The Heart I Want to Have

Prayer has always been a battle for me, an enigmatic pursuit that I often am lazy in pursuing. I confess that I have often avoided prayer simply because articulating my heart before the unseen Creator seemed so elusive and vast. Vague words would waddle around in distracted circles, coming out more like a laundry list of complaints and centerless generalizations:

“God, please help so and so.”

“Lord, thank you for who you are.”

It is not that these types of prayers are somehow wrong; it is not as if God judges based on the articulateness of our words. But I had become lazy in the pursuit of communing with God. Instead of running first to Him with a broken heart or overwhelming anxiety or even blossoming joy, I would first run to my friends, to my family, overwhelming them with problems and dilemmas that were meant for Him to carry. In the center of this “praying” to humans around me festered the core of unbelief. Unbelief in the freeing, peace-bringing power of exposing the heart to the One who created it. And because of this perpetual unbelief, I had become complacent in repeating half-hearted Christianese collocations, and I knew that I needed to rise from this lethargic daze and trade passiveness for activeness. To begin believing that opening up to the Creator and laying all on him would infuse joy and purpose and precise perspective into my life.

But where was I to begin? How was I to break myself from these shallow and vague habitual mutterings? For me, the answer lay in discovering a little red book filled with recorded prayers of Christians throughout the centuries.

I grew up in a very non-liturgical tradition, and although liturgy was never outright condemned, there was always the sense that to repeat or memorize prayers from a book was somehow inauthentic and mechanical, the harbinger of legalism. And for this reason, I think I always felt that I had to “make up my own prayers” in order for them to be genuine.

But as I began to read this little red book filled with prayers, I began to realize how small this view of prayer was. One of the joys of reading for me has always been when the author has articulated something in my heart that I could never put into words. In the same way, I found myself savoring the words of Christians before me because they articulated precisely and powerfully the heart I want to have and the heart I know that God desires for his children to have. The following prayer by Thomas Aquinas has given focus to my prayers and I am so thankful that I can learn from the heart and examples of Christ-followers before me.

“Grant me, I beseech Thee, Almighty and most merciful God, fervently to desire, wisely to search out, and perfectly to fulfill, all that is well-pleasing unto Thee. Order Thou my worldly condition to the glory of Thy name; and, of all Thou requirest me to do, grant me the knowledge, the desire, and the ability, that I may fulfill it as I ought, and may my path to Thee, I pray, be safe, straightforward, and perfect to the end.

Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards;

give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; 

give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow upon me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know Thee, diligence to seek Thee, wisdom to find Thee, and a faithfulness that may finally embrace Thee. Amen.”


For Whom the Bell Doesn’t Toll

This piece was published in the spring 2013 issue of the Vox Populi, a publication of Gordon College.

     A brassy peal emanates from the corner of campus, spreading its eerie power in a shockwave throughout Gordon’s domain. For just a second, the campus stops. Chemistry majors look up from their lab work, soccer players on the quad turn their heads, studiers in Jenks lose their place in Our Father Abraham.  Some sigh, some crack a cynical joke, and some shrug their shoulders. Despite our individual reactions, for just a moment, we are united. Gordon is rich with legend, and few Scots haven’t claimed the tales of the car at the bottom of Gull pond or of Teddy Roosevelt’s horse buried under the quad as part of their heritage. The mysterious lore surrounding Gordon’s history certainly plays a role in shaping our identity as students here, but nothing seems to compare to the metal monument that lounges proudly in its gazebo throne, observing passersby under its sway. The cultural icon that has the power to bring us together for better or for worse is that wonderful, terrible old bell*.
      We see its power in conversations, humming at a constant din throughout the four years, first starting off wistfully, hopefully, then morphing gradually into a senior cynicism or a lifeless joke. The bell makes regular cameos at Gordon Globes, providing a source of comic catharsis for those who find themselves bemoaning the infamous Gordon ratio or the rabid desperation of Gordon girls. The bell is occasionally rung by the reckless non-respecter of its sacred power, but the rest of us know that only under one circumstance may you ring it and leave unscathed.
      The bell’s renown reflects the fact that Christian colleges, and Christian culture in general, is infamous for framing marriage as the cardinal goal of life. Our generation is known for pushing back against the pressure to marry young, but still, the cultural constructs of American Christianity loom over Gordon culture, encouraging unhealthy interaction between the sexes. Many people I have talked to are familiar with the awkward apprehensiveness of male-female interactions at Gordon. The vicious cycle goes like this: Christian girls have a reputation for singling guys out as possible husband material; thus, guys fear that too much friendliness on their part could be mistaken as a marriage proposal. Assuming that Gordon men hold this view of them, many women also mete out their friendliness and smiles in controlled doses for fear that they will project a message of desperation. I have seen and experienced the frustrating awkwardness of this cycle again and again, and I have also seen a striking contrast in my two times studying abroad, where I was able to seamlessly befriend members of the opposite sex without fearing that they would think my attentions were a desperate plea for a ring.
      Not only is the emphasis on marrying young damaging to relationships now, but it sets us up for disappointment when we actually marry. With the best of intentions, Christian culture spreads the propaganda that marriage is the answer to our problems and the beginning of our lives. As such, marriage is one of the prime idols of single Christians everywhere, an antidote to loneliness and a license for guilt-free sex. And like all idols, it doesn’t deliver what it promises.  The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 60% of couples who marry between the ages of 20 and 25 decide to divorce, 10% more than the national average. This is not to say that there should be a ban on young marriage, but it does illustrate that at least 60% of young people tying the knot discover that marriage is not the cure-all that they had envisioned.
      But to be fair, perhaps the lore of the bell is casting a shadow of untruth on the nature of Gordon students. Although perceptions about the opposite sex’s intentions do seem to inhibit cross-gender friendships, the quest for a ring does not define the majority of the students I know. I do not see girls paralyzed by fear that they won’t find “the one” at Gordon. I do not see lazy young men, too indifferent to commit. No, I see men and women pursuing their God-given callings with direction and confidence. I see students investing in lives in the city of Lynn, I see RAs committed to loving their floors, I see blossoming mentorships between faculty and students. In short, I see people invested in deep relationships whether or not they lead to the altar.  
      I admit that when I first heard the legend of the bell, I hoped that one day I would join the ranks of ringers. But now that four years have gone by without anything resembling that type of relationship, I can say with confidence that I have no regrets. Statistics say that for most of us, marriage will eventually come. But regardless of that fact, there is no use in spending four years chasing a fantasy when the opportunity for deep relationships is at its peak. So love the legend of the bell. Laugh, roll your eyes and pass on its magic to the classes to come. Just don’t let it take a toll on your perspective.
*The bell on Gordon College’s campus is only to be rung by couples who have just gotten engaged. Lore has it that if you ring it under any other circumstances, you will have 7 years of bad luck, or worse, 7 more years of singleness…

A Grainy Photograph of the Unseen

  Dedicated to my father, who has shown me what it means to follow Christ.
I don’t see God the way he truly is, and this bothers me. I logically assent that he is the God who delivered his people from Egypt in an epic of miracles, the God whose glory would kill me if I looked on it, the God who is love incarnate in the sacrifice of his one and only Son. I affirm these facts about God, yet so often he seems as flat and scratchy as a mini Jesus on a Sunday school flannelgraph.  Attempting to fit the infinite Creator of the universe into my finite human paradigm leaves me with an unimpressive, blurry photo that I can fit in my wallet. Although logic tells me that this photo is nothing more than a crude representation of reality, I feel constrained by my humanity to perceive this grainy four-by-six as the real thing. I don’t see God the way he truly is, and sometimes I wonder if I am just worshiping an idol I’ve carved to fit the puny dimensions of my brain.
Andrea* and I sat across from each other in the quaint Salem pizza place, discussing whether some people were destined from the foundations of the earth to spend eternity being tortured. She was convinced that they were. I met Andrea, a young seminarian’s wife, my junior year at Gordon. I began attending a Bible study at her home, and it soon became clear that her favorite flower was definitely the TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Back home, Calvinism was often the butt of jokes, an abstract theology that evoked the image of a crotchety man in Shakespearean dress high on his own hot air. My father, a devoted follower of Christ, often expressed frustration not only with Calvinist theology but with what he saw as the arrogance that was its center. His experience with Calvinists had been dominated by exchanges in which those not agreeing with their viewpoint were treated as second-class Christians. Not only was his viewpoint anecdotal; he explained his side with firm Biblical support. Everything I experienced confirmed my father’s viewpoint; it only took a cursory glance at the blogosphere to find a myriad of arrogantly judgmental comments from Calvinists, some going so far as to question the salvation of non-Calvinists. But when I saw Andrea’s life: her dedication to God’s word, her commitment to mentoring college girls and her love for the Lord, it frustrated me that she didn’t fit into a mold that was less attractive. She had definitely studied the Bible more than I had, so who was I to disagree with her conclusion? The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, right?
At this point, I was secretly chagrined that Andrea hadn’t come across as judgmental and crazy, like the puffed-up Calvinist commenters I had discovered online. That would have been easier to swallow. Instead, two godly Christians in my life had come to different conclusions about an issue that seemed to define the character of God.  It wasn’t that I had to know the answer. I didn’t really care whether it was Calvin or Arminius who would be saying “I told you so,” the moment they entered heaven. No, what scared and frustrated me was the realization that I do not have the capacity to see God as he truly is.
Growing up, I don’t remember ever questioning my perceptions of God. I am one of those saved-since-she-could walk Christians, and God was just a natural part of life, so much so that I rarely stopped to stand in awe of Him or think about what it actually meant to be divine. He naturally knew me personally, loved me, and had great plans for my life (which I thought he needed to be constantly reminded about). But he was also very American. If I didn’t work hard enough, he would be displeased with me for my laziness. If I happened to miss “his will” for my life because of a poor decision, he would likely tell me “you’ve made your bed, now you lie in it.”
I have been taught from the womb to pray that the Holy Spirit would lead and guide me when I go to the Word of God. In junior high school, I may have had a passing question about the possibility of my faulty interpretation, but I was more into taking the Bible extremely personally. I’ll never forget the gleeful entitlement I felt when I found Proverbs 6:5, which said “free yourself… like a bird from the snare of the fowler.” Fowler was the last name of the boy I wanted to marry. He didn’t return my sentiment.
I still use that same Bible, and I am always slightly embarrassed when I have to share with someone, because I know they will see the confident personal applications of junior high in words like “basketball,” “high school,” and the initials of the boy I liked. But looking back at these scribblings, I have to wonder if I don’t do much of the same thing now, if maybe we all do. After all, even though Andrea and my father had prayed for the Holy Spirit to lead them when they approached the Scriptures, they had still come to opposite conclusions. My flustered question at this point was “why was the Holy Spirit leading them to believe totally opposite things?”
In my favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, two brothers, Ivan, an “atheist” intellectual, and Alyosha, a novice monk, discuss the problem of suffering and what it says about the character of God. Ivan brings in newspaper clippings detailing cases of child abuse in order to illustrate his assertion that “I accept God, but I do not accept his world.” For Ivan, the suffering of children was irreconcilable with a loving God. Alyosha, though, remains firm in his faith, willing to accept the paradox that God is good even when his world seems unjust.
My RA staff last year had a habit of getting into theological conversations about unanswerable questions such as those raised in The Brothers Karamazov. We had one “Ivan” on our staff who wanted answers that would reconcile a loving God with his sense of justice. Last year, I was the one who watched these conversations quietly, confused by his zealous anger towards not understanding.  “Ivan’s” perspective was fascinating, but I never could truly relate to it. I saw the world with the same eyes as Alyosha, and what others viewed as lack of engagement, I counted as peace.  This year though, I have been able to relate to Ivan’s perspective more than ever. Unanswerable questions have claimed a permanent home in my mind as I have become more and more aware of the seemingly unjust suffering and death in the world. But even in my questioning, I still am an Alyosha; I am more comfortable with paradox than many.
This comfort with paradox does have a negative side; I often am fearful to express conviction in any point of theology not contained in the Apostles’ Creed. If theologians who have studied the Bible their whole life have come to different conclusions, then who am I to approach the Word of God? I am often scared out of my mind about approaching Scripture, the one thing that I’ve been taught for years is the main ingredient necessary for my spiritual growth. Do I believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God? Absolutely! Do I believe that I will come to it with my own biases and preconceived notions about God’s character? Again, absolutely.
Left to my own devices, I will inevitably distort God’s words, but I am learning that the Christian life is not about my ability to comprehend, but about God’s grace and power in my weakness. He knows that each and every one of us views life through glasses shaped by our culture, family, personality and experiences. This does not scare him, and maybe it shouldn’t scare me either. What should scare me is attempting to live as if I do have the capacity to comprehend God. It seems that the urge to fit God into a systematic theology might stem from the subconscious desire to usurp his place in our lives and become our own gods. Perhaps one of the reasons God has only allowed us to see him in a grainy photograph is to remind us that he is God, and we most definitely are not.
Maybe the differing conclusions of Andrea and my dad have less to say about the leading of the Holy Spirit and more to say about what God actually wants his followers to focus on during our few years this side of heaven. To me, the fact that they disagree says that having a monopoly on “good theology” isn’t one of God’s priorities for us during our short stint on planet earth. Jesus didn’t tell us to go therefore and make theologians; he told us to go therefore and make disciples. My focus should be on the tenets of the faith that all Christians agree on. I can trust that God is good; I can trust that God is love, and I can trust that it is his Son, not my theology, that saves me. And if I’m not taking it out of context, 1 Corinthians 13:12 tells me that one day I will know God as he is: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.”
I don’t see God the way he truly is, and I am okay with that…for now. Now I hold a faded photograph, but one day I will be joyfully overwhelmed by the reality that it represents. Unanswerable questions and disagreements between Christians will continue to remind me that it is not my job to fully comprehend God, but to follow him, and I can take comfort in the fact that I worship and serve a God who refuses to be constrained to the puny dimensions of my brain.
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual mentioned.

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