It all started in the church basement. The youth group met there amidst a towering mountain of beanbags (really—you could burrow in at least five or six feet) whose tiny Styrofoam beads stuck to our clothes and hair, hitchhiking their way into cars and houses around the city. Perched in those beanbags, we talked about God. Maybe your church basement is the chapel in the woods of your summer camp or the back of a twelve-passenger van en route to a service trip or a circle of sleeping bags on your best friend’s bedroom floor, but you can probably picture where you were when you first heard or thought a particular thing about God.

During my freshman year in youth group, we watched Rob Bell’s Nooma videos. Go ahead and roll your eyes if you must. I know these fifteen-minute sermons by a superstar pastor of flourishing megachurch were ubiquitous in mid-2000s youth rooms. But gosh did I love them.  I had never seen anything like it. The cinematography was eye-catching, the message was relevant and relatable, the music was modern and edgy. Nooma was a new way to think about God and church and what a sermon could be. The videos were definitely not a Bible story followed by “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” with the motions, which was what I had come to expect from church and youth programming. They were beautiful and hip and moody and pretentious before I even knew that I liked those things.

What drew me in most about the series was the pattern. We start with setting the scene, little flashes of person and place. Rob wakes up in a hotel room. Rob is getting his car fixed. An orchestra warms up. We’re on a walk in the woods. Then it’s the story, the little personal connection. Rob had a friend who died. Rob met someone who was homeless. And then it’s the scripture. Noomas are full of historical context, etymologies of Hebrew and Greek words (“Nooma” itself is a phonetic spelling of the Greek pneuma—spirit or wind), thoughtful connections between scripture and life.  And then, there’s the conclusion, the climax when the music swells and the camera soars up in a sweeping panorama: may you.

Every video ends with an earnest set of parallel “may you”s from Bell. They are benedictions, blessings, a wish, a hope, a prayer.

“May you come to see that the song is written on your heart.
And as you live in tune with the song, in tune with the creator of the universe,
May you realize that you are in relationship with the living God.”

They are also tinged with a sense of command. Rob wills us to live out the message he’s just preached, to go and do something about it. They’re like a spiritual version of the call to action I coach students to conclude their research papers with.

“So may you forgive as you’ve been forgiven.
May you give to others what’s been given to you.
May you set someone free and find out that it was you.
And may you do it today, because you might not have the chance tomorrow.”

I can still feel the impulse to rise up out of my beanbag when I hear these benedictions, the palpable desire to say “amen.” I can feel the resolve start to build in the back of my mind, seeping into my shoulders, imbuing me with a sense of purpose. I will find my identity in Christ. I will recognize that I am in a relationship with the living God. It was all very inspiring.

But as I left high school, entered college, and began to wrestle in earnest with faith and doubt and what exactly it was that I believed, I started to wonder if those blessings and wishes were just platitudes. It seemed to the cynic in me that you could replace the periods at the end of those benedictions with question marks, as my word processor is suggesting I do now.

May you believe in God?
But may you come to see that God believes in you?
May you have faith in Jesus?
But may you come to see that Jesus has faith that you can be like him?

When Rob implored us to forgive and embrace and know, could I really follow through? Or was this a “may” like in “mother may I?” or the teacher correcting you: “you can go get a drink, but you also may.”  The implications of the word started to look too big. Was it blessing? Wish? Prayer? Or was it simply something to fail at or a command that limited my possibilities?

Fast-forward a few years to college. I’m reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I come to a passage that, if you’re familiar with the book, you might have guessed I’m leading up to. The Trask family’s friend and armchair philosopher, Lee, begins to tell Adam something he and his relatives have discovered about the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible. There has been a mistranslation from Hebrew to English, Lee claims.

“Don’t you see? The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man.

‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. … This—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” [1]

I was astounded. I got that little rush of recognition you feel when you make a connection or two texts speak to each other. I felt I had stumbled on this treasure of a passage all on my own, and I knew it was important [2].  Here was a natural and fascinating twist on my love of Nooma benedictions. Here was a solution to the many definitions of “may.”

What Lee discovers in the word timshel is that we are not forced into submission by the will of God or sin or anything else we feel is binding us. What he teaches Adam and the other characters in the book and me is that we have a choice. We can choose to believe or to doubt. We can choose to forgive or hold a grudge.

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are,” Dumbledore says, “far more than our abilities.” I’m reassured—as I always am by that crooked-nosed, twinkle-eyed sage—that maybe it’s not the strength of my belief that really counts. It’s simply that I choose to believe in the first place. So with a new year and its resolutions looming, I’m trying to remember to choose. Choose joy, as cheesy as that sounds. Choose to be swept up in the wonder of the season. Choose to take the benediction when it comes.

So may you choose, too—whatever it may be. May you choose.

[1]  Emphasis mine. Read the full passage here.
[2]  It turns out this is almost everyone’s favorite part of the book. Mumford and Sons titles one of their songs “Timshel.” People have timshel tattoos. Ah, well. Nothing new under the sun, I suppose. 

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