeed, “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9).
As for the ties to the Scripture from Revelation and my seemingly “meant-to-be” visit to Whitestone, well, I’m not sure I was actually given anything as clear as a new name.
Or was I?
Every time I teach, I learn. So it was this weekend when I was in the middle of a talk on Loaded Words. I was telling the story of a dear friend who had come to faith about the same time as me. She had fallen in love with our church community and served it in all sorts of unique and wonderful ways. She had loved the feeling of community, of relationships, of belonging, of family, and of the mystery of the good God at the center of it all. She especially loved the Holy Spirit. But as I’ve gone deeper, it became clear to me that she’d been making an end run around the tough stuff: sin, repentance, confession, judgment—all the hard, mean-sounding words that keep people in the culture away from the church and far too many in the church from anything like real spiritual maturity.
How does this happen? How does someone spend 20 years as an active member of a good Lutheran church, with sound teaching and preaching, and only lick the frosting? This was the question I posed to the workshop attendees on Friday, but it wasn’t until I was back at the hotel that I had clarity on the answer.
It’s Grace’s fault.
People, I suspect, are making the mistake of misfiling “Grace” in their minds with the happy, easy words. You know the ones I mean: Love, Joy, Hope, Peace, Community. It is not hard to hear these words in a sermon. In fact, for many, these warm, fuzzy words are what the church is all about. And although these words have deep theological meanings, and are tied to the gifts and promises of God in ways that are not always happy and easy, they still mean, for the most part, what they mean out in the world.
Not so with Grace.
Grace does not belong in the grouping of happy, easy words. Grace belongs in the “sin” family. And it may just be hardest word of all. Because as C. S. Lewis tells us, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” If we allow ourselves to hear the word Grace as an easy, happy word, we avoid the humiliation of “losing” our precious claim to being our own God. When the pastor says “grace,” people can opt instead to register something beautiful and glowing, nimble and lithe. They can imagine the Grace of God as giving them an ease to their step, and a light all around them. They can picture the gift of Grace as something that will lead them to walk through the world a bit like—well, you know who— with doors opening, and heads nodding and smiling, as if some beautiful new ambassador of Jesus has arrived. I’m beginning to suspect that a lot more people than we know are thinking of Grace as some sort of holy moisturizer that plumps their cells with goodness from the outside.
Sorry. But if that’s your understanding, you’ve got the wrong Grace.
Grace is a word you need to find down in the basement with the other hard words. Down in the basement after a flood and the mold’s begun to settle in. Down in the basement with the stagnant water and the mold and now the rats moving in, gnawing and breeding. This is where Grace speaks. Here, where all the darkest parts of ourselves—the resentments, the envy, the pride, the ambition, the lust and the fear—all the snark in the pit of our souls standing naked in the muck and taunting God. “See, you got me all wrong.” Only then can God give us these glorious words of mercy and affirmation: “Nope, you got Me all wrong.”
This is Grace. And we find it in the same place it was first offered us by Christ: in the wretched, gasping, flesh-and-blood center, where He calls us to himself and then raises us up with Him, moving the word Grace down from the basement and up to the glorious light on the highest shelf with all the other easy, happy words. Now you can place it there, next to Love and Joy and Peace and Hope. Now you can wear this Grace like the Princes or Princesses you are, in the royal priesthood that God has called each of us to.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
As we teach and share and help each other along the way, let’s make sure folks get the Grace God intended.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2: 1-10)
Twenty years ago I fell though a crack in my spirit and into a world that is strange and wonderful and ceaselessly upending. And ever since then, I’ve been trying to help other people like me find an entrance. That personal mission has led me to write 5 books and several hundred blog posts; to retreat regularly to a Benedictine monastery and binge-watch Netflix; to travel to Taize, live in intentional communities, get my MA in Theology, and begin every day—well, ok, almost every day—in prayer and Scripture reading. And the thing that still surprises me the most is that the deeper I go, the freer I get.
This freedom is the heart and soul of the Gospel, and the raison d’etre behind the good work of Tullian Tchividjian. “Tullian who?” you are likely saying. That’s what I said four months ago. I was told he was the “prodigal” grandson of Billy Graham doing rock star theology in Grace. Last month his group—aptly named, Liberate—invited me to guest blog for them. Wow. Like I said, strange and wonderful and ceaselessly upending. The piece gave me a chance to tease out some Big Picture truths from one of my favorite films of the year: Whiplash. If you haven’t had a chance to read Are You Rushing or Are You Dragging, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to check in out now. I really think it’s one of the best things I’ve written in a while, and speaks to this freedom so dear to my heart.
Nothing clears a room faster than the word sin.
Sin. Sin. Sin. Sin. Sin. That’s all you Christians talk about and we’re sick of it. We don’t need it. We don’t want it. And we don’t believe in it anyway. So says the culture in 21st-century America.
But denying sin’s existence doesn’t make it go away. And without the recognition of sin, the gift of grace means nothing.
So where do we start? How can we even talk about sin when it’s linked like a keyword to leeches and bloodletting and Da Vinci Code drama, to hateful zealots, hypocritical priests, or wagging fingers all worked up about sex? Well, we might want to try this. Homo incurvatus in se. Man turned in on himself. Sin as the slippery slope of me, me, me. As the roiling sea we each contribute to and are then forced to swim in—us in our hoodies with our ear buds in, blocking out any and all input that does not delight or serve us, perpetually curving in on a world of our own creation. This Renaissance-era teaching put forth by Martin Luther nails the zeitgeist of our modern era. #ManTurnedInOnHimself. Deep in our hyper-individualistic hearts, we turn towards the sound of it, the truth of it, longing to find some answers there. Or maybe even something like grace.
That America is a monument to individualism is not news, but increasingly we can see the cracks: isolation, depression, apathy, anxiety, narcissism, addiction. Where once there was purpose, confidence, belonging, and hope, now there is more of a gnawing void. Now we trade in the town square for laptops behind which we disappear, hide, seeking to dwell unchallenged in worlds of our own design, ideology, ambitions, pleasures, secrets, shame, terror. We are masters of our own free will, but still we cry out in the dark each night, “who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)
Man Turned in On Himself gives shape to this brokenness. Just picture a body curved in on itself—in the fetal position, say. The shape of the curve protects and defends the thing it is turned in on, guarding it and the right to have it to oneself in the secret shadow of the curve. It also creates a barrier between the heart’s desire and the things it wants to keep at bay: judgment, change, help, love, God. When man is turned in on his own desires, the world—despite his best efforts to the contrary— becomes smaller and darker. Without access to any power greater than himself—and with the sudden realization that he is, in fact, only human—he becomes trapped in the “hamster wheel” of his own thoughts and enslaved by his own feelings and desires.
Is it hard to imagine, then, that this perpetual incurvatus state would lead us to create—and be subject to living in—a nation where, over the past 30 years, anxiety disorders have increased by 1200%? According to the World Health Organization, America is, by a wide margin, the most anxious country on earth. If you don’t personally struggle with anxiety, it is a statistical certainly that someone in your inner circle does. And nearly half of those who suffer from anxiety will, according to Andrew Solomon, develop major depression within five years.
So what does all this anxiety have to do with sin? Well, let’s go back to the beginning. (Even if you don’t believe in Creation, the lessons still hold). In the Garden, God tells Adam “to guard, protect, keep safe, watch over, keep vigil.” According to Robert Kellemen in Anxiety: Anatomy and Cure, vigilance is the “God-given emotion to respond to a threat, and the constructive concern for the well-being of others.” In other words, vigilance is a good thing. It’s a gift from God. Ok, so now let’s take God out of the picture and what do we have? 320 million people waking up in America every morning still wired for vigilance but determined to be our own God.
Vigilance without God means manically scanning the horizon for threats or opportunities with no reassurance that we are under the care of a benevolent Creator, that justice will prevail, or that our neighbor is anything more than a competitor in a zero-sum world. Vigilance without God leaves us with this felt truth in our bones: if everyone’s in charge, then no one’s in charge. And how does that make us feel? Anxious. Because humans don’t fare well when no one’s in charge. The void must be filled. So now in lieu of God, we find ourselves subject to the worldview of whichever ambitious god-wannabees clamber to the top first. Or we ignore our true selves trying to be one of them, creating even more anxiety and disorder.
Enter the smart phone and gaming and Facebook and Tinder and Snapchat and a few thousand new apps a week, all to help us cope with our anxiety or our quest for control, and all drawing us every further in on ourselves (just a few more minutes) and away from the needs of the real (and often demanding) others in our midst.
This is the just one of the faces of sin lived out in the 21st-century. And we don’t need a preacher or a Bible or a church to see it. Because we already know. It was, in fact, written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33) and our clenched spirits testify to it everyday: the more we turn in on ourselves to increase our sense of control or avoid our myriad sufferings, the more we become a slave to that seeking and avoiding.
John speaks of this slavery when he says that, “everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34). Peter reminds us that, “people are slaves to whatever masters them” (2 Peter 2:19). Paul spells it out even more clearly, “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:14-15). And Matthew delivers the hardest truth of all “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You can not serve God and wealth” (or power or pleasure or any of the other false idols we choose for ourselves and then desperately turn to as if they can save us).
It is in light of this “slavery” that Jesus promises “we will know the truth and the truth will set us free” (John 8:32). That he speaks into the still, small place in our hearts, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). And that He watches over us even as we reject Him, even as we turn inward again and again and again, issuing the same invitation he’s made to every man, woman, and child who came before us, and will make to all who come after we’re gone. “Turn back to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45: 22).
(This post was originally published as a guest blog on RJ Grunewald’s wonderful site Theology for Everyday Life).