How Kid from ‘Chrono Cross’ reminds me of the church

“Everyone is hurt and separated…
Inexperienced and incomplete…
However, by living as such, we may change for the better into something bigger…
Something more…gentle…”
— Riddel, “Chrono Cross”

I have a lot I want to say about all the things I observe in the church that distress and demoralize me, but the emotional (and largely fruitless) labor of having to explain past wounds and construct arguments for change saps my time, my energy and my psychological integrity.

The church’s problems go so much deeper than intellectual disputes about theology. Propositional arguments in a vacuum won’t solve the problems. We all bring our own history with wounds that no one but ourselves — and, we believe, the Lord, who is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15) — quite understands. There are no easy answers to fix it all. We can and should address areas of weakness that need improvement, but there’s still some level of brokenness we have to live with until the kingdom’s consummation.

I plan to write more about my concerns, but for this post, I want to do something different.

When I was about 15, John Eldredge published the book Epic. It’s short and easy to read, but surprisingly difficult to summarize well. It’s one of the most influential books on my worldview. It filled me with a passion for the gospel by pointing out the similarities between it and the fictional stories we enjoy. It’s a short and easy read, and I highly recommend it.

Ever since reading Epic, I pick up on parallels between the gospel and the fictional stories. The more parallels I can draw, the more compelling I’ll find the story.

A story containing a stunning amount of parallels to the Bible’s story of salvation is the story found in the video games Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. I’m not going to write about all of them here, but I want to talk about the character of Kid, and how she’s a literary type of the church.

(Even though the games have been around for several years, I feel compelled to note the following analysis DOES contain major end-game spoilers for their shared story. If you haven’t played or watched a play-through of both games, this post won’t mean as much to you. I can understand why you wouldn’t want to spend hours consuming this story — it’s not going to speak to everyone the same way. For me, it’s a spiritually nourishing activity.)

If you know Kid, comparing her to the church might strike you as offensive at first. She can be likable at times, but she’s tough, scrappy, quick to toss insults, scantily clad, and out for vengeance. She is said to be part of a gang of thieves called the Radical Dreamers, and while no other evidence of this group is found, she is skilled at thievery. She takes a liking to Serge (the player’s character and protagonist) and allies with him, but routinely treats him with disrespect. She seems sure of herself most of the time, but as the story progresses, we learn that she’s plagued by cynicism and loneliness. “I’ve wandered the world and experienced so much pain just to get by…” she tells Serge. “No one was there to help me. I was always alone. If you ask me, the idea of guardian angels watching over us all the time… that’s a load of rubbish.”

And that’s not even counting about half the game, when she’s not even there because she’s out of commission for one reason or another. Kid is repeatedly assaulted by Lynx, the game’s antagonist who is always haunting Serge but going after her. First she is poisoned by Lynx’s knife. Though she recovers, it’s not long until Lynx tricks her, wounds her again (somehow she’s healed again) and then deceives her into siding with him against Serge. At one point, the misguided Kid and Lynx attack Serge and his followers, forcing them to retreat. When Serge finally faces Lynx, Lynx has rendered Kid unconscious. She briefly awakens after Serge defeats Lynx, but she’s filled with incredible pain and a desire to destroy everything with the dark power of the Frozen Flame, which she has been seeking and which now is within her grasp. Another character takes the Frozen Flame from her, and her soul withdraws into her past, unable to reawaken.

Here it is that we finally see the beginning (she does reveal some of this story in an earlier scene, depending on a choice you make in the game) of Lynx’s assaults on her, and why it is that she’s such a rough character. Kid is a child with no known family. She lives with several orphaned children under the guardianship of Lucca, a time-traveling hero who helped save the future in Chrono Trigger. Lynx is after the Frozen Flame for malevolent purposes, and he believes Lucca can break the lock currently making the Flame inaccessible. Lucca steadfastly refuses to do this, so Lynx burns Lucca’s home with her adopted children inside. Serge comes upon this point in Kid’s past and rescues her, though Lucca is killed. This is when Kid seeks revenge.

In a heartbreaking scene that makes me cry every time I watch it, Kid, as a child, weeps aloud to Serge while they watch her home burn. “Why…? Why did this happen!? … I’m going to be left all on my own again, aren’t I? Everybody I have ever loved has gone far, far away…” Serge is then pulled back to the present, leaving little Kid alone. “No! Come back!!! Don’t leave me… Please, no! Don’t leave me all alone!”

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Serge comforts Kid after saving her life in the past. (I’m sorry I’ve lost track of who the artist was; I would be happy to add your name and a link to your site if this is yours.)

Then we see Kid awaken in the present, finally reunited with Serge. She explains that whenever she is in life-threatening danger, she loses consciousness and wakes up somewhere safe and unharmed, with no memory of what happened. “It’s happened to me plenty o’ times in the past, so it’s nothin’ to worry about,” she tells Serge nonchalantly. So Kid has been in life-threatening danger several times, yet she somehow manages to survive.

For being one of the “good guys,” Kid is kind of a failure. She’s tough and smart, but more often than not, she’s behaving badly, almost dead, or fighting for the wrong side. Some partner!

But despite all this — Kid is the one chosen to join Serge to help save the world. Belthasar, who (we later find out) organized the mission, names his objective “Project Kid” after her. It is Kid who is tasked with traveling back in time to save the young Serge from drowning. And it is Kid who is meant to fight alongside Serge and, ultimately, be saved by him.

At the very end of the game, Kid finally gets answers to the questions of who she truly is, why she’s always being assaulted, and why she’s always been alone. She is hurt, separated, inexperienced and incomplete. It’s true that Project Kid is about saving the world, but it’s also about her own liberation and restoration.

Kid is the “daughter-clone” of Schala, a long-ago princess of history’s greatest kingdom who had fallen into the darkness beyond time and a fate worse than death. It is Schala — as she was before she fell — who Kid is truly meant to be. Lynx wants to hurt Kid as Belthasar wants to restore Schala.

How can these parallels NOT jump out at me?

I am reminded of the image in Revelation 12: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Depending on your interpretation, this woman could refer to the church or to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Since Mary is part of the church and can be used to represent the church, both interpretations work for our purpose here.

This woman gives birth.

Kid saves Serge from drowning as a child. Mary doesn’t save Jesus’ life, but she does give birth to him and protects him in his childhood, which is a life-preserving activity. Kid isn’t Serge’s mother, but she’s his main partner in the mission. Because of Mary’s close connection with Jesus, and the necessity of her work for his early life as a human, she can be thought of as a partner with him in mission. Indeed, many Christians accord Mary a kind of foremost position among the followers of Jesus throughout history because of her partnership with him in this way. Following Mary’s example, the rest of the church partners with Christ by accepting his commission.

This woman’s child is opposed by a dragon, but because her child is protected, the dragon goes after her.

Lynx seems to have it out for Kid, but it’s really Serge he wants to confront. He goes after Kid because she’s Serge’s partner. Sometimes Lynx just wants her out of the way because she’s helping Serge; other times Lynx purposely hurts Kid because he wants to hurt Serge. Similarly, the church is an entity that is continually “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed” — not to mention repeatedly straight-up assaulted. Following this pattern, many Christians believe Mary suffered in a particular way because of her partnership with Jesus.

This woman is repeatedly attacked, but she survives. The dragon continues to make war on her children.

Some power comes to Kid’s aid every time she’s near death, preserving her life. And despite some terrible odds (from a human point of view), the church has survived to this day. Many Christians think of Mary as the mother of the church, who continues to suffer assaults around the world.

By now, you can see where I’m going with this.

The church has many shining moments, but more often we’re pretty much a hot mess.

I don’t have to spend much time on Facebook until I see reports of some horrific persecution of Christians in some place like North Korea, India or Nigeria. Much closer to home, it seems like the majority of my Christian friends are running after some heresy or another (that is, if they’re not downright flouting the instruction given to us by God), or they’re just behaving badly and slinging some ugliness. We keep repeating our horrid history of infidelity, tearing each other apart, and being a stain on Jesus’ name. It all just makes me wanna walk away from my computer (or smartphone) and scream.

Why did this happen? Why don’t you come back now, God? Why don’t you fix it all? How are we supposed to live like this?

In the final moment before Serge and Kid enter the darkness beyond time to free Schala, Kid gives a passionate speech that sounds vaguely like a remixed version of Mary’s magnificat in Luke 1.

“C’mon, Serge, me mate! You don’t wanna keep the girl waiting any longer… She’s been waitin’ for you, and only you! And for over ten thousand years, I might add! If the world’s gonna be destroyed, then let it be destroyed! If history is gonna be changed, then let it bloody well be changed! I’ll show you what Radical Dreamers really dream about!”

Kid now has the radical dream of her own salvation. Of course, “the girl” is Schala, but she’s also Kid. And her liberation is glorious.

I keep coming back to the Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross story because I need to keep being reminded of the redemption waiting for us. These days I look around at the church, and much of what I see leaves me thinking it’s a radical dream indeed to believe our redemption is even possible. Can the blood of our incarnate God have — as we claim — such stain-removing power to clean this mess? Can we, in fact, be preserved alive through its full effects?

Our radical dream, our passionate hope is that yes, we can be salvaged through Jesus’ victory over death. Right now it feels to me more like a dream and a hope than a certain confession.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-24)

Even we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit are groaning and hoping for redemption, Paul writes. We cycle through confessing our faith and marveling at our own confession. I love the song “Redemption, Passion, Glory” by Dizmas, how it represents this cycle:

This is redemption
This is salvation
This is our mission
This is our passion

What love is this, that you would die for me?
What love is this, that you would die for me?

Let’s start this over and we’ll see just where this love will take us
Your presence shows us grace right here in our own meditation

Creation finds your mercy
Redemption, passion, glory
Creation finds salvation
Redemption, passion, glory

I confess “one holy, catholic, apostolic church,” but I’m having a hard time finding my place in it. People like Kid don’t seem like good partners. What love is this, indeed?

In Mystics and Misfits, Christiana N. Peterson features this quote:

The Church is the cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church. — Dorothy Day quoting Romano Guardini, The Long Loneliness

These days, I’m taking a very hard look at how to distinguish between this dissatisfaction that is meant to be momentarily endured and legitimate objections of conscience that warrant the self-imposed excommunication I’m currently living with. How do I reconcile Jesus’ parable of the good seed and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) with Paul’s admonition to “purge the evil person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)? Have I made my conscience into a god I cannot appease?

Meanwhile, I take some comfort in thinking that if human game writers can figure out a way to redeem Kid, God knows how to redeem me. All I can do is to be as faithful as I know how to be right now, and trust in his mercy to make up the deficit.

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I almost died, but I didn’t

I keep wanting to say this has been the worst year of my life, but that’s not quite true. This has been the hardest year of my life, but I have been compensated by more of God’s presence and revelation.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t want this sorrow to give way to joy right now!

I desperately wanted to have a church home by Advent — the start of our new year. Now Advent begins tomorrow, and I don’t think a miracle is going to happen. I have cried a lot about this, particularly the past couple weeks. I didn’t really think it could happen, but I was still hoping.

The discussion of why I can’t find a church home is a long and complicated one, and it really deserves its own blog post. I have begun working on one, but I am letting it sit for a while, because I know it’s going to offend pretty much everybody, and I want to give it extra consideration.

The short version is that I can’t, in good conscience, take communion anywhere I can find around here because it seems the vast majority of Christians (that I can find) are affirming or tolerating things I believe are sinful. Like I said, this really needs a whole post of its own to unpack, but I’m not going to do that right now.

My point is that — between losing my church and being unable to find a new one — I am miserable.

After I moved back to my parents’ in July, I tried to visit as many churches as I could after searching on Google and looking at their websites. In September, I gave up. I was so sick. I no longer felt safe driving. I could hardly walk anymore. My mind was becoming slower and fuzzier. I was slowly starving to death.

On Sept. 22, I had a consultation with a surgeon. She told me I couldn’t afford to wait much longer, and we scheduled the removal of parts of my small intestine for Sept. 27. I was 84 lbs. and becoming dehydrated, so my mom pushed to get me admitted to the hospital Sept. 25, where I spent the time before surgery sucking on ice cubes and frozen Gatorade cubes.

Part of me hoped I would go into surgery and not come back. I was despairing of ever being able to find full Christian fellowship. The last thing I remembered was a surgery team member trying to cover my nose and mouth with a plastic tube, and me gasping for the air flowing in around the edges. I heard him say he was going to get a smaller one.

But four hours later, I came back. Almost a quarter of my small intestine was gone. I had a giant wound on my belly. I couldn’t move my legs, and I had a tube sucking out gastric juices through my nose so they wouldn’t pass through. My heart rate peaked at 150, and they loaded my veins with fluid to bring it down. My dad later told me I looked half-dead lying there.

But I didn’t die. One by one, the tubes came out, and I gradually was able to walk, drink and eat again. I came home Saturday, Oct. 7. After having a suppressed appetite for months, my hunger mechanism reactivated, and I regained 20 lbs in one month.

I feel like I always want to eat food now. I’m always snacking and munching and dining; I can never get enough for long, it feels like.

I haven’t participated in the Lord’s Supper since July.

And I keep stuffing my face. And buying stuff. Because inside I feel like a weightless phony Christian filled with hot air instead of God’s Spirit.

It makes me wish I had died when I had the chance. But I didn’t. God didn’t want me to. Which means he has something good waiting for me. Sooner rather than later, I hope.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). That is the consolation I’m furiously clinging to.

It is rather appropriate for Advent, I suppose.

But, Jesus, all I want for Christmas is you.

Playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/1215102563/playlist/5pIUXx3edmpGq08WzZThmB

We were worthy of assault

It was the liturgy that first warmed my heart.

I tried to be cautious, not to fall in love too quickly. How long should one wisely wait to call a church one’s home? I still don’t know the answer to that question. I thought the three-ish months of spring 2014 was enough before I posted the first cautious, positive-but-non-committed reference to Plow Creek Mennonite Church (actually, it was just a reference to Plow Creek Bakery) on social media. Then a week later, another post referencing Plow Creek Farm’s delicious strawberries.

But the fact is, my heart was aglow from the first moment one Sunday in March 2014 when I settled into the beat-up metal folding chair with the dark blue Mennonite Hymnal: A Worship Book sitting on it. In a matter of less than two hours, I tentatively decided there was something good worth at least a second drive of 40 minutes one way to this extremely awkward church of 20 or so hippie-ish farmers in the boonies who worshipped in a questionable-smelling building and ate fellowship meals on the most unsanitary tables I’d ever encountered.

It was love at first sight, despite my valiant attempts to moderate my feelings. Christiana wrote a good post describing how great and un-great we are (were). I don’t feel the need to repeat what she said, but if you want to know more about the church I loved, read it.

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“Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” Palm Sunday dance

There were about 18 months of delightful fellowship, during which time some new people joined us. The few Sundays when all 30 of us managed to assemble were great shows of triumph in my eyes. We were the scrappiest little outpost for Jesus’ eternally victorious kingdom. I didn’t think we were perfect, of course, but we were good. There would always be room to improve, sure — but we were doing it right.

I saw what I wanted to see.

Month after month, we shared our homemade bread and juice from the grapes on our land in a common cup formed by one of us. We moved through the nourishing cycle of the church’s calendar, telling each other the story of our redemption and future glory in Jesus Christ, our death-beating God. Our liturgy was not plagued by the “worship wars” — we made room for faith formation old, new and everywhere in between. Our children unwittingly yielded stunning insights about the kingdom we were to inherit. (Precious “kids’ time!” How close you brought us to the New Jerusalem!)

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God gave our kids insights that blew me away sometimes

After those 18 months, I got a new job that allowed me to move anywhere I wanted. I declared my desire to move onto Plow Creek’s jointly owned property. I wanted to take our relationship to the next level. I was courageously scorning the world’s disapproval to embrace the wild, dark, organic-smelling, bug-and-spider-infested, devoid-of-any-good-pizza-places boonies I’d always said I’d never move to. The call of my King was unmistakable, and communion with him was better than anything.

Two years after falling in love, I euphorically pronounced my formal membership commitment to Plow Creek Mennonite Church on Easter Sunday 2016. Perhaps I’ll never have the words to describe my joy, my relief, my passion that day.

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Our Common Building will no longer be ours, but the kingdom for which it stands will never pass away.

And then… I slowly grew conscious of our problems. By late summer, some of the newer people were talking about leaving. I was sad, but had to accept it in the end.

I still remember what I call the last good night: On November 8, 2016 — the night of the U.S. presidential election — a group from Plow Creek and our sister congregation, Willow Springs Mennonite Church, shared communion in my living room, pledging anew our fidelity to the kingdom of God regardless of whatever non-good news the election results yielded. The honor of facilitating our meal and exhorting these beloved people was mine — a memory I’ll cherish for life.

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The leftover bread after communion on election night

On November 9, in the immediate aftermath of the aforementioned non-good news, more of our people announced they were planning to leave our fellowship. This blindsided me. I had no warning. My heart broke, and the resulting pain persisted — through Advent, through Christmas, past Epiphany — until it transformed into numb gloom sometime in mid-February.

During this time, we lost three of our oldest members to literal, physical death. A cloud of death was over us all. There would be no recovery. We were witnesses to the grieving process of our own dissolution. This process included the flow of many tears and sharp words — precious testaments in themselves to the familiarity we had cultivated — as we futilely tried to resist speaking the reality of our ending.

By Easter 2017, we were no longer meeting as a congregation. Only one year after I had joyfully claimed membership, we were effectively finished. Our energy had failed.

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Our last Christmas Eve, 2016

How can I describe the path that led us to pronounce the reality of our undoing? Some things are only for us to try to make sense of. God knows I’m the least qualified to analyze it, since I of all of us know the least about it. The truth is that there were significant problems among us long before I ever sat down in that folding chair. Part of the story is that we were victims of our human frailty. The part of the story I’m clinging to is that we were targeted by enemy forces because we had something worth targeting. And in his inscrutable sovereignty, God allowed them this victory over us, for the ultimate purpose of his glory, the design of which we may or may not one day know. Amen.

Did not God allow his enemies a victory over his own Son? If he then gave Jesus a greater victory, our hope for sharing in that greater victory is in our unity with Jesus. Beloved people, that is something no enemy can take away. Now is the time to demonstrate our faith in that Resurrection victory is real.

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The farm team planning creation care farming operations

I have no hard feelings toward any of us. I refuse to. That would accomplish absolutely nothing, and it would be just one more victory for the enemy. They won’t get that from me.

Nonetheless, for me — I can’t speak for the others — there remains a sense of shame. Particularly because my job and all its accompanying networking centers around the church. Summer is church convention season, so I’m meeting all kinds of church people, and naturally one of their first questions is, “What congregation are you from?” And again and again I have to pronounce the hideous confession, “Well, I’m church-homeless right now.” And then, particularly because of my age, I feel the urge to clarify that I’m not one of “those millennials” who’ve “given up on church.” So then I have to say, “My church is dissolving.” And as long as I don’t really think about what I’m saying, and the questioner doesn’t press too much, I can get through it. But the fact is it’s a humiliating admission that doesn’t look good.

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Our prayer group petitioned earnestly for spiritual renewal

Deeper than that, though — even if my job were unrelated to the church — is the fact that being the church is central to my identity. I love Jesus. As part of his church, I’m betrothed to him. To be out of fellowship with any congregation is to be outside of his plan for us. The alternative is the desert. I know what it’s like — I’ve been here before. It’s terrible. My spirit recoils at being lost out here again.

Yet here I am, in the church-homeless desert. I’m disoriented and demoralized. I don’t know where I’ll get communion next, and that not-knowing is a poverty to my soul. To add to the upheaval, Plow Creek’s dissolution has precipitated the sale of my house, so I have to move from my physical home as well.

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Love in action: Chopping wood to keep each other from freezing in wintertime

It hit me tonight that I’m moving out in one week, and this means separation for real. A last good-bye is coming sometime this week. It hit me hard. I wept hard. But what’s really been impressed on me this past week is that this is the church’s story, past and present. Our story is one of being assaulted and torn apart. My little story is (so far) one of the much milder ones. I wrote in a previous post how our counselor, Allan Howe, compared our experience to that of the martyrs.

It is really disappointing to see people disappearing and dying. It’s a heavy time; there’s no denying it. It’s very tough. I’m helped by looking over Christian history and seeing others who went through something like this. When I first saw this kind of church, I felt like I had met what I believed in. I was fresh out of college and could hardly believe what I was seeing — sharing solidarity week after week. We’re in the heritage of the martyrs and folks who were very lonely and sometimes killed. That happened in renewal movements like the Anabaptists and lots of other Christians. We’re in very good company.

At the time, I thought he was being a bit hyperbolic. Maybe he was. But also maybe not. Revelation 12 is our story — not our full story; thanks be to God — but it is our story.

So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 12:13-17)

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You can destroy us, but you can never undo our story.

Over the past several months, I’ve been writing a lot about our assurance of victory. I’ve been clinging to that because I need to. And it’s all true. But equally true is the present darkness arrayed against us. We are at war, and our history all too clearly displays that we’re the weaker party. Whether by brute-force extermination, schisms and heresies, sedation to complacent inertia, or strength-sapping exhaustion, our enemy has gotten plenty of victories. And the more we love Jesus and pursue fidelity to him, the more we become a target for the enemy. That is our reality right now.

I absolutely believe we had something good among our weakness, something rich among our poverty, something precious among our simplicity — some kingdom-y excellence our enemy wanted destroyed. Just think of how many victories we must have come away with in our time to warrant that kind of attention. It makes me smile a tiny bit as I feverishly wait to taste the body and blood of the Lord through a mouthful of desert sand.

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Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.

Why I’m upset right now (the short version)

Here’s the bottom line: I want to live near my family* AND be part of a theologically/ethically solid (English-speaking) Mennonite church, and I’m really upset because it seems I can’t have both things.

*Also, I need to find myself some kind of family who’s going to be there for me when my parents are gone, but I’m not willing to become sexually active in order to find commitment. 

I was talking with my brother, Frank, about my relational frustrations, and he said, “It sounds like what you want is heaven — the New Jerusalem.”

Yep. Someone gets it.

At some point I need to blog more extensively about these things, but I just don’t have the energy right now.

  • I have to move in the next few months. I don’t know where.
  • Being church-homeless is horrible. I have no idea where I’m going to participate in the Lord’s Supper from month to month, and that uncertainty is … I’m running through my mental thesaurus now and can’t find the word I want to describe it. It’s very bad and sad and hurty. And debilitating and demoralizing and hungry and deserty and screamy. (Not to mention the various other ways church-homelessness negatively affects my access to/enrollment in other church-centered things.)
  • Outside of my parents, there’s no one I can really count on to be there for me in any kind of committed way. And that’s also debilitating and demoralizing and screamy.
  • As of this morning, I weigh 95 lbs., the lowest ever in my adult life. I don’t have the energy to do the things my spirit wants to do.

You bet I want the New Jerusalem. I feel more and more ready every day, and I feel halfway there already. Any time.

‘The good Christian woman’s life’

I woke up around 3:30 a.m. Sunday, May 10, 2015, to the loud beeping of a text message. Normally I silence my phone when I go to bed, but I had just gotten a promotion at work. I was one of the newsroom editors now, and even though no one had told me I was obligated to be on call 24/7, I felt responsible to be ready to handle major breaking news over the weekends.

“Downtown Utica is on fire. I’m getting photos now.”

I had told Scott, our photographer, to contact me first if anything crazy happened on weekends, because I thought the other hardworking staff should get a break. He had done what I had asked him to do. Even so, I was irritated at being aroused from a deep sleep. Not irritated at Scott, but irritated that this was happening. And scared for Utica. (That poor little town had already experienced a deadly tornado and some awful flooding.) I probably let out a nasty word or two as I adjusted to the reality. I wasn’t raised that way, but — confession time — potty mouth has developed from living alone.

I threw a jacket over whatever I was wearing and walked the two blocks to the newsroom, where I plunked into my chair and hastily assembled a brief story with a photo sent by Scott to put on our website and link to on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

That done, I sat in our empty office, listening to the police scanners as every area fire department was called. I added a few details to the story online and shared another photo from Scott on Facebook and Twitter. I sat back, with the grim satisfaction of knowing I had done the right thing to get up and go to the office. Our story was first. It was flattering when the Sunday morning staff of a Chicago TV news station tweeted us asking for permission to use Scott’s photo.

Yet there was another part of me that couldn’t help but wonder — as I often did — how I had gotten here. What even was this kind of life I had?

After a while, it was clear there would be nothing substantial to add until hours later. I decided I had done what I needed to do. I left the newsroom and walked back to my apartment in a daze, contemplating the upheaval of my Sunday morning. I turned on my TV and soon saw the photo Scott had sent me, with the reporter giving him and our newspaper credit as I had instructed. Good for Scott, I thought. Good for us.

The sky was beginning to lighten, and I began feeling a familiar pain in my lower abdomen. My period had arrived. Then I remembered it was Mother’s Day. Well, of course my period would come today, I cynically scoffed. Because I definitely need a reminder that I’m a not-mom.

I thought of several of my peers from youth group and college. Soon they’d wake up, get special treatment from their husbands, wear cute clothes to church, get acclaim at church, get taken out for lunch or dinner, get beautiful greeting cards, snuggle with their babies and generally get celebrated by everyone who saw them. Not me, though. I was just an invisible not-mom whose weekend was crashed by breaking news and going home to a crappy, solitary apartment. Between sleep deprivation, period-getting and Mother’s Day cynicism, I decided to sleep in and skip church. (If there’s one day to skip church, it’s today — right, my not-moms? I see you.)

At some point I turned off the TV and turned on the Christian music radio station. As I was thinking these things, Matthew West’s upbeat song, “Day One,” came on. I just had to laugh — you can’t make this stuff up. “It’s Day One of the rest of your life.” Day One of my cycle; Day One of the rest of my life. I laughed with tears coming out of my eyes and danced hard around my living room, feeling the Day One pain radiating throughout my lower body. It was just too perfect.

I took some pain relief pills and went back to sleep.

I tell this story because it’s particularly memorable. But I’ve actually had these thoughts recur many, many, many times. The fact is: I love my life. I would not trade it in for any of my peers’ lives. I can honestly say that I think I got the coolest, most exciting, fun and fabulous life with the most perks and options and freedom and epicness out of most people I know. (Sometimes, in my baser moments, I imagine my former friends are envious of me, and I laugh.)

I didn’t always feel this way. It has taken me most of the past decade to get to this point. It has taken years of unpacking, detangling, brutal self-interrogating, self-blaming, self-hating and massive amounts of confusion and frustration.

Growing up, I was taught that being a wife and mother was the good Christian woman’s life. For the most part, I didn’t think to question this. All the nice ladies I knew fit this description, and I grew up celebrating — along with the church community — these milestones in other women’s lives. I (and everyone around me, as far as I could tell) simply assumed this would be my life, too, as long as I behaved myself appropriately to be worthy of this “good Christian woman’s life.”

Behaving myself appropriately? No problem for me. Except… that was the “problem,” but I didn’t get the hint.

I didn’t get the hint when I was 4 years old in a fast food restaurant playing with two little boys, and as they left, one shouted to me about his friend, “He likes you!” I only felt uncomfortable, like there was something wrong with this. “And I like you!” I stated as nonchalantly as I could to the boy who had spoken, trying desperately to neutralize whatever this weird thing was that had just happened. My dad laughed.

I didn’t get the hint when I was 5 years old watching “The Sound of Music” and crying because (spoilers) the Reverend Mother made Maria go back to the Von Trapp family instead of becoming a sister at the abbey. How could she be happier with that gruff man than with a bunch of peaceful, hymn-singing, religious sisters? I didn’t get it. I wanted to live at the abbey. I cried. My dad laughed.

I didn’t get the hint the many times between ages 4 and 8 when little boys my age kissed me, and I hated every single time but went along with it because that’s what you do when you play “house” and you’re the mommy. (I didn’t tell my dad about this.)

I didn’t get the hint when I was 10 or 11(?) and, after being seized with a fierce curiosity to know where babies came from, my mom got me a little educational video that contained some of the most shockingly disgusting information I’d never dreamed of. My mom told me not to talk about it. She never talked about it again.

I didn’t get the hint when I was 12, and a neighbor boy said he “wanted to go out” with me. I didn’t know what that meant, exactly. It sounded scary and maybe bad. “We’re too young for that,” I told him. It sounded like adult stuff. I was a kid and I wanted us to have non-scary, clean, kid-style fun until we were 18-ish, when we’d suddenly grow up and be ready for “adult stuff.” I told my mom. “Oh, ‘going out’ — you don’t need to do that,” she said disapprovingly. I congratulated myself for behaving appropriately. I was convinced I was well on my way to being “the best wife and mother in the whole world,” a goal I passionately declared about a year later in my eighth-grade homeschool graduation essay that was printed and handed out to who knows how many people.

I didn’t get the hint as a teenager when my younger brother repeatedly asked me if I “liked” any of the boys at church. I was at a loss for an answer. Not one of them particularly appealed to me. Were they supposed to?

I didn’t get the hint as a teenager when moms routinely asked me to babysit, and I often referred them to my brother, because he actually kind of liked babies, and I wasn’t comfortable with them. Older kids who could talk and use the bathroom on their own were OK, but not babies. The responsibility scared me.

I started to get the tiniest hint when I was 17 and I noticed people younger than I were actively involved in romantic relationships. I was confused. Wasn’t that adult stuff? What was wrong with everybody? Was there something wrong with me? Guys could be fun to talk to and debate with, but they were aggressive and domineering — how could anyone like them? How could my friends like these guys more than they liked me? It didn’t compute. I was depressed and lonely. When I expressed frustration about this, people awkwardly laughed at me.

I didn’t get the hint when I was in college, and I complained to my brother, “How come guys don’t like me?” And he said, “Rach, it’s not that guys don’t like you — but do you like any of them?” I was as dense as a brick. Even when it was spelled out, I still didn’t get it. I was still going to be the world’s best homeschooling mom, though! 😀 😀 😀

I didn’t get the hint the few times in my 20s when guys finally did express interest me, and I enjoyed the ego boost but was still uncomfortable with what they wanted.

(Then there was a yearslong detour of prolonged confusion when I finally liked a guy; he didn’t like me back; I was utterly devastated; I wanted to die; etc. — that’s a post of its own.)

After years of tripping around in this self-dissecting stew, I started to see light. It was only a few months after the aforementioned Mother’s Day fire. I was a in a church members’ meeting, and we were discussing our personal views on our membership commitments, one of which was, “Fidelity within marriage, chastity outside marriage.” I listened in amazement as more than one of these (ostensibly) happily married people mentioned being attracted to people other than their spouses. When it was my turn to speak, I said, “I guess I’m just a chastity guru or something. Where are all these attractive people you’re meeting? I never see them! Where are they? Can I meet them?” They just laughed. I went home beginning to think there was something really different about me.

A few months after that, I finally came to some self-understanding that had long eluded me. I simply didn’t experience sexual attraction. The idea of engaging in sexual contact with anyone disgusted me. I really didn’t like men (outside my relatives) touching me at all, except for professional handshakes. I rarely experienced romantic attraction. I really didn’t like kids very much. All this time I had wanted this “good Christian woman’s life” so badly because I had been programmed to want it, but I wouldn’t actually like it. What I had wanted was “the right thing.” I wanted others to recognize me as good. I wanted to feel good about myself. I wanted to be good.

It has only been in the past year that I’ve finally been able to untangle this enough to say, “I am living the good Christian woman’s life.” The good Christian woman’s life is presently mine because I’m doing what God has called me to do. I continue to yield all I am, have and ever hope to be to the Lordship of Christ, and he’s directing me as he has thus far. The solitude of my life has helped me hear God’s Spirit more clearly and more often. I am pressed to love God more when I pass hours upon hours without human contact (other than via the internet). I would not trade the love and communion I have with God’s Spirit for any other relationship that would distract me. The love we have is matchless, unparalleled and can only grow more and more wonderful because of his faithfulness that is eternally trustworthy. Tell me where else I can find that! Nowhere!

It has taken me a long time to accept and embrace this reality that is so different from the fantasy I was all but promised growing up. My desire now is to see this reality accepted and embraced by the church community so that we stop giving our girls only one option (which is not the only biblical option!) that may not come to pass for them.

Good Christian women on the social margins, rejoice! The word of the Lord in Isaiah 54:1-8 is for us:

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
    break forth into singing and cry aloud,
    you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
    than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
    and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
    and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
    and your offspring will possess the nations
    and will people the desolate cities.

“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
    be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
    and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
    the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
    the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
    like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
    says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
    but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
    I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
    says the Lord, your Redeemer.

Thanks be to God, who has welcomed us as equal partakers in the goodness of his kingdom! Instead of highlighting cultural holidays that have nothing to do with Christianity, let’s preach this gospel to our sisters. Maybe we’ll even show up.

Check out this playlist I put together for my single sisters and brothers. It’s called “A-team” because our union with God’s Spirit is the ultimate, unrivaled team!

When fellowship breaks

Lately I’ve been thinking about what my ideal relationship(s) would look like, and I keep coming back to two models.

The first is what I call the Paul and Barnabas model, based on the partnership of Paul and Barnabas in the book of Acts. Their relationship is centered around sharing the good news of freedom and restoration available through Jesus.

The second is what I call the Fellowship of the Ring model, based on the group of protagonists in the book and film of the same title (the first part of The Lord of the Rings). Their relationship is centered around their shared quest to destroy the One Ring, a source of great and terrible evil.

LOTR Facebook cover

What I like about these relationships is that they exist for the purpose of something greater than the relationship itself. We don’t read about Paul and Barnabas trying to bond with each other over pizza and entertainment. Before his conversion to Christianity, Paul was an enemy of the church. Similarly, while some of the members of the Fellowship of the Ring knew each other before embarking on their quest, some of them were strangers, and there was some relational tension. The point is, these relationships aren’t primarily built on compatibility of personality or recreational interests.

I never operated well with the mentality that one has to work on spending leisure time with others in order to build friendships. In my view, I should be pursuing something greater than my own pleasure and should naturally form partnerships with whomever is pursuing the same thing. For me, that thing is the kingdom of God. To be honest, I’m really not interested in investing in any meaningful relationships that aren’t centered on the kingdom of God — indeed, that would be impossible for me. The kingdom of God is what I’m all about; nothing else in this world is as valuable or worthwhile. So, no, I can’t just “make friends” because we like the same music artists or sports teams or video games. In comparison to the kingdom of God, those things are meaningless garbage. Apparently, though, I cannot get most people to share my viewpoint in this area. People are convinced the way to make friends is just to “hang out” and talk. That is simply not something I really understand how to do or enjoy. If the conversation doesn’t turn quickly toward the kingdom of God or something of substance that’s related to it, my interest evaporates rapidly.

So I look to these models as a reference to help me explain to others what kind of relationships I’m looking for.

But in the past few days, I’ve been struck by how my “ideal” relationships suffered terrible breaks.

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:36-41)

After much journeying together and seeing God’s kingdom grow because of their work, “a sharp disagreement” parted Paul and Barnabas. The narrative doesn’t go into great detail about the disagreement, but if they split up after working so well together for so long, I imagine it must have been very unpleasant.

The Fellowship of the Ring was beset by opposition and internal conflict before it was formed. Dark forces hunting for the Ring as well as disagreements among the fellowship about how the Ring should be managed tore the group apart. I was 13 years old when the film came out, and it influenced me profoundly. Here was a group of people who had joined together for a great purpose, only to be repeatedly assaulted and finally broken. Yet it was my highest ideal for what friendship should be. And amazingly, it still is.

I make a point of watching “The Lord of the Rings” at least once every year (usually in January). It’s my favorite film trilogy. It formed my worldview and still moves me deeply upon each viewing. This past January, the ending of the first film hit home in a fresh way as I saw the same struggles my church is experiencing reflected in the final scenes. “The Breaking of the Fellowship” is the title of the last chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring and the title of the corresponding track in the film score, and it came to mind as I watched the familiar tragedy play on the screen.

I cried. More than usual when I watch that scene, I mean. I saw my own present grief there.

At our December meeting, one of our guidance people, Allan Howe from Reba Place Fellowship, said something that has stayed with me:

It is really disappointing to see people disappearing and dying. It’s a heavy time; there’s no denying it. It’s very tough. I’m helped by looking over Christian history and seeing others who went through something like this. When I first saw this kind of church, I felt like I had met what I believed in. I was fresh out of college and could hardly believe what I was seeing — sharing solidarity week after week. We’re in the heritage of the martyrs and folks who were very lonely and sometimes killed. That happened in renewal movements like the Anabaptists and lots of other Christians. We’re in very good company.

I don’t know. Most of the time it doesn’t feel like we’re part of a renewal movement. I don’t know if we can really be compared to martyrs, either. It’s not like there’s an orc squad chasing us down. It just feels like we’re a bunch of ordinary fallen humans with issues.

But Allan is right — even if our fellowship breaks, we remain in company with a mission greater than we are that goes on after us. It’s the same mission that went on after Paul and Barnabas separated. With hindsight, we know that God used their break-up to double the effort toward sharing the good news of Jesus. We have faith that no matter what happens to us, that mission will continue and was always assured of victory.

In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the final scenes are heartbreaking, but they also contain some of the group members’ finest moments of self-denial and sacrifice. Yet the mission goes on. We know how it ends (If you haven’t seen it, spoilers: the good guys win. Now go watch all three movies!).

And we know how our mission — and Paul’s and Barnabas’ mission — ends, too. It hasn’t reached its end yet. We’re still a part of it. One day we’ll drink new wine with Paul and Barnabas and the martyrs and the renewal movement people, and we’ll laugh about who’s having the last laugh.

During Lent, we grieve our losses and weaknesses. Like Boromir, we ask, “What is this new devilry?” Like Sam, we wonder, “How could the end be happy?” But we also look at Jesus’ victory over his enemy and know we share in that victory.

Even ideal relationships break. That’s because there’s wickedness in the world that opposes good things. But there’s also good because of God’s restoration mission effected by Jesus. In him we are built together to become a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22).

Jesus was marked for death at Christmas

While driving east on Interstate 80 to visit my family on Christmas Day, I passed two trees on my right, each marked with a large orange X. It had been many, many years since I had seen such marks on trees. The sight made me recall the time my mom first explained to me what that meant: “The X means the tree is going to be cut down.”

Something about this made me sadder than I expected, so I mused as I cruised. To my consternation, I noticed another and another, and then more and more trees along eastbound I-80 bearing the garish orange X that marked them for destruction. My feelings rapidly de-escalated from consternated to dismayed to crushed.

Why is my heart hurting like this? I questioned myself.

I answered my own question aloud: “It’s because I relate to them!” And then I burst into tears.

There I was, bitterly weeping alone in my car on Christmas Day while zooming past miles of condemned trees, wondering what was wrong with me. I was intellectually aware that whatever sadness I had was augmented by the facts that I had only gotten about four hours of sleep (I had stayed up until 4 a.m. writing my previous post) and that I was at the beginning of my cycle. Apparently it doesn’t take much to make my faith evaporate. I found myself echoing Paul’s question: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

But it was more than mere physical weakness. The thoughts I expressed in my previous post — hunger and humiliation, poverty and loss — were still present, and the image of the trees marked for death with a bloody-looking X was the image that summed up my grief.

The idea of being marked for destruction wasn’t a fresh one for me. It’s actually something I had been thinking of throughout Advent and even before. As I wrote in my previous post:

I’m part of a shrinking family (there have been no births among my close blood relatives since 1994), a shrinking church (we’re losing about a quarter of our congregation) and a shrinking town (there aren’t enough employment opportunities). Depression is a recurring theme everywhere I look.

I didn’t elaborate much on those thoughts, but in my darker, faith-lacking moments (which are more often than I’d like to admit), I fear that I’m cursed, condemned, marked for destruction — that everything I’m a part of is failing or will fail — that I’m all talk, hot air and futility. And not only me, but my family, my friends, my work — we’re all running hard on an open field, and dark forces are conspiring to pick us off, one by one, freezing us all out with a chill wind until we’re undone.

During this past year and particularly the Advent season, these fears have presented themselves with greater frequency and intensity. (Note: These fears are influenced by several external factors, which I won’t get into right now beyond what I’ve already mentioned, because that would be too many rabbit trails to follow. I want to make it clear that these feelings aren’t mysteriously arising for no discernible reason.) I’ve been writing and posting publicly (obnoxiously) exhortations to take heart and to hope in the promised liberation to come. It’s been #Advent #Advent #Advent clogging up my friends’ Facebook news feeds. I’m doing it to boost my morale, and hopefully others’, because I need to.

At the same time, I worked on a not-yet-published project — some fan fiction based on the video game “Chrono Trigger.” Into this I poured my darker feelings. In the story, the character Janus spends his life trying to undo the fall of the grand kingdom he was to inherit. Arguably the most powerful human being in history, he works to fight the evil force that ruined everything, but in so doing, he becomes history’s most wicked and vicious tyrant. The scene I wrote features Janus crushed with the realization that all his efforts to restore his kingdom and his family have been utterly futile. From the beginning, the dark force has particularly marked him and his family for perdition, corruption and eternal destruction, and evil has apparently won. Even with all his power, Janus can’t save his mother or sister, and he can’t redeem himself. He can only contemplate his futility and his eventual consumption in the void. His paradise lost cannot be regained.

Intellectually, I know this is not the end of the story. Intellectually, I have not lost my faith. I know my salvation has been effected. Intellectually, I know these fears are demonic garbage I should toss out the window.

But pain and hunger tend to override our perceptions of truth. On Christmas Eve, I was listening to the book of Exodus. In chapter 14, God completes the glorious liberation of his people from slavery in Egypt by drawing back the sea and making a path for them to walk through. In chapter 15, the people rejoice and passionately declare God’s preeminent epicness with singing and dancing.

“The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Ex. 15:2).

In chapter 16, they’ve been a free people out in the wilderness for a while, but they are tired and hungry. They complain to their leaders, Moses and Aaron:

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:3).

WHAT? People of Israel, what is wrong with you???

But — I AM NO BETTER. Because not even 24 hours after listening to this narrative, I’m brooding and blogging into the wee hours of Christmas morning, feeling my own hunger and weakness. While writing my previous post, I stopped at one point and asked God, “How did you get me into this? What made me sign up for this hungry, desert-y life?”

True story. God’s patience is matchless.

Anyway, here I am on I-80, crying about condemnation on Christmas Day like the freed yet forgetful and faithless people of Israel. Just like the dozens and dozens of trees awaiting their demise, I and my people and my projects are marked for death, I think.

God’s Spirit has a remarkably simple yet rich response: So was Jesus.

Jesus had a target on him from the beginning. The local king didn’t want anyone else calling himself “king” to come around. He wanted Jesus dead. So he decided to kill every baby boy in town. Jesus escaped this massacre, but his little peers did not (Matthew 2).

In the church calendar, the fourth day of Christmas, Dec. 28, is set aside to remember these slain baby boys, now known as Holy Innocents. Yes — possibly the most tragic day of the church calendar is set smack in the middle of the Christmas season. Yes — “Joy to the world!” is proclaimed, yet evil is present and hurting us. These things are true at the same time. Intellectually, I know only one will last, but right now they are both present and real.

The dark forces wanted Jesus dead. They want humanity destroyed. That isn’t the end of the story, but it’s an ongoing part of the story. The hard truth is that sometimes the dark forces win momentary victories. And for those whose baby brothers and sons were cut down, their grief was for life.

Jesus sympathizes (Heb. 4:15).