Monthly Archives: August 2012

For the One Attending a Christian College [repost]

The boys and I have been in Chicago for a week now, waist-deep in preparations for the wedding of one of my best friends from high school days. It’s wonderful and exhausting. We are all a little tired and a little out of our routine; there is not much time for writing.

So in honor of college classes starting this week, I’m reposting this open letter I wrote to students attending Christian College. It’s that time of year, after all. School supplies and just the hint of something brisk on the air and new jeans and anticipation. For the one headed off in your first car, laundry basket and mini-fridge in the back…(and for the one who still feels like a little like she’s eighteen even though she’s not)…this one’s for you.

The first thing I want to tell you is this: it is not what you are expecting it to be.

I know about the glossy ads: campus lawns meticulously maintained so that they almost look like the “green pastures” of the 23rd Psalm, like you could lie down here and rest. A few feet away, unshaven college boys throw Frisbees lazily back and forth in the afternoon sun. I know.

Perhaps that four years of high school was a little unkind to you, and you are just looking for a place where you can belong. Or maybe you are filled to the top of your soul, high off all the leaving, looking forward, full of hope.

You are thinking “Christian College” and it looks like two thousand students lit like candles from the inside, glowing in the darkness. Instant friendship and up-all-night conversations over coffee and Krispy Kremes. It looks like safety. It seems like it would be so simple.

Here is the truth. Here is the paradox:

Where Christians gather there is love, wild and full of grace. And. Where Christians gather, there is pettiness. Gossip. Pain. Hate.

They are, after all, just people in the end. Young, like you, on their own for the first time. Making all their big mistakes, trying to figure out who they are. It will look like hypocrisy at times. It will make you double back. There will be a moment when it makes you rethink this whole Jesus thing.

At some point, the scripture-themed hall decorations will start to feel gaudy and cliché, the Bible you carry for class will begin to feel heavy against your back. There’s a good chance that someone will write a judgmental Bible verse on your whiteboard or use a spiritual phrase to insult you. This is part of it.

There will be pressure to find “the one” and envy and mockery if you do. The rules you agreed to when you sent in your paperwork will tighten around your neck; you’ll tire of all this theological discussion. (Premillenialism, predestination, a verse for everything, a test on Friday.)

This is what it means to grow up: to jump bravely into your imagined future and come down hard on the unyielding ground. You will find yourself a little broken, a little sad, a little lonely. And that’s just part of it.

The second thing I want to tell you is this: don’t give up.

You will feel yourself at a fork in the road at your Christian college: perform or disappear. Prove that your faith is strong, or despair. Choose neither of these. Choose stillness. Chose love.

Don’t be afraid of darkness. It will come, even in this place that promises Light. Question. Doubt. Discuss. Do not accept easy answers here or give into the party lines. Push toward the hard edges of your pain. Be as honest as you know how to be.

Eat cold pizza and stay out past curfew and venture downtown. Make friends from outside this place; find them at hole-in-the-wall coffee shops with live music. Listen to their stories. I mean really listen.

Find a few people from your hall or your English class that get you. Just a few. Don’t worry if it’s not your roommates, if you don’t like your roommates, if your roommates don’t like you.

Breathe deep breaths in the cold night air. Jump into the lake in the middle of winter. Feel your skin burst into flame as it touches the water. Know that God is here, and you, you are alive.

Martyrs and Camp Boys and the Cost of Discipleship

At twelve-almost-thirteen, summer Bible camp was at least as much about boys as it was about Jesus. (Probably more, if we’re being honest.)

That week, I chose/was chosen (briefly) by a boy named Pete. He had chains dangling from his baggy jeans and a neat buzz cut, and when our cabin groups were anywhere within the same vicinity, we exchanged long, blushy glances.

At night, whenwe gathered in that old, musty meeting hall, I always knew where he was sitting. We’d glance back and forth at one another through the raucous, wild singing and the skits.

By the time the speaker came forward, Bible in hand, my sun-drenched, waterlogged brain had settled well into a daydream about my romantic future with Baggy-Jeans-Pete.

We were pre-teens, barely teens, junior-highers, and that seasoned church speaker must have known that we were barely there. He must have known also that we were all desperate to be a little bit extreme.

He did what he could to make us want to be extreme for Jesus.

To do that, he told a story. The story was, apparently, based in fact, and featured a place that I cannot remember, where Christianity was illegal. There were soldiers, and they stood outside the doors of a church after service one day. They gave each person a choice: spit on a picture of Jesus, or die, shot straight on the spot.

The speaker must have said something like “There is a cost to following the Lord.” He must have made it applicable. All I remember is that I was fearful and guilt-struck by my own squandered freedom. And also, I remember the way it made my heart beat faster.

He kept talking, and I folded it into my daydream. I imagined that if it happened right then, that night, Baggy-Pants-Pete would force his way through the crowds to me and we would kiss between the white wooden bleachers before going to meet our brave martyrdom, hand in hand. We would do it together. We would do it for Jesus.

This is what hazardous faith looks like at summer camp at twelve-almost-thirteen. It’s all a little mixed up in romance.


These days, I am less extreme. Still crazy for the boys – but mostly just the small, wild ones flinging trucks around my living room, and their handsome daddy (who turned out to be so much hotter than Baggy-Pants-Pete).

Every now and then, I hear some preacher throw out some martyr’s story, anecdotal in its smallness, shrunk down into a sermon illustration. The take-away is usually some wildly off-kilter analogy along the lines of If those martyrs can do THAT then certainly we can do…[insert Americanized version of Christian bravery, e.g. inviting a friend to church].

I get a little cringe-y when this sort of thing happens. To me, it cheapens the sacrifice made by those who gave their one beautiful life in its sudden entirety. But it also cheapens the weight of the average, unimpressive life lived imperfectly but beautifully for God.

There is cost here too. For me, it is often in the believing. Just the believing.

This whole Jesus thing is so wildly upside down. It is illogical, a scribbled, spiral thing.

It suggests that given the choice between big, sleek, and desirable or small and barely holding together, the right choice will almost always be small.

It suggests that you swallow back that totally justifiable wave of anger, that you choose, instead, love. Instead of defending yourself, you are asked to take an unkindness straight to the chest, and it’s not a bullet exactly, but still, it matters.

You cling to promises that are, quite often, wholly invisible, totally unfelt. You follow a Whisper that you can barely hear, and you trust that something is happening, even if it is too far beneath the surface for you to see one lousy ripple.

There is cost to yes when everything in you is saying, hell, no, and some will be asked to give it all at once, but for most of us it will be each day, a little bit more than we have. A little more energy, a little more love, a little more grace and forgiveness and honesty.

When I say “cost”, I mean that place where I have not given it all…not by a long shot, and still I am empty. I mean that place where I find that, still, He is enough.


Today’s post is part of a synchroblog connected with the release of Ed Cyzewski and Derek Cooper’s new book Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following JesusLearn more here.

Outreach Events and the Old Bait-and-Switch

The church gym smelled like sweat and pizza and the sharp vinyl of a giant, inflatable obstacle course.

Sumo Suits were new-ish then, all the rage, and we lined up to take our turn bumbling toward a similarly outfitted opponent.

(Remember laughing your suddenly fat BFF, at yourself, the awkward heaviness of all that plastic draped over your body?)

The place pulsed with Christian rock and the buzz of air pumping into inflatables and laughter, and what else could you really ask for? For weeks, there had been fliers, reminders. Bring your friend, bring your friends, bring your friends! And so I did, a whole vanload of high school freshman that I knew from orchestra and from class and from lunch at the cafeteria table.

When we sat down at the end of the night, a mess of sweaty bodies folded onto the floor at the back of the gym, my heart flopped wild in my chest. A couple of seniors got up to give their three-minute-testimonies, and I kept glancing at the profiles of my friends to see if they were moved by these words. By these fun-size bits of Gospel Truth.

I understood that this night with its extreme fun and its 35 greasy pizzas was about something bigger. It was about bringing in those who were outside. It was about showing them that Jesus and fun were not mutually exclusive but instead part of the same great package. And they could have it all, have it right now, this minute – absolutely free.

I remember the ride home in our minivan, listening to conversation, praying silently in my heart. I remember feeling proud that I went to such a fun church; I remember feeling wildly nervous, desperate for this to make sense to them, for them to say to me, “Actually, I’d really like to invite Jesus into my heart, like that guy talked about. Can you help me do that?”

In four years of youth group outreaches, not one of them ever did.


When they introduce the upcoming outreach at our church they use words like “non-threatening” and “fun.” There’s a slide on the screens with zany fonts and lots of colors; they mention something about giving away free TVs.

There is some statistic thrown out there about people and church; about how a very high percentage would go if they were invited. They say, “We are having an outreach!” They say, “Invite, invite, invite!” And I sit very still in my chair, knowing in my heart that I will not.

And I remember it, that desire to bring people in, to make my evangelical world accessible. I remember how much it helped to be able to offer inflatables and free pizza and sumo suits instead of just a straight-shot of Jesus Christ to the arm.

But these days, the whole thing feels a little dishonest to me. Like a sales ploy, like a bait-and-switch. You came for free food, but we have something even better to offer: eternal life!

The longer I live this life of faith, the less it resembles a pizza party or an inflatable obstacle course. It is sometimes dark, sometimes empty, sometimes trudging, your feet heavy on the road. Sometimes it feels like he isn’t here. Sometimes you have to believe anyway.

I believe that this Jesus thing is the truest thing in the world. That grace saved my life, and that when I’m sitting, looking out the window in the quiet mornings, the peace I feel is Him. I want my friends to know it, the deep-down truth of it, the life-giving stillness of it.

And I don’t think they can find all of that at an outreach event.

So, if we’re being honest, no – I will probably not invite my friends to that thing at the church with all of its hype and freebies. It’s just not my thing anymore.

Instead, I’ll invite them into my home, with its giant pile of shoes in the entryway and that fruit snack that Liam dropped out of his mouth the other day still stuck to the floor. There is a Bible and a prayer book on my kitchen table, a verse propped up on the kitchen window over a sink overflowing with dishes.

I’ll say, “Take off your shoes…or leave them on if you want, cause the floor is really crusty.” I’ll let them all the way in.

I’ll invite them into my own small, contradictory life. They will know what I believe. They will see the ways that I live it and the ways that I fail to live it. I will invite them into my knowing and my unknowing, my peace and my fear. I will choose love because I have been chosen by Love. I will choose to tell the big Truth and all the little truths of my life at the same time.

I cannot, probably, offer free TVs, but I can offer a frozen pizza. Some guilt-free babysitting, some fresh-baked cookies. A listening ear.

I won’t do the outreach, but I’ll try my best to reach – just reach – every day, toward others.

I’ll reach as far as my arms will go. I’ll grab them by the hand in the small ways that I can. I’ll hold on for dear life.

I Survived My 20s – Depression

Sorry to keep sending you away from this space, but I have the honor today of contributing at the lovely Renee Johnson Fisher’s blog for her series “I Survived My 20s.” (Even though, at 29, I technically haven’t.)

I don’t really know how to preface this post except to say that I keep thinking of that T.S. Eliot line. The one about exploration and the draw of Love and how, in the end, we …arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.

My 20s are unraveling this year into the Tired Thirties (as Madeline L’Engle calls them). So much has changed and so much remained the same. I look around me, and I know this place in a way I didn’t ten years ago. For that, I am grateful.

I hope you’ll join me at Renee’s place for a reflection on this past decade and the things I survived. Here are the first couple of paragraphs.

I turned 20 on a warm day in July, and then, two weeks later, I got married.

There was pink tulle everywhere and 200 roses that we ordered online and arranged into bouquets in the church basement. During the ceremony, two of my best friends from high school sang “Be Thou My Vision,” and their voices filled the room, haunting and sweet.

This is how I began my 20s: eyes closed, heart raised. I was full to the brim with love and with Jesus, surrounded by all of my closest friends who felt the exact same way. From that alter, the future looked sparkling smooth. I said “I do,” and dove all the way in. (Continue reading here.)

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