background noise

I have gradually become a rather avid podcast listener. In the aftermath of losing most of my interest in reading as a hobby (for which I blame Mrs. Kruse, and college classes in general), and in my ever-increasing sensitivity to emotional distress in all aspects of life which makes most television pretty unbearable to watch, podcasts have become an enjoyable compromise. They are varying degrees of educational, which satisfies my learner’s brain, and the stories they often contain are much more real-life (and therefore, less unbearably distressing or dramatic) than what TV shows and movies can offer. I like that the pace is slow, the discussion is overwhelmingly “normal,” and I can work with my hands and eyes while my ears take in the information.

But, like all media, they can be annoyingly diagnostic of my current emotional wellbeing.

More than once in the last week (we won’t talk about how much more than once) I caught myself staring blankly at my computer screen while the Bluetooth speaker blared on endlessly, strangers’ voices continuing a conversation I had lost track of twenty minutes ago, brain split between the complexities of formatting a manuscript in Adobe InDesign and that annoying subconscious awareness that I was purposely trying to drown myself out.

There’s a dual theme to my favorite podcasts: Conversation and consistency. I listen to shows in which the same two or three people co-host every episode in a loosely-structured conversational format. I hardly care what they’re talking about; yes, I listen to shows that reflect my own interests, like the Bible, health, self-improvement, or non-inflammatory news and political commentary. But in the past week alone I’ve listened to a show about “Wisdom Gained in Our 30s” (I’m 25), home decor (which is fine, but I don’t really care about it), and a discussion on postpartum recovery (despite the fact that I’ve never had a baby and am not pregnant), just to name a few. Sure, there’s an element of these shows that feeds my curiosity and hunger to learn about how other people live and what they care about, but overall these topics are not exactly what I’d consider reflective of my current interests or place in life. What I need is the conversation, the stimulation, the taste of being part of something.

When I start to binge on such shows, I know that my brain is trying to communicate something to me which I’d rather not hear.

Like Hey. You’re lonely.

Gah, I hate being lonely. I hate the feeling of needing people. I hate the fact that I can’t healthfully subsist in isolation and that part of my call as a disciple of Jesus is to be just one working part of His whole, diverse body. And I hate it when my attempts at pseudo-community fail to take the ache away.

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Ironically, I know that in this, I’m not alone. Authenticity is a buzzword in our world, and people keep trying to share their “imperfections” on Instagram in aspiration for vulnerability and relationship, but somehow it seems we’re all more isolated than ever before - maybe because only some imperfections are socially acceptable enough for public consumption, and if your only evident vulnerability is the short temper you wrote about in a caption online, what does that say about my dissolving relationships or secret addiction or desperate depression?

Some of the most bonding real-life conversations I’ve had recently have been based on the admission that I am lonely, and you are lonely, and we don’t know why or what to do about it. The trouble is that this seems to be where the conversation always ends, and then we return to our faithful Friendship Substitutes. For me it’s podcasts, but for you it could be TV, books, food, drink, social media, busy work, or any of a number of other options. Those things place no demands on us, and they make us feel better for awhile, but even in the healthiest usage they don’t solve the problem.

So how is this problem solved? Once we’ve bonded over our mutual loneliness, where do we go from there?

I can’t say I know a definitive step-by-step strategy, but my instincts say we need to move toward each other. We need to cut ties with our Friendship Substitutes long enough to get hungry for the real thing, and then move toward each other - offline, in real life, where I can see your face and hear your voice and touch your hand. The world is becoming more virtual and less real all the time, but our bodies and brains are designed for what is real. Our hormones and chemicals respond to what is real. Bonding happens in the real world.

A trendy hashtag does not a community make.

Last weekend I took a self-defense class at my church. I’ve been attending services there for seven months, but had hardly met anyone at all yet. I didn’t want to go to the class because I would be alone in a room full of strangers, but I went anyway.

And they were real.

All it took was for someone to say hello and start the conversation, to make eye contact and smile, and to start practicing hand-to-hand self defense with me, and I wasn’t alone anymore. I wasn’t lonely anymore. And more than that, I rediscovered a healthy appetite to be with real people in a real setting doing real things.

But here’s the rub, at least for me: once we’ve moved toward one another physically, we’ll need to start moving closer emotionally. We need those few, lovely people that we’re not only in bodily proximity with, but that are near to our souls. The people who know us for who we are - good, bad, or unimaginably terrible. They’re the ones who love us exactly the same no matter how much good, bad, or unimaginably terrible we bring with us, and who - by being the light that we desperately need shed on our inner worlds - will help to enact and reveal God’s work in us.

I’m not good at this. In fact, the real reason I often have to be dragged toward any kind of real-life social situation kicking and screaming is because I really, really don’t want to move toward others emotionally. In the aftermath of a formative friendship in which my trust and vulnerability was often exploited, I am happy to pretend, for as long as I can get away with it, that I don’t have any needs at all. But in this I’m not just isolating myself; I’m involuntarily isolating those around me who do have needs, and need to know they’re not the only ones.

I think it’s time to turn off the background noise and reach toward real-life relationships with real-life people. The kind that won’t just numb out the loneliness void, but fill it up and make it whole. The internet is a marvelous thing, but as much as it connects us, it will never be able to bond us.

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Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

an (unconventional) easter reading assignment

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I’ve had my head buried deep in the history of Biblical Law and God’s covenants this week, finishing up some material for the Bible curriculum I’m writing, and it’s fitting that it would all wrap up here, in the very last days before we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection.

Yesterday, I wrote a response to the frequently asked question: “What does it mean that Jesus fulfilled the Law?” And while I’ve learned and studied the answer to that question plenty of times in the past, as always, writing it all out made an impact on me. The sky faded to darkness on Good Friday as I typed out the final few paragraphs of my response, and I was overwhelmed by the miracle of it.

Jesus fulfilled the Law.

He did not abolish it. He didn’t render it null. He didn’t even render it complete, as if no more obedience is necessary.

He fulfilled it.

The Law was not a list of rules from an angry Dictator-God that Jesus came to fix or replace. No, it was the framework for a beautiful covenant relationship, an invitation into God’s presence, which Jesus came to fulfill. He came to be the perfect covenant partner that Israel, and all mankind, had failed to be, and thereby mended the long-broken relationship and made way for a glorious second chance.

And finally, as if that were not enough, He laid Himself down as the ultimate atonement sacrifice to wipe the slate clean in a way that no lamb or bull had ever been able. His blood purchased a new covenant through which, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can be the faithful covenant partners our God longs for - not because of the good things we do, but through the good that He’s done.

I know the Law is rarely a favorite part of the Bible for many Christians, but I am so grateful for the teachers who have helped open my eyes to its ongoing relevance to God’s story and character. It has colored in and given shape and life and dimension to my understanding of the Gospels and the epistles in the New Testament. It, along with the entire Old Testament, is the foundation upon which the salvation story stands.

So maybe it’s not your conventional Easter weekend read, but I encourage you to consider looking back to the Law today and rediscovering what it really means that the Son of God lived, died, and rose again on your behalf. The instating of the Passover in Exodus 12 and the Law of Atonement in Leviticus 16 and 17 could be good places to start, but really, Jesus fulfilled it all - not because God has changed His standards for our holiness, but because our holiness can only ever be achieved by the Holy One Himself.

Comment

Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

of math, millennials, and the mission field

My sister Hannah is a mathematician.

She’s the only mathematician I’ve ever actually known personally. You just don’t meet that many people who go to grad school to learn things like real analysis and partial differential equations with the hope of spending their careers doing research in the area of “pure math” - and I’m still not fully sure what that means. Even less often do you hear someone exclaim, while writing proofs in what appears to be another language, “It’s so beautiful!” (Hannah has said things like this on multiple occasions.)

Far more common? “I hate math.” “I can’t calculate the tip - I’m terrible at math.” “Why don’t we stop teaching kids all this stupid algebra and just teach them useful things, like how to do their taxes?”

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Every now and then, you meet a one-in-a-million, like my sister. Someone who has found the beauty and the wonder that others may never appreciate, due to their deeply-held baggage of fear, confusion, inadequacy, or ignorance. Sadly, they grew up learning mathematics as a series of formulas to memorize and complicated steps to master, but no one ever taught them the logic of it; they never got the opportunity to problem-solve, to think critically, to ask why.

So they struggled through twelfth grade, or maybe as far as the undergraduate requisites, and then said goodbye to math forever. After all, we’ve got calculators for that.

The same thing has happened to the Christian church in America.

People are mystified at the numbers of the millennial generation who are leaving their Christian faith upbringing behind. Many of them, like me, were raised in Sunday school and AWANA, active within their youth groups, and never missed church. They went on mission trips and had records of great spiritual transformation. They loved Jesus. And now they’re gone.

And it’s for the same reason so many people hate the beautiful thing that is mathematics: because all they ever learned was the rules. They learned how to look, act, and speak like a Christian. They learned the Ten Commandments and all the other Biblical rules that their church considered important. They learned verses and stories and could sing the books of the Bible in order; they learned the formula for a salvation prayer (“Jesus, please come into my heart”), and how to categorize people into the ones doing it “right” and the ones doing it “wrong.” They learned how they should vote and how they should dress and who they should associate with. They learned the black and the white.

But no one ever taught them the logic of it.

No one gave them the chance to problem-solve, to think critically, or to ask why.

No one led them past the rules and into the relationship that their hearts were crying out for - beyond the formula and into the beauty of Christ and His love.

And no one gave them permission to consider that maybe it’s not all black-and-white, after all. Maybe some things are gray.

Why wouldn’t they bolt as soon as someone offered them the freedom to think outside the box, to be loved for who they are rather than what they do, or to ask the questions they’ve been dying to ask all their lives?

It’s not a mystery. They know the Bible, they know the Gospel, and they know exactly why they’re no longer part of the Christian church. If we’re listening, so do we.

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And I hope we’re listening, because to steal my sister’s words - it’s so beautiful. What God has done, the story He is writing, is so beautiful. The love He has offered is so beautiful. The desire of His heart to draw His created image-bearers back into relationship with Him, and to give them an inheritance as His own sons and daughters, is simply breathtaking. What a heartbreak to imagine that many will reject that truth because of deeply-held baggage like fear, confusion, inadequacy, and ignorance.

But we can’t share this beauty and freedom with others until it’s a reality for ourselves. Just as we’re the product of an education system that taught math as something you’re either “good at” or “bad at,” so many of us are the product of a church culture that has diminished Christianity into a list of rights and wrongs. Hannah has put in years of hard work and persistence to find and celebrate the beauty in mathematics; likewise, this issue can’t be solved by making churches more “relevant” - it has to be solved the hard way, which is by example.

The mission field of America, in many ways, starts inside of us. Even if we have never walked away from what we know to be true, most of us still have some callouses from clinging to the rules at the expense of the relationship. And our friends and peers who have abandoned their practice of faith very likely know just as much Bible and Christianese as we do - so they know how to spot a fake. They won’t be fooled by a religious show.

Only when we ourselves rediscover the beauty of the Savior, the genuine delight of walking in relationship with Him, and the blessing of counter-cultural unity with the His body can we possibly hope to recapture the young hearts in this nation. And truthfully? Some of the hearts that most need recapturing are our own.

6 Comments

Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.