Addie Zierman

Third in my series on contemporary writers

A Facebook friend linked to An Open Letter to the Church: How to Love the Cynics, and I recognized right away a new voice in the chorus of God doesn't make all your problems go away at once. I followed her blog, and bought her book, When We Were On Fire, when it came out in October.

She grew up in the evangelical youth culture of the 90's, wanted to say and believe all the right things, then in her mid 20s found that didn't work out like she'd been told. Life was still hard even when you did all the things the church said you should do.

I recognized the rules, and clichés, and the unspoken assumption that transformation should be sudden and immediate and once-for-all. Do the right things and all will be well. But that’s not the Gospel, not the New Covenant, but the Old Covenant. What is the Gospel? God has provided a savior because we are not OK on our own. But we make it a new law. “Do these things and you will live.”

“O foolish American evangelicals,” Paul might write from heaven, “how you have turned aside from the Gospel to a different Gospel, one that is no Gospel at all.”

Surely  we haven’t paid enough attention to all of Scripture, to the promises God gave Abraham that took centuries to be fulfilled, the promises God gave to Moses and David that took centuries to be fulfilled. Why does God make promises knowing it will be a long time before he keeps them? But then, if God is always going to act quickly, would he make a promise? Why wouldn’t he just do it? I think the promises are given because there will be delay, and we must keep faith through the delay.

You feel your heart get still, and instead of the cynical voice in your head, you hear something else entirely. Something old and familiar. But there it is: Unmistakable. Beautiful. It sounds like faith and hope. It sounds most of all, like Love.
We don't get the happy ever after, all our problems solved in this life. But we get the assurance of being loved in the midst of this life, and the hope it will be better, because God is with us.

Sometimes the interesting thing in a book is not what it says but what it makes you think about. Reading Zierman's book, I asked why the evangelical church is so prone to cliché and platitude? I suspect a lot of it comes from our general culture. I think of one of my favorite books growing up, Great American Fighter Pilots of World War II. My favorite chapter came near the end, the story of the Marianas Turkey shoot. American engineers produced a fighter plane faster, more maneuverable and better armored than the Japanese Zero, and suddenly (it seemed) the American fighter pilot was on Easy Street, shooting down Zeros left and right, shrugging off the rare moments when a Zero got a shot at them. And that was the message, it may be hard going at first, it may require courage in those early days of defeat, but then end will come. The engineers will figure out what you need to make victory easy. So when that kind of thinking met the Gospel, of course I thought once you come to Christ, God's power will make everything easy. We grow up knowing in our American souls that real change has to be rapid and total. But what does Scripture show us? God's timeline involves long periods of waiting.

Ann Voskamp

Second in the ongoing series of influential contemporary writers

If I’d been thinking more critically, I might never have taken a second look at One Thousand Gifts. I saw it reviewed on Goodreads -- three of five stars. (A good review, or a “meh -- decent but not exciting” review?) But I took it as good, and looked it up on Amazon. And the preview got me.  Thanking God might be a dull concept, something I already know about, right? But it's hardly going to be a book of platitudes when the writer describes mourning the death of her sister in childhood, If she learns to thank God after that, she might have a story to tell. So I purchased the book to read on another trip to Uganda, and started reading it on the first long flight (Detroit to Amsterdam). On the one hand the concept still seemed routine, and the examples seemed repetitious. Surely one could easily complete a list of 1000 gifts in one sitting if you concentrated. Thanking God for every atom in your body would get you into the billions times billions.

But the book also got me thinking deeper, looking beyond the immediate. We had bulkhead seats, so I looked at the airplane door just in front of us. How detailed the manufacturing must be, and how often the air seal must be tested, for it to feel so routine to be flying through the air with an unbreathable and lethally cold near-vacuum just outside.

I reread it again on another trip to Uganda. Voskamp’s struggles with the meaning of her name, “Ann” meaning full of grace, and feeling she lacks grace resonates with me. I take up my list I’d started of named gifts and decide to continue. Restarting the list opens my eyes anew to the wonders around me -- renewed wonder at colors, and shapes. It is this world, and none other, that God has made, and it is good. God surely loves details, for he’s made so many of them.

Another significant thing I learned is to give thanks even for hard things. She writes of Jesus giving thanks for the bread at the Last Supper, thanking even for the suffering he will endure.

I realize too there is something old and familiar in Voskamp’s message. Back in 1975, I’d appreciated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recounting his discovery of God in his Gulag years. “I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: ‘Bless you, prison for having been in my life.’” So thank you, Ann Voskamp, for reminding me to thank.

The joy of the Lord is my strength

For years this was one of those clichés I knew but didn't really believe or think about. One of those texts printed on plaques and posters, vaguely soothing because it's familiar.

Then I discovered the paradox; how one could examine the promises of God, and also examine the messy circumstances of our lives, even if the two were in contrast there was hope as I cried out to God to fulfill his promises in my here and now. And I began experiencing a lot more joy than I'd been used to. This familiar but not understood phrase began to mean something. There is joy, and getting it, living in it enables you to cope with a lot. Like I wrote in the book, joy is like an emotional oven mitt. Open your heart to joy and it protects you from feeling burned by life.

Two days ago, I came across this verse in its context. Nehemiah 8:10. The people of Jerusalem have gathered together and Ezra the scribe is reading the law out loud. Many people are mourning, probably thinking of all the ways they had not kept the law. Nehemiah says don't mourn, rejoice, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. So even then, under the Law, there is grace. Don't be discouraged by what you have done or not done, rejoice that God is at work in you. How much more can we rejoice that God is in us, knowing Jesus has come and brought the New Covenant to us.

Lisa McKay Wolfe

I'm starting a new series of posts on writers I admire. 

In 2009 I saw My Hands Came Away Red, on our library’s new fiction shelf. I read the blurb and grabbed it, because it seemed different than the standard template for Christian novels: Protagonist far from God, life falls apart, comes to faith and life comes back together. I read it and loved how the heroine has hope without the standard “happy ending” – her teen mission trip ended in disaster, she still feels underwater but trusts she is rising.

I recommended it to my wife, then we recommended it to our church book club, who also liked it. It reminded me of the little known novel by Elisabeth Elliot No Graven Image. It too is a tale of a missionary effort ending in disaster where the heroine comes to find her worth in God, not in her missionary success.

 I've written about my love/hate relationship with the typical evangelical happy ending (first time, second time). My conclusion, Christian stories should have a happy middle -- we're still in a mess but we have hope in the mess. The conflict between God's promises and our actual circumstances drives us to prayer, and out of prayer comes calmness and peace. The image of Cori underwater, but rising, continues to evoke this concept.

In 2012 I started following the Lisa McKay blog, the struggles of expatriate life in Asia has a familiar tone. When Love at the Speed of Email comes out, I order a copy, among several books I picked to stock up of my Nook for three weeks in Uganda. On the way to Uganda, we sample the delights of our newest favorite place in Europe, the KLM elite lounge in Amsterdam; free food and drinks, and one last hour of free Internet access before Uganda where we have to pay by the megabyte to connect. One last chance to play a Facebook game, but I didn’t linger there very long. What else to check out while I have free access? I thought of Lisa’s blog – was there an update about her broken foot? I go there, and read about another medical hardship --husband Mike needs back surgery immobilizing him for a month. Then she writes about Romans 8 “All things work together for good.” The verse makes her angry, but also gives her delightful hope.

 “Yes!” I say in my heart, “She’s got it.” The promises are disappointing when we want instant results, but bring hope for long term needs. That’s why I wrote a book about Jeremiah’s promises of the New Covenant but kept it from having a typical evangelical happy ending, and why I titled it “Covenant of Hope.” That’s why I elaborated a doctrine I’ve called “Faith and Reality”, or “Faith and Circumstances;”  how we should scrutinize with great attention the promises of God and at the same time scrutinize with great attention the circumstances of our lives, and accept that tension between the two happens all the time.

So maybe I hadn’t been crazy to put Lisa McKay on my list of influential women writers after only one novel. And on the flight to Uganda, I dove right in to“Love at the Speed of Email” and was impressed with her thoughtful mind and her emotional honesty. And what better place to read Love at the Speed of Email than on an international flight?

Lisa got it again in writing about an informational banquet about the sex trade. How dare she worry about what to wear and enjoy the rich dessert so much when so many are suffering? And yet that is too easy a drama to make the story about. She highlights one statement from the presentation: “hope chases us,” and realizes that is the message, not hopelessness and cynicism because one is unable to fundamentally change societies to end this plague, but that individuals can find hope in their circumstances and choose to change, and other individuals can find hope in seeking to help other individuals. Husband Mike gets it too, rejoicing one afternoon in joy, a respite from the usual struggles of being viewed as a living vending machine or seeing suffering that you cannot begin to cure.

 So here’s to Lisa McKay Wolfe, one of the founding mothers of the league of women that now dominate my Feedly feed, holding up the gospel of the happy middle, that real life is complicated and messy, yet God is with us in it and we can find hope and joy.

What I wish I'd learned while I was single

Before meeting my wife, I had several lonely years. The loneliness was painful and I didn't know how to deal with it. When I look back on those years, I wish I could have understood that to feel loneliness is not a sign of failure. Sometimes I felt my faith had failed. Should I feel alone while "walking with Jesus?" Sometimes I felt God had failed me, when yet another potential romance ended. I knew I was timid in potential relationships, but I felt I had reached out, so why hadn't one of those worked?

If I could go back in time, I'd tell my earlier self to read Psalm 22; and realize it is not just a prediction of Jesus' suffering on the cross, but a real moment in David's life when he felt alone and cried out to God. He was not losing his faith, he was faithfully presenting to God his feelings of loneliness. God is with us, even when we don't have what we want, even when what we want is a good thing.

Dogs and the love of God

We said goodbye to our dog of eleven years back in June. These last two months two friends shared their grief at saying goodbye to a beloved canine. In the back of my mind I've had this thought that mourning a dog was excessive. "Just a dog, after all." But recently the thought came to me that people who mourn for their dogs are echoing the love of God. God loves us, gets emotional about us, and no angel dare say: "Why such a big deal. Just a human!"

I have another dog memory -- before Happy (2001 to 2013) we had Didi in the 90's. Didi was very affectionate, sometimes annoyingly so. We could never teach her not to jump up on us when we came home from the office. We'd come home, she'd bound forward to meet us, and jump on us with her eyes gleaming with happiness that we were home, and we'd say "No, no, down, Didi." Day after day. But I saw that her jumping was her expression of affection for us, that our coming home was the high point of her day. And my annoyance at being jumped on again would fade.

I was patient with Didi because I focused on her love for me, not on her failing to learn how I wanted to be loved. Much greater is the Father's love -- patient with us in our imperfections, loving us even when we do not love him.