When Lucifer Wins

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This weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus in a theater based on (and named after) Blackfriars theater in Britain (contemporary with Shakespeare and Marlowe). For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of the play, the gist is as follows: Dude named Faustus makes a deal with a demon named Mephistopheles–and by extension with Lucifer himself–selling his soul if he can retain Mephistopheles as his servant, companion, and teacher for the rest of his life, which is given an end date in the contract. Now, go read the play–or better yet see it. There will be a major spoiler in this post, and I would rather you all watched or read the play yourselves before checking out what I have to say.

The play was wonderful, the actors were nearly flawless, and the setting was incredible. Sitting in the balcony looking down on the action (which was almost directly underneath us), I was caught up in the magic of the theater once again. Though the actors used no background set and relatively few props, they drew me in and wrapped me in the intensity of the plot. I was watching Faustus, yet I was Faustus. I am watching the sinner sell himself to Lucifer, and I am the sinner who has given myself over to destruction.

SPOILER ALERT.

At the climax of the play, Faustus sees  a vision of Christ on the cross. He recognizes the power of Christ to save. And there we were–the whole audience–watching Faustus while being Faustus. Would he choose to confess and beg for mercy on his death bed? Would he–and vicariously, would we–be saved? Lucifer watches in horror as Faustus gapes at his vision of Christ. We hold our breath and silently beg Faustus to save us all by rejecting Lucifer and clinging to Christ.

But Faustus turns.

He leaves the vision behind, renounces Christ for the final time, and is ushered into Hell.

The theater is silent. We are shocked, though we have seen the ending from the beginning. We feel the flames of Hell licking at our feet. We hear Faustus’s final screams echoing in our ears. At once Hell is real, and Lucifer stands before us. The light has been sucked out of the room. We are Faustus, and we are in Hell.

Lucifer stands and recites the moral of the tale. We gape at Faustus’s body, enshrouded in a faceless demon’s suit. The Devil has won, and we are alone.

Yet, even then–even in the face of tragedy–even as we see where the tortured soul lies, we are reminded that Faustus had a choice. We are hopeful that we can choose the other path. We rejoice because Heaven is as real as Hell, if only we will hear Christ’s call.

In the literary world, the word for this is catharsis. A typical part of tragedy (particularly in ancient Greek plays and those in the Western tradition), catharsis is a method by which is excite or purge (or perhaps both) pity and guilt from our souls and from our communities. There is a scapegoat, in this case Faustus, who suffers so that we may suffer vicariously. Faustus represents the perfect lamb of Israelite sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Faustus dimly echoes our Savior Jesus Christ, who died so that we might live. Faustus does this even as he rejects the atonement Christ offers. He does this all by exposing the wretchedness in our own hearts–the silly jabs we make at others, the forbidden things we desire, the cruelty which simmers beneath our put-together (public) faces. We watch Faustus in awe. We laugh at some of his antics, we marvel at the power he commands–or thinks he commands–and we watch him sink into his own depths of sin. We shudder and squirm when we realize that we perhaps shouldn’t be laughing or admiring this trickster. We realize that our sin is Faustus’s–valuing ourselves and our desires above all. When Lucifer wins in Dr. Faustus, we are driven to Christ in recognition of our one wrong-doing and wrong-thinking. We are Faustus, and we have a choice.

Whether Lucifer wins is determined by our decision. May we find our refuge in Christ.

A(nother) New Adventure

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In just a few days, several of my friends–and my little sister!–will begin perhaps the biggest adventure of their lives so far. They will be traveling to Mexico for a week to visit an orphanage, to help out with some work that needs to be done, and to form lasting relationships with some kids who are very important to me. Now, it’s true that not all of my friends will form lasting friendships with all the kids they are going to meet. But I believe that if they try–if they’re looking for more than just a moment–they will find a child (or teen) who connects with them.

I get so excited when I think of the adventure my friends are preparing for. I think back to my first trip to Mexico–shoveling dirt out to prepare for the foundation of a new building, riding in a van on streets whose names I couldn’t pronounce (Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, still provides the names for many streets and towns there), and laughing as I tried to make my textbook Spanish sound right when it came out of my mouth. We played soccer–or fĂștbol–in spite of our limited skills, we learned a bit about Mexico’s history, and we ate wonderful food. But what I remember most is the faces. Faces of children who have become my extended network of siblings over time. Faces of adults who have given years of their lives and have sacrificed in order to make sure these kids have safe homes and guardians they can trust. Faces of teachers, cooks, and office workers–all trying to make the world a brighter place for kids who have suffered in the past. I have dozens of friends and siblings in those faces–they are people who mean more than I can properly express. So it thrills me to know that my sister and my friends in the United States are soon going to meet my siblings and friends in Mexico.

I want to give these young travelers some advice about what to expect, and I suppose I could say the typical–albeit important–things. Stay with your group. Remember that laughter and hugs can cross any language barrier. Eat all your food; someone worked very hard to make it. I could share tons of advice that I’ve received over my various trips to this orphanage. Or I could leave you all with my own thoughts:

Have fun. Don’t be afraid to try out your Spanish. Even if you get it wrong, try again. Laugh at yourself. You’re going to make mistakes or act silly. It’s okay. Get to know the house parents, the cooks, the support staff. You’ll be drawn to the kids, but the adults in their lives are amazing people who can teach you a lot. Work hard; put all your effort into the task you’ve been given. Play hard; once your work is done for the day, you have the opportunity to meet some wonderful people. Take advantage of that. Eat a lot! With all your hard work and play, you’ll be needing the extra food. Just don’t forget you’ll be eating 4 meals each day. :) When you go into the city, pay attention to the history around you. There is a lot to see and learn. Thank your sponsors. They have given up a week with their families to spend it with you. This might be their vacation time from work. Make sure you tell them how much you appreciate that. Listen. Listen to your teammates, to your sponsors, to the children. Listen to the people serving God around you. Listen to God. You have so much you could learn, and if you listen, you’ll be better equipped to learn as much as you can. Be honest with yourself. Stretch yourself. You’re going to be in another country, for goodness’ sake. Look at the world from a different perspective. Be uncomfortable–it’s okay. But ask yourself why you’re uncomfortable. Build new friendships, pray a lot, and keep a journal. You’re going to want to remember what happens in these few days. Oh, and don’t forget to take lots of pictures. Your family may see those photos a few times, but you’re going to want the memories forever.

Que Dios Les Bendiga :)

For the Long Haul

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Lately I’ve been writing. But it’s different this time. In the midst of the six-page papers and the frequent (or not-so-frequent) blog posts, I have finally started a novel. The story’s almost complete, though I still need several tens of thousands of words more to make it long enough. That’s okay though. Writing stories takes time.

The story started out as a brief image–the final scene. Then it became a short story. The original final scene was retained in spirit, but its form was less blatant. After that, some friends work-shopped it in class and gave me some helpful suggestions. They didn’t really care for the ending as it stood, so I changed it again, making it more subdued. But the story wasn’t right yet. Too short. Not enough detail. My main character begged for more time, more pages to make his case and tell his story. So I prepared to make a long project of his story.

Fortunately for me, my school allows literature majors to get credit for things like this. All I needed to do was put together a proposal and find myself a published author who was willing to read my story and help me improve it. Sounds simple enough. But after weeks of stress and dead ends, I thought I’d never finish the paperwork and actually start my story. I mean, I was coming up with ideas for my story off and on during the paperwork phase, but I couldn’t devote the proper time to it.

When I finally had time to write the story itself, I thought I was going to basically copy and paste the short story into a new Word document and augment what I already had. Imagine my surprise when that didn’t work! In fact, at this point I have stopped looking at my short story entirely and am simply trying to write the longer version. Only one or two paragraphs from my original document have made it into my new version–and those paragraphs have had some alterations. What I’ve discovered is that writing a short story is very different from expanding to the next level–not quite a novella, but long enough to be entirely unpublishable as a short story. The style of writing is much more like a novel. My characters and my narration are more introspective and less action driven. They wonder. They plod. But since I haven’t reached novel length yet, I suspect the language of my story will change even more.

Maybe you’re wondering if that’s frustrating–to have poured hours into creating, sharing, and editing a short story only to reject it almost in its entirety. Oh–and I wrote the final scene for my longer story (though I don’t have all the middling parts yet). It’s completely different in spirit from any ending I’ve written so far, though it does occur in roughly the same location with the same main idea. Even so, I am enjoying this process. I have created two unique stories so far–stories that interact with one another, that draw out different aspects of my characters, that create a fuller world for those characters to live in. I only hope that one day, when I finally coax this story to unburden its whole weight into a complete novel–I only hope that these shorter stories will be incorporated, not necessarily in their language, but in their insights. Because that is the purpose of writing, I think: to expose the light and the darkness of the world and to find the truth waiting there.

So, as I continue writing this story, I hope it will grow into a garden instead of a monstrosity. For that reason, I am grateful to my mentor, who is gracious but firm in her critiques. She gives me room to disagree and grow as a writer, but she also brings in the heritage of years of writing her successfully published novels. Writing this story has been a struggle–a greater burden than I imagined. Sometimes I reread my ending and find myself surprised at where my story finished–even though I knew where it was headed from the moment I started typing. But I am surrounded by friends and guided by a mentor who will not let me fail. This may not be the best story I’ve ever written (yet), but I’m on my way. I’m in it for the long haul.

At the Table

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There is something holy about sitting on the floor in a dorm, with only the strings of Christmas light illuminating the room. And there is something holy about sitting there across from your best friend, splitting two cupcakes left over from the birthday celebration earlier in the week.

Maybe it’s all the Romantics I’ve been reading, but I couldn’t help considering the holiness of the moment–the place of God in this seemingly simple snack.

I recall another shared meal, a couple thousand years ago. A meal shared by close friends in their own small space. A meal of simple foods, preparing to remember a day of deliverance thousands of years prior. A meal where the Greatest of Friends began a tradition which has lasted through the centuries, a tradition of breaking bread that reminds us of what that Friend did in the following hours.

I think about the frequent meals that began just a few weeks after that ancient one. The meals where men and women fearing for their lives would huddle around a table, sit on the floor with their backs against the walls, or stand wherever there was space and pass around the bread and the cup of wine. The meals since then that have been held in grand cathedrals with gold adorning the altar. The meal shared among a group of teenagers who had just abstained from food for 30 hours in order to raise awareness for the plight of the countless starving around the world. The meal silently given from hand to hand in dark basements, in brightly-lit chapels, in school buildings, and out in the open, surrounded by nature.

But I do not only think of the strictly holy meal–that which is known as Communion, The Lord’s Supper, and the Eucharist. I also think of a meal shared with my youth pastor nearly 8 years ago as we talked about the significance of sharing meals in the Church–the community that happens over plates of burgers and potato salad at church picnics. There is something holy about baking cookies and sharing them with the group of girls that come over to study the Bible every week.

I remember the tradition a friend and I established around the time we went to college. Neither of us are good at making detailed plans, so when we found something we liked, we stuck to it. Now, every time we get back home and hang out, we meet up at our favorite pasta place and talk for a while before heading over to get ice cream at a fast food joint down the road. There is something holy about savoring the last bites of pasta while rehashing the joys, fears, and hopes of the past semester. There is something holy about admitting to pain and reveling in excitement.

Perhaps what makes the table so holy is the honesty that is available there. We are surrounded by the bounty of unmerited favor–a delicious meal prepared by our hands or by someone else’s. We typically eat with those people whom we trust the most. There is something holy about that trust. We feel–if not comfortable–less frightened of removing our masks during a meal. After all, how do you get a helping of chocolate cake when you’re busy holding a mask in front of your mouth? Something in the holy setting of a meal requires us to become more ourselves. Perhaps that is why America has become the fast-food nation. We are so terrified of sitting down and looking across the table at someone that we pull up in our cars, shove our debit cards at the kid in the drive-thru window, and reach for the greasy bags of food handed to us–all without looking a single person in the eye. We drive home, kids in the back seat munching on French fries and–for the first time that day!–being blessedly silent. But that is for another time.

The table requires us to become more ourselves. And in those brief holy moments, we see a glimpse of who we are, of who the person next to us is, and–perhaps–of who God is. At the table, we commune with the souls surrounding us. We reject isolation and refute loneliness. If only we will sit at the table.

The Little Church

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Sometime in early November, I switched churches. I returned to a church that I visited my freshman year of college. Now my roommate and I attend there, along with many of our peers in the literature major, every Sunday at 10 AM. We drive out to a school building and huddle in the auditorium with our church.

The little church with its passionate worship and honest sermons. Where the little kids squirm through worship before bounding off to Sunday school. Where the babies coo or cry, safely wrapped in Daddy’s arms while Mommy smiles at the scene. Where the big sister tries to act just like Mommy, fussing over her baby doll and raising her hands in worships.

The little church with its realistic outlook. They’ve been through a lot since right before I came to college, and this small body is shaken. But our God is strong, and the people around me know that to be true. They don’t shy away from the pain and pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead, these radically honest people pick up the pieces of shattered hearts and carry their friends to Jesus.

The little church with its radical commitment to being the Body of Christ. Even when the heater doesn’t seem to be warming up the auditorium. Or when everyone’s so tired that the pastor isn’t sure we’re hearing him speak. Or when somebody’s new and lonely and a little afraid of what this church thing will mean for them.

This is my church. And while we have our faults–after all, we’re still human–this little community of believers reminds me of what I’ve been painstakingly translating from Greek this past week. Luke writes in his account of the early church: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). That’s what my little church in the public school auditorium does. We read the Scriptures and, though we don’t have the apostles to stand on stage and preach directly to us, we study their words under the instruction of men who have studied the Bible diligently, men who continue to study and grow and lead us. We sing and talk and laugh together. We share in communion every week, and–what’s more–we have bagels and donuts and fruit every week after church. And I haven’t even mentioned the church meals they host periodically. And we pray together. Sometimes we split into small groups and pray. Every week we pray as a whole congregation–multiple times in our service. Often I see someone off to the side before or after service, praying with another person from our little congregation.

We may not be large or perfect or even typical. But we are a little cluster of the Church, sharing in life together and bearing each others’ burdens. And that’s pretty cool.

Lonely

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I’m about to get real. So real I can’t believe I’m writing this for anyone to read. But here’s the raw truth, or at least part of it. Since coming back to the US, I have been desperately lonely. I don’t know how to really interact with people. I don’t usually say the right things in conversation (as noted in last week’s post). I put up walls and talk really loud and laugh a lot. I have an opinion on everything. But I am drowning in the deep dark oceans of reverse culture shock. My college, being very new still, does not have a study-abroad program. Several students have been overseas, but there is no easy way to connect with these students about our frustrations. It requires a lot of vulnerability, and to be honest, I don’t think we can handle it. I think we’re too scared to be the first to say, “I feel alone. I am broken.”

What makes it harder is that most of us who have been overseas for any length of time were doing missions work. We’re supposed to have had this great experience of God and feel all sorts of pity for those poor people in other countries who live without daily Starbucks and consistent internet. So if we don’t feel those things, what are we supposed to do?

Because let me tell you: I don’t feel that way. Sure, I experienced God in amazing ways this summer. Of course I saw Him work. Yes, I was moved to tears at times. But the truth is, I don’t pity my friends in Mexico. If anything, I envy them. I wish I could spend all my time hugging little kids and having deeper talks with teens. Yes, they come from bad situations. Of course I wish that these things had never happened to them. But what I have learned is this: God can take every broken heart, every tear-stained face, every bitter child, and He can give them a home. A home that, while not perfect, will shelter them from abuse and will fill them up with good things. Guardians who will teach them what’s important in life. And these children can–and not uncommonly do–grow up and come back to the home so they can invest in the broken, angry, tired children who come after them. They grow up to live full lives. Sure, they might not get their daily Starbucks, but what’s that matter? Those kids LIVE.

I’m not sure this post went where I intended it to, but I guess I’ll end with this: I”m lonely. I’m broken. I’m not perfectly all right yet. And that’s okay. My summer has changed me a great deal. I’ve not processed everything yet. I’m not entirely sure what it all means. But as I sit in the dimly lit chapel on campus and listen to my peers sing, I am reminded that there truly is no one like our God. I know that the God who hears the frightened child in an abusive home at night also hears a confused young woman in a college chapel. I know that He hears me and that He care.

So I may be lonely and confused and angry for a time, but the God who was too big for death is the same God who cares about every frustrated tear I cry.

And that is enough to make me write.

How Are You?

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It’s a simple question, and one I get asked at least a dozen times a day. And I’m an extrovert, so that means I have at least a hundred things to say in any given moment, right? Wrong. Among the many things that have changed or become more pronounced since my return to the US, I have found this seemingly simple social convention incredibly difficult to respond to. It’s not that people didn’t ask me how I was in Mexico. It’s just that when someone asked me that question in English we were usually going deeper than casual conversation. We were discussing spiritual health and culture shock and living in a house with 16 kids from incredibly difficult backgrounds. Suddenly I’m back in the States, and even after months to get used to it, I still struggle to form an acceptable response.

Sometimes I can get it right the first time: “Doing well. How are you?” But usually I stare blankly at the person, stutter out a few words, and only much later in the conversation remember that I should have asked how they’re doing as well. Again, it’s not that these pleasantries aren’t exchanged in Mexico. I don’t know entirely what’s fueling this faux pas. I recognize it’s horribly impolite. I’m sure that my mother and grandmothers are reading this and cringing (sorry). But something in my mind cannot respond when someone asks how I’m doing.

I want to tell you that I’m doing great, that classes are fine, that life is busy. But while all that is true, I’m also at a loss for words.

How am I?

Well, I’m still a bit overwhelmed by this whole readjustment thing. I guess I haven’t yet had time to process, so I just sort of jumped back into life and tried to pretend everything was normal. But–who’d’ve thunk?–nothing is normal. I spent my summer living with a very different normal than I grew up with. I spent my summer experiencing a very different normal than I’ve been living at school. In fact, I spent my summer breathing in an atmosphere that is almost as foreign to most people as the moon is. How often in your life do you live down the hall from several girls, all of whom speak your second language and all of whom have been abused? Is it really all that normal to refer to someone 6 years older than you as “Mom” in some sense? Are there that many people out there who have sat on a twin-sized bed in a pint-sized room with a half-dozen preteen girls (who come from unspeakable situations) talking about how no matter what hurt life brings–and no matter how hard it is to understand–God is always with us, and He always cares? And how many of us get to share our suffering with those kids, so that just maybe those hurting girls can see that we know God stands beside us, instead of just hearing that?

So life is not normal, and I don’t always know how I am.

Because I can switch gears in a moment. Sitting in a church service, listening to the music, I am suddenly swept away to a different service or to the mountain air or to my house’s crowded van. Eating in the dining hall with friends, I blink and reopen my eyes to see a table filled with 12-year-olds laughing and whining and asking for seconds. And when someone asks me how I am, I guess I find myself greeting kids as they burst out of the school doors: “How was your day?” “What did you learn?” Did you have fun?”

So instead of letting my mouth respond automatically, my brain is overloaded with faces and sounds and laughter. It’s too much to process all at once, and when I come back to myself, I realize that my friends are still standing in front of me, waiting for a response and looking a little concerned.

So, here’s my response, in case you’re stuck there waiting: I’m doing great. Life is full, and that is good. How are you?