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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Half Truth

If you haven’t read The Mermaid’s Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, or Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, than you’ve missed some pretty writing.  If you have, then you’ve missed some crucial wisdom.  The theme of these books, and the reason they resonate with real women, is a hearty dose of self-love.  In them is a kind of truth, but only part of the truth, and therefore dangerously misleading.

Kidd, in particular, holds a mirror to the heart as she describes that numbly shocked feeling when you stop deciding thoughtfully and start deciding passively.  When you simply allow one path to unfurl itself.  Have you seen Donnie Darko?  It’s like the pearly ribbon of what is about to happen stretching out before you, and you follow it, shakily, as if it were the only thing you could have done in that moment.

It is a partial truth because I think every woman has felt that tug of inevitability, and been an observer of her own life.  Watched herself with the same fascinated horror with which she’d observe a car crash.  In those moments, the action observed is all there is.  Pasts, consequences, others, are remote.  It is a world of feelings.


What these books do, by exploring only this first awakening of truth, is to glorify the idea of self-actualization, of destiny-by-emotion.  Though Kidd’s heroine first feels the “peculiar vertigo, the peculiar humility, that comes from realizing what you are really capable of…” she soon finds a “sense of being out on the furthest frontier of [her]self. It was, despite those intermittent convulsions, a surprisingly beautiful place (p. 202).”  The authors, and perhaps the readers, see this journey as complete, a discovery of self and transcendence over the shackles of an ordinary life. 

In Romans, Paul views this self-discovery differently.  For the believer, realizing the power of one’s passions catalyzes an awakening, but is not the awakening itself.  Next comes the perspective by which we recognize not the sublime wisdom of the senses, but the culpability of passive acquiescence to them.  In other words, we recognize sin and our powerlessness over it.

Kidd’s characters, Jessie and Whit, and Gilbert in her memoir, believe they have arrived at self-knowledge through this submission to their own impulses.  And they have, but they have misinterpreted the knowledge.  If you stop here, if you are delighted to see your new, uninhibited self, then you have chosen an ordinary marvel over an eternal joy.  You have chosen to live inwardly, to be your own Platonic cave.  Kidd calls this “an actual holiness;” Gilbert finds divinity within herself.  Both have chosen the creature over the Creator.

In short: discovering this tendency in ourselves, the one that fills us with butterflies as we follow that pearly ribbon towards catastrophe, should lead to the rest, the vital part, of truth.  That we are desperately in need of saving.  Because without this, there is no gospel.  Christ’s work is not for the blissfully self-absorbed.  It is for those who, looking inward, found rot.  It is for those who, like Ebenezer Scrooge, have been shown the dismal future to which they were enslaved and have reached, anguished, upwards, to the truly extraordinary.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Since Everyone's Wrestling Over It...

Here's your big chance to compare three different perspectives all in one place.  And I get to add my two[hundred] cents because, hey, it's my blog.

We can frame the question of girl-boy wrestling a number of ways, depending on our angle.  Is wrestling really the same as other contact sports, so-called because of more incidental contact?  Is a girl’s opinion on what “honors” her the final word on the matter?  Is the protection of women, required of men by the Bible, only for those women who claim it, or is it to be read as universally applicable?

There’s another question I’d like to ask the first author, Caryn Rivadeneira, in her post on Her.meneutics: what “cultural view” are you deriding?  Rivadeneira essentially argues that Joel Northrup’s faith should have caused him to treat Cassy Herkelman as an equal by wrestling her.  She cites passages where Jesus touches the untouchable woman, befriends the socially downtrodden, etc, etc.  It’s true: Jesus was a radical feminist for that age, demonstrating that women were equal to men…in worth, in value, in personhood before their Creator. 

What Rivadeneira leaves out are the passages where equality is clearly not synonymous with sameness.  The solution to bad harmonizing isn't to make everybody sing the same note,” writes John Piper in a terrific sermon elucidating true Biblical manhood and womanhood.   And really, that is the cultural crisis underlying the wrestling hullabaloo.  The crisis is so great that Rivadeneira thinks she is being countercultural when she champions the contention of women in, well, whatever arena they can find to jump into.  Actually, she’ll have to stand in line to blow that trumpet because erasing the gender boundaries is, like, so totally in right now.  Which is why Rivadeneira’s language sounds pretty similar to Rick Reilly’s, if less sarcastic. 
On the surface, it seems that Reilly hasn’t even tried to present logical arguments.  He guesses other guys who wrestled Herkelman had faith, and it never stopped them.  Does this reflect badly on the essence of Northrup's faith or of theirs?  Herkelman “relishes the violence,” so give her what she wants: “an elbow in the ribs [is] exactly how to respect Cassy.”  Respecting someone, then, is doing whatever they want?  Worst, the strange insertion of the classic anti-relativist argument: “If my God told me to poke the elderly with sharp sticks, would that make it morally acceptable to others?”  Wait, that’s my line, and I can use it because I have a definitive moral standard, without which those “others” have no basis on which to judge my old-person-poking.

But it’s to be expected, as my wise mother reminds me.  The wisdom of the gospel is foolishness to unbelievers (1 Cor. 1:18).  Even so…

As the kind of tomboy who liked “busting stuff up” on and off the basketball court, including my own knees, and the kind of girl who sprinted and long jumped in men’s winter track meets because there weren’t enough meets for girls, and the kind of girl who practiced with several wide-receivers in high school and impressed them into pleading with the football coach to let her play kick return, I feel more qualified than Rick Reilly to speak on the matter. 

And on those qualifications, I recommend this third article on the subject, again by John Piper, written in 2009, but badly needed right now. It’s hard to emerge above the swirling dust of cultural nonsense and get any perspective.  It’s also scary, because you’re bound to be publicly lambasted, like Northrup.  Piper has his head above the clouds and brings in the gospel with clarity.  (To draw out the analogy for fun, Rivadeneira is thrashing desperately from within the cloud; Reilly IS the cloud.)

Incidentally, my high school football coach would not let me play because the Catholic schools in our conference would have defaulted.  Good for them.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Daniel Pipes, My Old Friend

I first met Daniel Pipes as a college student in Rome, though he wouldn't remember me from among the wide-eyed throng.  I followed him back to Philadelphia, where I was given an opportunity to intern with MEF, an opportunity I gave up for my Marine Corps marriage and out-of-state move.  I have remained a devotee, however, over the past several years, and have only now, in 2011, found my first point of disagreement with my cult hero.

Pipes argues in the National Post that Islam, though currently correlated more strongly with tyranny than with democratic progress, is not inherently incompatible with the latter.  Christianity, too, he says, had to bend to fit.

Pipes writes, “A half millennium ago, democracy reigned nowhere; that it emerged in Western Europe resulted from many factors, including the area's Greco-Roman heritage, rendering-unto-Caesar-and-God tensions specific to Christianity, geography, climate, and key breakthroughs in technology and political philosophy. There was nothing fated about Great Britain and then the United States leading the way to democracy. Put differently: of course, Islam is undemocratic in spirit, but so was every other premodern religion and society. Just as Christianity became part of the democratic process, so can Islam.”

I take no issue with the face of these assertions.  I think there is more at work in the ability of Christianity to bend, however.  Pipes attributes this to the “evolution of the Catholic Church” over time.  Here, I disagree.  While certainly that church has transformed from its oppressive medieval role into a civil (and social) institution within a political system, this is not the whole story of its compatibility with democracy.
Christianity, if we define it as adherence to the teachings of Christ, is the source of the values from which we derive democratic principles.  Many concepts of liberty, of human dignity, of the dignity of women, were radical when they were expressed, explicitly or tacitly, in the New Testament.  The founders of American democracy thus attributed the inalienable rights on which they built their political structure.  Perhaps these are the “Caesar-and-God tensions” Pipes cites as a crucial factor. 

The reason, then, that the Catholic Church had to evolve to fit with a political system rooted in Biblical values was that it had strayed from these values itself.  I do not say that Islam cannot be interpreted to jive with democracy, but instead suggest that its path will follow an opposite course.  The Catholic Church’s 700-year journey is to some degree a return to Biblical notions of individual liberty (try Gal 3:28, Acts 10:34, 1 Pet 2:16) from which it had strayed in the centuries following the early church of Acts 2; Islam’s journey will involve the slow erosion of its original values in exchange for political ideas rooted in…Christianity.

Monday, February 21, 2011

On Mercy: Part 3 of 3

Mercy for Mercy’s Sake

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” Micah 6:6

The Lord requires of us several good things: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him (6:8).  The first is the most appealing, because it’s the one we can do.  Even the most legalistic or the most self-reliant can, by sheer will, apply a set of rules.  But to love it?  Recall Jonah’s outrage when God showers a sinful Nineveh with forgiveness.  Ever secretly sympathize with him?  Well, if we are to love mercy, we will have to become humble indeed, because God’s justice is not ours.  It’s an interesting combination of requirements, then, that add up to goodness.

You need mercy to show mercy.  Who is like God, “pardoning iniquity, and passing over transgression?” (7:18).  Not us, the litigious Americans!  Not Israel, it seems.  Not humanity.  But God, in us. 

God presents Israel with an evidence list in Micah 6, a reminder that time and again he has shown his merciful nature with big, flashing marquee lights.  Hard to miss it when He brought you out of Egypt.  Hard to overlook the provision in the desert, the delivery of a Promised Land.  I could make a list, too, of the nice things I’ve done this week.  But they would be just that, evidence that I can occasionally be nice, probably to produce results: to be praised, to keep the family happy, to keep up appearances.  God’s list is a testament to his character.  God IS mercy.

When we understand mercy like this, we can begin to pursue it for its own sake.  We are stripped of our own sense of justice, which flows from self-righteousness.  We are humbled by God’s sovereignty in bestowing what we haven’t earned.  We are left to marvel at God’s record of merciful intervention.  Then we can love mercy.  Then we can love God.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

On Mercy: Part 2 of 3

God’s Dispensation, God’s Discretion

 Aren’t paradoxes fun?  If you’re a Christian, you might as well make your peace with the paradox.  Mercy, and its dispensation, is one of the great mysteries that hang up the believer and the unbeliever alike.  Is not God a merciful God?  Must not He act in accordance with that nature?  And yet mercy is not rationed out like social security.

So, how can we get in on it?  Well on the one hand, we can stop worrying, because there’s no way to get in on it.  In Romans 9, Paul is clear on the method of God’s choosing; He “has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy.”  That sits uneasily with, probably, everybody.  Here, Paul refers to salvation, but how often do we question God’s choices in our daily lives?  Why does one mother’s child have to die in a car crash for another’s to receive a set of lungs?  And even if we are reconciled to trust His judgment, we might be tempted to worry all the more when we realize that mercy has never meant the absence of trials.

So maybe we can conclude that this “stumbling stone” is set here intentionally (9:32).  We need to grapple with our sense of injustice, and come to a place where we recognize our perspective as myopic, and therefore our outrage as misplaced, or conversely, to a place where we validate our feelings and deepen our resolve against truth.  God will “harden whom he wants to harden,” and this is one way he chooses to do that, through his sovereign dispensation of mercy.

Our innate sense of the wrongness of this world and its tragedies gives us cause to wrestle inwardly.  It is a fork in the road where, at God’s propulsion, we either interpret that sensibility as an indication of God’s cruelty, impotence, or nonexistence, or we recognize it as the vestige of His image in us.  We then see ourselves as merely a reflection, made not to orchestrate, but to wonder at his divine machinations.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On Mercy: Part 1 of 3

Mercy in Anger

A suit on his bluetooth cuts me off in traffic. 
A political analyst makes inflammatory comments- for the Other Side. 
My kids use naptime to empty their dresser drawers onto the floor. 
I have a characteristic response to this type of scenario.  And it is not mercy.

Habakkuk lived amidst some serious irritants as well.  Judah was facing external threats from the Chaldeans, as well as internal turmoil owing to the evil ways of King Jehoiakim and the loosing of Israel’s moral footing.  And in Habakkuk’s day, God was angry.  But Habakkuk wasn’t!  Sometimes I think that God must despise that self-righteous political analyst just as much as I do, and I eagerly anticipate the second coming, so God can come and put him in his place.  I stew over these small offenses against me; Habakkuk anticipated God’s righteous anger because the sins he witnessed were a slap in the face of the Creator.  And still he cried for mercy.

In the end, I’m really glad that no cosmic lightning strike zaps the obnoxious driver or the sneering pundit.  Because I’m pretty sure that my very indignation would earn a good zap, too.  God may bring me through fire and punishment, as he did Israel, or just through a humbling day in traffic.  Maybe in the end, the Israelites and I all have a better picture of the gravity of sin and our powerlessness over it.  And then, when we seek Him with all our hearts, He will delight to show mercy.  He will not “abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers” (Dt. 4: 31).  Hopefully, in my anger, I’ll remember to extend the same.

Multisites and Megasites

Here's an excerpt from Kevin DeYoung's post yesterday on multisite options in churches:

"[A]s I studied and thought about the issue more I came to understand why some churches chose multisite. It can steward the talents of the preacher. It can save money. It allows a church to get bigger (in one sense) without getting bigger (in another sense). And it gives you another beachhead for ministry.
With these positives I was happy to see our church explore the option of multisite over a year ago. Call me indecisive, but I’ve now swung back in the other direction. I can’t prove multisite is wrong. In fact, it may be the best option in some situations, especially as a temporary measure. But something I read from Martyn Lloyd-Jones cemented in my mind a crucial weakness of most multisite approaches. New technologies and new methods always have trade-offs. Sometimes the pluses outweigh the negatives. And as I think about it more, multisite has one huge negative I don’t want to live with unless I absolutely have to."  (Read More)

The big negative he cites (rightly, I think) is the lack of interplay between preacher and congregation that is a critical part of this kind of communication.  There are reasons, besides fellowship and corporate worship, that we don't simply watch all our sermons online or read them in books.  I wonder, though, if the same could also provide an argument against massive church growth.  DeYoung says, "I want to see the people I’m preaching to, even if there are lots of them to see. I want to be at the back of the sanctuary to shake hands, even if I can’t shake every hand and may forget too many names."  As a congregant, I want that rapport, too.  But there is obviously a point of saturation for name memory, a point at which it becomes difficult to shake every hand once, let alone weekly.  Ruling out multisite, however, expansion isn't the only option left to accomodate growth.  I love the occasional revival experience, say at a conference, a retreat, or a concert.  But there's something to splintering off intentionally when that saturation point is reached (and to keeping that point low) whether to keep the churches in the neighborhoods they purport to serve, or just to make the hands the more shakeable.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Philosophy for Housewives: Part 4

Philosophy, Schmilosophy

It's time to wrap up this introductory series, so let's get our bearings.  We were thinking, we were reading, we were continually considering our actions in light of our developing Biblical philosophies (dare we say worldviews?).  My, but it's been exhilarating. 

But wait!  As fun as it's been, don’t get fixated on philosophizing (we've so much more to blog about!).  I once met a guy whose goal in life is to sit in his apartment and ponder deep things.  Like those beret-wearing coffee shop yuppies in the McDonald’s commercial.  I value thinking; this blog is, among other things, a way to force myself into periods of non-cheerio-and-diaper-inspired thought.  But I’m not convinced God gave men rational minds so that they could lose themselves in their own contemplations. 

Philosophy is not an end in itself.  Fleshing out your worldview will give meaning and purpose to your actions, so let it be the catalyst that moves you to act to God’s glory. 

Philosophy for Housewives: Part 3

Dynamic Philosophy

I don’t think that you or I will have figured things out, so to speak, by the end of this series.  The point is to be aware of life as a process of growth, hopefully of sanctification, and of learning so that the decisions I make when I am fifty will flow from a more bounteous bed of truths than do those I make today. 
One of the keys to growth is reading a good breadth of material.  Right now I’m reading Josef Pieper on Leisure (I ought to know a bit about leisure before I wear its name!) and John Piper on Christian Hedonism.  Oh, yeah. And the Bible.  And when I say “read,” I mean I try to work through a page or two before I am distracted by sombody whining or by chocolate cake. 
Don’t like to read?  I admit that I prefer a riveting plot (and sometimes an episode of NCIS) to a dry apologetics chart myself.  Unfortunately, there’s no way around it.  Think about it: God speaks to us primarily through the written word.  So put on your big-girl panties and crack a book. 
A warning: don’t just read to corroborate your assumptions or beliefs.  Challenges strengthen your philosophies by forcing you to think through aspects that you may not have fully developed, places where you may be wrong, or where you may be on the right track but lacking adequate support.  If you have laid a Biblical foundation, you can discern truth and fallacy in the philosophies of atheists, of agnostics, of anyone really, so don’t think that because someone has not yet accepted Christ that they may not be a gifted thinker from whom you can learn. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Philosophy for Housewives: Part 2

He who teaches man knowledge—the Lord—knows the thoughts of man, that they are but a breath. (Ps 94:11)
Appropriating Truth

It’s human to grow larger in our own minds as we dwell on our ideas.  This is why we first need to establish a foundation.  There are a variety of truth diagrams out there; one of my favorites uses a tree analogy.  The roots represent truth, the trunk beliefs based on that truth, the branches emotions derived from belief, and the fruit our actions.  When you picture this direct path from belief to action, you can see that a person who believes truth is unknowable cannot hope for a rational output.  Without secure roots, you tend to begin your process with arbitrary emotion, and this becomes the primary informant of action.  Does that sound like a good idea to anyone?  If I consult what I believe to be the source of truth, I find that “ the way of a fool is right in his own eyes” (Prov 12:15).  Unless satisfying ourselves is our chief aim, this is a problematic approach to life.
So instead…appropriate ideas liberally!  God never intended us to choose and act indiscriminately, without guidance.  Tether your emotions, and therefore your actions, to something sturdy, against which you can weigh whatever ideas the world throws at you.  Because the world is a dangerous place for the undiscerning. 
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Philosophy for Housewives: Part 1

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

These articles and series are aimed at wives and mothers because I am a wife and mother.  It might seem odd to write on philosophy, or for that matter on theology or international relations, for an audience whose daily concerns center around meal preparation and potty training.  So this first series will address precisely that conundrum: is philosophy for Housewives? 
The fact is, you already have one.  A philosophy, that is.  It determines how you interpret information or situations, and how you respond to them.  If you think about it that way, you see why it’s pretty important to define your philosophies intentionally; if you don’t, you may even be holding conflicting ideas without realizing it.  Just as well-developed philosophies lead to predictable and rational behavior, a jumble of undefined and conflicting philosophies will lead to inconsistent behavior. 
Our choices and actions tell us what our true priorities and values are; they attest to a philosophy of some kind.  If you are so busy, for instance, that you don’t have time to enjoy a book or your children, or to visit your sick aunt in a nursing home, it is important to identify the elements of choice in your busyness.  Nobody acts in a vacuum of thought.  So where do your thoughts come from?  What is your philosophy, or worldview, if you like?  I’m no Aristotle myself, but I hope this week to share some of the methods I’m learning by which to identify and develop the kind of philosophy that leads to productivity. 

The Charmed Life

My family has always joked among themselves that I have a charmed life.  Exciting things happen to me, they marvel.  I suppose I give the impression of having more adventures than most people, but in retrospect, I wonder if it is just that I have a broader definition of adventure.

True, my unconventional plans often yield unconventional experiences.  But they are not usually the results I intend!  I think then, that the impression of great fortune is really just finding adventure in an unplanned turn of events.  I am sometimes equally happy with what happened than with what I originally sought.

Recently, I have sought one thing: more sleep.  To Cookie's irritation, I continued to average 12-14 hours a night even after I had my first child.  With my second, however, a steady stream of ear infections, new teeth, and holiday trips, made a mockery of my strict bedtime standards for several straight months.  Unwilling to give up the Charmed status, though, I decided to enjoy the feeding at midnight.  And at 2 a.m.  And 3:30.  At 5, and then 6, it was really, really hard.  But I was squeezing every last drop of joy out of these fleeting years by reminding myself that GaleForce would be bigger, whinier, and less pleasingly pudgy very soon.  When I look back, I will feel charmed, indeed.

Without being too trite and sentimental about precious moments, let me put this into a less mushy context for you.  Losing sleep is just a current daily example of my inability to bring my plans to fruition.  What I need is some eternal perspective on my plans, my results, and all the times those don't match up.  Because that's the way God works.

With God, a lost job yields a closer-knit family.

With God, a miserable bout of strep throat means all the kids are home from school the miraculous day the cat has her kittens.

Or you run six blocks in heels and miss the 12:00 bus, but get to witness to a pregnant teenager next to you on the 12:15.

Joseph's path to glory involved slavery, exile, and incarceration.  Probably at the moment he was sold by his brothers, or as he stood wrongly accused by Potiphar's wife, he wondered at God's judgment.  But during his trials, as head of Potiphar's affairs, and as overseer of his prison ward, I bet that Joseph would have seemed curiously content with his lot, anticipating God's next move in his story.  Charmed despite his misfortunes.

I have not Joseph's faith, nor have I been tested as cruelly.  My stories are not the stuff of Charlton Heston epics.  Still, within them, I find that enjoying the opportunity offered is so much nicer than lamenting the prize withheld.  Moreover, my schemes to secure my own happiness can sabotage my peace and purposefulness.  Sometimes the best thing God can do is to disrupt our plans, our schedules, and even our sleep.  The charm is all in our perspective.