A letter to myself. (You are welcome to listen in.)
I’ve come to believe in recent years that all of the Christian life is an expression of gratitude. Or to say it in a more theologically expansive way:
All of the authentically good and holy things that you think, and do, in your Christian life are your living expressions of gratitude for what Christ has done for you.
There’s more to that, sure, but for our purposes here, Mikey, suffice it to say that you and I must finally accept the facts that:
Matthew 22:35-40 speaks true that all of God’s expectations for you hang on the commands to love God and love others, and
“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NIV). This is why gratitude is so important for your soul and ministry; you cannot love others authentically until you gratefully experience his love first.
With that in mind, how can you cultivate a mindset of gratitude in the midst of your daily pressures and theological studies? Here are a few ideas:
1. Don’t Force It, Mikey
Get over the idea that you can manufacture gratitude when you just don’t feel like it. Yes, you can cultivate habits that prompt gratefulness, but no, you can’t force yourself to feel grateful—it springs naturally from within. So please understand that “acting grateful” isn’t the same as “being grateful.” The first is just hypocrisy (“play-acting”); the second is a natural byproduct of increasing mindfulness of Christ’s love.
2. Be More Aware of Your Need
Look, Mikey, in order to be grateful you must first have need. When you think you have need of nothing, then you have no appreciation for anything. It’s the principle Jesus spoke of in Luke 7:36-47, when the sinful woman poured perfume on his feet. The one who is forgiven much, loves much, “But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
So make it a point to be aware of your great need each day—for hope, for forgiveness, for access to God, for breath and peace and kindness and health and comfort and friendship and rest and academic resources and intellectual ability and time and—well, you get the idea. When you understand the vastness of your constant need, you will begin to understand how generous God’s many loving gifts are to you in every moment of every day.
3. Look Up
Remember that movie, Galaxy Quest? Deep in the bowels of the space ship, running from danger, panicked about enemies on board, all Commander Taggart could do was feel fear and frustration. Then he looked up … and saw, in swirling geometric beauty the Quantum Flux Drive—the miraculous power source that kept them all alive and thriving in the absolute nothingness of space. It was awe-inspiring, wasn’t it?
When your daily obligations in this difficult life chase after you like genocidal Fatu-Krey aliens, just pause long enough to look up at Jesus, to contemplate his beauty and lovingkindness—to remember the ways he’s proven himself faithful to you.
Because he loves you, you can love.
Because he is generous with you, you can be generous toward others.
Because he is kind, you can be grateful—authentically, peacefully, joyfully.
4. Try This
Last but not least, I want you to try this tomorrow, Mike:
First, when you wake up, give yourself permission NOT to “fake it ‘til you make it.” Be who you really are, and feel what you authentically feel, without judging yourself for it.
Second, identify the needs you have for the day—the things you know you can never do for yourself—that which only Jesus can do in, with, and through you. Ask Christ to help you, and make a list.
Third, live your day with eyes raised up. Keep a lookout for those moments when God’s lovingkindness to you is obvious, when you can honestly acknowledge that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17, NIV). When you inevitably feel grateful in those moments, go ahead and express that gratitude in your Christian life too.
And hey, let me know how it goes, OK bro?
“If the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.”
—Meister Eckhart, 13th-century Dominican theologian and mystic
When I was a younger man, the longest I ever fasted was two days. I did that a few times my freshman year of college, not so much out of spiritual devotion but because I was trying to make the best of a bad situation. I’d received generous scholarships and a good financial aid package, but with no help from family I could only afford a limited meal plan at the university. That meant I got one meal each day Monday through Friday, and no meals on weekends. So, out of necessity, sometimes I had to fast on Saturdays and Sundays during the school year. I decided that if I was going hungry anyway, I should at least make it worthwhile, and so turned those fasting weekends into spiritual discipline (unless my roommate sneaked a sandwich for me out of the cafeteria). It was a forced fast, sure, but it still taught me a little bit about the discipline of turning every situation into an opportunity for pursuing Christ.
Today I am an old man (58 years), and poor health and a few extremely unpleasant surgeries now prevent me from fasting food without serious health consequences. So when I want to fast, I look for methods other than food deprivation. Sometimes I’ll “fast” my voice, going a certain amount of time without speaking. (This gets interesting when going to the grocery store; I finally resorted to wearing a name tag that says, “Hello, My Name Is … Temporarily Unable to Speak. Thank you for understanding.”) Sometimes I’ll “fast” society, isolating myself in solitude. Sometimes I’ll “fast” flavors, denying spices, sauces, and sugars in my diet so as to make all food bland. You get the idea.
Recently I was intrigued by a suggestion to try “fasting technology.”
Given my constant dependence on the internet for my work and life, that seemed like a meaningful endeavor—so that’s what I did. Thursday night, I shut off all five of my computers, closed my cell phone, turned off my streaming TV services, and went to sleep. I didn’t open any of those again until Saturday morning, and instead spent all day Friday in a “fast” from technology.
What Did I Learn About God?
I’m going to be honest: God and I had pretty much the same kind of day as usual. I had secretly hoped that maybe there’d be some kind of breakthrough in prayer, or an unexpected moment of worship, or even just a sense that fasting technology was bringing us closer together. What I found, instead, was that he was just as present in the unplugged silence as he was in the “noise” of my connected life.
Surprisingly, that was somewhat encouraging.
What Did I Learn About Myself?
Left to my own devices, I am easily overcome by grief. It’s been more than five years since my wife passed away from cancer, yet any extended, quiet moment reminds me of that vast treasure I’ve lost. No surprise then, it wasn’t long into my “fast” that I realized I needed to busy myself or else I’d fall back into inert despair.
I read four books. I ran errands. I reorganized a storage closest. I reframed a few pictures. I cleaned the kitchen. And so on. I carried on a running conversation with God through all those things and discovered that working with my hands, even in simple, mundane tasks, carries a certain amount of contentment.
How Might this Discipline Form Me for Ministry?
I’m still working on this question. I think the discipline of fasting something, with the intent to refocus on intimacy with God, can be formative in a day-to-day way. I find that meaningful. My pastor likes to quote (who was it? Ray Stedman maybe?) as saying something along the lines of, “There are only two things God doesn’t own: Your attention and your affection.” I think the discipline of fasting (even my weak, substitute methods), may be helpful from time to time, to turn my attention and affections back where they belong:
“Whenever there is a form devoid of spiritual power, law will take over because law always carries with it a sense of security and manipulative power.”
Welcome back to the Bill Billerson show, where we take the truth and make it true. Today we’ll take a hard look at the “marriage fallacy” one preacher has been spreading through the world. Does his belief fit the facts? We will find out.
And now without further ado, here’s your host, Bill Billerson.
BILL BILLERSON, HOST:
For several decades now Mike Nappa has been preaching to anyone who will listen that he was married to a particular woman name Amy. So many people have believed this message that we decided to research the facts. We’ve uncovered 10 pieces of evidence that dispute Mr. Nappa’s erroneous claim, and which may surprise even you.
To his credit, Mr. Nappa agreed to come on our show to debate the issue with us. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll finally be able to convince him to [cue theme music]: Take the truth and make it true.
Mike Nappa, welcome to the show.
MIKE NAPPA, GUEST:
Thanks for having me, Bill. I have to say—
Please don’t interrupt. You’ll get a chance to say your piece, I promise. But I’ve got 10 irrefutable evidences to go over first. So let’s dive right in.
Mr. Nappa, I’m putting up a picture of Amy Nappa for our viewers to see right now. This was taken only two years before cancer took her life in 2016. Mike, now tell us the truth: Was this woman your wife?
Yes. We were very much in love.
You know, you seem like such a nice guy. But I just don’t buy what you’re selling here.
OK, let’s look at the facts. Is that OK with you, Mr. Nappa? Can we just look at the facts for a few minutes?
Well, yeah. That’d be great. Because the fact is, Amy and I were married until the day she died.
Of course you were.
But since we’re just looking at the facts right now, let’s start with simple logic. I mean, seriously. Look at her. This was a VERY attractive woman.
Yes, we can agree on that.
Amy was what some would call, a “hard 10.” Not much to argue about that. But again, look at her and then, well, let’s look at you.
Mike, are you a “hard 10” in the looks department?
Well, no, but she never seemed to mind.
Of course she didn’t.
In our research, we consulted a number of fraternity experts and showed them Amy’s picture. Here were the results:
Amy’s aggregated rankings came in anywhere from 9.7 to 10 on the attractiveness scale. You, Mr. Nappa, topped out at only 6.1. [a pause] That’s a hard six on the scale, Mike. [pause]
You see the point I’m making, don’t you?
Fraternity kids thought my wife was hot?
[sighing] No. All right viewers, he’s going to make me say it out loud. Please don’t send me hate mail—I’m just the messenger.
Evidence Number 1 is this, Mr. Nappa: It’s simply logically inconsistent that a woman as attractive as Amy here would ever marry a 6.1 schlub like you. The chances of that happening are about the same as winning the lottery. Twice.
Unless you’re in a band? Are you in a Hall and Oates cover band Mr. Nappa? Or maybe a jazz trio?
So, I could stop this debate there. I mean, that logical inconsistency all by itself is evidence enough to disprove your frequent sermons of supposed “wedded bliss.” But where would the fun be in that?
Because this is fun?
For me it is, Mike. For me it is.
Evidence Number 2 is the logical conclusion of Evidence Number 1, and so I’ll just say it plainly:
I think you made the whole “marriage” thing up.
What? That’s ridiculous.
Of course it is.
Or is it? Is it really ridiculous? Or is that the most plausible explanation for the lie you’ve been promoting all these years? Answer me this: Amy was occasionally a model, right? Magazines, catalogs, book covers, and so on?
Sure, it was part of her work as an editor at—
So, viewers, we’ve established that Amy was a professional model, at least on occasion.
And in fact, doesn’t she look surprisingly familiar? That smile, that pose? It looks almost like the photo that comes inside the frame you’d buy at Hobby Lobby or Walmart. Why does it look like that? Because it is!
That’s right. Mike Nappa took the generic photo out of a frame and then made up the fiction that this beautiful model was his wife. And people believed him!
That’s just not true.
Oh really? You had means, motive, and opportunity. You must have done the crime. Can you PROVE to me that this was not a photo you found in a retail frame from sometime in the past 35 years?
Well, no, because there’s no record of ALL the frame-model photos in the world over the last 35 years.
Which is pretty convenient for a guy who may want to use one of those photos for a pretend-wife, right?
I don’t know what to say.
Of course you don’t. Moving on.
Evidence Number 3: The earliest records about this woman don’t match the later ones. There were … well … changes made.
Now Mike, I’m not accusing you personally of making those changes, but I think you did see an opportunity and took advantage of it.
I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.
Of course you don’t.
According to you, what was your “wife’s” name?
Amy. Amy Nappa.
Well, that’s what you say. But we sent researchers back to Amy’s birthplace in Virginia and dug up her records. In fact, the woman you claim as your wife was named “Amy Wakefield.” And it wasn’t until 22 years after that fact that her name in the public records was scrubbed and overwritten to “Amy Nappa.”
The earliest records don’t match the later ones, sir! Do you deny this?
And THAT leads me to Evidence Number 4:
Even the later record-keeping of Amy Wakefield’s life is rife with errors, misstatements, and bias.
For instance, sometimes she’s given the marriage prefix, “Mrs.” and other times she’s listed on forms with the marriage-neutral honorific, “Ms.” Which is it? Was she “Mrs.” or “Ms.”? It seems we can never know for sure now.
Also, some of her legal papers list her name as “Amy L. Nappa,” and others list her as “Amy L.W. Nappa.” One unofficial family record even calls her “Amyowski.” Again, which was the true Amy? Honestly, given the number of errors in the written records about her, we can never know who the real Amy was. So why would you claim to have the unequivocal truth about her?
And there’s one more suspicious thing in this regard, Mr. Nappa. It seems you occasionally assigned her name falsely to your work, and your name to hers. Do you deny this?
We were writing partners. We often shared our credits.
Of course you did.
You’d never be one to actually, oh, I don’t know, LIE about writing credits, would you?
I think I know where this is going.
I’m holding a book here titled, THIRSTY, and whose author byline is on this book?
And who actually wrote this book?
Well, I wrote it, but we decided to publish it under her name because—
So you, Mike Nappa, anonymously wrote a book and accredited Amy as the author? Is that what you’re saying?
Well, yes. We were married, we supported each other. And ghostwriting is a common practice in our industry.
Of course it is.
But you’re willingness to fudge the facts here, writing as an anonymous source and then accrediting it to a more popular name—well it makes me doubt that anything you say is true. Let’s move on.
Evidence Number 5: You profited financially from your association with Amy Wakefield, did you not?
No, don’t answer. We all know you did. For starters, from the time she was 22 years old until the day she died, you took every paycheck of hers and deposited it into your bank account. That kind of corruption speaks volumes, sir. You should be ashamed.
What’s more, as she lay dying, did you or did you not accept, in Amy’s name, tens of thousands of dollars in cash and services from compassionate people nationwide? You took so much money that it paid your accrued medical bills—and all the costs for Amy’s funeral and cremation services! You came out of cancer treatment debt-free.
Well, that’s true. People who love Amy were very kind. I would never deny that.
Of course you wouldn’t.
So, since you profited personally from your association with Amy Wakefield, your motives are clearly corrupt.
THAT’S why you kept perpetrating the fiction that you were married. THAT’S why you insisted that people call you “Mr. and Mrs. Nappa.” THAT’S why you went along with it when some got into the habit of simply calling you “MikeandAmy” like it was one word.
You liked the wealth and power your lie provided, so you kept it up, even now, years after this beloved woman is dead and gone.
Of course you are.
Viewers, before I go on to the next point, I just want you to know that Mr. Nappa here also appropriated literally EVERY earthly possession of Amy Wakefield’s upon her death. Her home, her car, her beloved photographs, all hoarded in his hands. He even denied Ms. Wakefield’s own son and legitimate siblings any claim to any part of her inheritance. What does that say about this so-called preacher of marriage?
But I digress.
I think that—
Please, Mike, don’t interrupt. I said you’d get your turn eventually.
Evidence Number 6: Arbitrary canonization of supposed “journals” of Amy.
You’ve produced a number of diaries that were purportedly written by Amy throughout her lifetime. Some lovely sentiments in many of those journals, I must say.
Thank you. She was a beautiful thinker and a lovely writer.
However, there is a problem with the historicity of these books.
For instance, not a single one of them was public before Amy died. And after she died, we had only your word, and that of a few of your devotees, that she wrote them. How do we know she didn’t write other journals that you simply discarded from the official canon of her work? Some claim she did, you know.
Additionally, the record shows that you and others under your influence gathered one day long after Amy’s death and just picked which books you liked best and designated those as “Amy’s Journals.” That kind of arbitrary, backward-looking assignment of authenticity is absurd. No rational person would accept that as representative of truth.
Well, we didn’t just “arbitrarily” choose which journals were hers and which were not. We examined them and followed their provenance and—
Of course you did. Moving on.
Evidence Number 7: The dates don’t match.
How long were you allegedly married to Amy?
Really. 30 years. Exactly?
Well no, not exactly.
So right here, in front of my cameraman and my viewers, you’re admitting that you’ve been lying when you tell people you were married 30 years?
It’s fairly common to round dates to the nearest figurative equival—
According to public records, sir, and assuming that—as you yourself claim—those records are accurate, you were ostensibly married to Amy on October 4, 1986. And she died in mid-September of 2016. That means if you had truly been married, you would’ve been a few weeks shy of a 30th anniversary! And even though you may have allegedly been “together” for more than 30 years, that still is not exactly “30 years” as you claim.
When did I claim “exactly”—
Facts are facts, sir! The dates don’t match!
Evidence Number 8!
Some of the things you claim Amy did as your supposed “wife,” are laughably unrealistic, and better categorized as myth rather than supposed truth.
For instance, no rational human being would accept as fact that Amy once went on a “date” to a drive-in movie in the back of a U-Haul moving truck! Or that she refused to eat white chocolate on the grounds that “it’s not chocolate!” Or that a woman of her wisdom and erudition would actually cavort with cosplayers at numerous comic book conventions!
Those suggestions strain credulity, sir, and are an insult to thinking people everywhere. So obviously this woman was never your wife.
Wait, what’s wrong with comic book conventions?
Evidence Number 9!
There are no reliable witnesses left alive to corroborate your claims, and no historical documents that haven’t been tainted by the corruption of your followers.
What are you talking about? There are lots of—
There are NO RELIABLE witnesses left.
All the people who would testify now on your behalf have already been bent to your will, and the writings regarding Amy have all been whitewashed with your agenda. You may be telling lies, but you’re impressively convincing. Clearly any historical record or testimony that affirms your point of view cannot be trusted, and therefore must be expunged.
And those who might be trusted to speak honestly—people like Amy’s Grandfather Wil Townsend, or your own sister, Mary Nappa—well, they are conveniently no longer alive, aren’t they?
What are you suggesting?
Oh, I would never accuse you of personally ending someone’s life. But don’t you think it is, well, suspicious, that someone as outspoken as your sister Mary was killed in a “drunk-driving accident” less than six months after Amy died?
And while we’re at it, you’ve said numerous times that you and your wife got matching tattoos to celebrate your 28th anniversary—yet when Amy passed away, you rushed to have her remains cremated instead of buried. Again, a convenient way to avoid anyone trying to verify whether your tattoo claim was truth or fiction.
Oh my. I suppose there’s a point number 10 in your repertoire?
Of course there is.
Evidence Number 10, and my final argument today:
You say that Amy Wakefield stated clearly on several occasions that she was your wife, and that if those statements were untrue, then she must have been either a liar or a lunatic.
Well, I didn’t actually say that, but it makes sense. Go on.
On the surface, that apologetic would seem logically sound. After all, anyone familiar with Amy would have a hard time proving she was diabolically insane. And even a casual reading of her journals would suggest she was serially honest. But what all you “marriage believers” have overlooked is the obvious.
If Amy did indeed say she was your wife, the most reasonable explanation for that is not that she was your wife, but this: she was simply mistaken.
No one’s perfect, and your own writings reveal that in her final days Amy experienced moments of hallucinatory confusion. So really, isn’t it more plausible that this admirable woman, this “hard 10” beauty just got confused from time to time, and that’s why she said she was your wife?
Please, Mike, for your own mental health and for the well-being of all those who follow you: Can you just finally admit that you simply were never married to Amy Wakefield?
All the evidence and all the logic point toward that being the real truth.
What do you say?
[a pause] Well, Bill, I am a fan of factual research and logical reasoning. So I’m impressed by the discipline with which you’ve pursued your evidences.
And for the most part, your facts are correct and your reasoning follows a logical progression, even when I think you’ve missed important factors or I disagree with your conclusions.
And yeah, there are some arguments you’ve made today that I simply don’t have answers for.
Of course there’s a “but.”
You, and all those like you who try to convince me Amy wasn’t my wife, seem to forget one thing:
I have known Amy, personally.
I’ve experienced her presence time and again, intimately, faithfully, in joy and sorrow, in weakness and strength, for better and for worse. And…
I have been known by her.
I’ve understood that “knowing and being known” viscerally, discovering firsthand what that means to my soul.
So, while all your logical arguments and plausible explanations might sway others to disbelieve in Amy, there’s really nothing you could ever say to make me disbelieve my own experience with her.
Amy Nappa was my wife for 30 years. I won’t lie to you and tell you anything different than that.
Well, there you have it, viewers. Some people just won’t listen to clear-eyed reason. They insist that their own experience trumps the wisdom of accepted facts and well-researched theoretical treatises.
I guess that’s why a lot of them still believe in Jesus too. Go figure.
I’m Bill Billerson, helping you [theme music swells] take the truth and make it true. Thank you for joining us, and goodnight.
A note from the author:
Thank you for reading this silly, sarcastic take on faith and disbelief. Please be aware that I wrote this from my own biased perspective as a Christian man, and that I exaggerated characterizations for humorous effect. I actually have good friends who are either atheist or agnostic and, even though we disagree about Jesus, they are nothing at all like the wad I’ve portrayed Bill Billerson to be.
Please also know that I’m not trying to start any arguments with anyone, and if I don’t know you already I’m not likely to engage in debate with you either. Earnest people have just asked me one too many times a question that goes something like this:
“How can a rational, educated person like you still support a bigoted, intellectually-deficient religion like Christianity?” (OK, that’s not the exact question, but it typically boils down to that.)
My answer is almost always the same:
I see, and actually admire, the intellectual logic in some of your arguments, even when bias is your main reason for the logic. And for some of the questions you raise, I don’t really have a satisfying answer.
I just can’t escape my own experience with Jesus.
I have known him in ways that apparently are foreign to you. And I’ve been known by him. The closest comparison I have to that is the way that I know Amy was my wife for 30 years. It’s a truth that may not stand up under some rules of academic scrutiny or logical reasoning, but it is true nonetheless. To deny Jesus—whom I know in the deepest part of my being—solely on the basis of my own intellectual speculation and differing interpretations of ancient facts is something that’s beyond my ability.
As Martin Luther famously once said (or maybe didn’t say, who knows?), “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”
It is not easy, this feeling of being far from home. After all, for so many decades “Home” to me was never a place, but a person. As long as Amy was there, I was “Home.” Well, cancer took that away pretty definitively, and now I find myself in some new “away” kind of place no matter where I am.
So tonight, while I watch the clock tick past 1:18 a.m., my thoughts have been churning over what it means to find “Home” when you’re far from home. I’m wondering about wandering, I guess you could say.
In Scripture, it seems there are three ways to live in an “away” place:
A Conqueror in the Bible displaces the foreign culture, forcing others to submit to his or her new way of life.
This is the “Joshua,” marching into a foreign land, seizing the territory, razing cities, destroying anyone who opposes him, subduing and enslaving whatever he doesn’t kill (see Joshua 1:10-11).
The Exile in Scripture assimilates into the foreign culture, far from home, against his or her will, simply to survive.
This is the weeping “Jeremiah,” forced to serve the powerful, trying to follow God’s command to Israelite slaves in Babylon: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile … because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (see Jeremiah 29:4-7).
And there is the Missionary. This person goes far from home willingly. He or she adopts the foreign culture eagerly and voluntarily.
It’s the passionate “Paul” who pursues the calling to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
The Most Honorable Way?
My first inclination is to think of the Missionary as the only honorable way. Conqueror and Exile are certainly somehow less, right? Yet by Scriptural standards, I must face the fact that’s just not true.
Bloody Joshua is no less a hero than tentmaker Paul, and the defeated Jeremiah is just as lauded as any Missionary or Conqueror. All three men followed God wholeheartedly, and lived God-honoring lives in foreign lands.
What’s more, Christ himself incarnated into all three of those roles. He was an Exile in the world he himself created. He Conquered sickness, sin, and death. And he was a Missionary who brought news of God’s loving grace to us all. So I find myself thinking:
It’s been 2,173 days since Amy died. I am caught in this foreign land of “not home,” and it’s possible I’ll be here for the rest of my life. So…
Who am I supposed to be in this lonely, “away” place that is so far from home?