Christianity

Before I was lost (or, notes on broken relationships and being the toxic person).

Here’s a confession: quarantine is not driving me crazy.

Certainly, it has made the craziness worse at times, but I was struggling long before the iron hammer of ECQ fell. I’ve alluded to this enough times in the past few blogs that I don’t think it’ll feel like it’s come out of nowhere when I admit that 2019 was hard.

In many ways, 2020 just feels like an extension of, well, things being hard. It’s not that I was prepared for the coronavirus crisis so much as it just felt like adding injury to injury. Like a “joke” I cracked after reading an article in The Economist. The article said, and I quote:

The longer a quarantine goes on, the greater the effect on people’s mental health. Another study, which also looked at the impact of sars, found that those who were quarantined for more than ten days were significantly more likely to display symptoms of PTSD than those confined for fewer than ten days.

– “Only Connect,” The Economist

To this, I replied: I already have PTSD, and, at this point, I don’t think I can notice if it’s getting worse.

(Brief explanation of something I may get into at a later date: Currently, my therapist–who is near the top of my very short list of favorite people–has diagnosed me with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Another therapist–referred to me because I wanted more talk therapy and less meds–thinks that diagnosis is bollocks and I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder…but before I could see that guy, quarantine happened.

Maybe that’s for the best.)

In short, I’ve been struggling to keep my head above water long before the events of Day 29 of Quarantine. To the point that struggling almost felt like second nature.

Around September of 2019, struggling was easy, almost noble. I was very into journaling then, privately mapping my emotions and thoughts in frantic fountain pen scribble in order to publicly appear like I was calm and wise and wisely put-together. I remember dressing up a lot, and looking back–not even very far back, just at my recent quarantine costumes–I’m beginning to see a correlation between how elaborate my outfits get and how stable I think I have to appear versus how stable I actually am.

I think I managed to keep up that illusion of stability until around November. The meds helped, but in the end my regular end-of-year seasonal depression won out.


Because I can’t trust myself to keep it together long enough to be earnest…I’ll keep it short instead: I lost a lot of close relationships in one fell swoop around August of 2019. Chief among them was the “break up” with a close friend and creative partner who, to me, was something like family.

Some days, I can find it in myself to be angry at him, at them. But most days, I’m sane enough to admit the part I played, admit my toxicity.

Most days, though, I’m still crazy enough to blame myself for most of it, even though my remaining friends (and my therapist, and the office life coach) tell me not to. Something will trigger it–a song, a word, a name on my Facebook news feed–and I’ll crumble, remembering what I lost and what I did to deserve being lost and Just. How. Lost. I feel without…everything.


Hillsong has this song called “As You Find Me,” and its debut performance was led by this guy called Tulele Faletolu. He was the lead singer on Hillsong’s smash hit (one of many smash hits), Still: “I will be still and know you are God.”

Except that Tulele hadn’t been still and known that God was God. In the time between Still and As You Find Me, he’d backslid after his brother had passed away. He became an alcoholic, chasing shadows and drowning answers elsewhere until, inevitably–because God is inevitable like that; He has dragged me back to Him kicking and screaming and swearing at Him to Let me go!–God brought him back.

So he came back.

And he was content, just to be back. No longer a worship leader, but home, in the way the Prodigal Son told his Father he’d be happy to be a servant in the house he was once upon a time supposed to own half of.

One year (or so?) later, Joel Houston writes a song for a Hillsong Conference. He pulls Tulele Faletolu, former worship leader, aside…and asks him to lead the debut performance of that song, live on a conference stage.

Tulele reads the lyrics and asks Joel, “Did you write this for me?”

If you listen to that first live recording, you can hear just how personal this song is for Tulele Faletolu. How earnest he sounds. You can hear it in the way he sings that first chorus, the slight wobble in his voice when he sings:

“I know I don’t deserve this kind of love.
But somehow this kind of love is who You are.”

You can hear it when, in the second chorus, he literally ad libs a long and mournful “I know!” and it’s beautiful and heartbreaking and no one but Tulele could have lead that song the way he did.

Sometimes we have to walk through the valleys of shadow, is all I’m saying.

When I lost…what I thought was everything, last year…that song kept me afloat. It spoke to me when I felt the most unlovable, like I could never get better, like I was doomed to destroy everything I touched.

Disgraced, asked to step away, without my beloved Ahia who had talked me off so many ledges in the years we’d known each other–corresponding to the peak of my years-long quarter-life crisis–the only thing I could repeat, for months and months and months as I got better then worse then better then worse again, were the words that Tulele Faletolu sang:

I was found before I was lost.
I was Yours before I was not.
Grace to spare for all my mistakes,
And that part just wrecks me.

And that part just wrecks me.

“Grace to spare for all my mistakes.” The thing about God, I’ve learned, is that when you think the world won’t, can’t forgive you, God will forgive you SO MUCH and SO HARD…that the world slowly ceases to matter.

I have no doubt the people I’ve had to leave behind think badly of me, have decided I was worth letting go of because, truth be told, the person I was then…she really was worth letting go of. She was toxic.

And I am still that girl, many, many times. There are days, when I look in the mirror, that I can see her. Days when I am constantly teetering on the verge of collapse. Days when I hiss and snarl and snap at the people I love most, pushing them away. Days when I fail to be a good human, much less a good Christian. Days that it’s hard to crawl back from, though I must, I must, because I said I would be better.

Each time, then, I repeat: “Grace to spare for all my mistakes.”

I do not excuse myself, but I give myself the permission to keep moving forward.

God has grace to spare for all my mistakes and so, as hard as it is, I decide to continue living with myself, believing that same Grace will make me worth that choice to continue.


Contrary to what seems like popular belief, it isn’t unholy to be happy. The verse in John (I smirk at the irony) reads, “For I have come to give you life, and life to the full.”

In Christian circles, there’s this thing called pruning: God taking you on a journey and taking away the things that weigh your steps down as you go. As the word suggests, it isn’t pleasant, which is maybe where the whole “Christianity is misery-inducing” shtick comes from.

I mean, it’s not wrong. Heck, I’ve written a lot of stuff in that vein. But. There’s a but.

Christianity, or maybe you want to think of it as growing up/maturing/finding yourself, is painful. You lose things you wish you didn’t. You lose yourself, for crying out loud. But after everything, Christianity (or growing up or maturing or finding yourself or however you want to refer to it) asks that you don’t be afraid to ask for joy.

My boss, Guita, once told me (in the throes of my nth mental breakdown that week), “You have to believe you can be happy too.


There’s this weird thing I’ve noticed, after playing Christian music on loop for the past few weeks in order to stay sane. It’s that, whether its hymns or contemporary Christian music, in general the saddest-sounding songs are the happiest ones lyrically. These songs start on a minor key, dark and slow and sad, and build to a painful, unresolved, but ultimately hopeful chorus. One that has no answers, but somehow doesn’t need them.

I circle back to the song I sang on Day 29 of quarantine, as I was falling apart for the more-than-29th time. There are no answers to singing, “You are good, good, always.” There are no answers…but there is a beautiful defiance.

When you feel like the world is a dumpster fire and you are burning along with it, declaring “You’re never going to let me down.” is just plain stubborn, rebellious hope. I am worn and broken and sad as all get out, but I am not beaten. The world cannot defeat this hope, because God has overcome the world.

I am sad, but to (literal?) hell with sad. “He is good, good, always.” He was good before I was lost. He is good even while I am lost. He will be good after I am done with this “lost” business, whenever that will be.

Grace to spare for all my mistakes.

I’ll probably make a lot more mistakes this quarantine season. And after quarantine season. I’m going to need a lot of grace.

Thank God He has enough–more than enough–to spare.

1 Timothy 4:12: scattered thoughts on being young and setting an example.

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this verse lately.

When I was younger, I read it as a vindication, something I could use to beat old people on the head with (not literally, of course) when they patronized me for being young and ignorant. The NIV translation is even more effective for this sort of thing; it reads: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young…” and that “Don’t let” feels forceful, powerful, defiant in the hands of an angry teenager who thinks that grown-ups just don’t understand.

I’m twenty-five now, and while in some ways, I’m still that angry teenager–I think they call it “moody artist” now that I’m closer to thirty than my teenage years–I’d like to think I have a better grasp of what that verse is supposed to mean, one that’s made me less likely to use it as an immediate and violent comeback, and more as a call to–forgive my choice in words–play the long game.

At a meeting I was in last week, someone said something that stuck with me. They said, and I paraphrase: “If you aren’t married, with children, in debt, and struggling to keep a business afloat, you have no right to complain.

The angry teenager in me couldn’t help herself: I retorted with, “Try living with a mental illness.” This sparked a mini-argument where I, the lone twenty-something notorious for being emotionally unstable, was pitted against a table full of “adults” who were, by most standards, further along in life and life experience than I was. Most of them chose not to engage with either me or the original speaker, but enough was said that I left the meeting angry.

That I am, to be honest, still fighting that anger, even now.

In the initial rush of “righteous indignation” after that exchange, 1 Timothy 4:12 popped into my head, and I was tempted to wield the initial half of it as a weapon against that old enemy: grown-ups who just don’t understand. But before I could march over to the person and “rebuke” them, I suddenly remembered the second half: “…but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

Timothy was a young leader in charge of shepherding a multi-generational church in a culture that placed the old above the young in status. In this situation, Paul does not ask Timothy to use his calling or his position to exert his authority. Instead, he asks Timothy to set an example.

A friend and I had a conversation recently about the things he didn’t like in the music industry, one that boiled down to me encouraging him to make the change by being everything he felt the indie scene should be. We see posts about this on the internet all the time–be the change you wish to see in the world, and all that–but lately it’s hit home that the best way to fight things you don’t like is not to rant or shout them down: it’s to just be different.

I don’t often feel like a good example of what is like to be a Christian or a leader. Actually, scratch that: I never feel like a good example of either of those things. I will be the first to admit that I can be impulsive, stubborn, arrogant, and self-righteous: things that lately I’m becoming more aware of. Heck, I know that my initial violent reaction was, for all of my good intentions, colored with self-righteousness. And yet the charge is clear: to ensure that no one “despises me for my youth,” I need to overcome all these things and set that example in speech (good luck), in conduct (for real?!), in love (oh boy), in faith (you’re kidding, right?), and in purity (does a ring count?).

Funny, though, that this realization feels less like a rebuke and more like an encouragement. I know what I am, and what I’m not, but lately that knowledge has stung less. When God points out my self-righteousness, my anger, or my pride, I don’t feel like he’s condemning me at all. Instead, it’s like dance class, when the teacher tells me my back isn’t straight yet or I need to watch my turns: an implicit acknowledgment that we will get there, together, eventually.

I got angry at what that person said in my meeting last week, because it felt like someone was invalidating my struggles, telling me my problems were not “real” in comparison to more grown-up concerns like taking care of kids or working on one’s marriage. But looking back, how many times have I invalidated someone else’s problems because they weren’t to the scale of my own? How often have I worn my own issues–child of a broken family, bullied throughout grade-school and highschool, rejected by relatives and peers alike, struggling with mental unwellness–as badges of honor, as marks of experience that somehow make my opinions and perspectives and issues “more valid?”

I’m still sorting out my anger. That’s probably why I wrote this, to be honest: because I don’t think it’s right to say that if you’re not married, with kids, in debt, and running a business then you have no right to have your problems be seen as real problems. But I will be the first to say my way of handling the issue–picking a fight in front of a bunch of other people, turning it into me vs. the grown-ups who don’t understand–did not help things. I recently finished reading Wikichurch by Pastor Steve Murrell, and in it he emphasizes how generations need to labor together, but it’s hard to when one side is saying, “You’re inexperienced, ignorant, whiny babies who have had everything handed to you because of our hard work,” while the other is all, “You’re obsolete dinosaurs who ruined everything, and now we have to fix it.”

Picking fights won’t help. Beating people on the head with the first half of 1 Timothy 4:12 won’t help. Instead, the calling is to be better, even when the truth is you are an inexperienced, ignorant twenty-five year old with a truckload of issues and bitterness and character flaws.

But hey, as Paul says in another letter, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Here’s to, hopefully, learning to set better examples.

 

Seeing Wonder: On Engaging, Grace, and Believing in Love

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Source: Warner Brothers Pictures

Every year, our church does a series of sermons on the idea of discipleship and engaging our community. It’s a regular “tradition” in the church calendar, varying only in the Bible verses we’re led to reflect on in our small groups. This year, we pulled from the life of Peter, with the topic of engaging being linked to Peter’s ministering to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. Our small group material in particular focused on Acts 10:9-16, which is about the vision Peter has before he’s asked to see Cornelius. (TL;DR, In the vision, Jesus reveals that we are called to reach out to all people, building on the Great Commission of “…going into all the world.”)  

It was a really great message, but while my fellow small group mates seemed absolutely hyped on God’s mission, ready to go out there and reach out to people and do some good in the world, all I felt was…resistance. 

Confession: I have never been good at engaging, and every year when my church does this message I sort of…tune out.  I tell myself that, as an introvert, God surely doesn’t intend for me to actually go out there and directly reach out to people.  Nah, let them come to me; I won’t go first. I never go first.

That night, in small group, I realised these were all excuses I was telling myself. The reason for my reluctance wasn’t so much that I was an introvert. No, it was something that ran a little deeper than that.

It was because, when I was twenty-three, I decided I didn’t like people.

This wasn’t some sort of impulsive thought: “Oh, I don’t think I like people today.”  No, this was a conscious choice on my part: I would not, could not like people, and I would not trust or engage with them. It helped that I was a fan of Game of Thrones, which is extremely good at portraying the dark, twisted roots of human motivation. It also helped that around that time, everyone was talking about the fate of Jon Snow: stabbed by people he trusted, by his “brothers,” and left to die.

Something that felt a lot like that—and I won’t go into details—happened to me.  This wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst time.  And so, after filing a very long leave from work and stewing alone in my room for several afternoons, I made my decision: I did not like people.

And people did not deserve to know me.

From that moment, I made a conscious effort to start…closing myself off. Some of it made sense: I get a bit anxious in large crowds, am not fond of small talk, and do not like partying.  Again: introvert.  But other things had less to do with introversion and more to do with the satisfaction of pushing away people I did not trust. Who had hurt me (consciously or unconsciously). Who I believed would hurt me again. Years of being bullied in grade school and high school had already made me a little wary of friendships, but this was the first time I was outright refusing them, putting up walls and putting on masks.  It made me feel like I was taking control of my life.  It made me feel good.  And if I ever felt isolated, well, it was better to stand alone than to be fighting alongside and for people who, in the next breath, could be turning their swords on me.

Essentially, I was enacting a closed-door policy on my life, which, as you can guess, does not go along well with the whole Christian commission to engage with the community and care for people.  But I figured, I’d find ways to get around it. I served in church. I still held small groups. I volunteered for orgs that did good work. And I had friends, people I would talk to online even if I avoided meeting them in person.  And I cared about these friends…

…but not as much as I cared about myself.  Real talk: if any of them were in the way of a passing truck, I do not trust that I’d have pushed them out of the way.  If it was them or me, I might have chosen me.

The world—and Game of Thrones—paints this “me first” mentality as wise.  Encourages you to lose your faith in people, to “…kill the girl and let the woman be born.”  Only the naive believe in the fundamental good of humanity; growing up means realising the truth, that man is wolf to other man and that you can trust no one because the more you care, the weaker you are. The more you love, the weaker you are. Because one day the inevitable will happen: those closest to you will either turn on you or leave. Or both.

And so I did not engage, because I did not want to care about people who would turn on me or leave. I kept people at arms length, stayed behind walls, ate at my desk, refused invitations with the bright and beaming smile that was both sword and shield to me.  This was self-defence, I told myself, even as it felt—and kept feeling—wrong. 

Small group was the first blow to this worldview.  The second was Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure: while I am a geek, I’m not a comic book geek.  I have watched zero of the Marvel blockbusters (despite some of them garnering critical acclaim), and, up until recently, had the same batting average for DC. But when a post came out talking about how Wonder Woman seemed like it was being set up to fail at the box office (and thus prove stories about empowered women did not sell), my baby feminist heart could not handle it. I told my mum we had to book tickets to watch this movie when we came out, which we promptly did.

It was, in a word, a wonder.

While I have watched/read female-centered franchises before (I was a huge fan of The Hunger Games, and in Game of Thrones I cheered when the last season featured strong female-centric plotlines), Wonder Woman was…different.  The movie felt so unapologetically idealistic, so full of empathy and tenderness even as it celebrated the superhuman strength of its lead.  It was the total antithesis of the gritty cynicism that seemed the highlight of current male superhero mythology and even my mainstay of GoT.  Wonder Woman did not sugarcoat how dark people could be—“Be careful in the world of men, Diana,” says Queen Hippolyta, early in the film, “They do not deserve you.”—but without completely absolving mankind of that darkness, it still presented a reason to hope.  Yes, people are cruel and easily-corrupted, cowardly and twisted and undeserving, but, as Diana says in the climax of the film, “It’s not about [what people] deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

Despite the fact that I am an avowed cynic, I do believe in love. In fact, that belief is at the core of who I say I am: as a  Christian, my very existence is founded on the idea of grace, of receiving a love I did not deserve.  I lash out at the people I think hurt me, but the truth is I too am just as cruel, just as unforgiving, just as—or rather, more so–twisted and bitter and dark…and Someone I did not deserve came to fight for me.  To save me, even when I was not worthy of saving.  The very essence of Christianity is that no one deserves anything: love is a gift. Love is a grace. And when you receive it, you can’t help but give it away.

“Only Love will truly save the world.” says Diana. In a world that is hurting and broken and twisted every which way, Love is humanity’s great hope. And while it is tempting to keep safe from the world, stay behind my walls to avoid getting hurt, “How will I be if I stay?”

It was this message that hit home for me and sent me out of the theatre in tears. The truth is, considering the darkness we are capable of, none of us really deserves kindness or grace or an open hand. But it really isn’t about “deserving.”  Instead, it’s about what we believe in, and what I believe in—what I quite loudly shout that I believe in—is Love. A Love big enough to save the world, to cover over a multitude of dark and twisted and awful. A Love that was big enough to save me from myself, and to keep on saving me.

It’s easy to think of yourself as a victim, when you’re hurt, but the truth is the world is hurting. “We all have our own battles,” says another character in Wonder Woman. We all have our own darkness, and at the core of that darkness is pain.  The difference lies in what you decide to do with it.

And, as another of my all-time favourite characters, the Twelfth Doctor, puts it, the right thing to do is this:

“…do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight till it burns your hand, and you say this: No one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will have to feel this pain. Not on my watch!

That is what engaging means: taking the pain, holding it tight, and deciding to fight it instead of letting it own you. And the way to fight it is Love, is sharing Love instead of keeping it all to yourself, hiding it behind walls and never letting anyone close. 

There are people I say I care about. There are people out there who I say matter to me. And there are people out there I don’t like. Who i don’t want to care about. Either way, they all need what I know: Love.  And so, even if the prospect terrifies me, even if I’m not some superhuman with armour and a shield and a magic lasso, I leave my island. I step out behind the wall. I stretch out my hand, and I let my guard down, and I have faith that, despite the pain…I will see grace.

I will see Wonder.

~aRT~

P.S.

For more comprehensive (and awesome) reviews/reflections on Wonder Woman, check out:

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/30/15709572/wonder-woman-review-gadot
https://www.bustle.com/p/wonder-womans-message-of-love-cant-be-repeated-enough-right-now-62157 – Got the blog’s featured image from here, by way of Google Image Search.
http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/wonder-woman-is-the-hero-we-need-but-maybe-not-the-hero-we-deserve-9481938
http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/june/why-we-need-wonder-woman.html