Fifteen years ago this month I had the opportunity to create something unlike anything I’d ever done—or had ever been done before in a church. The Renaissance Service (TM) took place on Wednesday evenings in the candlelit dark, inviting people to look to the arts as a window to the divine. There was poetry, prayer, Taize chant refrains, and a wonderful message each week about an artist or art form and how faith intersected informed them. My husband recently transferred some old video tapes onto DVD, allowing me to see for the first time one of these moments from a distance. It is only now that I realize what an awesome thing these vespers were, not only in their fullness, but as a testament to where I was in my walk with God. At the time these were created I had only been a believer for a few years. Yet this outpouring of beauty infused with the divine feels to me now like a whole life’s work. This is the gift we often call “first fruits.” If you have a little time, you might want to watch this “vintage” recording. I will still remember these services as some of the greatest evenings of my life.
I live on the Westside of L.A., a part of the city that is known for entertainment, technology, health food, alternative medicine, progressive education, and tolerance of every sort of spirituality except “judgmental Christianity.” If you happen to be one of those people who go to church, that’s ok, just as long as it’s not one of those places that takes it all too seriously. Just as long as you don’t go talking about it all the time. Or try to get anyone to join you.
I came to faith 20 years ago. I learned to pray and study Scripture and lean into what I heard God telling me until, suddenly, my life and my faith and my work became one in the same. “What do you do?’ people would ask me in those early days. “I’m a writer,” I’d answer. People don’t tend to be offended by this. Typically they end up telling you their life story, then asking your advice about how to get it published.
A decade would pass before I would respond to the follow up question with, “I write faith-based books for non-faith based readers.”
“Oh,” they say. “Well, that sounds very interesting.” Sometimes they would try to clarify exactly what I meant by faith. In other words, was I the “nice” or the “mean” kind of Christian? I understand why they feel this way. I, too, am offended by the behavior of many people with whom I share my God-given identity. People with whom I am bound together by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (I guarantee you that half the people who know me or read my work, just recoiled— “Whoa, whoa, whoa that’s getting a little too heavy for me.”)
But people dying for their faith is heavy. So heavy, in fact, that most of us can’t even begin to discuss it. When the Coptic Christians were massacred by ISIS on the shores of the Mediterranean, there were outpourings of compassion coming as much from secular as religious circles. You don’t have to believe in God to recognize injustice and cruelty or to grieve and rage over the loss of innocent lives. No one who viewed that footage walked away apathetic. But the response I did not hear was people daring to ask themselves the universal philosophical question planted in the heart of those slayings: What would you be willing to die for?
Those of us who have kids are usually quick to list them in response. This is a human instinct—a good one—but it doesn’t answer the real question, which is this:
What do you believe in that you would be willing to die for?
We live in an era where our most heartfelt beliefs—beyond our own desire for happiness— tend to be about ideology or social justice issues. Our passion for certain positions is sincere and, often times, guided by a profound sense of some overarching imperative. We give time, money, and social media attention to things that appear to matter a great deal to us. And sometimes they do. But good causes come and go. And our commitment is often fleeting. It’s one thing to change the profile pic on your Facebook page, quite another to take a bullet for the cause. Even those who spend vast sums bankrolling PACs are unlikely to be willing to die for them.
None of us will ever know for sure what was on the hearts and minds of all involved with the latest shooting in a college classroom in Oregon, but there is sufficient testimony to affirm that the killer asked students whether or not they were Christian. And their answers seemed to determine their fate.
I live in a world that agrees to “tolerate” Christians as long as we espouse a definition of Love that has no hard edges, but that kind of Love won’t be able to stand up to the blunt end of a gun. For this, we need to know what we believe.
As we speak, I’m excited about the new seasons of Homeland and The Leftovers and the Dodgers going into Post Season play. I’m full of joy over the little church I get to help replant in West Adams, and some really cool music events I’m bringing to life in the city. I’m proud beyond measure of both of my children, and would love nothing more than to see them find the loves of their lives and dance at their weddings, and when the time comes, for me and Lon to spend long afternoons on the floor cooing with grandbabies.
In other words, I love my life and pray I get to live it to a wise old age.
But let me be perfectly clear.
If someone put a gun to my head and asked me if I was a Christian, I would not balk. With all the voice I could muster, I would say, “Yes.”
I can say this because I know what I believe. And why I believe it.
I can say this because I know that the Gospel has nothing to do with rules or judgment and everything to do with the One who conquered death “once for all” (Peter 3:18) so that we may “know the truth, and the truth will set us free” (John 8:32).
I can say this because “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
If you’re like me you might find yourself feeling powerless over gun violence in our country. You may be wishing in some small way to honor the dead in Roseburg, and the hundreds of other U.S. cities bathed in the blood of our collective brokenness. You may even be longing secretly that you were the sort of person who could face with courage these ultimate challenges of life and death.
Maybe you are. You’ll never know until you dare to ask the question: what do you believe and why do you believe it?
So begins the song Mighty Sound by the band Tim B Told. A week ago I knew nothing about them. Now they are working their way under my skin, my psyche, my spirit like threads of silken light. Maybe they’ll do the same for you. Pax
There is a preconception in our culture that to be a person of faith means to live a small, tight, narrow life, but that has not been my experience. Far from it. In truth, the deeper I go, the freer I get, until all there is are the gifts God has given me and the desire at the core of my being to use them as He intended. This means some days I’m writing or creating liturgies or sitting on various Boards of Directors with big stickie pads and really smart, faithful people. Other days I’m coming alongside young people to inspire and empower them, or cleaning out old boxes and patterns to help a dying church come back to life, or consulting with seminary profs about what people need to know to mature in their faith. More and more lately, I’m standing in front of large groups speaking about how we’re crushing our young people by raising them to look good on paper, or about sin as “man turned in on himself” and connecting those dots to our 21st-century ills of anxiety, depression, disordered relation to technology, loss of purpose, and loss of identity. Usually as the Word moves through me I weep.
The gift of tears is not one I would have asked for but it seems to be one God likes to use. Maybe this is why I wanted to share this clip—so you could see the fruit of those tears and the great joy and creativity and power and purpose and, yes, playfulness there is in a life of following Jesus.
You can read about how I came to be standing on this stage kicking off the first annual Labor of Love Concert here. And you can see a bunch of pics from the event in this blog. (Rumor has it there’s an awesome video of the night in the works–not one captured on my husband’s phone:)
Or you can just watch me introduce the MC and the event and, maybe, allow a new thought to enter into your frame of reference: what if allowing God into your life was actually the most liberating and empowering thing you could ever do?