When Truth and Tradition Collide

Cover.jpgSince my last post, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow. There are some questions everyone asks me, such as, “How did you come up with that title?” Around Christmas time, everyone wanted to talk about the not-a-barn where Jesus was born, and a particularly fun interviewer wondered what kind of music I choose when David isn’t in the car.

At some point in every interview–often after some levity and laughter–the host gets serious and asks me, “Why did you write this book?” That should be an easy question, but I break into a sweat every time I start to answer because it is impossible to edit my life into a five-second sound bite. (Or an entire blog post, as it turns out!)

I was a “good kid.” I grew up in the Bible Belt and experienced Believer’s Baptism twiceat ages 8 and 9–because my family switched denominations. From the fourth grade, I attended church Sundays and Wednesdays, did my “quiet time” every night before bed, and followed every rule every day. Such societal structures reinforced my Type-A personality, set me up for academic success, and gave me a constant awareness of and connection to God.

My spiritual foundation was first shaken in my late teens. I took religious studies courses at Rhodes College, and for the first time I was learning from people who did not believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God–but who knew more about it than any Sunday School teacher I’d ever met. In my first semester, my eyes were opened to everything that is “wrong” with my beloved Bible, all the contradictions, textual errors, and historical inaccuracies.

For the next several years, I described my faith as schizophrenic. In class I was learning and regurgitating biblical facts that threatened to undermine my biblical faith. Many of my classmates abandoned Christianity as they learned there was no apple in Eden, Moses parted a reed sea, Jericho was destroyed long before Joshua got there, Goliath (probably) wasn’t nine feet tall, there is no whale in the Book of Jonah, and Jesus was three years old when the Wise Men showed up. But I still had my quiet time every night in my dorm room. My faith in God never wavered, although my understanding of Him did.

After four years of keeping my academic side separate from my spiritual side, a conservative Jew put me back together. While studying Exodus 19 (where Moses goes up and down Mt. Sinai umpteen times with the speed of The Flash), Dr. Schultz highlighted all the places the Hebrew text repeats itself. The class already knew he would say the copied lines are evidence of multiple authors being involved in the creation of the text, but we didn’t expect him to then use those so-called errors as evidence in favor of God’s presence in the creation of the chapter.

His logic was simple: no writer or editor would ever “make the mistake” of including contradictions, errors, or inaccuracies in the final version of any text, let alone a divine one. There’s no way the thousands of scribes who followed them would then leave the “mistakes” uncorrected. God must be responsible.

This is a bold stand for a PhD to make because the first question anyone would ask him is, “Why did God do that?” No matter how many theories anyone ever proposes, the answer will always be, “I don’t know.” And that’s an uncomfortable statement for any human.

Maybe there’s a little Type-A in all of us. We like to know what is true and what is false. How things work, and why things happen. To that end, we humans might prefer that God have an annual conference call with all of us where He answers questions, gives instructions, and maybe chastises those who disagree with our personal opinions.

But that isn’t how God has chosen to interact with us. He is a God of relationships. He wanted to walk with us in the Garden of Eden forever; He did walk with us for awhile two millennia ago. He wants us to know Him, and that means reading His words, spending time on the hard parts, discussing them with Him in prayer, and debating them with others in fellowship.

Sadly this very quest for truth and the heart of God can lead to dissension in the churches. We must hold lightly to our own revelations because the stubborn adoption of one human’s idea over another’s causes denominations to divide. These Christians  insist those Christians aren’t Christians. A nine-year-old girl wonders why a dunk is better than a sprinkle when she knows her God hasn’t changed.

God wants us to study His word for ourselves, but remember that the mystery is in the text by His design. It helps us to keep coming back to discover more about Him, and as we know Him better, we want to share Him more. So that is why I wrote my book(s): I love God and His Words, and I want to share that with everyone. I want people to know they are as empowered to study the word of God as any theologian, and that it is okay to ask questions of His text and our traditions. (He can take it, and the church needs to be more self-reflective anyway!)

In time we will all be right and wrong about nonessentials, but disagreement must not divide us. As Jesus said, we are to

“Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.”This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes. (Matthew 22:37-40)
 

Available from book retailers February 23, 2021.

My Mission this Mother’s Day

Not long after I signed with Harvest House Publishers, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book they were publishing about infertility. Mothers in Waiting: Healing and Hope for Those with Empty Arms* is a collection of 30 women’s personal stories as they tried to become mothers. It was compiled by a mother-in-law–daughter-in-law team with the goal of meeting women along their infertility journeys so no one walks that tough path alone. I instantly agreed because that had also been my goal with Barren. You’ll find my story in chapter 9.

In the five years since I wrote Barren among the Fruitful, David and I have accepted that we won’t be biological parents. Our lives have been upended several times as we moved across the country twice, endured my 3 gynecological surgeries in 10 months, supported a loved one in prison for a crime that never happened, mourned career disappointments, and celebrated career successes. In hindsight, we see how God was able to use us and our resources differently in these and other situations because we weren’t raising kids. We had more time and attention to give, and we are thankful for that.

Don’t get me wrong–we would both still give our right arms to have had children. We are reminded of them each Mother’s and Father’s Day as so many churches dedicate babies, rightly extol the virtues of parenthood, and maybe give flowers to the moms. Each year we debate whether or not we will attend services on those holidays, and we usually agree that our emotions would inhibit any joyous corporate worship. I’m not sure that will ever change.

While I will always remain tender and attentive to the causes of infertility and female cancers, the publications of books such as Mothers in Waiting and the incredible ministries that accompany many of them reveal how God is using other authors and speakers to show His love to people struggling to grow their families. As He has enabled them for this important work, God has prepared my heart, head, and life for a new mission.

I will be spending this summer in Israel digging at Tel Shimron and writing my next book, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel (February 2021), and with a little luck I’ll “dig Egypt” the following year! God has made a way for me to return to my first love–biblical archaeology–and share the field’s insights into Scripture with the world. He has filled this “hopeful” woman with joy and thankfulness and excitement through situations I never could have manufactured myself. I understand that I would not have the time, energy, or will to devote to writing and travel if I were a mother, and I thank Him for this opportunity to serve Him and for the peace He has given me about the future.

God always knows the outcome before we know the circumstances.

*I receive no compensation for my contribution to or endorsement of this book.

After Easter

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“See, Peter, I told you He isn’t in there!” (overheard at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem)

Scholars tell us that Jesus was born in 4 BC. Assuming–and this is an admittedly HUGE assumption–they and all post-AD calendars are correct, yesterday was the 1,990th anniversary of Easter.

Today we all await the fulfillment of the last big prophecy—the end of the world.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins wrote an entertaining and popular fictional series about the biblical apocalypse. I read all twelve books of the Left Behind series as they were published, and I enjoyed most of them. They begin with the Rapture, a doctrine that states the last generation of Christians on Earth will be “beamed up” to heaven before the Tribulation. The rest of the series details the authors’ interpretations of the Tribulation and ends with the Second Coming of the Christ. When I read the novels I believed this tradition of Rapture, so the books made me think I had a solid grasp of Scripture and understood what the Apocalypse will look like.

The danger of highly entertaining books with biblical inspirations such as the Left Behind series and The DaVinci Code is that they seem to be more fact than fiction. The characters are all made up, sure, but it is easy to believe that the books’ settings and events are based in reality. My favorite genre of escapist literature is historical fiction, so this is a tempting trap I know very well.

Once the idea of the Rapture came up in a conversation, and others were surprised to hear that I don’t wholly accept this doctrine. I realized pretty quickly that they (and a lot of other people, it turns out) associated the Rapture with the Second Coming of Christ. The two should not be conflated. Rapture is a tradition (the word never appears in the Bible); the Second Coming, or Parousia, is Scripture. I absolutely believe Jesus will return.

The Pre-Tribulation Rapture doctrine is a relatively new one. It was developed in the late 1800s by British theologian John Nelson Darby and then popularized in America in 1907 when C. I. Scofield’s Reference Bible was printed. It takes disparate verses of the New Testament and combines them to form the doctrine. The doctrine isn’t exactly a product of proof-texting, but it is close.

The theory begins with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, where Paul is answering the questions of church members who are wondering what will happen to their Christian friends and family who have died prior to Jesus’ Second Coming:

But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [in death], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.

For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

The Thessalonians were part of the Greek culture that believed there was no returning from death. Greek Christians were, at that time, unique in their beliefs in the completed resurrection of the Christ, and they were trusting in Jesus’ words (Matthew 24) that they would be resurrected as well. It seems their faiths were eroding as they lived among the Greek pagans, watched Jesus-following church members die, and waited for His return. Paul is setting their minds at ease here by reminding them of what they already know. At the Second Coming of Christ—not before—the dead will rise and the living will follow them. According to Paul, Jesus returns before anyone living or dead rises.

I always assumed the Rapture was detailed in Revelation. It is not. The only people who ascend to heaven in that book are John of Patmos (to see this vision), the two witnesses (11:12), and the “Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (12:5). To connect John’s vision of Revelation to Jesus’ description of the Tribulation and Paul’s assurance that the dead and living will rise when He returns, you have to get pretty creative.

Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.

If you read Revelation 3:10 outside of its context as I have it here, then you might guess that Christians will be kept “from the hour of trial” by way of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, but that certainly is not stated and nothing else in Revelation would support that idea. Also, this promise was made only to the Church in Philadelphia, so most of us better pack up and move!

All of this to say, Christians need to read the rest of what Paul says about the end times:

But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10).

We don’t need to try to predict the end of the world or worry that we might suffer prior to His return. We are here, as children of God, to be used by God to reconcile all of humanity to Him. After Easter, may we focus on His present will and not the world’s future end.

Some Satire this Fool’s Day

15919673058_f8459dbb7f_bThe first book of the Bible I ever translated from Hebrew to English was Jonah. My five-member Ancient Hebrew class would gather with our professor at 8:00 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the refectory for coffee, cereal, and translation. We were always tired and a bit silly, so it was good that we were working with Jonah which is only four chapters long and entertaining.

When Christians study Scripture, we tend to ignore the comedy of Jonah mostly because it doesn’t translate naturally from Hebrew into English. Plus, laughing feels irreverent even when God intends it. As a child, I learned about Jonah “and the whale” on Sunday school felt boards while gobbling animal cookies and juice. I pictured the prophet bobbing around inside that whale as Pinocchio and Geppetto sailed the stomach juices of Monstro before getting sneezed out. Jonah’s was a cautionary tale: obey God’s commands, or you’ll be punished (maybe by swimming with rotting fish carcasses inside a whale belly). There’s nothing funny there.

That moral of the story isn’t necessarily wrong, but it also isn’t the point of the book. The Book of Jonah is not a biography of a bad prophet; it is a satirical tale of a man who thinks he is more deserving of God’s grace than his enemies are. His opinion is absurd, so everything that happens in the book is extreme.

  • God says, “Travel about 500 miles west to the city of Ninevah.” Jonah decides to sail about 2,500 miles east to the tip of Spain. That’s a different mode of transportation in the opposite direction for five times the distance.
  • God sends a hurricane to stop one ship sailing the Mediterranean. Jonah says, “Drown me, and the winds will stop.” His baby toe hits the water, and there is instant calm.
  • A fish (be it bass, tuna, or shark—but not a whale) carries Jonah back to dry land. A fish. No explanation needed there.
  • God says, “Go give My message to the people in Ninevah.” Jonah takes about three steps into a city the size of Los Angeles and says to no one in particular, “Stop it, or God will kill you.” And they do. One glorified whisper from one random foreigner leaning against the wall of their city, and all Ninevans—and their animals—repent.
  • Jonah climbs a hill and pouts because God is just too nice to everyone, including Jonah. God refuses to kill Jonah as the prophet requests because, once again, God is just too nice…to any who rebel against Him.
  • The salvation of 120,000 people doesn’t teach Jonah the value of God’s mercy, so God kills a day-old bean plant just in case that might do the trick.

Then we are left hanging: “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:10-11). God asks Jonah a rhetorical question, but we never hear the prophet’s answer.

If we try to take it seriously—or literally—then Jonah’s is the most bizarre story in the Bible. But if we remember that this is an absurd story meant to convey a deep truth (that is, satire) about God’s consistent grace for all people in all nations, then the Book of Jonah is poignant.

It is tempting to read Jonah and mock him, thinking we know better and behave better than the prophet did. But really, we are the prophet. Too many Christians want to limit God’s grace to only those people whom we think deserve it. We will bend over backward—sail through a hurricane or sleep in a fish—to see our own “enemies” punished when we are no better than they are.

That attitude is absurd, and God knew it would take an absurd story to show us our own prejudices. No foolin’!

I Blame Amelia Bedelia

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Copper finds a way to “point out” which curtains need my attention.

I have always been an avid reader. Maybe it was the result of being an only child—reading is usually a solitary activity—or maybe I just love stories. By the time I was in school and able to check out books from the library, I couldn’t get enough of Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish. The title character had a habit of taking every word literally and out-of-context:

“Amelia Bedelia, the sun will fade the furniture. I asked you to draw the drapes,” said Mrs. Rogers.

“I did! I did! See,” said Amelia Bedelia. She held up her picture.*

That particular blunder by Amelia—sketching a picture instead of closing the curtains—especially bothered me as a kid. My mother had taught me that furniture is an investment: couches are for sitting, not dining. The idea of faded or stained fabric worried little me to no end!

Amelia Bedelia came back to haunt me when we bought our late-nineteenth-century American Foursquare. It still has the original wavy-glass windows. They are gorgeous; but they are energy inefficient, let in all sorts of road noise, and without that modern low-E coating new windows have, my upholstery started fading. Fast. Now big me is reliving the worry; I literally draw—as in, close—the drapes wherever the sun streams in the afternoons.

Is it partially Amelia Bedelia’s fault that the word literally has become a too-common almost-meaningless adverb we all drop into sentences whether or not we actually mean what we are saying literally? I used that word a lot in my new book about how to read the Bible, and each time I checked myself: Do I really mean literally? Or am I describing something figuratively? The misuse of the word has become one of my adult pet peeves. Too often people end stories by saying, “That literally blew my mind!” No, no it didn’t, or you wouldn’t be sitting there. Amelia Bedelia and every second grader in America know better.

One place where the word literally gets above-average use is the church. It has become fashionable for some Christians to brag that they take every word of their chosen Bible translation “literally,” as would Amelia Bedelia. She was always well-intentioned but consistently struggled to understand the difference between what people said and what they meant. We shouldn’t want to emulate Amelia in this way, especially in our relationships with Scripture.

As I was writing about biblical translation techniques for Blue Eye Shadow, I ran across a social media post claiming that only the King James Version of the Bible has literally preserved God’s Word. I was shocked by what I read. The anger that so many of the 100+ respondents hold toward other Bible versions and the people who translated them or prefer them leaves no room for grace and love of others.

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In the post was a side-argument over which version of the KJV is best—the 1611 or the 1769. For some, nothing but a photocopy of the hand-inked book presented to King James himself would do.

As I got deeper into the post, I realized how ill-informed they were about language. Many argued for sola KJV with half-facts or complete ignorance of Scripture’s historical development and translation process.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the KJV. I particularly prefer its use of “charity” rather than “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 because Paul is not discussing romantic love in that letter, as modern readers tend to assume when the chapter is read out of its context. That chapter wouldn’t be so commonly misused in weddings if Bible translation had stopped in 1611.

Many Christian literalists, even those brazen enough to study the NKJV, claim their Bibles contain word-for-word literal translations of the Hebrew and Greek. But that is literally impossible. One word in Hebrew often requires an entire sentence in English, as a two-word sentence in French—je t’aime—requires three words in English: “I love you.” Such a translation is called by some “phrase-by-phrase,” acknowledging the grammatical differences between languages, and it is no better or worse than word-for-word. In fact, both are necessary in good translations.

But language should not be flattened into definitions and grammar. When it is, we are left wondering if a curtain should be drawn with a pencil or drawn closed by a hand. Both meanings of drawn are literally correct, but the contexts of culture and situation inform the meaning of the word.

All languages are filled with figurative phrases in their prose and poetry that are easily lost in translation when translators and readers are unfamiliar with foreign cultures. “Love” is represented by a heart in English, but ancient Israelites might have used a lotus instead. Likewise, King James’s seventeenth-century British subjects declared love with spoons, whereas spooning has a totally different meaning to Westerners today.

Insisting that every word of Scripture must have a literal meaning that is the same in all languages at all times limits the power of words and ideas. The Bible’s literature is simply too deep and too creative to have its range of meanings diminished to fit into our narrow minds. To better understand and appreciate God’s Word, we must study not only the words of a Bible translation but also the cultures that recorded them yesterday and that hear them today. God’s truth never changes, but languages do.

Just ask Amelia Bedelia.

*Peggy Parish, Amelia Bedelia (1963; New York: HarperFestival, 1999), 48.

Who Cares about “Blue Eye Shadow”?

The title of my next book, Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow, is not so much a statement of fact as it is an acknowledgement of how easy it is to mischaracterize biblical figures. Technically, Mary could have worn eye shadow, as it has existed for thousands of years.

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African malachite

In Egypt and Babylonia, where many cosmetics originated, eye shadow had not only a decorative purpose but was also thought to protect sensitive eyelids from the sun and insects. Minerals such as malachite would be ground into a powder like today’s popular “mineral makeup” and smeared directly on the skin with rigid spatulas.

Archaeologists have found makeup containers and tools in Israel, so it was used by God’s own people. But the Bible suggests that makeup was not worn by everyone as it may have been in other cultures. When makeup is mentioned in the Bible, it is associated with evil and sexually immoral women. For example, Jezebel–another biblical character whose name is synonymous with prostitution–wore makeup (2 Kings 9:30).

The association of makeup with prostitution is ancient and enduring. As recently as the twentieth century, polite Western society equated actresses, dancers, and even opera singers with loose morals. To this day I worry that I might “look cheap” when I wear heavier makeup for an evening out or in front of a camera.

The Bible never says that Mary Magdalene “painted her face” (KJV) as Jezebel did, so why did popular culture lump her in with immoral women for so long? (Yes, if you read or watched The DaVinci Code, then you already know the answer.) In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I was bothered by the fact that the “sinner” who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50 was unnamed. So he tried to fix God’s Holy Scripture by assigning her story to the next female name in the text. Since Gregory was the church’s supreme authority on earth at the time, no one questioned his word. (Protestantism was still a century away.) And then the rumor grew, as they tend to do, and the sinner became an adulteress who became a prostitute.

Mary Magdalene has endured centuries of slander simply because her story begins in Luke 8:2, a mere two verses after Jesus’ highly aromatic pedicure.

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Her artistic portrayal as a sexually immoral woman was common by the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci skipped the makeup in his c. 1515 topless portrait of her, but I suppose no one is looking at her face in this particular masterpiece.

Many traditional artistic depictions of Mary Magdalene imply that she was a prostitute by “painting” her face with garish makeup. Our 1980s Sunday School felt boards were among the worst offenders; the Mary Magdalene paper doll was always the prettiest one, thanks to her bright clothes, heavy jewelry, dark tan, and dreamy batting eyes. I remember a couple of golden finger cymbals on each hand too. But that Mary would have fit better seducing the shah in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights than visiting Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.

Such false traditions are incorrect and can undermine our interpretations of Scripture. They need to be recognized, debunked, and shelved with Fiction; but that is difficult to do when untruth is “common knowledge” that has been immortalized by artists and is believed by Bible teachers themselves.

If Mary wore eye shadow–and I doubt that she did–it was to repel insects and UV rays, not to attract men.

My Next Book

The first time I spoke with my then-soon-to-be editor at Harvest House Publishers, she asked me, “What would you love to write next?”

I fumbled and rambled in my answer. The truth was I had decided the previous week that I was done with publishing. I wasn’t, at that moment, passionate about much of anything. So I told her about the book I had pitched back in 2014 as my intended follow-up to Barren among the Fruitful.

At that time–and to this day–I saw among many Christians the tendency to know what they believe but maybe not why they believe it. I think this condition is perpetuated by two things: an unwillingness or inability to read the Bible in its contexts, and an accidental elevation of religious traditions to the level of biblical Scripture.

My book would teach readers the importance of historical, literary, and cultural contexts when interpreting Scripture; encourage them to explore the text and question their traditions when the two are contradictory; and remind them that the Bible is God’s complex and mysterious revelation of Himself to us. It is not to be shelved with self-help books, magic-8 balls, history and science textbooks, or even the church’s sermons, hymns, confessions, or creeds.

By the time we said goodbye an hour later, I had talked myself into writing that book. There was one potential problem: the manuscript I’d outlined was heavy. Heavy topics can make boring books, and no one wants to read a boring book! Could I make the material educational, accessible, and entertaining for a postmodern, speed-obsessed, Netflix-bingeing population?

We are almost a year away from readers being able to answer that question–and your answers are the only ones that matter! As of today, the manuscript is complete. The book is about to be typeset, and the cover will be designed soon. As October 15, 2019 nears, I’ll share snippets of the book, but until then here are a few chapter titles that I hope will make you curious to read more:

George Washington Was No Cherry Picker
Indiana Jones and the Buried Scripture
Seeing Cinderella’s Slipper Clearly
Macbeth and the Self-fulfilling Prophecies

If you want to learn about that leather-bound, ribbon-marked, so-called book on your shelf and you enjoy myths, histories, novels, or watching Sheldon in syndication; then I think you’ll find something to love in Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow: How to Trust the Bible when Truth and Traditions Collide.

Backhanded by Infertility

Teal ribbons represent ovarian cancer awareness.

Yesterday was my birthday, and all the sweet Facebook messages from people I haven’t interacted with since my last birthday made me realize just how lonely I’ve been lately.

For the last few years I’ve developed  more and more female problems. Last November, my doctors scheduled a surgery for January that led them to schedule another surgery for April. Based on pathology and radiology results, they believed (incorrectly, it would turn out) that I had ovarian cancer.

I vividly remember the October morning when the Today Show reported on a then-new study that had found infertile women who undergo treatment are 60% more likely to have ovarian cancer. The risk is even higher for the women in that group who never have a live birth, they said.

That report made an impression on me, maybe because it came out on Barren‘s 1-year anniversary. It left me thinking how unfair it is that women who suffer the physical pain, emotional drain, and financial stress of fertility treatments are then more likely to fight the most fatal of gynecological cancers.
For 3 months I thought I was one of those women. My team of gynecologists had me visit a psychologist and scheduled an oncologist to be present at the second surgery. The hospital requested that I update my will and designate a power of attorney.

We didn’t want to tell anyone what was happening until we had definite answers ourselves, but as time went on, circumstances caused us to tell family members and a few close friends. We ended up with about 40 people praying that I would be healed and spared months of chemotherapy.

When David and I spoke with my primary gynecologist about April’s results, she showed us pictures from the surgery and talked for about 10 minutes about the ugliness they had removed from inside me, but she never said, “You have Stage thus-and-such cancer.”

David finally asked her directly, “Does Amanda have cancer?”

“No,” she laughed. “I would have led with that!”

When she left the room to schedule me for more post-op tests and whatnot, David and I sat in stunned silence for 20 minutes.

I had spent the previous 3 months preparing to be sick. Yes, I had updated our wills, but I had also repointed the house, replaced a toilet, painted my office, replaced the tires on our Subaru, bought a new guest mattress, wrote a blog announcing my cancer (at the psychologist’s suggestion), and contracted a company to tear down and rebuild the entire exterior of our addition (that should finally start any day now). In hindsight, I wasn’t planning to be sick. I was planning to disappear.

In spite of the prayers of our loved ones and an expressed belief in God’s healing power, I never actually expected to be cancer free. I was hoping to be Stage II or lower and expecting to survive because those same doctors who once told me, “you’re too old to get pregnant,” were now saying, “you’re too young to have ovarian cancer.”

The shock turned into guilt–why had we worried everyone unnecessarily?–and then embarrassment.

I don’t think we had a moment of joy or thankfulness. It was weeks before it occurred to me that maybe God had actually answered all those prayers. Maybe He literally transformed malignant cells into benign cells.

I would argue there is precedence for this; I am not the first woman to endure years of gynecological pain:

Now a certain woman [traditionally called Veronica] had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians. She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment. For she said, “If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well.” 

Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction. And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My clothes?” 

But His disciples said to Him, “You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” 

And He looked around to see her who had done this thing. But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:25-34, NKJV)

Thanksgiving 2017 will mark 4 years since all this began. But I don’t have even a third of the faith of Veronica, who endured three times as much pain as I have. And the loneliness, guilt, and embarrassment I’ve felt has been self-induced whereas hers was culturally motivated. I now realize the tragedy of my situation is not the illness itself but the lack of faith and abundance of self-consciousness that illness has exposed.

The surgeries have not helped–the constant anemia is physically debilitating and socially awkward–and I expect to schedule a final surgery at my appointment in July. Between now and then I won’t be able to literally touch Jesus’ clothes, but I desire to have Veronica’s faith that He will heal me when I reach out to Him.

Wildfires and Politics

My world is on fire. Literally. Every ridge surrounding our city has a wildfire burning on top of it, and the smoke is settling on the streets of Chattanooga. It’s suffocating and headache-inducing. As I write (and as I dread going back to editing that Greek exegesis waiting on my desk) the pain in and behind my eyes is intense.

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Copper is not pleased that the smoky streets are keeping him from getting a walk this morning.

Our figurative world is burning these days too. If you found this post because of a social media link, then you’ve also read posts and articles all about how America is going down in flames if Candidate X is elected. Maybe you’ve even shared a few stories, commented on a few others.

My Granny would have been right there with you. Back when there was an alarmingly high number of cable channels–50, as I remember–she watched just CNN. It was on 24 hours a day. She listened to talk radio and wrote letters to our congressmen. She spent hours in AOL politics-themed chat rooms every night. She was the most informed woman I’ve ever known, and some of her passion “caught fire” in me.

So people who have known me longest may be surprised that I’ve stayed out of all the political squabbling. In fact, I’ve been avoiding Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else for the last six months. (Though to be honest, I started to pull away well over a year ago. Social media blurs the lines between opinion and truth, and the older I get the less willing I am to put up with that.)

The election has only fired up the animosity that pervades our society, so once we’ve all cast our votes tomorrow, the arguing won’t end. Why? Because we’re all so selfish.  We vote for who we think will improve our own lives, regardless of how others may be impacted.

If we are all going to live with each other after tomorrow, then we need to stop trying to change others’ opinions and start changing our own actions toward others.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Luke lately (thanks to that exegesis weighing down my desk right now). In chapter 10, a scholar tries to trick Jesus into contradicting the Hebrew scriptures when he asks how one can attain eternal life. He answers his own question:

You shall love—“love the Eternal One your God with everything you have: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind”—and “love your neighbor as yourself (v. 27, The Voice).

And who is that “neighbor”? Jesus answers with a story:

This fellow was traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho when some robbers mugged him. They took his clothes, beat him to a pulp, and left him naked and bleeding and in critical condition. By chance, a priest was going down that same road, and when he saw the wounded man, he crossed over to the other side and passed by. Then a Levite who was on his way to assist in the temple also came and saw the victim lying there, and he too kept his distance. Then a despised Samaritan journeyed by. When he saw the fellow, he felt compassion for him. The Samaritan went over to him, stopped the bleeding, applied some first aid, and put the poor fellow on his donkey. He brought the man to an inn and cared for him through the night.

The next day, the Samaritan took out some money—two days’ wages to be exact—and paid the innkeeper, saying, “Please take care of this fellow, and if this isn’t enough, I’ll repay you next time I pass through.” (Luke 10:30-35, The Voice)

The neighbor is “the one who showed mercy” (v. 37). Not the priest and Levite who were literal neighbors–presumably sharing the victim’s Jewish faith and living in his community–but the Samaritan. He would have believed and worshiped and lived differently than the victim. Regardless of all his social differences, his actions made him the true neighbor. The one we are commanded to love as ourselves.

On Wednesday morning, I hope the election won’t have left you feeling as if you’ve been “mugged” and left “in critical condition”; but it looks like about half the country will feel that way.

It is time for us to start loving each other, regardless of our social differences. It is time for us to stop thinking so highly of ourselves and our own opinions that we can justify our disregard of others, or worse, we can justify attacking and hating others. Not just during election season–when America is on fire–but every day of our lives.

No matter what happens in the next 48 hours, let’s go out into our smoke-filled streets and AOL chat rooms and show some mercy.

Truth Will Set You Free

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I would correct that to say, “When there is no truth, there is only perception.”

I first studied philosophy in high school English. We read L’Etranger and No Exit, and we memorized the principles of relativism and existentialism and other long-forgotten-by-me -isms. I remember one thing well: I don’t enjoy philosophy.

Twenty years later, philosophy penetrates my life (and yours). Take a look at your social media feeds. What are most people posting about? Their perceptions of politics. And many are ready to have knock-down drag-out fights to prove to everyone else that their perceptions are right. And factual. And true.

Every knock-down drag-out my husband, David, and I have ever had resulted from differing perspectives of truth.

My best friend, Melinda, likes to tell everyone that David and I are a psychology experiment–the one where two people watch a video of the same car crash but have completely different recollections of what happened: “The car was blue.” “No, the car was green.” That’s us, and those different perceptions of truth make for heated but pointless arguments. How relieved we both are when we can find the truth by rewatching the car crash: The car was actually red. We can stop arguing now.

Rarely our arguments result from actual untruth…meaning one of us has lied. Those are the conversations that both begin and end with pain, because a lie is a betrayal. You can’t rewatch a video or Google the truth to settle a lie-spawned argument once and for all. Feelings have been hurt, and the relationship needs time to mend.

I think we as a society have largely lost the ability to distinguish between perception and truth, and that is one of the reasons politics are so ugly–particularly in 2016. My opinion about a candidate or a policy is not truth, so people who disagree with me aren’t technically wrong (even though I think they are!) or lying.

Many philosophies, and most of this postmodern secular society, state that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Christianity disagrees. In the gospel of John, Jesus talks a lot about truth, and it pretty much boils down to this:

I tell you the truth, anyone who hears My voice and keeps My word will never experience death. (John 8:51, The Voice).

If you are a Christian, then you believe one absolute truth: Jesus is the Savior of humanity. It is rare (though not unattested) that I see knock-down drag-out fights over that statement.

If you follow a philosophy that declares there is no absolute truth, then your perception becomes your truth. So when someone else disagrees with that perception, then you feel personally affronted. A “car crash argument” becomes a “lie-spawned argument,” a betrayal.

We should follow Jesus’ example in John. When He declared truth and others disagreed, He countered by speaking the same truth in different ways. In that conversation, He did not back down. But when he encountered people who behaved or believed differently or even incorrectly (as in, Romans and Samaritans), He always responded the same way: by revealing the truth in love. He didn’t argue over the semantics of where the temple should be (John 4) or even about the punishment for adultery (John 8:1-11).

We would rather argue over the semantics. In a climate where opinions and perceptions are elevated and advertised on social media, Christians need to remember that there is only one absolute truth–that Jesus is the Savior of humanity–and that all Christians, by definition, agree on it.

Then we need to respond to disagreements as Jesus did: in love and with the one absolute truth. For if we show love, the world will see the absolute truth.