Thinking through Biblical doctrine

How many 17-year-olds have walked away from a relationship with God because of a struggle to understand the idea of predestination?

I’m not sure, but I was one of them.

I write these words not to mount my spiritual high horse, but to note the irony of a faith journey come full circle: the doctrines of predestination and others are grains of sand that irritate my thoughts at the present.

I bring this up, because as a young Christian, I think it’s important to recognize the struggle to understand theology.

We all learn in different ways. Some Christians are content to study a topic with their church in a series. Some of us need to take it a step further, to get down in the weeds and grapple with the philosophical implications of the Bible.

Theology is simply “the study of the nature of God.” If we’re not actively trying to understand the God we follow, we do a disservice to him and to our own relationship with him. It’s healthy and necessary to seek a deeper understanding of the faith we have chosen to stake our lives on.

As someone my father once warned against being “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good,” I try to keep grounded in the practical consequences of faith. As the prophet Micah wrote,

“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah 6:8

If this is our call from God, it is one of both inward and outward devotion.  How do we learn to act according to God’s justice, and to love his mercy? By studying his Word (Scripture) and better understanding his nature.

So where does doctrine come into play? If you read enough Scripture, inevitably, you have questions. I often pull out my laptop after reading a chapter to search for a reference, which  leads me down a rabbit hole of more questions.

Lately, I’ve been coming back to the doctrine of election. This is the idea that God has chosen, or elected, certain people to be saved. In a larger sense, it means He is an independent actor, one who has already predestined those who will be saved for heaven.

There’s a historical difference in opinions, with the Calvinist school of thought advocating that God chooses who will be saved. The Arminians diverge, saying that while God chooses who will be saved, there is a free will component, i.e., it is the human’s choice to accept or reject that gift.

Typically, Methodists and Baptists subscribe to the second school of thought, while Presbyterians lean towards the Calvinist doctrine, although it varies from church to church.

When I was 17, I struggled mightily with the idea that God has predestined the outcome of all things. I couldn’t reconcile the negatives in the world with the idea that a good God would allow such evil events. I chose instead to believe that God was powerful, but frightening, a being I wanted nothing to do with. If someone asked me what I believed during this time, I’d say God existed, but I didn’t believe he was good.

How do you act towards a God of terrible power? You run away from any mention of him.

What changed, what convinced me that God was not just good, but the Ultimate Good? Believe it or not, reading the Stephen King novel Under the Dome was the impetus. It spurred so many questions about life after death and a higher power I could ignore no longer.

Soon after, I took a college course about the history of religion in the United States. It left me with more questions, and some answers. I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity on a plane ride from Orange County to New York for my journalism residency. By the time we touched down at JFK, I was convinced: I had to give Christianity another shot.

For me, this meant reading the Bible, trying to attend church, and generally thinking about what being a Christian meant I could and could not do. I later learned it was more of a should and should not do.

I still hadn’t forgotten the question of predestination. I began to understand it in a different way; a God who knows the outcome of all things exists on a different plane from our own. He is literally so high above us, we cannot fathom the ramification of his decisions. God knowing what will happen doesn’t necessarily remove our capacity to be independent, free actors of our own accord.

Think of it like this: God could see a billion outcomes simultaneously, and know how each of our individual decisions would impact every possible scenario. I think of it as the craziest permutation imaginable.

That’s how I have come to reconcile my own free will with an all-powerful God, but I’m not done yet. I’m still trying to understand more, every day.

Once we grasp the basic tenets of salvation, it’s up to us to decide how to respond to it. If Jesus Christ really sacrificed his life on a cross so that we could be free from the smallest to the largest sins, then everything we do should be a response to that incredible, undeserved gift of grace.

How will you respond?

Open Hearts and Bearing the Burden of Love

Once upon a time, I was a cynical young adult who believed God was cruel.

It’s not a tough conclusion to arrive at if you look around at the world. After a few years of leading a life in which I did whatever I felt like, consequences be damned, I only felt more hollow and broken.

A series of events and painful growth eventually led me back to the Christian faith, a space which affords me the opportunity of endless hope and peace.

The most important lesson I learned through that period of growth was that empathy is essential in combating selfishness. I could find no purpose in a life lived solely for myself, and instead worked to open my heart to those around me.

It has never been an easy undertaking, nor will it ever be. Time and time again, I am wounded by the sufferings of those I care most deeply for. This is the burden of friendship, and it is a burden anyone who understands it feels privileged to carry.

In our day and age, the world, or at least the Internet, seems overcome by those armed with witticisms, memes, and searing sarcasm. We all have our defense mechanisms ready to unleash upon those who would disagree with us.

What if we let down our guard instead? What would it look like to open our hearts to those we interact with, on the Internet and in our real physical spaces?

There’s a scene from the British dramedy show Fleabag, in which the Priest, who has fallen in love with the titular character, speaks of love at the marriage of Fleabag’s father and godmother:

It’s all any of us want, and it’s hell when we get there. So no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own. I was taught if we’re born with love then life is about choosing the right place to put it. People talk about that a lot, feeling right, when it feels right it’s easy. But I’m not sure that’s true. It takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope. I think what they mean is, when you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope.”

Obviously, he’s referring to romantic love, but this concept can be applied to brotherly love as well.

To care deeply for others throughout a lifetime requires a good bit of courage and hope. It takes a strong person to keep their their heart open and accept the burden of love. And it takes more than one person.

Make no mistake: if you are a Christian walking around behind a shield of cynicism and bitterness, you are not living out your faith.

We all must bear burdens in life, but we do have some say as to which ones we will carry. As Martin Luther King said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

I hope you choose to share in that burden of love, too.

Disturb Me, Lord

I love to run, but I hate running in the heat.

When the temperature gets over 75 and the air is thick with moisture, I have trouble breathing. My heart rate skyrockets with little effort, which, in turn, impedes my speed.

During a Southern summer, it’s nearly impossible to avoid running in these conditions. Rather than hop on a treadmill inside (my personal purgatory), I continue to train outside.

In the middle of such a run, lungs overburdened, I ask myself why. I know accepting and pushing through the heat is more than a desire to train; it’s an opportunity to build resilience.

Most of us having been building resilience in droves over the past six months. And it’s exhausting. As tired as I am of daily division and strife, it’s equally frustrating watching people use social media to put a filter on summer, as if to ignore what is happening in our world.

This past month has brought a lot of surprising changes in my life, including a rejection that felt like a personal shortcoming, a job layoff, and a family medical emergency. I’m grateful my family is safe, and that I don’t have to worry for my basic needs.

More than that, I’m thankful and even excited for the uncertainty of the next chapter.

I’ve prayed for the past couple of years with a specific word in mind: movement. I’ve felt static in my work, and sought guidance for what to do next. As I waited, I stayed put and tried my best to serve where I was.

I almost thought God had forgotten about my prayer.

When I found out I was being laid off, I knew it was my answer. Not the answer I’d expected, but an answer that provided much-needed clarity.

Man-Plans-God-Laughs
I love this Yiddish proverb.

I am a planner, and don’t particularly like the idea of having to job hunt during a pandemic. But I’m convinced the removal of my comfort zone was necessary for my growth. It’s one thing to appreciate a regular paycheck and benefits, but it’s another to let those lull you into stagnation, like I’d done.

It often takes times of uncertainty to realize God is with me, in more than just a pie-in-the-sky sort of way. I’m at peace with the present, and I don’t fear the future. I feel God’s presence guiding me, as He always has when I’ve paused long enough to watch and listen.

Recently, my roommate and I converted our bonus room into a little study. When I sat down to work the next day, I noticed she’d tacked up “A Dangerous Prayer,” often attributed to Sir Francis Drake, but of unknown origins. 

It goes like this:

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

Let us not lose our thirst for the adventure God has written for us, for the opportunity to serve Him with all our heart and talents. Fear of storms, of what lies beyond the coastline, is no match for His masterful steering.

Just as running through the brutal summer temps leads to better conditioning, going through a trying season of life always yields immense growth, if we lean into it.

I’ll end by sharing a prayer that actually has historical evidence to attribute it to Drake:

“O Lord God, when Thou givest to Thy servants to endeavor any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same unto the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory; through Him who for the finishing of Thy work laid down His life, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.”

Jesus, Justice, and Judgement

One of my all time favorite Bible verses, Psalms 27:13 has two translations:

New King James Version
I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

New International Version
I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

“I would have lost heart…”

I prefer this translation, because it often describes my state of being. There have been many times in my life I’ve felt without hope, overwhelmed by a world never meant to be this way, never more so than right now.

This week, I reported on a peaceful prayer vigil to honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black people who have been unjustly killed. I also covered a protest to “End White Silence” and bring awareness to the racism still encountered by people of color in America. Our original sin still imprints upon us today.

I have always been an avid reader, a consequence of which is to think deeply about the world surrounding me. From a young age, I grasped the fact that society does not grant our lives equal value, and I felt dejected, though resigned, that many people would never enjoy the same privileges I take for granted.

Today, I’m depressed, a sadness that penetrates to the core, exhausting every thought. Our world is inherently unjust, consumed with sin, and at 25 years of age, I’m ready for it all to be over. I’m ready for Jesus to come on back and usher in a new heaven and a new earth.

But I don’t get to decide that. As a Christian, I believe God has placed each of us here for a reason. I don’t always know what my purpose is, or what exactly God is calling me to, but themes of truth and justice keep resurfacing. It is my responsibility, and that of all Christians, to seek first the kingdom of God.

So how can you seek God during times like this? Begin by opening your heart to His Word.

I recently finished a deep dive into the book of Isaiah, begun during the pandemic. In 66 chapters, the prophet Isaiah denounces the hypocrisy of Israel and prophesies Jesus’ coming, which would occur approximately 700 years later.

Isaiah repeatedly acknowledges the nation’s sin and God’s judgement and justice. Here are a few references:

Sin

This wickedness is like a brushfire. It burns not only briers and thorns but also sets the forests ablaze. Its burning sends up clouds of smoke. – Isaiah 9:18

What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter. – Isaiah 5:20

We hear songs of praise from the ends of the earth, songs that give glory to the Righteous One! But my heart is heavy with grief. Weep for me, for I wither away. Deceit still prevails, and treachery is everywhere. – Isaiah 24:16

And so the Lord says, “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. – Isaiah 29:13

Our courts oppose the righteous, and justice is nowhere to be found. Truth stumbles in the streets, and honesty has been outlawed. Yes, truth is gone, and anyone who renounces evil is attacked. The Lord looked and was displeased to find there was no justice. – Isaiah 59:14-15

It’s not hard to relate to the sin detailed in Isaiah. Hypocrisy is alive and thriving in today’s church and society, and every Christian can do a better job of being self-aware.

Judgement

I, the Lord, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty. – Isaiah 13:11

The scoffer will be gone, the arrogant will disappear, and those who plot evil will be killed. Those who convict the innocent by their false testimony will disappear. A similar fate awaits those who use trickery to pervert justice and who tell lies to destroy the innocent. – Isaiah 29:20-21

Because you despise what I tell you and trust instead in oppression and lies, calamity will come upon you suddenly—like a bulging wall that bursts and falls. In an instant it will collapse and come crashing down. – Isaiah 30:12-13

Look up to the skies above, and gaze down on the earth below. For the skies will disappear like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a piece of clothing. The people of the earth will die like flies, but my salvation lasts forever. My righteous rule will never end! – Isaiah 51:6

See, the Lord is coming with fire, and his swift chariots roar like a whirlwind. He will bring punishment with the fury of his anger and the flaming fire of his hot rebuke.Isaiah 66:15

Judgement is hard for the church to talk about. We would rather talk about God’s mercy, but God’s wrath is just as real, and other side of a double-edged sword of justice. As we choose how we want to live, we must not forget: God has mercy, but judgement is coming for us all.

Justice

What sorrow awaits the unjust judges and those who issue unfair laws. They deprive the poor of justice and deny the rights of the needy among my people. They prey on widows and take advantage of orphans. – Isaiah 10:1-2

In that day the Lord will end the bondage of his people. He will break the yoke of slavery and lift it from their shoulders. – Isaiah 10:27

There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people. The Lord has spoken! – Isaiah 25:7-8

The people of Israel will no longer say, “We are sick and helpless,” for the Lord will forgive their sins. – Isaiah 33:24

Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you.” And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind and unplug the ears of the deaf. – Isaiah 35:4-5

Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. – Isaiah 40:28-29

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged. – Isaiah 42:3

I restore the crushed spirit of the humble and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts. – Isaiah 57:15

Unlike the justice of our legal system, God’s justice is perfect. He has mercy on the repentant and those of us who are broken, but He will punish the proud and those of us who refuse to search for and root out sin in our own lives.

What Should We Do?

Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of the orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. – Isaiah 1:17

Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do, and don’t live in dread of what frightens them. Make the Lord of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life. He is the one you should fear. He is the one who should make you tremble. – Isaiah 8:12-13

In the night I search for you; in the morning I earnestly seek you. For only when you come to judge the earth will people learn what is right. – Isaiah 26:9

Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it. – Isaiah 30:15

Seek the Lord while you can find him. Call on him now while he is near. Let the wicked change their ways and banish the very thought of doing wrong. Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them. Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously. – Isaiah 55:6-7

Be just and fair to all. Do what is right and good, for I am coming soon to rescue you and to display my righteousness among you. – Isaiah 56:1

Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. – Isaiah 58:9-10

The physical world we live in is riddled with suffering. It’s devolving, physically and spiritually.

Police violence, our broken criminal justice system, poverty, educational disparities, mistreatment based on skin color, rioting and looting: these are all symptoms of a disease called sin.

In the wake of tragedy, of death and heartbreak, a heaviness has descended. In a year filled with natural disaster, tens of thousands of deaths from a global pandemic, violence and national upheaval, many of us feel helpless, only able to brace for what may come next.

We are human and sin is inherent in human nature. We do not have the capacity to conquer sin. But God does, and he already has.

This world is but a shadow, a testing ground for the next. Still, what we do on this earth matters: God promises that what we sow in this world will be reaped in eternity. Each of us needs to question our motives to see if they align with God’s word on how He commands us to treat one another.

Though I am in emotional turmoil, as the second translation of Psalms 27 says, I do remain confident. I am confident of God’s ultimate victory over sin, and the ushering in of His kingdom.

I’ve often felt the sheer hopelessness of life on this earth. The promise of a perfect eternity is the only thing in this life that keeps me going. It’s worth fighting injustice for. It’s worth uncomfortable conversations and confronting that hopelessness. I believe it’s worth everything we have to do to reach it.

By the way, that chapter of Psalms ends the same way in all translations:

“Wait on the Lord; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the Lord!” – Psalms 27:14

Waiting for the kingdom of Christ,

Brooke

Childhood memories from Souplantation

Image: My last trip to Souplantation in 2016

Today we learned the news on California-based buffet Souplantation that’s been simmering for years.

The soup and salad chain announced Friday they would permanently close all restaurants due to difficulty meeting new health safety guidelines amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Founded in San Diego in 1978, the restaurant concept took off and expanded, with 97 locations at the time of their demise.

It was a long time coming; the restaurant filed for Chaper 11 bankruptcy in 2016, seeing a loss of revenue as buffet restaurants lost steam in a time when consumer spending and health consciousness was increasing.

Everywhere except the Southern California, the restaurants were called Sweet Tomatoes. As a young adult, I often thought how only in a region so far removed from the bitter history of the South could one get away with a restaurant name containing the word “plantation.”

As a child, I didn’t think about the name, but rather, all the hallmarks, both good and bad, of a family outing to Souplantation.

Mom would always have a coupon, good for a certain amount off someone’s meal. My brother and I brought our Souplantation plastic branded cups, which were good for free drinks of any type, from soda to iced tea and milk.

“They’re still around,” my mom said of the cups when I spoke with her on the phone.

First, we went through the salad bar, where my parents loaded up as my brother and I impatiently waited to arrive at the soup station. A notoriously picky eater, I craved the chicken noodle soup with thick egg noodles and generous hunks of chicken. Sometimes we would head to the table to drop off one plate of food, only to return once the bakers brought piping hot sourdough bread from the oven.

Whatever table the waiter brought us to, my parents always insisted on a booth. When we’d eaten our fill of entrees, which usually consisted of bread and pizza for my brother and I, it was time for dessert.

The soft-serve machine was the stuff of dreams for any kid. Chocolate syrup, crushed Oreos, M&Ms and nuts sat in dishes nearby. Sometimes we’d use the soup bowl to make a bigger sundae.

If we were lucky, the waiters often brought around fresh baked chocolate chip cookies for the table. My mother would sometimes spirit a few away into plastic baggies for later.

On the 30-minute drive home, I would usually fall asleep, waking up once we turned down our street. I’d still pretend I was asleep when my dad tried to get us out of the car, knowing he would carry me to bed.

At the Tustin location we went to when I was younger, there was a balloon man named Freddie who would make animal creations for the children. Yes, a balloon man.

One time, we celebrated my grandpa’s birthday at Souplantation. I don’t remember it, but my mom says she’d had a song written specially for him, and the management played it over the loudspeakers inside the restaurant.

A transplant from the Midwest, my mother’s first time to Souplantation was in the late 80s. She was always a fan of their salad bar.

When we were a little older and caught up with sports, my mom often picked up takeout containers of soup when someone was sick or craving the soup we all loved.

The last time I ate at a Sweet Tomatoes, or even lived near one, was four years ago, at the end of my college years. I wanted to introduce my roommate to the comfort food that marked my childhood.

A few times since, I have thought of going. The closest restaurant was in the suburbs of Atlanta, nearly a four-hour drive. I didn’t make it, but wish I had now.

I never knew so many people had similar memories tied to Souplantation before the announcement of their closing, but a quote from the blog LAist sums up the appeal:

“Planning a family dinner for a dozen people from age 8 to age 80? Need a lunch spot to satisfy a bunch of coworkers with diverse dietary preferences? Tired of preparing food for a whiny eight-year-old who can’t be bothered to sit through a meal where you have to look at a menu, place an order and wait for food? Souplantation had you covered.”

Though I carry markedly different dietary preferences into adulthood, I’ll always feel nostalgia for the restaurant that defined a simpler era of my life.