When the Bodies Start Piling Up


I wrote this post about two months ago, but I had a really difficult call yesterday, so it seems appropriate to post it now.

Volunteering for Victim Services is really rewarding, but it’s also really hard.

I’ve written about some of the difficult calls before. However, I think the real struggle is that in recent months, I’ve been on two child death calls, a death notification where a young guy was hit and killed by a train, two drug overdoses – one of which was likely a suicide, one DOA with a lot of HIV positive blood throughout the house, two strangulations, at least four calls where the victim had visible, gruesome wounds, and a death notification for a hiker from out of town.

The bodies start to weigh you down.

Add to that the fact that I work for a hospice and have to do death notifications to volunteers on a near-daily basis, and the pressure I was under studying for the LSAT… and it’s a perfect storm of sadness and stress.

I’m not gonna lie. I started feeling pretty messed up after the hiker death notification. He and his family were from out of town, and were in Tucson because they were attending a funeral. And he died. 150 yds from his vehicle. We did the notification for his wife, who was trying so hard to be kind to everyone in the room, but she was clearly in shock. She repeated the same questions over and over again. She kept blowing her nose into a bandanna, and she was trying to take care of everyone around her. There were seven other family members there, and we worked briefly with all of them.

I went home and honestly just couldn’t get back into my life. Before we left, the deceased’s wife said to me, “God is good.”

That’s such a difficult thing to say even in the best of circumstances, because life is horrible and unrelenting. This temporary home of ours really, truly sucks. But within an hour of being told that she’s never going to have another conversation with her husband… never going to hold his hand, argue, or laugh with him again. Within the hour, she said, “God is good.”

And as weird as it is, the fact that she said that effed me up a little bit.

I got up the next morning and listened to a sermon while making breakfast, and, of course, the pastor talked about the story behind the song that says, “It is well with my soul.” It’s a great story, and you should look it up if you haven’t heard about it before… and yet, even having known the story for years, it was as if God was chasing me around with the peace Christians are supposed to feel no matter what. No matter who or what God takes from us, we are supposed to say, “God is good,” and, “It is well with my soul.”

It wasn’t well with my soul.

I could feel the weight of every dead body from the past few months. They were all laying on my chest, restricting the flow of oxygen to my brain.

So what did I do?

I went for a run. Then I went for a walk. Then I drank some wine. Then I did some yoga. Then I wrote. Then, I decided to hell with all of the things nobody would judge me for doing as coping mechanisms… I turned off all of the lights in the house, made a spread for myself on the floor, and pulled out my VHS tape of THE PATRIOT. I popped it in my tape player and spent three straight hours sobbing.

Then I brushed my teeth and went to bed.

Such is the way to set aside the dead bodies and pick up the peace of Christ. God is good. I genuinely hate this place where we live, but God is good.

UPDATE: Yesterday’s call hasn’t sunk into me yet. I know it will. I know it will haunt me for the next few weeks, until it’s replaced with another haunting call.

Yesterday’s call started just before 5:30 am, and didn’t end until 7 pm or so. Then, there was paperwork to do, and I had to return my radio and phone to our office, so I was away from home for something like 16 hours, going non-stop.

During the call, I wasn’t able to eat at all or have any break. Also, because our shift wasn’t supposed to start until 6:00, I hadn’t eaten breakfast or showered or anything. I had gotten up and gone.

The call spanned two different hospitals, a crime scene, and a home. I interacted with tons of people, ranging from the victim and people directly or indirectly related to the crime, hospital staff and people directly or indirectly related to the patient’s medical care, and even a few people at Southwest Airlines. We transported people from a hospital to the crime scene and back, from one hospital to another, and from the second hospital to a home.

Our victim was really, really visibly wounded, which is always difficult to see. She had visible wounds all over her body, and her face was swollen into a misshapen, bruised mess. And she was SUCH a nice girl. Under different circumstances, I could see myself being friends with her. She is nerdy and artsy. She loves steampunk and movies. She hasn’t given up on her dreams yet, like so many people have. She is an extraordinary person, who doesn’t deserve what happened to her – no victim does.

The Sanitization of Christ: People Cannot be Good Enough


I’ve really struggled with how to write this post. This is the third post in a series that I expected to have finished writing by now, but I got hung up writing this one.

If you want to look at the other two posts in this series, you can scroll and click and find them yourself, because I’m too lazy to give you a link.

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The important doctrine to believe here is that no person can be good enough to earn her own salvation. The problem I’m having with this post is that morality does not have a straight-forward, simple function within Christianity. Morality is important in Christianity, even crucial, but it’s also paradoxically unimportant.

It’s confusing, even if the sole influence on your beliefs about morality is the Bible. However, most people are also influenced by strange beliefs that have nothing to do with the Bible. Take, for instance, the scales at the pearly gates. Someone, somewhere, came up with the idea that a person’s morality will be weighed, and as long as the good outweighs the bad, she’ll get admitted into Heaven. Problem: these scales are not at all Biblical.

Another complication with this post is how desperately I want to rely on the Old Testament for my biblical support. I said I wasn’t going to do that, but the Old Testament is morality-heavy. Reading the book of Leviticus is all it really takes for me to realize that I am not capable of living up to the law of God.

So… with those complications/challenges in mind, let us strike out into the land of Things the Bible does actually say:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 6:23

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

1 John 1:8-9

I have to use these two verses as building blocks. I tried not to, because I’d rather have three verses that state my point, rather than building a foundation to my point, but I really don’t see a way not to start here.

First, “the wages of sin is death…” this means that there is a cost of sin, and that cost is death. There is some interesting interchanging going on with the word death, because it could probably mean both physical death and spiritual death. Regardless, we have to start out by understanding that there is a cost that must be paid for every sin.

Second, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…” this is pretty explicit; all people sin.

Third, “the free gift of God is eternal life…” Gifts are given, while trophies are earned. Trying to earn a gift is actually kind of offensive. If I give you a book because we’re friends, and you go online, find out how much the book costs, and give me the dollar amount tomorrow, I’m going to be pissed, because you clearly don’t understand the nature of gifts.

*There is more we can dig out of those two verses, and I didn’t want to cut off anything about God and Jesus, but I’m going to move forward.

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“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Ephesians 2:8-9

This is the classic verse that Christians quote to prove this point, and it’s a good one, because it explicitly states that a person’s salvation is not of her own doing.

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“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 14:6

This is also a passage that lots of Christians know and quote. I’m using it because the verse from Ephesians stops short of explaining what/Who the gift is that saves us. This verse addresses that, and I want to spend some time on it.

Unfortunately, John 14:6 is a verse that’s often wielded, like a weapon, against anyone who isn’t a Christian. It’s something people use to say that people who don’t believe in Jesus are going to burn in Hell, and I suppose it’s effective for that, but I want to go back to just a scoash before this verse, because I think Jesus spoke those words as a comfort, rather than a battering ram. Also, I think the chapter break interrupts an important flow.

John, chapter 13 deals with the Last Supper. It’s a gorgeous depth of the final things Jesus tells His disciples. It’s Him washing their feet, telling them to love one another after He’s gone. The chapter comes to a close when Peter asks Jesus where He is going and, in his arrogance, Peter basically says, “I’ll follow you anywhere. I will die for You.” Jesus corrects Peter and says that actually he (Peter) is going to betray Him (Jesus).

Then the chapter ends.

However, in the very next verse, Jesus tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled, and I feel like it’s meant to flow. You are going to deny me three times, but don’t get caught up on that. There’s something more important…

I’ve not read this anywhere. I’ve not looked at commentaries, so we are purely in the land of Katie reading a passage and explaining what she thinks it means.

I believe Jesus is trying to show the disciples that their betrayals of Him should not break them. If they will believe in God and believe in Him (Jesus) – trust that He is preparing a place for them in Heaven, then they will be with Him and the Father in Heaven. I believe He is affectionately comforting them that when they betray Him, they need not hang themselves, because their salvation never rested in their own choices and actions. It always rested only in Him. They don’t need a map so that they can follow Him. They don’t need to know where He is going… He is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and He has and will take care of all they require.

I think this verse is really a gentle, beautiful verse, because it’s God telling us He will pay the wages of our betrayal of Him.

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The point of the gospel – the point of Christianity – is that no one is good enough. That’s why Jesus came to Earth. That’s why He was tempted, but did not betray His Father. That’s why He died. He paid wages that no one else can pay.

The Sanitization of Christ Series: Man is Evil


We were asked to go around the room and put a label to our spirituality. While I felt the request was really a bad idea to begin with, the results staggered me a bit.

In a secular setting, everyone claimed Christianity of one sort or another (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc…) and everyone described Christianity as all-accepting. At first, I was pretty angry. Then, as it’s bled into me a little bit more over the past few days, I started to feel really sad.

In my favorite sermon, Matt Chandler describes unregenerate faith (people who attend church every day, but don’t actually know God) as inoculation to the faith – getting just enough of it never to fully experience it.

That’s really sad.

It’s out of a brokenheartedness over misconceptions about Christ that I thought I’d write a series of posts on what Christians actually believe. I’m not going to go at this in a comprehensive way. That would be impossible. I’m only going to write what I believe it’s necessary to write to combat the god who doesn’t condemn anyone and the christianity in which everyone gets into Heaven.

The basics:

  1. People are evil and deserve Hell.
  2. God is better…
  3. People cannot be good enough.
  4. Jesus died the death humans deserved.
  5. Some people will receive justice, while others receive unmerited grace.

I’m going to try not to go crazy citing all over the place here, but I’m also going to try to support each of these claims with three passages from the New Testament. Although I believe the Old Testament is equally valuable as a source of support for these claims, I don’t want to deal with the argument that God was different in the New Testament.

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On the subject of evil, one of the more commonly cited passages is Romans 3:10-18 (although I’m going to stop at verse 13 for the sake of brevity):

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Although this is New Testament citing Old Testament, I think it’s fair to use just about anything Paul wrote, because he was most definitely after Jesus, and it’s impossible to say that he was writing about pre-Jesus God.

We could also go into John 2:24 & 25:

“But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”

Although it’s not explicitly stated here, there is an implication that man is evil.

Jesus does explicitly state that man is evil in Luke 11:13:

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…”

I particularly like this one, because the verse isn’t even about man being evil. It’s a foregone conclusion that man is evil.

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So… if I am a Christian, I either have to concede that Jesus said some things that aren’t true and man isn’t evil, or I have to figure that it must be true if God said it.

If I decide the former is true, I end up down the rabbit hole of why-the-hell-do-I-worship-a-god-who-lies? (or possibly doesn’t know the truth)… However, I, myself, get to feel a little bit better about my own heart. God shrinks, and I expand.

The result, however, of believing that man is inherently evil is really interesting, because the rabbit hole I jump down in leads to the realization that I, myself, am evil. There are both humility and excruciating vulnerability in me when I admit I’m evil. Admitting I’m evil leads to admitting that justice would be served if I burned.

I actually think it’s impossible to be one of those severe, Bible-thumping Christians when I spend time thinking on the implications of man’s evil nature. A Christian who believes she, herself, is evil, really can’t stand on a corner holding a sign saying that “God hates fags.” She can’t think she’s better than others are, because her own sin is ever before her. She knows the evil of her own heart.

So, while it’s a cleaner, seemingly gentler thing to say that people are imperfect, but not evil, it ultimately does the opposite of sanitizing the faith and making it accessible to non-believers; it causes Christians to believe their goodness can be measured by comparison to others. It causes me to think I’m better than you are because you use the F-bomb or you watched an R-rated movie last week or you drank three glasses of wine and I only drank one. It causes me to think I’m the best student in the class and God owes me a gold star for a job well-done. It causes me to believe that I don’t need rescue; I’m okay without God…

The more fully I believe I am evil, the more fully I believe I need God, and the more clearly I see His glory and goodness for saving a wretch like me.

 

The Secrecy of Prayer


I’ve been reading a book called Intimacy by Henri Nouwen. I know what the title sounds like, but I promise it isn’t a book about sex and/or romance. It touches on both of those topics, but it’s primarily about intimacy with God and others. It’s worth noting that Henri Nouwen comes from a Catholic ish perspective, which is interesting, because I think he was a priest… i.e. no sex in his life.

On page one of the book, Nouwen sets out his purpose as follows:

“I wrote on different occasions, for different people, with different questions in mind. I wrote not to solve a problem or formulate a theory but to respond to men and women who wanted to share their struggles in trying to find their vocation in this chaotic world.”

With that purpose in mind, I tried to be a good audience and to take Nouwen on his terms rather than my own, and though I disagreed with him on many a point, I was deeply touched by the chapter he wrote on prayer.

Nouwen had the privilege of reading the prayers of various college students during the Vietnam war. Though it irked me that he critiqued excerpts from the various prayers he included in the book, as if there can be a rubric for assessing a person’s conversations with the Almighty, I felt joy and honor in being able to hear/read the deepest longings, fears, joys… of the hearts of others.

In fact, the intimacy I felt with people I’ve never met, many of whom are likely deceased, got me to thinking about my own prayers and what I tend to say (or not to say) to God. I thought about how valuable it would be for each of us to see other people’s prayers, read them, feel them, thinking them… how much better prepared we would be to have our own conversations with God if only we had a sense of how other people talk to Him. And yet, it seems impossible for us not to hold our prayers close to our hearts, secret and safe.

Therefore, though my prayers often feel embarrassing and inadequate to me, I thought it would be interesting for me to go ahead and post some of my most often-repeated prayers.

  1. “Help __________ go smoothly.”
  2. “Be with me and be my Abba.”
  3. “Use me.”
  4. “Why am I still here?”
  5. “Help me stop doing _________.”
  6. “Hold me in the palm of Your hand. Shelter me in the shadow of Your wings.”
  7. “Help me to know You.”
  8. “Help me to communicate _________well to __________.”
  9. “Draw ________ into Yourself and help him/her to know You  more fully.”
  10. “Be glorified in my life so that just one more might be saved, like Shindler’s List.”

 

The thing that struck me as I thought over these prayers, which I lean on as stability in my life, is how often I ask God to do the things that He has promised to do, as if I don’t trust Him to be as good as He says He is. The other thing that struck me is how selfish most of my prayers are. They’re about the insecurities I’m feeling, both in relation to God and in relation to the world.

Also, though I always end by thanking God for Jesus and by saying, “It’s in Jesus’s name I pray. Amen,” Jesus, for the most part, is absent from my prayers.

An Assault Upon the Flesh


Over the summer, I fasted for the first time. I’m one of those people who’s never really felt like I had a good reason to fast. I felt like fasting was somehow akin to speaking in tongues, and it wasn’t something I felt I ever needed to do in my relationship with God.

Then, I just really struggled.

I struggled with work. I struggled with church. I struggled with friendships. I struggled with family. I struggled with romance. I struggled with reading and writing. Just about the only thing that was going well in my life for awhile was running, so I settled in and trained, and I ran a marathon.

The day I fasted was just about a week after running the marathon.

I felt like God was far away. I felt like I was resistant to Him, even though I didn’t want to be. I felt like everyone around me was falling apart. I felt like I’d never be happy again. I had just quit my job with no prospects for the future. I’d thrown my crap into a rental car days after my last day of teaching, and I drove to San Diego to run a race. And then, after running the race, I just drove.

I planned on driving up the coast and being alone a lot. I planned on walking along the beach, praying, reading, writing, and re-adjusting my attitude.

I thought fasting might be a decent idea.

So, I took one day, and I fasted. I wasn’t sure what the rules are of fasting. I thought about Islam, and I thought fasts in that situation end at sundown or something. I thought about Jews and what they would consider fasting (I didn’t actually know). I thought about whether fasting means no calories at all, or just no solid food… and I decided that I could have a Starbucks and that was it until Midnight.

It was a good day, and I can’t say with any certainty that fasting is what knocked me back into myself. In all honesty, I think it was probably a dozen different things that all contributed to putting me back together.

Then, I was sitting at Starbucks I am sitting at Starbucks, and I just finished reading my daily chapter of Bonhoeffer, and I came to something that I think accurately describes the role fasting played in my life, “As soon as a Christian recognizes that he has failed in his service, that his readiness has become feeble, and that he has sinned against another’s life and become guilty of another’s guilt, that all his joy in God has vanished and that his capacity for prayer has quite gone, it is high time for him to launch an assault upon the flesh, and prepare for better service by fasting and prayer,” (The Cost of Discipleship ch. 16).

Fasting, for me was an assault upon the flesh.

Every time I felt hungry or thought about food, I prayed. I spent a lot of the day thanking God for how much food is available  to me. I live in an abundance of food like the world has never seen throughout its history. I think about food all day, every day, and what I think is, “Should I eat ______, or should I eat ________?” I consider whether or not I want to cook for myself or eat out. I consider how many calories I’m at and whether I can stand putting myself at a calorie deficit for the day. I plan out what times I’m going to eat so that I can exercise, sleep, etc… without feeling uncomfortable. Not eating is interesting, because so many of the decisions I make in a day are about food. With those decisions off my plate (haha!), I found myself feeling really calm and at ease.

And I found myself able to put everything into perspective. All of my struggles seemed less significant in light of how completely secure I feel in God meeting my day-to-day needs. God has never left me hungry. Never. That single fact deserves so much more gratitude than I ever feel or express.

Holding Hands in the Wreckage


* Here’s a throw-back post that originally went up Nov. 24, 2010. I felt like it ended up defining me as a writer and a person in many ways. Enjoy.

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I’ve been thinking about endings a lot lately.  I’ve been thinking about the ending to my manuscript, the end of Harry Potter’s story, and the endings in my own life (most of which aren’t even visible on the horizon because I’m younger than I think I am).  I’ve had a bunch of conversations recently – with some people who are idealistic and others who are disillusioned – and in these conversations, I bounce back and forth between fluffy optimism and tortured cynicism.  I’m the devil’s advocate.  If the person I’m talking to is being all double rainbow all the way across the sky, I’m snow melted inside your boots and all over your favorite socks.  If I’m talking to someone who can’t conceive a world in which Bambi’s mom lives, I’m world peace (and harsher punishments for parole violators)… not because I’m trying to disagree with everyone, but because life, I think, is the impossible melding of hope and realism.

Earlier this week, I was reading the Invincible Summer blog by Hannah Moskowitz, and she wrote something that really hit on this balance and on what readers and humanity desire out of stories and life.

“No evil winning. Your characters don’t have to be making out in the sunset, but they have to at least be holding hands in the wreckage.”

When I come to the end of a journey in life or a story, I want a hopeful ending.  I don’t need it to be all warm & fuzzy and perfect.  I don’t need Harry to come out of it unscathed, nor would I suspend my disbelief if Rowling had written it that way.  The truth is that life is hard.  The world is a messed-up place where people die, hearts are broken, and tears are frequently justified.  However, I also can’t stomach hopelessness.  Voldemort can’t win.

In life and in stories, I have to hope towards the future.  I have to hope that good things happen when we don’t deserve them and that there’s a good God spreading out breath-taking goodness for us because He is good.  I have to believe for my characters and for myself.  I look forward to holding hands in the wreckage, and I pray that all of my readers can trust in a God who makes that happen for us.

The Lost Art of the Struggle


As I’ve been struggling for the past year or so, with depression, wanting the wrong man, hating my job, hating the church, etc… I’ve learned something worth sharing. I’ve learned that struggling is a lost art form that needs renaissance.

The responses my struggle elicited in Christian friends most often included them telling me to give in or telling me to move away and start fresh elsewhere. People said a few other things. Few of them demonstrated much empathy. Several tried to recycle their own experiences and apply them to my life, as if they and I are interchangeable. Only really one thing anyone said was very helpful, and that helpful person is probably the one least likely to believe he helped.

I think these responses reveal that the church has lost a necessary and intimate knowledge of the struggle. We give in way too easily and refuse or neglect to struggle well and to the full extent of our capabilities. Consequently, I don’t think we grow in endurance, character, and hope, as they’re described in Romans 5, where Paul, a man uniquely qualified to comment on struggle, wrote that: “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…”

We, as individuals and as the church, aren’t what we ought to be. It is rare that I meet a person who possesses endurance, character, and hope, and I’m sad to say that the majority of those I’ve observed living out those attributes as I’d like to live them out myself… they are rarely Christians.

When faced with struggle, which may or may not be reasonably categorized as suffering, I was advised by believers to give in to it or to run from it. While I can see the wisdom in sometimes removing myself from a tempting situation, I don’t believe moving to another city and away from the man or the job will make me any less likely to struggle with lust or depression. Obviously, giving into either of those will end up with increased struggle… more lust or possible suicide attempts.

That advice is evidence of a compete misunderstanding of what it is to be human, as well as what it means to belong to God, in Christ.

Being human means that I am at war with the flesh OR I am submitted to it. There is no getting around the fact that my humanity makes me want that which will destroy me. Belonging to God, in Christ means that my sins were punished and defeated in the destruction and resurrection of Someone good and perfect. I therefore, must simultaneously rejoice in and lament the cross.

Belonging to God does not put an end to my desire for that which will destroy me; Christians, in fact, are just as at war with the flesh or submitted to it as non-believers are… until we leave this world behind.

This doctrine is crucial to my current struggle and to every temptation a Christian can face, because choosing to sin is a willful choice to add greater disgrace and pain to our Savior. It is a devaluation of Christ’s actions on our behalf. It is a sense of entitlement to grace, and it is offensive and insulting.

Additionally, choosing to leave temptation behind for another city and another situation may seem like a solution, but it is only temporary. The temptation never dwelt solely in the situation; it also dwelt in me. In other cities, there will be other men to lust after and other jobs to feed my depression.

Overcoming temptation and sin is not something done quickly or easily, which seems to be at the heart of the advice offered to me.

Give in.

Run.

It pisses me off that individuals in the church and the church itself cannot help me in my struggles because they don’t know what I know: that the way to endurance, character, and hope is paved with soreness of heart and ungratified angst.

There is no quick fix, and I am not one with whom there can be much success in peddling counterfeit faith. In the words of J.I. Packer (although, I believe he was quoting someone else when he wrote this), “I have known God.” True faith is far more than what folks are offering to me while I’m struggling. I know this, because I have known God.

Believing is really freakin’ difficult, but I don’t know what the hell are we doing if, when people come to us with their lust and depression, we have little better to offer than avoidance. Isn’t there more? Can’t we be more?

I think we not only can be more, but I believe we ought to be more.

I believe we ought to reclaim the art of the struggle by taking up the whole the armor of God when faced with temptation and struggle, and that there is no better advice for us in those times than to “fasten on the belt of truth…put on the breastplate of righteousness… as shoes… put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace… take up the shield of faith… take up the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit… praying at all times.”

But what we say is bullshit.

We don’t tell those who struggle to work out their salvation in the quiet of a closet, in the dark of night, with absolute fear and trembling. We don’t tell them to train themselves for godliness, set the example for believers, devote themselves to the reading of scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. We don’t tell them to immerse themselves in these things or to keep a close watch on themselves and those around them. That advice is worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

What we offer is as cheap as what the world offers, and far less gratifying. We offer surrender to sin or avoidance of life, neither of which is the freedom we claim exists in Christ. If we believe, and I mean truly believe, the way to keep ourselves from sleeping with the wrong man must be more than the advice the world offers. It must reveal character and hope in the adviser, cultivated in years of endurance. One who has never endured certainly cannot well-advise me to endure, as one who does not exhibit character cannot instruct me in character growth, and one who has no hope, sure as hell better shut up and stop telling me to give into temptation or to run from it.

The armor of God is sufficient for the struggle. That’s what people should be telling me. The Word of God should be dripping from the lips, rather than caught in their throats because they aren’t sure what I want to hear – whether I’m hoping they’ll give me permission to sin or not.